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Source: FCC Will Get Serious About Data Caps if Comcast Moves to Impose Them Nationwide

fccA well-placed source in Washington, D.C. with knowledge of the matter tells Stop the Cap! the Federal Communications Commission is prepared to take a hard look at the issue of Internet data caps and usage-based billing if a major cable operator like Comcast imposes usage allowances on its broadband customers nationwide.

Comcast introduced its usage cap market trial in Nashville, Tenn. in 2012 but gradually expanded it to include Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee; Charleston, South Carolina; and Tucson, Arizona.

“Two and a half-years is exceptionally long for a ‘market trial,’ and we expected Comcast would avoid creating an issue for regulators by drawing attention to the data cap issue during its attempted merger with Time Warner Cable,” said our source. “Now that the merger is off, there is growing expectation Comcast will make a decision about its ‘data usage plans’ soon.”

In most test markets, Comcast is limiting residential customers to 300GB of usage per month, after which an overlimit fee of $10 per 50GB applies. Despite that, Comcast’s forthcoming premium gigabit speed plans are exempt from usage caps, the company announced.

Comcast sustomers in market test cities have not been happy with the usage caps, some confronted with inaccurate usage measurement tools or “bill shock” after claiming to find surprise charges on their cable bill. One federal employee offered his own story of bill shock — $200 in overlimit fees on his April Comcast bill. The customer spent $70 a month on broadcast basic cable television and Comcast Internet service. As an almost cord-cutter, he could instead rely on one of several alternative online video providers like Netflix or Hulu, but watching video that did not come from Comcast’s cable TV package contributed to eating his monthly usage allowance and subjected him to hundreds of dollars in extra fees.

cohen“I’ve reviewed [the] account to see and can confirm the charges are valid,” responded a Comcast representative who defended the company’s usage cap trials. “Please understand that we are not here to take advantage of customers. We are here to provide a great customer service experience.  After researching [the] account, at this time no matter what level of service you obtain, the Internet usage [allowance] will remain the same.”

To date, the Federal Communications Commission has left the issue of data caps and usage-based billing on the back burner, despite a Government Accounting Office report that found little justification for usage limits or compulsory usage allowances on broadband.

In 2012, former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski defended the practice, claiming it would bring lower prices to light users, spur “innovation” and enable consumer choice. But Comcast customers have found little, if any savings from Comcast’s so-called “data usage plans.” The only savings comes from enrollment in Comcast’s Flexible Data Option, which offers a $5 discount if a customer keeps usage under 5GB a month on just one plan — Comcast’s 3Mbps $39.95/mo Economy Plus tier.

“We don’t see much innovation coming from Comcast’s usage limit trials because Internet pricing continues to rise and the plans have the side effect of discouraging customers from using competing video providers, which can consume a lot of a customer’s usage allowance,” our source adds.

You're over our arbitrary usage limit!

You are over our arbitrary usage limit!

As far as enabling consumer choice, Comcast’s own representative put the kibosh on that, unless a customer wants to pay higher Internet bills.

Net Neutrality and issues surrounding Title II have consumed much of the FCC’s attention in the residential broadband business during the first half of the Obama Administration’s second term. Usage billing and data caps are likely to become bigger issues during the second half if there is a decisive move towards compulsory usage limits and consumption billing by large operators.

“An operator the size of Comcast absolutely will draw scrutiny,” said our source. “If Comcast decides to impose its currently tested market trial plans on Comcast customers nationwide, the FCC will take a closer look. Under Title II, the agency is empowered to watch for attempts to circumvent Net Neutrality policies. Usage caps and charging additional fees to customers looking for an alternative to the cable television package will qualify, especially if Comcast continues to try to exempt itself.”

Cable industry officials have also become aware of the buzz surrounding usage caps and growing regulator concern. Some reportedly discussed the possibility of FCC intervention behind closed doors at the recent cable industry conference in Chicago. Multichannel News reported (sub. req.) cable industry executives increasingly fear federal officials will ban usage pricing for wired broadband service on competitive grounds. Online video competitors rely on large cable and phone companies to reach prospective customers, many that may think twice if usage allowances are imposed on consumer broadband accounts.

While Your Cable TV Bill Rises Due to “Increased Programming Costs,” So Are Advertising Loads

cablebill-web

Cablevision’s broadcast TV surcharge increased in January to $5.98 a month, which amounts to $71.76 a year, on top of your usual cable TV bill.

No it isn’t your imagination. While a growing number of cable television subscribers now face a “broadcast programming surcharge” on their cable bill to compensate television stations and networks for cable carriage, those same channels are larding up their programming with ever-increasing advertising. One quarter of every hour of network television is now littered with commercials — an all-time high for broadcast networks seeking to maximize advertising revenue.

Show openings have been cut to seconds, credits roll by at fast-forward speed – usually compressed into illegibility, and some cable networks have returned to the practice of chopping bits of shows and compressing playback of others to accommodate more commercials. That does not include product placement or “in-program” compensated advertising, which appears when a character picks up a can of Pepsi, walks by a Subway outlet, or reaches for a Pop-Tart for breakfast.

As early as 2009, TNS Media Intelligence found at least 36% of today’s network primetime shows were advertising-oriented. That included 7:59 of in-show brand appearances and 13:52 of commercial advertisements, for a combined total of 21:51 of marketing content.

Reality shows, as well as being cheap to produce, are product placement gold. America’s Toughest Jobs contained 44:50 per hour of advertising messages and product placement, The Biggest Loser ran up 40:37. Before the reality show craze, game shows were program-length commercials in disguise. Game show producers received an endless supply of prizes to give away in return for viewers enduring relentless 10-15 second pitches for Rice-a-Roni, crock pots, living room furniture sets, and current model cars and trucks. Viewers did not escape traditional advertisements along the way either.

Through much of the 1970s and early 1980s, an average hour of network television was between 48-52 minutes of programming, 8-12 minutes of network and local commercials. Short news breaks and public service announcements were often included during those breaks. Shows targeting children usually contained less advertising.

In 1984, the Reagan Administration deregulated broadcasters, claiming the free market was best equipped to contain any abusive practices as consumers theoretically could tune out stations and networks that allowed things to get out-of-hand.

In reality, what one network decided, the others usually followed. Outside of watching commercial-free PBS (although those sponsorship messages increasingly began to resemble traditional advertising over the years), viewers didn’t have much choice. For the last 31 years since deregulation, advertising has increased while show length has decreased. In the 1970s and 80s, pieces of rerun television shows created when ad loads were shorter were often cut from shows to make room for an extra ad or two. What was left after a trip to the cutting room was often played slightly sped-up, which made room for even more advertising. By the 1990s, producers created their shows with increasing advertising loads in mind. Short sacrificial 60-90 second end scenes, deemed non-essential to the show’s integrity, were often chopped when a show entered syndication.

In the 2000s, network executives started demanding producers drastically cut the length of show opening and closing themes. If producers didn’t, studios did it for them when a show was resold to a cable network. A rerun of Law & Order now features a 24-second opening, a big difference from the original 1:45 second opening the show had when it originally aired on NBC. End credits were usually squished on-screen to allow a 15-second network promotion to run at the top. Some networks even began their next show in one window while showing end credits of the last program in another.

But nothing affected commercial loads more than the 2008 Great Recession. Advertising revenue tumbled, along with the economy, and advertisers balked at paying traditional ad rates when online advertising was available for much less. The answer? Sell more ads… at a lower price. Once again, program lengths had to be cut to make room for the increasing number of commercials. By 2009, average network ad loads were up to 13:25 per hour. Just four years later in 2013, that number spiked to 14:15. It’s now 15 minutes and up at some networks, depending on the type of program.

As commercials neared comprising 25% of every hour of television, sponsors finally began to rebel. They were reacting to the pervasive growth of the DVR, which allowed consumers to record their favorite shows, if only to fast forward past the dense thicket of commercials. They sought a ceiling on ad loads and more creative ways to reach ad-skipping audiences numbed by relentless advertising. That meant even more product placement.

Although sponsors of expensive NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX shows may have rebelled at the 15-minute mark, the same isn’t true with cable networks where ad loads are as high as 24 minutes per hour. In 2009, the average cable network aired 14:27 of advertisements an hour. This year, it’s up to 15:18 and still rising. Among the worst offenders:

ad load

To keep the money flowing from every direction, both over-the-air and cable networks, including those noted above, continue to seek additional compensation from your provider in the form of retransmission consent and carriage agreements. Whether you watch a channel or not, you are paying for it. Some of these compensation agreements are experiencing rate increases approaching 10% annually.

To the surprise of many industry analysts, some of the worst offenders are networks with declining ratings who risk further alienating viewers with even more advertising just to keep revenue numbers up. While traditional ads actually declined by 2% on most over the air networks this year, FOX more than made up for that with a 15% increase in advertising time. The cable networks with the highest ad increases this year were Viacom-owned channels (Comedy Central, Spike, MTV, Nickelodeon) jumping 13%, A+E Networks (A&E, Crime & Investigation, Lifetime, History) increasing 10%, and 9% at Discovery Networks. Which networks increased ads the least? Those owned by Disney, independent cable networks, and Time Warner (Entertainment).

“Generally speaking, the ratings winners (Disney, 21st Century Fox, Scripps Networks) are increasing investment in original content (and not abusively increasing ad loads), whereas the losers (A+E Networks, Viacom, NBCUniversal) and the neutrals (Discovery, AMC Networks) are decelerating investment in original content and stuffing more ad spots into their shows,” said analyst Todd Juenger of Sanford C. Bernstein.

Michael Nathanson of MoffetNathanson Research worries television is repeating the mistakes commercial radio made post-deregulation, when massive increases in advertising accompanied by decelerating investment in programming repelled many listeners, perhaps for good. Some have permanently abandoned commercial over the air radio in favor of commercial free music services, satellite radio, and streaming services.

“Networks can offset ratings challenges and pricing weakness with more inventory, however, we worry that it is a dangerous long-term game that ultimately devalues the consumer experience and reduces ad efficacy,” Nathanson said. “As we saw with radio, once the increased commercial load genie is out of the bottle, it is nearly impossible to put it back in.”

When Stephen Cox was watching The Wizard of Oz on TBS last November, something didn’t sound quite right to him about the Munchkins, who are near and dear to his heart. He wasn’t imagining things. Time Warner-owned TBS used compression technology to speed up the movie. The purpose: stuffing in more TV commercials.

“Their voices were raised a notch,” Cox, the author of several pop-culture books including one about the classic 1939 film, told the Wall Street Journal. “It was astounding to me.”

The Colbert Report hilariously depicts the next generation of product placement: the retroactive ad technology of Mirriad, which can insert products into shows years after they were made. (4:04)

Frontier’s Website Woes – Company Drops Online Ordering… Because It Can’t Make It Work Right

frontierIf you want to order a product or service online from Frontier Communications, forget it. A source tells Stop the Cap! the company was dropping online e-commerce functions from its Frontier.com website because it could never get online ordering working properly.

Sure enough, the latest iteration of Frontier’s website today blazes with banners requesting customers call the company or use “live chat” to handle any orders for service.

“They still offer the function of self-service — allowing customers to view their bills, set up auto payments, make one time payments, etc., but they are removing the ability for customers to order any service at all,” said our source.

Yesterday's phone company can't manage a website with online ordering.

Yesterday’s phone company can’t manage a website with online ordering.

“This company can’t manage to figure out how to build a website that supports ordering of products, so they are just going to kill that function,” the source added. “Customers will be able to see what products they can get within a specific zip code, but that’s it. If they want to order, they are going to be forced into the already overloaded call center.”

Frontier’s ability to handle its acquisitions of landline customers from Verizon and AT&T have caused problems in the recent past, including customers losing service, getting improperly billed, or experiencing missed service calls. With Verizon customers in Florida, Texas, and California likely to join the Frontier family, our source tells us they will be shocked to see how backwards Frontier’s online presence is compared with Verizon.

“I’m sure our former Verizon and AT&T customers as well as our future Verizon customers will enjoy going back to the Stone Age when they couldn’t do what they needed to do online and would have to pick up the phone to call into a Contact Center,” the source said. “We might as well just have a Frontier Wikipedia page for crying out loud.”

noonlineorder

Just don’t try ordering online.

Frontier has also adopted this novel disclaimer explaining why its advertised DSL speeds often don’t come close to actual speeds in the fine print:

“Actual speeds may vary and are not guaranteed. Performance metrics based on Frontier lab validation under ideal network environment simulating “best case scenario” without network congestion, other factors cause by consumer behavior, or factors caused by third-party providers’ behaviors. Consumers may not be able to replicate the performance shown in the performance metrics.”

In plain English: “Our advertised DSL speeds are theoretically possible… in a lab… on Moonbase Alpha… as long as you don’t try to use the service… and nobody else does either.”

“Please let your readers know that there are some Frontier employees who want to do right by our customers and want to give them the best service possible, but our expertise and opinions are rarely valued,” the source said.

Comcast’s David Cohen Survives Night of the Long Knives Blame Game for Comcast Merger Failure

David "I'm crushing your head" Cohen

David “I’m crushing your head” Cohen

Your boss authorized $32 million on lobbying for a $45 billion dollar merger deal that just went down in flames on your watch and you were the guy the company depended on to push it through. What do you do?

If you are Comcast vice president David Cohen, you pray for a press release signed by the CEO reaffirming trust in you.

Cohen can breathe a little easier because Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast, did exactly that.

“There is nobody better than David Cohen,” Roberts wrote. “He’s incredible at what he does and we are beyond lucky that he helps passionately lead so many areas at Comcast. He is also a huge supporter of Philadelphia and has done so much for the community. I’m extremely proud to have him on our team.”

It could have been much worse for Cohen, whose contract (and $15 million annual salary) is up at the end of this year. He’s the fourth biggest earner at Comcast, but his stunning arrogance before Congress and the public may have helped nail the coffin shut on a merger worth tens of billions.

Some media outlets have called Cohen myopic, unable to see the building torrent of opposition from consumers, public interest groups, and even regulators.

The NY Post:

“They just lost a big battle. Does the company need a new general to supervise the Washington political strategy?” asked one source.

Comcast is already on the hunt for a new chief financial officer, with Michael Angelakis walking away to begin his own Comcast-backed private-equity fund before the deal imploded.

comcast twcComcast’s claims of “deal benefits” for consumers was perceived to be tissue-thin by legislators like Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), whose district would have seen Time Warner and Charter customers absorbed into the Comcast Dominion.

“[Cohen] was smothering us with attention but he was not answering our questions,” Cárdenas told The New York Times, adding in the early stages of the deal he was open to supporting it if his questions were addressed satisfactorily. “And I could not help but think that this is a $140 billion company with 130 lobbyists — and they are using all of that to the best of their ability to get us to go along.”

Comcast’s swaggering arrogance, condescending editorials, and dismissive attitude towards consumers questioning the deal rubbed a lot of lawmakers the wrong way.

Not only did Comcast offend lawmakers, but their all-important staffers as well. Staffers told the newspaper they felt Comcast was so convinced in the early stages that the deal would be approved that it was dismissing concerns about the transaction, or simply taking the conversation in a different direction when asked about them.

Elected officials associating themselves with Comcast, whose customer service on a good day is considered miserable, was also considered political poison. Few lawmakers were willing to publicly support foisting Comcast on their constituents. Local lawmakers in Time Warner Cable service areas who had no direct experience with Comcast customer service’s special touch of hell often did offer support, especially when a handsome check was sent weeks earlier. But voters with relatives or friends who loathed Comcast (practically everyone in America) were never fooled.

hurricane comcast“They talked a lot about the benefits, and how much they were going to invest in Time Warner Cable and improve the service it provided,” said one senior Senate staff aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “But every time you talked about industry consolidation and the incentive they would have to leverage their market power to hurt competition, they gave us unsatisfactory answers.”

Politicians asked to publicly support the deal characterized their sentiment as “leery” in polite company.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) was unwilling to victimize her constituents by replacing two bad cable companies – Time Warner Cable and Charter with one horrible alternative – Comcast.

“No amount of public-interest commitments to diversity would remedy the consumer harm a merged Comcast-Time Warner would have caused to millions of Americans across the country,” Ms. Waters said.

Other lawmakers who already understood Comcast as the Hurricane Katrina of cable companies got into storm shelters early.

“There are limits as to how effective even the best advocate can be with a losing case,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, who was critical of the deal from the start, “as this merger would have further enhanced this company’s incentive, its means and its history of abuse of market power.”

Comcast even cynically attempted to color and race match lobbyists with legislators, believing the shared ethnic heritage would be an added incentive.

The New York Times:

Comcast, for example, assigned Juan Otero, a former Department of Homeland Security official who serves on the board of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and now works as a Comcast lobbyist, to be the point person to work with Mr. Cárdenas.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Stewart, an African-American lobbyist on the Congressional Black Caucus Institute board, was assigned to work with Marc Veasey, Democrat of Texas, who is also black. She personally appealed to Mr. Veasey’s staff, urging that he not sign a letter last August questioning the deal, according to an email obtained by The New York Times, citing the company’s work on behalf of the minority community. (Mr. Veasey still signed a related letter.)

Comcast also asked Jordan Goldstein, a former official at the Federal Communications Commission who is now a Comcast regulatory affairs executive, to work with Mr. Blumenthal’s office. Mr. Goldstein had previously developed a working relationship with Joel Kelsey, a legislative assistant in charge of reviewing the matter for the senator, who is a member of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Verizon Wireless to Customers Looking for a Better Deal: Goodbye and Good Luck With Competitors’ Inferior Service

Verizon Wireless: The Neiman Marcus of mobile providers

Verizon Wireless: The Neiman Marcus of mobile providers

A customer retention call with Verizon Wireless is short and to the point: enjoy the coverage you get from us now at the prices we charge or cancel and live with inferior cell phone service from one of our competitors.

Verizon chief financial officer Fran Shammo waved goodbye to 138,000 Verizon Wireless customers in the last three months and he could care less.

“If the customer who is just price-sensitive and does not care about the quality of the network—or is sufficient with just paying a lower price—that’s probably the customer we’re not going to be able to keep,” he said in the company’s quarterly earnings call today.

The wireless industry’s price war has not yet inflicted much damage on Verizon, which considers itself above the fray.

Average revenue per customer has started to significantly decline for the first time in wireless industry history, despite efforts to bolster earnings with expensive data plans and bundling services, including unlimited voice calling most cell phone users no longer care about. Both T-Mobile and Sprint are resorting to slashing prices and reducing the fine print to pick up business, with T-Mobile being the more successful of the two pulling it off. But the combined market share of Sprint and T-Mobile remains a fraction of what AT&T and Verizon Wireless have captured.

verizon greedVerizon believes it has a premium product and expects to be paid for it. Like a Neiman Marcus of the wireless industry, customers can expect a superior level of service, if they can afford to pay for it.

To keep customers dazzled, this summer Verizon Wireless is planning a new wireless video service featuring content from the NFL and likely more. Verizon hopes customers without unlimited data plans will be willing to pay several dollars extra for the new streaming service. But perhaps not too many extra dollars. Verizon executives have discovered a loophole in the FCC’s new Net Neutrality regulations allowing video content to be sponsored by Verizon or its advertising partners and exempt from usage allowances or caps.

Known as “zero-rating,” the practice is much more common overseas, where content providers pay for customer’s usage of their applications. Critics call the practice an end run around Net Neutrality. The FCC has continued to avoid the issue of broadband usage caps and usage-based billing, which ISPs have interpreted to mean a green light on the practice. In fact, some earlier comments from the FCC suggest the agency believes subsidized Internet traffic might be beneficial to consumers. Verizon pockets the money in either case.

Tim Berners-Lee, who created of the World Wide Web, called zero-rating “positive discrimination,” giving too much power to Internet providers.

“Zero-rated mobile traffic is blunt anti-competitive price discrimination designed to favor telcos’ own or their partners’ apps while placing competing apps at a disadvantage,” added Antonios Drossos, managing partner of Rewheel. “A zero-rated app is an offer consumers can’t refuse.”

Verizon Wireless has not yet priced its forthcoming video offering, but it could be marketed as a monthly add-on feature or as a pay-per-view option.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Verizon Bids Good Riddance to Customers Leaving for a Cheaper Deal 4-21-15.flv

Bloomberg reporters talk about Verizon’s disinterest in competing with other carriers in the ongoing price war, and is fine with letting price-sensitive customers leave. It won’t be cutting prices anytime soon. (2:01)

Justice Department Nearing Decision to Block Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

Phillip Dampier April 17, 2015 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 5 Comments

comcast twcStaff attorneys that have reviewed details of the Time Warner Cable/Comcast merger proposal are prepared to make a recommendation as early as next week that the Department of Justice should block the deal because it is anti-competitive and anti-consumer.

The staff in the Justice Department’s antitrust division have spent more than a year reviewing documents submitted by both cable companies to determine what impact the merger would have on the cable television and broadband landscape.

Bloomberg News today reported the attorneys did not like what they saw and believe the merger would harm consumers. For the first time, a cable company merger deal was reviewed not so much for its impact on cable television programming, but on broadband.

When the Federal Communications Commission redefined broadband as an Internet connection of at least 25Mbps, Comcast suddenly found itself the largest broadband provider in the country. If the merger with Time Warner Cable is approved, Comcast will have a 56.8 percent market share of U.S. broadband customers, far exceeding any other provider.

In upstate New York, Comcast would have more than a 75% market share — nearly 9o% if you just consider non-Verizon FiOS areas. In California, Comcast would control more than 80% of the market, not only picking up Time Warner Cable customers, but Charter customers in Southern California as well. 

Comcast and Time Warner Cable have argued competition is not affected because the two companies never compete with each other. But a de facto broadband monopoly could allow Comcast to raise rates at will and bring a return to usage-related billing. It would also discourage new competitors from entering the market – particularly those relying on broadband to deliver video services, and hand Comcast more leverage to force compensation from online content companies like Netflix.

justiceUnder consideration by the Justice Department:

  • Whether the combined entity would have too much control over nationwide broadband Internet delivery;
  • whether Comcast could use its financial influence to strike exclusive cable deals that could keep programming off other platforms;
  • whether Comcast could limit how programming is delivered through video streaming services (usage caps, etc.);
  • if Comcast complied with terms under a previous merger deal with NBCUniversal.

Renata Hesse, a deputy assistant attorney general for antitrust, will take the analysis and ultimately decide, along with the division’s top officials, whether to file a federal lawsuit to block the deal. Bloomberg reports lawyers at the Justice Department have contacted outside parties to collect evidence to strengthen their potential case against the merger.

Another clear sign the merger is not being received well inside the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission is a complete lack of negotiations with Comcast over possible concessions to make the deal less anti-competitive. That also happened with the AT&T/T-Mobile merger where negotiations to ease anticompetitive concerns never seriously got off the ground before the Justice Department sued to block the deal. The FCC quickly announced its own opposition later that same day.

A lawsuit does not necessarily kill the merger deal. Comcast could take its case to federal court to win approval over the objections of the Justice Department. The company might also counter-propose new concessions to address concerns raised by the lawsuit. 

After learning of today’s Bloomberg News story, spokespeople at both Comcast and Time Warner Cable are either confident or in denial:

“There is no basis for a lawsuit to block the transaction,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokeswoman. The merger “will result in significant consumer benefits — faster broadband speeds, access to a superior video experience, and more competition in business services resulting in billions of dollars of cost savings.”

Time Warner Cable spokesman Bobby Amirshahi said “we have been working productively with both DOJ and FCC and believe that there is no basis for DOJ to block the deal.”

FCC Plans to Unveil New Rules to Regulate Broadband Service as a Public Utility; Net Neutrality Included

Phillip Dampier February 3, 2015 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

netneutralityIn a major victory for consumers and public interest groups, the Federal Communications Commission this week will unveil fundamental changes in the oversight of high-speed Internet service, regulating it in the public interest as a public utility.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler plans to include robust Net Neutrality protection in the proposal, insisting the agency has a right to oversee providers’ traffic management practices when they impact customers.

Central to the proposal is redefining broadband away from the current, barely regulated “information service” category that has allowed telecom companies to successfully challenge the FCC in court on almost every attempt to oversee broadband Internet service. Wheeler’s plan is expected to reclassify broadband as a “telecommunications service,” which will subject providers to more regulator scrutiny.

The FCC is expected to specifically prohibit providers from blocking, slowing down, or speeding up individual websites in return for financial compensation. The ban on “Internet fast lanes” and “toll booths” will protect Internet startups that would otherwise face an immediate disadvantage from well-heeled competitors that can afford to pay for enhanced access to customers.

But despite claims from Net Neutrality opponents, Wheeler is not expected to impose a one-size-fits-all regulatory regime over broadband. Instead, he prefers to reserve regulatory powers to police individual disputes such as those between Netflix, Comcast, Verizon and other providers which caused traffic slowdowns for consumers in 2014 until paid peering agreements were finalized, compensating ISPs for handling Netflix streaming video content.

Providers fear that reclassifying broadband under Title II rules could subject them to future oversight of practices like usage-based billing, usage caps, speed throttling, broadband pricing and availability. But the Obama Administration is on record opposing price regulation of broadband, and few expect the FCC will adopt a micromanagement approach to broadband oversight.

Wheeler’s proposal is likely to win a majority vote from the three Democratic commissioners. Opposition is a virtual certainty from the Republican minority.

The telecom industry promises whatever rules are adopted will face an immediate challenge in court.

Cable Lobby Forgot to Mention It’s the Sole Backer of Sock Puppet Group ‘Onward Internet’

onward-internetWith millions at stake charging content producers extra for guaranteed fast lanes on the Internet, some lobbyists will go to almost any length to throw up roadblocks in opposition to Net Neutrality.

The sudden appearance of Onward Internet, a group that erects enormous “Internet suggestion boxes” at busy intersections in New York and San Francisco is a case in point.

At least a half-dozen 20-somethings, some dressed for a science fiction convention, staff the displays while encouraging people to write and toss in their own ideas about what they expect from the Internet over the next decade.

A higher bill and usage caps, unsurprisingly, were not among the suggestions. But it is doubtful the mysterious people behind Onward Internet are interested in hearing that.

Advocacy group ProPublica spent weeks trying to find who was paying for the youthful exuberance, giant black boxes, and hopelessly optimistic YouTube videos telling viewers the Internet was made to move data, and how amazing it was your Internet Service Providers valiantly kept up with the demand, helped connect industries and even topple dictatorships. Well, not corporate dictatorships in this country anyway.

With that kind of “feel good” message, ProPublica undoubtedly smelled industry money, especially after seeing lines like, “The Internet is a wild, free thing; unbounded by limits, unfettered by rules, it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the Internet continues to advance.” But it took a leak from a worker hired to file permits and buy space in San Francisco for the street displays to finally blow the whistle.

Onward Internet = the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, America’s largest cable industry lobbyist.

This appears to be a repurposed dumpster.

This appears to be a repurposed dumpster.

You couldn’t find a bigger critic of Net Neutrality if you tried.

The NCTA played coy with ProPublica when the group first confronted the cable lobby with the evidence.

“What led you to the conclusion that this is an NCTA effort,” asked NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz.

Busted, Dietz followed up with a statement suggesting the NCTA needed to keep its involvement top-secret because it might ‘bias’ the feedback they received:

“We’ve kept NCTA’s brand off Onward Internet because we want to collect unbiased feedback directly from individuals about what they want for the future of the Internet and how it can become even better than it is today,” Dietz told ProPublica. “The cable industry is proud of our role as a leading Internet provider in the U.S. but we feel it’s important to hear directly from consumers about how they envision the future so we can work hard on delivering it.”

“We had always intended to put the NCTA brand on it but we wanted to collect as much unbiased feedback as we could for a few weeks before putting our name on it,” Dietz later told VentureBeat.

The NCTA is hoping unwitting consumers submit comments they can use to oppose Net Neutrality and Title 2 reclassification of broadband as a “telecommunications service.”

Because if that happens, the Money Party may end before it even begins.

The NCTA’s astroturf effort is nothing new. A panoply of well-funded, telecom-industry backed sock puppet groups muddy the waters on these issues everyday, from Broadband for America to various think tanks and bought and paid for researchers.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Onward Internet Decide the future of the Internet 10-8-14.mp4

Onward Internet is hoping you will share comments they can use to prove you oppose Net Neutrality. The NCTA is a strong opponent of Net Neutrality, which allows LOLCATS, movies, and dictatorship toppling to occur without paying even MORE money to the cable company for a fast lane that should have been fast in the first place, considering how much we are spending on it. Now Big Cable also want usage caps and allowances. The revolution has been capped. (1:22)

5+ Years After Fraudulent Cramming Fees Began, AT&T Agrees to Pay $105 Million Fine/Restitution

AT&T aids and abets cramming fraud by making it hard to identify on customer bills.

AT&T aids and abets cramming fraud by making it hard to find on customer bills.

More than five years after complaints began rolling into AT&T from wireless customers finding unauthorized charges on their monthly bills, the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission today announced those customers deserve a refund, and AT&T has agreed to pay $80 million towards restitution for their complicity in bill cramming.

As part of a $105 million settlement with federal and state law enforcement officials, AT&T Mobility LLC will pay $80 million to the Federal Trade Commission to provide refunds to consumers the company unlawfully billed for unauthorized third-party charges, a practice known as mobile cramming. The refunds are part of a multi-agency settlement that also includes $20 million in penalties and fees paid to 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as a $5 million penalty to the Federal Communications Commission.

In its complaint against AT&T, the FTC alleges that AT&T billed its customers for hundreds of millions of dollars in charges originated by other companies, usually in amounts of $9.99 per month, for subscriptions for ringtones and text messages containing love tips, horoscopes, and “fun facts.” In its complaint, the FTC alleges that AT&T kept at least 35 percent of the charges it imposed on its customers, a lucrative incentive for AT&T to keep the cramming charges coming.

“I am very pleased that this settlement will put tens of millions of dollars back in the pockets of consumers harmed by AT&T’s cramming of its mobile customers,” said FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “This case underscores the important fact that basic consumer protections – including that consumers should not be billed for charges they did not authorize – are fully applicable in the mobile environment.”

Beginning today, consumers who believe they were charged by AT&T without their authorization can visit www.ftc.gov/att to submit a refund claim and find out more about the FTC’s refund program under the settlement. If consumers are unsure about whether they are eligible for a refund, they can visit the claims website or contact the settlement administrator at 1-877-819-9692 for more information.

This case is part of a larger FTC effort to clamp down on mobile cramming. This is the FTC’s seventh mobile cramming case since 2013, and its second against a mobile phone carrier this year. The FTC filed a complaint against T-Mobile in July, and that case is ongoing. The Commission also issued a staff report on mobile cramming in July. The FTC mobile cramming cases build on the FTC’s extensive law enforcement work over the last decade to combat cramming on landline phone bills.

The FTC’s investigation into AT&T showed that the company received very high volumes of consumer complaints related to the unauthorized third-party charges placed on consumer’s phone bills. For some third-party content providers, complaints reached as high as 40 percent of subscriptions charged to AT&T consumers in a given month. In 2011 alone, the FTC’s complaint states, AT&T received more than 1.3 million calls to its customer service department about the charges.

According to the complaint, in October 2011, AT&T altered its refund policy so that customer service representatives could only offer to refund two months’ worth of charges to consumers who sought a refund, no matter how long the company had been billing customers for the unauthorized charges. Prior to that time, AT&T had offered refunds of up to three months’ worth of charges. At that time, AT&T characterized its change in policy as designed to “help lower refunds.”

In February 2012, one AT&T employee said in an e-mail that “Cramming/Spamming has increased to a new level that cannot be tolerated from an AT&T or industry perspective,” but according to the complaint, the company did not act to determine whether third parties had in fact gotten authorization from consumers for the charges placed on their bills. In fact, the company denied refunds to many consumers, and in other cases referred the consumers to third-parties to seek refunds for the money consumers paid to AT&T.

The structure of AT&T’s consumer bills compounded the problem of the unauthorized charges, according to the complaint, by making it very difficult for customers to know that third-party charges were being placed on their bills. On both the first page of printed bills and the summary of bills viewed online, consumers saw only a total amount due and due date with no indication the amount included charges placed on their bill by a third party. The complaint alleges that within online and printed bills, the fees were listed as “AT&T Monthly Subscriptions,” leaving consumers to believe the charges were part of services provided by AT&T.

Under the terms of its settlement with the FTC, AT&T must notify all of its current customers who were billed for unauthorized third-party charges of the settlement and the refund program by text message, e-mail, paper bill insert and notification on an online bill. Former customers may be contacted by the FTC’s refund administrator.

In addition to the refund requirements, AT&T is also required to obtain consumers’ express, informed consent before placing any third-party charges on a consumer’s mobile phone bill. In addition, the company must clearly indicate any third-party charges on the consumers’ bill and provide consumers with the option to block third-party charges from being placed on their bill.

The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file the complaint and approving the proposed stipulated order was 5-0. The FTC filed the complaint and proposed stipulated order in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. The proposed stipulated order is subject to court approval.

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

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

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

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

Other consumer satisfaction surveys are far less charitable to Comcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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