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

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Should this merger be approved, Comcast will control 40-50 percent of all broadband access nationwide.[1] That offers Comcast market power that can be used to discriminate against others.

Comcast paid homeless people to "hold their seats" at an FCC hearing in 2008. (Image: Free Press)

Comcast paid homeless people to “hold their seats” at an FCC hearing in 2008. (Image: Free Press)

Comcast’s recent past contains several disturbing incidents that came as a result of its market power and its vast resources to influence telecommunications public policy debates:

  • In 2008, Comcast admitted to paying homeless people in Boston to pack an FCC meeting on Net Neutrality, keeping company critics out of the room.[2]
  • The company that now promises to abide voluntarily to Net Neutrality regulations is also one of the few found culpable for violating the principle. In mid-2008, the FCC ruled that Comcast’s policy of interfering with peer-to-peer file traffic was a violation of Net Neutrality rules. When customers found out, the company voluntarily ended the speed throttling, imposing usage caps instead.[3]
  • This month, Comcast reportedly stepped in and ordered the removal of news content critical of its Net Neutrality policies from a publication in which it has an ownership interest.[4]
  • In May 2011, a Comcast manager threatened to pull funding from a Seattle-based media advocacy group that criticized the company for hiring a former Republican FCC official, Meredith Attwell Baker, just after she supported the NBC Universal deal.[5]
  • Comcast has aggressively pursued agreements with over-the-top (online video) competitors that effectively force them to sign special connection agreements that mitigate the deteriorating quality of streamed video Comcast customers receive from services like Netflix.[6] Comcast’s size gives it de facto control over its customers’ online experiences.

While we note Comcast has agreed to temporarily abide by Net Neutrality principles, the Commission should know Comcast has a long record lobbying against Net Neutrality on philosophical grounds.[7]

Comcast agreed to abide by Net Neutrality principles as a condition to win approval of its acquisition of NBCUniversal, approved by the FCC in 2011. But as Brian Fung from the Washington Post noted, its agreement with the government will expire just four years from now[8]:

But what Comcast doesn’t say is that its commitment to “full” net neutrality expires in 2018. After that, it will no longer be legally bound to follow the 2010 rules, and it’ll be free to abandon that commitment literally overnight.

Just one year earlier, Comcast was before the United States Court of Appeals – D.C. Circuit suing the FCC over its authority to enforce Net Neutrality policies. Comcast won its suit.[9]

If Comcast now feels favorable towards Net Neutrality, it should voluntarily agree to abide by its guiding principles in perpetuity.

[1]http://broadcastingcable.com/news/washington/judiciary-raises-programming-broadband-control-issues-comcasttwc/130396
[2]http://www.mediabistro.com/fishbowlny/homeless-comcast-will-pay-to-attend-fcc-hearings_b7915
[3]http://www.dailydot.com/politics/net-neutrality-violations-history/
[4]http://www.republicreport.org/2014/comcast-affiliated-newsite-censored-my-article-about-net-neutrality-lobbying/
[5]http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-tech/post/comcast-yanks-funds-for-nonprofit-after-tweet-about-fcc-bakers-jump/2011/05/19/AF7aGG7G_blog.html
[6]http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304899704579391223249896550
[7]http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB125354032776727741
[8]https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20140724/13525627992/comcast-ramps-up-ad-campaign-claiming-to-support-net-neutrality-even-as-it-really-supports-killing-it.shtml
[9]http://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/EA10373FA9C20DEA85257807005BD63F/$file/08-1291-1238302.pdf
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Comcast’s Growing List of Owned/Operated Networks Gets Bigger With Time Warner Cable

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This week’s revelation that a Comcast-controlled enterprise deliberately and consciously removed news content critical of Comcast and its public policy lobbying practices speaks to the impact media concentration has on news dissemination.

It also exposes the close relationship Comcast maintains with non-profit groups it financially supports, encouraging the kinds of positive letters about its operations the New York Public Service Commission can now find on file in this case.[1]

comcast twcThe group involved in the current controversy reportedly received $350,000 from Comcast and promptly began a vocal opposition campaign against Net Neutrality, an open Internet policy Comcast still opposes being enacted as official FCC policy.[2]

Professor Todd Gitlin of Columbia University called Comcast’s close relationship with the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) the “closest thing I can imagine to a political quid pro quo. The fact NewsOne saw fit to delete a report that they previously posted without any claim that anything was mistaken in the report tells you something about their commitment to open discourse.”

Jeff Cohen, an associate professor of journalism at Ithaca College, also commented on the NewsOne decision. “Just as corporate cash can corrupt civil rights groups, this incident shows how corporate power can corrupt and censor the news.”[3]

Time Warner Cable operates local news channels in most of the major New York cities it serves. These channels will also come under the umbrella of Comcast, giving it an even greater news voice through its NBC and Telemundo networks, MSNBC, local cable news operations, and owned and operated local broadcast affiliate stations in New York City.

In closing, as a reminder to the Commission, Comcast’s list of broadcast, cable and digital media assets is already enormous and will grow even larger if a merger with Time Warner Cable is approved.[4]

Comcast-NBCUniversal

Broadcast Television
NBC Television Network
NBC Entertainment
NBC News
NBC Sport Group
Universal Television (UTV)
Universal Cable Productions
NBCUniversal Domestic Television Distribution
NBCUniversal International Television Distribution

NBC Local Media Division
NBC New York (WNBC)
NBC Los Angeles (KNBC)
NBC Chicago (WMAQ)
NBC Philadelphia (WCAU)
NBC Bay Area (KNTV)
NBC Dallas/Fort Worth (KXAS)
NBC Washington (WRC)
NBC Miami (WTVJ)
NBC San Diego (KNSD)
NBC Connecticut (WVIT)
NBC Everywhere
LX TV
Skycastle Entertainment

Telemundo
KVEA (Los Angeles)
WNJU (New York)
WSCV (Miami)
KTMD (Houston)
WSNS (Chicago)
KXTX (Dallas/Fort Worth)
KVDA (San Antonio)
KSTS (San Francisco/San Jose)
KTAZ (Phoenix)
KNSO (Fresno)
KDEN (Denver)
KBLR (Las Vegas)
WNEU (Boston/Merrimack)
KHRR (Tucson)
WKAQ (Puerto Rico)
KWHY (Los Angeles) (Independent)

Television Channels
Bravo
Chiller
CNBC
CNBC World
Comcast Charter Sports Southeast
Comcast Sports Group
Comcast SportsNet Bay Area
Comcast SportsNet California
Comcast SportsNet Chicago
Comcast SportsNet Houston
Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic
Comcast SportsNet New England
Comcast SportsNet Northwest
Comcast SportsNet Philadelhpia
SNY
The Mtn.-Mountain West Sports Network
CSS
Comcast Sports Southwest
New England Cable News (Manages)
NBC Sports Network
The Comcast Network
E! Entertainment Television
G4
Golf Channel
MSNBC
mun2
Oxygen Media
Cloo
Sprout
The Style Network
Syfy
Universal HD
USA Network
The Weather Channel Companies
Syfy Universal (Universal Networks International)
Diva Universal (Universal Networks International)
Studio Universal (Universal Networks International)
Universal Channel (Universal Networks International)
13th Street Universal (Universal Networks International)
Movies 24 (Universal Networks International)
Hallmark Channel (non-U.S.) (Universal Networks International)
KidsCo (Interest) (Universal Networks International)

Film
Universal Pictures
Focus Features
Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Parks and Resorts
Universal Parks and Resorts

Digital Media
DailyCandy
Fandango
Hulu (32%)
iVillage
NBC.com
CNBC Digital
Plaxo

Communications
XFINITY TV
XFINITY Internet
XFINITY Voice

Sports Management
Comcast-Spectator
Philadelphia Flyers
Wells Fargo Center
Global Spectrum (Public Assembly Management)
Ovations Food Services
Front Row Marketing Services
Paciolan
New Era Tickets (ComcastTIX)
Flyers Skate Zone

Other
Comcast Ventures, which is invested in numerous companies.

Time Warner Cable

Local channels`
Time Warner Cable News[5]
NY1: Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island
NY1 Noticias: Spanish language news for New York City
NY State of Politics Blog
TWC News Capital Region (Albany, Amsterdam, Saratoga and Berkshire counties)
TWC News Central NY (Syracuse, Ithaca/Cortland, Utica/Rome)
TWC News Hudson Valley
TWC News Northern NY (Watertown/Ft. Drum)
TWC News Southern Tier (Elmira/Corning, Binghamton/Oneonta)
TWC News Western NY (Buffalo, Finger Lakes Region, Jamestown, Rochester, and Batavia)

Regional Sports Networks
Metro Sports
Time Warner Cable Sports
Time Warner Cable SportsNet
Time Warner Cable Deportes
TWC Sports 32
SNY

Other Holdings
Adelphia — former cable television company in PA
NaviSite — cloud and hosting services company
Insight Communications — cable operator
DukeNet Communications — Fiber optic network
Time Warner Cable Internet
Time Warner Cable Media (advertising)

[1]http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/MatterManagement/CaseMaster.aspx?MatterCaseNo=14-m-0183
[2]http://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/06/06/12769/civil-rights-groups-fcc-positions-reflect-industry-funding-critics-say
[3]http://www.republicreport.org/2014/comcast-affiliated-newsite-censored-my-article-about-net-neutrality-lobbying/
[4]http://www.cjr.org/resources/index.php
[5]http://twcnews.com/
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I Love You Comcast! An Amazing 180 for Former Antitrust Attorney David Balto

Phillip "I got whiplash just watching" Dampier

Phillip “I got whiplash just watching” Dampier

A former policy director at the Federal Trade Commission and antitrust attorney at the U.S. Justice Department has managed an impressive 180 in just a few short months regarding the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

In February, David Balto told TheDeal the proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable “is a bad deal for consumers.” Today, Mr. Balto’s panoply of guest editorials, media appearances and columns — suddenly in favor of the merger — are turning up in the New York Times, the Orlando Sentinel, Marketplace, WNYC Radio, and elsewhere.

Balto’s arguments are based on “research” which, in toto, appears to have been limited to thumbing through Comcast’s press releases and merger presentation. That was enough:

First, this deal should create benefits for Time Warner customers, who will gain a significantly faster Internet and more advanced television service.

Second, competition is increasing in both the pay-TV and broadband businesses. Ninety-eight percent of viewers have a choice of three or more multichannel services, plus growing options online. Yahoo just announced a new video service, joining Netflix, Amazon and YouTube. In the last five years, cable has lost about seven million customers, satellite has gained nearly two million, and the telecommunications companies have gained six million.

Third, Comcast’s post-merger share of broadband falls closer to 20 percent when including LTE wireless and satellite providers. Over all, 97 percent of households have at least two competing fixed broadband providers — three or more if mobile wireless is included.

We used to wonder why government officials and regulators were so easily fooled by the corporate government relations people sent into their offices armed with press releases, talking points, cupcakes, and empty promises. We understand everyone isn’t a Big Telecom expert, but too often regulators’ reflexive acceptance of whatever companies bring to their table threatens to win them rube-status. We’d like to think Mr. Balto isn’t Comcast’s sucker, and we certainly hope there are no unspoken incentives on the table in return for his recent, very sudden conversion to celebrate all-things Comcast. Maybe he’s simply uninformed.

Balto

Balto

Although our regular readers — nearly all consumers and customers — are well-equipped to debunk Mr. Balto’s arguments, for the benefit of visitors, here is our own research.

First, Comcast’s Internet service is not faster than Time Warner Cable. Mr. Balto needs to spend some time away from Comcast’s merger info-pack and do some real research. He’ll find Time Warner Cable embarked on a massive upgrade program called TWC Maxx that is more than tripling broadband speeds for customers at no extra charge. Those speeds are faster than what Comcast offers the average residential customer, and come much cheaper as well. Oh, and TWC has no compulsory usage limits and overlimit penalties. Comcast’s David Cohen predicts every Comcast customer will face both within five years.

Second, that “advanced TV platform” Balto raves about requires a $99 installation fee… for an X1 set-top box. It also means equipment must be attached to every television in the house, because Comcast encrypts everything. At a time when customers want to pay for fewer channels, Comcast wants to shovel even more unwanted programming and boxes at customers. Older Americans who want their Turner Classic Movies have another nasty surprise. They will need to buy Comcast’s super deluxe cable TV package to get that network, at a cost exceeding $80 a month just for television. Ask Time Warner customers what they want, and they’ll tell you they’d prefer old and decrepit over an even higher cable TV bill Comcast has already committed to deliver.

Has competition truly increased? Not in the eyes of most Americans who at best face a duopoly and annual rate hikes well in excess of inflation. Even worse, for most consumers there is only one choice for 21st century High Speed Internet service – the cable company. Mr. Balto conveniently ignores the fact cable’s primary competitor is still DSL which is simply not available at speeds of 30+Mbps for most consumers. In some areas, like suburban Rochester, N.Y., the best the local phone company can deliver some neighborhoods like ours is 3.1Mbps. That isn’t competition. Verizon and AT&T have both stopped expanding DSL. Verizon has ended FiOS expansion and AT&T’s U-verse still maxes out at around 24Mbps for most customers. AT&T’s promised fiber upgrades have proven to be more illusory than reality, available primarily in a handful of multi-dwelling units and new housing developments. In rural areas, both major phone companies are petitioning to do away with landline service and DSL altogether.

Raise your hands if you want Comcast’s “benefits.” In New York, out of 2,300 comments before the PSC, we can’t find a single one clamoring for Comcast’s takeover. The public has spoken.

Cable "competition" in Minneapolis

Cable “competition” in Minneapolis. Charter and Comcast have also teamed up to trade cable territories as part of the Time Warner Cable merger package deal.

Satellite television’s days of providing the cable industry with robust competition have long since peaked. AT&T is seeking to further reduce that competition by purchasing DirecTV, not because it believes in satellite television, but because it wants the benefits of DirecTV’s lucrative volume discounts.

Any antitrust attorney worth his salt should be well aware of what kind of impact volume discounting can have on restraining and discouraging competition. Comcast’s deal for Time Warner will let it acquire programming at a substantial discount (one they have already said won’t be passed on to customers) so significant that any would-be competitors would be in immediate financial peril trying to compete on price.

Frontier Communications learned that lesson when it acquired a handful of Verizon FiOS franchises in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest. After losing Verizon’s volume discounts, Frontier was so alarmed by the wholesale renewal rates it received, it let loose its telemarketing force to convince customers fiber was no good for television and they should instead switch to a satellite provider they partnered with. It’s telling when a company is willing to forfeit revenue in favor of a third party marketing agreement with an outside company.

So what does this mean for a potential start-up looking to get into the business? Since programming is now a commodity, most customers buy on price. The best triple-play deals will go to the biggest national players with volume discounts – all cable operators that have long agreed never to compete directly with each other.

In the Orlando Sentinel, Mr. Balto seemed almost relieved when he concluded Comcast and Time Warner don’t compete head-to-head, somehow easing any antitrust concerns. It is precisely that fact why this deal must never be approved. Comcast has been free to compete anywhere Time Warner provides service, but has never done so. Letting Comcast, which has even worse approval ratings than Time Warner, become the only choice for cable broadband is hardly in the public interest and does nothing for competition. Instead, it only further consolidates the marketplace into a handful of giant companies that can raise prices and cap usage without restraint.

If Mr. Balto truly believes AT&T and Verizon will ride to the rescue with robust wireless broadband competition, his credibility is in peril. Those two companies, among others, are completely incapable of meeting the growing broadband demands (20-50GB) of the home user. With punishing high prices and staggeringly low usage caps, providers are both controlling demand and profiting handsomely from rationing service at the same time. Why change that?

No 3G/4G network under current ordinary traffic loads can honestly deliver a better online experience than DSL, and customers who attempt to replace their home broadband connection in favor of wireless will likely receive a punishing bill for the attempt at the end of the month. The only players who want to count mobile broadband as a serious competitor in the home broadband market are the cable and phone companies desperately looking for a defense against charges they have a broadband monopoly or are part of a comfortable duopoly.

One last point, while Mr. Balto seems impressed that Comcast would continue to voluntarily abide by the Net Neutrality policies he personally opposes, he conveniently omits the fact Comcast was the country’s biggest violator of Net Neutrality when it speed limited peer-to-peer traffic, successfully sued the government over Net Neutrality after it was fined by the FCC for the aforementioned violation, and only agreed to temporarily observe Net Neutrality as part of its colossal merger deal with NBCUniversal. It’s akin to a mugger promising to never commit another crime after being caught red-handed stealing. A commitment like that might be good enough for Mr. Balto, but it isn’t for us.

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Friday is the Deadline for Net Neutrality Comments With the FCC; Here’s How to Get Yours Submitted

netneutralityFriday is the last day to submit your views on Net Neutrality with the Federal Communications Commission. Although there may be some future opportunities to comment, it’s important to make your voice heard with the FCC today. Almost 650,000 Americans have done so to date, and we need to see this number rise even higher to combat the influence and power of Big Telecom companies looking to turn the Internet into a corporate toll booth.

If you recall, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is promoting a scheme where big ISPs like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast can divide up the Internet and introduce toll lanes allowing preferred paid traffic to travel on the Internet at faster speeds, usually at the expense of unpaid traffic that will get relegated to an Internet slow lane. It’s pay to play, and customers of these ISPs are already getting a preview of the new corporate road map for the net. Netflix viewers on ISPs that don’t have a paid agreement to handle video traffic suffer from rebuffering and lower quality video. But ISPs collecting tolls from Netflix don’t subject their customers to a degraded online video experience. Of course, before ISPs realized they could make money selling fast lanes, Netflix worked fine on virtually all of these providers.

Wheeler’s proposal would extend the two-tiered Internet to other websites and service providers, allowing big telecom companies to hand-pick winners and losers and discriminate in favor of their own Internet traffic. Comcast does that today with online video on certain game consoles. If that video comes from Comcast, it doesn’t count against any usage caps. If it doesn’t, it could get rough sticking to Comcast’s arbitrary usage allowance.

The FCC is in way over its head, unaware of the creative ways ISPs can find loopholes large enough to drive through any well-intentioned consumer protections. There is only once certain way to keep ISPs honest — reclassify them as what they should have been all along – a telecommunications service subject to common carrier rules. That would guarantee ISPs could not meddle with your Internet service for financial gain, could not artificially slow down “non-preferred” traffic to make room for paid traffic, and would guarantee that Internet applications of the future will succeed or fail on their merits, not on how much money they are willing to spend.

Since the FCC website is jammed today, we recommend e-mailing the Commission by this Friday at: [email protected]

Our friends at Free Press have published some sample comments they are getting, which may help you formulate yours. Here is ours as well:

Dear Chairman Wheeler,

Although we believe your intentions are good, your proposed Net Neutrality rules simply do not afford enough protection to preserve a free and open Internet. Troubling signs are already clear as providers test how much they can get away with meddling with Internet traffic. The wireless experience is replete with examples of selective speed throttling, usage caps, and traffic discrimination that allows some content to escape the usage meter and throttle while competitors cannot.

The Internet is a transformative experience for many Americans because for the first time in a long time, entrepreneurs can build online businesses that are judged on their merit, not on how much money they have to spend to achieve and maintain prominence. Anything that allows an ISP to collect additional funds for a “preferred” traffic lane will come at the detriment of others who have to share the same broadband pipe. This is especially evident in the wireless world, which escaped even the light touch regulatory framework of your predecessor. Providers promptly began creating new schemes to further monetize growing data traffic, bandwidth shortage or not. Almost none of these changes really benefit customers — they are simply new revenue-making schemes.

A foreshadowing of what is likely to happen under your proposal is also apparent with Comcast and Netflix. For several years subscribers had no trouble accessing online video. But when the issue of traffic compensation was reintroduced by Internet Service Providers, the upgrades to manage natural Internet growth largely stopped and the Netflix viewing experience on these ISPs deteriorated. Verizon, AT&T and Comcast all argue that a paid traffic deal would adequately compensate them to enhance the viewing experience customers already pay good money to receive with or without a paid peering arrangement with Netflix.

Money drives these debates. If an ISP properly managed their broadband infrastructure, there would be no incentive for any company to contract for a better online experience on a so-called “fast lane” because existing service would perform more than adequately. When a company cuts back on those upgrades, a market for paid prioritization appears. Customers will ultimately pay the price, primarily to ISPs that already enjoy an enormous margin selling broadband service at inflated prices.

A rising tide floats all boats, so your focus should not be as short-sighted as allowing ISPs to divide up the limited broadband highway. The FCC should instead focus on setting the conditions to hasten new competition and force existing providers to upgrade and maintain their networks for the benefit of all subscribers and content producers. The FCC must also move swiftly to cancel state bans on community broadband networks, eliminate regulations that deter broadband start-ups, and maintain enough oversight to guarantee a level playing field on which all can compete.

There is only one way to effectively accomplish all that. Reclassify broadband service the way it should have been classified all along: as a telecommunications service subject to common carrier regulations. Canada has been very successful requiring ISPs to open their last mile networks to competitors, which have allowed people to avoid compulsory usage caps. Customers have a choice of multiple providers from their local phone or cable company, giving rise to much-needed competition.

With strong Net Neutrality, consumers can reach the websites they want without interference. Ignore nonsense suggesting Net Neutrality is a government takeover or censors the Internet — two provably false assertions. In fact, Net Neutrality is the opposite.

I urge you to move with all speed towards reclassification, if only to prevent the inevitable legal challenges to any future policies built on the shakier ground of the current framework, which has not held up well under court scrutiny. I hope the voices of more than a half-million Americans contacting you on this issue will be more than enough to overcome industry objections. We are not asking for 1950s-style telephone regulations. We just want a legally affirmed platform that allows the Internet of today to continue being successful tomorrow.

Yours very truly,

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Antitrust Us: Is ComVerizablAsT&TWCDirecTV Really Best for American Broadband?

Bad enough

Bad enough

A big company needs a big name, and so what if you can’t say it out loud, so long as your check reaches the cable cartel on time to avoid those inconvenient late fees.

The shock waves of the $45 billion dollar proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable (not to mention AT&T and DirecTV) have reached as far as Great Britain where appalled editorial writers in the British press are pondering whether Washington has lost its mind or just its integrity… or a combination of both, by actually contemplating the unthinkable rebirth of the American Robber Baron.

Only instead of railroads powering America’s early 20th century economy, today its broadband. Overseas, broadband is plentiful, fast, and cheap. Back home, cable operators are hard at work in a comfortable monopoly/duopoly working on excuses to justify Internet rationing with usage caps, outrageous equipment rental fees, rate hikes, and usage billing for a product about as cheap to offer as a phone call on one of those unlimited calling plans you probably already have.

From The Economist:

“On “OUTLAW”, a drama that aired on NBC, a Supreme Court justice leaves the bench to join a law firm. In real life he might have begun working for Comcast, America’s largest cable company, which owns NBC. Many of Washington’s top brass are on Comcast’s payroll, including Margaret Attwell Baker, a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), America’s telecoms regulator, who in government had helped approve Comcast’s takeover of NBCUniversal in 2011. Even Barack Obama has Comcast ties. “I have been here so much, the only thing I haven’t done in this house is have seder dinner,” he quipped at a fundraiser hosted last year at the home of David Cohen, Comcast’s chief lobbyist.

“It helps to have influential friends, especially if you are seeking to expand your grip on America’s pay-TV and broadband markets.

“[...] The deal would create a Goliath far more fearsome than the latest ride at the Universal Studios theme park (also Comcast-owned). Comcast has said it would forfeit 3m subscribers, but even with that concession the combination of the two firms would have around 30m—more than 30% of all TV subscribers and around 33% of broadband customers. In the cable market alone (ie, not counting suppliers of satellite services such as DirecTV), Comcast has as much as 55% of all TV and broadband subscribers.

Worse

Worse

“Comcast will argue that its share of customers in any individual market is not increasing. That is true only because cable companies decided years ago not to compete head-to-head, and divided the country among themselves. More than three-quarters of households have no choice other than their local cable monopoly for high-speed, high-capacity internet.

“For consumers the deal would mean the union of two companies that are already reviled for their poor customer service and high prices. Greater size will fix neither problem. Mr Cohen has said, “We’re certainly not promising that customer bills are going to go down or even that they’re going to increase less rapidly.” Between 1995 and 2012 the average price of a cable subscription increased at a compound annual rate of more than 6%.”

Before blaming it all on President Obama’s close relationship with Comcast’s top executives, it was the Republicans in Washington that set this tragic monopolistic farce into motion. Michael Powell, President George W. Bush’s idea of the best man in America to protect the public interest at the FCC, represented the American people about as well as ‘Heckuva Job Brownie.’ Instead of promoting competition, Powell used his time to beef-up his résumé for a very cushy post-government job heading America’s top cable lobby – the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. Attwell-Baker was even more shameless, departing the FCC for her sweet new executive digs at Comcast just a short time after enthusiastically voting in favor of its NBCUniversal merger deal.

snakePowell and others made certain that Internet Service Providers would not be classified as “common carriers,” which would require them to rent their broadband pipes at a reasonable wholesale rate to competitors. The industry and their well-compensated friends in the House and Senate argued such a status would destroy investment in broadband expansion and innovation. Instead it destroyed the family budget as prices for mediocre service in uncompetitive markets soared. Today, consumers in common carrier countries including France and Britain pay a fraction of what Americans do for Internet access, and get faster speeds as well.

Letting Comcast grow even larger, The Economist argues, will allow one company to dominate not just your Internet experience, but also the content consumers access and at what speed.

“There is plenty for Mr Obama and Mr Cohen to discuss at their next dinner,” concludes the magazine. “But better yet, officials could keep their distance from Comcast, and reject a merger that would reduce competition, provide no benefit to consumers and sap the incentive to innovate.”

Considering the enormous sums of money Comcast has shown a willingness to spend on winning over supporters for its business agenda, restraint on the part of Washington will need voter vigilance, much the same way calling out non-profits who gush over Comcast while quietly cashing their contribution checks must also be fully exposed to regulators who will ultimately decide the fate of the merger.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Antitrust Us.mp4

Antitrust Us: Cartoonist Mark Fiore takes on the corporate idea that merging cable companies together creates more competition. (1:50)

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Aereo Declared Illegal by Supreme Court; 6-3 Decision is Certain to End Streaming Venture

aereo_logo

“We did try, but it’s over now.” — Barry Diller, a major investor in Aereo

The multibillion dollar broadcasting conglomerates that control over-the-air television and most cable networks got everything they wanted today from a 6-3 decision in the U.S. Supreme Court that declared Aereo, an independent provider of online over-the-air television streams, illegal.

The court’s liberal justices joined Chief Justice John Roberts and moderate Anthony Kennedy in a complete repudiation of the legality of Aereo’s business model – selling over the air television signals received by individual tiny antennas and streamed over the Internet — without seeking permission from the stations involved. In a sweeping ruling, the court found that no matter the technology involved, any effort to resell access or copies of television programs without the permission of the copyright holders is illegal. “We conclude that Aereo is not just an equipment supplier,” Justice Breyer wrote in the opinion. “We do not see how the fact that Aereo transmits via personal copies of programs could make a difference.”

Aereo CEO and founder Chet Kanojia quickly released a statement declaring the decision “a massive setback for the American consumer.”

“We’ve said all along that we worked diligently to create a technology that complies with the law, but today’s decision clearly states that how the technology works does not matter. This sends a chilling message to the technology industry,” Kanojia said. “We are disappointed in the outcome, but our work is not done. We will continue to fight for our consumers and fight to create innovative technologies that have a meaningful and positive impact on our world.”

That is news to Barry Diller, perhaps Aereo’s biggest investor. He has said for months if Aereo loses in the Supreme Court, the service will be shut down. He repeated that today on CNBC.

“We did try, but it’s over now.” Diller said.

Image: Wall Street Journal

Image: Wall Street Journal

Reed Hundt, former FCC chairman under the Clinton Administration, said despite the fact the ruling may inconvenience Aereo subscribers, the court wasn’t wrong in its decision.

“Aereo has very little chance surviving in the business and Barry Diller got his hands caught in the regulatory cookie jar,” Hundt said. “You can’t use technological tricks to bypass [cable network] rules and regulations. I think that’s a very reasonable decision.”

Observers worried about the impact the Aereo case might have on ancillary services unintentionally caught up in any broad legal language, but the court appeared to carefully avoid those complications.

The ruling leaves antenna manufacturers unaffected because antenna users simply capture over-the-air signals for reception in the home without paying the kind of ongoing subscription fees Aereo charged its customers.

The decision also protects the legality of cloud computing, DVR recordings, and other new technologies not directly related to the lawsuit. “We agree with the Solicitor General that “[q]uestions involving cloud computing, [remote storage] DVRs, and other novel issues not before the Court, as to which ‘Congress has not plainly marked [the] course,’ should await a case in which they are squarely presented,” Breyer wrote.

The court’s liberal wing shared Breyer’s opinion. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan all voted in favor of broadcasters including Walt Disney (ABC), Comcast (NBC), CBS Corp., and FOX.

Conservatives slammed the majority ruling against Aereo, claiming the court was bending over backwards for Hollywood and giant broadcasting conglomerates. Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent ripped the majority’s ruling, claiming it would “sow confusion for years to come.” Scalia predicts there will be plenty of new litigation before the courts on issues related to online transmission of copyright works as a result of today’s decision.

Although Aereo was still pre-registering customers as of this afternoon, that isn’t likely to stay true for much longer. Aereo’s only bid to stay alive is to seek licensing agreements with the stations it distributes over its service. With broadcasters’ strengthened hand, it is unlikely they will be receptive to pricing agreements that would allow Aereo to continue providing service for $8 a month. Major cable and satellite operators are signing retransmission consent agreements with volume discounts that run above $1 a month per subscriber for each television station in a local area. In most cities, that would amount to at least $5 a month, but Aereo will likely face even higher costs because it lacks access to discounts.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN Supreme Court rules against Aereo 6-25-14.mp4

CNN attempts to explain the meaning of the Aereo case to its less-informed viewers with mixed success. But the story explains why this is relevant to cord cutters. (4:41)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Supreme Court Rules Against Aereo in Landmark Case 6-25-14.flv

Bloomberg News reports the Aereo case was a decisive victory for programmers who now have a strengthened hand asking for more compensation during retransmission consent negotiations with cable and satellite providers. (1:55)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Aereo Ruling Gets Positive Response from Broadcasters 6-25-14.flv

Broadcasters called today’s victory “pro-consumer” but that is open to debate. Bloomberg News digs deeper into what this case means for DVR and cloud storage services as well. (5:26)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Aereo Violating Broadcaster Copyrights Stocks Up 6-25-14.flv

Wall Street is rewarding big television networks and station owner groups with higher stock prices after winning a decisive victory against Aereo, Bloomberg reports. (2:35)

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AT&T Piles On U-verse Junk Fees: Say Hello to the 24¢ ‘Regulatory Video Cost Recovery Charge’

We get to keep all the money!

We get to keep all the money!

AT&T has begun charging U-verse television customers a new monthly fee to cover the cost of an FCC charge now extended to IPTV providers like AT&T that used to be paid only by cable operators.

AT&T’s “Regulatory Video Cost Recovery Charge” is defined by AT&T as a new “monthly fee that is charged to each U-verse TV subscriber’s bill to recover the regulatory fee imposed on providers of Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) Service.”

The new fee is reportedly set at $0.24 a month. AT&T will collect $2.88 a year from 5.7 million television customers annually beginning June 1, 2014.

Cable operators have paid similar fees all along but have generally considered them part of the cost of doing business. AT&T wants to pass the cost directly on to its customers.

But a review of the FCC’s 2013 Fiscal Year fee schedule shows a major discrepancy between the amount AT&T intends to collect from customers and the actual cost of the fee AT&T will have to pay the FCC.

While AT&T will bank $2.88 annually from each television customer, it only has to pay the FCC $1.02 a year per subscriber — a difference of $1.86. That doesn’t sound like much until you factor in the number of AT&T U-verse TV customers. AT&T will pocket $10,602,000 a year in “regulatory cost recovery” charges it will apparently keep for itself.

That suggests AT&T has imposed another hidden rate increase on customers who already pay a range of surcharges and fees. AT&T has created so many fees, surcharges, and other ancillary charges, it has published a Billing Glossary explaining them for the benefit of confused customers. AT&T usually keeps all the money associated with these fees — most are not taxes, although some fund state initiatives.

Here are some customers may already be acquainted with:

Activation Fee
A one-time fee charged when you activate new service. It is billed in full on your first bill.

Bill Statement Fee
The Bill Statement Fee is to cover the expenses associated with providing your AT&T Long Distance charges as part of your local phone company bill.

Broadcast TV Surcharge
This surcharge is to recover a portion of the amount local broadcasters charge AT&T to carry their channels.

CA Advanced Services Fund (CASF) (California Only)
The fund is used to spur deployment of broadband facilities in un-served and underserved areas of California. Funding for the CASF program will not increase total surcharges, since the CASF surcharge will be offset by an equal reduction of the High Cost Fund-B surcharge. For billing purposes, the CASF surcharge may appear as a separate item on a bill or may be combined with the CHCF-B surcharge if the item is renamed to reflect both the “CHCF-B and the CASF.”

CA CHCF A and CA CHCF B [High Cost Fund (CHCF) Surcharges A and B] (California Only)
These surcharges subsidize basic rates for local telephone companies servicing rural areas and compensate carriers for providing basic residential service in areas where the cost exceeds the CPUC determined statewide average.

CA Relay Service and Communications Devices Fund (California Only)
A surcharge utilized by the state to provide telecommunications devices to deaf or hard of hearing consumers.

CA Teleconnect Fund (California Only)
This surcharge provides discounts on telecommunications services to qualifying schools, libraries, community-based organizations, county-owned hospital and health clinics.

All these fees and surcharges...

All these fees and surcharges…

Carrier Cost Recovery Fee
This fee helps recover costs associated with providing state-to-state and international long distance service, including expenses for national regulatory fees and programs, as well as connection and account servicing charges.

Change Fee
A charge applied if a TV service or package is downgraded or cancelled within the first 30 days of ordering.

Chicago Amusement Tax (City of Chicago Only)
A tax imposed by the City of Chicago on amusement services (i.e. paid television programming, recreational activities, etc.) provided within the city limits.

Convenience Fee
A fee applied when a customer payment is processed by a customer service representative. This fee does not apply for payments made online or through our automated phone system.

CT Community Access Support Fee (Connecticut Only)
Fee required to be imposed by AT&T upon its customers by Connecticut General Statutes in order to support community access operations.

CT Public Programming Gross Earnings Tax Recovery (Connecticut Only)
Connecticut fee imposed to support Public, Educational and Governmental (PEG) programming.

CT Video Provider Gross Earnings Tax Recovery (Connecticut Only)
Connecticut fee imposed on U-verse video service.

...and their advertised price was so low.

…and their advertised price was so low.

DEAF Surcharge
This surcharge shall be identified on the telephone bill as the “CA Relay Service and Communications Devices Fund.”

Early Termination Fee
A fee associated with early termination of one or more of your services before the end of the associated service plan term.

Federal Subscriber Line Charge
This charge was instituted in 1984 to cover the costs of a portion of the local phone network.

HD Technology Fee
A monthly fee for access to high-definition (HD) U-verse television service.

High Speed Internet Equipment Fee
A monthly fee for customers who have U-verse TV and Internet equipment.

Infrastructure Maintenance Fee (IMF)
All telecommunications carriers on a customer’s bill must collect this fee. The funds for the state IMF help to support the costs of providing and maintaining utility rights of way. Revenue from the IMF is dedicated for Personal Property Replacement Tax (PPRT) and is disbursed to all taxing districts.

In-State Connection Fee
The In-State Connection Fee helps to cover the costs AT&T is charged by your local phone company to provide you access to local phone lines.

Local Connectivity Charge
This fee helps recover increased connectivity costs associated with providing local service in your state.

Local Number Portability (LNP) Charge
A charge permitted by the FCC to recover costs of upgrading the network to provide customers the ability to keep their phone numbers when changing local service providers.

moneyLocal Video Facilities Fee
A state or local government fee to support Public Educational and Governmental (PEG) programming.

Local Video Service Franchise Fee
Fee imposed by state or local government on U-verse video service.

Minimum Monthly Usage Charge
A charge to an account that does not meet a specified minimum total amount for a particular service.

Municipal Charge
A charge to cover costs of installing telephone poles and lines, manholes, and other telephone items on public property such as city streets.

NV Universal Service Fund Surcharge (Nevada Only)
A fee imposed by the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada that supports telecommunication needs of low-income households, consumers living in high cost areas, schools, libraries, and rural hospitals. This surcharge will be based on a percentage of intrastate long distance charges associated with your U-verse Voice service and will be modified as needed to stay consistent with any required changes in fund contributions.

Number Portability Service Charge
A charge permitted by the FCC to recover costs of upgrading the network to provide customers the ability to keep their phone numbers when changing local service providers.

Receiver Fee
A monthly charge for additional U-verse receivers (set top boxes).

Regulatory Video Cost Recovery Charge
The Regulatory Video Cost Recovery Charge is the monthly fee that is charged to each U-verse TV subscriber’s bill to recover the regulatory fee imposed on providers of Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) Service.

Restoral Fee
A charge to restore service that was suspended or disconnected.

State Cost-Recovery Fee (Texas Only)
Fee/Surcharge imposed by AT&T to recover franchise costs imposed on the company by Texas law.

State Infrastructure Maintenance Fee
All telecommunications carriers on a customer’s bill must collect this fee. The funds for the State IMF help to support the costs of providing and maintaining utility rights of way. Revenue from the IMF is dedicated for Personal Property Replacement Tax (PPRT) purposes and is disbursed to all taxing districts.

Universal Connectivity Charge
The Universal Connectivity Charge is the monthly fee that is charged to each residential customer’s phone bill to recover the expenses associated with AT&T’s payments into the Universal Service Fund.

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Academic Sock Puppets for Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger; Editorials Lack Full Disclosure

Phillip "Time Warner Cable ironically debunked Lyons' advocacy of usage-based billing" Dampier

Phillip “Time Warner Cable ironically debunked Lyons’ advocacy of usage-based billing” Dampier

As part of the broader push to drive support for the merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, academics with ties to corporate-funded think tanks and the cable industry are trotting out nearly identical guest editorials appearing in newspapers around the country that attempt to educate the masses about the wonders of cable industry consolidation.

Daniel Lyons, who has written several papers supporting and endorsing the cable industry’s business agenda, is back with his helpful advice:

Consumers have more video options than ever before. Technology has eroded the lines between hardware, content and media companies. Today, Comcast’s biggest competitive threat is not other cable and satellite providers but new entertainment sources not even imaginable a decade ago. Netflix streams video online and is responsible for one-third of all Internet traffic during peak times. Apple is transforming itself from a device manufacturer into an entertainment company that delivers music, video and games instantly through a seamless customer interface. Google has expanded beyond Internet search to video services and even broadband data networks. Verizon, a traditional telephone company, recently bought the rights to stream NFL games to smartphones. Even Walmart has entered the streaming video business.

It is a challenging transaction, one that antitrust regulators should review carefully. But they should avoid rushing to judgment merely because Comcast is consolidating its position over a stagnant cable sector. Some consolidation may be necessary for cable to avoid Blockbuster’s fate and instead compete effectively in this rich, dynamic and increasingly competitive video landscape.

It is especially hard to take Mr. Lyons seriously when he claims with a straight face the cable industry is “stagnant” and on the verge of following Blockbuster into irrelevance. The only product in the cable bundle seeing flat growth is cable television. But that has not presented a difficult financial challenge because cable operators are shifting their priorities towards broadband. Just to make sure they are covered, broadband providers have raised prices and introduced equipment fees that have more than made up the difference. Despite Lyons’ prediction of doom and gloom, industry observers still find the cable business “comically profitable.”

Lyons

Lyons

In fact, the cable industry now dominates the American broadband marketplace and is well positioned to deal with any competitive threat looming on the horizon. All of the competitors Lyons mentions depend on companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable to reach customers. Cord-cutting looks much less tenable if companies like Comcast return to a regime of usage caps on their broadband accounts. Netflix, Apple, and Google cannot sustain video streaming businesses if customers fear using these services will put them over their monthly usage allowance. Sony’s forthcoming 4K video service for its video player could consume between 40-60GB per movie. Even with Comcast’s “generous” allowance of 300GB per month in its usage-capped test markets, as few as 10 movies a month will put customers over the limit, before they do anything else with their broadband connection.

Despite the threat of Internet stagnation, Lyons is a prolific writer of pro-usage cap and usage-billing studies. In at least one of those papers, he was joined by Michigan State University Professor of Information Studies Steven Wildman, also then an adviser at the Free State Foundation. Wildman was more forthcoming about where the money comes from for these studies – the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the largest cable industry lobbying and trade group in the United States.

Unfortunately for the Free State Foundation and the NCTA, Time Warner Cable inadvertently proved Lyons and Wildman’s theories wrong.

“Pricing experimentation may also help narrow the digital divide,” Lyons wrote. “By recovering more fixed costs from heavier users, firms may have more freedom to extend service at a lower rate to light users who are unable or unwilling to pay the unlimited flat rate. There is evidence that these opportunities are beginning to emerge from companies engaged in usage-based pricing.”

What actually emerged from Time Warner Cable’s tests of discounted usage pricing is a repudiation of Lyons’ theories. Time Warner Cable admitted its usage-based pricing options were so unpopular with customers, only a few thousand out of 11 million broadband customers signed up — hardly a ringing endorsement. Even income-challenged customers preferred unlimited Internet over a usage cap. Time Warner Cable give customers a choice between a cap or no cap. The others, including Comcast, don’t offer an unlimited option and repeatedly claim usage cap tests have met with little resistance from customers, as if they had a choice.

Short Title: Total Deregulation

Short Title: Total Deregulation

Other members of Free State Foundation’s Board of Academic Advisors, including Richard A. Epstein, Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, Daniel Lyons, James B. Speta, and Christopher S. Yoo advance the cable industry agenda in other ways too.

Speta submitted an Amicus Brief: ‘In the Matter of Comcast Corporation v. FCC,’ that basically argued the Federal Communications Commission “does not have jurisdiction to address most Internet regulatory issues, because whatever expansive readings such ancillary jurisdiction has received in the past are no longer tenable.”

In fact, the Free State Foundation unabashedly supports near-total deregulation of the telecommunications industry and an elimination of most FCC powers to oversee it. In comments before the House Energy & Commerce Committee, the foundation’s Board of Academic Advisers recommended:

  • Updating the Communications Act by wiping it out — a clean slate approach is needed to adopt a “replacement” regime – a new Digital Age Communications Act, which is another way of saying near-complete elimination of all current oversight and enforcement powers exercised by the FCC;
  • Lyons, among others, supports eliminating regulation designed around the concept of “in the public interest” with a near-complete deregulation of telecommunications oversight, letting marketplace competition check any bad behavior. The only regulatory activities permitted would require the FCC to show the resulting harm from lack of sufficient competition;
  • The group supports disallowing the FCC from issuing rules to prevent anti-competitive or abusive behavior until such behavior has been proven to have taken place. Any rules that result would automatically expire after a fixed number of years;
  • States would be prohibited from regulating telecommunications services in instances where states feel federal regulation is inadequate.

Ironically, some of the biggest supporters of the group’s ideas to restrict states from writing telecommunications laws seem to have no problem letting states write laws that ban community broadband networks.

And finally, how could we forget to mention Mr. Yoo, who testified in recent hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee enthusiastically supporting the merger deal, while not bothering to mention his employer, the University of Pennsylvania law school, has close ties to Comcast. In fact David Cohen, the Comcast executive who is the company’s leading voice in Washington and was the first witness at the hearing, is chairman of the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately for readers, no newspaper to date has fully disclosed these close industry ties when publishing these guest editorials. As a public service, Stop the Cap! does.
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