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Comcast Threatens Limited Income Seniors Over Compensation for Cable Boxes Destroyed in Fire

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WZZM Grand Rapids Over 50 seniors displaced by fire at Battle Creek apartment complex 6-20-14.flv

WZZM in Grand Rapids covers the fire in an independent living complex that left at least 50 seniors homeless and facing big bills from Comcast. (1:53)

fireAt least 50 seniors residing in an independent living complex in Battle Creek, Mich., were burned out of their apartments after a devastating fire in late June. Some of the fixed income seniors lost everything they owned.

Despite the understanding and patience of credit card companies, banks, insurance companies, AT&T, and the local power utility — all willing to wait for payments or waive billing for those affected, one company stood out for its plan to collect damages from the fire victims: Comcast.

The Area Agency on Aging, working to help the victims, reached out to local Battle Creek media to report Comcast’s local agents were aggressively seeking compensation from the displaced seniors after learning about the fire.

“They want $120 for each cable box, despite the fact these seniors just lost their homes and many are low-income,” Carla Fales, CEO of the agency told WWMT-TV.

Comcast’s response: “Everything destroyed must be paid for.”

06-burned-cable-boxAs is often the case, once Comcast’s disagreeable behavior becomes a headline on the 6 o’clock local news, public relations damage control begins.

When WWMT called Comcast’s corporate offices, the cable company assured the newsroom Comcast would probably waive the fees, but provided no guarantees.

“I can assure everyone there is a process in place; we are working individually with customers to help them in this difficult time,” offered a Comcast spokesperson.

Monday night, Battle Creek Mayor Dave Walters told WWMT that fire victims will not be held responsible for the cost of the lost equipment.

But some may be mired in paperwork to avoid the lost/damaged equipment fees.

Affected residents who were insured at the time of the fire still have to reimburse Comcast through a damage claim filed with their insurance company. Those uninsured will be asked to submit a fire report which must be requested from the local fire department. In some cases, customers may also asked to offer a notarized statement indicating they were not insured to avoid the $120 charge.

But before any of that happens, Comcast also traditionally requires customers to pay any past due balances on their account before equipment credits can be provided.

Comcast’s zeal for charging penalties for lost or damaged equipment is not limited to Michigan.

battle creekIn January, a Tennessee woman’s home went up in flames and was quickly declared a total loss. The only company to give the family a hard time was Comcast, who billed them $550 for four used cable boxes and a rented cable modem melted in the fire.

“I thought, ‘What are they trying to do to me?’” Emma Hilton said. “I’ve done went through a fire. I tried to salvage what I can.”

Hilton was unsure what exactly Comcast expected the fire department to do about the cable company’s equipment.

“(Firefighters) couldn’t get the TV’s. They were burning,” she told WJHL-TV.

Despite the fact her landlord leveled the rest of the uninhabitable home, Comcast still wanted to get paid if she could not recover the equipment from the ashes.

“You mean they’re actually going to charge me for those cable boxes and after I told you I had a fire?’” Hilton said of one of her phone conversations with the cable provider.

Comcast told her to read the contract, which leaves responsibility for the cable equipment entirely up to the customer. Comcast includes a strong recommendation to keep up a renter’s or homeowner’s insurance policy. Now customers know why.

In the past six years of covering these stories, Stop the Cap! has found many renters who simply don’t bother with renter’s insurance, mistakenly assuming the landlord’s own insurance policy covers their damages. But it does not. A renter’s insurance policy typically costs about $100 a year and covers the renter’s personal belongings (and cable boxes). Some policies also cover displaced living expenses — food, a hotel room, etc. They also cover liability in the event a guest is injured inside your rental property. Some cable companies demand up to $500 for each lost or damaged piece of equipment — an unnecessary point of stress and expense right after a major negative event. Get insurance. It’s a bargain.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WWMT Grand Rapids Seniors Asked to Pay Comcast for Damaged Boxes 6-20-14.flv

WWMT in Grand Rapids covers Comcast’s initial resistance to giving seniors a break on fire-damaged cable equipment after their senior living complex was heavily damaged in a fire. (1:38)

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Antitrust Us: Is ComVerizablAsT&TWCDirecTV Really Best for American Broadband?

Bad enough

Bad enough

A big company needs a big name, and so what if you can’t say it out loud, so long as your check reaches the cable cartel on time to avoid those inconvenient late fees.

The shock waves of the $45 billion dollar proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable (not to mention AT&T and DirecTV) have reached as far as Great Britain where appalled editorial writers in the British press are pondering whether Washington has lost its mind or just its integrity… or a combination of both, by actually contemplating the unthinkable rebirth of the American Robber Baron.

Only instead of railroads powering America’s early 20th century economy, today its broadband. Overseas, broadband is plentiful, fast, and cheap. Back home, cable operators are hard at work in a comfortable monopoly/duopoly working on excuses to justify Internet rationing with usage caps, outrageous equipment rental fees, rate hikes, and usage billing for a product about as cheap to offer as a phone call on one of those unlimited calling plans you probably already have.

From The Economist:

“On “OUTLAW”, a drama that aired on NBC, a Supreme Court justice leaves the bench to join a law firm. In real life he might have begun working for Comcast, America’s largest cable company, which owns NBC. Many of Washington’s top brass are on Comcast’s payroll, including Margaret Attwell Baker, a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), America’s telecoms regulator, who in government had helped approve Comcast’s takeover of NBCUniversal in 2011. Even Barack Obama has Comcast ties. “I have been here so much, the only thing I haven’t done in this house is have seder dinner,” he quipped at a fundraiser hosted last year at the home of David Cohen, Comcast’s chief lobbyist.

“It helps to have influential friends, especially if you are seeking to expand your grip on America’s pay-TV and broadband markets.

“[...] The deal would create a Goliath far more fearsome than the latest ride at the Universal Studios theme park (also Comcast-owned). Comcast has said it would forfeit 3m subscribers, but even with that concession the combination of the two firms would have around 30m—more than 30% of all TV subscribers and around 33% of broadband customers. In the cable market alone (ie, not counting suppliers of satellite services such as DirecTV), Comcast has as much as 55% of all TV and broadband subscribers.

Worse

Worse

“Comcast will argue that its share of customers in any individual market is not increasing. That is true only because cable companies decided years ago not to compete head-to-head, and divided the country among themselves. More than three-quarters of households have no choice other than their local cable monopoly for high-speed, high-capacity internet.

“For consumers the deal would mean the union of two companies that are already reviled for their poor customer service and high prices. Greater size will fix neither problem. Mr Cohen has said, “We’re certainly not promising that customer bills are going to go down or even that they’re going to increase less rapidly.” Between 1995 and 2012 the average price of a cable subscription increased at a compound annual rate of more than 6%.”

Before blaming it all on President Obama’s close relationship with Comcast’s top executives, it was the Republicans in Washington that set this tragic monopolistic farce into motion. Michael Powell, President George W. Bush’s idea of the best man in America to protect the public interest at the FCC, represented the American people about as well as ‘Heckuva Job Brownie.’ Instead of promoting competition, Powell used his time to beef-up his résumé for a very cushy post-government job heading America’s top cable lobby – the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. Attwell-Baker was even more shameless, departing the FCC for her sweet new executive digs at Comcast just a short time after enthusiastically voting in favor of its NBCUniversal merger deal.

snakePowell and others made certain that Internet Service Providers would not be classified as “common carriers,” which would require them to rent their broadband pipes at a reasonable wholesale rate to competitors. The industry and their well-compensated friends in the House and Senate argued such a status would destroy investment in broadband expansion and innovation. Instead it destroyed the family budget as prices for mediocre service in uncompetitive markets soared. Today, consumers in common carrier countries including France and Britain pay a fraction of what Americans do for Internet access, and get faster speeds as well.

Letting Comcast grow even larger, The Economist argues, will allow one company to dominate not just your Internet experience, but also the content consumers access and at what speed.

“There is plenty for Mr Obama and Mr Cohen to discuss at their next dinner,” concludes the magazine. “But better yet, officials could keep their distance from Comcast, and reject a merger that would reduce competition, provide no benefit to consumers and sap the incentive to innovate.”

Considering the enormous sums of money Comcast has shown a willingness to spend on winning over supporters for its business agenda, restraint on the part of Washington will need voter vigilance, much the same way calling out non-profits who gush over Comcast while quietly cashing their contribution checks must also be fully exposed to regulators who will ultimately decide the fate of the merger.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Antitrust Us.mp4

Antitrust Us: Cartoonist Mark Fiore takes on the corporate idea that merging cable companies together creates more competition. (1:50)

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Comcast’s Gain, Our Pain: New Yorkers Flood PSC With Comments Opposing Merger Deal

Nearly 2,000 New York residents and counting have urged the state Public Service Commission to reject the proposed merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

A review of the comments finds little interest in compromise and setting conditions in return for merger approval. Those commenting overwhelmingly want nothing to do with Comcast even if the company agrees to broaden its Internet Essentials program for the poor or agrees to continue voluntarily supporting Net Neutrality principles.

comcast no

Consumers Union stormed the streets of Philadelphia during Comcast’s annual shareholder meeting to protest its merger deal with Time Warner Cable.

“There are ample examples of the rottenness of Comcast,” wrote I. VanKeuren from Wallkill. “It seems to me that instead of holding hearings on a possible merger of these two bad companies, the PSC should be investigating why Comcast has been so bad for so long.”

VanKeuren is hardly alone in his thinking.

A new survey from the Consumer Reports National Research Center found scant support for the merger among Americans.

The survey found 56% of Americans oppose the merger, and only 11% of respondents were in favor of it, with the rest either undecided or resigned to the belief it is out of their hands.

Cable companies rank among the least trusted organizations that most Americans do business with, so it’s not surprising that the people are concerned. Seventy-four percent of the public says they believe that prices will rise if the merger goes through, and two-thirds say that Comcast will have less incentive to improve customer service. The study, which drew on a nationally representative pool of 1,573 people, was conducted on behalf of the Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

“Most Americans don’t have time to follow complicated corporate mergers but this deal has definitely captured the public’s attention,” Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union, said. “Consumers are tired of rising monthly bills and lousy customer service for cable and Internet and have little faith that this mega merger will make things any better.”  The new Comcast would control more than two-thirds of all cable television subscribers in the country, and nearly 40 percent of the high-speed Internet market.

Those statistics and past experiences dealing with Comcast have New York consumers like VanKeuren concerned.

“If [...] the PSC approves this merger, then the PSC itself should [itself] be investigated with a complete reorganization as its goal,” said VanKeuren.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/No ComcastTime Warner Mega Merger 5-23-14.mp4

Consumers Union protested outside of Comcast’s annual meeting in Philadelphia in opposition to its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. (1:48)

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Time Warner Cable Prepares to Unveil Set-Top-Box-Less Initiative That Comcast Limits to College Campuses

roku

Roku

Time Warner Cable is preparing to solve one of its customers’ biggest annoyances — the expensive and unruly set-top box — by getting rid of them for customers who don’t want them.

CED reports Time Warner Cable provided insight into its “Boxless Home” project at the SCTE Rocky Mountain symposium held last week in Denver.

“One of the projects that I lead is called Boxless Homes where we can take a different device and use it instead of our set-top boxes,” said Time Warner’s Louis Williamson. “We’ve actually addressed the big screen with the Roku. We’ve launched it but we haven’t officially launched what we call our Boxless Homes because its missing a couple of the key Title 6 requirements. and the most important one we’re trying to get working right now is secondary audio. We have closed captioning and other things in it.”

The new project would let subscribers pack up and return their current set-top boxes (not DVRs just yet) and replace them with Internet-enabled Roku, Xbox, and Samsung Smart TVs, potentially saving customers close to $100 a year or more. It is part of the broad transition away from analog service cable companies are making as they gradually move towards IP distribution of content — creating one large broadband pipe across which cable television, Internet access, and phone service will travel.

“We describe things like the iPhones, and iPads and other stuff as companion devices,” Williamson added. “You can use them with your TV, they work as remotes and they’re good for looking at TV for a bit. When you go to something that fits on the big screen, the 10-foot experience like a Roku or the Xbox, or our work we’ve done as an app on Samsung TV that does [live TV and video-on-demand], that’s where we look at as Boxless Homes. You don’t have to have one our boxes; you can use one of those devices as outlets in your home. We’ve been driving heavily to get to that point where we can enable all of our services on a device that is theirs. In a couple of markets the channel lineup is pretty much there except for the transactional video on demand. It’s just getting all the Title 6 compliance in and a good marketing strategy around how you drive it.”

Time Warner management likes the initiative because set-top box equipment is costly to buy and support and many customers would prefer to do away with the frustration and cost of extra equipment, especially when many cable set-top boxes installed in homes before Jan. 1, 2014 use more electricity than a home refrigerator, consuming an average of 446kWh hours each (about $50 a year per box, depending on local energy costs).

Time Warner Cable customers looking to save money already have the option of returning their old energy vampire set-top boxes for one of several new models Time Warner has introduced this year. Contact your local office to find the Time Warner set-top boxes available for service in your area:

Make
Model
Type
Features
On Power (W)
Sleep Power (W)
APD Power (W)
Total Electric Consumption (kWh/yr)
Motorola DCX3510-M Cable APD, AVP, CC, DVR, D2, HD, MR, MS 22.8 18.3 18.3 172
Motorola DCX3200-M Cable APD, AVP, CC, D2, HD, HNI 14.3 11.7 11.6 110
Cisco 8742HDC Cable APD, AVP, CC, DVR, D2, HD, MR, MS 21.7 18.4 18.4 170
Cisco 4742HDC Cable APD, AVP, CC, D2, HD, HNI 18.8 14.1 14.1 136
Samsung SMT-H3272 Cable APD, AVP, CC, DVR, D2, HD, MR, MS 30.3 25.8 25.8 239
Samsung SMT-H3362 Cable APD, AVP, CC, D2, HD, HNI 14.7 13.3 13.3 120
Feature Key
Shortcut
Feature Name
APD Automatic Power Down enabled by default
AVP Advanced Video Processing
CC CableCARD
D2 DOCSIS 2.0
D3 DOCSIS 3.0
DVR Digital Video Recorder
HD High Definition
HNI Home Networking Interface
MR Multi-room
MS Multi-stream
XCD Transcoding

For now, Time Warner expects most of those going box-less will be in the under-30 age demographic. They already have game consoles or Internet-enabled set-top boxes like Roku and are comfortable switching in and out of the Time Warner Cable TV app.

timewarner twc“I think its to early to say how its going to impact the traditional world,” Williamson said in response to a question about whether Boxless Homes will replace traditional MPEG-2 services or augment them. “Currently we don’t even market it or tell anyone about it. The IP video stuff has rolled out word of month. These are the early adopters who are understanding that there’s a TWC app that goes on the Roku box. They decide to go down to their kid’s room or somewhere else and make that their secondary outlet. That’s how it’s evolving now. I think as it gets more and more prevalent and we get on more and more devices, which is going to take time, then its going to be more interesting. Our app on Samsung TV is much closer to our same look and feel as on our se-sop box. Unfortunately these are the real high-end Samsung TVs with the smart hub technology and things like that. There’s not enough of them to understand what the impact is on our footprint.”

Comcast is also working on a box-less approach, but only for college campuses. Its “XFINITY on Campus” project offers streaming cable TV over students’ laptops or portable devices exclusively while on campus. The service is now limited to Emerson College, Drexel University, University of New Hampshire, Lasell College, and MIT. Comcast currently has no plans to offer box-less service to residential subscribers.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BTIG Demo of New TWC TV App on Roku 12-23-13.flv

Rich Greenfield at BTIG Research produced this hands-on demonstration and review of the TWC on Roku app. (6:23)

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Independent Cable Companies Unify Against Cable TV Programmer Rate Increases

big 7Subscribers of more than 900 independent cable companies may face an unwelcome surprise this summer in the form of a mid-year rate increase.

For years, members of the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC) have joined forces to negotiate for the kinds of volume discounts only the largest cable and satellite companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, Dish Networks, Charter, and Cablevision have traditionally received. NCTC members range from family owned cable operators, rural co-ops, community-owned providers, independent telephone companies, and small multi-system operators servicing multiple communities. With group-buying power, NCTC-member cable companies used to be able to negotiate volume discounts that could keep their rates competitive with larger providers.

But as consolidation among major network media, cable, satellite, and phone companies marches on, only the largest operators — some directly affiliated with the cable programming networks — are getting the best deals at contract renewal time. All NCTC members combined serve just five million cable TV subscribers. Comcast has 21 million, DirecTV: 20 million, Dish Networks: 14 million, and Time Warner Cable: 11 million.

When NCTC’s contract with Viacom was up for renewal, the owner of networks like MTV and Comedy Central raised the renewal price more than 40 times the rate of inflation. In fact, Viacom’s asking price was so high, operators like Cable ONE pulled the plug on 15 Viacom networks for good and replaced them with other programming. NCTC members eventually compromised on a deal to renew Viacom-owned networks, but customers of companies like Massillon, Ohio-based MCTV are paying the price in the form of a mid-year rate hike Bob Gessner, MCTV’s president, did not want to have to pass on to customers.

MCTV“I don’t like to do this because it puts me in a difficult position of raising prices, which no one likes, or reducing the product, which no one likes, or cutting back on the quality of our customer service, which no one likes,” said Gessner. “Large media companies control all the TV programming and they are raising the price.  The cost of TV programming is rising very rapidly and it is causing this rise in retail prices.”

Some facts about cable TV programming:

  • Nine media companies control 95% of the paid video content consumed in the U.S.;
  • The average household watches only 16 channels, yet networks package their channels to force you to buy those you don’t want to get those that you do want;
  • tvonmysideProgramming network fees account for the bulk of your monthly cable bill;
  • The cost of basic cable has risen 3½ times the rate of inflation over the last 15 years because of demands from networks for higher programming fees;
  • One media company honcho recently stated that, “…content is such a fundamental part of daily life that people will give up food and a roof over their heads before they give up TV.” This shows that they have lost their perspective and the demands for huge increases will continue.
Gessner

Gessner

Gessner has broken ranks with many cable operators that say little more at rate hike time than “increased programming costs.”

Gessner has produced a 20-minute video that carefully explains to his customers what is going on in the cable programming industry and why providers like MCTV are forced to shovel networks onto cable lineups few customers want or watch and how the biggest cable and satellite companies are now negotiating volume-discounted renewal pricing at the expense of smaller providers.

While the largest cable companies in the country secure lower rates through those volume discounts, programmers have found a way to make up the difference: demanding even higher rates for smaller cable companies to cover what they lose from Comcast and other big players.

Gessner, as well as other NCTC member companies, confront huge programmers like Comcast-NBCUniversal, Viacom, Time Warner (Entertainment), Discovery and Disney that first demand 3-7 year renewal contracts with built-in, automatic annual rate increases averaging 5-10 percent, regardless of the ratings of their networks. Most also demand that all of their cable networks be carried on their systems, whether customers are interested in them or not. If these companies dream up new cable networks, like ESPN’s SEC Network and the Longhorn Network, MCTV is committed to carry those channels as well, even though they are of little interest to residents of northeastern Ohio where MCTV operates.

These dream contracts (for cable programmers) are the single biggest reason cable-TV rates are skyrocketing. But Gessner says it gets even worse when those contracts expire. When renewal negotiations begin, programmers these days inevitably demand a “rate reset” which starts rate negotiations at a price 10, 30, even 60 percent higher than under the expiring contract.

local cleveland tv

Those dollar amounts cover local station retransmission consent agreements nationwide.

Gessner says he doesn’t know how much longer MCTV can afford to carry expensive networks like sports channels. If he drops them, angry subscribers could cancel cable service and switch to a provider willing to pay the asking price. Unless all of his competitors stand together, programmers will maintain the upper hand.

Some cable companies, like Cable ONE, are starting to risk the wrath of their customers by refusing to negotiate for terms they consider unreasonable. When subscribers learned the reasons why Cable ONE dropped more than dozen Viacom channels, many were supportive because the company replaced the networks with other channels and promised to keep rate increases down because they won’t have to pass on Viacom’s higher prices. Viacom retaliated by locking out Cable ONE’s Internet customers from accessing any of Viacom’s free-to-view online programming.

“Viacom lets web surfers from Albania watch Spongebob but Viacom blocks people who live in Alabama, and if you are an advocate of this thing called Net Neutrality, you should be very concerned,” Gessner said. “Viacom is blatantly violating the spirit of Net Neutrality by discriminating against certain Internet users in order to extract higher fees from TV viewers. That’s the sort of vicious bullying behavior many of the content companies use to maintain their stranglehold on the U.S. television industry.”

Gessner and other independent cable operators hope cable operators’ willingness to drop cable networks over their price is the start of something big — a pushback that could eventually force programmers to charge rational rates.

“Hopefully this will serve as a wakeup call to the rest of the industry to stop paying these ridiculous prices for TV rights,” said Gessner. “I have no illusion that sanity will come to the industry overnight — it will take time — but this is a step in the right direction.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/MCTV Rate Increase 2014.flv

MCTV president Bob Gessner hosted this thoughtful presentation to carefully explain why his customers are facing a $1-3 mid-year rate increase for cable television. Gessner breaks with tradition by explaining the cable television business model is effectively broken and needs serious reform, including more choices for customers seeking fewer channels and a lower bill. It’s well worth 20 minutes of your time. (20:11)

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Rep. Bob Latta’s 99.9%-Fact Free Anti Net Neutrality Bill, Now Packed With Extra Industry Goodness

Phillip "How far will $20 get me in your office?" Dampier

Phillip “How far will $20 get me in your office?” Dampier

Congress is famous for obfuscation when it comes to introducing legislation that promises one thing and delivers something quite different. Take the 2003 “Clear Skies Initiative,” which would have allowed the energy industry to increase polluting emissions, or “The Disclosure of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Composition Act,” which allows frackers to keep secret the ingredients of millions of gallons of chemicals pumped into the ground to displace natural gas, and potentially your potable drinking water.

So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) wants to “protect” the open and free Internet by introducing a new bill that opens and frees the telecom companies that steadfastly support his campaign coffers to install paid Internet toll booths. Like many pieces of legislation coming from some House Republicans these days, “freedom” only extends to corporate interests, not to you or I (unless we want to start a corporation of our own.)

Reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act is the Holy Grail for Net Neutrality supporters. It offers clear oversight authority that would make future lawsuits from Comcast, Verizon and other telecom companies untenable. Earlier court decisions have laid a foundation for broadband oversight under Title II, but the FCC itself must take advantage of that opportunity, and so far it has not.

Congressman Latta has introduced legislation to make sure the FCC can never take that step. His bill would specifically prohibit the FCC from reclassifying broadband Internet access as anything beyond an unregulated “information service.”

According to Latta, only with his legislation can America be assured the Internet will stay “open and free.” — “Open and free” for the picking by companies who dream of new revenue monetizing Internet traffic. Not satisfied charging some of the world’s highest prices for Internet access, many of the largest cable and phone companies in the country now want the right to “double-dip” — charging consumers to reach Internet content and content producers for delivering it. It would be like paying postage to mail a letter and having it arrive postage due or letting the phone company charge both the caller and the person called for a long distance telephone call.

“The legislation comes after the FCC released a proposal to reclassify broadband Internet access under Title II as a telecommunications service rather than an information service,” says a press release from Latta’s office.

Would I lie to you? Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio)

Would I lie to you? Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio)

That is patently false. In fact, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler has twisted himself into a human pretzel with clever language and a clear determination not to reclassify broadband under Title II. Wheeler prefers sticking to the rickety Section 706 faux-authority for Net Neutrality — the same section that keeps handing FCC lawyers loss after loss in federal court. After Wheeler announced his intention to propose allowing Internet companies to build paid fast lanes for Internet traffic, the resulting backlash from content companies and the public made him grudgingly offer a “discussion” about utilizing Title II.

That kind of “discussion” will be familiar to every 16-year old teenage girl who is told “we’ll talk about it” after asking mom and dad if she can take her new 22-year old boyfriend on vacation and stay in their own hotel room.

Ironically, detractors like Latta are the ones that usually accuse Net Neutrality of solving a problem that doesn’t exist. But that didn’t stop Congressman Latta from introducing legislation to stop the current ex-telecom lobbyist chairman of the FCC from going all Elizabeth Warren on us, suddenly imposing draconian pro-consumer regulations against those job creators at the cable companies Wheeler used to represent. But on the bright side, when Wheeler doesn’t do what Latta’s bill wouldn’t let him do, Latta can still declare victory against “big government.” If you live in Latta’s district, you can read all about it in the forthcoming government-subsidized, no-postage-needed “newsletter” he and other members of Congress will pelt your mailbox with right before election time.

“In light of the FCC initiating yet another attempt to regulate the Internet, upending long-standing precedent and imposing monopoly-era telephone rules and obligations on the 21st Century broadband marketplace, Congress must take action to put an end to this misguided regulatory proposal,” said Latta. “The Internet has remained open and continues to be a powerful engine fueling private enterprise, economic growth and innovation absent government interference and obstruction. My legislation will provide all participants in the Internet ecosystem the certainty they need to continue investing in broadband networks and services that have been fundamental for job creation, productivity and consumer choice.”

Consumers not included. Maybe he just forgot.

“At a time when the Internet economy is thriving and driving robust productivity and economic growth, it is reckless to suggest, let alone adopt, policies that threaten its success. Reclassification would heap 80 years of regulatory baggage on broadband providers, restricting their flexibility to innovate and placing them at the mercy of a government agency. These businesses thrive on dynamism and the ability to evolve quickly to shifting market and consumer forces. Subjecting them to bureaucratic red tape won’t promote innovation, consumer welfare or the economy, and I encourage my House colleagues to support this legislation, so we can foster continued innovation and investment within the broadband marketplace.”

thanksGuess not. The Internet should only be about business in Latta’s mind. Consumers that support Net Neutrality are nothing more than parasites sucking away valuable potential profits from the dynamic, flexible and innovative world of traffic shaping, usage caps, and double-dipping.

Latta isn’t interested that your provider is turning your weekend Netflix binge into an exercise of maddening rebuffering futility as your cable/phone company waits for protection racket proceeds a paid peering agreement with Netflix. That is because he doesn’t represent you. He represents AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Comcast, and CenturyLink.

Latta can afford to travel through the Internet toll booth when one considers who his top contributors keeping his campaign flush with cash are:

  • More than $32,000 in contributions from AT&T and its executives;
  • $29,500 from Tom Wheeler’s old haunt — the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (Big Cable lobby);
  • $15,000 from the American Cable Association (Small Cable lobby);
  • $21,000 from Time Warner Cable and its executives;
  • $16,000 from Verizon and its executives;
  • $11,400 from CenturyLink;
  • $11,000 from Comcast (they are ditching Ohio customers to Charter after merging with Time Warner Cable so why throw good money after bad).

Latta’s close friendship with Big Telecom is so obvious, it has made co-sponsoring his fact-free bill about as popular as Justin Bieber at an NAACP convention. Even his like-minded Congressional colleagues are staying away. But his industry friends sure appreciate his efforts on their behalf.

One wonders why his constituents return him to office when he would be obviously much more comfortable in his next job — lobbying for AT&T or Comcast. Before our Internet connections slow, let’s hope his constituents hasten a much-needed turbo-speed departure for the congressman, already a shadow employee of AT&T.

HBO’s John Oliver Nails it on Net Neutrality: It Prevents Cable Company F*ckery

Oliver points out President Obama is very close to Comcast's top lobbyist (and Democratic fundraiser) David Cohen.

Oliver points out President Obama is very close to Comcast’s top lobbyist (and Democratic fundraiser) David Cohen.

John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” took nearly 15 minutes out of his show last night to present a detailed and unusually apt explanation of why Net Neutrality should matter to Americans.

Using a timely chart depicting Comcast’s Al Capone-like Internet protection racket, Oliver showed how Netflix performance rapidly deteriorated for Comcast customers until Netflix agreed to pay Comcast for a direct connection in February. Within days, performance rebounded to new highs.

In essence, Oliver explains, Net Neutrality is about the controversy of allowing Internet toll lanes.

Oliver shows an industry mouthpiece defending the concept as a “fast lane for everybody and a hyper speed lane for others,” to which Oliver responds, “Bullsh*t!”

“If we let cable companies offer two speeds of service, they won’t be [Jamaican sprinter] Usain Bolt and Usain Bolt on a motor bike,” Oliver warns. “They’ll be Usain Bolt and Usain Bolted to an anchor.”

Oliver added he was concerned most Americans were not paying attention to the issue, proclaiming it “boring.”

“And that’s the problem. The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America: if you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring,” he said. “Advocates should not be talking about protecting Net Neutrality. They shouldn’t even use that phrase. They should call it preventing cable company fuc*ery. Because that is what it is.”

Comcast's Internet protection racket. Netflix watched customer streaming performance degrade on Comcast's network until it signed a paid peering agreement with the cable company in February.

Comcast’s Internet protection racket. Netflix watched customer streaming performance degrade on Comcast’s network until it signed a paid peering agreement with the cable company in February.

Oliver’s prescription for change is somewhat more dubious, however. He wants Internet trolls to overwhelm the FCC’s Net Neutrality comment mailbox:

I would like to address the Internet commenters out there directly. Good evening monsters, this may be the moment you spent your whole lives training for.

You’ve been out there ferociously commenting on dance videos of adorable 3-years-olds, saying things like, “Every child could dance like this little loser after one week of practice.” Or you’d be polluting Frozen’s Let It Go with comments like, “Ice Castle would give her hypothermia and she dead in an hour.” Or, and I know you’ve done this one commenting on this show: “F*ck this a**hole anchor [...] ur just friends with terrorists xD.”

This is the moment you were made for commenters. Like Ralph Macchio, you’ve been honing your skills waxing cars and painting fences, well guess what? Now it’s time to do some f*king karate.

For once in your life we need you to channel that anger.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/HBO Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Net Neutrality 6-1-14.flv

John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight addresses Net Neutrality to viewers who probably don’t understand a thing about it. Warning: Strong language.  (13:17)

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Mooresville, N.C. Revokes Time Warner Cable’s Easement Agreements; Possible Trespass Cited

Mayor Atkins

Mayor Atkins

A North Carolina community concerned about alleged abuse of homeowners’ private property rights by Time Warner Cable has revoked all of the company’s easement agreements, exposing the cable operator to lawsuits from residents.

Mayor Miles Atkins observed Time Warner crews burying fiber optic lines on the property of local residents, well outside of the rights-of-way established by the local government along town-maintained streets.

The Charlotte Observer reported Atkins also personally witnessed crews burying cables outside his home — on a street where there is no right-of-way for utility companies.

Like many towns in North Carolina, Mooresville never established rights-of-way on older streets where above-ground utilities were installed decades earlier. Agreements with the owner of the utility pole governs the cables attached. In Mooresville, this generally includes electric, telephone, and two cable companies — Time Warner Cable and the community-owned MI-Connection, formerly owned by Adelphia Cable. Most rights-of-way and easement agreements in Mooresville cover buried cables.

Mooresville senior engineer Allison Kraft notified Time Warner Cable that the town has revoked all of its easement agreements with the company until Time Warner can prove it placed its buried cables only within the approved town rights-of-way.

If the cable company is found to have placed cables without permission on a homeowner’s private property, the resident can sue for damages and force the company to remove the offending line.

mooresvilleOne Mooresville resident was suspicious of the town’s motives, however.

“I’m sure the town’s ownership of a competing cable company had nothing to do with their decision,” said Mooresville resident Scott Turner.

But Charley Patterson is happy the town is taking action, suggesting utility violations of easement boundaries are rampant.

“During the building of our church’s new parking lot, we found not one but several utilities that had buried cable in areas well out of the easement boundaries,” Patterson wrote. “There were seven utilities with buried cable. Our construction progress was dramatically impacted trying to identify where and who had buried the cable. And some had the gall to try to tell us that we had to pay for them to relocate when they were 20 to 30 feet on our property, not at all in the easement.”

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Rogers CEO Self-Servingly Declares Canada Can’t Handle Four Wireless Competitors

Laurence is the ex-CEO of Vodafone.

Laurence is the ex-CEO of Vodafone.

The new chief executive of one of Canada’s largest telecommunications companies has declared the country can’t support a fourth national wireless competitor because it will simply cost too much to build and maintain.

Guy Laurence has been very vocal about Canadian telecommunications policies since taking over for Nadir Mohamed who retired last year.

This week Laurence announced a reboot of Rogers Communications he dubbed v3.0, designed to face the “hard truth” that most Canadians despise the cable and wireless company.

“Every day I marvel at what an amazing company Ted [Rogers] built, Laurence said, referring to the company’s founder. “The mix of assets, the culture of innovation and depth of employee pride is extraordinary. But we’ve neglected our customers, and we’ve let our legacy of growth and innovation slip. The plan I’ve laid out will significantly improve the experience for our customers and re-establish our growth by better leveraging our assets and consistently executing as One Rogers.”

Most of the changes Laurence plans relate to its poorly-rated customer service. Laurence has insisted that all customer service functions, including call centers, customer service, service technicians and marketing will be combined into a single unit that will report directly to him.

But Laurence said nothing about improving service plans, dropping usage caps, or lowering prices.

rogers csSeveral long time Rogers executives are out the door, either voluntarily or quietly pushed out.

“When you remove overlap and reduce bureaucracy, and you create agility, then it takes less people in management. So there will be job losses at the management level. No doubt of this,” Laurence said. “But because this is not a cost story, I don’t have a dollar value or a number of people. I don’t even have the vaguest idea in my head what that might be.”

Like many American cable companies, Rogers has lost video customers although it is still growing its broadband business by picking up ex-DSL customers. With overall growth flat during 2013, the new CEO wants to maximize shareholder value by limiting the number of costly new projects launched. Instead, Laurence promised “fewer, more impactful initiatives” under Rogers 3.0.

Rogers will continue to depend heavily on its profitable wireless division, which competes against Bell and Telus.

Although Canadian government officials have repeatedly sought a fourth national competitor willing to break with tradition in the wireless market, Laurence says the government is engaged in wishful thinking if it believed a fourth carrier would shake things up in Canada.

“I’m not saying the government is wrong. I’m not saying that they should change their policy. My personal view is that it is difficult to see a scenario where a fourth carrier will be successful,” Laurence said. “What you saw in Europe was a number of different countries who pursued the four-carrier option for a period of five to seven years. It was politically very popularist and they were happy to follow that. What you clearly see now, and I cite Germany and France, is that they’ve started to realize that given the capital complexity involved in these companies, it is very difficult to support a fourth carrier.”

Canadian wireless companies have recently embraced a study by the Montreal Economic Institute that declared the presence of a fourth national carrier would be “wasteful.”

“It may be preferable for financial resources … to be concentrated in the hands of a few strong players willing to invest in new technologies and services rather than scattered among several small and feeble competitors trying to survive by selling at prices barely above marginal costs,” the report said.

The Montreal Economic Institute won't reveal its donor list of corporations that pay for its research.

The Montreal Economic Institute won’t reveal its donor list of corporations that pay for its research.

The Montreal Economic Institute is “funded by the voluntary donations of individuals, businesses and foundations that support its mission.” The MEI does not disclose the specifics of its donors, however, for fears that “organizations similar to the MEI” would have an opportunity to solicit funds. The foundation of the MEI’s mission statement is couched in basic free market ideology, such as the Randian conception that “people who make money are creating wealth.”

Despite asking repeatedly, MEI will not disclose whether its telecom-related studies were funded by the telecommunications companies named in their reports. But there is little doubt of MEI’s economic philosophy.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon, the president and CEO of MEI, has written a number of opinion pieces that further illuminate the mission of the organization, notes The Telecom Blog. Included among them are articles that suggest “true entrepreneurs… deserve our gratitude” and pieces decrying a “tax the rich” mentality. There’s even a bit about the “dangers” of so-called “Soviet imagery,” citing the “intellectual and moral recklessness” in a pair of teens audacious enough to wear red T-shirts featuring USSR emblems.

Canada’s Competition Bureau, less concerned with Soviet nostalgia, found different results from increased competition – at least $1 billion in savings as competing carriers are forced to increase the wireless penetration rate while working to lower prices.

Laurence said the only way a four-carrier government policy could work in Canada is if the federal government put up taxpayer money to build, update, and run a “modern communications network” across the country. If that happens, Rogers and other companies will only be too happy to use it to offer expanded service and competition, with no commitment it will cost any less.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/MEI -- The State of Competition in Canada's Telecommunications Industry -- Paul Beaudry IEDM.flv

Paul Beaudry, associate researcher at the Montreal Economic Institute offers the amazing conclusion that more wireless competition in Canada is bad for consumers! (4:16)

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Wall Street: Telecom Mergers Are Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Consumers: More Pocket-Picking

price-gouging-cake“Comcast Corp.’s bid to buy Time Warner Cable Inc. may be the opening act for a yearlong festival of telecommunications deals that would alter Internet, phone and TV service for tens of millions of Americans.” — Bloomberg News, May 14, 2014

Wall Street analysts remain certain Comcast and Time Warner Cable won’t be the only merger on the table this year as the $45 billion dollar deal is expected to spark a new wave of consolidation, further reducing competitive choice in telecom services for most Americans.

While the industry continues to insist that the current foundation of deregulation is key to investment and competition, the reality on the ground is less certain.

Let’s review history:

For several decades, the cable industry has avoided head-on competition with other cable operators. They argue the costs of “overbuilding” cable systems into territories already serviced by another company is financially impractical and reckless. But that did not stop telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon from overhauling portions of their networks to compete, and in at least some communities another provider has emerged to offer some competition. Some wonder if AT&T was willing to spend billions to upgrade their urban landline network to provide U-verse, why won’t cable companies spend some money and compete directly with one another?

The answer is simple: They can earn a lot more by limiting competition.

When only a few firms account for most of the sales of a product, those firms can sometimes exercise market power by either explicitly or implicitly coordinating their actions. Coordinated interaction is especially suspect where all firms seem to charge very similar prices and few, if any, are willing to challenge the status quo.

Since the 1980s, the telecommunications industry has been deregulated off and on to a degree not seen since the pioneer days of telephone service. That was the era when waves of mergers created near-monopolies in the oil, railroad, energy, tobacco, steel and sugar industries. By the late 1890s, evidence piled up that proved reducing the number of providers in a market leads to higher prices and poor service. The abuses eventually led to the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and later the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914.

Here is what happened when the cable industry was reined in during the early 1990s, only to be deregulated again.

Here is what happened when the cable industry was reined in during the early 1990s, only to be deregulated again.

The generation of political leaders that dominated Washington during the 1980s developed selective amnesia about economic history and dismantled many of the regulatory protections established to protect consumers, arguing competition would keep markets in check. In the broadband and cable business, that has not proved as successful as the industry represents.

At the heart of the problem is the 1996 Telecommunications Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The sweeping law is littered with lobbyist landmines for consumers and their interests. Under the guise of increasing competition, the 1996 law actually helped reduce competition by removing regulatory oversight and, perhaps unintentionally, sparking an enormous rampage of industry consolidation followed by price increases. The Bush Administration kept the war on consumers going with the appointment of Michael Powell (now the CEO of the cable industry’s lobbying group) to chair the Federal Communications Commission. Under Powell, non-discriminatory access to networks by competitors was curtailed, and Powell’s FCC gave carte blanche to the cable industry’s plan to cluster its territories into large regional monopolies and a tight national oligopoly. The FCC’s own researchers quietly admitted in the early 2000s “clustering raised prices.”

Cable prices

By January 2001, cable operators had settled on rate increases that averaged three times the rate of inflation. While the national inflation rate hovered around 1%, cable companies routinely raised basic cable rates an average of 7% annually. Powell declared rising cable rates were not a consumer problem and adopted the industry’s classic talking point that rate increases reflect the “value of the programming” found on cable. In fact, even as cable customers grew increasingly angry about rate increases, Powell told three different reporters he wanted to further relax the FCC’s involvement in cable pricing. (McClintock, Pamela, “Powell: No Cable Coin Crisis” Variety, April 30, 2001; Hearn, Ted. “Powell: Value Matters in Cable Rates,” Multichannel News, March 13, 2002; Powell Press Conference, February 8, 2001; Dreazen, Yochi. “FCC Chairman Signals Change, Plans to Limit Intervention,” Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2001.)

cost_broadband_around_the_world_v2Economists reviewing data found in publicly available corporate balance sheets soon found evidence that the “increased programming costs”-excuse for rate increases did not hold water. The less competition or number of choices available to consumers in the market unambiguously lead to higher prices. It has remained true since Consumers’ Union revealed the financial trickery in 2003:

The cable industry will claim that programming costs are driving prices up. While programming costs have certainly risen, a close look at the numbers shows that rising program costs account for only a small part of the rising rates.

If costs were really the cause of rising prices, then the cable industries’ operating margins – the difference between its revenues and costs — would not be rising. The facts are just the opposite. Operating margins have been increasing dramatically since 1997. The operating margin for the industry as a whole will reach $18.8 billion per year in 2002, $7 billion more than it was in 1997. Operating revenues per subscriber have increased dramatically over that period, from $208 per year to $273. That is, after taking out all the operating costs, including programming costs, cable operators have increased their take per subscriber by over 30 percent.

[...] The ability of cable operators to raise rates and increase revenues, even with rising programming costs, stems from the market power they have at the point of sale. They would not be able to raise prices and pass program price increases through if they did not have monopoly power.

Consumers’ Union also foreshadows what will happen if another wave of industry consolidation takes hold the way it did over a decade earlier:

While the cable industry has certainly increased capital expenditures to upgrade its plants, it has actually sunk a lot more capital into another activity – mergers and acquisitions.

It is the outrageous prices that have been paid to buy each other out and consolidate the industry that is helping to drive the rate increases. Between 1998, when the first mega merger between cable operators was announced, and 2001, when the last big merger was announced, cable companies spent over a quarter of a trillion dollars buying each other out. In those four years, they spent almost six times as much on mergers and acquisitions as they did on capital expenditures to upgrade their systems. At the same time, the average price paid per subscriber more than doubled.

countries_with_high_speed_broadbandWhen a cable operator pays such an outrageous price, the previous owner is reaping the financial rewards of his monopoly power. The acquiring company can only pay such a high price by assuming that his monopoly power will allow him to continue to increase prices. Monopoly power is being bought and sold and borrowed against. The new cable operator, who has paid for market power, may insist that the debt he has incurred to obtain it is a real cost on his books. That may be correct in the literal sense (he owes someone that money) but that does not make it right, or the abuse of market power legal.

Fast-forwarding to 2014, economist and Temple professor Joel Maxcy said the same basic economic truths still exist today with Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable.

“My concern is the merger and the consolidation of the cable and internet delivery system for consumers and what will happen to internet and cable rates and choices,” Maxcy said, voicing his hesitancy about a deal that merges the nation’s two largest cable providers. “As that industry has gotten more consolidated over time, we have seen rates go up. The answer from them is that we’ve got more choices. Are we better off or not better off? I don’t know, but certainly rates have gone up at a much faster rate than the inflation rate. The result of more monopoly power is always higher prices and less choices and it seems that this merger moves in that direction.”

“The threat from non-network content providers is a concern for the cable industry,” Maxcy added.

“We’re moving to a situation where we don’t need cable, but we still need the internet and the cable companies are the ones that have control of that,” he said. “Consolidating them together makes them more competitive against the outside forces, but the other argument makes the whole thing less competitive so they’ll have more ability to control the access to Netflix, YouTube and the like. People that may develop other similar sorts of services will have a hard time getting the access they would like to purchase those.”

Chris Stigall spoke with economist and Temple professor Joel Maxcy on Talk Radio 1210 WPHT in Philadelphia about Comcast’s attempt to purchase Time Warner Cable and what that means for consumers. Feb. 18, 2014 (12:10)
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