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FCC Chairman Tells Crowd He’s “Not Done Enough” to Bring More Cable Competition

Phillip Dampier February 3, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments
Wheeler

Wheeler

FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler confessed he “has not done enough” to bring consumers more competition to Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter, and other cable operators.

Appearing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Wheeler said Comcast’s effort to buy Time Warner Cable in 2015 would not bring additional competition to the marketplace. The FCC remained pessimistic about the deal, stalling for months until a request for approval was eventually withdrawn by Comcast.

Wheeler has been especially sensitive about deals that could impact broadband services — wireless or wired — since becoming chairman of the FCC during President Obama’s second term in office. The FCC has proven itself less concerned with cable television matters, having approved a merger of AT&T and DirecTV while it still contemplates the merger of Charter Communications with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

Wheeler also spent time speaking about his latest initiative, breaking up the virtual monopoly on set-top boxes. Wheeler has proposed ending that monopoly by creating a new open standard platform for set-top equipment, allowing various manufacturers to develop boxes for retail sale to consumers.

FCC Chairman Rejects Mobile Internet as Useful Competitor to Wired Broadband

Wheeler

Wheeler

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler considers mobile broadband a poor substitute for fixed/wired Internet access. A fact sheet released by Wheeler’s office shows he is convinced America still has a broadband problem — speeds are too slow, competition is lacking, and 4G/LTE wireless broadband is so usage-capped or speed throttled, it is not a serious substitute for traditional wired broadband.

Wheeler claimed, “approximately 34 million Americans still lack access to fixed broadband at the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25Mbps for downloads, 3Mbps for uploads,” and has previously said those that do often find those speeds from only a single provider, typically a cable company.

Wheeler doesn’t dismiss the need for wireless Internet access, but he considers it an add-on for customers on the go. Other highlights from the fact sheet:

  • A persistent urban-rural digital divide has left 39 percent of the rural population without access to fixed broadband. By comparison, only 4 percent living in urban areas lack access;
  • 41 percent of Tribal Lands residents lack access;
  • 41 percent of schools have not met the Commission’s short-term goal of 100Mbps per 1,000 students/staff;
  • Only 9 percent of schools have fiber connections capable of meeting the FCC’s long-term goal of 1Gbps per 1,000 students.

Wheeler also said that U.S. broadband continues to lag behind other developed nations, only ranking 16th out of the top 34 countries.

Wheeler thinks wireless broadband is an essential service for many, but it should not be compared with wired broadband, as the two services are distinct from one-another:

  • Fixed broadband offers high-speed, high-capacity connections capable of supporting bandwidth-intensive uses, such as streaming video, by multiple users in a household. But fixed broadband can’t provide consumers with the mobile Internet access required to support myriad needs outside the home and while working remotely.
  • Mobile devices provide access to the web while on the go, and are especially useful for real-time two-way interactions, mapping applications, and social media. But consumers who rely solely on mobile broadband tend to perform a more limited range of tasks and are significantly more likely to incur additional usage fees or forego use of the Internet.

Underseas Fiber Capacity Expands Without Laying More Submarine Cables

underseas capacityOverall submarine cable capacity, which supports a substantial amount of international Internet traffic, has grown around 36% per year for 2007-2014 and is expected to grow around 29% for 2014-2016. But traffic planners are confident the traffic growth will be easily accommodated over existing submarine cable circuits.

A new U.S. International Circuit Capacity Report from the International Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission details the total amount of capacity available between the U.S. and any foreign point. That data helps traffic planners maintain suitable Internet traffic capacity before international data traffic jams emerge. The report shows plenty of capacity remains available to handle sustained Internet traffic growth between North America and other countries around the world. Only the Pacific region, encompassing Australia and New Zealand, shows the potential for a future capacity crunch if more cable capacity isn’t introduced in the coming years.

Submarine cables laid more than a decade ago are showing vast capacity improvements, not because new fiber is being laid underwater, but because of developments in submarine cable technology.

“The technology standard has evolved from 280Mbps per pair (TAT-8 cable) in the mid-1980s, to 5Gbps (TPC-5) in the mid-1990s, to 10Gbps in 1998,” says the report. “Since 1998, the 10Gbps fiber pair has been the standard for all new cables. There are plans to deploy 40Gbps or even 100Gbps fiber pairs. Moreover, the use of Wavelength Division Multiplexing (WDM) technology can multiply the capacity from one pair to multiple pairs depending on the wavelength (or color) of the cable.”

southern cross

One exceptional example comes from the Pacific region, where Internet traffic has exploded. The Southern Cross cable, which connects Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, and the United States, began service in 2000 offering a total capacity of 20Gbps. Those behind the project envisioned that technological advancements would eventually allow the cable to achieve a total of 120Gbps of “fully protected capacity.” They vastly underestimated what ingenuity in data transmission would bring just 16 years later.

southern cross upgradeSouthern Cross engineers are now deploying circuits capable of 40 and 100Gbps technology, bringing Southern Cross cable’s total available capacity to more than 12Tbps (12,000Gbps). Every upgrade was conducted at the cable station with zero new fiber pairs laid in the water. Other undersea cable operators are initiating similar upgrades, providing exponentially greater capacity at a minimal cost.

The report found the most popular destination for U.S. international undersea cables was Colombia, which hosts eight. Japan and the United Kingdom are each reached by seven U.S. cables. Five cables each reach Panama, Brazil, and Venezuela, and Mexico and Australia have four each.

The most aggressive capacity upgrades are scheduled for the Atlantic region, mostly to support increasing traffic from Europe, the Middle East, and especially Africa. The Pacific region, in contrast, has just 13.3% non-activated capacity, possibly demonstrating a need for new cable capacity.

Wall Street: Usage Caps Are an Important Weapon in Fight Over Cord-Cutting

charter v dishA behind the scenes struggle between DISH Networks and Charter Communications over DISH’s online video service Sling TV has led to an admission by a Wall Street analyst that “usage-based billing” is an important tool for stifling over-the-top online video competition.

On Dec. 21, DISH’s legal team sent a letter to the FCC complaining about Charter’s attempts to “address” the competitive threat of Sling TV, DISH’s online video alternative to cable television.

“Charter’s laser-like focus on Sling TV shows that it views Sling TV as a serious competitive threat rather than a benign interest,” wrote DISH’s attorneys. “Charter is focused on protecting its video subscriber base rather than enhancing the broadband Internet experience for its subscribers. Charter’s documents further reveal thinly veiled complaints to programmers about making their programming available to Sling TV and other [online video] products.”

In the highly redacted filing, Dish suggested Charter was making thinly veiled threats to Disney and Scripps Networks over their willingness to allow their content to be included on Sling TV. DISH has complained to the FCC the cable company was attempting to undermine the new competitor.

A sample from DISH lawyer's highly-redacted submission to the FCC shows much of this fight is occurring out of public view.

A sample from DISH lawyer’s highly redacted submission to the FCC shows much of this fight is occurring out of public view.

On Thursday, the FCC also received an ex parte filing alerting the public that Time Warner (Entertainment) and HBO executives privately met with FCC staff last week, at their invitation, telling them Charter was likely threatening other programmers with unspecified action if they continued to allow their programming to appear on Sling TV.

In that meeting, HBO executives suggested “New Charter” — the combination of Charter Cable, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks — “would be inclined to take action directed at programmers” if services like Sling TV continued to grow. Those threats seem to have been confirmed by Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge, who warned the company would take ‘competitive action’ against programmers selling content to the competition.

In the past, several cable executives have hinted that allowing wider distribution of cable networks over competitors’ networks or direct-to-consumer would dilute the value of those networks to cable operators. That would likely lead to demands for reduced prices when cable networks sought contract renewal. Some cable companies might also drop those networks altogether, arguing customers can get them elsewhere. Either retaliatory move would cut viewer numbers, which in turn would force networks to charge less for advertising.

That the FCC would invite further discussions on the issue of online video competition has some on Wall Street concerned about the prospects of Charter winning approval to buy Time Warner Cable and Bright House.

On Friday, BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield wrote investors, wondering if “we should be less confident in deal approval than we currently are.” With both the Justice Department and the Obama Administration pushing hard for competitive online alternatives to cable television, the FCC may be worried allowing New Charter to have 25-30 percent of the broadband market. With broadband a prerequisite for signing up for services like Sling TV, Rutledge’s “competitive action” could dissuade consumers from choosing online video instead of cable television.

New Street Research analyst Jonathan Chaplin admitted one of Charter’s strongest potential weapons against online video competitors is usage-based Internet billing. That Charter has committed to avoiding usage pricing for the next three years would seem to delay any attempt by Charter to deploy usage caps and usage pricing to stop online competition.

But three years may also not be long to wait, especially if the current “cap-free” commitment helps win merger approval. Chaplin believes Charter’s current commitment to not impose usage caps weakens DISH’s argument, but it could be the subject of special conditions from regulators if the deal is ultimately approved.

The topic appears to be sensitive enough to have provoked Charter to push back hard against DISH and Time Warner (Entertainment) in a blog post published last Friday afternoon.

We are happy to report that the vast majority of stakeholders are pleased with the merger and excited about New Charter.  It’s no surprise, though, that there are some who seek to use the regulatory review process to extract concessions or conditions that further their business goals.  Following the well-worn play book, to achieve that goal, they must first try to discredit the merger, but their allegations are often not based on the facts. For example, charges by Dish and Time Warner’s HBO that New Charter will harm Online Video Distributors simply do not make sense. As we have demonstrated, there is no more OVD-friendly provider than Charter, with our slowest speed at 60Mbps, no data caps, no usage-based billing, no annual contracts and no modem fees. Additionally, we’ve committed that New Charter will offering settlement-free peering to Internet companies, which means we will continue to invest in interconnection to avoid congestion. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, a supporter of the transaction, stated “the key thing about the Charter deal is it’s all Internet companies that benefit — us, Hulu, Amazon, HBO Now — so that we can all compete for consumers’ affection.”

Time Warner Cable Quotes Rural Ky. Resident $410/Mo + 5 Yr. Contract for Broadband

green acresIf residents in rural Kentucky want Time Warner Cable to offer broadband service, they better be prepared to pay for it.

As Time Warner customers consider the company’s latest rate increases, which now include a $10 modem rental fee and an increasingly common $4.99 “Wi-Fi Fee” if you don’t use your own wireless router, there are other customers signing contracts for residential Internet service from Time Warner at prices as high as $410 a month.

Jack Prindle lives in the Big Bone community near Union, Ky., — close enough to Cincinnati to be a suburb, but rural enough to be bypassed for broadband. Two dozen of his neighbors live along a nine-tenths of a mile stretch of Big Bone Church Road, which isn’t exactly a priority for Time Warner Cable. The families have spent a decade trying to entice anyone to offer broadband Internet access. Insight Communications (Time Warner’s predecessor) and Cincinnati Bell have never shown much interest. Time Warner Cable, however, has been engaged in a type of cat and mouse game, offering service at ever-escalating prices only to change its mind at the last minute.

“Within the last year, I have signed contracts with Time Warner for Internet service starting at $300 a month, with a three-year contract, only to have them come back and raise it to $350 for five years, and then $410 a month with a commitment of five years,” Prindle wrote in the Community Recorder. “Then only to be told a month later they were not going to provide Internet. Others of the 24 have similar bizarre stories concerning Time Warner and Cincinnati Bell.”

“Prindle’s story is an example of what is wrong with rural broadband in the United States,” writes Cynthia Rawley, who shared the story with Stop the Cap! “Unchecked cable and phone companies get federal dollars and the benefit of a fake broadband map that has no relationship to reality, leaving many to believe there is no rural broadband problem to solve. But there is.”

Union, Ky.

Union, Ky.

Rawley points out the FCC’s official National Broadband Map shows the two dozen homes around Prindle are all provided 5-50Mbps broadband service by both Time Warner Cable and Cincinnati Bell, despite the fact neither offers any broadband service to anyone in the vicinity.

“Boone County Judge-executive Gary Moore wrote to inform the FCC of this error and failed to get a response,” Prindle noted. What bothers him even more is his tax dollars have paid to subsidize rural Internet service he cannot get at any price.

“Some basic research reveals that Time Warner has received millions of taxpayer dollars to provide broadband Internet in rural areas,” Prindle notes. “The commonwealth of Kentucky has given over $100 million to Internet providers alone to provide broadband Internet in rural areas alone. Opensecrets.org reports that Time Warner spent $4,950,000 in lobbying efforts of federal, state, and local governments in 2015. With this amount of money changing hands, the conspiracy theorists among us see a 20/20 episode coming.”

Prindle better have his rabbit ears ready to watch, because at the rate providers are not expanding rural broadband, he will have a long wait before being able to watch that 20/20 episode online.

FCC Stops the Clock on Charter-Bright House-Time Warner Cable Merger

hourglassIn a sign federal regulators are taking the behemoth merger of Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks seriously, the FCC today announced it was temporarily stopping the clock on the merger review required to approve or reject it.

“The commission has a strong interest in ensuring a full and complete record upon which to base its decision in this proceeding,” the FCC wrote in a statement. “Pausing the clock will ensure that commenters have sufficient time to review and comment on this new information, and will provide commission staff with the necessary time to review both the applicants’ materials and any responses.”

The delay is expected to last at least 15 days. The FCC considers such mergers under an informal 180-day “shot clock” that was designed to make certain mergers under review would receive prompt consideration by regulators. But the FCC treats the clock as a suggestion, not a mandate, and has often delayed contentious mergers, sometimes to a degree where the parties involved recognize the direction the review is headed, and withdraw their application.

Charter insists that is not the case here.

“We have recently submitted supplemental information to underscore the benefits of these transactions and it is expected that the FCC would want to give the public time to comment,” Charter said in a statement. “We are working well with the FCC on its review of our deal and continue to look forward to a timely approval.”

Comcast said the same thing when its merger application for Time Warner Cable stalled in federal and state regulators’ offices. Its merger application was eventually voluntarily withdrawn.

FCC Pounded With 13,000+ Complaints About Comcast’s Data Caps

no listenWhen a CEO tells customers they should just get used to data caps and stop being paranoid about them, it would not a stretch to assume the top executive of the nation’s largest cable company has no interest in hearing the views of his customers on the matter and has stopped listening.

But just how many took complaints about usage-billing above the head of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts to the Federal Communications Commission has been a mystery, until today.

A website that promotes cord cutting filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FCC that now reveals at least 13,000 (and counting) Comcast customers took time to file formal complaints with the federal regulator about what CutCableToday calls Comcast’s unethical practice of imposing data caps.

A review of the complaints shows the FCC was generous in its response, including a significant minority of complaints that had nothing to do with data caps. But among the majority that did consider data caps to be unjust, it was common to see Comcast described as an “extortionist,” a “monopoly,” and “abusive” to customers.

Roberts

Roberts

“Comcast should be performing damage control, but the corporation considers itself too powerful for that,” says David Mumpower of CutCableToday. “They wouldn’t ‘win’ so many competitions as the Most Hated Company in America if they cared what customers thought. The power brokers of the cable industry believe that they can charge whatever they want for Internet access because people can’t function effectively in society without it.”

Last week, Roberts claimed only 5% (8% and rising Comcast later admitted) of Comcast customers exceed what is usually a 300GB usage allowance before paying an overlimit fee of $10 for each additional allotment of 50GB. But CutCableToday’s efforts easily turned up several bill shock horror stories from customers stuck with hefty bills after Comcast unilaterally implemented data caps as part of a seemingly-endless “trial” that has spread to a growing number of its service areas.

One Nashville customer got the shock of his life when he discovered he owed a total of $400 in overlimit fees, the same amount he typically pays for six months of Internet service from Comcast.

“Comcast just surprised me with a bill that shows that I owed $180 for over cap surcharges,” the customer wrote in his complaint. “I called the same day I got the bill, and they also let me know that I owe another $220 for over cap surcharges. (That’s right, a surprise $400).”

Despite Comcast’s claims that practically nobody would be affected by their data cap, more than ten thousand went the extra mile, learned how to file a complaint with the FCC, and followed through, further eroding Comcast’s already poor reputation.

A customer in Plantation, Fla., which became subject to Comcast’s data capping this fall, called it like he saw it:

“I object to this new policy of forcing customers to pay more for exceeding pre-established data caps by this greedy corporation. The caps will be exceeded even by moderate users of the Internet due to forced video ads on pretty much every single web page that one loads into a browser. This is not right. These cable companies are already charging us too much for Internet service. Now Comcast wants to charge us a $30 av month fee to prevent them from charging us even more fees. This is a rip off. The government needs to do something to stop this practice of capping. If they are going to meter our internet usage like an electric power company then we should be charged only for data that we call up. This means a ban on all forced Internet advertising. PLEASE do something. We have no one to protect us!”

comcastcrashThe volume of complaints has been so great, CutCableToday notified the FCC it would consider its FOIA request adequately fulfilled after nearly 2,000 complaints were initially made available in response. The group put those 1,929 complaints together into four huge PDF files you can download and review yourself:

Despite the volume of complaints, Roberts has continued to reassure investors that customers are “neutral to slightly positive” about Comcast’s data caps, a claim that might run afoul of Securities and Exchange Commission rules requiring frank admissions about company practices that could affect shareholders’ investments in company stock.

Roberts’ claims could lack credibility as the company has offered no verifiable evidence that customers are even slightly positive about having their Internet usage put on an allowance.

Based on the FCC’s bulging file of complaints, it is more likely most customers either don’t know or understand Comcast’s data caps and as one Knoxville customer who did know described it: It is more of “their f***-you level of customer service.”

“The data caps that Comcast is putting into place are going to end up making people choose between enriching their lives and learning more, and paying more money to a local monopoly,” the customer added.

“This corporate arrogance – some would say malfeasance – has driven many broadband users to the breaking point,” writes Mumpower. “At best, the choices for Internet service are oligopoly sized; at worst, a monopoly exists. How can customers expect their viable complaints to be taken seriously if they have no leverage? That’s why it’s imperative that you file a complaint to make your voice heard.”

The Peaceful War Against Comcast’s Data Caps: Don’t Like ‘Em? Get Off Your Butt

Licensed to print money

Licensed to print money

In 2008, Stop the Cap! was launched because the telephone company that serves our hometown of Rochester, N.Y., decided on a whim that it was appropriate to introduce a usage allowance of 5GB per month for their DSL customers. Frontier Communications CEO-at-the-time Maggie Wilderotter defended the idea with the usual claim that the included allowance was more than enough for the majority of Frontier customers. DSL customers already have to endure a lot of issues with Internet service and data caps should certainly not be one of them.

Stop the Cap! drew media attention and focus on the issue of data capping, organized customers for a coordinated pushback, and sufficiently hassled Frontier enough to get them to make the right decision for their customers by quietly rescinding the “allowances.”

As it would turn out, Frontier’s correct decision to suspend usage caps would prove an asset to them less than one year later when Time Warner Cable made it known it would trial its own usage caps in Austin and San Antonio, Tex., Greensboro, N.C., and yes… Rochester, N.Y. starting in the summer of 2009.

Time Warner Cable was slightly more generous with its arbitrary allowance — 40GB of usage for $55 a month. Customers already paying a lot for Internet access would now also have an arbitrary usage allowance and overlimit penalty fees with no service improvements in sight. Frontier’s decision the year before to rescind data caps played to their advantage and the company quickly launched advertising in Rochester attacking Time Warner Cable for its data caps, inviting customers to switch to cap-free Internet with Frontier.

Data caps are here!

Data caps are here!

Time Warner Cable’s experiment lasted less than two weeks and was permanently shelved, never to return. Four years later, Comcast began its own usage cap trial that not only continues to this day, but has expanded to cover more than 1,000 zip codes. Capped service areas typically live with a 300GB usage allowance with an overlimit fee of $10 per 50GB.

Yesterday at the investor-oriented UBS Global Media and Communications Brokers Conference, Comcast chief financial officer Mike Cavanagh assured Wall Street and shareholders Comcast’s desire to boost revenue from monetizing broadband usage remained an “important contributor” to the company’ goal of “demonstrat[ing] value and derive value from that pricing.”

Cavanagh said the company is using the line ‘heavy users should pay more’ to justify its caps.

“It’s been an experiment that we are using that the key data point behind it is kind of intuitive – ‘10% of our client base uses 50% of capacity.'”

While not ready to announce Comcast’s cap plan would be introduced nationwide, Cavanagh assured investors the experiments will continue as Comcast makes sure that over time it is “compensated for the investments that today’s marketplace requires us to make.”

The difference that makes it possible for Comcast to carry its usage cap experiments forward while Time Warner Cable had to quickly end theirs comes down to one thing: organized customer pushback. Time Warner Cable got heat from relentless, organized opposition in the four cities where caps mattered the most to consumers. Comcast, for the most part, is getting about as much heat as it usually does from customers. It’s time to turn the heat up.

protest

In fighting this battle for the last seven years, I can share with readers what works to force change and what doesn’t:

In 2009, Time Warner Cable faced protesters opposed to usage limits at this rally in front of the company's headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable faced protesters opposed to usage limits at this rally in front of the company’s headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.

Generally Useless

  • Complaining about usage caps in the comment sections of websites;
  • Signing online petitions;

Impotent But Potentially Useful in Large Numbers

  • Calling the provider to complain about usage caps;
  • Complaining about usage caps to a provider’s social media team (Facebook, Twitter, etc.);
  • Writing complaints on a company’s open support forum;

Useful, But Unlikely to Bring Immediate Results

  • Writing a letter or making a call complaining to elected officials about usage caps;
  • Advocating for more competition, especially from public/municipal broadband;
  • Filing formal complaints with the FCC and Better Business Bureau;
  • Complaining to state telecom regulators and your state Attorney General (they have no direct authority but can attract political attention);
  • Canceling or downgrading service, blaming usage caps for your decision.

Gasoline on a Lit Fire

  • Organizing a protest in front of the local cable office, with local media given at least a day’s notice and invited to attend;
  • Contacting local newsrooms and asking them to write or air stories about usage caps, offering yourself as an interview subject;
  • Sending local press clippings or links to media coverage to your member of Congress and two senators. Suggest another media-friendly event and invite the elected official to attend and speak, which in turn generates even more media interest.
In 2009, Time Warner Cable planned to implement mandatory usage pricing starting in Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and San Antonio and Austin, Tex.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable planned to implement mandatory usage pricing starting in Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and San Antonio and Austin, Tex.

In the battle with Time Warner Cable, we did all the above, but especially the latter, which quickly spun the story out of control of company officials sent to distribute propaganda about usage cap “fairness” and “generous” allowances. We were so relentless, we managed to get under the skin of at least one company spokesperson caught on camera being testy in an on-air interview, which backfired on the company and angered customers even more.

In the case of Comcast, very few of these techniques have been used in the fight against their endless data cap experiment. Customers seem satisfied writing angry comments and signing online petitions. Some have filed complaints with the FCC which are useful measures of hot button issues on which the FCC may act in the last year of the Obama Administration. But there is no detectable organized opposition on the ground to Comcast’s data caps. That may explain why Comcast’s CEO has repeatedly told investors your reactions to Comcast’s caps have been “neutral to slightly positive.” Many Wall Street analysts obviously believe that, because some are advocating the time is right to raise broadband prices even higher. After all, if your reaction to data caps was muted, raising the price another $5 a month probably won’t cost you as a customer either.

It would be very different if these analysts saw regular news reports of small groups of angry customers protesting in front of Comcast offices in different areas of the country. That would likely trigger questions about whether broadband pricing has gotten out of hand. Coverage like that often attracts politicians, who cannot lose opposing a cable company. Once Congress gets interested, the fear regulation might be coming next is usually enough to get companies to pull back and reconsider.

comcast sucksIf you are living with a Comcast data cap and want to see it gone, you can do something about it. Consider organizing your own local movement by tapping fellow angry customers and recruiting local activist groups to the cause. In Rochester, there was no shortage of angry college students and groups ready to protest. Google local progressive political groups, technology clubs, and technology-dependent organizations in your immediate area. Some are likely to be a good resource for building effective public protests, sign-making, and other TV-friendly protest techniques. Contact town governments, the mayor’s office of your city, technology-oriented newspaper columnists, radio talk show/computer support show hosts, etc., to build a mailing list for coordinated announcements about your efforts. Many local officials also oppose data caps.

If a local news reporter has covered tech or consumer issues in the past, many station websites now offer direct e-mail options to reach that reporter. If you give them a good TV-friendly story to cover, they will be back for more coverage as your local protest grows. We helped coordinate and share news about efforts against Time Warner in the cities that were subject to experiments, which also gave us advance notice of their talking points and an ability to offer a consistent response. Several stations carried multiple stories about the cap issue, supported by calls to TV newsrooms to thank them for their coverage and to encourage more.

We realize Comcast’s responsiveness to customers is so atrocious it approaches criminal, but Comcast does respond to Wall Street and shareholders who do not want the company under threat of fact-finding hearings, FCC regulatory action, or Congressional attention. They also don’t want any talk of municipal broadband alternatives. Sidewalk protests in front of the local cable office on the 6 o’clock news is a nightmare.

In the end, Time Warner Cable didn’t want the hassle and got the message — customers despise data caps and want nothing to do with them. Time Warner hasn’t tried compulsory usage caps again. If you want Comcast to get the same message, those living inside Comcast service areas (especially customers) need to lead the charge in their respective communities. We remain willing to help.

Patrick Drahi’s “Public Interest” Flim-Flam: CWA Opposes Altice-Cablevision Merger

3634flimThe Communications Workers of America today filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission opposing the proposed sale of Cablevision to Patrick Drahi’s Altice NV, arguing the claimed public interest benefits are illusory.

The CWA, which represents some of Cablevision’s workers in Brooklyn, took a hard look at Altice’s merger proposal and the $8.6 billion in debt Altice will take on to close the deal and called it dangerous, resulting in “considerable harm with no offsetting concrete, verifiable benefits for consumers, workers, and communities.”

“Altice’s track record in France and Portugal clearly shows the danger this deal poses to Cablevision’s customers and employees,” said Dennis Trainor, vice president of Communications Workers of America District 1. “Altice takes on too much debt, outsources as much work as possible and then downsizes its workforce. Customers get worse service and employees lose their job. Unless Altice makes commitments to protect customer service and Cablevision employees, the FCC should reject this deal.”

The CWA is also concerned about the disparity between what Altice is telling regulators and what the company is saying to Wall Street.

Altice’s Public Interest Statement, which outlines the benefits to the public of the proposed transaction, stands out for its lack of specificity. In fact, the application’s only concrete commitments are vague promises to bring Altice’s “expertise” and access to capital for Cablevision’s use. Altice also promises to upgrade Cablevision’s IT systems, including customer care, service, and billing systems, and alluded it would expand Cablevision’s fiber optics deeper into its network, but comes short of promising a direct fiber to the home connection. In fact, the only promised benefit of pushing fiber further out would be “the removal or reduction from the network of coaxial RF amplifiers, which consume substantial electricity and can be the cause of difficult-to-detect service outages (RF amplifier failures).”

“Deeper fiber deployment would enable Cablevision to reduce its power costs and to further improve network reliability, resulting, in turn, in a greater ability to invest further in the network and improved service delivery to subscribers,” Altice dubiously claimed.

cwa_logoMany of Altice’s claims appeared “disingenuous and misleading” to the CWA. From the CWA’s filing:

To finance its $17.7 billion acquisition of Cablevision, Altice is taking on $8.6 billion in new debt, which when added to Cablevision’s already heavy debt load of $5.9 billion, will leave the new Cablevision with a total net debt of $14.5 billion.  Given the high cost of the new debt financing, the annual interest payments needed to finance the $8.6 billion in new debt amount to $654 million on top of Cablevision’s current interest payments of $559 million for a total of $1.2 billion in annual interest payments at the new Cablevision, representing a full 112 percent increase in Cablevision debt. The new interest payment ($654 million) plus Altice’s announced $ 1.05 billion in cuts means that the new Cablevision will have $1.7 billion less cash available to spend on the network and service.

“Altice’s business model, the one that it has used to fuel its explosive global growth, requires the acquired company – in this instance, Cablevision — to finance its own acquisition and to provide cash to the parent for future acquisitions,” the CWA argues. “Altice chief financial officer Dennis Okhuijsen explained the capital structure of post-transaction Cablevision: ‘[W]e’re not going to lever up the existing business. This is a stand-alone capital structure, so we’re levering up the target for Cablevision….’”

altice debtTranslation: Cablevision alone is responsible for the debt Altice raised to pay for Cablevision. Or, as Altice explained to investors in its third quarter 2015 earnings report, the parent company operates its various subsidiaries as “distinct credit silos in Europe and the U.S.”

Altice CEO Patrick Drahi’s business formula is always the same. To raise money to help offset the mountain of debt dumped on the acquired company, Altice’s designated managers helicopter in to the acquired company to begin slashing expenses and find money it can send to Altice headquarters to help fill its coffers to acquire even more companies. French telecom giant Numericable-SFR, while on the road to losing one million customers in just one year, was preoccupied borrowing nearly $2 billion, not to improve the company’s service, but rather to pay Altice a special dividend to help pay down the huge amount of debt Altice incurred when it bought the 60 percent stake in the French mobile and cable company it did not already own.

To keep Altice afloat, Drahi’s business strategy requires a steady supply of company acquisitions to deliver the increased cash flows Altice needs to finance its debt. The CWA warned regulators Altice may require Cablevision to spend its cash flow to help Drahi acquire other companies in the future, further reducing the amount of money Cablevision needs to attract and keep subscribers.

To make the deal a long term success, Altice-Cablevision will either have to cut its return to shareholders, raise its prices, and/or slash expenses and jobs. Past experience with Altice shows shareholders come first, which means company management will likely preside over a harvest of Cablevision’s assets to meet the expectations of Wall Street banks and investors. Customers will feel the cuts from the reduction in service and slowed investments and upgrades.

At the same time Altice was promising the FCC it would continue Cablevision’s “first in class” level of service, the company was telling Wall Street it was planning cuts to the bone. Among Altice’s already-proposed cuts for Cablevision:

  • Capital expense: $150 million cut
  • Network and Operations: $ 315 million cut
  • Customer operations: $135 million cut
  • Sales and marketing: $45 million cut
  • Eliminate duplicative functions and “public company” costs: $135 million cut
  • Other unspecified cuts: $135 million cuts.

dilbert-budget-cuts

The impact of these cuts shift costs onto others, argues the CWA, including making the acquired firm pay for its own demise, making the workforce pay through job loss and reduced compensation, making customers pay through deteriorating service, and making suppliers become Drahi’s bankers by delaying payments.

The CWA says customers will also pay for the privilege of getting declining service.

“In Israel, the cable provider Hot Telecommunications has raised prices multiple times since it was bought by Altice, including a cable rate increase of 20 percent in 2014 and the attempt to raise prices again this year,” the CWA argues. “The top Israeli cable regulator called the price hike ‘greed for its own sake’ which was not justified based on the company’s profit margins.”

In the United States, nobody oversees cable pricing.

“In summary, the experience in France, Portugal, Israel, and elsewhere provides concrete evidence that the Altice business model – one that it plans to replicate with its Cablevision acquisition – does not serve the public interest,” concludes the CWA. “Making an acquired company pay off massive debt load with service-impacting cost cutting has serious and negative consequences for customers, suppliers, communities, and workers. The lesson from France is clear: cutting to the bone leads to massive customer defection. It is not a business model that will benefit the people of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.”

House GOP Tries to Ban FCC’s Net Neutrality Enforcement; Rider Would Prohibit Oversight of Data Caps

sneakHouse Republicans are hoping a back door legislative maneuver will successfully block the Federal Communications Commission from enforcing Net Neutrality and regulating or banning data caps.

The GOP is fighting to deliver a death-blow against Net Neutrality in a rider attached to an important financial services appropriations bill. If adopted, this single sentence would effectively kill Net Neutrality enforcement and allow providers to adopt data caps and usage-based billing without any regulatory oversight from the FCC:

None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to regulate, directly or indirectly, the prices, other fees, or data caps and allowances (as such terms are described in paragraph 164 of the Report and Order on Remand, Declaratory Ruling, and Order in the matter of protecting and promoting the open Internet, adopted by the Federal Communications Commission on February 26, 2015.

The rider, in effect, makes it illegal for the FCC to protect customers upset about usage-capped Internet. It would also prevent the FCC from intervening if a provider wrongly charged overlimit fees to customers.

The spending measure is being fast-tracked through Congress and is considered a “must-pass” bill, with or without any attached riders. If legislators do not pass the omnibus measure by Dec. 11, it could result in another government shutdown.

The tactic is part of a broader move by several House Republicans to curtail the FCC’s oversight authority by threatening to dramatically cut the agency’s budget.

The anti-Net Neutrality rider has not gotten a lot of attention over the Thanksgiving holiday and was overshadowed by two other priorities of House Republicans that are getting more press attention: making it more difficult for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to resettle in the United States and a measure to strip federal funding for routine medical services performed by Planned Parenthood.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, released a statement condemning the Republicans for their “extreme agenda,” using procedural tricks to override the FCC and steamroll over nearly four million Americans that wrote the agency demanding Net Neutrality.

The Republican rider would effectively give a green light to Comcast to move forward with nationwide data caps, no longer fearing a potential FCC investigation that could eventually lead to a prohibition of compulsory usage-based billing.

Stop the Cap! urges all of our readers to visit this Free Press campaign page to get the phone number of their local representative and take five minutes to let them know you “vehemently oppose Net Neutrality riders being placed in a must-pass government-funding bill.” Tell your congressman you want the FCC’s authority left intact and you support their oversight of broadband. That is literally all you need to say.

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