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American Cable Association Wants Ban on TV Blackouts During Disasters

Phillip Dampier October 3, 2017 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Polka

The nation’s trade association for independent cable companies wants the FCC to prohibit broadcasters from blacking out TV stations during disasters and local emergencies.

The American Cable Association applauded the FCC’s intervention in the recent retransmission consent dispute between Dish Networks and Lilly Broadcasting, which resulted in the satellite provider losing access to a Caribbean-focused station for viewers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“The commission should find it intolerable for a broadcaster seeking to leverage higher retransmission consent fees to block viewers in a state of emergency from accessing critical, and potentially life‐saving, information,” wrote ACA president Matthew Polka. “It is no answer in such a situation for the broadcaster to suggest that viewers should switch providers or install antennas in order to access this information.”

ACA members, often small cable companies providing service in rural areas, also face station blackouts during tough contract renegotiation talks at a time when many stations are asking for unprecedented rate increases — sometimes 100% or more — in return for a carriage renewal agreement. Some stations have used whatever leverage they can find to pressure cable operators to agree to their terms, without disclosing to viewers just how much some stations are asking to renew those contracts. Most cable operators have passed those fees on to subscribers, which can easily add $5-7 a month to a cable television bill just for three or four local stations.

Lilly’s decision to blackout its One Caribbean TV channel left English-speaking viewers in Puerto Rico without an important news source. Most broadcast outlets on that island broadcast for the much larger Spanish-speaking population. The station was quickly returned to Dish’s lineup after it became a political issue.

Polka wants to make sure a similar situation does not happen in the future, so he’s asked the FCC to consider adding a requirement to the FCC’s “good faith” rules that govern acceptable behavior during retransmission consent negotiations forbidding stations from pulling their signal anywhere the FCC has activated its Disaster Information Reporting System, and to guarantee those signals will remain accessible for the duration of the event.

“We urge the commission to propose and seek comment on such a rule change as soon as possible in order to avoid consumer harm in future emergencies,” Polka told the FCC.

Charter’s SpectrumU on Campus Gets Little Interest from Students

Phillip Dampier September 25, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

Charter Communications has been quietly testing a streaming video lineup of services on selected college campuses in its service area — so quiet very few students know or care about the service.

In Rochester, N.Y., Charter this year introduced SpectrumU at two suburban colleges – St. John Fisher and Nazareth College. The 50+ channel service at St. John Fisher includes five local network stations, but not the low-powered MyNetworkTV or secondary CW affiliate that are found on the traditional local cable lineup. According to Nazareth’s channel list, SpectrumU at the college comes from Spectrum Enterprise’s Fiber Connect service and lists six network affiliates on the lineup imported from Buffalo, a city 70 miles away. The service is accessible around each campus on the schools’ Wi-Fi networks.

Charter wants participating colleges to set aside a 1Gbps connection to manage Wi-Fi streaming for every 5,000 students on campus. Stop the Cap! found anecdotal evidence Charter may be dramatically overestimating how many students actually use the service. A recent visit to both campuses and guest participation in online college forums found almost zero interest in SpectrumU at either college. Students, it seems, have mostly moved on from linear, live television and do much of their viewing on-demand from other streaming services and apps.

Charter Communications kept publicity and expectations low for the service, setting the monthly subscription price for SpectrumU at $0.00. No password or authentication is required to use the service, and logging into the campus network is simple at schools like Nazareth, where the Wi-Fi password GoldenFlyers was easy to come by on and off campus. While driving around, we could easily access SpectrumU from Wi-Fi on streets surrounding St. John Fisher, although Nazareth’s wireless network was tougher to reach on a tree-lined campus set further back from the main road.

Television services at St. John Fisher College, located near Rochester, N.Y.

Charter dictates the terms and availability of the service, which requires participating schools to subscribe to Charter Spectrum’s Enterprise Fiber Connect service, which supports campus internet and video services. Schools must offer:

  • Charter Clear QAM or fiber video services
  • Charter fiber internet services (preferred)
  • 1Gbps dedicated bandwidth per 5,000 students (~500 concurrent users) recommended
  • Wi-Fi network utilizes WPA or WPA2 encryption
  • Public IP addresses/ranges for whitelisting
  • PAT IPs are supported
  • IP requirements: IPv4: /24 – IPv6: /48
  • AP’s consistent with current fifth generation Wi-Fi technology, 802.11ac (no older than fourth generation 802.11n)

SpectrumU is designed to work exclusively over Wi-Fi, and only with portable smartphones and tablets:

  • iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch running iOS 8 or above
  • All major Android smartphones and tablets running Android 4.2 or above
  • Kindle Fire Phone, all Kindle Fire models except for the 1st generation model

There is no support for streaming set-top boxes like Roku or Apple TV and SpectrumU works differently from the QAM cable TV service available in many dorm rooms. Casting isn’t supported either. The Android version of the app only attracted 69 mixed reviews as of the date of this article.

Charter seems convinced SpectrumU will soon replace traditional internet video streaming, telling campus managers that the service will have “minimal impact if the school’s internet service is robust today, as SpectrumU usage will replace usage of other streaming apps.”

Students doubt it.

“I have never heard of SpectrumU and don’t care,” said Cody, a student we ran into in the parking lot at Nazareth. “I have Amazon Prime and Netflix and I’m good with that.”

Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., are also an early adopter of SpectrumU.

Zephyr, a freshman at St. John Fisher who lives on campus said she doesn’t know anything about the service either, although a roommate in her friend’s dorm room brought their QAM-equipped television to school and can watch the campus TV lineup on it.

“Her boyfriend is a Buffalo Bills fan so he watches the games on her TV, but we really don’t watch it ourselves,” she told us. “Everyone has their own phone or tablet and most people are sharing  passwords from home to watch HBO, Hulu, or Amazon stuff.”

Dylan’s password trading brings him access to Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, CBS, and Sling TV. Even with SpectrumU available for free with no password required, he doesn’t care, preferring to watch on-demand content on his tablet or the PlayStation he brought to school.

“I don’t know anyone who watches Spectrum TV and their company sucks anyway,” said Dylan. “I hate ads and I pretty much only binge watch stuff now, so this is useless for me.”

A few students told us they did bring televisions to campus to watch live television, but many just use an antenna. Nazareth and St. John Fisher are only a short distance from Pinnacle Hill, the location for most Rochester television transmitters, and reception is easy.

“Televisions are what our parents watch,” Serena at Nazareth told us. “I don’t know anyone my age with cable.”

Stop the Cap! tested the Android version of the app at both colleges. It reminds us of Spectrum’s streaming TV app, only less capable. The app does not support DVR-type recording, pause and rewind, or on-demand services — things college students would probably look for the most. We experienced occasional buffering watching CNN in a parking lot, but note Wi-Fi signal strength was not ideal. We also found, despite warnings in student handbooks, a number of student-run hotspots and wireless access points. At one dorm at St. John Fisher, we found over 60 Wi-Fi signals competing with the college’s own wireless network.

Cable companies believe by offering cable services to college students, they will get hooked on those services and subscribe after they leave college. But evidence suggests those under 30 are increasingly unlikely to pay for a cable television subscription and are dubbed “cable-nevers” for having no interest in subscription television. They are, however, avid users of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.

Mediacom Touts Gig Speeds But Also Acknowledges Low Scores

While Mediacom introduces gigabit speeds to a growing number of their customers, it also acknowledges it has one of the worst customer satisfaction scores of any cable company in the country.

Company officials were in the Quad-Cities of northwest Illinois and southeastern Iowa to speak about 1,000Mbps service introduced earlier this year for its 92,000 customers in the area, according to an article in the Dispatch-Argus.

“No where else in the country has this much broadband capability,” said Phyllis Peters, director of communications for the north central division of Mediacom. “You can live in Port Byron or Ottawa or down the road in Marion or Carbondale, and you’re using the same amount of bandwidth. You have just as much demand and need for bandwidth as if you were living in Austin, Texas.”

To support the expansion, the company added nearly 30 miles of additional fiber capacity to support the faster internet speeds. But so far, fewer than 250 customers in the area have upgraded to gigabit speeds. Most seem content with paying less for slower speeds, but that does not mean customers are not using their internet connections.

“We’ve been looking at an internet business that has been growing,” said J.R. Walden, senior vice president of technology and chief technology officer for Mediacom. “The bandwidth is growing at as much as 65 percent a year for close to 20 years. It means we have to double the size of the network every 18 months.”

Walden

Walden claims that once gigabit speed is embraced by a larger number of their customers, they will contemplate another upgrade to 10Gbps speeds.

Along with faster wired internet, Mediacom has also been installing Wi-Fi hotspots for its customers. XStream Wi-Fi is available to non-customers for a 30-minute trial or unlimited use during certain special events. Mediacom’s broadband customers get free unlimited access by logging in with their Mediacom username and password.

The cable company has 249 Wi-Fi hotspots in Moline, Rock Island, East Moline, Silvis, Davenport and Bettendorf, mostly in business districts or around event venues. Mediacom customers can also use their credentials to access Wi-Fi from other nearby cable operator-operated hotspots, notably those belonging to Comcast, which dominates in Illinois.

The cable company has also been promoting its internet program for the income-challenged. Connect2Compete is a $9.95-a-month internet service for families with at least one student in kindergarten through 12th grade who qualifies for the federal school lunch program. But like most cable companies, Mediacom’s first interest is to protect its own revenue, so it excludes current customers from enrolling if they already scrape enough money together to pay for regular broadband service or who have a past-due balance or unreturned equipment from an old disconnected account.

The American Consumer Satisfaction Index rates Mediacom dead last in 2017.

That is one of the many reasons Mediacom’s customers dislike the company. It perennially scores dead last among all the nation’s cable operators in Consumer Reports’ annual surveys. The Better Business Bureau has also documented multiple bad reviews and KWQC-TV in Moline reports Mediacom’s internet service is notorious for its repeated outages:

JoEllen Seibel said she’s used the company for internet for the last 8 years and has had little to no connection for the last four months.

“It’s all day long, all day long we get no reception.”

Seibel said technicians have come to her house multiple times to fix the problem but is still without service.

“It makes me frustrated if something is really going on on their end that’s what they need to tell their customers or something instead of just sending someone out.”

Nathan, another Mediacom customer, complained to the Better Business Bureau his internet service is completely unreliable.

“As much as I was excited about our internet speeds, they are never persistent. Internet goes out at least ten times a day,” he told the BBB.

Glendon adds Mediacom advertises fast internet speeds it cannot reliably provide its customers.

“I subscribe to 150/30Mbps internet. I rarely get 150 down, usually 50-60, and during peak [usage periods], [speeds drop] into the teens,” he complains, noting things have not improved despite multiple technician visits and a manager’s intervention.

“Very incompetent company that doesn’t seem to care if they’re billing you for a service they can’t provide,” is Glendon’s conclusion.

“We’re not unaware that some of the customer satisfaction scores put out by third-party organizations have had us on the lower end and we think we can do better and to some extent deserve a better score and we’ve been working on that,” Walden told the TV station.

Cox Introducing $50 Option to Waive Data Caps: The ‘Freedom from Extortion Plan’

As Cox Communications continues to expand its arbitrary data cap program on its broadband customers, the company has announced a ‘cap relief’ option for customers willing to pay $50 more for the same service they enjoyed last year without a data cap.

Company insiders tell DSL Reports Cox will introduce a new $50 option to avoid the data caps and overlimit fees the company began imposing in 2015 starting in its Cleveland, Ohio service area.

On Wednesday, Cox is expected to introduce two add-on options to help avoid the bill shock likely if customers exceed 1TB of usage per month and face the $10 overlimit fee for each 50GB of data consumed:

  • $30 a month for 500GB of extra data;
  • $50 a month to avoid data caps altogether and get back unlimited service.

Cox customers in Cleveland were unimpressed with Cox’s data caps when they were introduced in 2015.

These fees are in addition to whatever Cox customers currently pay for broadband service.

“An overwhelming majority of data is consumed by a very small percentage of internet users,” a memo to employees documenting the changes reads. “The new choices are great options for the small percentage of heavy users who routinely use 1TB+ per month and prefer a flat monthly rate, rather than purchasing additional data blocks. In Cox markets with usage-based billing, the less than two percent of customers who exceed the amount of data included in their plan still have the option of paying $10 for each additional 50GB of data when they need it.”

Such claims raise the same questions Stop the Cap! has always asked since we began fighting data caps in 2008:

If data caps only impact <2% of customers, why impose them at all?

Is the actual revenue earned from overlimit fees worth the expense of introducing usage measurement tools, billing system changes, and the cost of customer dissatisfaction at the prospect of an unexpectedly high bill?

What technical reasons did Cox choose 1TB as its arbitrary usage allowance other than the fact Comcast and other operators chose this level first?

Time Warner Cable executives privately admitted in internal company documents obtained by the New York Attorney General’s office that internet traffic costs represent little more than “a rounding error” in expenses for cable companies. But for most consumers, $30-50 to buy a bigger data allowance is hardly that.

In short, the “solution” Cox has decided on this week comes in response to a problem the company itself created — imposing arbitrary, unwanted data caps and overlimit fees on a product that is already intensely profitable at the prices Cox has charged for years. This internet overcharging scheme is just another way to gouge captive customers that will likely have only one alternative — the phone company and its various flavors of DSL or a U-verse product that cannot compete on speed unless you are lucky enough to live in a fiber-to-the-home service area.

Canadian Telecom Cos. Raid Montreal Software Developer’s Home, Interrogate Him for 9 Hours

6A group of five men representing Bell, Rogers, and Vidéotron burst into the private home of a Montreal man at 8 a.m. on June 12 without notice and interrogated him for nine hours about his involvement in a search engine that helps Canadian viewers circumvent geographic restrictions on online TV shows and movies.

The lawyer representing Canadian telephone company Bell and two of the country’s largest cable companies — Rogers and Vidéotron, was backed by a bailiff and independent counsel who informed Montreal software developer Adam Lackman, founder of TVAddons and a current defendant in a copyright infringement lawsuit filed by the telecom companies, that he was “not permitted to refuse to answer questions” posed by the companies under threat of additional criminal and civil penalties.

Lackman was instructed he had one hour to locate an attorney, but was forbidden to use any electronic or telecommunications device to contact one. He was also not allowed to leave the designated room in his home where he was held unless accompanied by a corporate lawyer or court official. The men also warned Lackman’s attorney he could not counsel Lackman on his answers to their questions and had to remain silent.

“I had to sit there and not leave their sight. I was denied access to medication,” Lackman told TorrentFreak. “I had a doctor’s appointment I was forced to miss. I wasn’t even allowed to call and cancel.”

Lackman was eventually placed in a room in his home and interrogated almost continuously for nine hours, but was given a brief break for dinner and time to finally talk privately with his attorney. By the time the bailiff, two computer technicians, the independent counsel and the corporate attorney left, it was 16 hours later and after midnight. The men left with Lackman’s personal computer and phone, along with a full list of usernames and passwords to access his email and social media accounts.

“The whole experience was horrifying,” Lackman told CBC News. “It felt like the kind of thing you would have expected to have happened in the Soviet Union.”

Lackman

The telecom giants gained access to Lackman’s home with the use of a Anton Piller order, a type of civil search warrant that gives private individuals and companies acting as plaintiffs in a lawsuit full access to a defendant’s home with no warning. The order was designed to allow searches and seizure of relevant evidence at high risk of being destroyed by a defendant.

The Canadian companies were upset because of Lackman’s involvement in Kodi, an open source home theater platform that allows viewers to access stored and online streaming media. Lackman produces apps, known as add-ons, that help Kodi users access live TV streams and recorded content. Unfortunately, that sometimes occurs in contravention of geographic and copyright restrictions imposed by the Canadian companies on Canadian viewers. As a result, several large telecom companies filed suit against Lackman for copyright infringement.

“Approximately 40 million unique users located around the world are actively using infringing add-ons hosted by TVAddons every month, and approximately 900,000 Canadian households use infringing add-ons to access television content,” claims the lawsuit. “The amount of users of infringing add-ons hosted TVAddons is constantly increasing.”

The Honourable B. Richard Bell (Image: Keith Minchin)

On June 9, a Canadian Federal Court judge handed the telecom companies a victory in the form of an interim injunction and restraining order against Lackman prohibiting him from engaging in any activity that could further violate the companies’ interpretation of copyright law. The ruling also included an Anton Piller order, which critics contend often allows private companies to engage in extended fishing expeditions looking for additional evidence to further their case.

The order included the right to seize any and all data surrounding the alleged offense, including equipment, paper records, bank accounts, and anything else in Lackman’s possession that plaintiffs could argue was connected to the lawsuit. It also permitted a bailiff and computer forensics experts to assume control of many of Lackman’s internet domains including TVAddons.ag and Offshoregit.com, as well as his social media and web hosting accounts for a period of two weeks. Since the case was handled ex parte (open to only one side) by the Federal Court, Lackman was not informed or given the opportunity to present a defense.

The ruling evidently allowed the companies to believe they had carte blanche to question Lackman.

When the corporate attorney was not grilling Lackman about his own involvement in Kodi add-ons, he demanded Lackman disclose any and all information he had on an additional 30 individuals that might also be involved in services like TVAddons. That demand fell squarely outside of the range of the court order, which is designed to protect existing evidence, not permit plaintiffs to fish for new evidence to bolster their case.

After the search ended, Lackman and his attorney went to court to challenge what they believed to be one of the most shocking instances of corporate intimidation and legal abuse ever seen in a copyright case. Lackman’s attorney had little trouble convincing the Honourable B. Richard Bell, who presided over a Federal Court hearing on the matter.

Bell found multiple egregious violations of the court order, including a limit on any search to between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. but instead lasted until at least midnight. The judge also found ample evidence Lackman’s rights were violated and he was subjected to an intimidation campaign designed to destroy his software business, leave him financially unable to mount any defense against the lawsuit, and get him to both incriminate himself and others against his will.

A court transcript reveals the real motives of Canadian telecom companies: to “neutralize the guy” that is hurting their businesses.

“It is important to note that the Defendant was not permitted to refuse to answer questions under fear of contempt proceedings, and his counsel was not permitted to clarify the answers to questions. I conclude unhesitatingly that the Defendant was subjected to an examination for discovery without any of the protections normally afforded to litigants in such circumstances,” the judge said. “Here, I would add that the ‘questions’ were not really questions at all. They took the form of orders or directions. For example, the Defendant was told to ‘provide to the bailiff’ or ‘disclose to the Plaintiffs’ solicitors’.”

Bell also saw through the plaintiffs’ questioning of Lackman about 30 other individuals that might also be allegedly involved in copyright infringement.

Lose in one venue, win in another.

“I conclude that those questions, posed by Plaintiffs’ counsel, were solely made in furtherance of their investigation and constituted a hunt for further evidence, as opposed to the preservation of then existing evidence,” he wrote in a June 29 order. “I am of the view that [the order’s] true purpose was to destroy the livelihood of the Defendant, deny him the financial resources to finance a defense to the claim made against him, and to provide an opportunity for discovery of the Defendant in circumstances where none of the procedural safeguards of our civil justice system could be engaged.”

The judge ruled the Anton Piller order be declared null and void and ordered all of Lackman’s possessions to be returned to him.

To all observers, it was a withering repudiation of the tactics used by the Canadian telecom companies suing Lackman. But deep pockets always allow lawyers the luxury of a change of venue and the telecom companies promptly appealed Bell’s ruling to the Federal Court of Appeal, requesting a stay of execution of Judge Bell’s order. The court granted the appeal on behalf of the telecom companies and allowed the plaintiffs to keep possession of all seized items, domains, and social media accounts until a full appeal of the case can be heard this fall. However, the court found defects in the execution of the Anton Piller order, and ordered the telecom companies to post a security bond of $140,000 CDN and continue the $50,000 CDN bond in case sanctions are later warranted.

Lackman intends to continue his legal fight and is raising money to cover legal expenses on the fundraising site Indiegogo. He has also set up a new TVAddons website and Twitter account and has resumed the add-on development that got him embroiled in the copyright infringement lawsuit in the first place. But Lackman seems to have at least one judge on his side.

“The defendant has demonstrated that he has an arguable case that he is not violating the [Copyright] Act,” wrote Judge Bell, adding that by the plaintiffs’ own estimate, only about one per cent of Lackman’s add-ons were allegedly used to pirate content.

Updated 8/16: The website is now back under this new URL: https://www.tvaddons.co/

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