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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.

America’s 5G Revolution Comes By Giving Wireless Industry Whatever It Wants

Wheeler

Wheeler

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler today told an audience at the National Press Club that 5G — the next generation of wireless networks — “is a national priority, and why, this Thursday, I am circulating to my colleagues proposed new rules that will identify and open up vast amounts of spectrum for 5G applications.”

Wheeler’s proposal, dubbed “Spectrum Frontiers,” is supposed to deliver wireless connectivity as fast as fiber optic broadband, and in Wheeler’s view, will deliver competitive high-speed access for consumers.

“If the Commission approves my proposal next month, the United States will be the first country in the world to open up high-band spectrum for 5G networks and applications,” said Wheeler. “And that’s damn important because it means U.S. companies will be first out of the gate.”

Central to Wheeler’s 5G proposal is opening up very high frequency millimeter wave spectrum — for unlicensed and licensed data communications. Wheeler named two in his speech: a “massive” 14GHz unlicensed band and a 28GHz “shared band” that will allow mobile and satellite operators to co-exist.

“Consider that – 14,000 megahertz of unlicensed spectrum, with the same flexible-use rules that has allowed unlicensed to become a breeding ground for innovation,” Wheeler said.

5g“Sharing is essential for the future of spectrum utilization. Many of the high-frequency bands we will make available for 5G currently have some satellite users, and some federal users, or at least the possibility of future satellite and federal users,” Wheeler noted. “This means sharing will be required between satellite and terrestrial wireless; an issue that is especially relevant in the 28GHz band. It is also a consideration in the additional bands we will identify for future exploration. We will strike a balance that offers flexibility for satellite users to expand, while providing terrestrial licensees with predictability about the areas in which satellite will locate.”

The CTIA – The Wireless Association, America’s largest mobile carrier lobbying and trade association, is all for opening up new spectrum for the use of their members — AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile, among others. They just don’t want to share it. Ironically, they are calling on the FCC to regulate who gets access to what frequencies and what services can use them. They’d also appreciate federal rules restricting or preempting local officials responsible for approving where new cell towers can be located, and some form of price regulation for backhaul services would also be nice:

First, we need the right rules for high-band spectrum based on a time-tested regulatory framework. It must strike a reasonable balance for licensed and unlicensed use while promoting investment with clear service and licensing rules. We should avoid experimenting with novel spectrum sharing regimes or new technology mandates.

Second, we need the right rules to help build our 5G infrastructure. Traditional spectrum travels many miles, depending on large cell towers to transmit signals. In contrast, high-band spectrum – capable of carrying greater amounts of data –travels meters, not miles and will require the deployment of thousands of new small cells the size of smoke alarms. This network evolution requires a new infrastructure approach, and Congress, the FCC and states must streamline and simplify local siting and rights of way rules.

Wheeler recognizes that 5G services will work very differently from the 3G and 4G networks we’ve used in the past.

ctia

CTIA is the wireless industry’s biggest lobbyist and trade association.

“5G will use much higher-frequency bands than previously thought viable for mobile broadband and other applications,” Wheeler said. “Such millimeter wave signals have physical properties that are both a limitation and a strength: they tend to travel best in narrow and straight lines, and do not go through physical obstacles very well. This means that very narrow signals in an urban environment tend to bounce around buildings and other obstacles making it difficult to connect to a moving point. But it also means that the spectrum can be reused over and over again.”

In other words, think about 5G as an initially limited range wireless network that may turn out to be best suited for fixed wireless service or limited range hotspots, especially before network densification helps make 5G service more ubiquitous. The wireless industry doesn’t think Wheeler’s vision will be enough to resolve capacity issues in the short term, and is calling on the FCC to release even more low and mid-band spectrum in the 600MHz range that can travel inside buildings and offer a wider coverage area.

Wheeler’s recognition that 5G’s shorter range signals will likely require a massive overlay of new infrastructure has also opened the door for the CTIA to call on the FCC to revisit local zoning and antenna placement rules and policies, with the likely goal of preempting or watering down local authority to accept or reject where cell phone companies want to place their next small cell or cell tower. Wireless companies are also expected to push for easy access to utility poles, time limits to approve new cell tower construction applications, and pricing regulation for fiber lines needed to connect 5G infrastructure to backhaul networks.

Cell tower camouflage failure.

Cell tower camouflage failure.

On the issue of backhaul — the connection between a cell tower and the wireless carrier’s network, the FCC is planning a pro-regulatory “anchor pricing” approach to benefit wireless companies. Consumers can also relate to being overcharged for slow speed Internet access with little or no competition, but the FCC is only acting for the benefit of the wireless companies for now — the same companies that would undoubtedly complain loudly if anchor pricing was ever applied to them.

“Lack of competition doesn’t just hurt the deployment of wireless networks today, it threatens as well to delay the buildout of 5G networks with its demand for many, many more backhaul connections to many, many more antennae,” complained Wheeler. “Before the end of this year the Commission will take up a reform proposal – supported by the nation’s leading wireless carriers, save one – that will encourage innovation and investment in Business Data Services while ensuring that lack of competition in some places cannot be used to hold 5G hostage.”

While Wheeler’s goals are laudable, there are stunning examples of hypocrisy and self-interest from the wireless industry. Yet again, the industry is seeking regulatory protection from having to share spectrum with unlicensed users, existing licensees, or competitors.  No letting the “free market” decide here. Second, there are absolutely no assurances the wireless industry will deliver substantial home broadband competition. Verizon and AT&T will be effectively competing with themselves in areas where they already offer wired broadband. Is there a willingness from AT&T and Verizon to sell unlimited broadband over 5G networks or will customers be expected to pay “usage pack”-prices as high as $10 per gigabyte, which doesn’t include the monthly cost of the service itself. Offering customers unlimited 5G could cannibalize the massive profits earned selling data plans to wireless customers.

Cactus or cell tower

Cactus or cell tower

Upgrading to 5G service will be expensive and take years to reach many neighborhoods. Verizon’s chief financial officer believes 5G wireless will be more cost-effective to deploy than its FiOS fiber to the home network, but considering Verizon largely ended its deployment of FiOS several years ago and has allowed its DSL customers to languish just as long, 5G will need to be far more profitable to stimulate Verizon’s interest in spending tens of billions on 5G infrastructure. It does not seem likely the result will be $25/month unlimited, fiber-like fast, Internet plans.

Although the mobile industry will argue its investment dollars should be reason enough to further deregulate and dis-empower local officials that oversee the placement of cellular infrastructure, it would be a tremendous mistake to allow wireless carriers to erect cell towers and small cells wherever they see fit. Most small cells aren’t much larger than a toaster and will probably fit easily on utility poles. But it will likely spark another wave of pole access controversies. The aesthetics of traditional cell tower placement, especially in historical districts, parks, and suburbs, almost always create controversy. The FCC should not tip the balance of authority for tower placement away from those that have to live with the results.

The mobile industry doesn’t make investments for free, and before we reward them for investing in their networks, let’s recall the United States pays some of the highest mobile service prices in the world. The industry argues what you get in return for that $100+ wireless bill is better than ever, an argument similarly used by the cable industry to justify charging $80 a month for hundreds of channels you don’t watch or want. Therefore, incentives offered to the wireless industry should be tied to permanent pro-consumer commitments, such as unlimited 5G broadband, better rural coverage, and the power to unbundle current wireless packages and ditch services like unlimited texting many customers don’t need. Otherwise, it’s just another one-sided corporate welfare plan we can’t afford.

Federal Court Agrees With FCC: Broadband in a Utility; Net Neutrality Policies Upheld

netneutralityA federal appeals court today sided with the Federal Communications Commission, upholding its view broadband service is an essential utility that can no longer be left unregulated and open to the whims of large cable and phone companies.

The 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia firmly establishes the FCC’s right to transition broadband from its old designation as a barely regulated “information service” to a “telecommunications service” subject to broad oversight by regulators under the FCC’s “Title II” authority.

The most immediate implication of the court’s decision is upholding the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules, which require Internet providers to grant equal access to all legal Internet content and applications regardless of the source, without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.

“After a decade of debate and legal battles, today’s ruling affirms the commission’s ability to enforce the strongest possible Internet protections — both on fixed and mobile networks — that will ensure the Internet remains open, now and in the future,” said FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.

The ruling left broadband providers smarting, especially wireless carriers that once expected to be exempted from Net Neutrality regulations. Wireless broadband services are now also considered common carrier utility services subject to Net Neutrality.

“The people have spoken, the courts have spoken and this should be the last word on Net Neutrality,” Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron said in a statement.

At least one Republican FCC commissioner, Ajit Pai, disagreed and was heartened by news a very disappointed AT&T was vowing a quick appeal to the Supreme Court.

“We have always expected this issue to be decided by the Supreme Court, and we look forward to participating in that appeal,” said David McAtee II, the senior executive vice president and general counsel for AT&T.

“I continue to believe that these regulations are unlawful, and I hope that the parties challenging them will continue the legal fight,” Pai added. Pai has been a frequent critic of Net Neutrality.

But AT&T may find itself in the unenviable position of taking their case to the Supreme Court without the late Antonin Scalia on the bench. The ongoing opposition by Senate Republicans to hold hearings to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to fill the open ninth seat on the court opens the door to a 4-4 tie vote on the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband as a utility, which would automatically affirm the lower court ruling.

Cox’s Data Limbo Dance: Slashes “Ultimate” Allowance in Half, Lies About Why

Cox's data plan limbo dance. How low can they go?

Cox’s data plan limbo dance. How low can they go?

Cox Communications has cut by half the data usage allowance of one of its fastest broadband plans targeting so-called “heavy users,” exposing unsuspecting customers to expensive overlimit fees, while claiming usage caps are now mandated by law.

Stop the Cap! reader John C. wrote to tell us he discovered his allowance for Cox’s “Ultimate” Plan, delivering 200/20Mbps, has been slashed from 2,000GB to 1,000GB, with little warning except in an obscure support FAQ.

“About 95% of Cox customers are currently on a data plan that more than adequately meets the monthly needs of their household,” Cox claimed. “However, some households, particularly those with multiple Internet users that enjoy streaming TV or movies, may want to select an Internet package with a larger data plan. That is why we offer plans for all types of users so you can choose what is best for your household.”

The plan that most customers want is a flat rate, unlimited-use plan, one that Cox has unilaterally decided to stop offering. Just as bad: targeting the most widely available premium plan for a major usage allowance cut with no explanation whatsoever. It’s bad news for John, who says after paying Cox their asking price for Ultimate service, he cannot afford to also pay overage fees on top of that (currently $10 for each 50GB allotment, charged only in the Cleveland, Oh. area for now).

Customers who contact Cox and complain about their usage caps or allowance changes are being told false fables by Cox’s customer service specialists, who claim data caps are now the law in the United States.

Here is an example of an actual support session with Cox employees, (emphasis ours, edited (…) for brevity):

cox say noYou: I also learned that you have internet data cap?

Jenna: Data limits were implemented by the FCC in 2011. By law, we have to have them. If you exceed the limit for 3 consecutive months, you will be contacted to discuss your options for upgrading.

You: FCC? can you send me details about that

[…]

Jenna: As I mentioned, there’s no fee for exceeding those limits. If you exceed the limit for 3 consecutive months, you will be contacted to discuss your options for upgrading. You can save a copy of this chat transcript for your records if you wish.

Jenna: I can also get you over to Customer Care for more information.

You: so why would you mention FCC rules then?

Jenna: Because you asked about our data limits.

Jenna: That’s why we have them.

You: Sure so can you tell me what FCC rule from 2011 you are referrind to?

Jenna: Sure, I’ll get you the link to the FCC website.

[…]

Jenna: Sure thing. Allow me a moment to get you over to Customer Care chat for further information about our Data Caps policies, and why we have them.

[…]

Christian O.: I see, well our Internet packages have a data usage limit however if you exceed that limit we won’t downgrade your speed or restrict your access to Internet or charge you more.

Christian O.: I think I found some information on the date usage and the FCC on 2011. One moment, please.

You: but it says right there that you will cahrge $10 for 50GB after I reach data cap

You: And FCC is very strict about data caps

Christian O.: Give me a moment to check something.

You: ok thanks

Christian O.: If you exceed your data plan, Cox may notify you by email to alert you. Your service will not be interrupted if you choose to stay on your existing package except in the rare cases of excessive usage. In those extremely rare situations, Cox may suspend service after attempting to resolve the issue.

Christian O.: Cox is conducting a limited data usage trial in Cleveland, Ohio. In all other markets, Cox does not currently charge additional fees if your data plan is exceeded.

You: what you are doing with data caps / usage is illegal

You: But please send me the FCC rule from 2011 that Jenna and you mention

You: “Jenna: Data limits were implemented by the FCC in 2011. By law, we have to have them.”

Christian O.: I don’t have such rule that talks about that. Do you have the rule where it says that is illegal?

Christian O.: Just asking.

[…]

Christian O.: Honestly I don’t have any idea about the rule that Jenna was speaking about. Let me go ask my supervisor. One moment, please.

[…]

Christian O.: Unfortunately we couldn’t find any information about that rule established by the FCC.

To clarify, the FCC neither has rules for or against data caps. It has remained neutral on the subject, although FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler recently advocated imposing a moratorium on data caps or usage billing for up to seven years as a condition of approving Charter Communications’ acquisitions of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

Here are Cox’s current data plans, which are effective for all residential customers. However, only customers in Cleveland will face penalties for exceeding them at this time.

Package Monthly Included Data Speeds

Download / Upload

Starter 200 GB 5 Mbps / 1 Mbps
Essential 250 GB 15 Mbps / 2 Mbps
Preferred 350 GB 50 Mbps / 5 Mbps
Premier 700 GB 100 Mbps / 10 Mbps
Ultimate 1000 GB 200 Mbps / 20 Mbps
Gigablast (Where Available) 2000 GB 1 Gbps / 1 Gbps

Jesse Jackson Compares Set Top Box Competition to Bull Connor’s Fire Hoses

Bull Connor was Birmingham, Ala.'s notorious Commissioner of Public Safety

Bull Connor was Birmingham, Ala.’s notorious Commissioner of Public Safety in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

In an astonishing guest editorial published by USA TODAY, Rev. Jesse Jackson evoked imagery of the 1960s civil rights movement as a backdrop to claim the Federal Communication Commission’s plan to promote an open, competitive market for set-top boxes was racist.

“National news coverage of the snarling dogs, water hoses and church bombings in the American South were the catalysts to exposing the ugly truths of racism and bigotry in the 1960s. Local news outlets gave new meaning to what the struggle looked like for people on its front lines,” wrote Jackson. “That is why a new proposal at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate TV ‘set top boxes’ has raised so much concern.”

That “concern” has come almost entirely from the cable and telco-TV industry and their allies, which have compared the potential breakup of a lucrative cable TV equipment monopoly to anti-Americanism, minority television genocide, an invitation to piracy and a pathway for total world domination by Google.

In April, we reported the rhetoric surrounding the proposal, which would create an open standard allowing any manufacturer to make and sell their own set-top box, had already taken Hyperbole Hill. But Rev. Jackson’s latest guest editorial rockets the ridiculousness of the cable industry’s opposition into the stratosphere.

Jackson claims (wrongly) the proposal will lead third-party manufacturers to segregate minority television content, apparently in a way that resembles life in rural Mississippi in 1962. It evokes dreams of hordes of Google vans roaming across the southern countryside looking for trouble by stripping networks like Revolt and Vme TV of their ad revenue and copyright protection. It just isn’t true. But one line in Jackson’s commentary does prove revealing — noting all these terrible events could all take place “without any compensation.”

Jackson

Jackson

This is the diamond in the rough of this near-senseless editorial. Like most things in the world of Big Telecom public policy, it’s all about the money. Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition apparently isn’t what it used to be. Originally created to promote civil rights and diversity, the organization these days is just as likely to promote Big Telecom mergers and its public policy agenda, usually in exchange for contributions to Jackson’s groups, although such quid-pro-quo is always hotly denied. Therefore, we shall call them monetary “coincidences.” His coincidental association with Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and others runs back more than a decade:

  • Bell Atlantic (later Verizon) coincidentally donated $1 million to Jackson and his groups. In 1999, Jackson coincidentally endorsed the merger of GTE and Bell Atlantic into a new entity known as Verizon, which coincidentally pledged $300,000 to Jackson annually through the year 2002;
  • In 1998 Jackson was strongly opposed to the merger of SBC and Ameritech (which would later emerge as AT&T), suggesting it was anti-democratic. After the two companies donated $500,000 to Jackson’s Citizenship Education Fund (given a dubious rating by Charity Navigator), Jackson coincidentally did a complete 180, praising the merger. It didn’t hurt that Ameritech coincidentally sold part of its cellular business to Georgetown Partners, owned coincidentally by one of Jackson’s closest friends.
  • Not to be left out, AT&T coincidentally donated $425,000 to Jackson’s Citizenship Education Fund in 1999, right after Jackson coincidentally withdrew his opposition to the merger of AT&T and TCI Cable (later sold to Comcast).
  • Jackson coincidentally has maintained a regular presence in proceedings involving Comcast’s various business dealings, particularly its merger with NBCUniversal, which it coincidentally endorsed as “pro-consumer.”

bullhoseJackson mentioned his views have the support of certain other civil rights organization including the National Urban League and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), two groups Stop the Cap! has written about extensively regarding their ongoing committed support of Big Telecom mergers, deregulation, and other public policy agendas. They don’t work for free — substantial contributions and other compensation from those same companies head into the coffers of both groups. LULAC counts AT&T, Comcast, Cox, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Time Warner Cable and Verizon as members of their “corporate alliance.” None of those companies support the FCC’s plan to open up the set-top box marketplace.

Jackson cheapens the legacy of the civil rights movement in his efforts to draw comparisons between the horrible atrocities of the past with the fat equipment profits the cable industry is counting on in the future.

His views are also simply provably wrong. Jackson’s claim that the government was somehow responsible for the destruction of local multicultural newspapers at a time when the entire newspaper industry continues to struggle against online media is ludicrous. His myopic view that the elimination of a minority tax certificate program is the reason minorities don’t own many radio and television stations today ignores the fact many former minority owners cashed out and sold those stations (at a massive profit) after the Clinton Administration deregulated the industry in the late 1990s, which lead to a massive wave of ownership consolidation. Finding individuals, minority or otherwise, that still own local radio and television stations isn’t as easy as it once was.

opinionJackson and his supporters are wasting their time fighting to preserve the dying concept of the 500-channel linear TV marketplace. Consumers, minorities included, are not clamoring for more minority networks littering the cable dial that spend much of their broadcast day airing program length commercials and reruns of Good Times or The Cosby Show. Many of these networks only add to the growing cost of cable TV. Viewers want on-demand access to quality original programming they can actually find and watch.

We’d also remind Jackson minorities also pay the outrageous price of set-top box rentals, something Jackson and his organization should be sensitive about. Busting the set-top box monopoly means every American will pay lower rates for this equipment. We do understand it won’t help Jackson’s bank account, or those of other civil rights groups that kowtow to their corporate friends, but who exactly do they represent?

Daring to suggest that this debate has anything to do with Bull Connor’s outrageous behavior in Birmingham, Ala. in 1963, where Connor ordered the city fire department to turn fire hoses on peaceful civil rights protesters and attacked them with police dogs, tarnishes the reputation of Jackson and his group and demonstrates just how desperate the cable industry is getting trying to credibly defend a monopoly. Jackson should withdraw those remarks.

Spring 2016: An Update and Progress Report for Our Members

stcDear Members,

We have had a very busy winter and spring here at Stop the Cap! and we thought it important to update you on our efforts.

You may have noticed a drop in new content online over the last few months, and we’ve had some inquiries about it. The primary reason for this is the additional time and energy being spent to directly connect with legislators and regulators about the issues we are concerned about. Someone recently asked me why we spend a lot of time and energy writing exposés to an audience that almost certainly already agrees with us. If supporters were the only readers here, they would have a point. Stop the Cap! is followed regularly by legislators, regulators, public policy lobbyists, consumer groups, telecom executives, and members of the media. Our content is regularly cited in books, articles, regulatory filings, and in media reports. That is why we spend a lot of time and energy documenting our positions about data caps, usage billing, Net Neutrality, and the state of broadband in the United States and Canada.

A lengthy piece appearing here can easily take more than eight hours (sometimes longer) to put together from research to final publication. We feel it is critical to make sure this information gets into the hands of those that can help make a difference, whether they visit us on the web or not. So we have made an extra effort to inform, educate, and persuade decision-makers and reporters towards our point of view, helping to counter the well-funded propaganda campaigns of Big Telecom companies that regularly distort the issues and defend the indefensible.

Four issues have gotten most of our attention over the last six months:

  1. The Charter/Time Warner Cable/Bright House merger;
  2. Data cap traps and trials (especially those from Comcast, Blue Ridge, Cox, and Suddenlink);
  3. Cablevision/Altice merger;
  4. Frontier’s acquisition of Verizon landlines and that phone company’s upgrade plans for existing customers.

We’ve been successful raising important issues about the scarcity of benefits from telecom company mergers. In short, there are none of significance, unless you happen to be a Wall Street banker, a shareholder, or a company executive. The last thing an already-concentrated marketplace needs is more telecom mergers. We’re also continuing to expose just how nonsensical data caps and usage-based billing is for 21st century broadband providers. Despite claims of “fairness,” data caps are nothing more than cable-TV protectionism and the further exploitation of a broadband duopoly that makes it easy for Wall Street analysts to argue “there is room for broadband rate hikes” in North America. Stop the Cap! will continue to coordinate with other consumer groups to fight this issue, and we’ve successfully convinced at least some at the FCC that the excuses offered for data caps don’t hold water.

Dampier

Dampier

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s broadening of Charter’s voluntary three-year moratorium on data caps to a compulsory term as long as seven years sent a clear message to broadband providers that the jig is up — data caps are a direct threat to the emerging online video marketplace that might finally deliver serious competition to the current bloated and overpriced cable television package.

Wheeler’s actions were directly responsible for Comcast’s sudden generosity in more than tripling the usage allowance it has imposed on several markets across the south and midwest. But we won’t be happy until those compulsory data caps are gone for good.

More than 10,000 Comcast customers have already told the FCC in customer complaints that Comcast’s data caps are egregious and unfair. Considering how unresponsive Comcast has been towards its own customers that despise data caps of any kind, Comcast obviously doesn’t care what their customers think. But they care very much about what the FCC thinks about regulatory issues like data caps and set-top box monopolies. How do we know this? Because Comcast’s chief financial officer this week told the audience attending the JPMorgan Technology, Media and Telecom Broker Conference Comcast always pays attention to regulator headwinds.

“I think it’s our job to make sure we pivot and react accordingly and make sure the company thrives whatever the outcome is on some of the regulatory proposals that are out there,” said Comcast’s Mike Cavanagh. We suspect if Chairman Wheeler goes just one step further and calls on ISPs to permanently ditch data caps and usage billing, many would. We will continue to press him to do exactly that.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Other companies are also still making bad decisions for their customers. Besides Comcast’s ongoing abusive data cap experiment, Cox’s ongoing data cap trial in Cleveland, Ohio is completely unacceptable and has no justification. The usage allowances provided are also unacceptably stingy. Suddenlink, now owned by Altice, should not even attempt to alienate their customers, particularly as the cable conglomerate seeks new acquisition opportunities in the United States in the future. We find it telling that Altice feels justified retaining usage caps on customers in smaller communities served by Suddenlink while denying they would even think of doing the same in Cablevision territory in suburban New York City. Both Suddenlink and Cablevision have upgraded their networks to deliver faster speed service. What is Altice’s excuse about why it treats its urban and rural customers so differently? It frankly doesn’t have one. We’ll be working to convince Altice it is time for Suddenlink’s data caps to be retired for good.

We will also be turning more attention back on the issue of community broadband, which continues to be the only competitive alternative to the phone and cable companies most Americans will likely ever see. The dollar-a-holler lobbyists are still writing editorials and articles claiming “government-owned networks” are risky and/or a failure, without bothering to disclose the authors have a direct financial relationship to the phone and cable companies that don’t want the competition. We will be pressing state lawmakers to ditch municipal broadband bans and not to enact any new ones.

We will also continue to watch AT&T and Verizon — two large phone companies that continue to seek opportunities to neglect or ditch their wired services either by decommissioning rural landlines or selling parts of their service areas to companies like Frontier. AT&T specializes in bait-n-switch bills in state legislatures that promise “upgrades” in return for further deregulation and permission to switch off rural service in favor of wireless alternatives. That’s great for AT&T, but a potential life-threatening disaster for rural America.

We continue to abide by our mandate: fighting data caps and consumption billing and promoting better broadband, regardless of what company or community supplies it.

As always, thank you so much for your financial support (the donate button that sustains us entirely is to your right) and for your engagement in the fight against unfair broadband pricing and policies. Broadband is not just a nice thing to have. It is an essential utility just as important as clean water, electricity, natural gas, and telephone service.

Phillip M. Dampier
Founder & President, Stop the Cap!

Charter Completes Time Warner Cable/Bright House Merger Today

charter twc bhAmerica has a new second largest cable conglomerate with 17 million customers and a new name.

Charter Communications formally completed their $55 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks today, creating a new cable giant that more closely rivals number one Comcast in size and scope.

The approval came despite warnings from a team at the FCC assigned to review the impact of the merger.

The Deal is Likely to Trigger an Abusive Money Party at the Expense of Customers… Merger Approved

“We conclude that the transaction will materially alter [Charter’s] incentives and abilities in ways that are potentially harmful to the public interest,” an FCC report about the impact of the merger states.

The FCC concluded the deal could become an enormous money-maker for Charter and its investors through the eventual metering of online usage. There are strong incentives, according to the FCC, for Charter “to impose data caps and usage-based prices in order to make watching online video more expensive, and in particular more expensive than subscribing to a traditional pay-TV bundle” after its voluntary commitment not to impose data caps expires.

Existing Charter customers warn this isn't the cable company you are looking for.

Existing Charter customers warn this isn’t the cable company you are looking for.

The FCC is also certain Charter will enjoy considerable pricing power with its near broadband monopoly at speeds of 25Mbps or higher. That means one thing: substantial rate increases unchecked by competition.

Despite the gloomy prospects, FCC commissioners found a “compromise” that will impose consumer-friendly conditions on the merger, but will expire between 5-7 years from today. After that, in the absence of robust competition from a player like Google Fiber, it will be open season on broadband customers.

Consumer advocates were less than pleased.

“There’s nothing about this massive merger that serves the public interest. There’s nothing about it that helps make the market for cable TV and Internet services more affordable and competitive for Americans,” said Free Press president and CEO Craig Aaron. “Customers of the newly merged entity will be socked with higher prices as Charter attempts to pay off the nearly $27 billion debt load it took on to finance this deal. The wasted expense of this merger is staggering. For the money Charter spent to make this happen it could have built new competitive broadband options for tens of millions of people. Now these billions of dollars will do little more than line the pockets of Time Warner Cable’s shareholders and executives. CEO Rob Marcus will walk away with a $100 million golden parachute.”

[Image: WSJ.com]

In fact, the golden parachutes will extend far beyond retiring Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus. According to a regulatory filing, Marcus’ contract was written to allow him to sell the company and effectively be “terminated without cause,” which activates the equivalent of a Powerball Powerplay. Marcus will automatically qualify to receive several years’ worth of his original salary, expected bonuses, and compensation in stock for showing himself to the exit. That alone is expected to exceed $100 million. Marcus’ ancillary benefits also add up, and will be eventually disclosed in future filings with the Securities & Exchange Commission.

Marcus’ colleagues won’t leave empty-handed either. The chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Time Warner Cable could each get $32 million in compensation. The general counsel of Time Warner will retire with around $22 million and some mid-level executives could leave with around $18 million each.

Familar names on Wall Street will also enjoy proceeds worthy of Donald Trump Lotto. Everyone’s favorite financial casino Goldman Sachs is sitting pretty with millions in fees advising Charter on both its acquisitions of Bright House and Time Warner Cable. UBS helped lead the financing of the whopping $55 billion deal on behalf of Charter and is the sole financial adviser to Advance/Newhouse, which owns Bright House. That means big bucks for the Swiss bank.

fishThe Small Swallow the Big

Charter was a much smaller, and not well-regarded cable company before it financed the acquisition of two of its non-competing rivals. In fact, Time Warner Cable was already the country’s second largest cable operator before the acquisition, and Charter will have to contend with managing a cable operator much larger than itself. Charter executives have hinted it will take many months to manage that transition, with the eventual retirement of both the Time Warner Cable and Bright House brands, in favor of Charter and its Spectrum product suite.

Those not already Charter customers will be subjected to a publicity campaign to manage the introduction of Charter in the best possible light, despite the fact current Charter customers rate the cable operator as mediocre in consumer surveys. Its reputation is well-known, especially in the middle of the country where many Charter systems operate.

Charter will continue to be led by CEO Thomas Rutledge, who will also hold the titles of president and chairman of the board. But the man behind-the-scenes expected to have a substantial amount of influence in how Charter is run in the future is ex-Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) CEO Dr. John Malone through his entity Liberty Broadband, which will control three seats on Charter’s board of directors, including one for Malone himself. Malone advocated for Rutledge to become CEO of Charter after the cable company emerged from bankruptcy reorganization in 2009.

makeoverHow to Remake Your Image: Change the Name

Renaming Time Warner Cable isn’t likely to fix the scandalously low regard its customers hold the company. But it couldn’t hurt either.

“It’s not surprising Charter wants to rebrand Time Warner Cable,” said David VanAmburg, managing director of the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which regularly rates Time Warner Cable (and often Comcast trading places) the worst companies in the country. “Charter has scored better than Time Warner Cable in recent years, so it could bode well for Time Warner Cable customers. But the data suggests leaps-and-bounds improvement could be difficult.”

ACSI graded Charter 57 in 2015. Time Warner Cable managed a 58 — both effectively failing grades on a scale of 0-100.

What kinds of services Charter is now compelled to offer is dependent on the state of the cable system serving each area and if regulators extracted concessions on the state level to guarantee better service. The state that worked the hardest to compel upgrades and insist on a more customer-friendly transition is New York, where the Public Service Commission forced concessions to upgrade all of the state and allow customers to keep their current Time Warner Cable plans if they wished.

“On Day One, customers of (Time Warner) won’t really see any changes,” Charter spokesman Justin Venech told the Albany Times Union. “Time Warner Cable and Charter Spectrum will continue offering their current suite of advanced products and services to customers in their markets.”

“As we go all digital market by market, we will launch the Spectrum brand product, pricing and packaging, and Charter will also launch Spectrum in those markets in which (Time Warner has) already gone all digital,” Venech said. “We will be communicating directly with customers, letting them know when they will start seeing the Spectrum brand. In addition, when our Spectrum packages launch, if a customer likes the package they are currently in, they will be able to stay in that package.”

Commentary: CPUC Unanimously Approves Charter-TWC-Bright House Merger

charter twcCharter Communications could not have closer friends than the commissioners on the California Public Utilities Commission who unanimously voted in favor of the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable while some almost apologized for bothering the cable company with pesky deal conditions.

CPUC president Michael Picker quickly dispensed with the glaring omission of a sunset provision on Charter’s three-year voluntary commitment to abide by the FCC’s Open Internet Order by inviting his fellow commissioners to add it back for Charter’s benefit. How nice of him. The cable company lobbyists in attendance at today’s hearing did not even need to ask.

Picker’s review of the merger benefits effectively recited a Charter press release and he seemed genuinely pleased with himself for making it all possible. For example, the CPUC considered the addition of a provision allowing consumers to buy their own cable modems and set-top boxes without a penalty from their provider “unprecedented,” while never mentioning they failed to adopt recommendations that customers be given a discount for providing their own equipment. Score Charter, which can continue to collect modem fees built into the price of its broadband service even when you provide your own.

Dampier

Dampier

New Charter’s “exciting” commitment to upgrade to 300Mbps by 2019 sounds good, until one realizes Time Warner Cable was committed to finishing their own 300Mbps upgrade at least one year earlier, and at a lower cost to customers. In fact, while California celebrates 300Mbps by 2019, thanks to the efforts of Stop the Cap! and the New York Public Service Commission, Charter is required to be ready to offer gigabit service across the state that same year. See what is possible when you actually try, CPUC?

The commissioners repeatedly thanked Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable while ignoring the consumer groups that contributed opposing comments and tangible suggestions to improve benefits for consumers — almost entirely ignored by the CPUC. That will cost Californians dearly and borders on regulatory malpractice. If the CPUC required California to at least enjoy the same benefits other state utility regulators won for their constituents, Californians would get a substantially better deal. Instead, the CPUC insisted on giving California and even worse deal than the FCC, by granting Charter’s right to gouge customers with usage caps and usage billing in three years, even after the FCC agreed to seven years of cap-free Internet. Mr. Picker and the other commissioners owe California an explanation for letting them down, and the scandal-plagued CPUC needs to demonstrate it is reforming after the shameful performance of its former chairman Michael Peevey.

“Today was a travesty for Californian consumers, and frankly we were shocked to watch ostensibly independent commissioners carry water for Charter Communications,” said Stop the Cap! president Phillip Dampier. “We saw clear evidence of a commission more concerned about Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable than for the average citizens of California that will face higher cable bills, time limits on unlimited Internet access, and a longer wait for upgrades as a direct result of today’s decision. Consumer groups like Stop the Cap! brought clear and convincing evidence to the commission that the benefits of this merger have time limits and plenty of fine print. We offered concrete suggestions on how to improve the deal for consumers — ideas accepted in other states, but the CPUC clearly wasn’t interested in anything that might make Charter uncomfortable.”

California Dreamin’: Will Regulators Approve Tougher Charter/Time Warner Merger Conditions Today?

charter twc bhAll signs are pointing to a relative cake walk for Charter Communications’ executives this afternoon as they seek final approval from the California Public Utilities Commission to acquire Time Warner Cable systems in the state, with the help of an Administrative Law Judge that is recommending approval with a minimum of conditions.

In fact, the strongest condition Charter may have to accept in California came by accident. As part of Charter’s lobbying effort, it proposed a set of voluntary conditions it was prepared to accept, claiming to regulators these conditions would represent benefits of approving the transaction. One of those was a temporary three-year commitment to abide by the FCC’s Open Internet Order, which among other things bans paid prioritization (Internet fast lanes), intentionally blocking lawful Internet content, and speed throttling your Internet connection.

Somewhere along the way, someone forgot to include the language that sunsets (or ends) Charter’s voluntary commitment after three years.

Without it, Charter will have to abide by the terms of the FCC’s Open Internet Order forever.

cpucSoon after recognizing the change in language, Charter’s lawyers appealed to the CPUC to correct what it called a “drafting error.”

“[New Charter does] not seek modification of the second sentence, which matches their voluntary commitments, but believe[s] that the three-year limitation in the second sentence was intended to— and should—apply to the first sentence as well,” Charter’s lawyers argued two weeks ago.

In other words, the Administrative Law Judge’s apparent attempt to ‘cut and paste’ Charter’s own press release-like voluntary deal commitments into his personal recommendation went horribly wrong. Charter’s lawyers prefer to call it an “intent to track” the company’s voluntary commitments. Either way, Charter’s lawyers all call the new language unfair.

“Holding New Charter indefinitely to FCC rules even after the FCC’s rules are invalidated or modified, and irrespective of future market conditions or the practices or rules governing New Charter’s competitors, would be a highly unconventional requirement,” the lawyers complained.

That provides valuable insight into how “New Charter” is likely to feel about Net Neutrality three years from now. Charter’s lawyers argue it would be unfair to hold them to “invalidated” rules — the same ones the company itself has voluntarily embraced as a condition of approval, but only for now.

Remarkably, in the final revision of the Administrative Law Judge’s recommendations to the CPUC recommending approval, the language that is keeping Charter’s lawyers up at night is still there:

New Charter shall fully comply with all the terms and conditions of the Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet Order, regardless of the outcome of any legal challenge to the Open Internet Order. In addition, for a period of not less than three years from the closing of the Transaction, New Charter (a) will not adopt fees for users to use specific third-party Internet applications; (b) will not engage in zero-rating; (c) will not engage in usage-based billing; (d) will not impose data caps; and (e) will submit any Internet interconnection disputes not resolvable by good faith negotiations on a case-by-case basis.

Charter's new service area, including Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers.

Charter’s new service area, including Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers.

If it remains intact through the vote expected this afternoon, New Charter will have to permanently abide by the FCC’s Open Internet Order, with no end date. That condition will apply in California, and because of most-favored state status, also in New York.

Stop the Cap!’s recommendations to the CPUC are also in the same document, although our views were not shared by the judge:

Stop the Cap! objects to [New Charter’s] 3-year moratorium on data caps and usage based pricing for broadband services. It argues that such bans should be made permanent or, if not permanent, should last at least 7 years in parallel with the lifespan of the conditions imposed in the FCC’s approval of the parent company merger. In addition, Stop the Cap! objects to what it asserts will be a major price increase for existing Time Warner customers when Charter’s pricing plans replace Time Warner’s pricing plans.

More broadly, Stop the Cap! president Phillip Dampier called the revised recommendations to approve the deal underwhelming and disappointing.

“By window-dressing what is essentially Charter’s own voluntary offer to the CPUC, the commission is continuing to miss a golden opportunity to win deal conditions that will meaningfully benefit Californian consumers that will otherwise get little more than higher cable and broadband bills,” Dampier told Communications Daily. “Virtually everything Charter is promising customers is already available or soon will be from Time Warner Cable, often for less money. Time Warner Cable committed to offering its customers 300Mbps speeds, no usage caps or usage billing, and all-digital service through its Maxx upgrade program, expected to be complete by the end of 2017 or 2018. The CPUC is proposing to allow New Charter to wait until 2019 to provide 300Mbps service and potentially cap Internet service three years after that, four years less than what the FCC is demanding.”

Among the conditions Charter will be expected to fulfill in return for approval of its merger in California:

  • Within a year of the closing of the merger deal, New Charter must boost broadband download speeds for customers on their all-digital platform to at least 60Mbps, an upgrade that is largely already complete.
  • Within 30 months, New Charter must upgrade all households in its California service territory to an all-digital platform with download speeds of not less than 60Mbps, an upgrade that has already been underway for a few years.
  • By Dec. 31, 2019, New Charter shall offer broadband Internet service with speeds of at least 300Mbps download to all households with current broadband availability from New Charter in its California network. Time Warner Cable essentially promised to do the same by early 2018, with many of its customers already getting up to 300Mbps in Southern California.
  • While Charter talks about a bright future for the Time Warner customers joining its family, the company has not done a great job maintaining and upgrading its own cable systems in parts of California. Many smaller communities still only receive analog cable TV from Charter, with no broadband option at all. Therefore, the CPUC is giving New Charter three years to deploy 70,000 new broadband “passings” to current analog-only cable service areas in Kern, Kings, Modoc, Monterey, San Bernardino and Tulare counties. But the CPUC is giving New Charter a break, only requiring them to offer up to 100Mbps service in these communities.
  • Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers in California will be able to keep their current broadband service plans for up to three years. Customers will also be allowed to buy their own cable modems and set-top boxes, but there is no requirement New Charter compensate customers who do with a service discount.
  • Within six months of the deal closing, New Charter must offer Lifeline phone discounts within its service territory in California.
  • New Charter must print and distribute brochures explaining the need for backup power to keep phone service working if electricity is interrupted. Those brochures must be available in multiple languages including, but not limited to, English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese, as well as in accessible formats for visually impaired customers.

The CPUC is also expected to adopt Charter’s own voluntary commitments not to impose usage caps, usage billing, modem fees, and other customer-unfriendly practices for three years, a point that drew strong criticism from Stop the Cap! and the California Office of Ratepayer Advocates for being inadequate.

Both groups proposed that bans on data caps and usage billing should stay in place “until there is effective competition in Southern California, or no shorter than seven years after the decision is issued, whichever is later.”

ORA’s program supervisor Ana Maria Johnson believes the proposed changes don’t go far enough to “mitigate the harms that the merger will likely cause, especially in Southern California.”

Dampier was surprised how little the CPUC seemed to be asking of New Charter, especially in comparison to regulators in New York.

“The New York Public Service Commission did a more thorough job protecting consumers by insisting on faster and better upgrades, including readiness for gigabit service, and the same level of broadband service for all of New Charter’s customers in New York,” Dampier argued. “It also demanded and won meaningful expansion in rural broadband, low-cost Internet access, protection of New York jobs, and improved customer service. It is remarkable to us the CPUC did not insist on at least as much for California.”

The CPUC is expected to take a final vote on the merger deal this afternoon, starting at 12:30pm ET/9:30am PT and will be webcast. It is the 20th item on the agenda.

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