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Patrick “The Slasher” Drahi Maneuvers for Blitz Buyout of American Cable Companies

Drahi

Drahi

After failing in a surprise bid to acquire Time Warner Cable out from under Charter Communications, European cable magnate Patrick Drahi has spent much of this summer quietly working to make sure that never happens again.

The French press is buzzing over Drahi’s decision to move his corporate headquarters from the business friendly Grand Duchy of Luxembourg — nestled between Belgium, France, and Germany — north to the Netherlands. The move is mostly on paper — attorneys drafted the agreement that effectively transferred Altice SA to Drahi’s Dutch subsidiary Altice NV and shareholders approved.

Why move the company from one of Europe’s most business-friendly countries to Holland, a country with a long history of corporate oversight? It wasn’t for the stroopwafels.

The Netherlands is rare among most European countries because it allows corporations to set up “dual-class share structures.” That means nothing to 99% of Dutch citizens and the majority of our readers, but it means a lot if you are a billionaire running a hungry multi-national corporation using other people’s money to gain control of companies on your acquisition list.

Altice1With the move, Drahi can embark on a breathtaking acquisition spree without diluting the control he has over his growing cable empire. Going forward, Altice will apply different voting rights to various classes of stock offered to investors. Drahi now holds 58.5% of Altice stock. But his shares are special because they grant him 92% of the voting power. Other shareholders will find they are not entitled to an equal say in how the public company is run.

Altice admitted to regulators they designed the new share structure to give Mr. Drahi greater flexibility for financing and corporate transactions without threatening his control of the company. Altice called that “a value-enhancing strategy without diluting voting control.” This means Drahi can offer generous amounts of Altice stock to help fund future takeover deals without worrying that will reduce his control over the company.

If Drahi were to recklessly launch a spending spree of epic proportions to the consternation of shareholders, there will be little recourse and almost no chance of a shareholder revolt. But just to make sure, Drahi gets to pick six of Altice’s eight board members. He also won an agreement with board members who also hold shares in Altice granting him absolute and automatic support of all his proposals for 30 years. On top of that, he is entitled to “negative control” over the board, which means in any vote, he is allowed to cast a number of votes equal to all other board members.

vampireWith generous grants of authority like these passing muster, it’s no wonder executives of corporations around the world are urging consideration to move the corporate headquarters to the land of tulips and windmills. Fiat Chrysler already did, at the behest of Italy’s Agnelli family, which controls the Italian-American car company with a tight grip. Mylan, a producer of generic pharmaceutical drugs, managed to fend off Israeli rival Teva Pharmaceuticals, using Holland’s tolerance of executive-friendly poison pill maneuvers to keep unfriendly takeover artists away.

Now that the move to an Amsterdam post office box is complete, Drahi is in the process of rearming his war chest for another assault on the American mainland. The French newspaper l’Humanité warns it is more conniving from the “telecom vampire” that sucked the blood out of competitive cable in France. The newspaper cited deregulation and privatization to be great for billionaires like Drahi, but a bad deal for consumers.

Since the 1990s, telecom executives in Europe and North America have promised regulators a lot in return for deregulation and self-oversight. Allowing companies a free rein would stimulate competition and private investment to finance and construct next generation networks, they claimed.

But l’Humanité uncovered another motivation for telecom magnates like Drahi: to get filthy rich. The newspaper quotes one well-known anecdote about why Drahi got into the cable business — because after studying Forbes articles ranking the fortunes of the 1%, Drahi set his sights on the industry where there were the most billionaires – telecommunications.

moneyKeeping that newly privatized and deregulated wealth requires ruthlessness for others but protection for your allies and yourself. Drahi followed the teachings of American cable magnate John Malone (who is Charter Communications’ biggest shareholder today) and began a debt-fueled buying spree of independent cable systems, quickly followed by ruthless cost-cutting at the acquired companies, earning him the nickname “The Slasher,” among others less charitable. His critics say he has a lot of nerve, because in many instances Drahi billed the companies he acquired for consulting and management fees. BFM Business reports Drahi has only one bottom line when making up his mind: how much generated cash will come from the decision.

The real money would start rolling in at the height of the dot.com boom. Regulators accepted a bid by Drahi and two of his allies to create the fourth French telecom operator — a wireless venture known as Fortel. The three men promised to invest more than $3 billion building the network, an amount called “not credible” by some regulators and a number of industry leaders. But since the frequencies went to those who promised the most investment, Fortel won. Drahi was named president of the company.

Just before the dot.com bubble burst and Fortel seemed to be wavering, Drahi sold many of his interests to UPC, a European cable conglomerate owned by his mentor John Malone. In early 2001, the wireless project was scrapped and Fortel itself was sold for scrap, never to build the promised network. But by then, Drahi was working at UPC with Malone on a massive cable industry acquisition and consolidation strategy. During his career at UPC, Drahi was in charge of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire French cable operators including: RCF, Time Warner Cable France, Rhone Cable Vision, and Videopole InterComm.

UPC declared bankruptcy in 2002.

UPC declared bankruptcy in 2002.

Malone’s company quickly became overextended and very deep in debt when they suddenly stopped paying creditors in the fall of 2002. But before that happened, Drahi once again had the good fortune to cash out of UPC before the roof collapsed, selling his own Médiaréseaux cable system to Malone’s company at full value just before UPC went bankrupt. The bankruptcy that followed didn’t hurt Malone much and Drahi not at all.

Unwilling to rescue UPC’s faltering operations before bankruptcy, Malone waited until after the cable company went Chapter 11, when 65% of its debt was erased in court proceedings in return for a $99.8 million fresh infusion of cash from UGC/Liberty Media — another Malone-controlled venture that suddenly emerged with a checkbook. That bought Malone’s Liberty Media a 65.5% stake in the rescued company. Vendors, smaller debtors, and other shareholders fared far worse. Most received little, if any of the money owed them, and the remaining shareholders were given just 2% ownership of the company after it emerged from bankruptcy.

Drahi re-emerged on the French business scene after squirreling away his UPC cable proceeds in his new venture Altice, originally launched in Luxembourg, listed on the Amsterdam stock exchange, and controlled by another holding company owned by Drahi housed in the British tax haven of the Channel Islands. Drahi himself was, for a time, a Swiss resident domiciled in Canton Zermatt, another tax haven with tax thresholds that favor the super-wealthy. Drahi now qualifies.

Within four years of Altice’s existence, the company has acquired 99% of France’s cable systems. Drahi has since looked abroad to consummate more deals.

When an Israeli cable system became available to buy, Drahi suddenly became a citizen of Israel and rented an apartment in the country, mostly to meet Israel’s citizenship requirements to acquire the HOT cable system. After the sale was complete, HOT raised its rates, most recently by 20 percent.

Le Echos, a French newspaper, has watched Drahi plow his way through French telecommunications for several years and summed up Drahi’s acquisition strategy in three words: It’s never enough.

The newspaper suspects Drahi will continue using the same techniques he has used in France for the last 20 years to create an empire in the United States. He will take on massive amounts of debt and use Wall Street and French investment banks to pay for most of his acquisitions, combined with generous shares in Altice stock for shareholders and top corporate executives. With Altice’s relocation complete, Drahi can make generous offers his targets cannot refuse, even when they are privately owned.

To start an American cable empire, Drahi will have to acquire smaller cable operators to build leverage for potential takeovers of larger operators later. His ability to throw massive sums of money on the table makes it very likely his next targets will be Cox Communications and Cablevision — both controlled by families that have held on in the cable business despite years of tentative acquisition offers or sales explorations. Both Cox and Cablevision offer access to larger U.S. cities. Other likely targets, including Mediacom, Cable One, and Midcontinent Communications, don’t. He can digest those companies later.

On June 24, Drahi told his fellow dinner guests at the Polytechnique Foundation, “For me, telecom is like pinball,” Drahi said. “As long as there are balls, I will play.”

Victim of Explosion Fighting With Time Warner Cable’s Lawyers Over Bottles of Wine

Phillip Dampier August 11, 2015 Consumer News, Time Warner Cable No Comments
Jurors are into their second month hearing testimony about who has responsibility to pay damages over a fiber cable installation gone bad. Now the lawyers are debating the value of the wines stored inside the restaurant.

Jurors are into their second month of testimony about who has responsibility to pay damages over a fiber cable installation that breached a gas line. Now the lawyers are debating the value of the vintage wines stored inside the destroyed restaurant.

On Feb. 19, 2013, a contractor hired by Time Warner Cable to install a fiber optic line instead pierced a two-inch gas line next to the Country Club Plaza and JJ’s Restaurant in Kansas City, Mo. The resulting explosion demolished the restaurant, leaving one worker dead, and another 15 injured.

But the impact of that day still lingers more than two years later as the owner of JJ’s fights Time Warner Cable’s attorneys in court over his damage claim, right down to the value of individual wine bottles stored at the restaurant.

Jimme Frantze, the owner of JJ’s Restaurant, is seeking more than $9.3 million in damages to cover the loss of the building, his net lost income, and the costs involved in starting a new restaurant. Time Warner Cable said no.

Jurors are now into the second month of the trial, which has spent much of its time dwelling on the actions of three companies involved in the explosion and its aftermath: Time Warner Cable, which hired the contractor for the project, Heartland Midwest LLC, the Olathe-based excavating contractor hired to do the work, and Missouri Gas Energy, the company that responded to the initial reports of a natural gas leak.

But these days Time Warner Cable’s attorney is questioning Frantze about how he valued the wine bottles stored at the restaurant.

The Kansas City Star reports Frantze has told jurors it has been difficult to prove the fair value of many of the wines because they are no longer available for retail sale. Frantze lost most of his business records in the explosion and fire that followed, so he has attempted to find comparable bottles online for sale to establish a replacement value.

Time Warner Cable Attorney Ken Snow drilled down on the specific value of several bottles formerly a part of Frantze’s collection.

timewarner twcOne 1929 bottle initially valued at $15,000 was re-estimated downwards by Frantze to $5,000 after he found an appraiser who valued it at a lower amount.

“I just acquiesced,” he said, adding, “There’s a lot of emotion on my part with some of the older vintages.” That 1929 bottle, he added, “was in pristine condition. I probably had it for 30 years.”

Snow also questioned Frantze about his assigned value of $2,600 to a bottle of 2000 wine appraised elsewhere at $1,100. One other bottle was appraised at $575, not the $1,900 Frantze estimated.

Snow also argued JJ’s was not the success story Frantze might suggest. Snow asserted the restaurant was struggling at the time of the explosion, a suggestion contested by Frantze.

On Monday, Frantze appeared in court accompanied by oxygen tanks, two weeks after a liver transplant. The same year of the explosion, Frantze was diagnosed with liver cancer.

Fiber to the Press Release: Comcast’s 2Gbps Service Arrives – In One 993-Acre Houston Development

the grovesAfter months of issuing nationwide press releases promoting Comcast’s new, blazing fast 2Gbps fiber to the home broadband, the cable company has finally announced it will be available (so far) … in one single 993-acre unfinished planned community in a northeastern suburb outside of Houston: Humble, Tex.

The Groves, designed to eventually contain 2,200 single-family homes on 993 acres west of West Lake Houston Parkway and south of Kingwood, currently resembles a crop circle because much of the community has yet to be built.

Crescent Communities, the North Carolina-based developer, calls The Groves a “refuge” from the rest of Houston, with amenities close at hand. Residents may not instinctively balk at Comcast’s expensive super-fast service requiring a $1,000 installation fee and a multi-year commitment to get the special promotional price of $159/mo. Housing at The Groves starts in the upper $200,000s and extends into the $500,000 range.

The Houston Business Journal reports Comcast will directly connect homes in the development to fiber optics, not the usual coaxial cable used elsewhere. Every home in the development will have access to the all-fiber network, which will offer 250Mbps and higher speeds, according to Comcast spokesman Michael Bybee.

Comcast will officially launch the 2Gbps service next week.

The Groves crop

The Groves (center) is a master-planned upscale residential community that will eventually contain over 2,000 homes. But in this photograph, provided by the developer, it looks more like a crop circle.

Unfinished Business: Comcast will not face much of a challenge wiring an incomplete planned community for fiber optics. Much of The Groves has yet to be built.

Unfinished Business: Comcast will not face much of a challenge wiring an incomplete planned community for fiber optics. Much of The Groves has yet to be built. (Dark Green: Unfinished/Tan: Complete)

“On a Razor’s Edge:” Charter’s Deal With Time Warner Financed With Junk Bond Debt

Charter will be among America's top junk bond issuers. (Image: Bloomberg News)

Charter will be among America’s top junk bond issuers. (Image: Bloomberg News)

The attempted $55 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable will saddle buyer Charter Communications with so much debt, it will make the cable operator one of the nation’s largest junk bond borrowers.

Bloomberg News reports investors are concerned about the size and scope of the financing packages Charter is working on to acquire the much-larger Time Warner Cable. Total debt financing this year has already reached $18.2 billion and one of Charter’s holding companies is signaling plans to add another $10.5 billion in unsecured debt. Bloomberg reports the total value of Charter’s combined debt from existing operations and its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks may reach as high as $66 billion.

Ironically, Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus used Charter’s penchant for heavily debt-financed acquisitions as one of the reasons he opposed Charter’s first attempted takeover of Time Warner in January 2014.

The New York Times suggested Marcus seemed to be looking out for shareholders when he called the offer “grossly inadequate” and demanded more cash and special protections, known as “collars,” to protect stockholders against any swings in the value of Charter stock used to cover part of the deal.

charter twc bhThe Marcus-led opposition campaign against Charter gave Comcast just the time it needed to mount a competing bid — all in Comcast stock, then worth around $159 a share. Comcast also offered Marcus an $80 million golden parachute if the deal succeeded.

Marcus’ concerns for shareholders suddenly seemed less robust. Gone was any demand for cash to go with an all-stock deal — Comcast stock was good enough for him. Most blockbuster mergers of this size and complexity also contain provisions for a breakup fee payable by the buyer if a deal falls apart. Marcus never asked for one, a decision the newspaper called “foolish,” considering regulators eventually killed the deal, leaving Time Warner Cable with nothing except bills from their lobbyists and lawyers.

After the Comcast deal failed to impress regulators, Charter returned to bid for Time Warner Cable once again. This time, Charter offered nearly $196 a share — nine times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. (They offered about seven times earnings in 2014.) Marcus will now get the $100 a share in cash he wanted from Charter the first time, but shareholders are realizing that cash will be a lower proportion of the overall higher amount of the second offer.

Marcus has also said little about the enormous amount of borrowing Charter will undertake to seal its deal with Time Warner Cable. Nor has he said much about a revisited and newly revised golden parachute package offered to him by Charter, expected to be worth north of $100 million.

Marcus

Marcus

But others did notice Charter raised $15.5 billion selling bonds on July 9, many winning the lowest possible investment grade rating from independent ratings services. Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings bottom-rated part of Charter’s debt offering and Moody’s classified that portion as Ba1 — junk grade.

Charter traveled down a similar road six years ago, overwhelmed with more than $21 billion in debt to cover its aggressive acquisitions. Charter declared bankruptcy in 2009. The cable company has survived this time, so far, because of the Federal Reserve’s low-interest rates and very low corporate borrowing costs.

“Charter is walking on a razor’s edge,” warned Chris Ucko, a New York-based analyst at CreditSights.

Not so fast, responds Charter.

“The combined company will” reduce debt quickly, Francois Claude, a spokesman for Stamford, Conn.-based Charter said in a statement to Bloomberg News.

One likely source of funds to help pay down that debt will come from customers as the company seeks to drive higher-cost products and services into subscriber homes. Some of that revenue may come from selling higher speed broadband, a service customers are unlikely to cancel and may find difficult to get from telephone companies that have not kept up with the speed race. If cord cutting continues, and online video competition increases, that could result in customers dropping cable television packages at a growing rate, negatively impacting Charter’s revenue.

Time Warner Cable’s bondholders are already counting their losses. Their “investment grade” securities have already lost 9.3 percent of their value this year, compared with 0.58% losses in the broader high-grade debt market, according to Bank of America/Merrill Lynch. If increased competition does arrive or the FCC continues its pro-consumer advocacy policies, there is a big risk Charter’s revenue expectations may never materialize.

Comcast’s Collection Calls Hound Woman for 9 Months Over $527 Bill She Already Paid

comcastA Philadelphia woman is suing Comcast after its collections department allegedly placed automated calls to her personal cell number once or twice a day for almost nine months to collect a past due cable bill she says was paid in 2011.

Kim Elder and her attorney Craig Thor Kimmel from Kimmel & Silverman, P.C., are seeking a refund for the per-minute cell charges incurred answering Comcast’s collection calls, damages of $500 per call for violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), triple damages of $1,500 per call due to Comcast’s “malicious, intentional, willful, reckless, wanton, disregard” of Elder’s rights, as well as additional injunctive relief if the court finds Comcast’s actions egregious.

James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse - Philadelphia, Pa.

James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse – Philadelphia, Pa.

Elder’s lawsuit states the automated collection calls began in September 2014, always beginning with a pre-recorded announcement stating the call was originating from Comcast. The call would then be transferred to a collection agent seeking payment for a $527 cable television bill. The complaint states Elder paid that bill years ago and repeatedly asked Comcast to stop the calls, but claims they continued daily through at least mid-June of this year.

First enacted in 1991, the TCPA (among other things) regulates telemarketing calls, the use of automated equipment to make calls, use of automated or pre-recorded voices during calls and the means and manner of sending faxes. Ongoing clarifications by the Federal Communications Commission over the years have tightened the rules to close or curtail loopholes and give consumers easier ways to revoke consent for future calls.

A lawsuit decided earlier this month found Time Warner Cable liable to a Texas woman for almost $230,000 in damages for repeatedly calling the wrong number to reach another customer. Because part of the call was automated, and Time Warner did not stop the calls after being asked, a judge used damage provisions in the TCPA to heavily fine the cable company.

Elder’s case was filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia — home to both Elder and Comcast’s corporate headquarters.

Cases of this type are usually required to be designated for arbitration within the court system to guarantee a speedy civil trial if Comcast does not privately settle with Elder and her attorney.

Stop the Cap! Will Participate in New York State’s Review of Charter-Time Warner Merger

stop-the-capStop the Cap! will formally participate in New York State’s regulator review of the proposed merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable.

“We will be submitting documents and testimony to the New York State Department of Public Service on behalf of consumers across the state that need a better deal from their cable company,” said Phillip Dampier, the group’s president. “A review of the current proposal from Charter is inadequate for New York ratepayers and most of Charter’s commitments for better service and lower prices expire after just three short years.”

Stop the Cap! will urge regulators to insist on significant changes to Charter’s proposal that will permanently guarantee a broadband future with no compulsory usage caps/usage-based billing, Net Neutrality adherence, affordable broadband to combat the digital divide, and upgrades that deliver faster broadband than what Charter currently proposes outside of New York City.

Dampier

Dampier

“Upstate New York is at serious risk of falling dramatically behind other areas where Google Fiber and other providers are moving towards a gigabit broadband future,” Dampier said. “In most of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton, and Albany buying the FCC’s definition of broadband means calling a cable company that now delivers no better than 50Mbps to residential customers. Verizon FiOS expansion is dead and obsolete/slow DSL from Frontier and Verizon should have been scrapped years ago.”

Stop the Cap! worries that with limited prospects for a major new competitor like Google in Upstate New York, broadband speeds and service will not keep up with other states. Verizon has devoted most of its financial resources to expanding its wireless mobile network, which is too expensive to use as a home broadband replacement. Frontier claims to be investing millions in its networks, but has delivered only incremental improvements to their DSL service, which in most areas is still too slow to qualify as broadband.

“Frontier is more interested in acquisitions these days, not upgrades,” Dampier argued.

“Although we have some entrepreneurs managing to deliver competitive fiber service in limited areas, it will likely take years before they will reach most customers,” Dampier added. “Upstate New York cannot wait that long.”

CBS’ Idea of Choice: $5.99/Mo for CBS Library and Live Local CBS Station Streaming

broken bankThink you are already paying too much for cable television? If you thought Comcast charges too much, consider what CBS thinks is fair to charge for an on-demand library of CBS shows and a single live stream of your local CBS station – $5.99 a month.

Retransmission consent disputes are all about the money. As your local provider fights with a local station or cable network over their latest demand for more money, channels get dropped, providers get blamed and the content owners get richer when networks are restored.

One of the richest of all is CBS, which has told investors it plans to empty $2 billion from the pockets of American cable customers by the year 2020, up from $500 million in 2013. Not only will CBS demand new programming fees from its affiliates, it is also cajoling stations to demand not less than $1.75 a month from every cable subscriber for access to the local CBS over the air station.

Each time a retransmission consent contract comes up for renewal, cable operators know as certain as the sun will rise from the east that programmers will demand a healthy rate increase for the next contract period. That is why many cable companies now look to broadband for much of their future profits, because the TV business is getting very expensive when everyone has their hand out looking for more.

Some cable companies want an end to being stuck in the middle of these disputes and are supporting a plan to compel programmers like CBS, ESPN, TNT, HBO, and all the rest to publish a retail rate for their channel or network and let consumers decide whether it is worth the asking price.

cable-inflation-comparison

A proposal introduced last year called “Local Choice” would start the process with local television stations, which have demanded ever-higher carriage fees over the last 10 years, especially for network-affiliated stations.

Under the concept, customers would be given a choice of local stations by their provider. Theoretically, a customer could subscribe to CBS and ABC and tell NBC (and its local affiliate) to take a hike if they demanded too much. Another might be happy just paying for FOX and grab the rabbit ears for anything else they wanted to watch over the air for free.

Rockefeller

Rockefeller

No local station or network would voluntarily say goodbye to the golden goose that lays compulsory retransmission consent fees programmers currently collect from every cable subscriber, so last summer Congress proposed to mandate the concept in a clause of the Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act (STAVRA).

Then Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) and Ranking Member John Thune (R-S.D.) beat the bipartisan drum loudly for change. But lobbyists also had drums. Rockefeller and Thune began wavering almost immediately.

“During the last month, Chairman Rockefeller and Ranking Member Thune have successfully begun a discussion on Local Choice, which would empower TV viewers, maintain our policy of broadcast localism, and ensure TV stations get fairly compensated for the retransmission of their signals,” read a joint statement issued last September. “Because it is a big and bold idea, Local Choice deserves more discussion and a full consideration by policymakers, and the committee may not have time to include it as part of STAVRA. Rockefeller and Thune are focused on passing STAVRA next week, and continuing to work with their colleagues on Local Choice.”

After the sudden insertion of Local Choice into a satellite television bill, an orange glow filled the night sky at 1771 N Street in Washington. It was Gordon Brown’s hair on fire. Brown is president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the very powerful lobby representing television stations and networks. But that night, he sounded exactly like a cable guy.

“NAB opposes this proposal because it eliminates the basic [cable] tier upon which millions rely for access to lifeline information,” Brown responded in a statement. “It proposes a broadcast a-la-carte scheme that will lead to higher prices and less program diversity. Furthermore, STAVRA appears to confer unfettered and unprecedented authority for government intervention into private marketplace negotiations.”

8679-2_NAB_logos_csThe cable industry has fought its own battle against a-la-carte on exactly the same ground Brown was now occupying.

Rockefeller later claimed he was only poking the Broadcast TV Bear to provoke a response, and he got one. The idea of Local Choice was stripped out of the bill by the fall. Rockefeller was reduced to saving face.

“What we wanted to do was introduce those ideas,” Rockefeller later told The Hill. “We made it sound like it was the focus of the bill, and K Street just went crazy, which is always good. But we knew that we’d have to take it out.”

Yes they did, after the NAB and their allies launched a major PR campaign against Local Choice, attracting over 130,000 comments against the plan.

Polka

Polka

But Rockefeller knew the idea was not going away.

“As people get a taste of being able to say ‘I only watch 10 channels so I should only pay for 10 channels,’ they’re going to love that. It’s going to spread like wildfire,” Rockefeller said.

Fast forward to this spring and it was back to business as usual. Retransmission consent disputes yanked several networks and stations off cable systems, providers mailed their annual rate increase notices, and the cable industry’s popularity and reputation with customers now rivaled ISIS.

Much of the collateral damage (apart from the collective emptying of your wallet) continues to be felt by America’s smallest cable operators that cannot negotiate for what passes as fair and reasonable programming rates from networks like ESPN and CBS. They cannot qualify for volume discounts that are so compelling, it drove AT&T (U-verse TV) into the arms of DirecTV just to get enough subscribers to knock a few more cents off the monthly price of regional sports channels. Only the biggest players in the game have the power and get the savings.

Matthew Polka, president of the American Cable Association (ACA), the other cable trade association representing the interests of small, often family owned cable systems, may not have the most power but he could have the strongest argument against the status quo. While the National Association of Broadcasters spent tens of thousands of dollars arguing today’s retransmission consent system works just fine, some of America’s smaller TV stations apparently didn’t read the NAB’s talking points.

GotchaThe “TV Station Group,” an informal collective of small market TV stations seeking a renewal of their carriage contract with DirecTV has been stonewalled by DirecTV for months. Last week, the station owners filed a complaint with the FCC asking them to stop or block AT&T’s merger with DirecTV until the satellite provider agreed to negotiate in good faith. It was clear from their filing DirecTV’s idea of negotiation is to send ‘take it or leave it’ nastygrams to the TV stations, serving markets like Spokane, Wash., and Yuma, Ariz. The only thing clear from the back and forth is that DirecTV has no doubt it can squash the stations like little bugs:

[W]e will not fall victim to your silly and obvious tactics to try to audit our retrans deals so you can see them all. We did not ask you to send to us your supposed rates, and your unilateral decision to do so doesn’t give you the right to see our other deals. But trust [us], no other station group – especially small groups such as Northwest – are paid by DIRECTV nearly what you have proposed, let alone what your sheet says.

A few weeks later, in response to another request from the broadcasters, DirecTV scolded them like a misbehaving teenager:

To repeat yet again, DIRECTV is not going to get pulled into your transparent trap to define what is ‘market’ by seeing our other deals. That is a precedent we will not set, including for NW. Please do not ask again.

“Judging from the TV stations’ complaint, it is evident that the retransmission consent market is broken and not working for these broadcasters any better than for cable operators,” Polka wrote in a press release issued today. “The time has come for these TV stations and others that have also filed good faith complaints to step out from NAB’s long shadow and join ACA in supporting efforts to update the rules and equip them with a strong referee that can help protect consumers and competition when negotiations break down.”

Polka continues to advocate letting customers decide whether they want to pay for local stations and cable networks. He argues CBS is already doing that today with its All Access program for broadband customers. In 94 markets, serving 64% of U.S. households, consumers can voluntarily subscribe to a live stream of their local CBS station and access a large 6,500 title on-demand library of CBS content for $5.99 a month.

cbs all accessNobody besides CBS knows how many have agreed to pay for All Access, but executives have told investors they are pleased with how the program is working. Still, Marc DeBevoise, executive vice president and general manager of CBS Digital Media at CBS Interactive knows he walks a very fine line promoting a product that could eventually undermine CBS’s current commitment to today’s retransmission consent system. DeBevoise told The Drum it does not market or intend to offer All Access as an alternative to the current cable model.

“At a high level, our strategy in launching CBS All Access was two-fold. First, to delivery our best fans access to the most CBS content we could on any device at any time – really delivering a service for our ‘superfans,'” DeBevoise said. “Additionally this service enables us to reach ‘cord-nevers’ that want to watch CBS content but don’t have a traditional cable package –a significant audience, with industry estimates ranging from 6.5 to 16 million households.”

But at $5.99 a month, that price may prove too steep for many casual viewers looking only for a show or two. Many viewers now rely on ad-supported Hulu, a project of the major American broadcast networks except CBS. Most Hulu customers watch their favorite network shows for free. The future possibility of paying $6 for each of four major American broadcast networks will likely be seen as out of line, especially by more casual viewers.

But for Polka and ACA member cable systems, the idea that customers will direct their All Access price shock wrath out on CBS, not the cable company, may be worth it.

Comcast Tells Customers Gigabit Pro Service Will Likely Arrive “Sometime in July”

Phillip Dampier June 10, 2015 Broadband Speed, Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News No Comments
calendar

Comcast initially announced its 2Gbps broadband service would be available in May.

Three Comcast customers have told Stop the Cap! the cable company has informed them their wait to sign up for 2Gbps service will be a bit longer than planned.

“First it was May, then June, and now I’m being told ‘sometime in July,’ at least for Comcast’s central division, and even then they were not sure,” reports our reader Bruce Nuñez in Atlanta. That same answer was also received by Tom Davis who contacted Comcast this morning about the service.

“They still won’t release any information about anticipated installation costs, although the representative was fairly certain there would be a charge, and they won’t tell anyone the monthly price either,” said Davis. “The representative did tell me it was safer to assume the service will premiere in July and not hold out for June.”

A third potential customer in Miami was also given a vague availability date of “sometime in July” after being told there was no longer a scheduled launch date in June because Comcast wanted to simultaneously launch the service in several cities at once, and there were unspecified delays.

Comcast had previously announced the service would launch sometime in May. While not ready to actually provide the service, Comcast has been busy promoting markets where Gigabit Pro will eventually be available:

(Image: DSL Reports)

(Image: DSL Reports)

  • California: Chico, Fresno, Marysville/Yuba City, Merced, Modesto, Monterey, Sacramento, Salinas, San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Barbara County, Stockton, Visalia
  • Colorado: Colorado Springs, Denver, Fort Collins, Longmont, Loveland
  • Florida: Jacksonville, Miami
  • Georgia: Atlanta
  • Illinois: Chicago
  • Indiana: Northwest Indiana suburbs near Chicago
  • Minnesota: Minneapolis, St. Paul
  • Oregon: Portland
  • Tennessee: Chattanooga, Knoxville
  • Texas: Houston
  • Utah: Salt Lake City
  • Washington: Everett, Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma

Customers will have to live within one-third of a mile of existing Comcast fiber infrastructure to qualify for the service.

Initially leaked price information seemed to indicate Comcast was planning to sell the service for $300 a month. At that price, Comcast will likely limit customer demand. Comcast’s Metro Internet service, offering 505Mbps, has been priced at around $400 a month. But to sign up, one must agree to pay a $250 installation and $250 activation fee. The service also is provided on contract, with a very steep $1,000 early termination fee.

John Malone Gets Puerto Rico Cable Monopoly: Liberty Global Takes Over Choice Cable

choice-300x169John Malone’s Liberty Global has bought out Puerto Rico’s second biggest cable television operator — Choice Cable TV — and will convert its customers to Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico.

Liberty joined Searchlight Capital Partners to close the $272.5 million purchase, which will make Liberty Puerto Rico’s largest cable company, passing more than one million homes and serving about 750,000 customers.

Liberty put $267.5 million of the purchase on its credit card, using debt borrowing from another Malone-controlled entity — Liberty Cablevision — to fund most of the deal. Liberty Global contributed just $10.2 million in equity and its partner Searchlight kicked in $6.8 million in equity.

The deal gives Malone’s company a total cable monopoly on the island. Choice Cable was the last standing cable operator not owned by Liberty, and served customers in western, southern, and central Puerto Rico. Choice itself consolidated several independent cable operators, including Cable TV Northwest (Aguadilla), Dom’s Cable TV (San Germán), Cablevision Mayaguez and TelePonce Cable TV. Now it has been consolidated itself.

mini-banner-cobertura

Choice Cable used to offer service in these Puerto Rican communities. Most of the rest of the island is served by Liberty Cablevision, which will now have a total cable monopoly across the unincorporated U.S. territory.

According to Liberty Global, the combined cable company will be expected to generate at least $390 million in annual revenue. If it doesn’t, rate increases could be on the way. Channel changes have already been introduced.

Liberty Puerto Rico added 18 new channels to the Choice Cable lineup at no extra cost. The Choice Pak package includes the new channels: AMC, AXS TV, beIN in Spanish and English, Cablevision, Disney Jr., Fox Sports 1, FX, Lifetime Real Women and PBS Kids. The Top Choice package will include: Crime & Investigation, DIY, Esquire, Fox Sports 2, History in Spanish, IFC, Military History and NBA TV.

But several other channels will be dropped: MTV, VH1 and Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, Spike, TV Land and Palladia HD. These Viacom-owned channels were discontinued last year by Liberty in a dispute over programming fees.

Liberty intends to offer up to 120/4Mbps Internet speeds, over 100 HD channels (352 channels total), and a “better balance of English and Spanish language networks” to current Choice customers.

Hometown Newspaper of Charter Communications Warns Time Warner Deal Not in the Public Interest

Editor’s Note: This editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reprinted in its entirety. It comes from a newspaper that has covered Charter Communications since its inception. The Post-Dispatch reporters are also some of Charter’s subscribers — the cable company serves all of metropolitan St. Louis. Charter has never been received particularly well in St. Louis and in other cities where it provides generally mediocre service. Communities across Missouri that have endured poor cable and broadband service have recently taken a serious look at doing something about this by building their own public broadband networks as an alternative. But big money telecom interests, especially AT&T, have found it considerably less expensive to lobby to ban these networks from ever getting off the ground than spending the money to upgrade networks to compete.

charter twc bhOn May 15, the last day of this year’s session of the Missouri Legislature, House Bill 437 finally was assigned to a committee, where it promptly died. Given the power of the American Legislative Exchange Council, it may well be back next year.

HB 437, sponsored by Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, was full of gobbledygook about “municipal competitive services,” but its effect would have been to condemn Missourians to ever-higher prices for broadband Internet service. Cities would have been forbidden from establishing their own broadband services to compete with private operators, thus holding down prices.

ALEC, which wines and dines state lawmakers and then gets them to pass pro-business “model legislation” in their states, had succeeded in getting restrictions on public Internet providers in 20 states. But in February, the Federal Communications Commission struck down North Carolina’s ALEC-inspired law, so the future of other such laws is uncertain.

About 22 percent of Missourians are still regarded as “underserved,” having no reliable access to broadband service of at least 25 megabits per second — what’s needed to stream video without lags. About 1 in 6 Missourians have only one wired access provider to choose from. More than 400,000 Missourians have no wired broadband at all.

Missouri is ranked 38th “most connected” in the nation by the federal-state Broadband Now initiative. In the 21st century, this is like being underserved by railroads in the 19th century or power lines in the early 20th. In parts of rural Missouri, it’s hard to do business, which helps explain why HB 437 died in committee.

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

The basic question is whether companies that invest in high-speed Internet infrastructure should be able to charge whatever they can get away with, or whether broadband service should be treated as a public utility. If it’s the latter, as the FCC determined in February, then government must make sure it’s affordable.

Which brings us to Charter Communications proposed $56 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable and its $10.4 billion acquisition of Bright House Networks. Both deals were announced May 26; both will need approval from the FCC and the Justice Department’s antitrust regulators.

In St. Louis, we have a love-hate relationship with Charter, a homegrown company built atop what was once Cencom Cable. It has dominated the cable TV market here almost as long as there’s been a cable market.

Charter customers endured years of poor service, its bankruptcy, its legal challenges, its ownership and management changes. Just when it got itself together, in 2012, the headquarters was moved from Des Peres to Stamford, Conn., though it retains a significant presence here.

Today our little Charter is a big fish; the Time Warner and Bright House deals would make it the nation’s second-largest cable company, with 24 million customers, behind only Philadelphia-based Comcast, with 27 million.

But cable TV no longer drives cable TV. Internet-based video services, like YouTube and Netflix, have revolutionized the way people, particularly younger people, watch TV. When cable companies first started connecting customers to the Internet through the same cables that delivered TV programming, it was regarded as a nice add-on business. Now broadband delivery is seen as a far bigger part of the future than providing TV programs.

missouriIndeed, when Comcast tried to acquire Time Warner last year, the dominance (nearly 60 percent of the market) that the combined company would have had over broadband service caused federal regulators to look askance. Comcast abandoned its bid in April.

By contrast, a Charter-Time Warner-Bright House combination (it will do business as Spectrum) will control 30 percent of the broadband market. Charter Spectrum will have 20 million broadband subscribers, compared with 22 million for Comcast.

So what can customers expect? Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge has promised “faster Internet speeds, state-of-the-art video experiences and fully featured voice products, at highly competitive prices.”

This begs the question, competitive with whom? Comcast? Mom-and-pop operations that can’t afford the infrastructure? Municipal service providers who are being ALEC’d out of business?

Neither Charter nor Time Warner has particularly good customer service ratings (though to be fair, Charter is miles ahead of where it used to be, at least in St. Louis). Still, Charter will take on lots of debt to finance the deal, much of it in high-yield junk bonds. The broadband business provides leverage. As analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson told the Wall Street Journal: “Broadband pricing is almost an insurance policy for cable operators, in that if all else fails, you’ve always got the option to raise broadband rates.”

America wouldn’t let a private operator own 30 percent of its roads and highways. It wouldn’t allow two of them to control half the electricity. If broadband Internet service is a public utility, it must be regulated strictly.

The lesson is old as the hills: The free-marketeers who talk most passionately about competition are generally in the business of trying to eliminate it. Charter and Time Warner are both members of ALEC.

The Charter-Time Warner deal clearly is not in the public interest. The upside for shareholders is huge. The upside for Charter executives is even bigger. But it’s hard to see how Charter’s customers would see much benefit at all.

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