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Frontier Runs America’s Worst Website: Dead Last in 2015 Web Experience Ratings

frontier frankFrontier Communications scored dead last in a nationwide survey of websites run by 262 companies — ranked for their usability, helpfulness, and competence.

The “2015 Web Experience Ratings,” conducted by the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm, looked at how customers feel about companies based on experiences visiting their websites. The firm wanted to know whether customers would forgive a company if its website proved less than satisfactory. The answer appears to be no, and phone and cable companies were the most likely to experience the wrath of dissatisfied customers.

“It’s ironic that many of the cable companies that provide Internet service earned such poor ratings,” Bruce Temkin, managing partner of Temkin Group, said.

Most household name cable companies did especially poor in the survey. Time Warner Cable, Comcast and CenturyLink all tied at 252nd place (out of 262 firms). But special hatred was reserved for the website run by Frontier Communications, repeatedly called “incompetent” by consumers, especially after the phone company disabled most of the website’s self-service functions in late April. A well-placed source inside Frontier told Stop the Cap! the company could not manage to get its website ordering functions working properly and simply decided to give up, forcing customers to call instead.

Only 29% of consumers were willing to forgive a telecommunications company for a lousy web experience, according to the findings. Other website disasters were run by: Cox Communications, Charter Communications, Spirit Airlines, Blue Shield of CA, and Haier.

Which websites do consumers love the most? Temkin says USAA (a bank) and Amazon.com have traded the #1 and #2 spots for the last five years.

Some Time Warner Cable Customers Get a Small Speed Boost Thanks to Overprovisioning

Phillip Dampier June 29, 2015 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Time Warner Cable 4 Comments

timewarner twcTime Warner Cable customers in parts of the northeast have noticed their broadband speeds increased slightly over the last several days.

Stop the Cap! reader Howard Goldberg was among those who noticed Time Warner’s broadband performance in upstate New York has improved, at least for upper tiers.

“Over the past 24 hours, Speedtest.net (against the TWC site in Syracuse, and many others) is reporting 60-62Mbps down and 6.0-6.2Mbps up, an increase from 55/5.5Mbps we have had over the past few years,” Goldberg notes. He is subscribed to Time Warner Cable Ultimate, marketed in upstate New York as 50/5Mbps service.

We noticed the same thing late last week here in Rochester as speed test results now consistently top 60Mbps when using a Time Warner Cable-based server. The upstream speed increase was less visible, but still measurable.

Goldberg also reports ping times have dropped from the 18-22ms range to 13-15ms when using the Syracuse, N.Y. test site, which could also point to a more responsive Internet connection overall.

Cable companies occasionally deliver speeds that are actually faster than what they sell, known as overprovisioning, to improve customer satisfaction and boost their performance in the Federal Communications Commission’s ongoing national speed test program, designed to verify if providers are actually providing the speeds they are marketing to customers.

Are Time Warner customers in other areas seeing similar results? Report your findings in the comment section.

Cable Companies Demand Satellite Providers Pay Up; Customer Bills Expected to Rise

directvTwo cable industry trade associations have asked the Federal Communications Commission to start collecting more fees from satellite television operators to cover the FCC’s regulatory expenses — a move satellite providers argue will cause consumers to suffer bill shock from increased prices.

The American Cable Association and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association have filed comments with the FCC asking the commission to impose the same regulatory fees on satellite subscribers that cable companies are likely to pay in 2015 — 95 cents a year per subscriber.

The FCC has proposed initially charging satellite operators $0.12 this year per customer, or about one cent a month. The two cable lobbying groups want that 12 cent fee doubled to 24 cents and then raised an additional 24 cents each year until it reaches parity with what cable companies pay.

dish logo“The FCC is off to a good start by declaring that Dish and DirecTV should pay regulatory fees to support the work of the agency’s Media Bureau for the first time and proposing setting the initial per subscriber fee at one cent per month in 2015,” said Matthew Polka, president and CEO of the ACA. “But given the FCC proposes that cable operators pay nearly 8 cents per month, per customer, it must do more, including requiring these two multibillion dollar companies with national reach to shoulder more of the fee burden next year that is now disproportionately borne by smaller, locally based cable operators.”

The satellite industry has filed their own comments with the FCC objecting to any significant fee increases, claiming it will cause consumers to experience bill shock and that satellite companies pose less of a regulatory burden on the FCC in comparison to cable operators.

The ACA counters that even if the satellite companies were required to pay the full 95 cents this year — the same rate small independent cable operators pay — it would add a trivial $0.08 a month to customer bills — less than a 0.4% increase on the lowest priced introductory offer sold by satellite providers.

fccThe ACA reminded the FCC it did not seem too concerned about rate shock when it imposed a 99 cent fee on IPTV providers like AT&T U-verse in 2014 without a phase-in.

DirecTV and Dish argue the FCC has jurisdiction over cable’s television, phone and Internet packages — a more complex assortment of services. Satellite providers currently only sell television service, so charging the same fee cable companies pay would be disproportionate and unfair, both claim.

Despite the sudden introduction of the IPTV fee last year, AT&T managed to use the opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade.

AT&T added a “Regulatory Video Cost Recovery Charge” on customers’ bills after the FCC assessed a 99 cent fee on IPTV services like U-verse in 2014. But AT&T charged nearly three times more than what it actually owed. U-verse customers were billed $0.24 a month/$2.88 in 2014 for “regulatory fee cost recovery.” But AT&T only paid the FCC $0.99 for each of its 5.7 million customers. It kept the remaining $1.89 for itself, amounting to $10,773,000 in excess profit.

This year the FCC expects to collect $0.95 from each U-verse subscriber, a four cent decline.

CBS’ Idea of Choice: $5.99/Mo for CBS Library and Live Local CBS Station Streaming

broken bankThink you are already paying too much for cable television? If you thought Comcast charges too much, consider what CBS thinks is fair to charge for an on-demand library of CBS shows and a single live stream of your local CBS station – $5.99 a month.

Retransmission consent disputes are all about the money. As your local provider fights with a local station or cable network over their latest demand for more money, channels get dropped, providers get blamed and the content owners get richer when networks are restored.

One of the richest of all is CBS, which has told investors it plans to empty $2 billion from the pockets of American cable customers by the year 2020, up from $500 million in 2013. Not only will CBS demand new programming fees from its affiliates, it is also cajoling stations to demand not less than $1.75 a month from every cable subscriber for access to the local CBS over the air station.

Each time a retransmission consent contract comes up for renewal, cable operators know as certain as the sun will rise from the east that programmers will demand a healthy rate increase for the next contract period. That is why many cable companies now look to broadband for much of their future profits, because the TV business is getting very expensive when everyone has their hand out looking for more.

Some cable companies want an end to being stuck in the middle of these disputes and are supporting a plan to compel programmers like CBS, ESPN, TNT, HBO, and all the rest to publish a retail rate for their channel or network and let consumers decide whether it is worth the asking price.

cable-inflation-comparison

A proposal introduced last year called “Local Choice” would start the process with local television stations, which have demanded ever-higher carriage fees over the last 10 years, especially for network-affiliated stations.

Under the concept, customers would be given a choice of local stations by their provider. Theoretically, a customer could subscribe to CBS and ABC and tell NBC (and its local affiliate) to take a hike if they demanded too much. Another might be happy just paying for FOX and grab the rabbit ears for anything else they wanted to watch over the air for free.

Rockefeller

Rockefeller

No local station or network would voluntarily say goodbye to the golden goose that lays compulsory retransmission consent fees programmers currently collect from every cable subscriber, so last summer Congress proposed to mandate the concept in a clause of the Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act (STAVRA).

Then Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) and Ranking Member John Thune (R-S.D.) beat the bipartisan drum loudly for change. But lobbyists also had drums. Rockefeller and Thune began wavering almost immediately.

“During the last month, Chairman Rockefeller and Ranking Member Thune have successfully begun a discussion on Local Choice, which would empower TV viewers, maintain our policy of broadcast localism, and ensure TV stations get fairly compensated for the retransmission of their signals,” read a joint statement issued last September. “Because it is a big and bold idea, Local Choice deserves more discussion and a full consideration by policymakers, and the committee may not have time to include it as part of STAVRA. Rockefeller and Thune are focused on passing STAVRA next week, and continuing to work with their colleagues on Local Choice.”

After the sudden insertion of Local Choice into a satellite television bill, an orange glow filled the night sky at 1771 N Street in Washington. It was Gordon Brown’s hair on fire. Brown is president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the very powerful lobby representing television stations and networks. But that night, he sounded exactly like a cable guy.

“NAB opposes this proposal because it eliminates the basic [cable] tier upon which millions rely for access to lifeline information,” Brown responded in a statement. “It proposes a broadcast a-la-carte scheme that will lead to higher prices and less program diversity. Furthermore, STAVRA appears to confer unfettered and unprecedented authority for government intervention into private marketplace negotiations.”

8679-2_NAB_logos_csThe cable industry has fought its own battle against a-la-carte on exactly the same ground Brown was now occupying.

Rockefeller later claimed he was only poking the Broadcast TV Bear to provoke a response, and he got one. The idea of Local Choice was stripped out of the bill by the fall. Rockefeller was reduced to saving face.

“What we wanted to do was introduce those ideas,” Rockefeller later told The Hill. “We made it sound like it was the focus of the bill, and K Street just went crazy, which is always good. But we knew that we’d have to take it out.”

Yes they did, after the NAB and their allies launched a major PR campaign against Local Choice, attracting over 130,000 comments against the plan.

Polka

Polka

But Rockefeller knew the idea was not going away.

“As people get a taste of being able to say ‘I only watch 10 channels so I should only pay for 10 channels,’ they’re going to love that. It’s going to spread like wildfire,” Rockefeller said.

Fast forward to this spring and it was back to business as usual. Retransmission consent disputes yanked several networks and stations off cable systems, providers mailed their annual rate increase notices, and the cable industry’s popularity and reputation with customers now rivaled ISIS.

Much of the collateral damage (apart from the collective emptying of your wallet) continues to be felt by America’s smallest cable operators that cannot negotiate for what passes as fair and reasonable programming rates from networks like ESPN and CBS. They cannot qualify for volume discounts that are so compelling, it drove AT&T (U-verse TV) into the arms of DirecTV just to get enough subscribers to knock a few more cents off the monthly price of regional sports channels. Only the biggest players in the game have the power and get the savings.

Matthew Polka, president of the American Cable Association (ACA), the other cable trade association representing the interests of small, often family owned cable systems, may not have the most power but he could have the strongest argument against the status quo. While the National Association of Broadcasters spent tens of thousands of dollars arguing today’s retransmission consent system works just fine, some of America’s smaller TV stations apparently didn’t read the NAB’s talking points.

GotchaThe “TV Station Group,” an informal collective of small market TV stations seeking a renewal of their carriage contract with DirecTV has been stonewalled by DirecTV for months. Last week, the station owners filed a complaint with the FCC asking them to stop or block AT&T’s merger with DirecTV until the satellite provider agreed to negotiate in good faith. It was clear from their filing DirecTV’s idea of negotiation is to send ‘take it or leave it’ nastygrams to the TV stations, serving markets like Spokane, Wash., and Yuma, Ariz. The only thing clear from the back and forth is that DirecTV has no doubt it can squash the stations like little bugs:

[W]e will not fall victim to your silly and obvious tactics to try to audit our retrans deals so you can see them all. We did not ask you to send to us your supposed rates, and your unilateral decision to do so doesn’t give you the right to see our other deals. But trust [us], no other station group – especially small groups such as Northwest – are paid by DIRECTV nearly what you have proposed, let alone what your sheet says.

A few weeks later, in response to another request from the broadcasters, DirecTV scolded them like a misbehaving teenager:

To repeat yet again, DIRECTV is not going to get pulled into your transparent trap to define what is ‘market’ by seeing our other deals. That is a precedent we will not set, including for NW. Please do not ask again.

“Judging from the TV stations’ complaint, it is evident that the retransmission consent market is broken and not working for these broadcasters any better than for cable operators,” Polka wrote in a press release issued today. “The time has come for these TV stations and others that have also filed good faith complaints to step out from NAB’s long shadow and join ACA in supporting efforts to update the rules and equip them with a strong referee that can help protect consumers and competition when negotiations break down.”

Polka continues to advocate letting customers decide whether they want to pay for local stations and cable networks. He argues CBS is already doing that today with its All Access program for broadband customers. In 94 markets, serving 64% of U.S. households, consumers can voluntarily subscribe to a live stream of their local CBS station and access a large 6,500 title on-demand library of CBS content for $5.99 a month.

cbs all accessNobody besides CBS knows how many have agreed to pay for All Access, but executives have told investors they are pleased with how the program is working. Still, Marc DeBevoise, executive vice president and general manager of CBS Digital Media at CBS Interactive knows he walks a very fine line promoting a product that could eventually undermine CBS’s current commitment to today’s retransmission consent system. DeBevoise told The Drum it does not market or intend to offer All Access as an alternative to the current cable model.

“At a high level, our strategy in launching CBS All Access was two-fold. First, to delivery our best fans access to the most CBS content we could on any device at any time – really delivering a service for our ‘superfans,'” DeBevoise said. “Additionally this service enables us to reach ‘cord-nevers’ that want to watch CBS content but don’t have a traditional cable package –a significant audience, with industry estimates ranging from 6.5 to 16 million households.”

But at $5.99 a month, that price may prove too steep for many casual viewers looking only for a show or two. Many viewers now rely on ad-supported Hulu, a project of the major American broadcast networks except CBS. Most Hulu customers watch their favorite network shows for free. The future possibility of paying $6 for each of four major American broadcast networks will likely be seen as out of line, especially by more casual viewers.

But for Polka and ACA member cable systems, the idea that customers will direct their All Access price shock wrath out on CBS, not the cable company, may be worth it.

Empire Access Expands Fiber to the Home Service Across Western N.Y./Southern Tier

empireA Prattsburgh, N.Y. family-owned company has picked up where Verizon left off and is busily wiring up small communities across western New York and the Southern Tier with fiber to the home service, giving both Verizon and Time Warner Cable some competitive headaches.

Empire Access is concentrating its service in areas where Verizon FiOS will never go and Time Warner Cable maxes out at 50/5Mbps. The company recently launched service in downtown Batavia in Genesee County and will be launching serving in Big Flats later this year.

Empire promises no data caps or usage-based billing and offers 100/20Mbps at introductory prices ranging from between $45-65/mo. Gigabit broadband speed is also available.

Where it has franchise agreements with local communities, Empire also offers cable television packages ranging from $31.45-73.40, with up to 130 channels. The packages are not as comprehensive as those from Time Warner Cable, but customers may not mind losing a dozen or two niche cable channels to save up to $30 a month off what Time Warner charges. Nationwide home phone service is also an option.

Empire relies heavily on two public/non-profit fiber backbone networks to deliver service. The Southern Tier Network comprises a 235-mile long fiber backbone that runs through Steuben, Chemung and Schuyler counties. Further north, Axcess Ontario provides backbone connectivity across its 200+ mile fiber ring around Ontario County.

fiber backboneWith the help of public and non-profit broadband infrastructure, residents in small communities across a region extending from Sayre, Pa., north to Batavia, N.Y., will have another choice besides Verizon or Frontier DSL, Comcast or Time Warner Cable.

Residents in some communities, like Hammondsport and Bath — south of Keuka Lake, love the fact they have a better choice than Time Warner Cable. Empire has reportedly signed up 70 percent of area businesses and has more than a 20% residential market share in both villages after a year doing business in the Finger Lakes communities.

Empire targets compact villages with a relatively affluent populations where no other fiber overbuilder is providing service. It doesn’t follow Google’s “fiberhood” approach where neighborhoods compete to be wired. Instead, it provides service across an entire village and then gradually expands to nearby towns from there.

Most western New York villages are already compact enough to attract the attention of cable companies, predominately Time Warner Cable, which has an effective broadband monopoly. Verizon and Frontier offer limited slowband DSL, but Verizon has stopped expanding the reach of its broadband service and will likely never bring FiOS fiber to the home service to any western N.Y. community outside of a handful of suburbs near Buffalo.

empire-access-truckThe arrival of Empire reminds some of the days when the first cable company arrived to wire their village. Word of mouth is often enough to attract new customers, but a handful of local sales agents are also on hand to handle customer signups. From there, one of the company’s 80+ employees in New York handle everything else.

Bryan Cummings, who shared the story of Empire Access with us, “is pretty stoked.”

“Bye, bye Time Warner Cable,” Cummings tells Stop the Cap!.

Time Warner has treated most of western New York about as well as its service areas in Ohio, often criticized for not keeping up with the times. With fiber overbuilders Empire Access in the Finger Lakes region and Southern Tier and Greenlight Networks in Rochester, the fastest Internet options are not coming from the local phone and cable company anymore.

WSKG in Binghamton explores fiber broadband developments in the Southern Tier of upstate New York. Empire Access is providing the fast fiber broadband Verizon, Frontier, and Time Warner Cable won’t. (3:54)

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

At present, Empire Access provides service in:

  • Village of Arkport
  • City of Batavia
  • Village of Bath
  • Village of Canisteo
  • Village of Hammondsport
  • City of Hornell
  • Village of Montour Falls
  • Village of Naples
  • Village of North Hornell
  • Village of Watkins Glen
  • Village of Waverly (N.Y.)
  • Boroughs of Sayre, Athens, and South Waverly (Pa.)
  • Borough of Troy (Pa.)

Communities on Empire’s radar for future expansion include Urbana, Dansville, Wayland and Cohocton. Further out, there is some consideration of larger cities like Corning and Elmira, as well as other towns in far northern Pennsylvania. With Empire’s expansion into Naples, the company also has many options in affluent and growing communities in Ontario County, south of Rochester.

Pay Television in Denial: Linear TV is on Life Support; Do You Still Watch Live Television?

Phillip Dampier June 9, 2015 Editorial & Site News, Online Video 5 Comments
acura

Ranger

While fast-forwarding through the 5,000th time I’ve briefly endured the mangling of Blondie’s “Rapture,” in those 2015 Acura RDX ads, I concluded two things:

  • I will never buy an Acura RDX, if only to deliver the message that grating ads first thing in the morning will not win you any sale from me;
  • I have not watched a commercial (on purpose) since 2011.

Ironically, the young woman behind the wheel of the aforementioned Acura is none other than Chelsea Ranger, who became a YouTube sensation after her husband recorded his wife rapping in the car to Salt-n-Pepa’s “None of Your Business,” itself an irony. Ranger’s singing was viewed by 17 million people watching a recorded YouTube video instead of cable television. Like popcorn, nobody quits after just one. YouTube is a confirmed time wormhole, where hours can disappear in what seemed like just a few minutes. This phenomena can also be experienced with Netflix, Amazon, or a myriad of other multimedia websites where on-demand entertainment is always on. How can it be 2am already? Darn, it’s too late to watch Anthony Bourdain and 18 minutes of ads on CNN now.

tv-ad-load-versus-video-ad-load-2014-augustine-fou-1-638Advertisers wondering how many viewers actually spend time watching their commercials are right to be worried. Some have tried to cover their bases by spreading ad budgets around to include online video advertising. But when the online ads become meddlesome (Hulu, anyone?), here comes ad blocking software. No more Geico ads on YouTube, but the experience is less fulfilling watching a blank screen for a few minutes on certain other services. You might actually have to talk to the person sitting next to you.

What cannot be found online can be recorded with a DVR, if only to build up enough buffered video to blow right past those ad breaks. Others collect entire seasons of favorite shows, reserved for binge viewing later. All of this after-the-fact viewing is conditioning you (like a gateway drug) for a future life without linear/live television. You started just to be rid of the advertising, but now you seriously toy with getting rid of cable TV if you can find enough to watch online.

There are exceptions, of course. News and sports junkies are often uncomfortable watching recordings of in-the-moment events. Others cannot imagine losing sports aired on ESPN or CNN for breaking news. But beyond these groups, the chains that hold us to the linear 500-channel pay television universe are rusting.

Phillip "Ad nauseum" Dampier

Phillip “Ad nauseum” Dampier

Getting off the cable television drug is easiest if you never started. That is why Millennials, often cable-nevers, are among the least likely to buy a cable television package. They don’t miss what they never watched, preferring the personalized viewing of their mobile device or tablet over the family television. For those that grew up with the cable box and have never been without it, there was always suspicion that the stories from brave souls who canceled service and never regretted it come from closeted book-reading Luddites.

But consider for a moment you may already be watching less cable television than you think. Spend a week and take note of how much time you spend with the cable box. Then compare it with how many hours you watch Roku, YouTube, Apple TV, Netflix, or any other non-linear television experience. If you can find more to watch on YouTube than on cable, ditching pay TV may not be as hard as you think.

The cable industry’s response to the challenge of online video has been to shoot itself in the foot. Despite the constant complaints that cable programming costs are rising out of control, there is always room for more networks customers did not ask to receive. Navigating cumbersome set-top box software means many customers won’t find those new channels anyway. But they will pay for them.

The higher the price of cable television, the less value many place on it.

People-skipping-the-Preroll-adsCable operator (and network) greed has effectively ruined the industry’s best chance to prove continued value in an increasingly on-demand viewing world. TV Everywhere was supposed to make the 500 channel universe accessible online and on-demand for authenticated paying customers.

Some networks want customers to watch on their websites, others deliver shows on-demand from a set-top box. Instead of envisioning a TV Everywhere model to compete with online video, most cable companies are turning it into the equivalent of a DVR viewing experience with the fast-forward button disabled.

Comcast and Time Warner Cable make enormous amounts of free video available to customers. At the beginning, programmers used an informal honor system. In return for a quick pre-show advertisement and limited commercial interruptions, viewers wouldn’t bother ad-skipping if it meant they could watch a one-hour show in less than 50 minutes. Start inserting five 30 second commercials in every ad break and viewers will start looking for the remote control.

The challenge: should cable companies side with their customers and deliver a compelling TV Everywhere experience or with their bean counters, cramming ads into every available spot. Many are choosing the money. When customers rebelled and began to fast forward through the ads, the cable company retaliated by disabling that option (sometimes, it must be admitted, at the behest of a cable or broadcast network).

But it has gotten worse. For absolutely no reason other than to torture customers, Comcast is notorious for running a very small number of ads aired over and over and over again. Nothing makes television less fun than the same car ad repeated 10-15 times in a single one-hour show. Less is more is not a concept known to the cable industry. As a result, they will now have fewer television customers.

There is nothing about this quest for cash that has not been repeated in other forms of entertainment. Corporate commercial radio with 10 minute ad breaks drove listeners to Sirius XM or MP3 players. Running three minutes of ads to a captive movie theater audience that just paid $10 for a seat will not bring a theater chain any fans. The traditional 30-second ad is increasingly dead in the online world and advertisers and the companies that show them should adopt to the new reality instead of trying to force compliance to the “old ways.”

The cable industry earned its bad reputation by not listening to customers. Now that those customers have a choice to watch something else, the $80 cable TV bill is increasingly expendable as viewers cut the cord and never look back.

Is your linear TV experience not what it used to be? How often are you watching non-news/sports shows live? When the commercials start, do you reflexively reach for the remote control? Are you spending time with cable’s TV Everywhere on demand services? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

Hometown Newspaper of Charter Communications Warns Time Warner Deal Not in the Public Interest

Editor’s Note: This editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reprinted in its entirety. It comes from a newspaper that has covered Charter Communications since its inception. The Post-Dispatch reporters are also some of Charter’s subscribers — the cable company serves all of metropolitan St. Louis. Charter has never been received particularly well in St. Louis and in other cities where it provides generally mediocre service. Communities across Missouri that have endured poor cable and broadband service have recently taken a serious look at doing something about this by building their own public broadband networks as an alternative. But big money telecom interests, especially AT&T, have found it considerably less expensive to lobby to ban these networks from ever getting off the ground than spending the money to upgrade networks to compete.

charter twc bhOn May 15, the last day of this year’s session of the Missouri Legislature, House Bill 437 finally was assigned to a committee, where it promptly died. Given the power of the American Legislative Exchange Council, it may well be back next year.

HB 437, sponsored by Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, was full of gobbledygook about “municipal competitive services,” but its effect would have been to condemn Missourians to ever-higher prices for broadband Internet service. Cities would have been forbidden from establishing their own broadband services to compete with private operators, thus holding down prices.

ALEC, which wines and dines state lawmakers and then gets them to pass pro-business “model legislation” in their states, had succeeded in getting restrictions on public Internet providers in 20 states. But in February, the Federal Communications Commission struck down North Carolina’s ALEC-inspired law, so the future of other such laws is uncertain.

About 22 percent of Missourians are still regarded as “underserved,” having no reliable access to broadband service of at least 25 megabits per second — what’s needed to stream video without lags. About 1 in 6 Missourians have only one wired access provider to choose from. More than 400,000 Missourians have no wired broadband at all.

Missouri is ranked 38th “most connected” in the nation by the federal-state Broadband Now initiative. In the 21st century, this is like being underserved by railroads in the 19th century or power lines in the early 20th. In parts of rural Missouri, it’s hard to do business, which helps explain why HB 437 died in committee.

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

The basic question is whether companies that invest in high-speed Internet infrastructure should be able to charge whatever they can get away with, or whether broadband service should be treated as a public utility. If it’s the latter, as the FCC determined in February, then government must make sure it’s affordable.

Which brings us to Charter Communications proposed $56 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable and its $10.4 billion acquisition of Bright House Networks. Both deals were announced May 26; both will need approval from the FCC and the Justice Department’s antitrust regulators.

In St. Louis, we have a love-hate relationship with Charter, a homegrown company built atop what was once Cencom Cable. It has dominated the cable TV market here almost as long as there’s been a cable market.

Charter customers endured years of poor service, its bankruptcy, its legal challenges, its ownership and management changes. Just when it got itself together, in 2012, the headquarters was moved from Des Peres to Stamford, Conn., though it retains a significant presence here.

Today our little Charter is a big fish; the Time Warner and Bright House deals would make it the nation’s second-largest cable company, with 24 million customers, behind only Philadelphia-based Comcast, with 27 million.

But cable TV no longer drives cable TV. Internet-based video services, like YouTube and Netflix, have revolutionized the way people, particularly younger people, watch TV. When cable companies first started connecting customers to the Internet through the same cables that delivered TV programming, it was regarded as a nice add-on business. Now broadband delivery is seen as a far bigger part of the future than providing TV programs.

missouriIndeed, when Comcast tried to acquire Time Warner last year, the dominance (nearly 60 percent of the market) that the combined company would have had over broadband service caused federal regulators to look askance. Comcast abandoned its bid in April.

By contrast, a Charter-Time Warner-Bright House combination (it will do business as Spectrum) will control 30 percent of the broadband market. Charter Spectrum will have 20 million broadband subscribers, compared with 22 million for Comcast.

So what can customers expect? Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge has promised “faster Internet speeds, state-of-the-art video experiences and fully featured voice products, at highly competitive prices.”

This begs the question, competitive with whom? Comcast? Mom-and-pop operations that can’t afford the infrastructure? Municipal service providers who are being ALEC’d out of business?

Neither Charter nor Time Warner has particularly good customer service ratings (though to be fair, Charter is miles ahead of where it used to be, at least in St. Louis). Still, Charter will take on lots of debt to finance the deal, much of it in high-yield junk bonds. The broadband business provides leverage. As analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson told the Wall Street Journal: “Broadband pricing is almost an insurance policy for cable operators, in that if all else fails, you’ve always got the option to raise broadband rates.”

America wouldn’t let a private operator own 30 percent of its roads and highways. It wouldn’t allow two of them to control half the electricity. If broadband Internet service is a public utility, it must be regulated strictly.

The lesson is old as the hills: The free-marketeers who talk most passionately about competition are generally in the business of trying to eliminate it. Charter and Time Warner are both members of ALEC.

The Charter-Time Warner deal clearly is not in the public interest. The upside for shareholders is huge. The upside for Charter executives is even bigger. But it’s hard to see how Charter’s customers would see much benefit at all.

FCC Chairman Gives Green Light for More Cable Mergers; Calls and Reassures Cable Execs Some Deals Are Okay

Wheeler

Wheeler

Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler personally called the chief executives of some of America’s largest cable operators, including Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable, to reassure them that the agency does not object to future cable industry consolidation.

Wheeler said any new merger deal would be assessed on its own merits, and cable executives should not assume the agency is against future cable mergers just because it objected to the Comcast/Time Warner Cable deal.

The Wall Street Journal reports Wheeler sought to “clear the air” in response to industry hand-wringing over whether future buyouts and acquisitions could get passed the FCC. Wheeler reassured executives they were over-reading the commission’s intent.

Wheeler did suggest he would like to see more competition among cable companies, an idea that has been dead on arrival since the cable industry began colluding to agree to stay out of each other’s territories two decades ago. Although Wheeler would like to see competition increased by cable operators competing head to head for customers, it is much more likely the industry will seek further consolidation to reduce the prospect of competition, not increase it.

The larger the cable operator, the greater the economy of scale — especially for cable programming costs. A potential new entrant would likely be discouraged from entering the business, discovering it had no prospect of getting cable programming at prices comparable to what the largest cable operators pay.

Top Cable Lobbyist Laments Cable’s Self-Made Bed Has Weighed Down and Damaged the Industry’s Reputation

Powell

Powell

Decades of bad service, rate increases, and abusive employees have given the cable industry a bad name and America’s top cable lobbyist, former FCC chairman-turned-president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association is sad about that.

“I hate the name […] cable,” Powell lamented Tuesday in Chicago during the opening of the NCTA-rebranded INTX 2015 show (formerly known as The Cable Show).

While years of bad service have done little to tangibly affect the industry’s fortunes in a barely competitive marketplace, Powell seemed convinced it was Comcast’s appalling reputation with customers (including regulators and politicians working in Comcast’s District of Columbia service area), that did more to derail its recent merger effort with Time Warner Cable than anything else.

intxCable’s bad reputation has come home to roost, allowing everyone to assume the worst and see a need to erect protective fences like Net Neutrality to keep cable companies from capitalizing on new fees for Internet usage.

As long as cable has a “frayed relationship” with customers, Powell said he believed the industry will lose more policy battles than it wins, and it should be aware of that.

But those in attendance later told Communications Daily (subscription required) they disagreed with Powell and believed the industry has faced down bigger threats than Net Neutrality and online video. They also disagreed with any name change that de-emphasized “cable” and complained the industry didn’t get enough credit for its role in bringing faster Internet to American homes.

Because cable operators both own the pipes and have a strong working relationship with content producers, many attendees believe cable is in an excellent position to face down competitors, because most depend on cable broadband to deliver their services.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/NCTA Michael Powell and ReCode Kara Swisher Kick off INTX 2015 5-5-15.mp4

NCTA president Michael Powell talks with ReCode’s Kara Swisher about the state of the cable industry and the Internet at the start of INTX ’15 in Chicago. (18:53)

Comcast’s David Cohen Survives Night of the Long Knives Blame Game for Comcast Merger Failure

David "I'm crushing your head" Cohen

David “I’m crushing your head” Cohen

Your boss authorized $32 million on lobbying for a $45 billion dollar merger deal that just went down in flames on your watch and you were the guy the company depended on to push it through. What do you do?

If you are Comcast vice president David Cohen, you pray for a press release signed by the CEO reaffirming trust in you.

Cohen can breathe a little easier because Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast, did exactly that.

“There is nobody better than David Cohen,” Roberts wrote. “He’s incredible at what he does and we are beyond lucky that he helps passionately lead so many areas at Comcast. He is also a huge supporter of Philadelphia and has done so much for the community. I’m extremely proud to have him on our team.”

It could have been much worse for Cohen, whose contract (and $15 million annual salary) is up at the end of this year. He’s the fourth biggest earner at Comcast, but his stunning arrogance before Congress and the public may have helped nail the coffin shut on a merger worth tens of billions.

Some media outlets have called Cohen myopic, unable to see the building torrent of opposition from consumers, public interest groups, and even regulators.

The NY Post:

“They just lost a big battle. Does the company need a new general to supervise the Washington political strategy?” asked one source.

Comcast is already on the hunt for a new chief financial officer, with Michael Angelakis walking away to begin his own Comcast-backed private-equity fund before the deal imploded.

comcast twcComcast’s claims of “deal benefits” for consumers was perceived to be tissue-thin by legislators like Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), whose district would have seen Time Warner and Charter customers absorbed into the Comcast Dominion.

“[Cohen] was smothering us with attention but he was not answering our questions,” Cárdenas told The New York Times, adding in the early stages of the deal he was open to supporting it if his questions were addressed satisfactorily. “And I could not help but think that this is a $140 billion company with 130 lobbyists — and they are using all of that to the best of their ability to get us to go along.”

Comcast’s swaggering arrogance, condescending editorials, and dismissive attitude towards consumers questioning the deal rubbed a lot of lawmakers the wrong way.

Not only did Comcast offend lawmakers, but their all-important staffers as well. Staffers told the newspaper they felt Comcast was so convinced in the early stages that the deal would be approved that it was dismissing concerns about the transaction, or simply taking the conversation in a different direction when asked about them.

Elected officials associating themselves with Comcast, whose customer service on a good day is considered miserable, was also considered political poison. Few lawmakers were willing to publicly support foisting Comcast on their constituents. Local lawmakers in Time Warner Cable service areas who had no direct experience with Comcast customer service’s special touch of hell often did offer support, especially when a handsome check was sent weeks earlier. But voters with relatives or friends who loathed Comcast (practically everyone in America) were never fooled.

hurricane comcast“They talked a lot about the benefits, and how much they were going to invest in Time Warner Cable and improve the service it provided,” said one senior Senate staff aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “But every time you talked about industry consolidation and the incentive they would have to leverage their market power to hurt competition, they gave us unsatisfactory answers.”

Politicians asked to publicly support the deal characterized their sentiment as “leery” in polite company.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) was unwilling to victimize her constituents by replacing two bad cable companies – Time Warner Cable and Charter with one horrible alternative – Comcast.

“No amount of public-interest commitments to diversity would remedy the consumer harm a merged Comcast-Time Warner would have caused to millions of Americans across the country,” Ms. Waters said.

Other lawmakers who already understood Comcast as the Hurricane Katrina of cable companies got into storm shelters early.

“There are limits as to how effective even the best advocate can be with a losing case,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, who was critical of the deal from the start, “as this merger would have further enhanced this company’s incentive, its means and its history of abuse of market power.”

Comcast even cynically attempted to color and race match lobbyists with legislators, believing the shared ethnic heritage would be an added incentive.

The New York Times:

Comcast, for example, assigned Juan Otero, a former Department of Homeland Security official who serves on the board of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and now works as a Comcast lobbyist, to be the point person to work with Mr. Cárdenas.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Stewart, an African-American lobbyist on the Congressional Black Caucus Institute board, was assigned to work with Marc Veasey, Democrat of Texas, who is also black. She personally appealed to Mr. Veasey’s staff, urging that he not sign a letter last August questioning the deal, according to an email obtained by The New York Times, citing the company’s work on behalf of the minority community. (Mr. Veasey still signed a related letter.)

Comcast also asked Jordan Goldstein, a former official at the Federal Communications Commission who is now a Comcast regulatory affairs executive, to work with Mr. Blumenthal’s office. Mr. Goldstein had previously developed a working relationship with Joel Kelsey, a legislative assistant in charge of reviewing the matter for the senator, who is a member of the Senate Commerce Committee.

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