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Meh: Altice Wins Tepid FCC Approval to Acquire Cablevision Amidst Ongoing Money Dramas

atice-cablevisionIn a decision that relied heavily on trusting Altice’s word, the Federal Communications Commission quietly approved the sale of Long Island-based Cablevision Systems to a company controlled by European cable magnate Patrick Drahi.

The decision did not come with an overwhelming endorsement from staffers at the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau, the International Bureau, the Media Bureau, and the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau that jointly authored the order approving the deal.

“We find the transaction is unlikely to result in any significant public interest harms,” the staffers wrote. “We find that the transaction is likely to result in some public interest benefits of increased broadband speeds and more affordable options for low income consumers in Cablevision’s service territory. Although we find that the public interest benefits are limited, the scales tilt in favor of granting the Applications because of the absence of harms.”

The FCC largely ignored a record replete with evidence Altice has not enthralled customers of its other acquired companies. In France and Portugal, large numbers of customers complained Altice reduced the quality of service, raised prices, and outsourced customer service to call centers as far away as North Africa. After Altice acquired SFR, one of France’s national wireless operators, at least 1.5 million customers canceled their accounts, alleging poor service. Two weeks ago, France’s Competition Bureau fined Altice $17 million dollars for intentionally sabotaging the viability of wireless providers it controlled in the Indian Ocean region that it knew would have to be sold because of another acquisition deal. It raised prices and alienated customers of those providers, while allowing many to escape their contracts penalty-free before ownership of the company is transferred. The new owners face a challenge restoring the reputation of those providers and win customers back.

fccThe FCC called assertions from the Communications Workers of America that Altice intends to secure several hundred million dollars in cost savings from layoffs and salary reductions “speculative.” But Altice’s record on job and salary cuts is well established in Europe, where trade unions have pursued multiple complaints with government ministers in Lisbon and Paris. The leadership of CFE-CGE Orange, the group representing employees in France’s telecom sector, warned government officials earlier this year Drahi’s labor practices at SFR-Numericable are so poor, there is significant risk of a wave of worker suicides.

‘Not our problem’ was the effective response by the FCC staffers.

“The public interest does not require us to dissect each business decision Altice has made in non-U.S. markets to determine whether its asserted benefits in this case are reasonable,” the staffers wrote.

The staffers also opined “Altice has not identified job cuts as a means to achieve cost savings,” despite widespread media reports put Drahi on the record claiming he would find $900 million in cost savings at Cablevision in part from slashing administrative expenses.

Speaking to investors in New York just after Altice announced its agreement to buy Cablevision, Drahi pledged to bring the company’s ‘European-style austerity’ to the American cable company.

“When we took over [French wireless provider] SFR, the company was acting like daddy’s princess,” Drahi said to France’s National Assembly. “The princess spent money left and right, but it was mother company Vivendi that picked up the bills. Well, now the princess has a new dad, and this isn’t how my money gets spent.”

Drahi

Drahi

“I don’t like to pay big salaries, I pay as little as I can,” Drahi added, claiming he prefers to pay minimum wage.

“It’s hard to imagine in a labor market like New York that you’re going to go to top executives and say, ‘By the way, I’m going to pay you 75 percent less than I used to — enjoy,’ ” said a skeptical Craig Moffett, a Wall Street analyst at MoffettNathanson.

Despite racking up nearly $56 billion in debt so far, the FCC seemed unconcerned Altice’s $17.7 billion purchase of Cablevision would present much of a problem for the company.

Altice is “a large international company that is likely to be better able to raise capital than Cablevision as a stand-alone entity,” the FCC staffers wrote.

Several Wall Street analysts pointedly disagree.

“My main worry is that Altice is pilling up new debts again and, needing increasingly more cash to pay back debt, may push Numericable into a direction were it shouldn’t be,” said François Godard, an analyst at Enders Analysis.

too big to fail“I don’t know any company of its size that has levered up that much [debt] that fast,” says Simon Weeden of Citi Research.

Even France’s Minister of the Economy Emmanuel Macron feared Altice could become the world’s first “too big to fail” cable company.

“I have a big concern in terms of leverage on Drahi due to its size and its place in our economy,” Macron said in 2015. “He is looking to run faster than the music.”

In April alone, Altice sought $9.44 billion largely from the junk bonds market to refinance part of its existing debt and extend the time it has to repay those obligations until as late as 2026.

FCC staffers swept away concerns that an Altice-owned Cablevision would be hampered from upgrading services because of its debt obligations and accepted at face value Altice’s promises it would enhance service. The staffers claimed these promises would likely be met because Cablevision faces significant competition from Verizon FiOS and Frontier U-verse in its service areas of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Cablevision serves communities surrounding the metropolitan New York region

Cablevision serves communities surrounding the metropolitan New York region

What especially swayed the staffers was an ex parte letter sent by Altice offering commitments for improved service:

  1. Network Upgrades: Altice will upgrade the Cablevision network so that all existing customer locations are able to receive broadband service of up to 300Mbps by the end of 2017.
  2. Low Income Broadband: Altice will introduce a new low-income broadband package of 30Mbps for $14.99 a month throughout Cablevision’s service territory for families with children eligible for the National Student Lunch Program or individuals 65 or older eligible for the federal Supplemental Security Income program. Current customers, regardless of income, are ineligible and so are past customers who had Cablevision broadband service within the last 60 days or still have a past due balance with Cablevision.

Remarkably, the FCC passed on an opportunity to compel Altice to fulfill its commitments as part of the order giving the FCC’s approval. Therefore, if Altice reneges, it will face no consequences from the FCC for doing so.

“Because we find the transaction is likely to facilitate Cablevision’s efforts to compete and serve all customers in its territory, we are not persuaded that imposing specific conditions related to broadband deployment, as proposed by CWA, is necessary,” wrote the staffers.

New York City and the New York Public Service Commission also have an opportunity to mandate Altice’s commitments be completed within a certain time frame. Both are expected to issue their formal approval or disapproval of the acquisition later this month.

Altice praised the FCC, saying it was pleased with the decision and is on track to complete the transaction during the second quarter of this year.

Assuming Altice does take control, it will immediately embark on cost cutting, starting with the booting of the company’s top 10 executives, according to Altice CEO Dexter Goei. Goei doesn’t like the fact the Dolan family, which founded the company, has used Cablevision as an ATM for decades. The Dolan clan collectively took $46 million in compensation in 2014. Last year, CEO James pocketed $24.6 million, up one million from the year before.

Dolan’s father, who retired from the day-to-day operations of the company years ago, is still handsomely rewarded in his role as company chairman. In 2015, Charles Dolan received a $3 million pay raise, from $15.3 million to $18.3 million.

“Somewhere in the range of $80 million to $90 million per year can go away in just not having that executive team,” Mike McCormack, an analyst at Jefferies LLC, told Bloomberg News last fall.

Stop the Cap! Joins 21 Other Consumer Groups Asking FCC to Block Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger

charter twc bhOn Monday, Stop the Cap! joined 21 other public interest organizations in sending a joint letter urging the Federal Communications Commission to deny Charter’s bid to take over Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Late last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler may be planning to circulate a draft order approving the $90 billion merger.

The Center for Media Justice, CREDO Action, Daily Kos, Demand Progress, Free Press and Presente.org were among the media justice, Internet rights and public interest groups calling on the FCC to reject this deal, which would create a national broadband duopoly.

Together, Charter and Comcast would control nearly two-thirds of the nation’s high-speed broadband subscribers and would offer service to nearly 80 percent of U.S. households. The letter notes that this substantial increase in market power, coupled with Charter’s $66 billion in debt, would give the company both the incentive and the heightened ability to raise prices at will. This would broaden the digital divide, hitting low-income communities the hardest.

Stop the Cap! earlier filed objections to the merger with the FCC and in two states seen as critical to the deal – New York and California. In our view, no cable merger has ever resulted in better service or lower prices for consumers. Such deals deliver handsome sums to executives and shareholders while saddling customers with relentless rate hikes and no improvement in service. Charter’s history is troubling and its ability to meet its financial obligations while saddled in debt is dubious. Charter declared bankruptcy in 2009, after accumulating $21.7 billion in debt accumulated from years of mergers and consolidation efforts. As credit markets tightened up, Charter’s ability to manage its debt fell apart. Now the company is back to its old modus operandi, piling up debt buying Time Warner Cable — a much larger operation, and trying to combine it with Bright House Networks, another cable operator prominent in Florida.

Earlier this year, several of the signers delivered petitions to the FCC from more than 300,000 Americans opposing the merger, and thousands have called the agency in recent days to weigh in against the deal. Political leaders including Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid have spoken out about the merger’s many harms.

“Too many Washington insiders have given up on challenging this deal despite its serious harms,” said Free Press policy director Matt Wood. “Instead of forecasting its chances for approval, the groups signing this letter will keep fighting to block this merger, along with the guaranteed price increases it would foist on people and communities who can least afford it.

“If Charter gets this merger approved, nothing will stop it from raising its rates for high-speed broadband and video customers who have nowhere else to turn. Temporary promises and weak conditions aren’t going to preserve competition and choice in the long run, and they’re not going to do anything to stop these price hikes. The FCC is charged with promoting the public interest, and there’s no way in which this merger benefits the public. Higher prices and fewer choices won’t help anyone but the companies pitching this bad bargain.”

“If its takeover of Time Warner Cable goes through, Charter will have a broadband footprint as big as Comcast’s,” said Demand Progress executive director David Segal. “This would turn an industry that’s already too concentrated into a duopoly, paving the way for higher rates today and the eventual formation of a new cross-sector behemoth that controls content production and delivery.

“Americans increasingly understand that corporate concentration is jacking up prices and lowering quality for all sorts of basic goods and services. At a hearing of a Senate antitrust subcommittee this month, lawmakers made it clear that they see companies that are allegedly too big to fix in many industries, not just the banking sector. This FCC must now decide whether it wants to stem the swelling tide of concentration, or enable these monopolies.”

Free Press and Stop the Cap! contributed elements of this story.

House Democrats Battle Republicans Over Broadband Rate Regulation Bill

Kinzinger

Kinzinger

Republican-sponsored H.R. 2666 — the “No Rate Regulation of Broadband Internet Access Act” — is drawing opposition from House Democrats because the measure, if it becomes law, could grant cable and telephone companies broad permanent exemption from oversight and consumer protection laws.

The bill, introduced last summer by Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), consists of a single sentence:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Federal Communications Commission may not regulate the rates charged for broadband Internet access service (as defined in the rules adopted in the Report and Order on Remand, Declaratory Ruling, and Order that was adopted by the Commission on February 26, 2015 (FCC 15–24)).

Eshoo

Eshoo

Democrats worry despite the brevity of the bill, its language is broad and sweeping, and could be interpreted by the courts to grant deregulation and freedom from oversight to telecommunications providers that already rank at the bottom of customer satisfaction scores. It would also undercut the FCC’s reclassification of broadband from an information service to a telecommunications service, subject to Title II regulations, which gave the FCC increased authority to oversee the broadband industry.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) has signaled her likely opposition to the Republican bill, noting the proposed law could “eviscerate the FCC’s authority to protect consumers against truth in billing practices and discriminatory data caps; to ensure broadband availability through [the Universal Service Fund] and E-Rate; to address rate-related issues in merger reviews; to ensure enforcement against paid prioritization; and other essential consumer protections.”

Several Democrats on the House Communications Subcommittee are introducing amendments that would likely keep Republican language prohibiting the FCC from directly regulating broadband prices, but also protect the power of the FCC to regulate billing practices, data caps and usage pricing, Net Neutrality, universal service requirements, merger reviews, and discriminatory and/or unfair business practices.

The Democrats are likely to have an uphill battle in a Republican-controlled House. Constituents may have more influence expressing their opposition to H.R. 2666 by reaching out to Rep. Kinzinger and the 18 Republican co-sponsors of the measure:

FCC Chairman Tells Crowd He’s “Not Done Enough” to Bring More Cable Competition

Phillip Dampier February 3, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments
Wheeler

Wheeler

FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler confessed he “has not done enough” to bring consumers more competition to Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter, and other cable operators.

Appearing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Wheeler said Comcast’s effort to buy Time Warner Cable in 2015 would not bring additional competition to the marketplace. The FCC remained pessimistic about the deal, stalling for months until a request for approval was eventually withdrawn by Comcast.

Wheeler has been especially sensitive about deals that could impact broadband services — wireless or wired — since becoming chairman of the FCC during President Obama’s second term in office. The FCC has proven itself less concerned with cable television matters, having approved a merger of AT&T and DirecTV while it still contemplates the merger of Charter Communications with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

Wheeler also spent time speaking about his latest initiative, breaking up the virtual monopoly on set-top boxes. Wheeler has proposed ending that monopoly by creating a new open standard platform for set-top equipment, allowing various manufacturers to develop boxes for retail sale to consumers.

Underseas Fiber Capacity Expands Without Laying More Submarine Cables

underseas capacityOverall submarine cable capacity, which supports a substantial amount of international Internet traffic, has grown around 36% per year for 2007-2014 and is expected to grow around 29% for 2014-2016. But traffic planners are confident the traffic growth will be easily accommodated over existing submarine cable circuits.

A new U.S. International Circuit Capacity Report from the International Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission details the total amount of capacity available between the U.S. and any foreign point. That data helps traffic planners maintain suitable Internet traffic capacity before international data traffic jams emerge. The report shows plenty of capacity remains available to handle sustained Internet traffic growth between North America and other countries around the world. Only the Pacific region, encompassing Australia and New Zealand, shows the potential for a future capacity crunch if more cable capacity isn’t introduced in the coming years.

Submarine cables laid more than a decade ago are showing vast capacity improvements, not because new fiber is being laid underwater, but because of developments in submarine cable technology.

“The technology standard has evolved from 280Mbps per pair (TAT-8 cable) in the mid-1980s, to 5Gbps (TPC-5) in the mid-1990s, to 10Gbps in 1998,” says the report. “Since 1998, the 10Gbps fiber pair has been the standard for all new cables. There are plans to deploy 40Gbps or even 100Gbps fiber pairs. Moreover, the use of Wavelength Division Multiplexing (WDM) technology can multiply the capacity from one pair to multiple pairs depending on the wavelength (or color) of the cable.”

southern cross

One exceptional example comes from the Pacific region, where Internet traffic has exploded. The Southern Cross cable, which connects Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, and the United States, began service in 2000 offering a total capacity of 20Gbps. Those behind the project envisioned that technological advancements would eventually allow the cable to achieve a total of 120Gbps of “fully protected capacity.” They vastly underestimated what ingenuity in data transmission would bring just 16 years later.

southern cross upgradeSouthern Cross engineers are now deploying circuits capable of 40 and 100Gbps technology, bringing Southern Cross cable’s total available capacity to more than 12Tbps (12,000Gbps). Every upgrade was conducted at the cable station with zero new fiber pairs laid in the water. Other undersea cable operators are initiating similar upgrades, providing exponentially greater capacity at a minimal cost.

The report found the most popular destination for U.S. international undersea cables was Colombia, which hosts eight. Japan and the United Kingdom are each reached by seven U.S. cables. Five cables each reach Panama, Brazil, and Venezuela, and Mexico and Australia have four each.

The most aggressive capacity upgrades are scheduled for the Atlantic region, mostly to support increasing traffic from Europe, the Middle East, and especially Africa. The Pacific region, in contrast, has just 13.3% non-activated capacity, possibly demonstrating a need for new cable capacity.

Patrick Drahi’s “Public Interest” Flim-Flam: CWA Opposes Altice-Cablevision Merger

3634flimThe Communications Workers of America today filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission opposing the proposed sale of Cablevision to Patrick Drahi’s Altice NV, arguing the claimed public interest benefits are illusory.

The CWA, which represents some of Cablevision’s workers in Brooklyn, took a hard look at Altice’s merger proposal and the $8.6 billion in debt Altice will take on to close the deal and called it dangerous, resulting in “considerable harm with no offsetting concrete, verifiable benefits for consumers, workers, and communities.”

“Altice’s track record in France and Portugal clearly shows the danger this deal poses to Cablevision’s customers and employees,” said Dennis Trainor, vice president of Communications Workers of America District 1. “Altice takes on too much debt, outsources as much work as possible and then downsizes its workforce. Customers get worse service and employees lose their job. Unless Altice makes commitments to protect customer service and Cablevision employees, the FCC should reject this deal.”

The CWA is also concerned about the disparity between what Altice is telling regulators and what the company is saying to Wall Street.

Altice’s Public Interest Statement, which outlines the benefits to the public of the proposed transaction, stands out for its lack of specificity. In fact, the application’s only concrete commitments are vague promises to bring Altice’s “expertise” and access to capital for Cablevision’s use. Altice also promises to upgrade Cablevision’s IT systems, including customer care, service, and billing systems, and alluded it would expand Cablevision’s fiber optics deeper into its network, but comes short of promising a direct fiber to the home connection. In fact, the only promised benefit of pushing fiber further out would be “the removal or reduction from the network of coaxial RF amplifiers, which consume substantial electricity and can be the cause of difficult-to-detect service outages (RF amplifier failures).”

“Deeper fiber deployment would enable Cablevision to reduce its power costs and to further improve network reliability, resulting, in turn, in a greater ability to invest further in the network and improved service delivery to subscribers,” Altice dubiously claimed.

cwa_logoMany of Altice’s claims appeared “disingenuous and misleading” to the CWA. From the CWA’s filing:

To finance its $17.7 billion acquisition of Cablevision, Altice is taking on $8.6 billion in new debt, which when added to Cablevision’s already heavy debt load of $5.9 billion, will leave the new Cablevision with a total net debt of $14.5 billion.  Given the high cost of the new debt financing, the annual interest payments needed to finance the $8.6 billion in new debt amount to $654 million on top of Cablevision’s current interest payments of $559 million for a total of $1.2 billion in annual interest payments at the new Cablevision, representing a full 112 percent increase in Cablevision debt. The new interest payment ($654 million) plus Altice’s announced $ 1.05 billion in cuts means that the new Cablevision will have $1.7 billion less cash available to spend on the network and service.

“Altice’s business model, the one that it has used to fuel its explosive global growth, requires the acquired company – in this instance, Cablevision — to finance its own acquisition and to provide cash to the parent for future acquisitions,” the CWA argues. “Altice chief financial officer Dennis Okhuijsen explained the capital structure of post-transaction Cablevision: ‘[W]e’re not going to lever up the existing business. This is a stand-alone capital structure, so we’re levering up the target for Cablevision….’”

altice debtTranslation: Cablevision alone is responsible for the debt Altice raised to pay for Cablevision. Or, as Altice explained to investors in its third quarter 2015 earnings report, the parent company operates its various subsidiaries as “distinct credit silos in Europe and the U.S.”

Altice CEO Patrick Drahi’s business formula is always the same. To raise money to help offset the mountain of debt dumped on the acquired company, Altice’s designated managers helicopter in to the acquired company to begin slashing expenses and find money it can send to Altice headquarters to help fill its coffers to acquire even more companies. French telecom giant Numericable-SFR, while on the road to losing one million customers in just one year, was preoccupied borrowing nearly $2 billion, not to improve the company’s service, but rather to pay Altice a special dividend to help pay down the huge amount of debt Altice incurred when it bought the 60 percent stake in the French mobile and cable company it did not already own.

To keep Altice afloat, Drahi’s business strategy requires a steady supply of company acquisitions to deliver the increased cash flows Altice needs to finance its debt. The CWA warned regulators Altice may require Cablevision to spend its cash flow to help Drahi acquire other companies in the future, further reducing the amount of money Cablevision needs to attract and keep subscribers.

To make the deal a long term success, Altice-Cablevision will either have to cut its return to shareholders, raise its prices, and/or slash expenses and jobs. Past experience with Altice shows shareholders come first, which means company management will likely preside over a harvest of Cablevision’s assets to meet the expectations of Wall Street banks and investors. Customers will feel the cuts from the reduction in service and slowed investments and upgrades.

At the same time Altice was promising the FCC it would continue Cablevision’s “first in class” level of service, the company was telling Wall Street it was planning cuts to the bone. Among Altice’s already-proposed cuts for Cablevision:

  • Capital expense: $150 million cut
  • Network and Operations: $ 315 million cut
  • Customer operations: $135 million cut
  • Sales and marketing: $45 million cut
  • Eliminate duplicative functions and “public company” costs: $135 million cut
  • Other unspecified cuts: $135 million cuts.

dilbert-budget-cuts

The impact of these cuts shift costs onto others, argues the CWA, including making the acquired firm pay for its own demise, making the workforce pay through job loss and reduced compensation, making customers pay through deteriorating service, and making suppliers become Drahi’s bankers by delaying payments.

The CWA says customers will also pay for the privilege of getting declining service.

“In Israel, the cable provider Hot Telecommunications has raised prices multiple times since it was bought by Altice, including a cable rate increase of 20 percent in 2014 and the attempt to raise prices again this year,” the CWA argues. “The top Israeli cable regulator called the price hike ‘greed for its own sake’ which was not justified based on the company’s profit margins.”

In the United States, nobody oversees cable pricing.

“In summary, the experience in France, Portugal, Israel, and elsewhere provides concrete evidence that the Altice business model – one that it plans to replicate with its Cablevision acquisition – does not serve the public interest,” concludes the CWA. “Making an acquired company pay off massive debt load with service-impacting cost cutting has serious and negative consequences for customers, suppliers, communities, and workers. The lesson from France is clear: cutting to the bone leads to massive customer defection. It is not a business model that will benefit the people of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.”

House GOP Tries to Ban FCC’s Net Neutrality Enforcement; Rider Would Prohibit Oversight of Data Caps

sneakHouse Republicans are hoping a back door legislative maneuver will successfully block the Federal Communications Commission from enforcing Net Neutrality and regulating or banning data caps.

The GOP is fighting to deliver a death-blow against Net Neutrality in a rider attached to an important financial services appropriations bill. If adopted, this single sentence would effectively kill Net Neutrality enforcement and allow providers to adopt data caps and usage-based billing without any regulatory oversight from the FCC:

None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to regulate, directly or indirectly, the prices, other fees, or data caps and allowances (as such terms are described in paragraph 164 of the Report and Order on Remand, Declaratory Ruling, and Order in the matter of protecting and promoting the open Internet, adopted by the Federal Communications Commission on February 26, 2015.

The rider, in effect, makes it illegal for the FCC to protect customers upset about usage-capped Internet. It would also prevent the FCC from intervening if a provider wrongly charged overlimit fees to customers.

The spending measure is being fast-tracked through Congress and is considered a “must-pass” bill, with or without any attached riders. If legislators do not pass the omnibus measure by Dec. 11, it could result in another government shutdown.

The tactic is part of a broader move by several House Republicans to curtail the FCC’s oversight authority by threatening to dramatically cut the agency’s budget.

The anti-Net Neutrality rider has not gotten a lot of attention over the Thanksgiving holiday and was overshadowed by two other priorities of House Republicans that are getting more press attention: making it more difficult for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to resettle in the United States and a measure to strip federal funding for routine medical services performed by Planned Parenthood.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, released a statement condemning the Republicans for their “extreme agenda,” using procedural tricks to override the FCC and steamroll over nearly four million Americans that wrote the agency demanding Net Neutrality.

The Republican rider would effectively give a green light to Comcast to move forward with nationwide data caps, no longer fearing a potential FCC investigation that could eventually lead to a prohibition of compulsory usage-based billing.

Stop the Cap! urges all of our readers to visit this Free Press campaign page to get the phone number of their local representative and take five minutes to let them know you “vehemently oppose Net Neutrality riders being placed in a must-pass government-funding bill.” Tell your congressman you want the FCC’s authority left intact and you support their oversight of broadband. That is literally all you need to say.

Comcast Launches Online Video Service It Exempts from Its Own Data Caps

xfinitylogoComcast is inviting controversy launching a new live streaming TV service targeting cord-cutters while exempting it from its own data caps.

Comcast’s Stream TV is comparable to Comcast’s Limited Basic lineup, only instead of using a set-top box, Stream TV delivers online video over the Internet to Comcast’s broadband customers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and the Greater Chicago area. For $15 a month, Stream TV offers a large package of local over the air stations, broadcast networks, and HBO, along with thousands of on-demand titles and cloud DVR storage. In Boston, the lineup includes:

WGBH (PBS), HSN. WBZ (CBS), NECN, WHDH (NBC), Community Programming, BNN-Public Access, WWDP-Evine Live, WLVI (CW), WSBK (MyTV), WGBX (PBS), WBIN (Ind.), WBPX (Ion), WMFP (Ind.), The Municipal Channel, Government Access, WFXT (FOX), WCEA (MasTV), WUNI (Univision), EWTN, C-SPAN, CatholicTV, POP, QVC, WYDN (Daystar), WUTF (UniMas), WNEU (Telemundo), Jewelry TV, XFINITY Latino, WGBH World, WGBH Kids, Trinity Broadcasting Network, WGBH Create, Leased Access, WBIN-Antenna TV, WBIN-GRIT TV, WNEU-Exitos, WLVI-BUZZR, WCVB (Me-TV), WFXT-MOVIES!, WHDH-This TV, WFXZ-CA, WUNI-LATV, WFXZ (Mundo Fox), WBZ-Decades, and WFXT-Laff TV + HBO. The package also qualifies the customer as an authenticated cable TV subscriber, making them eligible to view TV Everywhere services from many cable networks.

stream tv

Comcast is offering the first month of Stream TV for free with no commitment to its broadband customers subscribed to at least XFINITY Performance Internet (or above). Up to two simultaneous streams are allowed per account and some channels may not be available for viewing outside of the home. Comcast claims it will expand Stream TV to Comcast customers nationwide in 2016. Comcast will not be selling the service to customers of other cable or phone companies, limiting its potential competitive impact.

Competitors like Sling TV offer their own alternatives to bloated cable TV subscriptions at a similar lower price, and they will sell to anyone with a broadband connection. Sling alone is partly responsible for Comcast’s loss of hundreds of thousands of cable TV customers who don’t want to pay for hundreds of channels many never watch. That Comcast might want to launch its own alternative online video package to retain customers is not a surprise. But Comcast’s decision to exempt Stream TV from the company’s data caps while leaving them in place for competitors is sure to spark a firestorm of controversy.

comcast_remoteComcast claims it is reasonable to exempt Stream TV from its 300GB data cap being tested in a growing number of markets.

“Stream TV is a cable streaming service delivered over Comcast’s cable system, not over the Internet,” wrote Comcast in its FAQ. “Therefore, Stream TV data usage will not be counted towards your Xfinity Internet monthly data usage.”

More precisely, Comcast claims it relies on its own internal IP network to distribute Stream TV, not the external Internet competitors use to reach ex-Comcast cable TV subscribers. Comcast’s premise is it is less costly to deliver content over its own network while Internet traffic comes at a premium. Critics will argue Comcast has found an end run around Net Neutrality by relying on usage caps to influence customer behavior.

For the moment, Netflix is reserving comment after being contacted by Ars Technica. But Sling TV and other services that depend on Comcast’s broadband to reach customers will likely not remain silent for long.

Comcast could effectively deter consumers from using competing online video services with the threat of overlimit fees if customers exceed their usage allowance. The cable company could even use the fact its services don’t count against that allowance as a marketing strategy.

Stop the Cap! has warned our members about that prospect for years. Preferential treatment of certain content over others by playing games with usage caps and overlimit fees could have a major impact on emerging online video competition. Since Comcast owns both the broadband lines and the online video service, it can engage in anti-competitive price discrimination. Competitors will also argue that Comcast’s internal IP network is off-limits to them, making it impossible to deliver content on equal terms over a level playing field.

stream simple

The next move will likely come from the FCC in response to complaints from Comcast’s competitors. As Ars Technica notes, the Federal Communications Commission’s Net Neutrality rules allow for complaints against so-called zero-rating schemes, with the commission judging on a case-by-case basis whether a practice “unreasonably interferes” with the ability of consumers to reach content or the ability of content providers to reach consumers.

With Comcast’s usage caps and overlimit fees, the only reaching will be for your wallet. Consumers need not wait for Sling TV and others to complain to the FCC. You can also share your own views about Comcast’s usage caps by filing a complaint with the FCC here.

Cable Customers Who Bought Their Own Modems Will Pay Built-In Modem Fee With Charter

time warner cable modem feeTime Warner Cable customers who purchased their own cable modems to avoid the company’s $8 monthly rental fee will effectively be forced to indirectly pay those fees once again if Charter Communications wins approval to buy the cable operator.

A major modem manufacturer, Zoom Telephonics, has asked the Federal Communications Commission to reject Charter’s buyout of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks because it will hurt cost-conscious consumers that invested in their own equipment to avoid costly modem rental fees.

Zoom’s argument is that Charter builds modem fees into the price of its broadband service and offers no discounts to consumers that own their own equipment. At least 14% of Time Warner Cable customers have purchased their own modems and are not charged the $8 rental fee. Charter has promised not to charge separate modem fees for three years after its acquisition deal is approved, but that also means the company is building the cost of that equipment into the price of broadband service.

Zoom has an interest in the outcome because Charter has yet to approve any Zoom cable modem model for use on its network. Time Warner Cable has certified at least one Zoom model in the past. Assuming the buyout is approved, consumers would have a disincentive to buy Zoom cable modems (or those manufactured by anyone else) because the equipment will be provided with the service.

Zoom has tangled with Charter before, most recently in the summer of 2014 when it criticized Charter’s policy forbidding new customers from using their own modems with Charter’s service. From June 26, 2012 until Aug. 22, 2014, Charter’s website stated, “For new Internet Customers and customers switching to our New Package Pricing, we will no longer allow customer owned modems on our network.”

Zoom claims Charter modified that policy three days before a key FCC filing deadline that could have eventually brought regulator attention on the cable operator. But Zoom remains unhappy with how Charter deals with the issue of customer-owned equipment.

“Charter has still not adopted certification standards that are open to Zoom and other cable modem producers, nor has Charter yet made a commitment for timely certifications under this program,” Zoom claimed in the summer of 2014. “Of the 17 cable modems Charter shows as qualified for customer attachment to its network, not one is stocked by leading cable modem retailers Walmart, Staples, and Office Depot and not one has 802.11ac wireless capability. Charter still does not separately list the cost of its leased modems on customer bills, and Charter does not offer a corresponding savings to all customers who buy a qualified cable modem and attach it to the Charter network.”

zoomZoom wants Charter to be required to offer consumers that own their own equipment a tangible monthly discount for broadband service as a condition of any merger approval.

“The Communications Act says that cable companies should sell cable modem leases and Internet service separately,” Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center who is representing Zoom, told the Los Angeles Times. “By combining the prices, Charter’s customers are deprived of the ability to purchase advanced cable modems and save the cost of monthly rental fees.”

Charter argues the Act only covers set-top boxes used for cable television service, not modem fees. Charter also claims its introductory prices are lower than what most cable companies charge, modem fee or not.

“Customers will benefit from Charter’s pro-customer and pro-broadband model with transparent billing policies,” Tamara Smith, a Charter spokeswoman, told the newspaper. “It features straightforward, nationally uniform pricing with no data caps, no usage-based pricing, no modem fees, no early termination fees and does not pass on federal or state Universal Service Fund fees to customers.”

But Charter is only guaranteeing those customer-friendly policies for three years, after which it can raise prices and add fees at will.

Four Red States Launch Coordinated Attack on Municipal/Public Broadband in Advance of FCC Hearing

Gov. Haslam

Gov. Haslam

Top officials of four southern states are coordinating efforts with Republican House members to oppose the Federal Communications Commission’s preemption of state laws that restrict or prohibit municipal/public broadband competition.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, and Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slattery have all backed efforts by House Republicans to curtail the regulatory powers of the FCC, claiming states’ rights should have precedence over the federal regulator. All four have sent letters to the House Energy & Commerce Committee putting their opposition on paper.

In 2014, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler announced the FCC would seek to preempt state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that severely restrict the development of broadband networks owned or controlled by municipalities and public utilities. The laws typically allow existing municipal networks to continue operating, but prohibit expansion beyond a pre-defined service area. Networks planning to launch after the laws took effect usually face onerous conditions and disclosure requirements that make many untenable. Large incumbent cable and phone companies were exempted from the law.

Wheeler’s efforts came in response to requests from community broadband providers seeking to deliver service to expanded service areas. The debate has put several local governments and utilities in an uncomfortable position of opposing their colleagues in state government.

In North Carolina, Attorney General Roy Cooper has taken the FCC to court in a petition to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

“Despite recognition that the State of North Carolina creates and retains control over municipal governments, the FCC unlawfully inserted itself between the State and the State’s political subdivisions,” Cooper wrote to the court. Cooper says the FCC’s actions are unconstitutional and exceeds the commission’s authority; “is arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion within the meaning of the Administrative Procedure Act; and is otherwise contrary to law.”

comcast attMuch of the opposition to municipal broadband comes from Republican politicians on the state and federal level. Most claim municipal providers represent unfair competition to the private sector. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) considers municipal broadband a significant issue. The corporate-funded group offers state legislators the opportunity to meet with telecom company lobbyists. Legislators are also provided already-written sample legislation restricting municipal broadband developed by ALEC’s telecom company members, including AT&T, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable. In states where Republicans hold the majority in the state legislature, such bills often become law.

The FCC represents a serious threat to the telecom company-sponsored broadband legislation. Instead of debating the impact of the law on unpopular phone and cable companies, the four state officeholders claim the dispute is a battle pitting states’ rights against the powers of the federal government.

Haslam, who also serves as the national chairman of the Republican Governors Association, formally asked Congress to intervene against the FCC to protect state sovereignty. In a separate appeal to the FCC, Tennessee officials argued the FCC violated the country’s founding concept of separation of state and federal power, citing the 10th Amendment to the Constitution reserving power not delegated to the United States for the states respectively, or to the people.

Haslam’s critics contend the governor has delegated his own power to protect the interests of large telecommunications corporations operating in his state — companies the critics claimed wrote and lobbied for a state law that established anticompetitive broadband corporate protectionism in Tennessee. Among Haslam’s top campaign contributors are AT&T and Comcast — Tennessee’s two largest telecommunications companies.

Gov. Haley

Gov. Haley

Slattery, appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court, argued in his letter to Congress the FCC lacked any authority to circumvent Tennessee state law.

The FCC has consistently claimed it is not overturning any state laws. Instead, it is performing its duties under its mandate.

The FCC cites Section 706 authority to regulate when broadband is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely manner, something that cannot happen if a state law impedes new competitors and entrants.

Alabama’s attorney general joined the fight in a brief to the Sixth Circuit opposing preemption, with a copy sent to the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, which is planning to hold a hearing on the matter. Alabama has several municipal and public utility networks operating in the state. AT&T and Comcast also serve large parts of Alabama. AT&T gave $11,000 to Strange’s campaign, Comcast sent $8,500. The Koch Brothers, fierce opponents of community broadband, also donated $10,000 to Strange through Koch Industries.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley told legislators she strongly opposes external entities like the FCC overreaching into her state’s business. She did not mention AT&T is her fifth largest contributor, donating more than $16,000 to her last campaign. South Carolina’s largest cable operator is Time Warner Cable. It donated $9,900 to the governor’s campaign fund.

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