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FCC Gives Quick Approval of TV Station Sale That Could Speed AT&T-Time Warner Merger

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Communications Commission said on Monday it approved Time Warner Inc’s sale of a broadcast station in Atlanta to Meredith Corp, a transaction that could help speed Time Warner’s planned merger with AT&T Inc.

In January, AT&T said it expected to be able to bypass the FCC in its planned $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner because it would not seek to transfer any significant Time Warner licenses.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said previously he did not plan to use the proposed TV station license transfer as a way to examine the AT&T-Time Warner merger. About a dozen senators had urged him to review the deal.

The station that Time Warner is selling, WPCH-TV, for $70 million, is its only FCC-regulated broadcast station. It has other, more minor FCC licenses.

Meredith has operated WPCH-TV for Time Warner since 2011. It was previously known as WTBS. The station is no longer considered a superstation in the United States, after Turner Broadcasting System created a new national network it dubbed TBS. WTBS changed its over-the-air call letters to WPCH, rebranded as “Peachtree TV,” and is considered an independent television station airing off-network sitcoms and dramas. However, WPCH is still widely seen across Canada, where it remains a “superstation” after Canadian regulators refused to allow Canadian providers to carry Turner’s TBS network.

WPCH-TV, an independent TV station in Atlanta, dubs itself as “Peachtree TV.”

In a statement on Monday, Meredith said it was pleased the FCC approved the application and that it anticipated “moving forward expeditiously to close this deal.”

The company said in February it expected to close on the sale by June 30 and that the deal would not have a material impact on its results.

Time Warner did not immediately comment on the FCC approval.

The Justice Department has to prove a proposed deal harms competition in order to block it. The FCC has broad leeway to block a merger it deems is not in the “public interest” and can impose additional conditions.

AT&T Chief Executive Randall Stephenson told CNBC in February the Justice Department review was ongoing and he thought the deal would close by the end of the year.

“It’s a clean transaction,” he said.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Stop the Cap!/Phillip Dampier.)

Wall Street Analyst: Cable Monopoly Will Double Your Broadband Bill

Thought paying $65 a month for broadband service is too much? Just wait a few years when one Wall Street analyst predicts you will be paying twice that rate for internet access, all because the cable industry is gradually achieving a high-speed broadband monopoly.

Jonathan Chaplin, New Street Research analyst, predicts as a result of cord-cutting and the retreat of phone companies from offering high-speed internet service competition, the cable industry will win as much as 72.2% of the broadband market by the year 2020. With it, they also win the power to raise prices both fast and furiously.

In a note to investors, Chapin wrote the number of Americans left to sign up for broadband service for the first time has dwindled, and most of the rest of new customer additions will come at the expense of phone companies, especially those still selling nothing better than DSL.

“Our long-term penetration forecast is predicated on cable increasing its market share, given a strong network advantage in 70% of the country (this assumes that telco fiber deployment increases from 16% of the country today to close to 30% five years from now),” Chaplin wrote.

Cable companies already control 65% of the U.S. broadband market as of late last year. Chaplin points out large cable operators have largely given up on slapping usage caps and usage pricing on broadband service to replace revenue lost from TV cord-cutting, so now they are likely going to raise general broadband pricing on everyone.

“Comcast and Charter have given up on usage-based pricing for now; however, we expect them to continue annual price increases,” Chaplin said. “As the primary source of value to households shifts increasingly from pay-TV to broadband, we would expect the cable companies to reflect more of the annual rate increases they push through on their bundles to be reflected in broadband than in the past. Interestingly, Comcast is now pricing standalone broadband at $85 for their flagship product, which is a $20 premium to the rack rate bundled price.”

Chaplin himself regularly cheerleads cable operators to do exactly as he predicts: raise prices. Back in late 2015, Chaplin pestered then CEO Robert Marcus of Time Warner Cable about why TWC was avoiding data caps, and in June of that year, Chaplin sent a note to investors claiming broadband was too cheap.

“Our analysis suggests that broadband as a product is underpriced,” Chaplin wrote. new street research“Our work suggests that cable companies have room to take up broadband pricing significantly and we believe regulators should not oppose the re-pricing (it is good for competition & investment).”

“The companies will undoubtedly have to take pay-TV pricing down to help ‘fund’ the price increase for broadband, but this is a good thing for the business,” Chaplin added. “Post re-pricing, [online video] competition would cease to be a threat and the companies would grow revenue and free cash flow at a far faster rate than they would otherwise.”

Spectrum Auction: T-Mobile Runaway Winner, But Dish Buy Puzzles Investors

T-Mobile’s 600MHz coverage map — assuming it builds out its full spectrum purchase.

One of the most consequential and visible spectrum auctions ever is over, and it will have a significant impact on broadcasters, wireless carriers, and the future competitive landscape of the wireless industry.

The world’s first “incentive auction” paid television stations to voluntarily vacate or move their assigned channels to make room for the wireless industry’s desire for more spectrum to power wireless data services. Up for bid was 70MHz of spectrum currently used by UHF television stations. A total of 50 winning wireless bidders collectively agreed to pay $19.8 billion to acquire that space. The biggest winner was T-Mobile USA, which is paying almost half the amount of total proceeds to acquire 45% of the spectrum available in the current auction. T-Mobile managed to acquire enough spectrum to cover 100% of the United States and Puerto Rico with an average of 31MHz of available spectrum nationwide, quadrupling its current inventory of important “low-band” spectrum, which is excellent for covering rural areas and inside buildings.

Consumers are likely to benefit as early as later this year when T-Mobile begins lighting up cellular service utilizing the newly available spectrum. Unfortunately, customers will have to buy new devices compatible with the new bands of frequencies.

Having the spectrum alone is not enough to beef up T-Mobile’s network. The company will have to invest in a large number of new cell sites, particularly in outlying areas, to eventually rival the coverage of AT&T and Verizon Wireless. But with an ample supply of 600MHz spectrum, T-Mobile could soon challenge AT&T and Verizon Wireless’ perceived network and coverage superiority. After this auction, AT&T continues to hold the largest portfolio of <1GHz spectrum — 70.5MHz. Verizon is second with 46.2MHz and T-Mobile has moved up in its third place position with 41.1MHz.

Although the FCC claims the current auction was among the highest grossing ever conducted by the FCC, industry observers claim companies got the new frequencies at a bargain price. A 2015 spectrum auction attracted $44.9 billion in bids, more than double the amount bid this year. The average price wireless companies paid per megahertz per person this year was just shy of 90¢, compared with $2.72 in 2015.

Where bargains are to be had, Charles Ergen and his Dish Network satellite company are sure to follow.

Few companies have as much unused wireless spectrum in their portfolio as Dish. Ergen loves to bid in auctions and has also picked up excess spectrum available on the cheap from other satellite companies that have since gone dark or bankrupt. Dish spent $6.2 billion on spectrum during the latest auction, puzzling investors who drove Dish’s share price down wondering what the company intends to do with the frequencies.

Investors were hoping Dish would eventually sell its spectrum portfolio at a profit, something that could still happen if other wireless carriers see a deal to be made. But some Wall Street analysts fear Dish might actually build a large wireless network of its own to offer wireless broadband service. Wall Street dislikes big spending projects and the competition it could bring to the marketplace, potentially driving down prices.

The other possibility is that Dish is making itself look more attractive to a possible buyer like Verizon, which could acquire the satellite company to win cheaper cable programming prices for its FiOS TV and an attractive amount of wireless spectrum for Verizon Wireless. The nation’s biggest wireless carrier notably did not participate in this spectrum auction.

Another unusual bidder was Comcast. Craig Moffett from Wall Street firm MoffettNathanson called Comcast’s $1.7 billion bid “half-hearted” and said it was unlikely to be enough spectrum for the company to begin offering its own wireless service. Comcast plans to rely on Verizon Wireless to power its wireless service, at least initially.

Comcast targeted its bids only in cities where it already provides cable service, which also nixes the theory Comcast and Charter might have been working together to form a cellular joint venture. Moffett expected Comcast would seek at least 20MHz of spectrum across most of the country. It ended up with 10MHz and only in select cities. Moffett thinks that may signal Comcast’s interest in buying an existing wireless carrier is still on the table.

AT&T Wants to Walk Away from Universal Landline Service in Illinois

AT&T is seeking permission to walk away from its decades-long commitment to provide universal access to landline service in Illinois, which could mean the eventual end of landline phone and wired broadband service in parts of the state.

An Illinois Senate committee approved a bill in March effectively ghostwritten by AT&T that will end the phone company’s legal obligation to provide wired services. AT&T claims 90% of consumers have already dropped landlines in Illinois, switching to cell phone or Voice over IP services. But the company would not say how many consumers still get wired broadband service from AT&T.

AT&T is laying the groundwork to eventually mothball its copper wire networks. Customers in urban areas would likely be serviced by AT&T’s fiber-copper U-verse network while rural areas would be served entirely by AT&T’s wireless cellular network. The company has already received approval to drop landline service in 19 of the 21 states where it provides landline service. AT&T Illinois president Paul La Schiazza said the company won’t approach the FCC about switching the network off for good until it gets approval in all 21 states.

If AT&T wins the right to pull the plug, it need only provide customers with 60 days notice. The bill also currently qualifies only one company in Illinois to discontinue service almost immediately — AT&T. Despite that, the bill has won support from independent phone companies in the state including Frontier Communications.

La Schiazza complains the government has treated AT&T unfairly by requiring it to provide service while other companies can cherry-pick service areas.

“What we’re left with in Illinois is we’re not guaranteed any customers, we’re not guaranteed any return … yet we still are required to provide an old-style, voice-only telephone line to every customer in our service territory,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “No competitor is required to do that. They can pick and choose whatever customers they want to serve and they can use whatever available technology that they want to.”

But AT&T’s competitors never enjoyed a legacy as a government-sanctioned monopoly, and do not benefit from rights-of-access, government tax credits, and mature network infrastructure over which it can offer service almost anywhere. AT&T also wins an end to the universal service mandate that has been a part of telecom public policy for decades, which means some rural state residents will not be able to get any telephone or internet service from AT&T or any other provider.

AT&T claims it will invest the money it currently puts into wireline network maintenance into ‘services consumers actually want,’ which has traditionally been its wireless network. AT&T’s preferred solution for rural service is to bolster its wireless network and convert existing wired customers into wireless ones. But that gives some state legislators pause, and efforts to decommission landline service by Verizon in rural New York and Superstorm Sandy-ravaged communities along the New York and New Jersey shoreline met with howls of protest from customers about inferior service.

Abe Scarr, director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, warned AT&T’s proposal was good for AT&T but potentially bad news for rural, older, and poor residents. Scarr submitted testimony to the Illinois Senate’s Telecommunications and Information Technology Committee that argued the current bill SB1381 was favorable to AT&T’s corporate agenda but failed to preserve time-honored traditions of universal service, consumer protection, competition, and public safety.

Scarr pointed out several recent wireless failures including several 911 outages that disrupted access to emergency services nationwide and AT&T’s inability to offer reliable wireless service during mass events. He also questioned whether AT&T would actually invest adequately in improving coverage in Illinois.

“I don’t think we can take away the old policy without replacing (it with a) new one and just pray to the gods of the markets to provide everything,” Scarr said. “I’m quite confident that’s not going to work out for all Illinoisans, especially since we don’t have real competition in broadband.”

FCC Reverses Merger Condition Requiring Charter to Overbuild to Compete

Reuters is reporting the Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission has reversed a pro-consumer mandate requiring Charter to overbuild at least one million homes to offer competitive internet service. The requirement was imposed on Charter Communications as part of the FCC’s approval of its merger deal with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in 2016.

The overbuild requirement would have forced Charter to directly compete with incumbent phone and/or cable operators in areas where only one provider now offers service.

Pai

The petition to repeal the condition was personally circulated by FCC chairman Ajit Pai who didn’t feel the FCC should mandate cable companies to compete as part of a merger approval.

Former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler pushed for the requirement, noting that Charter’s merger offered an opportunity to incorporate pro-consumer deal conditions like increased competition. The overbuild requirement would have required Charter to expand its cable service in areas where only telephone company DSL was available or give an opportunity for consumers to have a choice of cable operators. Pai’s effort gives Charter a big break, now only requiring the company to offer high-speed internet as a de facto monopoly to two million new customers where no internet service currently exists.

It also represents a gift to small independent cable operators and their lobbying arm, the American Cable Association, who feared the overbuild requirement would bring Charter into their service areas as an unwelcome competitor that would have “devastating effects on the smaller broadband providers Charter will overbuild” and could put them out of business.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute has its own pending filing asking the FCC to eliminate other deal conditions, including a prohibition on data caps Charter must adhere to for up to seven years.

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