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Approval of AT&T-DirecTV Merger Expected Next Week

The headquarters building of U.S. satellite TV operator DirecTV is seen in Los Angeles, California May 18, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

The headquarters building of U.S. satellite TV operator DirecTV is seen in Los Angeles, California May 18, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – AT&T Inc’s proposed $48.5 billion acquisition of DirecTV is expected to get U.S. regulatory approval as soon as next week, according to people familiar with the matter, a decision that will combine the country’s No. 2 wireless carrier with the largest satellite-TV provider.

The Department of Justice, which assesses whether deals violate antitrust law, has completed its review of the merger and is waiting on the Federal Communications Commission to wrap up its own, according to three people familiar with the matter.

The FCC, which reviews if deals are in public interest, is poised to approve the deal with conditions as early as next week, according to three other people familiar with the matter.

All the sources asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak with the media. An AT&T spokeswoman and FCC spokesman declined comment. Justice Department representatives were not immediately available for comment.

AT&T’s merger with DirecTV, announced in May 2014, would create the country’s largest pay-TV company, giving DirecTV a broadband product and AT&T new avenues of growth beyond the maturing and increasingly competitive wireless service.

The deal has been expected to pass regulatory muster in contrast with the rival mega-merger between cable and Internet providers Comcast and Time Warner Cable, which was rejected in April largely over the combined companies’ reach into the broadband market.

The FCC and AT&T have been in negotiations over conditions for the merger for several weeks, the people said, adding that none of the conditions are controversial enough to break the deal.

Those conditions are expected to include assurances that both middle-class and low-income Americans have access to affordable high-speed Internet, including an offering of broadband subscriptions as a standalone service without a TV bundle, according to two of the people.

AT&T has earlier committed to expand access to broadband service in rural areas and to offer standalone Internet service at speeds of at least 6 Megabits per second to ensure consumers can access rival video services online, such as Netflix.

FCC officials are also considering ways to ensure that the conditions are properly enforced in the future, possibly through a third-party monitor, according to the two sources.

The FCC is also weighing how to ensure the merged companies abide by the so-called net neutrality rules, which regulate how Internet service providers manage traffic on their networks.

AT&T has promised to abide by net neutrality principles such as no-blocking of traffic, but is challenging in court the FCC’s newest net neutrality regulations that have expanded the agency’s authority over various deals between Internet providers and content companies.

FCC reviewers are weighing what net neutrality-related conditions to apply to the merger and how to address the possibility that the court throws out the latest rules, the two sources said.

Reported by: Alina Selyukh and Diane Bartz

D.C. Court of Appeals Announces Expedited Schedule for Net Neutrality Legal Challenges

DC Circuit Court

DC Circuit Court

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has agreed to begin contemplating the legality of the Federal Communications Commission’s Net Neutrality rules on an expedited schedule, with written briefs from the cable and wireless industry challenging the rules due by July 30.

The schedule could allow the court to begin hearing oral arguments about whether Net Neutrality and Title II reclassification of broadband as a telecommunications service are legal as early as late fall, with a decision coming in 2016.

Both sides advocated for the court to make its decision as soon as possible.

To help the judges, the court has ordered all parties to limit the length of their written briefs and avoid using telecom jargon at all costs. The judges expect to read a series of at least 13 written briefs from all parties in the case before oral arguments are heard and has imposed limits ranging from 2,000-33,000 words on each submission to cut the workload.

Those objecting to Net Neutrality are not challenging the FCC’s rules prohibiting blocking of websites, paid prioritization or speed throttling. They are more worried about Title II reclassification, which gives the FCC wide latitude to oversee the broadband business. They are also challenging the vaguely defined “catch-all” general Internet conduct standard which allows the FCC to regulate if providers attempt end runs around specific rules to achieve comparable results. The FCC argues it needs the latitude to respond to a rapidly changing Internet. Internet providers also have a track record of finding and exploiting loopholes, something the FCC wants to limit.

Cable Companies Demand Satellite Providers Pay Up; Customer Bills Expected to Rise

directvTwo cable industry trade associations have asked the Federal Communications Commission to start collecting more fees from satellite television operators to cover the FCC’s regulatory expenses — a move satellite providers argue will cause consumers to suffer bill shock from increased prices.

The American Cable Association and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association have filed comments with the FCC asking the commission to impose the same regulatory fees on satellite subscribers that cable companies are likely to pay in 2015 — 95 cents a year per subscriber.

The FCC has proposed initially charging satellite operators $0.12 this year per customer, or about one cent a month. The two cable lobbying groups want that 12 cent fee doubled to 24 cents and then raised an additional 24 cents each year until it reaches parity with what cable companies pay.

dish logo“The FCC is off to a good start by declaring that Dish and DirecTV should pay regulatory fees to support the work of the agency’s Media Bureau for the first time and proposing setting the initial per subscriber fee at one cent per month in 2015,” said Matthew Polka, president and CEO of the ACA. “But given the FCC proposes that cable operators pay nearly 8 cents per month, per customer, it must do more, including requiring these two multibillion dollar companies with national reach to shoulder more of the fee burden next year that is now disproportionately borne by smaller, locally based cable operators.”

The satellite industry has filed their own comments with the FCC objecting to any significant fee increases, claiming it will cause consumers to experience bill shock and that satellite companies pose less of a regulatory burden on the FCC in comparison to cable operators.

The ACA counters that even if the satellite companies were required to pay the full 95 cents this year — the same rate small independent cable operators pay — it would add a trivial $0.08 a month to customer bills — less than a 0.4% increase on the lowest priced introductory offer sold by satellite providers.

fccThe ACA reminded the FCC it did not seem too concerned about rate shock when it imposed a 99 cent fee on IPTV providers like AT&T U-verse in 2014 without a phase-in.

DirecTV and Dish argue the FCC has jurisdiction over cable’s television, phone and Internet packages — a more complex assortment of services. Satellite providers currently only sell television service, so charging the same fee cable companies pay would be disproportionate and unfair, both claim.

Despite the sudden introduction of the IPTV fee last year, AT&T managed to use the opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade.

AT&T added a “Regulatory Video Cost Recovery Charge” on customers’ bills after the FCC assessed a 99 cent fee on IPTV services like U-verse in 2014. But AT&T charged nearly three times more than what it actually owed. U-verse customers were billed $0.24 a month/$2.88 in 2014 for “regulatory fee cost recovery.” But AT&T only paid the FCC $0.99 for each of its 5.7 million customers. It kept the remaining $1.89 for itself, amounting to $10,773,000 in excess profit.

This year the FCC expects to collect $0.95 from each U-verse subscriber, a four cent decline.

FCC Likely to Toss First Formal Net Neutrality Complaint Against Time Warner Cable

The nation’s first Net Neutrality complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission accuses Time Warner Cable of refusing to provide the best possible path for its broadband customers to watch a series of high-definition webcams covering San Diego Bay.

sundiego_banner

Commercial Network Services’ CEO Barry Bahrami wrote the FCC that Time Warner Cable is degrading its ability to exercise free expression by choosing which Internet traffic providers it directly peers with and which it does not:

I am writing to initiate an informal complaint against Time Warner Cable (TWC) for violating the “No Paid Prioritization” and “No Throttling” sections of the new Net Neutrality rules for failure to fulfill their obligations to their BIAS consumers by opting to exchange Internet traffic over higher latency (and often more congested) transit routes instead of directly to the edge provider over lower latency peering routes freely available to them through their presence on public Internet exchanges, unless a payment is made to TWC by the edge provider. These violations are occurring on industry recognized public Internet peering exchanges where both autonomous systems maintain a presence to exchange Internet traffic, but are unable to due to the management policy of TWC. As you know, there is no management policy exception to the No Paid Prioritization rule.

By refusing to accept the freely available direct route to the edge-provider of the consumers’ choosing, TWC is unnecessarily increasing latency and congestion between the consumer and the edge provider by instead sending traffic through higher latency and routinely congested transit routes. This is a default on their promise to the BIAS consumer to deliver to the edge and make arrangements as necessary to do that.

The website responsible for initiating the complaint shows live webcam footage of the San Diego Bay.

The website responsible for initiating the complaint shows live webcam footage of the San Diego Bay.

Bahrami’s complaint deals with interconnection issues, which are not explicitly covered by the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules that prohibit intentional degradation or paid prioritization of network traffic. For years, ISPs have agreed to “settlement-free peering” arrangements with bandwidth providers that exchange traffic in roughly equal amounts with one another. To qualify for this kind of free interconnection arrangement, CNS’ webcams must be hosted by a company that receives about as much traffic from Time Warner Cable customers as it sends back to them — an unlikely prospect.

As bandwidth intensive content knocks traffic figures out of balance, ISPs have started demanding financial compensation from content producers if they want performance guarantees. This is what led Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to insist on paid interconnection agreements with the traffic monster Netflix.

Time Warner Cable is calling on the FCC to dismiss Bahrami’s letter on the grounds it is not a valid Net Neutrality complaint.

“[The FCC should] reject any complaint that is premised on the notion that every edge provider around the globe is entitled to enter into a settlement-free peering arrangement,” Time Warner Cable responds. That is a nice way of telling CNS it doesn’t get a premium pathway to Time Warner Cable customers for free just because of Net Neutrality rules.

CNS250X87Bahrami responds Time Warner’s attitude is based on a distinction without much difference because he is effectively being told CNS must pay extra for a suitable connection with Time Warner to guarantee his web visitors will have a good experience.

“This is not a valid complaint, and there is no way the FCC is going to side with them,” Dan Rayburn, a telecom analyst at Frost & Sullivan and the founding member of the Streaming Video Alliance told Motherboard. “The rules say you can’t block or throttle, but there’s no rule that says Time Warner Cable has to give CNS settlement-free peering. I don’t see how the FCC could possibly say there’s a violation here.”

The FCC made it clear in its Net Neutrality policy it intends “to watch, learn, and act as required, but not intervene now, especially not with prescriptive rules” with respect to interconnection matters.

That makes it likely Bahrami’s complaint will either be tossed out on grounds it is not a Net Neutrality violation or more likely dismissed but kept in what will likely be a growing file of future cases of interconnection disputes between ISPs and content producers. If that file grows too large too quickly, the FCC may be compelled to act.

Sling TV CEO Fears Providers Will Jack Up Broadband Prices to Kill Online Video

DishLogo-RedIn the last three years, several Wall Street analysts have called on cable and telephone companies to raise the price of broadband service to make up for declining profits selling cable TV. As shareholders pressure executives to keep profits high and costs low, dramatic price changes may be coming for broadband and television service that will boost profits and likely eliminate one of their biggest potential competitors — Sling TV.

For more than 20 years, the most expensive part of the cable package has been television service. Cable One CEO Thomas Might acknowledged that in 2005, despite growing revenue from broadband, cable television still provided most the profits. That year, 64% of Cable One’s profits came from video. Three years from now, only 30% will come from selling cable TV.

While broadband prices remained generally stable from the late 1990’s into the early 2000’s, cable companies were still raising cable television prices once, sometimes twice annually to support very healthy profit margins on a service found in most American homes no matter its cost. Despite customer complaints about rate hikes, as long as they stayed connected, few providers cared to listen. With little competition, pricing power was tightly held in the industry’s hands. The only significant challenge to that power came from programmers demanding (and consistently winning) a bigger share of cable’s profit pie.

The retransmission consent wars had begun. Local broadcast stations, popular cable networks, and even the major networks all had hands out for increased subscriber fees.

Rogers

Rogers

In the past, cable companies simply passed those costs along, blaming “increased programming costs” in rate hike notifications without mentioning the amount was also designed to keep their healthy margins intact. Only the arrival of The Great Recession changed that. New housing numbers headed downwards as children delayed leaving to rent their own apartment or buy a house. Many income-challenged families decided their budgets no longer allowed for the luxury of cable television and TV service was dropped. Even companies that managed to hang on to subscribers recognized there was now a limit on the amount customers would tolerate and the pace of cable TV rate hikes has slowed.

For a company like Cable One, the impact of de facto profit-sharing on cable television service was easy to see. Ten years ago, only about $30 of a $70 video subscription was handed over to programmers. This year, a record $45.85 of each $81 cable TV subscription is paid to programmers. The $35.50 or so remaining does not count as profit. Cable One reported only $10.61 was left after indirect costs per customer were managed, and after paying for system upgrades and other expenses, it got to keep just $0.96 a month in profit.

To combat the attack on the traditional video subscription model, Cable One raised prices in lesser amounts and began playing hardball with programmers. It permanently dropped Viacom-owned cable networks to show programmers it meant business. Subscribers were livid. More than 103,000 of Cable One’s customers across the country canceled TV service, leaving the cable company with just over 421,000 video customers nationwide.

Some on Wall Street believe conducting a war to preserve video profits need not be fought.

Prices already rising even before "re-pricing" broadband.

U.S. broadband providers already deliver some of the world’s most expensive Internet access.

Analysts told cable companies that the era of fat profits selling bloated TV packages is over, but the days of selling overpriced broadband service to customers that will not cancel regardless of the price are just beginning.

Cablevision CEO James Dolan admitted the real money was already in broadband, telling investors Cablevision’s broadband profit margins now exceed its video margins by at least seven to one.

The time to raise broadband prices even higher has apparently arrived.

new street research“Our work suggests that cable companies have room to take up broadband pricing significantly and we believe regulators should not oppose the re-pricing (it is good for competition & investment),” wrote New Street Research’s Jonathan Chaplin in a recent note to investors. The Wall Street firm sells its advice to telecom companies. “The companies will undoubtedly have to take pay-TV pricing down to help ‘fund’ the price increase for broadband, but this is a good thing for the business. Post re-pricing, [online video] competition would cease to be a threat and the companies would grow revenue and free cash flow at a far faster rate than they would otherwise.”

If you are already a triple play cable television, broadband, and phone customer, you may not notice much change if this comes to pass, at least not at first. To combat cord-cutting and other threats to video revenue, some advisers are calling on cable companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter to re-price the components of their package. Under one scenario, the cost of cable television would be cut up to $30 a month while the price of Internet access would increase by $30 or more a month above current prices. Only customers who subscribe to one service or the other, but not both, would see a major change. A cable TV-only subscriber would happily welcome a $50 monthly bill. A broadband-only customer charged $80, 90, or even 100 for basic broadband service would not.

broadband pricesNeither would Sling CEO Roger Lynch, who has a package of 23 cable channels to sell broadband-only customers for $20 a month.

“They have their dominant — in many cases monopolies — in their market for broadband, especially high-speed broadband,” Sling CEO Roger Lynch told Business Insider in an interview, adding that some cable companies already make it cheaper for people to subscribe to TV and broadband from a cable company than just subscribe to broadband.

A typical Sling customers would be confronted with paying up to $100 a month just for broadband service before paying Sling its $20 a month. Coincidentally, that customer’s broadband provider is likely already selling cable TV and will target promotions at Sling’s customers offering ten times the number of channels for as little as a few dollars more a month on top of what they currently pay for Internet access.

Such a pricing change would damage, if not destroy, Sling TV’s business model. Lynch is convinced providers are seriously contemplating it to use “their dominant position to try to thwart over the top services.”

At least 75% of the country would be held captive by any cable re-pricing tactic, because those Americans have just one choice in providers capable of meeting the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband.

Even more worrying, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler may be responsible for leading the industry to the re-pricing road map by repeatedly reassuring providers the FCC will have nothing to do with price regulation, which opens the door to broadband pricing abuses that cannot be easily countered by market forces.

Lynch has called on the FCC to “protect consumers” and “make sure there’s innovation and competition in video.”

Unfortunately, Wheeler may have something else to prove to his critics who argued Net Neutrality and Title II oversight of broadband would lead to rampant price regulation. Wheeler has hinted repeatedly he is waiting to prove what he says — an allusion to hoping for a formal rate complaint to arrive at the FCC just so he can shoot it down.

AT&T Slapped With $100 Million FCC Fine for Deceiving Customers About “Unlimited Data”

fccAT&T violated the transparency rules of the Federal Communications Commission not less than a million times by allegedly deceiving customers about an unlimited data plan that was speed throttled to unusability after as little as 3GB of usage a month. As a result, the FCC today fined AT&T $100,000,000.

“Consumers deserve to get what they pay for,” said FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. “Broadband providers must be upfront and transparent about the services they provide. The FCC will not stand idly by while consumers are deceived by misleading marketing materials and insufficient disclosure.”

From the Notice of Apparent Liability:

Based on the facts and circumstances before us, we find that AT&T apparently willfully and repeatedly violated Section 8.3 of the Commission’s Rules by:

  1. using the term “unlimited” in a misleading and inaccurate way to label a data plan that was in fact subject to prolonged speed reductions after a customer used a set amount of data; and
  2. failing to disclose the data throughput speed caps it imposed on customers under the MBR policy.

In short:

“Unlimited means unlimited,” said FCC Enforcement Bureau chief Travis LeBlanc. “As today’s action demonstrates, the Commission is committed to holding accountable those broadband providers who fail to be fully transparent about data limits.”

This is the largest proposed fine in FCC history, according to a senior FCC official. The official told the Wall Street Journal AT&T made billions of dollars off the practice.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Thousands of AT&T customers have complained about the practice and feel misled about the company limiting an unlimited use plan.

“A provider cannot announce something in large type that it contradicts in fine print; such practices would be inherently misleading to consumers, and, therefore contrary to both the spirit and letter of the Open Internet Transparency Rule,” the FCC notice states.

The FCC’s two minority Republican commissioners strongly disagreed with the action against AT&T. Ajit Pai used his dissent to cut and paste large sections of AT&T’s website in defense of the company.

“Because the Commission simply ignores many of the disclosures AT&T made; because it refuses to grapple with the few disclosures it does acknowledge; because it essentially rewrites the transparency rule ex post by imposing specific requirements found nowhere in the 2010 Net Neutrality Order; because it disregards specific language in that order and related precedents that condone AT&T’s conduct; because the penalty assessed is drawn out of thin air; in short, because the justice dispensed here condemns a private actor not only in innocence but also in ignorance, I dissent,” Pai wrote.

att-logo-221x300Commissioner Michael O’Rielly dissented because he felt the FCC was overreacting to AT&T’s throttling program and assumed harm was done to every customer affected by it.

“I firmly believe that the Commission must take the necessary steps to enforce its regulations,” O’Rielly wrote. “But, it is equally important that the Commission’s enforcement procedures be fair and equitable. Licensees must have faith in the process and trust that the government is working in a sound and just manner, instead of vilifying them, or demanding that they incriminate themselves.”

“We will vigorously dispute the FCC’s assertions,” said Michael Balmoris, an AT&T spokesman. “The FCC has specifically identified this practice as a legitimate and reasonable way to manage network resources for the benefit of all customers. We have been fully transparent with our customers” and exceeded FCC disclosure requirements, Balmoris said.

AT&T only imposes its speed throttle on unlimited data plan customers who exceed 3GB of usage. Customers on usage-based billing plans do not face a speed throttle after exceeding 3GB of usage.

Net Neutrality Now in Full Effect; The Internet Is Still Working, Providers Are Still Getting Rich

netneutralityThe Federal Communications Commission’s Net Neutrality rules took full effect Friday, after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit denied petitions for a temporary stay of the rules made in separate lawsuits by AT&T and other telecom industry opponents.

“This is a huge victory for Internet consumers and innovators!,” FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler exclaimed in a written statement. “There will be a referee on the field to keep the Internet fast, fair and open. Blocking, throttling, pay-for-priority fast lanes and other efforts to come between consumers and the Internet are now things of the past. The rules also give broadband providers the certainty and economic incentive to build fast and competitive broadband networks.”

The Net Neutrality rules govern both wired and wireless Internet services, and most observers predict the biggest impact will be felt by wireless customers. Wireless providers have experimented with speed throttling, priority access, data caps, and so-called “sponsored data” exempt from usage caps or usage billing. Some of these practices are now illegal under Net Neutrality rules and others are subject to increased scrutiny by the FCC.

Providers generally have not opposed rules blocking online censorship, paid prioritization, and selective speed throttling, but they are vehemently against the FCC’s catch-all “Internet general conduct rule,” that effectively allows the agency to oversee issues like interconnection agreements that connect content producers with each ISP, data caps/usage billing, and issues like zero-rating — providing an exemption from an ISP’s usage allowance for preferred content partners.

Providers argue the FCC could block innovative pricing and usage-based billing they argue customers would like to have.

Other industry groups claim Net Neutrality will lead to a significant decline in investments towards broadband upgrades and expansion. But Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge, now in the middle of a multi-billion dollar merger deal with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, disagreed, noting it will have no effect on Charter’s investment plans for its own cable systems or those it may acquire.

“The big news today is that there is no news,” said Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy for Free Press. “With Net Neutrality protections in place, there are no dramatic changes to the way the Internet works. Internet users are logging onto a network that’s open, as they’ve long expected it to be.”

Charter CEO: Net Neutrality No Deterrent to System Upgrades, Investment

Rutledge

Rutledge

Despite claims from Net Neutrality critics that increased oversight of the broadband business would lead to reduced investment and upgrades, Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge said the new rules would have no effect on Charter’s investment plans.

Last week Rutledge sat down with FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler to discuss Charter’s proposed merger with Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable. He was joined by Catherine Bohigian, Charter’s executive vice president for governmental affairs and FCC general counsel Jonathan Sallet and senior counselor Phil Verveer.

“Mr. Rutledge explained that the transactions will bring substantial consumer benefits, including providing a better Internet experience for watching on-line video, gaming, and using other data-hungry apps at more competitive prices, and that the mergers will not harm competition,” according to a one page filing with the FCC disclosing the meeting.

Despite repeated claims from pro-industry policy wonks that Net Neutrality and Title II oversight of cable broadband would cause operators to reconsider their investment plans, Rutledge made it clear Charter’s spending plans are unaffected.

“Mr. Rutledge agreed that the Commission’s decision to reclassify broadband Internet access under Title II has not altered Charter’s approach of investing significantly in its network to deliver cutting edge services including: the fastest entry-level broadband service (60 Mbps) with unlimited usage; out-of-home Wi-Fi hotspots; a state-of-the art, cloud-based user guide, allowing search and discovery across linear, video on demand and online content; open, non-proprietary downloadable security; and an innovative video app with hundreds of live and downloadable channels and the ability to display over-the-top content seamlessly on the television,” the disclosure continues.

Charter’s chief executive said the company supports Open Internet rules, including no throttles or blocks on lawful content and no paid prioritization. But he does worry about regulatory uncertainty while the FCC explores its expanded powers of oversight.

Hometown Newspaper of Charter Communications Warns Time Warner Deal Not in the Public Interest

Editor’s Note: This editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reprinted in its entirety. It comes from a newspaper that has covered Charter Communications since its inception. The Post-Dispatch reporters are also some of Charter’s subscribers — the cable company serves all of metropolitan St. Louis. Charter has never been received particularly well in St. Louis and in other cities where it provides generally mediocre service. Communities across Missouri that have endured poor cable and broadband service have recently taken a serious look at doing something about this by building their own public broadband networks as an alternative. But big money telecom interests, especially AT&T, have found it considerably less expensive to lobby to ban these networks from ever getting off the ground than spending the money to upgrade networks to compete.

charter twc bhOn May 15, the last day of this year’s session of the Missouri Legislature, House Bill 437 finally was assigned to a committee, where it promptly died. Given the power of the American Legislative Exchange Council, it may well be back next year.

HB 437, sponsored by Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, was full of gobbledygook about “municipal competitive services,” but its effect would have been to condemn Missourians to ever-higher prices for broadband Internet service. Cities would have been forbidden from establishing their own broadband services to compete with private operators, thus holding down prices.

ALEC, which wines and dines state lawmakers and then gets them to pass pro-business “model legislation” in their states, had succeeded in getting restrictions on public Internet providers in 20 states. But in February, the Federal Communications Commission struck down North Carolina’s ALEC-inspired law, so the future of other such laws is uncertain.

About 22 percent of Missourians are still regarded as “underserved,” having no reliable access to broadband service of at least 25 megabits per second — what’s needed to stream video without lags. About 1 in 6 Missourians have only one wired access provider to choose from. More than 400,000 Missourians have no wired broadband at all.

Missouri is ranked 38th “most connected” in the nation by the federal-state Broadband Now initiative. In the 21st century, this is like being underserved by railroads in the 19th century or power lines in the early 20th. In parts of rural Missouri, it’s hard to do business, which helps explain why HB 437 died in committee.

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

The basic question is whether companies that invest in high-speed Internet infrastructure should be able to charge whatever they can get away with, or whether broadband service should be treated as a public utility. If it’s the latter, as the FCC determined in February, then government must make sure it’s affordable.

Which brings us to Charter Communications proposed $56 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable and its $10.4 billion acquisition of Bright House Networks. Both deals were announced May 26; both will need approval from the FCC and the Justice Department’s antitrust regulators.

In St. Louis, we have a love-hate relationship with Charter, a homegrown company built atop what was once Cencom Cable. It has dominated the cable TV market here almost as long as there’s been a cable market.

Charter customers endured years of poor service, its bankruptcy, its legal challenges, its ownership and management changes. Just when it got itself together, in 2012, the headquarters was moved from Des Peres to Stamford, Conn., though it retains a significant presence here.

Today our little Charter is a big fish; the Time Warner and Bright House deals would make it the nation’s second-largest cable company, with 24 million customers, behind only Philadelphia-based Comcast, with 27 million.

But cable TV no longer drives cable TV. Internet-based video services, like YouTube and Netflix, have revolutionized the way people, particularly younger people, watch TV. When cable companies first started connecting customers to the Internet through the same cables that delivered TV programming, it was regarded as a nice add-on business. Now broadband delivery is seen as a far bigger part of the future than providing TV programs.

missouriIndeed, when Comcast tried to acquire Time Warner last year, the dominance (nearly 60 percent of the market) that the combined company would have had over broadband service caused federal regulators to look askance. Comcast abandoned its bid in April.

By contrast, a Charter-Time Warner-Bright House combination (it will do business as Spectrum) will control 30 percent of the broadband market. Charter Spectrum will have 20 million broadband subscribers, compared with 22 million for Comcast.

So what can customers expect? Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge has promised “faster Internet speeds, state-of-the-art video experiences and fully featured voice products, at highly competitive prices.”

This begs the question, competitive with whom? Comcast? Mom-and-pop operations that can’t afford the infrastructure? Municipal service providers who are being ALEC’d out of business?

Neither Charter nor Time Warner has particularly good customer service ratings (though to be fair, Charter is miles ahead of where it used to be, at least in St. Louis). Still, Charter will take on lots of debt to finance the deal, much of it in high-yield junk bonds. The broadband business provides leverage. As analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson told the Wall Street Journal: “Broadband pricing is almost an insurance policy for cable operators, in that if all else fails, you’ve always got the option to raise broadband rates.”

America wouldn’t let a private operator own 30 percent of its roads and highways. It wouldn’t allow two of them to control half the electricity. If broadband Internet service is a public utility, it must be regulated strictly.

The lesson is old as the hills: The free-marketeers who talk most passionately about competition are generally in the business of trying to eliminate it. Charter and Time Warner are both members of ALEC.

The Charter-Time Warner deal clearly is not in the public interest. The upside for shareholders is huge. The upside for Charter executives is even bigger. But it’s hard to see how Charter’s customers would see much benefit at all.

Analysis: Charter Communications Will Acquire Time Warner Cable/Bright House – What It Means for You

charter twc bhAs expected, Charter Communications formally announced its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in a deal worth, including debt, $78.7 billion.

The deal brings Dr. John Malone, a cable magnate during the 80s and 90s, back into the top echelon of cable providers. Malone orchestrated today’s deal as part of his plan to dramatically consolidate the American cable industry. Malone’s Liberty Broadband Corp. assisted in pushing the deal across the finish line with an extra $5 billion (supplied by three hedge funds) in Charter stock purchases.

The companies expect to win regulator approval and close the deal by the end of 2015.

“No one has ever had a better sense of the multichannel world than John [Malone],” Leo Hindery, a veteran cable-industry executive, told the Wall Street Journal. “Obviously he sees in Charter and Time Warner Cable a way to perpetuate a legacy that is unrivaled.”

But the man who may have made today’s deal ultimately possible was FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. Last week, he personally called cable executives at Charter and Time Warner Cable to reassure them the FCC was not against all cable mergers just because it rejected one involving Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

But Wheeler warned he would only approve deals that were in the public interest.

“In applying the public interest test, an absence of harm is not sufficient,” Mr. Wheeler said.

Consumer groups are wary.

“The cable platform is quickly becoming America’s local monopoly broadband infrastructure,” said Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner. “Charter will have a tough time making a credible argument that consolidating local monopoly power on a nationwide basis will benefit consumers. Indeed, the issue of the cable industry’s power to harm online video competition, which is what ultimately sank Comcast’s consolidation plans, are very much at play in this deal.”

“Ultimately, this merger is yet another example of the poor incentives Wall Street’s quarterly-result mentality creates,” Turner added. “Charter would rather take on an enormous amount of debt to pay a premium for Time Warner Cable than build fiber infrastructure, improve service for its existing customers or bring competition into new communities.”

new charter

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Inside the Charter Plan to Buy Time Warner Cable 5-26-15.flv

A panel of Wall Street analysts discusses the chances for Charter’s plan to buy Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Some analysts continue to frame regulator approval over video programming costs, while others argue broadband is the key issue the FCC and Justice Department will consider when reviewing the merger. From Bloomberg TV. (5:36)

A heavily indebted Charter Communications will not own the combined entity free and clear. At the close of the deal, Time Warner Cable shareholders will own up to 44% of the new company, Liberty Broadband up to 20%, Advance/Newhouse (Bright House) up to 14%. Charter itself will own just 22%, but will be able to leverage voting control over the entity with the help of Malone’s Liberty, which will get almost 25% of the voting power. That will give Charter just enough of a combined edge to control the destiny of “New Charter.”

As with the aborted deal with Comcast, lucrative golden parachutes are expected for Time Warner’s top executives who will be departing if the deal wins approval. In their place will be Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge and a board compromised of 13 directors (including Rutledge himself). Seven directors will be appointed by independent directors serving on Charter’s board, two designated by Advance/Newhouse and three from Liberty Broadband, again giving Rutledge and Malone effective control.

Current Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers will see major changes if Charter follows through on its commitment to bring Charter’s way of doing business to both operators.

No More Analog Television

all digitalCharter told investors at today’s merger announcement it will accelerate the removal of all analog television signals on TWC and Bright House cable TV lineups to free capacity for faster Internet products, more HD channels, and “other advanced products.”

Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus told investors earlier this month TWC was already well-positioned with excess spectrum from moving lesser-watched analog channels to digital service and using “Switched Digital Video,” a technology that conserves bandwidth by only sending certain cable channels into neighborhoods where customers are actively watching them. This allowed Time Warner Cable customers to avoid renting a cable box for lesser-watched, cable-connected televisions in the home.

Charter’s plan requires a cable box on every connected television, at an added cost. The standard lease rate for the digital decoder box is $6.99 per month, and those customers on the lowest basic tier will likely receive at least two devices for up to two years for free, or five years for customers on Medicaid. Customers who subscribe to higher tiers of service or premium channels may receive only one device for free for one year before the monthly lease rate applies. For a home with an average of three connected televisions, this will eventually cost an extra $21 a month. DVR boxes cost considerably more.

No More Modem Lease Fee, But Only Two Choices for Internet Service

The good news is Charter does not apply any modem lease fees and there is a good chance if you already purchased your own modem, Charter will continue to let you use it. The bad news is that if you were used to sticking with a lower-speed broadband tier to save money, those days are likely coming to an end. Charter’s “simplified” menu of broadband options cuts Time Warner’s six choices and Bright House’s five options to just two:

  • 60/4Mbps for Spectrum Internet ($59.99)
  • 100/5Mbps for Internet Ultra ($109.99)

Charter_Spectrum_Mobile_Internet-finalThis is likely to be a red flag for regulators concerned about broadband affordability. Although it is likely Charter may offer concessions by grandfathering existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers under their current plans, Charter has nothing comparable to Time Warner’s “Everyday Low Price Internet” for $14.99 a month or a 6Mbps Basic broadband alternative far less expensive than Charter’s entry-level Internet tier. Bright House customers are not likely to experience something similar. The entry-level 15Mbps broadband-only plan is $65 a month without a promotion, according to Bright House.

Charter is rumored to be testing speed boosts for those two tiers for deployment in areas where they face fiber competitors. The first phase would raise Spectrum speeds to 100/25Mbps and Ultra to 300/50Mbps with plans to further increase speeds when DOCSIS 3.1 arrives — likely to 300/50Mbps for Spectrum and 500/300 for Ultra, at least where Google Fiber, U-verse with GigaPower, and Verizon FiOS offers competition.

Recently, Charter has followed Time Warner Cable’s marketing script and is actively promoting the fact the company has no data caps on broadband service, but Charter had a history of loosely enforced “soft caps” for several years in the recent past, so we’re not convinced data caps are gone for good at Charter.

Pricing & Service

billCharter enjoys a higher rate of revenue per customer than either Time Warner or Bright House, which is a sign customers are paying more. It is likely Charter’s reduced menu of choices is responsible for this. Although customers do get a better advertised level of service, they are paying a higher price for it, with no downgrade options. Ancillary equipment rental fees for television set-top boxes are also a likely culprit.

Charter also tells investors its merger with Time Warner and Bright House will bring “manageable promotional rate step-ups and rate discipline” to both companies. That means Charter will likely be less generous offering promotions to new and existing customers. Like Time Warner and Bright House, Charter will gradually raise rates on customers coming off a promotion until they eventually reset a customer’s rates to the regular price. But while Time Warner, in particular, was receptive to putting complaining customers back on aggressively priced promotions after an old promotion ended, Charter is not.

Charter customers tell us the company’s customer service department is notoriously inconsistent and promotional rates and offers can vary wildly. For some, Charter only got aggressive on price after they turned in their cable equipment and closed their accounts.

As far as service is concerned, CEO Thomas Rutledge has managed significant improvements while at Charter. What used to rival Mediacom in Consumer Reports’ annual ranking of the worst cable companies in America is now ranked number nine (Bright House took fourth place, Time Warner Cable: 12th).

But the presence of Malone in this deal, even peripherally, is a major concern. Malone-run cable companies are notorious for massive rate increases and poor customer service. Sen. Al Gore routinely called his leadership style of Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), since sold to Comcast, the Darth Vader of a cable Cosa Nostra and Sen. Daniel Inouye from Hawaii once remarked in a Senate oversight hearing that Malone’s executives were a “bunch of thugs.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Charter CEO Comfortable With Price Paid for Time Warner 5-26-15.flv

Watch Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge stumble his way through an answer to a simple question: What are the public benefits of your merger with Time Warner Cable that the deal with Comcast didn’t offer? Did you like his answer? (5:28)

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