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HD Smorgasbord: Rogers Tells Customers to Stop Worrying and Crank Up the Streaming Video

In a complete about-face for eastern Canada’s largest cable operator, Rogers Communications is inviting customers to take the brakes off their usage and go hog-wild with high bandwidth HD streaming and downloading with an unlimited use plan.

“Whether you use shomi, Netflix, YouTube or all three as your go-to streaming service(s), if you’re a subscriber to an unlimited Rogers Internet package, you don’t have to worry about streaming video in anything other than their highest-quality settings – the image is pristine and the sound is awesome,” the company writes on its online blog.

Rogers had argued for at least five years before Canada’s telecommunications regulator that compulsory usage caps and overlimit fees were necessary to manage congestion on their networks and to make sure that heavy users pay their fair share.

Those days of congestion are evidently over because Rogers takes customers through several tutorials to teach them how to turn up their streaming settings to deliver HD and 4K video streams.

“Rogers comes very close to implying it is Netflix and YouTube that compromise the video experience of customers, despite the fact Netflix created its user-definable video playback settings precisely to help Canadians manage usage allowances from companies like Rogers,” said online video analyst Rene Guerdat. “It’s clear that competition from independent providers offering unlimited use accounts has made Rogers’ usage cap regime impossible and they were forced to market an unlimited option of their own.”

Here is Rogers’ guide for cranking up the video quality of video streams, useful for anyone else who subscribes to these services as well:

shomi

This new video-streaming service for Rogers Internet or TV customers has three video-quality settings (Good, Better, Best). Each uses different amounts of bandwidth and offers different levels of viewing quality. These settings can be individually changed for each user profile, and can be made only from the Web application via the account holder’s profile.

To check / change your stream settings

  1. In a browser, go to shomi.com and log in with your account credentials.
  2. Go to the dropdown menu at the top far-right corner of the Web page.
  3. Select ‘Manage Account and Profiles.’
  4. Select the profile that you want to edit (or create a profile if it is a new profile), and under the ‘Manage Profiles’ menu you’ll see your ‘Max Video Quality’ settings.
  5. Click ‘Edit’ and then select the video-quality setting that you want.

Note: These profile settings update all devices except your Rogers cable box (if you’re using one).

Netflix

Netflix has streaming-video playback settings that use less data (in case you have a small monthly data cap). If you’re on an unlimited Rogers Internet package, though, you can get a better experience by streaming at the highest settings. Here’s how.

To check / change your stream settings

  1. In a browser, go to Netflix.ca and sign in with your Netflix username and password.
  2. If prompted, select the appropriate user profile you want to change.
  3. In the top-right corner, click the downward arrow, then click ‘Your Account.’
  4. In the Your Profile section, click ‘Playback Settings.’
  5. Click the radio button to select the highest-quality streaming setting (‘High’), then click ‘Save.’

This setting will be your new default across all your devices. If you have multiple user profiles under your Netflix account, follow the above process for them, too.

YouTube

YouTube gives you a lot of playback control, and typically does a pretty good job of balancing video quality and connection. However, to ensure you’re seeing the best-quality video possible from YouTube, you can change the settings for the videos you watch. Here’s how.

Play a YouTube video in HD (when available)

  1. While playing a video, move your cursor over the player window. Video-player elements will appear.
  2. Click the gear icon in the lower right of the player.
  3. In the bottom of the pop-over menu that appears, click on the ‘Quality’ option.
  4. Select the highest video-quality setting and click it to apply.

Tip: Not all video content that’s uploaded to YouTube is available in full 1080p HD. If no HD option is offered, just choose the highest-quality setting that’s available.

Default to high-quality YouTube playback

Setting default playback behaviour on YouTube requires an account. If you have a Google account (Gmail, Google+, etc.), you already have everything you need.

  1. Log in to YouTube using your Google or Gmail account ID.
  2. Click on your username and, in the menu that appears, choose the gear icon. If you’re already logged in, click your profile image in the top-right corner to find the gear icon instead.
  3. In the left navigation pane, click ‘Playback.’
  4. Select ‘Always choose the best quality for my connection and player size.’
  5. Click Save in the top right.

Now, YouTube will give you the best-quality video it can, based on the above-mentioned factors. Double-click a video to launch it in full-screen and to get a full-HD version of the video, where available.

Competition Finally Starts Hurting Verizon Wireless; Holiday Margin Pressure and Higher Disconnects

Phillip Dampier December 8, 2014 Competition, Consumer News, Verizon, Wireless Broadband 1 Comment

Christmas Stocking with chunks of coal laying on a green textured backgroundFor years Verizon Wireless has charged some of the highest prices in the wireless industry because it could. But those days may finally be coming to an end as the company admits it is seeing an increase in customer disconnects, and the company announced it will spend more on subscriber promotions to win back old customers and attract new ones.

Verizon Wireless executives have repeatedly stressed they can charge ‘Cadillac prices on a Cadillac network’ that has traditionally outperformed the competition in coverage, 4G data, and customer service. But customers may be telling the carrier “enough as enough” as a growing number are attracted to offers of dramatically lower pricing from Sprint and T-Mobile.

In a statement issued to shareholders, Verizon Wireless reports it is not on track to have a completely Merry Christmas:

As the company is accelerating the upgrades of high-quality customers to 4G, total retail postpaid disconnects are trending higher both sequentially and year over year in this highly competitive and promotion-filled fourth quarter.

The company expects that the fourth-quarter impacts of its promotional offers, together with the strong customer volumes this quarter, will put short-term pressure on its wireless segment EBITDA and EBITDA service margin (non-GAAP, based on earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) as well as its consolidated EBITDA margin (non-GAAP) and earnings per share.

Despite the growing number of customers leaving Verizon for more affordable alternatives, those remaining are willing to pay even higher prices upgrading to the latest smartphones and tablets equipped to take advantage of Verizon’s 4G LTE network. Customers are gradually moving away basic cell phones and towards smartphones and tablets.

Customers are also increasingly willing to abandon the upgrade subsidy in favor of early upgrades and device payment plans. Verizon reports almost one-quarter of customers are now enrolled in its Verizon Edge smartphone program, which budgets the cost of a new phone in installments charged to a cell phone bill. Just three months ago, Verizon had only enrolled 12% of its customers in the upgrade program.

AT&T, Verizon Break Out The Campaign Contribution Checkbooks Early, Sending $ to the Newly-Elected

Big Telecom is already trying to buy incoming members of Congress with lavish campaign contributions.

Big Telecom is already trying to buy incoming members of Congress with lavish campaign contributions.

Before constituents have a chance to make an impression on Capitol Hill’s incoming freshmen class, AT&T and Verizon have rushed significant campaign contributions to more than two dozen newly elected members of Congress.

Politico reports AT&T has cut checks to 31 new members of the House and Senate, Verizon sent 28 checks, and Comcast donated to 22 winners in the fall elections. Most of the money went to incoming Republicans who will control both the House and Senate starting in January.

All three companies are seeking allies in the fight against Net Neutrality and for a wholesale rewriting of the Communications Act, the nation’s most important telecom-related legislation.

Congressional observers predict revisiting the Communications Act would be a lobbyist bonanza, with potentially billions flowing into congressional coffers to win further industry deregulation. The last major overhaul in 1996 transformed broadcasting, allowing a handful of corporations to own the majority of radio and television stations and allowing large phone and cable companies to govern themselves with respect to broadband and competition. Cable and broadband prices soared as a result, while the number of competitors dropped due to industry consolidation.

The telecom companies are well ahead of technology players like Microsoft and Google, that have collectively sent contributions to fewer than a half-dozen incoming members and are barely active in Washington in comparison to the biggest phone and cable companies.

Google Fiber Prices Announced in Austin: No Surprises – 5/1Mbps Free, 1Gbps $70/Month

Phillip Dampier November 25, 2014 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, Google Fiber 11 Comments

google fiberAustin residents will receive Google Fiber service under three rate plans: $70 for 1,000/1,000Mbps or 5/1Mbps at no charge after paying a $300 construction fee. A package including television costs $130 a month.

Google Fiber announced its prices this week in anticipation of a December launch in the capital city of Texas. But Google Fiber will arrive with at least two competitors beating them to the gigabit space: Grande Communications and AT&T.

Austin is the first city in the country to have three concurrent gigabit providers. Only Time Warner Cable has elected to sit out the city’s gigabit broadband fight. Google Fiber is expected to face stiffer competition in Austin than in Kansas City and Provo, where it also operates gigabit fiber networks. AT&T U-verse with GigaPower matches Google’s $70 price and San Marcos-based Grande Communications beats it, charging $64.99 for its 1,000Mbps service.

Google is sweetening the deal by converting the former home of a children’s museum into a “Fiber Space,” a community center at 201 Colorado Street – hosting concerts, community meetings, and clubs, in addition to showcasing Google’s fiber network.

As with AT&T’s gigabit U-verse upgrade, only a limited number of residents in Austin will initially be able to get the new fiber service. Google is initially lighting up areas in south and southeastern Austin. For some, the wait to eventually sign up could take up to several years as Google slowly builds out its network in the city of 885,000 people.

The Trauma Trinity: Comcast, Time Warner, Charter Now America’s Most-Hated Companies

ygbix_logoAmericans would rather deal with unwanted telemarketing calls, fight their insurance company, or pay top dollar for oil and gas because almost anything is better than dealing with the cable company, if it happens to be named Comcast, Time Warner Cable, or Charter.

As state and federal regulators contemplate allowing these three companies to co-mingle, Americans have bottom-rated them like never before in the most recent YouGov BrandIndex survey of consumer satisfaction.

Any number below 60 results in the failing grade of “F” and shame for all concerned. The three cable operators managed a grade of just 13.2, nearly twice worse than the next lowest scoring industry – wireless providers. The cable sector once again achieved the lowest scores among 43 rated industries and has sunk to a level reserved for a war criminal popularity contest.

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YouGov BrandIndex

Although Time Warner Cable’s scores were called “crap” by one consumer advocate reviewing the data, Comcast performed much worse, plummeting to new lows after customers related to the gone-viral recording of Ryan Block’s customer service call from hell. Block spent more than 20 minutes arguing with a cocky and insufferable customer service representative who repeatedly resisted Block’s efforts to cancel his service. It hit a familiar nerve with Comcast customers and the company took a major hit, according to Lance Fraenkel, head of client services for BrandIndex.

cable guy“That to me stands out as a major event over the last few months that has damaged the brand and category perception,” Fraenkel told The Huffington Post.

The proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, although well received by non-profit groups and politicians receiving Comcast contribution checks, is a dead on arrival proposition for average consumers. This allowed Charter, which typically rates about as popular as burnt popcorn, to achieve a new high in its perennially dismal consumer satisfaction score. It can take its “barely neutral” rating to the bank.

But it isn’t bad for everyone. Verizon FiOS in particular achieved top grades for service, with AT&T U-verse also doing better than the cable competition.

“If you have a couple brands in negative territory and the category average is still firmly positive, then you know that there are brands that perform well in the sector,” Fraenkel added.

Comcast and Time Warner Cable both acknowledged their lousy ratings, both promising to continue spending millions improving the customer service experience. Comcast has promised that annually since 2007 and its ratings continue to decline. Many blame offshore call centers and intransigent operators unwilling to depart from a script that emphasizes giving credits and refunds only as a last resort. Most complaining customers are offered temporary discounts on service upgrades, which eventually expire and result in an even higher bill.

Charter couldn’t be bothered responding to a call for a comment. When the alternative is DSL from Frontier, CenturyLink or Windstream, why should they?

Big Cable, Telcos Spent $42 Million In 2013-2014 Lobbying for Deregulation, Against Net Neutrality

AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner Cable and the cable industry’s chief lobbying group spent $42.8 million during the 2013-2014 election cycle to weigh in on issues including burying Net Neutrality, outlawing community broadband competition, winning tax breaks for themselves, and avoiding consumer protection regulations.

A Common Cause analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics and the Institute for Money in State Politics shows that the usual suspects poured money into political coffers on the state and federal level to influence lawmakers.

2014-contributions-from-net-1

On the federal level, murky party committees received the largest individual checks: a total of $862,223 for House and Senate Republicans and $552,605 for Democrats. Individual members of Congress also received their own contributions, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner ($98,175 from Comcast) and Democratic Senator Mark Pryor ($88,650 from Comcast, TWC, and National Cable and Telecom. Assn.) Pryor will need to spend his contributions quickly. He was de-elected by Arkansas voters last Tuesday.

Net Neutrality is a major topic on the minds of the cable and telco companies, as is ongoing deregulation and decommissioning rural landline service, and pushback on revelations AT&T and Verizon were only too happy to turn over your phone records to the federal government.

In the states, the bigger the issues coming up in the legislature, the bigger the campaign checks. In Florida, AT&T is the state’s single largest source of political donations, giving $1.53 million to state lawmakers in the past year and another $660,000 to Gov. Rick Scott (R) and his appointed heads of state agencies. AT&T is lobbying for eliminating Florida’s telecommunications tax, win the right to place cell towers wherever they wish without much interference from local officials, and further deregulation. Most of AT&T’s money goes into the hands of the state’s Republicans.

In New York and California, Democrats got a major chunk of money from Comcast and Time Warner Cable — New York Governor Andrew Cuomo received $60,800 each from both Comcast and Time Warner Cable (totaling $121,600). California Governor Jerry Brown received $54,400 from Time Warner Cable and $27,200 from Comcast. Both states are reviewing the merger of the two companies this year. AT&T and Verizon are also major donors – AT&T wants to dismantle the rural telephone network in California and Verizon is trying to convince the New York legislature to approve its own rural landline replacement – Voice Link. It also wants reduced scrutiny of its landline performance in New York and more access to New York City buildings where it faces resistance from property owners who want compensation from Verizon to install FiOS.

2014-contributions-from-net

Net Neutrality Freakout: Wall Street Popping Prozac, GOP Furious, Big ISPs, Allies Shocked and Appalled

President Barack Obama’s strong commitment to robust Net Neutrality protections for the Internet has created a nightmare scenario for Net Neutrality opponents who can no longer count on an ex-telecom industry lobbyist now in charge at the Federal Communications Commission to take care of their business interests with watered down, damage-controlled, net-protection-in-name-only.

The attacks on President Obama’s convictions began almost immediately after his video was published on whitehouse.gov with Sen. Ted Cruz’s declaration that Net Neutrality was Obamacare for the Internet, a statement that may have played well with his Texas tea party base, but was quickly parodied on social media:

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Hal Singer from the ironically named Progressive Policy Institute opined that President Obama’s decision to declare real Net Neutrality would likely lead to the new majority of Republicans to completely defund the agency in retaliation. PPI is strongly opposed to Net Neutrality and many other consumer protection measures and represents the interests of the George W. Bush wing of the Democratic Party, which consists of about six people (and Harold Ford, Jr. probably wishes he was one of them.)

net neutrality fee“We are stunned,” Michael Powell, a former FCC chairman who is now president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said in an e-mail to Bloomberg reporters. After six years of supine oversight of giant telecommunications companies from former FCC chairman Julius “Data caps are innovative” Genachowski and the installation of an ex cable and wireless industry lobbyist as chief regulator of the country’s telecommunications industry, AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have faced few challenges to their regulatory wish lists.

The Washington Post “Innovations” editorial page proved once again the Post is now the leading publication neocons and pro-business conservatives keep hidden under their mattresses next to the Wall Street Journal for those private moments. WaPo devoted news space to a hack editorial from Larry Downes, who turned up in Congress earlier this summer to cheerlead the merger of AT&T and DirecTV and has vociferously opposed Net Neutrality since at least 2011.

In his generally fact-challenged piece, Downes proclaims the Obama Administration was seeking nothing less than to saddle the Internet with oppressive outdated regulations written in 1934, that the courts threw out earlier hybrid/compromise Net Neutrality regulations simply because they lacked the words “commercially unreasonable,”  and that implementing Net Neutrality would destroy investment in the world’s leading cable, mobile, and fiber networks.

Downes does not get out much, because other countries as diverse as South Korea, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Japan and Singapore have long since passed the United States, with much of Europe poised to follow their lead. Some of them even enforce Net Neutrality and the sky failed to collapse as a result. Broadband life is good in Bucharest.

Nothing about the Obama Administration’s proposal for Net Neutrality would do anything beyond preserving the Internet as we know and love it and judges told the FCC’s attorneys they had no authority to impose Net Neutrality under the freak flawed framework established by Michael Powell, former FCC chairman-turned cable industry lobbyist.

Downes also laims he is shocked, shocked I tell you to discover the FCC isn’t immune to political pressure from the White House and other Beltway forces. Except he is one of those Beltway forces.

The Post was content disclosing that Downes was simply a co-author of “Big Bang Disruption:  Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation” (Portfolio 2014) and the project director at the harmless-sounding Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy.

If you suspected Downes was just a tad closer to the industry he often advocates for than the newspaper was letting on, you would be right.

net neutrality comicIn fact, Downes is a “fellow” at the Bell Mason Group, a corporate advisory firm “passionate about partnering with forward-thinking corporate venturing and innovation executives, […] helping clients build risk-reduced, impactful programs and overcome corporate antibodies and obstacles [and deliver] measurable value.”

Net Neutrality is an example of one of those “risky corporate obstacles” to total monopoly control that could deliver Big Telecom companies “measurable value.” Among Downes’ past clients is a tiny phone company named AT&T, but you wouldn’t know it from Bell Mason’s well-scrubbed website. Too bad for them archive.org took a snapshot of an earlier version of his bio, revealing his less-than-arm’s-length relationship with AT&T.

None of this is apparently pertinent to the editors of the Washington Post. Disclosing Downes’ co-authorship of a far-less germane book one critic called a “big bang disappointment” was more than enough.

Bloomberg News avoided the hopelessly unbelievable talking points about Internet takeovers and concluded President Obama threw his FCC chairman under the bus. But even that conclusion originated from the conservative, anti-Net Neutrality group the Heritage Foundation, quoted in the piece:

“He threw Tom Wheeler under the bus,” said James Gattuso, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based policy group. Obama’s strong stance makes it harder for Wheeler to reach a compromise among proponents of regulation, Gattuso said.

Except proponents of Net Neutrality are tired of compromises that favor ungrateful telecom companies that routinely sue even the most minor consumer protections out of existence. Wheeler was rumored to be proposing yet another compromise as late as last week, one that would protect deep-pocketed content companies but leave consumers open to further abuse from high cost fast lanes and speed throttles.

Various tea party groups ginned up with claims of an imminent Obama socialist takeover of the Internet, Maoist censorship and protectionist rate regulation took to the comment sections of various news pieces and wrote comments like this:

“I don’t want government control that would force private companies not to control what I can see on the Internet.” 

riskyFor public policy mavens that claim Net Neutrality is a solution in search of a problem, countering Wall Street’s decisive view that Net Neutrality is a disaster for plans of revenue boosting schemes are harder to counter.

Obama’s intervention effectively kills Wheeler’s mixed plan, Paul de Sa, a senior analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York, said in a note. It will be hard for the FCC, with a majority of Democrats appointed by Obama, to deviate significantly from his preference, and strong rules are likely, de Sa said.

Obama’s intervention “does not lead to price regulation of broadband,” in part because the FCC has no desire to do so, he said. Debate in Washington will intensify, with Congress holding “interminable hearings” and trying to prohibit the FCC from applying the strong rules, de Sa said.

The meaning to investors was clear: Internet profiteering plans are on indefinite hold. Comcast Corp. fell 63 cents or 1.2 percent, to $52.33 at 10:39 a.m. in New York trading, and are down as much as 5.1 percent this week. Time Warner Cable Inc. dropped $3.34, or 2.5 percent. AT&T Inc. fell 16 cents to $34.97 and Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) fell 15 cents to $50.57.

A move to fully reclassify broadband, even if it includes “forbearance” from rate regulation, as President Obama suggested, would send investors scurrying, according to Kim Wallace, a policy analyst at Renaissance Macro Research. That is because it would cast doubt on cable and telecom companies’ abilities to generate a “sufficient return” on capital investments, which they expect to be sky high based on the limited amount of competition that exists today.

Craig Moffett, perennial cable stock booster, had the temerity to blame the latest developments on Comcast.

“The great irony is Comcast helped start this ball rolling by trying to buy Time Warner Cable in the first place,” said Moffett, an analyst at MoffettNathanson. “With the specter of possible price regulation hanging in the balance, [the question is] would Comcast still want to increase its exposure to distribution assets” in broadband.

The Wall Street press provides some salve for the chafed telecom industry high-flyer — the likely prospect of litigation tying up Net Neutrality long enough for Republicans to write new telecom laws that would lead to near-total regulatory capitulation and a free hand for providers. But investors sure hate uncertainty, so the Money Party will have to be postponed for now.

We have four illuminating news stories to share today on Net Neutrality:

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/PBS Why is Obama weighing in on net neutrality 11-10-14.mp4

More than 3 million commenters crashed the Federal Communications Commission website in July to weigh in on the issue of net neutrality. Now President Obama has added his strong support, directing the FCC to protect equal access to all web content. Judy Woodruff speaks with U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith about the president’s move. (7:33)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Ex-FCCs Furchtgott-Roth Copps Debate Net Neutrality 11-10-14.flv

Former Federal Communications Commission members Harold Furchtgott-Roth and Michael Copps talk about President Barack Obama’s call for the “strongest possible rules” to protect the open Internet and the value of so-called net-neutrality rules. They speak with Cory Johnson on Bloomberg Television’s “Bloomberg West.” (7:00)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN Here is why you should care about net neutrality 11-10-14.flv

CNN explores why you should care about Net Neutrality and reminds us in a world of distorted punditry exactly what “Net Neutrality” is. (3:58)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Fox Business Michael Powell Net Neutrality 11-10-14.flv

Fox Business gives former FCC chairman Michael Powell an unchallenged platform to present his views on Net Neutrality. It becomes clear which side Fox is on when they call porn peddler Larry Flynt the quintessential Net Neutrality advocate. (5:08)

Comcast Boosting Speeds in Pacific Northwest to Fend Off CenturyLink, Frontier, and Google

Phillip Dampier November 5, 2014 Broadband Speed, Comcast/Xfinity, Competition No Comments

Comcast-LogoAfter raising prices for Internet service and imposing the nation’s highest modem rental fee, Comcast customers in Oregon and southwest Washington are finally getting some good news: speed boosts.

Comcast will double Internet speeds for “the vast majority” in the Pacific Northwest between now and the end of the year, bringing 100Mbps service to Comcast’s “Blast” Internet plan and 50Mbps to “Performance” tier customers. Comcast says it is the 13th speed increase in the last dozen years in the region, but that isn’t all that has increased.

Comcast raised prices for its broadband plans last month: $66.95 for standalone Performance service ($53.95 if you bundle), $78.95 for Blast ($65.95 for those also taking cable TV or phone service). The modem rental fee remains a steep $10 a month.

Customers will receive e-mail when the faster speeds become available in their area, and a modem reset (unplug it briefly) will be required to get the new speeds.

Comcast is facing competition from CenturyLink, which is installing fiber optics in the area and Frontier, which inherited Verizon’s FiOS network when it acquired landlines in the region. Google Fiber is also expected to eventually make an appearance in the Portland area. Comcast prices are on the high side in comparison to the competition. CenturyLink’s introductory rate is as low as $50 a month for fiber service and Frontier charges $35 a month for 30Mbps service on its FiOS network.

For now, Comcast broadband service remains uncapped in the region, but Comcast is continuing market trials elsewhere that include a 300GB usage cap and an overlimit fee for those exceeding it.

Republican Victory Sparks Potential Lobbying Frenzy Rewriting/Deregulating Nation’s Telecom Laws

Thune

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) will assume the leadership of the Senate Commerce Committee in January.

The Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate could have profound implications on U.S. telecommunications law as Congress contemplates further deregulation of broadcasting, broadband, and telecom services while curtailing oversight powers at the Federal Communications Commission.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), expected to assume leadership over the Senate Commerce Committee in January, has already signaled interest in revising the 1996 Communications Act, which was built on the premise that deregulation would increase competition in the telecommunications marketplace.

“Our staff has looked at some things we might do in the area of telecommunications reform,” Thune told Capital Journal.” That hasn’t been touched in a long time. A lot has changed. The last time that the telecom sector of the economy was reformed was 1996, and I think in that bill there was one mention of the Internet. So it’s a very different world today.”

Republicans have complained the 1996 Telecom Act is dependent on dividing up services into different regulatory sectors and subjecting them to different regulatory treatment. In the current Net Neutrality debate, for example, a major component of the dispute involves which regulatory sector broadband should be classified under — “an information service” subject to few regulations or oversight or Title 2, a “telecommunications service” that has regulatory protections for consumers who have few choices in service providers.

Republicans have advocated streamlining the rules and eliminating “broad prescriptive rules” that can have “unintended consequences for innovation and investment.” Most analysts read that as a signal Republicans want further deregulation across the telecom industry to remove “uncertainty for innovators.”

Republicans have been particularly hostile towards imposing strong Net Neutrality protections, particularly if it involves reclassification of broadband as a “telecommunications service” under Title 2 of the Communications Act. Most expect Thune and his Republican colleagues will oppose any efforts to enact Net Neutrality policies that open the door for stronger FCC regulatory oversight.

The move to re-examine the Communications Act will result in an enormous stimulation of the economy, if you happen to run a D.C. lobbying firm. Just broaching the subject of revising the nation’s telecommunications laws stimulates political campaign contributions and intensified lobbying efforts. From 1997-2004, telecommunications companies advocating for more deregulation spent more than $44 million in direct soft money and PAC donations — $18 million to Democrats, $27 million to Republicans. During the same period, eight companies and trade groups in the broadcasting, cable and telephone sector collectively spent more than $400 million on lobbying activities alone, according to Common Cause.

Reopening the Telecom Act for revision is expected to generate intense lobbying activity, as Congress contemplates subjects like eliminating or curtailing FCC oversight over broadband, how wireless spectrum is distributed to wireless companies, how many radio and television stations a company can own or control, maintaining or strengthening bans on community broadband networks, oversight of cable television packages, and compensation for broadcast stations vacating frequencies to make room for more cellular networks.

Common Cause notes ordinary citizens had little say over the contents of the ’96 Act and consumer group objections were largely ignored. When the bill was eventually signed into law by President Bill Clinton, its sweeping provisions affected almost every American:

Good times at K Street lobbying firms are ahead

Good times at K Street lobbying firms are ahead

BROADCASTING

  1. The 96 Act lifted the limit on how many radio stations one company could own. The cap had been set at 40 stations. It made possible the creation of radio giants like Clear Channel, with more than 1,200 stations, and led to a substantial drop in the number of minority station owners, homogenization of playlists, and less local news. Today, few listeners can tell the difference between radio stations with similar formats, regardless of where they are located.
  2. Lifted from 12 the number of local TV stations any one corporation could own, and expanded the limit on audience reach. One company had been allowed to own stations that reached up to a quarter of U.S. TV households. The Act raised that national cap to 35 percent. These changes spurred huge media mergers and greatly increased media concentration. Together, just five companies – Viacom, the parent of CBS, Disney, owner of ABC, FOX-News Corp., Comcast-NBC, and Time Warner now control 75 percent of all prime-time viewing.
  3. The Act gave broadcasters, for free, valuable digital TV licenses that could have brought in up to $70 billion to the federal treasury if they had been auctioned off. Broadcasters, who claimed they deserved these free licenses because they serve the public, have largely ignored their public interest obligations, failing to provide substantive local news and public affairs reporting and coverage of congressional, local and state elections. Many television stations have discontinued local news programming altogether or have relied on partnerships with other stations in the same market to produce news programming for them. Most local television stations are now owned by out-of-state conglomerates that control dozens of television stations and now expect to be compensated by viewers watching them on cable or satellite television.
  4. The Act reduced broadcasters’ accountability to the public by extending the term of a broadcast license from five to eight years, and made it more difficult for citizens to challenge those license renewals.

TELECOMMUNICATIONS

  1. The 1996 Act preserved telephone monopoly control of their networks, allowing them to refuse new entrants who depend on telco infrastructure to sell their services.
  2. The Act was designed to promote increased competition but also allowed major telephone companies to refuse to compete outside of their home territories. It also allowed Bell operating companies to buy each other, resulting in just two remaining major operators — AT&T and Verizon.

CABLE

  1. The ’96 Act stripped away the ability of local franchising authorities and the FCC to maintain oversight of cable television rates. Immediately after the ’96 Act took effect, rate increases accelerated.
  2. The Act permitted the FCC to ease cable-broadcast cross-ownership rules. As cable systems increased the number of channels, the broadcast networks aggressively expanded their ownership of cable networks with the largest audiences. In the past, large cable operators like Time Warner, TCI, Cablevision and Comcast owned most cable networks. Broadcast networks acquired much of their ownership interests. Ninety percent of the top 50 cable stations are owned by the same parent companies that own the broadcast networks, challenging the notion that cable is any real source of competition.

net-neutral-cartoon“Those who advocated the Telecommunications Act of 1996 promised more competition and diversity, but the opposite happened,” said Common Cause president Chellie Pingree back in 1995. “Citizens, excluded from the process when the Act was negotiated in Congress, must have a seat at the table as Congress proposes to revisit this law.”

Above all, the legacy of the 1996 Telecom Act was massive consolidation across almost every sector.

Over ten years, the legislation was supposed to save consumers $550 billion, including $333 billion in lower long-distance rates, $32 billion in lower local phone rates, and $78 billion in lower cable bills. But most of those savings never materialized. Indeed, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who opposed the legislation, noted in 2003: “From January 1996 to the present, the consumer price index has risen 17.4 percent … Cable rates are up 47.2 percent. Local phone rates are up 23.2 percent.”

Advocates of deregulation also promised the Act would create 1.4 million jobs and increase the nation’s Gross Domestic Product by as much as $2 trillion. Both proved wrong. Consolidation meant the loss of at least 500,000 “redundant” jobs between 2001-2003 alone, and companies that became indebted in the frenzy of mergers and acquisitions ended up losing more than $2 trillion in the speculative frenzy, conflicts of interest, and police-free zone of the deregulated telecom marketplace.

The consolidation has also drastically reduced the number of independent voices speaking, writing, and broadcasting to the American people. Today, just a handful of corporations control most radio and TV stations, newspapers, cable systems, movie studios, and concert ticketing and facilities.

The law also stripped away oversight of the broadband industry which faces little competition and has no incentive to push for service-enhancing upgrades, costing America’s leadership in broadband and challenging the digital economy. What few controls the FCC still has are now in the crosshairs of large telecom companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon.

All are lobbying against institutionalized Net Neutrality, oppose community broadband competition, regulated minimum speed standards, and service oversight. AT&T and Verizon are lobbying to dismantle the rural telephone network in favor of their much more lucrative wireless networks.

Consumers Union predicted the outcome of the 1996 Telecom Act back in 2000, when it suggested a duopoly would eventually exist for most Americans, one dedicated primarily to telephone services (AT&T and Verizon Wireless’ mobile networks) and the other to video and broadband (cable). The publisher of Consumers Reports also accurately predicted neither the telephone or the cable company would compete head to head with other telephone or cable companies, and High Speed Internet would be largely controlled by cable networks using a closed, proprietary network not open to competitors.

Analysts suggest a 2015 Telecom Act would largely exist to further cement the status quo by prohibiting federal and state governments from regulating provider conduct and allowing the marketplace a free hand to determine minimum standards governing speeds, network performance, and pricing.

In fact, the most radical idea Thune has tentatively proposed for consideration in a revisit of the Act is his “Local Choice” concept to unbundle broadcast TV channels from all-encompassing cable television packages. His proposal would allow consumers to opt out of subscribing to one or more local broadcast television stations now bundled into cable television packages.

Wall Street Investors Suckered By Broadband, Wireless Myths on Usage Pricing, Network Investment

verizon-protestBig Telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T use phony numbers and perpetuate myths about broadband traffic and network investments that have conned investors out of at least $1 trillion in unnecessary investments and consolidation.

Alexander Goldman, former chief analyst for CTI’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants, is warning Wall Street and investors they are at risk of losing millions more because some of the largest telecom companies in the country are engaged in disseminating bad math and conventional wisdom that relies more on repetition of their talking points than actual facts.

Goldman’s editorial, published by Broadband Breakfast, believes the campaign of misinformation is perpetuated by a media that accepts industry claims without examining the underlying facts and a pervasive echo chamber that delivers credibility only by the number of voices saying then same thing.

Goldman takes Verizon Communications CEO Lowell McAdam to task for an editorial published in 2013 in Verizon’s effort to beat back calls on regulators to oversee the broadband industry and correct some of its anti-competitive behavior.

McAdam claimed the U.S. built a global lead in broadband on investments of $1.2 trillion over 17 years to deploy “next generation broadband networks” because networks were deregulated.

Setting aside the fact the United States is not a broadband leader and continues to be outpaced by Europe and Asia, Goldman called McAdam’s impressive-sounding dollar figures meaningless, considering over the span of that 17 years, the United States progressed from dial-up to fiber broadband. Wired networks have been through a generational change that required infrastructure to be replaced and wireless networks have been through at least two significant generations of change over that time — mandatory investments that would have occurred with or without deregulation.

Over the past 17 years, the industry has gotten more of its numbers wrong than right. An explosion of fiber construction in the late 1990s based on predictions of data tsunamis turned out to be catastrophically wrong. University of Minnesota professor Andrew Odlyzko, the worst enemy of the telecom industry talking point, has been debunking claims of broadband traffic jams and the need to implement usage-based pricing and speed throttling for years. In 1998, when Wall Street was listening intently to forecasts produced by self-interested telecom companies like Worldcom that declared broadband traffic was going to double every 100 days, Odlyzko was telling his then-employer AT&T is was all a lot of nonsense. The broadband traffic emperor had no clothes, and statistics from rival telecom companies suggested Worldcom was telling tall tales. But AT&T executives didn’t listen.

fat cat att“We just have to try harder to match those growth rates and catch up with WorldCom,” AT&T executives told Odlyzko and his colleagues, believing the problem was simply ineffective sales, not real broadband demand. When sales couldn’t generate those traffic numbers and Wall Street analysts began asking why, companies like Global Crossing and Qwest resorted to “hollow swaps” and other dubious tricks to fool analysts, prop up the stock price and executive bonuses, and invent sales.

Nobody bothered to ask for an independent analysis of the traffic boom that wasn’t. Wall Street and investors saw dollars waiting to be made, if only providers had the networks to handle the traffic. This began the fiber boom of the late 1990s, “an orgy of construction” as The Economist called it, all to prepare for a tidal wave of Internet traffic that never arrived.

After companies like Global Crossing and Worldcom failed in the biggest bankruptcies the country had ever seen at the time, Odlyzko believes important lessons were never learned. He blames Worldcom executives for inflating the Internet bubble more than anyone.

A bubble of another kind is forming today in America’s wireless industry, fueled by pernicious predictions of a growing spectrum crisis to anyone in DC willing to listen and hurry up spectrum auctions. Both AT&T and Verizon try to stun investors and politicians with enormous dollar numbers they claim are being spent to hurry upgraded wireless networks ready to handle an onslaught of high bandwidth wireless video. Both Verizon’s McAdam and AT&T’s Randall Stephenson intimidate Washington politicians with subtle threats that any enactment of industry reforms by the FCC or Congress will threaten the next $1.2 trillion in network investments, jobs, and America’s vital telecom infrastructure.

Odlyzko has seen this parade before, and he is not impressed. Streaming video on wireless networks is effectively constrained by miserly usage caps, not network capacity, and to Odlyzko, the more interesting story is Americans are abandoning voice calling for instant messages and texting.

8-4WorldcomCartoonThat isn’t a problem for wireless carriers because texting is where the real money is made. Odlyzko notes that wireless carriers profit an average of $1,000 per megabyte for text messages, usually charged per-message or through subscription plan add ons or as part of a bundle. Cellular voice calling is much less profitable, earning about $1 per megabyte of digitized traffic.

Wireless carriers in the United States, particularly Verizon and AT&T, are immensely profitable and the industry as a whole haven’t invested more than 27% of their yearly revenue on network upgrades in over a decade. In fact, in 2011 carriers invested just 14.9% of their revenue, rising slightly to 16.3 percent in 2012 when companies collectively invested $30 billion on network improvements, but earned $185 billion along the way.

While Verizon preached “spectrum crisis” to the FCC and Congress and claimed it was urgently prioritizing network upgrades, company executives won approval of a plan to pay Vodafone, then a part owner of Verizon Wireless, $130 billion to buy them out. That represents the collective investment of every wireless provider in the country in network upgrades from 2005-2012. Verizon Wireless cannot find the money to upgrade their wireless networks to deliver customers a more generous data allowance (or an unlimited plan), but it had no trouble approving $130 billion to buy out its partner so it could keep future profits to itself.

Odlyzko concludes the obvious: “modern telecom is less about high capital investments and far more a game of territorial control, strategic alliances, services, and marketing, than of building a fixed infrastructure.”

That is why there is no money for Verizon FiOS expansion but there was plenty to pay Vodafone, and its executives who walked away with executive bonuses totaling $89.6 million.

As long as American wireless service remains largely in the hands of AT&T and Verizon Wireless, competition isn’t likely to seriously dent prices or profits. At least investors who are buying Verizon’s debt hope so.

Goldman again called attention to Odlyzko’s latest warning that the industry has its numbers (and priorities) wrong, and the last time Odlyzko had the numbers right and the telecommunications industry got its numbers wrong, telecommunications investors lost $1 trillion in the telecommunications dot.com bust.

As the drumbeat continues for further wireless consolidation and spectrum acquisition, investors have been told high network costs necessitate combining operations to improve efficiency and control expenses. Except the biggest costs faced by wireless carriers like Verizon are to implement strategic consolidation opportunities like the Vodafone deal, not maintain and grow their wireless network. AT&T is putting much of its spending in a proposed acquisition of DirecTV this year as well — at a cost of $48.5 billion. That could buy a lot of new cell towers and a much more consumer-friendly data plan.

Voice to text substitution (US)

year voice minutes billions texts billions
2005 1,495 81
2006 1,798 159
2007 2,119 363
2008 2,203 1,005
2009 2,275 1,563
2010 2,241 2,052
2011 2,296 2,304
2012 2,300 2,190

Cell phone network companies (if you can believe their SEC filings) are incredibly profitable, and are spending relatively little on infrastructure:

year revenues in $ billions capex in $ billions capex/revenues
2004 102.1 27.9 27.3%
2005 113.5 25.2 22.2
2006 125.5 24.4 19.4
2007 138.9 21.1 15.2
2008 148.1 20.2 13.6
2009 152.6 20.4 13.3
2010 159.9 24.9 15.6
2011 169.8 25.3 14.9
2012 185.0 30.1 16.3

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