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Cable Industry Lobbies to Get Rid of CableCARDs: The Return of the Mandatory Set-Top Box?

Phillip Dampier April 22, 2014 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology has approved a draft bill that could effectively render current CableCARD technology obsolete  by allowing cable operators to encrypt channels and introduce new security measures that only work with the cable company’s set-top box.

Cablecard_SciAtl_3-4_view

If you look closely inside your cable set-top box, chances are good a CableCARD similar to this is installed inside. But perhaps not for long.

With strong support from the cable industry, the House Subcommittee approved the reauthorization of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) with language that would end the Federal Communications Commission’s ban on built-in descrambler set-top box equipment unavailable to competitors.

Section 629 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act requires that consumers have adequate access to alternative equipment to view multichannel video programming. In 2003, the FCC adopted the cable industry-developed CableCARD standard that would let customers view encrypted channels without leasing a traditional set-top cable box.

In fact, if you own a cable set-top box manufactured after 2007, chances are you already have a CableCARD without realizing it. It is built-in to your set-top box and decrypts and authorizes your cable television lineup. The cable industry never saw any need to incorporate CableCARDs into set-top equipment because it was designed to handle those functions without needing the extra card. But the FCC’s “integration ban” has insisted cable companies use the CableCARD with hopes it would stimulate universal support of the technology and help facilitate a breakup of the leased set-top box monopoly.

The cable industry has itself largely to blame for the FCC’s actions. Prior to 1992, some cable operators were notorious for saddling customers with expensive set-top boxes that were large and unwieldy. Cable companies regularly raised the rental price of the mandatory equipment in rate increase maneuvers and charged huge penalties when boxes were lost, stolen, or damaged.

Many cable customers never wanted the boxes, preferring “cable-ready” service, which let the television sort out the television lineup without any extra equipment.

But “Cable-ready” televisions were an impediment to the revenue-enhancing possibilities offered by digital cable television that became common in the 1990s. Existing television sets could not receive the digital channels without a set-top box and many customers avoided upgrading service because of the extra costs and equipment requirements. In other areas, signal theft pushed the industry towards encrypting more than just a few premium movie channels. In high theft areas like New York City, cable operators won permission to scramble most, if not all the cable television lineup. Customers needed boxes to receive those encrypted channels.

As early as January 2005, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association told the FCC that independent alternatives like the CableCARD were in direct “conflict with cable’s own market imperatives,” adding there was no economic incentive to support third-party equipment and adopting it would result in increased cable bills.

Powell

Powell

Now that CableCARD technology is with us, most cable companies rarely mention it unless customers directly ask. Even CableLabs, the industry engineering group that develops and markets a variety of cable industry technology, has also avoided the subject.

Without any significant backing from the cable industry, most customers never realized they had another option when the cable technician arrived with a leased set-top box in hand. Television manufacturers dropped support for the little-known technology as well.

Cable industry advancements like on-demand viewing don’t work with the standalone CableCARD, creating a disadvantage that further hurt the technology’s chances.

The cable industry argues times have changed and consumers don’t generally want CableCARDs.

NCTA president Michael Powell told Congress that more than 45 million CableCARD-enabled set-top devices are now sitting in customer homes, but only 600,000 of them were requested by cable customers for use in third-party devices. Powell argues supporting CableCARD technology means customers with a leased box are paying for redundant technology. One large cable operator claimed the average set-top box now costs an extra $40-50 to support CableCARD technology.

“Additionally, based on EPA figures, cable subscribers collectively foot the bill for roughly 500 million kilowatt hours consumed by CableCARDs each year,” said Powell. “By all measures, the costs of this misguided rule clearly outweigh its benefits.”

In the end the subcommittee agreed to a compromise by eliminating the “integration ban” that effectively keeps cable companies from switching on new security technology that might not work with CableCARDs but also gives the FCC the authority to create or authorize new independent set-top box technology ‘when needed.’

This means either the cable industry could develop a next generation of CableCARDs that work with advanced security measures or more likely the ongoing advancement of IP-delivery of television programming could make the matter moot. As the cable industry moves towards online streaming of cable channels, various third-party devices like Roku could be used to access much of the cable lineup without worrying about a CableCARD. Recording such programming for later viewing will likely require agreements with copyright-obsessed programmers, the cable industry, and manufacturers, however.

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The New Guilded Age is Pay-Per-View; Comcast-TWC Merger Like a Throwback to An Earlier Era

gildedA merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast is just one more step towards undermining our democracy, worries former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.

In a blog entry republished by Salon, Reich sees increasing evidence that the trust-busting days at the turn of the 20th century are long over, and Americans will likely have to relearn the lessons of allowing capitalism to run amuck.

It was the Republican Party of the 1890s that had the loudest voice in Washington protesting the concentration of business power into vast monopolies that had grown so large, they not only hurt consumers but threatened to undermine democracy itself.

Republican Senator John Sherman of Ohio was at the forefront of acting against centralized industrial power, which he likened to the abusive policies of the British crown that sparked America’s revolution for independence.

“If we will not endure a king as a political power,” Sherman thundered, “we should not endure a king over the production, transportation, and sale of any of the necessaries of life.”

The merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable is just the latest example America is in a new gilded age of wealth and power that no longer prevents or busts up concentrations of economic power, observes Reich.

“Internet service providers in America are already too concentrated, which is why Americans pay more for Internet access than the citizens of almost any other advanced nation,” Reich argues.

Reich

Reich

Reich worries about the implications of allowing Comcast to grow larger, considering how much the current company already invests in Washington to get the government policies it wants:

  • Comcast has contributed $1,822,395 so far in the 2013-2014 election cycle, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics — ranking it 18th of all 13,457 corporations and organizations that have donated to campaigns since the cycle began. Of that total, $1,346,410 has gone to individual candidates, including John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and Harry Reid; $323,000 to Leadership PACs; $278,235 to party organizations; and $261,250 to super PACs;
  • Comcast is also one of the nation’s biggest revolving doors. Of its 107 lobbyists, 86 worked in government before lobbying for Comcast. In-house lobbyists include several former chiefs of staff to Senate and House Democrats and Republicans as well as a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. Nor is Time Warner Cable a slouch when it comes to political donations, lobbyists, and revolving doors. It also ranks near the top.
Atwell-Baker

Atwell-Baker

The Center for Responsive Politics expanded on the revolving door issue between the cable industry and the Federal Communications Commission that will be responsible for approving the Comcast-Time Warner merger.

It found one of the most prominent travelers to be former FCC commissioner-turned Comcast lobbyist Meredith Atwell-Baker. Always a friend of the cable industry, the Republican commissioner hurried out the door two years into her four-year term after getting a lucrative job offer from Comcast in June 2011. Despite claims she stopped participating in votes relating to Comcast after getting her job offer, she was a strong supporter of Comcast’s merger with NBCUniversal and favored the cable industry’s approach towards preserving a barely noticeable feather-light regulatory touch.

Atwell-Baker never contemplated her move might be seen as a conflict of interest, but then again, it represented nothing new for Washington. At the time, the only condition limiting her was a two-year ban on lobbying the FCC. But that does not apply to Congress so Atwell-Baker spent her time as Comcast’s senior vice president of government affairs trying to influence the House and Senate on 21 bills that could affect Comcast’s bottom line.

Just as shameless — Michael Powell, who served as FCC chairman during the first term of the George W. Bush Administration. After leaving the FCC he took the lucrative position of top man at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the cable lobby. The Center found several other former FCC employees heading into the private sector, advising Big Telecom companies on how to best influence regulators:

  • Rudy Brioche, was an adviser to former commissioner Adelstein before moving to Comcast as its senior director of external affairs and public policy counsel in 2009. Brioche was so valued by the FCC, in fact, that he was brought back to join the commission’s Advisory Committee for Diversity in the Digital Age in 2011;
  • James Coltharp, who served as a special counsel to commissioner James H. Quello until 1997, is now a Comcast lobbyist;

comcast twcOnce out of the public sector for several years, some lobbyists see their value deteriorate as they get increasingly out of touch with the latest administration in power. So several seek a refresh, temporarily leaving their lobbying job to return to public sector work.

The Center offered David Krone as a potential example. Krone formerly held leadership and lobbying positions with companies like AT&T, TCI Communications and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. After 2008, he was hired by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to advise him on telecommunications matters. Today he is Reid’s chief of staff. If and when Reid leaves office, Krone can always join the parade of ex-Hill staffers back to the lucrative world of lobbying.

Will elected officials give a receptive ear to Comcast’s arguments in favor of its merger? Most likely, considering every member of the Senate Judiciary Committee (except deal critic Sen. Al Franken), has recently received campaign contributions from the cable giant, according to OpenSecrets:

gilded-age.gjf_Comcast PAC donations to Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats

  • Chuck Schumer, New York: $35,000
  • Patrick Leahy, Vermont, Chairman: $32,500
  • Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island: $26,500
  • Chris Coons, Delaware: $25,000
  • Dick Durbin, Illinois: $23,000
  • Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota: $22,500
  • Dianne Feinstein, California: $18,500
  • Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut: $11,500
  • Mazie Hirono, Hawaii: $5,000
  • Al Franken, Minnesota: $0

Comcast PAC donations to Republicans

  • Orrin Hatch, Utah: $30,000
  • Chuck Grassley, Iowa, Ranking Member: $28,500
  • John Cornyn, Texas: $21,000
  • Lindsey Graham, South Carolina: $13,500
  • Jeff Sessions, Alabama: $10,000
  • Mike Lee, Utah: $8,500
  • Ted Cruz, Texas: $2,500
  • Jeff Flake, Arizona: $1,000

Reich thinks its time to return to the trust-busting days of President Teddy Roosevelt, who found the transportation infrastructure of the 20th century and the fuel used to power it increasingly controlled by a handful of giant players that abused monopoly power to set unjustifiable prices and suppress competition. Getting Congress, increasingly flush with now-unlimited corporate money, to agree to its own refresh a century later may prove a tougher sell.

 

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The Washington Post’s Delusional Support of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger Debunked

corporatewelfareIf you have started to confuse the Washington Post editorial page with that of the Wall Street Journal, you are not alone.

Under the stewardship of Fred Hiatt, WaPo’s editorial opinions have grown increasingly anti-consumer and pro-corporate at home and decidedly neoconservative abroad.

It’s the same newspaper that wholeheartedly supported the merger of Comcast and NBC-Universal in 2010. Let’s check whether they called that one right:

Entities that compete with NBC-owned cable channels fear that Comcast will relegate them to hard-to-find channel locations. Consumer advocates warn that Comcast will use its newfound power to raise subscription rates and stifle new voices on television and the Internet.

The same newspaper reported last week that Comcast refused to let Back9Network, a golf oriented network in direct competition with Comcast-owned Golf Channel, on its cable systems.

For years, Bloomberg TV — in direct competition with Comcast-owned CNBC — has been stuck in Channel Siberia, in some areas like Chicago dumped between Comcast’s promotional “barker” channel and “Leased Access.” CNBC enjoys Ch. 29, certain to attract more viewers than Bloomberg’s Ch. 102.

As Stop the Cap! reported yesterday, no cable company raises cable television rates more than Comcast, blaming programming rate increases that in several cases originate with Comcast-owned cable networks.

Regulators should scrutinize the proposed merger but should be skeptical of the critics’ claims. [...] Advocacy groups have been poor prognosticators of the effects of large media mergers.

The Washington Post’s editorial accuracy record has more than a few blemishes, from its 2003 declaration Colin Powell’s “evidence” of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was “irrefutable,” to suggestions that a wedding of Comcast and NBC Universal wouldn’t hurt anyone because the FCC was ready to manage any problems without pesky mandates or overbearing pre-conditions.

The FCC already requires cable operators to deal fairly with competitors. Its rules would require Comcast to give competitors access to NBC content on “reasonable” and “non-discriminatory” terms. The company would also be required to negotiate in good faith about carrying non-NBC channels. Competitors who believed that they were harmed by unfair dealing could have their complaints adjudicated by the agency. Critics of the Comcast-NBCU merger claim that these mechanisms are ineffective and slow. But the breakdown of the complaint system should not be used as an excuse to impose onerous conditions on one company. Instead, critics should push for an overhaul of the system.

The Bloomberg case, now three years old, remains unresolved. That should tell readers something about just how quickly the FCC gets around to dealing with these kinds of complaints. Comcast has been able to argue its decision to bury Bloomberg and keep Back9Network off its cable systems are examples of ‘good faith, reasonable decision-making that doesn’t discriminate.’ It sued to quash Net Neutrality, critical for online video competition, and won.

The Post editorial amusingly insists that Comcast’s merger plans should not be interrupted because of an ineffective complaint system that can’t or won’t promptly deal with Comcast’s ongoing abuse of the very non-discriminatory rules the editors declare as a reason to support the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger.

Many of the same fears of domination and manipulation were raised with the 2001 merger of AOL and TimeWarner; that megadeal crumbled after a few years. Comcast and GE, which will retain a 49 percent stake in NBCU, should be allowed to proceed, and regulators should do their jobs and watch the newly formed company carefully.

Phillip "The Post's Naivete is Showing" Dampier

Phillip “The Post’s Naivete is Showing” Dampier

The 2001 merger of AOL and Time Warner came at the last gasp of the dot.com boom. As the New York Times noted, “In May of 2000, the dot.com bubble began to burst and online advertising began to slow, making it difficult for AOL to meet the financial forecasts on which the deal was based. The world began moving quickly to high-speed Internet access, putting AOL’s ubiquitous dial-up service in jeopardy.”

The final unraveling of AOL Time Warner came about because the combined company, highly dependent on AOL (and its stock value), could not sustain its business model when nobody could figure out how to get paid for content in the online world. AOL’s dial-up Internet access business was also rapidly in decline as the country started moving towards broadband.

“The consumer has access to everything and now it’s going to be on a handheld device, so what I call the rolling thunder of the Internet started actually to eat its own, which was AOL,” writes the Times. “AOL was the Google of its time. It was how you got to the Internet, but it was using some old media business ideas that were undone by the Internet itself, and that’s why Google came along.”

The same sad story is not true for Comcast or Time Warner Cable (which was spun off from Time Warner, Inc. as an independent company as part of a restructuring in 2009.)

Both cable companies are in a better place than AOL-Time Warner:

  • AOL relied on dial-up and reseller access to some broadband providers — neither sufficiently lucrative to sustain AOL’s dot.com-days value. Comcast/TWC own their own broadband networks;
  • Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse are the only significant multi-city broadband competitors for the cable industry. U-verse remains challenged by its technological limitations and Verizon stopped expanding FiOS. Google Fiber has a totally insignificant market share and is likely to stay that way for several years. Google Fiber provides no competition in the northeast where Comcast and Time Warner Cable dominate;
  • Comcast and Time Warner Cable both oppose community-owned broadband competition and Time Warner has successfully managed to push legislation virtually banning network expansion in several states;
  • Comcast will both own and control the pipes and a significant amount of the content that crosses its broadband networks. At the time of the AOL-Time Warner merger, online video competition did not exist in a meaningful way.
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Verizon Wireless to Acquire Central California’s Golden State Cellular

golden_state_cellular_logo_2The cell phone provider serving Yosemite National Park and the surrounding California counties of Tuolumne, Calav­eras, Amador, Alpine and Mari­posa has been acquired by Verizon Wireless.

The independent Golden State Cellular provides cell service in rural areas of the Mother Lode and cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia, largely bypassed by larger carriers since 1989.

Verizon had maintained a minority interest in the cellular company for several years and provided roaming service for the company outside of its home areas.

GSC operates as a partnership between several regional independent telephone companies.

Verizon would provide funding for 4G LTE upgrades and potentially expand coverage in tourist areas around the region.

The acquisition is awaiting FCC approval.

 

 

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Surprise: Some Alabama Customers Unhappy About AT&T’s Experiment Ending Landline Service

att-logo-221x300AT&T customers in Carbon Hill, Ala. received an unwelcome surprise in their mailbox recently when AT&T informed them they will be part of an experiment ending traditional landline service in favor of a Voice over IP or wireless alternative.

Affected customers are involuntary participants in what AT&T calls an “exciting opportunity for our customers and for our company,” but many residents want no part of it.

The Wall Street Journal reports Carbon Hill city clerk Janice Pendley says some people in the former mining town are not pleased.

“Some of them like their landline, and they like it just the way it is,” she says.

AT&T’s experiment will force new and existing customers to switch to its more-expensive U-verse broadband platform, use a mobile phone, or a home landline replacement that works over AT&T’s cellular network. The FCC has granted AT&T permission to impose its experimental plan to end traditional landline service in two communities where regulatory protections for landline customers are weak to non-existent — Alabama’s Carbon Hill and Delray Beach, Fla.

Carbon Hill is a small town of around 880 households in extreme western Walker County. It is the kind of rural town AT&T would likely never consider for a U-verse upgrade. AT&T embarked on a second major push to extend U-verse into more communities last year, but also indicated it would strongly advocate for a wireless replacement for its landline network in the rest of its service areas. Because Carbon Hill is an experiment, AT&T will offer U-verse to at least part of the community regardless of the usual financial Return on Investment requirements AT&T usually imposes on its U-verse expansion efforts.

carbon hillAT&T is pushing forward despite the fact it  has no idea how it will offer service to at least 4% of isolated Carbon Hill residents not scheduled to be provided U-verse and not within an AT&T wireless coverage area. There are also no guarantees customers will be able to correctly reach 911, although AT&T says the technology “supports 911 functionality.” Serious questions among consumer advocates remain about whether the replacement technology will support burglar alarms, pacemakers and even systems used by air-traffic controllers.

The difficulties service Carbon Hill relate to its rural makeup and income profile. In Delray Beach, it is all about customer demographics. Half of the city is home to residents over 65 years old — the group most likely to prefer their existing landline service. Many are likely to be unhappy about a transition to new technology that will not work in the event of power interruptions, will require the installation of new equipment, or will be tied to a wireless platform that some say reduces the intelligibility of telephone conversations and often introduces audio artifacts like echo, background noise, and dropouts.

In both cities, customers only offered wireless-based service will no longer have access to DSL or wired broadband service of any kind. The wireless alternative from AT&T comes at a high cost and a low usage allowance.

The benefits to AT&T are unquestionable, however. The company will win almost universal deregulation as a Voice over IP or wireless telephone provider. Legacy regulations on customer service requirements, pricing, and obligations to provide affordable phone service to any customer that requests it are swept away by the new technologies. Competitors are also worried AT&T will be able to walk away from regulations governing open and fair access to AT&T’s network.

ip4carbon hillThe Wall Street Journal reports:

The all-Internet protocol “transition holds many promises for consumers, but losing access to affordable voice and broadband services cannot be part of that bargain,” wrote Angie Kronenberg, general counsel of Comptel, in a letter to the FCC last month on behalf of the small-carrier trade group, several companies and public-interest groups.

AARP said it believes AT&T’s plan has “numerous problems.” The technology might not be reliable enough or fail when calling 911 in an emergency, the advocacy group for seniors told regulators in its comment letter. The FCC is reviewing hundreds of comments received in response to AT&T’s request.

EarthLink piggybacks on the “incumbents as little as economically possible” and has laid nearly 30,000 miles of fiber-optic cables throughout the U.S. to help it reach more than a million customers, says Rolla Huff, a former EarthLink chief executive. Still, the company needs access to the connections built by AT&T and Verizon into buildings.

Telecom carriers such as Windstream in Little Rock, Ark., and sellers of broadband data services like EarthLink and XO Communications LLC, of Herndon, Va., have had the right to buy last-mile access at regulated prices since the last major overhaul of federal telecom laws in 1996.

tw telecomIf AT&T ends its traditional network, those competing service providers will have to negotiate with AT&T for access at whatever price AT&T elects to charge.

A preview of what is likely to happen has already been experienced by TW Telecom, an independent firm selling phone and Internet services to businesses over more than 30,000 miles of fiber lines. But that fiber network means nothing if a customer’s last mile connection is handled by a local phone company no longer subject to regulated pricing and access rules.

In Tampa, where Verizon has deployed FiOS as an unregulated replacement for its older, regulated copper-based network, TW Telecom learned first hand what this could ultimately mean:

Rochester Telephone Corporation was born in 1921 after a merger between the Rochester Telephonic Exchange, a branch of the Bell Company of Buffalo and locally-owned independent Rochester Telephone Company, which was not allowed to use Bell's long distance network.

Rochester Telephone Corporation was born in 1921 after a merger between the Rochester Telephonic Exchange, a branch of the Bell Company of Buffalo and locally owned independent Rochester Telephone Company, which was not allowed to use Bell’s long distance network.

TW Telecom approached Verizon in 2012 to seek last-mile access to a Tampa, Fla., building being converted into a bank from a restaurant. Verizon had installed only FiOS at the building.

Verizon said no, telling TW Telecom to build its own connection or pay Verizon thousands of dollars to do the job. TW Telecom declined to pay and lost the customer’s business.

“When it happens, it’s devastating,” says Kristie Ince, who oversees regulatory policy at TW Telecom. Similar snarls have cost the company at least six customers since then. Other carriers say they have had similar clashes.

In Illinois, Sprint’s business phone network has run into a barricade manned by AT&T. Sprint needs AT&T to interconnect calls placed on Sprint’s network intended for AT&T’s customers. The two companies cannot agree on an asking price under the deregulation scheme so Sprint converts its Voice over IP calls to older technology still subject to regulation just so calls will successfully reach AT&T’s customers. AT&T promptly converts those calls back to Voice over IP technology as it completes them.

AT&T said it has “no duty” to connect its Internet protocol traffic with Sprint’s.

If the FCC keeps IP-based traffic deregulated, if and when the old landline network is decommissioned, AT&T will have the last word on access, potentially putting competitors out of business.

Our great-great grandparents experienced similar problems in the early days of telephone service, when high rates from the local Bell telephone subsidiary provoked local competition. But Bell companies routinely refused to handle calls placed on competitors’ networks, forcing customers to maintain a telephone line with both companies to reach every subscriber. Additionally, only Bell-owned providers had access to the long distance network – a competitive disadvantage to competing startups.

Regulatory changes, a handful of mergers and the eventual establishment of the well-regulated Bell System eventually solved problems which threaten to return if AT&T has its way.

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Comcast Gobbledygook: “We Don’t Have Data Caps, We Have Data Thresholds”

The Plain English Campaign's Golden Bull Award is given to companies that prefer gobbledygook over plain English.

The Plain English Campaign’s Golden Bull Award is given to companies that prefer gobbledygook over plain English.

Comcast is outraged by slanderous suggestions it has data caps on its broadband service.

In response to the scathing report from the Writers Guild of America that pleads for the FCC to block the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, Comcast has accused to WGA of getting its facts wrong and being nothing more than a meddling union.

The WGA writes in their filing with the FCC:

The WGAW has also joined Public Knowledge in asking the FCC to enforce the condition that Comcast not use “caps, tiers, metering, or other usage-based pricing” to treat affiliated network traffic differently from unaffiliated traffic. Comcast has violated this condition by exempting its online video service, Xfinity Streampix, from its own data caps, while the viewing of content by other, unaffiliated video services such as Netflix or YouTube would count against a user’s data cap. The violation of this merger condition is a clear threat to competition from online video distributors, and the FCC should respond by requiring Comcast to stop exempting its Streampix service from data caps.

Comcast pounced on the WGA filing, calling it inaccurate.

Comcast-Logo“We don’t have data caps — and haven’t for about two years,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast’s vice president of government communications. “We have tested data thresholds where very heavy customers can buy more if they want more — but that only affects a very small percentage of our customers in a few markets.”

Until 2012, Comcast had a uniform usage cap of 250GB a month, above which a customer risked having their broadband service suspended. In 2013, the usage allowances were back, reset at 300GB a month and rolled out to a series of expanding “test markets” that today include Huntsville and Mobile, Ala., Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Ga., Central Kentucky, Maine, Jackson, Miss., Knoxville and Memphis, Tenn., and Charleston, S.C.

nonsenseCustomers who exceed this allowance won’t have their broadband service suspended, they will just get a higher bill, as Comcast charges $10 for each additional 50GB of usage.

In contrast, Time Warner Cable neither has a data cap or a data threshold. Stop the Cap! made sure that didn’t happen when Time Warner attempted to impose its own usage limits back in 2009. We successfully organized protests sufficient to get Time Warner executives to back off and shelve the idea. If Comcast takes over, Time Warner Cable customers will likely eventually face Comcast’s “data thresholds,” which are a distinction without much difference. Whatever you call it, it’s a limit on how much a customer can use Comcast’s already-expensive broadband service before bad things happen.

The WGA and Comcast get along about as well as oil and water, so the back and forth is to be expected. The Writer’s Guild also fiercely opposed Comcast’s merger with NBCUniversal. But when it comes to who is playing fast and loose with the truth, it isn’t the group that writes for a living. Comcast’s doublespeak about data caps is no better than calling The Great Recession a periodic equity retreat. It isn’t fooling anyone.

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Media Concentration: FCC Closes Competing Local TV Station ‘Partnership’ Loopholes

Phillip Dampier April 2, 2014 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 2 Comments
WHAM and WUHF are now both located at WHAM's facilities in Henrietta, N.Y.

WHAM and WUHF are now both located at WHAM’s facilities in suburban Rochester, N.Y. WHAM now produces WUHF’s newscasts.

Ever wonder why some local television stations air newscasts produced by another competing station?

When your local ABC station’s evening news ends up on a local FOX station, it is usually because the two have signed a joint agreement to let one station represent the other in making programming decisions and selling advertising.

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler believes this growing trend represents an end run around the agency’s rules limiting how much control a single major media company may have in any particular community. On Monday Wheeler joined two Democratic commissioners and voted to ban the practice.

Wheeler said the vote against joint agreements represented “a win for common sense,” and preserved the FCC’s intent to make sure viewers have a diverse mix of news, information and programming. In several small and medium cities, viewers were instead getting the same newscast on competing stations and just one or two media companies made all the programming decisions for local viewers.

FCC media ownership rules prevent TV station owners from owning stations reaching more than 39 percent of the national TV audience, owning more than a single top-four network station in a market and owning more than two TV stations in a market. They also prevent a local newspaper from buying a local TV station.

But station owners found they could evade those rules and save money by turning over the production of costly locally produced programming like news and community affairs to another station, and in some cases even moving operations into another station’s building, while still holding the station’s license. In some markets, one company like Sinclair or Nexstar can end up owning a local network affiliate, a CW or MyNetworkTV station, and have a joint agreement to sell advertising and program another network affiliate.

Sinclair Exploits Loophole to Build a Media Empire

Owned by Sinclair

Owned by Sinclair

One good example of this practice can be found in the 78th largest television market in the United States — Rochester, N.Y.

Ten years ago, WROC (CBS), WHEC (NBC), WOKR (now WHAM) (ABC), and WUHF (FOX) each maintained their own news teams and ad sales departments. The first station to drop its own news was WUHF. Station owner Sinclair fired the news staff and signed an agreement with Nexstar’s WROC to produce a newscast for the station instead. WROC’s reporters could now be seen on two different stations.

In early 2013, WHAM was acquired by Deerfield Media, which has a whisker-thin separation between itself and Sinclair. The Wall Street Journal reported that Deerfield’s owner, Stephen Mumblow, was Sinclair CEO David Smith’s former personal banker. All of its stations are operated by Sinclair, despite being licensed to Deerfield.

Operated by Sinclair

Operated by Sinclair

Media consolidation critics say that is a blatant end run around the FCC’s ownership rules and violates local station limits.

Rochester viewers noticed a change on Jan. 1 of this year, when WUHF dropped WROC’s newscasts and began airing WHAM news instead. WUHF is now co-located in WHAM’s offices and despite the fact WHAM is owned by Deerfield, all of WHAM’s news and sales team are Sinclair employees. Sinclair now owns or controls Rochester’s CW, ABC, and FOX affiliates. Nexstar still owns WROC and Hubbard Broadcasting owns WHEC.

Nationwide, Sinclair owns, programs, or provides sales services to 167 television stations in 77 markets. In 2011, it owned 58 stations.

Smith

Smith

Sinclair is not a “hands-off” media player either. Sinclair’s CEO David Smith has regularly forced his conservative political views into his station’s newscasts.

Smith calls himself a family values man, but his 1996 arrest and conviction in a prostitution sting suggests otherwise. Smith was arrested for picking up a prostitute who performed what police called an “unnatural and perverted sex act” on him as he drove down the highway in a company-owned Mercedes.

As part of his plea agreement, Smith had to perform court-ordered community service. Smith subcontracted that out to his Baltimore station’s newsroom employees, ordered to produce a series of reports on a local drug counseling program, which Smith used to satisfy his sentence. That did not go over well with local reporters and at least one judge.

“I really hated the way he handled our newsroom and what he expected his reporters to do after his arrest,” LuAnne Canipe, a reporter who worked on air at Sinclair’s flagship station, WBFF in Baltimore, from 1994 to 1998, told Salon. “A Baltimore judge called me up,” she recalls. “He wasn’t handling the case, but he called to tell me about the arrangement and asked me if I knew about it. The judge was outraged. He said, ‘How can employees do community service for their boss?’”

Canipe left as the work atmosphere at Sinclair rapidly deteriorated.

Hyman

Hyman

“Let’s just say the arrest of the CEO was part of a sexual atmosphere that trickled down to different levels in the company,” Canipe told Salon. “There was an improper work environment. I think that because of what he did there was a feeling that everything was fair game,” says Canipe, who says she chose to leave Sinclair in 1998. She says that she once complained to management about another Sinclair employee, who had engaged in audible phone sex inside a station conference room, but that no action was taken against the employee.

How Sinclair Uses Its Stations to Push a Political Agenda

But Sinclair’s most controversial interference in local news operations came days before the 2004 presidential election, when Sinclair ordered its stations to air a highly charged documentary critics called a propaganda hit piece against Democratic candidate John Kerry.

“Stolen Honor: Wounds that Never Heal,” was the brainchild of Carlton Sherwood, a disgraced former reporter for a Washington, D.C. station that was later forced to donate $50,000 and air a lengthy retraction after Sherwood falsely claimed that the veterans responsible for creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall were misappropriating contributions. The charges proved baseless and at least one veteran signed a sworn statement claiming Sherwood had a political ax to grind, calling the project that “liberal memorial” and a “black gash.” Sherwood reportedly wanted the memorial to speak to the righteousness of the Vietnam War and focused most of his reporting on critics who felt the memorial looked like “a wailing wall.”

Sinclair owned/operated stations now carry news from conservative Newsmax and the Washington Times on their websites.

Sinclair owned/operated stations now carry news from conservative Newsmax and the Washington Times on their websites.

Sherwood’s one-sided anti-Kerry documentary created a firestorm of criticism that reached all the way to Wall Street. Sinclair faced advertiser boycotts, petitions to yank its stations’ licenses, and angry investors who wanted Sinclair to steer clear of controversy that was bad for business.

Since then, Sinclair’s conservative credentials are still apparent, although more subtle. Top-rated WHAM’s local news now features headlines from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times and the fiercely conservative Newsmax. Many Sinclair stations are also still required to air conservative political commentaries featuring Sinclair’s Mark Hyman during their newscasts.

Sinclair’s “government is bad” philosophy is found in its franchised “Waste Watch” series, which also airs during station newscasts. Sinclair claims the feature investigates and exposes how viewers’ local tax dollars are spent. But news staff at several Sinclair stations find the series distasteful because it frames its reporting around the idea that local government is generally incompetent and wasteful. Media critics suggest that kind of framed reporting does not belong in a straightforward newscast.

Underlining Sinclair’s Waste Watch conservative bona fides is the prominent presence of conservative political groups including the CATO Institute, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), and the National Taxpayers Union (NTU) on Sinclair station websites. CAGW has historically maintained ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council and was a former member of ALEC. NTU President Duane Parde is the former executive director of ALEC, and NTU remains an ALEC member.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Despite the meddling from Sinclair’s headquarters, many Sinclair stations’ news teams try to maintain balance around Sinclair’s political agenda. WHAM, for example, buries Hyman’s commentaries on its extended morning news aired on WUHF instead of airing them in its primary newscast on WHAM. In Rochester, “Waste Watch” has also had some unintended consequences. WHAM has used the franchise to extensively report on various scandals surrounding county contracts involving the highest levels of Monroe County government, long dominated by the Republican party.

With more than 100 “joint agreements” in place at stations around the country — primarily in news-scarce medium and smaller television markets, the declining number of people making decisions about what is newsworthy and how it is reported has become increasingly worrisome for media consolidation critics. Television news dominates audiences as newspaper readership continues to decline. Critics suggest the impact of media consolidation can already be seen at companies like Sinclair.

FCC Gives Stations Two Years to Unwind Agreements; Republican Commissioners Upset

Under the new rules, a broadcaster that accounts for more than 15% of another station’s advertising sales would be seen by the FCC as the de-facto licensee of that station. In dozens of markets, this new rule will put companies like Sinclair and Nexstar in violation of the FCC’s ownership limits. The FCC is giving stations two years to disconnect their joint agreements or apply for a waiver if they can prove the partnership serves the public interest.

Deerfield Media is likely to be one of the hardest hit media groups, although critics contend the partnership with Sinclair was created primarily to evade the rules.

Although the rules change received support from all three Democrats, the commission’s two Republicans voiced strong opposition and claimed that the FCC was regulating a solution for a non-problem.

Commissioner Ajit Pai didn’t seem interested in the views of media consolidation critics. Instead, he looked for complaints from advertisers forced to buy ad time through the joint sales agreements. Finding none, he declared the case to end the joint agreements “embarrassingly weak.”

“This is the dog that didn’t bark,” Pai said.

Pai recommended station owners sue in federal court to overturn the FCC’s new rules. Pai is on the record opposing most ownership limits of any kind.

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FCC Expands 5GHz Wi-Fi Band, Allows Higher Powered, Faster Wireless Service

Phillip Dampier April 1, 2014 Public Policy & Gov't, Wireless Broadband No Comments
The 5GHz spectrum at issue used to require limited transmitting power and indoor-use only.

The 5GHz spectrum at issue used to require limited transmitting power and indoor-use only.

The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to expand the 5GHz unlicensed Wi-Fi band with an extra 100MHz of spectrum that will open the door to faster connections with less interference.

Manufacturers will also be permitted to raise the transmitting power wireless devices can use in the 5.15-5.25GHz band, lifting restrictions that were in place to protect mobile and fixed satellite services that occupy nearby frequencies. The relaxed rules also now permit outdoor use of 5GHz spectrum. Previously only indoor devices were allowed to occupy those frequencies.

“This change will have real impact, because we are doubling the unlicensed bandwidth in the 5 GHz band overnight,” FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said. “The power of unlicensed goes beyond on-ramps to the Internet and off-loading for licensed [mobile] services,” she said. “It is the power of setting aside more of our airwaves for experiment and innovation without license. It is bound to yield new and exciting developments. It is also bound to be an economic boon.”

Manufacturers are expected to support the extra frequencies and increase transmitting power on the next generation of Wi-Fi equipment likely to be on sale by the end of the year, including more 1Gbps Wi-Fi routers.

Wireless ISPs will also be permitted to use the 5GHz spectrum to expand available bandwidth for customers as use of the Internet continues to grow. Congestion from shared Wi-Fi connections can present problems for small wireless providers because connection speeds will slow for customers.

The FCC also opened up an extra 65MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband and other licensed wireless users. The expanded AWS band between 1695-2180MHz will be shared with federal agency users that now occupy some of the frequencies.

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Tricky TV Antics: Wyoming, Nevada TV Stations Moving to Delaware, New Jersey

Phillip Dampier March 31, 2014 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments
KJWY-TV was a station in Jackson, Wyo. But now it serves Philadelphia, Pa.

KJWY-TV was a station in Jackson, Wyo. But now it serves Philadelphia, Pa.

Two small television stations in Wyoming and Nevada with audiences in the thousands have packed up and are moving to bigger cities after exploiting a loophole in FCC rules.

KJWY, Channel 2 in Jackson, Wyo. used to relay television programs from a Casper station for the benefit of the 9,500 people living in the Teton County community. The station operated with just 178 watts — the lowest powered digital VHF station in the country. KVNV, Channel 3 in Ely, Nev., originally relayed Las Vegas’ NBC affiliate for the benefit of 4,200 locals. Both stations were purchased at a very low-cost by a mysterious partnership of buyers back east.

Today, KJWY has a new call sign – KJWP. It’s still on Channel 2, but the station is now licensed to operate from Wilmington, Del, with its transmitter located just across the border in Philadelphia. It’s one of the rare few television stations in the eastern half of the country that have “K” call letters usually assigned to stations west of the Mississippi River. KVNV is expected to follow to its new home in Middletown Township, Monmouth County, N.J., later this year. Its transmitter will have nothing but open water between northern New Jersey and nearby New York City — its intended target.

The two stations’ original combined audiences likely never exceeded 10,000, because both stations had very limited range for their transmitters which served two very small communities. But in the big cities of New York and Philadelphia, the stations can now reach a potential audience north of ten million and collect advertising revenue the stations in Wyoming and Nevada could only dream about.

PMCM, LLC., obviously had this in mind when it acquired the two stations in 2009. The principals behind PMCM already own six Jersey Shore radio stations in Monmouth and Ocean County under the name Press Communications, LLC.

How Congress and the FCC Opened the Door

wor PMCM discovered a little-known law that was originally introduced to help spur the launch of VHF television stations serving small Mid-Atlantic states shadowed by nearby large cities. In 1982, New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley attached an amendment to an unrelated tax bill that required the FCC to automatically renew the license of any commercial VHF station that agrees to move to a state without one. The new law superseded nearly all the FCC’s other licensing regulations. At the time the law was passed, the only two states that were without any commercial VHF stations were Delaware and New Jersey.

That summer, RKO General, embroiled in a major scandal over illegal billing irregularities and deceiving regulators, thought it could save its New York station – WOR-TV – from threatened license revocation by agreeing to move from New York City to Secaucus, N.J. In agreeing to move the station, WOR would also expand much-needed coverage of New Jersey news and current affairs. But viewers barely noticed and by 1987 RKO General’s bad behavior got them booted out of the broadcasting business altogether after what FCC administrative law judge Edward Kuhlmann called a pattern of the worst case of dishonesty in FCC history. WOR’s new owners changed the call sign to WWOR-TV and the station’s home remains in Secaucus.

Two things happened after the mess with WOR. Bradley’s law remained on the books and America’s adoption of digital over the air television for full power stations meant channel number changes for many stations by the time the transition was complete in 2009. WWOR-TV relocated to UHF channel 38 (while still promoting itself as Channel 9) and Delaware’s only remaining VHF station is non-commercial WHYY Channel 12, a PBS station better known as hailing from Philadelphia. Once again, New Jersey and Delaware were without commercial VHF stations, a fact that did not escape the notice of PMCM.

Me-TV Launches in Philadelphia and New York

KJWP_LogoAfter a lengthy court battle with the FCC, PMCM successfully moved and relaunched KJWP, Channel 2, on March 1 as Philadelphia’s Me-TV affiliate. Although the transmitter power was raised, the station’s digital VHF signal still doesn’t reach very far, so its owners invoked “must-carry” with area cable systems, which means cable systems must carry the channel so long as the station does not ask for any payment.

The station’s reach is defined by the FCC far beyond its actual broadcast signal. Officially, the station can demand cable carriage as far south as Dover, Del., as far west as Lancaster, Pa., almost all of southern New Jersey and into northern New Jersey. Today, Comcast and other cable systems carry KJWP across Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley. Verizon FiOS is adding the station by this weekend and it is also available via satellite TV local station packages. Unlike larger stations fighting to be paid by cable systems, KJWP is happy to be carried by all without charge because it can sell advertising to a much larger potential audience. It plans to produce local programming, including news, which opens up even more advertising opportunities.

KVNV remains on the air in Ely for now as a My Family TV affiliate, showing a mix of family friendly and religious programs. But its days as a Nevada broadcast station are numbered. KVNV will officially sign-off in Ely for good in a few months and relaunch operations across the New York City market as New York’s official Me-TV affiliate. Like with KJWP, KVNV will keep its original call letters and invoke must-carry, which means the station is likely to appear on northern New Jersey Comcast systems, Time Warner Cable in Manhattan and other boroughs, as well as Cablevision on Long Island and across parts of Brooklyn.

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Wireless ISP Fends Off Frontier’s DSL Expansion in Indiana; Telco Denied Expansion Money

onlyinternetA wireless Internet Service Provider serving rural northeastern Indiana has successfully challenged Frontier Communications’ application for federal funds to introduce DSL service in the region.

Great American Broadband (GAB) challenged Frontier’s request for funds from the Connect America Fund to wire homes in the Wells County community of Uniondale. It turns out the Bluffton-based wireless ISP already provides service to the community, making Frontier’s request redundant.

uniondaleGAB’s OnlyInternet serves around 3,000 customers in Adams, Allen, Blackford, Delaware, Elkhart, Grant, Howard, Huntington, Jay, LaGrange, Madison, Randolph, Tipton, Wabash, Wells and Whitley counties. Founded in 1995, the wireless ISP uses a network of towers to offer a high-speed service comparable to Wi-Fi to residents who generally cannot get broadband from any cable or telephone company.

The FCC found Uniondale was already sufficiently served by OnlyInternet and denied funds earmarked for Frontier’s proposed expansion into the community of about 300. Wireless ISPs have had a hard time successfully defending their turf from phone companies that can subsidize expansion of their DSL service with federal tax money or funds provided by other telephone ratepayers. Many wireless ISPs are family owned and financed by private bank loans and small investors. They do not appreciate subsidized competition, particularly from the Connect America Fund, which is generally only available to telephone companies.

Frontier“We have to look out for the interests of our members,” Rick Harnish, executive director of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association in Ossian, told the Journal Gazette. The group alerted OnlyInternet of Frontier’s FCC filing for rural dollars. “The Connect America Fund is a subsidy program set up for phone companies, which is why wireless providers are left out. We continue lobbying for equitable treatment, but we’re a small voice compared to the bigger companies.”

Rural ISPs have taken about a $10 million chunk out of Frontier’s application for $71.5 million in Connect America Funds by successfully challenging the phone company’s applications around the country. In general, Connect America Funding for broadband expansion is available only to unserved areas where customers cannot get broadband service.

In northern Indiana, Frontier can use the federal money to offer services in parts of Huntington, Jay and Wells counties.

Frontier is still free to use its own funds to wire Uniondale for DSL service, and customers might welcome the competition.

OnlyInternet currently provides wireless service at speeds ranging from 512/128kbps ($24.95) to 3Mbps/768kbps ($64.95). Until last year, Frontier generally provided most rural communities with up to 3Mbps broadband, but has upgraded service to speeds ranging from 6-40Mbps. Most of the higher speeds are available only in urban areas.

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