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Comcast Launches Online Video Service It Exempts from Its Own Data Caps

xfinitylogoComcast is inviting controversy launching a new live streaming TV service targeting cord-cutters while exempting it from its own data caps.

Comcast’s Stream TV is comparable to Comcast’s Limited Basic lineup, only instead of using a set-top box, Stream TV delivers online video over the Internet to Comcast’s broadband customers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and the Greater Chicago area. For $15 a month, Stream TV offers a large package of local over the air stations, broadcast networks, and HBO, along with thousands of on-demand titles and cloud DVR storage. In Boston, the lineup includes:

WGBH (PBS), HSN. WBZ (CBS), NECN, WHDH (NBC), Community Programming, BNN-Public Access, WWDP-Evine Live, WLVI (CW), WSBK (MyTV), WGBX (PBS), WBIN (Ind.), WBPX (Ion), WMFP (Ind.), The Municipal Channel, Government Access, WFXT (FOX), WCEA (MasTV), WUNI (Univision), EWTN, C-SPAN, CatholicTV, POP, QVC, WYDN (Daystar), WUTF (UniMas), WNEU (Telemundo), Jewelry TV, XFINITY Latino, WGBH World, WGBH Kids, Trinity Broadcasting Network, WGBH Create, Leased Access, WBIN-Antenna TV, WBIN-GRIT TV, WNEU-Exitos, WLVI-BUZZR, WCVB (Me-TV), WFXT-MOVIES!, WHDH-This TV, WFXZ-CA, WUNI-LATV, WFXZ (Mundo Fox), WBZ-Decades, and WFXT-Laff TV + HBO. The package also qualifies the customer as an authenticated cable TV subscriber, making them eligible to view TV Everywhere services from many cable networks.

stream tv

Comcast is offering the first month of Stream TV for free with no commitment to its broadband customers subscribed to at least XFINITY Performance Internet (or above). Up to two simultaneous streams are allowed per account and some channels may not be available for viewing outside of the home. Comcast claims it will expand Stream TV to Comcast customers nationwide in 2016. Comcast will not be selling the service to customers of other cable or phone companies, limiting its potential competitive impact.

Competitors like Sling TV offer their own alternatives to bloated cable TV subscriptions at a similar lower price, and they will sell to anyone with a broadband connection. Sling alone is partly responsible for Comcast’s loss of hundreds of thousands of cable TV customers who don’t want to pay for hundreds of channels many never watch. That Comcast might want to launch its own alternative online video package to retain customers is not a surprise. But Comcast’s decision to exempt Stream TV from the company’s data caps while leaving them in place for competitors is sure to spark a firestorm of controversy.

comcast_remoteComcast claims it is reasonable to exempt Stream TV from its 300GB data cap being tested in a growing number of markets.

“Stream TV is a cable streaming service delivered over Comcast’s cable system, not over the Internet,” wrote Comcast in its FAQ. “Therefore, Stream TV data usage will not be counted towards your Xfinity Internet monthly data usage.”

More precisely, Comcast claims it relies on its own internal IP network to distribute Stream TV, not the external Internet competitors use to reach ex-Comcast cable TV subscribers. Comcast’s premise is it is less costly to deliver content over its own network while Internet traffic comes at a premium. Critics will argue Comcast has found an end run around Net Neutrality by relying on usage caps to influence customer behavior.

For the moment, Netflix is reserving comment after being contacted by Ars Technica. But Sling TV and other services that depend on Comcast’s broadband to reach customers will likely not remain silent for long.

Comcast could effectively deter consumers from using competing online video services with the threat of overlimit fees if customers exceed their usage allowance. The cable company could even use the fact its services don’t count against that allowance as a marketing strategy.

Stop the Cap! has warned our members about that prospect for years. Preferential treatment of certain content over others by playing games with usage caps and overlimit fees could have a major impact on emerging online video competition. Since Comcast owns both the broadband lines and the online video service, it can engage in anti-competitive price discrimination. Competitors will also argue that Comcast’s internal IP network is off-limits to them, making it impossible to deliver content on equal terms over a level playing field.

stream simple

The next move will likely come from the FCC in response to complaints from Comcast’s competitors. As Ars Technica notes, the Federal Communications Commission’s Net Neutrality rules allow for complaints against so-called zero-rating schemes, with the commission judging on a case-by-case basis whether a practice “unreasonably interferes” with the ability of consumers to reach content or the ability of content providers to reach consumers.

With Comcast’s usage caps and overlimit fees, the only reaching will be for your wallet. Consumers need not wait for Sling TV and others to complain to the FCC. You can also share your own views about Comcast’s usage caps by filing a complaint with the FCC here.

Cable Customers Who Bought Their Own Modems Will Pay Built-In Modem Fee With Charter

time warner cable modem feeTime Warner Cable customers who purchased their own cable modems to avoid the company’s $8 monthly rental fee will effectively be forced to indirectly pay those fees once again if Charter Communications wins approval to buy the cable operator.

A major modem manufacturer, Zoom Telephonics, has asked the Federal Communications Commission to reject Charter’s buyout of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks because it will hurt cost-conscious consumers that invested in their own equipment to avoid costly modem rental fees.

Zoom’s argument is that Charter builds modem fees into the price of its broadband service and offers no discounts to consumers that own their own equipment. At least 14% of Time Warner Cable customers have purchased their own modems and are not charged the $8 rental fee. Charter has promised not to charge separate modem fees for three years after its acquisition deal is approved, but that also means the company is building the cost of that equipment into the price of broadband service.

Zoom has an interest in the outcome because Charter has yet to approve any Zoom cable modem model for use on its network. Time Warner Cable has certified at least one Zoom model in the past. Assuming the buyout is approved, consumers would have a disincentive to buy Zoom cable modems (or those manufactured by anyone else) because the equipment will be provided with the service.

Zoom has tangled with Charter before, most recently in the summer of 2014 when it criticized Charter’s policy forbidding new customers from using their own modems with Charter’s service. From June 26, 2012 until Aug. 22, 2014, Charter’s website stated, “For new Internet Customers and customers switching to our New Package Pricing, we will no longer allow customer owned modems on our network.”

Zoom claims Charter modified that policy three days before a key FCC filing deadline that could have eventually brought regulator attention on the cable operator. But Zoom remains unhappy with how Charter deals with the issue of customer-owned equipment.

“Charter has still not adopted certification standards that are open to Zoom and other cable modem producers, nor has Charter yet made a commitment for timely certifications under this program,” Zoom claimed in the summer of 2014. “Of the 17 cable modems Charter shows as qualified for customer attachment to its network, not one is stocked by leading cable modem retailers Walmart, Staples, and Office Depot and not one has 802.11ac wireless capability. Charter still does not separately list the cost of its leased modems on customer bills, and Charter does not offer a corresponding savings to all customers who buy a qualified cable modem and attach it to the Charter network.”

zoomZoom wants Charter to be required to offer consumers that own their own equipment a tangible monthly discount for broadband service as a condition of any merger approval.

“The Communications Act says that cable companies should sell cable modem leases and Internet service separately,” Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center who is representing Zoom, told the Los Angeles Times. “By combining the prices, Charter’s customers are deprived of the ability to purchase advanced cable modems and save the cost of monthly rental fees.”

Charter argues the Act only covers set-top boxes used for cable television service, not modem fees. Charter also claims its introductory prices are lower than what most cable companies charge, modem fee or not.

“Customers will benefit from Charter’s pro-customer and pro-broadband model with transparent billing policies,” Tamara Smith, a Charter spokeswoman, told the newspaper. “It features straightforward, nationally uniform pricing with no data caps, no usage-based pricing, no modem fees, no early termination fees and does not pass on federal or state Universal Service Fund fees to customers.”

But Charter is only guaranteeing those customer-friendly policies for three years, after which it can raise prices and add fees at will.

Stop the Cap! Testimony to N.Y. Public Service Commission Advocating Major Telecom Study

logoOctober 20, 2015

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

Dear Ms. Burgess,

New York State’s digital economy is in trouble.

While providers claim portions of New York achieve some of the top broadband speeds in the country, the vast majority of the state has been left behind by cable and phone companies that have never been in a hurry to deliver the top shelf telecom services that New Yorkers need and deserve.

The deregulation policies of the recent past have resulted in entrenched de facto monopoly and duopoly markets with little or no oversight. Those policies, instead of benefiting New Yorkers, are ultimately responsible for allowing two companies to dominate the state’s telecommunications marketplace.

In virtually all of upstate New York, the services consumers receive depend entirely on the business priorities of local incumbent providers, not market forces or customer demand. As a result, New Yorkers face relentless, unchecked rate increases, well-documented abysmal and unresponsive customer service, and inadequate broadband provided by a workforce under siege from downsizing, cost-cutting, and outsourcing.

Certain markets, particularly those in the New York City area, have at least secured a promise of better broadband from Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home upgrade. But at least 100,000 New Yorkers have languished on Verizon’s “waiting list,” as the company drags its feet on Non Standard Installation orders.[1] In upstate New York, Verizon walked away from its FiOS expansion effort five years ago, leaving only a handful of wealthy suburbs furnished with fiber service while effectively abandoning urban communities like Buffalo and Syracuse with nothing better than Verizon’s outdated DSL, which does not meet the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband – 25Mbps.[2]

Cablevision’s broadband performance dramatically improved because of investment in network upgrades, and the company has been well-regarded for its broadband service ever since.[3] But the proposed new owner of Cablevision – Altice, NV — has sought “cost savings” from cuts totaling $900 million a year, which will almost certainly devastate that provider’s future investments, its engineering and repair crews, and customer service.[4]

At least downstate New York has the prospect for +100Mbps broadband service. In upstate New York, three providers define the broadband landscape for most cities and towns:

  • Time Warner Cable dominates upstate New York with its cable broadband service and has the largest market share for High Speed Internet. As of today, Time Warner Cable’s top broadband speed outside of New York City is just 50Mbps, far less than the 1,000Mbps service cities in other states are now on track to receive or are already getting.[5]
  • Verizon Communications is the largest ILEC in upstate New York. Outside of its very limited FiOS service areas, customers depend on Verizon’s DSL service at speeds no better than 15Mbps, below the FCC’s minimum speed to qualify as broadband;[6]
  • Frontier Communications has acquired FiOS networks from Verizon in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest, and AT&T U-verse in Connecticut. Frontier has made no significant investment or effort to bring FiOS or U-verse into New York State. In fact, in its largest New York service area, Rochester, there are significant areas that can receive no better than 3.1Mbps DSL from Frontier. The vast majority of Frontier customers in New York do not receive service that meets the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband, and some investors predict the company is “headed for financial disaster.”[7]

The competitive markets the DPS staff envisions in its report to the Commission are largely a mirage. When an ILEC like Frontier Communications admits its residential broadband market share “is less than 25% in our 27 states excluding Connecticut,” that is clear evidence the marketplace has rejected Frontier’s legacy DSL service and does not consider the company an effective competitor.[8]

While incumbent cable and phone companies tout ‘robust competition’ for service in New York, if the Commission investigated the market share of Time Warner Cable upstate, it would quickly realize that ‘robust competition’ has been eroding for years, with an ongoing shift away from DSL providers towards cable broadband.[9]

Frontier’s primary market focus is on rural communities where it often enjoys a monopoly and can deliver what we believe to be inadequate service to a captive customer base. The company is currently facing a class action lawsuit in West Virginia, where it is alleged to have failed to provide advertised broadband speeds and delivers poor service.[10]

Verizon’s ongoing investment in its legacy wireline network (and expansion of DSL to serve new customers) has been regularly criticized as woefully inadequate.[11] From all indications, we expect the company will eventually sell its legacy wireline networks, particularly those upstate, within the next 5-10 years as it has done in northern New England (sold to FairPoint Communications) and proposes to do in Texas, California, and Florida.[12] (Verizon also sold off its service areas in Hawaii, West Virginia, and much of its territory acquired from GTE.)

Across New York, service problems and controversial deals between telecom providers have made headlines. Here are just a few:

  1. Superstorm Sandy’s impact on Verizon’s legacy wireline network on Fire Island and in other downstate communities left many without service. Instead of repairing the damage, Verizon proposed to scrap its wireline network and substitute inferior wireless service with no possibility of wired broadband.[13] The DPS received a large number of comments from the public and local elected officials fiercely opposed to this proposal, one that Verizon eventually withdrew in the face of overwhelming opposition.[14]
  2. There are growing allegations Verizon may be underspending on its legacy wireline network and even worse, may be misallocating costs and revenues to deceive the Commission.[15] Some allege much of the company’s ongoing investments, charged to the wireline operation, in reality are for the benefit of its wireless network. This may have allowed Verizon Communications/New York to claim significant losses on its wireline books the company then argued justified rate increases on ratepayers.[16] A full scale accounting of Verizon’s books is essential for all concerned and corrective action may be necessary if these allegations are proven true.
  3. Verizon’s foot-dragging on FiOS buildouts in New York City led to a damning audit report commissioned by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer and oversight hearings were held last week by the City Council of New York.[17] [18] Despite Verizon’s creative definition of “homes passed,” a substantial number of New Yorkers cannot receive the benefits of “today’s networks” the DPS staff refers to. Instead, many are stuck with poorly-performing DSL or no service at all.[19] Regardless of whether fiber passes in front of, over, in between, or behind buildings, Verizon signed an agreement compelling them to give customers a clear timeline to establish FiOS service. It is apparent Verizon is not meeting its obligations.[20]
  4. The proposed sale of Time Warner Cable to Comcast led the Commission’s staff to admit the majority of respondents to requests for public input were strongly opposed to the merger and without substantial modifications concluded would not be in the public interest.[21] Comcast eventually withdrew its proposal in the face of overwhelming opposition.
  5. The proposed sale of Time Warner Cable to Charter Communications, where the DPS staff concluded as the application stood, there would be no public interest benefits to the transaction.[22]

Those are just a few examples of why aggressive oversight of telecommunications is critical for all New Yorkers. In most of these examples, the DPS never ruled one way or the other. The companies individually made their own decisions, and we believe they would have decided differently if they did not face grassroots opposition from consumers.

New Yorkers deserve an active DPS prepared to aggressively represent our interests, ready to investigate what Verizon is doing with its legacy wireline network, legacy wired broadband services, FiOS and Verizon Wireless. With Time Warner Cable having such a dominant presence in western and central New York, its sale should never be taken lightly, as it will impact millions of New Yorkers for years to come.

While the DPS seems prepared to passively wait around to discover what Time Warner Cable, Frontier and Verizon are planning next, the rest of the country is getting speed upgrades New York can only dream about.

Google Fiber and AT&T, among others, are aggressively rolling out 1,000Mbps fiber service upgrades in other states, while a disinterested Verizon refuses to invest further in FiOS expansion, leaving millions of New York customers with nothing better than DSL.

The lack of significant competition upstate is why we believe Time Warner Cable has not yet chosen any market in New York except New York City for its Maxx upgrade program, which offers substantially faster speeds and better service.[23] There is no compelling competitive reason for Time Warner to hurry upgrades into areas where they already enjoy a vast market share and no threat of a broadband speed race. So much for robust competition.

Charter’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable proposes a modest upgrade of broadband speeds to 60-100Mbps, but as we wrote in our comments to the DPS regarding the merger proposal, upstate New York would be better off waiting for Time Warner Cable to complete its own Maxx upgrades over what will likely be 100% of its footprint in the next 24-30 months.[24] Time Warner Cable Maxx offers maximum broadband speeds three times faster than what Charter proposes for upstate New York, while also preserving affordable broadband options for those less fortunate. Approving a Charter buyout of Time Warner Cable will only set upstate New York back further.

We confess we were bewildered after reviewing the initial staff assessment of telecommunications services competition in New York. Its conclusions simply do not reflect reality on the ground, particularly in upstate communities.

It was this type of incomplete analysis that allowed New York to fall into the trap of irresponsible deregulation and abdication of oversight that has utterly failed to deliver the promised competition that would check rate hikes, guarantee better customer service, and provide New York with best-in-class service. In reality, we have none of those things. Rates continue to spiral higher, poor customer service continues, and New York has been left behind with sub-standard broadband that achieves no better than 50Mbps speeds in most upstate communities.

This summer, the American Customer Satisfaction Index told us something we already know. Americans dislike their cable company more than any other industry in the nation.[25] A survey of more than 14,000 customers by ACSI found service satisfaction achieving a new all-time low, scoring 63 out of 100.

“Customers expect a lot more than what the companies deliver,” said ACSI managing director David VanAmburg, who called poor customer service from cable operators “endemic.”

This year, Time Warner Cable again scored the worst in the country. As the only cable provider for virtually all of upstate New York, if residents in New York are given a choice between Time Warner Cable and the phone company’s slow-speed DSL, they are still likely to choose Time Warner Cable, but only because they have no other choices for broadband that meets the FCC definition of broadband.

Providers are quick to suggest consumers can turn to so-called competitors like satellite broadband or wireless Internet from mobile providers. They conveniently ignore the fact satellite-delivered Internet is such a provider of last resort, less than 1% of New Yorkers choose this option. Those that have used satellite broadband tell the companies providing it they rarely achieve the claimed speeds and are heavily speed throttled and usage capped.[26] It’s also costly, particularly when measuring the price against its performance.

Mobile Internet, which some ILECs have advocated as a possible replacement for rural wireline networks, is also a very poor substitute for wired Internet access. Wireless broadband pricing is high and usage allowances are low. Attempts to convince New Yorkers to abandon Verizon landline service in favor of Verizon’s 4G LTE wireless replacement have led to consumer complaints after learning their existing unlimited Verizon DSL service would be substituted for a wireless plan starting at $60 a month with a 10GB usage allowance.[27]

A customer with a 6Mbps DSL line from Verizon consuming 30GB of usage a month – hardly a heavy user – pays Verizon $29.99 a month for DSL service during the first year. In contrast, that same customer using Verizon Wireless’ home 2-5Mbps wireless LTE plan will pay $120 a month – four times more, with the added risk of incurring a $10 per gigabyte overlimit fee for usage in excess of their allowance.[28]

None of this information is a secret, yet it seems to have escaped the notice of the DPS staff in its report. Part of the reason why may be the complete lack of public input to help illuminate and counter incumbent providers’ well-financed public and government relations self-praise campaigns. If only actual customers agreed with their conclusions, we’d be well on our way to deregulation-inspired broadband nirvana.

Except New Yorkers do not agree all is well.

Consumer Reports:

Our latest survey of 81,848 customers of home telecommunications services found almost universally low ratings for value across services—especially for TV and Internet. Those who bundled the three services together for a discount still seemed unimpressed with what they were getting for their money. Even WOW and Verizon FiOS, which got high marks for service satisfaction, rated middling or lower for value, and out of 14 providers, nine got the lowest possible value rating.

What is it about home telecommunications that leaves such a sour taste in customers’ mouths? When we asked Consumer Reports’ Facebook followers to tell us their telecom stories, the few happy anecdotes of attentive service technicians and reliable service were overwhelmed by a tidal wave of consumer woe involving high prices, complicated equipment, and terrible service.[29]

The effective competition that would rely on market forces to deter abusive pricing and poor customer service is simply not available in a monopoly/duopoly marketplace. New entrants face enormous start-up costs, particularly provisioning last-mile service.

The nation’s telephone network was first constructed in the early half of the last century by providers guaranteed monopoly status. The cable industry developed during a period where regulators frequently considered operators to be a “natural monopoly,” unable to survive sustained competition.[30] Many cable operators were granted exclusive franchise agreements which helped them present a solid business case to investors to fund a costly network buildout. The end of franchise exclusivity happened years after most cable operators were already well established.

Today, those marketplace protections are unavailable to new entrants who face a variety of hurdles to achieve success. Some are competitive, others are regulatory. Google Fiber, which provides competitive service in states other than New York, publishes a guide for local communities to make them more attractive prospects for future Google Fiber expansion.[31]

For many overbuilders, pole attachment issues, zoning and permitting are significant obstacles to making new service available to residential and commercial customers. New York must ensure pole owners provide timely, non-discriminatory, and reasonable cost access. Permitting and zoning issues should be resolved on similar terms to speed network deployment.

Because a long history of experience tells us it is unreasonable to expect a competing telephone or cable company to enter another provider’s territory, in many cases the only significant possibility for competition will come from a new municipal/co-op/public-owned broadband alternative.

The hurdles these would-be providers face are significant. Incumbent provider opposition can be substantial, especially on a large-scale buildout. In rural areas, incumbents can and do refuse to cooperate, even on projects that seek to prioritize access first to unserved/underserved areas currently bypassed by those incumbents.

The effort to wire the Adirondack Park region is a case in point. Time Warner Cable has refused to provide detailed mapping information about their existing network, making it difficult to assess the viability of a municipal and/or a commercial broadband expansion project into these areas. Time Warner Cable maintains it has exclusivity to granular map data showing existing networks for “competitive reasons,” effectively maintaining an advantageous position from which it can strategically apply for state broadband expansion funding to expand its network using public funds.

Time Warner Cable benefits from access to publicly-owned rights of way and sanctioned easements. Without this access, their network would likely be untenable. As a beneficiary of that public access, making granular map data available to broadband planners is a fair exchange, and nothing precludes Time Warner from building its network into those unserved/underserved areas – something that might deter a would-be competitor’s business argument to overbuild a high-cost, rural area. The Commission should ask itself how many rural New York communities have two (or more) competing cable companies serving the same customers. If the answer is none, Time Warner Cable does not have a valid argument.

There is ample evidence the Commission needs to begin a full and comprehensive review of telecommunications in this state. It must build a factual, evidence-based record on which the Commission can build a case that oversight is needed to guarantee New Yorkers get the high quality telecommunications services they deserve.

Broadband and telephone service is not just a convenience. In September 2015, the Obama Administration declared broadband was now a “core utility,” just as important as telephone, electric, and natural gas service. Isn’t it about time the Department of Public Service oversee it as such?[32]

Respectfully submitted for your consideration,

Phillip M. Dampier

Director, Stop the Cap!

[1] http://stopthecap.com/2015/10/19/n-y-city-council-investigates-verizon-foot-dragging-fios-possible-contract-violations/
[2] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303410404575151773432729614
[3] https://www.fcc.gov/reports/measuring-broadband-america-2014
[4] http://variety.com/2015/biz/news/altice-group-patrick-drahi-cablevision-bid-1201599986/
[5] http://www.pcmag.com/slideshow/story/310861/if-you-want-gigabit-internet-move-here/1
[6] https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-finds-us-broadband-deployment-not-keeping-pace
[7] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2888876-frontier-communications-headed-for-financial-disaster
[8] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2633375-frontier-communications-ftr-ceo-maggie-wilderotter-q3-2014-results-earnings-call-transcript?part=single
[9] http://www.leichtmanresearch.com/press/051515release.html
[10] http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20141020/GZ01/141029992
[11] http://www.cwa-union.org/news/entry/cwa_calls_for_regulators_to_investigate_verizons_refusal_to_invest_in_landl
[12] http://stopthecap.com/2015/05/05/fla-utility-says-negotiations-with-verizon-make-it-clear-verizon-will-exit-the-wireline-business-within-10-years/
[13] http://money.cnn.com/2013/07/22/technology/verizon-wireless-sandy/
[14] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/MatterManagement/CaseMaster.aspx?Mattercaseno=13-C-0197
[15] http://www.cwa-union.org/news/entry/cwa_calls_for_regulators_to_investigate_verizons_refusal_to_invest_in_landl
[16] http://newnetworks.com/publicnn.pdf/
[17] http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/415-15/de-blasio-administration-releases-audit-report-verizon-s-citywide-fios-implementation
[18] http://arstechnica.com/business/2015/10/verizon-tries-to-avoid-building-more-fiber-by-re-defining-the-word-pass/
[19] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/27/nyregion/new-york-city-and-verizon-battle-over-fios-service.html?_r=0
[20] http://www.nyc.gov/html/doitt/downloads/pdf/verizon-audit.pdf
[21] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={0A5EAC88-6AB7-4F79-862C-B6C6B6D2E4ED}
[22] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId=%7BC60985CC-BEE8-43A7-84E8-5A4B4D8E0F54%7D
[23] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/enjoy/better-twc/internet.html
[24] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={FCB40F67-B91F-4F65-8CCD-66D8C22AF6B1}
[25] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-most-hated-cable-company-in-america-is-2015-06-02
[26] https://community.myhughesnet.com/hughesnet?topic_list%5Bsettings%5D%5Btype%5D=problem
[27] http://www.verizon.com/home/highspeedinternet/
[28] http://www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/lte-internet-installed/
[29] http://www.consumerreports.org//cro/magazine/2014/05/how-to-save-money-on-triple-play-cable-services/index.htm
[30] http://www.citi.columbia.edu/elinoam/articles/Is_Cable_Television_Natural_Monopoly.pdf (p.255)
[31] https://fiber.storage.googleapis.com/legal/googlefibercitychecklist2-24-14.pdf
[32] http://thehill.com/policy/technology/254431-obama-administration-declares-broadband-core-utility-in-report

Stop the Cap Files Opposition to Charter-TWC-Bright House Merger With FCC



Applications of Charter Communications, Inc., Time
Warner Cable Inc., and Advance/Newhouse
Partnership for Consent to the Transfer of                        MB Docket No. 15-149

Control of Cable Television Relay Service


Statement of Opposition

(Click here to download a copy in PDF format.)

October 10, 2015

Stop the Cap! is a Rochester, N.Y.-based consumer group founded in 2008 to fight against the introduction of artificial limits on broadband usage (usage caps, consumption billing, speed throttling) and to promote better broadband speeds and service for consumers. Our group does not solicit or accept funding from lobbyists, companies, or others affiliated with the telecommunications industry. We are entirely supported by individual donors who share our views.


It is our view that the application of Charter Communications to effectively acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks offers no compelling public interest benefit and is therefore not in the public interest.

Our organization represents the interests of consumers and customers who face ever-growing broadband and television bills. Since its founding in 2008, we have witnessed a gap between the promised benefits of telecom mergers and what actually materializes for customers. Our conclusion is that consumers rarely benefit from these transactions. Prices continue to rise, customer service does not significantly improve, competition suffers, and conditions imposed by regulators to protect consumers or improve service are either not meaningfully met, expire too soon, or are too limited to be useful.

Charter’s claimed public interest benefits from its acquisitions are woefully inadequate and will, in fact, harm consumers if this merger is permitted.

The proposal asks the Commission to approve Charter’s acquisition of not one, but two established cable providers, one considerably larger than Charter itself:

  • Time Warner Cable, the second largest U.S. cable operator with more than 11 million residential and business customers[1];
  • Bright House Networks, the sixth largest U.S. cable operator with approximately 2.5 million customers.[2]

Charter Communications is about half the size of Time Warner Cable.[3]

Charter's broadband customer satisfaction scores are nothing to write home about.

Charter’s broadband customer satisfaction scores are nothing to write home about. Time Warner is no prize either, especially in areas where Maxx upgrades are not yet available.

In the 2015 J.D. Power U.S. Residential Television Service Provider Satisfaction Study, Charter rated poor — second to last place behind five other providers in the North West region, fourth from last behind six others in the South region, and third from last behind five other providers in the West. In fact, at no time did Charter rank anything higher than “about average” for television, broadband, and telephone service and often scored worse.[4]

This is a critical measurement of how Charter is likely to perform in areas currently served by Time Warner Cable and Bright House, should the merger be approved.

“The ability to provide a high-quality experience with all wireline services is paramount, as performance and reliability is the most critical driver of overall satisfaction,” said Kirk Parsons, senior director and technology, media & telecom practice leader at J.D. Power. “The fact that households continue to choose to upgrade their wireline connection to digital service is a testament to its improved performance and benefits, such as higher quality video and faster Internet speeds.”

FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler has publicly stated his four preferences for telecommunications policies that promote competition and foster enhanced service.[5]

  1. “First, where competition exists, the Commission will protect it,” Wheeler said. “Our effort opposing shrinking the number of nationwide wireless providers from four to three is an example. As applied to fixed networks, the Commission’s Order on tech transition experiments similarly starts with the belief that changes in network technology should not be a license to limit competition.”
  2. “Communications policy has always agreed on one important concept: the exercise of uncontrolled last-mile power is not in the public interest,” Wheeler said. “This has not changed as a result of new technology. When network operators have unrestrained last-mile power, public policy can step in to protect consumers and innovators. When cable companies, for instance, were accused of using their control over the last-mile distribution of video programing to harm competition by keeping content from others, Congress stopped that practice in the 1992 Cable Act. There are two important lessons from this: First, last-mile power cannot be a lever for gaining an unfair advantage. Second, rules of the road can provide guidance to all players and, by restraining future actions that would harm the public interest, incent more investment and more innovation.”
  3. “Where meaningful competition is not available, the Commission will work to create it. For instance, our efforts to expand the amount of unlicensed spectrum create alternative competitive pathways. And we understand the petitions from two communities asking us to pre-empt state laws against citizen-driven broadband expansion to be in the same category, which is why we are looking at that question so closely.”
  4. “Where competition cannot be expected to exist, we must shoulder the responsibility of promoting the deployment of broadband. One thing we already know is the fact that something works in New York City doesn’t mean it works in rural South Dakota. We cannot allow rural America to be behind the broadband curve. Our universal service efforts are focused on bringing better broadband to rural America by whomever steps up to the challenge—not the highest speeds all at once, but steadily to prevent the creation of a new digital divide.”

We will return to these four themes in our statement to see if Charter’s application helps or hinders these priorities. It is our contention Charter’s application does not meaningfully advance the stated goals of the Chairman or the Commission. In fact, Charter’s proposal impedes achievement of some of these goals significantly.

In our presentation, we will regularly refer to Charter’s existing product suite, usually referred to as “Charter Spectrum.” We will also refer to two different types of service from Time Warner Cable.



On January 30, 2014, Time Warner Cable announced its new TWC Maxx initiative that substantially improved broadband speeds for customers without a corresponding rate increase. The upgrade also introduced a new class of cable equipment for video customers offering an enhanced viewing experience, increased plant/service reliability, improved customer support – including more options for in-home service calls, and retained and improved existing budget-priced broadband tiers for fixed and low-income customers.[6]

We will therefore refer to both Time Warner Cable Maxx-upgraded service areas defined above and “legacy service areas” that are currently awaiting Maxx upgrades and now offer slower top Internet speeds ranging from 50-100Mbps.

It is our contention that Charter’s proposal to bring improved broadband speeds, better set-top boxes, faster upgrades, and a three-year commitment to voluntarily adhere to Net Neutrality/Open Internet policies and not impose usage caps on residential broadband service offers little because Time Warner Cable Maxx already offers consumers a more compelling offer on an upgrade timeline nearly equivalent to that proposed by Charter Communications.

Time Warner Cable has also never been credibly accused of violating Net Neutrality principles, is unlikely to do so in the future, and has repeatedly insisted it will not impose compulsory usage caps on its customers. We also argue Charter Communications’ heavy indebtedness as a result of this transaction will likely pose a challenge to complete the company’s promised upgrade plan and its ongoing operations.

In short, consumers are much better off remaining Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers as opposed to Charter Communications customers.

Should the FCC ultimately disagree with our contention, we urge you to impose our ideas for strong and meaningful conditions to protect consumers. Without this, we fear the executives of both companies and their shareholders will be the only ones to actually benefit from this transaction. Consumers will be left with little more than a higher bill.


charter spectrum logoCharter Communications’ proposition to the Commission and customers is to deliver a more compelling product suite offering faster Internet speeds, better set-top equipment, and a three-year commitment to adhere to the Commission’s Open Internet principles and not impose usage caps or modem rental fees on customers.

While on the surface these commitments may seem laudable, when they are closely examined it quickly becomes apparent they offer little to Time Warner Cable customers, particularly the approximately 45% of which will have been upgraded to “Maxx” service by the end of 2015.[7]

Charter customers can generally choose from two tiers of Internet service, according to Charter’s website[8]:

We offer two different Charter Internet connection packages:

Plus – up to 30Mbps Download and 4Mbps upload

Ultra – up to 100Mbps Download and 5Mbps Upload

With Charter Internet Ultra, network speeds can reach up to 100 Megabits per second (Mbps). Your exact speed will depend on the service level to which you subscribe.

Charter charges new customers an introductory monthly price ranging from $29.99 (when Internet service is bundled with video/phone service) to $39.99 (Internet-only service) for its 60Mbps Standard broadband tier.[9] It is this promotional rate Charter is proposing to extend to Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers. But Charter does not commit to a specific time frame under which this promotional rate will apply to these customers. According to Charter’s disclaimer, the promotional rate expires after one year, after which the rate resets to a “standard rate,” currently $59.99 a month.[10]

speed-plan-chart-2014In contrast, Time Warner Cable offers a much larger variety of Internet tiers, starting at $14.99 a month and generally increasing in $10 increments, based on offered speed.[11] In legacy service areas, Time Warner Cable’s pricing can be more compelling, even with the slower Internet speeds, because income-challenged consumers may feel a need to buy service based on price, not performance. Charter all but eliminates these lower-cost options, except in limited circumstances where a customer manages to meet onerous requirements to qualify for a low-income broadband discount plan.

Achieving faster Internet speeds is another priority for Chairman Wheeler. At a speech last fall at 1776, the Chairman said, “a 25Mbps connection is fast becoming ‘table stakes’ in 21st century communications.”[12]

Both Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications will deliver twice or more that minimum speed as their Standard tier offering. Time Warner already achieves this goal in their Maxx service areas, where 50Mbps is the new Standard speed tier. Charter proposes to take more than two years to upgrade Time Warner Cable customers to an incrementally faster 60Mbps speed tier. Additionally, Time Warner Cable Maxx customers are assured they can further upgrade that speed in increments up to 300Mbps. Charter, in contrast, offers most customers a maximum of 100Mbps.[13]

The most important question before the Commission is which cable operator is better positioned to deliver the services customers want and/or need. We argue Time Warner Cable and Bright House, not Charter Communications, are both in a stronger position to deliver.

Since the termination of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, Time Warner Cable has responsibly invested in their infrastructure without assuming an irresponsible amount of debt. Bright House Networks’ owners have taken the company private, but their ongoing investments in a robust Wi-Fi platform, their high consumer satisfaction scores, and their investments in ongoing upgrades to meet challenges of competitors like Verizon FiOS suggest the company is in healthy financial shape.

Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus reported significant progress in their first quarter 2015 report to shareholders and customers, despite the distraction of the Comcast merger[14]:

Over the past 16 months, we’ve made significant investments to improve our customers’ experience:

  • Investing more than $5.2 billion to, among other things, improve the reliability of our network and upgrade customer premise equipment – including set-top boxes and cable modems – with the latest technologies and expand its network to additional residences, commercial buildings and cell towers;
  • Launching TWC Maxx, which features greater reliability, all-digital video, advanced TV services, standard tier of Internet speeds at 50 Mbps, and higher tiers of service up to 300 Mbps. New York, Los Angeles and Austin are complete; Dallas, San Antonio and Kansas City are underway; Charlotte, Raleigh and Hawaii are slated for later this year; and San Diego is expected to be done in early 2016;
  • Introducing Enhanced DVR, a six-tuner set-top box that allows customers to record up to six shows simultaneously and store up to 150 hours of HD content;
  • Increasing the number of Cable Wi-Fi hotspots available to our customers to 400,000;
  • Rolling out our cloud-based video guide to 8 million set-top boxes to date. The guide also makes it easier to browse our On Demand library, which now sits at 30,000 free and paid titles and continues to grow;
  • Expanding our industry-leading TWC TV app – which allows customers to watch live TV and On Demand content and control and program their DVR from inside and outside the home. TWC TV is now available on Xbox One, Xbox 360, Amazon Kindle Fire HD and HDX tablets, Android and IOS phones and tablets, Fan TV, PCs, Samsung TV and Roku;

Serving customers on their schedules rather than ours. We expanded one-hour appointment windows across the company and in Q1 met that window 97 percent of the time. We continue to add nighttime and weekend appointments.



Since that report, Time Warner Cable has announced new Maxx service upgrade areas – Greensboro and Wilmington, N.C. Marcus has indicated additional cities will receive upgrades in 2016.[15]

On the January 29, 2015 quarterly results conference call with investors, Marcus indicated Maxx upgrades delivered tangible benefits to the company, including increased customer satisfaction, higher network reliability, and a stronger product line.[16] Based on those factors, it would be logical to assume Time Warner Cable would continue its upgrade project, and indeed Marcus confirmed this in his remarks:

“Our aim is to have 75% of our footprint enabled with Maxx […] by the end of [2016], and my guess is we’re continuing to roll it out beyond that,” said Marcus. “So the only question is prioritization, and obviously as we think about where to go first, competitive dynamics are a factor. So that includes Google, although it’s not explosively dictated by where Google decides to go. In fact I think we announced the Carolinas before Google did their announcement this week. So competitors are certainly relevant obviously.

At the rate Time Warner Cable has been rolling out Maxx upgrades, which were first announced on January 30, 2014[17], with 45% of its service area upgraded within 23 months, it is likely the company would complete its Maxx upgrade to all of its service areas within the next 24-30 months. Notably, the staff of the New York Department of Public Service found, while investigating this deal, “there is no indication that Petitioner’s plan for converting to all-digital in New York is any different from Time Warner’s existing plan.”[18]

Charter’s upgrade proposal is, in fact, generally inferior to what Time Warner Cable is accomplishing on its own. We strongly recommend the Commission carefully consider whether Charter’s proposal is as truly compelling as they claim.

twc maxxWe are also very concerned about Charter’s plans to deliver affordable Internet access. Chairman Wheeler expressed his concerns about the digital divide in broadband. The cost of access is perhaps the most important factor for getting broadband service in income-challenged households. If Charter’s price is too high, many will go without service.

Charter has no plans to continue Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet service – a very important offer for low income residents and senior citizens who are unable to afford the nearly $60 regular price both companies charge for their 50 or 60Mbps tiers. Time Warner Cable offers this $14.99 tier without preconditions, restricted qualifiers, contracts, or limits on what types of services can be bundled with it. Any consumer can buy the service and bundle it with Time Warner Cable telephone service for an additional $10 a month, which offers a nationwide local calling area, as well as free calls to the European Union, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and several Asian nations.

The loss of a $25 plan that includes basic Internet access and a bundled, 911-capable telephone line would be devastating to low-income households and senior citizens. During the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger hearings in New York, no topic elicited as much interest as Internet affordability and the onerous restrictions cable operators place on their income-qualified budget Internet plans.[19] The same concerns exist today with Charter’s application. Time Warner Cable clearly offers a superior product line for these customers, including two other Internet service tiers offering stepped up Internet speeds in $10 increments. These options would be unavailable from Charter.

Charter’s proposed solution to serve low-income customers is adoption of Bright House Networks’ Connect2Compete program, which offers restricted access to $9.95/month Internet service for those who qualify.

connect2competeStop the Cap! investigated Bright House Networks’ existing offer in a report to our readers in June 2015, and we urge the Commission to look much more closely at the specific conditions Bright House customers have had to endure to qualify to subscribe[20]:

1) You must have at least one child qualified for the National School Lunch Program. They need not be enrolled now.

2) You cannot have been a Bright House broadband customer during the last three months. If you are a current customer, you must first cancel and go without Internet service for 90 days (or call the phone company and hope to get a month-to-month DSL plan in the interim.)

3) If you have an overdue bill older than 12 months, you are not eligible until you pay that bill in full.

4) Bright House does not enroll customers in discounted Internet programs year-round. From a Bright House representative:

“We do participate in this particular program, however, it is only around September that we participate in it. This is a seasonal offer that we have which can only be requested from the middle of August to the middle of September, which is when most start up with school again for the year.”

5) Bright House does not take orders for the Low-Income Internet plan over the Internet. You have to enroll by phone: (205) 591-6880.

Families fall into poverty every day of the year, and poverty-stricken families move from one school district to another every day of the year. So it’s horribly unfair to tell them they’d qualify for this program if only they had fallen into poverty sometime between the middle of August and the middle of September.

It has been our experience covering service providers across all 50 states that most design these low-cost Internet access programs with revenue protection first in mind. Charter Communications is no different. As with Comcast, Connect2Compete is only available to families with school age children. Applicants face an intrusive, complicated, and time-restricted enrollment process that threatens to dampen and discourage participation.

Charter’s claimed interest to meet the needs of low-income customers might be more honorable if not for their insistence otherwise-qualified existing customers cannot downgrade their regular price broadband plan to Connect2Compete unless they voluntarily go without Internet access for three months.

Time Warner Cable goes out of its way to advertise "No Data Caps."

Time Warner Cable goes out of its way to advertise “No Data Caps.”

We strongly recommend Charter Communications be compelled to continue Time Warner’s $14.99 Internet plan, but at speeds no less than 25Mbps, the minimum definition of entry-level broadband by the FCC. We also recommend Charter be required to further discount this plan to $9.95 a month for qualified customers who meet a simple income test the Commission can define and establish. These discount programs should not just be available to families with school-age children. Everyone needs affordable Internet access, whether you are single and looking for your first job or a fixed income senior citizen.

All restrictions for existing customers or those with an outstanding balance must be prohibited and sign-ups must be accepted 365 days a year with re-qualification occurring not more than once annually.

Charter’s broadband offer for lower-income Americans is inadequate, and so is their plan for customers who need enhanced service.

Time Warner Cable Maxx delivers a more compelling offer for consumers and small businesses that need much faster Internet access. Charter’s upgrade will offer customers two choices: 60 or 100Mbps service. Time Warner Cable Maxx offers considerably more[21]:

chartersucksCharter Communications’ commitment to not impose “usage caps” for three years is inadequate. As we have learned from Comcast, the industry definition of a “usage cap” differs widely from the definition understood by most consumers.

Charter’s commitment must be expanded to prohibit all forms of usage pricing, such as those similar to what Comcast is market testing in several of its service areas.[22] In these markets, Comcast has established an arbitrary usage allowance and charges punitive overlimit fees to customers that exceed it. Comcast has repeatedly denied it has “usage caps” because its so-called ‘data plans’ allow customers to voluntarily exceed their usage allowance, at a cost. Without a commitment Charter will also not impose usage-based pricing, its commitment to regulators not to impose “usage caps” is largely meaningless.

More concerning, Charter Communications has a history of capping their customers’ usage. Less than three months before announcing it would acquire Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications quietly dropped usage caps in place on its broadband plans since 2009, without explanation.[23] The FCC itself is investigating this and other related issues as part of this proceeding.[24]

internet limitConsumers have shown no interest in usage-based pricing or usage-capped wired Internet and strongly prefer unlimited access. One only need look at Time Warner Cable’s own results when offering an optional discounted Internet plan for customers volunteering to limit their usage.

Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus noted customers strongly want to keep their unlimited use plans, even if they cost more. Speaking at the Deutsche Bank Media, Internet, and Telecom Conference, Marcus noted:

“If you take the 30GB a month and compare it to what median usage is, let’s say high 20s — 27GB a month, that would suggest a whole lot of customers would do well by taking the 30GB service,” Marcus said. “Notwithstanding that, very few customers — in the thousands — have taken the usage based tiers and I think that speaks to the value they place on unlimited — not bad because we plan to continue to offer unlimited for as far out as we can possibly see.”[25]

Marcus has repeatedly made it clear compulsory usage caps are off the table at Time Warner Cable – a lesson they learned after customers pushed back and forced them to shelve a usage cap experiment planned for Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and Austin, San Antonio, and Beaumont, Tex. in April 2009[26]. The company has never raised the possibility of compulsory usage limits or usage-based billing again.

“We have no intention of abandoning an unlimited product we think that something that customers value and are willing to pay for,” said Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus. “The way we’ve approached usage-based pricing is to offer it as an option for customers who prefer to pay less because they tend to use less. And we’ve made those available at 5 gigabytes per month and 30 gigabytes per month levels.[27]

A deal with Charter would mean Time Warner Cable's bonds would be downgraded to junk status.

A deal with Charter would mean Time Warner Cable’s bonds would be downgraded to junk status.

Time Warner Cable again offers a superior choice for Americans, and it is an important one. Chairman Wheeler said “last-mile power cannot be a lever for gaining an unfair advantage.” With many consumers having no practical choice for an alternative broadband provider, allowing Charter to impose usage limits or forcing customers into even higher-priced usage billing plans would deliver a major unfair advantage into the hands of the cable operator, always concerned with protecting its cable television package from emerging online video competition.

In fact, almost all of Charter’s so-called customer-friendly commitments and policies have a very unfriendly expiration date of just three years, which should be unacceptable to the Commission. There is no reason Charter cannot extend its commitments to not charge modem fees, adhere to the basic principles of Net Neutrality, and not impose usage caps or other forms of usage billing permanently. Without such a commitment, consumers could soon pay much higher prices for broadband service, and without robust competition unlikely to develop over the next three years, there will be every incentive for Charter to further boost earnings by imposing modem fees and usage pricing on its customers.

One of the strongest incentives for rate increases is the level of debt Charter Communications will assume in this transaction. The Department of Public Service staff in New York concluded New Charter’s debt and lowered credit rating “represents the single most substantial risk of the proposed transaction.”[28]

Debt servicing costs and more expensive credit are both deterrents to investment and are likely to limit the scope of Charter’s ongoing system upgrades and maintenance. Charter is a much smaller cable operator than Time Warner Cable, and is itself still in the process of repairing and upgrading its own cable systems and those it acquired in earlier acquisition deals. Time Warner Cable, in contrast, is in a much stronger financial position to carry out its commitments associated with the Maxx upgrade program.

Charter’s general offer to consider expanding service into unserved areas is vague, or has been redacted. We remind the Commission the past history of winning expansion commitments from cable operators who rely on Return On Investment (ROI) formulas to determine which homes and businesses they will serve have met with limited success.

The pervasive problem of rural broadband availability is unlikely to be resolved substantially by this transaction without the strongest buildout requirements. But even that is unlikely to be of much help for large areas outside of existing video franchise areas.

Compelling Charter Communications to adopt universal service obligations within all existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House franchise areas may be a good start. Under such a requirement, any consumer or business that wants cable service and lives within the geographic boundaries of an existing franchise area would receive it upon request without construction fees, surcharges, or other passed-along fees to reach that customer, regardless of their distance from the existing cable plant or ROI formula. The largest impact of this would be to extend cable service into business parks and commercial buildings, which often lack cable service, but many suburban and exurban residential customers would also benefit. This also would achieve the Chairman’s goal to facilitate rural broadband where incumbents have generally failed to provide the service.

consumer reportsThe Commission must carefully consider Charter’s financial capacity to meet these obligations as well. No commitment is worth much if a company ultimately fails to deliver on it.

An overburdened cable operator is also unlikely to make substantial investments in improving customer service, and that makes the risk of depending on Charter Communications to improve Time Warner Cable’s already poor customer service rating doubtful. It also risks the much higher scores Bright House customers have given to that company for its superior customer service.

Competition is the biggest incentive to improve customer service and responsiveness, and that is unlikely to deliver much pressure on cable companies like Charter over the next few years. In fact, we argue customer service is likely to deteriorate in the short term because of the disruptiveness of any ownership change and eventual billing system integration.

Consumer Reports already rates Time Warner and Charter’s Internet Service poorly[29]:

  • Charter: 63 (Reader Score), Poor Value, Fair Reliability, Good Speed, Mediocre Phone/Online Support, Fair In-Home Support
  • Time Warner Cable: 57 (Reader Score), Poor Value, Fair Reliability, Fair Speed, Mediocre Phone/Online Support, Fair In-Home Support

Charter Communications’ proposed benefits to Time Warner Cable and Bright House cable television customers are also weak and not compelling. Both Time Warner Cable and Charter proposed to move to all-digital cable television to free up bandwidth to offer improved broadband before the merger deal was announced. Bright House was also headed in the same direction.

badbillWhile consumers clamor for smaller, less-costly cable television packages, Charter Communications’ CEO Thomas Rutledge is credited for inventing the “triple play” concept of convincing customers to package more services – broadband, television and telephone — together in return for a discount. Reuters cited his preference for “simplified pricing,”[30] which is why Charter offers most customers only two options for broadband service and one giant television package dubbed Spectrum TV containing more than 200 channels.[31]

Unfortunately, any benefits from an all-digital television package are likely to be diluted when customers get the bill. Currently, many Time Warner Cable customers watch analog channels on television sets around the home without the need to rent a costly set top box. Any transition to digital television will require the rental of a set top box or purchase of a third-party device to view cable television programming. These can represent costly add-ons for an already high cable bill.

With approximately 99 percent of customers renting their set-top box directly from their pay-tv provider, the set-top box rental market may be worth more than $19.5 billion per year, with the average American household spending more than $231 per year on set-top box rental fees, according to findings from Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal’s (D-Conn.) query of the top-ten pay-tv multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs).[32]

Passed by Congress in December, the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014 repealed the set-top box integration ban, which enabled consumers to access technology that allowed use of a set-top box other than one leased from their cable company. Without the integration ban, by the end of this year, cable companies will no longer be required to make their services compatible with outside set-top boxes, like TiVo for example, bought directly by consumers in the retail marketplace.

American cable subscribers spend, on average, $89.16 a year renting a single set-top box. The average set-top box rental fee for each company was used to calculate an overall set-top box rental cost average across companies: $7.43 a month, or $89.16 per year. Considering many homes rent a DVR box to make and view recordings and maintain less-capable boxes on other televisions, the total cost adds up quickly. The average household spends $231.82 a year on set-top box rental fees, according to Sens. Markey and Blumenthal.

Charter proposes to introduce a new generation of set top boxes but as far as we know, has not disclosed the monthly cost of these IP-capable boxes to subscribers. We do note the current generation of digital set-top boxes leased by Charter cost customers $6.99 a month each, slightly less than the national average.[33] We anticipate this fee may rise after the introduction of more advanced equipment. We note Charter also charges its television customers in a city like St. Louis an extra $6.05 a month for the “Broadcast TV Service Charge” and $4.99 a month for “Whole House Wire Maintenance.”[34]

Other points the Commission should consider in reviewing this transaction:

  1. While it is true Charter and Time Warner don’t compete for the same customers, it is inaccurate to suggest the transaction will not alter competition. Cable industry consolidation is underway, in part, to help larger combined operators secure better volume discounts for increasingly expensive video programming.AT&T’s primary motivation to acquire satellite provider DirecTV was to secure better prices for video programming, both for DirecTV customers but more importantly for its own, much smaller, U-verse TV operation.[35]The cost barrier for new, directly competing entrants into the cable television business is well-recognized, especially by smaller independent cable television providers that lack the ability to secure similar volume discounts for themselves. The American Cable Association, representing small operators, warned the FCC “existing providers of both broadband and MVPD services and new entrants will be deterred from expanding their broadband networks or otherwise undertaking new builds” as a result of increasing programming costs.[36]As a result, it is unlikely a new provider will be able to develop a sustainable business model that includes cable television while paying wholesale programming costs that are dramatically higher than what combined companies like New Charter will pay.
  2. The Commission must insist that Time Warner Cable customers in legacy service areas be treated the same as those already upgraded to Maxx service. If the deal is approved, Charter must be compelled to commit to continue Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade initiative across the entire footprint of Time Warner Cable’s former service areas, to be completed within 30 months. We also agree with the staff recommendation of the N.Y. Department of Public Service that Charter also be compelled to upgrade its facilities to support gigabit broadband, but this should be extended to include all of its service areas, not just the largest cities.This does not pose a significant challenge to cable operators. With the upcoming introduction of DOCSIS 3.1 technology, operators even smaller than Charter will support 1Gbps broadband speeds as they drop analog television signals. Suddenlink[37], MidContinent[38], Cox[39], and Mediacom[40] already have gigabit deployment plans underway.
  3. The Commission must establish and enforce meaningful enforcement mechanisms should Charter fail to achieve its commitments as part of this transaction. Cable consolidation has never significantly benefited consumers. Charter is not guaranteeing Time Warner Cable or Bright House customers will receive a lower bill as a result of this merger. Nor is it committing to pass along the lower prices it will achieve through negotiations for wholesale video programming volume discounts. Cable rates, especially for broadband, will continue to increase. Without meaningful competition, there is no incentive to give consumers a better deal or better service.That is why if the Commission feels it must approve this transaction, the conditions that accompany it to achieve a true public interest benefit must be meaningful, directly relevant to the majority of customers, and ongoing.

Cable operators know once they secure a franchise or become the incumbent provider, no other cable company will negotiate with city officials to take over that franchise if the current provider’s application is denied during renewal. Once Charter (or any other cable company) establishes a presence, there is little or no chance a community will be able to get rid of that provider if it fails to perform. That is why any franchise transfer that comes from an acquisition or merger must be treated with the upmost seriousness. Customers will likely live with the decision the Commission makes for the next 10-20 years or more.

just_say_noAs the Commission must realize, this transaction does not just involve entertainment. Recently, the Obama Administration declared broadband Internet access a “core utility.”[41]

“Broadband has steadily shifted from an optional amenity to a core utility for households, businesses and community institutions,” according to a report from the administration’s Broadband Opportunity Council. “Today, broadband is taking its place alongside water, sewer and electricity as essential infrastructure for communities.”

Our group strongly believes regulators should not take a risk on Charter’s less-then-compelling offer when Time Warner Cable and Bright House have both demonstrated a better financial position. Time Warner has a proven track record of delivering on its commitments to improve service with its Maxx upgrade project. Time Warner Cable has superior options for low-income consumers, offers more broadband options and faster speeds for entrepreneurs in the digital/information economy, and has committed to providing unlimited Internet access – a critical prerequisite for consumers choosing to drop cable television’s one-size-fits-all bloated video package and watch only the shows they want to see and pay for online.

At the start of our presentation, we referred to the Chairman’s four stated goals for improving broadband and competition. At this point, it should be obvious that shrinking the number of companies providing service has not delivered significant service improvements. In fact, for many customers, Charter’s offer is worse.

Allowing further marketplace consolidation widens the gap for cable television programming costs, which could deter new competitors from entering the market. Small providers pay dramatically higher programming costs while the largest receive substantial volume discounts. That is contrary to the Chairman’s goal of protecting last-mile competition.

Online video has created the “cord-cutting” effect, allowing consumers to shop for better video values beyond the local cable company. Without a permanent ban on usage caps and usage pricing, providers like Charter (that maintained usage caps until a few months before this application was filed) have a strong incentive to resume them after the deal’s token three-year commitment expires. Without also closing the obvious loophole of “usage pricing,” nothing precludes Charter from imposing usage-based pricing on consumers immediately after the deal is approved.

Promoting expanded rural broadband, another priority of the Commission, does little if the incumbent providers refuse to offer it. We see nothing in Charter’s public application that commits them to extending service to specific areas Time Warner Cable or Bright House do not service today. In fact, before this application was filed, Charter’s willingness to provide service to unserved areas in their own existing franchise areas was not always evident.[42] It is hard to believe Charter will voluntarily disregard their own Return On Investment formula to provide the service many rural customers eagerly hope might be forthcoming if the provider was somebody other than Time Warner Cable or Bright House.

We urge the FCC to deny Charter’s application. If it sees fit to make a different choice, we strongly recommend you demand Charter meet, at the minimum, the same level of service Time Warner Cable Maxx provides across the entire existing Time Warner franchise area, achieve the same customer service standard well-regarded Bright House manages for its customers, and a better deal for consumers that continue to face spiraling cable bills, few competitive choices, and no new alternatives on the horizon.

  • [1] http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2014/02/13/the-comcast-time-warner-deal-by-the-numbers/?_r=0
  • [2] https://brighthouse.com/about/about-us/about-us.html
  • [3] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/about-charter
  • [4] http://www.jdpower.com/press-releases/2015-us-residential-television-internet-telephone-service-provider-satisfaction
  • [5] http://arstechnica.com/business/2014/09/most-of-the-us-has-no-broadband-competition-at-25mbps-fcc-chair-says/
  • [6] http://www.theverge.com/2014/1/31/5365816/time-warner-cable-maxx-plans-broadband-cable-improvements-in-nyc-la
  • [7] http://www.fiercecable.com/story/twc-promises-maxx-reach-45-customers-end-year-tivo-support-apples-airplay/2015-07-14
  • [8] https://www.myaccount.charter.com/customers/support.aspx?supportarticleid=59
  • [9] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/packages
  • [10] http://stopthecap.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/psc-staff-recommend-charter-twc-15-m-0388.pdf
  • [11] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/plans-packages/internet/internet-service-plans.html?iid=internet-lob:1:1:compareplans
  • [12] http://arstechnica.com/business/2014/09/most-of-the-us-has-no-broadband-competition-at-25mbps-fcc-chair-says/
  • [13] https://www.myaccount.charter.com/customers/support.aspx?supportarticleid=59#speedoptions
  • [14] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2015/04/twc-gains-momentum-with-best-ever-subscriber-growth-customer-enhancements/
  • [15] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2015/07/twc-maxx-expands-rollout-in-2015/
  • [16] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2864536-time-warner-cables-twc-ceo-rob-marcus-on-q4-2014-results-earnings-call-transcript?
  • [17] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2014/01/get-the-details-on-twcs-plan-to-transform-ctv-internet-experience/
  • [18] http://stopthecap.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/psc-staff-recommend-charter-twc-15-m-0388.pdf
  • [19] See e.g., Case 14-M-0183, Joint Petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable, Inc. for Approval of a Transfer of Control of Subsidiaries and Franchises, Information Forum/Public Statement Hearing (dated June 19, 2014) Tr. 29-33.
  • [20] http://stopthecap.com/2015/06/25/bright-houses-mysterious-internet-discount-program-charter-wants-to-adopt-nationwide
  • [21] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/enjoy/better-twc/internet.html
  • [22] http://customer.xfinity.com/help-and-support/internet/data-usage-trials/
  • [23] http://stopthecap.com/2015/09/23/fcc-demands-details-about-charters-suddenly-retired-usage-caps/
  • [24] https://www.fcc.gov/document/request-information-sent-charter-communications-inc-0
  • [25] http://stopthecap.com/2014/03/13/time-warner-cable-admits-usage-based-pricing-is-a-big-failure-only-thousands-enrolled/
  • [26] http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=7368388
  • [27] http://stopthecap.com/2014/10/30/time-warner-cable-recommits-mandatory-usage-caps-long-company-remains-independent/
  • [28] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={C60985CC-BEE8-43A7-84E8-5A4B4D8E0F54} (p.39)
  • [29] http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/electronics-computers/computers-internet/telecom-services/internet-service-ratings/ratings-overview.htm
  • [30] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/30/us-charter-timewarnercable-rutledge-anal-idUSBREA0T01D20140130
  • [31] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/tv#/channel-lineup
  • [32] http://www.markey.senate.gov/news/press-releases/markey-blumenthal-decry-lack-of-choice-competition-in-pay-tv-video-box-marketplace
  • [33] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/rate-card-info (city of St. Louis, Mo.)
  • [34] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/rate-card-info (city of St. Louis, Mo.)
  • [35] http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2015/07/24/fcc-approves-ts-acquisition-directv/30626421/
  • [36] http://www.americancable.org/node/5229
  • [37] http://www.multichannel.com/news/technology/suddenlink-boots-1-gig-broadband/392087
  • [38] https://www.midco.com/PressRoom/2014/midcontinent-bringing-gigabit-internet-access-to-the-northern-plains/
  • [39] http://www.multichannel.com/news/distribution/cox-plots-docsis-31-plans/393996
  • [40] http://www.multichannel.com/news/cable-operators/mediacom-sets-residential-1-gig-rollout/393585
  • [41] http://thehill.com/policy/technology/254431-obama-administration-declares-broadband-core-utility-in-report
  • [42] http://www.dslreports.com/forum/r28864058-Why-won-t-Charter-come-another-1-2-mile-for-more-customers

Frontier Plans to Finance Acquisition of Verizon Lines With $6.6 Billion in Junk Bonds

frontier-fast-buffalo-large-2To complete an acquisition of landline assets in California, Florida, and Texas from Verizon Communications, Frontier Communications is hoping to raise $6.6 billion in “speculative-grade debt” to finance the deal.

Frontier will begin selling the securities better known as “junk bonds” starting today with a target date of Sept. 15 or 16 to complete the sale, according to Bloomberg News.

Wall Street raised its eyebrows at the amount of the transaction — the second largest junk-rated deal since Valeant Pharmaceuticals sold almost $10 billion in junk bonds in March.

Frontier plans to offer a high yield to attract investors, some already favoring the company’s stock for its reliable shareholder dividend payout. Frontier has been a popular choice for investors relying on dividend income — money Frontier distributes to shareholders — that critics contend limit Frontier’s ability to improve its network of largely rural landlines.

analysisCalifornian consumers are among those most concerned about a Frontier takeover of landline and FiOS service. Verizon ventured far beyond its original service area extending from Maine to Virginia after it acquired independent telephone networks operated by General Telephone (GTE) and Continental Telephone (Contel) in 2000. In 2015, the company wants to return to its core landline service area in the northeast.

junk1David Lazarus, a consumer reporter for the Los Angeles Times, wonders how ratepayers will benefit from a Frontier takeover.

“Financial analysts are generally upbeat about the deal, but that reflects the projected benefits to the corporate players, not consumers,” Lazarus wrote.

Verizon’s claims the sale will help refocus the company on its “core markets” in the east and Frontier’s suggestion the Verizon acquisition will enhance Frontier’s footprint with “rich fiber-based assets” didn’t seem to excite Lazarus.

“I honestly wonder if corporate leaders know how ridiculous they sound when they spout such gobbledygook,” he added.

Lazarus suspects Verizon is worried the Obama Administration may eventually extend universal service obligations to broadband, which would force phone companies to deliver broadband to any telephone customer that wants the service, regardless of how much it costs to offer it. Universal Service remains an important legacy of wireline landline telephone service. Your landline survives under a regulatory framework not applicable to the wireless business, where both AT&T and Verizon Wireless now make the bulk of their profits.

junk2As AT&T and Verizon ponder ditching high-cost landline customers, so long as there are companies like Frontier willing to buy, the deal works for both. Verizon gets a tax-free transaction that benefits both executives and shareholders. An already debt-laden Frontier satisfies shareholders by growing the business, which usually makes the balance sheet look good each quarter.

Even as Frontier takes on a massive new tranche of debt, in the short-term the more landlines Frontier acquires, the happier shareholders will be. More customers equal more revenue — revenue that can assuage fears of Frontier’s eye-popping debt load. That added revenue often also means a nice dividend payout to shareholders, unless that money has to be diverted to debt payments or network improvements.

Unfortunately, like a Ponzi scheme, Frontier will have to continue acquiring new landline customers from other companies indefinitely to make it all work. If it can’t, or if customers continue to flee Frontier for more capable providers, revenue numbers will worsen, only making the company’s large debt obligations look even more ominous. Some shareholders think Frontier’s days of paying very high dividends are already behind them as the company takes on even more debt. The value of Frontier stock has dropped 35% in the last six months. In the second quarter of 2015, Frontier reported losses of $28 million. Last year at the same time, Frontier reported $38 million in profits.

junk3Those losses have to be reflected somewhere, and customers complain they are paying the highest price. West Virginians are among those that regularly accuse Frontier of chronically under-investing in broadband service in the state. Many rural communities obtaining broadband for the first time initially appreciated Frontier’s efforts, but have since grown critical of the performance of Frontier’s DSL service, which can slow to 1Mbps or less during the evenings because Frontier has oversold its network and not kept up with usage demands.

Frontier’s deal with Verizon allows it to acquire a large state of the art FiOS fiber to the home network Frontier has never been willing to build itself. Keeping an existing fiber network up and running is considerably less expensive than building one from scratch. That explains why Frontier customers in ex-Verizon FiOS areas enjoy relatively good service while legacy customers still connected to copper phone lines that were installed in the 1960s (or earlier) are stuck with uneven and slow-performing DSL that rarely meets the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband — 25Mbps. Where customers have a choice between Frontier DSL and another wired provider, most choose fiber or coaxial-based Internet service. Frontier’s rural service focus protects the company by limiting the effects of that kind of competition.

In the near term, Frontier’s biggest threat could eventually come from wireless 4G LTE broadband from AT&T and Verizon Wireless, if the companies can deliver an affordable service for rural residents without a punishing low usage allowance. That remains a big “if.”

(Illustrations by Chris Serra.)

Stop the Cap!’s Open Letter to N.Y. Public Service Commission: No Rush to Judgment


August 19, 2015

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

Case Number: 14-C-0370

Dear Ms. Burgess,

After years of allowing the telecommunications industry in New York to operate with little or no oversight, the need for an extensive and comprehensive review of the impact of New York’s regulatory policies has never been greater.

Let us remind the Commission of the status quo:

  • As Verizon winds down its FiOS initiative, other states are getting cutting-edge services like Google Fiber, AT&T U-verse with GigaPower, CenturyLink Prism, and other gigabit-speed broadband service competition. In contrast, the largest telecommunications companies in New York have stalled offering better service to New Yorkers.
  • Time Warner Cable has left all of upstate New York with no better than 50/5Mbps broadband – a top speed that has not risen in at least five years.
  • Frontier Communications has announced fiber upgrades in service areas it is acquiring while its largest New York service area – Rochester, languishes with copper-based ADSL service that often delivers no better than 3-6Mbps, well below the FCC’s minimum 25Mbps definition of broadband.
  • Verizon Communications, the state’s largest telephone company, is accused of reneging on its FiOS commitments in New York City and has left upstate New York cities with nothing better than DSL service, giving Time Warner Cable a monopoly on 25+Mbps broadband in most areas. It has also talked openly of selling off its rural landline network or scrapping it altogether, potentially forcing customers to an inferior wireless landline replacement it calls Voice Link.

As the Commission is also well aware, there are a number of recent high-profile issues relating to telecommunications matters that have a direct impact on consumers and businesses in this state – some that are currently before the Commission for review. Largest among them is another acquisition involving Time Warner Cable, this time from Charter Communications. That single issue alone will impact the majority of broadband consumers in New York because Time Warner Cable is the state’s dominant Internet Service Provider for high speed Internet services, especially upstate.

These issues are of monumental importance to the comprehensive examination and study of the telecommunications industry in New York promised by Chairwoman Audrey Zibelman. The Charter-Time Warner Cable merger alone has the potential of affecting millions of New York residents for years to come.

Although this study was first announced to Speaker Sheldon Silver, the Honorable Jeffrey Klein, and the Honorable Dean Skelos in a letter on March 28, 2014, followed up by a notification that Chairwoman Zibelman intended to commence the study within 45 days of her letter of May 13, 2014, the first public notice seeking comments from stakeholders and consumers was issued more than a year later on June 23, 2015 (less than two months ago), with comments due by August 24, 2015.

With respect, providing a 60-day comment window in the middle of summer along with a handful of public hearings scattered across the state with as little as three weeks’ advance notice is wholly inadequate for a broad study of this importance. The Commission’s ambitious schedule to contemplate the state of telecommunications across all of New York State will likely be shorter than the review of the 2014-2015 Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger transaction which started May 15, 2014 and ended April 30, 2015.

We have heard from New York residents upset about how the Commission is handling its review. One complained to us the Commission had more than a year to prepare for its study while giving New York residents short notice to attend poorly advertised public hearings in a distant city, and two months at most to share their feelings with the Commission in writing. One woman described having to find a hearing that was, at best, 60 miles away and located at a city hall unfamiliar to those not local to the area, where suitable parking was inconvenient and difficult as she attempted a lengthy walk to the hearing location at the age of 69.

Several of our members also complained there are more suitable public-friendly venues beyond paid parking downtown city administration buildings or deserted campuses in the middle of summer break. Many asked why the Commission does not seem to have a social media presence or sponsor live video streaming of hearings where residents can participate by phone or online and avoid inconvenient travel to a distant city. Perhaps the Commission could be enlightened to see how New York’s telecommunications companies actually perform during such a hearing.

While we think it is very useful for the Commission to have direct input from the public, we are uncertain about how the Commission intends to manage those comments. We were disappointed to find no public outline of what the Commission intended to include in its evaluation of a topic as broad as “the state of telecommunications in New York.”

Too often, providers downplay service complaints from consumers as “anecdotal evidence” or “isolated incidents.” But if the Commission sought specific input on a topic such as the availability of FiOS in Manhattan, consumers can provide useful input on the exact location(s) where service was requested but not provided.

If the Commission received information from an incumbent provider claiming it was providing broadband service to low income residents, consumers could share on-point experiences as to whether those claims were true, true with conditions the Commission might not be aware of (paperwork requirements, onerous terms, etc.) or false.

If the Commission sought input on rural broadband, providers might point to a broadband availability map that suggests there is robust competition and customer choice. But the Commission could learn from residents asked to share their direct experiences that the map was inaccurate or outdated, including providers that only service commercial customers, or those that cannot provide service that qualifies as “broadband” by the Federal Communications Commission.

A full and open investigation is essential to finding the truth about telecommunications in New York. The Commission needs to understand whether problems are unique to one customer in one part of the state or common among a million people statewide. We urge the Commission to rethink its current approach.

New Yorkers deserve public fact-finding hearings inviting input on the specific issues the Commission is exploring. New Yorkers need longer comment windows, more notice of public hearings, and a generous extension of the current deadline(s) to allow comments to be received for at least 60 additional days.

Most critically, we need hearings bringing the public and stakeholders together to offer sometimes-adversarial testimony to build a factual, evidence-based record on which the Commission can credibly defend its oversight of the telecommunications services that are a critical part of every New Yorker’s life.

The Commission’s policies going forward may have a profound effect on making sure an elderly couple in the Adirondacks can keep a functioning landline, if affordable Internet will be available to an economically-distressed single working mother in the Bronx, or if upstate New York can compete in the new digital economy with gigabit fiber broadband to support small businesses like those run by former employees of downsized companies like Eastman Kodak and Xerox in Rochester.

Yours very truly,

Phillip M. Dampier

Consumers Storm FCC With 2,000+ Net Neutrality Complaints About Data Caps, Poor Service

angry guyIt didn’t take long for consumers to start flooding the Federal Communications Commission with thousands of complaints about poor Internet service, usage caps, and speed throttles.

The complaints arrived as the FCC began formally enforcing Net Neutrality by reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service, subject to oversight by the federal agency.

Consumers used the occasion to deluge the commission about the sorry state of Internet access in the United States, whether it constituted a Net Neutrality violation or not.

National Journal obtained a sample of 50 complaints through a Freedom of Information Act request and it was clear data caps were at or near the top of the complaints list and consumers wasted no time slamming cable and phone companies over the practice.

“Our data should not be capped at 350[GB]!!!!” one consumer pleaded, likely a Suddenlink or Mediacom customer, which both have 350GB caps on certain speed tiers. “Please, please make data caps illegal!!”

fccNo more Netflix and Hulu watching for this family: “I have to tell my kids to stop using YouTube and other services and stuff they need for school so we don’t go over the cap,” another consumer wrote, explaining that their Internet-enabled home security camera uses up a significant amount of their monthly data. “By Comcast having this data cap, I don’t have a open Internet … I also think this data cap is very inaccurate, it goes up without anybody being home, and sometimes by a lot.”

Comcast also received heat for poor performing broadband service, with one customer forced to use Wi-Fi at a local McDonalds to take an online exam because Internet service at home was so poor.

“The Comcast modem is such crap that we can’t even access the Internet,” the consumer wrote. “I’m livid.”

AT&T was roasted for speed throttling its “unlimited data” wireless plan — a practice that already resulted in a $100 million fine from the FCC for misleading consumers. AT&T is appealing.

In all, the FCC reports it received about 2,000 complaints from consumers in June, the first month Net Neutrality rules took effect. The agency has just 30 days to respond to the complaints, most lodged using this online form. The FCC may be able to answer many with a form letter because poor service and usage caps are not strict violations of Net Neutrality, unless the FCC determines the practices “unreasonably interfere” with Internet access. AT&T’s speed throttling comes a lot closer to meeting that test, because many throttled customers report their wireless data service is rendered effectively unusable once throttled.

But the broad-ranging complaints may still prove useful, suggesting to the FCC stronger rules and oversight are required for a broadband market many consider barely competitive and often customer abusive.

Seeking comment, National Journal reported the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the U.S. Telecom Association, which both represent major Internet providers and have sued to overturn the regulations, declined to comment on the complaints.

Charter Asks FCC to Approve Time Warner Cable/Bright House Merger; Stop the Cap! Urges Changes

charter twc bhCharter Communications last week filed its 362 page redacted Public Interest Statement laying out its case to win approval of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, to be run under the Charter banner.

“Charter may not be a household name for all Americans, but it has developed into an industry leader by implementing customer and Internet-friendly business practices,” its statement reads.

The sprawling document is effectively a sales pitch to federal regulators to accept Charter’s contention the merger is in the public interest, and the company promises a range of voluntary and committed service upgrades it says will improve the customer experience for those becoming a part of what will be America’s second largest cable operator.

Charter’s proposed upgrades fall under several categories of direct interest to consumers:

Broadband: Charter will commit to upgrade customers to 60Mbps broadband within 30 months (about 2.5 years) after the deal is approved. That could mean some Time Warner Cable customers will still be serviced with standard speeds of 15Mbps as late as 2018. Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program will be effectively frozen in place and will continue in only those areas “consistent with Time Warner Cable’s existing deployment plans.” That will leave out a large sections of the country not on the upgrade list. Charter has committed to impose no data caps, usage-based pricing or modem fees, but only for three years, after which it will be free to change those policies at will.

Wi-Fi: Charter promises to build on Time Warner’s 100,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, most in just a few cities, and Bright House’s denser network of 45,000 hotspots with a commitment to build at least 300,000 new hotspots across Charter’s expanded service area within four years. Charter will also evaluate deploying cable modems that also act as public Wi-Fi hotspots. Comcast already offers over 500,000 hotspots with plans for many more, making Charter’s wireless commitment less ambitious than what Comcast today offers customers.

Cable-TV: Charter has committed to moving all Time Warner and Bright House systems to all-digital service within 30 months. Customers will need to lease set-top boxes designed to handle Charter’s encryption system for all cable connected televisions. Among those boxes includes Charter’s new, IP-capable Worldbox CPE and cloud-based Spectrum Guide user interface system.

Video on the Go: Charter will adopt Time Warner Cable’s streaming platform and apps to provide 300 streaming television channels to customers watching from inside their homes (a small fraction of those channels are available while outside of the home). Customers will not be able to watch on-demand recorded DVR shows from portable devices, but can program their DVRs from apps or the website.

Discount Internet for the Poor: Charter references the fact its minimum entry-level broadband speed is 60Mbps so that does not bode well for Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Priced Internet $14.99 slow-speed Internet plan. Instead Charter will build upon Bright House Networks’ mysterious broadband program for low-income consumers.

Based on Charter’s initial proposal, Stop the Cap! will urge state and federal regulators to require changes of these terms before approving any merger. Among them:

  1. All existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House service areas should be upgraded to meet or exceed the levels of service offered by Time Warner Cable’s Maxx program within 30 months. It is not acceptable to upgrade some customers while others are left with a much more modest upgrade program proposed by Charter;
  2. Charter must commit to Net Neutrality principles without an expiration date;
  3. Regardless of any usage-cap or usage-based pricing plans Charter may introduce after its three-year “no caps” commitment expires, Charter must permanently continue to offer unlimited, flat rate Internet service at a reasonable price as an alternative to usage-priced plans;
  4. Customers must be given the option of opting out of any leased/provided-modem Wi-Fi hotspot plan that offers a wireless connection to outside users without the customer’s consent;
  5. Charter must commit to a more specific Wi-Fi hotspot program that details towns and cities to be serviced and proposed pricing for non-customers;
  6. Charter must allow customers to use their own set-top equipment (eg. Roku, Apple TV, etc.) to receive cable television service without compulsory equipment/rental fees. The company must also commit to offering discount alternatives such as DTAs for secondary televisions and provide an option for income-challenged customers compelled to accept new equipment to continue receiving cable television service;
  7. Charter must retain Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Priced $14.99 Internet plan regardless of any other low-income discount program it offers. If it chooses to adopt Bright House’s program, it must broaden it to accept applications year-round, simplify the application process and eliminate any waiting periods;
  8. Charter must commit to independent verification of customer quality and service standards and adhere to any regulatory guidelines imposed by state or federal regulators as a condition of approval.
  9. Charter must commit to expansion of its cable network into a reasonable number of adjacent, unserved areas by committing a significant percentage (to be determined) of measurable financial benefits of the merger to the company or its executives towards this effort.

Stop the Cap! will closely monitor the proceedings and intends to participate on both the state (New York) and federal level to guarantee any merger provides consumers with an equitable share of the benefits. We will also be examining the impact of the merger on existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House employees and will promote merger conditions that protect jobs and limit outsourcing, especially overseas.

French Economic Minister to Patrick “The Slasher” Drahi: No “Too Big to Fail” Telecoms Here

logo-bouygues-telecomToday’s offer by Altice SA to spent $11 billion to acquire France’s Bouygues Telecom and combine it with Altice-owned Numericable-SFR to create France’s largest wireless operator is not playing well in some quarters of the French government.

Patrick Drahi’s announcement he was borrowing the money to finance the deal worried France’s economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who felt Drahi’s leverage game in the mergers and acquisitions business came with a massive debt load that could have major implications on French taxpayers.

“I don’t want to create a too-big-to-fail player with such a leverage and it’s my role to … deliver such a message,” Macron said. ”If the biggest telecom operator blows up, guess what, who will pay for that? The government, which means the citizens.”

Macron is partly referring to the upcoming French wireless spectrum auction that will make more wireless frequencies available to the wireless industry. The proceeds will be paid to the French government and a default by Altice could have major implications.



Macron, himself a one-time investment banker at the Rothschild Group, said he was not fooled for a moment by Drahi’s claims the merger would benefit French consumers, especially at the overvalued price Drahi was willing to pay. Macron estimates Drahi has offered almost double the total market value of Bouygues Telecom, a conglomerate that also includes road construction and maintenance, commercial construction and television businesses — all elements Drahi would likely discard after the merger.

“All the synergies which could justify such a price are in fact about killing jobs,” Mr. Macron said. “At the end of the day, is it good for the economy? The answer is ‘no’.”

The merger deal is probably not good news for consumers either. France’s ongoing wireless price war among the four current competitors has reduced the cost of wireless service to as little as $3 a month since low-cost player Iliad broke into the French mobile market three years ago.

Virtually every French telecom analyst predicted the merger would be the beginning of the end of France’s cheap wireless service. Investors cheered the news, predicting higher priced wireless service would boost the value of their stock and increase profitability, while reducing costs. The deal’s defenders said ending the price war would attract necessary investments to upgrade French wireless networks and limit the impact of a bidding war for new wireless spectrum.

Drahi's style of indebting Altice while slashing expenses at acquired companies has earned him suspicion from French officials.

Drahi’s style of indebting Altice while slashing expenses at acquired companies has earned him suspicion from French officials.

Drahi’s style of doing business again raised concerns among several members of the French government. Drahi is notorious for severely slashing expenses at the companies he acquires, usually firing large numbers of middle managers and “redundant employees” and alienating those that remain.

But vendors complain they are treated even worse than Drahi’s employees. Electricity has been cut at Drahi-owned facilities for non-payment, employees have been expected to bring their own toilet paper to the office, and copying machines have been known to run out of toner and paper after office supply firms went unpaid for months.

After his $23 billion acquisition of SFR, the country’s second largest mobile operator, Drahi ordered SFR to stop paying suppliers’ outstanding invoices until vendors and suppliers agreed to massive discounts of as much as 80% on current and future invoices. A government mediator was forced to intervene.

Macron doubts Drahi has the interest or the financial resources to invest in Bouygues’ telecom business. Drahi has already indebted Altice with a spending spree of more than $40 billion over the last year acquiring Suddenlink Communications, SFR, and Portugal Telecom.

Drahi’s acquisition machine is fueled by “cheap debt” available from investment bankers looking for deals to meet investors’ demands for better yields from corporate bonds. Safer investments have faltered as interest rates have fallen into negative territory in parts of Europe.

alticeFrench lawmakers, particularly those aligned with France’s labor unions, accuse Drahi of acting like a bulimic debtor and feared his splurge would eventually lead to a banker-forced purge and government bailout if he cannot meet his debt obligations in the future.

“If I stop my so-called bulimic development, I won’t have any debt five years from now. That’s idiotic, I won’t have any growth for five years,” Drahi curtly replied. “I think it’s better to continue to produce growth all while keeping a foot close to the brakes and looking in the rear-view mirror.”

Finance Minister Michel Sapin scoffed at the apparent recklessness of America’s J.P. Morgan and France’s BNP Paribas investment banks who readily agreed to offer financing for the deal, despite Drahi’s existing debt.

“We must be careful not to base an empire on the sands of debt,” he warned.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Reuters French government hardens stance on Altice bid for Bouygues Telecom 6-22-15.flv

Reuters reports Altice may be vastly overpaying for Bouygues Telecom and that has the French government concerned about creating a “too big to fail” telecom operator in France. (2:04)

EU Competition Minister: Telecom Consolidation Helps Companies, While Consumers Pay More



Rampant consolidation of the telecom industry in Europe may help companies, their executives and shareholders, but more often than not it leads to higher prices for consumers. Those are the views of the European Union’s Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in a speech on antitrust issues delivered earlier today in Paris.

“Incumbent operators argue that if they cannot merge with their rivals […] they will be unable to increase their investment,” said Vestager. “I’ve heard this claim quite often, but I have not seen evidence that this is the case. Instead, there is ample evidence that excessive consolidation may lead not only to less competition and more expensive bills for consumers, but that it also reduces the incentives in national markets to innovate.”

Vestager believes much of the drumbeat for industry consolidation is coming from the financial markets. But competition on the ground suggests more competition, not consolidation, brings improved service.

“Infrastructure investment can be stimulated by competition,” Vestager said. “In 2009 a new player, Free Mobile, entered the French telecom market. Following that entry, the overall level of telecoms investment in France grew, and remains at higher levels than at the moment of Free’s entry.”

Free Mobile also triggered a major wireless price war in France, leading to dramatic drops in the cost of wireless service. Independent research from Rewheel seemed to confirm Vestager’s thesis. After Hutchison and Orange merged in Austria, for example, prices rose sharply.

Vestager argued the real motivation behind consolidation is limiting competition, which also helps operators avoid or delay necessary network upgrades.

“In these markets, we have also seen established players abuse their dominant positions to try and prevent competition from alternative operators,” Vestager added. “And we shouldn’t forget that these alternative operators are also behind major network investments in the EU.”

Vestager’s speech could pose major problems for European dealmakers like Altice and Hutchison Whampoa, because they signal the EU will likely closely scrutinize future mergers and acquisitions on antitrust grounds.

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