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Comcast/Time Warner Claim Their Rates, Walk-In Locations, and Merger Plans Are Off Limits to the Public

topsecretComcast and Time Warner Cable want New York State regulators to believe disclosing the locations of their customer care centers, revealing the prices they are charging, and describing exactly what Comcast will do to Time Warner Cable employees and customers post-merger are all protected trade secrets that cannot be disclosed to the general public.

New York Administrative Law Judge David L. Prestemon found scant evidence to support many of the claims made by the two cable companies to keep even publicly available information confidential, despite an argument that disclosure of the “trade secrets” would cause substantial competitive injury. His ruling came in response to a detailed Freedom of Information Law request from New York’s Utility Project which, like Stop the Cap!, is having major problems attempting to find any public interest benefits for the merger of the two cable companies.

The information Comcast and Time Warner Cable want to keep off-limits is vast, including the prices the companies charge for service, their licensed franchise areas, the locations of their call centers and walk-in customer care locations, and what exactly Time Warner Cable is doing with New York taxpayer money as part of the state’s rural broadband expansion program:

“In general, the redacted trade secret information and the Exhibits identified below include, without limitation, information and details concerning (i) the current operations and future business plans of the Companies, (ii) strategic information concerning their products and services, (iii) strategic investment plans, (iv) customer and service location information, and (v) performance data. This highly sensitive information has not been publicly disclosed and is not expected to be known by others. Moreover, given the highly competitive nature of the industries in which Comcast and Time Warner Cable compete, disclosure of these trade secrets would cause substantial injury to the Companies’ competitive positions– particularly since the Companies do not possess reciprocal information about their competitors.”

That’s laughable, declares the Public Utility Law Project.

Norlander (Photo: Dan Barton)

Norlander (Photo: Dan Barton)

“The ‘competition’ for TV, broadband, and phone business in New York generally boils down to a duopoly (phone company or cable ) or at best oligopoly (maybe phone and cable companies plus Dish or wireless), in which  providers are probably able to deduce who has the other customers and likely know, due to interconnection and traffic activity, what their ‘rivals’ are doing,” said Gerald Norlander, who is aggressively fighting the merger on behalf of the Public Utility Project.

Stop the Cap! wholeheartedly agrees and told regulators at the Public Service Commission’s informational meeting held last month in Buffalo that Comcast’s promised merger benefits are uniformly vague and lack specifics. Now we understand why. The public does not have a right to know what Comcast’s plans are.

“When it comes to divulging their actual performance and actual intentions regarding matters affecting the public interest, such as Internet service to schools, extension of rural broadband, service quality performance, jobs in the state, universal service, and so forth, well, that is all a ‘trade secret’ justified by nonexistent competition,” said Norlander. “Thus, the situation remains the same, there is insufficient available evidence to conclude that the putative incremental benefits of the merger outweigh its risks.”

Here is a list of what Comcast and Time Warner Cable believe is none of your business. Judge Prestemon’s rulings, announced this morning, follow. He obviously disagrees. But his decisions can be appealed by either company:

  • nyup“Details of Time Warner Cable’s current broadband deployment plans in New York. In particular, the information contains the specific details about such plans, including the franchise area, county, total miles of deployment, number of premises passed and the completion or planned completion date. Such information is kept confidential by Time Warner Cable” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information regarding the Companies’ promotional rates for service in various locations within their respective footprints – as well as competitive intelligence concerning competitor offerings. This compilation and competitive analysis are not publicly available.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “specific details of Time Warner Cable’s current build-out plans to rural areas of New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans in this area. The information also contains anticipated financial expenditures for Time Warner Cable’s build-out plans. Such information has not been publicly disclosed.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the New York schools and libraries served by Time Warner Cable, as well as information concerning Comcast’s future business plans to serve such entities. This information is kept confidential by Time Warner Cable and has not been disclosed to the public.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the number of Comcast’s “Internet Essentials” customers in New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans for the “Internet Essentials” program.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “the Companies’ detailed customer and service quality data.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the Companies’ current operations and staffing levels in New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans concerning post-merger operations and employee levels.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • Comcast-Logo“information setting forth the number of subscribers to Time Warner Cable’s “Everyday Low Price” broadband service.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • Comcast’s handling of customer requests for an unlisted service, and how Comcast handles customer inquiries related to this subject matter.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “Comcast’s future business plans with respect to particular subject matters.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information and performance statistics relating to the Companies’ call centers in New York and the Northeast.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Time Warner Cable’s operations as they relate to projects funded by federal or state [energy efficiency or distributed energy resource] programs.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Comcast’s operations and future business plans relating to avoidance of truck rolls and vehicle fleets.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information relating to the number of Wi-Fi hotspots that Time Warner Cable has deployed in New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans in this area.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Comcast’s handling of cyber-security issues associated with its Xfinity Home service.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the Companies’ operations and customers in relation to cellular backhaul service.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Time Warner Cable’s projects funded by NYSERDA” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “projects developed in conjunction with New York State” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
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Free Speed Upgrades, 3000th Customer for North Carolina’s Community-Owned Fibrant

fibrant speedSalisbury’s community-owned fiber network has tripled its subscriber base in three years, signing up its 3,000th customer in the community of 33,000 and is already turning a profit.

Fibrant, despite facing intense opposition from corporate-backed, conservative special interest groups with financial ties to its competitors and a state law passed at the behest of Time Warner Cable that limits its future growth opportunities, has proven very successful delivering improved Internet access to a community that received the back of Time Warner’s hand when it requested service upgrades.

Salisbury invested $33 million to install more than 250 miles of fiber in and around the community and began hooking up customers to its all-fiber network in late 2010. By the following summer, 1,200 customers signed up. Today, Fibrant serves more than 3,000 homes in the community.

WCNC-TV in Charlotte reports Fibrant is likely to break even this year after losing $4.1 million the year before — a loss Fibrant attributes to normal start-up costs faced by almost every new business.

Dale Gibson has been thrilled to be a Fibrant customer since the beginning and is even happier now that Fibrant offers gigabit speeds.

“Generally, when an Internet service provider gives a speed, it represents bandwidth, or a theoretical ‘best effort’ speed, not the ‘throughput,’ or actual speed,” Gibson told the Salisbury Post. “My speed tests are consistently above 900Mbps.”

In 2013, Fibrant raised the speed of its entry-level broadband package to 20/20Mbps for no extra charge. In the coming week, Fibrant’s basic broadband customers will be getting another free upgrade to 50/50Mbps.

Customers who want even faster speeds are also getting them for no extra charge:

  • 30/30Mbps customers will see their speed raised to 75/75Mbps;
  • 50/50Mbps customers get a free speed increase to 100/100Mbps;
  • 100/100Mbps customers get the best upgrade of all: 1,000/1,000Mbps service at no extra cost.

Fibrant’s competitions cannot come close. AT&T U-verse still tops out at around 24Mbps in this part of North Carolina and caps its customers to 250GB of usage a month. Time Warner Cable’s best speed remains 50/5Mbps at a price higher than what Fibrant charges for 100/100Mbps.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee, but mostly AT&T and Comcast)

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee, but mostly AT&T and Comcast)

Fibrant has also improved its video packages, with new features like a whole house DVR, more channels, and more HD. Customers who don’t want networks shoveled at them can buy a basic cable TV package from Fibrant for $37 a month. Those who want more can upgrade to several different packages offering a maximum of over 450 TV channels and 50 music channels.

Customers in nearby communities who want the kind of competition Fibrant delivers will have to wait a long time to get it. Time Warner Cable, with the support of the Republican state legislature, successfully introduced and eventually passed the cable company-drafted measure to essentially ban community broadband in the state. FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler promised to consider eliminating these state corporate protectionism laws, provoking a hostile response in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican with heavy backing from telecommunications giants AT&T and Comcast, introduced a measure for the benefit of large phone and cable companies that would override any effort by the FCC to increase competition by eliminating anti-competitive restrictions on public broadband.

“Blackburn’s positions line up very well with the cable and telephone companies that give a lot of money to her campaigns,” said Christopher Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “In this case, Blackburn is doing what it takes to benefit the cable and telephone companies rather than the United States, which needs more choices, faster speeds, and lower prices. The argument that Blackburn puts forth [for passage of her measure] is not coherent. It’s just politics.”

Republicans in the House responded anyway, passing her measure 223-200. Just two Democrats voted in favor. The bill is not expected to pass the Senate and would almost certainly face a presidential veto.

New York Democrat Jose Serrano relished the ideological irony of House Republicans forced to twist their positions to accommodate AT&T.

“Whatever happened to localism or local control?,” asked Serrano. “This amendment means the federal government will tell every local citizen, mayor, and county council member that they may not act in their own best interests. Any such amendment is an attack on the rights of individual citizens speaking through their local leaders to determine if their broadband needs are being met.”

As community-owned providers in North Carolina found out, Big Telecom money often speaks louder than ideological consistency.

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New York Public Service Commission Announces Delay in Comcast/TWC Merger Consideration

comcast twcAs more than 2,300 New Yorkers express fierce opposition to the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the New York Public Service Commission has announced a delay in the review of the proposal until October.

The PSC now expects to consider the matter at a meeting to be held October 2. The PSC is also extending the period for the public to comment on the proposed merger.

Your comments are now due no later than Aug. 8, with reply comments from various parties due no later than Aug. 25.

Your input is vital, so please take a few moments to send an e-mail to the PSC with your views.

Here’s an example of one of the letters we are seeing:

Via e-mail: [email protected]
Honorable Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary
New York State Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223

Re: 14-M-0183 – Joint Petition of Time Warner Cable and Comcast for Approval of a Holding Company Level Transfer of Control

Dear Secretary Burgess:

As a resident of this state, who is a customer of Time Warner Cable, I am writing to express my staunch opposition to the above-referenced joint petition. This application should be denied outright, simply put, because the merger of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, and Time Warner Cable, the nation’s second largest company, would be contrary to the interest of consumers in the State of New York, as well as antitrust laws.

Though executives of both applicants are adamant that this proposed merger would benefit consumers and enhance competition, the ominous, far-reaching implications that will undoubtedly follow render these claims, among others, implausible. That is, if this merger were to take place, a virtual monopoly would be created, giving Comcast unprecedented control over cable and broadband internet networks at the expense of not only consumers, who would receive nothing but fewer choices at higher prices, but also rival businesses, whose viability would certainly be stifled. The proposed merger would likewise pose a threat to net neutrality.

Given the abysmal record of Comcast, which includes being fined for failing to comply with the terms and conditions of its previous and similarly controversial merger with NBC Universal, as well as its political clout, it is clear that the approval of this joint petition would both be inconsistent with the mission of this Commission, as as well as the interest of consumers in this state. It should, accordingly, be denied in its entirety.

Respectfully submitted,
Patrick A. Berry
Volunteer, Common Cause New York

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I Love You Comcast! An Amazing 180 for Former Antitrust Attorney David Balto

Phillip "I got whiplash just watching" Dampier

Phillip “I got whiplash just watching” Dampier

A former policy director at the Federal Trade Commission and antitrust attorney at the U.S. Justice Department has managed an impressive 180 in just a few short months regarding the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

In February, David Balto told TheDeal the proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable “is a bad deal for consumers.” Today, Mr. Balto’s panoply of guest editorials, media appearances and columns — suddenly in favor of the merger — are turning up in the New York Times, the Orlando Sentinel, Marketplace, WNYC Radio, and elsewhere.

Balto’s arguments are based on “research” which, in toto, appears to have been limited to thumbing through Comcast’s press releases and merger presentation. That was enough:

First, this deal should create benefits for Time Warner customers, who will gain a significantly faster Internet and more advanced television service.

Second, competition is increasing in both the pay-TV and broadband businesses. Ninety-eight percent of viewers have a choice of three or more multichannel services, plus growing options online. Yahoo just announced a new video service, joining Netflix, Amazon and YouTube. In the last five years, cable has lost about seven million customers, satellite has gained nearly two million, and the telecommunications companies have gained six million.

Third, Comcast’s post-merger share of broadband falls closer to 20 percent when including LTE wireless and satellite providers. Over all, 97 percent of households have at least two competing fixed broadband providers — three or more if mobile wireless is included.

We used to wonder why government officials and regulators were so easily fooled by the corporate government relations people sent into their offices armed with press releases, talking points, cupcakes, and empty promises. We understand everyone isn’t a Big Telecom expert, but too often regulators’ reflexive acceptance of whatever companies bring to their table threatens to win them rube-status. We’d like to think Mr. Balto isn’t Comcast’s sucker, and we certainly hope there are no unspoken incentives on the table in return for his recent, very sudden conversion to celebrate all-things Comcast. Maybe he’s simply uninformed.

Balto

Balto

Although our regular readers — nearly all consumers and customers — are well-equipped to debunk Mr. Balto’s arguments, for the benefit of visitors, here is our own research.

First, Comcast’s Internet service is not faster than Time Warner Cable. Mr. Balto needs to spend some time away from Comcast’s merger info-pack and do some real research. He’ll find Time Warner Cable embarked on a massive upgrade program called TWC Maxx that is more than tripling broadband speeds for customers at no extra charge. Those speeds are faster than what Comcast offers the average residential customer, and come much cheaper as well. Oh, and TWC has no compulsory usage limits and overlimit penalties. Comcast’s David Cohen predicts every Comcast customer will face both within five years.

Second, that “advanced TV platform” Balto raves about requires a $99 installation fee… for an X1 set-top box. It also means equipment must be attached to every television in the house, because Comcast encrypts everything. At a time when customers want to pay for fewer channels, Comcast wants to shovel even more unwanted programming and boxes at customers. Older Americans who want their Turner Classic Movies have another nasty surprise. They will need to buy Comcast’s super deluxe cable TV package to get that network, at a cost exceeding $80 a month just for television. Ask Time Warner customers what they want, and they’ll tell you they’d prefer old and decrepit over an even higher cable TV bill Comcast has already committed to deliver.

Has competition truly increased? Not in the eyes of most Americans who at best face a duopoly and annual rate hikes well in excess of inflation. Even worse, for most consumers there is only one choice for 21st century High Speed Internet service – the cable company. Mr. Balto conveniently ignores the fact cable’s primary competitor is still DSL which is simply not available at speeds of 30+Mbps for most consumers. In some areas, like suburban Rochester, N.Y., the best the local phone company can deliver some neighborhoods like ours is 3.1Mbps. That isn’t competition. Verizon and AT&T have both stopped expanding DSL. Verizon has ended FiOS expansion and AT&T’s U-verse still maxes out at around 24Mbps for most customers. AT&T’s promised fiber upgrades have proven to be more illusory than reality, available primarily in a handful of multi-dwelling units and new housing developments. In rural areas, both major phone companies are petitioning to do away with landline service and DSL altogether.

Raise your hands if you want Comcast’s “benefits.” In New York, out of 2,300 comments before the PSC, we can’t find a single one clamoring for Comcast’s takeover. The public has spoken.

Cable "competition" in Minneapolis

Cable “competition” in Minneapolis. Charter and Comcast have also teamed up to trade cable territories as part of the Time Warner Cable merger package deal.

Satellite television’s days of providing the cable industry with robust competition have long since peaked. AT&T is seeking to further reduce that competition by purchasing DirecTV, not because it believes in satellite television, but because it wants the benefits of DirecTV’s lucrative volume discounts.

Any antitrust attorney worth his salt should be well aware of what kind of impact volume discounting can have on restraining and discouraging competition. Comcast’s deal for Time Warner will let it acquire programming at a substantial discount (one they have already said won’t be passed on to customers) so significant that any would-be competitors would be in immediate financial peril trying to compete on price.

Frontier Communications learned that lesson when it acquired a handful of Verizon FiOS franchises in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest. After losing Verizon’s volume discounts, Frontier was so alarmed by the wholesale renewal rates it received, it let loose its telemarketing force to convince customers fiber was no good for television and they should instead switch to a satellite provider they partnered with. It’s telling when a company is willing to forfeit revenue in favor of a third party marketing agreement with an outside company.

So what does this mean for a potential start-up looking to get into the business? Since programming is now a commodity, most customers buy on price. The best triple-play deals will go to the biggest national players with volume discounts – all cable operators that have long agreed never to compete directly with each other.

In the Orlando Sentinel, Mr. Balto seemed almost relieved when he concluded Comcast and Time Warner don’t compete head-to-head, somehow easing any antitrust concerns. It is precisely that fact why this deal must never be approved. Comcast has been free to compete anywhere Time Warner provides service, but has never done so. Letting Comcast, which has even worse approval ratings than Time Warner, become the only choice for cable broadband is hardly in the public interest and does nothing for competition. Instead, it only further consolidates the marketplace into a handful of giant companies that can raise prices and cap usage without restraint.

If Mr. Balto truly believes AT&T and Verizon will ride to the rescue with robust wireless broadband competition, his credibility is in peril. Those two companies, among others, are completely incapable of meeting the growing broadband demands (20-50GB) of the home user. With punishing high prices and staggeringly low usage caps, providers are both controlling demand and profiting handsomely from rationing service at the same time. Why change that?

No 3G/4G network under current ordinary traffic loads can honestly deliver a better online experience than DSL, and customers who attempt to replace their home broadband connection in favor of wireless will likely receive a punishing bill for the attempt at the end of the month. The only players who want to count mobile broadband as a serious competitor in the home broadband market are the cable and phone companies desperately looking for a defense against charges they have a broadband monopoly or are part of a comfortable duopoly.

One last point, while Mr. Balto seems impressed that Comcast would continue to voluntarily abide by the Net Neutrality policies he personally opposes, he conveniently omits the fact Comcast was the country’s biggest violator of Net Neutrality when it speed limited peer-to-peer traffic, successfully sued the government over Net Neutrality after it was fined by the FCC for the aforementioned violation, and only agreed to temporarily observe Net Neutrality as part of its colossal merger deal with NBCUniversal. It’s akin to a mugger promising to never commit another crime after being caught red-handed stealing. A commitment like that might be good enough for Mr. Balto, but it isn’t for us.

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Not Only Was Comcast’s Customer Retentions Guy Annoying, He Was Also Factually Wrong

astound-broadband-logoNearly two million people have listened to the Comcast customer service call from hell since it went viral earlier this week.

Comcast quickly decided it was best to apologize:

We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and Ms. Belmont and are contacting them to personally apologize. The way in which our representative communicated with them is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives. We are investigating this situation and will take quick action. While the overwhelming majority of our employees work very hard to do the right thing every day, we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with the utmost respect.

csrSetting aside all that, we decided to investigate why Mr. Block was willing to subject himself to 18 minutes of phone hell to cancel his service.

At one point, we learn he is switching to Astound, a provider of cable TV, broadband internet, and telephone services on the West Coast, serving over 325,000 residential and business customers within communities in the San Francisco Bay area. Astound is an overbuilder, which means it is one of those rare instances where Comcast faces head to head competition with a company that can deliver more than DSL.

Although Comcast’s rep swore Comcast had the fastest Internet speeds (it doesn’t) and can deliver maximum savings (also wrong), it turns out Astound offers both cheaper and faster Internet service. We’d probably switch too, although we wish Astound would dump its 1TB monthly usage cap. How many customers even come close to that isn’t known, but it is likely under 1%, which makes us wonder why they bother with a cap at all?

We collected pricing information from both Astound and Comcast’s websites and here is what we found:

Stop the Cap! will include this incident in our formal filings with the FCC and New York State Public Service Commission in opposition to the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast. Comcast customers tell us Mr. Block’s experiences, although extreme, are not uncommon when dealing with Comcast’s customer retention department.

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Friday is the Deadline for Net Neutrality Comments With the FCC; Here’s How to Get Yours Submitted

netneutralityFriday is the last day to submit your views on Net Neutrality with the Federal Communications Commission. Although there may be some future opportunities to comment, it’s important to make your voice heard with the FCC today. Almost 650,000 Americans have done so to date, and we need to see this number rise even higher to combat the influence and power of Big Telecom companies looking to turn the Internet into a corporate toll booth.

If you recall, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is promoting a scheme where big ISPs like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast can divide up the Internet and introduce toll lanes allowing preferred paid traffic to travel on the Internet at faster speeds, usually at the expense of unpaid traffic that will get relegated to an Internet slow lane. It’s pay to play, and customers of these ISPs are already getting a preview of the new corporate road map for the net. Netflix viewers on ISPs that don’t have a paid agreement to handle video traffic suffer from rebuffering and lower quality video. But ISPs collecting tolls from Netflix don’t subject their customers to a degraded online video experience. Of course, before ISPs realized they could make money selling fast lanes, Netflix worked fine on virtually all of these providers.

Wheeler’s proposal would extend the two-tiered Internet to other websites and service providers, allowing big telecom companies to hand-pick winners and losers and discriminate in favor of their own Internet traffic. Comcast does that today with online video on certain game consoles. If that video comes from Comcast, it doesn’t count against any usage caps. If it doesn’t, it could get rough sticking to Comcast’s arbitrary usage allowance.

The FCC is in way over its head, unaware of the creative ways ISPs can find loopholes large enough to drive through any well-intentioned consumer protections. There is only once certain way to keep ISPs honest — reclassify them as what they should have been all along – a telecommunications service subject to common carrier rules. That would guarantee ISPs could not meddle with your Internet service for financial gain, could not artificially slow down “non-preferred” traffic to make room for paid traffic, and would guarantee that Internet applications of the future will succeed or fail on their merits, not on how much money they are willing to spend.

Since the FCC website is jammed today, we recommend e-mailing the Commission by this Friday at: [email protected]

Our friends at Free Press have published some sample comments they are getting, which may help you formulate yours. Here is ours as well:

Dear Chairman Wheeler,

Although we believe your intentions are good, your proposed Net Neutrality rules simply do not afford enough protection to preserve a free and open Internet. Troubling signs are already clear as providers test how much they can get away with meddling with Internet traffic. The wireless experience is replete with examples of selective speed throttling, usage caps, and traffic discrimination that allows some content to escape the usage meter and throttle while competitors cannot.

The Internet is a transformative experience for many Americans because for the first time in a long time, entrepreneurs can build online businesses that are judged on their merit, not on how much money they have to spend to achieve and maintain prominence. Anything that allows an ISP to collect additional funds for a “preferred” traffic lane will come at the detriment of others who have to share the same broadband pipe. This is especially evident in the wireless world, which escaped even the light touch regulatory framework of your predecessor. Providers promptly began creating new schemes to further monetize growing data traffic, bandwidth shortage or not. Almost none of these changes really benefit customers — they are simply new revenue-making schemes.

A foreshadowing of what is likely to happen under your proposal is also apparent with Comcast and Netflix. For several years subscribers had no trouble accessing online video. But when the issue of traffic compensation was reintroduced by Internet Service Providers, the upgrades to manage natural Internet growth largely stopped and the Netflix viewing experience on these ISPs deteriorated. Verizon, AT&T and Comcast all argue that a paid traffic deal would adequately compensate them to enhance the viewing experience customers already pay good money to receive with or without a paid peering arrangement with Netflix.

Money drives these debates. If an ISP properly managed their broadband infrastructure, there would be no incentive for any company to contract for a better online experience on a so-called “fast lane” because existing service would perform more than adequately. When a company cuts back on those upgrades, a market for paid prioritization appears. Customers will ultimately pay the price, primarily to ISPs that already enjoy an enormous margin selling broadband service at inflated prices.

A rising tide floats all boats, so your focus should not be as short-sighted as allowing ISPs to divide up the limited broadband highway. The FCC should instead focus on setting the conditions to hasten new competition and force existing providers to upgrade and maintain their networks for the benefit of all subscribers and content producers. The FCC must also move swiftly to cancel state bans on community broadband networks, eliminate regulations that deter broadband start-ups, and maintain enough oversight to guarantee a level playing field on which all can compete.

There is only one way to effectively accomplish all that. Reclassify broadband service the way it should have been classified all along: as a telecommunications service subject to common carrier regulations. Canada has been very successful requiring ISPs to open their last mile networks to competitors, which have allowed people to avoid compulsory usage caps. Customers have a choice of multiple providers from their local phone or cable company, giving rise to much-needed competition.

With strong Net Neutrality, consumers can reach the websites they want without interference. Ignore nonsense suggesting Net Neutrality is a government takeover or censors the Internet — two provably false assertions. In fact, Net Neutrality is the opposite.

I urge you to move with all speed towards reclassification, if only to prevent the inevitable legal challenges to any future policies built on the shakier ground of the current framework, which has not held up well under court scrutiny. I hope the voices of more than a half-million Americans contacting you on this issue will be more than enough to overcome industry objections. We are not asking for 1950s-style telephone regulations. We just want a legally affirmed platform that allows the Internet of today to continue being successful tomorrow.

Yours very truly,

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Here’s How to Tell the N.Y. Public Service Commission to Reject the Comcast/TWC Merger

ny pscThe New York Public Service Commission needs to hear from you about the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. Unlike some of the southern and midwestern states that have utility commissions that basically rubber stamp the agenda of Big Telecom companies, New York’s PSC has a reputation for being tougher and more customer-oriented. But the PSC cannot act in your interest if you don’t share your views.

It is incredibly easy to file your own comments with the PSC. Nearly 2,300 New Yorkers have done so thus far, but we need to make sure they understand our serious objections to Comcast’s usage caps, its expensive service, and customer abuse.

We have provided a sample letter below. We hope you will write your own, but offer ours as a guide that includes some of our biggest concerns. We may prepare another one soon outlining other concerns.

How to file your comment:

  • E-Mail: [email protected]
  • Mail: Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary, Public Service Commission, Three Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York 12223-1350.
  • Phone: 1-800-335-2120 (press “1″ to leave a recorded comment)

All comments should refer to “Case 14-M-0183, Petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc.”

Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess
Secretary
Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, New York 12223-1350

Re: Case 14-M-0183, Petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc.

Dear Ms. Burgess,

I am writing to ask the Public Service Commission to reject the merger proposal of Comcast and Time Warner Cable on the ground the companies have failed to show such a merger would be in the best interests of New York and its residents.

Although Time Warner Cable has never been a prize, Comcast’s reputation for bad service, high prices, rationed Internet access, and customer abuse is well documented in just about every community the company serves. Comcast has repeatedly been voted the “Worst Company in America” by Consumer Union’s Consumerist.com. The American Consumer Satisfaction Index has documented so many complaints about Comcast, it declared it the worst company it has ever scored, performing even worse than the Internal Revenue Service. For more than three years running, Harris Interactive has called Comcast one of the least reputable companies in America.

That alone should be enough to reject this merger out of hand. Permitting it would reward this company’s appalling behavior towards its own customers and expose New Yorkers to an even bigger monopoly problem than we deal with now. Unless you live in a Verizon FiOS service area, cable is your only real choice for true broadband speeds. DSL is rapidly losing favor and market share and Verizon has shown no interest in expanding it.

Comcast already uses its market power to its advantage by raising prices… a lot. Time Warner Cable charges less for its services than Comcast does.

For example, Time Warner Cable offers a standard television service package that provides all the popular cable networks for one price. Comcast offers a similar package but stripped out cable networks including Cloo, CNBC World, Al Jazeera America, Discovery Fit & Health, Disney XD, DIY, a range of ESPN’s extra networks, EWTN, Fine Living, Fox Business News, Great American Country, IFC, Investigation Discovery, Lifetime Real Women, Military Channel, MLB, most of MTV’s extra networks, NBA, National Geographic Channel, NFL Network, NHL Network, most of Nickelodeon’s extra networks, OWN, Oxygen, Sundance, Turner Classic Movies, The Science Channel, and VH1′s extra networks.

Customers who want these networks, like Turner Classic Movies, National Geographic, and IFC will have to pay a stunning price of up to $86 a month — just for television. Many of these networks are especially popular with fixed income older residents, who will now face an even larger cable TV bill.

Comcast promotes the fact its Internet speeds are faster than Time Warner Cable, but that is not true as Time Warner Maxx upgrades arrive. Comcast Internet service costs more, is slower, and increasingly usage-capped. Time Warner Cable has made clear it will not limit customers’ Internet usage. Comcast has made clear it will, predicting usage limits/usage-based pricing will be imposed on customers across its entire footprint within five years. That is no improvement for New York. That is literally a downgrade. We can do better in New York with Time Warner Cable.

In fact, the company has promised extremely little to New York after winning your approval to merge. Comcast is so arrogant, it already announced it will not share any cost savings with customers, promising even higher cable bills for New York with the merger. Even its touted X1 set top system will cost New Yorkers — it comes with a steep installation price of almost $100. Again, how does this serve the public interest?

Comcast’s public service programs are also woefully inadequate. Its Internet Essentials is a bureaucratic nightmare that only provides temporary discounts to a small percentage of customers (with school age children) who need an affordable Internet option. I guess childless couples and the elderly poor don’t matter. Time Warner Cable offers a $14.99 discount program available to anyone who wants it, no paperwork or waiting periods required.

It is my understanding Comcast must prove this merger is in the public interest to win your approval. It has utterly failed to do so, and I expect my state’s Public Service Commission to reject this merger. This is one deal that can never be modified sufficiently to make it acceptable for people like myself. You are doing us no favors trying to negotiate for an Internet discount program or expanding Comcast’s service area by a small amount in rural upstate New York. The end result is that millions of New Yorkers will get worse service than we get today, at a higher price, with little/no competition on the horizon.

This is a rare opportunity for our state, which lost most of its oversight powers over the cable industry years ago. Cable operators have abused their deregulated status and have raised prices, provided dreadful customer service, and have kept competition away. Letting Comcast into New York from Buffalo to the Bronx will only encourage more abuse, wreaking havoc on New York’s growing digital economy. Let’s send a clear message to Comcast New York isn’t willing to put our broadband future in the hands of “the worst company in America.” Let’s make it clear enough is enough.

Sincerely,

 

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Sprint Testing New Shared Data Plans, More Aggressively Priced Framily Plans to Stay Relevant

Waiting for an upgrade... Sprint Spark is the latest and fastest, but it's only in 24 cities.

Waiting for an upgrade… Sprint Spark is the latest and fastest, but it’s only in 24 cities.

Sprint may be feeling the music is about to stop and it doesn’t have a chair at the table.

While AT&T and Verizon Wireless divide up the premium market and T-Mobile goes for the aggressive price championship, Sprint is muddling along with its glacially paced upgrade to 4G LTE and a barely usable 3G experience that has a lot of customers pondering a switch. This spring Sprint lost 364,000 pre-paid and 231,000 valuable postpaid customers.

CNET reports Sprint is now seeking to follow other carriers with a shared family data plan and better pricing on both its Framily and individual plans.

Sprint may be America’s least exciting wireless carrier. While T-Mobile’s CEO gets into hot water with bombastic rhetoric about Verizon and AT&T, he largely ignores Sprint. To more than a few in the wireless industry, Sprint seems to be just plodding along.

“I will be collecting Social Security before Sprint upgrades to 4G around here,” writes suburban Sacramento resident Danny Chiang. “You just keep holding out for something better from Sprint just around the corner, but they never seem to actually get there.”

Chiang and others have endured a heavily congested 3G network while Sprint initially focused on rural and small market 4G network upgrades — hardly intuitive for loyal Sprint customers in urban areas. Today, all Sprint can claim is that it has America’s “newest network.”

Some investment analysts believe Sprint is being more conservative about spending as it navigates towards a potential merger with T-Mobile. Its Japanese owners — Softbank, have argued a combined Sprint and T-Mobile is the only way America’s third and fourth largest carriers can possibly hope to compete toe to toe with Verizon and AT&T.

Sprint’s latest network innovation — Spark — which combines spectrum in three different frequency bands to deliver a larger data pipe, is only available in two dozen cities. Spark would be a natural showcase for Sprint’s enormous spectrum holdings. Sprint Spark combines 4G FDD-LTE at 800MHz and 1.9GHz and TDD-LTE at Clearwire’s old WiMAX 2.5GHz spectrum.

But network upgrades do no good if your customers are headed out the door to the competition. While Sprint continues to upgrade its network, it is testing a variety of new plans in different cities for a possible wider release later this year.

Shared/Family Mobile Data Plan Trials — San Diego, Portland, Ore. and Las Vegas

Sprint believes its Framily Plan might be too expensive.

Sprint believes its Framily Plan might be too expensive.

Data Allowance Options

  • 1GB – $20
  • 2GB – $30
  • 4GB – $40
  • 6GB – $50
  • 10GB – $60
  • 20GB – $100
  • 30GB – $130
  • 40GB – $150
  • 60GB – $225
  • No unlimited shared data option
  • Unlimited Talk/Text Phone Access Charge (required charge per phone): $25 for 1-10GB data plans, $15 for 20+GB data plans
  • Annual Device Upgrade included at no extra charge for all customers with 20+GB shared data plans (San Diego and Portland only)
  • Annual Device Upgrade Option: $5/month (Las Vegas only)

CNET points out Sprint’s plans are a better deal for heavy data users. The $20 plan for 1GB, for instance, is only $5 cheaper than a comparable AT&T plan. But the 30GB plan is $75 cheaper than AT&T’s $225 version.

Discounted Framily Plan Trials – Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Providence, R.I.

  • Starting price reduced $10 to $45/month. Add five people to your “framily” and the price drops to $25/month (two fewer people now required to get the largest discount).
  • Selecting the $20 unlimited data option automatically enrolls you in an annual upgrade plan (Buffalo and Philadelphia only).
  • Customers can choose to pay $5 extra a month for an annual upgrade option (Providence only).

New Bring Your Own Device Option for Individual Plan Trials — Chicago, Minneapolis, and West Michigan

  • Customers paying full price for a smartphone, those paying in monthly installments,  or who bring their own device to Sprint are eligible for a $50 unlimited plan or a $40 for 3GB of data per month plan. Unlimited Framily data plans usually cost $75 a month.
  • Unlimited data customers in Chicago and Minneapolis are automatically eligible for annual upgrades.
  • West Michigan customers will have to pay a $5 fee each month for their annual upgrade.
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Antitrust Us: Is ComVerizablAsT&TWCDirecTV Really Best for American Broadband?

Bad enough

Bad enough

A big company needs a big name, and so what if you can’t say it out loud, so long as your check reaches the cable cartel on time to avoid those inconvenient late fees.

The shock waves of the $45 billion dollar proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable (not to mention AT&T and DirecTV) have reached as far as Great Britain where appalled editorial writers in the British press are pondering whether Washington has lost its mind or just its integrity… or a combination of both, by actually contemplating the unthinkable rebirth of the American Robber Baron.

Only instead of railroads powering America’s early 20th century economy, today its broadband. Overseas, broadband is plentiful, fast, and cheap. Back home, cable operators are hard at work in a comfortable monopoly/duopoly working on excuses to justify Internet rationing with usage caps, outrageous equipment rental fees, rate hikes, and usage billing for a product about as cheap to offer as a phone call on one of those unlimited calling plans you probably already have.

From The Economist:

“On “OUTLAW”, a drama that aired on NBC, a Supreme Court justice leaves the bench to join a law firm. In real life he might have begun working for Comcast, America’s largest cable company, which owns NBC. Many of Washington’s top brass are on Comcast’s payroll, including Margaret Attwell Baker, a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), America’s telecoms regulator, who in government had helped approve Comcast’s takeover of NBCUniversal in 2011. Even Barack Obama has Comcast ties. “I have been here so much, the only thing I haven’t done in this house is have seder dinner,” he quipped at a fundraiser hosted last year at the home of David Cohen, Comcast’s chief lobbyist.

“It helps to have influential friends, especially if you are seeking to expand your grip on America’s pay-TV and broadband markets.

“[...] The deal would create a Goliath far more fearsome than the latest ride at the Universal Studios theme park (also Comcast-owned). Comcast has said it would forfeit 3m subscribers, but even with that concession the combination of the two firms would have around 30m—more than 30% of all TV subscribers and around 33% of broadband customers. In the cable market alone (ie, not counting suppliers of satellite services such as DirecTV), Comcast has as much as 55% of all TV and broadband subscribers.

Worse

Worse

“Comcast will argue that its share of customers in any individual market is not increasing. That is true only because cable companies decided years ago not to compete head-to-head, and divided the country among themselves. More than three-quarters of households have no choice other than their local cable monopoly for high-speed, high-capacity internet.

“For consumers the deal would mean the union of two companies that are already reviled for their poor customer service and high prices. Greater size will fix neither problem. Mr Cohen has said, “We’re certainly not promising that customer bills are going to go down or even that they’re going to increase less rapidly.” Between 1995 and 2012 the average price of a cable subscription increased at a compound annual rate of more than 6%.”

Before blaming it all on President Obama’s close relationship with Comcast’s top executives, it was the Republicans in Washington that set this tragic monopolistic farce into motion. Michael Powell, President George W. Bush’s idea of the best man in America to protect the public interest at the FCC, represented the American people about as well as ‘Heckuva Job Brownie.’ Instead of promoting competition, Powell used his time to beef-up his résumé for a very cushy post-government job heading America’s top cable lobby – the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. Attwell-Baker was even more shameless, departing the FCC for her sweet new executive digs at Comcast just a short time after enthusiastically voting in favor of its NBCUniversal merger deal.

snakePowell and others made certain that Internet Service Providers would not be classified as “common carriers,” which would require them to rent their broadband pipes at a reasonable wholesale rate to competitors. The industry and their well-compensated friends in the House and Senate argued such a status would destroy investment in broadband expansion and innovation. Instead it destroyed the family budget as prices for mediocre service in uncompetitive markets soared. Today, consumers in common carrier countries including France and Britain pay a fraction of what Americans do for Internet access, and get faster speeds as well.

Letting Comcast grow even larger, The Economist argues, will allow one company to dominate not just your Internet experience, but also the content consumers access and at what speed.

“There is plenty for Mr Obama and Mr Cohen to discuss at their next dinner,” concludes the magazine. “But better yet, officials could keep their distance from Comcast, and reject a merger that would reduce competition, provide no benefit to consumers and sap the incentive to innovate.”

Considering the enormous sums of money Comcast has shown a willingness to spend on winning over supporters for its business agenda, restraint on the part of Washington will need voter vigilance, much the same way calling out non-profits who gush over Comcast while quietly cashing their contribution checks must also be fully exposed to regulators who will ultimately decide the fate of the merger.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Antitrust Us.mp4

Antitrust Us: Cartoonist Mark Fiore takes on the corporate idea that merging cable companies together creates more competition. (1:50)

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Los Angeles Has Accumulated $35 Million in Cable Franchise Fees It Has No Idea How to Spend

35-LACityView

Channel 35 is Los Angeles’ Government Access station

Los Angeles cable subscribers are paying $30-50 a year in extra franchise fees the city government has no idea what to do with, allowing a bank account dedicated to housing the unspent funds to reach $35 million and counting.

A new audit by the Office of the City Controller found no misappropriation or ethical lapses by the city government, but it did criticize the lack of long-term planning regarding how franchise revenue should be used, as well as lax auditing of expenses that were paid from the fund. Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin added the city’s lack of consistent auditing of the five major cable operators servicing greater Los Angeles may be allowing cable operators to charge customers franchise fees the companies are keeping for themselves. A 2006 law passed at the behest of Verizon and AT&T allowing statewide video franchise agreements in California isn’t helping either.

For decades, communities have been able to demand up to a 5% franchise fee from cable and phone companies offering video services in their areas in return for access to public rights-of-way and other public property. Most cities, including Los Angeles, have requested the maximum allowed – 5% of the provider’s gross annual revenue earned within the city. Cable operators retaliated by recouping the franchise fee by billing cable customers for it on a separate line on monthly cable bills.

In Los Angeles, 60% of all franchise fees ($31 million) paid are transferred to the city’s all-purpose General Fund, used for all types of city expenses. The remaining 40 percent ($12.4 million) is supposed to be earmarked for a Telecommunications Fund, but the city often raids that account as well. Time Warner Cable subscribers account for 85% of Los Angeles’ cable franchise revenue, AT&T U-verse contributes another 10% with other operators paying considerably less. Last year, Charter Cable wrote a check for less than $5,000, primarily because only a tiny part of the city of Los Angeles is served by Charter today.

So where is the excess money still in the account coming from?

fund balance

The Unintended Consequences of Statewide Video Franchising

Eight years ago, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 2987:  the “Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act of 2006” (DIVCA). In reality, DIVCA was just another statewide video franchise bill heavily pushed by the state’s dominant phone companies — AT&T and Verizon — to let them begin offering video services without having to sign franchise agreements with thousands of local governments across the state.

verizon attAT&T and Verizon sold the legislation to the public as a red-tape cutter to bring Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse to millions of Californians without unnecessary bureaucratic delay.

But lobbyists from both phone companies, as well as several cable companies, were successful in inserting their own amendments into the law that undercut their arguments for passing the legislation:

  • As local franchise agreements expired, companies took their franchise renewal business direct to the state, cutting off local oversight. Communities could no longer require operators to expand into rural areas or impose fines for sub-standard service;
  • Cable companies won the right to toss Public, Educational, and Government Access (PEG) channels out of their buildings. Many communities assigned responsibility for housing and operating PEG channels as part of their franchise agreement. DIVCA rendered those agreements void and unenforceable;
  • Cable companies no longer had to offer institutional broadband networks for free or at a discount to local governments, schools and libraries, and many existing networks were closed down as soon as the local franchise agreement expired and communities balked at the new prices charged by telecom companies.

But perhaps the most controversial amendment was language that gets AT&T and Verizon out of meeting obligations to build out their fiber networks where they choose not to built them, while still compelling smaller independent telephone companies to offer service to every customer within their telephone service area within a reasonable amount of time.

So instead of promoting a rush towards video competition, both AT&T and Verizon won concessions that let them cherry pick — on their own schedule — customers for AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS:

  • Verizon is in compliance with DIVCA as long as 25% of the households where service is available are low-income and within 5 years, Verizon increases that to at least 40%;
  • AT&T stays out of trouble with DIVCA by providing video service to 35% of low-income households where service is available. Within five years, AT&T must reach at least 50%.

One of the biggest victims of DIVCA are PEG channels which lost the sponsorship of the cable companies that used to underwrite them as part of their franchise agreements. American Community Television reported in California, Illinois and Indiana, where statewide video franchising laws were passed, cable operators that operated PEG channels closed the doors, sometimes with only 30 days notice. Even in states where PEG funding remained, channels have been exiled to Channel Siberia (eg. Channel 1,512) or are under constant threat of losing their channel if they don’t meet an operator’s arbitrary quality of programming criteria.

Time Warner Cable has moved PEG channels to digital service in a majority of their service areas, requiring many customers to have an added-cost cable box to watch.

To help Californian PEG services cope, a state law permitted cities to collect an extra 1% of gross revenue from cable operators to keep funding these channels. But if a city already collects a full 5% franchise fee, any money collected from PEG channels must only be spent on their operations — no raiding of funds allowed. If the local government thinks there are bigger priorities than supporting public, educational, and government access, the future of PEG channels is questionable.

How to Spend the Untouchable Proceeds

The new home of Los Angeles' Government Access channel

The new home of Los Angeles’ Government Access channel

With Los Angeles-area cable companies collecting and sending on the proceeds of the 1% PEG surcharge to city coffers, the money has been more or less just piling up over the last seven years, unspent.

As of the end of June last year, the city had squirreled away about $22 million collected from cable TV customers stashed in a non interest-bearing account. PEG operations across the United States are not known for being profligate spenders, relying on budgets that would be insufficient to keep the lights on at a typical local public television station. So some question whether Los Angeles’ Public Access, Educational Access, and Government Access networks need $22 million to continue operations.

The city has decided the Government Access channel — the one that airs council meetings and other political functions — does need a new home.  So the city is spending $20 million to completely renovate one of the oldest buildings in Los Angeles, the long-vacant three-story Merced Theater near Olvera Street.

When complete, the state-of-the-art digital facilities of Cityview Channel 35 may rival those of some commercial television stations in Los Angeles. The building will house a small performance venue on the first floor, a studio with space for a 70-person live audience, and plenty of office space on the third floor. What it evidently won’t have room for is the Public Access and Educational Access channels that make up the rest of the PEG trio. The new facility is for the exclusive use of Channel 35.

Local residents are happy someone is finally doing something with the theater, which has been empty and unused for at least 30 years. The project could also make Los Angeles’ Government Access channel one of the most capable in the country, producing high quality programming well beyond the ubiquitous city council meetings.

“Space for a live audience of about 70 people will allow us to engage the public with debates, town halls and other events that we weren’t able to do,” Mark Wolf, executive officer at the city Information Technology Agency, which oversees Channel 35, told Downtown News. “The venue also gives us a full upgrade to digital technology, as we’ve been operating in an analog environment.”

Downtown News partly misled its readers when it suggested cable providers are footing the bill for the renovated home of Channel 35. Although money from the city’s general fund won’t be used for the project, the money did originate from cable subscribers who have paid higher cable bills since 2007 because the city elected to collect a 1% PEG franchise fee.

Galperin

Galperin

Even after spending $20 million on the Merced Theater, the money from Time Warner Cable, Cox, AT&T, Verizon, and Charter cable TV subscribers will keep rolling in. The audit found that by the time the new Merced Theater facility opens in 2016, the city will again have between $21-25 million in unspent PEG funds.

Galperin thinks throwing more money at traditional PEG operations would be a mistake, particularly when younger audiences are not even subscribing to cable television.

“We’re in a new era,” Galperin said. “The old rules that envisioned everybody getting their programming from cable are changing before our very eyes. We are in a totally different era in terms of how people get their information, so much of viewership is on the Internet now, not necessarily on cable.”

Because PEG funds can only be spent on PEG operations, as a starting point, funds could be spent to build up what is now an anemic, barely functioning website for Channel 35. Although the channel does stream online, it is intermittent in our experience. Channel 35 might also partner with local public broadcasting and minority-interest channels in co-production ventures. It should also develop a robust on-demand library of its content for site visitors because that is increasingly how Americans choose to watch television.

Galperin suggested other uses including a public Wi-Fi network and city Internet sites for programming and other information, but these may stray outside of the boundaries of what is permissible under current California and federal law.

Of course, there is one other alternative – rescind the PEG fee altogether until there is a legitimate need to collect the money from already overburdened cable subscribers.

franchise fees

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Surviving DIVCA.mp4

Silicon Valley Community Television aired this lengthy conference last fall for the benefit of local governments across California still trying to make sense of the 2006 Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act, a provider-influenced piece of legislation that has tied the hands of most communities to manage their local telecommunications infrastructure for the good of their citizens. (2 hours, 47 minutes)

 

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