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Statewide Video Franchising Laws: Still Handing the Balance of Power to Big Telecom

special reportComcast has been a part of life in Muskegon, Mich. for decades, thanks in part to an unusually long 25-year franchise agreement signed when President Reagan was serving his last year in office. In 1988, the Berlin Wall was still in place, Mikhail Gorbachev formally implemented glasnost and perestroika, Snapple appeared on store shelves nationwide, and compact discs finally outsold vinyl records for the first time.

All good things must come to an end and Comcast’s contract to serve will finally expire Aug. 2. City officials want residents to understand that after two plus decades, it is appropriate to take some time to consider all the options. But a 2007 law has cut that time of reflection down to a month, and removed most of the powers Michigan communities used to have to select the best cable operator for their community. It’s a fact of life Comcast is well aware of, and it underlined that point by tossing a carelessly written, pro forma/fait accompli franchise renewal proposal into the mail that left Muskegon’s civic leaders cold. But if they fail to act fast, Comcast will win automatic approval of whatever it proposes to offer the 38,000 residents of the western Michigan city for years to come.

Statewide Video Franchising in Michigan

muskegonIn December 2006, primarily at the behest of AT&T, the Michigan legislature passed a new statute that would create a uniform, statewide video franchise agreement template that providers could use to apply for or renew their franchises to operate. In theory, establishing a uniform, simplified franchise application would lead AT&T to quickly wire Michigan with U-verse, its competing cable/broadband/phone service, and bring dramatically lower prices for cable service and fewer complaints because of greater competition.

The Uniform Video Services Local Franchise Act was remarkably similar to those passed in more than a dozen other states — no mistake considering it was based largely on an AT&T-written draft distributed and promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an AT&T-backed third-party group that encourages state legislatures to enact corporate-ghostwritten bills into law.

Under the new law, much of the power reserved by local officials to approve cable franchises and enforce good customer service was stripped away and handed to the state’s Public Service Commission. The deregulation measure tipped the balance of power in providers’ favor, making it possible to do business on their terms, not those sought by community leaders. Among the law’s provisions:

  1. Communities are still bound by the terms of their existing franchise agreements, but providers can break the legacy contracts for any reason, forcing a new agreement under the new statewide franchise law. If a provider wants out, they can abandon the community or transfer operations to a new provider with 15 days advance notice and no prior approval.
  2. A franchise renewal proposal will be automatically approved if a city does not reject it within 30 days.
  3. Communities cannot unreasonably restrict providers from access to public rights-of-way, an important consideration for AT&T’s U-verse, which requires the placement of large, sometimes noisy utility cabinets (a/k/a “lawn refrigerators”) to connect its fiber network with residential copper wiring.
  4. Communities are limited to collecting up to 5% of video revenue in franchise fees and up to 2% to support Public, Educational, and Government (PEG) channels. In the past, some communities asked cable operators to wire schools, libraries, and local government offices at no cost, and several negotiated other forms of support for PEG channels, which allow local citizens to view town board meetings and create and distribute locally produced programming. Today, those agreements are only possible on a voluntary basis, without any threat if a provider refuses, they will get their franchise request rejected.
  5. Providers are no longer obligated to honor agreements setting timetables to wire communities. Instead, they can handpick areas to be served, except in cases where racial or income discrimination can be proven.

Top secret.

Since the law was clearly designed to help new entrants like AT&T’s U-verse and Verizon FiOS, Michigan’s incumbent cable companies either demanded the same rights, remained neutral, or halfheartedly protested the proposed law suggesting it unfairly benefited new competitors. Cable companies, for example, would not benefit from laws throwing out buildout requirements because their networks are already largely complete.

But once signed into law, cable operators did begin asking cities to voluntarily adopt the new uniform statewide video franchise. Muskegon joined most other Michigan cities in declining the invitation.

AT&T did begin wiring Michigan for U-verse service, although there is no evidence it would not have done so had the Act never been signed into law. But that has not helped Muskegon, because the dominant phone company in the area is Frontier Communications. Frontier has so far shown no interest in building a competing cable TV service, so the only competition residents get are from two satellite companies.

City of Detroit v. State of Michigan and Comcast

gavelSoon after the statewide franchise law was passed, Comcast notified the city of Detroit it could take the proposed renewal of its existing 1985 franchise agreement and go pound salt. The franchise agreement with the city expired in February 2007, just a month after the new law took effect. It was a new day, Comcast told city officials, and the company offered its own proposal for renewal — a 5% take-it-or-leave-it franchise fee and nothing else. Comcast even rejected the city’s counteroffer to include a 2% PEG fee, permitted under the new law.

Franchise negotiations went nowhere, but Comcast had nothing to fear. The city did not properly reject their franchise renewal offer so, as far as the company was concerned, it automatically won a franchise renewal.

The city sued both Comcast and the State of Michigan in the summer of 2010 alleging the statewide law violated the federal Cable Act, usurped local “home rule” authority, and that Comcast was illegally trespassing in the city without a franchise agreement. The Michigan Attorney General took Comcast’s side, defended the state law, and helped the cable company argue its case in court.

Comcast did not want the case heard and asked for its immediate dismissal, which was rejected.

In the summer of 2012, the judge split the decision between the city and Comcast. The judge found that Comcast had probably been operating illegally in Detroit since 2007 and owes the city damages. The judge also found parts of the state law troubling enough to invalidate. In particular, he emphasized cities do have a clear right to reject franchise proposals offered by cable operators and that in many cases those operators must adhere to their existing franchise agreements until they expire. Cities also have the right to protect and manage their rights-of-way, ending the perception cable and phone companies have the right to place hardware almost at-will in public areas.

Comcast wants to avoid paying Detroit damages for potentially operating illegally without a valid franchise.

Comcast wants to avoid paying Detroit damages for potentially operating illegally without a valid franchise.

The judge found nothing inherently faulty with the concept of statewide video franchising, nor did he rule that providers are required to serve everyone in a geographic area or that cities are allowed to enforce local customer service standards.

The impact of the statewide law, even after the judge’s ruling, still erodes local control. As pre-2007 franchise agreements expire, it is highly unlikely cable operators will continue to offer free service to municipal buildings, will not accept requirements to provide “universal service” or even language requiring wiring of every home that meets a “homes per mile” test. Some cable operators are even closing local customer service centers that used to be required in many franchise agreements.

Comcast did not appreciate the court ruling, sought to have it set aside, and failed. Now the Court of Appeals will likely weigh in on the case by the end of this year. Comcast is particularly concerned about the prospect of paying damages to the city of Detroit for illegally operating without a valid franchise. The judge hearing the case considered that a very real possibility and requested submissions from all parties about how much Comcast should pay the city.

Muskegon officials cited the judge’s rulings in the Detroit case in their letter rejecting Comcast’s proposed renewal agreement. The city wants to renegotiate certain terms regarding its PEG channels, still wants complimentary service to public buildings, and requests cable service be extended to the Hartshorn Marina.

Six Years Later, Cable Rates and Complaints Still Rising, the Competition is Fleeting, and Many Believe the Law Has Achieved Nothing

The Michigan Public Service Commission is tasked with reporting annually to the legislature and the public about the impact of the AT&T-sponsored law. The PSC’s broad conclusion is that the new law is working:

Increases in subscribers as well as the emergence of another video/cable provider are positive signs for the video services industry in the state of Michigan. Both franchise entities and providers have continued to report that video/cable competition is continuing to grow. Growth in competition has been observed each year since the Commission began issuing this report. In addition to the increase in competitive providers, companies continued to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the Michigan video/cable market in 2012.

As the Act enters its seventh year of existence, signs of progress and competition continue to be evident. It appears that both franchise entities and providers perceive that providers are offering more services to customers. In addition, more areas throughout Michigan are beginning to have a choice of video/cable service providers.

But in the same report, the PSC admits the overwhelming consensus among those in individual communities is the law has made little to no difference in competition or pricing. For example, every provider has continued to raise their rates, particularly after promotional new customer packages expire. Much of the savings calculated in Michigan took introductory prices into account, such as when AT&T U-verse entered a market. After 1-2 years, those savings evaporate. AT&T has increased its pricing just as often as dominant cable providers Comcast and Charter.

competition 1

The PSC touts that 15 new competitors have begun offering service in Michigan since the law was enacted. But besides AT&T’s U-verse., the majority of those new entrants are municipal telephone companies, small/family owned rural cable companies, or providers that specialize in serving only apartment complexes or condos. All but AT&T serve only tiny areas in Michigan and most have customers that number only in the hundreds to low-thousands.

Michigan’s New Competitors

  • Ace Telephone Company of Michigan Inc.
  • AT&T (U-verse)
  • Bloomingdale Communications, Inc.
  • Drenthe Telephone
  • Martell Cable Service Inc.
  • Mediagate Digital
  • Michigan Cable Partners (MICOM Cable)
  • Packerland Broadband
  • Sister Lakes Cable TV
  • Southwest Michigan Communications Inc.
  • Spectrum Broadband
  • Summit Digital
  • Sunrise Communications LLC
  • Vogtmann Engineering
  • Waldron Communication Company

How many new Michigan customers has this competition netted since 2011? 2,116

competitors

The overwhelming majority of Michigan communities still have just one cable operator and no competitor. AT&T U-verse accounts for almost all the communities reporting a second provider.

Complaints have also been higher every year the statewide franchise law has been in effect. In 2007, there were 615 formal complaints made to the PSC. Every year thereafter, the number of complaints exceed 2007 levels, ranging from 757 in 2011 to 1,074 in 2010. Comcast is by far the worst offender — 51 percent. AT&T and Charter had a smaller percentage of complaints, 15 and 14 percent respectively. The majority of complaints among all providers deal with billing issues.

complaints

Since the new law took effect, many communities have felt so disempowered, they stopped reporting local complaints to the PSC. But among those who have, the story is the same in states without statewide franchise laws:

  • System updates not completed as promised. Large numbers (of residents) have gone to satellite;
  • Upgrades needed to allow for better reception and channel selection;
  • There are two providers in our area, yet little increase in competition;
  • Cost to extend service to reach potential customers affects competition;
  • Cable provider left when switching from analog to digital, stating not enough customers to afford the changeover. Now only satellite is available;
  • No broadband/high-speed Internet service in many townships;
  • No phone, cable service available;
  • Michigan has totally failed bringing affordable Internet service to this community, and has prevented our township government from providing the needed services.

competition 2

The perceived impact of the 2007 law isn’t so great either:

  • Communities lost in-kind and other services from the incumbent provider;
  • Cable rates continue to increase;
  • Zero value added and has eroded local control of franchising;
  • Customers have a choice now, but rates are still higher;
  • Providers simply poach competitor’s customers as evidenced by flat franchise revenue; as one increases the other decreases;
  • This statute has proven to accomplish literally nothing for municipalities and only serves to benefit providers;
  • The Act did nothing to improve service.
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Comcast’s ‘Internet Essentials’ Facade: Padding the Bottom Line Without Cannibalizing Your Base

internetessentialsComcast’s discounted Internet service for the poor forces customers to jump through hoops to get the service and considers protecting revenue from existing customers more important than expanding the service to reach those who need it most.

Those are the views of John Randall, program manager at the Roosevelt Institute/Telecommunications Equity Project.

For $9.95 a month, those that can meet some complicated eligibility requirements and prove they are not existing Comcast customers are qualified for 3Mbps broadband service with a 768kbps upload rate. It represents a $30 savings off Comcast’s regular price — a considerable amount of revenue that Comcast is effectively forfeiting for the benefit of poor families who live in Comcast’s footprint.

Except Comcast isn’t actually “out” that much at all, argues Randall.

Of the 2.6 million households eligible for Internet Essentials from Comcast, only 150,000 have taken Comcast up on their offer. That represents only 5.8 percent of those eligible. In Comcast’s hometown — Philadelphia — there are just 3,250 families hooked up, which represents only 3.3 percent of those eligible.

Randall calls the program ineffective and says the onerous requirements to qualify (and re-qualify) are such a hassle, few families bother. What is worse, those families already sacrificing something else in their lives to get broadband service for the benefit of their school-age children are punished for their noble efforts — they are completely ineligible for Internet Essentials regardless of income or need because they are existing customers. Randall argues Comcast carefully constructed the program more as a public (and government) relations exercise than a charitable endeavor. Comcast zealously protects its existing revenues from being cannibalized by customers switching to the discount plan.

Some might argue that Comcast is managing the program with costs in mind, but Randall dismisses that as nonsense.

qualify“Within its footprint (which spans 50 million households in 39 states– 45 percent of the US population), the cost for Comcast to connect additional households is vanishingly low,” says Randall. “With no additional network build needed, Internet Essentials represents almost pure profit for Comcast.”

Randall claims Comcast’s gross profit margin on its broadband service is around 95 percent where the network has already been built. At that rate, Comcast’s cheap Internet still delivers almost $18 million in additional income, and there is a promise of much more as soon as a customer defaults on a bill, misses a qualification deadline, or their children graduate. When any of these occur, Comcast will reset customers to regular rates.

“While most observers might assume that the program is an act of corporate generosity, it was originally conceived in the fall of 2009 as a way to turn a profit by offering slower connections to certain low-income households,” said Randall.

“These plans were temporarily tabled at the direction of Comcast lobbyist David Cohen, who knew that this type of program would be attractive to the FCC and thus useful as a bargaining chip. When the time came for negotiations over Comcast’s $13.75 billion takeover of NBC Universal, Comcast was able to offer something it was planning on doing anyway. In the end, the FCC was able to claim credit for forcing Comcast to implement a program to combat the digital divide, while in reality no arm-twisting was needed,” he added.

One of the biggest challenges of America’s digital divide is making affordable Internet access available. Cable companies in particular are prepared to wring even more money from their Internet customers in the form of higher prices, new and increasing equipment rental fees, and consumption billing schemes that charge more for less service.

But that isn’t the story elected officials receive from Congress.

The potential public relations benefits far outweigh any costs to offer the service. Randall notes Comcast had delivered the Internet Essentials message to over 100 members of Congress and more than 2,000 state and local officials. To broaden its outreach effort, Comcast also engaged leading intergovernmental associations at the state and local level such as the National Governors Association, National Conference of State Legislatures, U.S. Conference of Mayors, and various other organizations of elected officials. On top of that, Comcast says that the impressions generated by media coverage of Internet Essentials launch events earned it “millions of dollars” worth of media.

What message don’t these public officials hear?

America is subjected to local broadband monopolies and duopolies that guarantee the lack of competition for high-speed Internet access.

“It earns Comcast good press while distracting regulators and public officials into thinking that changes in policy aren’t needed and that digital divide problems will somehow work themselves out on their own as a result of corporate generosity. In the long run, Comcast Internet Essentials will do no more than contribute to the delay of much-needed regulation,” concludes Randall.

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DirecTV, Time Warner Cable Moving in On Hulu; Online Video Rights & Internet Cable TV

twc logoTime Warner Cable won’t engage in an expensive bidding war for ownership of Hulu so it is trying to convince the online video venture’s current owners not to sell.

Sources tell Bloomberg News the cable company has offered to buy a minority stake in the online video streaming service alongside its current owners, which include Comcast-NBC, Fox Broadcasting, and Walt Disney-ABC.

If Hulu accepted the offer, the other bidders’ offers may not even be entertained.

Among those filing binding bids/proposals with Hulu as of the July 5 deadline:

  • DirecTV, which reportedly wants to convert Hulu into an online companion to its satellite dish service for the benefit of its satellite subscribers;
  • AT&T and investment firm Chernin Group, which submitted a  joint bid, presumably to beef up online video options for U-verse customers.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Plot Thickens in Bidding War for Hulu 7-9-13.flv

Bloomberg News discusses how the various bidders for Hulu would adapt the service for their own purposes. It’s all about bulking up online video offerings.  (4 minutes)

huluTM_355Hulu’s new owners could continue to offer the service much the same way it is provided today, with a free and pay version. But most expect the new owners will throw up a programming “pay wall,” requiring users to authenticate themselves as a pay television customer before they can watch Hulu programming. If Time Warner Cable acquired a minority interest and the current owners stayed in place, Time Warner Cable TV customers could benefit from free access to certain premium Hulu content, now sold to others for $8 a month. That premium content would presumably be available to U-verse customers if AT&T emerges the top bidder, or DirecTV could offer Hulu to satellite subscribers to better compete with cable companies’ on-demand offerings.

Hulu’s influence will be shifted away from broadcast networks and more towards pay television platforms regardless of who wins the bidding. That could end up harming the major television networks that provide Hulu’s most popular content. Many of Hulu’s viewers are cord-cutters who do not subscribe to cable or satellite television. Placing Hulu’s programming off-limits to non-paying customers could force a return to pirating shows from peer-to-peer networks or third-party, unauthorized website viewing.

Online video rights are so important to cable operators and upstarts like Intel, which wants to launch its own online cable-TV like service, providers are willing to pay a premium for streaming rights.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Why Hulu Is Attracting Billion Dollar Bids 7-8-13.flv

Richard Greenfield, analyst at BTIG, and Scott Galloway, chairman and founder of Firebrand Partners, discuss Hulu and the ability to stream on multiple platforms. They speak on Bloomberg Television’s “Bloomberg Surveillance.” (4 minutes)

directvThe Los Angeles Times reports that pay TV distributors are in a rush to make deals, not only to offer more viewing options for customers, but to potentially get rid of expensive and cumbersome set-top boxes.

Interlopers like Intel, Apple, and Google who want to break into the business have not had an easy time dealing with programmers afraid of alienating their biggest customers. Even DirecTV, which has done business with some of the largest cable networks in the country for well over a decade still meets some resistance.

Acquiring Hulu could be an important part of DirecTV’s strategy to develop the types of services satellite TV has yet to manage well. On-demand programming is no easy task for satellite providers. But if DirecTV acquired Hulu, satellite customers could find DirecTV-branded on-demand viewing through the Internet. The Times speculates DirecTV could even build an online subscription service for subscribers who don’t want a satellite dish, receiving the same lineup of programming satellite customers now watch.

Distributors that acquire enough online streaming rights could even launch virtual cable systems in other companies’ territories, potentially pitting Comcast against Time Warner Cable, but few expect cable operators to compete against each other.

The Government Accountability Office warned head-on competition between cable operators was an unlikely prospect, especially because those cable operators also own the broadband delivery pipes used to deliver programming.

“[Cable companies] may have an incentive to charge for bandwidth in such a way as to raise the costs to consumers for using [online video] services.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Hulu Buyers Haggle as Final Deadline Looms 7-5-13.flv

Bloomberg News explains why Hulu is worth a billion dollars in a changing world of television. (3 minutes)

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ABC Network Putting Video Behind Paywall: Only Paying Cable/U-verse Subscribers Can Watch

WATCH_ABCFree TV? Not quite.

Despite offering free over-the-air television, ABC is putting its programming and stations behind a new paywall that can only be breached by “authenticated” cable and AT&T U-verse subscribers able to prove they already pay to watch.

Watch ABC is the television network’s contribution to the cable industry’s “TV Everywhere” project that offers online viewing options for current cable television subscribers.

Watch ABC now offers on-demand and live viewing of programming aired by the network and six network-owned television stations both at the desktop and through apps for iOS, Android, and the Kindle: New York City’s WABC-TV, Philadelphia’s WPVI, Los Angeles’ KABC, Chicago’s WLS, San Francisco’s KGO, and Raleigh-Durham’s WTVD. (Coming soon: Houston’s KTRK and Fresno’s KFSN.)

During the “online preview,” ABC permitted online viewers within confirmed coverage areas to watch the station nearest them for free. Now, viewers will also have to confirm they are paying cable or AT&T U-verse customers to watch online.

But even then, not everyone will qualify. ABC only has streaming authentication agreements with AT&T U-verse, Cablevision, Charter, Comcast, Cox Communications, and Midcontinent Communications. Watch ABC is currently off-limits to everyone else, including customers of Verizon FiOS, Time Warner Cable, and both satellite services.

ABC has also banned IP addresses known to be associated with anonymous proxy servers. This measure is designed to enforce geographic restrictions to be sure only local viewers can get access to the station in their area.

By this fall, ABC affiliates owned by Hearst are expected to also join Watch ABC’s paywall system.

ABCNews.com announced an experiment with a paywall in the summer of 2010. It never came to fruition.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WPVI Philadelphia Watch ABC in Philadelphia 5-14-13.mp4

WPVI in Philadelphia turned over airtime during its evening newscast to self-promote the new ‘Watch ABC’ app and explain how it works. Effective now, it only works with preferred partner cable companies and AT&T U-verse. (Aired: May 14, 2013) (2 minutes)

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When Do You “Need” Faster Speeds? When Competition Arrives Offering Them

broadband dead end“We just don’t see the need of delivering [gigabit broadband] to consumers.” — Irene Esteves, former chief financial officer, Time Warner Cable, February 2013

“For some, the discussion about the broadband Internet seems to begin and end on the issue of ‘gigabit’ access. The issue with such speed is really more about demand than supply. Most websites can’t deliver content as fast as current networks move, and most U.S. homes have routers that can’t support the speed already available.” — David Cohen, chief lobbyist, Comcast Corp., May 2013

“We don’t focus on megabits, we don’t focus on gigabits, we focus on activities. We go to the activity set to get a sense of what customers are actually doing and the majority of our customers fit into that 6Mbps or less category.” — Maggie Wilderotter, CEO, Frontier Communications, May 2013

“It would cost multiple billions” to upgrade Cox’s network to offer gigabit speeds to all its customers. — Pat Esser, CEO, Cox Communications, Pat Esser, chief executive of Cox Communications Inc., January 2013

“The problem with [matching Google Fiber speeds] is even if you build the last mile access plant to [offer gigabit speeds], there is neither the applications that require that nor a broader Internet backbone and servers delivering at that speed. It ends up being more about publicity and bragging. There has been a whole series of articles in the paper about ‘I’m a little startup business and boy it is really great I can get this’ and my reaction is we already have plant there that can deliver whatever it is they are talking about in those articles, which is usually not stuff that requires that high-speed.” — Glenn Britt, CEO, Time Warner Cable, December 2012

“Residential customers, at this time, do not need the bandwidth offered with dedicated fiber – however, Bright House has led the industry in comprehensively deploying next-generation bandwidth services (DOCSIS 3.0) to its entire footprint in Florida – current speeds offered are 50Mbps with the ability to offer much higher. We provision our network according to our customers’ needs.” – Don Forbes, Bright House Networks, February 2011

‘Charter [Cable] is not seeing enough demand to warrant extending fiber to small and medium-sized businesses — and certainly not to every household.’ — “Speedier Internet Rivals Push Past Cable“, New York Times, Jan. 2, 2013

Unless you live in Kansas City, Austin, in a community where public broadband exists, or where Verizon FiOS provides its fiber optic service, chances are your broadband speeds are not growing much, but are getting more expensive. The only thing innovative coming from the local phone or cable company is a constant effort to convince customers they don’t need faster Internet access anyway.

At least until a competitor threatens to shake up the comfortable status quo.

Time Warner Cable claims they are perfectly comfortable offering residential customers no better than 50/5Mbps, except in markets like Kansas City (and soon in Texas) where 100Mbps is more satisfying. Why is a glass Time Warner claims is full to the brim everywhere else in the country only half-full in Kansas City? Google Fiber might be the answer. It offers 1,000/1,000Mbps service for less money than Time Warner used to charge for 50Mbps service, and Google is also headed to Austin.

special reportAT&T scoffed at following Verizon into the world of fiber optic broadband, where broadband speeds are limited only by the possibilities. Instead, they built their half-fiber, half-Alexander Graham Bell-era copper wire hybrid network on the cheap and ended up with broadband speeds topping out around 24Mbps, at least in a perfect AT&T world, assuming everything was ideal between your home and their central office.

At the time U-verse was first breaking ground, cable broadband’s “good enough for you” top Internet speed was typically 10-20Mbps. Now that incrementally faster cable Internet speeds are available from recent DOCSIS 3.0 cable upgrades, AT&T is coming back with an incremental upgrade of its own, to deliver around 75Mbps.

It is still slower than cable, but AT&T thinks it is fast enough for their customers, except in Austin, where Google Fiber provoked the company to claim it would build its own 1,000Mbps fiber network to compete (if it got everything on its Christmas Wish List from federal, state, and local governments).

Are you starting to see a trend here? Competition can turn providers’ investment frowns upside down and get customers faster Internet access.

Wilderotter: Most of our customers are satisfied with 6Mbps broadband.

Wilderotter: Most of our customers are satisfied with 6Mbps broadband.

In rural markets were Frontier Communications faces far less competition from well-heeled cable companies, the company can claim it doesn’t believe most of its customers need north of 6Mbps to do important things on the Internet. If they did, where would they go to do them?

Where Comcast and AT&T directly compete, major Internet speed increases are a matter of “why bother – who needs them.” Comcast is more generous where it faces down Verizon FiOS. AT&T also knows the clock is ticking where Google Fiber is coming to town.

Verizon FiOS, Google Fiber, and a number of community-owned fiber to the home broadband networks like EPB in Chattanooga and Greenlight in Wilson, N.C. seem more interested in boosting speeds to build market share, increase revenue to cover their expenses, and make a marketing point their networks are superior. They respond to requests for speed upgrades differently — “why not?”

Verizon figured out offering 50/25Mbps service was simple to offer and easy to embrace. Two clicks on a FiOS remote control and $10 more a month gets a major speed upgrade for basic Internet customers that used to get 15/5Mbps service. Verizon management reports they are pleased with the number of customers signing up.

In Chattanooga, Tenn. EPB Fiber offered gigabit Internet service because, in the words of its managing director, “it could.” The community-owned utility did not even know how to price residential gigabit service when it first went on offer, but the costs to EPB to offer those speeds are considerably lower over fiber to the home broadband infrastructure.

Broadband customers in Chattanooga, Kansas City and Austin are not too different from customers in Knoxville, Des Moines, and Houston. But the available broadband speeds in those cities sure are.

LUS Fiber in Lafayette, La. changed the song Cox was singing about their ‘adequate’ broadband speeds. Earlier this year, Cox unveiled up to 150/25Mbps service to cut the number of departing customers headed to the community owned utility, already offering those speeds.

Convincing Wall Street that spending money to upgrade networks to next generation technology will earn more money in the long run has failed miserably as a strategy.

“Competitors have been overbuilding, investors are wondering where the returns are,” said Mark Ansboury, president and co-founder of GigaBit Squared. “What you’re seeing is an entrenchment, companies leveraging what they already have in play.”

With North American broadband prices rising, and some cable companies earning 90-95% margins selling broadband, one might think there is plenty of money available to spend on broadband upgrades. Instead, investors are receiving increased dividend payouts, executive compensation packages are swelling as a reward for maximizing shareholder value, and many companies are buying back their stock, refinancing or paying off debt instead of pouring money into major network upgrades.

That is not true in Europe, where providers are making headlines with major network improvements and speed increases, all while charging much less than what North Americans pay for broadband service.

UPC Netherlands is Holland's second biggest cable company and it is in the middle of a broadband speed war with fiber to the home providers.

UPC Netherlands is Holland’s second biggest cable company and is in the middle of a broadband speed war with fiber to the home providers.

In the Netherlands, the very concept of Google Fiber’s affordable gigabit speeds terrify cable operators like UPC Netherlands, especially when existing fiber to the home providers in the country are taking Google’s cue and advertising gigabit service themselves. UPC rushed to dedicate up to 16 bonded cable channels to boost cable broadband speeds to 500Mbps in recent field trials, without giving any serious thought to the cable operators in the United States that argue customers don’t need or want the faster Internet speeds fiber offers.

“We had to address it head on very recently because of the fiber (competition)” said vice president of technology Bill Warga. “The company is called Reggefiber in the Netherlands. What they’re touting is a 1Gbps service, [the same speed] upstream and downstream. We came out with 500Mbps service. We had to build a special modem because (DOCSIS) 3.1 chips aren’t out yet. We had to double up on the chips in the modem and put it out there because we had to have a competing product, if anything just in the press. That was a reaction but that tells you how quickly in a marketplace that something can move.”

Despite that, groupthink among cable industry attendees back home at the SCTE Rocky Mountain Chapter Symposium agreed that Google Fiber was a political and marketing stunt, “since the majority of users don’t need those types of speed.”

Who does need and want 500Mbps? Executives at UPC, who have it installed in their homes, admits Warga. But cost can also impact consumer demand. Currently, the most popular legacy UPC broadband package offers 25Mbps for €25 ($32.50). The company now sells 60/6Mbps for €52,50 ($48.75), 100/10Mbps for €42,50 ($55.25) or 150-200/10Mbps for €52,50 ($68.25).

Warga also admits the competition has put UPC in a speed race, and boosted speeds are coming fast and furious.

“They’ll come in and say they’re 100, or 101Mbps we’ll come back and say we’re 110 or 120, or 130Mbps,” Warga said. “It’s a bit of a cat and mouse game, but we always feel like we can be ahead. For us DOCSIS 3.1 can’t come soon enough.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ Cable Broadband Speeds 1-13.flv

The Wall Street Journal investigates why cable companies are getting stingy with broadband speed upgrades while gigabit fiber networks are springing up around the country. (4 minutes)

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What You Knew Already: Fiber Broadband Rules, Says New Report; We Need More

buddecomAttention broadband planners: Although broadband deployment strategies differ around the world, a new report decisively concludes there is only one network technology proven to meet the demands of broadband users both today and tomorrow: a national fiber optic network.

BuddeComm’s new report, “Global Broadband – Fibre is the Infrastructure Required for the Future,” looked at every technology from variations of DSL, cable broadband, satellite, and wireless and found only fiber optics capable of handling the capacity of data and applications that will be required to run cities and countries from today onwards.

The report found that fiber optic deployment faced a range of challenges, despite its obvious technological advantages. Political obstacles are among the biggest roadblocks facing fiber networks. A combination of concerns about the cost of wiring service to procrastination has held back many national broadband improvement projects, including those in Australia and New Zealand. Incumbent commercial providers in North America have also actively attempted to block public fiber networks to protect their own commercial interests.

buddecomm concl

BuddeComm concludes America’s biggest broadband problems come as a result of incumbent providers exercising undue market power and influence over elected officials to protect their commercial interests at the price of the public good.

The report concludes that decisive political leadership is essential to overcome many of the artificial obstacles which slow down or stop fiber broadband deployments.

“One can argue endlessly about what technologies should be applied and at what cost, but we believe that all signs point to Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks as the best future-proof solution,” the report concludes. “One can debate about whether it is needed in five, ten or fifteen years – and again that depends on some of the differences between countries – but in the end FTTH is the best final solution for all urban and many regional premises.”

The 21st century digital economy is powered by robust broadband, and growing demands for faster speeds are coming from the healthcare, energy, media and retail sectors. Healthcare uses include file transfers of high-definition medical imagery and teleconferencing. Smart Grid technology is being deployed by many power companies to develop more efficient means of distributing and conserving energy. Media and mass entertainment providers are moving to high bandwidth online video, and the retail economy markets products and services over modern broadband networks.

The implications for the global economy are enormous. More than 120 countries have formal broadband policies and many consider high-speed Internet access a national priority. In the last century, North America and western Europe were considered the dominant economic players, in part because they established and maintained infrastructure to support their manufacturing and service economies. But many of these countries are falling far behind in the 21st century digital economy, where countries like Japan and Korea, parts of eastern Europe, the Baltic States, and Scandinavia are taking the lead in infrastructure deployment.

“Broadband infrastructure is perceived by all to be critical for the development of the digital economy, healthcare, education, e-government and so on,” the report notes. “From a financial and investment point of view broadband infrastructure should be treated as utility infrastructure.”

The interests of the private sector are not always aligned with the public interest, particularly when it comes to spending capital on upgrading network infrastructure. The report recommends that governments step in and build a public fiber highway system on which all providers can offer services.

“A National Broadband Network (NBN) should be based upon an open network as this makes it possible to offer the basic infrastructure on a utility basis to content and service providers,” the report concludes.

The governments of Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and others are already moving in that direction, setting up broadband authorities to build fiber infrastructure dismissed as too expensive or unnecessary by commercial providers who answer first to financial markets, shareholders, and private banks.

Under most NBN plans, providers get access to the fiber network at wholesale rates and help recoup its cost.

Australia's National Broadband Network is on the way.

Australia’s National Broadband Network is on the way.

Where politicians answer to the whims of the private sector before considering the public good, the report finds:

  • Private cable companies, particularly in North America, will continue to support and incrementally upgrade their HFC networks, but new cable operators are more likely to deploy fiber at the outset, not coaxial copper cable. Network costs, efficiencies, and reliability are all in fiber’s favor. In Europe, cable broadband is regularly losing market share to faster fiber technology. The share of all broadband subscribers held by HFC networks across Europe fell from 26% in 2002 to about 11% by mid-2013;
  • Private telephone companies that do not face robust competition will continue to rely on their existing DSL networks. In cities and larger towns, expect phone companies to eventually upgrade to VDSL fiber-to-the-neighborhood (and its variants) in the largest markets with the most competition. Rural areas will continue to receive less robust DSL service, particularly where no cable competitor provides service;
  • Rural areas may receive fixed wireless or satellite broadband service, but this is not a solution for more populated areas.

Although the global economic downturn stalled many fiber network deployments and suppressed demand, the report finds broadband usage and demand for faster speeds are quickly accelerating. Some other highlights:

  • Asia continues to be the leader in fiber optic deployment;
  • Sufficient customer demand to make the investment in fiber worthwhile is increasingly likely once fiber service becomes widely available in countries like the Netherlands, China, France, Israel, Switzerland, Norway and Sweden;
  • International connectivity in Africa remains a challenge, but fiber bandwidth is expected to more than double by 2014;
  • The Middle East will see rapid growth in fiber broadband once international capacity constraints are eased.

Obtaining a copy of the full BuddeComm report is prohibitively expensive for consumers, priced at $995.

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John Malone’s New Plans for Your Broadband: ISP Surcharges for Netflix, Online Video Use

Again with the domination thing.

Again with the domination and control thing.

Dr. John Malone is wasting no time reacquainting the cable industry with the kinds of classic power plays he used while running Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), then America’s largest and most powerful cable operator. Malone’s latest salvo: proposing new broadband pricing schemes that run afoul of Net Neutrality by charging consumers higher broadband prices if they watch online video services like Netflix.

Malone, increasing his influence over Charter Communications before launching the next wave of cable company consolidation, implied the industry is hurting from the lack of power and dominance it used to enjoy when it had an unfettered, territorial monopoly back in the 1980s. Malone told an audience at the annual shareholder meeting of Liberty Global he advocates getting the industry’s mojo back by returning to “value creation” pricing models — code language for new ways to charge customers higher prices or add-on fees.

Malone sees raising prices for Internet service key to bringing the industry back to the golden profits it used to enjoy selling television subscriptions, even as customers faced massive rate increases that doubled, tripled, or even quintupled rates for certain services.

Malone’s assessment of the eight current largest cable operators wiring the country: Snow White (Comcast) and the Seven Dwarfs (Everyone Else). The disorganized agendas of various cable operators are troublesome to Malone, who wants the industry to act in lock step with a unified, cooperating voice. Consumer groups call this kind of friendly cooperation “collusion.”

netflixpaywallMalone also thinks it is time to discard reliance on cable television to bring home the revenue and profits Wall Street expects. The industry should instead turn its earning attention to broadband, a product few Americans can live without. Malone believes the cable industry is not only positioned to control content distributed on its TV Everywhere online video platform for authenticated cable subscribers, but also have a say in competing content from Netflix, among others, which are totally reliant on the broadband pipes provided by ISPs.

With Netflix consuming a growing percentage of cable broadband resources, and possibly contributing to cable TV cord cutting, Malone does not advocate crushing its competition. Instead, he wants a piece of the action. How? By demanding online video providers pay for using cable broadband infrastructure. Consumers also face surcharges on their broadband accounts if they watch online video services like Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and other over-the-top-video. Malone also advocates the implementation of Internet Overcharging schemes like consumption billing and usage caps.

Malone’s “world of the future,” is, in reality, not much different from AT&T’s 2005 proclamation that use of AT&T’s broadband pipes should come at a cost to content producers.

Then-CEO Ed Whitacre’s public statements fueled support for Net Neutrality, which forbids broadband providers from traffic discrimination techniques like charging extra for certain content or artificially degrading service for producers who refuse to pay.

Malone’s incendiary ideas may be letting too much of the cat out of the bag, say some observers worried Malone’s rhetoric will remind people he was once labeled “the Darth Vader of Cable.” His statements could attract unnecessary attention that could be used to organize opposition.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that broadband providers and content producers were already secretly cutting deals to exchange bandwidth for money without the public scrutiny Malone’s comments will generate.

The newspaper reports some of the biggest Net Neutrality proponents around, particularly Google, are quietly paying millions to large cable companies to guarantee their content reaches customers as quickly and smoothly as possible.

internettollAmong the top recipients: Comcast, which collects $25-30 million a year and Time Warner Cable, which nets “tens of millions of dollars” from Google, Microsoft, and Facebook.

The payments are buried in the murky world of “interconnection agreements” governing the backbone pipes carrying huge amounts of web traffic from popular websites and those owned by large telecom providers. Originally, content and broadband providers agreed to peering arrangements that would trade traffic without payment to each other. But as bandwidth-heavy online video began to turn those shared connections into lopsided floods of movies and TV shows headed into subscriber homes against a trickle of content coming back from broadband customers, the cable and phone companies began crying foul.

Netflix has so far navigated around paying Internet Service Providers directly to support their video content. Instead, it is building its own specialized content distribution network intended for ISPs to more effectively and efficiently deliver high bandwidth video. Connections to the Netflix network are free of charge to participating providers, but many ISPs are demanding to be paid.

Some content providers are fearful if they don’t pay, the free “peering” links will become hopelessly overcongested and slow web pages and services to a crawl.

For Verizon customers, that may have already happened as Netflix streams began stuttering and buffering earlier this month.

Cogent, which supplies Verizon with a considerable amount of Netflix traffic, immediately pointed the finger at the phone company for artificially degrading the Netflix viewing experience. Verizon promptly shot back:

Cogent is not compliant with one of the basic and long-standing requirements for most settlement-free peering arrangements: that traffic between the providers be roughly in balance. When the traffic loads are not symmetric, the provider with the heavier load typically pays the other for transit. This isn’t a story about Netflix, or about Verizon “letting” anybody’s traffic deteriorate. This is a fairly boring story about a bandwidth provider that is unhappy that they are out of balance and will have to make alternative arrangements for capacity enhancements, just like any other interconnecting ISP.

Cable giants like Malone see the battle as one the cable industry will have a hard time losing, because it is the only technology present in most communities that can handle the traffic and the growing demand for faster speeds.

Cable operators think content companies have a license to print money, especially since their success is built partly on broadband networks they don’t own or pay for delivering content to customers. At the same time, content companies fear they could be forced out of business if the cable industry decides to give itself preferential treatment.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ Paying ISPs to Move Content 6-20-13.flv

Reporters from The Wall Street Journal discuss the secret payment arrangements between content producers and some of America’s largest ISPs. (4 minutes)

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Why Big Telecom’s Rural Wireless ‘Solution’ Is No Replacement for Upgraded DSL/Fiber

Phillip Dampier

Phillip Dampier

It is no secret that there is an urban-rural broadband divide.

The market-driven, private enterprise broadband landscape delivers the best speeds and service to urban-suburban areas, particularly those in and around large cities, short-changing rural communities.

This is true regardless of the technology: the fastest fiber optic services are delivered in large population centers, and wireless speeds are fastest there as well. But as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has discovered, the further away you get from these urban sectors, the poorer the service you are likely to get.

The NTIA’s findings present a significant challenge to phone company claims that rural customers would be better served with wireless broadband instead of spending money to support and upgrade landline infrastructure, which supports DSL and is upgradable to fiber optics.

The NTIA finds these rural wireless networks to be severely lacking:

Not only are far fewer rural residents than urban residents able to access 4G wireless services (i.e., at least 6Mbps downstream), but a further divide also exists within rural communities. For wireless download services greater than 6Mbps, Very Rural communities have approximately half the availability rate of Small Towns, and Small Towns have about half the availability rate of Exurbs (10, 18, and 36 percent, respectively).

This represents nothing new. AT&T and Verizon have shortchanged their rural customers with catastrophically slow DSL service (or none at all) for years:

For wireline download service, Very Rural communities also have the least availability of all five areas. Though a rural/urban split continues to be useful in providing generalized information about availability, a five-way classification uncovers a more refined picture of the divide in broadband availability across the nation. For example, at wireline download speeds of 50Mbps, broadband availability varies from 14 percent (Very Rural), 32 percent (Exurban), 35 percent (Small Town), 62 percent (Central City), to 67 percent (Suburban), even though the overall broadband availability was 63 percent in urban areas compared to 23 percent in rural areas. In addition, wireline and wireless broadband availability, particularly at faster speeds, tends to be higher within Central Cities and the Suburbs compared to everywhere else.

Why the disparity? It is a simple case of economics. Wealthy suburbs can afford the ultimate triple play packages, so providers prioritize the best service for these areas, even above less costly to serve urban centers. Rural residents either get no service at all or only basic slow speed DSL. The Return on Investment to improve broadband is inadequate for these companies in rural areas.

Source: NTIA

Source: NTIA

The same is true with wireless 4G service. Rural areas struggle for access or endure poor reception because fewer towers provide service away from major highways or town centers.

The NTIA observed wireless download speeds of 6Mbps or more were available to 90% of urban residents, but only 18% of small town residents. Wireless upload speeds of 3Mbps or greater were found in only 14% of small towns.

Dee Davis, president, Center for Rural Strategies, based in Whitesburg, Va. said the implications were clear.

“The market’s always going to go to the well-heeled communities,” Davis observed. “It’s going to go to the densest population.”

Folks in rural communities end up paying more for a lower level of service, Davis said.

“That also means that they don’t get the same chance to participate in the economy,” Davis added. “They don’t get to bring their goods and services to market in the same way. They don’t always get to participate.”

The economics of cutting off rural landlines delivers most of the benefits to providers, and assures decades of inferior service to consumers.

Economic market tests, including Return on Investment, that impact rural broadband availability will not disappear if AT&T and Verizon abandon their rural landline networks. While cost savings will be realized once rural wired infrastructure is decommissioned, there is no free market formula that would encourage either provider to pour investment funds into rural service areas. For the same reasons rural customers are broadband-challenged today, their comparatively smaller numbers and economic abilities will continue to fail investment metrics for innovative new services tomorrow.

The primary reason broadband speeds are lower in rural areas is inferior network infrastructure. Providers argue it does not make economic sense to invest in network upgrades to boost speeds for such a small number of customers. While wireless technology can be cheaper to deploy than the upkeep of a deteriorating landline network, it is not cheap or robust enough to deliver comparable broadband speeds now available in urban areas, especially as broadband usage continues to grow.

Verizon’s chief financial officer Fran Shammo admitted as much during remarks at the at JPMorgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference in May:

If you recall, way back I guess about two years ago we did a trial with DirecTV in Erie, Pa., where we did broadband on the side of a house and offered a triple-play, if you will, which consisted of broadband, voice, and linear TV provided by DirecTV.

What we found was people were adoptive to the broadband; but because of the consumption of broadband through that LTE network, it was really detrimental to the spectrum and to the network performance. Because they used so much data, it soaked up so much of the spectrum.

So what we felt was LTE for broadband works in certain rural areas, but you can’t compete LTE broadband in those dense populated areas because you can’t — first of all, you can’t match the speed with a 50-megabit or a 100-megabit delivery between cable and FiOS and U-verse. And you literally don’t have enough spectrum to be able to use that much consumption.

So what we felt was by partnering with the cable companies, and delivering our LTE network with voice and data, and having that hardwired connection into the home was a better financial way to do it than trying to go LTE broadband. Because we just didn’t see where the spectrum could hold up to the volume that would be demanded.

Without rural cable companies to partner with, Verizon’s decision to move rural broadband to wireless guarantees rural Americans will not benefit from ongoing speed and capacity upgrades that are necessary to support the evolving Internet.

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Cable Industry Readies DOCSIS 3.1 – Up to 10/1Gbps, If They Decide You Need It

Werner

Werner

Cable operators are getting ready for competition from Google and other fiber providers with an upgrade to the cable broadband standard DOCSIS that will support up to 10/1Gbps service.

Comcast chief technology officer Tony Werner told attendees at the Washington, D.C. Cable Show that DOCSIS 3.1 will deliver about a 50% improvement in spectrum efficiency.

The new standard relies on orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM), a standard already used by the wireless industry to get tighter performance from existing wireless spectrum.

The cable industry’s weakness remains its broadband upstream capacity. Standards originally developed for cable broadband assume users will download far more content than upload, so the focus has always been on download speeds. Upload speeds have been anemic in comparison. Until recently, cable technicians worried they would have to dedicate considerably more bandwidth for faster upstream speeds, but with improved standards, that may no longer be true.

Time Warner Cable’s chief technology officer Mike LaJoie is convinced his company will not have to widen upstream bandwidth. Time Warner has been among the stingiest providers of broadband speed upgrades,  still offering residential customers in most service areas a maximum of 50/5Mbps service, even as Comcast has upgraded to 305Mbps in certain markets, mostly in the northeast. This week Comcast demonstrated 3Gbps broadband, primarily to prove the cable broadband platform will be able to compete with fiber technology.

LaJoie

LaJoie

The first trials of the new broadband standard are anticipated in 2014, with modems for sale later that year or early 2015. Comcast is expected to begin buying and deploying DOCSIS 3.1-capable modems “when it makes financial sense.”

Major speed increases will require cable companies to accelerate the transition to all-digital video platforms to free up available cable spectrum. The faster the offered speeds, the more channels must be dedicated to providing broadband. Operators don’t see a space crunch anytime soon, especially if they move towards an all-IP platform that would support all services through a giant broadband pipe.

Cox Cable, for example, is planning to move more of its analog channels to digital to free up capacity for faster broadband speeds.

But exactly when consumers will be able to use the faster speeds possible from DOCSIS 3.1 is up to your provider.

Time Warner Cable is not convinced customers even need or want 100Mbps speed, so expect some cable companies to not even attempt gigabit broadband for years to come.

LaJoie dismissed triple digit megabit speeds as a novelty that is not “very deeply penetrated” in the marketplace — marketspeak for “not attracting many customers.”

“There has not been a demonstrated appetite for it,” LaJoie said.

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Cable Companies Offer Incentives, Threats to Keep Programming Away from Online Competitors

carrot stickCable companies, including Time Warner Cable, are offering a mix of threats and financial incentives to keep popular cable programming away from online video competitors.

Bloomberg News today reported the private discussions primarily target upstart streaming video services from companies like Intel, Apple, and Google, which are all proposing multichannel streaming video services that could one day replace the local cable company.

All three would-be competitors have been stymied, some for years, from signing contracts with popular cable networks like HBO, USA, ESPN and Comedy Central. If a viewer wants to watch those networks, they usually have to authenticate themselves as existing cable, satellite, or telco-TV customers to get access to live and recorded programming. The cable industry prefers it that way as a customer retention tool.

Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt admitted to Wall Street analysts attending this week’s Cable Show his company probably insists on contract language that bars programmers from providing content to online video services.

“We may well have ones that have that prohibition,” Britt said at the conference in Washington. “This is not a cookie-cutter kind of business.”

Some cable company contracts are more benign, only requiring programmers to license content on the same terms offered to their online competitors. Britt said some of Time Warner Cable’s contracts fall into this category.

Britt

Britt

Britt has repeatedly emphasized Time Warner wants to license content more broadly to allow the company to include it in its TV Everywhere platform, which streams video content to wireless devices. The cable operator adopted a policy in 2009 that sought to deliver content to customers on any device they wish. Restrictive contracts have kept that policy from being fully implemented.

AT&T U-verse says it won’t pay full price for cable programming sold to its online competitors.

“If they’re going to go over-the-top, then that’s a very different conversation and a very different value for our customers,” Jeff Weber, president of content, said last month at an investor conference. “Exclusive versus non-exclusive has materially different value for our customers. And I think we would want that reflected.”

Restrictive contracts are all about protecting the existing pay television ecosystem, according to Charter’s chief financial officer, Chris Winfrey.

“It’s in everybody’s mutual interest that we are protecting the ecosystem in a way that continues to keep the value of that programming that we have and the way it’s delivered to our subscribers today,” Winfrey said added.

Consumer groups say restrictive contracts are the epitome of anticompetitive industry behavior that should be examined by the Justice Department.

“Is it anticompetitive generally? Of course it is, they are keeping programming from their competitors,” said Gigi Sohn from Public Knowledge.

Satellite companies were originally in this same position, unable to carry popular cable networks on reasonable terms at fair prices until the 1992 Cable Act mandated reforms that required non-discriminatory access to cable programming. Online video providers have not yet been able to demand the same terms for their competing services.

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