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Cuomo: 100% of New York State Should Have Access to 100Mbps Broadband by 2018

ny broadbandNew York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has set a goal that every resident of New York State should have access to at least 100Mbps broadband no later than 2018.

The governor will kick off his latest broadband expansion effort with the launch of his $500 million broadband expansion program, dubbed the New New York Broadband Fund, a follow-up to the state’s $70 million public-private effort to expand broadband that began in 2012.

Much of the money awarded in the 2012 broadband expansion effort went to Wireless Internet Service Providers, institutional broadband networks, middle-mile fiber projects not accessible to the public, and emergency service network upgrades. Another $5.2 million was awarded to Time Warner Cable to expand broadband service to 4,114 households in the Capital, Central, Finger Lakes, Mid-Hudson, Mohawk Valley, NYC, North Country, Southern Tier and Western regions of New York State. In June, many of the top funding recipients also received honors from the governor’s office in the first annual New York State Broadband Champion Awards.

Gov. Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo

Despite the money, the 2012 effort did not make a significant dent in the pervasive problem of broadband availability in upstate New York.

While Gov. Cuomo is committed to a target speed of 100Mbps within the next four years, more than one million New York households still cannot access broadband that achieves the state minimum — 6.5Mbps. That includes 113,000 businesses.

The governor’s solution is to subsidize private businesses with more tax dollars to resolve the broadband problem, with a significant part of the next round of funding likely to reach more institutional and public safety networks off-limits to the public, middle mile network expansion that can build state-of-the-art fiber rings that do not connect to end users, and an even bigger amount handed to Time Warner Cable (or Comcast if the state approves a merger with Time Warner Cable) and rural phone companies like Frontier Communications. Much of the money awarded to last mile providers like cable and phone companies will placate those that have stubbornly refused to expand further into rural areas unless taxpayers pick up some of the expense.

“In some of these areas, there’s just not a business case for these [service] providers to build out,” said David Salway, director of the New York State Broadband Program office. “The cost far exceeds what the revenue might be for that area.”

An unintended consequence of the broadband funding effort could be taxpayers subsidizing the establishment of for-profit monopolies in rural corners of the state. Although Salway told Capital NY he wanted to make sure New Yorkers had a choice, he clarified he was referring to a choice in technology, not service providers.

twcGreenThat must come as a relief for Verizon. The state’s largest phone company has petitioned state officials in the past for a gradual mothballing of New York’s rural landline network in favor of switching customers to wireless voice and broadband over Verizon’s cellular network. Theoretically, taxpayers could end up subsidizing the demise of rural New York landlines and DSL if Verizon seeks money from the rural broadband fund to expand its wireless tower network in rural New York. Time Warner Cable almost certainly will also seek more funding, probably in excess of the average $1,264 paid to the cable company for each of the 4,114 additional connections it agreed to complete during an earlier round of funding.

While rural broadband remains an important issue in New York, the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable is on the front burner and Salway, like the governor, had little to say. But Salway did offer that he did not believe the merger “would reduce [access] as much as further our goal” for expansion.

Guidelines for grant recipients are expected to become available just after the governor’s State of the State presentation in January, with ground-breaking on projects likely to start by mid-summer of 2015.

Comcast Boosting Speeds in Pacific Northwest to Fend Off CenturyLink, Frontier, and Google

Phillip Dampier November 5, 2014 Broadband Speed, Comcast/Xfinity, Competition No Comments

Comcast-LogoAfter raising prices for Internet service and imposing the nation’s highest modem rental fee, Comcast customers in Oregon and southwest Washington are finally getting some good news: speed boosts.

Comcast will double Internet speeds for “the vast majority” in the Pacific Northwest between now and the end of the year, bringing 100Mbps service to Comcast’s “Blast” Internet plan and 50Mbps to “Performance” tier customers. Comcast says it is the 13th speed increase in the last dozen years in the region, but that isn’t all that has increased.

Comcast raised prices for its broadband plans last month: $66.95 for standalone Performance service ($53.95 if you bundle), $78.95 for Blast ($65.95 for those also taking cable TV or phone service). The modem rental fee remains a steep $10 a month.

Customers will receive e-mail when the faster speeds become available in their area, and a modem reset (unplug it briefly) will be required to get the new speeds.

Comcast is facing competition from CenturyLink, which is installing fiber optics in the area and Frontier, which inherited Verizon’s FiOS network when it acquired landlines in the region. Google Fiber is also expected to eventually make an appearance in the Portland area. Comcast prices are on the high side in comparison to the competition. CenturyLink’s introductory rate is as low as $50 a month for fiber service and Frontier charges $35 a month for 30Mbps service on its FiOS network.

For now, Comcast broadband service remains uncapped in the region, but Comcast is continuing market trials elsewhere that include a 300GB usage cap and an overlimit fee for those exceeding it.

Frontier Faces Lawsuit in West Virginia Alleging False Advertising, Undisclosed DSL Speed Throttling

The slow lane

The slow lane

Frontier Communications customers in West Virginia are part of a filed class-action lawsuit alleging the phone company has violated the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act for failing to deliver the high-speed Internet service it promises.

The lawsuit, filed in Lincoln County Circuit Court, claims Frontier is advertising fast Internet speeds up to 12Mbps, but often delivers far less than that, especially in rural areas where the company is accused of throttling broadband speeds to less than 1Mbps. The suit also alleges Frontier’s broadband service is highly unreliable.

“The Internet service provided by Frontier does not come anywhere close to the speeds advertised,” wrote Benjamin Sheridan, the Hurricane lawyer filing the lawsuit on behalf of three Frontier customers. The attorney is seeking to have the case designated a class action lawsuit that would cover Frontier customers across the state.

“Although we cannot guarantee Internet speeds due to numerous factors, such as traffic on the Internet and the capabilities of a customer’s computer, Frontier tested each plaintiff’s line and found that in all cases the service met or exceeded the ‘up to’ broadband speeds to which they subscribed,” Frontier spokesperson Dan Page told the Charleston Gazette. “Nonetheless, the plaintiffs filed their case in Lincoln County, where none of them lives. If necessary, we are prepared to defend ourselves in court and bring the facts to light.”

Frontier’s general manager in West Virginia, Dana Waldo, may have helped the plaintiffs when he seemed to admit Frontier was purposely throttling the Internet speeds of its customers, a move Sheridan claims saves Frontier “a fortune” in connectivity costs with wholesale broadband providers like Sprint and AT&T.

Sheridan

Sheridan

“If as you suggest, we ‘opened up the throttle’ for every served customer, it could create congestion problems resulting in degradation of speed for all customers,” according to Waldo as part of an email exchange with one of the class members cited in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also cites a state report issued over the summer that found just 12 percent of Frontier customers receive Internet speeds that actually qualify as “broadband” under federal and state standards. Frontier’s speed ranking is the slowest of any provider in the state. That is especially significant because Frontier is the largest ISP in West Virginia, and is often the only choice rural residents have for broadband service.

Frontier dismissed the state’s report claiming it was based on voluntary speed tests performed by disgruntled customers.

“As we’ve said before, the speed tests are the result of self-selected, self-reported samples,” Page said. “People who take speed tests tend to be those with speed problems or low speeds.”

“Even if that were true, it doesn’t account for Frontier’s poor performance,” said Frontier customer William Henley. “If every person that ran a speed test in West Virginia was annoyed with their provider, Frontier still came in last place.”

Frontier’s competitors scored better:

  • lincoln countyComcast: 88% of customers met or exceeded state and federal standards;
  • Suddenlink Communications: 80%
  • Time Warner Cable: 77%
  • Shentel: 71%
  • Armstrong Cable: 67%
  • LUMOS Networks: 44%

“…Frontier’s practice of overcharging and failing to provide the high-speed, broadband-level of service it advertises has created high profits for Frontier but left Internet users in the digital Dark Age,” Sheridan wrote. “As a result, students are prevented from being able to do their homework, and rural consumers are unable to utilize the Internet in a way that gives them equal footing with those in an urban environment.”

Sheridan also accused Frontier of delivering its fastest speeds only in areas where it faces competition. Where there is none, Frontier can afford to go slow.

But slow speed is not the only issue. One plaintiff — April Morgan in Marion County — says she has to reset her modem up to 10 times a day to stay connected to the Internet. Her modem has been replaced several times by Frontier, but that has done little to solve her problem.

Frontier customers who check the company’s terms of service agreement may question whether Sheridan can get very far suing the company. A clause in the contract states customers must settle disputes only through binding arbitration or small claims court. Individual lawsuits, jury trials, and class-action cases are prohibited.

Sheridan points out customers have to go online to read the agreement – it is not provided to customers signing up for Internet service. A contract that forces customers to agree to its terms without getting informed consent may turn out not very binding under West Virginia law.

Lincoln County Judge Jay Hoke, assigned to hear the case, will likely face that matter in pre-trial motions.

West Virginia residents interested in the class action case can register here for updates.

J.D. Power & Associates Tie Vote! Hemorrhagic Fever vs. Comcast vs. Time Warner Cable

jd powerLove can be a fickle thing.

Take Comcast’s affair with J.D. Power & Associates, for example. In Comcast’s filings with regulators, it is very proud that J.D. Power cited Comcast for the most improvement of any cable operator scored by the survey firm. Comcast touted the fact it had managed to increase its TV satisfaction score by a whopping 92 points and Internet satisfaction was up a respectable 77 points. (Comcast didn’t mention the fact J.D. Power rates companies on a 1,000 point scale or that it took the cable company four years to eke out those improvements.)

Last month, J.D. Power issued its latest ranking of telecommunications companies and… well, the love is gone.

If customer alienation was an Olympic event, J.D. Power awarded tie gold medals to both Comcast and Time Warner Cable for their Kafkaesque race to the bottom.

The survey of customer satisfaction largely found only dissatisfaction everywhere in the country J.D. Power looked. While Comcast likes to cite its “customer-oopsies-gone-viral” blunders as “isolated incidents,” J.D. Power finds them epidemic nationwide.

skunkThe highest rating across television and broadband categories achieved by either cable company was ‘Meh.’ J.D. Power diplomatically scored both cable companies on a scale that started with “among the best” as simply “the rest.” Customers in the west were the most charitable, those in the south and eastern U.S. indicated they were worked to their last nerve.

“The ability to provide a high-quality experience with all wireline services is paramount as performance and reliability is the most critical driver of overall satisfaction,” said Kirk Parsons, senior director of telecommunications, in a statement.

Having competition available from a high-scoring provider also demonstrates what is possible when a company actually tries to care about customer service. In the same regions Comcast fared about as popular as hemorrhagic fever, WOW! Cable and Verizon FiOS easily took top honors. Even AT&T U-verse scored far higher than either cable company, primarily because AT&T offers very aggressive promotional packages that include a lot for a comparatively low price.

Other cable and smaller phone companies didn’t do particularly well either. Frontier and CenturyLink both earned dismal scores and Charter Cable only managed modest improvement. The two satellite television companies did fine in customer satisfaction for television service, but it was the two biggest phone companies that managed the best scores for Internet service. Among cable operators, only independents like WOW! (and to a lesser extent Cox) did well in the survey.

If J.D. Power is the arbiter of good service Comcast seems to claim it to be, the ratings company just sent a very clear message that when it comes to merging Comcast and Time Warner Cable, anything multiplied by zero is still zero.

J.D. Power ranking (Image courtesy: Reviewed.com)

J.D. Power ranking (Image courtesy: Reviewed.com)

FCC Chairman Complains About State of U.S. Broadband But Offers Few Meaningful Solutions

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler doesn’t like what he sees when looks at the state of American broadband.

At a speech today given to the 1776 community in Washington, Wheeler complained about the lack of broadband competition in the United States.

“The underpinning of broadband policy today is that competition is the most effective tool for driving innovation, investment, and consumer and economic benefits,” Wheeler said. “Unfortunately, the reality we face today is that as bandwidth increases, competitive choice decreases.”

faster speed fewer competitors

“The lighter the blue, the fewer the options,” Wheeler said, gesturing towards his chart. “You get the point. The bar on the left reflects the availability of wired broadband using the FCC’s current broadband definition of 4Mbps. But let’s be clear, this is ‘yesterday’s broadband.’ Four megabits per second isn’t adequate when a single HD video delivered to home or classroom requires 5Mbps of capacity. This is why we have proposed updating the broadband speed required for universal service support to 10Mbps.”

But Wheeler added that even 10Mbps was insufficient as households increasingly add more connected devices — often six or more — to a single broadband connection.  When used concurrently, especially for online video, it is easy to consume all available bandwidth at lower broadband speeds.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Wheeler’s new informal benchmark is 25Mbps — “table stakes” in 21st century communications. About 80 percent of Americans can get 25Mbps today or better, but typically only from one provider. Wheeler wants even faster speeds than that, stating it is unacceptable that more than 40% of the country cannot get 100Mbps service. Wheeler seemed to fear that phone companies have largely given up on competing for faster broadband connections, handing a de facto monopoly to cable operators the government has left deregulated.

“It was the absence of competition that historically forced the imposition of strict government regulation in telecommunications,” Wheeler explained. “One of the consequences of such a regulated monopoly was the thwarting of the kind of innovation that competition stimulates. Today, we are buffeted by constant innovation precisely because of the policy decisions to promote competition made by the FCC and Justice Department since the 1970s and 1980s.”

Wheeler said competition between phone and cable companies used to keep broadband speeds and capacity rising.

“In order to meet the competitive threat of satellite services, cable TV companies upgraded their facilities,” Wheeler said. “When the Internet went mainstream, they found themselves in the enviable position of having greater network capacity than telephone companies. Confronted by such competition, the telcos upgraded to DSL, and in some places deployed all fiber, or fiber-and-copper networks. Cable companies further responded to this competition by improving their own broadband performance. All this investment was a very good thing. The simple lesson of history is that competition drives deployment and network innovation. That was true yesterday and it will be true tomorrow. Our challenge is to keep that competition alive and growing.”

But Wheeler admits the current state of broadband in the United States no longer reflects the fierce competition of a decade or more ago.

“Today, cable companies provide the overwhelming percentage of high-speed broadband connections in America,” Wheeler noted. “Industry observers believe cable’s advantage over DSL technologies will continue for the foreseeable future. The question with which we as Americans must wrestle is whether broadband will continue to be responsive to competitive forces in order to produce the advances that consumers and our economy increasingly demand. Looking across the broadband landscape, we can only conclude that, while competition has driven broadband deployment, it has not yet done so a way that necessarily provides competitive choices for most Americans.”

Wheeler recognized what most broadband customers have dealt with for years — a broadband duopoly for most Americans.

antimonopoly“Take a look at the chart again,” Wheeler said. “At the low end of throughput, 4Mbps and 10Mbps, the majority of Americans have a choice of only two providers. That is what economists call a “duopoly”, a marketplace that is typically characterized by less than vibrant competition. But even two “competitors” overstates the case. Counting the number of choices the consumer has on the day before their Internet service is installed does not measure their competitive alternatives the day after. Once consumers choose a broadband provider, they face high switching costs that include early termination fees, and equipment rental fees. And, if those disincentives to competition weren’t enough, the media is full of stories of consumers’ struggles to get ISPs to allow them to drop service.”

Wheeler emphasized that true competition would allow customers to change providers monthly, if a vibrant marketplace forced competitors to outdo one another. That market does not exist in American broadband today.

“At 25Mbps, there is simply no competitive choice for most Americans,” Wheeler added. “Stop and let that sink in…three-quarters of American homes have no competitive choice for the essential infrastructure for 21st century economics and democracy. Included in that is almost 20 percent who have no service at all. Things only get worse as you move to 50Mbps where 82 percent of consumers lack a choice. It’s important to understand the technical limitations of the twisted-pair copper plant on which telephone companies have relied for DSL connections. Traditional DSL is just not keeping up, and new DSL technologies, while helpful, are limited to short distances. Increasing copper’s capacity may help in clustered business parks and downtown buildings, but the signal’s rapid degradation over distance may limit the improvement’s practical applicability to change the overall competitive landscape.”

Wheeler finds little chance wireless providers will deliver any meaningful competition to wired broadband because of pricing levels and miserly data caps. Such statements are in direct conflict with a traditional industry talking point.

In a remarkable admission, Wheeler added that the only hope of competing with cable operators comes from a technology phone companies have become reluctant to deploy.

“In the end, at this moment, only fiber gives the local cable company a competitive run for its money,” Wheeler said. “Once fiber is in place, its beauty is that throughput increases are largely a matter of upgrading the electronics at both ends, something that costs much less than laying new connections.”

Wheeler also continued to recognize the urban-rural divide in broadband service and availability, but said little about how he planned to address it.

Wheeler’s answer to the broadband dilemma fell firmly in the camp of promoting competition and avoiding regulation, a policy that has been in place during the last two administrations with little success and more industry consolidation. Most of Wheeler’s specific commitments to protect and enhance competition apply to the wireless marketplace, not fixed wired broadband:

1. comcast highwayWhere competition exists, the Commission will protect it. Our effort opposing shrinking the number of nationwide wireless providers from four to three is an example. As applied to fixed networks, the Commission’s Order on tech transition experiments similarly starts with the belief that changes in network technology should not be a license to limit competition.

In short, don’t expect anymore efforts to combine T-Mobile and Sprint into a single entity. Wheeler only mentioned “nationwide wireless providers” which suggests it remains open season to acquire the dwindling number of smaller, regional carriers. Wheeler offers no meaningful benchmarks to protect consumers or prevent further consolidation in the cable and telephone business.

2. Where greater competition can exist, we will encourage it. Again, a good example comes from wireless broadband. The “reserve” spectrum in the Broadcast Incentive Auction will provide opportunities for wireless providers to gain access to important low-band spectrum that could enhance their ability to compete. Similarly, the entire Open Internet proceeding is about ensuring that the Internet remains free from barriers erected by last-mile providers. Third, where meaningful competition is not available, the Commission will work to create it. For instance, our efforts to expand the amount of unlicensed spectrum creates alternative competitive pathways. And we understand the petitions from two communities asking us to pre-empt state laws against citizen-driven broadband expansion to be in the same category, which is why we are looking at that question so closely.

Again, the specifics Wheeler offered pertain almost entirely to the wireless business. Spectrum auctions are designed to attract new competition, but the biggest buyers will almost certainly be the four current national carriers, particularly AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Although low-band spectrum will help Sprint and T-Mobile deliver better indoor service, it is unlikely to drive new market share for either. Wheeler offered no specifics on the issues of Net Neutrality or municipal broadband beyond acknowledging they are issues.

3. Incentivizing competition is a job for governments at every level. We must build on and expand the creative thinking that has gone into facilitating advanced broadband builds around the country. For example, Google Fiber’s “City Checklist” highlights the importance of timely and accurate information about and access to infrastructure, such as poles and conduit. Working together, we can implement policies at the federal, state, and local level that serve consumers by facilitating construction and encouraging competition in the broadband marketplace.

competitionMost of the policies Wheeler seeks to influence exist on the state and local level, where he has considerably less influence. Based on the overwhelming interest shown by cities clamoring to attract Google Fiber, the problems of access to utility poles and conduit are likely overstated. The bigger issue is the lack of interest by new providers to enter entrenched monopoly/duopoly markets where they face crushing capital investment costs and catcalls from incumbent providers demanding they be forced to serve every possible customer, not selectively choose individual neighborhoods to serve. Both incumbent cable and phone companies originally entered communities free from significant competition, often guaranteed a monopoly, making the burden of wired universal service more acceptable to investors. When new entrants are anticipated to capture only 14-40 percent competitive market share at best, it is much harder to convince lenders to support infrastructure and construction expenses. That is why new providers seek primarily to serve areas where there is demonstrated demand for the service.

4. Where competition cannot be expected to exist, we must shoulder the responsibility of promoting the deployment of broadband. One thing we already know is the fact that something works in New York City doesn’t mean it works in rural South Dakota. We cannot allow rural America to be behind the broadband curve. Our universal service efforts are focused on bringing better broadband to rural America by whomever steps up to the challenge – not the highest speeds all at once, but steadily to prevent the creation of a new digital divide.

Again, Wheeler offers few specifics. Current efforts by the FCC include the Connect America Fund, which is nearly entirely devoted to subsidizing rural telephone companies to build traditional DSL service into high-cost areas. Cable is rarely a competitor in these markets, but Wireless ISPs often are, and they are usually privately funded and consider government subsidized DSL expansion an unwelcome and unfair intrusion in their business.

“Since my first day as Chairman of the FCC my mantra has been consistent and concise: ‘Competition, Competition, Competition,'” said Wheeler. “As we have seen today, there is an inverse relationship between competition and the kind of broadband performance that consumers are increasingly demanding. This is not tolerable.”

Under Wheeler’s leadership, Comcast has filed a petition to assume control of Time Warner Cable, AT&T is seeking permission to buy DirecTV, Frontier Communications is acquiring the wired facilities of AT&T in Connecticut, and wireless consolidation continues. A forthcoming test of Wheeler’s willingness to back his rhetoric with action is whether he will support or reject these industry consolidating mergers and acquisitions. Wheeler’s FCC has also said little to nothing about the consumer-unfriendly practice of usage caps and usage-based billing — both growing among wired networks even as they upgrade to much-faster speeds and raise prices.

Frontier’s Buyout of AT&T Connecticut Rejected By Regulators; Deal Offers Little Benefit to Customers

puraConnecticut’s tough Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) has rejected a settlement between state officials and Frontier Communications to acquire AT&T Connecticut, saying the deal offers very little to Connecticut ratepayers.

The settlement between Frontier, Connecticut’s Consumer Counsel and the Connecticut Attorney General’s office included commitments from Frontier governing contributions to state non-profit groups, phone rates and broadband expansion.

The Authority was told it could either approve or reject the settlement, but not suggest or require changes. It decided late last week to reject the settlement deal.

The regulator cited several reasons for its disapproval:

  • PURA_new_area_code_mapA landline rate freeze offers little benefit to Connecticut ratepayers because landline rates have been stable for years and any attempt to increase them will only fuel additional disconnections;
  • Frontier’s commitments to improve broadband service in Connecticut are vague, lacking specific speed improvements and rural broadband expansion targets to meet;
  • Frontier attempted to insert weakened rules governing pole inspections, which should be part of a separate regulatory proceeding;
  • The agreement might limit PURA’s ability to launch cost-recovery proceedings and flexibility to maintain oversight over Frontier’s performance in the state;
  • A contractual agreement requiring Frontier to make specific contributions to state non-profit groups is inappropriate and unenforceable;
  • A lack of information about how Frontier and AT&T will collaborate after the transaction is complete, particularly with AT&T’s U-verse offering;
  • No details about how Frontier U-verse intends to handle Public, Educational, and Government Access channels on its television platform;
  • A lack of a detailed disaster preparedness plan from Frontier to handle major service disruptions.

PURA’s Acting Executive Secretary Nicholas Neeley said the goal is to “improve the likelihood of success of Frontier as it assumes the duties, obligations and responsibilities currently held by AT&T in Connecticut.”

“(It seeks to) balance the interests of all parties affected by this transaction, promote competition and preserve the public’s rights to safe and adequate communications services,” Neeley wrote in a public notice. “The Authority hopes that such a session will produce an amended proposal from Frontier that would be deemed acceptable for consideration.”

The rejection also seeks to protect and preserve Connecticut’s regulatory oversight power over Frontier.

Frontier received a better reception from the Communications Workers of America. The phone company has traditionally maintained reasonably good relations with its unionized workforce. CWA approved of Frontier’s purchase of AT&T Connecticut after winning commitments for new union jobs, a job security program, a payout of 100 shares of company stock to each union member, and Frontier’s commitment to prioritize Connecticut-based call centers.

Wall Street is less impressed. This morning, Morgan Stanley downgraded Frontier’s stock to “underweight,” citing complications in the AT&T Connecticut deal and Frontier’s increasing debt load. Frontier is financing $1.55 billion of the $2 billion transaction by selling two groups of senior notes of $775 million each, due in 2021 and 2024. As of June 30, Frontier had amassed $7.9 billion in debt with just $805 million in cash on hand.

Frontier's proposed northeastern service areas would add almost the entire state of Connecticut to its holdings in mostly-rural upstate New York and Pennsylvania and the urban metropolitan Rochester, N.Y. 585 area code region.

Frontier’s proposed northeastern service areas would add almost the entire state of Connecticut to its holdings in mostly rural upstate New York and Pennsylvania and the metropolitan Rochester, N.Y. 585 area code region where the company got its name.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Frontier Communications Connecticut 1-2014.mp4

Frontier Communications introduces itself to AT&T Connecticut customers in this company-produced video. (4:03)

Frontier Files Opposition to Time Warner Cable/Comcast Merger; Harms Video Competition

Frontier used Time Warner Cable's usage cap experiment against them in this ad to attract new customers in the spring of 2009.

Frontier used Time Warner Cable’s usage cap experiment against them in this ad to attract new customers in the spring of 2009.

Frontier Communications has filed a rare objection with the Federal Communications Commission opposing the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, citing concerns the merger would further harm competition and prevent Frontier and other competitors from getting fair access to programming owned by the combined cable companies.

“Comcast’s appetite for market control threatens the competitiveness of the video market,” wrote Frontier. “Comcast is already the largest Internet provider and largest video provider in the United States. If approved, Comcast’s video subscriber base would be approximately 52-times the size of Frontier’s video subscriber base.”

As Stop the Cap! wrote in its own objections to the merger, would-be competitors can and will be deterred from competing for video subscribers if they cannot obtain reasonable wholesale rates for popular cable programming. Currently, the largest providers extend the best volume discounts to the country’s largest satellite and cable operators. They make up those discounts by charging smaller customers higher rates. Frontier, as we noted in our filing, has already experienced the impact of volume discounting in its adopted FiOS TV areas in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest. Losing volume discounts originally obtained by Verizon, Frontier faced substantially higher programming costs as an independent provider — costs so great the company began asking customers to drop its own fiber television product in favor of third-party partner DISH, a satellite provider.

“Small multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) like Frontier cannot achieve the scale necessary to drive down programming costs, which are based upon an MVPD’s subscriber totals, to the same levels that Comcast can with this transaction,” noted Frontier. “Further, Comcast would own an enormous share of the “must have” programming that customers demand and could exercise its market dominance to either outright deny such programming to its competitors or to functionally deny the programming by charging exorbitant rates for content.”

“While Frontier continues to grow its subscriber base organically by delivering a quality product in its markets and also by acquiring AT&T’s wireline assets in Connecticut, the cost of content for video programming remains staggering for new entrants that lack the scale and scope of cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable individually, let alone that of the merged entity,” said Frontier. “It is no mere coincidence that AT&T announced its proposed acquisition of DirecTV shortly after Comcast announced its intention to purchase Time Warner Cable. AT&T recognized the need to improve its subscriber scale in order to compete with Comcast on video programming pricing.”

Frontier noted the Federal Communications Commission also expressed grave concerns over Comcast’s ability to affect video competition during its acquisition of NBCUniversal. That merger was approved only after Comcast agreed to several conditions to avoid anticompetitive abuse in the marketplace. But Frontier complained a further acquisition of Time Warner Cable would only exacerbate competition concerns, even as Comcast argues the FCC should not contemplate any further investigation of the subject during its current merger review.

Frontier Communications Promises Gigabit Broadband Will Be Available… to Almost Nobody

Frontier's "High Speed" Fantasies

Frontier’s “High Speed” Fiber Fantasies

Frontier Communications has jumped on the gigabit broadband promises bandwagon with an announcement to investors the company will make available 1,000Mbps broadband speeds available later this year to a small handful of customers.

“I want to note that nearly 10% of our households are served through a fiber to the home architecture,” said Frontier’s chief operating officer Dan McCarthy. “Over the next several quarters we will introduce expanded speed offerings in select markets including 50-100Mbps services. Some residential areas will also be able to purchase up to 1Gbps broadband service. We are excited to bring these new products to market and look forward to making these choices available to our customers.”

Most of Frontier’s fiber customers are part of the FiOS fiber to the home infrastructure Frontier adopted from Verizon in Fort Wayne, Ind., and in parts of Oregon and Washington. The rest of Frontier customers accessing service over fiber are in a few new housing developments and some multi-dwelling units. The majority of customers continue to be served by copper-based facilities.

Despite the speed challenges imposed by distance-sensitive DSL over copper networks, Frontier customers crave faster speeds and more than one-third of Frontier’s sales in the last quarter have come from speed upgrades. As of this month, 54% of Frontier households can receive 20Mbps or greater speed, 75% can get 12Mbps and 83% can get 6Mbps. Here at Stop the Cap! headquarters, little has changed since 2009, with maximum available Frontier DSL speeds in this Rochester, N.Y. suburban neighborhood still maxing out at a less-impressive 3.1Mbps.

Frontier’s plans for the next three months include a growing number of partnerships with third-party equipment manufacturers and software companies, as well as integrating former AT&T service areas in Connecticut into the Frontier family:

Sale of AT&T Connecticut Assets to Frontier Communications Wins Approval from State Attorney General

frontier frankConnecticut’s Attorney General has announced a deal with Frontier Communications to approve its acquisition of AT&T’s wired assets in the state. The office asked for and got a three-year rate freeze on basic residential telephone rates and a commitment to keep selling standalone broadband at or below Frontier’s current rates. Low-income military veterans would receive basic broadband service for $19.99 per month, a substantial discount off the regular price of $34.99. The first month of service is free.

Frontier will make $500,000 in donations annually to various Connecticut charities, give $512,500 to the University of Connecticut basketball teams, and commit $75,000 to sponsor the Connecticut Open tennis tournament in New Haven.

The phone company has also committed to invest $64 million on network upgrades between 2015-2017, primarily to expand DSL broadband and U-verse service. The company also must undertake to inspect the wireline network it is buying from AT&T and replace deteriorating infrastructure including lines and telephone poles as needed.

Frontier announced it was buying AT&T’s wired assets in December for $2 billion. AT&T will continue to own and operate its wireless network assets in the state. Connecticut was home to AT&T’s only significant landline presence in the northeast. The Southern New England Telephone Company of Connecticut was originally bought by SBC Communications for $4.4 billion in 1998. After SBC purchased AT&T, the telephone company changed its name to AT&T Connecticut. Its primary competitor is Cablevision Industries, which also serves eastern New York and parts of New Jersey. AT&T has aggressively deployed its U-verse platform in Connecticut. Frontier will continue to run and expand U-verse in the state.

Frontier Services and Partnerships Expand

  • Customers may have already received marketing for Frontier’s Emergency Phone, a $4.99/mo landline that can only reach 911. Frontier CEO Maggie Wilderotter told investors that global climate change has made weather patterns more unpredictable, making the reliability and resiliency of traditional landlines a “true life line” in the event of an emergency knocking out Voice over IP lines or cell phone service;
  • Frontier Texting, powered by Zipwhip, allows customers send and receive text messages using their existing landline numbers. The service appears most popular with business customers, with more 800 signed up so far;
  • Frontier third-party technical and security support offers a large range of computer security, home automation, and support services for both hardware and software. Frontier added the Nest thermostat during this quarter, as well as tech support for Intuit QuickBooks and Dropcam remote video monitoring.

Wilderotter Flip-Flops on Gigabit Broadband: You Don’t Need a Gig

Less than three weeks ago, Wilderotter told the Pacific Northwest readers of The Oregonian they didn’t need gigabit broadband speeds:

“Today it’s about the hype, because Google has hyped the gig,” said Wilderotter, in Portland this week for a meeting of her company’s board. She said Google is pitching something that’s beyond the capacity of many devices, with very few services that could take advantage of such speeds, and confusing customers in the process.

“We have to take the mystery and the technology out of the experience for the user because it’s a bit disrespectful to speak a language our customers don’t understand,” said Wilderotter, in Portland this week for a meeting of her company’s board.

Frontier’s pitch: Better prices for more modest speeds. For most people, Wilderotter said, 10 to 12 megabits per second will be perfectly adequate for at least the next couple years. She said Frontier is upgrading its networks in rural communities where it doesn’t offer FiOS to meet that benchmark.

Now that Frontier proposes to offer those speeds, company officials are excited they will be available. Customers shouldn’t be. Most won’t have access for some time to come, if ever.

How Comcast’s Volume Discounts Will Kill Cable-TV Competition

psctest

You can still read a book instead of everything else.

You can still read a book instead of everything else.

Allowing Comcast to dominate New York’s cable television marketplace will deter future competitors from entering the market, particularly for television programming.

One of the arguments made by proponents of the merger is the possibility of decreased wholesale television programming costs won through volume discounts available to the largest nationwide providers. Unfortunately for consumers, Comcast has already declared customers will not benefit from those discounts in the form of lower cable bills.

A prospective new entrant considering providing cable television service will face competition with Comcast without any benefit of volume discounts on programming.[1] That makes it unlikely a provider will offer a competing television package.

This is not a theoretical problem.

In Ohio, independent cable company MCTV discovered that while large cable operators like Comcast were benefiting from volume discounts, it faced contract renewal prices more than 40 times the rate of inflation.[2] Cable ONE, owned by the Washington Post, had to drop more than a dozen Viacom owned channels for good because it could not afford the asking price.[3]

MCTV president Bob Gessner reminds us of just how concentrated the entertainment business has become, noting that nine media companies (Comcast is one of them) now control 95% of all paid video content consumed in the United States.[4]

MCTV’s survival plan includes membership in the 900-member National Cable Television Cooperative, the only way smaller providers can pool resources and win discounts of their own. It is no longer effective as mergers and acquisitions continue to consolidate the cable and telco-TV business. All 900 NCTC members serve a combined five million customers. Comcast has 21 million, DirecTV: 20 million, Dish Networks: 14 million, and Time Warner Cable: 11 million.[5]

media_consolidation

AT&T confesses it cannot compete effectively with Comcast and other larger competitors for the same reason. AT&T’s solution, like Comcast, is to buy a competitor, in this case DirecTV.[6]

Frontier Communications faced a similar problem after adopting Verizon FiOS franchises in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest after purchasing Verizon landline networks in several states. When Frontier lost Verizon’s volume discounts on programming, Frontier’s solution was to begin a marketing campaign to convince its fiber customers to abandon the technology and switch to one of its satellite television partners.[7]

[1]http://www.fiercecable.com/story/comcast-twc-deal-will-squeeze-programming-and-technology-vendors/2014-02-13
[2]http://stopthecap.com/2014/06/05/independent-cable-companies-unify-against-cable-tv-programmer-rate-increases/
[3]http://online.wsj.com/articles/viacom-60-cable-firms-part-ways-in-rural-u-s-1403048557
[4]http://stopthecap.com/2014/06/05/independent-cable-companies-unify-against-cable-tv-programmer-rate-increases/
[5]http://stopthecap.com/2014/06/05/independent-cable-companies-unify-against-cable-tv-programmer-rate-increases/
[6]http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-05-02/dish-or-directv-need-deal-most-in-at-t-love-triangle-real-m-a.html
[7]http://stopthecap.com/2011/08/16/frontiers-fiber-mess-company-losing-fios-subs-landline-customers-but-adds-bonded-dsl/

NY’s Broadband Future Is Better With Time Warner Cable: Comcast’s Coming Usage Caps Kill Innovation

psctest

Broadband will be critically impacted by any merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable in New York. The two companies could not be more different in their philosophies regarding access, pricing, and speeds.

say noThis merger will have an especially profound impact on broadband service in upstate New York, largely left behind out from getting Verizon’s fiber upgrades. New York’s digital economy critically needs modern, fast, and affordable Internet access to succeed. Verizon has not only ceased expansion of its FiOS fiber to the home network in New York, it has virtually capitulated competing for cable customers in non-FiOS areas by agreeing to sell Time Warner Cable service in its wireless stores.[1]  In cities like Rochester, served by Frontier Communications’ DSL, Time Warner Cable is the only provider in town that can consistently deliver broadband speeds in excess of 10Mbps.

Time Warner Cable has never been the fastest Internet provider and had a history of being slower than others to roll out speed increases. But it is also the only cable provider in the country that experimented with usage caps and consumption billing and shelved both after subscribers bitterly complained in market tests in cities including Rochester.[2]

Then CEO Glenn Britt announced the end of the usage cap trial just two weeks after it became public.[3] Britt would later emphasize that he now believed there should always be an unlimited use plan available for Time Warner Cable customers who do not want their Internet use metered.[4] In study after study, the overwhelming majority of customers have shown intense dislike of limitations on their Internet usage, whether from strict usage caps Comcast maintained for several years or usage allowances that, when exceeded, would result in overlimit fees.[5] Just this month, the Government Accounting Office confirmed these findings in a new study that reported near-universal revulsion for usage caps on home wired broadband service:[6]

In only two groups did any participants report experience with wireline UBP [usage-based pricing].

However, in all eight groups, participants expressed strong negative reactions to UBP, including concerns about:

  • The importance of the Internet in their lives and the potential effects of data allowances.
  • Having to worry about data usage at home, where they are used to having unlimited access.
  • Concerns that ISPs would use UBP as a way of increasing the amount they charge for Internet service.

Time Warner Cable has learned an important lesson regarding consumer perception of usage-based billing and usage caps on Internet service. In 2012, the company introduced optional usage caps for customers interested in a discount on their broadband service. Out of 11 million Time Warner Cable broadband customers, only a few thousand have been convinced in enroll such programs.[7]

Despite results like that, Comcast has not learned that lesson and has twice imposed unilateral, compulsory usage limits on their broadband customers, starting with a nationwide hard usage cap of 250GB per month introduced in 2008. Violators risked having their broadband service terminated by Comcast.[8] Today, for some that would be comparable to losing electricity or telephone service. The threat has profound implications in areas where Comcast is the only broadband provider.

Comcast temporarily rescinded its cap in May 2012, but has gradually reintroduced various forms of usage-related billing and caps with market trials in several Comcast service areas[9]:

Nashville, Tennessee: 300 GB per month with $10/50GB overlimit fee;

Tucson, Arizona: Economy Plus through Performance XFINITY Internet tiers: 300 GB. Blast! Internet tier: 350 GB; Extreme 50 customers: 450 GB; Extreme 105: 600 GB. $10 per 50GB overlimit fee;

Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee and Charleston, South Carolina: 300 GB per month with $10/50GB; XFINITY Internet Economy Plus customers can choose to enroll in the Flexible-Data Option to receive a $5.00 credit on their monthly bill and reduce their data usage plan from 300 GB to 5 GB. If customers choose this option and use more than 5 GB of data in any given month, they will not receive the $5.00 credit and will be charged an additional $1.00 for each gigabyte of data used over the 5 GB included in the Flexible-Data Option;

Fresno, California, Economy Plus customers also have the option of enrolling in the Flexible-Data Option.

courtesy-noticeComcast customers in these areas do not have the option of keeping their unlimited-use broadband accounts. Despite the fact Comcast executive vice president David Cohen refers to these as “data thresholds,” they are in fact de facto limits that carry penalty fees when exceeded.[10]

Cohen predicts these usage limits will be imposed on all Comcast customers nationwide within the next five years.[11] Time Warner Cable has committed not to impose compulsory limits on its broadband customers. Verizon has never attempted to place limits on its home broadband customers. Frontier shelved a usage limit plan of 5GB per month attempted in 2008 and currently provides unlimited service.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts sat for an interview with CNBC in June in which he implied usage growth was impinging on the viability of its broadband business, justifying usage caps. At the end of the interview, Time Warner Cable ran advertising emphasizing it has no usage caps.[12] Both companies have highly profitable broadband services, as do other providers across the country.[13]

As our group has found, usage caps and consumption billing on cable Internet and DSL are little more than a transparent rate increase and anti-competitive maneuver to restrict the growth of the industry’s biggest potential competitor: online video. If a consumer can stream all of their video programming over a broadband account, there is no reason to retain a cable TV package. Comcast’s usage cap provides a built-in deterrent for customers contemplating such a move.

While a Comcast representative offered (without any independent verification) that the average Comcast broadband user consumes fewer than 20GB of data per month, Sandvine released evidence in its Global Internet Phenomena Report 1H2014 study that cord-cutters in the U.S. – at least those whose usage indicates the use of streaming as a primary form of entertainment – now consume about 212GB of data per month (with 153GB of that going toward “real-time entertainment usage”).[14]

That would put many customers perilously close to Comcast’s current market tested usage allowance.

Approving the transfer of franchises from Time Warner Cable to Comcast has the potential of saddling the majority of New York residents with usage caps and/or consumption billing with little or no savings or benefit to the consumer while introducing a major impediment to potential online video competition to help curtail cable television pricing.

[1]http://www.verizonwireless.com/wcms/consumer/home-services/tv-internet-homephone/twc.html
[2]http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/04/16/us-timewarnercable-idUSTRE53F6EQ20090416
[3]http://stopthecap.com/2009/04/16/we-won-time-warner-killing-usage-caps-in-all-markets/
[4]http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2012/02/launching-an-optional-usage-based-pricing-plan-in-southern-texas-2/
[5]http://www.dailytech.com/Microsoft+Study+Bandwidth+Caps+Change+Internet+Users+Behavior/article24639.htm
[6]http://eshoo.house.gov/uploads/7.29.14%20Preliminary%20GAO%20Report%20Findings%20from%20Data%20Cap%20Study.pdf
[7]http://stopthecap.com/2014/03/13/time-warner-cable-admits-usage-based-pricing-is-a-big-failure-only-thousands-enrolled/
[8]http://arstechnica.com/uncategorized/2008/08/its-official-comcast-starts-250gb-bandwidth-caps-october-1/
[9] http://customer.comcast.com/help-and-support/internet/data-usage-trials-what-are-the-different-plans-launching
[10] http://customer.comcast.com/help-and-support/internet/data-usage-trials-what-are-the-different-plans-launching
[11]http://techcrunch.com/2014/05/14/comcast-wants-to-put-data-caps-on-all-customers-within-5-years/
[12]http://stopthecap.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/nocaps.png
[13]http://gigaom.com/2014/02/12/comcast-and-time-warner-cable-forget-tv-it-is-all-about-broadband/
[14]http://www.multichannel.com/news/technology/cord-cutters-gobble-down-bits-sandvine-study/374551#sthash.JYFP7o69.dpuf

			
			

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