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Spectrum Continues to Yank Semi-Local TV Stations from Lineups Across the Country

Gone from Spectrum lineups across northern New England.

Many Spectrum cable television customers across the country have seen their broadcast TV lineups shrink as the company removes “duplicate” and “semi-local” stations, even as it hikes the cost of its Broadcast TV surcharge.

Southern Maine customers are the latest to be affected with the sudden removal of Boston’s ABC affiliate, WCVB-TV on June 5 — the last Boston area station on the television lineup.

“York (Maine) is part of the Portland TV market and we carry the designated in-market ABC affiliate — WMTW,” responded Andrew Russell, Spectrum’s director of communications for the northeast division. “We no longer carry the out-of-market ABC affiliate.”

Viewers trying to watch WCVB in southern Maine saw a screen stating “programming on this network is no longer available,” instead of local news and traffic information important for a number of southern Maine residents that commute down I-95 into the Boston area for work.

“I am fit to be tied,” York Beach resident Ken Morrison told the Bangor Daily News. “And I’m not alone. A lot of people are very upset about it.”

Subscribers in distant suburbs, exurban or rural areas between two major cities often had access (often for decades) to several stations in adjacent television markets. Each subscriber could choose the station serving the city that was most relevant in their lives. Prior to Spectrum and Time Warner Cable, cable systems in these areas were often locally owned and operated by smaller companies. These operators were responsive to the needs of their customers and distant over-the-air stations were often a part of the cable lineup from the 1970s forward. But as consolidation in cable industry continues, local lineups are now usually determined in a corporate office hundreds of miles away.

This Binghamton, N.Y. PBS station was thrown off the Spectrum lineup across several counties in the Southern Tier.

That could explain why Spectrum subscribers living in Tompkins and Cortland counties in New York suddenly lost WSKG-TV, the PBS affiliate from nearby Binghamton in favor of Syracuse-based WCNY-TV. Local residents do not consider themselves a part of Syracuse. Most consider themselves residents of the Southern Tier, which stretches along the New York-Pennsylvania border and includes Binghamton, Corning, Elmira, Hornell, Olean, Salamanca, Dunkirk, Jamestown, and Vestal. Residents will tell you they have more in common with their neighbors in northern Pennsylvania than Syracuse, but Spectrum apparently knew better and announced viewers in the two counties would now have to be satisfied watching a PBS station broadcasting to an audience at least 50 miles away.

Spectrum’s decision in this case does not appear to be a financial one.

“A public media organization like us gets no money from Charter to air our programming,” said WSKG’s management. “Our programming is provided to them for free, by law.”

WSKG believes what is actually behind Spectrum’s decision to change the lineup is the regionalization of their cable system head-ends, from which television programming is managed. Programming seen on Spectrum subscribers’ TV screens across much of the Southern Tier and part of the Finger Lakes region is now managed from Charter offices in Syracuse.

“In this case, because our tower is more than 70 miles from Syracuse’s head-end, where the signal originates, there’s a line of demarcation where they don’t have to carry our signal anymore,” said WSKG station president and chief executive, Greg Catlin. “In this case, that cut-off is Cortland and Tompkins County. They have every right to be doing what they’re doing. That doesn’t mean they have to do it.”

Subscribers were exceptionally unhappy to lose their Binghamton PBS station, and the station received a significant number of listener and viewer contributions from an area that is now cut off. The Southern Tier, like Pennsylvania to the south, is notorious for poor signals due to mountainous terrain, which limits television and FM radio reception. Verizon offers no competing television service in this part of New York, leaving residents with satellite television as the only possible alternative.

WPTZ in Plattsburgh is off Spectrum lineups in several parts of northern New York.

The first week of June was a significant date on the calendar for many residents in Spectrum’s northeastern service areas. In northern New York, Spectrum customers were notified they were losing WPTZ, the NBC affiliate in Plattsburgh, in favor of Syracuse’s NBC station WSTM-TV. That Syracuse station now produces news and current affairs programming for three Syracuse stations – WSTM itself, WTVH (CBS) and WSTQ (CW) under the “CNY Central” brand. But subscribers who lost WPTZ do not consider themselves a part of central New York and would more likely choose to visit Vermont than Syracuse.

In other parts of New England, Spectrum customers also lost WMUR-TV — the New Hampshire station with one of the best regarded news operations in northern New England, in favor of WVNY in Burlington, Vt. Newscasts on WVNY are produced by its sister station WFFF-TV. WMUR has a larger American audience than WVNY. In fact, this Vermont ABC affiliate has far more viewers in southern Québec and Montréal than it does in its own home market.

Back in Maine, the local congressional delegation is turning up the heat on Spectrum, so far to no avail. State Reps. Lydia Blume and Patricia Hymanson of York have written a letter to Spectrum demanding the company reinstate WCVB or reduce the cable television bills of affected customers to compensate. So far, Spectrum has done neither.

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Morrison told the Bangor newspaper Channel 5 “is the channel of the household. We watch it every day, multiple times a day,” he said. “Many people in the York area commute to Boston. The traffic reports on Channel 5 are essential.” WCVB was also the last Boston channel that could be accessed through Spectrum. Boston channels 4 and 7 have already been discontinued.

WMUR in Manchester, N.H. is gone for many New England Spectrum subscribers.

After contacting town officials, who hold the franchise agreement with Spectrum until it expires in 2022, Morrison learned a powerful lesson about deregulation. When a cable company lacks competition or regulation, it can do pretty much what it wants.

York town manager Steve Burns says his hands are tied, noting that Spectrum’s franchise agreement is written to automatically renew (for their convenience) unless the town wants to attempt to renegotiate.

“But negotiate how?” Burns asked. “Comcast is not going to come in and compete with Spectrum. They divvy up the territory. And there’s no one else.”

Spectrum has also made sure that Burns’ phone is among those that rings first when a customer has a complaint, noting Spectrum prints his name and number on each subscriber’s bill, listing him as the “franchise administrator” for the town.

“But it doesn’t mean anything,” Burns told the newspaper. “We have no authority. They decide the programming and the fees. I don’t think we’re important to them.”

So far, all Spectrum has been willing to do is mail out a channel request form to residents who complain, but there is scant evidence the cable company will restore the Boston station, because it has refused other similar requests from subscribers across the country.

For customers in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, they know only too well how responsive Spectrum is to channel requests. When Spectrum took over Time Warner Cable, local subscribers lost access to several stations (most recently WCVB as well), forcing some to watch local news from stations either in Albany, N.Y., or Springfield, Mass. At the same time, customers were notified Spectrum was increasing its Broadcast TV surcharge, for fewer channels.

Spectrum did not offer any significant response to U.S. Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, or Congressman Richard Neal when they contacted Charter Communications to complain. In Maine, it is the same story for Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, as well as Rep. Chellie Pingree.

AT&T/Time Warner Win Merger Deal With No Consumer Protection Conditions

AT&T has won its $85 billion bid to acquire Time Warner, Inc., overturning Justice Department opposition in a court case and completely rejecting allegations the merger was anti-consumer and would raise prices by suppressing competition. The favorable decision is expected to signal the business community the time is right for several more multi-billion dollar media mergers.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled the deal can proceed without any consumer-protecting deal conditions, and warned Department of Justice lawyers not to appeal if the purpose was to stymie the deal from closing before the companies’ agreed on deal expiration date runs out, saying it would be “manifestly unjust” and damaging to the faith of America’s shareholders and business community.

Leon read his decision to a packed courtroom, telling the government’s lawyers they had failed to prove their case the merger would harm consumers. Observers called it one of the worst antitrust court losses the Justice Department has faced in its history.

“Today is a bad day for all internet users and media consumers,” said Free Press policy director Matt Wood. “The Justice Department’s failure to bring a winnable case will now set off a wave of communications and media consolidation that was unthinkable even a few years ago. All of us, regardless of our broadband carrier and no matter what we watch, are about to see higher bills, fewer choices, worse quality for competing options and a further erosion of our privacy rights.”

During a six-week trial held this spring, the government argued AT&T’s combination of DirecTV’s 20 million subscribers with its own U-verse TV customers, and its ownership of Time Warner’s pay television networks including HBO and Cinemax and Turner Broadcasting’s news, entertainment, and sports networks, would give the phone company too much power, allowing AT&T to unfairly raise prices for competing cable, satellite, and online streaming companies. AT&T acquired DirecTV in 2015, but regulators were already concerned about AT&T’s size, only approving the transaction with deal conditions.

AT&T argued it was willing to offer arbitration to make sure its competitors received fair deals, and volunteered to not cut off TV networks from customers during arbitration proceedings to resolve contract renewal disputes.

The decision has dramatic implications far beyond the merger at hand. Waiting in the wings are other media companies, Wall Street bankers, and advisers waiting to begin a frenzy of other blockbuster merger deals. Had the court blocked the merger, it would send a strong signal that the Justice Department’s case against vertical integration mergers — when companies buy other companies they do business with — has standing. The total defeat of the Justice Department in today’s decision may make government lawyers hesitant to challenge future vertical integration deals.

Comcast’s all-cash offer for a large part of 21st Century Fox is likely to proceed now that the AT&T-Time Warner merger was approved. More telecom industry deals are expected to emerge later this year.

The Trump Administration’s choice to oversee antitrust cases — Makan Delrahim, sent signals to Wall Street that he is still inclined to be pro-business on merger transactions, telling reporters most proposed transactions were either good for consumers or neutral — a view consumer advocates generally oppose.

“I understand that some journalists and observers have recently expressed concern that the antitrust division no longer believes that vertical mergers can be efficient and beneficial to competition and consumers,” Delrahim said. “Rest assured these concerns are misplaced.”

If the merger is completed, AT&T will now be the country’s largest pay-TV distributor, controlling more than a dozen “must-have” TV networks that competitors cannot afford to be without. The deal will even affect the wireless industry’s competitive landscape. AT&T’s unlimited wireless customers are expected to be given exclusive free access to a bundle of channels filled with Time Warner-owned content.

NBC News Launching New Online Streaming Network

Phillip Dampier June 6, 2018 Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

NBC News will appeal to cord cutters and online news junkies with a new streaming network to be launched this summer, according to a report in Variety.

NBC News Digital is an experimental project from NBC News and will not duplicate existing NBC and MSNBC programming. Instead, the news division is hiring producers and talent to create new, original news shows for online audiences.

NBC News chairman Andrew Lack hinted that NBC was getting into the live-streaming business back in March, but had offered few details.

Most 24/7 news channels are behind the cable industry’s “TV Everywhere” authentication paywall, requiring viewers to prove they are current paid cable television subscribers to gain access.

NBC will face immediate competition from CBSN, the free digital streaming service from CBS offering live coverage of important news events and a regularly updated playlist of pre-recorded news segments and airings of CBS network news programming and features.

Fox News is working on its own subscription-based online news channel called Fox Nation that is expected to arrive by the end of this year.

In contrast, other cable news networks have been substantially cutting back on digital projects. CNN laid off its digital staffers in early 2018 and MSNBC relies exclusively on streaming material that has already aired on the cable news channel.

Is Dish Networks Really Preparing to Finally Build Its Wireless Network?

Among the major wireless companies with spectrum holdings worth billions, few would suspect that the fifth largest (behind Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile) is the satellite television company Dish Networks.

After spending nearly $20 billion over the last ten years acquiring nearly 95 MHz of extremely valuable low and mid-band spectrum in markets across the United States, Dish is the largest wireless company that isn’t actually providing wireless service. Critics have questioned whether Dish co-founder Charlie Ergen was ever really interested in getting into the wireless business when he could make an even bigger killing warehousing spectrum until it grows in value and can be profitably sold to someone else. One Wall Street analyst thinks there is a strong case for exactly that. Cowen and Company estimates Dish’s holdings are now worth $30.2 billion — a $10 billion profit possible from keeping spectrum off the market until a buyer is willing to make an offer Dish cannot refuse.

Unfortunately for Ergen, spectrum is public property and ultimate ownership rights can never be sold or transferred. Instead, the FCC licenses companies to use the public airwaves, and has provisions to take them back if a company does not put that spectrum to good use. For Dish Networks, the first important deadline is March 2020, by which time the FCC expects Dish to achieve at least 70% market coverage of its 700 MHz “E-Block” and 2000-2020/2180-2200 MHz AWS-4 licenses.

Dish’s “E-Block” spectrum was formerly known as UHF channel 56. Dish has already begun testing the next-generation TV standard ATSC 3.0 on its E-Block spectrum in Dallas, as part of a joint venture with TV station owners Sinclair, Nexstar, and Univision. Dish proposed to use this spectrum, which covers 95% of the United States, as a potential tool for broadcasters. Among the services Dish could offer are broadcast data applications made possible with the ATSC 3.0 standard.

Because time and money is on the line, Dish needs to either build its network quickly or sell/lease its spectrum to other companies before facing possible spectrum forfeiture in less than two years. Analysts say one of the cheapest and easiest ways of placating the FCC is to deploy a modest, narrowband wireless network designed for machine-to-machine communications. These networks rely on short bursts of data to communicate information. Possible applications include exchanging irrigation and crop data collected from wireless sensors and various remote weather and climate measurement tools.

Coincidentally, that is exactly the kind of network Ergen initially envisions, largely operating on the sparsely used AWS bands. Officially called “NB-IoT” in wireless industry parlance, the ‘narrowband Internet of Things’ network would be the first chapter of Dish’s wireless story. It’s a network done on the cheap — constructed with a relatively low investment of $500 million to $1 billion through 2020, adequate enough to keep the FCC off Dish’s back.

Ergen reports the radios have been ordered and in a sign of serious intent, Dish has now signed master lease agreements with cell tower companies that will allow Dish to place its transmission equipment on tens of thousands of cell towers around the country. The company has also hired experts in tower permitting and network design and planning. Those contracts are an important indicator for some skeptics on Wall Street who believed Ergen would not show seriousness of intent until he signed paid, binding commitments to begin network buildout.

Ergen would disagree that Dish has been foot-dragging its wireless network deployment, despite a decade of accumulating wireless spectrum that has gone unused.

“It’s all about timing; too early you are roadkill, if you get it just right you have a chance,” Ergen said. “We missed the 4G shift because of the regulatory reasons. The next big paradigm shift is 5G.”

Ergen

Unfortunately for Ergen, he will be late to that paradigm shift, admitting his dream of a national 5G network isn’t possible right now.

“We’re […] going to spend at least $10 billion or more on a 5G network,” Ergen said, while also admitting, “we don’t have that kind of capital on our balance sheet today.”

Ergen promised that sometime in the future, Dish will begin a “second phase” that will “build a complete 5G network.” But Ergen’s vision of 5G is somewhat different from Verizon and AT&T, which are focused on the consumer and business voice and data markets. Ergen envisions a robust 5G network designed to support IoT applications like smart cities, artificial intelligence, and autonomous vehicles, and does not seem interested launching a fifth national cell provider.

Ergen quit in December 2017 as CEO of Dish’s aging satellite TV business to refocus on Dish’s mobile future, and to recast the venture as a glorified startup, much like his early days in the home satellite television business where he got into the business manufacturing 10-foot C-band satellite dishes for consumers and then sold the programming to watch on those dishes. From money earned in that business, Ergen launched Dish Networks, which relies on today’s familiar small satellite dishes and competes with DirecTV.

Ergen’s satellite TV venture only had to compete with one other satellite provider. His wireless network will have to compete with at least four established national wireless companies, plus emerging competition from the cable industry and regional cellular providers. Ergen tried to turn that obvious business challenge into an opportunity:

“We have two disadvantages; We don’t [have many] customers and we are not as knowledgeable as other people in the business, but we don’t have the legacy of 2G, 3G, 4G networks,” Ergen said. “We have a clean sheet of paper with 5G. It reminds me of 1990 when we decided to reinvent ourselves from the big dish business to small dish. It took five years to design and build that system with not one penny of revenue, and we obsoleted the business we were in. When we got into satellites, we didn’t know anything about it, but neither did anyone else. It is the same with 5G/IoT. We are not the world’s experts, but neither is anyone else.”

What Ergen lacks in experience he makes up for in enthusiasm, laying out plans for Dish’s wireless future. By the time he activates 5G service, Dish expects to use its combined 95 MHz of spectrum in the 600 MHz and 2 GHz range for that network. That will take until at least July 2020, because many of the 600 MHz frequencies he needs are still occupied by UHF television stations that are in the process of migrating to a more compact UHF band.

Dish has spectrum holdings that reach almost every corner in the U.S.

Ergen may also consider acquiring additional millimeter wave spectrum if he deploys small cell technology. He has even decided to keep small cell and larger traditional “macrocells” found on traditional cell towers on different frequencies, claiming sharing the frequencies would create interference issues.

Ergen also hopes to convince the FCC to repurpose little-known Multichannel Video Distribution and Data Service (MVDDS) spectrum located between 12.2-12.7 GHz for 5G wireless applications. That solid block of 500 MHz of spectrum could be an important asset to power small cell 5G networks, because it can support faster speeds than the typical smaller blocks of frequencies most companies control. MVDDS also lacks a significant constituency to protect it, having been woefully underutilized in the United States. Only tiny Cibola Wireless, an ISP in Albuquerque, N.M., licenses MVDDS technology for its wireless internet service, selling Albuquerque residents up to 50 Mbps speed for $79.99 a month. Users claim the service does not suffer the latency problems of traditional satellite internet access, but can still slow down if too many users are online at the same time.

Back in 2010, MVDDS technology was seen as a potential competitor to companies like Dish and DirecTV, as well as satellite internet providers which share similar spectrum. Like satellite internet, MVDDS can transmit and receive data over a small dish. But instead of pointing it to a satellite 44,000 miles away, MVDDS systems target a ground-based transmission tower much closer nearby. The technology never attracted much attention, and will now likely be displaced by 5G in the United States, although it has done modestly better abroad, serving a limited customer base in the United Arab Emirates, Ireland, France, Vietnam, Greenland and Serbia.

AT&T Reiterates 5G Fixed Wireless is a Waste of Resources: Pushes Fiber to Home Instead

AT&T does not see fixed wireless millimeter wave broadband in your future if you live in or around a major city.

John Stephens, AT&T’s chief financial officer, today reiterated to shareholders that building a small cell network for urban and suburban fixed wireless service does not make much sense from a business perspective.

“It’s the cost efficiency,” Stephens told an audience at Cowen and Company’s 46th Annual Technology, Media & Telecom Broker Conference. “Once you [get] the fixed wireless connection from the alley to your house, that’s great you can do that, but you have to get it from the alley into the core network.”

Stephens

Stephens noted that once AT&T realized it would require a collection of small cells to hand wireless traffic off, “building that out can be very expensive when you’re likely doing it in an urban market in a residential area that already has a lot of fiber [or] a lot of competition [from] incumbent telephone and cable companies.”

AT&T sees a likely different future for fixed wireless based on in its ongoing trials underway in Austin, Tex. — selling the service to commercial and manufacturing customers with robotic equipment and other machinery that need instant and fast wireless communications to communicate with each other and back to a central point.

Stephens believes a better idea for its 30 million U-verse fiber-near-the-home customers is to extend fiber directly to those customers’ homes. Stephens said AT&T would be financially better off scrapping the remaining copper wire running the last 500 feet from a customer’s home or business to the nearest fiber-equipped pedestal and give customers dedicated fiber to the home service instead.

“It may be very inexpensive for us compared to the [5G] alternative and gives the customer a tremendous level of service,” Stephens added.

Where millimeter wave could make sense is in exurban and rural areas where clusters of homes could potentially be reached by fixed wireless, assuming there was fiber infrastructure close enough to connect those small cells to AT&T’s network. But AT&T seems to be more interested in applying the technology in commercial and Internet of Things (IoT) applications where wireless access can be essential, and would be much easier to deploy.

Verizon, in contrast, is expanding millimeter wave fixed wireless broadband trials, with the hope of selling a wireless home internet replacement.

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Recent Comments:

  • Paul Houle: I can believe in AT&T's plan, but not Comcast. For better or worse, AT&T is going "all in" on video and is unlike other major providers in ...
  • Phillip Dampier: Yes, that battle with Northwest Broadcasting, which also involved stations in Idaho-Wyoming and California, was the nastiest in recent history, with s...
  • Doug Stoffa: Digital takes up way less space than old analog feeds - agreed. In a given 6 MHz block, the cable company can send down 1 NTSC analog station, 2-4 HD...
  • Phillip Dampier: Digital video TV channels occupy next to nothing as far as bandwidth goes. Just look at the huge number of premium international channels loading up o...
  • Doug Stoffa: It's a bit more complicated than that. Television stations (and the networks that provide them programming) have increased their retransmission fees ...
  • Alex sandro: Most of the companies offer their services with contracts but Spectrum cable company offer contract free offers for initial year which is a very good ...
  • John: I live in of the effected counties, believe it or not our village is twenty three miles from WSKG Tower, approxiamately eighty miles from Syracuse, WS...
  • Wilhelm: I'm in the Finger Lakes where Spectrum removed WROC-8 last Fall, but we still get other Rochester channels, WHAM-13, WHEC-10 and WXXI-21. I have to wo...
  • dhkjsalhf: "Another classic case of businesses being much smarter than governments." I don't know whether this was sarcastic or not, but I feel it's a sentiment...
  • New Yorker: It makes no sense. I wonder sometimes if raising the limits on how much money rich people giving to candidates could make it more expensive to buy of...
  • New Yorker: Will New York go through with the threat? As an upstater I have seen infrastructure projects drag on in cost and time (eg. 1.5 yrs to repair a tiny b...
  • Matthew H Mosher: Another classic case of businesses being much smarter than governments....

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