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Cablevision May Owe You Up to $140 for Its Cable Box, But Only If You Ask

cablevision boxIf you are or were a Cablevision cable-TV customer, the cable company may owe you up to $140 for overcharging you for their set-top box, but only if you ask.

Current and former subscribers in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut will share the proceeds of a settlement fund proposed in federal court in response to a class action lawsuit (Marchese v. Cablevision Systems Corp.) that alleged Cablevision has been misrepresenting the need for its cable equipment dating back to 2004.

You probably qualify as a class member if you had cable television service and a Cablevision set-top box anytime between April 30, 2004 and March 9, 2016. Former subscribers will likely receive a check valued at $20-40. Current customers will be offered the option of a one-time bill credit of $20-40 or the opportunity to get free services from Cablevision valued at $50-140. The longer you’ve been a customer, the higher the value of the free services you may qualify for, including free premium movie channels or multi-room DVR service. If you already have both, you will only qualify for the bill credit.

optimumCustomers should register as a class member to guarantee a share of the settlement proceeds. Visit cableboxsettlement.com to register online, e-mail [email protected] call 1-888-760-4871. The deadline to file a claim is Sept. 23, 2016.

The proceeds of the settlement will likely be distributed by the end of this year, after a fairness hearing scheduled for September to discuss the requested attorneys fee, estimated to be as high as $9.5 million.

As is often the case in class action lawsuits, the company being sued need not admit any wrongdoing, and Cablevision is proclaiming its innocence.

“Cablevision denies all of the claims and allegations in the lawsuit and notes that the settlement is subject to final approval of the court,” a company statement said. “We cannot comment further beyond the publicly available filings in the litigation.”

Cable Industry & Friends Freak Out Over Set-Top Box Competition: It Destroys Everything

comcast-set-topIt’s all hands on deck for a cable industry desperate to protect billions in revenue earned from a monopoly stranglehold on the set-top box, now under threat by a proposal at the FCC to open up the market to competition.

While cable industry groups decry the proposal as a solution looking for a problem, at least 99 percent of cable customers are required to lease the equipment they need to watch pay television. That has become a reliable source of revenue for the industry and set-top box manufacturers, who share the $231 each customer pays a year in rental fees. Collectively that amounts to $20 billion in annual revenue. The FCC argues there is ample evidence cable operators and manufacturers are taking advantage of that captive marketplace, raising rental fees an average of 185% over the last 20 years while other electronic items have seen price declines as much as 90 percent.

With that kind of money on the line and a recent statement from the Obama Administration it fully supports FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler’s proposal, Wall Street has gotten jittery over cable stocks — a clear sign investors are worried about the economic impact of additional competition and lower prices.

Wheeler

Wheeler

“Instead of spending nearly $1,000 over four years to lease a set of behind-the-times boxes, American families will have options to own a device for much less money that will integrate everything they want — including their cable or satellite content, as well as online streaming apps — in one, easier-to-use gadget,” Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in a White House blog post.

The proposal would coordinate the establishment of an “open standard” for set-top box technology, making it possible for multiple manufacturers to enter the market and compete.

The idea is not without precedent. The cable modem marketplace uses a DOCSIS standard any manufacturer can use to launch their own modem. Once the modem is certified, broadband consumers can choose to either rent the modem from their cable operator ($10 a month from Time Warner) or buy one outright, usually for less than $70, easily paying for itself in less than one year.

But the set-top box proposal just doesn’t add up, argues Comcast — one of the strongest opponents of Chairman Wheeler’s proposal.

“A new government technology mandate makes little sense when the apps-based marketplace solution also endorsed by the FCC’s technical advisory committee is driving additional retail availability of third-party devices without any of the privacy, diversity, intellectual property, legal authority, or other substantial concerns raised by the chairman’s mandate,” wrote David Cohen, Comcast’s top lobbyist.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) — the country’s largest cable industry lobbying group, said much the same thing.

The Roku set top streaming device.

The Roku set-top streaming device.

“By reading the White House blog, you have to wonder how they could ignore that the world’s largest tech companies — which are often touted in other Administration initiatives — including Apple, Amazon, Google, Netflix and many others are providing exactly the choice in video services and devices that they claim to want,” the NCTA wrote.

Their argument is that a competitive set-top box market has already emerged without any interference from the FCC. Time Warner Cable, for example, voluntarily offers most of its lineup on the Roku platform. Comcast’s XFINITY TV app allows subscribers to watch cable channels over a variety of iOS and Android devices. Several operators also support videogame consoles as an alternative to renting set-top boxes.

But few allow customers to completely escape renting at least one set-top box, especially for premium movie channels. Others don’t support more than one or two streaming video consoles like Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire TV.

In Canada, cable customers can often buy their own set-top boxes and DVRs (known as PVRs up north) from major electronics retailers like Best Buy. For example, Shaw customers in western Canada can purchase a XG1 500GB HD Dual Tuner PVR with 6 built-in tuners and a 500GB hard drive (upgradable), which supports recording up to 6 HD shows simultaneously, for under $350. With some cable companies charging up to $15 a month for similar equipment, it would take just under two years to recoup the purchase cost. Many cable subscribers rent the same DVR for as long as five years before the hard drive starts acting up, necessitating replacement (of the drive).

Endangered?

Endangered cable network? Minority programmers say set-top box competition will destroy their networks.

Arguing the technical issues of cable box competition isn’t apparently enough of a winning argument, so the industry has drafted the support of minority cable programmers and friendly legislators who have taken Hyperbole Hill with declarations that set-top box competition will result in “the ultimate extinction of minority and special-interest programmers.”

How?

A competitive set-top box manufacturer may decide to ignore the way cable channels are now numbered on the cable dial. With everything negotiable, many programmers offer discounts or other incentives to win a lower channel number, avoiding the Channel Siberia effect of finding one’s network on a four digit channel number that channel surfers will likely never reach.

Their fear is that an entity like Google or Apple will pay no attention to how Comcast or Time Warner chooses to number its channels, and will use a different system that puts the most popular channels first.

Fees:

Fees: $34.95 for TV package, $35.90 in equipment and service fees.

But that assumes consumers care about channel numbers and not programs. Those who argue the days of linear TV are coming to an end doubt opening the set-top box market up for competition presents the biggest threat to these minority and specialty programmers. Those that devote hours of their broadcast day to reruns and program length commercials are probably at the most risk, because they lack quality original programming viewers want to see.

Hal Singer, who produces research reports for the telecom industry-backed Progressive Policy Institute, even goes as far as to suggest competitive set-top boxes will discourage telephone companies from building fiber to the home service, because they won’t get the advertising revenue for TV service they might otherwise receive from a captive set-top box market. But Singer ignores the fact Verizon effectively stopped substantial expansion of its FiOS network in 2010 (except in Boston) and AT&T now focuses most of its marketing on selling DirecTV service to TV customers, not U-verse – it’s fiber to the neighborhood service.

But Singer may be accurate on one point. If the cable industry loses revenue from set-top box rental fees, it may simply raise the rates it charges for cable television to make up the difference.

“So long as high-value customers for home video also demand more set-top boxes—a reasonable assumption—then pay TV operators can use metering to reduce the total price of home entertainment for cable customers,” Singer opines. “If this pricing structure were upended by the FCC’s proposal, economic theory predicts that pay TV prices would rise, thereby crowding out marginal video customers.”

Time Warner Cable Tests “Skinny Bundles” of Major Networks, HBO, Showtime for $10/Mo

20 CHANNELWhile cable operators continue to deny cord cutting is real, their marketing departments think otherwise and are responding with slimmed down cable TV packages showcasing premium movie channels at a non-premium price.

This week, Time Warner Cable began offering a $10 add-on video package of over-the-air major network stations for new customers in Manhattan signing up for 50/5Mbps broadband service ($39.95 a month alone on a one year promotion in TWC Maxx markets). Oh did we forget to mention that $10 also includes both HBO and Showtime — the same networks Time Warner sells to everyone else for about $16.95 a month each?

At $10 a month, the package is a steal if you are still interested in local live/linear TV and movie channels. XFINITY Stream for Comcast is comparable, but Comcast extracts $15.99 a month for almost the same thing.

Time Warner Cable is obviously targeting disinterested Millennials that might otherwise skip television or consider the $20 Sling TV package instead.

But the cable company is downplaying the package and its price.

Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus likes to remind investors at least 80 percent of Time Warner customers still subscribe to the big 200+ channel cable TV package, and Time Warner has hardly been a pioneer of “skinny bundles” that cut down the TV package to just the essentials.

Despite those assertions, the number of Americans willing to drop cable television continues to increase… and fast. Convergence Consulting notes the industry lost 283,000 video customers in 2014 and 1.1 million in 2015 — a four-fold increase. Convergence estimated at least another 1.1 million will cut the cable TV cord this year in what could become “the new normal.”

Video consumers are turning instead to on-demand, online viewing, which can provide commercial-free and binge viewing opportunities. Both Millennials and Generation X viewers are trending towards shows, not channels and networks, and many would never know (and fewer still care) what channel they were watching without the identity bug perpetually attached to the lower right of the screen.

Eventually, cable television service will likely occupy a part of a fat IP-pipe free-for-all, where viewers can still watch linear programming if they wish, but are more likely going to customize a much more personal viewing experience online instead.

After Waiting Forever, Boston is Finally Getting Verizon FiOS

verizon bostonThe long wait for fiber optic broadband in the city of Boston is finally over.

In a surprise announcement with Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Verizon officials, Verizon announced it will commit to at least $300 million in investments over the next six years to bring fiber to the home service to residents of the metro area.

Construction of the fiber-optic network will be completed on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis according to customer demand. Initially, the project will begin in Dorchester, West Roxbury and the Dudley Square neighborhood of Roxbury in 2016, followed by Hyde Park, Mattapan, and other areas of Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. The city has also agreed to provide an expedited permitting process to encourage the project.

“Boston is moving faster than our current infrastructure can support, and a modern fiber-optic communications platform will make us a next-level city,” Walsh said in a statement.

“This transformation isn’t just about advanced new fiber-optic technology — it’s about the innovative services this platform will allow people to create and use, today and in the future,” Verizon Wireline Network president Bob Mudge said in a statement.

Bringing FiOS inside the city of Boston will challenge the de facto monopoly Comcast had held for years. The only alternative most residents have is Verizon DSL.

The dramatic turnaround came six months after Verizon adamantly told the Boston City Council Verizon FiOS expansion was dead. Verizon announced it would stop FiOS expansion in 2010 to concentrate on its existing FiOS commitments and better marketing the service to attract more customers.

The sudden end to FiOS expansion six years ago caught many cities by surprise. As a result, in several areas, the fiber service is only available in select suburbs and not city centers.

Verizon’s unions have also pushed for further FiOS expansion, but today’s announcement is expected to have no impact on plans by the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to strike Verizon starting early Wednesday morning.

The partnership also covers Verizon Wireless and its plans to attach wireless equipment to city street lights and utility poles without a lengthy permitting process.

Verizon was also likely offered a much easier time securing a license to offer cable television service, a stumbling block Verizon has experienced in several large cities.

Echoing Google Fiber, Verizon will try to win itself some free marketing and buzz by giving residents a chance to compete to see what neighborhoods get FiOS first. A free online registration process will be used to assess demand and help Verizon prioritize its fiber-optic network construction schedule.

Verizon will also support digital initiatives for the income-challenged, including a $100,000 Digital Equity contribution to the city, offered to support a mobile hotspot lending program at the Boston Public Library enabling Internet access to families on an as-needed basis.

Boston neighborhoods marked "A" will be upgraded to FiOS first, followed by "B" and so on. The upgrade effort is expected to take at least six years.

Boston neighborhoods marked “A” will be upgraded to FiOS first, followed by “B” and so on. The upgrade effort is expected to take at least six years.

Time Warner Cable Reminds Los Angeles About Outrageous Cost of Sports TV

Phillip Dampier March 29, 2016 Consumer News, Time Warner Cable No Comments

SportsNet-LA-logoA bone toss by Time Warner Cable (just over a week before the opening of baseball season) to get Southern California satellite and cable providers to pick up carriage of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ SportsNet LA at a discount has backfired and further inflamed critics of the cost of sports programming.

Now two years old, the cable channel jointly owned by the Southern California division of Time Warner Cable and the Los Angeles Dodgers has been a sore spot for sports fans who don’t subscribe to Time Warner Cable or Charter Communications — the only two major providers offering the sports channel. It is the exclusive home of all-things-Dodgers and the Major League Baseball team was well compensated by Time Warner Cable with $8.35 billion for the 25-year deal.

Because of the huge amount of money on the line, Time Warner Cable priced SportsNet LA at $4.90 a month wholesale per subscriber — a stunning amount for a channel devoted to a single sports team. Providers serving Southern California, including DISH, DirecTV, Verizon, Cox, and AT&T, refused to carry the channel, and for two years Dodgers games have not been seen by more than half the region’s pay TV customers.

dodgersThe issue has sparked outrage among sports fans and politicians, who have complained about the ongoing impasse between Time Warner and other providers. Only Charter Communications, now in sensitive negotiations with the California Public Utilities Commission over its acquisition of Time Warner Cable, relented and agreed to pick up the channel for its customers last summer.

Time Warner Cable has consistently refused to allow the channel to be sold a-la-carte. Instead, every cable TV customer has to pay to make Time Warner’s expensive deal with the Dodgers pay off for the cable operator. Because other companies have consistently boycotted the network, Time Warner Cable has lost a reported $100 million a year from SportsNet LA.

That may explain why this year Time Warner Cable suddenly announced it would offer one year of the channel at a discount – $3.50 a month wholesale, closer in line with other regional sports channels.

Under normal circumstances, the price cut should attract other providers to get a deal signed, but these are not normal times in the cable television business.

Time Warner’s offer has been met with angry accusations of hubris in the Los Angeles sports press. None of the providers boycotting the channel seem interested in the deal either. The reason? The discount only lasts one year, after which the price shoots back up.

Imagine the customer service call centers at DirecTV and Verizon taking heated phone calls in March 2017 when the sports channel gets dropped for its too-high renewal rate.

hostage“Why would anyone give everyone a taste of something for a year?” Mark Ramsey, a media consultant based in San Diego, told the Los Angeles Times. “All the leverage goes to the seller, not the buyer. It’s a temporary fix. This is not a free sample for Sirius XM. Dropping a channel is worse than not carrying a channel.”

Cable subscribers, particularly non-sports-fans, are also incensed at the prospect of their TV bill going up $3.50-5.00 a month for a single channel.

The dispute continues to fuel speculation that these kinds of money disputes are sure to hurry the demise of the one-size-fits-all cable TV package. Around one-quarter of Americans don’t subscribe to cable or satellite and less than two-thirds of those that do are adults 18-29. That demographic reality spells eventual doom. Cable TV is increasingly a must-have service only among older Americans. At least 83% of those 50 and older subscribe to cable television. That number drops to 73% for those aged 30-49. The younger you are, the less likely you see a need for cable television.

As a-la-carte alternatives grow, an ever larger percentage of Americans are expected to abandon the cable package. So far, the only party that doesn’t seem to care much either way is the Dodgers — they got their $8.35 billion and can sit on it for the next two plus decades.

Time Warner Cable likely underestimated the blowback on its wholesale pricing plans for SportsNet LA, but seems happy enough for now to offer only a temporary discount. But it also gives their customers another excuse to scrutinize their cable bills, which now include a “sports programming” surcharge, and scream for a-la-carte across the board.

“So, I am supposed to be excited that TWC is going to lower the price of the Dodgers to other providers? Right?,” complained Scott Bryant from Apple Valley. “Now myself, and others who could care less about the Dodgers will be forced to add another $3.50 a month to get the Dodgers, a team I could care less about? This is a joke, right? It’s time to force all cable/satellite providers allow us to pick our own channels and pay for what we want. This is nothing more than corporate welfare. When I see another added fee to my bill for local sports coverage, I will do it, too! I’m an Angels fan. Forcing me to pay for the Dodgers is criminal. I’m a sports fan, but this is out of control. Where are my scissors?”

FCC Prepares to Approve Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House Merger

mergerDespite clamoring for more competition in the cable industry, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler is reportedly ready to circulate a draft order granting Charter Communications’ $55 billion dollar buyout of Time Warner Cable, with conditions.

The Wall Street Journal reported late last night the order will be reviewed by the four other commissioners at the FCC and could be subject to change before coming to a vote.

Wheeler’s order is likely to follow the same philosophical approach taken by New York State’s Public Service Commission — approving the deal but adding temporary consumer protections to blunt anti-competition concerns.

Most important for Wheeler is protecting the nascent online video marketplace that is starting to threaten the traditional cable television bundle. Dish’s Sling TV, the now defunct Aereo, as well as traditional streaming providers like Hulu and Netflix have all been frustrated by contract terms and conditions with programmers that prohibit or limit online video distribution through alternative providers. The draft order reportedly would prohibit Charter from including such clauses in its contracts with programmers.

fccCritics of the deal contend that might be an effective strategy… if Charter was the only cable company in the nation. Many cable operators include similar restrictive terms in their contracts, which often also include an implicit threat that offering cable channels online diminishes their value in the eyes of cable operators. Programmers fear that would likely mean price cuts as those contracts are renewed.

Wheeler has also advocated, vainly, that cable operators should consider overbuilding their systems to compete directly with other cable operators, something not seen to a significant degree since the 1980s. Cable operators have maintained an informal understanding to avoid these kinds of price and service wars by respecting the de facto exclusive territories of fellow operators. Virtually all cable systems that did directly compete at one time were acquired by one of the two competitors by the early 1990s. It is unlikely the FCC can or will order Charter to compete directly with other cable operators, and will focus instead on extracting commitments from Charter to serve more rural and suburban areas presently deemed unprofitable to serve.

gobble-til-you-wobbleMost of the other deal conditions will likely formalize Charter’s voluntary commitments not to impose data caps, modem fees, interconnection fees (predominately affecting Netflix) or violate Net Neutrality rules for the first three years after the merger is approved. As readers know, Stop the Cap! filed comments with the FCC asking the agency to significantly extend or make permanent those commitments as part of any approval, something sources say may be under consideration and a part of the final draft order. Stop the Cap! maintains a cable operator’s commitment to provide a better customer experience and be consumer-friendly should not carry an expiration date.

It could take a few weeks for the draft order to be revised into a final order, and additional concessions may be requested, a source told the newspaper.

Meanwhile, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is still reviewing the deal. News that the FCC is prepared to accept a merger is likely to dramatically reduce any chance California regulators will reject the merger out of hand. Stop the Cap!’s Matthew Friedman is continuing discussions with the CPUC to bolster deal conditions to keep usage caps, usage-based billing, and other consumer-unfriendly charges off the backs of California customers. New York customers will automatically benefit from any additional concessions California gets from Charter, as the PSC included a most-favored state clause guaranteeing New Yorkers equal treatment. Any conditions won in California and New York may also extend to other states to unify Charter’s products and services nationwide.

An independent monitor to verify Charter is complying with deal approval conditions is likely to be part of any order approving the transaction, although critics of big cable mergers point out Comcast has allegedly thumbed its nose at conditions imposed as part of its acquisition of NBCUniversal, and only occasionally punished for doing so.

47% of Americans Would Switch Providers After One Bad Customer Service Experience

Phillip Dampier February 16, 2016 Competition, Consumer News 2 Comments

Press “1” for inconvenience.

At least half of the country would switch their cable, telephone, or satellite company in a matter of days after a bad customer service experience, if they could.

[24]7’s newly published 2016 Customer Engagement Index surveyed 3,500 customers globally, including 1,200 U.S. respondents, to understand what drives customer behaviors. The survey quickly identified cable and satellite providers among the worst offenders, and for good reason. Customer satisfaction scores for telecom companies continue to rest at the bottom of the barrel.

The survey found almost half were ready to bolt after a single bad experience dealing with customer service, whether it was with a dead-end interactive voice response menu that took them nowhere, to long hold times, to being asked the same questions over and over again as their call is transferred, to unresponsive customer service agents that never resolved the issue to a customer’s satisfaction.

Millennials increasingly prefer to work with self-service options and tolerate a ponderous experience with telephone-based customer service less. Having a website or app that can manage your account is well-appreciated by a growing number of customers that dread having to call anyone to resolve a problem.

“The way customers engage with brands has dramatically shifted, yet many enterprises’ approach to customer service and sales is stuck in yesterday’s paradigm,” [24]7 founder and CEO PV Kannan said in a statement. “For this reason, it’s more important than ever for brands to be where their customers are, and allow them to engage on their own terms. Companies that fail to prioritize the customer experience risk falling behind.”

Right now cable and satellite companies are failing a lot of their customers, scoring lowest with only a 59% customer satisfaction score. Internet providers only score marginally better at 63%.

cust satis

Anger at poor service has led to 47% of consumers saying that they would take their business to a competitor within one day (if price and products are of equal value), while 79% say they would do it within one week. Millennials and GenX customers are less patient than Baby Boomers and those in the Greatest Generation.

Lucky for telecom companies many customers don’t have anywhere else to take their business. For most, finding a provider offering at least 25Mbps broadband that isn’t the cable company is impossible. Many phone companies don’t offer competing cable television and broadband is a problem if you subscribe to satellite TV. That may explain why many Comcast customers don’t believe the cable company is trying hard enough to improve customer service. They don’t have to.

FCC Chairman Tells Crowd He’s “Not Done Enough” to Bring More Cable Competition

Phillip Dampier February 3, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments
Wheeler

Wheeler

FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler confessed he “has not done enough” to bring consumers more competition to Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter, and other cable operators.

Appearing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Wheeler said Comcast’s effort to buy Time Warner Cable in 2015 would not bring additional competition to the marketplace. The FCC remained pessimistic about the deal, stalling for months until a request for approval was eventually withdrawn by Comcast.

Wheeler has been especially sensitive about deals that could impact broadband services — wireless or wired — since becoming chairman of the FCC during President Obama’s second term in office. The FCC has proven itself less concerned with cable television matters, having approved a merger of AT&T and DirecTV while it still contemplates the merger of Charter Communications with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

Wheeler also spent time speaking about his latest initiative, breaking up the virtual monopoly on set-top boxes. Wheeler has proposed ending that monopoly by creating a new open standard platform for set-top equipment, allowing various manufacturers to develop boxes for retail sale to consumers.

More Than Half of America Would Wave Goodbye to ESPN for $8/Mo Off TV Bill

Phillip Dampier January 13, 2016 Consumer News, Online Video, Video 3 Comments

The buffet is open.

ESPN’s ability to bid for expensive sports rights may be threatened if pay television customers finally get a chance to subscribe to only the networks they want to watch.

A recent consumer survey conducted by Civic Science found 56% overall would remove ESPN/ESPN2, with 60% of female respondents and 49% of male respondents thrilled to drop ESPN to save $8 a month on their cable bill.

Richard Greenfield at BTIG Research has tried in vain to warn ESPN parent company Disney it may be on borrowed time.

“We continue to believe ESPN is in serious trouble as they spent far too heavily on long-term sports rights contracts, given the deteriorating state of the multichannel video bundle and accelerating shift of TV ad dollars to mobile,” Greenfield wrote in a note to investors. “Simply put, ESPN has been the largest beneficiary of the ‘BIG’ cable bundle for decades and is now dramatically overearning, with consumers the biggest losers.”

No basic cable network costs consumers more than ESPN, with $5-9 dollars of every cable TV bill paying for ESPN and its sister sports networks, whether customers watch or not. Each year, ESPN rakes in almost $9 billion from American households and advertisers, much of it used to bid for high-profile sporting events which used to appear exclusively on major broadcast networks. With billions on hand from pay television customers, many who also pay surcharges for sports programming and broadcast/over the air stations, sports teams and their owners are flush with cash. Some cable companies have even resorted to launching expensive cable networks in association with team owners just to secure viewing rights as competitors continue to bid up the price.

ESPN’s business model depends on making every cable customer pay for ESPN, so its contracts prohibit cable operators and satellite providers from placing the network on an added-cost tier.But as new online video providers launch, many are trying to omit expensive sports programming to give customers cheaper options. If consumers choose those providers, expensive cable networks are in big trouble.


ESPN president John Skipper admits ESPN’s secret: It rakes it at least $6 billion annually from cable customers, many who never watched ESPN. (Playing time varies)

Greenfield has tangled with Bob Iger, Disney’s chairman and CEO about the risks to ESPN’s future business model in the recent past. Iger has taken the cord cutting threat in stride, claiming ESPN is even prepared to start selling its networks individually, direct to consumers. Greenfield believes Iger is bluffing.

“As soon as ESPN launches a direct-to-consumer offering, it will remove the ‘protection’ they receive from cable/satellite distributors who guarantee ESPN a certain level of penetration,” Greenfield writes. “So no matter what price point ESPN/ESPN2 launch to consumers, it enables their legacy distributors such as Comcast to offer far more robust channel packages without ESPN.”

In an open market where customers get to decide on the channels they pay to receive, more than half of the country would not pay for ESPN, creating an enormous revenue hit for the network. Without adequate funds to compete in sports programming rights auctions, ESPN would likely lose access to many sporting events, further reducing revenue received from advertisers as ratings dropped. To make up for those subscriber losses, ESPN might have to charge consumers up to $30 a month for a Netflix-like ESPN offering. Civic Science asked how many would pay $20 a month for ESPN and found only 6% of survey respondents willing. In contrast, about 80 percent of Comcast customers now take ESPN, but not because they have a choice.

Cord-cutting may already be taking a toll on ESPN’s bank account. Those dispensing with a cable television package in favor of Hulu, Amazon, or Netflix may be partly to blame for ESPN’s decision to layoff 300 employees last fall.

“The math for a direct-to-consumer offering for a basic cable network does not work, especially for channel(s) with very high monthly fees embedded within the current MVPD bundle,” said Greenfield. “Disney cannot take ESPN direct-to-consumer and they know it, whether they admit that publicly or not. Furthermore, if the multichannel video bundle frays faster than expected and the TV ad market continues to weaken, ESPN’s future growth prospects are dim, at best.”

N.Y. Approves Charter-Time Warner Merger; Stop the Cap!’s Impact on Deal Conditions

charter twc bhConditions recommended by Stop the Cap! to protect New York consumers after a merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable are expected to cost the two cable companies almost one billion dollars and will guarantee statewide adoption of Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade, guaranteeing all customers receive speed upgrades ranging from 60-300Mbps.

On Friday, the N.Y. Public Service Commission announced its conditional approval of the merger transaction, but only if Charter agrees to a series of wide-ranging conditions to guarantee that New York customers receive tangible benefits as a result of the merger:

The Commission agrees that in order for the proposed merger to be in the public interest, the Petitioners must agree to make concrete and enforceable commitments to modernize their cable system and services, expand access, address the digital divide and improve customer service. To this end, we find that with the acceptance by the Petitioners of the enforceable conditions, as discussed in the body of this Order and Appendix A, the proposed merger is in the public interest. These conditions are designed to help ensure a near ubiquitous world-class communications network that meets the needs of all New Yorkers. Absent acceptance of these conditions, the public interest standard cannot be met, and the petition for transaction approval is denied.

Stop the Cap! was quoted and footnoted extensively in the PSC order. We provided the PSC with insight beyond the public relations machine of Charter and Time Warner Cable. We exposed the fact Charter’s promised service improvements were actually more modest than what Time Warner Cable has undertaken on its own through its Maxx upgrade program. We educated regulators about the inadequacy of Charter’s initial commitment to offer low-cost Internet access for low-income families. We questioned the consumer benefits of certain upgrades that could actually increase costs for consumers because of additional equipment fees. We alerted the PSC that Charter would discontinue Time Warner’s affordable $14.99 Internet offer. We strongly recommended the PSC consider making rural broadband expansion a part of this transaction. We also sought additional protections from any future compulsory usage caps or usage-based billing.

special reportAlthough Stop the Cap! was opposed to the transaction from the outset, doubting it was in the public interest, we recognized the chances for approval were greater than the Comcast-TWC merger that was eventually withdrawn. Therefore, we made it a priority to outline multiple conditions we felt should be imposed on Charter if the deal was to be approved.

Our constituency is ordinary consumers and ratepayers. Too often these kinds of mergers are approved with token conditions that only benefit minority or special interests, favored non-profit or government entities, or those with vested business interests (programmers, equipment manufacturers, etc.) It was important to us that any approval bring something beyond free Internet service for schools or community centers, agreements to continue carrying certain cable networks, or a temporary discount or low value coupon that ends up in the mailboxes of customers a year or two from now.

We know what Time Warner Cable customers in New York want: better service, faster speeds, no data caps, no gotcha fees, affordable Internet options, and job protection.

It appears New York regulators understand that as well and intend to force Charter to offer customers a better deal.

Despite publicly saying little about the merger, just a few hours after the PSC’s decision, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office issued a press release taking credit for the merger conditions and unveiling the “tenth signature proposal of his 2016 agenda: dramatically expanding and improving access to high-speed Internet in communities statewide.” Once again, the governor will try to entice providers like Time Warner Cable, Frontier Communications, and Verizon to expand rural broadband in New York using public dollars.

Although lacking a catchy title, the “New New York Broadband Program” includes a $500 million solicitation for private sector partners to subsidize rural broadband expansion with state dollars. The key goals of the 2016 program include:

  • stcAccess to broadband at speeds of at least 100Mbps; 25Mbps in the most remote areas of the State.
  • Public-private partnerships with a required 50 percent match in private sector investment targeted across the program.
  • Priority for projects that improve broadband Internet access in unserved areas, libraries and educational opportunity centers.
  • Applications will be chosen through a “reverse-auction” process, which will award funding to bidders seeking the lowest State investment.
  • Auctions to be held within each Regional Economic Development Council region to ensure statewide allocations of funding.

Much of the funding from earlier years ended up going to Time Warner Cable for modest expansion of its cable service, especially in eastern upstate New York. Likely applicants in 2016 include Time Warner Cable, Frontier Communications, community-owned/co-op broadband providers and rural wireless ISPs. Verizon and Cablevision are unlikely to apply.

Despite the governor’s efforts, most New York homes and businesses will be more affected by the Charter-Time Warner Cable merger, if it wins federal approval.

Gov. Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo

The Public Service Commission took its role very seriously, issuing a 93-page decision that took recommendations from consumer groups including Stop the Cap! very seriously. It did not share the industry’s belief that telecommunications providers in New York are heavily competitive.

“Time Warner serves close to 50% of New York State and we have a legitimate interest in ensuring that, when a company of this size provides customers with a service so affected by the public interest, as is communications, that real benefits accrue to consumers as a result of a given transaction,” the PSC wrote.

The PSC had an easier time sorting through comments about this merger, which generated considerably less interest than Comcast’s failed attempt to buy Time Warner.

“Generally, comments supporting the proposed transaction assert that, among other things, the merger will create jobs and provide better products at more affordable rates,” the PSC concluded in its ruling. “Those opposing the transaction state that the merger will inevitably lead to higher rates and potential data caps on broadband services in the future.”

The PSC took a very skeptical approach to Charter’s promised benefits, often finding them vague, questionable, or likely to have occurred with or without Charter’s involvement.

new-yorkFor example, the PSC questioned Charter’s promised network investments and upgrades:

Petitioners, however, decline to specify where in the national footprint of Charter, TWC and BHN these investments will be made or to identify the decisional factors to be used to channel these capital resources to specific areas or customers. There is no analysis to indicate that a reasonable proportion of these investments will be to systems in New York or for the benefit of New York customers. Similarly, there is no proposal by the Petitioners to describe the specific commitments that are being made or the specific enforcement mechanisms that would be used in the event the Petitioners’ implementation fell short of their commitments. Further, in order for these investments to be characterized as part of a net public benefit, Staff concludes, and we agree, that Petitioners would have to establish that these investments would not have been made in the absence of the proposed merger.

In the absence of a demonstration that there is “a tangible commitment to make new investments or invest beyond Time Warner’s current capital investment budgets,” it is difficult to characterize these capital expenditures as a certain benefit to New York customers or a satisfaction of the public interest under the New York statutes.

One of Stop the Cap!’s core arguments in our comments to the PSC was that Charter’s upgrade commitments were not particularly meaningful because Time Warner Cable was gradually upgrading its own systems to a level of service superior to what Charter plans to offer. The PSC clearly understood this and our warning that Charter’s commitments lacked specificity:

Public Benefit Assessment Staff and several commenters suggest that the proposed merger, as described in the Joint Petition and Petitioners’ Reply Comments, does not have sufficient net benefits to warrant a finding that the transaction is in the public interest. We concur. Many of the asserted benefits from the proposed transaction are events triggered by actions taken independently from the merger, and others are likely to be undertaken by TWC in any event, should the merger not be approved. Further, many asserted benefits are only described on a national scale and there is no way to determine if the investments or expenditures will occur in New York. Similarly, many of the projected benefits are described in terms that are too indefinite to permit us to assume that the benefits will occur as described to make a meaningful contribution to the transaction’s net benefits.

Time Warner Cable Maxx speed improvements.

Time Warner Cable Maxx speed improvements.

As a result, the PSC has looked more closely at Time Warner Cable’s Maxx program to be the benchmark for New York, not Charter’s proposed upgrades. They have adopted our recommendation that every Time Warner Cable customer in New York get the same kind of service upgrade residents in New York City enjoy today.

Another argument made by Stop the Cap! dealt with affordable Internet access. Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Price Internet ($14.99/mo for 2Mbps) is not fast, but it is affordable and free of the kind of revenue-protecting pre-conditions usually placed on Internet access for the poor. Time Warner’s plan is available to every customer at any time with no restrictions or contracts. In contrast, Charter’s originally proposed affordable Internet program required participants have school-age children, enroll only in the late summer, not have current cable broadband service (or be willing to forego it for 60 days), and not have any prior balance. As with Comcast, pre-conditions like this limit participation. The PSC agreed and now customers will be able to keep their more affordable Internet plans without jumping through artificial hoops launched by Charter.

The days of rural New Yorkers being quoted $20,000 to install Time Warner Cable service are also going to be a thing of the past. In addition to a commitment to pay for line extensions reaching 145,000 unserved or underserved customers, Charter is now required to work with New York’s Broadband 4 All program to receive supplementary funding, as available, to complete service extensions to eventually reach every customer that lives within a franchise area and wants cable service.

There are several other benefits outlined below that make this a better (although not great) deal, at least for New Yorkers. If any other state regulator manages to get an even better deal for that state’s residents, New Yorkers will automatically benefit because of a “most favored state clause” in the PSC’s order, which requires Charter to share those benefits with New York residents.

ny pscAll in all, the New York State Public Service Commission has lived up to its reputation as a consumer-protective body that is responsive to the needs of the public. This is in great contrast to many other states where regulators seem themselves as a business facilitator (and occasionally come directly from the businesses being regulated). In these states, the merger won approval with few, in any, preconditions.

We were delighted to have been extensively quoted and footnoted in the PSC’s order, having proven our case the Charter-Time Warner deal didn’t offer very much for New York. But we’re not happy the PSC punted on data caps. While recognizing they are a concern, the PSC seemed satisfied a three-year guarantee of no data caps was adequate. We disagree. As an increasing number of Comcast customers can attest, data caps are anti-competitive, anti-consumer, and unnecessary. Whatever benefits faster speeds can deliver can be easily curtailed by a data cap. So can online video competition. With much of upstate New York totally dependent on a single provider – Time Warner or Charter – for broadband speeds above 10Mbps, there is plenty of room for mischief that would otherwise be controlled by competitive forces. The PSC saw fit to avoid using its power of approval to get creative on keeping flat rate Internet affordable and available. That is a mistake we predict will be back to haunt us in the future.

Here are the specific conditions, most advocated by Stop the Cap!, that Charter Communications must agree to as a condition of the deal’s approval in New York:

Rural Broadband Access [$355 Million Value]

In addition to the goals accomplished by Gov. Cuomo’s New New York Broadband Program, Charter must agree to unilaterally build-out its network to reach an additional 145,000 “unserved” and “underserved” homes and businesses within four years. This will be an easy target for Charter to reach because the PSC defines “underserved” as any home with less than 100Mbps service. That represents much of upstate New York bypassed by TWC Maxx, so a speed upgrade in just one upstate city will achieve this requirement.

However, the PSC also included a second condition. Subject to the final terms and conditions of the Broadband 4 All Program being comparable to the Connect New York Program, Charter will be required to bid for Broadband 4 All Program funding to offer line extensions to any remaining unserved and underserved home across its entire New York service territory, which means every New Yorker within a cable franchise service area that wants service will be able to get it without being quoted tens of thousands of dollars for construction costs.

This will finally help would-be customers like Stop the Cap! reader Jesse Walser in Jamesville who has tried to get wired broadband in his home for over a decade. Verizon won’t upgrade its network and Time Warner Cable quoted him between $5,900 and $26,000 for installation of a line extension to reach his home.

All Digital Cable System Upgrade

Charter must convert their existing New York systems to an all-digital network (including upgrading the Columbia County Charter cable system to enable broadband communications) capable of delivering faster broadband speeds.

In Columbia County, residents are currently better served by smaller local providers. Both Germantown Telephone and Mid-Hudson Cable offer high-speed access throughout their territories. Berkshire Telephone has almost 100% DSL coverage, and Taconic Telephone has expanded DSL service to much of their huge service territory. Frontier Communications offers some DSL in southern Columbia County. The biggest problem providers are Verizon, which has no plans for DSL service in the area, and Charter Cable, which still runs a basic cable television-only system in the county.

In New York, Charter now provides cable television and other communication services to a relatively small number of customers, from two cable system clusters in and around Plattsburgh (14,000 customers) and Columbia County (2,500 customers). Plattsburgh gets television, phone and broadband service from Charter, but Columbia County is still served by a now-ancient, cable television only system.

Network Modernization and Speed Increases [$305 Million Value]

Charter must convert all of its systems in New York to all-digital within 30 months of the closing of the merger transaction. Charter is also required to offer broadband speeds up to 100Mbps to all customers by the end 2018 and match TWC Maxx speeds of 300Mbps by the end of 2019.

Charter’s all digital upgrade in upstate New York will facilitate faster broadband service, but it will also mean a set-top box or other similar device for every cable connected television in the home.

Broadband Affordability [$250 Million Value]

Despite Charter’s simplified menu of options (two broadband speed tiers and one video package), the PSC has required Charter to allow customers to keep their current plans, at least for the next several years:

  • Charter is required to maintain and advance its commitment to an affordable standalone Internet offering through the continuation of the Time Warner Everyday Low Price $14.99
    service throughout the Time Warner New York territory for up to two years and allow existing customers to keep the service for three years.
  • Charter is required to offer its 60Mbps standalone broadband product throughout New York at uniform national pricing. [$125 million value]
  • Charter is required to allow existing Time Warner customers to retain, without material changes that have the intent to discourage, the standalone and bundled broadband services they subscribe to at the close of the transaction for three years from the date of the closing.
  • Charter is required to provide a low-income broadband offering to eligible customers throughout its New York footprint. The PSC-ordered plan will offer 30Mbps for $14.99 a month to any household eligible for the National School Lunch Program and senior citizens 65 years and older eligible for the federal Supplemental Security Income program. No credit check shall be required and conditions requiring current broadband customers to wait 60 days to qualify and cover any past due bills have been deleted.

Customer Service [$55 Million Value]

Within two years after the close of the proposed transaction, Charter shall invest a minimum of $50 million in service improvement programs.

Charter is required to show a 35% reduction in Time Warner Cable’s 2014 cable PSC Complaint Rate by the end of 2020, with a 17.5% reduction due by the end of 2018. If they don’t achieve that, Charter must invest an additional $2.5 million in its service for each failure.

Job Protection

For the next four years, Charter cannot cut the number of customer facing jobs in New York.

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  • David: I mostly read your blog to hear about item #4. I'm a Frontier customer and their service speed is really poor. I hope that they someday get around to ...
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  • Joe V: Keep it up Phil. I just wrote a piece to Frontline PBS about the state of broadband duopolies in this country. I hope they read and respond....
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  • Lee: Frontier will not deliver that 5 Mbps to me. It will not matter what modem I have or what they have in the dslam located at the school. The copper lin...
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