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Dish Complains About FCC’s 125% Regulatory Rate Hike; Independent Cable Says It Isn’t High Enough

cable ratesThe Federal Communications Commission is getting an earful from satellite provider Dish Network, upset with the agency’s proposal to boost regulatory fees covering direct broadcast satellite services by 125% this year.

If the FCC adopts its new fee structure, Dish will pay 24 cents per subscriber (up from 12¢) per year to cover the cost of full-time employees at the FCC who spend their days monitoring and regulating satellite television providers. Satellite companies will also pay a one-time fee of 3¢ per subscriber in 2016 to cover the FCC’s downsizing expenses.

The regulator has successfully found a way to cover some of its expenses by charging the companies it oversees “user fees.” In 2015, the FCC collected nearly $340 million in regulatory fees. This year, the FCC wants more, seeking to impose a temporary “facility reduction cost” surcharge that will cover the expenses of moving employees to new, smaller offices, or downsizing the current ones to save money. The FCC says that will cost an extra $44 million. Taxpayers won’t pay those expenses, but pay television customers ultimately will when providers pass both of those fees on.

Dish says the rate hike is unjustified because of its size and scope, and runs contrary to the FCC’s goal of minimizing consumer bill shock. The satellite provider also wants the FCC to explain how it can justify more than doubling user fees while downsizing.

If the FCC doesn’t answer, the American Cable Association, representing small independent cable operators, is willing to share their views on the matter. The ACA complains the FCC isn’t charging DirecTV and Dish enough, noting they are still getting preferential treatment over cable and IPTV providers that are being asked to pay $1 per subscriber this year.

“There is absolutely no basis for keeping the proposed DBS fee levels over 75% below those proposed for other entities in the Cable/IPTV category,” wrote ACA president Matt Polka in comments to the FCC. “DBS providers should be paying the same Media Bureau regulatory fee.”

att directvPolka pointed to AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV as an example of how disproportionate fees cost small independent cable companies much more on a per-subscriber basis than telecom giant AT&T has to pay for almost 20 million DirecTV satellite customers.

“AT&T, now the nation’s largest [pay TV company], operates two types of services – its U-verse IPTV service and its DirecTV DBS service,” noted Polka. “Yet, AT&T will be assessed starkly lower regulatory fees for its approximately 20 million DirecTV subscribers than it will pay for its approximately 6 million IPTV subscribers, even though all of these services make absolutely comparable use of Media Bureau […]  resources and AT&T’s advocacy […] is on behalf of all its [pay TV] subscribers.”

Polka wants fee parity – charging the same user fees for all providers, regardless of the technology they use.

“Doing so will avoid the competitive distortions the current fee structure creates by having cable operators and IPTV providers, most of whom are far smaller than the DBS providers, cross-subsidize the fee burden of their primary and direct competitors in the marketplace,” Polka argued.

Whatever fee structure is ultimately approved by the FCC, customers can be certain providers will pad those fees when passing them on to customers. For more than a decade, some providers have used regulatory fee increases amounting to spare change as an excuse to pass on new “regulatory surcharges” that are many times more than what those providers actually pass on to the government.

“It’s a price increase,” bluntly notes Mark Cooper from the Consumer Federation of America back in 2004.

This spring, The Consumerist broke down a typical AT&T U-verse bill loaded in junk fees and surcharges. (The RED numbers [1, 4-10, 13-14, 17-20, 22] are AT&T-originating fees; BLUE numbers [2-3, 11-12, 15-16, 21, 23-25] are government fees)

This spring, The Consumerist broke down a typical AT&T U-verse bill loaded in junk fees and surcharges. (The RED numbers [1, 4-10, 13-14, 17-20, 22] are AT&T-originated fees, fake surcharges/bill padding, or fees that represent the cost of doing business; BLUE numbers [2-3, 11-12, 15-16, 21, 23-25] are real government fees passed on to local, state, and federal taxing authorities.)

Charter Considering Pulling the Plug on Time Warner’s IntelligentHome Security Service

intelligenthome

Perhaps not for long.

Time Warner Cable customers who spent hundreds or thousands of dollars in security equipment and add-ons may be left with nothing but their 18-month contract as Charter Communications considers pulling the plug on Time Warner’s IntelligentHome security service.

DSL Reports appears to have the exclusive story this morning that insiders familiar with the company’s business operations are claiming IntelligentHome may be one of the first casualties of the giant merger between Charter, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House.

As Stop the Cap! reported earlier this morning, Charter executives are performing a top-to-bottom analysis looking to wring cost savings out of the merger deal. The result will likely be the elimination of anything seen as duplicating Charter Spectrum’s own suite of products and services or going beyond Charter’s philosophy of focusing on “core services.” That could be bad news for Time Warner Cable employees managing or supporting non-conforming services as well, and at least some could be headed for the unemployment office.

A strong clue the days of IntelligentHome may be numbered is word employees are now supposed to keep it a secret:

While the source states that no formal shutdown of the service has been announced, sales and service employees are being told to no longer mention the service in call conversations or presentations with customers. The source also states that “rumblings by managers” suggests the service may not be long for this world.

Should Time Warner Cable shutter the service, the insider states that could be trouble for the customers that recently shelled out significant amounts of money for IntelligentHome hardware.

“What is particularly concerning is that many customers are in 18 month contracts and have purchased hundreds or even thousands of dollars in equipment,” states the insider.

baseIf Time Warner does shutter the service, customers will likely be released from their contracts penalty-free, but they may also be stuck with useless equipment they can’t use with another alarm system.

Cable operators have dabbled in the home security business since the 1970s, but many early attempts were scrapped after waves of consolidation orphaned a variety of incompatible technologies with new owners that had little interest in maintaining the service. The insatiable quest for higher Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) has pushed the cable industry to find more ancillary services that could boost cable bills and keep Wall Street happy. They tried music services like Music Choice and DMX, home video game services, broadband for telecommuters, and eventually returned to home security.

Time Warner Cable first launched IntelligentHome in 2011. It immediately threatened traditional home security services from companies like ADT because IntelligentHome could manage easy remote access to control home security settings, lighting, and thermostats from a computer, tablet, or smartphone. Customers upgrading to a video-capable system could even stream camera video over the Internet through a live feed. A tablet-like touchscreen control enhanced the experience with access to current weather, news, and traffic.

icontrol

Icontrol manages the software platform that powers Time Warner’s IntelligentHome, along with home security services offered by a number of other cable operators.

Time Warner Cable did not develop IntelligentHome exclusively in-house. Most large cable operators rely on connected home security system software solutions powered by a platform developed by Icontrol.

extrasCharter Communications is one of only a few cable companies that have shown no interest in selling home security services (Cablevision is another). In 2013, it dismissed any interest in getting into the business, telling Reuters it preferred to concentrate on its “core business.” Nothing seems to have changed. As of this year, the only security protection Charter offers customers is antivirus software for their computers.

An exit from IntelligentHome could also have a major impact on Time Warner Cable’s owned-and-operated CSAA 5-Diamond Rated Emergency Response Center, which answers when it detects a break-in or when a customer hits a panic button.

Most estimates put the number of customers paying for IntelligentHome at less than 100,000 nationwide, but that select group is likely to have a substantial buy-in to the service and would definitely feel its loss.

Although Time Warner Cable advertises IntelligentHome at prices starting between $35-40 a month, that doesn’t afford much protection. Customer can choose between packages of different equipment bundles that range from $99.99 to $199.99. A la carte equipment is also available. A very basic entry-level system packages a tablet-like controller with protection for only two doors or windows and one motion detector. That might be suitable for an apartment, but homeowners often upgrade to cover more potential entry points. As a result, IntelligentHome has proven a tough sell for customers already confronted by cable bills that often approach or exceed $200 a month, before the alarm service is added.

Time Warner has attempted to change the marketing of IntelligentHome to emphasize more of its home automation and monitoring features, and routinely offers a $200 gift card to entice new customers. But it may not have worked enough to interest Charter, which shows every sign it wants to simplify the cable bundle, not clutter it up with extras. The insider told DSL Reports he hoped Charter would find a way to manage existing customers and not abandon them should the service be discontinued. If not, tens of thousands of Charter customers will have bought a lot of equipment with nothing to show for it.

DSL Reports stresses no final decision has been made.

Opponent of EPB Fiber Expansion: Get ‘Innovative’ Satellite Internet Instead

Cleveland's monument in the downtown district. (Image: City of Cleveland)

Cleveland’s monument in the downtown district. (Image: City of Cleveland)

AT&T, Comcast, and Charter have surrounded the city of Cleveland, Tenn., (population 42,774) for more than 20 years, yet after all that time, there are still many homes in the area that have no better than dial-up Internet access..

An effort to extend municipal utility EPB’s fiber to the home service into the community just northeast of Chattanooga on Interstate 75, has run into organized political opposition campaign, part-sponsored by two of the three communications companies serving the area.

Tennessee state Reps. Dan Howell and Kevin Brooks, both Cleveland-area Republicans, understand the implications. With AT&T, Comcast, and Charter resolute about not expanding their coverage areas anytime soon, the only chance Cleveland has of winning world-class broadband anytime in the reasonable future is through EPB, which has already offered to extend service to at least 1,000 customers in rural Bradley County in as little as three months. Most of those customers now rely on dial-up Internet services, because no broadband is available. Reps. Howell and Brooks are trying to get the the red tape out of the way so EPB can proceed, but the Tennessee legislature hasn’t budged.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

There is a substantial difference between 30kbps dial-up and 100Mbps — one of the “budget” Internet tiers available from EPB. But some Tennessee lawmakers and corporate-backed special interest groups don’t care. To them, stopping public broadband expansion is a bigger priority, and they have attempted to stall, block, or prohibit municipal broadband, just to protect the current phone and cable companies that are among their generous contributors.

In 2010, Chattanooga became the first in America to enjoy gigabit residential broadband speed not because of AT&T, Comcast, or Charter, but because of the publicly owned electric company, EPB. So what’s the problem with that? The fact EPB spent $320 million on the fiber optic network — about $100 million of that coming from a federal grant — keeps some conservatives, corporate executives, and telecom shareholders up at night. They object to the public funding of broadband, calling it unfair competition for the two incumbent cable companies and one phone company, which have their own “privately funded” networks.

Republican Rep. Mike Carter, who serves Ooltewah, thinks that’s a lot of nonsense. He notes AT&T and other providers already receive government funding to service outlying areas that no other providers dare to tread for a lack of return on their investment.

cleveland_tn“[What] convinces me to back expansion of the EPB of Chattanooga is the fact that they received $111 million in stimulus funds, and in the next five years AT&T alone will receive $156 million of your money [in government funding] assessed every month on your bill to provide 10/4-gigabit service in those areas,” Carter explained to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. “If the EPB’s $111 million matching grant somehow disqualifies those benefits going to my constituents, how do I explain to them that AT&T is receiving non-matching funds?”

“The issue then became, if it is necessary to create the world’s fastest Internet system, why would EPB not offer that for economic growth in its service area?” Carter continued. ” After I heard the story of the [gig’s] creation and realized that the money had already been spent, I asked myself if I would allow a firmly held principle of no competition with private enterprise by government to deny my constituents and neighbors the incredible benefits.”

Justin Owen, president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, is dismissive of Carter’s willingness to bend his principles. In his view, those without Internet access have other options instead of getting EPB Fiber on the public dime.

Owen

Owen

“You can get satellite Internet,” said Owen, who added that governments that invest in fiber technology could be “left behind by disruptive innovation,” which in his mind could be satellite Internet. Satellite customers would disagree.

“Horrible, horrible, horrible, and more horrible,” wrote Trey from another Cleveland — this time in Texas. “Speeds are consistently less than 2Mbps and they advertise up to 12. Try a cell phone booster and use that before resorting to satellite Internet.”

Hundreds of customers shared similar stories about their experience with satellite Internet, and they don’t believe it will be disruptive to anything except their bank account.

Owen and his group have not revealed many details about where its funding comes from, but the group is a member of the State Policy Network, which receives financial support from AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Verizon and Comcast. The group’s former leader, Drew Johnson, was also a former opinion page columnist at the Times-Free Press and used column space to criticize EPB and other issues that ran contrary to AT&T’s agenda in Tennessee.

Despite support from the Chattanooga area’s Republican delegation, many legislators from outside the area remain firmly in support of the telecom companies and their wish to limit or destroy community broadband projects like EPB, claiming they are redundant or are based on faulty business plans likely to fail. But while Comcast used to dismiss EPB’s gigabit service as unnecessary and AT&T considered gigabit speeds overkill, both companies are now racing to deploy their own gigabit networks in Chattanooga to compete.

The residents of Cleveland without broadband today probably won’t have it tomorrow or anytime soon. Many are hoping the Tennessee legislature will relent and let EPB solve their broadband issues once and for all. Cleveland resident Aaron Alldaffer is trying to help gin up interest in a renewed legislative push for EPB Fiber expansion with a Change.org petition.

The BBC World Service Global Business program visited Chattanooga in May 2016 to explore EPB Fiber and discuss its implications. (29 minutes)

You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Financial Mess for Altice Abroad, U.S. Cable Customers Will Help Cover the Losses

altice debtAs Patrick Drahi’s telecom empire continues to strain under massive debts, a customer exodus in France, and cut throat competition in Europe that has reduced prices of some plans to less than $5 a month, the one thing his parent company Altice can count on is the deep pockets of the American cable subscriber.

The two cable companies that could make all the difference in helping Mr. Drahi keep the proverbial lights on at Empire Altice are his American acquisitions: Suddenlink and, if regulators ultimately approve, Cablevision. The French newspaper Les Echos notes Suddenlink customers are already helping cover Altice’s terrible financial performance in Europe, thanks to that cable company’s 42.5% profit margin. Suddenlink customers will be doing even more to help bail out Drahi’s difficult situation in France, thanks to future rate increases and the continued implementation of broadband usage plans that will push customers towards upgrades. But there is more to come.

“Cablevision will complete the ‘desensitization’ of France’s turbulent [telecom] marketplace for Altice,” reports the newspaper. Cablevision gives Altice an opportunity to cut costs and rely on New York, New Jersey and Connecticut customers to squeeze money out of the New York-based cable operator, validating Drahi’s “American adventure” — acquiring barely competitive cable companies to bolster revenue and profits. Customers are not expected to see lower cable bills, despite the cost cutting.

Overleveraged

Overleveraged

Altice’s troubled SFR-Numericable, which provides cable and mobile service in France, continues to endure a wholesale customer exodus, losing another 272,000 wireless customers during the first three months of 2016. Another 61,000 customers canceled cable and broadband service at the same time, despite price cuts. Even with cut-rate promotions, more than 1.4 million customers asked SFR-Numericable for a divorce over the last 15 months.

“They can’t give the service away for free,” says François Beauparlant, who dropped SFR-Numericable in January. “The company specializes in broken promises and shady deals. They promised upgrades and left us with service that regularly fails or Internet speeds only a small amount of what they promoted.”

Beauparlant rebuffed SFR despite its well-publicized offer of a wireless service package with 20GB of data and unlimited calls and text messages for $4.50 a month for a year.

Meanwhile, in Bethpage, N.Y., the neighbors are hopeful that quieter skies are in their future as the long-predicted Great Slash-a-thon at Cablevision is reportedly about the begin, starting with the permanent grounding of the cable company’s fleet of four executive helicopters which regularly fly in and out of Cablevision’s corporate headquarters.

The executives that relied on them won’t have much time to lament the loss, as the New York Post reports Drahi is ready to show Cablevision’s top-10 executives the door within weeks. Drahi wants everyone earning $300,000 or more out of the company as soon as possible.

Altice's cost-cutting Huns arrive.

Altice’s cost-cutting warriors arrive.

“I do not like to pay salaries. I pay as little as I can,” Drahi told investors at a conference last year.

Drahi also said he prefers to pay minimum wage wherever possible, a fact lesser Cablevision employees are likely to find out this summer. While those in lower level positions are likely to get “take it or leave it” offers, the top echelon of well-paid Cablevision executives will be paid even more in golden parachute exit packages, expected to be worth millions.

Among the recipients will likely be CEO James Dolan, general counsel David Ellen and vice-chairmen Hank Ratner and Gregg Seibert. Dolan’s wife Kristen, appointed chief operating officer several years ago, is still up in the air. She won’t be working at Altice’s pay scale, but may form a data-oriented joint venture with Altice later, according to the Post.

Drahi still insists he can find $900 million to cut from Cablevision’s annual budget. Critics of Altice’s acquisition of Cablevision insist those savings will come at the cost of customers, who could end up with the consequences of a dramatically reduced budget to manage upgrades, outsourced customer service, and dubious subcontractors.

Drahi’s willingness to withhold payments from vendors and suppliers to extract discounts is also likely to affect Cablevision’s relationships with cable programming networks and TV stations. The Post reports he is looking to offer slimmed-down cable TV packages, which means confronting powerful entertainment conglomerates like Disney, Viacom, Discovery, Comcast, and News Corp. Playing hardball with Viacom has not gone well for smaller cable conglomerates like Cable One, which dropped Viacom-owned channels from its lineup when it could not win enough price concessions. Disney’s ESPN has shown a willingness to sue if its expensive sports network is shunned from discounted cable TV packages.

Drahi concedes Altice and SFR-Numericable may not be the most popular companies in France, but ultimately it may not matter if he owns and controls the content customers want to watch. He is pouring money into French media acquisitions, including newspapers, launching his own Paris-based news channel, and acquiring TV networks and the exclusive rights to show popular sports like English football on them.

Wall Street: Usage Caps Are an Important Weapon in Fight Over Cord-Cutting

charter v dishA behind the scenes struggle between DISH Networks and Charter Communications over DISH’s online video service Sling TV has led to an admission by a Wall Street analyst that “usage-based billing” is an important tool for stifling over-the-top online video competition.

On Dec. 21, DISH’s legal team sent a letter to the FCC complaining about Charter’s attempts to “address” the competitive threat of Sling TV, DISH’s online video alternative to cable television.

“Charter’s laser-like focus on Sling TV shows that it views Sling TV as a serious competitive threat rather than a benign interest,” wrote DISH’s attorneys. “Charter is focused on protecting its video subscriber base rather than enhancing the broadband Internet experience for its subscribers. Charter’s documents further reveal thinly veiled complaints to programmers about making their programming available to Sling TV and other [online video] products.”

In the highly redacted filing, Dish suggested Charter was making thinly veiled threats to Disney and Scripps Networks over their willingness to allow their content to be included on Sling TV. DISH has complained to the FCC the cable company was attempting to undermine the new competitor.

A sample from DISH lawyer's highly-redacted submission to the FCC shows much of this fight is occurring out of public view.

A sample from DISH lawyer’s highly redacted submission to the FCC shows much of this fight is occurring out of public view.

On Thursday, the FCC also received an ex parte filing alerting the public that Time Warner (Entertainment) and HBO executives privately met with FCC staff last week, at their invitation, telling them Charter was likely threatening other programmers with unspecified action if they continued to allow their programming to appear on Sling TV.

In that meeting, HBO executives suggested “New Charter” — the combination of Charter Cable, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks — “would be inclined to take action directed at programmers” if services like Sling TV continued to grow. Those threats seem to have been confirmed by Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge, who warned the company would take ‘competitive action’ against programmers selling content to the competition.

In the past, several cable executives have hinted that allowing wider distribution of cable networks over competitors’ networks or direct-to-consumer would dilute the value of those networks to cable operators. That would likely lead to demands for reduced prices when cable networks sought contract renewal. Some cable companies might also drop those networks altogether, arguing customers can get them elsewhere. Either retaliatory move would cut viewer numbers, which in turn would force networks to charge less for advertising.

That the FCC would invite further discussions on the issue of online video competition has some on Wall Street concerned about the prospects of Charter winning approval to buy Time Warner Cable and Bright House.

On Friday, BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield wrote investors, wondering if “we should be less confident in deal approval than we currently are.” With both the Justice Department and the Obama Administration pushing hard for competitive online alternatives to cable television, the FCC may be worried allowing New Charter to have 25-30 percent of the broadband market. With broadband a prerequisite for signing up for services like Sling TV, Rutledge’s “competitive action” could dissuade consumers from choosing online video instead of cable television.

New Street Research analyst Jonathan Chaplin admitted one of Charter’s strongest potential weapons against online video competitors is usage-based Internet billing. That Charter has committed to avoiding usage pricing for the next three years would seem to delay any attempt by Charter to deploy usage caps and usage pricing to stop online competition.

But three years may also not be long to wait, especially if the current “cap-free” commitment helps win merger approval. Chaplin believes Charter’s current commitment to not impose usage caps weakens DISH’s argument, but it could be the subject of special conditions from regulators if the deal is ultimately approved.

The topic appears to be sensitive enough to have provoked Charter to push back hard against DISH and Time Warner (Entertainment) in a blog post published last Friday afternoon.

We are happy to report that the vast majority of stakeholders are pleased with the merger and excited about New Charter.  It’s no surprise, though, that there are some who seek to use the regulatory review process to extract concessions or conditions that further their business goals.  Following the well-worn play book, to achieve that goal, they must first try to discredit the merger, but their allegations are often not based on the facts. For example, charges by Dish and Time Warner’s HBO that New Charter will harm Online Video Distributors simply do not make sense. As we have demonstrated, there is no more OVD-friendly provider than Charter, with our slowest speed at 60Mbps, no data caps, no usage-based billing, no annual contracts and no modem fees. Additionally, we’ve committed that New Charter will offering settlement-free peering to Internet companies, which means we will continue to invest in interconnection to avoid congestion. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, a supporter of the transaction, stated “the key thing about the Charter deal is it’s all Internet companies that benefit — us, Hulu, Amazon, HBO Now — so that we can all compete for consumers’ affection.”

Canada Talks TV: Preparing for A-La-Carte Cable TV; Providers Threaten Rate Hikes

alacarte

Does Canada’s Food TV need special protection when it made 53% gross profits on the backs of cable subscribers that pay for the network whether they watch it or not?

“If you cut your cable, then your Internet is going to go up,” predicts Gary Pelletier, president of the Canadian chapter of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing.

That is just one of several predictions many Canadian cable and phone companies are claiming will come from the “disastrous decision” to allow consumers the freedom to pick and pay for only the cable channels they want to watch. Amidst claims that over 10,000 jobs will be lost, chaos and bankruptcy will stalk minority and niche cable networks, consumers will pay much higher bills, and American programming will boycott Canada fearing a-la-carte could make its way into the United States, Canada is at least having an adult discussion about the future of television and where it fits in the country’s identity.

Big changes are coming as a result of the latest great soul-searching made by our good neighbors to the north, always concerned about the potential of the Canadian Experience being overrun, if not decimated by the United States’ entertainment hegemony. In a moment of clarity, regulators have just realized what the rest of English-speaking Canada already knew: protectionist content regulations don’t work on the Internet. Canadians routinely bypass geographical restrictions and Canadian content laws with virtual private networks that relocate them, online at least, to a home address in the U.S. so they can binge-watch the unrestricted American versions of Netflix, Hulu and other online video services.

Regulators have now adopted the attitude – “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” encouraging Canadian entertainment producers to create fewer, but better shows that will not only attract Canadian audiences, but those abroad.

Only the exchange is supposed to be mutual. High quality Canadian television productions like Orphan Black, Schitt’s Creek, X Company, The Book of Negroes, This Life, 19-2, Vikings, Killjoys, Rookie Blue, and Murdoch Mysteries are all among Canadian critics’ top favorites. But relatively few Americans know these shows exist or assume they are co-productions owned by some American entertainment conglomerate. Only a brief glimpse of a Canadian flag during the warp speed end credits might clue viewers this isn’t the case.

Despite protectionist media policies that have endured since 1970, the Canadians are now boldly going where Americans have so far feared to tread. They are having the conversation about the future of television and online entertainment in all forms while American media barons remain in denial.

For average consumers, the biggest change will begin next spring when the era of Canadian a-la-carte cable television arrives, allowing consumers to take an ax to the expensive 120-300 channel television package once and for all. Starting March 1, all Canadian providers will be required to offer consumers a basic cable package priced at no more than $25 a month, containing Canadian and U.S. over the air stations and networks, educational, and public channels. If you want more, you can have it by buying channels or mini-packages of networks individually to create a personalized cable TV lineup of networks you actually care to watch.

Programmers across Canada, particularly those catering to sports fans, foreign audiences, religious viewers, and minorities are horrified by the idea. So are media critics that fear the change could help bring an end to Canada’s unique multilingual and multicultural identity.

special reportCustomers like James Rehor of Hamilton explains why.

“Why would I pay for it? Why do I get it? Why does it come on my TV?” asks the 60-year-old construction worker. He’s ready on day one to purge the large number of French and other non-English channels from his Cogeco Cable lineup. Rehor offers comfort to sports programmers, however. He’s a big fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, so Leafs TV, Sportnet, and TSN will stay.

Non-sports fans are another matter. They can’t wait to ditch the sports networks that are always the most expensive channels in a Canadian cable package.

“Clearly the most expensive (channels) will always be sports,” Pelletier tells the Canadian Press. “At the end of the day, for sports watchers, their cable bill will probably stay the same or increase, maybe … In the case of someone who doesn’t watch any sports at all, their bill will probably decrease.”

An Age of Abundance: Canadian telecom regulators are transforming media regulations in Canada, recognizing the way Canadians watch television has changed. Quality, not quantity, is now most important. CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais discusses the new reality. (6:08)

Pelletier and his industry friends are on a mission to convince Canadians to leave well enough alone and not drop the current all-for-one price cable television package for a-la-carte — not realizing the potential consequences.

catnipSome in the cable industry have tried other scare tactics to no avail.

One industry-backed study predicted pick-and-pay could cost the economy 10,000 jobs. Consumers could care less. Unifor, a union that represents many in the television sector, seemed to agree Canada’s cultural heritage will be at risk with lowest common denominator programming dominating from St. John’s to Vancouver, much of it shoveled from the United States. But Canadians still want their House of Cards and Homeland.

Howard Law, a media spokesman for Unifor, predicts less profitable Canadian channels will fold under a pick-and-pay pricing model.

“The introduction of pick and pay will, in itself, lead to a major loss of revenues to Canadian broadcasting system, which ultimately plays out in less Canadian content and less Canadian jobs and less Canadian broadcasting,” he said in an interview on CBC’s The Exchange with Amanda Lang.

Minority interest and religious channels are also worried about their future. Most of those networks are classified as “specialty channels” by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Legacy networks that have been around since at least the 1990s have been sitting pretty, protected by their designation as a “Category A” specialty station. Unlike in the United States, Canadian cable networks are licensed to operate by the CRTC, and at least 60 of those Category A networks also enjoy “genre protection,” a CRTC policy that guarantees their channel carriage on Canadian cable, satellite, and telco TV systems and protection from other cable networks that want to run the same kind of programming.

For decades, protectionist Canadian content regulations made certain Canadian television reflected its audience. But online video and the Internet has allowed Canadians to bypass traditional cable television to watch they want, not what the government hopes they will. New CRTC rules reflect that reality as Canadian TV rethinks how to get the viewer’s attention. From CBC-TV’s The National (4:16)

CRTC policies have allowed Canadian specialty channels to flourish despite operating in a smaller marketplace with fewer viewers than their American counterparts. That means networks like FoodTV and HGTV in Canada have profit margins ranging from 53-58 percent. Fashion Television and BookTV made an improbable $2.7 million in pre-tax profit, not so much from viewers but from the licensing fees every Canadian cable customer pays for the four networks whether they watch them or not.

From its inception, Canadian TV has always faced a looming shadow from the south. Protecting Canada's identity has been a priority for decades.

From its start, Canadian TV has always faced a looming shadow from the south. Protecting Canada’s identity has been a priority for decades.

“If you’re a specialty channel that’s lived within the protective cocoon of bundling for years, you’ve gotten used to having a full-time job with benefits,” independent technology analyst Carmi Levy told CBC News. “Contrast that with living outside the protective cocoon, you’re essentially a freelancer, you fight for every contract, you have no benefits, there are no guarantees that money will be coming tomorrow or next week.”

It probably won’t be coming from subscribers like Mr. Rehor, who won’t hesitate to drop channels if they go unwatched.

The CRTC is also doing some dropping of its own, starting with genre protection, which could lead many specialty networks to follow American cable networks that today depend on chasing ratings to justify their licensing fees. The unintended result in the United States has been questionable lineup changes like the appearance of Law & Order rerun marathons on WEtv, a network supposedly dedicated to women’s entertainment. Ovation, a fine arts independent cable network that is about a niche as a network can be, depended on weekend binges of PBS’ Antiques Roadshow reruns in 2012 just to attract enough viewers to show up in the ratings.

Lesser known networks like OutTV, Canada’s only network dedicated to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender viewers, may face an uncertain future if it can’t charge a premium price to make up for expected subscriber losses from pick and pay. Other niche channels may have to merge with other networks or more likely relaunch with an online platform and deliver a reduced menu of content to audiences.

crtcLarge Canadian mainstream networks and programmers don’t expect too much change from pick and pay, as most Canadians will likely still demand a package with their programming included. But distributors – cable, satellite, and telco TV platforms, do expect some major changes. The average Canadian now pays around $50 a month for basic cable, a price that will be cut in half next spring.

Rogers Cable already knows what is coming. It ran a trial in 2011 in London, Ont., with 1,000 customers who were given the choice of picking and paying for the channels they wanted. It didn’t take long for the cable company to discover customers loved it and TV stations and cable programmers hated it.

“We found that customers like bundles, but want to build their own. They want a basic package and an extra package they create,” Rogers spokesman Kevin Spafford told the Toronto Sun. “We did get push back from TV stations. There was concern about offering this service. They did not want us to proceed with that model.”

After the trial ended, Rogers allowed the pilot project participants to keep their pick and pay packages, something they’ve held tightly for over four years.

Rogers’ pilot offered something like what the CRTC is demanding be available to all Canadians:

rogers logoROGERS PICK AND PLAY PILOT

  • $20 a month for “skinny basic” TV package of Canadian stations. (The CRTC plan mandates no more than $25.)
  • 15-channel package for $27 a month. Other packages of 20 and 25 stations also offered, for more money. (The CRTC wants networks to offer channels individually or in mini-bundles.)
  • U.S. major networks offered for $3 a month. (Under the CRTC policy, these stations may appear under the basic or a-la-carte tiers.)

REGULAR ROGERS

  • Basic: $40 a month, 190 channels
  • Digital Plus: $63, 220 channels
  • Sports packages: $77, 230 channels
  • VIP TV: $77, 270 channels
  • VIP Ultimate: $119, 320 channels

The upcoming changes are probably the biggest in Canadian cable television history, but they still may not be enough to attract cord-nevers — those who have never subscribed to cable TV. Most are under 30 and already watch all their favorite shows online. Some budget-minded Canadians who want to cut their cable bill may consider joining them by cutting the cord altogether or slimming down their cable packages, but Pelletier warns that cable operators will not leave their money on the table.

cablecordSupplementing a slimmer cable package with a streaming service or two could increase data charges, Pelletier warns. Plus, you may have to surrender any discounts you get from bundling cable with home phone, Internet and/or wireless service.

Usage capped Internet is also still an effective deterrent for cord-cutting and whether your television entertainment comes over the cable or online, providers will still make a run for your wallet. Some observers predict providers will dramatically increase the retail prices of a-la-carte networks to limit potential savings while also continuing to raise broadband prices.

A 2014 national PIAC poll found 90 per cent of 1,000 consumers polled were willing to pay an additional $1 a month per channel, while 54 per cent would be willing to go $3 a month, and 21 per cent would be willing to pay $5 a month for an extra channel of their choosing. Many don’t realize under the current system the wholesale rate for many channels is under 50 cents a month. Considering what Canadians are willing to pay, it is likely cable companies will price channels according to what the marketplace will tolerate, which could be around $3 for each channel a month.

Suspicion about any cable company offering a New Deal is something Americans and Canadians have in common. Mr. Rehor is already keeping a wary eye.

“I think it’s a good idea, I just don’t know how they’re going to really work it,” he says, fearing it could ultimately end up costing the same amount he pays now.

CBC News offers this extended discussion about the implications of “pick and pay” cable television. (10:11)

Charter’s Discriminatory Internet Discount Program Unveiled for Time Warner/Bright House Customers

charter twc bhWhile planning to quietly drop Time Warner Cable’s budget-minded, unrestricted $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet package after it acquires the company, Charter Communications is celebrating a “new and improved” low-income Internet offer that will likely discriminate against current customers while protecting company profits.

Charter Communications announced this month it would start offering qualified low-income families and seniors 30/4Mbps broadband service for $14.99 a month within six months of closing its acquisition deal with Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable. Charter claims its newest program will offer the highest broadband speed of any similar low-income discount Internet plan, and will include discounts for cable television and phone service as well.

“Recognizing the central role broadband plays in our daily lives and the economic challenges faced by many Americans today, we look forward to launching this offering that will provide more consumers a superior broadband service,” said Tom Rutledge, president and CEO of Charter Communications. “Our industry-leading low-cost broadband service is just one of the many benefits these transactions will bring to our customers. We look forward to providing this superior broadband service to underserved families and seniors throughout Charter’s footprint.”

Time Warner Cable offers $14.99 to anyone without paperwork. Charter isn't.

Time Warner Cable offers $14.99 to anyone without paperwork. Charter isn’t.

But Charter’s discount Internet offer will replace Time Warner’s current $14.99 discount Internet program, available to any customer without pre-conditions or term contracts. Charter’s proposal to regulators states the company plans to replace multiple tiers of broadband service offered by Time Warner and Bright House with just two options — 60 and 100Mbps tiers that will eventually cost customers at least $60 a month — four times the cost of Time Warner’s budget-minded alternative.

Unlike Time Warner’s Everyday Low Price Internet, customers will have to qualify for the discounted program, which will discriminate against current customers, individuals and families without school age children, and senior citizens that do not receive additional assistance from the government.

fine-printAmong the most onerous restrictions, Charter plans to protects itself from revenue cannibalization by prohibiting existing broadband customers from paying less by signing up for Charter’s new discounted plan. Customers will have to voluntarily drop Bright House/Charter/Time Warner Cable Internet service for at least 60 days before they can apply for Charter’s new low-cost option.

Other requirements limit participation only to families with students participating in the National School Lunch Program or seniors age 65 or older who also receive Supplemental Security Income program benefits. In all cases, participating customers must pay off all current and any past charges still owed to Bright House, Charter, and/or Time Warner Cable before they can enroll.

Charter included in a press release announcing the program a list of organizations it claims prove “widespread support for Charter’s low-cost broadband service.” Charter did not mention most of the groups quoted have a long history supporting the telecom industry, mostly after cashing generous contribution checks from the cable and phone companies involved:

National Urban League: A notorious friend of big cable and phone companies, the Urban League is a regular supporter of telecom mergers and opposes Net Neutrality. The Urban League has compiled a poor record among civil rights groups that routinely favors corporate contributors over the need of their constituencies. Its president, Marc Morial, has attracted the attention of the Center for Public Integrity, which published an exposé about the group and its leadership in 2014.

Sharpton

Sharpton

National Action Network, an organization founded and run by Reverend Al Sharpton: Sharpton’s group no longer discloses its corporate donor list, but large telecom companies often have the support of NAN on everything from mergers and acquisitions to blocking consumer protection regulation. An entertainment company executive in California called Sharpton corporate America’s “least expensive negro” for his willingness to advocate for big cable and phone companies in return for relatively small donations to his organization. National Action Network Inc. is on Charity Navigator’s Watchlist.

League of United Latin American Citizens: Time Warner Cable is an existing Corporate Alliance member of LULAC, a group that routinely supports large telecom company mergers and acquisitions and often advocates on their behalf while accepting corporate contributions.

Connected Nation: A group Public Knowledge says is sponsored by telephone and cable companies and represents their interests.

Digital Divide Partners LLC: Two guys from the Bronx running a website with spelling and grammar issues. The site doesn’t seem to have been updated since May 2015 and only then to post a generic thank you letter from the Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

NOBEL Women: In addition to the company’s sponsorship of group functions, Bright House’s corporate vice president for government and industry affairs – Marva Johnson, was a featured participant at the group’s 2014 annual conference.

Rainbow PUSH Coalition: Jesse Jackson’s group has come under fire for favoring the corporate agendas of its donor base. Rainbow/PUSH has a long record supporting corporate telecom mergers, including SBC and Ameritech back in 1999, AT&T and Tele-Communications, Inc. in 1999, AT&T and BellSouth back in 2006, Comcast and NBCUniversal in 2011, among many, many others. The coalition, supposedly representing the interests of average Americans, has also filed comments with regulators opposing a-la-carte cable TV pricing (pay only for the channels you want) and railing against Net Neutrality.

Britain Adopting American Broadband Business Model: Less Competition, More Rate Hikes

british poundA decision by Great Britain’s broadband industry to follow America’s lead consolidating the number of competitors to “improve efficiency” and wring “cost savings” out of the business resulted in few service improvements and a much bigger bill for consumers.

A Guardian Money investigation examining British broadband pricing over the past four years found customers paying 25-30 percent more for essentially the same service they received before, with loyal customers facing the steepest rate increases.

It’s a dramatic fall for a market long recognized as one of the most competitive in the world. In 2006, TalkTalk — a major British ISP — even gave away broadband service for free in a promotion to consumers willing to cover BT’s telephone line rental charges.

But pressure from shareholders and investment bankers to deliver American-sized profits have spurred a wave of consolidation among providers in the United Kingdom, similar to the mergers of cable companies in the United States. Well known ISPs like Blueyonder, Tiscali, AOL, BE, Tesco, O2, and others in the United Kingdom have all been swallowed up by bigger rivals – often TalkTalk. As of last year, just four major competitors remain – BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin, which together hold 88% of the market. If regulators allow BT’s takeover of EE, that percentage will rise to 92%.

talktalk-logo-370x229As consumers find fewer and fewer options for broadband, they are also discovering a larger bill, fueled by runaway rate increases well in excess of inflation. While consolidated markets in the United States and Great Britain increasingly lack enough competition to temper rate increases, heavy competition on the European continent has resulted in flat or even lower prices for broadband along with significant service upgrades. British consumers now pay up to 50% more for broadband than many of their European counterparts in Germany, France, the Benelux countries, and beyond.

Also familiar to Americans, the best prices for service only go to new customers. Existing, loyal customers pay the highest prices, while those flipping between providers (or threatening to do so) get much lower “retention” or “new customer” pricing. But only those willing to fight for a better deal get one.

In October, TalkTalk, responsible for much of the consolidation wave, raised broadband prices yet again — the second major price hike this year. Customers are reeling over the rate increases, despite the fact they still seem inexpensive by American standards. Landline rental charges are increasing from $25.40 to $26.91 a month, and are a necessary prerequisite to buying Internet access from TalkTalk. Its Simply Broadband entry-level package is jumping another £2.50 a month just four months after the last rate hike. That means instead of paying an extra $7.60 a month for broadband, customers will now pay $11.40. The average British consumer now pays an average of $57.79 a month for a phone line with enhanced DSL broadband service.

btIn France, competition is forcing providers to move towards fiber optic broadband and scrap DSL service. But French consumers are not paying a premium for upgrades necessitated by competition on the ground. While British households pay close to $60 a month, a comparable package in France from Orange known as L’essentiel d’internet à la maison costs only $36.50 a month, including a TV package and unlimited calling to other landlines. But the deal gets even better if you shop around. Free, a major French competitor, offers a near-identical package for just $32.19 a month. In the United States, packages of this type can cost $130 or more if you do not receive a promotion, $99 a month if you do.

In France, providers rarely claim they need to cap Internet usage or raise prices to cover the cost of investing in their networks. That is considered the cost of doing business in a fiercely competitive marketplace, and it forces French providers to deliver good value and service for money. Providers like Patrick Drahi/Altice’s SFR-Numericable attempted to reap more profits out of its cable business by cutting costs, discontinuing most promotions and marketing, and offshoring customer support to North African call centers. At least one million customers left for better service elsewhere in 2015.

logo_freeIn Britain, there are fewer options for customers to seek a better deal, and the remaining providers know it. As a result, marketplace conditions and an increasing lack of competition have made conditions right for rate increases. BT, Sky, Virgin, and Plusnet (controlled by BT) have all taken advantage and hiked prices once again this year between 6-10%, on top of other large rises.

Ewan Taylor-Gibson, broadband expert at uSwitch.com, told the Guardian, “it’s the existing customers that have borne the brunt of the increase in landline and package costs over recent years.”

Many British consumers are afraid of disrupting their Internet access going through the process of changing providers in a search for a better deal. Some report it can take a few days to a week to process a provider change that should take minutes (because most providers rely entirely on BT’s DSL network over which they offer service). Those willing to make a change are about the only ones still getting a good deal from British providers. Customers are starting to learn that when their new customer promotion ends, asking for an extension or signing up with another company is the only way to prevent a massive bill spike that Taylor-Gibson estimates now averages 89%.

BT spent $1.36 billion dollars securing an agreement with Champions League football.

BT spent $1.36 billion dollars securing an agreement with Champions League football.

Providers with the largest increases use the same excuses as their American counterparts to defend them. BT claims a reduction in income from providing landline service is forcing it to raise prices to make up the shortfall. Critics suggest those increases are also helping BT recoup the $1.36 billion it controversially paid for the rights to carry Champions League football — money it could have invested in network upgrades instead.

The current government seems predisposed to permit the marketplace to resolve pricing on its own, either through competition among the remaining players or allowing skyrocketing prices to reach a level deemed attractive by potential new entrants into the market. The usually protective British regulator Ofcom also seems content taking a light hand to British ISPs, enforcing price disclosures as a solution to increasingly costly Internet service and making it easier for consumers to bounce between the remaining providers many think are overcharging for service.

Things could be worse. British consumers could face the marketplace duopoly or monopoly most customers in the United States and Canada live with, along with even higher prices charged for service. The Guardian surveyed telecom services across several European countries and found that, like in the UK, most customers are required to bundle a landline rental charge and broadband package together to get Internet access, but they are still paying less overall than North Americans do.

Here is what other countries pay for service:

United Kingdom: Basic BT home phone service with unlimited “up to 17Mbps” DSL broadband costs $31.12 per month, plus a monthly landline charge of $27.35 including free weekend calls. An unlimited calling plan with no dialing charges costs an extra $12 a month. Competitor TalkTalk charges $11.40 for unlimited broadband on its entry-level Simply Broadband offer, plus $26.91 for the monthly landline rental charge.

France: Many Orange customers sign up for the popular L’essentiel d’internet à la maison plan, which bundles broadband, a phone line with unlimited calling to other landlines, and a TV package available in many areas for $36.50 a month. Competitor Free.fr charges $32.19 for essentially the same package.

Germany: Deutsche Telekom offers its cheapest home phone/broadband package for $37.75 after a less expensive promotional offer expires. One of its largest competitors, 1&1, offers the same package for $33.29 a month after the teaser rate has ended.

Spain: Telefónica, Spain’s largest phone company, offers service under its Movistar brand combining an unlimited calling landline and up to 30Mbps Internet access for $46.21 a month. Its rival Tele2 offers a comparable package for a dramatically lower price: $29.11 a month.

Ireland: National telecom company Eircomis is overseeing Ireland’s telecom makeover, replacing a lot of copper phone lines with fiber optics. Basic broadband starts with 100Mbps service on the fiber network with a promotional rate of $26.82 for the first four months. After that, things get expensive under European standards. That 100Mbps service carries a regular price of $66.51 a month, deemed “hefty” by the Guardian, although cheaper that what North Americans pay cable companies for 100Mbps download speeds after their promotion ends. For that price, Irish customers also get unlimited calling to other Irish landlines and mobiles. If that is too much, rival Sky offers a basic phone and broadband deal for $32.18 with a one-year contract.

John Malone’s Involvement in Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger Deal Under Scrutiny

Malone

Malone

The cable magnate Sen. Albert Gore, Jr., (D-Tenn.) once called the Darth Vader of the cable industry is under enhanced scrutiny by federal regulators reviewing the Charter Communications-Time Warner Cable merger deal.

Dr. John Malone holds a 26 percent ownership in Charter, making him the largest shareholder by far, seconded by Warren Buffett, who holds less than an eight percent stake in the cable operator.

Many cable subscribers over 40 have done business before with a Malone-held cable firm, most likely Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), which operated from the 1970s until Malone sold it to AT&T in 1999 for close to $60 billion. In turn, AT&T sold the majority of its cable holdings to Comcast just a few years later.

Malone’s reputation for hiking rates and controlling the programming running on his cable systems is legendary. At one point, TCI held an ownership interest in most major cable networks carried on its cable systems. Cable networks that failed to secure carriage agreements with TCI were at a substantial disadvantage because TCI at its height was the nation’s largest cable provider.

charter twc bhSince Malone sold TCI, the multi-billionaire has built a significant cable empire in Europe and is today the largest private landowner in the United States. In the U.S., he is best known as the current owner of SiriusXM satellite radio. The two satellite companies merged with an agreement not to raise rates for a few years. As soon as that agreement expired, Malone’s combined Sirius/XM operation began a series of rate hikes and maintain a satellite radio monopoly in the U.S.

Malone’s other media interests include ownership stakes in Viacom Inc., Time Warner (Entertainment) Inc., concert-promoter Live Nation Entertainment Inc., and bookseller Barnes & Noble Inc. He also maintains significant ownership interests in Discovery Networks and Starz. Many of these companies negotiate directly with Charter and its competitors.

With ownership stakes in important programming, Malone could influence the sale of programming on more favorable terms to Charter with discounts unavailable to other cable companies and competitors including AT&T, Verizon, and satellite TV providers.

The FCC is particularly concerned whether Malone can exert influence over programmers that could result in anticompetitive activity, particularly in the emerging world of online video competition. In a lengthy 20-page questionnaire, the FCC wants specifics about Malone’s involvement in Charter, all the way down to requesting copies of board meeting minutes:

Describe in detail John Malone’s ownership, control (whether de jure, de facto or negative), or management of Charter, Time Warner Cable, DIRECTV, Liberty Media, Liberty Broadband, Liberty Interactive, Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico, Liberty Global, Liberty Ventures Group, Discovery Communications, Starz, New Charter and any other MVPDs and programmers not listed herein for which he owns an interest. For each entity in which John Malone manages, controls, or has an ownership interest, please describe: (1) the nature and extent of the ownership interest and all board representation, management rights, voting rights, veto rights, or veto power; and (ii) all effects that the proposed Transaction, if consummated, would have on the interests described in response to (i).

Cablevision’s Next Owner Drove Away One Million Customers in Europe; Profits Come First

The French press continues to ridicule Patrick Drahi's debt-laden acquisitions as "Altice in Wonderland." (Cartoon: Les Echos)

The French press continues to ridicule Patrick Drahi’s debt-laden acquisitions as “Altice in Wonderland.” (Cartoon: Les Echos)

The next owner of Cablevision and Suddenlink put profits ahead of people and managed to drive away more than one million of his own customers in Europe within a year of a massive cost-cutting operation that led to service degradation and noncompetitive prices.

Patrick Drahi’s Altice NV has similar plans in store for both American cable companies if he manages to win regulator approval of the acquisitions.

The Wall Street Journal reports Altice was willing to sacrifice market share if it meant the company could extract cost-savings and higher profits that Drahi could use to help pay off some of his acquisition loans.

Some Wall Street analysts were initially excited to hear Drahi would slash salaries, knock union heads, and eviscerate at least $900 million in costs annually from Cablevision, results likely to boost Cablevision’s share price and fatten investor returns.

The cost-cutting formula is always the same in an Altice takeover. Special teams arrive from Europe within days of a deal closing with strict instructions to cut employees, reduce the salaries of those remaining, and brutally cut costs out of the business. Drahi is famous in Europe for stopping payment on checks to suppliers, leaving them unpaid until they agreed to offer his company discounts up to 40%. Employees also share stories of having to pay for office supplies out-of-pocket and in at least one case, staffed a wireless store that carried no phones in inventory because Drahi stiffed his supplier.

Drahi

Drahi

The bad news for Wall Street? Customers of Drahi’s cable and wireless companies are fleeing in droves. At least 1.1 million of Altice’s French customers have taken their business elsewhere, fed up with deteriorating service and uncompetitive prices.

One manager lamented that as Altice-owned Numericable-SFR’s wireless network deteriorated to the point of regularly dropping calls, Drahi borrowed nearly $2 billion he set aside in preparation for further acquisitions.

“Debt is Drahi’s drug,” commented French news site LeJDD.

Drahi leverages his buyouts with loans covering up to 80% of the purchase price. Eerily similar to toxic sub-prime mortgage debt, investment banks consider holding too much of Drahi’s debt potentially poisonous, so they routinely repackage it with other loans and resell it to other financial institutions and unknown investors. That has some in the French government concerned Drahi is building the world’s first “too big to fail” telecom company, while leaving investors in the dark about the risks of holding his loans.

The lessons learned watching Drahi manage one of France’s largest wireless operators may concern U.S. regulators contemplating Drahi’s buyout offers of Cablevision and Suddenlink.

numericable_sfr_logoIn the first quarter under Drahi, SFR boosted margins by 21% based on ruthless cost cutting. But a stunning 445,000 customers quickly left the operator. Critics contend Drahi’s cost cutting does temporarily boost profits, but also allows network quality to degrade, eventually alienating customers who leave. Drahi then uses SFR’s smaller customer base as an excuse for further cost-cutting. Between 2006-2011, Drahi eliminated half of the wireless provider’s workforce and outsourced much of his call center customer support operations.

Those still working at Altice companies after the cost-cutters depart are left in a state of siege.

Optimum-Branding-Spot-New-Logo“He’s a beast,” one employee told LeJDD in a piece that compared working for SFR with being in hell. All expenses are scrutinized, company-paid travel is canceled, team exercises and company meals are dropped, and for vendors and suppliers things are even worse. All projects are frozen and all outstanding invoice payments are stopped, reviewed one-by-one. Drahi’s goal is to find 600 million euros annually in savings to repay the €13 billion he borrowed to acquire SFR in 2014.

Employees, even those represented by France’s powerful trade unions, are scared into silence, reports LeJDD.

“Be happy you have a job,” is the standard response one trade unionist routinely receives from what is left of SFR’s management. Drahi doesn’t spare management below him either. Within weeks of Altice’s takeover, the flown-in French cost cutters immediately terminated 55 of the 70 SFR managers earning more than 150,000 euros per year. At least 100 middle managers were also quickly shown the door. IT and networking positions are also deemed ‘bloated’ and a reorganization quickly whittled employees down to a token force. The marketing department? Abandoned. Also dismantled was SFR’s team of innovators, working on next generation network upgrades and technology.

SuddenlinkLogoCall centers that handle customer service requests were “on the verge of suffocation,” reported LeJDD. One small call center operator had to send his attorney to SFR’s offices to threaten them over an outstanding bill of one million euros. Drahi demanded an immediate 35% discount if the attorney wanted to leave with a check in hand.

Cable customers share their own anecdotal stories, including one forced to acquire and supply his own cable to complete an installation because the technician had run out. Another reported a tardy cable installer humbly apologized, claiming he was forced to pay out-of-pocket for fuel to get his stalled cable truck back on the road again.

The horror stories from Europe are making an impact in New York’s financial markets, along with Altice’s improbable formula of profiting from alienating customers. After 18 months of unbridled growth and 47 billion euros in loans to finance multiple acquisitions, Wall Street is getting worried. Altice has lost 50% of its value in just six months and Moody’s has now rated Altice’s debt as “highly speculative,” the last step on the basement stairs right before “default.”

“Drahi carries too much debt,” said the head of a French investment fund. “He and his team have lost all sense of reality.”

competitionLeJDD put it more colorfully: “The ogre was too greedy.”

To placate investors, Drahi is planning to slow future acquisitions, something he may not have had much say in. Bankers forced Drahi to accept considerably higher interest rates to finance his American cable company buyouts.

Numericable-SFR’s long-dead marketing department is also being revived, offering discounts and marketing the service more aggressively to stem customer defections. But the company’s increasingly poor reputation is making that a hard sell in Europe, where fierce competition among multiple providers has fueled a long-lasting price war.

Altice officials point to the fact their severe cost-cutting strategy may have faced greater challenges in Europe, where competition is always a speed bump to high profits. But company officials privately stress their ‘profits first’ formula stands a better chance of success in America, where customers don’t have a lot of choice. Competition is less risky for Suddenlink than it is for Cablevision. Altice promises to wring $215 million annually in savings out of the largely rural and small city provider Suddenlink. But Altice’s estimate of $900 million in savings from Cablevision, which faces formidable competition from Verizon FiOS, seems much less realistic, according to Wall Street analysts.

MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett said Altice was taking cuts to an extreme.

“You’re talking about huge cuts to customer service levels to installation and maintenance costs to marketing and promotions,” Moffett told Reuters. “You can’t expect to be able to make dramatic cuts… without having an impact on the business.”

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