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AT&T’s Cash Storm for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s 2017 Telecom Deregulation Agenda

Phillip Dampier August 18, 2016 Issues 2 Comments

fat cat attAT&T has gone over the top donating at least $70,000 to back Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, more than the company has ever donated to anyone else.

It isn’t by coincidence.

According to Communications Daily (subscription req’d), one of Ryan’s top priorities for 2017 is a possible complete rewrite of the Telecommunications Act — the nation’s most important federal law governing telecommunications regulation and the operations of the Federal Communications Commission. Ryan and many of his fellow Republicans have been critical of the FCC’s growing interest in consumer protection and industry oversight.

Ryan’s efforts to push for further deregulation and policies that could lead to further industry consolidation could generate a windfall in the billions for AT&T. Past revisions of the Act have radically transformed the telecom landscape in the United States. President Bill Clinton’s signature on the 1996 Telecommunications Act opened the door to a tsunami of cross-media ownership and radio/TV station consolidation. Provisions in the ’96 Act were promoted as bolstering competition, but critics argued consolidation was favored over competition.

Howard Zinn summarized the effects of the ’96 law in his book A People’s History of the United States: “[it] enabled the handful of corporations dominating the airwaves to expand their power further. Mergers enabled tighter control of information.” Adding to the criticism, Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano echoed: “Never have so many been held incommunicado by so few.”

In 2000 Consumers Union blasted the ’96 Act as legislative bait and switch.

Ryan

Ryan

“It is evident that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has failed to produce the consumer benefits policy makers promised because competition has failed to take hold across the communications industry,” the group said. “The fundamental problem is that the huge companies that dominate the telephone and cable TV industries prefer mergers and acquisitions to competition.”

AT&T is reportedly interested in access to lawmakers to lobby for telecom reforms that will allow it to switch off its legacy copper wire phone network in rural America, force certain consumers to wireless-only landline service, get rid of Net Neutrality, allow more wireless industry consolidation, ban municipal broadband, have a louder voice on privacy and cybersecurity regulation, access to wireless spectrum, and preferably a de-fanged FCC.

Public Citizen government affairs lobbyist Craig Holman told Communications Daily AT&T’s contributions are a “fundamental way of gaining access and influence to policymakers,” as part of Washington’s “pay-to-play system.”

The only entity giving Ryan more money than AT&T was the deregulation-obsessed Koch Industries, which gave $75,000.

Ryan’s current chief of staff is a close friend to Big Telecom. David Hoppe lobbied for AT&T, USTelecom and Verizon before being hired by Ryan. Hoppe’s influence appears to be significant after Ryan introduced “A Better Way,” the GOP’s platform for what they will do if they keep control of Congress and win the White House. The plan makes it clear there is unhappiness with the FCC under the leadership of chairman Thomas Wheeler, opposition to Title II reclassification of broadband — a change that opened the door to enforcing Net Neutrality, and a belief the FCC lacks transparency and is living in the regulatory past.

Holman worries that lobbyist spending in Washington, already a problem, has become insane after Citizens United eliminated limits on campaign contributions.

“The lids have been blown off… it’s breathtaking,” Holman told the newsletter.

Meet North Carolina’s Sen. Thom Tillis (R-ALEC/Time Warner Cable)

Tillis was honored in 2011 as ALEC's "Legislator of the Year" and received an undisclosed cash reward.

Tillis was honored in 2011 as ALEC’s “Legislator of the Year” and received an undisclosed cash reward.

Back when we first became aware of Republican member of the North Carolina legislature Thom Tillis around 2010, he was hard at work building his political future just as Republicans were poised to take control of the state legislature for the first time since the days of Reconstruction. Despite running unopposed in 2010, Tillis raised more money from cable and phone companies than any other lawmaker in the state, depositing $37,000 before knowing he would be the next Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives in January 2011. To celebrate, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon each gave Tillis $1,000 just a few weeks before the swearing-in ceremony. It was money well spent, if you were a cable or phone company doing business in North Carolina.

Tillis left the legislature in 2015 to become the junior U.S. Senator from North Carolina. The telecom industry made sure to keep the campaign contributions flowing, if only to give their thanks for Tillis’ unwavering support for their agenda. Tillis doesn’t care much for his rural constituents still waiting for something better than dial-up internet access and as long as his campaign coffers remain bulging with corporate contributions, he doesn’t think he has much to fear from the state’s voters either. After all, he survived accusations from a resigning House Finance chairman that he had a secret business relationship with Time Warner Cable.

Raleigh’s The News & Observer felt it was their duty to mention Tillis in their editorial pages anyway, taking him to task for “cheering a loss for North Carolina consumers last week after a federal appeals court upheld a cable company protection law that he supported as state House speaker in 2011.”

The newspaper is talking about North Carolina’s infamous anti-public broadband bill that was literally constructed by lobbyists working for Time Warner Cable. The law effectively made it impossible for community broadband providers to bring their much-needed service to adjacent communities that have waited more than a decade for companies like Time Warner Cable, AT&T, CenturyLink and others to offer internet access in rural and underserved parts of the state.

Tillis personally helped shepherd the corporate protection bill, designed to shield incumbent cable and phone companies from community competition, through the state legislature, supporting it every step of the way. It would become law in 2011 and rural broadband in North Carolina hasn’t gotten any better since. In fact, it’s almost stagnant. But Tillis cannot say the same thing about his campaign bank accounts, which continue to bulge with corporate donations now in excess of $11 million.

An effort by the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt the state law failed in a federal appeals court, much to the delight of Thom Tillis, something the newspaper calls an “insult” to North Carolinians looking for a better deal.

“Today’s ruling affirms the fact that unelected bureaucrats at the FCC completely overstepped their authority by attempting to deny states like North Carolina from setting their own laws to protect hard-working taxpayers and maintain the fairness of the free market,” Tillis said in a statement. Cough, cough.

The newspaper’s response:

Translation: Time Warner and other companies, thank goodness, will retain control of the market without having to worry about towns competing with them and thus will be able to charge people whatever the market will bear.

For Tillis to say the court ruling, which should be appealed, is a triumph for taxpayers is preposterous. It’s a setback. The “free market” he backs is one free of competition from municipal broadband services that offer a better product at a lower price.

Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Reverses FCC Rule Allowing Public Broadband Expansion

6th CircuitA federal appeals court has reversed an effort by the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt state laws restricting municipal broadband expansion in Tennessee and North Carolina, ruling the FCC exceeded its authority by interfering with both states’ rights to define the boundaries where the community broadband networks can and cannot operate.

In a near-unanimous decision (with some minor dissent from one judge), judges from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found the FCC exceeded their authority.

“The FCC order essentially serves to re-allocate decision-making power between the states and their municipalities,” the court ruled. “This is shown by the fact that no federal statute or FCC regulation requires the municipalities to expand or otherwise to act in contravention of the preempted state statutory provisions. This preemption by the FCC of the allocation of power between a state and its subdivisions requires at least a clear statement in the authorizing federal legislation. The FCC relies upon § 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 for the authority to preempt in this case, but that statute falls far short of such a clear statement. The preemption order must accordingly be reversed.”

In other words, the court ruled that the FCC’s belief that Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed it to pre-empt state broadband laws goes too far. The judges opined Congress would have to rewrite the law to clearly state it was acceptable for the federal branch of government to overrule how a community or state decides to draw boundaries for public utilities.

EPB is the municipal utility in Chattanooga, Tenn.

EPB is the municipal utility in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The ruling will have an immediate impact on plans by municipal utility EPB in Chattanooga and city-owned provider Greenlight in Wilson, N.C., to expand service outside of their respective service areas. EPB has been working inside the Tennessee legislature to overturn or change the current broadband law but has been unsuccessful so far. Comcast and AT&T have lobbied the Tennessee legislature to keep municipal competitors from expanding, even where neither company offers service.

“Ultimately, Tennessee’s broadband gap is a problem for Tennesseans, and we need a Tennessee solution,” said David Wade, president of EPB. “We will continue to work with the growing number of state legislators and grassroots citizens interested in removing the barriers that prevent EPB and other municipal providers from serving our neighbors in surrounding areas who have little or no access to broadband. We are further encouraged by Commissioner Randy Boyd’s interest in addressing the lack of broadband in rural areas. As the head of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, he is especially well positioned to join with state lawmakers in addressing this challenge on behalf of Tennesseans.”

Greenlight announces gigabit service for Wilson, N.C.

Greenlight announces gigabit service for Wilson, N.C.

North Carolina’s law was effectively drafted by Time Warner Cable, who shepherded the bill through the Republican-controlled state legislature, making huge political campaign contributions along the way, eventually winning enough votes to see the bill become law.

The ruling is a serious blow to FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, who made municipal broadband expansion one of his active agenda items at the FCC. Wheeler believed the two state laws were not supposed to inhibit rural broadband expansion. Critics of the laws contend they were written and lobbied for by the same incumbent cable and phone companies that could eventually face competition from public broadband networks.

“Let’s be clear: industry-backed state laws to block municipal broadband only exist because pliant legislators are listening to their Big Cable and Big Telecom paymasters,” said Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner. “This decision does not benefit our broadband nation.”

Wheeler

Wheeler

Wheeler tacitly agreed, saying today’s decision “appears to halt the promise of jobs, investment and opportunity that community broadband has provided in Tennessee and North Carolina.”

“[Since 2015], over 50 communities have taken steps to build their own bridges across the digital divide,” Wheeler said in written comments. “The efforts of communities wanting better broadband should not be thwarted by the political power of those who, by protecting their monopoly, have failed to deliver acceptable service at an acceptable price.”

The ruling can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the FCC has an excellent chance of getting the high court to overturn today’s decision. Rulings issued by the Sixth Circuit were reversed by the Supreme Court 24 out of the 25 times they were reviewed in the five annual terms starting in October 2008 and ending in June 2013 — the highest number of any federal appellate court during that time period.

Broadband activists can also return to the two state legislatures and urge that the broadband laws be modified or repealed. Wheeler seems ready to join the fight.

“Should states seek to repeal their anti-competitive broadband statutes, I will be happy to testify on behalf of better broadband and consumer choice,” Wheeler said. “Should states seek to limit the right of people to act for better broadband, I will be happy to testify on behalf of consumer choice.”

The N.Y. Times Exposes Corporate-Backed Think Tanks

Sock Puppets: Ostensibly "independent" people quietly on the payroll of Big Telecom companies and advocating their positions.

Sock Puppets: Ostensibly “independent” people quietly on the payroll of Big Telecom companies and advocating their positions.

“Net Neutrality would not improve consumer welfare or protect the public interest,” came the considered view of one Jeffrey A. Eisenach, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2014. “The potential costs of Net Neutrality regulation are both sweeping and severe. It is best understood as an effort by one set of private interests to enrich itself by using the power of the state.”

Mr. Eisenach was introduced on the printed formal agenda as a “visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.” If one looked at a transcript of his written testimony, they would find he also co-served as “co-chair of NERA Economic Consulting’s Communications, Media and Internet Practice.” But his views could have effectively represented all the above and more.

The New York Times this week published a two-part article examining the thin lines between public policy scholars, lobbyists, researchers, advocates, corporations, and private citizens. It is an important piece that details the shady world of bought and paid for research, academia, corporate lawyers and lobbyists, and Washington lawmakers that too often accept what they are told without following the money.

On that September day back in 2014 Eisenach wanted his views to be attributed only to him.

Eisenach

Eisenach

“While I am here in my capacity as a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, the views I express are my own, should not be attributed to A.E.I. or to any of the organizations with which I am affiliated,” Eisenach told the Senate committee.

What was considerably less clear is the name of the client (or an affiliated trade organization) that has underwritten almost every one of a dozen studies he has published on internet-related issues from 2007-2016 — Verizon, the same company that shares his hostile views towards Net Neutrality.

Over the years, it has become difficult to tell whether Eisenach’s views, articles, and study findings are his own, those of his study sponsor, and/or those of his employer. Just tracking Eisenach’s ever-changing employment record was no easy task. In the fall of 2013, Eisenach was the director of the American Enterprise Institute’s new “Center on Media and Internet Policy.” Just a few months later, he joined NERA, one of the country’s oldest economic consultancy firms, as a senior vice president in its telecommunications practice.

From each of these positions, Eisenach can pen the views of some of America’s largest telecommunications companies under the guise of an “independent” study, an invaluable cover tool for a member of Congress confronted with voting on behalf of corporate friends at the cost of consumers in the district.

“A report authored by an academic is going to have more credibility in the eyes of the regulator who is reading it,” Michael J. Copps, a former FCC commissioner who is now a special adviser for the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause, told the newspaper. “They are seeking to build credibility where none exists.”

A former Verizon employee who still does some consulting of his told the Times how the game is played.

aei“Let’s say you’re in legal and you want to have a paper that says what you want it to say,” said ex-Verizon economist Dennis Weller. “You could have a bunch of economists in house and ask them if they agree with you. How much easier would it be to go to an outside economist and say, ‘How about if I pay you $100,000 to write this?’”

With appropriate disclosure that a company like Verizon paid $100,000 for a report that exactly matches Verizon’s public policy agenda might raise questions on Capitol Hill as to its veracity and independence. If that disclosure goes missing or is hidden under a third-party like a trade association, a lawmaker might assume the report was produced independently and the strong corroboration of Verizon’s views is just a coincidence. That kind of credibility can be worth millions to any company confronting a debate over regulatory policy.

“[Eisenach] is good at linking big theoretical ideas to policy, and he’s been good at making money doing that,” added Weller. “He’s been good at moving from think tank to think tank and company to company, and I don’t think he’s ever lost money doing it.”

The New York Times investigation found while Eisenach testified before Congress ostensibly as a private citizen, he was also filing formal comments to the FCC as a “scholar” with the American Enterprise Institute, was meeting privately with FCC commissioners, organized public briefings that featured powerful senators like John Thune (R-S.D.), who happens to be the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. That committee also has direct oversight over the FCC and has spent the last three years scrutinizing FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler. Eisenach even briefed the two Republican FCC commissioners about what AEI’s general counsel had to say about Wheeler’s efforts to get Net Neutrality in place at the FCC. Eisenach offered both commissioners speaking time at AEI events, urging at least one of them to attack Net Neutrality.

“Net Neutrality is obviously top of mind,” he said in an email to that commissioner, Michael O’Rielly. “I’d be delighted if you would use the opportunity to lay out the case against.”

net_neutralityThe Times reported Eisenach was hardly alone opposing Net Neutrality. Just weeks after becoming chairman, Wheeler received a letter signed by more than a dozen prominent economists and scholars affiliated with various Washington think tanks or academic institutions. They wanted Wheeler to reject Net Neutrality regulations. The letter attempted to distance the signers from any corporate agenda, noting in a footnote that nobody was compensated for their signature on the letter.

On the other hand, of the dozen studies that were included or referenced in their letter as “evidence,” more than half were entirely funded by giant telecom companies that oppose Net Neutrality. Mr. Wheeler would need a magnifying glass and plenty of free time to ferret out the industry funding disclosures in those attached studies, which were buried in footnotes.

When the industry took the FCC to court over broadband regulation or Net Neutrality, it was more of the same. Verizon was successful opposing an earlier FCC rule on Net Neutrality by trotting out almost two dozen studies and declarations that opposed regulatory oversight — more than half sponsored entirely by the telecommunications companies or trade associations that despise Net Neutrality. Many other studies were written by think tanks and scholars that also had direct financial ties to the companies.

Litan

Litan

Another key factor in the debate about Net Neutrality was the cost of implementing it. Again, the incestuous ties between the telecom industry, think tanks, and academia would serve up the “right answers” for Big Telecom’s case against Neutrality when two economists issued a controversial “policy brief” that claimed Net Neutrality would cost $15 billion in new fees and retard broadband expansion and upgrades. (The $15 billion figure came under immediate ridicule by consumer groups that effectively suggested the study authors ‘made it up,’ a case that may have been proven to some degree when the authors suddenly revised it down to $11 billion.)

Robert Litan, then a senior fellow at Brookings and Hal Singer, who used to work at the Progressive Policy Institute, would quickly come under greater scrutiny than Eisenach, probably because their report became central to the industry’s battle against Net Neutrality. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) even built an advertising campaign against Net Neutrality around their study. Politicians opposed to Net Neutrality also regularly quoted from Litan and Singer’s findings to explain their strong opposition to the net policy.

Lost in the debate is who paid Mr. Litan and Mr. Singer for their work. Their employer, Economists Inc., yet another inside-the-Beltway consulting firm, didn’t exactly publicize their “select clients” included AT&T and Verizon — two of the largest opponents of Net Neutrality.

Using think tanks to bolster corporate lobbying has become so common, it has attracted the attention of some members of Congress.

Litan collided with one of the Senate’s fiercest consumer advocates and watchdogs — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in a September 2015 hearing about a rules change fiercely opposed by investment bankers that would require financial advisers recommending retirement-associated investments to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own personal gain. Warren has championed the cause of ending high bank and investment-related fees that eat away investor returns. Some of the worst offenders convinced financial advisers to recommend their funds by kicking back large bonus commissions, which enriched the adviser and the investment bank but left seniors hit hard by lost potential earnings.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Litan’s research questioned the potential benefits of upping ethical standards. He wrote the costs to the banking and investment community to implement the rules would far outweigh any benefits to investors. Litan casually mentioned his affiliation with Brookings, a think tank, to promote his research’s credibility. He didn’t call attention to the fact his 28-page study was produced for a client: Capital Group — a massive financial services company with $1.39 trillion in assets. It would be directly impacted by the imposition of the new rules, which it strongly opposed.

Capital Group paid Economists, Inc. $85,000 for the study. Litan’s cut of the action was $38,800 — or $1,386 per page.

Warren complained Litan was not exactly forthcoming in disclosing his personal gain and his ties to a major opponent of the new rules under consideration.

“These disclosures are problematic: they raise significant questions about the impartiality of the study and its conclusions, and about why a Brookings-affiliated expert is allowed to use that affiliation to lend credibility to work that is…editorially compromised,” Sen. Warren wrote in a letter to Brookings President Strobe Talbott.

The embarrassment to Brookings, which has increasingly relied on corporate-funded research to fund its work, led to rumors Litan was asked to leave, and he resigned shortly thereafter. Litan downplayed the event, calling it a “minor technical violation” of Brookings’ ethics policy, which prohibits those associated with the think tank from using their affiliation with Brookings in any research report or testimony.

The incident fueled consumer groups’ arguments that cozy arrangements between purportedly independent scholars and academics and corporate entities too often results in bought-and-paid-for- research not worth the paper it is printed on. A clear conflict of interest and the lack of prominent funding disclosures makes such reports suspect at best and worthless in many other cases, because no company paying for a report is going to make it public if it conflicts with their agenda.

Singer

Singer

Remarkably, other economists, many also engaged in producing reports for corporate clients, rushed to the defense of… Mr. Litan, calling his removal from Brookings the result of a witch hunt.

A letter signed by former Clinton economic advisers W. Bowman Cutter and Everett Ehrlich; Harvard University international trade and investment professor Robert Z. Lawrence; former Clinton chief budget economist Joseph Minarik; and former Clinton economic adviser Hal Singer, who co-authored the report that got Litan in hot water with Sen. Warren, claimed as a result of Litan’s forced resignation, critics of their reports could threaten the credibility of their work with an “ad hominem attack on any author who may be associated with an industry or interest whose views are contrary to [Sen. Warren].”

“Businesses sometimes finance policy research much as advocacy groups or other interests do,” the economists wrote. “A reader can question the source of the financing on all sides, but ultimately the quality of the work and the integrity of the author are paramount.”

Singer has since left the Progressive Policy Institute.

D.C.’s revolving door has also provided lucrative work for those out of government jobs and now working in the private sector, often lobbying those still in government.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) had no problem introducing a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece into the Congressional Record written by Robert McDowell, who wears several hats at the Hudson Institute. He’s a “scholar,” a “telecommunications industry lawyer” at a firm retained by AT&T to fight Net Neutrality, and a lobbyist. If his name is familiar to you, that might be because McDowell used to be a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission from June 1, 2006 to May 17, 2013. Now he is paid to kill Net Neutrality for AT&T.

None of that seem to faze Walden or raise questions about the credibility of the opinion piece he sought to have added to the official record.

“Everyone’s got their point of view,” Walden said last year. “And some of them get paid to have that point of view.”

AT&T Fined for Letting Drug Dealers/Money Launderers Run Sham Directory Assistance

Phillip Dampier August 8, 2016 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 3 Comments
phone fraud

…for AT&T’s complacency.

AT&T will pay $7.75 million to the Federal Communications Commission’s Enforcement Bureau and to its customers to settle a phone cramming investigation that revealed the phone company allowed drug dealers and money launderers to offer a scam paid directory assistance service for AT&T’s landline customers.

AT&T allowed the scammers to charge many of its landline customers $9 a month for a directory assistance service investigators called “a sham” from day one. AT&T collected a “billing fee” for each charge and collected another $1.50 in “complaint fees” each time a customer complained about the charge on their phone bill.

It took the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to uncover the scam while investigating two Cleveland-area companies — Discount Directory, Inc. (DDI) and Enhanced Telecommunications Services (ETS) for drug-related crimes and money laundering the proceeds.

In the course of seizing drugs, cars, jewelry, gold, and computers (totaling close to $3.4 million) from the companies’ principals and associates, DEA investigators discovered financial documents related to a scheme to defraud telephone customers. The key participants in the scheme told DEA agents that the companies were set up to bill thousands of consumers (mostly small businesses) for a monthly directory assistance service on their local AT&T landline telephone bills. The DEA referred this investigation to the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau in 2015.

AT&T received a fee from the companies for each charge AT&T placed on its customers’ bills. Although DDI and ETS submitted charges for thousands of AT&T customers, they never provided any directory assistance service. Neither DDI, ETS, nor AT&T could show that any of AT&T’s customers agreed to be billed for the sham directory assistance service, but AT&T kept on billing and collecting money from customers anyway, despite their responsibility to ensure the services were legitimate.

“AT&T ignored a number of red flags that the charges were unauthorized, including thousands of charges submitted by the companies for nonexistent, disconnected, or otherwise ‘unbillable’ accounts,” the consent decree stated.

Under the terms of today’s settlement, AT&T will issue full refunds to all current and former consumers charged for the sham directory assistance service since January 2012. These refunds are expected to total $6,800,000. AT&T will also pay a $950,000 fine to the U.S. Treasury. The Enforcement Bureau has also secured strong consumer protections in the settlement that include requirements that AT&T cease billing for nearly all third-party products and services on its wireline bills, adopt processes to obtain express informed consent from customers prior to allowing third-party charges on their phone bills, revise their billing practices to ensure that third-party charges are clearly and conspicuously identified on bills so that customers can see what services they are paying for, and offer a free service for customers to block third-party charges.

Consumer Groups to Tom Wheeler: Keep Pushing Forward on Real Reforms

Wheeler

Wheeler

One of the biggest surprises of the Obama Administration has been FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, whose industry background made his appointment immediately suspect among consumer advocates, including Stop the Cap!

But over the last few years of his tenure, he has built one of the strongest pro-consumer records of accomplishments the commission has seen in decades. Not only has Wheeler outclassed Kevin Martin and Michael Powell — the two chairmen under the prior Bush Administration, he has also demonstrated strong conviction and consistency lacking from his immediate predecessor, Julius Genachowski. Wheeler has won praise from consumer groups after pushing through Net Neutrality, adding stronger terms and conditions to the Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House merger to extend a ban on usage caps for seven years, discouraging more wireless provider mergers, and several other pro-consumer measures dealing with persistent problems like phone bill cramming.

Many top telecom executives and lobbyists and many Republican members of Congress have been highly critical of Mr. Wheeler and have bristled at media reports suggesting he might not exit with the outgoing Obama Administration. More than a few have hinted they would like to see Wheeler depart sooner than later.

The Wall Street Journal is now questioning whether Wheeler can complete at least three more of his important agenda items before President Obama’s term ends early next year.

His “open standards” for set-top boxes reform is mired in a full-scale cable industry push-back, efforts to impose strong privacy rules on what cable and phone companies do with your private information apparently violates Comcast’s right to offer you a discount if you agree to let them monitor your online activity, and even an effort to clean up business telecommunications service rules has met opposition, mostly from the companies that are quite happy making enormous profits with the rules as written today.

“Chairman Wheeler has accomplished a lot during his tenure, but with the election fast approaching, he probably has time to get one more big thing done,” Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told the newspaper.

Some Republicans in the Senate are holding up a vote on a second 5-year term for Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel after hearing media reports Wheeler may be thinking of remaining as FCC chairman after the end of the Obama Administration. Wheeler’s term doesn’t expire just because the president that appointed him leaves office, but it would be unusual for Wheeler to stay. But then a lot of traditions in Washington are not necessarily good ideas and we see no reason to hurry Wheeler out of his chairmanship. The chances we will get someone as tenacious as Mr. Wheeler has proven to be from the next president is unlikely. Those blocking the vote on Ms. Rosenworcel are playing the usual Washington power games, simply looking for a commitment Wheeler will leave with President Obama.

Wheeler has few allies among Republicans, who don’t like his Net Neutrality policies, don’t want Wheeler’s open-standard set-top box plan, and believe he is a regulator more than a preferred deregulator. Rosenworcel has recently been wavering on support for Wheeler’s set-top box plan and his internet privacy plan, which worries us because her vote is critical to assure passage. Rosenworcel could be trying to be seen as an independent to improve her chances at winning reappointment, but she risks alienating consumer groups if she sides with the two Republican FCC commissioners, who have shown themselves to be engaged in almost open warfare against consumers. Rosenworcel would do better to vote with consumers and avoid any appearance she is more interested in protecting her position in Washington.

“Sure, there are headwinds, but that’s often a sign that they’re doing something right,” Todd O’Boyle, program director for the media and democracy reform initiative at Common Cause told the newspaper. “There’s reason to think that the FCC will advance all three reforms.”

As far as Mr. Wheeler, as long as he represents the interests of the American people over those of AT&T and Comcast, he should feel free to stay as long as his term allows.

Comcast Still Telling Funny Stories to Wall Street About Usage Caps/Usage-Based Billing

xfinityOn a morning conference call with Wall Street analysts, Comcast continues to misrepresent its vision of broadband usage caps and usage-based billing, claiming customer preferences echoed through Comcast’s performance in the marketplace will tell the company what is “best for consumers,” and guide Comcast how to realize the most value for shareholders.

Wall Street is very interested in usage caps and usage-based billing because cable operators can protect video revenue threatened by cord-cutting and boost revenue earned from customers who exceed their allowance.

Vijay Jayant, and analyst at Evercore ISI, quickly zeroed in on the potential loss of anticipated revenue from Comcast’s recent decision to boost its data cap from 300GB to 1TB, something Jiyant characterized as a “hurdle” for future usage-related charges.

“Well we have one terabyte. We moved it up from 300 gigabyte to one terabyte in 14% of our markets where we have usage-based pricing,” responded Neil Smit, Comcast Cable’s president and CEO. “We think we’re going to continue to adjust and look at it as the market evolves and as usage evolves. We have different pricing models, some based on speed, some based on usage, and we’re going to be flexible and kind of let the market tell us which way is best for consumers and how we add the most value. We continue to add speeds. We’ve upped speeds 17 times in 15 years. We’ve built out the fastest Wi-Fi. So we’re going to continue to invest in the network to stay ahead of things.”

Smit’s response was incomplete, however.

Smit

Smit

Comcast’s usage and speed-based pricing models are hardly “flexible” and do not co-exist in the same markets. Customers are compelled to obey Comcast’s usage cap, face overlimit fees up to $200 a month, or pay an additional $50 a month to buy back their old unlimited use service. In Comcast markets without usage caps, the cable company only sells speed-based internet tiers with no enforced caps.

Comcast has consciously avoided allowing customers to choose between speed-based or usage-based tiers, because years of experience among other cable operators quickly proved customers intensely dislike usage caps of any kind. In fact, the largest percentage of complaints filed with the FCC about Comcast are about its compulsory usage cap trial and the fees associated with it.

One reason for that hostility may be that Comcast’s broadband prices do not drop as a result of the introduction of usage caps in a service area. The customer effectively receives a lower value broadband product as a result of its arbitrary usage limit, and the potential exposure to overlimit fees or a very expensive “insurance” plan to avoid the cap altogether. Earlier trials offered some customers a small discount if they kept usage under 5GB a month, a difficult prospect for most and in any case not much of a revenue threat for Comcast.

Comcast-marchIf Comcast was seriously interested in what its customers think about its usage cap trial, it need only review the FCC’s complaint database. According to a Freedom of Information Law request from The Wall Street Journal, nearly 8,000 complaints received by the FCC in the second half of 2015 were about data caps, and most of those were directed at Comcast.

Comcast’s claim it will let the marketplace decide only delivers a distorted view about usage caps, because many Comcast customers have only one other competitive choice, and there is a significant chance that provider caps customer’s broadband usage as well. AT&T, for example, caps its customers at a level even stingier than Comcast. Those caps have not been enforced with overlimit fees on customer bills (except for AT&T’s DSL customers), although AT&T suggests it is getting serious about collecting future overlimit fees. If Comcast gains new customers leaving AT&T to avoid smaller caps, Comcast executives seem to believe they can claim consumers have ’embraced’ Comcast’s usage billing. But we know that is about as credible as an election in North Korea.

Time Warner Cable has been one of the few honest players about usage billing, giving customers the option of keeping unlimited or switching to a capped plan for a discount. More than 99% of customers have chosen to stay with unlimited and only a few thousand have chosen to limit their usage for a small discount. An honest market test from Comcast would extend a similar option to customers. Keep unlimited or voluntarily limit usage for a small discount. Given this kind of test, we expect the overwhelming majority of customers would keep unlimited at all costs. Doing so would hurt shareholder value, however.

The only value Comcast is concerned with is how much more money they can charge customers for broadband service. In America’s broadband duopoly, where speed-based broadband pricing is already outrageously high, usage caps and usage billing are nothing more than a greedy cash grab. When money is at stake, reputation comes in a distant second at Comcast, as the company continues to prove its poor reputation with American consumers is well-deserved.

CenturyLink: Usage-Based Billing That Makes No Sense, But Will Earn Dollars

followthemoneyCenturyLink will begin a usage-based billing trial in Yakima, Wa., starting July 26 that will combine usage caps with an overlimit fee on customers that exceed their monthly usage allowance. The trial in Washington state may soon be a fact of life for most CenturyLink customers across the country, unless customers rebel.

Already at a speed disadvantage with its cable competitors, CenturyLink will likely alienate customers with a new 300GB usage cap on DSL customers who can manage speeds up to 7Mbps, and 600GB for those lucky enough to exceed 7Mbps. Customers will be given a browser-injected warning when they reach 65% and 85% of their allowance. If a customer exceeds it, they will have overlimit fees forgiven twice before the usual de facto industry overlimit penalty rate of $10 for 50 additional gigabytes will be added to their bill, not to exceed $50 in penalties for any billing cycle.

DSL Reports received word from readers in Yakima they had the unlucky privilege of serving as CenturyLink’s first test market for hard caps and overlimit fees, and was the first to bring the story to the rest of the country.

CenturyLink hasn’t wanted to draw much attention to the usage-based billing change, quietly adjusting their “excessive usage policy FAQ” that takes effect on July 26. But it has begun directly notifying customers who will be enrolled in the compulsory trial.

“Data usage limits encourage reasonable use of your CenturyLink High Speed Internet service so that all customers can receive the optimal internet experience they have purchased with their service plan,” states the FAQ.

But counterintuitively, CenturyLink will exempt those likely to consume even more of CenturyLink’s resources than its low-speed DSL service allows by keeping unlimited use policies in place for their commercial customers and those subscribed to gigabit speed broadband.

CenturyLink’s justification for usage caps with customers seems to suggest that “excessive usage” will create a degraded experience for other customers. But CenturyLink’s chief financial officer Stewart Ewing shines a light on a more plausible explanation for CenturyLink to slap the caps on — because their competitors already are.

“Regarding the metered data plans; we are considering that for second half of the year,” Ewing told investors on a conference call. “We think it is important and our competition is using the metered plans today and we think that exploring those starts and trials later this year is our expectation.”

CenturyLink's overlimit penalties (Image courtesy: DSL Reports)

CenturyLink’s new overlimit penalties (Image courtesy: DSL Reports)

In fact, CenturyLink has never acknowledged any capacity issues with their broadband network, and has claimed ongoing upgrades have kept up with customer usage demands. Until now. On the west coast, CenturyLink’s competitors are primarily Comcast (Pacific Northwest) and Cox Communications (California, Nevada, Arizona). Both cable operators are testing usage caps. In many CenturyLink markets further east, Comcast is also a common competitor, with Time Warner Cable/Charter present in the Carolinas. But in many of the rural markets CenturyLink serves, there is no significant cable competitor at all.

Usage Cap Man is back.

Usage Cap Man is back, protecting high profits and preserving the opportunity of charging more for less service.

As Karl Bode from DSL Reports points out, for years CenturyLink has already been collecting a sneaky surcharge from customers labeled an “internet cost recovery fee,” supposedly defraying broadband usage and expansion costs. But in the absence of significant competition, there is no reason CenturyLink cannot charge even more, and also enjoy protection from cord-cutting. Customers who use their CenturyLink DSL service to watch shows online will face the deterrent of a usage cap. Customers subscribed to CenturyLink’s Prism TV will be able to access many of those shows on-demand without making a dent in their usage allowance.

For years, American consumers have listened to cable and phone companies promote a “robust and competitive broadband marketplace,” providing the best internet service money can buy. But in reality, there is increasing evidence of a duopoly marketplace that offers plenty of opportunities to raise prices, cap usage, and deliver a substandard internet experience.

As Stop the Cap! has argued since 2008, the only true innovations many phone and cable companies are practicing these days are clever ways to raise prices, protect their markets, and cut costs. Consumers who have experienced broadband service in parts of Asia and Europe understand the difference between giving customers a truly cutting-edge experience and one that requires customers to cut other household expenses to afford increasingly expensive internet access.

We recommend CenturyLink customers share their dislike of CenturyLink’s style of “innovation” in the form of a complaint against usage caps and usage-based billing with the FCC. It takes just a few minutes, and adding your voice to tens of thousands of Americans that have already asked the FCC to ban usage caps and usage pricing will keep this issue on the front burner. It will help strengthen our case that providers must stop treating internet usage as a limited resource that has to be rationed to customers. Wall Street believes the FCC has given a green light to usage caps and usage pricing, and the risk of attracting regulator attention by imposing higher broadband prices on consumers is pretty low. We need to change that thinking so analysts warn providers against being too greedy, out of fear the FCC will impose a regulatory crackdown.

Pre-Empting Moronic Broadband Law Means Everything to Rural North Carolina

greenlightThe community of Pinetops, N.C. has finally got 21st century gigabit broadband, but no thanks to a state legislature so beholden to Time Warner Cable, it let the cable giant write its own law to keep potential competitors away.

The passage of H129 was almost a given after Republicans regained control of both chambers of the state legislature in 2011 for the first time since 1870. The bill made it almost impossible for any of the state’s existing community-owned broadband networks to expand out of their immediate service areas. It also discouraged any other rural towns from even considering starting a public broadband network to solve pervasive broadband problems in their communities.

It was not the finest moment for many of H.129’s supporters, who had to explain to the media and constituents why the state’s largest cable operator needed protection from potential competition and more importantly, why public officials were catering to the corporate giant’s interests over that of the public.

"I wish you'd turn the camera off now because I am going to get up and leave if you don't," said Rep. Julia Howard

“I wish you’d turn the camera off now because I am going to get up and leave if you don’t,” said Rep. Julia Howard

Rep. Julia Howard (R-Davie, Iredell) found herself losing her cool when WNCN reporters in Raleigh caught up with her and confronted her with the fact her campaign coffers had been filled by the state’s largest telecom companies. She didn’t have an answer for that. Moments later, she appeared ready to flee the interview.

“I wish you’d turn the camera off now because I am going to get up and leave if you don’t,” Howard told the reporter.

Rep. Marilyn Avila was so close to Marc Trathen, then Time Warner Cable’s top-lobbyist in the state, we decided five years ago it would be more accurate to list Time Warner Cable as her sole constituent. Avila’s name appeared on the bill, but it was readily apparent Time Warner Cable drafted most of its provisions. The nearest city in Avila’s own district wanted no part of H129, and neither did many of her constituents.

The bill managed to pass the legislature and after becoming law effectively jammed up community broadband expansion in many parts of the state.

It would take the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt the legislation on the grounds it was nakedly anti-competitive and prevented broadband improvements in communities major telecom companies have ignored for years.

As a result of the FCC’s actions, the community of Pinetops now has access to gigabit broadband, five years late, thanks in part to Rep. Avila who got a $290 dinner for her efforts and was honored as a guest speaker at a cable industry function in recognition of her service… to Time Warner Cable.

Rep. Avila with Marc Trathen, Time Warner Cable's top lobbyist (right) Photo by: Bob Sepe of Action Audits

Rep. Avila with Marc Trathen, Time Warner Cable’s top lobbyist (right) Photo by: Bob Sepe of Action Audits

Greenlight, Wilson’s community-owned fiber to the home provider, switched on service in the community this spring to any of the 600 Pinetops homes that wanted it, and many did.

“We just love it!” said Brenda Harrell, the former acting town manager.

In fact, Greenlight is now delivering the best broadband in Edgecombe County, and deploying fiber to the home service was hardly a stretch for Greenlight, which was already installing fiber optics to manage an automated meter infrastructure project. The only thing keeping better broadband out of the hands of Pinetops residents was a law written by an industry that loathes competition and will stop it at all costs. Time Warner Cable didn’t bother to offer service in the community even after its bill became law and residents endured years of unreliable DSL or dialup access instead. Talk about a win-lose scenario. Time Warner Cable got to keep its comfortable cable monopoly while many families had to drive their children to businesses miles away just to borrow their Wi-Fi signal to finish homework assignments.

Faster broadband is likely to be transformative for the quiet rural community. Current town manager Lorenzo Carmon sees more than nearby fields of sweet potatoes and soybeans. With gigabit fiber and cheap local housing, Pinetops could become a bedroom community for upper income professionals now living in Greenville, a university town heavily populated by doctors, students, and high-tech knowledge economy workers. If and when they arrive, they’ll find a tech-ready community, right down to the local Piggly-Wiggly supermarket, which now has fiber fast internet service too.

pinetopsPinetops offers proof of the obscenity of bought-and-paid-for-politicians supporting corporate protectionism that harms people, harms education, harms jobs, and leaves rural communities with no clear path to the digital economy of the 21st century. Legislation like H129, which continues to be enforced in more than a few U.S. states, needs to be pre-empted nationwide or even better repealed by state legislators.

But North Carolina’s legislature still isn’t getting the message. They are outraged the FCC outsmarted Time Warner Cable and them, and are now wasting time and resources to have the FCC’s pre-emption overturned in court, evidently so that rural North Carolina can continue to tough it out with DSL indefinitely. That’s political malpractice and North Carolina voters need to show the door to any elected representative that cares more about the interests of a giant cable company than what is good for you and your community. Reps. Avila and Howard don’t have to live with 3Mbps DSL, so why should you?

“If the private sector is not providing the services, the government has to step in,” said Carmon. “The internet is just like electricity. You can’t live without it.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Comcast Says It Will Spend $100M on Chicago, But Not Before Capping Internet Usage

comcast cartoonComcast announced last week it will invest $100 million in fiber optic and coaxial cable to expand its network for businesses and residents across the Chicago region, but not before it slaps a usage cap on Chicagoland internet users forced to join its compulsory data cap “trial.”

Beginning Aug. 1,  customers who exceed 1 terabyte of data usage per month will face a nasty overlimit fee of $10 for each 50GB of additional usage they rack up over the course of a billing cycle. Customers who want to keep the unlimited broadband plan they have today can, if they are willing to pay an extra $50 a month.

Comcast’s PR department has christened the incoming data cap the “Terabyte Internet Experience,” suggesting customers will now have the privilege of using up to 1,000GB each month without facing extra charges. But the plan customers have until the end of this month already allows that, and more, without facing overlimit fees that will top out at $200 a month.

Customers like Greg believe Comcast has a different agenda imposing data caps.

“We’ll teach those cord cutters a lesson,” he wrote. “We’re going to get your money one way or another. Comcast is just greedy, they want to extort as much money as they can from people. I’m paying $90 for internet, with the option to charge more based on their conditions. Remember when consumers had options?”

Other residents looking for an opt-out of the “trial” are out of luck.

comcast“Got the email this week we get to be part of this data cap ‘trial,'” shared another customer. “How lucky are we? And what do we get for being part of this trial? Absolutely nothing! And can we opt out of this trial? Heck no!”

Comcast claims almost nobody will be impacted by the terabyte cap, predicting as few as 1% of their customers reach that level of usage. But 25% of Comcast customers nationwide have now received email and other notifications about a data cap plan “trial” Comcast has spent time, money, and resources trying to explain and implement in a growing number of cities in their service area. Many ask if so few are affected, why make the effort?

The FCC received 11,812 complaints about Comcast in 2015, mostly about its data cap trials. That is at least 5,000 more complaints than AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable received combined. That would seem to indicate a significant percentage of Comcast customers are concerned about data caps, even if they are not among the “1%” Comcast now claims will be affected by caps.

Comcast’s plan to invest $100 million in Chicago, primarily on fiber expansion, may not placate customers who do not appreciate their internet usage being capped at the same time Comcast’s network capacity continues to increase. Most of the upgrades may be targeted to benefit Comcast’s business customers. The expansion will string 50 miles of fiber cable across seven square miles of downtown Chicago, including the Loop, River North, and River West. Additional expansion will target the city’s Back of the Yards and Bridgeport neighborhoods at in the Peterson-Pulaski business district near O’Hare.

Comcast claims the upgrade will expand internet, video, voice, and home security/automation services for residential customers. They will just need to make sure not to use them too much.

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