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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Chairman Wheeler,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours very truly,

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

Bad enough

Bad enough

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

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

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

From The Economist:

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

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

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

Worse

Worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lyons

Lyons

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

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

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

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

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

Short Title: Total Deregulation

Short Title: Total Deregulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately for readers, no newspaper to date has fully disclosed these close industry ties when publishing these guest editorials. As a public service, Stop the Cap! does.
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GOP Senators Attack FCC on Sweeping Away Municipal Broadband Bans, Citing “State’s Rights”

Cruz Control

Cruz Control

A group of Republican senators are warning the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission he’d better not touch statewide bans on community broadband networks.

In a letter sent to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, Republican Sens. Deb Fisher, Ron Johnson, Ted Cruz, Mike Enzi, John Barrasso, Pat Roberts, Lamar Alexander, John Cornyn, Tom Coburn, Tim Scott and Marco Rubio slammed Wheeler for his willingness to override or ignore state laws co-written by cable and telephone companies that banish municipal broadband from providing any competition.

“The insinuation that the Federal Communications Commission will force taxpayer-funded competition against private broadband providers — against the wishes of the states — is deeply troubling,” said the senators. “Inserting the commission into states’ economic and fiscal affairs in such a cavalier fashion shows a lack of respect for states’ rights,” they said.

Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, and other operators are among the campaign contributors of the nine senators.

Echoing the sentiment of the cable and phone companies, the Republicans called community owned broadband “an unnecessary and risky government liability” and warned Wheeler there would be consequences if he was serious about ignoring the state laws, many enacted with the assistance of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

“State political leaders are accountable to the voters who elect them, and the Commission would be well-advised to respect state sovereignty,” said the senators. “We look forward to your timely response, and we hope you will think critically about the Commission’s role and how it can more appropriately interact with our state authorities.”

Community broadband has largely been the only wired competitor facing off against cable and phone companies. Consumers have a much bigger chance of seeing a municipal provider in their community than Google Fiber or another overbuilder.

“Those are nine senators that moonlight for Comcast and AT&T I won’t be voting for,” says Stop the Cap! reader Tom Resden who shared the story. “Municipal broadband balances a playing field that has favored big cable and phone companies for years. These are the same type of senators that 100 years ago would have opposed municipal power and co-ops, willing to leave people in the dark rather than allow a player that answers only to customers get traction. It’s not a state rights issue when the corporations wrote the legislation their well-funded lackeys in statehouses around the country helped hurry into law. What we are really talking about is the corporate right to suppress competition.”

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Netflix Rankings Slam FiOS, Speed Alert Messages Prompt Cease & Desist Letter from Verizon

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN Netflix Slowdown Who is to Blame 6-6-14.flv

CNN explores who is responsible for Netflix’s streaming problems on Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse. While one industry analyst seems keen to blame Netflix, his other articles on the subject show an increasing bias towards big ISPs like Verizon and AT&T. (2:54)

Netflix’s May speed rankings confirm Verizon FiOS customers are likely to find a degraded video streaming experience while using the otherwise speedy fiber to the home service. Netflix performance on Verizon FiOS dropped considerably last month — so much so that Frontier and Windstream DSL customers now get better Netflix performance than any Verizon customer receives. AT&T U-verse customers fared even worse with streaming performance below that offered by Mediacom — America’s bottom-rated cable company and CenturyLink DSL. In fact AT&T U-verse customers receive only marginally better service than Hughes satellite and Clearwire wireless customers. Verizon’s DSL came in dead last.

usa

Coincidentally, both Verizon and AT&T, following Comcast’s lead, have been in negotiations with Netflix to receive payment from the streaming video provider to better handle its traffic. Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam said he’s confident about getting payments from Netflix, and he turned out to be correct — Verizon and Netflix reached an agreement in late April that is still being implemented. AT&T also says it is negotiating with Netflix. Verizon’s streaming video partnership with Redbox has not been affected by the sudden deterioration in online video streaming on Verizon’s network.

verizon att

The problems with Netflix on some ISP’s have gone all the way to the top.

“My wife and I like to lay in bed and watch Netflix,” Tom Wheeler, chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission, said in January. The two companies serving Wheeler’s neighborhood are Comcast and Verizon. When enough customers launch streams on Netflix, saturating the inbound connection to either ISP, the video stops. When it does, Wheeler’s wife joins the parade of irritated customers.

“You’re chairman of the FCC,” she says to him. “Why is this happening?”

Last week, Netflix decided to answer that question with a more informative error message appearing when available bandwidth is insufficient to support a high quality stream.

verizon throttle

“The Verizon network is crowded right now,” the message says. Netflix then attempts to restore the stream by serving up a degraded, lower quality/bit rate version to the paying customer.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Netflix-Verizon War of Words 6-6-14.flv

Bloomberg interviews Todd O’Boyle from Common Cause. He places the blame for this debacle solely on the shoulders of Verizon and other ISPs. (5:39)

The inability to successfully maintain a stable stream of Netflix content that ranges from 256kbps to 5.8Mbps seems odd on ISPs that offer customers connections far faster than that. The average Netflix stream is 2Mbps, slow enough to be comfortably supported on even a 3Mbps DSL connection. Netflix’s problems with Comcast evaporated after agreeing to pay the cable company to maintain a better connection between its customers and Netflix’s content delivery network. The same cannot be said for perfomance on AT&T’s U-verse platform. Although Verizon signed an agreement with Netflix, it has clearly not been implemented as of yet.

netflix-download-speeds-in-the-united-states-time-warner-cable-verizon-fios-charter-comcast_chartbuilder-2

“We started a small-scale test in early May that lets consumers know, while they’re watching Netflix, that their experience is degraded due to a lack of capacity into their broadband provider’s network,” said Netflix’s Joris Evers. “We are testing this across the U.S. wherever there is significant and persistent network congestion.”

netflix-logoThe companies with the biggest drops in Netflix performance are the same ones strongly advocating special paid “fast lanes” on the Internet for preferred traffic to resolve exactly these kinds of performance problems.

“Some large US ISPs are erecting toll booths, providing sufficient capacity for services requested by their subscribers to flow through only when those services pay the toll,” said Evers. “In this way, ISPs are double-dipping by getting both their subscribers and Internet content providers to pay for access to each other. We believe these ISP tolls are wrong because they raise costs, stifle innovation and harm consumers. ISPs should provide sufficient capacity into their network to provide consumers the broadband experience for which they pay.”

The error message fingering Verizon as the culprit for a poorer Netflix experience brought an angry response from Verizon on its blog:

Reports from this morning have suggested that Netflix is engaging in a PR stunt in an attempt to shift blame to ISPs for the buffering that some of its customers may be experiencing. According to one journalist’s tweet from last night, Netflix is displaying a message on the screen for users who experience buffering which says: “The Verizon network is crowded right now.”

This claim is not only inaccurate, it is deliberately misleading.

The source of the problem is almost certainly NOT congestion in Verizon’s network. Instead, the problem is most likely congestion on the connection that Netflix has chosen to use to reach Verizon’s network. Of course, Netflix is solely responsible for choosing how their traffic is routed into any ISP’s network.

[...] It is sad that Netflix is willing to deliberately mislead its customers so they can be used as pawns in business negotiations and regulatory proceedings.

It would be more accurate for Netflix’s message screen to say: “The path that we have chosen to reach Verizon’s network is crowded right now.”

However, that would highlight their responsibility for the problem.

Milch

Milch

That was quickly followed by a cease and desist letter from Verizon demanding Netflix remove error messages that blame Verizon for the problem. It also demanded a list of Verizon customers that received the Netflix notification.

“Failure to provide this information may lead us to pursue legal remedies,” wrote Verizon general counsel Randal Milch in a letter to Netflix general counsel David Hyman.

“This is about consumers not getting what they paid for from their broadband provider,” Netflix spokesman Jonathan Friedland said. “We are trying to provide more transparency, just like we do with the ISP Speed Index, and Verizon is trying to shut down that discussion.”

“Verizon’s unwillingness to augment its access ports to major Internet backbone providers is squarely Verizon’s fault,” Netflix general counsel David Hyman wrote.

“Netflix does not purposely select congested routes,” added Evers. “We pay some of the world’s largest transit networks to deliver Netflix video right to the front door of an ISP. Where the problem occurs is at that door — the interconnection point — when the broadband provider hasn’t provided enough capacity to accommodate the traffic their customer requested.”

Despite all that, Netflix also admitted it plans to drop the error messages after the “small-scale test” ends on June 16.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Buffering Blame Game 6-6-14.flv

CNBC explains how Netflix content gets to end viewers over a complicated series of Internet connections between Netflix and your ISP. (1:31)

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Comcast Sock Puppet Says Rejecting Merger of Comcast/Time Warner Cable Because It’s Big Is Bad

Supporting Comcast's merger agenda

Supporting Comcast’s merger agenda

A conservative think tank with ties to corporate money and the American Legislative Exchange Council says the FCC should not reject the Comcast and Time Warner Cable merger for emotional, “big is bad” sloganeering.

Seth Cooper, a former director of the ALEC Telecommunications and Information Technology Task Force and current Amicus Counsel for the corporate group made his comments about the merger under the moniker of the Free State Foundation.

The FCC’s due diligence in that examination of the deal, Cooper says, must “disregard pleas for it to reject Comcast/TWC out of hand, based on appeals to emotional incredulity or ‘big is bad’ sloganeering; Stand firm against calls that, under the guise of protecting consumers, the agency impose conditions in order to protect market rivals…; reject dragging out its review process…; and avoid the imposition of any conditions on the merger unrelated to demonstrable concerns over market power and anticompetitive conduct.”

Cooper parrots Comcast’s press releases promoting the multi-billion dollar merger, claiming it will lead to a faster transition to digital cable, faster Internet speeds via DOCSIS 3.1, and expanded wireless backhaul services.

Unfortunately for Cooper, the facts are not on his side.

As part of Time Warner Cable’s Maxx initiative, the march to digital cable in unmistakable at Time Warner. TWC Maxx-upgraded cities now get faster speeds at a lower cost than what Comcast offers, and no data caps. Both cable companies are already in the wireless backhaul market, installing fiber to cell towers to support 4G LTE broadband. But LTE-enabled towers are highly likely to already have fiber connections, limiting future growth. A merger between the two cable companies won’t dramatically change that market reality.

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Rep. Bob Latta’s 99.9%-Fact Free Anti Net Neutrality Bill, Now Packed With Extra Industry Goodness

Phillip "How far will $20 get me in your office?" Dampier

Phillip “How far will $20 get me in your office?” Dampier

Congress is famous for obfuscation when it comes to introducing legislation that promises one thing and delivers something quite different. Take the 2003 “Clear Skies Initiative,” which would have allowed the energy industry to increase polluting emissions, or “The Disclosure of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Composition Act,” which allows frackers to keep secret the ingredients of millions of gallons of chemicals pumped into the ground to displace natural gas, and potentially your potable drinking water.

So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) wants to “protect” the open and free Internet by introducing a new bill that opens and frees the telecom companies that steadfastly support his campaign coffers to install paid Internet toll booths. Like many pieces of legislation coming from some House Republicans these days, “freedom” only extends to corporate interests, not to you or I (unless we want to start a corporation of our own.)

Reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act is the Holy Grail for Net Neutrality supporters. It offers clear oversight authority that would make future lawsuits from Comcast, Verizon and other telecom companies untenable. Earlier court decisions have laid a foundation for broadband oversight under Title II, but the FCC itself must take advantage of that opportunity, and so far it has not.

Congressman Latta has introduced legislation to make sure the FCC can never take that step. His bill would specifically prohibit the FCC from reclassifying broadband Internet access as anything beyond an unregulated “information service.”

According to Latta, only with his legislation can America be assured the Internet will stay “open and free.” — “Open and free” for the picking by companies who dream of new revenue monetizing Internet traffic. Not satisfied charging some of the world’s highest prices for Internet access, many of the largest cable and phone companies in the country now want the right to “double-dip” — charging consumers to reach Internet content and content producers for delivering it. It would be like paying postage to mail a letter and having it arrive postage due or letting the phone company charge both the caller and the person called for a long distance telephone call.

“The legislation comes after the FCC released a proposal to reclassify broadband Internet access under Title II as a telecommunications service rather than an information service,” says a press release from Latta’s office.

Would I lie to you? Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio)

Would I lie to you? Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio)

That is patently false. In fact, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler has twisted himself into a human pretzel with clever language and a clear determination not to reclassify broadband under Title II. Wheeler prefers sticking to the rickety Section 706 faux-authority for Net Neutrality — the same section that keeps handing FCC lawyers loss after loss in federal court. After Wheeler announced his intention to propose allowing Internet companies to build paid fast lanes for Internet traffic, the resulting backlash from content companies and the public made him grudgingly offer a “discussion” about utilizing Title II.

That kind of “discussion” will be familiar to every 16-year old teenage girl who is told “we’ll talk about it” after asking mom and dad if she can take her new 22-year old boyfriend on vacation and stay in their own hotel room.

Ironically, detractors like Latta are the ones that usually accuse Net Neutrality of solving a problem that doesn’t exist. But that didn’t stop Congressman Latta from introducing legislation to stop the current ex-telecom lobbyist chairman of the FCC from going all Elizabeth Warren on us, suddenly imposing draconian pro-consumer regulations against those job creators at the cable companies Wheeler used to represent. But on the bright side, when Wheeler doesn’t do what Latta’s bill wouldn’t let him do, Latta can still declare victory against “big government.” If you live in Latta’s district, you can read all about it in the forthcoming government-subsidized, no-postage-needed “newsletter” he and other members of Congress will pelt your mailbox with right before election time.

“In light of the FCC initiating yet another attempt to regulate the Internet, upending long-standing precedent and imposing monopoly-era telephone rules and obligations on the 21st Century broadband marketplace, Congress must take action to put an end to this misguided regulatory proposal,” said Latta. “The Internet has remained open and continues to be a powerful engine fueling private enterprise, economic growth and innovation absent government interference and obstruction. My legislation will provide all participants in the Internet ecosystem the certainty they need to continue investing in broadband networks and services that have been fundamental for job creation, productivity and consumer choice.”

Consumers not included. Maybe he just forgot.

“At a time when the Internet economy is thriving and driving robust productivity and economic growth, it is reckless to suggest, let alone adopt, policies that threaten its success. Reclassification would heap 80 years of regulatory baggage on broadband providers, restricting their flexibility to innovate and placing them at the mercy of a government agency. These businesses thrive on dynamism and the ability to evolve quickly to shifting market and consumer forces. Subjecting them to bureaucratic red tape won’t promote innovation, consumer welfare or the economy, and I encourage my House colleagues to support this legislation, so we can foster continued innovation and investment within the broadband marketplace.”

thanksGuess not. The Internet should only be about business in Latta’s mind. Consumers that support Net Neutrality are nothing more than parasites sucking away valuable potential profits from the dynamic, flexible and innovative world of traffic shaping, usage caps, and double-dipping.

Latta isn’t interested that your provider is turning your weekend Netflix binge into an exercise of maddening rebuffering futility as your cable/phone company waits for protection racket proceeds a paid peering agreement with Netflix. That is because he doesn’t represent you. He represents AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Comcast, and CenturyLink.

Latta can afford to travel through the Internet toll booth when one considers who his top contributors keeping his campaign flush with cash are:

  • More than $32,000 in contributions from AT&T and its executives;
  • $29,500 from Tom Wheeler’s old haunt — the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (Big Cable lobby);
  • $15,000 from the American Cable Association (Small Cable lobby);
  • $21,000 from Time Warner Cable and its executives;
  • $16,000 from Verizon and its executives;
  • $11,400 from CenturyLink;
  • $11,000 from Comcast (they are ditching Ohio customers to Charter after merging with Time Warner Cable so why throw good money after bad).

Latta’s close friendship with Big Telecom is so obvious, it has made co-sponsoring his fact-free bill about as popular as Justin Bieber at an NAACP convention. Even his like-minded Congressional colleagues are staying away. But his industry friends sure appreciate his efforts on their behalf.

One wonders why his constituents return him to office when he would be obviously much more comfortable in his next job — lobbying for AT&T or Comcast. Before our Internet connections slow, let’s hope his constituents hasten a much-needed turbo-speed departure for the congressman, already a shadow employee of AT&T.

HBO’s John Oliver Nails it on Net Neutrality: It Prevents Cable Company F*ckery

Oliver points out President Obama is very close to Comcast's top lobbyist (and Democratic fundraiser) David Cohen.

Oliver points out President Obama is very close to Comcast’s top lobbyist (and Democratic fundraiser) David Cohen.

John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” took nearly 15 minutes out of his show last night to present a detailed and unusually apt explanation of why Net Neutrality should matter to Americans.

Using a timely chart depicting Comcast’s Al Capone-like Internet protection racket, Oliver showed how Netflix performance rapidly deteriorated for Comcast customers until Netflix agreed to pay Comcast for a direct connection in February. Within days, performance rebounded to new highs.

In essence, Oliver explains, Net Neutrality is about the controversy of allowing Internet toll lanes.

Oliver shows an industry mouthpiece defending the concept as a “fast lane for everybody and a hyper speed lane for others,” to which Oliver responds, “Bullsh*t!”

“If we let cable companies offer two speeds of service, they won’t be [Jamaican sprinter] Usain Bolt and Usain Bolt on a motor bike,” Oliver warns. “They’ll be Usain Bolt and Usain Bolted to an anchor.”

Oliver added he was concerned most Americans were not paying attention to the issue, proclaiming it “boring.”

“And that’s the problem. The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America: if you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring,” he said. “Advocates should not be talking about protecting Net Neutrality. They shouldn’t even use that phrase. They should call it preventing cable company fuc*ery. Because that is what it is.”

Comcast's Internet protection racket. Netflix watched customer streaming performance degrade on Comcast's network until it signed a paid peering agreement with the cable company in February.

Comcast’s Internet protection racket. Netflix watched customer streaming performance degrade on Comcast’s network until it signed a paid peering agreement with the cable company in February.

Oliver’s prescription for change is somewhat more dubious, however. He wants Internet trolls to overwhelm the FCC’s Net Neutrality comment mailbox:

I would like to address the Internet commenters out there directly. Good evening monsters, this may be the moment you spent your whole lives training for.

You’ve been out there ferociously commenting on dance videos of adorable 3-years-olds, saying things like, “Every child could dance like this little loser after one week of practice.” Or you’d be polluting Frozen’s Let It Go with comments like, “Ice Castle would give her hypothermia and she dead in an hour.” Or, and I know you’ve done this one commenting on this show: “F*ck this a**hole anchor [...] ur just friends with terrorists xD.”

This is the moment you were made for commenters. Like Ralph Macchio, you’ve been honing your skills waxing cars and painting fences, well guess what? Now it’s time to do some f*king karate.

For once in your life we need you to channel that anger.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/HBO Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Net Neutrality 6-1-14.flv

John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight addresses Net Neutrality to viewers who probably don’t understand a thing about it. Warning: Strong language.  (13:17)

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