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The New Guilded Age is Pay-Per-View; Comcast-TWC Merger Like a Throwback to An Earlier Era

gildedA merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast is just one more step towards undermining our democracy, worries former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.

In a blog entry republished by Salon, Reich sees increasing evidence that the trust-busting days at the turn of the 20th century are long over, and Americans will likely have to relearn the lessons of allowing capitalism to run amuck.

It was the Republican Party of the 1890s that had the loudest voice in Washington protesting the concentration of business power into vast monopolies that had grown so large, they not only hurt consumers but threatened to undermine democracy itself.

Republican Senator John Sherman of Ohio was at the forefront of acting against centralized industrial power, which he likened to the abusive policies of the British crown that sparked America’s revolution for independence.

“If we will not endure a king as a political power,” Sherman thundered, “we should not endure a king over the production, transportation, and sale of any of the necessaries of life.”

The merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable is just the latest example America is in a new gilded age of wealth and power that no longer prevents or busts up concentrations of economic power, observes Reich.

“Internet service providers in America are already too concentrated, which is why Americans pay more for Internet access than the citizens of almost any other advanced nation,” Reich argues.

Reich

Reich

Reich worries about the implications of allowing Comcast to grow larger, considering how much the current company already invests in Washington to get the government policies it wants:

  • Comcast has contributed $1,822,395 so far in the 2013-2014 election cycle, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics — ranking it 18th of all 13,457 corporations and organizations that have donated to campaigns since the cycle began. Of that total, $1,346,410 has gone to individual candidates, including John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and Harry Reid; $323,000 to Leadership PACs; $278,235 to party organizations; and $261,250 to super PACs;
  • Comcast is also one of the nation’s biggest revolving doors. Of its 107 lobbyists, 86 worked in government before lobbying for Comcast. In-house lobbyists include several former chiefs of staff to Senate and House Democrats and Republicans as well as a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. Nor is Time Warner Cable a slouch when it comes to political donations, lobbyists, and revolving doors. It also ranks near the top.
Atwell-Baker

Atwell-Baker

The Center for Responsive Politics expanded on the revolving door issue between the cable industry and the Federal Communications Commission that will be responsible for approving the Comcast-Time Warner merger.

It found one of the most prominent travelers to be former FCC commissioner-turned Comcast lobbyist Meredith Atwell-Baker. Always a friend of the cable industry, the Republican commissioner hurried out the door two years into her four-year term after getting a lucrative job offer from Comcast in June 2011. Despite claims she stopped participating in votes relating to Comcast after getting her job offer, she was a strong supporter of Comcast’s merger with NBCUniversal and favored the cable industry’s approach towards preserving a barely noticeable feather-light regulatory touch.

Atwell-Baker never contemplated her move might be seen as a conflict of interest, but then again, it represented nothing new for Washington. At the time, the only condition limiting her was a two-year ban on lobbying the FCC. But that does not apply to Congress so Atwell-Baker spent her time as Comcast’s senior vice president of government affairs trying to influence the House and Senate on 21 bills that could affect Comcast’s bottom line.

Just as shameless — Michael Powell, who served as FCC chairman during the first term of the George W. Bush Administration. After leaving the FCC he took the lucrative position of top man at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the cable lobby. The Center found several other former FCC employees heading into the private sector, advising Big Telecom companies on how to best influence regulators:

  • Rudy Brioche, was an adviser to former commissioner Adelstein before moving to Comcast as its senior director of external affairs and public policy counsel in 2009. Brioche was so valued by the FCC, in fact, that he was brought back to join the commission’s Advisory Committee for Diversity in the Digital Age in 2011;
  • James Coltharp, who served as a special counsel to commissioner James H. Quello until 1997, is now a Comcast lobbyist;

comcast twcOnce out of the public sector for several years, some lobbyists see their value deteriorate as they get increasingly out of touch with the latest administration in power. So several seek a refresh, temporarily leaving their lobbying job to return to public sector work.

The Center offered David Krone as a potential example. Krone formerly held leadership and lobbying positions with companies like AT&T, TCI Communications and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. After 2008, he was hired by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to advise him on telecommunications matters. Today he is Reid’s chief of staff. If and when Reid leaves office, Krone can always join the parade of ex-Hill staffers back to the lucrative world of lobbying.

Will elected officials give a receptive ear to Comcast’s arguments in favor of its merger? Most likely, considering every member of the Senate Judiciary Committee (except deal critic Sen. Al Franken), has recently received campaign contributions from the cable giant, according to OpenSecrets:

gilded-age.gjf_Comcast PAC donations to Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats

  • Chuck Schumer, New York: $35,000
  • Patrick Leahy, Vermont, Chairman: $32,500
  • Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island: $26,500
  • Chris Coons, Delaware: $25,000
  • Dick Durbin, Illinois: $23,000
  • Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota: $22,500
  • Dianne Feinstein, California: $18,500
  • Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut: $11,500
  • Mazie Hirono, Hawaii: $5,000
  • Al Franken, Minnesota: $0

Comcast PAC donations to Republicans

  • Orrin Hatch, Utah: $30,000
  • Chuck Grassley, Iowa, Ranking Member: $28,500
  • John Cornyn, Texas: $21,000
  • Lindsey Graham, South Carolina: $13,500
  • Jeff Sessions, Alabama: $10,000
  • Mike Lee, Utah: $8,500
  • Ted Cruz, Texas: $2,500
  • Jeff Flake, Arizona: $1,000

Reich thinks its time to return to the trust-busting days of President Teddy Roosevelt, who found the transportation infrastructure of the 20th century and the fuel used to power it increasingly controlled by a handful of giant players that abused monopoly power to set unjustifiable prices and suppress competition. Getting Congress, increasingly flush with now-unlimited corporate money, to agree to its own refresh a century later may prove a tougher sell.

 

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AT&T’s Magic Fairyland U-verse GigaPower Fiber “Expansion”: Don’t Hold Your Breath

Fairy_Tales3One of the first lessons a good magician learns is that to best impress an audience, one has to at least show an actual rabbit going into the hat before making it disappear.

AT&T is no David Copperfield. In its latest sleight of hand, AT&T today announced a major potential expansion of its U-verse GigaPower fiber to the home network to 21 major cities across its landline service area, with future plans to expand to as many as 100 eventually.

“We are excited to bring GigaPower to 100 cities and towns,” Lori Lee, head of AT&T’s U-verse unit, said in a phone interview with Bloomberg, which accompanied a press release. “We will work with local officials as we look for areas of strong demand and pro-investment policy.”

Among the cities slated to get fiber upgrades are Austin and Kansas City — where AT&T will face competition from Google Fiber. But AT&T isn’t bothering to compete head-on with any municipal fiber providers like Chattanooga’s EPB, Wilson, N.C.’s Greenlight, or Lafayette, La.’s LUSFiber. North Carolina, Texas and California are the states with the most cities chosen to potentially get upgrades.

But AT&T has yet to fully deliver on its earlier promise to deploy fiber to the home service in Austin, where single home residential customers have usually been stymied by general unavailability of the fiber service. AT&T has consistently refused to say exactly how many customers have actually been able to sign up for AT&T GigaPower fiber service.

For customers actually able to buy GigaPower, many are already served by an existing AT&T fiber cable. It is not uncommon to find fiber hookups in new housing developments or multi-dwelling units like apartment buildings and condominiums. Most customers don’t realize they are fed service from a fiber cable brought to the back of the building that interfaces with plain old copper wiring, providing service artificially slowed by the company in an effort to provide consistently marketed broadband products.

AT&T GigaPower is easy to provide in these locations with very little extra investment. Tearing up streets and yards to replace copper wiring with fiber optics is another matter, one AT&T has avoided for years by choosing a less costly fiber to the neighborhood approach that leaves existing copper wiring on phone poles and in customer homes largely intact. Moving to fiber to the home service would require AT&T to dramatically boost capital spending to cover the cost of stringing fiber across the backyards of millions of customers.

But earlier this year, AT&T promised investors it was actually planning to cut its budget for capital expenses in 2014 to $21 billion, most of that still earmarked for its profitable wireless network. That is down at least $200 million from 2013. Unless AT&T reneges on its earlier commitment to Wall Street, even David Copperfield couldn’t make fiber to the home service from AT&T magically appear.

Notice the word "may"

Welcome to Neverland. Despite exciting press releases, AT&T has indicated it won’t spend the money required for widespread fiber expansion. But then, AT&T’s own graphics only promise these communities “may” get GigaPower.

In fact, AT&T has been telling investors it is more than halfway done completing its Project VIP effort, which budgeted $14 billion over three years to further expand basic U-verse service, improve its 4G LTE network, and expand rural wireless coverage within AT&T local service areas. Project VIP is integral to AT&T’s plan to eventually walk away from its rural wired infrastructure in favor of a wireless platform providing wireless landline service and 4G wireless broadband.

To assuage investors fearing AT&T is about to pull out the credit card and go on a fiber broadband shopping spree, AT&T carefully notes towards the bottom of its press release, “this expanded fiber build is not expected to impact AT&T’s capital investment plans for 2014.”

In other words, AT&T is not committing any money not already earmarked as part of Project VIP for its fiber expansion.

Without that money, if you live in a single-family residential home and are currently served by AT&T copper wiring, it is very unlikely the company will offer fiber upgrades anytime soon.

So why is AT&T promising vaporware upgrades it cannot possibly manage on its current budget?

AT&T will work with local leaders in these markets to discuss ways to bring the service to their communities. Similar to previously announced metro area selections in Austin and Dallas and advanced discussions in Raleigh-Durham and Winston-Salem, communities that have suitable network facilities, and show the strongest investment cases based on anticipated demand and the most receptive  policies will influence these future selections and coverage maps within selected areas. This initiative continues AT&T’s ongoing commitment to economic development in these communities, bringing jobs, advanced technologies and infrastructure.

This expanded fiber build is not expected to impact AT&T’s capital investment plans for 2014. – See more at: http://about.att.com/story/att_eyes_100_u_s_cities_and_municipalities_for_its_ultra_fast_fiber_network.html#sthash.Nh31BZEu.dpuf
This expanded fiber build is not expected to impact AT&T’s capital investment plans for 2014. – See more at: http://about.att.com/story/att_eyes_100_u_s_cities_and_municipalities_for_its_ultra_fast_fiber_network.html#sthash.Nh31BZEu.dpuf
This expanded fiber build is not expected to impact AT&T’s capital investment plans for 2014. – See more at: http://about.att.com/story/att_eyes_100_u_s_cities_and_municipalities_for_its_ultra_fast_fiber_network.html#sthash.Nh31BZEu.dpuf
This expanded fiber build is not expected to impact AT&T’s capital investment plans for 2014. – See more at: http://about.att.com/story/att_eyes_100_u_s_cities_and_municipalities_for_its_ultra_fast_fiber_network.html#sthash.Nh31BZEu.dpuf
Phillip "AT&T has a larger agenda here and it isn't fiber" Dampier

Phillip “AT&T has a larger agenda here and it isn’t fiber” Dampier

For years, AT&T’s lobbyists have promised politicians everything under the sun — telecom nirvana — if only Ma Bell can be unshackled by burdensome regulations. Some states have accepted AT&T’s deal only to find their residents’ phone bills rapidly increasing with no corresponding improvement in service. U-verse is AT&T’s effort to stay relevant at a time when mobile phones are replacing landlines and cable companies have poached a number of their customers.

But in return for that deregulation, AT&T delivered an cheaper, inferior fiber-to-the-neighborhood technology that requires hideously large infrastructure cabinets, often installed in front of customer homes, that has trouble keeping up with cable broadband speeds.

But nothing ever satisfies AT&T.

Recently, their lobbyists have been skulking around in the shadows of state legislatures ghostwriting new bills that would permit AT&T to abandon its rural landline customers altogether to focus on the far more profitable wireless business. But consumer groups have gotten wise to AT&T’s astroturf and lobbying efforts and have begun to limit their successes.

Meanwhile, along comes Google, promising groundbreaking, affordable fiber to the home gigabit broadband service to a handful of communities willing to work with them in a de facto partnership — cutting through bureaucratic red tape to facilitate infrastructure upgrades — a radical change from the traditional regulator-provider framework.

Hundreds of cities fell all over themselves competing for the privilege, and it didn’t require a penny in lobbying or campaign contributions.

Where Google has been willing to offer service, most communities have been more than thankful and have made life easier for the creative entrant.

If it worked for Google, why can’t it work for AT&T? As a result, the company that spent years telling customers fiber upgrades didn’t make any sense and that few people actually needed gigabit speeds, AT&T might appear to have reversed course. Dig a little deeper and you find a deeper agenda:

“Communities that have suitable network facilities, and show the strongest investment cases based on anticipated demand and the most receptive policies will influence these future selections and coverage maps within selected areas.”

Translation: Communities that already have considerable fiber infrastructure previously installed and are willing to bend to the business and public policy agenda of AT&T will make all the difference whether your city will be considered for a future fiber upgrade or not.

In the end, even if a community does everything AT&T asks of it, it still has no commitment AT&T will actually deliver the fiber upgrades they only promise “may” happen. But AT&T will have achieved its public policy goals of abolishing regulations and limiting oversight, all without have to install a single strand of fiber.

That is a deal community leaders should think twice about making with a company that has always looked out for its investors long before its customers.

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Aereo Faces the Supreme Court Next Week in All-or-Nothing Appeal

aereo_logoAereo will face off with broadcasters next week in the U.S. Supreme Court over the legality of the online video provider’s business plan — using dime-sized individual antennas to receive over-the-air local stations and stream them to paying subscribers over the Internet.

On April 22, Aereo will appeal for its future as it presents its case to the high court in defense of a consumer’s right to access local stations over the air, even if a third-party installs an antenna on their behalf.

Broadcasters consider Aereo just another end run around copyright law, arguing the online service has no right to profit off the resale of their signals to consumers without permission and compensation.

Today Aereo launched a website, ProtectMyAntenna.org that frames its legal case as a basic viewing rights issue. Aereo says the broadcasters’ intransigence is nothing new — they also fought cable television and the videocassette recorder in the courts in the past, suggesting both technologies were stealing their signals.

protect my antenna“What is at stake in this case is much bigger than Aereo,” says the website. “We believe that consumers are entitled to use a modern, cloud-based, version of an antenna and DVR and that consumers should not be constrained to 1950’s era technology to watch free-to-air broadcast television. The broadcasters’ positions in this case, if sustained, would impair cloud innovation and threaten the myriad benefits to individuals, companies, and the economy at large of the advances in cloud computing and cloud storage.”

The Obama Administration has sided with the broadcasters and is seeking time to speak before the Court on the broadcasters’ behalf. Consumer groups are largely lined up behind Aereo, claiming online video competition is something worth protecting.

The crux of the case is likely to be which side is correct in their interpretation of what defines a “public performance,” which makes all the difference in determining whether Aereo must pay broadcasters or not. Private viewing at home is protected by earlier case-law and if Aereo is found to simply be facilitating home viewing, it will likely be deemed legal. Aereo assigns a single antenna to each customer, a fact they hope will strengthen its argument they are not redistributing programming to the masses. How the signal gets to the customer, over an antenna cable or the Internet, should not make any difference.

Broadcasters are hoping for a different interpretation — one popular in California courts, that would find any redistribution of programming over the Internet to be a public performance. Several other ventures have tried to launch virtual cable systems that streamed over the air stations and all were quickly shut down by west coast courts. Aereo has better lawyers, deeper pockets, and apparently a better argument that won favor in several eastern U.S. courts last year.

The Supreme Court will ultimately decide Aereo’s fate. If it loses, expect it to close down operations immediately. If Aereo wins, the company expects to continue expanding into other television markets across the country.

Aereo currently provides service in 11 U.S. cities.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Yahoo Aereo CEO Chet Kanojia on the Future of TV 4-17-14.flv

Katie Couric from Yahoo! News sat down for an extensive interview about Aereo with its CEO Chet Kanojia. Kanojia argues broadcasters were already well-compensated when they received free spectrum for their stations. (20:20)

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SaskTel Exposes Predatory Wireless Pricing from Telus, Bell, and Rogers

sasktelTelus, Bell and Rogers charge customers as much as 45 percent less on wireless service where they face a fourth regional competitor in a case of suspected predatory pricing that could threaten the viability of competition in Canada’s wireless marketplace.

SaskTel, a crown corporation, is one of several Canadian regional wireless providers. The Saskatchewan Telecommunications Holding Corporation, based in Regina, said SaskTel’s revenue and net income dipped to $1.205 billion and $90.1 million, respectively. SaskTel (which has net income of $106.2 million in 2012) projects this will be only $59.2 million next year.

The dramatic drop in revenue, in part, comes from suspiciously low wireless rates in areas where SaskTel and other regional providers operate.

Sudden rate cuts were introduced last summer and are available only to customers where regional firms offer wireless service. Vidéotron in Quebec, EastLink in the Maritimes, MTS in Manitoba, and SaskTel in Saskatchewan are all impacted. But the savings don’t extend outside of these competitive areas, leading to whispered accusations that the Big Three are engaged in predatory pricing behavior, designed to undercut competitors while maintaining high rates for everyone else.

Styles

Styles

SaskTel president Ron Styles told The Leader-Post Telus has been offering customers in Saskatchewan a rate 45% lower than customers in Red Deer, Alberta pay. SaskTel is forced to match those rates to stay competitive, but it has hit the crown corporation’s finances hard.

“We’re very concerned; it’s had a major impact,” Don McMorris, cabinet minister responsible for SaskTel, told the newspaper.

Although many customers are happy paying a much lower mobile phone bill, the savings may prove temporary.

Canada’s three national carriers have proved particularly adept as killing off any competitors threatening their 90%+ market share. Public Mobile found it difficult to attract new customers away from rival Telus, so as the business floundered, Telus made the upstart company an offer it couldn’t refuse, shut down Public’s network, and transferred customers to its own network.

Although stopping short of directly pointing the finger at the Big Three, Styles is headed to Ottawa to discuss the implications of predatory pricing on SaskTel’s future. But he left no doubt something is up.

If Bell, Telus and Rogers can afford to offer low rates here and on other “4th carrier” turf, does that mean their wireless rates are needlessly high elsewhere, Styles asks. Or are the Big 3 engaged in “predatory pricing” — selling something below cost to damage or destroy competitors and keep new entrants out of the market.

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The Washington Post’s Delusional Support of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger Debunked

corporatewelfareIf you have started to confuse the Washington Post editorial page with that of the Wall Street Journal, you are not alone.

Under the stewardship of Fred Hiatt, WaPo’s editorial opinions have grown increasingly anti-consumer and pro-corporate at home and decidedly neoconservative abroad.

It’s the same newspaper that wholeheartedly supported the merger of Comcast and NBC-Universal in 2010. Let’s check whether they called that one right:

Entities that compete with NBC-owned cable channels fear that Comcast will relegate them to hard-to-find channel locations. Consumer advocates warn that Comcast will use its newfound power to raise subscription rates and stifle new voices on television and the Internet.

The same newspaper reported last week that Comcast refused to let Back9Network, a golf oriented network in direct competition with Comcast-owned Golf Channel, on its cable systems.

For years, Bloomberg TV — in direct competition with Comcast-owned CNBC — has been stuck in Channel Siberia, in some areas like Chicago dumped between Comcast’s promotional “barker” channel and “Leased Access.” CNBC enjoys Ch. 29, certain to attract more viewers than Bloomberg’s Ch. 102.

As Stop the Cap! reported yesterday, no cable company raises cable television rates more than Comcast, blaming programming rate increases that in several cases originate with Comcast-owned cable networks.

Regulators should scrutinize the proposed merger but should be skeptical of the critics’ claims. [...] Advocacy groups have been poor prognosticators of the effects of large media mergers.

The Washington Post’s editorial accuracy record has more than a few blemishes, from its 2003 declaration Colin Powell’s “evidence” of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was “irrefutable,” to suggestions that a wedding of Comcast and NBC Universal wouldn’t hurt anyone because the FCC was ready to manage any problems without pesky mandates or overbearing pre-conditions.

The FCC already requires cable operators to deal fairly with competitors. Its rules would require Comcast to give competitors access to NBC content on “reasonable” and “non-discriminatory” terms. The company would also be required to negotiate in good faith about carrying non-NBC channels. Competitors who believed that they were harmed by unfair dealing could have their complaints adjudicated by the agency. Critics of the Comcast-NBCU merger claim that these mechanisms are ineffective and slow. But the breakdown of the complaint system should not be used as an excuse to impose onerous conditions on one company. Instead, critics should push for an overhaul of the system.

The Bloomberg case, now three years old, remains unresolved. That should tell readers something about just how quickly the FCC gets around to dealing with these kinds of complaints. Comcast has been able to argue its decision to bury Bloomberg and keep Back9Network off its cable systems are examples of ‘good faith, reasonable decision-making that doesn’t discriminate.’ It sued to quash Net Neutrality, critical for online video competition, and won.

The Post editorial amusingly insists that Comcast’s merger plans should not be interrupted because of an ineffective complaint system that can’t or won’t promptly deal with Comcast’s ongoing abuse of the very non-discriminatory rules the editors declare as a reason to support the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger.

Many of the same fears of domination and manipulation were raised with the 2001 merger of AOL and TimeWarner; that megadeal crumbled after a few years. Comcast and GE, which will retain a 49 percent stake in NBCU, should be allowed to proceed, and regulators should do their jobs and watch the newly formed company carefully.

Phillip "The Post's Naivete is Showing" Dampier

Phillip “The Post’s Naivete is Showing” Dampier

The 2001 merger of AOL and Time Warner came at the last gasp of the dot.com boom. As the New York Times noted, “In May of 2000, the dot.com bubble began to burst and online advertising began to slow, making it difficult for AOL to meet the financial forecasts on which the deal was based. The world began moving quickly to high-speed Internet access, putting AOL’s ubiquitous dial-up service in jeopardy.”

The final unraveling of AOL Time Warner came about because the combined company, highly dependent on AOL (and its stock value), could not sustain its business model when nobody could figure out how to get paid for content in the online world. AOL’s dial-up Internet access business was also rapidly in decline as the country started moving towards broadband.

“The consumer has access to everything and now it’s going to be on a handheld device, so what I call the rolling thunder of the Internet started actually to eat its own, which was AOL,” writes the Times. “AOL was the Google of its time. It was how you got to the Internet, but it was using some old media business ideas that were undone by the Internet itself, and that’s why Google came along.”

The same sad story is not true for Comcast or Time Warner Cable (which was spun off from Time Warner, Inc. as an independent company as part of a restructuring in 2009.)

Both cable companies are in a better place than AOL-Time Warner:

  • AOL relied on dial-up and reseller access to some broadband providers — neither sufficiently lucrative to sustain AOL’s dot.com-days value. Comcast/TWC own their own broadband networks;
  • Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse are the only significant multi-city broadband competitors for the cable industry. U-verse remains challenged by its technological limitations and Verizon stopped expanding FiOS. Google Fiber has a totally insignificant market share and is likely to stay that way for several years. Google Fiber provides no competition in the northeast where Comcast and Time Warner Cable dominate;
  • Comcast and Time Warner Cable both oppose community-owned broadband competition and Time Warner has successfully managed to push legislation virtually banning network expansion in several states;
  • Comcast will both own and control the pipes and a significant amount of the content that crosses its broadband networks. At the time of the AOL-Time Warner merger, online video competition did not exist in a meaningful way.
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Big Telecom Sock Puppetry Too Often Comes Without Full Disclosure

Larry Irving Old Job: administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). New Job: Shill for Big Telecom companies

Larry Irving
Old Job: administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
New Job: Shill for Big Telecom companies

Community-owned, publicly funded broadband networks are under renewed attack in various Op-Ed and guest editorial pieces popping up in newspapers around the country, often written by those with undisclosed industry connections as part of a larger effort to ban the networks.

The Hill in Washington, D.C. was one of the latest to go to print, publishing a hit piece attacking the “growing fascination with publicly funded broadband networks” and suggesting only the “private-sector” could deliver the best telecommunications networks.

In his piece, author Larry Irving stated, “the specter of governments operating broadband networks in competition with the private sector, or of state or local governments serving as both regulators and owners of competing broadband networks, could stifle investment or reduce private-sector access to capital.”

Irving added that “with the exception of bringing or improving service to remote geographies, I don’t see many problems that government-owned or -operated broadband networks will solve.”

Here is how The Hill described Irving: “CEO of the Irving Group and served for almost seven years as assistant secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).”

That is like describing Oscar Pistorius as a man embroiled in marital difficulties. It doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Media Matters does:

Irving is more connected with the telecom industry than America is with fiber broadband. Irving is the founding co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA), an IRS 501(c)(6) telecommunications trade association whose purpose is to “prevent the creation of burdensome regulations,” according to documents filed with the IRS. IIA reportedly receives financial support from AT&T and includes members such as Alcatel-Lucent and TechAmerica, which lobbies on behalf of technology companies. The group’s 2011 IRS tax form — the most recent one available – states it received over $18 million in revenue.

the-hill-logoWhile The Hill noted that Irving heads the Irving Group, it did not disclose that the firm provides “strategic advice and assistance to international telecommunications and information technology companies.”

The Hill op-ed comes after the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, released a February 2014 report concluding that federally funded and municipal networks were faster and cheaper than comparable networks. Specifically, the GAO found:

  • “federally funded or municipal networks offered higher top speeds than other networks in the same community and networks in nearby communities.”
  • “prices charged by federally funded and municipal networks were slightly lower than the comparison networks’ prices for similar speeds.”
  • “according to small business owners, the improvements to broadband service have helped the businesses improve efficiency and streamline operations. Small businesses that use the services of these networks reported a greater ability to use bandwidth-intensive applications for inventory management, videoconferencing, and teleworking, among other things.”

Most of the industry’s initiatives against community broadband come through a close association with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — a corporate funded group that provides ghostwritten bills to mostly Republican legislators for introduction in state legislatures across the country. One such bill virtually bans community broadband.

alec-logo-sm

Sponsored by corporate interests

ALEC is now under fire again for its annual “Rich States, Poor States” report, released this week. The publication, whose lead author is economist Arthur Laffer, is sold to the press as an objective, academic measure of state economic performance, but should instead be viewed more as a lobby scorecard ranking states on the adoption of extreme ALEC policies that have little or nothing to do with economic outcomes.

Internal documents obtained by The Guardian expose a close financial connection between the Koch Brothers and ALEC. It turns out the Koch family funds the production of “Rich States, Poor States,” which this year put deregulation friendly Utah at the top and ALEC-skeptical New York at the bottom. The report claims the state of Mississippi outperformed New York, a surprising and entirely false assertion. But getting ALEC model bills signed into law in Mississippi is far easier than getting them past New York’s Assembly and Senate.

Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker is a former ALEC member who signed 19 ALEC bills into law in his first two years in office, slashed government spending and controversially eviscerated state unions prompting mass protests in February 2011. Despite the fact Wisconsin still has one of the worst job creation records in the country, ranking 32nd nationally or 9 out of 10 in upper Midwest, ALEC has been kind to Wisconsin in its economic report, ranking the state 17th for its economic outlook.

Any state that permits publicly funded broadband networks to exist is in obvious economic peril in the eyes of ALEC (and member corporations including AT&T, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable.)

sockpuppetThe Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch suggests ALEC’s agenda for Big Telecom is to make life easy for your provider and more expensive for you. ALEC has three model telecom bills it pushes on state legislatures:

The ALEC “Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards Act” is a “model” bill for states to thwart local efforts to create public broadband access. Promoted under the guise of “fair competition” and “leveling the playing field,” this big telecom-supported bill imposes regulations on community-run broadband that they would never tolerate themselves. Iterations of this anti-municipal broadband bill passed in 19 states to stop local governments in communities like Wilson, North Carolina from wiring their communities with fiber.

The ALEC “Cable and Video Competition Act” attacks municipal cable franchises and frees cable companies from oversight. The bill creates a single state franchising authority and releases the companies from requirements to wire the entire state, and allows companies to decide when — or if — to build out cable, and through that cable, to provide adequate internet access. In North Carolina, for example, the bill passed under the name “the Video Service Competition Act” in 2006 with the promise that deregulation would result in greater investment by cable broadband providers; but instead, the state is tied for last place in terms of the number of homes with a basic broadband connection. An estimated twenty-three states have enacted statewide video franchising laws in recent years. Additionally, bills like this one harm public access television stations, since cable companies no longer negotiate with individual jurisdictions and pay the franchising fees that fund public, educational, and government access television.

The ALEC “Broadband and Telecommunications Deployment Act” would give telecommunications providers access to all public rights-of-way, and make it harder for local communities to charge franchising fees or otherwise regulate providers. Cable and internet is largely wired via publicly owned “rights of way” — like under sidewalks or along utility poles — and traditionally, telecom providers profiting from the use of these public goods would be granted access in exchange for some sort of accountability, such as paying for access or providing services on a non-discriminatory basis to all customers willing to pay. This bill would largely eliminate local control over public rights-of-way in favor of telecommunications providers.

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Cogeco Won’t Lower Your Bill; Warns Customers Not to Be “Victims” of Landline Cutting

Phillip Dampier April 14, 2014 Canada, Cogeco, Competition, Consumer News No Comments

cogecoDespite growing competition from Bell’s fiber-to-the-neighborhood service Fibe, now expanding into many of Cogeco’s outer suburban service areas, Cogeco will not negotiate a better deal for customers, preferring to emphasize its customer service and “right-sizing” bundles of services to best meet customer needs.

As a result of higher prices, Cogeco’s earnings and profits are up for the second quarter of 2014. In the quarter profits rose to $58.5 million — up from $48.9 million during the same quarter a year ago. Revenue rose to $518.4 million from $458.5 million.

“We don’t like competing on price,” said Cogeco CEO Louis Audet said. “I’m not saying it’s zero, but we really don’t like competing on price.”

Audet

Audet

Customers have been offered sign up discounts from Cogeco’s most aggressive competitor on pricing – Bell. But when customers in parts of Ontario and Quebec call Cogeco to negotiate for a lower price, they are largely being turned down.

Audet said Cogeco instead emphasizes that customers will receive better customer service from the cable company, and customer retention specialists are trained to adjust packages to emphasize the services customers want without cutting their cost.

“It’s a right-sizing exercise,” Audet said. “Maybe the person wants a little less video, but they want higher Internet speeds.”

Cogeco isn’t winning the battle to keep its price-sensitive customers, however. The company lost 10,305 subscribers in the second quarter, nearly double the amount lost in the same quarter a year ago. Cogeco now serves 1.96 million Canadian cable television customers.

Customers are also dropping their Cogeco phone service, a decision Audet said makes them “victims” of cell phones. Cogeco permanently disconnected 6,000 landlines in the quarter, up from 5,550 a year ago. It still serves 473,000 phone customers.

The company lost almost 6,000 telephone customers in the quarter compared with additions of 5,550 in the same quarter last year. It had more than 473,000 residential phone customers left.

Despite the customer losses, rate increases more than made up for lost revenue, giving the company a nearly $10 million boost in profits during the second quarter alone.

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More Phantom AT&T Fiber in Texas, North Carolina; Highly Limited Rollouts = Press Release Candy

phantom gigapowerAT&T U-verse with Gigapower is not coming to a home near you, although AT&T hopes you believe it will.

In the public and government relations arena, convincing everyone there is robust competition in broadband is a good prescription to keep the regulators at bay. To make that happen, AT&T continues to roll out more press releases than actual fiber to the home service, this time announcing it is planning to bring its fastest gigabit Internet service to “six cities in North Carolina” and more areas in and around Austin.

“The U-verse GigaPower fiber-optic service will be offered in parts of Carrboro, Cary, Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh and Winston-Salem, North Carolina,” AT&T said today in a statement.

But AT&T will not say exactly how many homes it will offer service to, but gave a clue mentioning it plans to connect as many as 100 businesses and 100 “public sites.” It also said it will provide a free, but slow-speed service to as many as 3,000 homes — something it can offer on its existing copper-fiber U-verse platform.

AT&T claims it is ‘racing’ to offer fiber service, but evidence suggests otherwise. Much of AT&T’s U-verse with Gigapower is turning up in condos, new housing developments, and other multi-dwelling units like apartments. Single family homes are evidently not a priority. AT&T’s costs to bring fiber to the back of a complex or large apartment building is lower than stringing or burying fiber to individual homes.

In Austin, one of AT&T’s major Gigapower expansions will come to communities under construction and condo complexes developed by PulteGroup. AT&T signed a favorable agreement with the developer to bring fiber into up to 3,000 homes. AT&T routinely signs similar agreements with developers that offer AT&T exclusive access to existing inside wiring and, in some cases, provide AT&T services to every resident, billed as part of the rent or neighborhood association service fees, deterring competition from cable operators.

AT&T likely selected the communities in North Carolina after receiving a Request For Proposals from a regional group called North Carolina Next Generation Network, which has enticed private providers to build gigabit fiber networks. The coordinated effort is led by six municipalities and four leading research universities and supported by local Chambers of Commerce and businesses in the Research Triangle and Piedmont regions.

With local governments directly involved in the initiative, AT&T was likely satisfied they would not face much difficulty from zoning and permitting procedures to expand their network, and might even receive favorable treatment.

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Comcast’s Festival of Nonsense Performed for Senate Judiciary Committee

Phillip "The circus is in town" Dampier

Phillip “The circus is in town” Dampier

Yesterday afternoon I got to experience both the pain of having a tooth pulled and watch Comcast and Time Warner Cable defend its merger for more than three hours before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Festival of Nonsense from Comcast’s top lobbyist David Cohen and Time Warner Cable’s chief financial officer Arthur Minson hurt more.

Despite the $45 billion dollar deal, the real powers that be couldn’t be bothered to turn up at the hearing. Comcast’s chief executive was nowhere to be found — perhaps he was playing golf with President Obama again. Comcast’s top lobbyist David Cohen showed up instead, wearing an outfit that looked like it was stuffed with cash waiting to fall from his pockets into the hands of his “friends” on Capitol Hill. Cohen is a well-known Democratic money bundler who raised $1.44 million for the president’s reelection campaign in 2011 and 2012, and $2.22 million since 2007. (Obama spent time in Cohen’s Philadelphia home as well, part of a DNC fundraising party.)

Perhaps Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus was unavailable because he was too busy counting the $8.52 million he was paid before agreeing to sell the company. Don’t expect him at the next hearing either, because he is shopping for a bigger safe to hold the $80 million he will receive for agreeing to change Time Warner Cable’s name to Comcast.

The other usual suspects were also missing in action. Not a peep from the major networks or cable programmers at the hearing. Instead, the Senate endured a guy with a golf channel nobody ever heard of using the hearing to try to get his calls returned by Time Warner and a wireless provider who believes his technology is faster than fiber. Sure it is.

Brought to you in part by America's cable industry.

Brought to you in part by America’s cable industry.

I suppose it’s also worth mentioning Christopher Yoo – Comcast’s intellectual sock puppet straight out of the cable company’s home town of Philadelphia. He serves at the pleasure of the “Center for Technology, Innovation & Competition” (cough) at the University of Pennsylvania. The “center” is financially supported by the cable industry. David Cohen just happens (by sheer coincidence) to chair the university’s Board of Trustees. Yoo’s testimony could be boiled down to a nod in Cohen’s direction with an affirming, “whatever he said.”

The Cohen and Minson Comedy Hour began with opening statements extolling the virtues of supersizing Comzilla, with dubious claims about its benefits for consumers.

Without laughing, read the following out loud:

“We welcome this opportunity to discuss the proposed transaction between Comcast Corporation (“Comcast”) and Time Warner Cable Inc. (“TWC”), and the substantial and multiple pro-consumer, pro-competitive, and public interest benefits that it will generate, including through competitive entry in segments neither company today can meaningfully serve on its own,” the two companies wrote in their joint opening statement.

Cohen

Cohen

“Comcast and TWC do not compete for customers in any market – either for broadband, video, or voice services. The transaction will not reduce competition or consumer choice at all. Comcast and TWC serve separate and distinct geographic areas. This simple but critically important fact has been lost on many who would criticize our transaction, but it cannot be ignored – competition simply will not be reduced. Rather, the transaction will enhance competition in key market segments, including advanced business services and advertising.”

To emphasize just how little this merger will impact the current state of non-competition in the broadband marketplace, Comcast repeatedly emphasized you can’t subscribe to a competing cable company today and still won’t tomorrow:

“Consumers in Comcast’s territories cannot subscribe to TWC for broadband, video, or phone services. And TWC customers cannot switch to Comcast. For that reason, this is not a horizontal transaction under merger review standards, and there will be no reduction in competition or consumer choice,” said the written statement.

In other words, since there was no competition between cable companies before, making sure consumers still don’t have a choice is not anti-competitive.

Watch the entire hearing on the Senate Judiciary Committee website.

(The hearing begins at the 24 minute mark.)

Here are some other “benefits” promised by Cohen and Minson:

Post-transaction, Comcast intends to make substantial incremental upgrades to TWC’s systems to migrate them to all-digital, freeing up bandwidth to deliver greater speeds. For example, Comcast typically bonds 8 QAM channels together in its systems, and Comcast’s most popular broadband service tier offers speeds of 25/5Mbps upstream across its footprint. In comparison, TWC bonds 4 QAM channels in nearly half of its systems, and its most commonly purchased service tier offers speeds of 15/1Mbps. Comcast’s fastest residential broadband tier offers speeds of 505/100Mbps; TWC’s current top speeds are 100/5Mbps. Comcast’s investments in the TWC systems will also improve network reliability, network security, and convenience to TWC customers.

Minson

Minson

Of course, nothing prevented either company from boosting speeds without a $45 billion merger deal. In fact, Comcast is doing exactly that this week. Marcus’ own revival plan for TWC, dubbed TWC Maxx, promised Time Warner Cable customers would get even faster speeds than Comcast offers most of its customers.

Time Warner Cable now advertises it does not have usage caps on broadband. Comcast cannot say the same, although it tries very hard to tapdance around the matter by calling the 300GB monthly cap spreading into more and more Comcast territories a “data threshold.”

Comcast’s speed upgrades for TWC customers are likely to come with a big catch — an arbitrary usage allowance that limits their usefulness. By the way, that 505Mbps service is available only from Comcast’s extremely limited fiber network that the overwhelming majority of customers cannot get.

The transaction will similarly speed the availability of advanced Wi-Fi equipment in consumers’ homes. The quality of broadband service depends not only on the “last-mile” infrastructure but also the delivery of the signal over the last few yards. Comcast has led the entire broadband industry in rolling out advanced gateway Wi-Fi routers to approximately 8 million households and small businesses, giving these customers faster speeds (up to 270 Mbps downstream as compared to 85 Mbps downstream from the prior generation devices) and better performance over their home and business wireless networks. In contrast, TWC only recently began deploying advanced in-home Wi-Fi routers. With the greater purchasing power and economies of scale resulting from the transaction, Comcast can not only offer TWC customers access to today’s best routers, but also invest in and deploy next-generation router technologies for all of the combined company’s customers.

comcast twcComcast doesn’t like to mention that “advanced Wi-Fi” equipment costs customers $8 a month… forever. Comcast is also using it to boost its own Wi-Fi service by sharing it with the neighbors. This merger “benefit” will cost customers almost $100 a year. Customers can do better buying their own equipment and don’t need a merger to make that decision.

The transaction will give Comcast the geographic reach, economies of scale, customer density, and return on investment needed to massively expand Wi-Fi hotspots across the combined company’s footprint, including in the Midwest, South, and West, particularly in areas like Cleveland/Pittsburgh, the Carolinas, Texas, and California, where there will be greater density and clustering of systems. Our goal is to provide greater Wi-Fi availability that allows the combined company’s customers to access the Internet in more places, more conveniently, and at no additional charge.

Your usage allowance will likely apply to this “free Wi-Fi” that most customers cannot access because they live in an area where neither company offers it now and likely won’t anytime soon.

The transaction will also enable Comcast to invest in network expansions and last-mile improvements that provide an even stronger foundation for innovative applications, including education, healthcare, the delivery of government services, and home security and energy management. And with greater coverage and density of systems, Comcast will also have the ability and incentive to build out and make available interconnection points in more geographic regions. This will be especially beneficial to companies like Google, Netflix, and Amazon, which aggregate massive data traffic when they deliver their own and others’ services to consumers.

internet essentialsFor the right price. Nothing precluded Comcast or Time Warner Cable from investing some of their lush profits into improvements for customers. But why bother when your only serious competitor is usually DSL. Investment in broadband networks has declined for years in favor of profit-taking. Making Comcast bigger introduces no new market forces that would provoke it to improve service. In fact, Comcast’s massive size and reach would likely deter would-be competitors from entering a market where Comcast can use predatory pricing and retention offers to keep customers from switching.

Helping people successfully cross the digital divide requires ongoing outreach. To increase awareness of the Internet Essentials program, Comcast has made significant and sustained efforts within local communities. To date, those outreach efforts have included:

  • Distributing over 33 million free brochures to school districts and community partners for (available in 14 different languages).
  • Broadcasting more than 3.6 million public service announcements with a combined value of nearly $48 million.
  • Forging more than 8,000 partnerships with community-based organizations, government agencies, and elected officials at all levels of government.

Cohen does not mention the company planned to offer Internet Essentials earlier than it did, but held it back for political reasons.

“I held back because I knew it may be the type of voluntary commitment that would be attractive to the chairman” of the Federal Communications Commission, Cohen said in a 2012 interview. Comcast’s generosity was limited. It specifically designed its discount Internet program to make it difficult to qualify and protect its regular-priced broadband offerings. The goodwill from handing out Comcast sales brochures and getting free exposure in the media offers little to customers. Comcast also has a way of getting the community-based organizations it “partners” with to advocate for Comcast’s business interests.

"Sometimes we need a kick in the butt." -- Cohen

“Sometimes we need a kick in the butt.” — Cohen

If only the government got out of the way and approve the merger, Comcast will improve on its already amazing customer service:

Improving the customer experience is a top priority at Comcast. We are investing billions of dollars in our network infrastructure and are developing innovative products and features to make it easier and more convenient for our customers to interact with us. While our satisfaction results are beginning to rise, we know we still have work to do and are laser-focused on continuing to improve our customers’ experiences in a number of ways.  Comcast has improved its customer satisfaction ratings significantly. Since 2010, Comcast has increased its J.D. Power’s Overall Satisfaction score by nearly 100 points as a video provider, and close to 80 points in High Speed Data – more than any other provider in our industry during the same period.

Twice nothing is still nothing. Cohen even admitted at the hearing Comcast’s progress at improving customer service is not as rosy as his written testimony might suggest.

“It bothers us we have so much trouble delivering high quality of service to customers on a regular basis,” Cohen said. “Sometimes, we need a kick in the butt.”

That has never worked before. Comcast has kicked its customers around since at least 2007 when it also promised major customer service improvements that turned out to be figments of a press release. Comcast’s “laser-focused” efforts to improve instead won it the 2014 Consumerist Worst Company in America award this week and more than 100,000 consumers signing petitions vehemently opposing the merger.

Comcast has a long record of improving consumers’ online experiences and working cooperatively with other companies on interconnection, peering and transit.

bufferingJust ask any Comcast customer about their Netflix viewing experience lately and how it took a checkbook to improve matters. Ask any online video competitor whether Comcast is a good neighbor when it exempts its own video traffic from its “usage threshold” while making sure to count competitors’ traffic against it.

Comcast also likes to suggest Americans are awash in competitive options for broadband service. Why there is DSL, satellite broadband, fiber, wireless Internet, public libraries, and books.

In fact, Comcast’s filing points to various “competitors” that don’t even exist yet, if they ever will. Comcast suggests Google Fiber is popping up everywhere, despite the fact Google announced it was delaying its fiber rollout in Austin, and most of its latest expansion plans lack firm commitments to deploy and are framed only in the context of opening a dialogue with targeted communities.

Satellite Internet speeds are severely limited and usage-capped. The same is true for exorbitantly expensive mobile broadband. Comparing a $40 unlimited broadband offering from Time Warner Cable to Verizon Wireless’ 4GB for $50 mobile wireless Internet package is silly.

Comcast characterizes the competitive telecom marketplace as a veritable dogfight, but it looks a lot more like a well-executed dog and pony show. Just how rabid are these dogs?

  • Verizon’s pit bull zeal to compete has more bark than bite. Verizon Wireless customers can sign up for Comcast or Time Warner Cable service in Verizon stores (woof);
  • Comcast’s rottweiler isn’t supposed to get along well with others, but it manages pretty well pitching Verizon Wireless service (grrr).

An hour into the hearing, it was clear there was some bipartisan discomfort with the merger, with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) leading the charge with pointed questions cutting through Comcast’s government relations fluff.

“I’m against this deal,” Franken concluded. “My concern is that as Comcast continues to get bigger, you’ll have even more power to exercise that leverage — to squeeze consumers.”

Like an orange.

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Surprise: Some Alabama Customers Unhappy About AT&T’s Experiment Ending Landline Service

att-logo-221x300AT&T customers in Carbon Hill, Ala. received an unwelcome surprise in their mailbox recently when AT&T informed them they will be part of an experiment ending traditional landline service in favor of a Voice over IP or wireless alternative.

Affected customers are involuntary participants in what AT&T calls an “exciting opportunity for our customers and for our company,” but many residents want no part of it.

The Wall Street Journal reports Carbon Hill city clerk Janice Pendley says some people in the former mining town are not pleased.

“Some of them like their landline, and they like it just the way it is,” she says.

AT&T’s experiment will force new and existing customers to switch to its more-expensive U-verse broadband platform, use a mobile phone, or a home landline replacement that works over AT&T’s cellular network. The FCC has granted AT&T permission to impose its experimental plan to end traditional landline service in two communities where regulatory protections for landline customers are weak to non-existent — Alabama’s Carbon Hill and Delray Beach, Fla.

Carbon Hill is a small town of around 880 households in extreme western Walker County. It is the kind of rural town AT&T would likely never consider for a U-verse upgrade. AT&T embarked on a second major push to extend U-verse into more communities last year, but also indicated it would strongly advocate for a wireless replacement for its landline network in the rest of its service areas. Because Carbon Hill is an experiment, AT&T will offer U-verse to at least part of the community regardless of the usual financial Return on Investment requirements AT&T usually imposes on its U-verse expansion efforts.

carbon hillAT&T is pushing forward despite the fact it  has no idea how it will offer service to at least 4% of isolated Carbon Hill residents not scheduled to be provided U-verse and not within an AT&T wireless coverage area. There are also no guarantees customers will be able to correctly reach 911, although AT&T says the technology “supports 911 functionality.” Serious questions among consumer advocates remain about whether the replacement technology will support burglar alarms, pacemakers and even systems used by air-traffic controllers.

The difficulties service Carbon Hill relate to its rural makeup and income profile. In Delray Beach, it is all about customer demographics. Half of the city is home to residents over 65 years old — the group most likely to prefer their existing landline service. Many are likely to be unhappy about a transition to new technology that will not work in the event of power interruptions, will require the installation of new equipment, or will be tied to a wireless platform that some say reduces the intelligibility of telephone conversations and often introduces audio artifacts like echo, background noise, and dropouts.

In both cities, customers only offered wireless-based service will no longer have access to DSL or wired broadband service of any kind. The wireless alternative from AT&T comes at a high cost and a low usage allowance.

The benefits to AT&T are unquestionable, however. The company will win almost universal deregulation as a Voice over IP or wireless telephone provider. Legacy regulations on customer service requirements, pricing, and obligations to provide affordable phone service to any customer that requests it are swept away by the new technologies. Competitors are also worried AT&T will be able to walk away from regulations governing open and fair access to AT&T’s network.

ip4carbon hillThe Wall Street Journal reports:

The all-Internet protocol “transition holds many promises for consumers, but losing access to affordable voice and broadband services cannot be part of that bargain,” wrote Angie Kronenberg, general counsel of Comptel, in a letter to the FCC last month on behalf of the small-carrier trade group, several companies and public-interest groups.

AARP said it believes AT&T’s plan has “numerous problems.” The technology might not be reliable enough or fail when calling 911 in an emergency, the advocacy group for seniors told regulators in its comment letter. The FCC is reviewing hundreds of comments received in response to AT&T’s request.

EarthLink piggybacks on the “incumbents as little as economically possible” and has laid nearly 30,000 miles of fiber-optic cables throughout the U.S. to help it reach more than a million customers, says Rolla Huff, a former EarthLink chief executive. Still, the company needs access to the connections built by AT&T and Verizon into buildings.

Telecom carriers such as Windstream in Little Rock, Ark., and sellers of broadband data services like EarthLink and XO Communications LLC, of Herndon, Va., have had the right to buy last-mile access at regulated prices since the last major overhaul of federal telecom laws in 1996.

tw telecomIf AT&T ends its traditional network, those competing service providers will have to negotiate with AT&T for access at whatever price AT&T elects to charge.

A preview of what is likely to happen has already been experienced by TW Telecom, an independent firm selling phone and Internet services to businesses over more than 30,000 miles of fiber lines. But that fiber network means nothing if a customer’s last mile connection is handled by a local phone company no longer subject to regulated pricing and access rules.

In Tampa, where Verizon has deployed FiOS as an unregulated replacement for its older, regulated copper-based network, TW Telecom learned first hand what this could ultimately mean:

Rochester Telephone Corporation was born in 1921 after a merger between the Rochester Telephonic Exchange, a branch of the Bell Company of Buffalo and locally-owned independent Rochester Telephone Company, which was not allowed to use Bell's long distance network.

Rochester Telephone Corporation was born in 1921 after a merger between the Rochester Telephonic Exchange, a branch of the Bell Company of Buffalo and locally owned independent Rochester Telephone Company, which was not allowed to use Bell’s long distance network.

TW Telecom approached Verizon in 2012 to seek last-mile access to a Tampa, Fla., building being converted into a bank from a restaurant. Verizon had installed only FiOS at the building.

Verizon said no, telling TW Telecom to build its own connection or pay Verizon thousands of dollars to do the job. TW Telecom declined to pay and lost the customer’s business.

“When it happens, it’s devastating,” says Kristie Ince, who oversees regulatory policy at TW Telecom. Similar snarls have cost the company at least six customers since then. Other carriers say they have had similar clashes.

In Illinois, Sprint’s business phone network has run into a barricade manned by AT&T. Sprint needs AT&T to interconnect calls placed on Sprint’s network intended for AT&T’s customers. The two companies cannot agree on an asking price under the deregulation scheme so Sprint converts its Voice over IP calls to older technology still subject to regulation just so calls will successfully reach AT&T’s customers. AT&T promptly converts those calls back to Voice over IP technology as it completes them.

AT&T said it has “no duty” to connect its Internet protocol traffic with Sprint’s.

If the FCC keeps IP-based traffic deregulated, if and when the old landline network is decommissioned, AT&T will have the last word on access, potentially putting competitors out of business.

Our great-great grandparents experienced similar problems in the early days of telephone service, when high rates from the local Bell telephone subsidiary provoked local competition. But Bell companies routinely refused to handle calls placed on competitors’ networks, forcing customers to maintain a telephone line with both companies to reach every subscriber. Additionally, only Bell-owned providers had access to the long distance network – a competitive disadvantage to competing startups.

Regulatory changes, a handful of mergers and the eventual establishment of the well-regulated Bell System eventually solved problems which threaten to return if AT&T has its way.

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