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

Wheeler

Wheeler

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

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

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

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

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

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

Powell

Powell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David "I'm crushing your head" Cohen

David “I’m crushing your head” Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

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

The NY Post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New York Times:

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

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

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

Justice Department Nearing Decision to Block Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

Phillip Dampier April 17, 2015 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 5 Comments

comcast twcStaff attorneys that have reviewed details of the Time Warner Cable/Comcast merger proposal are prepared to make a recommendation as early as next week that the Department of Justice should block the deal because it is anti-competitive and anti-consumer.

The staff in the Justice Department’s antitrust division have spent more than a year reviewing documents submitted by both cable companies to determine what impact the merger would have on the cable television and broadband landscape.

Bloomberg News today reported the attorneys did not like what they saw and believe the merger would harm consumers. For the first time, a cable company merger deal was reviewed not so much for its impact on cable television programming, but on broadband.

When the Federal Communications Commission redefined broadband as an Internet connection of at least 25Mbps, Comcast suddenly found itself the largest broadband provider in the country. If the merger with Time Warner Cable is approved, Comcast will have a 56.8 percent market share of U.S. broadband customers, far exceeding any other provider.

In upstate New York, Comcast would have more than a 75% market share — nearly 9o% if you just consider non-Verizon FiOS areas. In California, Comcast would control more than 80% of the market, not only picking up Time Warner Cable customers, but Charter customers in Southern California as well. 

Comcast and Time Warner Cable have argued competition is not affected because the two companies never compete with each other. But a de facto broadband monopoly could allow Comcast to raise rates at will and bring a return to usage-related billing. It would also discourage new competitors from entering the market – particularly those relying on broadband to deliver video services, and hand Comcast more leverage to force compensation from online content companies like Netflix.

justiceUnder consideration by the Justice Department:

  • Whether the combined entity would have too much control over nationwide broadband Internet delivery;
  • whether Comcast could use its financial influence to strike exclusive cable deals that could keep programming off other platforms;
  • whether Comcast could limit how programming is delivered through video streaming services (usage caps, etc.);
  • if Comcast complied with terms under a previous merger deal with NBCUniversal.

Renata Hesse, a deputy assistant attorney general for antitrust, will take the analysis and ultimately decide, along with the division’s top officials, whether to file a federal lawsuit to block the deal. Bloomberg reports lawyers at the Justice Department have contacted outside parties to collect evidence to strengthen their potential case against the merger.

Another clear sign the merger is not being received well inside the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission is a complete lack of negotiations with Comcast over possible concessions to make the deal less anti-competitive. That also happened with the AT&T/T-Mobile merger where negotiations to ease anticompetitive concerns never seriously got off the ground before the Justice Department sued to block the deal. The FCC quickly announced its own opposition later that same day.

A lawsuit does not necessarily kill the merger deal. Comcast could take its case to federal court to win approval over the objections of the Justice Department. The company might also counter-propose new concessions to address concerns raised by the lawsuit. 

After learning of today’s Bloomberg News story, spokespeople at both Comcast and Time Warner Cable are either confident or in denial:

“There is no basis for a lawsuit to block the transaction,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokeswoman. The merger “will result in significant consumer benefits — faster broadband speeds, access to a superior video experience, and more competition in business services resulting in billions of dollars of cost savings.”

Time Warner Cable spokesman Bobby Amirshahi said “we have been working productively with both DOJ and FCC and believe that there is no basis for DOJ to block the deal.”

Incumbent Cable, Phone Companies Will Tighten Bundle Pricing to Battle Cord-Cutting

triple play

A typical promotional offer from Comcast for a bundle of broadband, TV and phone service.

Cable and phone companies will continue to raise the price of broadband-only service while also increasing the value proposition of bundled packages of broadband, television, and phone service to keep customers from cutting the cable television cord.

For at least four years, cable companies have refocused rate increases and fees on Internet access, especially for broadband-only customers. At the same time, cable-TV rate hikes are easing, especially for customers subscribed to two or more services. Today, customers face prices as high as $67 a month for standalone Internet service. But that price can drop in half if customers bundle broadband with television and phone service. Most triple play promotions in markets where AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS compete can be as low as $90 a month. In less competitive markets, a similar promotion often costs $99-119 a month.

Recent research by Sanford Bernstein reveals these pricing strategies are not happening by accident.

Media analyst Todd Juenger recently held his second cord-cutting focus group in Comcast-dominant San Francisco and found some of those most likely to cancel cable television decided to keep their Comcast bundle after they discovered the cable company charges $66.95 a month for Internet-only service, excluding the modem rental fee. For $10 more per month during the first year, customers can get that same 25Mbps broadband service bundled with 140 TV channels. Assuming the customer doesn’t protest the subsequent rate increase beginning a year later, that rate will eventually reset to $136.90 a month. But price-sensitive customers who complain often avoid any rate increase at all.

Juenger’s focus group surveyed 18 men and women in the age group most likely to drop cable television – 21-38 year-olds. Despite their love for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and other online video services, the participants broadly recognized the cable/telco bundle now delivers a better value proposition and as long as cable and phone companies continue to price up standalone Internet service, many will choose to stay with the company they hate and not try to cobble together a comparable package of broadband and television service from other providers.

cablecord“Hence, we remain cautiously optimistic that cord-cutting, in large numbers, isn’t likely to happen,” Juenger wrote his clients. “It’s one of those ideas that sounds great in the abstract but crumbles when faced with the reality.”

As cable television pricing continues to exceed many household budgets, providers are seeking new customers that can afford cable TV but choose not to subscribe. One of their primary targets: broadband-only customers and cord-nevers who might be persuaded to add cable television at a starting price of $10-20 above what they pay for broadband service. That price is less than what Sling TV or PlayStation Vue charges for far fewer channels.

The challenge competing online video providers face is finding a compelling limited channel lineup that will appeal to all-comers. Although the average cable subscriber generally watches fewer than a dozen cable channels regularly, not having access to one or more of those favored channels is a deal-breaker for many.

Juenger’s focus group was most open to a hypothetical a-la-carte package of any 10 customer-chosen channels for $20 a month. But Juenger reminded his investor clients no such package currently exists and probably never will.

“Simply put, for existing pay-tv subs, the content [available to Sling or View customers] is too limited (relative to the cost savings); and for cord-nevers, the price is too high (relative to the appeal of the content),” Juenger wrote.

But Juenger did warn that customers are enthusiastic about sticking it to their current provider, if they can get the programming they want. That could make some programmers, especially broadcast stations and networks, more vulnerable to revenue loss. If a company can reliably offer a variety of theme-based slimmed down cable packages coupled with an effective and seamless over-the-air antenna, no retransmission fees would be paid to over-the-air stations and networks.

If the bundled package pricing argument doesn’t work with cord-cutters, the broadband usage cap probably will. Customers will quickly learn they can eat through their monthly Internet usage allowance watching live television online, or avoid that prospect by subscribing to cable TV, which offers unlimited viewing.

Sorry, That Competing Online Video/Cord-Cutter Competitor is Dead in the Water When Usage Caps Arrive

Phillip "It isn't so dumb to own the pipes" Dampier

Phillip “It isn’t so dumb to own the pipes” Dampier

In 2006, AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre thought his company was at a disadvantage being stuck with “dumb pipes” while Google, Yahoo! (remember them?) and Vonage couldn’t count their earnings fast enough. While AT&T sold consumers plain DSL service, content was king on Wall Street and Whitacre groused it was unfair for bandwidth hogs to use “the pipes for free.” That one statement was the equivalent of throwing a lit match on a hillside in Malibu Canyon and a predictable firestorm over Net Neutrality ensued.

Nine years later, Net Neutrality is now official FCC policy, although the sour grape-eating Republicans will continue to throw Congressional hissyfits along the way. While they rely on tissue-thin evidence to back their assertion the FCC secretly colluded with the Obama Administration to stick it to AT&T and demand its repeal, the future of Net Neutrality will more likely be decided in a courtroom a year or two from now.

Back in 2006 AT&T primarily sold DSL service and was looking for cash to finance its then emerging U-verse platform. AT&T planned to follow cable’s lead, devoting most of the available bandwidth on its fiber to the neighborhood network to cable television programming. Broadband speeds were limited to just under 25Mbps — even less if a large household had multiple television sets in use.

But as the Great Recession arrived and wages stagnated, the cost of what used to be a “must-have” service for most Americans increasingly began to exceed the household budget and the day finally arrived when cable companies started losing more television customers than they were adding. Even worse, cable programming costs continue to spiral upwards and no major cable company can increase cable television rates fast enough to support the usual profit margin the industry counted on.

What Whitacre failed to realize nine years earlier is that broadband providers did not simply own “dumb pipes.” AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, Charter and other providers actually occupy two gilded catbird seats, with AT&T and Verizon dominating the wireless Internet business and Comcast, Time Warner, and Charter dominating at-home viewing and wired broadband. Lawmakers who deregulated both industries predicted pitting AT&T against Comcast or Verizon against Time Warner Cable would create competition not seen since Coke vs. Pepsi. Consumers would benefit and world-class service would result.

Instead, Time Warner Cable now sells Verizon Wireless phone service. Verizon gave up on expanding its FiOS network and is selling off its DSL and FiOS business in pieces to focus on its best moneymaker, Verizon Wireless. Comcast in turn threw in the towel on any notion of offering competing cellular service and, in fact, sold its acquired wireless spectrum to Verizon.

PlayStation Vue's lineup

PlayStation Vue’s lineup

The best way to make money is to avoid price wars with your competitors and the evidence shows there is growing peace in America’s Telecom Valley. Comcast can now raise your broadband bill because, for most, Verizon FiOS isn’t an option. AT&T U-verse does not have to hurry speed upgrades to customers if Time Warner Cable delivers no better than 50/5Mbps service in large parts of its service area. Google Fiber remains a minor threat, only available in a handful of cities. AT&T distributed more copies of its press release touting U-verse Gigapower — its gigabit Internet offering — than there are customers qualified to sign up.

Notice that we’ve drifted away from talking about cable television programming. So has the industry, now increasingly dependent on broadband rate increases to make up the difference in revenue they used to take home from their television packages.

But now that the biggest players have a predictable source of revenue, allowing disruptors to further challenge earnings isn’t something your local cable and phone company will allow for long. At the moment, those most likely to cause problems are the growing number of “over the top” streaming video services that do not require a cable television subscription to watch. But they do need broadband — Whitacre’s “dumb pipes” — to reach subscribers. To manage that, services like Apple, PlayStation Vue and Sling TV and their customers must deal with the gatekeepers — AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon and others.

What Whitacre thought was a disadvantage is now becoming the best thing in the world — manning a toll booth on the only two roads most Americans can use to access online content.

Today, Sony officially launched its Internet-TV service, “PlayStation Vue” in three cities (New York, Chicago and Philadelphia) with a base price of $49.99/month. In includes more than 50 cable networks and in the three launch cities — local network affiliates. In Chicago and Philadelphia, where Comcast provides cable service, potential customers will need to pay $50 a month for Vue and another $64.95 a month for 50Mbps broadband — the least expensive broadband-only tier that is suitable for high quality viewing. Your combined bill for both services is $114.94 a month. Comcast charges $99.99 a month for its double play – 220 TV channels and 50Mbps broadband — almost $15 a month less for its package, and it includes around 150 more channels than Vue.

Comcast explans its new usage caps.

Comcast explains its new usage caps.

But Comcast also has another weapon it is testing is several of its markets — the resumption of usage caps and overlimit fees on its broadband service. Comcast customers in most test markets are given 300GB a month, after which they face overlimit fees of $10 for each additional increment of 50GB. While web browsing and e-mail fit more than comfortably within those caps, watching HD video may not. That leaves a potential Vue customer with a major dilemma. Should they pay $15 a month more for service than they can pay Comcast for a better package -and- chew away their usage allowance using it?

Comcast has yet to figure out how to install a coin collector on top of your television set, so you can watch as much Comcast cable television as you’d like. But watching streaming video could get very expensive if it exceeds a future Comcast usage allowance.

Smaller video packages from providers like Sling TV or the forthcoming Apple streaming service might make more sense, but will still be subject to Comcast’s usage caps if/when they are reintroduced around the country, while Comcast’s own television service will not.

This is why cable and phone companies hold enormous power over their potential competitors, even if Net Neutrality is fiercely enforced. Usage caps and usage-based billing represent an end run around Net Neutrality and both are permitted. The FCC has consistently refused to engage on the issue of broadband usage caps, leaving providers with a useful weapon to deter customers from dropping their television package in favor of an online alternative.

With most Americans having a choice of only one or two “dumb pipes” over which they can reach these services, being an owner of those pipes and getting to set the rates and conditions to use them is a very comfortable (and profitable) place to be.

Comcast: Bill First, Ask Questions Later (or Never); Attorney Pelted With Collection Letters/Calls for Non-Service

comcast collectionsA Pennsylvania attorney that didn’t pay his $215 Comcast bill was hounded by Comcast’s collections crew despite never getting cable service at his new address.

Wayne resident Edmond Tiryak would seem like a poor target for cable company harassment. He’s a lawyer after all. But even he withered after a month of unrelenting phone calls and letters demanding he pay his bill for non-service.

Tiryak had a peaceful 25-year relationship with Comcast until he moved last October. After three weeks of no-show appointments, waits on hold of up to 40 minutes and lots of excuses, Comcast never bothered to hook up service at his new address. But that didn’t stop the cable company from billing Tiryak $215 for his first month, in advance.

Calling Comcast to the debate the veracity of the bill turned out to be an exercise in futility. Comcast’s offshore call center insists they know best — Tiryak has cable service because the computer says he does. The fact Tiryak lives at the address and claims he doesn’t is beside the point. The only important matter is how Tiryak would like to pay – Visa, Mastercard, Discover? The fact he still doesn’t have service is, well, incidental.

A reasonable person would refuse to pay and insist on an investigation by a supervisor to verify Comcast is MIA at the Tiryak residence. But Comcast has a collections department that could wear down Vladimir Putin and they know how to use it.

Two months later, the attorney pleaded with Inquirer business columnist Jeff Gelles to help get Comcast off his back.

“By the time he contacted me in January, Tiryak had given up in frustration and was just fighting to get the $215 bill erased,” Gelles wrote. “Even four letters to Comcast’s president hadn’t done the trick.”

Some quick media attention is an excellent way to get Comcast’s attention, at least for a little while, and Tiryak was initially pleased to report the charges had been zeroed out.

Phillip "Comcast channels Genghis Khan" Dampier

Phillip “Comcast channels Genghis Khan” Dampier

But then Comcast’s collections department changed their mind after dreaming about that $215 in lost revenue, and started calling Tiryak again.

Gelles forwarded on the complaint about the resumed harassment collection calls to Comcast and received yet another promise all would be made right.

“It’s astonishing to me that they would take a really good customer, who’s been with them 25 years, and basically just treat me as if I’m nothing – as if I’m useless to them,” Tiryak told Gelles.

A long-standing pattern of Comcast customer complaints suggests Tiryak should not be surprised.

Gelles gently reminded readers in Comcast’s hometown that the free market works best when customers have an alternative when stuck in an abusive relationship with the cable company. But deregulated capitalism hands out gold stars for monopoly building consolidation. Tiryak, like so many others, landed on Comcast’s Park Place and now they have to pay.

The solution to the chronic dyspepsia resulting from repeated exposure to Comcast isn’t Verizon, which has capitulated on further expansion of its competing FiOS fiber to the home service to focus on counting Verizon Wireless coin. Instead of phantom competition that never arrives, the FCC’s recent decision to provide checks and balances for cocky, deregulated behemoth cable companies like Comcast might be the best answer for now.

Despite industry claims that an apocalypse would result from applying any “utility-style” regulation like that used to keep AT&T in check during its monopoly years, consumer advocates suggest Comcast’s passive-aggressive behavior could be managed with one phone call to a state regulator.

Geldes asked the former director of consumer services for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission about how the agency would handle Tiryak’s complaint, if it were empowered to do so:

Under PUC rules, he says, after a utility investigates a dispute, it has to ask whether the consumer is satisfied. “If the customer says no, the company is required to give the PUC’s number for making an informal complaint,” he says. That is usually enough to solve most issues, he says. The agency also monitors nagging problems like long hold times for calls and occasionally intervenes.

Telephone companies used to dread the prospect of dealing with a customer complaint escalated to the New York Public Service Commission. Repair crews were often dispatched within an hour and generous service credits and apologies were routine. But the impact lived on for years after that. Customer service agents looking up account information on a customer who previously complained to the PSC about anything would find their computer terminal lit up like a Christmas tree, alerting them they were dealing with a customer that doesn’t play.

Recalling that era makes one wonder if regulating the biggest bad boys on the block — cable companies running wild — might not be such a bad idea after all.

Nothing else has worked.

Enjoy Better: Maine Lawmakers Slumming in the Off-Season at Maine Resort, Sponsored by Time Warner Cable

inn by the sea

Welcome to Inn by the Sea, where relaxed coastal luxury comes naturally.

Come for the unpretentious elegance, but don’t stay for the broadband.

Time Warner Cable’s war on competitive broadband in the state of Maine tastes delicious, if you are a lawmaker who enjoys a $26 herb marinated skirt steak with roasted mushrooms, chimichurri, piquillo aioli, and herbed hand cut steak fries in the dining room of the Cape Elizabeth seaside resort Inn by the Sea. Time Warner Cable (and you) picked up the tab, and for those lawmakers too full to drive, the cable company was ready with complimentary rooms at the Inn that retail off-season for $205-355 a night.

twcWelcome to the 2015 Time Warner Cable Winter Policy Conference, held Jan 22-23 at the remodeled resort and spa where a stay during the summer can cost $500 a day.

Thursday night’s dinner was followed by an all-day information lobbying event Friday — a workday when Maine lawmakers would normally be expected to serve the public interest, but served Time Warner Cable’s instead.

The overall theme of the conference: Defending Time Warner Cable’s performance in Maine and why letting community-owned providers compete with them is a really bad idea.

While lawmakers enjoyed complimentary access to the Inn by Sea’s high-speed Wi-Fi connection, Internet service around the rest of Cape Elizabeth is considerably less sublime, with Angie’s List reporting only 23 percent of the locals consider their broadband provider reliable. Maine itself is ranked 49th out of 50 states for quality of service and availability and no steak dinner will convince honest lawmakers the state is prepared with robust broadband required for the 21st century digital economy. Several members have introduced various measures to aid communities trying to move beyond DSL provided by FairPoint Communications and up to 50Mbps broadband from Time Warner Cable.

SWFIMG_080723_15590228_5EG1FThe thought of competition is enough to give any cable lobbyist indigestion, especially if the new entrant provides fiber to the home service, something almost unknown among commercial providers in Maine.

Lawmakers caught attending the shindig claimed they attended the “educational forum” to become informed.

But a review of the presenter list suggests this was hardly a 60 Minutes/Edward R. Murrow moment. Lawmakers may not have been aware the presentations were about as balanced as a program length commercial:

  • Moderator (Session 1): Jadz Janucik, National Cable & Telecommunication Association – The NCTA is the nation’s largest cable industry lobbying group;
  • Dave Thomas, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP: A corporate attorney representing cable companies, particularly when they face competitive threats;
  • Lisa Schoenthaler, National Cable & Telecommunication Association;
  • Moderator (Session 2): Charlie Williams, Time Warner Cable;
  • Charles Davidson and Michael Santorelli from the Advanced Communications Law and Policy Institute at New York Law School. Both have received direct compensation from Time Warner Cable for their  “research” reports and are very active and frequent defenders of Time Warner Cable’s public policy agenda;
  • Joe Gillan, Gillan Associates – an economist working under paid contract with the cable industry;
  • Moderator (Session 3): Tom Federle, Federle Law: Chief lobbyist for Time Warner Cable in Maine for over seven years;
  • Robin Casey, Enockever LLP: Casey is one of the nation’s pre-eminent cable industry lawyers, called by the Texas Cable Association “the authority on the telecom industry;”
  • Mary Ellen Fitzgerald, Critical Insights: A Maine pollster hired by Time Warner Cable to carry out the company’s carefully worded survey on broadband issues;
  • Moderator (Session 5): Melinda Poore, senior vice president of governmental relations, Time Warner Cable Maine.

spa lobby“If we want good public policy, there’s reason for all of us to be worried,” utilities expert Gordon Weil, the state’s first Public Advocate, who represented the interests of ratepayers before regulators, told the Maine Center for Public Integrity. Such treatment of legislators is “obviously intended to persuade them by more than the validity of the arguments; it’s intended to persuade by the reception they’re given.”

That sentiment was echoed in a glowing review from a Time Warner colleague given to Tom Federle, the company’s top lobbyist.

“Tom has been the primary lobbyist for Time Warner Cable’s Maine operations for the past seven years,” said Melinda Poole, an executive vice president for governmental relations at Time Warner Cable. “He has a real knack for distilling complex issues for policy makers, has always been able to advance our positions effectively, and consistently has outperformed for us. Tom is well respected by legislators on both sides of the aisle.”

Lawmakers contacted by the Maine Center for Public Integrity seemed to sidestep or downplay the ethical issues of attending the company-sponsored event.

“I think this idea of meals and conversations is how Augusta functions on some level,” said Rep. Mark Dion (D-Portland), who attended the event in Cape Elizabeth, did not stay overnight but was provided dinner and breakfast by Time Warner.

Sen. Andre Cushing (R-Hampden), for whom Time Warner paid the cost of meals and the room, said he thought “about a dozen” legislators attended the Thursday night dinner. Dion said “30 or 35″ attended the second day’s sessions.

Partying-ExecsScott Pryzwansky, Time Warner Cable’s director of public relations for the eastern U.S., declined to answer any specific questions but replied by email: “As one of Maine’s leading employers and telecommunications companies, we designed this second biannual educational forum to help policymakers and others better understand some of the complex telecommunications issues confronting Maine and the nation.”

Critics contend such “educational” meetings held at posh locations where company lobbyists hand out free meals and room keys do more to obfuscate than clarify issues for lawmakers, who are likely to remember the accommodations and who provided them more than the seminar.

“I would have said, ‘Fine, if you want to meet with me, come meet on state facilities, no steak dinner,’ said Weil. “If steak dinners didn’t work, they wouldn’t give them steak dinners.”

Time Warner Cable’s two-day event included a packet of handouts, obtained by Stop the Cap!, that illustrate exactly how one-sided the affair was:

  • sock puppetA highly slanted (refuted here) presentation opposing “Government Operated Networks” (or GONs – a favorite acronym used by industry-funded think tanks to oppose municipal broadband) produced by the Advanced Communications Law and Policy Institute;
  • an NCTA-produced sheet opposing taxes on Internet access;
  • a Time Warner Cable-written summary of recent Maine Public Utility Commission conclusions about the availability of affordable telephone service;
  • a guest letter to the editor from Fred Campbell, who has a long history running industry-funded groups that are supposed to advocate for competition, except when an industry friend’s merger deal is on the line;
  • and a blog post from the Koch Brothers-funded corporate-friendly Reason.com.

The slanted push-poll part of the presentation was also unsurprisingly predictable.

“Do you approve or disapprove of the current practice of Maine’s government using tax dollars and fees on consumers to subsidize public entities to compete with private businesses?” asked one question.

Another asked if residents would favor “using taxpayer supported debt to build government-owned broadband networks,” ignoring the fact many projects are covered by bonds that carry little or no risk to taxpayers. Some profitable projects could even return money to local communities.

At least one lawmaker was quickly skeptical of the veracity of the company-sponsored poll.

State Rep. Sarah Gideon (D- Freeport) said some of the questions were “leading.”

“Nobody’s going to say ‘Yes, I want my state to incur debt,’” said Gideon. “We see lots of surveys as policymakers and we have to be smart enough to look at what questions are asked.”

Since 2008, Time Warner has donated more than $240,000 to Maine politicians: $127,360 to Democrats and Democratic PACs, and $113,250 to Republicans and Republican PACs. Most of the minor improvements in the state’s broadband rankings since 2013 come from community providers providing a quantum speed leap over traditional DSL and cable broadband services most Maine residents receive.

Tip for Reporters – Always Follow the Money: Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger Supporters

Buy a vocal supporter for your merger deal.

Buy a vocal supporter for your merger deal.

The Los Angeles Times published a piece this week noting that the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger does have its supporters:

To be sure, dozens of groups also support the proposed Comcast merger, including the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, Orange County Business Council, the L.A. County Economic Development Council and the National Urban League. Television networks including Ovation, Hallmark Channel and Starz also support the deal.

But the article never informs readers the groups in support of the transaction all have direct financial ties to Comcast, Time Warner Cable, or both cable companies. It would only be news if these groups opposed the merger.

Stop the Cap! has found almost no support for the merger deal among independent organizations that are not on the payroll of either merger partner. The myriad of civil rights organizations, trade associations, and non-profit groups penning letters to regulators supporting the deal are nearly all recipients of contributions from Comcast or Time Warner.

Comcast is notorious for capitalizing on their charitable corporate giving by mailing advocacy packages to donor recipients that urge support for the company’s public policy and corporate agendas. Comcast even includes sample letters a group can use to create their own letter of support, which explains why so many are nearly identical.

Although Comcast never threatens to cut off groups that don’t follow through, the company does know who sent letters and who did not, as they all become part of the public record.

In less than 30 minutes, Stop the Cap! was able to trace direct economic ties between Comcast and/or Time Warner Cable and the groups the LA Times story mentions. Readers deserve to know this information and it should have been included in the story.

comcast twcLet us review:

The LA Chamber of Commerce: Time Warner Cable is a “Diamond Club Member,” which the Chamber claims represents the “largest member investors.”

The Orange County Business Council includes a Time Warner Cable executive on its Board of Directors and is a major “investor” in the group.

Not only is Time Warner Cable on the executive committee of the LA Economic Development Council, it also serves on the group’s board of governors. Comcast is also a member.

The National Urban League advocates in favor of almost everything Comcast wants, no doubt because the organization that sold out to big corporate donors long ago is also on Comcast’s payroll. The group has received at least $12 million in in-kind contributions from Comcast, as well as receiving checks for more than 70 local chapter projects. Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen has sat on the Urban League’s board of trustees since 2008. In addition, the Comcast Foundation, headed by Cohen, gave the National Urban League and some of its more than 100 affiliates almost $2 million from 2012 to 2013, according to an analysis of IRS tax filings by the Center for Public Integrity.

As for Ovation, Hallmark Channel and Starz — they are all cable networks dependent on carriage agreements with the nation’s first (Comcast) and second-largest (Time Warner Cable) cable operators for their economic survival.

Channeling Pinnochio, NCTA Cable Lobby Launches “The Infinite Internet” (They Want to Usage Cap)

pinnocThe National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the nation’s largest cable lobbying group, has outdone itself with a brand new fact-challenged video truth-seekers will quickly discover is little more than industry propaganda.

“For nearly 20 years, cable has been building Internet networks that are empowering everyone from innovators and entrepreneurs to kids in the garage,” says the NCTA in its introduction of its new video “The Infinite Internet.” “The Internet propels business, education, entertainment – whatever we want. It’s a platform of possibilities and the fast growing technology in history. Cable is proud of the part we’ve played in advancing America’s future and we’ll continue to make it faster and more accessible.”

Except many NCTA member companies want to introduce usage caps and consumption billing that limit those possibilities on an already absurdly profitable service. The same broadband duopoly of cable and phone companies also holds America’s broadband rankings back, and has demonstrated its real priority is to charge more money for less service.

We’ve reviewed the video and found credibility problems with almost every claim:

Claim: “America’s ISPs have invested trillions of dollars and laid 400,000 miles of fiber optics.”

Our finding: FIB Even industry mouthpieces like the Progressive Policy Institute and NCTA members themselves have a problem with “trillions.” The chief executives of AT&T, Bright House Networks, Cablevision, CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Frontier, Suddenlink, Time Warner Cable, 15 other companies, and industry groups such as the National Cable & Telecommunications Association itself, the Telecommunications Industry Association, and the CTIA Wireless Association claimed in the spring of 2014 that the entire telecommunications industry (not cable alone) spent a combined $1.2 trillion on communications infrastructure. A considerable percentage of that investment was to build out cellular networks, first for mobile phone calls and only later for wireless data. The cable industry spent far less than $1 trillion on its own infrastructure and at the time of its most rapid growth, it was intended primarily to deliver cable television, not broadband.

Stop the Cap! also found the NCTA cheating in its claims of increasing investment in broadband. The trade group was citing cumulative spending, not actual year-to-year spending. A careful review shows broadband investments are generally flat or in decline and are nowhere near comparable to the investments the industry made in the late 1990s.

Although it may be true the cable industry has deployed 400,000 miles of fiber optics, the overwhelming majority of cable customers cannot directly access any of it. Virtually all the cable industry’s fiber is deployed between the company’s headquarters and individual communities where it is connected to the same coaxial cable platform that has been around since the 1960s. Most of the rest is laid for commercial purposes, notably providing backhaul connectivity for cell towers. Time Warner Cable alone deployed fiber to its 10,000th cell tower back in 2013. It’s a lucrative business, earning that cable company more than $61 million a quarter.

BroadbandNow found no cable company appearing on the list of top fiber broadband providers. In fact, as of 2012 only 23% of Americans have access to fiber broadband ranking the United States 14th among western countries in fiber optic penetration according to the OECD.

Claim: “High speed connections reach nearly every home with blazing fast speeds that power our lives.”

Our finding: HIGHLY MISLEADING The NCTA fails to define its terms here. What exactly constitutes a “high-speed connection.” The FCC currently defines broadband as providing speeds of 4Mbps or better. Is that “blazing fast?” The FCC is currently considering redefining broadband to mean speeds of at least 25Mbps, well below many cable company entry-level broadband tiers. The NCTA also likes to claim that 99% of households have access to high-speed Internet, but they include wireless technology at any speed in those figures. If you can get one bar from AT&T’s 3G wireless Internet network, you’ve got high-speed broadband in their eyes.

In fact, when it comes to stingy coverage areas, cable is notoriously not available outside of the biggest cities and suburbs, as the government’s own National Broadband Map depicts:

Map showing cable companies offering at least DOCSIS 3.0 cable broadband service.

Map showing cable companies offering at least DOCSIS 3.0 cable broadband service.

Claim: “ISP’s want access for everyone.”

Our finding: TRUE, WITH MISSING FINE PRINT What company would not want to offer its products and services to everyone. The real question is whether they plan on doing that or simply wishing they had. The cable industry has no intention of implementing sweeping changes to the Return On Investment (ROI) formula that determines whether your home gets access to cable or not. Some companies like Time Warner Cable and Frontier Communications are expanding their cable and DSL networks, but only when the government steps in with broadband deployment grant funding.

Assuming service is available, the next hurdle is cost. BBC News reported in 2013 home broadband in the U.S. costs far more than elsewhere. At high speeds, it costs nearly three times as much as in the UK and France, and more than five times as much as in South Korea. Today it costs even more when you count the growing number of providers charging modem rental fees as high as $10 a month and often cap usage or force customers into usage-based billing schemes.

Claim: “With over 300,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots, the Internet of Things is emerging.”

Cox Cable sells their customers on accessing over 300,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, with a prominent asterisk.

Cox Cable sells their customers on accessing over 300,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, with a prominent asterisk. Access is only available for free if you are a current cable broadband customer.

Our finding: MISLEADING The NCTA is referring to collaboration between Bright House Networks, Cox Communications, Optimum, Time Warner Cable and XFINITY that allow each other’s high-speed Internet customers to use to each company’s Wi-Fi hotspots. They key word is “customers.” The hotspots may be technically reachable by the public, but unless you are a current cable broadband subscriber, using them typically requires the purchase of a daily use pass.

Claim: “Cable will continue to invest, building this platform of possibilities, if we preserve the freedom that created the Internet.”

Our finding: EMPTY CLAIMS The NCTA’s commitment that the cable industry will continue to invest is fulfilled if one cable operator spends just $1 on their network infrastructure. Notice the NCTA does not commit its members to stopping the ongoing decline in broadband investment, much less move to increase it. It also has no explanation for the annual rate increases and new fees and surcharges customers are paying, as the gap between broadband pricing abroad and at home grows even larger. 

“Preserve the freedom” is code language for maintaining the deregulation that the industry has used to its advantage to raise prices in a broadband market most Americans will find is either a monopoly or duopoly. Although the NCTA implies it, the cable industry did not create the Internet. It was a government project (gasp!) initially developed through contracts with the Department of Defense and soon broadened to include educational institutions. The first significant commercial ISPs emerged only in the late 1980s. Cable industry broadband finally showed up around a decade after that. The industry’s claims are akin to boasting Lewis and Clark discovered Kansas City… in 1966.

If the cable industry gets some oversight of its broadband service and enforced protection of Net Neutrality, does that mean investment will flee? First, providers are already spending a lower percentage of capital on broadband expansion in the current deregulatory environment. Second, as broadband becomes the cable industry’s top earner, it provides an endless supply of revenue without the headaches of negotiating programming contracts, dealing with cable television network rate increases, and the growing phenomenon of cord-cutting. In other words, without significant new competition, it remains a license to print money.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/NCTA The Infinite Internet 1-20-15.mp4

The NCTA is trying to make hay with its new video, “The Infinite Internet” which purports to share how Big Cable’s vision of the Internet is making new things possible. They don’t mention many of their member companies want to place a usage cap on that innovation, even as they continue to raise prices way out of proportion of the cost of delivering the service. It’s classic cable industry propaganda. (1:08)

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