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Bell Acquires Manitoba Telecom for $3.9 Billion; Cell Phone Rates Expected to Rise

bell badBCE, Inc., the parent company of Bell Canada, has acquired Manitoba Telecom Services, Inc. (MTS), in a deal worth $3.9 billion, further enlarging Canada’s largest telecommunications company.

“Under the terms of this transaction, MTS will achieve much more than it could have as an independent company,” Manitoba Telecom president and CEO Jay Forbes said in a conference call with analysts. “BCE’s commitment to invest $1 billion over five years into Manitoba’s telecommunications infrastructure will also contribute greatly to the prosperity of our province and the quality of our customer experience.”

Many MTS customers and consumer advocates disagree with Forbes’ assessment, noting the deal will further consolidate Canada’s wireless marketplace by eliminating the province’s largest wireless carrier – MTS. The wireless business has nearly 500,000 customers – by far the largest provider in the region. Under the deal, BCE will sell off about one-third of MTS’ customers and retail storefronts to competitor Telus in a separate transaction.

Manitoba and neighboring residents in Saskatchewan pay some of the lowest prices for telecom services in Canada. MTS offers unlimited, flat rate Internet plans for both its broadband and wireless customers — plans likely to disappear or become more expensive after Bell takes over. The result, according to one Canadian telecom expert, will be higher rates.

“With MTS out of the way — and Bell and Telus sharing the same wireless network — prices are bound to increase to levels more commonly found in the rest of the country,” lawyer Michael Geist wrote on his blog.

The deal is also likely to deliver a death-blow to a government commitment assuring Canadians of at least four competing choices for wireless service. If Bell’s buyout is approved by regulators, Manitoba will be served by just three competitors — all charging substantially more than MTS.

...but soon we'll be with Bell.

…but soon we’ll be with Bell.

“Compare Bell’s wireless pricing for consumers in Manitoba and Ontario,” offered Geist. “The cost of an unlimited nationwide calling share plan in Manitoba is $50. The same plan in Ontario is $65. The difference in data costs are even larger: Bell offers 6GB for $20 in Manitoba. The same $20 will get you just 500MB in Ontario. In fact, 5GB costs $50 in Ontario, more than double the cost in Manitoba for less data. The other carriers such as Rogers and Telus also offer lower pricing in Manitoba. The reason is obvious: the presence of a fourth carrier creates more competition and lower pricing.”

That Manitoba Telecom would be up for sale at all came as a result of its controversial privatization in 2006 under a previous Conservative provincial government. The decision to privatize came despite a commitment from then-Premier Gary Filmon that Manitoba Telecom should remain a provincially-owned telecom company. Critics point to one possible reason for the flip-flop. Shortly after leaving politics, Filmon was appointed to the board of directors of the privatized company and was given $1.4 million in director fees and compensation over ten years, along with company shares with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Economist Toby Sanger compared costs and returns of Manitoba Telecom and SaskTel, Saskatchewan’s publicly-owned telecommunications company. After two decades, the cost of a basic landline with SaskTel is $8 less per month than MTS, and SaskTel paid $497 million in corporate income taxes to the citizens of Saskatchewan – SaskTel’s shareholders – over the past five years, compared to $1.2 million paid by MTS over the same time period. In 2014, the CEO of SaskTel earned $499,492 compared to $7.8 million paid to the CEO of MTS for managing a very similar sized operation.

The acquisition will be reviewed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the Competition Bureau and Industry Canada, and could be approved later this year or early 2017.

York Councillor Objects to Fiber Upgrade Claiming It Will Harm Area’s Daffodils

DaffodilsA fiber upgrade offering 17 million homes in the United Kingdom broadband speeds up to 200Mbps is proving controversial in parts of York because a local councillor is concerned the project will wreak havoc with the area’s daffodils.

“Having seen the disruptive and shoddy way these works have been carried out in the rest of York, I will not let that situation arise in this ward unchallenged,” said Osbaldwick and Derwent councillor Mark Warters (Ind.). “Given that Osbaldwick is currently covered in daffodils, most of which I planted with the local scouts over the years, as well as many other parts of the ward, I most certainly want to know which areas of verge are to be destroyed and what reinstatement/compensation plans are in place for local communities.”

Warters also questioned the need for Virgin Media’s $4.4 billion national cable broadband upgrade, especially since BT has already improved its DSL service in England.

“Assuming this is a competing system, what then is to stop ‘XYZ super, super fast broadband’ coming along and digging up the streets in a few years time for yet another competing system?” he asked. “The whole issue seems to be getting out of control with utility companies.”

Warters has long objected to telecommunications competition.

Warters (Ind.)

Warters (Ind.)

“I can well remember the disruption caused across the city in the 1990s when the cable TV systems were installed, which very few people needed due to [satellite provider] Sky TV,” Warters told The Press.

Some constituents were unimpressed with Warters’ Luddite views.

“That’s right Mr. Warters, keep your peasants in the dark ages,” responded one local. “After all there are plenty carrier pigeons around aren’t there.”

Some portrayed the issue as generational, noting York’s industrial base is rapidly being replaced with an information age economy that requires high quality broadband to compete.

“This is so typical of the attitudes that drag York down,” wrote Dillan York. “The days when northern blokes who were thick of arm and thicker of head could scrape a living from hitting lumps of metal with big hammers have gone. Shame there is an aging population who lives in hope that such ‘good times’ will return.”

But some residents acknowledge the project, which requires considerable underground digging, has made a mess of roads and sidewalks in other areas and utility company restoration efforts are lacking.

“It makes absolutely no difference which utility company digs up the road or pavement,” wrote another York resident. “They all leave them in a mess.”

Analysis: FCC, Justice Dept. Ready to Approve Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House Merger

charter twc bhThe Justice Department and FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler are prepared to accept a massive $55 billion merger between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks, but at a cost of stringent conditions governing the creation of America’s second largest cable conglomerate.

In a joint agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the FCC, Charter executives have agreed to do nothing to harm online video competition or implement usage caps or usage-based billing for at least seven years. Charter will also be forced to broaden its cable service to reach at least two million additional homes, some already served by other providers, setting the stage for potential head-to-head competition between two closely-matched competitors.

The deal will directly affect 19.4 million customers of the three companies, which will eventually combine under the Charter Communications brand name and marketing philosophy — selling customers simplified television, phone, and broadband packages that reduce customer options. Little is expected to change for the rest of 2016, however, with Time Warner Cable and Bright House likely to continue operations under existing packaging and pricing until sometime in 2017. Technicians told Stop the Cap! earlier in April they were told not to acquire new outfits with the Time Warner Cable logo and branding, and the cable company is also making preparations to gradually repaint its massive fleet of vans and service vehicles with the Charter logo.

President Obama Expected To Nominate Rep. Mel Watt For Director Of The Federal Housing Finance Agency

Wheeler

Most of the concessions seemed to have originated from FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, who has been one of the strongest proponents of online video competition, improved broadband, and direct head-to-head competition between cable operators. The Justice Department focused its attention on challenging the cable industry’s almost-united front against online video competition. Under former CEO Glenn Britt’s leadership, Time Warner Cable was considered “the industry leader” in contract language that guaranteed it would share the lowest price negotiated by any other cable, satellite, telephone company or online video provider. Those agreements also often included clauses that restricted programmers from putting streamed programming online for non-subscribers. That explains why cord-cutters frequently run into barriers watching networks online unless they can prove they are already a pay-TV customer.

Under conditions from the Justice Department, those sections of agreements with Charter, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks will become invalid and unenforceable. But that doesn’t mean restrictions will disappear overnight. Comcast, Cox, Cablevision, and other cable companies also enforce similar conditions which will be unaffected by the Justice Department decision, at least for now. But the precedent has sent shudders across an industry concerned about protecting its still-profitable cable TV business, under assault from increased programming costs and a greater reluctance by consumers to tolerate annual rate increases.

analysisGene Kimmelman, chief executive of consumer interest group Public Knowledge, told the Wall Street Journal the conditions were “a clear signal to the content industry and entertainment companies that the enforcement agencies are giving them a green light to grow online video and experiment as a direct competitor to cable, and they will prevent cable from interfering.”

Of greater interest to consumers are the deal conditions proposed by Chairman Wheeler. As Stop the Cap! reported almost a year ago, sources told us the FCC would “get serious” about data caps if companies like Comcast imposed them on customers nationwide. At the moment, Comcast is testing caps affecting just under 15% of their total customer base, already generating thousands of customer complaints with the FCC in response. Although Charter promised three years of cap-free service, Wheeler and his staff obviously felt it was important to send a message that they agree with cap opponents that data caps are more about preventing competition than technical need. By making long term data cap prohibition a core part of a settlement agreement with Charter, Wheeler sends a strong message to Comcast that the FCC isn’t drinking cable industry Kool Aid about the rationale for usage caps and usage billing.

Some consumer groups worry Charter has overextended itself in debt over-acquiring other cable companies.

Some consumer groups worry Charter has overextended itself in debt over-acquiring other cable companies.

“New Charter will not be permitted to charge usage-based prices or impose data caps,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Second, New Charter will be prohibited from charging interconnection fees, including to online video providers, which deliver large volumes of internet traffic to broadband customers. Additionally, the Department of Justice’s settlement with Charter both outlaws video programming terms that could harm online video distributors (OVDs) and protects OVDs from retaliation– an outcome fully supported by the order I have circulated today. All three seven-year conditions will help consumers by benefitting OVD competition. The cumulative impact of these conditions will be to provide additional protection for new forms of video programming services offered over the Internet. Thus, we continue our close working relationship with the Department of Justice on this review.”

Wheeler is also intent on proving there is a viable market for cable operators overbuilding into new territories. To prove that point, Wheeler has gotten an agreement that Charter will introduce service to one million new customers where it will intrude on another operator’s service area and directly compete with it. The other provider has to already offer service at 25Mbps or greater. That could mean Charter competing directly with a cable company like Comcast or building service into an area already served by Verizon FiOS, AT&T U-verse, or another provider offering something beyond traditional DSL.

Copps

Copps

Another million customers just outside of areas served by the three cable companies may also finally get service, as Charter will be compelled to wire at least another million homes for cable service for the first time.

Despite the conditions, many consumer groups and former public officials remain unhappy the merger won approval.

“Creating broadband monopoly markets raises consumer costs, kills competition, and points a gun at the heart of the news and information that democracy depends upon,” said Michael Copps, a former Democratic commissioner at the FCC and a special adviser to the Common Cause public interest group. “FCC approval of this unnecessary merger would be an abandonment of its public interest responsibilities.”

“There’s nothing about this massive merger that serves the public interest. There’s nothing about it that helps make the market for cable TV and Internet services more affordable and competitive for Americans,” said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press. “Customers of the newly merged entity will be socked with higher prices as Charter attempts to pay off the nearly $27 billion debt load it took on to finance this deal. The wasted expense of this merger is staggering. For the money Charter spent to make this happen it could have built new competitive broadband options for tens of millions of people. Now these billions of dollars will do little more than line the pockets of Time Warner Cable’s shareholders and executives. CEO Rob Marcus will walk away with a $100 million golden parachute.”

Wheeler’s draft order is likely to receive a final vote in the coming days before the Commission. The only remaining holdout is California’s telecom regulator, which is expected to reach a decision by May 10.

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.”

Altice Caught in Panama Papers Scandal; Tapping Junk Bond Market (Again) to Raise Quick Cash

drahiPatrick Drahi’s Altice — new owner of Suddenlink and presumed next owner of Cablevision — has been caught dealing with the scandalous Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specializes in helping wealth-soaked billionaires and politicians evade taxes.

Altice’s name came up in the Panama Papers, a leak of over 11 million documents taken from the law firm. Although admitting it had dealings with Mossack Fonseca in 2008 and 2010, an Altice official claimed it was only for “incidental transactions for reasons of strict confidentiality and in perfectly legal conditions with no tax impact, let alone foreign, near or far, for any purpose of evasion, concealment, or tax optimization.” But critics are asking why a Swiss national running a cable conglomerate in Francophone Europe would hire an obscure law firm in Panama City to manage those “incidental transactions.”

Failed Consolidation Merger Keeps the Price Wars Going

Altice has been having a tough April. First, its participation in a three-way plot to consolidate the French wireless industry and end ongoing competitive price wars that benefit consumers turned out to be for nothing. Orange and Bouygues Telecom were set to merge, but likely only after divesting certain assets to Altice’s Numericable-SFR. The transaction fell apart when the two larger carriers couldn’t guarantee they’d each make a financial killing from the deal, and antitrust authorities were grumbling they might be willing to hammer anything that would likely boost prices for French consumers.

Last year, Wall Street was very pleased with Altice’s strategy of buying up other telecom companies, squeezing costs out of their operations through pay cuts, layoffs, and stiffing vendors, and then using customer revenue to leverage even more acquisitions. Altice enjoys significant support from asset managers like Vanguard, BlackRock, T. Rowe Price, and Fidelity. But their portfolios began taking beatings after Altice’s financial performance became an open question. More than a million customers dropped Altice-owned SFR-Numericable in the last year, citing poor performance.

Loaded in Debt, Altice Jumps into Junk Bond Market Twice in One Week

junk3The company’s massive debt load also continues to be a major concern. This week, Altice dipped into the junk bond markets not once, but twice, seeking to refinance their enormous debts. Yesterday, Altice went looking for $2.75 billion. Today it was expected to be back looking for $1.5 billion more, which is the third time Drahi has looked for money from investors comfortable with significant risk.

Drahi’s buyout of Cablevision in a $17.7 billion deal was financed with similar junk bonds and leveraged loans. If his acquisition is approved, it may have a profound impact on Cablevision customers in downstate New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

At Cablevision, Profits Will Come Before Employees, Customers

Drahi is insisting on driving Cablevision’s profit margins to as high as 50% while promising to slash $1 billion in costs out of the operation. Much of those savings will come from salary and job cuts at Cablevision and Newsday, the last remaining daily newspaper printed on Long Island.

“I don’t like to pay salaries,” Drahi said. “I pay as little as I can … No one in our company is making more than a couple hundred thousand a year.”

Altice CEO Dexter Goei noted there were more than 300 Cablevision employees making $300,000 or more a year. Their days are likely numbered. But that will only be the beginning.

mayotte reunion

Mayotte and Reunion are French territories off the coast of East Africa near Madagascar.

“I suspect Altice is going to come in and slash jobs, streamline operations and work to identify the quickest method of becoming profitable,” said Kevin Kamen, an area media broker. “One of the first places they’ll target for job consolidation will be Newsday, mark my words. They will also cut jobs at Cablevision in the long-run. Wherever they can save cost overruns and produces efficiency they will. Trust and believe. They are not about to invest billions in a sinking ship. I would also expect to see price increases across the board within a year for all subscribers regardless of how competitive the market is.”

French Competition Authority Fines Altice $17 Million for Sabotaging a Future Competitor

But before Drahi can put his earnings in the bank, he will have to share them with the French government, which today fined Altice $17 million dollars for breaking promises to French regulators.

In 2014, Altice won approval of its acquisition of Francophone mobile carrier SFR after agreeing to divest certain assets in places where it would give Altice a virtual monopoly on service. In the Indian Ocean region, the acquisition of SFR by Altice would give the Drahi operation a combined 66% market share in Reunion, 90% in Mayotte. To preserve competition, French regulators insisted Altice sell its Outremer Telecom operations in the two French territories to a third party. Until that sale was complete, Altice agreed to protect the economic viability, marketability, and competitiveness of the soon to be sold unit.

Instead, the Competition Authority discovered Altice suddenly jacked up the price of Outremer Telecom’s service between 17-60% and allowed customers to walk out of their contracts without any financial penalty. As a result, the future owner of Outremer Telecom would own a business that had already lost a substantial number of customers as a result of the price hike, out of character for a provider with an earlier reputation of low priced service.

Regulators suspect Altice might have intentionally sabotaged the business they were required to eventually spin-off, giving their own operation a competitive advantage.

2016 Edition: Fighting for a Better Deal from Time Warner Cable; Save $600+ Annually

badbillFor the fourth year, Stop the Cap! is pleased to bring you our advice on how to win yourself a better deal from Time Warner Cable. If you are paying regular price for Time Warner Cable service, you are throwing money away. There is no award for being a loyal cable customer these days. Only new customers and those willing to demand a better price get the best deals, while everyone else pays astoundingly high rates.

We are rarely surprised by anything, but even we confess astonishment as customers continue to show us their $180-250 cable bills. Most have been customers for decades and have never bothered to ask Time Warner if they could be getting a better deal. They should have asked us because the answer is absolutely yes. If you can devote about one hour a year and are willing to do some homework, even those coming off a promotion can save hundreds of dollars a year and get better service.

For those accustomed to badgering the cable company for a better deal year after year, we have some troubling news. Time Warner Cable is making things harder for you. In years past, customers only needed to use social media like Twitter or Facebook and ask for a better price and the cable company usually called back with a great promotional offer for the next year. Those days ended last fall, when the company began channeling current customer promotions almost exclusively through its national customer retention call centers. Even the oldest method of all — showing up at a local cable store with boxes in tow ready to turn in as you threaten to cancel service over its cost today often results in a shrug of the shoulders and an admission cable store employees are increasingly unable to offer customers promotions to entice them to stay. We saw this ourselves this week. As a result, Time Warner Cable lost that customer on the spot.

So why do cable companies play this game with their customers year after year? In a word, it’s all about the money. At least 80% of Time Warner Cable customers are still paying the company $10 a month to rent a cable modem customers can buy for themselves for as little as $50. Why do they keep paying? Because it’s a hassle or the customer believes they are incapable of installing their own. Even those who fought and won up to $1,100 in savings last year procrastinate after that promotion expires and put off trying to renew it. Why? Because few people relish debating for discounts. It’s a chore. But you say the same thing about doing your taxes, so it’s time to get some discipline and get this done. We’re even going to walk you through the process and share the tricks and traps you are likely to encounter along the way and how to get past them. How do we know? We have Time Warner Cable service too.

Heads Up: Time Warner Cable & Charter Communications — You may have read that Charter Communications is in the process of acquiring Time Warner Cable. Most state regulators with the exception of California (where approval isn’t a done deal at the time of writing) have approved the sale and federal regulators seem likely to follow, with a number of conditions Charter will have to meet going forward. For the rest of 2016, even if the deal is approved, we don’t expect many immediate changes. You are likely to see the Time Warner Cable name, packages, and pricing remain the same for most of this year. Next year, we expect Charter will want to retire Time Warner’s name and packages and move customers to their Spectrum product suite, at new customer pricing for all for the first year. We will update readers as needed to explain the transition, but it should not affect any promotions you win for at least the next year.

Getting Ready to Deal

courtesy: abcnews

Time to cut the cable TV bill down to size.

Based on reader input and our own experiences, you are going to find Time Warner Cable less willing to volunteer their lowest price promotions as they have in the past. Customer retention call center workers are trained to try to keep your business without giving away too much to customers threatening to leave. That is why doing your homework is essential before you call.

The most common reasons people call threatening to cancel service are:

  • a poor service experience
  • a rate increase or the end of a promotion that results in a higher rate
  • a better deal from the competition

When you call to cancel service, a representative will seek to understand your reasons and attempt to save you as a customer. If you respond you don’t like the picture quality or your Internet is constantly going out, you are unlikely to get a promotion. You’ll be offered a one-time service credit and a repair visit. If you are calling to cancel over a rate hike notice, they will probably offer a tepid promotion that effectively wipes out the rate increase, but still leaves you paying a lot more than you should. The best offers are designed in response to marketing from competitors trying to steal you away as a customer.

Doing Your Homework

This year your key word is: UPGRADED. Your local phone company just notified your neighborhood better service and a better deal is now available.

This year’s key word is: UPGRADED. Your local phone company just notified your neighborhood better service and a better deal is now available.

We believe the best deals will go to customers prepared to bring a competitor’s offer for them to match. If Time Warner’s local competitors are Google Fiber or Verizon FiOS, you are probably going to get a great deal without a lot of effort. In the northeast, Verizon FiOS and Time Warner Cable have had to face the fact if a customer of either doesn’t get an excellent deal to stay, they are going to switch to the other for one or two years and then switch back after the promotion expires. We’ve seen retention offers in these areas that even include high value gift card rebate offers normally reserved exclusively for customers able to prove (with their final bill) they are leaving one provider for the other. In areas where Time Warner Cable competes with AT&T U-verse, negotiations can get tougher. Time Warner Cable retention operators will listen to your claim you can get a better deal from AT&T or DirecTV and then try to trip you up by asking a lot of questions about 1-2 year contracts, HD fees, set-top equipment fees, broadband speeds, and other sneaky fees AT&T loves to slap on their bills but not always disclose in their advertising.

Things can get even tougher if their only significant competitor is Frontier Communications, HawTel, Windstream, CenturyLink, or other independent telephone companies. Most customers still can’t get TV service except through a companion offer with a satellite company and broadband typically comes in the form of underwhelming DSL. Time Warner Cable has a database of their competitors’ promotions and packages, and they respond to your price match request by trying to find the offer you want them to match in their system. When they find it (or something close to it), the call center operator will respond with a series of challenging statements to cut the apparent value of that promotion. For example, they will claim the competing offer does not include certain features Time Warner includes at no extra charge or doesn’t include various equipment, programming and other hidden fees that raise the price.

If you concede this, the price they will ultimately match is likely to be higher than what you originally thought. It may even sound reasonable to you, because you are used to “gotcha” and hidden fees that are already on your current Time Warner bill (fees the retention operator usually “forgets” to mention Time Warner also charges when they claim to be making an “apple to apple” comparison of the two offers.) That’s their game and it is designed to confuse and overwhelm you. We are going to teach you how to avoid getting on board their carnival carousel.

The key word for 2016 is: UPGRADED, as in their competitor ‘just notified you they have upgraded your neighborhood to a better level of service with a great limited time, local promotion just for customers like you.’

As AT&T and other phone companies continue to upgrade their networks to deliver video, phone and better broadband service, you can shut down the debate about DSL broadband speed and the many deficiencies of telephone company partnerships with satellite TV providers. Instead, you will explain the phone company can now match the speed Time Warner is selling (or at least the speed you need), and with services like Frontier FiOS TV/Vantage TV, CenturyLink’s Prism, Hawtel’s TV, and Windstream’s Kinetic TV, you don’t need a satellite dish to watch anymore.

A Time Warner Cable call center.

A Time Warner Cable call center.

But before we begin negotiations, a review of what you are already paying for is in order. Go and grab your latest Time Warner Cable bill.

If you are a broadband-only customer, you’ve probably received many offers to add television service. Those with cable television and broadband may be getting cards in the mail offering to add phone service for an additional $10 a month. Those customers identified as likely premium movie channel subscribers are getting offers to add multiple premiums at a special price. This practice is known as upselling, and it is how your $150 cable bill quickly rose to well over $200 once those limited-time promotions end and regular prices begin.

Here are some common cable TV add-ons that may be still lurking on your bill, are optional and may be removed on request:

  • Variety Pass (a/k/a Preferred TV): Just over 60 channels of lesser-known and slightly more expensive cable networks and their cousins. Includes MTV, Aspire, Cooking Channel, FOX Sports, Crime and Investigation Channel, GSN, LOGO, and National Geographic, among dozens of others. This package is very common and can often be downgraded to a 70+ Standard TV package.
  • HD Pass: Usually 4-6 channels of uniquely expensive basic cable networks. Most customers probably added this during the days of HDNet — a network Time Warner Cable dropped several years ago. Today, you are probably paying $3-5 a month extra for networks like beIN SPORTS, MGM HD, RFD HD, and Smithsonian. If these don’t interest you, drop this add-on.
  • TWC Sports Pass: More than two dozen additional sports channels that come at a hefty price. If you need to get your cable TV bill down, this is a good place to start.
  • TWC Movie Pass: Once affordable, this package of Disney Family Movies On Demand, TWC Movie Pass On Demand, and at least eight Encore movie channels has seen steady rate increases, especially over the last three years. It may no longer be worth it.
  • Various Premium Channels: HBO alone now costs $16.99 a month. Other premiums have also seen prices rise these last few years. But for $20-30 more, depending on the promotion, you can have every premium channel for a year, usually including HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, The Movie Channel, Epix, and Starz. Don’t leave your money on their table.
The TWC Digital Adapter was supposed to cost $0.99 a month. It's now $3.25.

The TWC Digital Adapter was supposed to cost $0.99 a month. It’s now $3.25.

With the latest round of rate hikes, renting equipment from Time Warner has gotten more expensive than ever. Do you still need a traditional set-top box in the guest bedroom or kids’ rooms if they are not even interested in cable TV? Each box and remote can add up to $7-9 a month depending on your package. DVR service is also increasingly costly because Time Warner charges customers for both the equipment and the service. An enhanced DVR capable of recording up to six shows at once is a nice addition, but it can easily add over $20 a month to your bill in equipment and service fees. If you find you aren’t using the DVR as often as you used to, it may be time to switch back to a traditional set-top box, which costs much less.

If you have TVs in spare bedrooms or the kitchen hooked up with Time Warner’s Digital Adapters, you will find the price for those has also increased dramatically. Initially promised for $0.99 a month, they now cost $3.25 each. This year, we recommend returning them and buying one or more Roku 2 2015 Edition ($70) units instead, which can deliver cable TV to your spare TV sets over your home Wi-Fi. (Also available on: Roku 3, All Roku 2 Models, Roku LT, Roku HD (2500X), the Roku Streaming Stick, Kindle Fire HD & HDX, Samsung Smart TV, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.) Time Warner provides their lineup on these devices with a free app. A one time equipment purchase will pay for itself in a few years, give instant access to Hulu, Netflix, and other services and offer a less frustrating experience.

Cable modems are another piece of equipment you should not be renting from Time Warner. These devices work with your Internet service and now cost $10 a month. The top recommended Arris (formerly Motorola) SB-6141 can be purchased on eBay for around $50 (for refurbished units) and from retail outlets for $70-80 (new). If you are still renting a modem from Time Warner, go and buy one today.

Am I Getting a Good Deal?

While tempting, these offers usually require upgrades that raise the price. For example, Whole House DVR mandatory service and equipment fees add $11.75 a month per cable box, with at least two boxes required.

While tempting, these typical Time Warner Cable offers usually require upgrades that raise the price. For example, Whole House DVR mandatory service and equipment fees add $11.75 a month per cable box, with a two-box minimum. That gift card offer is only good if you are able to prove you are switching from another provider and can produce a copy of your final bill.

This is the part people dread the most — having to haggle over their cable bill. How do you know if the offer Time Warner gives you is a good one? The answer is: by comparing it against the competition and what Time Warner would charge new customers for the same services. If it is within that range, you’ve done okay. If you keep pushing far beyond that, you are likely to find diminishing returns and increasing aggravation – sometimes an offer promised on the phone never even makes it to your bill, because it was offered in error. Then it becomes a dispute over crediting the difference between an offer promised and one actually received. We also don’t recommend people push for rebate cards, because even if you are offered one to keep your business, you usually will not qualify for it because you typically cannot meet the rebate’s terms and conditions, resulting in a rejection letter several months later from the third-party rebate processor.

To find out pricing of current promotions, start by visiting the phone company’s website to see what it has to offer. After that, it is off to Time Warner Cable’s website, pretending to be a new customer and creating a package similar or identical to what you receive today.

PrismTV + Internet, from CenturyLink

PrismTV + Internet, from CenturyLink. This service is being introduced in a number of CenturyLink-served communities.

Along the way, take note of fine print disclosures about contract terms, equipment fees, surcharges, etc. Some new customer offers increase in price during the second year, but ignore that. You are only negotiating for a better price for one year. In general terms, you are probably going to find new customer prices averaging in this range:

  • Broadband only: $34.95/mo for 12 months (Standard service)
  • Triple Play (broadband, TV + Enhanced DVR, phone): $99.99/mo for 12 months (30Mbps service)
  • Double Play (broadband + TV): Expect to pay around $80-90 for Standard/Turbo/Extreme broadband with traditional 200+ channel Preferred TV (periodic promotions offer enhanced speed broadband at the higher side of this price range)

Be aware most promotions start with lowball offers that do not include equipment like the very popular and expensive DVR (with the equipment and service fee), and the additional cost of a second set-top box many people have in their master bedroom. There are also Broadcast TV and Sports Programming surcharges increasingly charged by providers, and the usual taxes and fees.

No, dealing with Time Warner Cable won't reduce you to tears.

No, dealing with Time Warner Cable won’t reduce you to tears.

If you want to save time and are comfortable with a triple play package including 200+ channel Preferred TV with DVR and one additional standard HD set-top box, Ultimate Internet (50Mbps or 300Mbps in Maxx-upgraded areas), and Unlimited local/nationwide home phone service with voicemail, you should be able to easily negotiate a price hovering around $120-130 a month. We pay closer to the high side of that range after subscribing to “whole house” DVR service, which allows you to watch shows recorded on a DVR in another room. That price represents about a $50/month savings over the $175 price we would pay with the lesser promotion they offered us after the most recent one expired. If you are in a more competitive market with an even better deal than we found from our local providers, Time Warner should be able to match it too.

It’s Time to Make the Cancel Call

We’re getting close to making that phone call. Just one more reminder: the retention operator will probably try to question your competitor’s deal. That is where our magic word UPGRADED comes in. You are going to stay resolute the competitor’s offer you negotiated and are telling Time Warner about specifically targeted those gotcha fees and hidden charges, which have all been waived or do not apply. To win your business after the upgrade, the price quoted is the “out the door” price exactly as it will be billed to you, without hidden fees, no term contracts, and no gotchas. You can acknowledge those fees are common among many providers, but they do not apply to you in this case.

Get a glass of water, a pen and paper, and be prepared to spend about 30 minutes total on the phone (most of that will be on hold as they change your account to add the promotion you just won).

Call 1-800-892-4357 and say “cancel service” when the automated system asks what you are calling about. From there, your call will be forwarded to a customer retention call center. The first thing you should ask when connected is the representative’s name and extension (or other identifying information). If your deal isn’t applied (or applied correctly) to your account, the name of the person you spoke with will go a long way to getting any problems straightened out.

timewarner twcYou will be asked why you are canceling service. You want to emphasize “it costs too much” and you have “found a better deal” elsewhere. You should expect the representative to start negotiations by attempting to downgrade your current service to save money. Do not play this game at this point in the call. Politely tell the representative you are not interested in a reduction in your services because you can get the same or better from the competition… at a lower price. Keep reminding them your concern is over the cost of the service, nothing else. Don’t get sidetracked talking about service problems or poor customer service. Address those issues at the end of the call.

Despite assertions Time Warner Cable customers won't endure extended hold times, at least 2/3rds of our recent calls were spent listening to hold music.

Despite assertions Time Warner Cable customers won’t endure extended hold times, at least 2/3rds of our recent calls were spent listening to hold music.

You will be asked to describe the deal from the competitor. Let them know that with recent upgrades in your area it covers all the TV channels you want to watch, has the same broadband speed you are getting now, and offers unlimited local and long distance calling to all the places you care about. Let them know you have already talked to the other company but after a family discussion, you decided to give Time Warner a chance to match or beat their offer and will stay as a customer if they can.

The retention operator will likely try to challenge the competitor’s offer, but each time politely remind them your offer either includes those fees/charges or waives them with no contract obligation and no cancellation penalties. Tell them that competitor is going all out to sign up new customers in your neighborhood.

At all times, be polite, persistent, and persuasive. If you are pleasant, representatives will often go the extra mile for you. Try saying, “is there anything else you can try to get me a better price,” “I really appreciate all of your help today,” and “thank you for looking into this for me.” If things seem to be going against you, remind them, “I know there must be something we can do together to get to a better deal,” “I know you might not be able to do this for me, but perhaps a supervisor could?” and “maybe I am approaching this wrong and we need to start over and try to find the best promotion we can, even if it means adding or changing something that will get me a better deal.”

At this point, the operator will put you on hold and review the promotional offers they can apply to your account. When they return to the line, hear them out but you need them to come within $5-10 of the deal you took to them. If they can’t, you can usually ask if a supervisor will grant you a one time service credit for the difference between the two prices, or to give you a free upgrade to faster Internet speed, a premium movie channel, or something else to sweeten the offer. Try to stay flexible over a few dollars either way. The representative cannot make up a deal, they have to find one in the system that matches your current services and enter the proper code(s) to apply it to your account. Write everything down and repeat it back as you go to make sure you both understand the terms. Also make certain to ask if ANY other fees or charges apply, and if they do, write them down. In most cases, the price you get will be before taxes and some surcharges.

If you find you are dealing with a difficult or intransigent representative, thank them for their time, hang up and call back in a few hours and try again. You never have to commit to a deal immediately. If you want to think about it, ask for the representative to note your account with the offer he or she made and ask their name so you can refer back to that conversation when you call back.

Save your notes. It is unfortunately all too common that the deal you were promised over the phone can look very different on your first bill. But if you kept your notes and the name(s) of representatives you spoke with, any problems can be fixed later with a corrected deal or service credits.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Inside Amy Schumer -- Calling the Cable Company.mp4

Amy Schumer calls Time Warner Cable. It wasn’t this bad for us, we swear! (4:45)

Attacks on Tennessee’s EPB Municipal Broadband Fall Flat in Light of Facts

latinos for tnThe worst enemy of some advocacy groups writing guest editorial hit pieces against municipal broadband is: facts.

Raul Lopez is the founder and executive director for Latinos for Tennessee, a 501C advocacy group that reported $0 in assets, $0 in income, and is not required to file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service as of 2014. Lopez claims the group is dedicated to providing “Latinos in Tennessee with information and resources grounded on faith, family and freedom.”

But his views on telecom issues are grounded in AT&T and Comcast’s tiresome and false talking points about publicly owned broadband. His “opinion piece” in the Knoxville News Sentinel was almost entirely fact-free:

It is not the role of the government to use taxpayer resources to compete with private industry. Government is highly inefficient — usually creating an inferior product at a higher price — and is always slower to respond to market changes. Do we really want government providing our Internet service? Government-run health care hasn’t worked so well, so why would we promote government-run Internet?

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn't for the good of anyone.

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn’t for the good of anyone.

Lopez’s claim that only private providers are good at identifying what customers want falls to pieces when we’re talking about AT&T and Comcast. Public utility EPB was the first to deliver gigabit fiber to the home service in Chattanooga, first to deliver honest everyday pricing, still offers unlimited service without data caps and usage billing that customers despise, and has a customer approval and reliability rating Comcast and AT&T can only dream about.

Do the people of Chattanooga want “the government” (EPB is actually a public utility) to provide Internet service? Apparently so. Last fall, EPB achieved the status of being the #1 telecom provider in Chattanooga, with nearly half of all households EPB serves signed up for at least one EPB service — TV, broadband, or phone service. Comcast used to be #1 until real competition arrived. That “paragon of virtue’s” biggest private sector innovation of late? Rolling out its 300GB usage cap (with overlimit fees) in Chattanooga. That’s the same cap that inspired more than 13,000 Americans to file written complaints with the FCC about Comcast’s broadband pricing practices. EPB advertises no such data caps and has delivered the service residents actually want. Lopez calls that “hurting competition in our state and putting vital services at risk.”

Remarkably, other so-called “small government” advocates (usually well-funded by the telecom industry) immediately began beating a drum for Big Government protectionism to stop EPB by pushing for a state law to ban or restrict publicly owned networks.

Lopez appears to be on board:

Our Legislature considered a bill this session that would repeal a state municipal broadband law that prohibits government-owned networks from expanding across their municipal borders. Thankfully, it failed in the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee, but it will undoubtedly be back again in future legislative sessions. The legislation is troubling because it will harm taxpayers and stifle private-sector competition and innovation.

Or more accurately, it will make sure Comcast and AT&T can ram usage caps and higher prices for worse service down the throats of Tennessee customers.

epb broadband prices

EPB’s broadband pricing. Higher discounts possible with bundling.

Lopez also plays fast and loose with the truth suggesting the Obama Administration handed EPB a $111.7 million federal grant to compete with Comcast and AT&T. In reality, that grant was for EPB to build a smart grid for its electricity network. That fiber-based grid is estimated to have avoided 124.7 million customer minutes of interruptions by better detection of power faults and better methods of rerouting power to restore service more quickly than in the past.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Public utilities can run smart grids and not sell television, broadband, and phone service, leaving that fiber network underutilized. EPB decided it could put that network to good use, and a recent study by University of Tennessee economist Bento Lobo found EPB’s fiber services helped generate between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs and added $865.3 million to $1.3 billion to the local economy. That translates into $2,832-$3,762 per Hamilton County resident. That’s quite a return on a $111.7 million investment that was originally intended just to help keep the lights on.

So EPB’s presence in Chattanooga has not harmed taxpayers and has not driven either of its two largest competitors out of the city.

Lopez then wanders into an equally ridiculous premise – that minority communities want mobile Internet access, not the fiber to the home service EPB offers:

Not all consumers access the Internet the same way. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics and African-Americans are more likely to rely on mobile broadband than traditional wire-line service. Indeed, minority communities are even more likely than the population as a whole to use their smartphones to apply for jobs online.

[…] Additionally, just like people are getting rid of basic at-home telephone service, Americans, especially minorities, are getting rid of at-home broadband. In 2013, 70 percent of Americans had broadband at home. Just two years later, only 67 percent did. The decline was true across almost the entire demographic board, regardless of race, income category, education level or location. Indeed, in 2013, 16 percent of Hispanics said they relied only on their smartphones for Internet access, and by 2015 that figure was up to 23 percent.

That drop in at-home broadband isn’t because fewer Americans have access to wireless broadband, it’s because more are moving to a wireless-only model. The bureaucracy of government has trouble adapting to changes like these, which is why government-owned broadband systems are often technologically out of date before they’re finished.

But Lopez ignores a key finding of Pew’s research:

In some form, cost is the chief reason that non-adopters cite when permitted to identify more than one reason they do not have a home high-speed subscription. Overall, 66% of non-adopters point toward either the monthly service fee or the cost of the computer as a barrier to adoption.

What community broadband provides communities the big phone and cable companies don't.

So it isn’t that customers want to exclusively access Internet services over a smartphone, they don’t have much of a choice at the prices providers like Comcast and AT&T charge. Wireless-only broadband is also typically usage capped and so expensive that average families with both wired broadband and a smartphone still do most of their data-intensive usage from home or over Wi-Fi to protect their usage allowance.

EPB runs a true fiber to the home network, Comcast runs a hybrid fiber-coax network, and AT&T mostly relies on a hybrid fiber-copper phone wire network. Comcast and AT&T are technically out of date, not EPB.

Not one of Lopez’s arguments has withstood the scrutiny of checking his claims against the facts, and here is another fact-finding failure on his part:

Top EPB officials argue that residents in Bradley County are clambering for EPB-offered Internet service, but the truth is Bradley County is already served by multiple private Internet service providers. Indeed, statewide only 215,000 Tennesseans, or approximately 4 percent, don’t have broadband access. We must find ways to address the needs of those residents, but that’s not what this bill would do. This bill would promote government providers over private providers, harming taxpayers and consumers along the way.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

The Chattanoogan reported it far differently, talking with residents and local elected officials on the ground in the broadband-challenged county:

The legislation would remove territorial restrictions and provide the clearest path possible for EPB to serve customers and for customers to receive high-speed internet.

State Rep. Dan Howell, the former executive assistant to the county mayor of Bradley County, was in attendance and called broadband a “necessity” as he offered his full support to helping EPB, as did Tennessee State Senator Todd Gardenhire.

“We can finally get something done,” Senator Gardenhire said. “The major carriers, Charter, Comcast and AT&T, have an exclusive right to the area and they haven’t done anything about it.”

So while EPB’s proposed expansion threatened Comcast and AT&T sufficiently to bring out their lobbyists demanding a ban on such expansions in the state legislature, neither company has specific plans to offer service to unserved locations in the area. Only EPB has shown interest in expansion, and without taxpayer funds.

The facts just don’t tell the same story Lopez, AT&T, and Comcast tell and would like you to believe. EPB has demonstrated it is the best provider in Chattanooga, provides service customers want at a fair price, and represents the interests of the community, not Wall Street and investors Comcast and AT&T listen to almost exclusively. Lopez would do a better job for his group’s membership by telling the truth and not redistributing stale, disproven Big Telecom talking points.

Cincinnati Bell Plans to Shutdown Telegraph Grade Service, On Offer Since the 1800s

telegraph key

Telegraph key

If you thought your Internet service was slow, consider being a customer of Cincinnati Bell’s 75 baud Telegraph Grade service, on offer to subscribers since the 1800s for low-speed stock quotes, telegrams, and office-to-home communications. But don’t consider it too long, because the service is about to be discontinued.

The first telegram in the United States was sent on Jan. 11, 1838 using the newly developed “Morse Code” system introduced by Samuel Morse. The message was sent unceremoniously across two miles of wire strung across the sprawling Speedwell Ironworks outside of Morristown, N.J. But the experiment didn’t attract much attention until it was repeated in 1844 in Washington, D.C., where members of Congress looked on as the message, “What hath God wrought” successfully traveled from Washington to Baltimore, Md. A decade later, telegraph lines were strung to every major city on the east coast. By 1861, telegraph cables stretched across the territories west of the Mississippi and reached the West Coast, putting the Pony Express out of business.

It would be a decade after that before The City and Suburban Telegraph Company, later Cincinnati Bell Telephone, was officially incorporated on July 5, 1873, becoming the first company in the city to offer direct communication between the city’s homes and businesses. Only the wealthiest families could afford a private telegraph line, which cost $300 a year provided you lived no more than a mile from the company’s office. After four years, the company only managed to attract 50 paying customers, mostly business tycoons who relied on the telegraph to stay in contact with the office while at home. Other businesses used telegraphs to connect their different offices. Most employed young men to serve as telegraph operators, translating short written messages into a series of dots and dashes and back again.

Telegraph stamps, used to prove payment for sending and receiving messages.

Telegraph stamps, used to prove pre-payment for telegraph messages.

Business was better further east. The story of two men that would change the course of the telegraph and launch a company that remains a household name to this day started in 1838 when banker and real estate entrepreneur Hiram Sibley moved to Rochester, N.Y. He saw plenty of opportunities in upstate New York and quickly settled in, later becoming elected Monroe County Sheriff. That position soon led to his introduction to Judge Samuel L. Selden, who had the patent rights to the House Telegraph system. Seeing an opportunity, the two embarked on their own telegraph business — the New York State Printing Telegraph Company. It did not take long for them to realize competing against the larger New York, Albany, and Buffalo Telegraph Co., was a financial disaster. The two decided it would be smarter to consolidate existing providers instead of building new networks to compete. The first craze of telecommunications company consolidation was underway. With the assistance of deep pocketed investors in Rochester, Sibley and Selden founded the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company. The new entity would string some of its own telegraph lines westwards, but more importantly it would focus on acquiring its rivals, especially in areas where fierce competition kept profits low and expectations of monopoly wealth even lower.

sibley

Sibley

By 1854, Sibley and Selden were confronted with competitors using two different messaging systems among 13 different companies. Sibley’s solution? Buy them out and unify them with the Morse system, available thanks to a separate acquisition of the Erie & Michigan Telegraph Company. In 1856, the company that had its beginnings in Rochester was renamed the “Western Union Telegraph Company,” which referred to the union of the different telegraph systems of the “western states” of that era (today considered the midwest).

Between 1857 and 1861 merger mania hit almost all the telegraph companies, and by the end of this period, most formerly independent companies were owned by one of six conglomerates:

  • American Telegraph Company (covering the Atlantic and some Gulf states),
  • Western Union Telegraph Company (covering states North of the Ohio River and parts of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Minnesota),
  • New York Albany and Buffalo Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company (covering New York State),
  • Atlantic and Ohio Telegraph Company (covering Pennsylvania),
  • Illinois & Mississippi Telegraph Company (covering sections of Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois),
  • New Orleans & Ohio Telegraph Company (covering the southern Mississippi Valley and the Southwest).

Much like the cable industry today, these six giants maintained a mutually friendly alliance and never competed for territory. Any remaining independents quickly learned cooperation with these larger systems was essential. But once competition stalled in the telegraph business, so did interest in investing in challenging upgrades.

western unionBy 1860, as the United States continued its expansion westward and tension grew between the northern and southern states over issues like slavery and self-determination, the administration of President James Buchanan realized having a reliable national telegraph network was critical to the security of the country. Unfortunately for the president, his priorities ran headlong into private company intransigence. Persuading the for-profit companies to expand their networks to connect the west coast seemed impossible. None wanted to risk investor dollars on a telegraph line they believed would be too expensive and difficult to maintain.

That same year Congress passed, and President James Buchanan signed, the Pacific Telegraph Act, which authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to seek bids for constructing a transcontinental telegraph line, financed by the federal government. Two of the three bidders eventually dropped out, leaving Hiram Sibley’s Western Union the sole bidder.

The Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 resulted in the construction on this telegraph line extending from Nebraska to Nevada.

The Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 resulted in the construction of this telegraph line extending from Nebraska to Carson City, Nev.

To insulate his other business interests from the project, Sibley organized the Pacific Telegraph Company to be responsible for construction of the new telegraph line to the west, starting in Omaha, Neb. Sibley also consolidated several small local companies into the California State Telegraph Company, which in turn launched the Overland Telegraph Company, managing construction of the cable eastward from Carson City, Nev., to Salt Lake City. The line was finally completed in October, 1861, seven months after the outbreak of the Civil War.

While newly elected president Abraham Lincoln was distracted settling into office starting March 4, 1861, Sibley was quietly preparing to consolidate control over the new taxpayer-funded cross-country cable. After the project was complete, Pacific Telegraph and California State Telegraph were quickly merged into Western Union, making Hiram Sibley the undisputed king of the telegraph industry. Any future ventures rising to challenge Western Union were instead eaten up by acquisition. By 1866, Western Union announced it was moving its company headquarters from Rochester to 145 Broadway in New York City.

Sibley retired from Western Union in 1869, and went into the seed and nursery business in Rochester and Chicago. He left the company during its most powerful era, having a virtual monopoly on the telegraph business at least a decade before the telephone would arrive on the scene. He retired the richest man in Rochester, and his home in the East Avenue Historical District still stands today. He gave generously to charity after retirement and helped incorporate a new college in the Southern Tier of New York called Cornell University.

The Hiram Sibley House, constructed in 1869, still stands today at 400 East Ave, Rochester, N.Y.

The Hiram Sibley House, constructed in 1868, still stands today at 400 East Avenue, Rochester, N.Y.

As the 1870s arrived, the Civil War was five years finished and huge changes were coming. Although telegraph service was already in place in many eastern seaboard cities, it took longer to arrive in smaller cities in the midwest and southern United States, and it was not too long after that before the telephone followed.

In Cincinnati, the telegraph service that began in 1873 was threatened by the arrival of the telephone in 1878 — just five years later. That fall, Cincinnati’s telegraph company signed an agreement with Bell Telephone Company of Boston, the first telephone company in the country. Bell held several patents essential for manufacturing telephones and granted the telegraph company an exclusive contract to sell phone service within a 25-mile radius of the city.

Bell Telephone arrived in the era of the Robber Barons, where trusts and monopolies were the product of unfettered capitalism. Bell’s business planners were more than happy following the telegraph industry to the glory days of consolidation and monopolization.

By 1879, the Bell Telephonic Exchange was well on its way, up and running on the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets in downtown Cincinnati — the 10th phone exchange in the nation and the first in Ohio. That year, Cincinnati’s first phone book was printed and the young men that operated the telegraph lines were not welcome manning the huge expanse of manual cord boards built inside the central office.

City and Suburban believed women served as better ambassadors for the newly emerging telephone company and the concept of “Hello Girls” was born. Only later would the Bell System insist on referring to these professional employees as “operators.” In Cincinnati, around two dozen women manned the cord boards in the exchange office during its first year. They were required to memorize the names of all callers and had to quickly learn how to complete calls — a process that involved connecting a patch cable between the caller and the person called on a giant board with a plug for every subscriber. They managed nearly 150,000 completed calls during the first year for over 1,000 customers.

1930s: View of half of the world's longest switchboard at the City and Suburban Telegraph Company (later Cincinnati Bell Telephone). The board held 88 positions and handled a record of 9,722 outgoing calls in 1937. Cincinnati, Ohio. 01/01/1935 Photo by Cincinnati Historical Society/Getty Images

Jan. 1, 1935: View of half of the world’s longest switchboard at the City and Suburban Telegraph Company (later Cincinnati Bell Telephone). The board held 88 positions and handled a record of 9,722 outgoing calls in 1937. (Photo by Cincinnati Historical Society/Getty Images)

The simplicity and directness of the telephone quickly proved a major challenge for the telegraph industry. Western Union saw opportunities investing in telegraph networks overseas to stay ahead of this trend. It also launched a stock ticker service and a money transfer service, allowing people to send money across the country in a matter of hours. Despite the innovation, by 1875, financier Jay Gould had finally managed to assemble a formidable competitor to Western Union — the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company. An overabundance of Western Union stock on the market by 1881 made it possible for Gould to finally launch a successful takeover.

A Telex machine in use during the 1970s.

A Telex machine in use during the 1970s.

Telegraph lines remained in use well into the 20th century, used primarily for business communications, cables, and telegrams which were printed and delivered by messenger. Cincinnati Bell sold telegraph grade data lines for a variety of business applications, including slow speed data services. Even after the Morse code telegraph of the 1800s was long gone, other data services existed well before the arrival of the fax machine and the home computer. Telex messages were exchanged over a network of “teleprinters” which resembled an oversized manual typewriter. AT&T’s Teletypewriter eXchange (TWX) network was common in large businesses during the late 1960s into the 1970s. One of Cincinnati Bell’s other large customers for slow speed data lines was the military.

Cincinnati Bell customers signed up for telegraph grade service received an unconditioned telephone line capable of transmitting at 0-75 baud or 0-150 baud in half-duplex or duplex operation. That was half the data speed of computer modems common in the mid 1980s supporting up to 300 baud — which transmits text at a speed most can read and follow along in real-time.

Remarkably, Cincinnati Bell still needs the permission of regulators to drop the Civil War era telegraph service and in discontinuance requests sent to state and federal authorities, it reminded regulators the change will have no impact on the “public convenience and necessity” because there has been no demand for the service for a long time.

In fact, Cincinnati Bell has no customers to notify of the impending doom of telegraph grade service, because there have been no customers subscribed to it.

cincinnati bellCincinnati Bell’s request would have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for the long legacy of the telegraph era. Western Union dispatched its last telegram on Jan. 27, 2006, after 155 years of continuous service, and largely kept quiet about it, only notifying current customers: “Effective 2006-01-27, Western Union will discontinue all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact a customer service representative.”

Those nostalgic for telegrams might be interested to know another company has risen where Western Union left off. iTelegram promises to bring back the experience of a messenger at your front door, but it’s a costly trip down Memory Lane. A Priority Telegram costs $28.95 + $0.75 per word and is delivered usually within 24 hours, and includes proof of delivery. A “MailGram,” dispatched through the U.S. Mail is a slightly less expensive option, costing $18.95 and includes up to 100 words. It arrives in 3-5 days. Or you could send an e-mail for approximately nothing.

While Cincinnati Bell’s request recalls a distant past, Verizon and AT&T are also asking to discontinue services that customers were still using in the 1990s. Verizon wants to drop postpaid calling cards and personal 800 services that customers used to buy from MCI, now a Verizon subsidiary. For its part, AT&T wants to drop operator-assisted services due to almost no customer demand. In many areas, dialing “0” no longer even works to reach one of those Hello Girls… pardon me, I meant operators.

Tenn. Press Outraged By Charter’s Offer of Free Airtime for Politicians Protecting Cable Monopoly

Rep. Calfee

Rep. Calfee

“The sheer audacity of Charter Communications’ offer of free airtime to legislators following the defeat of a broadband access bill is breathtaking,” wrote the editors of the Knoxville News Sentinel in a heated editorial this week. “The spectacle of lawmakers accepting the offer would be revolting.”

The newspaper was responding to the optics of Charter Communications’ generous offer of free airtime for politicians willing to record “public service announcements” just a day after the Tennessee House Business & Utilities Subcommittee killed a bill that would have allowed public utilities to expand fiber broadband service outside of their current electric service area. If that bill became law, it had the potential of giving Charter the formidable competition AT&T, Frontier Communications, and CenturyLink have failed to deliver in Tennessee.

In an election year, anything that gives politicians exposure to voters is worth its weight in gold, which is why taxpayer-sponsored “newsletters” and “voter updates” fill voters’ mailboxes a few months before Election Day. Charter’s plan to saturate subscribers with dubious “PSAs with Politicians” during ad breaks is harder to ignore than another piece of campaign junk mail destined for the recycle bin.

Rep. Daniel

Rep. Daniel

Charter’s vague explanation it was going to offer the airtime before the Subcommittee vote only makes the scandal worse, because it means lawmakers were given advance notice they could be as well-recognized as Henry “The Fonz” Winkler selling reverse mortgages, circus animals and cheerleaders drumming up business for local car dealerships, and kids night at the local family restaurant — all too common tenants of the “local ad insertion” space cable companies get to make more money (or in this case win/reward influence) on the side.

But Charter’s plan appears to be backfiring, drawing unwanted attention on a cable operator Tennessee loves to hate. But more importantly, it gave the Knoxville press an opportunity to remind voters who the real villains of competition are: Republican Reps. Kent Calfee of Kingston and Martin Daniel of Knoxville — two local lawmakers on the Subcommittee voting with Charter, AT&T, and Comcast against their constituents pleading for more cable competition.

news sentinelThe local hero? Rep. Art Swann (R-Maryville) who voted yes (e-mail him a thank you note). He predicts the bill will be back.

The News Sentinel regards the love affair between Charter and lawmakers as compelling as a lunch date with Limburger cheese:

Actually, the stench emanating from the Capitol would indicate something worse than just bad appearances. Tempting lawmakers with free airtime during an election year — even if the commercial technically would not be a campaign ad — is like waving a treat above the snout of an obedient dog.

Charter has not commented on the matter, but its offer certainly gives at least the appearance of trading airtime for votes; surely legislators know better than to take him up on the offer. Tennesseans must hold lawmakers accountable if they do.

Readers can start by telling Reps. Calfee and Daniel they are watching them very closely on this issue and expect them to support public utility broadband expansion when the issue comes before them next time:

Rep. Kent Calfee
301 6th Avenue North
Suite 219 War Memorial Bldg.
Nashville, TN 37243
Phone: (615) 741-7658
Fax: (615) 253-0163
[email protected]
Rep. Martin Daniel
301 6th Avenue North
Suite 109 War Memorial Bldg.
Nashville, TN 37243
Phone: (615) 741-2287
Fax: (615) 253-0348
[email protected]

Stop the Cap! Joins 21 Other Consumer Groups Asking FCC to Block Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger

charter twc bhOn Monday, Stop the Cap! joined 21 other public interest organizations in sending a joint letter urging the Federal Communications Commission to deny Charter’s bid to take over Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Late last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler may be planning to circulate a draft order approving the $90 billion merger.

The Center for Media Justice, CREDO Action, Daily Kos, Demand Progress, Free Press and Presente.org were among the media justice, Internet rights and public interest groups calling on the FCC to reject this deal, which would create a national broadband duopoly.

Together, Charter and Comcast would control nearly two-thirds of the nation’s high-speed broadband subscribers and would offer service to nearly 80 percent of U.S. households. The letter notes that this substantial increase in market power, coupled with Charter’s $66 billion in debt, would give the company both the incentive and the heightened ability to raise prices at will. This would broaden the digital divide, hitting low-income communities the hardest.

Stop the Cap! earlier filed objections to the merger with the FCC and in two states seen as critical to the deal – New York and California. In our view, no cable merger has ever resulted in better service or lower prices for consumers. Such deals deliver handsome sums to executives and shareholders while saddling customers with relentless rate hikes and no improvement in service. Charter’s history is troubling and its ability to meet its financial obligations while saddled in debt is dubious. Charter declared bankruptcy in 2009, after accumulating $21.7 billion in debt accumulated from years of mergers and consolidation efforts. As credit markets tightened up, Charter’s ability to manage its debt fell apart. Now the company is back to its old modus operandi, piling up debt buying Time Warner Cable — a much larger operation, and trying to combine it with Bright House Networks, another cable operator prominent in Florida.

Earlier this year, several of the signers delivered petitions to the FCC from more than 300,000 Americans opposing the merger, and thousands have called the agency in recent days to weigh in against the deal. Political leaders including Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid have spoken out about the merger’s many harms.

“Too many Washington insiders have given up on challenging this deal despite its serious harms,” said Free Press policy director Matt Wood. “Instead of forecasting its chances for approval, the groups signing this letter will keep fighting to block this merger, along with the guaranteed price increases it would foist on people and communities who can least afford it.

“If Charter gets this merger approved, nothing will stop it from raising its rates for high-speed broadband and video customers who have nowhere else to turn. Temporary promises and weak conditions aren’t going to preserve competition and choice in the long run, and they’re not going to do anything to stop these price hikes. The FCC is charged with promoting the public interest, and there’s no way in which this merger benefits the public. Higher prices and fewer choices won’t help anyone but the companies pitching this bad bargain.”

“If its takeover of Time Warner Cable goes through, Charter will have a broadband footprint as big as Comcast’s,” said Demand Progress executive director David Segal. “This would turn an industry that’s already too concentrated into a duopoly, paving the way for higher rates today and the eventual formation of a new cross-sector behemoth that controls content production and delivery.

“Americans increasingly understand that corporate concentration is jacking up prices and lowering quality for all sorts of basic goods and services. At a hearing of a Senate antitrust subcommittee this month, lawmakers made it clear that they see companies that are allegedly too big to fix in many industries, not just the banking sector. This FCC must now decide whether it wants to stem the swelling tide of concentration, or enable these monopolies.”

Free Press and Stop the Cap! contributed elements of this story.

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