Home » cable companies » Recent Articles:

The Trauma Trinity: Comcast, Time Warner, Charter Now America’s Most-Hated Companies

ygbix_logoAmericans would rather deal with unwanted telemarketing calls, fight their insurance company, or pay top dollar for oil and gas because almost anything is better than dealing with the cable company, if it happens to be named Comcast, Time Warner Cable, or Charter.

As state and federal regulators contemplate allowing these three companies to co-mingle, Americans have bottom-rated them like never before in the most recent YouGov BrandIndex survey of consumer satisfaction.

Any number below 60 results in the failing grade of “F” and shame for all concerned. The three cable operators managed a grade of just 13.2, nearly twice worse than the next lowest scoring industry – wireless providers. The cable sector once again achieved the lowest scores among 43 rated industries and has sunk to a level reserved for a war criminal popularity contest.

complete_list

YouGov BrandIndex

Although Time Warner Cable’s scores were called “crap” by one consumer advocate reviewing the data, Comcast performed much worse, plummeting to new lows after customers related to the gone-viral recording of Ryan Block’s customer service call from hell. Block spent more than 20 minutes arguing with a cocky and insufferable customer service representative who repeatedly resisted Block’s efforts to cancel his service. It hit a familiar nerve with Comcast customers and the company took a major hit, according to Lance Fraenkel, head of client services for BrandIndex.

cable guy“That to me stands out as a major event over the last few months that has damaged the brand and category perception,” Fraenkel told The Huffington Post.

The proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, although well received by non-profit groups and politicians receiving Comcast contribution checks, is a dead on arrival proposition for average consumers. This allowed Charter, which typically rates about as popular as burnt popcorn, to achieve a new high in its perennially dismal consumer satisfaction score. It can take its “barely neutral” rating to the bank.

But it isn’t bad for everyone. Verizon FiOS in particular achieved top grades for service, with AT&T U-verse also doing better than the cable competition.

“If you have a couple brands in negative territory and the category average is still firmly positive, then you know that there are brands that perform well in the sector,” Fraenkel added.

Comcast and Time Warner Cable both acknowledged their lousy ratings, both promising to continue spending millions improving the customer service experience. Comcast has promised that annually since 2007 and its ratings continue to decline. Many blame offshore call centers and intransigent operators unwilling to depart from a script that emphasizes giving credits and refunds only as a last resort. Most complaining customers are offered temporary discounts on service upgrades, which eventually expire and result in an even higher bill.

Charter couldn’t be bothered responding to a call for a comment. When the alternative is DSL from Frontier, CenturyLink or Windstream, why should they?

New York Regulators Again Delay Final Decision on Comcast-Time Warner Merger

Stop the Cap! has learned the New York State Public Service Commission has again delayed its final decision on the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

The latest deadline the PSC will pass is Nov. 19, and the new deadline, accepted by both cable operators, is Dec. 31, 2014.

Sources tell us the multiple delays come as a result of regulators underestimating the complexity of the transaction and its potential impact on New York residents.

There is also an ongoing legal dispute over the possible public release of information both cable companies argue is proprietary and confidential. Public interest groups argue otherwise and consider details about current broadband subscriptions, future expansion plans, and the possible fate of Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 low price Internet plan worth sharing with New York residents.

The Menace of the Unburied Line: Cable & Phone Companies Create Hazards for Homeowners

One Alabama customer found her fence the home of not one, but two artistically-managed Charter Cable lines serving her neighbors.

One Alabama customer found her fence the home of not one, but two artistically-Amanaged Charter Cable lines serving her neighbors.

All across the country, people are encountering communications wiring that belongs underground or on a utility pole, but is instead scattered on the ground or left dangling on fences or in the street. Isolated incidents or a consequence of deregulation that has left community leaders’ hands tied? Stop the Cap! investigates.

A Louisiana woman eight months pregnant is suing Cox Communications Louisiana and its contractor after tripping over an exposed cable wire in her mother’s backyard the company didn’t bother to bury.

In Fort Myers, Comcast connected a neighbor’s cable service in a senior living community by scattering a cable across lawns and sidewalks for nearly a year before finally burying it.

In Alabama, Charter Cable turned cable wiring into an art form, attaching multiple homeowners’ cable TV wires in artistic designs to a neighbor’s fence, and he wasn’t even a customer.

Welcome to the scourge of the unburied, exposed cable wire. Typically called a “drop” by cable installers, these lines are common in communities where a cable or phone company uses a third-party contractor to manage buried lines. Some manage them better than others.

In the northern United States, replacement drops installed during the winter months often stay on the ground until spring because the ground in frozen, but in warmer climates in the southeast, cable companies are notorious for “forgetting” about orphaned cable lines that can take weeks or months to bury, often only after intervention by a local media outlet or politician.

Chardae Nickae Melancon’s complaint claims Cox installed cable service in June, 2013 and left the cable wire exposed in the backyard. In late August, Melancon claims she tripped and fell over the wire injuring her arm, right side, and other unspecified injuries. Her suit alleges Cox was warned the wire was installed improperly and only after her injury did Cox return to finish the job.

In Fort Myers, it took more than 11 months for Comcast to return and bury its line, snaked across lawns and sidewalks connecting several buildings in the retirement community.

Comcast left this cable lying across a sidewalk in a retirement community in Fort Myers, Fla. for 11 months.

Comcast left this cable lying across a sidewalk in a retirement community in Fort Myers, Fla. for 11 months.

“You know this [community] is 55 and older. We have got people in here that are 90 years old,” Bonnie Haines, a resident in the Pine Ridge Condo retirement community told WFTX-TV. “Could you imagine them walking or walking around that sidewalk and tripping over this, what would happen? They couldn’t see it at night. Fortunately for me I know it’s there. I’ve lived with it all this time but if somebody would come to visit an older person or something, they don’t know it’s there.”

Across the street lies another unburied Comcast cable.

“We’ve called multiple times. we’ve reported it multiple times,” said Eric Ray, the manager of the Pine Ridge Homeowners Association. “In fact, every time I see a Comcast truck in here I personally grab the driver, take him over to the spot, and he puts in a work order and takes pictures right in front of me and still no response.”

Comcast’s last reply before making the evening news:  “We’ll get to it soon.”

Twenty four hours after being a featured story on the station’s newscast, the cables were finally buried.

In Montgomery, Ala., an artistic cable installer has used one resident’s fence as the adopted home of Charter Cable’s lines. Jamie Newton, who isn’t a Charter customer, noticed an orange Charter Cable line attached to her fence one day after returning home. That was two years ago. Suddenly, an extra cable appeared, draped like Christmas tree garland.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WFTX Ft Myers Residents worried about exposed cable tv wire 1-15-14.mp4

Residents of a Ft. Myers, Fla. retirement community worry residents as old as 93 could be seriously injured if they trip over this Comcast Cable left on the sidewalk for at least 11 months. (3:00)

“At first I was surprised, and then it turned into a little bit of anger and frustration,” Newton told WSFA. “I have small children, I have friends’ children over, and the neighborhood kids come and play in my backyard. It’s not safe.”

Charter Cable is not interested because Newton is not a customer. Charter in fact recorded just one complaint from a Charter customer six months earlier, and they claimed a “glitch” was responsible for the cable not being buried.

(Image: WEWS-TV Cleveland)

(Image: WEWS-TV Cleveland)

While some customers have been encouraged to remove offending lines that cross property lines themselves, some have gotten into trouble doing so, charged with destruction of private property. The most common mistake homeowners make is cutting or displacing cables placed on or in a utility easement, which can be difficult to identify.

Some of the worst problems occur with cables that served now ex-customers. Residents complain AT&T, Comcast and Charter are not responsive to requests from non-customers to deal with abandoned wiring in disrepair. An outside line supervisor in San Francisco tells Stop the Cap! AT&T has few provisions to manage cabling no longer in service for a paying customers.

The city of Cleveland, Ohio is a prime example of how AT&T deals with unused cables. Residents reports dozens of abandoned lines snipped at head level and allowed to dangle off utility poles, eventually to fall to street level where children can handle them. Time Warner Cable was also accused of allowing cables to hang over Cleveland streets. Some are left over after demolishing vacant houses but the most frequent cause of hazardous cables is competition. When a customer cuts cable’s cord, drops a landline, or flips between providers, installation crews often cut and leave old lines swaying in the breeze or draped over sidewalks.

The problem grew so pervasive in Cleveland, city officials requested telecom companies coordinate an audit of their cable networks and remove dangerous wiring before someone gets hurt. But all they can do is ask. Ohio’s sweeping telecom deregulation law stripped local authority over AT&T and Time Warner Cable. The city’s leverage is now based on creative code enforcement and embarrassing the companies in the local media.

“We don’t have any regulation for phone and cable companies and hanging wires create a hazardous situation and it’s going to have to be regulated,” said Cleveland councilman Tony Brancatelli. “One of these times it’s going to be a hot line.”

Local media reported nearly the same problem four years earlier in Cleveland, and efforts to keep up with cables left in disrepair seem to wane after the media spotlight moves on.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WEWS Cleveland Neighbors worry kids will get desensitized to seeing low wires 4-3-14.mp4

Kids are at risk if they begin to disrespect hanging utility wires. An epidemic of abandoned cable and telephone cables are dangling over Cleveland streets and deregulation means cities have to ask providers nicely to deal with the problem. (3:00)

Time Warner Cable and AT&T have also pointed fingers at each other, implying the other is more responsible for the cables left hanging:

AT&T: “We certainly welcome attention on the topic of safety and any telephone wires that look out of place. To that end, we encourage you to share with your viewers the number for our statewide repair information line: 800-572-4545. Please do call this line to report locations of telephone wires that look out of place.  While your story pointed out that many of the problem lines you saw may not have been telephone lines, we look forward to removing or repairing any that we find, that indeed belong to our company.”

Time Warner Cable: “Maintaining line clearance is something we act quickly to correct anytime we identify a potential issue. Though it is not clear who owns the wires you cite in your story, when our lines need to be adjusted, we take immediate action.  If someone comes across a line they feel maybe too low, please call us and we will respond.”

One important tip from Stop the Cap! for both your safety and avoiding legal entanglements — don’t take on the job yourself.

Municipal officials tell us readers should call a local code enforcement officer and have them investigate utility cable issues. Unresponsive companies or those creating dangerous conditions for the public can be fined and most will respond quickly to an officer’s request to manage the problem, even when deregulated.

Customers allowing the cable company to install a temporary line in their own yard should check if they are signing a total liability waiver as part of the process. Doing so can limit your leverage if the cable company doesn’t return to bury the line.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WEWS City of Cleveland promises to address low hanging wires 4-7-14.mp4

WEWS-TV in Cleveland followed up on their earlier report after getting no response from cable and phone companies and finding even more hazardous, abandoned wiring littering Cleveland. (3:15)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WEWS Cleveland Major utility and cable companies meet with City of Cleveland 4-17-14.mp4

Cleveland officials asked cable and phone companies to send representatives to coordinate action to fix the problem, but deregulation makes the effort voluntary. (2:47)

GreatLand Connections Has Few Employees, No Building; Yet Wants to Serve 2.5 Million Subscribers

greatlandGreatLand Connections, a new cable company with no headquarters building and only a handful of employees, is seeking permission to serve 2.5 million ex-Comcast/Time Warner Cable customers while saddled with $7.8 billion in debt the day its opens for business.

The entity, now administered primarily by a small executive team, will trade on the NASDAQ exchange under the symbol ‘GLCI’ and would start operations in 2015. Tidbits about the planned cable operator were included in a regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, primarily concerning how shareholders and executives will be handled if the merger is approved.

GreatLand Connections was created to appease the U.S. Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission that earlier expressed concern about any single cable operator exceeding 30 percent of the national cable television market. Spinning off 2.5 million customers in less desirable service areas keeps Comcast’s market share just under 30%, but the SEC filing reveals Comcast isn’t exactly kicking customers out in the cold and disinheriting them. Comcast shareholders will own and control 67% of GreatLand Connections. Comcast will also select six of the nine members of the Board of Directors at GreatLand, and the SEC filing includes an admission to shareholders that a conflict of interest could exist between certain executives and board members who have investments in both cable companies.

The new company’s large debt load — about five times the company’s estimated earnings before interest, depreciation, taxes, and certain other expenses, is designed to shield Comcast from having to pay taxes on the spinoff. GreatLand’s filing states the transfer deal and spin-up of its company will qualify as a tax-free reorganization transaction.

The initial debt load is considerably higher than what most other cable companies carry, which makes it likely subscribers will be asked to help pay it off in the form of higher rates for years to come.

Even without a single piece of office furniture in place, GreatLand could begin serving as one of the nation’s largest cable companies with an estimated value of $5.7 billion in less than a year.

(Clarification: This article was updated to reflect Comcast shareholders will own 67% of GreatLand after the transaction closes.)

Republican Victory Sparks Potential Lobbying Frenzy Rewriting/Deregulating Nation’s Telecom Laws

Thune

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) will assume the leadership of the Senate Commerce Committee in January.

The Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate could have profound implications on U.S. telecommunications law as Congress contemplates further deregulation of broadcasting, broadband, and telecom services while curtailing oversight powers at the Federal Communications Commission.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), expected to assume leadership over the Senate Commerce Committee in January, has already signaled interest in revising the 1996 Communications Act, which was built on the premise that deregulation would increase competition in the telecommunications marketplace.

“Our staff has looked at some things we might do in the area of telecommunications reform,” Thune told Capital Journal.” That hasn’t been touched in a long time. A lot has changed. The last time that the telecom sector of the economy was reformed was 1996, and I think in that bill there was one mention of the Internet. So it’s a very different world today.”

Republicans have complained the 1996 Telecom Act is dependent on dividing up services into different regulatory sectors and subjecting them to different regulatory treatment. In the current Net Neutrality debate, for example, a major component of the dispute involves which regulatory sector broadband should be classified under — “an information service” subject to few regulations or oversight or Title 2, a “telecommunications service” that has regulatory protections for consumers who have few choices in service providers.

Republicans have advocated streamlining the rules and eliminating “broad prescriptive rules” that can have “unintended consequences for innovation and investment.” Most analysts read that as a signal Republicans want further deregulation across the telecom industry to remove “uncertainty for innovators.”

Republicans have been particularly hostile towards imposing strong Net Neutrality protections, particularly if it involves reclassification of broadband as a “telecommunications service” under Title 2 of the Communications Act. Most expect Thune and his Republican colleagues will oppose any efforts to enact Net Neutrality policies that open the door for stronger FCC regulatory oversight.

The move to re-examine the Communications Act will result in an enormous stimulation of the economy, if you happen to run a D.C. lobbying firm. Just broaching the subject of revising the nation’s telecommunications laws stimulates political campaign contributions and intensified lobbying efforts. From 1997-2004, telecommunications companies advocating for more deregulation spent more than $44 million in direct soft money and PAC donations — $18 million to Democrats, $27 million to Republicans. During the same period, eight companies and trade groups in the broadcasting, cable and telephone sector collectively spent more than $400 million on lobbying activities alone, according to Common Cause.

Reopening the Telecom Act for revision is expected to generate intense lobbying activity, as Congress contemplates subjects like eliminating or curtailing FCC oversight over broadband, how wireless spectrum is distributed to wireless companies, how many radio and television stations a company can own or control, maintaining or strengthening bans on community broadband networks, oversight of cable television packages, and compensation for broadcast stations vacating frequencies to make room for more cellular networks.

Common Cause notes ordinary citizens had little say over the contents of the ’96 Act and consumer group objections were largely ignored. When the bill was eventually signed into law by President Bill Clinton, its sweeping provisions affected almost every American:

Good times at K Street lobbying firms are ahead

Good times at K Street lobbying firms are ahead

BROADCASTING

  1. The 96 Act lifted the limit on how many radio stations one company could own. The cap had been set at 40 stations. It made possible the creation of radio giants like Clear Channel, with more than 1,200 stations, and led to a substantial drop in the number of minority station owners, homogenization of playlists, and less local news. Today, few listeners can tell the difference between radio stations with similar formats, regardless of where they are located.
  2. Lifted from 12 the number of local TV stations any one corporation could own, and expanded the limit on audience reach. One company had been allowed to own stations that reached up to a quarter of U.S. TV households. The Act raised that national cap to 35 percent. These changes spurred huge media mergers and greatly increased media concentration. Together, just five companies – Viacom, the parent of CBS, Disney, owner of ABC, FOX-News Corp., Comcast-NBC, and Time Warner now control 75 percent of all prime-time viewing.
  3. The Act gave broadcasters, for free, valuable digital TV licenses that could have brought in up to $70 billion to the federal treasury if they had been auctioned off. Broadcasters, who claimed they deserved these free licenses because they serve the public, have largely ignored their public interest obligations, failing to provide substantive local news and public affairs reporting and coverage of congressional, local and state elections. Many television stations have discontinued local news programming altogether or have relied on partnerships with other stations in the same market to produce news programming for them. Most local television stations are now owned by out-of-state conglomerates that control dozens of television stations and now expect to be compensated by viewers watching them on cable or satellite television.
  4. The Act reduced broadcasters’ accountability to the public by extending the term of a broadcast license from five to eight years, and made it more difficult for citizens to challenge those license renewals.

TELECOMMUNICATIONS

  1. The 1996 Act preserved telephone monopoly control of their networks, allowing them to refuse new entrants who depend on telco infrastructure to sell their services.
  2. The Act was designed to promote increased competition but also allowed major telephone companies to refuse to compete outside of their home territories. It also allowed Bell operating companies to buy each other, resulting in just two remaining major operators — AT&T and Verizon.

CABLE

  1. The ’96 Act stripped away the ability of local franchising authorities and the FCC to maintain oversight of cable television rates. Immediately after the ’96 Act took effect, rate increases accelerated.
  2. The Act permitted the FCC to ease cable-broadcast cross-ownership rules. As cable systems increased the number of channels, the broadcast networks aggressively expanded their ownership of cable networks with the largest audiences. In the past, large cable operators like Time Warner, TCI, Cablevision and Comcast owned most cable networks. Broadcast networks acquired much of their ownership interests. Ninety percent of the top 50 cable stations are owned by the same parent companies that own the broadcast networks, challenging the notion that cable is any real source of competition.

net-neutral-cartoon“Those who advocated the Telecommunications Act of 1996 promised more competition and diversity, but the opposite happened,” said Common Cause president Chellie Pingree back in 1995. “Citizens, excluded from the process when the Act was negotiated in Congress, must have a seat at the table as Congress proposes to revisit this law.”

Above all, the legacy of the 1996 Telecom Act was massive consolidation across almost every sector.

Over ten years, the legislation was supposed to save consumers $550 billion, including $333 billion in lower long-distance rates, $32 billion in lower local phone rates, and $78 billion in lower cable bills. But most of those savings never materialized. Indeed, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who opposed the legislation, noted in 2003: “From January 1996 to the present, the consumer price index has risen 17.4 percent … Cable rates are up 47.2 percent. Local phone rates are up 23.2 percent.”

Advocates of deregulation also promised the Act would create 1.4 million jobs and increase the nation’s Gross Domestic Product by as much as $2 trillion. Both proved wrong. Consolidation meant the loss of at least 500,000 “redundant” jobs between 2001-2003 alone, and companies that became indebted in the frenzy of mergers and acquisitions ended up losing more than $2 trillion in the speculative frenzy, conflicts of interest, and police-free zone of the deregulated telecom marketplace.

The consolidation has also drastically reduced the number of independent voices speaking, writing, and broadcasting to the American people. Today, just a handful of corporations control most radio and TV stations, newspapers, cable systems, movie studios, and concert ticketing and facilities.

The law also stripped away oversight of the broadband industry which faces little competition and has no incentive to push for service-enhancing upgrades, costing America’s leadership in broadband and challenging the digital economy. What few controls the FCC still has are now in the crosshairs of large telecom companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon.

All are lobbying against institutionalized Net Neutrality, oppose community broadband competition, regulated minimum speed standards, and service oversight. AT&T and Verizon are lobbying to dismantle the rural telephone network in favor of their much more lucrative wireless networks.

Consumers Union predicted the outcome of the 1996 Telecom Act back in 2000, when it suggested a duopoly would eventually exist for most Americans, one dedicated primarily to telephone services (AT&T and Verizon Wireless’ mobile networks) and the other to video and broadband (cable). The publisher of Consumers Reports also accurately predicted neither the telephone or the cable company would compete head to head with other telephone or cable companies, and High Speed Internet would be largely controlled by cable networks using a closed, proprietary network not open to competitors.

Analysts suggest a 2015 Telecom Act would largely exist to further cement the status quo by prohibiting federal and state governments from regulating provider conduct and allowing the marketplace a free hand to determine minimum standards governing speeds, network performance, and pricing.

In fact, the most radical idea Thune has tentatively proposed for consideration in a revisit of the Act is his “Local Choice” concept to unbundle broadcast TV channels from all-encompassing cable television packages. His proposal would allow consumers to opt out of subscribing to one or more local broadcast television stations now bundled into cable television packages.

Comcast Prepares to Launch All-Out Attack on C Spire’s Irritating Competition in Mississippi

comcast crushThe sleepy deep south isn’t often a battleground for an all-out broadband competition war, but Ridgeland, Miss.-based C Spire, a regional cell phone company with fiber broadband aspirations, has gotten too big for its britches and Comcast is preparing to demonstrate its size and resources can run even a home state provider into the ground.

C Spire is building a statewide fiber-to-the-home network, city by city, on its pre-existing fiber backbone which extends to C Spire’s cell towers across the Magnolia State. As the fiber network expands, talk of doing something in a “Mississippi Minute” will be a thing of the past as C Spire prepares to deliver gigabit broadband speeds far in excess of what competitors like Comcast, AT&T and Cable One are prepared to offer.

Communities already on the construction list include: Batesville, Clinton, Corinth, Hattiesburg, Horn Lake, McComb, Quitman, Ridgeland and Starkville.

But C Spire’s network caught the attention of Comcast earlier this month when it announced Jackson, the state capital, was going to get fiber service.

C Spire is following Google Fiber’s model, attempting to get enough residents in a neighborhood to pre-register with a refundable $10 deposit. Online pre-registration for the service began in Jackson last month, and several hundred residents applied even before the fiber network expansion was announced, ready to tell Comcast to take a hike.

Jackson neighborhoods that reach sign-up levels set by C Spire will be the first to get the new generation of fiber services, the company says.

“Gigabit infrastructure can create a new economic reality for the city of Jackson,” Duane O’Neill, president & CEO of the 2,100-member Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership, told the Mississippi Business Journal. “In the handful of U.S. cities where this infrastructure is deployed and widely available, it has generated thousands of jobs, millions of dollars of new investment, boosted home values and improved the overall quality of life.”

c spire fiberC Spire’s plans could cost Comcast a significant number of cable customers across Mississippi, and it isn’t taking that lightly.

Departing from its usual tradition of focusing new technology on large northeastern cities, Comcast will begin saturating Jackson with its Wi-Fi hotspot service, starting with 200 public hotspots slated for launch before the end of this year. The company only had a handful of Wi-Fi hotspots in Jackson before. Jackson will also get significant cable service upgrades, including the introduction of a new “smart home” service, a cloud-based service integrating Comcast’s cable, Internet, and home-security.

Comcast says it has plans to turn Jackson into a “truly connected city,” and if that means competitively disconnecting C Spire from its nascent fiber customer base, all the better.“This is the kind of threat that would frighten competitors,” said industry observer Jeff Kagan. “Comcast can be a heavy-duty competitor when they want to be. So why is Jackson and other Mississippi cities getting this kind of attention from Comcast and C Spire? I think it’s a matter of competition and C Spire’s aggressive move in the state of Mississippi played a role in the Comcast decision to turn up the heat.”

Kagan also expects Comcast will cut prices to undercut C Spire. That would be consistent with Comcast’s customer retention policies that dramatically lower rates for customers threatening to leave. Rate-cutting will benefit consumers, but if Comcast engages in below-cost predatory pricing, those savings will be short-lived.

“It’s starting to look like that old nursery rhyme, Jack and the Beanstalk,” said Kagan. “Watch out Jack, the Giant is waking up.”

If that battle becomes cut-throat, C Spire’s fiber aspirations may end up nothing more than pipe dreams if the company retreats, deciding it cannot survive in a battle with Comcast, the Giant of all cable companies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

octopusHere the examples of potential abuse are plentiful:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jd powerLove can be a fickle thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Search This Site:

Contributions:

Recent Comments:

  • Howie: I feel that the taxpayers of New York State have the right to know how their tax money is being spent. If T-W wants to keep how it spends money on i...
  • AC: What I'd love to see is the total amount of federal money AT&T received and the promises they were to have done by now....
  • Seattle: They doubled the download speed but not the upload. So now my speed is 100-120 down but only 10 up....
  • Paul Houle: This the kind of "leadership" we are getting out of Cuomo, unfortunately. It reminds me of his "bold" initiative to bring more gambling to NY, so...
  • fjfdybvfgj: The Data Usage represented is usually the norm for most people by themselves. In a family of 5 and our usage is usually around 6TBs normally and is ~9...
  • Bryan: Awesome article Just got 12MB and U-200 with HD included free for $93 a month. Also made them throw in movie channels for a month free....
  • Mike: The U.S. government has been hijacked by murderous psychopaths. They seek global domination and, using the power of the U.S. military and intelligen...
  • Glen: They are insane - you can buy a Tivo Roamio pro 6 tuner and just get a cable card and sdv box and get 6 shows at once and 1tb of space as well as str...
  • chris84: Smh comcast gave me the run around on the phone and around the city they are a joke sad part is i was in prison when i so called opened a comcast acco...
  • Conor D: Thank you so much for the article. We had U-verse 450 with 24 Mbps with 3 receivers. We were paying about $150 a month until the promotions just di...
  • Clyde: First file a report with your state's Board of Public Utilities...... Then follow the instructions at the link below. https://customer.comcast.com/h...
  • fjfdybvfgj: Can't wait to see them offer Unlimited Data with no throttling to compete with Tmobile (would need to be no contract of course like it should be). The...

Your Account: