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The Capitol Forum’s Insightful Review of the Comcast-Time Warner Merger Deal: A Tough Sell

be mineWall Street is increasingly pessimistic about Comcast and Time Warner Cable pulling off their merger deal as regulators stop the clock to take a closer look at the transaction.

The Capitol Forum, an in-depth news and analysis service dedicated to informing policymakers, investors, and industry stakeholders on how policy affects market competition, specializes in examining marketplace mergers and their potential impact on American consumers and the general economy. The group has shared a copy of their assessment — “Comcast/Time Warner Cable: A Closer Look at FCC, DOJ Decision Processes; Merits and Politics May Drive Merger Challenge, Especially as Wheeler Unlikely to Embrace Title II Regulation for Net Neutrality” — with Stop the Cap! and we’re sharing a summary of the report with our readers.

The two most important government agencies reviewing the merger proposal are the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice. The FCC is responsible for overseeing telecommunications in the United States and is also tasked with reviewing telecom industry mergers to verify if they are in the public interest. The Department of Justice becomes involved in big mergers as well, concerned with compliance with antitrust and other laws.

In many instances, the two agencies work separately and independently to review merger proposals, but not so with Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Sources tell Capitol Forum there is a high level of coordination and information sharing between DOJ and the FCC, potentially positioning the two agencies in a stronger legal position if they jointly challenge the merger. Readers may recall AT&T’s attempt to buy T-Mobile was thwarted in 2011 when the FCC followed the DOJ’s lead in jointly challenging the merger on competition and antitrust grounds. With a united front against the deal in Washington, AT&T quickly capitulated.

comcast cartoonDespite a blizzard of Comcast talking points claiming the cable industry is fiercely competitive, Capitol Forum’s report indicates the DOJ staff level believes the cable industry suffers dearly from a lack of competition already, and allowing further marketplace concentration would exacerbate an already difficult problem.

Capitol Forum reports the DOJ’s staff is inclined to “take an aggressive posture with regards to [antitrust] enforcement.”

The DOJ would certainly not be walking the beltway plank to its political doom if it ultimately decides to oppose the merger.

Few on Capitol Hill are likely to fiercely advocate for a cable company generally despised by their constituents. The Capitol Forum report notes that Comcast faces powerful opposition and its political support is overstated. Comcast’s lobbying efforts and ties to President Obama and several high level Democrats have also been widely exposed in the media, which makes it more difficult for D.C.’s powerful to be seen carrying Comcast’s water.

In fact, the report indicates a regulatory challenge against Comcast and Time Warner Cable would face considerably less political opposition than what the FCC faces if it reclassifies broadband as a “telecommunications service,” protecting Net Neutrality and exposing the industry to stronger regulatory oversight.

The report suggests FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, who seems intent on opposing reclassification of broadband under Title II, may appease his critics by taking a stronger stance on the Comcast/Time Warner deal instead.

Wheeler has already expressed concern about the state of competitiveness of American broadband. He considers providers capable of delivering at least 25Mbps part of broadband’s key market, which in many communities means a monopoly for the local cable operator.

Understanding “The Public Interest” and the Implications of a Combined Comcast/Time Warner Cable on Competition

comcastbuy_400_241The FCC will review the transaction pursuant to Sections 214 and 310(d) of the Communications Act of 1934, in order to ensure that “public interest, convenience, and necessity will be served thereby.”

The merger proposal must also demonstrate it does not violate antitrust laws.

It is here that merger opponents have a wealth of arguments to use against Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Despite Comcast’s insistence the deal would have no competitive implications, the Capitol Forum reports the merger’s potential anticompetitive effects are “widely recognized and evidence from the investigation could provide DOJ and FCC with a solid foundation to challenge the merger.”

Although the two cable companies don’t directly compete with each other (itself a warning sign of an already noncompetitive marketplace), the report finds “a wide array of anti-competitive effects and several antitrust theories” that would implicate the cable company in a Clayton Act violation.

Comcast is betting heavily on its surface argument that by the very fact customers will not see any change in the number of competitors delivering service to their area, the merger should easily clear any antitrust hurdles. That argument makes it more difficult for the DOJ to fall back on the usual market concentration precedents that would prevent such a colossal merger deal. To argue excessive horizontal integration — the enlarging of Comcast’s territory — the DOJ would first have to prove Comcast’s size in comparison with other cable companies is a reason for the courts to shoot down the deal. Or it could bypass Comcast’s favorite argument and move to the issue of vertical integration — one company’s ability to control not just the pipes that deliver content, but also the content itself.

octopusHere the examples of potential abuse are plentiful:

  • Comcast would enjoy increased power to force cable programmers to favor Comcast in cable programming pricing and policies while allowing it to demand restrictions on competitive online video competitors or restrict access to popular cable programming;
  • Comcast could impose data caps and usage-based pricing to deter online viewing while exempting its own content by delivering it over a Wi-Fi enabled gateway, game console or set top box, claiming all are unrelated to Comcast’s broadband Internet service or network;
  • Force consumers to use Comcast set top boxes that would not support competing providers’ online video;
  • Use interconnection agreements as a clever way to bypass the paid prioritization Net Neutrality debate. Netflix and other content producers would be forced to compensate Comcast for reliable access to its broadband customers;
  • Noting AT&T has declared U-verse can not effectively succeed in the cable television business without combining its customer base with DirecTV to qualify for better volume discounts, there is clear evidence that a super-sized Comcast could command discounts new entrants like Google Fiber could never hope to get, putting them at a distinct price disadvantage.

The FCC’s scrutiny of Comcast’s merger deal has already uncovered evidence previously unavailable because of non-disclosure agreements which show Comcast’s heavy hand already at work.

The report notes Michael Mooney, a senior vice president and group general counsel at Level 3, told the Capitol Forum the dispute earlier this year between Netflix and Comcast could have been resolved in about five minutes had Comcast added a port to relieve congestion at an interconnection point. The cost? Just $5,000. Had Comcast been willing to spend the money, millions of Comcast customers would have never experienced problems using Netflix.

Whether Comcast is ultimately deemed too large to permit another consolidating merger or whether it is given conditional approval to absorb Time Warner Cable remains a close call, according to the Capitol Forum, despite the fact consumers have urged regulators for something slightly more concrete – a single sentence, total denial of its application.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Capitol Forum The Consumer Welfare Test.mp4

The Capitol Forum broadly explores how the “consumer welfare standard” has become a part of the antitrust review process over the last 30 years. Sometimes, a strict antitrust test is not sufficient to protect “the public interest” of consumers, and allows the dominant player(s) to harm competition. In the digital economy, corporate mergers that empower companies to restrict innovation can prove far more damaging than classic monopoly abuse. (15:52)

J.D. Power & Associates Tie Vote! Hemorrhagic Fever vs. Comcast vs. Time Warner Cable

jd powerLove can be a fickle thing.

Take Comcast’s affair with J.D. Power & Associates, for example. In Comcast’s filings with regulators, it is very proud that J.D. Power cited Comcast for the most improvement of any cable operator scored by the survey firm. Comcast touted the fact it had managed to increase its TV satisfaction score by a whopping 92 points and Internet satisfaction was up a respectable 77 points. (Comcast didn’t mention the fact J.D. Power rates companies on a 1,000 point scale or that it took the cable company four years to eke out those improvements.)

Last month, J.D. Power issued its latest ranking of telecommunications companies and… well, the love is gone.

If customer alienation was an Olympic event, J.D. Power awarded tie gold medals to both Comcast and Time Warner Cable for their Kafkaesque race to the bottom.

The survey of customer satisfaction largely found only dissatisfaction everywhere in the country J.D. Power looked. While Comcast likes to cite its “customer-oopsies-gone-viral” blunders as “isolated incidents,” J.D. Power finds them epidemic nationwide.

skunkThe highest rating across television and broadband categories achieved by either cable company was ‘Meh.’ J.D. Power diplomatically scored both cable companies on a scale that started with “among the best” as simply “the rest.” Customers in the west were the most charitable, those in the south and eastern U.S. indicated they were worked to their last nerve.

“The ability to provide a high-quality experience with all wireline services is paramount as performance and reliability is the most critical driver of overall satisfaction,” said Kirk Parsons, senior director of telecommunications, in a statement.

Having competition available from a high-scoring provider also demonstrates what is possible when a company actually tries to care about customer service. In the same regions Comcast fared about as popular as hemorrhagic fever, WOW! Cable and Verizon FiOS easily took top honors. Even AT&T U-verse scored far higher than either cable company, primarily because AT&T offers very aggressive promotional packages that include a lot for a comparatively low price.

Other cable and smaller phone companies didn’t do particularly well either. Frontier and CenturyLink both earned dismal scores and Charter Cable only managed modest improvement. The two satellite television companies did fine in customer satisfaction for television service, but it was the two biggest phone companies that managed the best scores for Internet service. Among cable operators, only independents like WOW! (and to a lesser extent Cox) did well in the survey.

If J.D. Power is the arbiter of good service Comcast seems to claim it to be, the ratings company just sent a very clear message that when it comes to merging Comcast and Time Warner Cable, anything multiplied by zero is still zero.

J.D. Power ranking (Image courtesy: Reviewed.com)

J.D. Power ranking (Image courtesy: Reviewed.com)

FCC May Make Comcast/Time Warner Merger Contingent on Carriage of More TV Channels

cable tvJust when you thought the cable television lineup could not possibly get any larger,  insiders at Comcast are anticipating one of the possible conditions that could be imposed by the Federal Communications Commission in return for approval of its merger with Time Warner Cable is an agreement to carry more independently owned cable television channels.

One of the most vocal groups of consumers opposed to the merger deal have been viewers of independent Omaha, Neb.-based RFD-TV, which has landed carriage deals with Time Warner Cable but has been largely ignored by Comcast. For most of the summer, RFD-TV encouraged viewers to pelt the FCC with complaints about the merger deal, insisting that more networks not owned or operated by the top five media conglomerates get equal treatment on the Comcast cable dial. Thousands of viewers responded.

Comcast vice president David Cohen told Congress Comcast already carries more than 170 small or independent networks, although Comcast counts international networks distributed to customers at premium rates.

“It sounds wonderful. But when you peel back the onion . . . it’s really nothing at all,” Pat Gottsch, founder of RFD-TV told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Very few [independent] channels have full distribution, other than BBC World News and Al Jazeera.”

Independent networks have little leverage with major cable operators because they cannot tie carriage agreements to more popular mainstream cable networks. That is why little-known networks like Crime & Investigation Channel or the spinoffs of fX – fXX and fXM – have glided onto cable lineups while networks like RFD, The Tennis Channel, and BlueHighways TV have a much tougher time.

Time Warner Cable now widely carries RFD-TV, but often only on an added-cost mini-pay tier. In many Time Warner markets, RFD and Smithsonian TV replaced HDNet, also an added-cost network.

rfdtv_logoThe independent networks fear they will never become viable if they cannot reach the nearly one-third of the country’s cable television subscribers a combined Comcast and Time Warner Cable would serve. Others question whether they will be given fair consideration if their networks compete with an existing Comcast or Time Warner Cable-owned channel.

The Tennis Channel and Bloomberg have both tussled repeatedly with Comcast over carriage agreements and channel placement. The Tennis Channel took Comcast all the way to a federal appeals court, but lost their case. Cable companies have won recognition of their First Amendment rights to choose the channels on their systems.

In years past, cable operators cited limited channel capacity as the most frequent reason a network could not be added to the lineup. Comcast continues to claim they have limited channel space for television channels, but that has not stopped the cable company from launching dozens of little-watched networks they receive compensation to carry (home shopping, TBN and certain other religious networks) or are contractually obligated to carry (add-on sports and entertainment networks owned by Disney, Viacom, Time Warner (Entertainment), Fox, and even Comcast itself, through its Universal division).

garbageComcast’s claim it already carries nearly 180 independent networks drew scrutiny when the company released the list of networks. At least half were added-cost international or pornography networks — all sold at a higher cost. More than a dozen others were independent sports channels packed into a higher-cost sports tier. Most of the rest were regional networks given very limited exposure. BlueHighways TV, which features bluegrass music, is seen in only 210,000 Comcast homes, mostly in Tennessee. That is less than 1% of Comcast’s total subscriber base.

The only prominent and truly independent networks given wide carriage on Comcast include Home Shopping Network and QVC, which pay a commission to Comcast for every sale made to a Comcast customer, BBC World News, and the Catholic EWTN network.

Mitigating the problem of independent network carriage may push the FCC to the path of least resistance – making carriage of some of these networks a requirement in return for merger approval.

It wouldn’t be the first time. Comcast agreed to launch 10 independent networks as a condition for FCC approval of its buyout of NBCUniversal. That deal is what brought BBC World News to the Comcast lineup, along with a range of little-known networks on high channel numbers: ASPiRE, BabyFirst Americas, Revolt, and El Rey. BabyFirst is targeted to babies and toddlers from 0-3 years old, but is also enjoyed by recreational drug users who find the network’s use of bright colors in their short-form videos entertaining. ASPiRE’s programming has been described by its critics as “crap.”

Cable Is #1 in Profits: 41% Cash Flow Margin Tops TV, Movies, Music, and Publishing Industries

Phillip Dampier September 17, 2014 Competition, Consumer News, Internet Overcharging 2 Comments

eyCable operators leveraged their near-monopoly on high-speed broadband and commercial business services to lead the entertainment and publishing industry in profitability, according to a report from consultant EY (formerly Ernst & Young.)

Cable companies now earn EBITDA (cash flow) margins of 41%, thanks primarily to their broadband divisions. Cable companies have managed to raise prices for Internet access, charge new fees to lease equipment, and monetize broadband usage with usage caps and usage-based billing while their costs to offer broadband service continue to decline rapidly.

“We are seeing that digital is very much driving profits now, instead of disrupting it,” said EY’s Global Media & Entertainment Leader John Nendick. “Companies are figuring out how to monetize the migration of consumers to a variety of digital platforms, and this insatiable demand for content is fueling growth throughout the industry.”

Just a few years ago, cable operators fretted that cord cutting of cable television packages and increased programming costs could take a major bite out of their profitability. But as telephone company broadband competition has waned, cable companies have been able to leverage their near-monopoly on high-speed broadband service with rate increases and usage-control measures that keep costs down and profits up. Customers have also been choosing higher-speed tiers with greater usage allowances at added costs, further increasing profits. The result is more revenue that more than compensates for the loss of profits from cable television.

According to EY, the cable industry will top everyone else in the 2014 survey of the sector. Cash flow margins for other related businesses: cable networks (37%), interactive media (36%), electronic games (29%), conglomerates (26%), satellite television (26%), publishing and information services (21%),  broadcast and network television (19%), film and television production (12%), and music (11%).

Vodafone Exploring Buyout of Liberty Global; Malone’s Big Plan for Cable Consolidation At Risk

Merger Partner?

The new owner of John Malone’s cable empire?

John Malone’s big plan for consolidating the cable industry might never see the light of day if one of the world’s largest mobile operators buys the company out from under him.

Bloomberg News is reporting Vodafone is exploring an acquisition of Liberty Global, Europe’s largest cable conglomerate.

Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao said John Malone’s European cable empire could be a good fit for the wireless provider assuming it is for sale “for the right price.”

Liberty owns cable operators in 12 European countries including Germany, Great Britain and the Netherlands. It also own a minority share of Charter Communications in the United States and controls Sirius/XM satellite radio.

Vodafone has recently been on a buying spree in Europe, mostly using the proceeds from the sale of its minority interest in Verizon Wireless. Vodafone has bought cable companies in Spain and Germany and is looking to acquire more “fixed networks” to offload mobile traffic.

Vodafone representatives denied there was any immediate interest in a deal with Liberty, but Wall Street analysts debated the prospects of a deal nonetheless. Vodafone’s operations are larger than Liberty’s in Europe, so the wireless provider has the resources to make the deal happen if it so chooses.

But Vodafone itself may be an acquisition target. Some analysts predict AT&T will make a bid to takeover the mobile operator after it completes its acquisition of DirecTV.

Time Warner Cable Can Raise Pricing on 2-Year Promotions; Customer Sees $15 Surprise Rate Hike

fine printTime Warner Cable customers believing they can “lock in” prices for up to two years with one of the company’s service promotions might be surprised to learn the fine print allows the cable company to adjust prices after just one year of service, as this reddit user just discovered:

My bill went up $15. They tell me it’s ok because I’m still on the same promotion, it just went up in price. That I’m still saving over full retail price so it’s ok. The phrase “it’s only $15″ was used by the service rep.

This is complete bulls***.

edit: I really wish I thought ahead to record the call. Now that I’m off the phone he offered me a one time $15 credit to make next month better. Like that changes anything.

How can the term two-year promotion be used if it’s only good for 1 year you ask? Well Time Warner’s answer is that it’s still the same promotion, it just goes up after a year.

edit again: The one time $15 just posted to my account. They don’t even call it a customer service adjustment or anything, they call it a “Save a Sub adjustment.” Not even trying to hide it.

09/06/2014 Save a Sub Adj -15.00

This and many other Time Warner Cable customers probably missed the fine print, which reveals pricing for the promotion can, and often does, adjust after the first 6-12 months. Comcast, the potential new owner of Time Warner Cable, also runs promotions the same way. Here are examples from both companies:

Time Warner Cablecomcast twc: Three-product offers valid for new residential and existing customers. After 12 months, regular rates apply. Offers expire 10/19/14. Standard TV for $39.99 available for 12 months; in months 13-24, price will go up to $44.99; after month 24, price will go to retail.

Comcast: After first 6 months, monthly service charge increases to $109.99 for months 7-12. After 12 months, or if any service is cancelled or downgraded, regular charges apply. After 6 months, the monthly charge for HBO is $15 for 12 months and thereafter, regular rates apply.

Some cable operators bill promotions by charging the customer the regular price for service and then apply a fixed promotional credit for the length of the promotional offer. If rates increase during the promotion, the customer will see the rate increase on their bill and will end up paying more because the service credit they receive does not change to offset the increase.

Why are they allowed to do this? Because cable companies like Time Warner Cable have gradually moved away from term-length service contracts, especially where they do not face a new competitor like U-verse or FiOS entering their service area for the first time. With both competitors well-established, cable operators have moved away from two-year “contracts” to two-year “promotions,” but customers often do not know the difference.

This customer can switch providers at any time without a penalty. Instead he called and complained and received a one-time service credit. Chances are if he calls and threatens to cancel service, the retention agent will put him back on the original promotion or one offering a similar promotional price. The key word is “cancel,” which works like nothing else to motivate representatives to keep your business.

Internet Slowdown Day is Here: Tell the FCC to Classify ISPs as Common Carriers

Phillip "It's common sense" Dampier

Phillip “It’s common sense” Dampier

The concept is so simple one might think there was nothing controversial about the common sense idea of requiring Internet Service Providers to handle Internet traffic equally.

But that would throw a wrench into the money-making plans of some of America’s top cable and phone companies looking for new ways to collect more money and bigger profits from selling Internet access.

Wireless phone companies have already got the Money Party started, throttling certain traffic while exempting partnered apps and websites from counting against your monthly usage allowance. Americans pay some of the highest prices in the world for broadband service, but it is never enough for some executives who believe the increasing necessity of having Internet access means companies can charge even more for access. With few competitive alternatives, where are you going to go?

With most Americans confronted with just two Internet providers to choose from, the stage is set for mischief. The normal rules of competition simply don’t apply, allowing companies to raise prices while limiting innovation to finding new ways to improve revenue without improving the service. That has worked well for stockholders and executives that green-light these schemes, but for all the money Americans pay for service, broadband in the United States is still way behind other nations.

A few years ago, the CEO of AT&T decided that collecting money from customers to provide Internet access wasn’t enough. The company now wanted compensation from websites that generate the traffic ISPs handle for their customers. In other words, they wanted to be paid twice for doing their job.

If you listen to some of America’s largest cable and phone companies talk, you would think that traffic from Netflix and other high-volume websites was sucking them dry. But in fact their prices and profits are up and their costs are down… way down. But that doesn’t stop them from contemplating usage-based billing and reducing investment in upgrades to keep up with demand. Netflix learned that lesson when Comcast refused to upgrade some of its connections which left Netflix streaming video constantly buffering for Comcast customers. Those problems magically disappeared as soon as money changed hands in a deal that leaves Netflix dependent on paying Comcast protection money to make sure customers can actually enjoy the service they already paid to receive.

internetslowdownhero-100413741-large

Former FCC chairman Kevin Martin believed competition would keep ISPs honest, but since he left at the end of the Bush Administration, competition has barely emerged for most of us. Julius Genachowski, the FCC chairman under President Obama’s first term gave some strong speeches about protecting Net Neutrality but caved to provider demands the moment he met with them behind closed doors. Today, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler presides over an agency that has repeatedly had its regulatory hat handed to them by the D.C. Court of Appeals, which has ruled time and time again that the current regulatory foundation on which Internet-related policies are enforced is completely unsound.

We can thank former FCC chairman Michael Powell for that. His decision to classify broadband as an “information service” during the first term of the Bush Administration carries almost no legacy of court-upheld authority the FCC can rely on to enforce its regulations. Powell’s innovation was warmly received by America’s biggest cable companies who quickly realized the FCC had regulatory authority over the broadband business in name-only. Powell’s reward? A cushy job as head of America’s biggest cable lobby – the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA).

Don't allow Comcast and others to slow down your favorite cat videos.

Don’t allow Comcast and others to slow down your favorite cat videos.

Wheeler used to hold that position himself, and his trip through D.C.’s revolving door connecting regulators with the regulated makes it unsurprising that Wheeler’s own Net Neutrality proposal is not far from what Big Telecom companies want themselves — permission to create paid “fast lanes” on highways that currently lack enough capacity to protect other traffic from suffering the speed consequences of prioritized traffic.

It reminds me of those highway projects where cars dutifully change lanes well in advance of lane closures while other cars blow past only to merge at the last possible minute, saving them time while slowing cars behind them to a crawl as they wait to move ahead.

Make no mistake – paid fast lanes will compromise unpaid traffic, reducing the quality of your Internet experience.

The best solution to this problem would be for providers to devote more revenue to regular network upgrades that benefit everyone, not create new ways to ration the Internet for some while letting others pay to avoid speed bumps and congestion issues that are easy and inexpensive to solve. But if your provider was already delivering that kind of capacity, there would be no market for Internet fast lanes, would there? Without Net Neutrality, providers have a financial incentive not to upgrade their networks and have little fear unhappy customers will switch to the other competitor likely trying the same thing.

Net Neutrality cannot just be a policy, however. A strong regulatory foundation must exist to allow the FCC to enforce Internet-related policies without having them overturned by the courts. That means one thing: reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service subject to common carrier regulations.

Net Neutrality opponents like to claim that would saddle Internet providers with decades old telephone regulations that have nothing to do with today’s broadband marketplace. But in fact that regulatory framework was originally established precisely for the reasons we need it again today — a non-competitive, largely unregulated marketplace is exploiting its market power to abuse customers and artificially interfere with traffic just to invent new ways to make more money.

People forget that in the 1920s, AT&T not only monopolized telephone service in most areas (and had a history of refusing to connect calls made from competing telephone companies to its own subscribers even as it hiked rates to pay for “improvements”), it was also attempting to force its for-profit vision on the newly emerging world of radio: “toll-broadcasting.” AT&T insisted that radio stations charge a fee to anyone who wanted access to the airwaves, and imposed the toll system on its own stations, starting with WBAY-AM (later WEAF) in New York on July 25, 1922.

Westinghouse, GE, RCA, and AT&T maintained such strong control over broadcasting and telecommunications in the 1920s, the Federal Trade Commission eventually filed a formal complaint with Congress declaring the four had “combined and conspired for the purpose of, and with the effect of, restraining competition and creating a monopoly in the manufacture, purchase and sale in interstate commerce of radio devices…and in domestic and transoceanic communication and broadcasting.”

It took the Justice Department to finally force a resolution to protect competition and the free exchange of ideas on the airwaves with a 1930 antitrust lawsuit against the four companies. In 1934, Congress passed the Communications Act establishing the FCC as the national regulator in charge of protecting some of the values that monopolies tend to trample.

The thing about history is that those who ignore it are bound to repeat it. Whether we are dealing with railroad robber barons, a Bell System monopoly, or barely competitive cable and phone companies, if the conditions are right to exploit customers on behalf of shareholders looking for bigger returns, companies will follow through. In the first two cases, with little chance that natural competition would bring a solution in a reasonable amount of time, regulators stepped in to restore some balance in the marketplace and protect consumers from runaway abuses. That has to happen again.

  • First, reclassify broadband as a common carrier under Title 2;
  • Second, enact strong Net Neutrality protections under that authority.

And don’t you believe that old chestnut that sensible regulatory policies will impede investment in telecommunications. Other nations that have much better broadband than we enjoy (at lower prices) already have reasonable regulatory protections in place that promote and protect competition instead of protecting incumbent market power and impeding would-be competitors. Investment in upgrades continues to pour in, further widening the gap between the kind of service we receive and what customers in other countries get for a lot less money.

The deadline for FCC comments on Net Neutrality is Sept. 15. Sending one directly is simple, effective, and will take less than five minutes.

  1. Visit fcc.gov/comments
  2. Click on the proceeding 14-28 (usually in the top three)
  3. Complete the form and type your comments in the big box. Tell the FCC you want broadband reclassified as a common carrier under Title II as a telecommunications service and that you want strong Net Neutrality policies enacted that forbid paid fast lanes and provider interference in your Internet experience.
  4. Submit the form and you are finished.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Democracy Now Internet Slowdown 9-10-14.mp4

If your favorite website seems to load slowly today, take a closer look: You might be experiencing the Battle for the Net’s “Internet Slowdown,” a global day of action. The Internet won’t actually be slowing down, but many sites are placing on their homepages animated “Loading” graphics , which organizers call “the proverbial ‘spinning wheel of death,’ to symbolize what the Internet might soon look like.

Large Internet service providers, or ISPs, like Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T and Verizon, are trying to change the rules that govern the Internet. Some of the biggest companies on the Internet — Netflix, Mozilla, Kickstarter, Etsy and WordPress — are joining today’s Internet Slowdown to draw attention to Net Neutrality, the principle that service providers shouldn’t be allowed to speed up, or slow down, loading times on certain websites, such as their competitors.

This comes as 27 online advocacy groups sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler Tuesday, calling on him to take part in town hall-style public hearings on Net Neutrality before ruling on the issue as early as this year. Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman talks with Tim Karr from the group Free Press, one of the main organizers of the Internet Slowdown global day of action. (7:15)

FCC Chairman Complains About State of U.S. Broadband But Offers Few Meaningful Solutions

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler doesn’t like what he sees when looks at the state of American broadband.

At a speech today given to the 1776 community in Washington, Wheeler complained about the lack of broadband competition in the United States.

“The underpinning of broadband policy today is that competition is the most effective tool for driving innovation, investment, and consumer and economic benefits,” Wheeler said. “Unfortunately, the reality we face today is that as bandwidth increases, competitive choice decreases.”

faster speed fewer competitors

“The lighter the blue, the fewer the options,” Wheeler said, gesturing towards his chart. “You get the point. The bar on the left reflects the availability of wired broadband using the FCC’s current broadband definition of 4Mbps. But let’s be clear, this is ‘yesterday’s broadband.’ Four megabits per second isn’t adequate when a single HD video delivered to home or classroom requires 5Mbps of capacity. This is why we have proposed updating the broadband speed required for universal service support to 10Mbps.”

But Wheeler added that even 10Mbps was insufficient as households increasingly add more connected devices — often six or more — to a single broadband connection.  When used concurrently, especially for online video, it is easy to consume all available bandwidth at lower broadband speeds.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Wheeler’s new informal benchmark is 25Mbps — “table stakes” in 21st century communications. About 80 percent of Americans can get 25Mbps today or better, but typically only from one provider. Wheeler wants even faster speeds than that, stating it is unacceptable that more than 40% of the country cannot get 100Mbps service. Wheeler seemed to fear that phone companies have largely given up on competing for faster broadband connections, handing a de facto monopoly to cable operators the government has left deregulated.

“It was the absence of competition that historically forced the imposition of strict government regulation in telecommunications,” Wheeler explained. “One of the consequences of such a regulated monopoly was the thwarting of the kind of innovation that competition stimulates. Today, we are buffeted by constant innovation precisely because of the policy decisions to promote competition made by the FCC and Justice Department since the 1970s and 1980s.”

Wheeler said competition between phone and cable companies used to keep broadband speeds and capacity rising.

“In order to meet the competitive threat of satellite services, cable TV companies upgraded their facilities,” Wheeler said. “When the Internet went mainstream, they found themselves in the enviable position of having greater network capacity than telephone companies. Confronted by such competition, the telcos upgraded to DSL, and in some places deployed all fiber, or fiber-and-copper networks. Cable companies further responded to this competition by improving their own broadband performance. All this investment was a very good thing. The simple lesson of history is that competition drives deployment and network innovation. That was true yesterday and it will be true tomorrow. Our challenge is to keep that competition alive and growing.”

But Wheeler admits the current state of broadband in the United States no longer reflects the fierce competition of a decade or more ago.

“Today, cable companies provide the overwhelming percentage of high-speed broadband connections in America,” Wheeler noted. “Industry observers believe cable’s advantage over DSL technologies will continue for the foreseeable future. The question with which we as Americans must wrestle is whether broadband will continue to be responsive to competitive forces in order to produce the advances that consumers and our economy increasingly demand. Looking across the broadband landscape, we can only conclude that, while competition has driven broadband deployment, it has not yet done so a way that necessarily provides competitive choices for most Americans.”

Wheeler recognized what most broadband customers have dealt with for years — a broadband duopoly for most Americans.

antimonopoly“Take a look at the chart again,” Wheeler said. “At the low end of throughput, 4Mbps and 10Mbps, the majority of Americans have a choice of only two providers. That is what economists call a “duopoly”, a marketplace that is typically characterized by less than vibrant competition. But even two “competitors” overstates the case. Counting the number of choices the consumer has on the day before their Internet service is installed does not measure their competitive alternatives the day after. Once consumers choose a broadband provider, they face high switching costs that include early termination fees, and equipment rental fees. And, if those disincentives to competition weren’t enough, the media is full of stories of consumers’ struggles to get ISPs to allow them to drop service.”

Wheeler emphasized that true competition would allow customers to change providers monthly, if a vibrant marketplace forced competitors to outdo one another. That market does not exist in American broadband today.

“At 25Mbps, there is simply no competitive choice for most Americans,” Wheeler added. “Stop and let that sink in…three-quarters of American homes have no competitive choice for the essential infrastructure for 21st century economics and democracy. Included in that is almost 20 percent who have no service at all. Things only get worse as you move to 50Mbps where 82 percent of consumers lack a choice. It’s important to understand the technical limitations of the twisted-pair copper plant on which telephone companies have relied for DSL connections. Traditional DSL is just not keeping up, and new DSL technologies, while helpful, are limited to short distances. Increasing copper’s capacity may help in clustered business parks and downtown buildings, but the signal’s rapid degradation over distance may limit the improvement’s practical applicability to change the overall competitive landscape.”

Wheeler finds little chance wireless providers will deliver any meaningful competition to wired broadband because of pricing levels and miserly data caps. Such statements are in direct conflict with a traditional industry talking point.

In a remarkable admission, Wheeler added that the only hope of competing with cable operators comes from a technology phone companies have become reluctant to deploy.

“In the end, at this moment, only fiber gives the local cable company a competitive run for its money,” Wheeler said. “Once fiber is in place, its beauty is that throughput increases are largely a matter of upgrading the electronics at both ends, something that costs much less than laying new connections.”

Wheeler also continued to recognize the urban-rural divide in broadband service and availability, but said little about how he planned to address it.

Wheeler’s answer to the broadband dilemma fell firmly in the camp of promoting competition and avoiding regulation, a policy that has been in place during the last two administrations with little success and more industry consolidation. Most of Wheeler’s specific commitments to protect and enhance competition apply to the wireless marketplace, not fixed wired broadband:

1. comcast highwayWhere competition exists, the Commission will protect it. Our effort opposing shrinking the number of nationwide wireless providers from four to three is an example. As applied to fixed networks, the Commission’s Order on tech transition experiments similarly starts with the belief that changes in network technology should not be a license to limit competition.

In short, don’t expect anymore efforts to combine T-Mobile and Sprint into a single entity. Wheeler only mentioned “nationwide wireless providers” which suggests it remains open season to acquire the dwindling number of smaller, regional carriers. Wheeler offers no meaningful benchmarks to protect consumers or prevent further consolidation in the cable and telephone business.

2. Where greater competition can exist, we will encourage it. Again, a good example comes from wireless broadband. The “reserve” spectrum in the Broadcast Incentive Auction will provide opportunities for wireless providers to gain access to important low-band spectrum that could enhance their ability to compete. Similarly, the entire Open Internet proceeding is about ensuring that the Internet remains free from barriers erected by last-mile providers. Third, where meaningful competition is not available, the Commission will work to create it. For instance, our efforts to expand the amount of unlicensed spectrum creates alternative competitive pathways. And we understand the petitions from two communities asking us to pre-empt state laws against citizen-driven broadband expansion to be in the same category, which is why we are looking at that question so closely.

Again, the specifics Wheeler offered pertain almost entirely to the wireless business. Spectrum auctions are designed to attract new competition, but the biggest buyers will almost certainly be the four current national carriers, particularly AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Although low-band spectrum will help Sprint and T-Mobile deliver better indoor service, it is unlikely to drive new market share for either. Wheeler offered no specifics on the issues of Net Neutrality or municipal broadband beyond acknowledging they are issues.

3. Incentivizing competition is a job for governments at every level. We must build on and expand the creative thinking that has gone into facilitating advanced broadband builds around the country. For example, Google Fiber’s “City Checklist” highlights the importance of timely and accurate information about and access to infrastructure, such as poles and conduit. Working together, we can implement policies at the federal, state, and local level that serve consumers by facilitating construction and encouraging competition in the broadband marketplace.

competitionMost of the policies Wheeler seeks to influence exist on the state and local level, where he has considerably less influence. Based on the overwhelming interest shown by cities clamoring to attract Google Fiber, the problems of access to utility poles and conduit are likely overstated. The bigger issue is the lack of interest by new providers to enter entrenched monopoly/duopoly markets where they face crushing capital investment costs and catcalls from incumbent providers demanding they be forced to serve every possible customer, not selectively choose individual neighborhoods to serve. Both incumbent cable and phone companies originally entered communities free from significant competition, often guaranteed a monopoly, making the burden of wired universal service more acceptable to investors. When new entrants are anticipated to capture only 14-40 percent competitive market share at best, it is much harder to convince lenders to support infrastructure and construction expenses. That is why new providers seek primarily to serve areas where there is demonstrated demand for the service.

4. Where competition cannot be expected to exist, we must shoulder the responsibility of promoting the deployment of broadband. One thing we already know is the fact that something works in New York City doesn’t mean it works in rural South Dakota. We cannot allow rural America to be behind the broadband curve. Our universal service efforts are focused on bringing better broadband to rural America by whomever steps up to the challenge – not the highest speeds all at once, but steadily to prevent the creation of a new digital divide.

Again, Wheeler offers few specifics. Current efforts by the FCC include the Connect America Fund, which is nearly entirely devoted to subsidizing rural telephone companies to build traditional DSL service into high-cost areas. Cable is rarely a competitor in these markets, but Wireless ISPs often are, and they are usually privately funded and consider government subsidized DSL expansion an unwelcome and unfair intrusion in their business.

“Since my first day as Chairman of the FCC my mantra has been consistent and concise: ‘Competition, Competition, Competition,'” said Wheeler. “As we have seen today, there is an inverse relationship between competition and the kind of broadband performance that consumers are increasingly demanding. This is not tolerable.”

Under Wheeler’s leadership, Comcast has filed a petition to assume control of Time Warner Cable, AT&T is seeking permission to buy DirecTV, Frontier Communications is acquiring the wired facilities of AT&T in Connecticut, and wireless consolidation continues. A forthcoming test of Wheeler’s willingness to back his rhetoric with action is whether he will support or reject these industry consolidating mergers and acquisitions. Wheeler’s FCC has also said little to nothing about the consumer-unfriendly practice of usage caps and usage-based billing — both growing among wired networks even as they upgrade to much-faster speeds and raise prices.

Comcast-TWC Merger Now Issue in N.Y. Governor’s Race: Secret Meetings, New Questions

Gov. Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo

Does N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo support or reject the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable and why has an administration official been meeting behind closed doors with the companies involved?

If the merger is successful, more than 95 percent of upstate New York will be served by a single cable operator – Comcast, with little chance Verizon will mount a major challenge for video, broadband, and phone service customers outside of the areas where FiOS fiber upgrades have been announced. Although the Cuomo Administration promised an in-depth investigation into the merger, the governor has kept his own views close to the vest and has not publicly supported or opposed the transaction. But an administration official has met privately with executives of both cable companies and state regulators behind closed doors according to a new report.

According to public schedules obtained by Capital, Comcast representatives met at least three times in August with PSC members or staff in what one former commissioner called unusual circumstances.

James Larocca, a N.Y. PSC commissioner from 2008-2013, said it is not typical for officials from the governor’s office to meet with state regulators and cable executives in the same closed-door meeting.

“I did not meet with the second floor on pending matters and I’m not aware that other commissioners ever did,” Larocca said.

It is not unusual for companies with business before the Commission to meet with its staff or commissioners in ex parte conversations to set the parameters of hearings, filings, and other regulatory proceedings. All such meetings appear to have been properly disclosed by the PSC staff and the companies involved. But the fact some were held behind closed doors with a Cuomo Administration official and without public disclosure of the subjects discussed bothers some.

corporate-welfare-piggy-bankSusan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said what was discussed behind closed doors should be disclosed so the public can see what top state officials are saying to the cable executives.

“There are questions as to whether the PSC is a strong enough advocate for the people or the industry,” Lerner told Capital. “The agency has lost sight of its initial mission, which is to serve the public in regulating these absolutely essential services.”

Gerald Norlander at the Public Utility Law Project ponders what would happen if there were two negotiating tables discussing the merger, one public and the other secret.

“If there is a second table where views are exchange and negotiations are occurring, it doesn’t do well for transparency,” he said.

Public statements from both Comcast and the Cuomo Administration did little to clear the air.

“It was an initial meeting to discuss the public interest benefits of the transaction for New York,” a Comcast representative said in a one-sentence statement in response to questions about the meeting.

Not exactly, says the Cuomo Administration.

“The meeting was to explain the new law, the PSC’s new powers and its expanded oversight,” Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said.

As has been the case during much of the merger debate, Time Warner Cable has remained silent and has refused to comment.

Comcast oregonThe governor himself has avoided taking sides, claiming he will abide by the recommendations made by the PSC. But if true, why involve the governor’s office in the merger or meet privately with either the PSC or the companies involved?

“The state is taking a hands-on review of this merger to ensure that New Yorkers benefit,” Cuomo said in May. “The Public Service Commission’s actions will help protect consumers by demanding company commitments to strong service quality, affordability, and availability.”

Cuomo himself has received at least $200,000 in campaign contributions from Comcast and Time Warner Cable. With customer satisfaction scores for both Comcast and Time Warner Cable in the basement, lobbying has been a necessity and Time Warner Cable is one of the state’s top lobbying forces, spending $500,000 of its subscribers’ money in New York in 2013 alone. Comcast spent $60,000, despite only serving a small sliver of customers in downstate New York.

The two companies also donated a combined $500,000 to a secretive state Democratic party account which Cuomo controls. Ironically, some of that money was used to run ads celebrating Gov. Cuomo’s efforts to get money out of politics.

New York Democratic candidate Zephyr Teachout is seeking to oust Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the fall election. One of the issues she is campaigning on is Cuomo’s significant contributions from Comcast and Time Warner Cable and his apparent lack of interest in stopping the merger. At a campaign stop in Syracuse, Teachout claims Comcast will raise your rates and offer no significant benefits to New Yorkers. She’d strongly oppose the merger and media consolidation in general, if elected. WRVO Radio reports. Aug. 29, 2014 (1:26)
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Teachout

Teachout

Cuomo’s Democratic primary opponent Zephyr Teachout and her running mate, Tim Wu (who coined the term “Net Neutrality”) are less murky on the issue. Both strongly oppose the merger and cable industry consolidation generally and have expressed serious concern about the governor’s acceptance of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from both Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

Andrew Letson’s Politics Blog considers the differences between the two campaigns striking.

“It’s a sharp contrast – between the hypocritical man in office taking money from corporate interests and the candidates with integrity who are funding their campaign through largely individual donors,” Letson writes.

“[Both Wu and Teachout] have said that they would work to block the frightening Comcast-Time Warner merger, something that’s certainly on the minds of many New Yorkers,” says Letson. “What’s nice about that is that New York actually has a lot of power when it comes to this merger, so opposition from both the governor and lieutenant governor would go a long way.”

Letson is a Teachout campaign volunteer, so it is no surprise which candidate he supports.

Frontier Files Opposition to Time Warner Cable/Comcast Merger; Harms Video Competition

Frontier used Time Warner Cable's usage cap experiment against them in this ad to attract new customers in the spring of 2009.

Frontier used Time Warner Cable’s usage cap experiment against them in this ad to attract new customers in the spring of 2009.

Frontier Communications has filed a rare objection with the Federal Communications Commission opposing the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, citing concerns the merger would further harm competition and prevent Frontier and other competitors from getting fair access to programming owned by the combined cable companies.

“Comcast’s appetite for market control threatens the competitiveness of the video market,” wrote Frontier. “Comcast is already the largest Internet provider and largest video provider in the United States. If approved, Comcast’s video subscriber base would be approximately 52-times the size of Frontier’s video subscriber base.”

As Stop the Cap! wrote in its own objections to the merger, would-be competitors can and will be deterred from competing for video subscribers if they cannot obtain reasonable wholesale rates for popular cable programming. Currently, the largest providers extend the best volume discounts to the country’s largest satellite and cable operators. They make up those discounts by charging smaller customers higher rates. Frontier, as we noted in our filing, has already experienced the impact of volume discounting in its adopted FiOS TV areas in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest. Losing volume discounts originally obtained by Verizon, Frontier faced substantially higher programming costs as an independent provider — costs so great the company began asking customers to drop its own fiber television product in favor of third-party partner DISH, a satellite provider.

“Small multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) like Frontier cannot achieve the scale necessary to drive down programming costs, which are based upon an MVPD’s subscriber totals, to the same levels that Comcast can with this transaction,” noted Frontier. “Further, Comcast would own an enormous share of the “must have” programming that customers demand and could exercise its market dominance to either outright deny such programming to its competitors or to functionally deny the programming by charging exorbitant rates for content.”

“While Frontier continues to grow its subscriber base organically by delivering a quality product in its markets and also by acquiring AT&T’s wireline assets in Connecticut, the cost of content for video programming remains staggering for new entrants that lack the scale and scope of cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable individually, let alone that of the merged entity,” said Frontier. “It is no mere coincidence that AT&T announced its proposed acquisition of DirecTV shortly after Comcast announced its intention to purchase Time Warner Cable. AT&T recognized the need to improve its subscriber scale in order to compete with Comcast on video programming pricing.”

Frontier noted the Federal Communications Commission also expressed grave concerns over Comcast’s ability to affect video competition during its acquisition of NBCUniversal. That merger was approved only after Comcast agreed to several conditions to avoid anticompetitive abuse in the marketplace. But Frontier complained a further acquisition of Time Warner Cable would only exacerbate competition concerns, even as Comcast argues the FCC should not contemplate any further investigation of the subject during its current merger review.

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