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FCC May Make Comcast/Time Warner Merger Contingent on Carriage of More TV Channels

cable tvJust when you thought the cable television lineup could not possibly get any larger,  insiders at Comcast are anticipating one of the possible conditions that could be imposed by the Federal Communications Commission in return for approval of its merger with Time Warner Cable is an agreement to carry more independently owned cable television channels.

One of the most vocal groups of consumers opposed to the merger deal have been viewers of independent Omaha, Neb.-based RFD-TV, which has landed carriage deals with Time Warner Cable but has been largely ignored by Comcast. For most of the summer, RFD-TV encouraged viewers to pelt the FCC with complaints about the merger deal, insisting that more networks not owned or operated by the top five media conglomerates get equal treatment on the Comcast cable dial. Thousands of viewers responded.

Comcast vice president David Cohen told Congress Comcast already carries more than 170 small or independent networks, although Comcast counts international networks distributed to customers at premium rates.

“It sounds wonderful. But when you peel back the onion . . . it’s really nothing at all,” Pat Gottsch, founder of RFD-TV told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Very few [independent] channels have full distribution, other than BBC World News and Al Jazeera.”

Independent networks have little leverage with major cable operators because they cannot tie carriage agreements to more popular mainstream cable networks. That is why little-known networks like Crime & Investigation Channel or the spinoffs of fX – fXX and fXM – have glided onto cable lineups while networks like RFD, The Tennis Channel, and BlueHighways TV have a much tougher time.

Time Warner Cable now widely carries RFD-TV, but often only on an added-cost mini-pay tier. In many Time Warner markets, RFD and Smithsonian TV replaced HDNet, also an added-cost network.

rfdtv_logoThe independent networks fear they will never become viable if they cannot reach the nearly one-third of the country’s cable television subscribers a combined Comcast and Time Warner Cable would serve. Others question whether they will be given fair consideration if their networks compete with an existing Comcast or Time Warner Cable-owned channel.

The Tennis Channel and Bloomberg have both tussled repeatedly with Comcast over carriage agreements and channel placement. The Tennis Channel took Comcast all the way to a federal appeals court, but lost their case. Cable companies have won recognition of their First Amendment rights to choose the channels on their systems.

In years past, cable operators cited limited channel capacity as the most frequent reason a network could not be added to the lineup. Comcast continues to claim they have limited channel space for television channels, but that has not stopped the cable company from launching dozens of little-watched networks they receive compensation to carry (home shopping, TBN and certain other religious networks) or are contractually obligated to carry (add-on sports and entertainment networks owned by Disney, Viacom, Time Warner (Entertainment), Fox, and even Comcast itself, through its Universal division).

garbageComcast’s claim it already carries nearly 180 independent networks drew scrutiny when the company released the list of networks. At least half were added-cost international or pornography networks — all sold at a higher cost. More than a dozen others were independent sports channels packed into a higher-cost sports tier. Most of the rest were regional networks given very limited exposure. BlueHighways TV, which features bluegrass music, is seen in only 210,000 Comcast homes, mostly in Tennessee. That is less than 1% of Comcast’s total subscriber base.

The only prominent and truly independent networks given wide carriage on Comcast include Home Shopping Network and QVC, which pay a commission to Comcast for every sale made to a Comcast customer, BBC World News, and the Catholic EWTN network.

Mitigating the problem of independent network carriage may push the FCC to the path of least resistance – making carriage of some of these networks a requirement in return for merger approval.

It wouldn’t be the first time. Comcast agreed to launch 10 independent networks as a condition for FCC approval of its buyout of NBCUniversal. That deal is what brought BBC World News to the Comcast lineup, along with a range of little-known networks on high channel numbers: ASPiRE, BabyFirst Americas, Revolt, and El Rey. BabyFirst is targeted to babies and toddlers from 0-3 years old, but is also enjoyed by recreational drug users who find the network’s use of bright colors in their short-form videos entertaining. ASPiRE’s programming has been described by its critics as “crap.”

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Internet Slowdown Day is Here: Tell the FCC to Classify ISPs as Common Carriers

Phillip "It's common sense" Dampier

Phillip “It’s common sense” Dampier

The concept is so simple one might think there was nothing controversial about the common sense idea of requiring Internet Service Providers to handle Internet traffic equally.

But that would throw a wrench into the money-making plans of some of America’s top cable and phone companies looking for new ways to collect more money and bigger profits from selling Internet access.

Wireless phone companies have already got the Money Party started, throttling certain traffic while exempting partnered apps and websites from counting against your monthly usage allowance. Americans pay some of the highest prices in the world for broadband service, but it is never enough for some executives who believe the increasing necessity of having Internet access means companies can charge even more for access. With few competitive alternatives, where are you going to go?

With most Americans confronted with just two Internet providers to choose from, the stage is set for mischief. The normal rules of competition simply don’t apply, allowing companies to raise prices while limiting innovation to finding new ways to improve revenue without improving the service. That has worked well for stockholders and executives that green-light these schemes, but for all the money Americans pay for service, broadband in the United States is still way behind other nations.

A few years ago, the CEO of AT&T decided that collecting money from customers to provide Internet access wasn’t enough. The company now wanted compensation from websites that generate the traffic ISPs handle for their customers. In other words, they wanted to be paid twice for doing their job.

If you listen to some of America’s largest cable and phone companies talk, you would think that traffic from Netflix and other high-volume websites was sucking them dry. But in fact their prices and profits are up and their costs are down… way down. But that doesn’t stop them from contemplating usage-based billing and reducing investment in upgrades to keep up with demand. Netflix learned that lesson when Comcast refused to upgrade some of its connections which left Netflix streaming video constantly buffering for Comcast customers. Those problems magically disappeared as soon as money changed hands in a deal that leaves Netflix dependent on paying Comcast protection money to make sure customers can actually enjoy the service they already paid to receive.

internetslowdownhero-100413741-large

Former FCC chairman Kevin Martin believed competition would keep ISPs honest, but since he left at the end of the Bush Administration, competition has barely emerged for most of us. Julius Genachowski, the FCC chairman under President Obama’s first term gave some strong speeches about protecting Net Neutrality but caved to provider demands the moment he met with them behind closed doors. Today, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler presides over an agency that has repeatedly had its regulatory hat handed to them by the D.C. Court of Appeals, which has ruled time and time again that the current regulatory foundation on which Internet-related policies are enforced is completely unsound.

We can thank former FCC chairman Michael Powell for that. His decision to classify broadband as an “information service” during the first term of the Bush Administration carries almost no legacy of court-upheld authority the FCC can rely on to enforce its regulations. Powell’s innovation was warmly received by America’s biggest cable companies who quickly realized the FCC had regulatory authority over the broadband business in name-only. Powell’s reward? A cushy job as head of America’s biggest cable lobby – the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA).

Don't allow Comcast and others to slow down your favorite cat videos.

Don’t allow Comcast and others to slow down your favorite cat videos.

Wheeler used to hold that position himself, and his trip through D.C.’s revolving door connecting regulators with the regulated makes it unsurprising that Wheeler’s own Net Neutrality proposal is not far from what Big Telecom companies want themselves — permission to create paid “fast lanes” on highways that currently lack enough capacity to protect other traffic from suffering the speed consequences of prioritized traffic.

It reminds me of those highway projects where cars dutifully change lanes well in advance of lane closures while other cars blow past only to merge at the last possible minute, saving them time while slowing cars behind them to a crawl as they wait to move ahead.

Make no mistake – paid fast lanes will compromise unpaid traffic, reducing the quality of your Internet experience.

The best solution to this problem would be for providers to devote more revenue to regular network upgrades that benefit everyone, not create new ways to ration the Internet for some while letting others pay to avoid speed bumps and congestion issues that are easy and inexpensive to solve. But if your provider was already delivering that kind of capacity, there would be no market for Internet fast lanes, would there? Without Net Neutrality, providers have a financial incentive not to upgrade their networks and have little fear unhappy customers will switch to the other competitor likely trying the same thing.

Net Neutrality cannot just be a policy, however. A strong regulatory foundation must exist to allow the FCC to enforce Internet-related policies without having them overturned by the courts. That means one thing: reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service subject to common carrier regulations.

Net Neutrality opponents like to claim that would saddle Internet providers with decades old telephone regulations that have nothing to do with today’s broadband marketplace. But in fact that regulatory framework was originally established precisely for the reasons we need it again today — a non-competitive, largely unregulated marketplace is exploiting its market power to abuse customers and artificially interfere with traffic just to invent new ways to make more money.

People forget that in the 1920s, AT&T not only monopolized telephone service in most areas (and had a history of refusing to connect calls made from competing telephone companies to its own subscribers even as it hiked rates to pay for “improvements”), it was also attempting to force its for-profit vision on the newly emerging world of radio: “toll-broadcasting.” AT&T insisted that radio stations charge a fee to anyone who wanted access to the airwaves, and imposed the toll system on its own stations, starting with WBAY-AM (later WEAF) in New York on July 25, 1922.

Westinghouse, GE, RCA, and AT&T maintained such strong control over broadcasting and telecommunications in the 1920s, the Federal Trade Commission eventually filed a formal complaint with Congress declaring the four had “combined and conspired for the purpose of, and with the effect of, restraining competition and creating a monopoly in the manufacture, purchase and sale in interstate commerce of radio devices…and in domestic and transoceanic communication and broadcasting.”

It took the Justice Department to finally force a resolution to protect competition and the free exchange of ideas on the airwaves with a 1930 antitrust lawsuit against the four companies. In 1934, Congress passed the Communications Act establishing the FCC as the national regulator in charge of protecting some of the values that monopolies tend to trample.

The thing about history is that those who ignore it are bound to repeat it. Whether we are dealing with railroad robber barons, a Bell System monopoly, or barely competitive cable and phone companies, if the conditions are right to exploit customers on behalf of shareholders looking for bigger returns, companies will follow through. In the first two cases, with little chance that natural competition would bring a solution in a reasonable amount of time, regulators stepped in to restore some balance in the marketplace and protect consumers from runaway abuses. That has to happen again.

  • First, reclassify broadband as a common carrier under Title 2;
  • Second, enact strong Net Neutrality protections under that authority.

And don’t you believe that old chestnut that sensible regulatory policies will impede investment in telecommunications. Other nations that have much better broadband than we enjoy (at lower prices) already have reasonable regulatory protections in place that promote and protect competition instead of protecting incumbent market power and impeding would-be competitors. Investment in upgrades continues to pour in, further widening the gap between the kind of service we receive and what customers in other countries get for a lot less money.

The deadline for FCC comments on Net Neutrality is Sept. 15. Sending one directly is simple, effective, and will take less than five minutes.

  1. Visit fcc.gov/comments
  2. Click on the proceeding 14-28 (usually in the top three)
  3. Complete the form and type your comments in the big box. Tell the FCC you want broadband reclassified as a common carrier under Title II as a telecommunications service and that you want strong Net Neutrality policies enacted that forbid paid fast lanes and provider interference in your Internet experience.
  4. Submit the form and you are finished.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Democracy Now Internet Slowdown 9-10-14.mp4

If your favorite website seems to load slowly today, take a closer look: You might be experiencing the Battle for the Net’s “Internet Slowdown,” a global day of action. The Internet won’t actually be slowing down, but many sites are placing on their homepages animated “Loading” graphics , which organizers call “the proverbial ‘spinning wheel of death,’ to symbolize what the Internet might soon look like.

Large Internet service providers, or ISPs, like Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T and Verizon, are trying to change the rules that govern the Internet. Some of the biggest companies on the Internet — Netflix, Mozilla, Kickstarter, Etsy and WordPress — are joining today’s Internet Slowdown to draw attention to Net Neutrality, the principle that service providers shouldn’t be allowed to speed up, or slow down, loading times on certain websites, such as their competitors.

This comes as 27 online advocacy groups sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler Tuesday, calling on him to take part in town hall-style public hearings on Net Neutrality before ruling on the issue as early as this year. Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman talks with Tim Karr from the group Free Press, one of the main organizers of the Internet Slowdown global day of action. (7:15)

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NY Post: Imposing Conditions on Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger Would Be Useless

comcast cartoonIf regulators believe they can turn Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s mega-merger into a consumer-friendly deal in the public interest, they are ignoring history.

No matter what conditions regulators place on Comcast to approve its merger with Time Warner Cable, they will be toothless, television industry insiders told the New York Post.

Insiders suggest the Federal Communications Commission has been largely impotent enforcing conditions it required in earlier merger deals, including those Comcast promised to fulfill in its earlier merger with NBC Universal.

Among Comcast’s broken promises cited by The Post:

  • Comcast failed to live up to its promise to market its low-cost broadband service, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), an outspoken critic of the NBCU deal, told the FCC earlier this year;
  • Comcast paid a fine for not marketing A standalone $50 broadband service widely enough;
  • The giant cable provider’s hollow commitment to Net Neutrality didn’t stop it from excluding certain XFINITY video content from its data caps;
  • They discriminate against non-Comcast owned cable channels, especially those that compete with network Comcast owns or controls. Examples include The Tennis Channel and Bloomberg TV.

Industry insiders claim the larger Comcast gets, the more the company spends on clever lawyering and lobbying to keep itself out of legal hot water with Congress and regulators. That has begun to worry programmers like Discovery Communications, who filed objections to the merger deal.

Discovery officials warned the FCC Comcast’s takeover of Time Warner Cable would deliver an NSA-like treasure trove of viewer data to the nation’s biggest cable company. Comcast already monitors its customers’ viewing habits with tracking software installed inside set-top boxes that monitors what customers are watching at any given time. Comcast has refused to share that data with outsiders, and uses it primarily to pitch potential advertisers.

Comcast’s size already gives the company unprecedented power over cable programming rates during negotiations. Making the company even larger worries Discovery, which expressed concern that:

  • Comcast’s use of its bigger muscle to impose prices, terms and conditions that are overly favorable (for instance, preventing programmers from selling over-the-top rights or refusing to give competitors to its own services wide distribution);
  • The possibility that the cable giant could impose broader “most favored nation” clauses in agreements;
  • That Comcast could exercise control over national and local ad sales markets to the detriment of programers who also compete there.
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FCC Chairman Complains About State of U.S. Broadband But Offers Few Meaningful Solutions

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler doesn’t like what he sees when looks at the state of American broadband.

At a speech today given to the 1776 community in Washington, Wheeler complained about the lack of broadband competition in the United States.

“The underpinning of broadband policy today is that competition is the most effective tool for driving innovation, investment, and consumer and economic benefits,” Wheeler said. “Unfortunately, the reality we face today is that as bandwidth increases, competitive choice decreases.”

faster speed fewer competitors

“The lighter the blue, the fewer the options,” Wheeler said, gesturing towards his chart. “You get the point. The bar on the left reflects the availability of wired broadband using the FCC’s current broadband definition of 4Mbps. But let’s be clear, this is ‘yesterday’s broadband.’ Four megabits per second isn’t adequate when a single HD video delivered to home or classroom requires 5Mbps of capacity. This is why we have proposed updating the broadband speed required for universal service support to 10Mbps.”

But Wheeler added that even 10Mbps was insufficient as households increasingly add more connected devices — often six or more — to a single broadband connection.  When used concurrently, especially for online video, it is easy to consume all available bandwidth at lower broadband speeds.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Wheeler’s new informal benchmark is 25Mbps — “table stakes” in 21st century communications. About 80 percent of Americans can get 25Mbps today or better, but typically only from one provider. Wheeler wants even faster speeds than that, stating it is unacceptable that more than 40% of the country cannot get 100Mbps service. Wheeler seemed to fear that phone companies have largely given up on competing for faster broadband connections, handing a de facto monopoly to cable operators the government has left deregulated.

“It was the absence of competition that historically forced the imposition of strict government regulation in telecommunications,” Wheeler explained. “One of the consequences of such a regulated monopoly was the thwarting of the kind of innovation that competition stimulates. Today, we are buffeted by constant innovation precisely because of the policy decisions to promote competition made by the FCC and Justice Department since the 1970s and 1980s.”

Wheeler said competition between phone and cable companies used to keep broadband speeds and capacity rising.

“In order to meet the competitive threat of satellite services, cable TV companies upgraded their facilities,” Wheeler said. “When the Internet went mainstream, they found themselves in the enviable position of having greater network capacity than telephone companies. Confronted by such competition, the telcos upgraded to DSL, and in some places deployed all fiber, or fiber-and-copper networks. Cable companies further responded to this competition by improving their own broadband performance. All this investment was a very good thing. The simple lesson of history is that competition drives deployment and network innovation. That was true yesterday and it will be true tomorrow. Our challenge is to keep that competition alive and growing.”

But Wheeler admits the current state of broadband in the United States no longer reflects the fierce competition of a decade or more ago.

“Today, cable companies provide the overwhelming percentage of high-speed broadband connections in America,” Wheeler noted. “Industry observers believe cable’s advantage over DSL technologies will continue for the foreseeable future. The question with which we as Americans must wrestle is whether broadband will continue to be responsive to competitive forces in order to produce the advances that consumers and our economy increasingly demand. Looking across the broadband landscape, we can only conclude that, while competition has driven broadband deployment, it has not yet done so a way that necessarily provides competitive choices for most Americans.”

Wheeler recognized what most broadband customers have dealt with for years — a broadband duopoly for most Americans.

antimonopoly“Take a look at the chart again,” Wheeler said. “At the low end of throughput, 4Mbps and 10Mbps, the majority of Americans have a choice of only two providers. That is what economists call a “duopoly”, a marketplace that is typically characterized by less than vibrant competition. But even two “competitors” overstates the case. Counting the number of choices the consumer has on the day before their Internet service is installed does not measure their competitive alternatives the day after. Once consumers choose a broadband provider, they face high switching costs that include early termination fees, and equipment rental fees. And, if those disincentives to competition weren’t enough, the media is full of stories of consumers’ struggles to get ISPs to allow them to drop service.”

Wheeler emphasized that true competition would allow customers to change providers monthly, if a vibrant marketplace forced competitors to outdo one another. That market does not exist in American broadband today.

“At 25Mbps, there is simply no competitive choice for most Americans,” Wheeler added. “Stop and let that sink in…three-quarters of American homes have no competitive choice for the essential infrastructure for 21st century economics and democracy. Included in that is almost 20 percent who have no service at all. Things only get worse as you move to 50Mbps where 82 percent of consumers lack a choice. It’s important to understand the technical limitations of the twisted-pair copper plant on which telephone companies have relied for DSL connections. Traditional DSL is just not keeping up, and new DSL technologies, while helpful, are limited to short distances. Increasing copper’s capacity may help in clustered business parks and downtown buildings, but the signal’s rapid degradation over distance may limit the improvement’s practical applicability to change the overall competitive landscape.”

Wheeler finds little chance wireless providers will deliver any meaningful competition to wired broadband because of pricing levels and miserly data caps. Such statements are in direct conflict with a traditional industry talking point.

In a remarkable admission, Wheeler added that the only hope of competing with cable operators comes from a technology phone companies have become reluctant to deploy.

“In the end, at this moment, only fiber gives the local cable company a competitive run for its money,” Wheeler said. “Once fiber is in place, its beauty is that throughput increases are largely a matter of upgrading the electronics at both ends, something that costs much less than laying new connections.”

Wheeler also continued to recognize the urban-rural divide in broadband service and availability, but said little about how he planned to address it.

Wheeler’s answer to the broadband dilemma fell firmly in the camp of promoting competition and avoiding regulation, a policy that has been in place during the last two administrations with little success and more industry consolidation. Most of Wheeler’s specific commitments to protect and enhance competition apply to the wireless marketplace, not fixed wired broadband:

1. comcast highwayWhere competition exists, the Commission will protect it. 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.

In short, don’t expect anymore efforts to combine T-Mobile and Sprint into a single entity. Wheeler only mentioned “nationwide wireless providers” which suggests it remains open season to acquire the dwindling number of smaller, regional carriers. Wheeler offers no meaningful benchmarks to protect consumers or prevent further consolidation in the cable and telephone business.

2. Where greater competition can exist, we will encourage it. Again, a good example comes from wireless broadband. The “reserve” spectrum in the Broadcast Incentive Auction will provide opportunities for wireless providers to gain access to important low-band spectrum that could enhance their ability to compete. Similarly, the entire Open Internet proceeding is about ensuring that the Internet remains free from barriers erected by last-mile providers. Third, where meaningful competition is not available, the Commission will work to create it. For instance, our efforts to expand the amount of unlicensed spectrum creates 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.

Again, the specifics Wheeler offered pertain almost entirely to the wireless business. Spectrum auctions are designed to attract new competition, but the biggest buyers will almost certainly be the four current national carriers, particularly AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Although low-band spectrum will help Sprint and T-Mobile deliver better indoor service, it is unlikely to drive new market share for either. Wheeler offered no specifics on the issues of Net Neutrality or municipal broadband beyond acknowledging they are issues.

3. Incentivizing competition is a job for governments at every level. We must build on and expand the creative thinking that has gone into facilitating advanced broadband builds around the country. For example, Google Fiber’s “City Checklist” highlights the importance of timely and accurate information about and access to infrastructure, such as poles and conduit. Working together, we can implement policies at the federal, state, and local level that serve consumers by facilitating construction and encouraging competition in the broadband marketplace.

competitionMost of the policies Wheeler seeks to influence exist on the state and local level, where he has considerably less influence. Based on the overwhelming interest shown by cities clamoring to attract Google Fiber, the problems of access to utility poles and conduit are likely overstated. The bigger issue is the lack of interest by new providers to enter entrenched monopoly/duopoly markets where they face crushing capital investment costs and catcalls from incumbent providers demanding they be forced to serve every possible customer, not selectively choose individual neighborhoods to serve. Both incumbent cable and phone companies originally entered communities free from significant competition, often guaranteed a monopoly, making the burden of wired universal service more acceptable to investors. When new entrants are anticipated to capture only 14-40 percent competitive market share at best, it is much harder to convince lenders to support infrastructure and construction expenses. That is why new providers seek primarily to serve areas where there is demonstrated demand for the service.

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.

Again, Wheeler offers few specifics. Current efforts by the FCC include the Connect America Fund, which is nearly entirely devoted to subsidizing rural telephone companies to build traditional DSL service into high-cost areas. Cable is rarely a competitor in these markets, but Wireless ISPs often are, and they are usually privately funded and consider government subsidized DSL expansion an unwelcome and unfair intrusion in their business.

“Since my first day as Chairman of the FCC my mantra has been consistent and concise: ‘Competition, Competition, Competition,'” said Wheeler. “As we have seen today, there is an inverse relationship between competition and the kind of broadband performance that consumers are increasingly demanding. This is not tolerable.”

Under Wheeler’s leadership, Comcast has filed a petition to assume control of Time Warner Cable, AT&T is seeking permission to buy DirecTV, Frontier Communications is acquiring the wired facilities of AT&T in Connecticut, and wireless consolidation continues. A forthcoming test of Wheeler’s willingness to back his rhetoric with action is whether he will support or reject these industry consolidating mergers and acquisitions. Wheeler’s FCC has also said little to nothing about the consumer-unfriendly practice of usage caps and usage-based billing — both growing among wired networks even as they upgrade to much-faster speeds and raise prices.

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Penn. State Mayors Association: We Support the Merger Because Comcast Gave Us Piles of Cash

In a rare moment of honesty in hundreds of filings in support of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger from various groups, politicians, and non-profits that have received substantial contributions from Comcast, the president of the Pennsylvania State Mayors Association admits the primary reason his group supports the merger is that Comcast has given them piles of money:

In my opinion, Comcast has been an exceptional corporate sponsor which has given substantial support to my municipality and mayoral association.

 

pennsupport

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Frontier Files Opposition to Time Warner Cable/Comcast Merger; Harms Video Competition

Frontier used Time Warner Cable's usage cap experiment against them in this ad to attract new customers in the spring of 2009.

Frontier used Time Warner Cable’s usage cap experiment against them in this ad to attract new customers in the spring of 2009.

Frontier Communications has filed a rare objection with the Federal Communications Commission opposing the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, citing concerns the merger would further harm competition and prevent Frontier and other competitors from getting fair access to programming owned by the combined cable companies.

“Comcast’s appetite for market control threatens the competitiveness of the video market,” wrote Frontier. “Comcast is already the largest Internet provider and largest video provider in the United States. If approved, Comcast’s video subscriber base would be approximately 52-times the size of Frontier’s video subscriber base.”

As Stop the Cap! wrote in its own objections to the merger, would-be competitors can and will be deterred from competing for video subscribers if they cannot obtain reasonable wholesale rates for popular cable programming. Currently, the largest providers extend the best volume discounts to the country’s largest satellite and cable operators. They make up those discounts by charging smaller customers higher rates. Frontier, as we noted in our filing, has already experienced the impact of volume discounting in its adopted FiOS TV areas in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest. Losing volume discounts originally obtained by Verizon, Frontier faced substantially higher programming costs as an independent provider — costs so great the company began asking customers to drop its own fiber television product in favor of third-party partner DISH, a satellite provider.

“Small multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) like Frontier cannot achieve the scale necessary to drive down programming costs, which are based upon an MVPD’s subscriber totals, to the same levels that Comcast can with this transaction,” noted Frontier. “Further, Comcast would own an enormous share of the “must have” programming that customers demand and could exercise its market dominance to either outright deny such programming to its competitors or to functionally deny the programming by charging exorbitant rates for content.”

“While Frontier continues to grow its subscriber base organically by delivering a quality product in its markets and also by acquiring AT&T’s wireline assets in Connecticut, the cost of content for video programming remains staggering for new entrants that lack the scale and scope of cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable individually, let alone that of the merged entity,” said Frontier. “It is no mere coincidence that AT&T announced its proposed acquisition of DirecTV shortly after Comcast announced its intention to purchase Time Warner Cable. AT&T recognized the need to improve its subscriber scale in order to compete with Comcast on video programming pricing.”

Frontier noted the Federal Communications Commission also expressed grave concerns over Comcast’s ability to affect video competition during its acquisition of NBCUniversal. That merger was approved only after Comcast agreed to several conditions to avoid anticompetitive abuse in the marketplace. But Frontier complained a further acquisition of Time Warner Cable would only exacerbate competition concerns, even as Comcast argues the FCC should not contemplate any further investigation of the subject during its current merger review.

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Special Report: Big Phone and Cable Companies Are Losing Your Calls to Rural America

Phillip Dampier August 28, 2014 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video 7 Comments

aroundtheworldBig cable and telephone companies have opened a new digital divide by losing your long distance calls to rural America to save a buck.

The problems have grown so pervasive, a FCC investigation found some of America’s biggest providers are sending some of their long distance calls destined for rural communities across the U.S. through shady, fly-by-night third-party operators in Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Japan, Bulgaria and Romania before the phone ever starts ringing on the other end. If it ever starts ringing on the other end.

In Addison County, Vt., State Representative Will Stevens knows all about it. When not representing the people of rural Shoreham, he is running Golden Russet Farm, highly dependent on his landline to deal with customers.

“Phone calls here get cut off,” he told the Addison County Independent. “Or they don’t go through at all. So many times I’ve called elsewhere and you just don’t know if the call is going through, it goes dead. It rings then goes dead. You can’t tell how many times it’s rung on the other end if at all.”

It’s even worse when callers get a recording stating the number is no longer in service.

That is what happened to Pat Plautz who runs a small map store in the town of Reedsburg, Wis. A caller from Milwaukee trying to place an order first got a recording stating her number had been disconnected. Lucky for her the caller tried again, this time connecting.

“My main concern is that people think we’re out of business,” Plautz said.

As many as one in five long-distance calls to rural communities either aren’t connected to the intended number or are corrupted by issues such as static or garbled sound, according to Communications Data Group, a telephone billing company based in Champaign, Ill.

In rural upstate New York, some callers report nearly 100% of their call attempts to certain rural customers fail.

Stevens has attempted to place calls from his rural Shoreham Tel landline in Vermont across Lake Champlain to his father’s camp – 30 minutes away by car – served by the Crown Point Telephone Corporation in Crown Point, N.Y., with absolutely no success.

Rural call failures have created a number of safety fears for concerned relatives, particularly those trying to reach seasonal residents — often retirees that live in the area part of the year.

“When they can’t get through they’ll call us and ask us to check the lines, and we do and they are working properly, so then they’ll ask us if we can go out and see if the person is OK because they aren’t answering their phone,” said Shana Macey, president of the Crown Point phone company. “And we’ll do that because we’re concerned, too.”

A Nationwide Deterioration of Rural Telephone Service

In rural Wisconsin and Minnesota, even 911 calls can get lost. In west-central Minnesota, particularly those along the I-94 corridor, hard-hit communities like Brainerd and Little Falls find their 911 calls are being dropped or lost and businesses have reported huge drops in incoming long distance calls, costing them business.

Shoreham, Vt. to Crown Point, N.Y. by auto.

Shoreham, Vt. to Crown Point, N.Y. by auto.

In Kansas, home to many rural independent phone companies, long distance call problems have become so pervasive, phone companies are publishing information about the problem in their phone directories and on their websites.

Rural customers complain long distance calls often lose one side of the conversation so both parties cannot hear each other, or the call is lost in static and distortion that make it sound like it originated from the middle of Siberia.

What shocked the FCC into calling this problem “epic” earlier this year was the revelation that long distance calls between people as little as 15 miles away from each other often are routed through Siberia or other distant lands as long distance companies seek the cheapest possible way to route calls to boost profits.

Welcome to the world of “Least Cost Routing,” (LCR) a harmless-sounding phrase that often means the difference between getting a long distance call or not.

You might have experienced LCR if you have encountered any of the following:

  • Someone tells you they tried to call you but your phone never rang;
  • Someone tells you they tried to call you and the phone rang on their end, but didn’t ring on yours;
  • A call came through but the quality was poor;
  • One side of the call cannot reliably hear the other;
  • Phantom touch-tone sounds erupt in mid-conversation or distorted sounds from other phone conversations occasionally break through and can be heard by one or both parties;
  • A call came through but the Caller ID was incorrect.

Nationally, users of Google Voice, MagicJack, and other discount long distance services have probably observed at least one of these, all because the companies involved are looking for the cheapest ways possible to route your call.

But the problems have grown well beyond the deep discount providers and affect Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and other phone and cable company telephone customers. Evidence suggests unregulated cable and wireless phone calls are much more likely to encounter LCR than traditional regulated landlines.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KMSP Minneapolis Dropped Calls 3-5-14.mp4

KMSP in Minneapolis reports Minnesota officials are helpless trying to resolve call completion problems because their oversight powers have been largely stripped away by deregulation and telecom lobbyists want to keep it that way. (3:14)

lcr

Least Cost Routing in action.

Deregulation Implicated in Race for High Profits, Low Call Quality

Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission, perhaps slightly perturbed after watching its oversight powers get largely stripped away by the Walker Administration at the behest of AT&T, explained the reality:

Once upon a time – back in the days of rotary phones – a phone call was carried over copper wires which formed a single circuit from end to end. Those days are gone. Today, the network is almost entirely digital, with calls reduced to bits and sent over a massive web of links provided by telephone, cable, cellular and fixed wireless providers. These networks pass calls using a complex set of computer controls, interfaces and protocols. Rural call completion issues appear to be caused by some error or errors in programming, or incompatibility in the software somewhere in the network, that prevents the call from reaching the rural telephone company at all.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker directed his Republican colleagues to draft a sweeping deregulation bill at the behest of AT&T.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker directed his Republican colleagues to draft a sweeping deregulation bill at the behest of AT&T.

The problem is bad enough in Wisconsin the PSC has devoted a section of its website to address the problem, but that is about all it can do. In 2011, Gov. Walker directed his Republican colleagues to draft a sweeping deregulation measure ghostwritten by AT&T. The bill completely stripped the PSC of its ability to investigate consumer complaints or the problems of rural call completion. The Assembly approved the Republican bill 80-13 and the Senate quickly followed on a 25-8 vote. Walker promptly signed the bill into law.

Consumer advocates and rural officials warned the bill would lead to a deterioration of telephone service in Wisconsin, especially in rural areas — exactly what has happened.

“We’re pitting urban against rural,” said Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma). “The consumer has absolutely no recourse under this bill.”

Nonsense, declared Sen. Rich Zipperer (R-Pewaukee). “We’re ready to keep up with the technology. First and foremost, this is a job creation bill,” he said.

In fact, the bill may have indeed created new jobs… for overseas, fly-by-night wholesale call connection companies in places like Bulgaria, the United Arab Emirates, and across Russia.

Hundreds of new and mysterious telecommunications companies, some literally run out of garages with a consumer residential broadband account, jumped into the wholesale call completion marketplace. Telephone and cable companies use sophisticated databases that maintain constantly changing price lists for IP-based call completion services. If a long distance company wants the cheapest possible rate, a computer will automatically choose whatever company offers it, without regard to the reputation of the company or its ability to properly route the call.

Fraud has become a serious problem, with some call connection companies charging below-market rates and then connecting calls to an artificial, never-ending ringing signal or an intercept recording stating the number is out of service. Consumers are generally not charged for unanswered calls or those to disconnected numbers, but phone and cable companies often are.

So why do rural Americans suffer the biggest problems? Because rural telephone exchanges are allowed to charge slightly higher call completion fees to companies sending their customers’ calls into these rural areas. The higher charges help defray the higher costs incurred by rural independent phone companies to maintain service with a much smaller customer base. Verizon has millions of landline customers in New York. Crown Point Telephone has 735.

There are millions to be made in the call completion business and a growing number of cell phone companies and large phone and cable companies have teamed up with third-party call completion discounters to shave costs and increase profits. The more money to be made, the more advanced the call routing schemes have become. In the last few years, LCR has become nearly as frenzied as the stock market, with call completion rates subject to change constantly as capacity increases or decreases and as competitors try to match or beat others’ rates.

pushpollA Race to the Bottom

As flyers know, it is often cheaper to fly into a major city and catch a connecting flight to your final destination instead of booking a direct flight. The same is true for phone calls. Mr. Stevens’ call across Lake Champlain involved two high-cost rural telephone companies. So his long distance carrier (or cell phone company) likely sold the call to a third-party to handle. If that third-party found it cheaper to send the call overseas and then back again (often to avoid connection fees), that is exactly what will happen. If it found it couldn’t make any money on the call, it likely dropped it.

“In some cases, the calls become looped in the network and are never completed. In other cases, the calls are delivered via a low quality network which results in poor sound quality,” the Reedsburg Utility Commission, which also runs a local telephone company, says on its website.

In one case a call from Milwaukee to northeast Wisconsin was routed through carriers in Singapore, Dubai, and parts of Europe including Russia.

“It just kept getting shipped everywhere. It was insane,” Peter Jahn, of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission’s Division of Business and Communications Services, told the Journal-Sentinel.

These third-party operators have no responsibility to guarantee calls will be connected, and when their algorithm discovers it has been saddled with a money-losing call that will cost more to complete than the company is charging, it simply drops it, leaving the caller with dead silence, an artificial busy signal, or a dial tone.

“It’s something that’s been going on for years, and it’s very difficult to identify the bad actors. … Some of them could be fly-by-night operations,” admitted Bill Esbeck, executive director of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, which represents telephone companies.

The Murky World of Grey Routes

special reportIn fact, the industry has a different name for this type of call handling – grey routes.

“The grey route is, literally, a sub-par phone line or phone company who is intentionally selling phone service in areas that should be expensive but is cutting corners to be able to provide the service for less,” says 2600hz, a Voice over IP service provider. “An example of a grey route, in it’s simplest form, might be someone buying 50 phone lines that were on special from the phone company for six months – and putting those phone lines in their garage. Then they buy an Internet connection and funnel calls from the Internet to those cheap phone lines all day long.”

The company says grey routes are responsible for a lot of the problems will call completion and quality.

“They’re most likely using a poor quality Internet connection, poor quality equipment and aren’t interested in debugging or fixing problems with their setup – as long as they can keep you on the line long enough to bill the other party,” says the company.

“How do they achieve that? They pitch the route to the phone company who’s losing money on expensive phone calls and falsely promise them great quality. In essence, the theory goes that if only 5% of your calls go over a ‘grey route’ then phone companies can save literally millions of dollars and most customers will ‘tolerate’ the poor quality because it only occurs on such a small number of calls. Unfortunately, the side effects of such behavior range from broken Caller ID and touchtone transmission to audio quality cut-outs and generally poor sounding calls.”

Fly-by-Night Least Cost Call Routing

Fly-by-Night Least Cost Call Routing

Because many of these providers are unsophisticated, mistakes in call routing are common.

In one instance, all calls intended for an area in northern Wisconsin instead were routed to a car dealership, which was deluged with wrong-number calls.

“It took months and months to figure out who had screwed this up,” Jahn told the newspaper.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just the discount long distance providers that occasionally hand off calls to grey routes. The biggest cell phone and cable companies also use them.

For months, Pat Fretschel of Reedsburg had trouble getting calls from Milwaukee. Her callers would assume she wasn’t home and would hang up, when in fact the phone wasn’t ringing at her end of the line.

The problem only affected callers using Time Warner Cable phone service.

“Time Warner kept trying to tell me the calls were being hijacked out of California. I could never wrap my head around that,” Fretschel told the Journal-Sentinel.

Back in New England, Jackie Ambrozaitis is thankful she has a website to advertise her Falkenbury Farm Guest House, because she has no idea how many long distance calls she is missing.

Molly Worden, Jackie’s daughter who lives in Connecticut, reports to the Addison County Independent that she has problems every month reaching both her mother and a sister who also lives in Benson.

Rural first responders can't respond if they don't get a call.

Rural first responders can’t respond if they don’t get the call.

“I call Shoreham Tel and they test the line and they say it’s my phone; they tell me my phone looks for the cheapest way to send the call,” Worden says. “I’ve had people over to the house and called from several different carriers with their cell phones, I’ve tried Verizon, Sprint, Nextel, and I still can’t get through. It will ring 20 times without answer or it goes to busy. Sometimes five, six days in a row I can’t get through.”

Worden’s young children get frustrated when they can’t talk to their grandparents in Vermont, and Ambrozaitis’s 90-year-old father-in-law in Connecticut gets distressed when he can’t reach the family.

Your Health and Safety at Risk?

But the problem isn’t just annoying for friends and family trying to stay in touch.

Doctors “have been unable to reach patients, hospitals have been unable to reach on-call emergency surgeons, and there is a reported instance in which a 911 call center was unable to make emergency call backs,” the National Exchange Carrier Association, which represents rural telecom companies, said in an Aug. 18 letter to the Federal Communications Commission.

“I’m concerned we’ll have a major event where perhaps a first responder doesn’t know that they were called out,” says Steve Head, engineer at HEADSolutions, consultant to the telecommunications industry. Head is working with Waitsfield Telecom, and has been instrumental in recognizing and revealing the extent of the rural connectivity problem nationwide. “We had at least one incident of a hospital trying to get ahold of a patient to schedule surgery and could not get through, and if they had not been able to get ahold of him for this surgery opening it was not going to be able to be done for some time,” he said. “That was major.”

“I Have Regulatory Authority Over Telegraph Lines” – State Regulators Helpless to Intervene

Trying to resolve this problem has fallen largely on the FCC in Washington as telephone company oversight and consumer protection laws in the states have not kept up with technology or have been wiped off the books in deregulation measures.

Rothman

Rothman

“I have regulatory authority over telegraph lines,” complained Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman. “Currently, wholesale transport providers are not defined in statute, they’re unknown.”

In Minnesota, attempts at wholesale deregulation have not been successful, and landline phone companies still fall under some state regulation. Cell phones are covered by the FCC, and, as Rothman explained, cable is pretty much a free-for-all.

Any attempt to place oversight or regulation on telecom companies rings alarm bells and the lobbyists quickly arrive in Rothman’s office, “all lined up, someone from Verizon, another from Sprint, and a representative from a trade group representing cable.”

“Regulation worked for a long time but customers didn’t have a choice. Now they have a choice, but the quality of calls may have declined,” said Rob Souza, senior vice president of Otelco, the Maine-based communication company that bought Shoreham Tel 13 months ago. “I’ve been in this business 40 years, and the modernization of the telecommunications system has been extraordinary. It’s a good, solid reliable system. But when people don’t play by the rules, you get more service problems. That’s not an indictment of the system, but on some people who are trying to shave every penny out of it.”

Inadequate FCC Fines Are Just the Cost of Maintaining a Very Profitable Business

Among those include Matrix Telecom Inc. of Irving, Tex., fined $875,000 by the FCC to resolve a call-completion investigation. Similar agreements were reached with Level 3 Communications LLC for $975,000 in March and Windstream Corp. for $2.5 million in February.

But those amounts are miniscule in comparison to the potential financial benefits reaped from LCR.

“In the short-term, it’s going to take the FCC cracking down and making those fines larger, so the cost of not doing what the carriers are supposed to do is greater than doing what they’re supposed to,” said Reedsburg Utility Commission general manager Brett Schuppner.

But the FCC isn’t immune to lobbying either, and powerhouse AT&T is at the front of the line fiercely fighting to weaken new FCC rules to a level that would qualify them as homeopathic.

CommLawBlog fingered AT&T as the worst offender. The phone company recently filed a petition to change FCC rules designed to find and track the source of degradation of rural calls. The company also wants waivers for its wireless traffic and intaLATA toll calls (those placed to nearby areas outside of a customer’s local toll-free calling zone). They are also seeking a six month extension of a reporting deadline. This is significant, CommLawBlog says, because AT&T is the largest interexchange carrier with the most traffic sent to many rural areas in the country. Letting them effectively “opt out” could nullify many of the benefits of the new rural call completion rules.

Those suggested changes from AT&T are getting a cold response from groups like the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, which complain that rural call completion problems have been ongoing for years and now is not the time to weaken FCC rules.

On a separate front, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) has introduced a bill requiring the FCC to keep a registry of the companies responsible for routing long-distance calls. It also would set service quality standards for the carriers.

The bill has little chance of being passed because of significant Republican opposition.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KTVM Montana Incomplete Calls Madison County 4-24-14.mp4

In rural Montana, long distance telephone calls often don’t reach homes and businesses. KTVM talks with a business owner in Madison County who thinks it’s unfair rural America is stuck with substandard service. (1:40)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/You Might Have to Call Again If I Live in Rural America.flv

David Lewis, CEO of ANPI talks about Rural Call Completion at the IP Possibilities Conference and Expo. Lewis goes into greater detail about how this problem developed, how it affects customers, and what solutions are available to fix it. Because Lewis is speaking to an audience of mostly telecom professionals, we’ve provided a “cheat sheet” to explain some of the jargon. (11:43)

Telco Jargon Translated (in chronological order as it appears in the video)

Tier 1 Carriers – The biggest IP networks
CLEC’s – Competitive local phone companies (Time Warner, Comcast, MagicJack, Vonage, etc.)
ILEC’s – Incumbent local phone companies that have been around for decades
RBOC – A former regional Bell company (eg. Verizon, AT&T, SBC, Qwest, etc.)
Termination – When a call successfully reaches the called party’s phone number
PSTN – The network that powers your traditional landline
Enhanced 911 – 911 operators automatically get your calling location and other pertinent details
PSAPs – a 911 call center
Rate Deck – Essentially a price list showing the cost to complete calls to different areas
Bypassing Access – Getting around the traditional compensation system for calls made to rural telephone companies
Feature Group D – a type of telecommunication trunk used to provide “equal access” capability from telecommunication carriers and central offices (where the switching equipment is located and customer lines are connected and terminated) to the access tandem. The caller’s number is passed along to the next carrier in the call chain for Caller ID and 911.

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Stop the Cap! Files Testimony in Opposition to Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger With FCC

Stop the Cap! completed and today filed a formal submission with the Federal Communications Commission opposing the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

We joined tens of thousands of filers — mostly consumers — strongly opposed to the merger on the grounds it is not in the public interest.

Earlier today, Consumers Union filed its petition with more than 20,000 signatures of ordinary Americans across the United States who want nothing to do with Comcast.

Back here in New York, Comcast this afternoon filed a response with the Public Service Commission regarding our (and other) submissions opposed to the merger. We will be analyzing and rebutting their response straight away. Comcast went all-out name-dropping people and groups (many with direct, usually undisclosed financial ties to Comcast) to sell New York regulators the theory ‘the groups and people who matter’ are in favor of their merger while those opposed are mostly out-of-state rabble or unsubstantial individuals of few words.

“Given these many concrete benefits, and the lack of any harm to competition or consumers, it should come as no surprise that the overwhelming majority of the substantive comments (approximately 110 out of a total of about 140 substantive comments) filed in this proceeding support Commission approval of the transaction,” writes Comcast.

Comcast did not share their subjective standard of what constitutes “substantive” but a quick review of the groups cited in Comcast’s response show some substantive was involved – a check from Comcast either recently or in the past. Our view is that it doesn’t take more than a sentence to express extreme displeasure about Comcast taking over Time Warner Cable, and those views should matter just as much as a virtual Hallmark card from a group or politician that used a Comcast-provided “template” with a detachable check at the bottom.

Our favorite was Comcast’s highly defensive ‘hey New York PSC, it’s none of your business that Comcast is testing usage caps and you cannot use it against us':

The Writers Guild of America, West, Inc. (“WGAW”), Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu, and Stop the Cap! argue that Comcast will extend data caps and usage-based pricing to New York to impose restraints on online content and drive up consumer costs.

This broadband-related claim is irrelevant to this proceeding and beyond the Commission’s jurisdiction. Indeed, the FCC expressly approved of usage-based billing in its 2010 Open Internet Order and is again examining the issue in the pending Open Internet rulemaking.

In other words, whether data caps are appropriate is a matter of federal regulatory concern, not one that relates to this proceeding or that is even transaction specific (since nothing precludes TWC from adopting caps at any time, as it has in the past).

So regardless of whether data caps are in the public interest or not, New York should not be allowed to weigh in because former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said usage based billing could be an innovative way to bill for broadband.

In reality, New York can decide for itself what is in the best interests of its residents, and Time Warner Cable determined what was best after a two-week firestorm in 2009 that taught them compulsory usage caps were a really bad idea. But Comcast isn’t terribly interested in the views of the unsubstantive masses — which is comparable to their attitude toward customers, so no change there. It’s just a free preview weekend of what we all have in store if Comcast takes over.

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Wining and Dining the FCC: Comcast Sponsors Honors Dinner for Commissioner During Merger Review

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn

Comcast will pay $110,000 to sponsor a major dinner honoring FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn at the same time the regulator is considering whether to approve the cable company’s application to acquire Time Warner Cable.

In a barely noticed Senate lobbying disclosure released last month, Time Warner Cable admitted it was also spending $22,000 of its subscribers’ money on the same meal.

The money gets Comcast a top-level commitment as a “presenting sponsor” at the Walter Kaitz Foundation dinner next month, which features Clyburn receiving a “diversity advocate” award. Comcast will be prominently recognized with marquee recognition, get premier seating for 40 of its guests, and inclusion in a variety of ads and “E-News Blasts.”

Some good government groups hope Clyburn can arrange for a last-minute scheduling conflict to avoid the obvious conflict of interest of a cable operator honoring a commissioner who could decide the fate of its multibillion dollar merger deal.

“I think that the timing is curious,” said Carrie Levine, research director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which noted the corporate sponsorships in a blog post Monday. “They’re honoring an FCC commissioner at the exact same time they’re trying to get approval for a merger. And that doesn’t look so good.”

CREW found TWC listed as a “benefactor” on the event’s supporters’ page and the cost of a “benefactor” level table package at the dinner is $22,000. Comcast, meanwhile, is listed on the foundation’s web site as a “presenting sponsor” for the dinner, which costs $110,000.

Comcast is working minority groups hard for letters and votes supporting its merger with Time Warner Cable, notes CREW:

TWC and Comcast’s contributions in honor of Commissioner Clyburn were made at a time when the two companies are aggressively working the levers of power to get their merger approved. As CREW has noted, using honorary contributions to lawmakers and regulators’ favored charities to curry favor is one of the more under the radar moves in Comcast’s merger playbook—a playbook that also emphasizes lobbying, campaign contributions, and winning support from third-party groups, especially those representing minorities.

Regulators must approve the deal, and Congress has been scrutinizing it. Several lawmakers have voiced reservations in hearings about the merger’s potential impact, and this month, more than 50 House members sent Comcast and TWC a letter saying they should commit to carrying independent Latino-focused channels as a condition of the merger. In May, CREW found that between 2011 and 2013, Comcast had spent heavily to honor the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), whose members could be important supporters of the merger. Comcast also gave big to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), honoring, among others, Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), who is a member of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Intellectual Property and the Internet and supported the Comcast/NBC Universal Merger approval in 2011. TWC made fewer honorary contributions than Comcast during the same period, but also contributed $100,000 in honor of the CHC.

A review of the two companies’ 2014 mid-year lobbying contribution reports reveals money is still flowing to these key groups, and there has been a significant uptick in giving to the CHC. In the first six months of 2014, Comcast contributed $273,454 in honor of the CHC, more than the company contributed in any individual year between 2011 and 2013. Comcast also reported giving $125,000 in honor of the CBC and $50,000 to the APAICS in honor of Rep. Chu and Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA).

TWC increased its giving to other Latino advocacy groups as well. On February 18, 2014, the company contributed $25,000 to the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in honor of several members of Congress and Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, an increase from its $20,000 contribution to LULAC in 2013. In addition, on March 5, 2014, Time Warner Cable contributed $25,000 to the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) in honor of the “Gang of Eight” senators who passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in June 2013. TWC previously contributed a total of $45,000 between 2011 and 2012 to NCLR.

Stop the Cap! will continue to expose the names of elected officials and non-profit and civil rights groups that have thrown their support behind Comcast, which in turn delivers contributions, free exposure, and in some cases future employment with the cable operator.

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Comcast’s “Improvements,” Including Digital TV, Come at a High Cost for Customers

psctest

Comcast has offered the Commission a vague preview of how it intends to improve cable television service for New York customers, but rarely discloses important details about the costs and limitations their “improvements” will bring.

comcast octupusWhile Comcast is excited about the proposition of transitioning Time Warner Cable customers away from the current mixed analog-digital platform to an all-digital lineup, Time Warner Cable customers have paid less and avoided costly, unwanted extra equipment as a result of the choices consciously made by Time Warner Cable.

Comcast and Time Warner Cable have different philosophies about how to best deliver the bulging cable television packages most cable systems now offer:

  • Time Warner Cable adopted “Switched Digital Video” from BigBand Networks, a technology that lets Time Warner deliver only the digital signals that are being watched in a service group or node, instead of the entire lineup.[1] Since it is unlikely subscribers are watching every niche channel on offer, Time Warner has been able to reclaim unused bandwidth. As a result, customers using older cable-ready televisions can continue to access analog television channels without the use of a costly, often unwanted set top box.
  • Comcast has more aggressively chosen a  path to all-digital television service, moving most of their television channels to encrypted digital technology that requires a Comcast set top box, a less costly Digital Transport Adapter (DTA) designed for secondary-use televisions, or a CableCARD. Customers must choose one of these technologies, usually at an added-cost to access their cable television service.[2]

Time Warner Cable also began deploying DTA equipment in certain areas to free up additional bandwidth on its cable systems while still leaving most analog channels intact. The DTA boxes are supplied free of charge during an introductory phase lasting up to a year, after which a $0.99 monthly charge for each box is imposed.[3] (That fee has recently been raised in certain markets, including New York City, to $1.50/mo.[4] [5])

In contrast, Comcast customers were initially entitled to receive up to three no-cost DTAs to install on televisions not equipped with a Comcast set top box.[6]

comcast-cisco-dtaOn January 1, 2013 Comcast began informing subscribers a new $1.99/month “additional outlet service charge,” now applied for each DTA installed. [7]

Public officials in Eagan, Minn., responding to consumer complaints about the new charge, suspected Comcast was attempting an end run around the Federal Communications Commission’s prohibition of “excessive fees for cable equipment.”[8] The additional outlet fee was deemed by Comcast to be a service fee, not an equipment charge.[9]

Attorney Mike Bradley was hired by a group of suburban Minneapolis cable commissions to investigate the legitimacy of Comcast’s new DTA service charge. If the fee were classified as an equipment charge, Comcast would charge 50 cents per DTA based on rate forms filed with the Minnesota cable commissions he represents, Bradley told The Pioneer Press.[10]

For the average Comcast subscriber, the result was another rate increase in return for digital television service. Subscribers with three DTA’s now pay up to $5.97 extra per month in order to continue to receive the exact same programming on the same number of televisions within their household – a $25 annual surcharge per DTA, $75 if the customer uses three DTA’s, complained Eagan, Minn. Mayor Mike Maguire in a letter to Sen. Amy Klobuchar.[11]

Comcast’s fees, in addition to being well in excess of the actual cost of the equipment, will earn the company at least $550 million annually in new revenue – all for equipment that costs the company around $50 per unit.[12] Because Comcast is encrypting its lineup, even televisions equipped with QAM tuners, capable of receiving digital television signals without a set top box, will also eventually need the new equipment to unscramble television signals.

[1]http://www.cedmagazine.com/news/2009/09/time-warner-cable-serves-up-sdv-in-n.y.,-dallas,-l.a.
[2]http://customer.comcast.com/help-and-support/cable-tv/how-bill-will-change-with-digital-migration
[3]http://www.cedmagazine.com/news/2012/01/time-warner-cable-wraps-up-all-digital-conversion-pilot-in-maine
[4]http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2013/04/were-converting-analog-signals-to-digital-across-the-new-york-region/
[5]http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/residential-home/support/faqs/faqs-tv/basictvencryption/what-will-the-digital-adapter-cost.html
[6] http://www.twincities.com/ci_22617153/comcast-fee-plan-cause-confusion-controversy
[7]http://customer.comcast.com/help-and-support/cable-tv/how-bill-will-change-with-digital-migration
[8]http://transition.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Cable/News_Releases/nrcb4009.txt
[9]http://stopthecap.com/2013/02/21/comcast-calls-1-99-charge-for-digital-adapters-a-service-fee-to-avoid-fcc-complications/
[10]http://www.twincities.com/ci_22617153/comcast-fee-plan-cause-confusion-controversy?IADID=Search-www.twincities.com-www.twincities.com
[11]https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/9008/pioneerpress/yourtechweblog/Eagan%20-%20Sen%20Klobuchar%20ltr%20re%20Cable%20Rate%20Concerns%203-5-13.pdf
[12]http://cisco-news.tmcnet.com/news/2011/04/25/5464600.htm
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