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Comcast’s Reputation for Bad Customer Service is Legendary and Never-Ending

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Comcast has repeatedly touted its rating from J.D. Power & Associates claiming the company has been cited for the most improvement of any cable operator scored by the survey firm. That isn’t saying very much when one takes a closer look.

comcast-time-warner-cable-mergerIn fact, since 2010 Comcast has achieved very little improvement in its abysmal score. J.D. Power & Associates reports that over the last four years, Comcast has only managed to boost its TV satisfaction score 92 points and Internet satisfaction 77 points… on a 1,000-point scale.[1]

Comcast also continues to have below-average scores in all four regions for both television and broadband, with the exception of Internet service in the north-central region, where it faces competition from DSL offered by telephone company CenturyLink.

Other consumer satisfaction surveys are far less charitable to Comcast.

Consumer Reports ranked Comcast 15th out of 17 large cable companies and called their service and customer relations mediocre. In a survey conducted in April, the consumer group found 56% of the public opposed to the merger, 11% supported it, and 32% offered no opinion. The survey found 74% believing the merger will result in higher prices and fewer choices for consumers.[2]

“A merger combining these two huge companies would give Comcast even greater control over the cable and broadband Internet markets, leading to higher prices, fewer choices, and worse customer service for consumers,” Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel in Consumers Union’s D.C. office, said in a statement.[3]

Nearly every year, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts acknowledges the problems with customer service and promises improvements.[4] But according to the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, those improvements never arrive.

In 2004, ACSI noted it added cable television to its index in 2000, and since that time, “customer satisfaction has gone from bad to worse, and there is no improvement in sight:”[5]

ows_139276912850214Among cable providers, Time Warner has the highest score of 60. Both Comcast and Charter Communications register at 56. For the private as well as public sector, including the IRS, this is the lowest level of customer satisfaction of any organization in ACSI. Consumer complaints are also much more common relative to any other measured industry. Almost half of all cable customers have registered complaints about one thing or another.

When buyers have meaningful choice alternatives, this level of customer (dis)satisfaction is neither competitive nor sustainable. Cable is the only industry to score below 60 in ACSI. With the satellite companies removed, the weighted average for the cable industry is 59.

Under normal competitive conditions, there would be mass customer defections. The reason this is not the case for the cable industry is due to local monopoly power, which means that in most markets, the dissatisfied customer has nowhere to go.

In 2007, ACSI foreshadows what a merger between two giant cable companies is likely to mean for customers as the two companies eventually attempt to integrate their disparate computer systems and management:[6]

After a minor gain in 2006, the first ever for the industry, satisfaction among subscribers to cable and satellite TV service drops 2% to 62, the lowest level of customer satisfaction among all industries covered by ACSI.  None of the providers has improved on customer satisfaction this year.  Comcast (down 7% to 56), DirecTV (down 6% to 67) and Time Warner Cable (down 5% to 58) tumble.  High system loads causing problems with reliability and pricing were major culprits.  Both Comcast and Time Warner have acquired many new subscribers in their deal to divide up troubled cable provider Adelphia Communications – integrating these acquisitions often leads to short-term problems with customer satisfaction.

Comcast MergerIn 2008, things deteriorated further for Comcast customers, according to this ACSI assessment:[7]

Comcast is down 4% to 54, an all-time low for the largest cable provider in the country. Rapid growth may have contributed to difficulties in operations as Comcast continues to add cable subscribers, often through acquisitions of companies in smaller markets.

[…] As is often the case, small is often better in terms of being able to provide good customer service. Cablevision, for example, with some 3 million subscribers, is barely 1/8th the size of Comcast. These companies don’t generally seek to expand quickly beyond their geographic footprints and are often targets of acquisition by larger firms, companies that may be able to withstand depressed customer satisfaction in the short term as operations of the smaller providers are integrated.

This year, both Comcast and Time Warner Cable fell even further according to ACSI:[8]

Cable giants Comcast and Time Warner Cable have the most dissatisfied customers. Comcast falls 5% to 60, while Time Warner registers the biggest loss and plunges 7% to 56, its lowest score to date.

“Comcast and Time Warner assert their proposed merger will not reduce competition because there is little overlap in their service territories,” says David VanAmburg, ACSI Director. “Still, it’s a concern whenever two poor-performing service providers combine operations. ACSI data consistently show that mergers in service industries usually result in lower customer satisfaction, at least in the short term. It’s hard to see how combining two negatives will be a positive for consumers.”

ACSI also scored Internet Service Providers this year and found even worse news:[9]

High prices, slow data transmission and unreliable service drag satisfaction to record lows, as customers have few  alternatives beyond the largest Internet service providers. Customer satisfaction with ISPs drops 3.1% to 63, the lowest score in the Index.

[…] Cable-company-controlled ISPs languish at the bottom of the rankings again. Cox Communications is the best of these and stays above the industry average despite a 6% fall to 64. Customers rate Comcast (-8% to 57) and Time Warner Cable (-14% to 54) even lower for Internet service than for their TV service. In both industries, the two providers have the weakest customer satisfaction.

Comcast claims the transaction will allow the two companies to invest in their networks, improve customer service, and enhance the products available to Time Warner Cable customers.

In reality, Comcast’s largest investment will be in a $17 billion share buyback to benefit their stockholders.[10] Time Warner Cable’s current CEO has secured for himself a golden parachute package of $78 million dollars for just two months on the job as CEO of Time Warner Cable.[11]

With that kind of money on the table, it is no surprise Comcast has invested in 76 lobbyists from 24 different lobbying firms and is spending millions trying to convince regulators, including the NY PSC that this transaction is a good deal for New York. The more than 2,700 New Yorkers that have filed comments with the PSC, largely in strong opposition to this merger, disagree. Their voices should speak louder than out of state groups that have been urged by Comcast to send letters supporting this transaction.

[1]http://variety.com/2014/biz/news/comcast-time-warner-cable-remain-among-most-hated-tv-providers-survey-1201145921/
[2]http://variety.com/2014/biz/news/comcast-time-warner-cable-merger-poll-shows-majority-oppose-1201224277/
[3]http://cuactionfund.org/get-the-facts
[4]http://www.dslreports.com/shownews/Comcast-CEO-Makes-His-Yearly-Promise-to-Improve-Customer-Service-128206
[5]http://www.theacsi.org/component/content/article/30-commentary-category/86-acsi-quarterly-commentaries-q1-2004
[6]http://www.theacsi.org/component/content/article/30-commentary-category/169-acsi-quarterly-commentaries-q1-2007
[7]http://www.theacsi.org/component/content/article/30-commentary-category/179-acsi-quarterly-commentaries-q1-2008
[8]http://www.theacsi.org/news-and-resources/press-releases/press-2014/press-release-telecommunications-and-information-2014
[9]http://www.theacsi.org/news-and-resources/press-releases/press-2014/press-release-telecommunications-and-information-2014
[10]http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2014/02/comcast_agrees_to_purchase_of.html
[11]http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/03/20/four-months-as-time-warner-cables-ceo--80-million/6658083/
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New York Public Service Commission Announces Delay in Comcast/TWC Merger Consideration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Secretary Burgess:

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

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

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

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

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

Phillip "I got whiplash just watching" Dampier

Phillip “I got whiplash just watching” Dampier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balto

Balto

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

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

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

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

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

Cable "competition" in Minneapolis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Antitrust Us: Is ComVerizablAsT&TWCDirecTV Really Best for American Broadband?

Bad enough

Bad enough

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

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

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

From The Economist:

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

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

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

Worse

Worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Comcast’s Gain, Our Pain: New Yorkers Flood PSC With Comments Opposing Merger Deal

Nearly 2,000 New York residents and counting have urged the state Public Service Commission to reject the proposed merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

A review of the comments finds little interest in compromise and setting conditions in return for merger approval. Those commenting overwhelmingly want nothing to do with Comcast even if the company agrees to broaden its Internet Essentials program for the poor or agrees to continue voluntarily supporting Net Neutrality principles.

comcast no

Consumers Union stormed the streets of Philadelphia during Comcast’s annual shareholder meeting to protest its merger deal with Time Warner Cable.

“There are ample examples of the rottenness of Comcast,” wrote I. VanKeuren from Wallkill. “It seems to me that instead of holding hearings on a possible merger of these two bad companies, the PSC should be investigating why Comcast has been so bad for so long.”

VanKeuren is hardly alone in his thinking.

A new survey from the Consumer Reports National Research Center found scant support for the merger among Americans.

The survey found 56% of Americans oppose the merger, and only 11% of respondents were in favor of it, with the rest either undecided or resigned to the belief it is out of their hands.

Cable companies rank among the least trusted organizations that most Americans do business with, so it’s not surprising that the people are concerned. Seventy-four percent of the public says they believe that prices will rise if the merger goes through, and two-thirds say that Comcast will have less incentive to improve customer service. The study, which drew on a nationally representative pool of 1,573 people, was conducted on behalf of the Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

“Most Americans don’t have time to follow complicated corporate mergers but this deal has definitely captured the public’s attention,” Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union, said. “Consumers are tired of rising monthly bills and lousy customer service for cable and Internet and have little faith that this mega merger will make things any better.”  The new Comcast would control more than two-thirds of all cable television subscribers in the country, and nearly 40 percent of the high-speed Internet market.

Those statistics and past experiences dealing with Comcast have New York consumers like VanKeuren concerned.

“If [...] the PSC approves this merger, then the PSC itself should [itself] be investigated with a complete reorganization as its goal,” said VanKeuren.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/No ComcastTime Warner Mega Merger 5-23-14.mp4

Consumers Union protested outside of Comcast’s annual meeting in Philadelphia in opposition to its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. (1:48)

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Academic Sock Puppets for Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger; Editorials Lack Full Disclosure

Phillip "Time Warner Cable ironically debunked Lyons' advocacy of usage-based billing" Dampier

Phillip “Time Warner Cable ironically debunked Lyons’ advocacy of usage-based billing” Dampier

As part of the broader push to drive support for the merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, academics with ties to corporate-funded think tanks and the cable industry are trotting out nearly identical guest editorials appearing in newspapers around the country that attempt to educate the masses about the wonders of cable industry consolidation.

Daniel Lyons, who has written several papers supporting and endorsing the cable industry’s business agenda, is back with his helpful advice:

Consumers have more video options than ever before. Technology has eroded the lines between hardware, content and media companies. Today, Comcast’s biggest competitive threat is not other cable and satellite providers but new entertainment sources not even imaginable a decade ago. Netflix streams video online and is responsible for one-third of all Internet traffic during peak times. Apple is transforming itself from a device manufacturer into an entertainment company that delivers music, video and games instantly through a seamless customer interface. Google has expanded beyond Internet search to video services and even broadband data networks. Verizon, a traditional telephone company, recently bought the rights to stream NFL games to smartphones. Even Walmart has entered the streaming video business.

It is a challenging transaction, one that antitrust regulators should review carefully. But they should avoid rushing to judgment merely because Comcast is consolidating its position over a stagnant cable sector. Some consolidation may be necessary for cable to avoid Blockbuster’s fate and instead compete effectively in this rich, dynamic and increasingly competitive video landscape.

It is especially hard to take Mr. Lyons seriously when he claims with a straight face the cable industry is “stagnant” and on the verge of following Blockbuster into irrelevance. The only product in the cable bundle seeing flat growth is cable television. But that has not presented a difficult financial challenge because cable operators are shifting their priorities towards broadband. Just to make sure they are covered, broadband providers have raised prices and introduced equipment fees that have more than made up the difference. Despite Lyons’ prediction of doom and gloom, industry observers still find the cable business “comically profitable.”

Lyons

Lyons

In fact, the cable industry now dominates the American broadband marketplace and is well positioned to deal with any competitive threat looming on the horizon. All of the competitors Lyons mentions depend on companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable to reach customers. Cord-cutting looks much less tenable if companies like Comcast return to a regime of usage caps on their broadband accounts. Netflix, Apple, and Google cannot sustain video streaming businesses if customers fear using these services will put them over their monthly usage allowance. Sony’s forthcoming 4K video service for its video player could consume between 40-60GB per movie. Even with Comcast’s “generous” allowance of 300GB per month in its usage-capped test markets, as few as 10 movies a month will put customers over the limit, before they do anything else with their broadband connection.

Despite the threat of Internet stagnation, Lyons is a prolific writer of pro-usage cap and usage-billing studies. In at least one of those papers, he was joined by Michigan State University Professor of Information Studies Steven Wildman, also then an adviser at the Free State Foundation. Wildman was more forthcoming about where the money comes from for these studies – the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the largest cable industry lobbying and trade group in the United States.

Unfortunately for the Free State Foundation and the NCTA, Time Warner Cable inadvertently proved Lyons and Wildman’s theories wrong.

“Pricing experimentation may also help narrow the digital divide,” Lyons wrote. “By recovering more fixed costs from heavier users, firms may have more freedom to extend service at a lower rate to light users who are unable or unwilling to pay the unlimited flat rate. There is evidence that these opportunities are beginning to emerge from companies engaged in usage-based pricing.”

What actually emerged from Time Warner Cable’s tests of discounted usage pricing is a repudiation of Lyons’ theories. Time Warner Cable admitted its usage-based pricing options were so unpopular with customers, only a few thousand out of 11 million broadband customers signed up — hardly a ringing endorsement. Even income-challenged customers preferred unlimited Internet over a usage cap. Time Warner Cable give customers a choice between a cap or no cap. The others, including Comcast, don’t offer an unlimited option and repeatedly claim usage cap tests have met with little resistance from customers, as if they had a choice.

Short Title: Total Deregulation

Short Title: Total Deregulation

Other members of Free State Foundation’s Board of Academic Advisors, including Richard A. Epstein, Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, Daniel Lyons, James B. Speta, and Christopher S. Yoo advance the cable industry agenda in other ways too.

Speta submitted an Amicus Brief: ‘In the Matter of Comcast Corporation v. FCC,’ that basically argued the Federal Communications Commission “does not have jurisdiction to address most Internet regulatory issues, because whatever expansive readings such ancillary jurisdiction has received in the past are no longer tenable.”

In fact, the Free State Foundation unabashedly supports near-total deregulation of the telecommunications industry and an elimination of most FCC powers to oversee it. In comments before the House Energy & Commerce Committee, the foundation’s Board of Academic Advisers recommended:

  • Updating the Communications Act by wiping it out — a clean slate approach is needed to adopt a “replacement” regime – a new Digital Age Communications Act, which is another way of saying near-complete elimination of all current oversight and enforcement powers exercised by the FCC;
  • Lyons, among others, supports eliminating regulation designed around the concept of “in the public interest” with a near-complete deregulation of telecommunications oversight, letting marketplace competition check any bad behavior. The only regulatory activities permitted would require the FCC to show the resulting harm from lack of sufficient competition;
  • The group supports disallowing the FCC from issuing rules to prevent anti-competitive or abusive behavior until such behavior has been proven to have taken place. Any rules that result would automatically expire after a fixed number of years;
  • States would be prohibited from regulating telecommunications services in instances where states feel federal regulation is inadequate.

Ironically, some of the biggest supporters of the group’s ideas to restrict states from writing telecommunications laws seem to have no problem letting states write laws that ban community broadband networks.

And finally, how could we forget to mention Mr. Yoo, who testified in recent hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee enthusiastically supporting the merger deal, while not bothering to mention his employer, the University of Pennsylvania law school, has close ties to Comcast. In fact David Cohen, the Comcast executive who is the company’s leading voice in Washington and was the first witness at the hearing, is chairman of the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately for readers, no newspaper to date has fully disclosed these close industry ties when publishing these guest editorials. As a public service, Stop the Cap! does.
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Comcast Tries to Prove Its Usage Meter is Accurate Before Slapping the Caps Back On

Keeping an eye on the scale

Keep an independent eye on the scale

Without independent verification by an unbiased third-party, providers’ usage meters can measure any amount of usage — correct or not — with no recourse for those facing overlimit fees or service suspension.

That is why companies like Comcast depend on the patina of credibility a third-party company can offer when certifying Internet traffic measurement tools as accurate, even if that company has a vested interest handing Comcast the results it wants to see.

NetForecast just completed its third paid study of Comcast’s Internet meter declaring it amazingly accurate with an error rate of just -0.75 to 0.36%.

NetForecast claims it performed independent traffic measurements using real user traffic in subscribers’ homes as well as its own in-house PC and server.

“Based on our measurement results, Comcast subscribers should be able to rely on Comcast’s meter accuracy,” NetForecast says.

Comcast subscribers should also be able to rely on the fact that any cable company that involved with its usage measurement meter has a clear agenda to use it as part of a nationwide return to usage caps or usage-based billing.

NetForecast is no substitute for utilizing a financially uninvolved third-party to oversee any measurement tool that could expose customers to additional charges.

The country has been through this before.

Offices of Weights and Measures represent one of the country’s oldest efforts at consumer protection and trace their origins to the Code of Hammurabi, the Magna Carta and the United States Constitution. Most states created their own bureau to verify all sorts of measurement tools from scales to gas pumps in the early 1900s after an epidemic of widespread fraud shortchanged citizens.

Measure with confidence.

Measure with confidence.

By 1910, the California Legislature was engaged in a battle with the railroads over the accuracy of scales used to weigh railway cars. Railroad tariffs for hauling goods were based on the weight or measurement of the commodity carried. The railroad industry occasionally hired so-called “independent” third parties to certify the accuracy of railway scales to fend off government regulation and oversight after reports of widespread fraud reached the legislature. It didn’t solve the problem.

In 1920, 52.4% of railroad scales, including those “certified” accurate were found to be well out of tolerance. When the industry knew the state of California’s Office of State Superintendent of Weights and Measures would oversee testing a year later, every scale tested in 1921 was suddenly accurate within tolerance.

The problem of accurate measurement was not limited to the railroads. Californian cattle and livestock ranchers faced dishonest hay balers that ginned up the cost of hay by sneaking in heavy debris like rocks and using inaccurate scales to charge higher prices. The 1919 Hay Baling Act was passed to ensure accuracy in the sale of hay and to stop the fraud and abuse the hay balers denied ever existed.

In Maryland, the fraud came from scales used by grocers and gas pumps — both rigged by their respective owners to deliver bigger profits at the consumer’s expense.

In the 1971 Report of the 56th National Conference on Weights and Measures, E.E. Wolski, manager of quality control at the Colgate-Palmolive Company considered it unthinkable that anyone other than a truly independent, financially uninvolved third-party should monitor the accuracy of measurement tools.

This Maryland gas pump is being verified for accuracy by the Weights & Measures program run by the state government.

This Maryland gas pump is being verified for accuracy by the Weights & Measures program run by the state government.

“I do not think anyone will be so naïve as to even suggest that an elimination or reduction of inspection or enforcement would result in anything other than a return to the situation which made the need for them so apparent,” said Wolski. “It is a well-known fact that where enforcement drops off, so does compliance.”

In one state where private companies were permitted to self-certify, inaccuracy turned out to be rampant.

“I was informed that the average gallon was about a half pint short and that an average pound had been a little less than an ounce short,” Wolski said. “The shortages had been statewide and were almost universal.”

The state-employed director that finally established independent oversight of weights and measurements in light of the widespread fraud Wolski talked about was firm in his conclusion that “everybody, literally everybody (and that includes you and me), needs to know that someone is there watching what he does.”

Any financial interest in the outcome of a weight or measurement involving money is a temptation to cheat consumers, one that has effectively only been tempered all the way back to the days of King Solomon by truly independent oversight, typically by a state or local authority. That authority is on display today in the form of a compliance sticker found on commercial scales, gas pumps, and other measurement tools, attesting to their accuracy.

While it is nice Comcast at least bothers to investigate the accuracy of its usage meter, consumers should not be asked to trust the findings of a third-party paid to produce results. Consumers should insist that a truly independent regulator of weights and measurements regularly test and verify usage meters wherever they could be used to suspend a customer’s account or result in extra fees.

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Stop the Cap! Invited to Participate in N.Y. PSC Hearings on Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

nys psc

The New York State Public Service Commission has invited Stop the Cap! to testify about the impact of Comcast and Time Warner Cable merging on New York State residents.

Our testimony will concentrate on an examination of whether the merger is in the best interests of consumers and customers, focusing on issues ranging from usage caps to broadband speeds and pricing and the quality of service provided by both companies. Our remarks will also include a brief overview of the impact of the merger on competition in the state and whether New York would be better served by Comcast or an independent Time Warner Cable.

We will be testifying at the hearing in Buffalo, N.Y., on Monday June 16 starting at 6pm. The public is welcome to attend and will be free to make remarks during the open forum starting at 7:30pm. We urge all New York residents to attend this hearing or others to be held in Albany and New York City. Consumers have significant weight with the New York commissioners and your comments have often derailed the agendas of telecom companies in the state (the Fire Island Verizon Voice Link fiasco, Verizon’s service improvement oversight, stopping Time Warner Cable from cutting off late-paying phone customers on nights and weekends, etc.)

comcast twcIf a sufficient number of residents voice strong concerns about the merger, there is a significant chance New York regulators could place conditions on the merger making it untenable, or could reject it outright, which could torpedo the merger nationwide.

More information from the New York Public Service Commission:

The New York State Public Service Commission will be conducting a series of informational forums and public statement hearings on the petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc. allowing Comcast to acquire Time Warner Cable.

The informational forums will consist of presentations by Comcast and other invited parties on the proposed transaction and its likely impact on consumers in New York. The Administrative Law Judge, attending Commissioner and DPS Senior Staff may ask questions of the invited speakers.

Immediately following each informational forum, there will be a public statement hearing at which interested members of the public may offer their views about the Petition in person, before an Administrative Law Judge assigned by the Commission. A verbatim transcript of each hearing will be made for inclusion in the record of the case.

The informational forums and public statement hearings will take place at the following times and places:

Monday, June 16

SUNY Buffalo
Student Union Theater
106 Student Union
Buffalo, NY

We will post driving directions to the forum next week.

Those in or near greater Rochester should contact us and let us know you are attending. We may try to arrange car pooling if there is sufficient interest.

6:00 pm: Informational Forum
7:30 pm: Public Statement Hearing

Wednesday, June 18

SUNY Albany
Performing Arts Center
1400 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY

6:00 pm: Informational Forum
7:30 pm: Public Statement Hearing

Thursday, June 19

NYS DPS Office
90 Church Street
New York, NY

6:00 pm: Informational Forum
7:30 pm: Public Statement Hearing

It is not necessary to be present at the start of the hearing or to make an appointment in advance to speak. Persons interested in speaking will be asked to complete a card requesting time to speak when they arrive at the hearing, and will be called in the order in which the cards are received.

(Cartoon: Heller, Denver Post)

(Cartoon: Heller, Denver Post)

Speakers are not required to provide written copies of their comments.

The public statement hearings will be kept open until everyone wishing to speak has been heard or other reasonable arrangements have been made to include their comments in the record.

Disabled persons requiring special accommodations should contact the Department of Public Service’s Human Resource Management Office at (518) 474-2520 as soon as possible. TDD users may request a sign language interpreter by placing a call through the New York Relay Service at 711 to reach the Department of Public Service’s Human Resource Office at the (518) 474-2520 number. Individuals with difficulty understanding or reading English are encouraged to call the Commission at 1-800-342-3377 for free language assistance services regarding this notice.

Other Ways to Comment

Internet or Mail: Those who cannot attend or prefer not to speak at a public statement hearing may comment electronically to Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary, at [email protected] or by mail or delivery to the Secretary at the Public Service Commission, Three Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York 12223-1350. Comments should refer to “Case 14-M-0183, Petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc.”

Toll-Free Opinion Line: You may call the Commission’s Opinion Line at 1-800-335-2120. This number is set up to take comments about pending cases from in-state callers, 24 hours a day. Press “1″ to leave comments, mentioning the Comcast/Time Warner merger.

All comments provided through these alternative methods should be submitted, or mailed and postmarked, no later than July 31, 2014. All such statements and comments will become part of the record and be reported to the Commission for its consideration.

All submitted comments may be accessed on the Commission’s Web site at www.dps.ny.gov, by searching Case 14-M-0183. Many libraries offer free Internet access.

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Comcast Sock Puppet Says Rejecting Merger of Comcast/Time Warner Cable Because It’s Big Is Bad

Supporting Comcast's merger agenda

Supporting Comcast’s merger agenda

A conservative think tank with ties to corporate money and the American Legislative Exchange Council says the FCC should not reject the Comcast and Time Warner Cable merger for emotional, “big is bad” sloganeering.

Seth Cooper, a former director of the ALEC Telecommunications and Information Technology Task Force and current Amicus Counsel for the corporate group made his comments about the merger under the moniker of the Free State Foundation.

The FCC’s due diligence in that examination of the deal, Cooper says, must “disregard pleas for it to reject Comcast/TWC out of hand, based on appeals to emotional incredulity or ‘big is bad’ sloganeering; Stand firm against calls that, under the guise of protecting consumers, the agency impose conditions in order to protect market rivals…; reject dragging out its review process…; and avoid the imposition of any conditions on the merger unrelated to demonstrable concerns over market power and anticompetitive conduct.”

Cooper parrots Comcast’s press releases promoting the multi-billion dollar merger, claiming it will lead to a faster transition to digital cable, faster Internet speeds via DOCSIS 3.1, and expanded wireless backhaul services.

Unfortunately for Cooper, the facts are not on his side.

As part of Time Warner Cable’s Maxx initiative, the march to digital cable in unmistakable at Time Warner. TWC Maxx-upgraded cities now get faster speeds at a lower cost than what Comcast offers, and no data caps. Both cable companies are already in the wireless backhaul market, installing fiber to cell towers to support 4G LTE broadband. But LTE-enabled towers are highly likely to already have fiber connections, limiting future growth. A merger between the two cable companies won’t dramatically change that market reality.

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Rep. Bob Latta’s 99.9%-Fact Free Anti Net Neutrality Bill, Now Packed With Extra Industry Goodness

Phillip "How far will $20 get me in your office?" Dampier

Phillip “How far will $20 get me in your office?” Dampier

Congress is famous for obfuscation when it comes to introducing legislation that promises one thing and delivers something quite different. Take the 2003 “Clear Skies Initiative,” which would have allowed the energy industry to increase polluting emissions, or “The Disclosure of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Composition Act,” which allows frackers to keep secret the ingredients of millions of gallons of chemicals pumped into the ground to displace natural gas, and potentially your potable drinking water.

So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) wants to “protect” the open and free Internet by introducing a new bill that opens and frees the telecom companies that steadfastly support his campaign coffers to install paid Internet toll booths. Like many pieces of legislation coming from some House Republicans these days, “freedom” only extends to corporate interests, not to you or I (unless we want to start a corporation of our own.)

Reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act is the Holy Grail for Net Neutrality supporters. It offers clear oversight authority that would make future lawsuits from Comcast, Verizon and other telecom companies untenable. Earlier court decisions have laid a foundation for broadband oversight under Title II, but the FCC itself must take advantage of that opportunity, and so far it has not.

Congressman Latta has introduced legislation to make sure the FCC can never take that step. His bill would specifically prohibit the FCC from reclassifying broadband Internet access as anything beyond an unregulated “information service.”

According to Latta, only with his legislation can America be assured the Internet will stay “open and free.” — “Open and free” for the picking by companies who dream of new revenue monetizing Internet traffic. Not satisfied charging some of the world’s highest prices for Internet access, many of the largest cable and phone companies in the country now want the right to “double-dip” — charging consumers to reach Internet content and content producers for delivering it. It would be like paying postage to mail a letter and having it arrive postage due or letting the phone company charge both the caller and the person called for a long distance telephone call.

“The legislation comes after the FCC released a proposal to reclassify broadband Internet access under Title II as a telecommunications service rather than an information service,” says a press release from Latta’s office.

Would I lie to you? Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio)

Would I lie to you? Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio)

That is patently false. In fact, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler has twisted himself into a human pretzel with clever language and a clear determination not to reclassify broadband under Title II. Wheeler prefers sticking to the rickety Section 706 faux-authority for Net Neutrality — the same section that keeps handing FCC lawyers loss after loss in federal court. After Wheeler announced his intention to propose allowing Internet companies to build paid fast lanes for Internet traffic, the resulting backlash from content companies and the public made him grudgingly offer a “discussion” about utilizing Title II.

That kind of “discussion” will be familiar to every 16-year old teenage girl who is told “we’ll talk about it” after asking mom and dad if she can take her new 22-year old boyfriend on vacation and stay in their own hotel room.

Ironically, detractors like Latta are the ones that usually accuse Net Neutrality of solving a problem that doesn’t exist. But that didn’t stop Congressman Latta from introducing legislation to stop the current ex-telecom lobbyist chairman of the FCC from going all Elizabeth Warren on us, suddenly imposing draconian pro-consumer regulations against those job creators at the cable companies Wheeler used to represent. But on the bright side, when Wheeler doesn’t do what Latta’s bill wouldn’t let him do, Latta can still declare victory against “big government.” If you live in Latta’s district, you can read all about it in the forthcoming government-subsidized, no-postage-needed “newsletter” he and other members of Congress will pelt your mailbox with right before election time.

“In light of the FCC initiating yet another attempt to regulate the Internet, upending long-standing precedent and imposing monopoly-era telephone rules and obligations on the 21st Century broadband marketplace, Congress must take action to put an end to this misguided regulatory proposal,” said Latta. “The Internet has remained open and continues to be a powerful engine fueling private enterprise, economic growth and innovation absent government interference and obstruction. My legislation will provide all participants in the Internet ecosystem the certainty they need to continue investing in broadband networks and services that have been fundamental for job creation, productivity and consumer choice.”

Consumers not included. Maybe he just forgot.

“At a time when the Internet economy is thriving and driving robust productivity and economic growth, it is reckless to suggest, let alone adopt, policies that threaten its success. Reclassification would heap 80 years of regulatory baggage on broadband providers, restricting their flexibility to innovate and placing them at the mercy of a government agency. These businesses thrive on dynamism and the ability to evolve quickly to shifting market and consumer forces. Subjecting them to bureaucratic red tape won’t promote innovation, consumer welfare or the economy, and I encourage my House colleagues to support this legislation, so we can foster continued innovation and investment within the broadband marketplace.”

thanksGuess not. The Internet should only be about business in Latta’s mind. Consumers that support Net Neutrality are nothing more than parasites sucking away valuable potential profits from the dynamic, flexible and innovative world of traffic shaping, usage caps, and double-dipping.

Latta isn’t interested that your provider is turning your weekend Netflix binge into an exercise of maddening rebuffering futility as your cable/phone company waits for protection racket proceeds a paid peering agreement with Netflix. That is because he doesn’t represent you. He represents AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Comcast, and CenturyLink.

Latta can afford to travel through the Internet toll booth when one considers who his top contributors keeping his campaign flush with cash are:

  • More than $32,000 in contributions from AT&T and its executives;
  • $29,500 from Tom Wheeler’s old haunt — the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (Big Cable lobby);
  • $15,000 from the American Cable Association (Small Cable lobby);
  • $21,000 from Time Warner Cable and its executives;
  • $16,000 from Verizon and its executives;
  • $11,400 from CenturyLink;
  • $11,000 from Comcast (they are ditching Ohio customers to Charter after merging with Time Warner Cable so why throw good money after bad).

Latta’s close friendship with Big Telecom is so obvious, it has made co-sponsoring his fact-free bill about as popular as Justin Bieber at an NAACP convention. Even his like-minded Congressional colleagues are staying away. But his industry friends sure appreciate his efforts on their behalf.

One wonders why his constituents return him to office when he would be obviously much more comfortable in his next job — lobbying for AT&T or Comcast. Before our Internet connections slow, let’s hope his constituents hasten a much-needed turbo-speed departure for the congressman, already a shadow employee of AT&T.

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