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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

alacarte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

special reportCustomers like James Rehor of Hamilton explains why.

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

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

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

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CRTC Supporting the creation of content made by Canadians for Canadians and global audiences 3-2015.mp4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CBC How New CRTC Rules Will Change Canadian TV 3-2015.mp4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rogers logoROGERS PICK AND PLAY PILOT

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

REGULAR ROGERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CBC Pick and Pay TV 3-2015.flv

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharpton

Sharpton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what other countries pay for service:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malone

Malone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drahi

Drahi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DirecTV Lampoons Big Cable Mergers in New Ad

Phillip Dampier October 1, 2015 Competition, Consumer News, Video No Comments
cable world

Fred Willard appears as a cable executive in this new DirecTV ad.

DirecTV, itself recently acquired by AT&T, is having fun with the recent spate of cable mergers and acquisitions.

A new ad from the satellite provider lampoons a merger between Cable Corp and CableWorld, likely stand-ins for Charter Communications, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable.

“That company stinks,” complains a board member of “Cable Corp,” the target of the buyout. “And I mean they smell. I used to work there. I had to breathe through my mouth all the time.”

To those in the know, the ad is more accurate than funny.

“We all know that DirecTV’s better at this whole TV thing, so to beat ‘em, we’re going to get bigger, we’re going to merge with CableWorld,” says Jeffrey Tambor, who plays Cable Corp’s CEO.

AT&T bought DirecTV to combine the satellite provider’s much larger customer base with AT&T U-verse to win better volume discounts for cable programming.

Consumers will get a higher bill regardless and Fred Willard is on hand to deliver the pink slips.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/DirecTV Cable Corp Merges with CableWorld 10-1-15.mp4

Fred Willard and Jeffrey Tambor appear as CEOs of rival cable companies merging in this new ad from DirecTV. (30 seconds)

$875 Million Class Action Lawsuit Against Comcast Settles for $50 Million; You Get a Coupon

Phillip Dampier September 28, 2015 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 4 Comments
Another satisfied customer

Another satisfied customer

After more than a decade of legal wrangling, a class action lawsuit originally valued at up to $875 million filed on behalf of Philadelphia-area cable customers accusing Comcast of rigging a cable monopoly has settled for $50 million.

A federal judge in Philadelphia has approved a considerably reduced payout to affected subscribers and ex-customers who earlier submitted a claim form.

Under the settlement, former Comcast cable customers in the Philadelphia area qualify for a $15 check. Current Comcast customers can choose a $15 bill credit, six free pay per view movies, or two free months of The Movie Channel. If you failed to file a claim form before the July closing date, enjoy The Movie Channel for two months at no charge — it represents your default damage settlement.

Comcast is happy the suit, originally brought in 2003, has now come to a close. So are the lawyers who brought the case, who will receive $15 million in fees.

The lawsuit accused Comcast of colluding with other cable companies to buy or swap area cable customers to form a regional monopoly in southeastern Pennsylvania, where it could safely raise prices and scare off would-be competitors. The suit sought refunds and damages up to $875 million for Comcast’s allegedly ill-gotten gains.

Comcast’s attorneys eventually mowed down much of the plaintiff’s case when they convinced the U.S. Supreme Court the class action was too broad, involving cable customers that were formerly served by other cable companies before they were snapped up by Comcast. Because any potential damages inflicted by Comcast’s rate hikes and service varied depending on the date of ownership transfer, it was impossible, the attorneys argued, to determine appropriate damages. The Supreme Court agreed with Comcast and eventually eliminated class members who lived outside of Philadelphia and the four counties that surround the city. Having gutted much of the case, the two parties reached a settlement amounting to a fraction of the original request for damages.

Customers seemed less than thrilled.

“The Movie Channel? Really?,” complained Linda Martinez of Philadelphia. “They already give that channel away like candy when you phone up Comcast and complain about their lousy service. I had it for six months and I never even found it on the TV.”

Patrick Drahi Predicts 25% of U.S. Homes Will Dump Cable TV; Big Broadband Rate Hikes Predicted

Moffett

Moffett

Altice CEO Patrick Drahi believes up to one-quarter of all cable customers will drop their video packages in the next few years and stick solely with broadband service.

If Drahi’s prediction is true, telecom analyst Craig Moffett off MoffettNathanson predicts broadband pricing will skyrocket as the cable industry tries to replace its lost video revenue.

Cable operators may be able to leverage their monopoly/duopoly status to force higher broadband prices in markets where phone companies only deliver token competition with slow speed DSL.

Moffett believes broadband pricing strategies depend heavily on local competition. In markets like New York City that can choose between Cablevision and Verizon FiOS, dramatically raising the cost of Internet access will probably drive cable customers into the arms of Verizon. But in areas served by companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable/Charter, Moffett predicts “more benign” competition from phone companies offering only DSL will give cable companies plenty of room to “grow the broadband business” by raising prices on consumers.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Does Altice Have Cost-Cutting Plans for Cablevision 9-17-15.flv

Craig Moffett, analyst at MoffettNathanson, examines the $17.7 billion purchase of Cablevision by Altice and some of the challenges Altice faces in running a U.S. cable company. He speaks on “Bloomberg Surveillance.” (3:23)

Altice Acquires Cablevision for $17.7 Billion; Generous Offer Too Good to Pass Up

Altice President Patrick Drahi at the French National Assembly in Paris, May 27, 2015. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Altice President Patrick Drahi at the French National Assembly in Paris, May 27, 2015. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

PARIS (Reuters) – Altice NV, one of the most acquisitive European telecoms groups, made a major move into the U.S. market on Thursday with a deal to buy fourth-largest operator Cablevision Systems Corp for $17.7 billion including debt.

Altice founder Patrick Drahi, who built a telecoms and cable empire via debt-fueled acquisitions in France, Portugal and Israel, is expected to apply his cost-cutting zeal to achieve a target of $900 million in annual synergies at Cablevision.

Drahi told a Goldman Sachs conference in New York that more than 300 Cablevision employees earn pay checks of over $300,000.

“This we will change,” said the French-Israeli billionaire.

Drahi entered the United States in May by buying a small, St Louis-based cable group called Suddenlink for $9.1 billion. He declared at the time that Altice would look for more acquisitions and eventually earn half its revenue from the United States.

In talks that began in June, Drahi convinced Charles Dolan, the patriarch of the Irish-American family that owns Cablevision, to sell. Cablevision has 3.1 million customers in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, but it has struggled with declining video subscribers like other cable companies.

“This deal takes us into the most affluent part of the United States and will be a good basis for further expansion,” said Altice Chief Executive Dexter Goei on a conference call. “We think there are significant ways to improve profitability by pooling purchasing and other costs between Cablevision and Suddenlink.”

optimumAltice will pay $34.90 in cash per share, a 22 percent premium to Wednesday’s closing price of $28.54, giving Cablevision an equity value of $10 billion.

Shares in Altice closed up 0.68 percent at 24.5 euros, after gaining nearly 13 percent at the open. Cablevision shares rose 13.9 percent to $32.51, close to the offer price and a sign that few investors expect another bidder for Cablevision to emerge.

Altice’s bid for Cablevision will face scrutiny from the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice, but analysts at Jefferies said they expected “little pushback.”

‘LITTLE PUSHBACK’ SEEN

Investors who back Drahi’s acquisition spree have made Altice the best-performing telecom stock in Europe this year, up more than 50 percent before Thursday’s deal, compared with an 8.4 percent rise in the sector index .

It is unclear what other assets Altice may target in the United States, where it will have to deal with fast-changing competition as cable groups consolidate and cope with subscriber losses to video streaming services such as Netflix.

alticeDrahi has said Altice may look at properties to be sold under Charter Communications Inc’s takeover of Time Warner Cable Inc. Another target could be Cox Communications, but the closely held company has repeatedly said it is not for sale.

Drahi has also said that Altice could buy a U.S. wireless carrier “someday” to offer subscribers a “quadruple play” of Internet, television, and fixed and mobile telecoms.

Altice, which has been snapping up television and radio targets in Europe in recent months, will become the owner of the Newsday newspaper and local news channel News 12 Networks as part of the Cablevision deal.

Goei said the company would not interfere in the editorial side of the loss-making media businesses but would aim to run them more efficiently. He ruled out divesting the units.

He said the goal was to improve Cablevision’s margins to the “low 40s range” compared with current level of 28 percent, which lags the sector average of 35 percent.

Jim Dolan

Jim Dolan

Allan Nichols, analyst at investment research firm Morningstar, said he was “somewhat skeptical” that Altice could deliver on the savings since content costs were higher in the United States than in Europe.

“That said, Altice has an impressive record of cost reduction, and we expect it will be much more aggressive than the Dolan family in cutting expenses, including reducing employee count,” he wrote in a note.

To finance the deal, Altice will raise $8.6 billion in new debt mostly at Cablevision and none at its European holding, which is already highly leveraged. It will also raise $3.3 billion in equity, 70 percent by issuing shares at Altice and 30 percent from private equity fund BC Partners and Canadian investment fund CPP Investment Board, backers of Suddenlink.

Altice, whose corporate headquarters are in the Netherlands, said it would issue Class A shares, which have fewer voting rights than the B shares held largely by Drahi. Altice created the dual-class structure in June to allow more stock deals without Drahi losing control.

Cablevision CEO James Dolan said in a statement the time was right for new ownership and he and his family “believe that Patrick Drahi and Altice will be truly worthy successors.”

The Dolans will continue to own media and sports assets through AMC Networks and The Madison Square Garden Company — owner of the New York Rangers and New York Knicks — which are not part of the deal.

JP Morgan, BNP Paribas and Barclays have committed to finance the deal and also advised Altice on it. Cablevision was advised by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Guggenheim Securities and PJT Partners.

http://phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC A deal 20 years in the making Altice to buy Cablevision 9-17-15.flv

CNBC reports Cablevision has finally sold out… to Altice NV a cable operator that dominates in France. (2:51)

http://phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Mergers in telecoms sector not over yet 9-17-15.flv

Neil Campling, global TMT analyst at Aviate Global, says there could be further mergers in the telecoms market following Altice’s acquisition of U.S. provider Cablevision. (3:20)

 (By Leila Abboud. Additional reporting by Rob Smith in London and Liana B. Baker and Malathi Nayak in New York; Writing by Christian Plumb; Editing by Andrew Callus and Mark Potter)

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