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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.

FCC’s Wheeler to Consumers: Contract Dispute TV Blackout? You’re On Your Own

Wheeler

Wheeler

The Federal Communications Commission has decided it won’t get too involved in the increasing number of contract renewal disputes between TV networks and cable TV providers, and has refused to issue new rules governing what represents “good faith negotiations” in disputes that take channels off the lineup.

“Based on the staff’s careful review of the record, it is clear that more rules in this area are not what we need at this point,” said FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler. “It is hard to get more inclusive than to review the ‘totality of circumstances.’  To start picking and choosing, in part, could limit future inquiries.”

A growing number of disputes over the rising cost of video programming frustrate pay-TV customers who find strident messages about nasty programmers or greedy providers blocking their favorite channels after contract renewal talks fail. Cable operators, sensitive about cord-cutting, want to keep price hikes down. Wall Street and shareholders expect growing revenue from charging providers for access to programming, which has become a major revenue source for most. Wheeler wrote Congress had good intentions to put a stop to contract disputes that eventually affected the public:

Congress, in Section 325 of the Communications Act, sought to reduce the likelihood that TV viewers would face this roadblock. The law requires broadcasters and multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to negotiate for retransmission consent in good faith. Congress gave the Commission the authority to keep an eye on these negotiations, and our rules include a two-part framework to determine whether broadcasters and MVPDs are negotiating in good faith.

  • First, the Commission has established a list of nine objective standards, the violation of which is considered a per se breach of the good faith negotiation obligation.
  • Second, even if the specific standards are met, the Commission may consider whether, based on the totality of the circumstances, a party failed to negotiate retransmission consent in good faith.

In the recent STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014 (STELAR), Congress expressed concern about the harm consumers suffer when negotiations fail and sought-after broadcast programming is blacked out on their pay TV service. STELAR directed the Commission to initiate a rulemaking to consider possible revisions to our “totality of the circumstances” test.

Everyone has a different opinion of what represents “good faith” and many of these disputes quickly get acrimonious. Or worse. Take the one-month-and-counting little hatefest between Tribune Media and DISH Network also known as Satan’s Mother-in-Law v. the Zika virus. Tribune blacked out DISH customers’ access to 42 local channels in 33 markets, including WGN Chicago, WPIX New York and KTLA Los Angeles back in June. Many are major network-affiliated over the air stations. The dispute, as usual, is over money. Tribune wants DISH to bundle WGN America, a low-rated basic cable network, with its Tribune-owned stations, as a condition for renewal.

dish dispute

WGN America has little to do with WGN-TV, the over-the-air independent former superstation based in Chicago. As of late 2014, WGN America runs a vastly different schedule of syndicated sitcoms, drama series and feature films, and some first-run original television series produced exclusively for the channel. Long gone are local, syndicated, or sports shows that a viewer in Chicago would see watching channel 9 over-the-air. As a result, viewership of WGN America is 20% less than the former WGN-TV, and dropping. Many of the shows on WGN America also turn up on other cable channels, making the network a questionable addition to the lineup.

WGN America, not your father's Channel 9 from Chicago.

WGN America, not your father’s Channel 9 from Chicago.

DISH obviously has no interest in WGN America, but Tribune’s negotiators told them they better get interested, because WGN America will come along for the ride, part of any renewal for the over-the-air stations Tribune owns.

DISH is in no hurry to negotiate over the summer months, when shows are repeats and folks are on vacation. Many expect that will change once football season nears. But the battle continues anyway.

A new low was reached a few weeks ago when a frustrated Rev. Jesse Jackson claimed in an open letter that DISH’s refusal to negotiate was racist, in part because the blackout affected the show Underground, chronicling the Underground Railroad system that helped slaves escape to the northern free states.

“Is DISH using the same kind of math with ratings that the old south employed when enacting laws that counted African-Americans as three-fifths of a man?” wrote Jackson in a letter released by his Rainbow Push Coalition. “For far too long African-Americans have been underrepresented and unfavorably portrayed on television, silencing the significant contributions they have made to this country. Underground is a crucial part of a brand-new day of diversity on television that sheds a bright light on the bravery, ingenuity and power of the African-American experience, and is being used as teachable moments in homes and history classes around the nation at a time when we need it most.”.

Jackson

Jackson

DISH avoided taking the bait, responding, “We are skeptical that Rev. Jackson is truly interested in finding a fair deal for DISH customers.”

The FCC isn’t apparently interested in putting a line in the water either, steering clear of the controversy and allowing programmers and networks to continue to work things out with each other while customers watch repeating barker channels claiming none of this is the fault of their provider.

Wheeler points out he is aware of the DISH/Tribune dispute, but isn’t exactly rushing to end it.

“I summoned both parties to Washington to negotiate in coordination with Commission staff,” Wheeler wrote. “When that step failed to produce an agreement or an extension, the Media Bureau issued comprehensive information requests to both parties to enable FCC staff to determine whether they were meeting their duty to negotiate in good faith; we are reviewing their responses as I write. If that review reveals a dereliction of duty on the part of one or both parties, I will not hesitate to recommend appropriate Commission action.”

To DISH viewers, that represents a “definite maybe.”

At the end of last month DISH decided it wasn’t “good faith” when the Tribune subsidiary operating WGN America started running ads calling DISH a “dishgusting” company. Too much? Apparently so for DISH’s lawyers who filed a lawsuit.

“In a last-ditch bid to force DISH to accept its terms, DISH is informed and believes, and thereon alleges, that Tower created and broadcast, via its channels, disparaging content regarding DISH, its services and its performance,” states the complaint. “The campaign launched by Tower with these commercials cast DISH in an extremely negative light — Tower claims that DISH has not acted in good faith, that its performance and services are the worst in the industry, and even that DISH is a ‘disgusting’ company.”

Apparently, DISH maintains a disparagement clause in its old contract with Tribune, designed to stop nasty exchanges like this. Tribune called the lawsuit frivolous and the FCC today effectively called it a day.

Hillary Clinton’s Broadband/Tech Policies: Aspirational, Bureaucratic, and Often Vague

(Editor’s Note: In keeping with the changes introduced by the latest “AP Stylebook 2016,” as much as it pains us, starting today we will refer to the “internet” in lowercase.) 

clintonThe internet.

“I have a plan for that.”

High tech jobs.

“I have a plan for that.”

Facilitate Citizen Engagement in Government Innovation.

Yes, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has a plan for that, too. Whatever “that” is, there is essentially a four-year plan.

Hillary Clinton’s Initiative on Technology & Innovation” runs 15 pages and immediately reminds readers of the menu at Cheesecake Factory. There is literally something for everyone. It’s surprisingly robust for someone who professed she didn’t understand much of the email controversy she entangled herself in while serving as Secretary of State and admittedly doesn’t know how to work a fax machine. The question is, if voters choose Mrs. Clinton as the next president of the United States, how can they be sure her administration will achieve those promises, starting with a commitment to bring internet service to 100 percent of the country.

opinionBelieve it or not, there are organizations out there that track just how many of these pledges are actually kept during each administration, and surprisingly the track record is better than you might think. Politifact’s Obameter shows the Obama Administration achieved the majority of its tech policy objectives, compromised on a few others, and broke its promise on just one: Requiring companies to disclose personal information data breaches.

After almost two decades of telecommunications deregulation, President Obama turned plenty of attention to internet issues in the last two years of his second term. His de-facto enforcer turned out to be FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, who has been tenaciously dismantling years of an industry-fueled “trust us, we know best” regulatory policy framework partly established during the (Bill) Clinton Administration. An exception to the usual revolving door of regulators taking well paid jobs in the private sector after leaving government, Wheeler has gone the other way — leaving the private sector as a former telecom lobbyist and venture capitalist to serve as FCC chairman during Obama’s second term. He’s a huge improvement over former chairman Julius Genachowski, who was typically resolute on telecom issues until he wasn’t.

Politifact's Obameter gives high marks to President Obama for delivering on his tech issues platform.

Politifact’s Obameter gives high marks to President Obama for delivering on much of his tech issues platform.

Many progressives looking to keep or even build on Wheeler’s willingness to check telecom industry power are unsure whether Hillary Clinton will be tenacious like Sen. Elizabeth Warren or get up close and personal with big telecom companies, like former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford, Jr., who still serves as honorary chairman of the industry front group Broadband for America.

Progressives with long memories do not fondly recall the first Clinton Administration’s willingness to compromise away or abandon major policy positions it seemed steadfast on during two campaigns. After the 1992 election, Knight-Ridder Newspapers compiled a list of 160 specific commitments made by Bill Clinton. As he approached the end of his first term, the newspaper chain found Clinton managed to achieve 106 of them — a surprising 66% success rate. The reason for the perception-reality gap? Many of those commitments involved low-key, barely noticed policy changes or were originally so broadly defined as to make them achievable based on even the thinnest evidence of change.

The George W. Bush administration managed worse under a perpetual cloud of post Bush v. Gore partisanship and a change in priorities after 9/11, leading to a failure to deliver on most of his policy positions and pledges, according to CBS News. But the Bush Administration’s love of deregulation was well-apparent at the FCC during his two terms in office under FCC chairmen Michael Powell (now a top cable industry lobbyist) and Kevin Martin. Some of those deregulation policies have been reconsidered during the Obama Administration, and some voters are wondering if that will stay true should Mrs. Clinton be our next president.

Many of Clinton’s pledges on tech issues are bureaucratic crowdpleasers that have little immediate relevance or understanding outside of Washington. There are expansions in various federal programs, appointments of new federal overseers to keep a lookout for burdensome regulations on the state and local levels, and a variety of programs to expand broadband at a growing number of “anchor institutions” (not your home or business) through the use of public-private partnerships. It is worth noting many similar projects have already been up and running for at least a decade. Some of these anchor institutions cannot afford to pay the ongoing cost of getting service from these projects, and many are already served more than adequately, with capacity to spare. As we reviewed Mrs. Clinton’s tech policy positions, it also became clear the greater the scope and likely cost of any single pledge, the more vague it seemed to be, especially regarding the money required to pay for it and how its success will be measured.

America's rural broadband problem.

America’s rural broadband problem.

In particular, Mrs. Clinton is promising to “finish the job of connecting America’s households to the internet, committing that by 2020, 100 percent of households in America will have the option of affordable broadband that delivers speeds sufficient to meet families’ needs.”

Left undefined: what is “affordable,” what speeds are “sufficient” to meet families’ needs, and what technologies will be used to deliver it. Mrs. Clinton is satisfied with “directing federal agencies to consider the full range of technologies as potential recipients—i.e., fiber, fixed wireless, and satellite—while focusing on areas that lack any fixed broadband networks currently.” In other words, doing exactly the same thing they already do today.

Satellite internet access, as it now exists, often performs much slower than the FCC’s definition of broadband – consistent download speed of 25Mbps. Most Americans subscribed to traditional DSL service don’t receive true broadband speeds either. Since satellite internet technically reaches the continental United States already, there will be plenty of ways for Mrs. Clinton to “declare victory” on this pledge without allocating the billions needed to provide quality wired or high-speed wireless broadband to still-unserved rural America.

Mrs. Clinton also proposes a new “model digital communities” grant program that will “leverage the $25 billion Infrastructure bank she plans to establish” to facilitate access to high-speed internet. Again, much of this proposal is left woefully undefined. Structured properly, this could be used to develop high-tech cities with high-speed service such as in Kansas City (Google) or Chattanooga (EPB Fiber). These could offer a road map for other communities. The problem is finding the money to build such networks. Private providers will argue they already have advanced networks that don’t require public tax dollars, so these projects are unnecessary. Local governments might admit if they don’t secure similar federal funding that “model cities” get to help cover some of the costs, they won’t proceed. Others may philosophically object to having the federal government meddling in overseeing local projects. Some others might prefer the money be simply spent to wire up rural communities that don’t have any access at all and call it a day.

Put it (almost) anywhere.

Put it (almost) anywhere.

The Clinton campaign is also sure to attract fans among the country’s wireless carriers because her campaign promises to review regulatory barriers the phone and cable companies deal with, particularly pole access, zoning and cell tower issues, streamlining small cell placement, and continued promotion of “climb/dig once” policies which encourage placing fiber and/or conduit in trenches whenever/wherever a utility performs upgrades or outdoor maintenance. Oh, and she’s for 5G spectrum allocations as well. None of this, pardon the pun, is groundbreaking either.

Clinton is more specific supporting the Obama Administration’s Net Neutrality policy, backed by Title II authority, allowing the FCC latitude to manage abusive ISP behavior in a barely competitive marketplace. But she stops well short of criticizing companies about some of their current abusive, anti-consumer policies. She has nothing to say about data caps or zero rating, pricing or poor service, and doesn’t lament the sorry state of competition in the American broadband marketplace.

Clinton’s policy positions seem to suggest the federal government will have to help multi-billion dollar phone and cable companies get over their Return On Investment anxieties by subsidizing them to encourage rural broadband or enhancing outdated infrastructure. We’d prefer a position that moves this country towards universal broadband service, even if it comes at the price of short-term profits at the nation’s top ISPs. It would be useful to see some politicians stand up and suggest Comcast and AT&T, among others, are not entirely paragons of virtue, and they need to do more to solve this pervasive problem. That is something their customers already understand. In return for the billions in profits they earn annually in a de facto duopoly, they should be willing to devote more energy towards network expansion and less on cooking up schemes like data caps/zero rating and the usual share buybacks, dividend payouts, acquisitions and executive compensation. Asking nicely doesn’t seem to work, so now it’s time to tell them.

Although we’ve been a bit tough on Mrs. Clinton, we have not forgotten her likely opponent, Donald Trump, so far lacks any coherent summary of his tech policies. We do know he opposes Net Neutrality because he believes it is an Obama-inspired “attack on the internet” in a “top-down power grab.” Trump believes Net Neutrality will somehow be used to “target conservative media.” That makes about as much sense as saying pistachio is a liberal ice cream flavor. Trump’s team has a lot of work to do before November.

Cable Industry Frets Over FCC’s “Artificial Competition” Requirement in Charter Merger

loophole_breakfast_of_lawyers_smallA condition imposed by the Federal Communications Commission requiring newly merged Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House to expand service into at least two million new homes already served by another cable or phone company already offering High Speed Internet is causing heartburn for smaller cable and phone companies that fear government-mandated competition in their service areas.

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler has long believed that cable operators could compete against one another for customers, driving down prices for consumers while forcing service improvements. One of the conditions approving the Charter deal could have put Wheeler’s theory to the test, but not if Charter can help it.

Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge implied that he will continue to shield fellow cable operators from unwanted competition.

“When I talked to the FCC, I said I can’t overbuild another cable company, because then I could never buy it, because you always block those,” Rutledge said at last month’s MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit. “It’s really about overbuilding telephone companies.”

It seems unlikely Charter will ever directly overbuild one of its friends in the cable industry, especially important ones like Comcast, Cox, and Cablevision. Smaller independent cable companies don’t feel as secure, which is why the trade group that represents many of them, the American Cable Association, has tried to get the FCC to back off.

charter twc bh“The overbuild condition imposed by the FCC on Charter is stunningly bad and inexplicable government policy,” ACA president Matthew Polka said in a statement. “On the one hand, the FCC found that Charter will be too big and therefore it imposed a series of conditions to ensure it does not exercise any additional market power. At the same time, the FCC, out of the blue, is forcing Charter to get even bigger.”

The FCC probably crafted the deal conditions to force Charter to compete with other cable operators, because one million of those new customer locations must be where at least 25Mbps broadband service is already available. That protects many phone companies still offering DSL as an afterthought, because most don’t offer speeds anywhere close to 25Mbps. But the FCC left several counter-intuitive loopholes in the language that Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai says lends credibility to the ACA’s argument.

“Unless Charter chooses to exclusively overbuild areas served by Comcast, which I find highly unlikely, Charter’s increased broadband market share will come at the expense of smaller competitors,” Pai wrote in comments about the proposal.

unitelNotably, Charter is allowed to buy up other small telecom companies and count up to 250,000 of their customers towards the one million new homes served requirement. If those are small rural cable companies, that means the FCC is allowing Charter to grow even larger instead of providing more competition. Charter could also choose to overbuild municipal broadband providers and co-ops, especially in areas next to existing Charter/TWC/Bright House systems. That would harm the FCC’s current interest in removing roadblocks to publicly owned broadband networks. Enthusiasm for such networks could be dampened if Charter is willing to wire the area at their own expense.

Rutledge’s announcement is sure to make life uncomfortable for a number of rural phone companies that have invested in fiber network upgrades and now face the potential of Charter taking away customers that are helping to pay off those upgrades.

An unintended consequence of the FCC’s various loopholes could place a heavy burden on independent telephone companies that invested in network upgrades for faster broadband even as wealthier and larger phone companies are protected from that competition by delivering frustratingly slow DSL.

One potential target for a Charter overbuild could be UniTel, headquartered in Unity, Maine. UniTel offers residential customers in Albion, Dixmont, Newburgh, Thorndike, Troy, and Unity broadband speeds up to 1 gigabit. Unity is located between Bangor and Portland — both served by Time Warner Cable (now Charter).

Phone companies like UniTel call the FCC’s mandate “artificial competition” that could put it and other rural independent phone companies into financial distress. UniTel has a speed edge over anything Charter plans to offer customers in the immediate future as it deploys fiber to the home service, but television is another matter. One of the benefits of being a large cable company is volume-discounted pricing for cable television networks. Smaller independent operators cannot compete when wholesale television programming discounts are calculated in, allowing larger companies to undercut smaller ones with lower pricing.

UniTel officials criticized the FCC for creating deal conditions that Charter will exploit to the detriment of improving rural broadband service.

“Rather than allow New Charter to unilaterally narrow the scope of the buildout condition to meet its own business objectives, UniTel respectfully urges that the Commission should act to narrow the scope of any buildout condition, not to meet the private business objectives of New Charter, but rather to meet the public policy objectives of universal service in rural areas,” the company argued in its filing with the FCC.

A handful of rural telecom associations generally agree with UniTel and want the FCC to retarget Charter’s buildout requirements to fixing the rural broadband problem by expanding into unserved service areas instead.

Is Your Landlord Taking Kickbacks to Keep Better Internet Out of Your Building?

xfinity communitiesIs your cable television service included in your rent or condo “services” fee? Have you ever called another provider and told service was not available at your address even through others outside of your condo neighborhood or apartment complex can sign up for service today? Chances are your landlord or property management company is receiving a kickback to keep competition off the property, while you may be stuck paying for substandard services you neither want or need. Worst of all, chances are it’s all legal and everyone is getting a piece of the action… except you.

Welcome to the world of Multiple Dwelling Unit (MDU) Bulk Service Agreements, the seedy underbelly of the anti-competitive cable and telco-TV world. When cable TV first got going, most people wanted access. In the early days, cable franchises were typically exclusive and cable companies maintained the upper hand in negotiations with apartment owners and property owners. Since the service was in demand, many property owners were told to sign whatever “Right Of Entry” Agreement (ROE) was put in front of them. Most contained clauses that guaranteed that cable company would get exclusive access to the property for as long as it was given a franchise to operate within that community. In other words, basically forever.

This turned out very handy when competitors started showing up. First on the scene were satellite television providers, which had a rough time dealing with landlords who loathed tenants installing satellite dishes that “ruined the aesthetics” of the property. Many rental agreements still restrict satellite television dishes in ways that make their use untenable. But things got much more serious when Verizon and AT&T got into the cable business. Initially, both companies found extending FiOS and U-verse to some rental and gated communities was blocked by the exclusive agreements held by cable operators. By 2007, the FCC finally acted to forbid exclusive service contracts, but the cable industry and property developers have played cat and mouse games with the FCC’s loopholes ever since.

Property Developers, Management Companies, Landlords, and Homeowner Associations With Their Hands Out

att connectedWith the FCC’s 2007 declaration that exclusive contracts between cable companies and property owners were “null and void,” the power of the cable industry to negotiate on their terms was markedly diminished. Although many property owners applauded their new-found freedom to tell the local cable company to take a hike if they did not offer better service to their tenants, many others saw dollar signs in their eyes. With leverage now in the hands of the property owner, if the local cable company wanted to stay, in many cases it had to pay. Only the most brazen property owners kicked uncooperative cable companies off their properties, putting tenants at a serious inconvenience. Instead, many found life more peaceful and lucrative to stick with the existing cable company, signing a new contract for “bulk billing” tenants. On the surface, it seemed like a good deal. Property owners advertised that cable TV was included in the rent (and they paid a deeply discounted price per tenant) and the cable operator had a guaranteed number of customers, whether they wanted the service or not.

Bulk billing also proved a very effective deterrent for would-be competitors, who had to overcome the challenge of marketing their service while the tenant was already paying for another as part of their rent. As a result, telco TV competitors often stayed away from properties with bulk billing arrangements.

As broadband has become more prominent and threatens to become more important than the cable TV package, the cable industry has refined its weapons of non-competition. While they cannot force competitors off properties, they can make life very expensive for them. The latest generation of ROE agreements often grant access rights to the building’s telecommunications conduit, cabling, and equipment exclusively to the cable operator.

fiosIf Google Fiber, AT&T U-verse or Verizon FiOS sought to offer service on one of these properties, they would have to overcome the investment insanity of wiring each building with its own infrastructure, including duplicate cables, in separate conduits and spaces not already designated for the exclusive use of the cable company. Verizon in New York City has faced numerous obstacles wiring some buildings, including gaining access to the building itself. Intransigent on site employees, bureaucratic and unresponsive property management companies, and developers have all made life difficult for Verizon’s fiber upgrade.

AT&T often takes the approach “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” and offers its own bulk billing incentives, along with occasional commitments for fiber upgrades. Google Fiber can afford to skip places where it isn’t wanted, although with recent revelations that landlords can raise the rent by up to 11% with the arrival of Google Fiber alone, it may hurt to alienate that fiber to the home provider.

Kickbacks for New Developments = Windfall

Kickbacks for existing properties are lucrative, but nothing compared to the lucrative windfall new property developments can achieve with the right deal.

In 2013, one property developer in Maryland went all out for an exclusive deal with a provider that was going to get de facto exclusivity by using a convoluted series of entities and agreements designed to insulate the company from competition and a challenge from the FCC. A court later ruled the provider used an “elaborate game of regulatory subterfuge” using various corporate entities to escape potential competition.

Some lawyers devote a substantial amount of their practice to the issue of bulk contracts and ROE agreements. Carl Kandutsch serves clients nationwide, many trying to extricate themselves from bad deals of the past. In many cases, an attorney may be needed to find a way out of contracts that don’t meet FCC rules. Other communities sometimes have to buy out an existing contract. Many have to sit and suffer the consequences for years. One residential community found itself trapped with a service provider that was quietly protected by an “airtight contract” negotiated not with the property management company or the homeowner association, but the development’s original builder. The provider delivered lousy service and the community spent six years trying to get rid of the offending firm with no result until they hired an attorney. Although happy to be rid of the bad provider, the homeowner association ended up illustrating how pervasive this problem is after it signed a similar contract with another provider also handing out kickbacks.

Comcast pays up to 10% of a renter's cable bill to the landlord.

Comcast pays up to 10% of a renter’s cable bill to the landlord. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Comcast is more creative than most. It calls its handouts: “Marketing Support Compensation.” The property owner gets an increasing reward for every tenant signed up for Comcast service. Once around two-thirds of tenants are subscribed, the owner gets up to a 10% take of each bill, plus a one time payment of up to $130 per tenant.

Because Comcast’s reputation often precedes it, customers reluctant to sign up without considering other providers will find that tougher to do because Comcast bans other providers from marketing their services to tenants with the support or cooperation of the landlord. In other words, no door hangers, free coffee, brochures in the lobby, or any other on-site promotions. In case a property owner forgets, Comcast sends reminders in the mail:

Comcast likes to remind landlords it has an exclusive. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Comcast likes to remind landlords it has an exclusive. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Susan Crawford calls it “astounding, enormous, decentralized payola” and claims it affects millions of renters.

Crawford

Crawford

“These shenanigans will only stop when cities and national leaders require that every building have neutral fiber/wireless facilities that make it easy for residents to switch services when they want to,” Crawford wrote. “We’ve got to take landlords out of the equation — all they’re doing is looking for payments and deals (understandably: they’re addicted to the revenue stream they’ve been getting), and the giant telecom providers in our country are more than happy to pay up. The market is stuck. Residents have little idea these deals are happening. The current way of doing business is great for landlords and ISPs but destructive in every other way.”

One real world example of how this deters competition comes from Webpass (recently acquired by Google), which offers gigabit Ethernet speeds in select MDUs in San Francisco, San Diego, Miami, Chicago, and Boston. The service comes with a low price, but that doesn’t get the company in the door, according to its president, Charles Barr.

Barr has been refused entry by multiple building owners who have agreements with Comcast, AT&T, or others.

“Tenants want us, but we can’t get in,” Barr said.

Crawford argues the FCC has once again been outmaneuvered by ISPs and their attorneys.

“Sure, a landlord can’t enter into an exclusive agreement granting just one ISP the right to provide Internet access service to an MDU, but a landlord can refuse to sign agreements with anyone other than Big Company X, in exchange for payments labeled in any one of a zillion ways,” added Crawford. “Exclusivity by any other name still feels just as abusive.”

This isn’t a new problem. Stop the Cap! first reported on these kinds of bulk buying arrangements back in 2010, all made possible by the FCC’s regulatory loopholes. Six years later, the problem appears to be getting worse.

AT&T’s King of Lobbyists Endorses Hillary Clinton for President

Cicconi

Cicconi

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in almost 62 years, and the deregulation measure supported with ecstasy by many in the telecom industry was signed into law by none other than President Bill Clinton, opening the door to a massive wave of industry deregulation and multi-billion dollar media consolidation.

It therefore comes as no surprise — to some at least — that AT&T’s top lobbyist Jim Cicconi, perhaps rivaled only by Comcast’s David Cohen in power and influence, has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. The Wall Street Journal reported Cicconi has joined several other Republican corporate executives signing up for Team Hillary this election cycle.

Cicconi is voting Democratic this year, despite supporting every Republican presidential candidate since President Gerald Ford’s run against Jimmy Carter in 1976. This year is different, he claims.

hillary 2016“I think it’s vital to put our country’s well being ahead of party,” he said in a statement provided by the Clinton campaign. “Hillary Clinton is experienced, qualified, and will make a fine president. The alternative, I fear, would set our nation on a very dark path.”

Comcast’s David Cohen is also well-known for leaning to the left, and has been considered a friend of the Obamas since they took office in 2009. Cohen hosted 120 people in his home for a dinner in 2011 on behalf of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. It was an expensive dinner — each guest contributed at least $10,000.

The alternative, Donald Trump, represents what corporate America and Wall Street hates above all else – unpredictability and uncertainty.

Telecom issues have not made a big splash this year in either campaign, and regardless of who wins, their appointments to regulatory agencies like the FCC can have a major impact on consumer broadband initiatives and public policy. A Clinton administration could result in appointments of “centrist” Democrats that Bill favored during his two terms in office. Many of those former regulators are now lobbyists for the telecom industry. Or Hillary could move closer to Obama’s surprisingly tough pro-consumer policies on broadband issues and keep Thomas Wheeler at the helm of the FCC for a few more years.

attverizonCicconi would be pleased to see someone like former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford, Jr., take a seat at the FCC under a future Clinton Administration instead. Ford has served as an honorary co-chairman of Broadband for America, an industry-sponsored astroturf operation, for most of Obama’s two terms in office. He remains a close friend of both Bill and Hillary and is never far from the public eye, turning up regularly on MSNBC.

Broadband for America supports deregulation, opposes Net Neutrality, and essentially shills for its corporate sponsors. Rep. Ford would likely oppose Net Neutrality and continue support for near-total deregulation.

Verizon has also shown itself to be a Friend of Hillary. Three Verizon vice presidents each donated $2,700 to Hillary for America. They were joined by a senior vice president and another vice president, who gave an additional $1,000, according to Salon. A former Hillary Clinton operative who now lobbies for Verizon donated $2,700 as well, along with another Verizon lobbyist who pitched in $1,000.

While Bernie Sanders joined striking Verizon workers on the picket line, the Clinton campaign was cashing checks worth tens of thousands of dollars from Verizon executives and lobbyists. In May 2013, the telecom company paid Hillary a $225,000 honorarium in return for a speech (the text has not been disclosed) to Verizon executives.

The Clinton Foundation also benefited from Verizon contributions ranging from $100,000-250,000.

Dish Complains About FCC’s 125% Regulatory Rate Hike; Independent Cable Says It Isn’t High Enough

cable ratesThe Federal Communications Commission is getting an earful from satellite provider Dish Network, upset with the agency’s proposal to boost regulatory fees covering direct broadcast satellite services by 125% this year.

If the FCC adopts its new fee structure, Dish will pay 24 cents per subscriber (up from 12¢) per year to cover the cost of full-time employees at the FCC who spend their days monitoring and regulating satellite television providers. Satellite companies will also pay a one-time fee of 3¢ per subscriber in 2016 to cover the FCC’s downsizing expenses.

The regulator has successfully found a way to cover some of its expenses by charging the companies it oversees “user fees.” In 2015, the FCC collected nearly $340 million in regulatory fees. This year, the FCC wants more, seeking to impose a temporary “facility reduction cost” surcharge that will cover the expenses of moving employees to new, smaller offices, or downsizing the current ones to save money. The FCC says that will cost an extra $44 million. Taxpayers won’t pay those expenses, but pay television customers ultimately will when providers pass both of those fees on.

Dish says the rate hike is unjustified because of its size and scope, and runs contrary to the FCC’s goal of minimizing consumer bill shock. The satellite provider also wants the FCC to explain how it can justify more than doubling user fees while downsizing.

If the FCC doesn’t answer, the American Cable Association, representing small independent cable operators, is willing to share their views on the matter. The ACA complains the FCC isn’t charging DirecTV and Dish enough, noting they are still getting preferential treatment over cable and IPTV providers that are being asked to pay $1 per subscriber this year.

“There is absolutely no basis for keeping the proposed DBS fee levels over 75% below those proposed for other entities in the Cable/IPTV category,” wrote ACA president Matt Polka in comments to the FCC. “DBS providers should be paying the same Media Bureau regulatory fee.”

att directvPolka pointed to AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV as an example of how disproportionate fees cost small independent cable companies much more on a per-subscriber basis than telecom giant AT&T has to pay for almost 20 million DirecTV satellite customers.

“AT&T, now the nation’s largest [pay TV company], operates two types of services – its U-verse IPTV service and its DirecTV DBS service,” noted Polka. “Yet, AT&T will be assessed starkly lower regulatory fees for its approximately 20 million DirecTV subscribers than it will pay for its approximately 6 million IPTV subscribers, even though all of these services make absolutely comparable use of Media Bureau […]  resources and AT&T’s advocacy […] is on behalf of all its [pay TV] subscribers.”

Polka wants fee parity – charging the same user fees for all providers, regardless of the technology they use.

“Doing so will avoid the competitive distortions the current fee structure creates by having cable operators and IPTV providers, most of whom are far smaller than the DBS providers, cross-subsidize the fee burden of their primary and direct competitors in the marketplace,” Polka argued.

Whatever fee structure is ultimately approved by the FCC, customers can be certain providers will pad those fees when passing them on to customers. For more than a decade, some providers have used regulatory fee increases amounting to spare change as an excuse to pass on new “regulatory surcharges” that are many times more than what those providers actually pass on to the government.

“It’s a price increase,” bluntly notes Mark Cooper from the Consumer Federation of America back in 2004.

This spring, The Consumerist broke down a typical AT&T U-verse bill loaded in junk fees and surcharges. (The RED numbers [1, 4-10, 13-14, 17-20, 22] are AT&T-originating fees; BLUE numbers [2-3, 11-12, 15-16, 21, 23-25] are government fees)

This spring, The Consumerist broke down a typical AT&T U-verse bill loaded in junk fees and surcharges. (The RED numbers [1, 4-10, 13-14, 17-20, 22] are AT&T-originated fees, fake surcharges/bill padding, or fees that represent the cost of doing business; BLUE numbers [2-3, 11-12, 15-16, 21, 23-25] are real government fees passed on to local, state, and federal taxing authorities.)

House Republicans Fail in Attempt to Gut Lifeline Program

Phillip Dampier June 22, 2016 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

lifelineAn effort by a House Republican to scale back the FCC’s Lifeline subsidy program failed on a largely party-line vote Tuesday.

Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) introduced the last-minute End Taxpayer Funded Cell Phones Act, a virtual carbon copy of legislation he proposed in March – H.R. 4884, the Controlling the Unchecked and Reckless Ballooning of Lifeline Act of 2016 (CURB Act). Scott pointed to a proposed FCC fine of $51 million against Total Call Mobile that alleges the company knowingly enrolled ineligible customers for dramatically discounted cell phone service. He also objected to the FCC’s recent request for an expanded Lifeline budget of $2.25 billion annually as an example of government spending running wild.

“I have been fighting to end the unchecked spending and lack of accountability in the Lifeline program since I came to Congress,” said Rep. Scott. “While the program’s original purpose had merit, the program in its current form is wrought with fraud and abuse, and its past time for Washington to respond to the calls of our constituents to rein this program in. American citizens, who are all too familiar with ‘Obama Phones’, understand this and can agree that it is simple good governance to ensure we are curbing wasteful spending while also promoting accountability across the federal government. We have a responsibility to the American citizens to practice the same spending discipline they would in their own homes.”

Scott

Scott’s Georgia district includes the cities of Warner Robins, Tifton, Thomasville, and Moultrie.

Scott’s use of the term “Obama Phones,” didn’t sit well with his opponents, including Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who blasted Scott and the House Republican leadership for suddenly bringing Scott’s bill to the floor for a vote.

“[House Speaker] Ryan and the Republican majority is bringing a bill to the floor that would eliminate the successful Lifeline program that provides millions of low-income Americans access to basic communications services,” said Pallone, who reminded his Republican colleagues the Lifeline program was created in 1985 during the middle of the Reagan Administration and was extended to include wireless service under the George W. Bush administration. Pallone added the Obama Administration has rooted out nearly $750 million in waste, fraud, and abuse of the Lifeline program.

“The American people know that if Republicans were really serious about battling poverty and shrinking the size of Lifeline, they would work with us to create more jobs for those that are unemployed or under-employed,” Pallone said. “The best way to lower the costs of the Lifeline program is to lift people up, not to take away their connection to a better life.”

The vote was 207 in favor of Scott’s bill, 143 against. All but one of the “yes” votes came from Republicans (seven opposed the bill). The 143 voting against were almost entirely Democrats, with just one voting in favor.

Because the bill was brought to the floor during a suspension of House rules, a two-thirds vote in favor was required to pass it. Having failed to achieve that, Scott’s bill died on the floor.

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