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Hulu’s Money Blowout: Analyst Predicts Forthcoming Live TV Service Will Lose Real $$$

huluTM_355Hulu’s still-to-be-announced live TV streaming service designed to give subscribers an alternative to bloated and expensive cable-TV packages will lose “real money” if it is priced at around $40.

BTIG Reseach analyst Brandon Ross’ research note to investors (reported by Fierce Cable) claims Hulu faces big expenses to include sports and CBS programming — the one network that isn’t a part-owner of Hulu — into its forthcoming package of live and on-demand programming. With most sources claiming Hulu intends to price the service starting at prices as low as $35-40 a month for a slimmed down package of cable television and over-the-air stations viewable on one device and $50 a month for those wanting to watch on multiple devices, Ross predicts the service will rapidly run into the red because of programming costs.

Hulu’s live streaming service could be a real game changer for online cable TV alternatives, because it is expected to contain a robust assortment of popular cable networks and regional sports channels that could appeal to a wider marketplace than even slimmer packages from Sling TV.

Video margins are dropping, which means smaller operators have less to invest in broadband.

Video margins are dropping as programming costs continue to grow. Cable operators are turning to broadband to make up the difference, but virtual providers like Hulu don’t have that option.

“The ramifications of success could have an effect that goes far beyond just Hulu’s partners, from [competing cable TV providers] to cable networks to Netflix. A failed Hulu virtual [cable-TV provider] could dispel the idea of widespread competition for incumbent bundles from virtual bundled competitors,” Ross wrote in his research note. “We are skeptical that the Hulu bundle will meaningfully impact the [cable-TV] landscape from a subscriber standpoint. We simply wonder whether the price/value will be strong enough to attract customers at ~$40, with much less content than the current larger bundles.”

Ross predicted Hulu will bundle several expensive sports networks, as indicated in surveys Hulu sent to potential customers. Those surveys suggested Hulu’s service will include a variety of Regional Sports Networks from Hulu’s owners, which include Fox and Comcast-NBC. One potential exclusion is Madison Square Garden Network (MSG), a potential omission that concerned MSGN investors enough to drive the share price down after a significant spike in mid-August.

The issue of MSG could open an interesting new front in the war on cable television pricing. MSG’s viewership is focused in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and one of the largest cable providers in the region is cost-conscious Altice USA, which took over Cablevision. Ross states MSG Network’s addition on the Hulu lineup could give Altice more leverage to force better contract renewal terms.

“For instance, Altice could theoretically tell those that want MSGN to switch their video provider to Hulu, while staying on Altice for broadband,” Ross wrote. “We do not believe this would be an ideal approach for either party, but it is possible.”

AT&T’s Cash Storm for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s 2017 Telecom Deregulation Agenda

Phillip Dampier August 18, 2016 Issues 2 Comments

fat cat attAT&T has gone over the top donating at least $70,000 to back Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, more than the company has ever donated to anyone else.

It isn’t by coincidence.

According to Communications Daily (subscription req’d), one of Ryan’s top priorities for 2017 is a possible complete rewrite of the Telecommunications Act — the nation’s most important federal law governing telecommunications regulation and the operations of the Federal Communications Commission. Ryan and many of his fellow Republicans have been critical of the FCC’s growing interest in consumer protection and industry oversight.

Ryan’s efforts to push for further deregulation and policies that could lead to further industry consolidation could generate a windfall in the billions for AT&T. Past revisions of the Act have radically transformed the telecom landscape in the United States. President Bill Clinton’s signature on the 1996 Telecommunications Act opened the door to a tsunami of cross-media ownership and radio/TV station consolidation. Provisions in the ’96 Act were promoted as bolstering competition, but critics argued consolidation was favored over competition.

Howard Zinn summarized the effects of the ’96 law in his book A People’s History of the United States: “[it] enabled the handful of corporations dominating the airwaves to expand their power further. Mergers enabled tighter control of information.” Adding to the criticism, Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano echoed: “Never have so many been held incommunicado by so few.”

In 2000 Consumers Union blasted the ’96 Act as legislative bait and switch.

Ryan

Ryan

“It is evident that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has failed to produce the consumer benefits policy makers promised because competition has failed to take hold across the communications industry,” the group said. “The fundamental problem is that the huge companies that dominate the telephone and cable TV industries prefer mergers and acquisitions to competition.”

AT&T is reportedly interested in access to lawmakers to lobby for telecom reforms that will allow it to switch off its legacy copper wire phone network in rural America, force certain consumers to wireless-only landline service, get rid of Net Neutrality, allow more wireless industry consolidation, ban municipal broadband, have a louder voice on privacy and cybersecurity regulation, access to wireless spectrum, and preferably a de-fanged FCC.

Public Citizen government affairs lobbyist Craig Holman told Communications Daily AT&T’s contributions are a “fundamental way of gaining access and influence to policymakers,” as part of Washington’s “pay-to-play system.”

The only entity giving Ryan more money than AT&T was the deregulation-obsessed Koch Industries, which gave $75,000.

Ryan’s current chief of staff is a close friend to Big Telecom. David Hoppe lobbied for AT&T, USTelecom and Verizon before being hired by Ryan. Hoppe’s influence appears to be significant after Ryan introduced “A Better Way,” the GOP’s platform for what they will do if they keep control of Congress and win the White House. The plan makes it clear there is unhappiness with the FCC under the leadership of chairman Thomas Wheeler, opposition to Title II reclassification of broadband — a change that opened the door to enforcing Net Neutrality, and a belief the FCC lacks transparency and is living in the regulatory past.

Holman worries that lobbyist spending in Washington, already a problem, has become insane after Citizens United eliminated limits on campaign contributions.

“The lids have been blown off… it’s breathtaking,” Holman told the newsletter.

Meet North Carolina’s Sen. Thom Tillis (R-ALEC/Time Warner Cable)

Tillis was honored in 2011 as ALEC's "Legislator of the Year" and received an undisclosed cash reward.

Tillis was honored in 2011 as ALEC’s “Legislator of the Year” and received an undisclosed cash reward.

Back when we first became aware of Republican member of the North Carolina legislature Thom Tillis around 2010, he was hard at work building his political future just as Republicans were poised to take control of the state legislature for the first time since the days of Reconstruction. Despite running unopposed in 2010, Tillis raised more money from cable and phone companies than any other lawmaker in the state, depositing $37,000 before knowing he would be the next Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives in January 2011. To celebrate, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon each gave Tillis $1,000 just a few weeks before the swearing-in ceremony. It was money well spent, if you were a cable or phone company doing business in North Carolina.

Tillis left the legislature in 2015 to become the junior U.S. Senator from North Carolina. The telecom industry made sure to keep the campaign contributions flowing, if only to give their thanks for Tillis’ unwavering support for their agenda. Tillis doesn’t care much for his rural constituents still waiting for something better than dial-up internet access and as long as his campaign coffers remain bulging with corporate contributions, he doesn’t think he has much to fear from the state’s voters either. After all, he survived accusations from a resigning House Finance chairman that he had a secret business relationship with Time Warner Cable.

Raleigh’s The News & Observer felt it was their duty to mention Tillis in their editorial pages anyway, taking him to task for “cheering a loss for North Carolina consumers last week after a federal appeals court upheld a cable company protection law that he supported as state House speaker in 2011.”

The newspaper is talking about North Carolina’s infamous anti-public broadband bill that was literally constructed by lobbyists working for Time Warner Cable. The law effectively made it impossible for community broadband providers to bring their much-needed service to adjacent communities that have waited more than a decade for companies like Time Warner Cable, AT&T, CenturyLink and others to offer internet access in rural and underserved parts of the state.

Tillis personally helped shepherd the corporate protection bill, designed to shield incumbent cable and phone companies from community competition, through the state legislature, supporting it every step of the way. It would become law in 2011 and rural broadband in North Carolina hasn’t gotten any better since. In fact, it’s almost stagnant. But Tillis cannot say the same thing about his campaign bank accounts, which continue to bulge with corporate donations now in excess of $11 million.

An effort by the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt the state law failed in a federal appeals court, much to the delight of Thom Tillis, something the newspaper calls an “insult” to North Carolinians looking for a better deal.

“Today’s ruling affirms the fact that unelected bureaucrats at the FCC completely overstepped their authority by attempting to deny states like North Carolina from setting their own laws to protect hard-working taxpayers and maintain the fairness of the free market,” Tillis said in a statement. Cough, cough.

The newspaper’s response:

Translation: Time Warner and other companies, thank goodness, will retain control of the market without having to worry about towns competing with them and thus will be able to charge people whatever the market will bear.

For Tillis to say the court ruling, which should be appealed, is a triumph for taxpayers is preposterous. It’s a setback. The “free market” he backs is one free of competition from municipal broadband services that offer a better product at a lower price.

Google Fiber Puts Expansion on Hold as It Contemplates Wireless Instead

google fiberFurther expansion of Google Fiber appears to be on hold as the company contemplates moving away from fiber to the home service towards a wireless platform that could provide internet access in urban areas for less money.

The Wall Street Journal today reports Google parent Alphabet, Inc., is looking to cities to share more of the costs of building faster broadband networks or using cheaper wireless technology to reach customers instead.

Six years after Google first announced it would finance the construction of fiber to the home networks, the company has made progress in wiring just six communities, many incompletely. Progress has been hampered by infrastructure complications including pole access, permitting and zoning issues, unanticipated construction costs, and according to one Wall Street analyst, the possibility of lack of enthusiasm from potential subscribers.

Google’s recent acquisition of Webpass, a company specializing in beaming internet access over fiber-connected wireless antennas between large multi-dwelling units like apartments and condos appears to be a game-changer for Google. Webpass was designed mostly to service urban and population dense areas, not suburbs or neighborhoods of single-family dwellings. Webpass’ reliance on wireless signals that travel between buildings removes the cost and complexity of installing fiber optics, something that appears to be of great interest to Google.

Google Fiber is planning a system that would use fiber for its core network but rely on wireless antennas to connect each home to the network, according to a person familiar with the plans. Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt said at the company’s shareholder meeting in June that wireless connections can be “cheaper than digging up your garden” to lay fiber. The only question is what kind of performance can users expect on a shared wireless network. Google’s plans reportedly do not involve 5G but something closer to fixed wireless or souped-up high-speed Wi-Fi. A web video on Webpass’ website seems to concede “you get best speeds with a wired connection.”

Even Google's wireless technology solutions provider Webpass concedes that wired broadband is faster.

Even Google’s wireless technology solutions provider Webpass concedes that wired broadband is faster.

Former Webpass CEO Charles Barr, now an Alphabet employee, argues wireless solves a lot of problems that fiber can bring to the table.

“Everyone who has done fiber to the home has given up because it costs way too much money and takes way too much time,” Barr said.

Barr’s statements are factually inaccurate, however. Fiber to the home projects continue in many cities, but if they are run by private companies, chances are those rollouts are limited to areas where a proven rate of return is likely. Large incumbent phone and cable companies are also contemplating some fiber rollouts, at least to those who can afford it. Many of the best prospects for fiber to the home service are customers in under-competitive markets where the phone company offers slow speed DSL and cable broadband speeds are inadequate. Rural communities served by co-ops are also prospects for fiber upgrades because those operations answer to their members, not investors. Community broadband projects run by local government or public utilities have also proven successful in many areas.

subBut like all publicly traded companies, Google must answer to Wall Street and their investors and some are not happy with what they see from Google Fiber. Craig Moffett from Wall Street research firm MoffettNathanson has rarely been a fan of any broadband provider other than cable operators and Google Fiber is no different.

“One can’t help but feel that all of this has the flavor of a junior science fair,” Moffett said of Google Fiber, pointing out the service has managed to attract only 53,000 cable TV customers nationwide as of December. Moffett concedes there are significantly more broadband-only customers signed up for Google, but that didn’t stop him from suggesting Google Fiber has had very little impact on increasing broadband competition across the country.

Analysts suggest Google Fiber is spending about $500 per home passed by its new fiber network. But that is a fraction of the $3,000+ per customer often spent by cable operators buying one another.

Google’s wireless deployment will likely take place in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago according to people familiar with the company’s plans. Less dense cities slated for Google Fiber including San Jose and Portland, Ore., may never get any service from Google at all, but they are likely to hear something after a six month wait.

Google is also reportedly asking cities if the company can lease access on existing fiber networks. Another tactic is requesting power companies or communities build fiber networks first and then turn them over to Google to administer. The latter seems less likely, considering there are successful public broadband networks operating on their own without Google’s help.

Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Reverses FCC Rule Allowing Public Broadband Expansion

6th CircuitA federal appeals court has reversed an effort by the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt state laws restricting municipal broadband expansion in Tennessee and North Carolina, ruling the FCC exceeded its authority by interfering with both states’ rights to define the boundaries where the community broadband networks can and cannot operate.

In a near-unanimous decision (with some minor dissent from one judge), judges from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found the FCC exceeded their authority.

“The FCC order essentially serves to re-allocate decision-making power between the states and their municipalities,” the court ruled. “This is shown by the fact that no federal statute or FCC regulation requires the municipalities to expand or otherwise to act in contravention of the preempted state statutory provisions. This preemption by the FCC of the allocation of power between a state and its subdivisions requires at least a clear statement in the authorizing federal legislation. The FCC relies upon § 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 for the authority to preempt in this case, but that statute falls far short of such a clear statement. The preemption order must accordingly be reversed.”

In other words, the court ruled that the FCC’s belief that Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed it to pre-empt state broadband laws goes too far. The judges opined Congress would have to rewrite the law to clearly state it was acceptable for the federal branch of government to overrule how a community or state decides to draw boundaries for public utilities.

EPB is the municipal utility in Chattanooga, Tenn.

EPB is the municipal utility in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The ruling will have an immediate impact on plans by municipal utility EPB in Chattanooga and city-owned provider Greenlight in Wilson, N.C., to expand service outside of their respective service areas. EPB has been working inside the Tennessee legislature to overturn or change the current broadband law but has been unsuccessful so far. Comcast and AT&T have lobbied the Tennessee legislature to keep municipal competitors from expanding, even where neither company offers service.

“Ultimately, Tennessee’s broadband gap is a problem for Tennesseans, and we need a Tennessee solution,” said David Wade, president of EPB. “We will continue to work with the growing number of state legislators and grassroots citizens interested in removing the barriers that prevent EPB and other municipal providers from serving our neighbors in surrounding areas who have little or no access to broadband. We are further encouraged by Commissioner Randy Boyd’s interest in addressing the lack of broadband in rural areas. As the head of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, he is especially well positioned to join with state lawmakers in addressing this challenge on behalf of Tennesseans.”

Greenlight announces gigabit service for Wilson, N.C.

Greenlight announces gigabit service for Wilson, N.C.

North Carolina’s law was effectively drafted by Time Warner Cable, who shepherded the bill through the Republican-controlled state legislature, making huge political campaign contributions along the way, eventually winning enough votes to see the bill become law.

The ruling is a serious blow to FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, who made municipal broadband expansion one of his active agenda items at the FCC. Wheeler believed the two state laws were not supposed to inhibit rural broadband expansion. Critics of the laws contend they were written and lobbied for by the same incumbent cable and phone companies that could eventually face competition from public broadband networks.

“Let’s be clear: industry-backed state laws to block municipal broadband only exist because pliant legislators are listening to their Big Cable and Big Telecom paymasters,” said Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner. “This decision does not benefit our broadband nation.”

Wheeler

Wheeler

Wheeler tacitly agreed, saying today’s decision “appears to halt the promise of jobs, investment and opportunity that community broadband has provided in Tennessee and North Carolina.”

“[Since 2015], over 50 communities have taken steps to build their own bridges across the digital divide,” Wheeler said in written comments. “The efforts of communities wanting better broadband should not be thwarted by the political power of those who, by protecting their monopoly, have failed to deliver acceptable service at an acceptable price.”

The ruling can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the FCC has an excellent chance of getting the high court to overturn today’s decision. Rulings issued by the Sixth Circuit were reversed by the Supreme Court 24 out of the 25 times they were reviewed in the five annual terms starting in October 2008 and ending in June 2013 — the highest number of any federal appellate court during that time period.

Broadband activists can also return to the two state legislatures and urge that the broadband laws be modified or repealed. Wheeler seems ready to join the fight.

“Should states seek to repeal their anti-competitive broadband statutes, I will be happy to testify on behalf of better broadband and consumer choice,” Wheeler said. “Should states seek to limit the right of people to act for better broadband, I will be happy to testify on behalf of consumer choice.”

GCI’s Stingy Caps About to Get a Boost

gciBroadband life in Alaska is usually a choice (if you live in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau, or another significantly sized city) between usage-capped cable operator GCI or slow-speed DSL (if you can get it) from Alaska’s two telephone companies – ACS, where unlimited service is still available, or MTA, where a 10Mbps Internet plan starts at $50 and offers up to 50GB of usage a month.

GCI has traditionally been the fastest option, but the company’s usage caps and high prices have brought scores of complaints from customers over the years. A basic 10/1Mbps internet plan costs $59.99 a month and only includes 40GB of usage. Many Alaskans who want faster access with a more reasonable allowance have to spend $84.99 a month for 50/3Mbps access to get a 150GB usage allowance or $134.99 for 100/5Mbps service with 300GB of included usage.

Late last week, GCI announced it was boosting the usage allowance for just one of its plans, the premium-priced, limited availability 1,000/50Mbps plan ($174.99), which until recently included a 750GB usage allowance. The new usage allowance is 1TB (1,000GB).

“In today’s connected society, people are demanding more and more access to data at incredibly fast speeds,” said Paul Landes, GCI’s senior vice president/general manager of consumer services. “GCI is proud to have a product that keeps our customers connected in ways people in Boston and LA can’t even receive. Even better, we are able to provide these upgrades at no additional cost to our loyal customers.”

Alaskans face high prices for internet access from GCI, the state's largest cable company.

Alaskans face high prices for internet access from GCI, the state’s largest cable company.

Gigabit customers like Stop the Cap! reader Dave Langhorn certainly hoped so.

“This is long overdue,” said Langhorn. “For $175 a month, there shouldn’t be any data caps, considering unlimited gigabit plans in the lower-48 often sell for $70-80 a month, which is less than half what we pay and still get capped.”

Our reader Michael Horton is incensed that GCI managed a usage allowance boost for its most premium internet plan, while leaving everyone else with the same old service.

“We shouldn’t be allowing any ISPs to restrict usage on their networks,” said Horton. “You should be paying for the speed that you use and nothing more.”

Horton considers data caps anachronistic at a time when the digital economy is moving towards online distribution of products and services like movies, games, software, and other digital products. Even Windows 10 has been more often installed from a download than from physical media.

GCI has promised to address at least one of Horton’s concerns, stating they are planning speed boosts and allowance upgrades for all of their internet plans at an unspecified time later this year.

GCI says the allowance boost comes in response to customer requests from surveys and “listening sessions.”

Horton and Langhorn both believe that those voices would be heard much louder if GCI had more significant competition.

“ACS is the only alternative if you want unreliable speed,” Horton writes.”They don’t have bandwidth caps, but you will be unable to use their service efficiently if you are a gamer or watch Netflix a lot.”

 

CenturyLink: Usage-Based Billing That Makes No Sense, But Will Earn Dollars

followthemoneyCenturyLink will begin a usage-based billing trial in Yakima, Wa., starting July 26 that will combine usage caps with an overlimit fee on customers that exceed their monthly usage allowance. The trial in Washington state may soon be a fact of life for most CenturyLink customers across the country, unless customers rebel.

Already at a speed disadvantage with its cable competitors, CenturyLink will likely alienate customers with a new 300GB usage cap on DSL customers who can manage speeds up to 7Mbps, and 600GB for those lucky enough to exceed 7Mbps. Customers will be given a browser-injected warning when they reach 65% and 85% of their allowance. If a customer exceeds it, they will have overlimit fees forgiven twice before the usual de facto industry overlimit penalty rate of $10 for 50 additional gigabytes will be added to their bill, not to exceed $50 in penalties for any billing cycle.

DSL Reports received word from readers in Yakima they had the unlucky privilege of serving as CenturyLink’s first test market for hard caps and overlimit fees, and was the first to bring the story to the rest of the country.

CenturyLink hasn’t wanted to draw much attention to the usage-based billing change, quietly adjusting their “excessive usage policy FAQ” that takes effect on July 26. But it has begun directly notifying customers who will be enrolled in the compulsory trial.

“Data usage limits encourage reasonable use of your CenturyLink High Speed Internet service so that all customers can receive the optimal internet experience they have purchased with their service plan,” states the FAQ.

But counterintuitively, CenturyLink will exempt those likely to consume even more of CenturyLink’s resources than its low-speed DSL service allows by keeping unlimited use policies in place for their commercial customers and those subscribed to gigabit speed broadband.

CenturyLink’s justification for usage caps with customers seems to suggest that “excessive usage” will create a degraded experience for other customers. But CenturyLink’s chief financial officer Stewart Ewing shines a light on a more plausible explanation for CenturyLink to slap the caps on — because their competitors already are.

“Regarding the metered data plans; we are considering that for second half of the year,” Ewing told investors on a conference call. “We think it is important and our competition is using the metered plans today and we think that exploring those starts and trials later this year is our expectation.”

CenturyLink's overlimit penalties (Image courtesy: DSL Reports)

CenturyLink’s new overlimit penalties (Image courtesy: DSL Reports)

In fact, CenturyLink has never acknowledged any capacity issues with their broadband network, and has claimed ongoing upgrades have kept up with customer usage demands. Until now. On the west coast, CenturyLink’s competitors are primarily Comcast (Pacific Northwest) and Cox Communications (California, Nevada, Arizona). Both cable operators are testing usage caps. In many CenturyLink markets further east, Comcast is also a common competitor, with Time Warner Cable/Charter present in the Carolinas. But in many of the rural markets CenturyLink serves, there is no significant cable competitor at all.

Usage Cap Man is back.

Usage Cap Man is back, protecting high profits and preserving the opportunity of charging more for less service.

As Karl Bode from DSL Reports points out, for years CenturyLink has already been collecting a sneaky surcharge from customers labeled an “internet cost recovery fee,” supposedly defraying broadband usage and expansion costs. But in the absence of significant competition, there is no reason CenturyLink cannot charge even more, and also enjoy protection from cord-cutting. Customers who use their CenturyLink DSL service to watch shows online will face the deterrent of a usage cap. Customers subscribed to CenturyLink’s Prism TV will be able to access many of those shows on-demand without making a dent in their usage allowance.

For years, American consumers have listened to cable and phone companies promote a “robust and competitive broadband marketplace,” providing the best internet service money can buy. But in reality, there is increasing evidence of a duopoly marketplace that offers plenty of opportunities to raise prices, cap usage, and deliver a substandard internet experience.

As Stop the Cap! has argued since 2008, the only true innovations many phone and cable companies are practicing these days are clever ways to raise prices, protect their markets, and cut costs. Consumers who have experienced broadband service in parts of Asia and Europe understand the difference between giving customers a truly cutting-edge experience and one that requires customers to cut other household expenses to afford increasingly expensive internet access.

We recommend CenturyLink customers share their dislike of CenturyLink’s style of “innovation” in the form of a complaint against usage caps and usage-based billing with the FCC. It takes just a few minutes, and adding your voice to tens of thousands of Americans that have already asked the FCC to ban usage caps and usage pricing will keep this issue on the front burner. It will help strengthen our case that providers must stop treating internet usage as a limited resource that has to be rationed to customers. Wall Street believes the FCC has given a green light to usage caps and usage pricing, and the risk of attracting regulator attention by imposing higher broadband prices on consumers is pretty low. We need to change that thinking so analysts warn providers against being too greedy, out of fear the FCC will impose a regulatory crackdown.

Pre-Empting Moronic Broadband Law Means Everything to Rural North Carolina

greenlightThe community of Pinetops, N.C. has finally got 21st century gigabit broadband, but no thanks to a state legislature so beholden to Time Warner Cable, it let the cable giant write its own law to keep potential competitors away.

The passage of H129 was almost a given after Republicans regained control of both chambers of the state legislature in 2011 for the first time since 1870. The bill made it almost impossible for any of the state’s existing community-owned broadband networks to expand out of their immediate service areas. It also discouraged any other rural towns from even considering starting a public broadband network to solve pervasive broadband problems in their communities.

It was not the finest moment for many of H.129’s supporters, who had to explain to the media and constituents why the state’s largest cable operator needed protection from potential competition and more importantly, why public officials were catering to the corporate giant’s interests over that of the public.

"I wish you'd turn the camera off now because I am going to get up and leave if you don't," said Rep. Julia Howard

“I wish you’d turn the camera off now because I am going to get up and leave if you don’t,” said Rep. Julia Howard

Rep. Julia Howard (R-Davie, Iredell) found herself losing her cool when WNCN reporters in Raleigh caught up with her and confronted her with the fact her campaign coffers had been filled by the state’s largest telecom companies. She didn’t have an answer for that. Moments later, she appeared ready to flee the interview.

“I wish you’d turn the camera off now because I am going to get up and leave if you don’t,” Howard told the reporter.

Rep. Marilyn Avila was so close to Marc Trathen, then Time Warner Cable’s top-lobbyist in the state, we decided five years ago it would be more accurate to list Time Warner Cable as her sole constituent. Avila’s name appeared on the bill, but it was readily apparent Time Warner Cable drafted most of its provisions. The nearest city in Avila’s own district wanted no part of H129, and neither did many of her constituents.

The bill managed to pass the legislature and after becoming law effectively jammed up community broadband expansion in many parts of the state.

It would take the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt the legislation on the grounds it was nakedly anti-competitive and prevented broadband improvements in communities major telecom companies have ignored for years.

As a result of the FCC’s actions, the community of Pinetops now has access to gigabit broadband, five years late, thanks in part to Rep. Avila who got a $290 dinner for her efforts and was honored as a guest speaker at a cable industry function in recognition of her service… to Time Warner Cable.

Rep. Avila with Marc Trathen, Time Warner Cable's top lobbyist (right) Photo by: Bob Sepe of Action Audits

Rep. Avila with Marc Trathen, Time Warner Cable’s top lobbyist (right) Photo by: Bob Sepe of Action Audits

Greenlight, Wilson’s community-owned fiber to the home provider, switched on service in the community this spring to any of the 600 Pinetops homes that wanted it, and many did.

“We just love it!” said Brenda Harrell, the former acting town manager.

In fact, Greenlight is now delivering the best broadband in Edgecombe County, and deploying fiber to the home service was hardly a stretch for Greenlight, which was already installing fiber optics to manage an automated meter infrastructure project. The only thing keeping better broadband out of the hands of Pinetops residents was a law written by an industry that loathes competition and will stop it at all costs. Time Warner Cable didn’t bother to offer service in the community even after its bill became law and residents endured years of unreliable DSL or dialup access instead. Talk about a win-lose scenario. Time Warner Cable got to keep its comfortable cable monopoly while many families had to drive their children to businesses miles away just to borrow their Wi-Fi signal to finish homework assignments.

Faster broadband is likely to be transformative for the quiet rural community. Current town manager Lorenzo Carmon sees more than nearby fields of sweet potatoes and soybeans. With gigabit fiber and cheap local housing, Pinetops could become a bedroom community for upper income professionals now living in Greenville, a university town heavily populated by doctors, students, and high-tech knowledge economy workers. If and when they arrive, they’ll find a tech-ready community, right down to the local Piggly-Wiggly supermarket, which now has fiber fast internet service too.

pinetopsPinetops offers proof of the obscenity of bought-and-paid-for-politicians supporting corporate protectionism that harms people, harms education, harms jobs, and leaves rural communities with no clear path to the digital economy of the 21st century. Legislation like H129, which continues to be enforced in more than a few U.S. states, needs to be pre-empted nationwide or even better repealed by state legislators.

But North Carolina’s legislature still isn’t getting the message. They are outraged the FCC outsmarted Time Warner Cable and them, and are now wasting time and resources to have the FCC’s pre-emption overturned in court, evidently so that rural North Carolina can continue to tough it out with DSL indefinitely. That’s political malpractice and North Carolina voters need to show the door to any elected representative that cares more about the interests of a giant cable company than what is good for you and your community. Reps. Avila and Howard don’t have to live with 3Mbps DSL, so why should you?

“If the private sector is not providing the services, the government has to step in,” said Carmon. “The internet is just like electricity. You can’t live without it.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Suddenlink Closing Call Centers, Adds New Paper Billing Fee

Phillip Dampier July 20, 2016 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Suddenlink 1 Comment

unemployedAltice’s ongoing efforts to cut expenses and boost profits at Suddenlink will cost an unspecified number of call center workers their jobs in three states and customers will soon pay a fee to receive their cable bill in the mail.

In three separate announcements, Suddenlink has begun notifying employees at three separate offices that many will be out of their jobs by this fall as the company shutters call centers and sales offices in Greenville, N.C., St. Joseph, Mo.,  and Parkersburg, W.V.

“We are migrating call center activities to some of Suddenlink’s larger call centers in the U.S. based on call volume, and where we have the greatest number of business partners,” said a company news release.

All of Suddenlink’s sales jobs will now be in Texas, and that means sales employees in the company’s Parkersburg office were given two choices: move to Texas, or take a different job in the Parkersburg office.

St. Joseph area employees were told their jobs will be relocated to larger call centers elsewhere where Altice has spent money to improve customer care.

“We have invested in advanced customer-care technology in those locations, and based on that believe this new structure will enable us to provide a superior service experience to all of our customers,” said Suddenlink spokeswoman Lisa Anselmo.

SuddenlinkLogo1-630x140This summer Suddenlink is also continuing incremental rate hikes for customers not already subject to them. Parts of North Carolina are the latest to face a new $1 billing fee, which began July 1. New customers already pay the fee, but now current customers will also face the extra charge if they want a paper statement mailed to them.

“This fee covers the handling and postage costs associated with providing a paper statement,” said spokesman Gene Regan, senior director of corporate communications.

Notification of the new fee went out in the company’s May and June billings. To avoid the fee, customers must opt-in to electronic billing by visiting the company’s paperless billing web page and logging in to their Suddenlink account.

“What we are finding is more and more people in recent months have gone to electronic billing. A lot of customers have made the change in recent months,” Regan told The Daily Reflector. “Today so many people are online, more and more people are online, and a lot of people don’t like to deal with paper mail. They like the convenience and the opportunity to use other ways to pay.”

August

August

But many customers would prefer the option of a lower cable TV bill.

In Louisiana, Lake Area residents continue to complain about Suddenlink’s business practices, especially rates, channel options, and equipment fees. City councilwoman Luvertha August told American Press she is inundated with complaints about the cost of cable television in particular.

“All of these comments are from senior citizens. They’re on fixed incomes and they have limited budgets,” August told the newspaper. “They’re concerned with what they deem are constant changes with the Suddenlink cable company.”

Seniors have been confronted with cable TV bills that have soared from $20 two decades ago to over $80 in many cases today. This month Suddenlink completed its all-digital transition in southern Louisiana, which requires customers to attach equipment to every cable-enabled television in the home, at an additional cost.

The Leichtman Research Group, which specializes in research on broadband media and entertainment, found today’s average cable-TV bill is just under $100 after fees, surcharges, and taxes are included. Seniors who have seen no significant increase in their Social Security checks for several years are hard-pressed to pay for channels they don’t want or watch.

Last year, August attempted to involve the state’s legislative delegation to coordinate a message that consumers want more options, including a-la-carte for cable television. Her effort found almost no interest from state and federal lawmakers representing Louisiana, many who receive substantial campaign contributions from telecom companies. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) did respond, but falsely claimed cable television is a state matter and the “federal government had nothing to do with the issue.”

In fact, many members of Congress have asked the FCC to get involved in the issue and others have supported efforts to increase competition and push for mandatory a-la-carte channel choices for consumers. AT&T U-verse has a franchise in southern Louisiana and may offer some consumers a choice, but after AT&T completed its acquisition of DirecTV, many consumers report AT&T is marketing satellite television more aggressively than its own U-verse TV option.

Cable Industry Frets Over FCC’s “Artificial Competition” Requirement in Charter Merger

loophole_breakfast_of_lawyers_smallA condition imposed by the Federal Communications Commission requiring newly merged Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House to expand service into at least two million new homes already served by another cable or phone company already offering High Speed Internet is causing heartburn for smaller cable and phone companies that fear government-mandated competition in their service areas.

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler has long believed that cable operators could compete against one another for customers, driving down prices for consumers while forcing service improvements. One of the conditions approving the Charter deal could have put Wheeler’s theory to the test, but not if Charter can help it.

Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge implied that he will continue to shield fellow cable operators from unwanted competition.

“When I talked to the FCC, I said I can’t overbuild another cable company, because then I could never buy it, because you always block those,” Rutledge said at last month’s MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit. “It’s really about overbuilding telephone companies.”

It seems unlikely Charter will ever directly overbuild one of its friends in the cable industry, especially important ones like Comcast, Cox, and Cablevision. Smaller independent cable companies don’t feel as secure, which is why the trade group that represents many of them, the American Cable Association, has tried to get the FCC to back off.

charter twc bh“The overbuild condition imposed by the FCC on Charter is stunningly bad and inexplicable government policy,” ACA president Matthew Polka said in a statement. “On the one hand, the FCC found that Charter will be too big and therefore it imposed a series of conditions to ensure it does not exercise any additional market power. At the same time, the FCC, out of the blue, is forcing Charter to get even bigger.”

The FCC probably crafted the deal conditions to force Charter to compete with other cable operators, because one million of those new customer locations must be where at least 25Mbps broadband service is already available. That protects many phone companies still offering DSL as an afterthought, because most don’t offer speeds anywhere close to 25Mbps. But the FCC left several counter-intuitive loopholes in the language that Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai says lends credibility to the ACA’s argument.

“Unless Charter chooses to exclusively overbuild areas served by Comcast, which I find highly unlikely, Charter’s increased broadband market share will come at the expense of smaller competitors,” Pai wrote in comments about the proposal.

unitelNotably, Charter is allowed to buy up other small telecom companies and count up to 250,000 of their customers towards the one million new homes served requirement. If those are small rural cable companies, that means the FCC is allowing Charter to grow even larger instead of providing more competition. Charter could also choose to overbuild municipal broadband providers and co-ops, especially in areas next to existing Charter/TWC/Bright House systems. That would harm the FCC’s current interest in removing roadblocks to publicly owned broadband networks. Enthusiasm for such networks could be dampened if Charter is willing to wire the area at their own expense.

Rutledge’s announcement is sure to make life uncomfortable for a number of rural phone companies that have invested in fiber network upgrades and now face the potential of Charter taking away customers that are helping to pay off those upgrades.

An unintended consequence of the FCC’s various loopholes could place a heavy burden on independent telephone companies that invested in network upgrades for faster broadband even as wealthier and larger phone companies are protected from that competition by delivering frustratingly slow DSL.

One potential target for a Charter overbuild could be UniTel, headquartered in Unity, Maine. UniTel offers residential customers in Albion, Dixmont, Newburgh, Thorndike, Troy, and Unity broadband speeds up to 1 gigabit. Unity is located between Bangor and Portland — both served by Time Warner Cable (now Charter).

Phone companies like UniTel call the FCC’s mandate “artificial competition” that could put it and other rural independent phone companies into financial distress. UniTel has a speed edge over anything Charter plans to offer customers in the immediate future as it deploys fiber to the home service, but television is another matter. One of the benefits of being a large cable company is volume-discounted pricing for cable television networks. Smaller independent operators cannot compete when wholesale television programming discounts are calculated in, allowing larger companies to undercut smaller ones with lower pricing.

UniTel officials criticized the FCC for creating deal conditions that Charter will exploit to the detriment of improving rural broadband service.

“Rather than allow New Charter to unilaterally narrow the scope of the buildout condition to meet its own business objectives, UniTel respectfully urges that the Commission should act to narrow the scope of any buildout condition, not to meet the private business objectives of New Charter, but rather to meet the public policy objectives of universal service in rural areas,” the company argued in its filing with the FCC.

A handful of rural telecom associations generally agree with UniTel and want the FCC to retarget Charter’s buildout requirements to fixing the rural broadband problem by expanding into unserved service areas instead.

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  • James R Curry: It's also worth noting that in Maxx areas, 50/5 is the same price as 15/1 in non-Maxx areas. So without the Charter buy out, you would have eventuall...
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  • Phillip Dampier: You missed my point. Many customers prefer a lower price over faster speed. You started with 50/5Mbps. Most TWC customers choose to pay for 15/1Mbps b...
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