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I Love You Comcast! An Amazing 180 for Former Antitrust Attorney David Balto

Phillip "I got whiplash just watching" Dampier

Phillip “I got whiplash just watching” Dampier

A former policy director at the Federal Trade Commission and antitrust attorney at the U.S. Justice Department has managed an impressive 180 in just a few short months regarding the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

In February, David Balto told TheDeal the proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable “is a bad deal for consumers.” Today, Mr. Balto’s panoply of guest editorials, media appearances and columns — suddenly in favor of the merger — are turning up in the New York Times, the Orlando Sentinel, Marketplace, WNYC Radio, and elsewhere.

Balto’s arguments are based on “research” which, in toto, appears to have been limited to thumbing through Comcast’s press releases and merger presentation. That was enough:

First, this deal should create benefits for Time Warner customers, who will gain a significantly faster Internet and more advanced television service.

Second, competition is increasing in both the pay-TV and broadband businesses. Ninety-eight percent of viewers have a choice of three or more multichannel services, plus growing options online. Yahoo just announced a new video service, joining Netflix, Amazon and YouTube. In the last five years, cable has lost about seven million customers, satellite has gained nearly two million, and the telecommunications companies have gained six million.

Third, Comcast’s post-merger share of broadband falls closer to 20 percent when including LTE wireless and satellite providers. Over all, 97 percent of households have at least two competing fixed broadband providers — three or more if mobile wireless is included.

We used to wonder why government officials and regulators were so easily fooled by the corporate government relations people sent into their offices armed with press releases, talking points, cupcakes, and empty promises. We understand everyone isn’t a Big Telecom expert, but too often regulators’ reflexive acceptance of whatever companies bring to their table threatens to win them rube-status. We’d like to think Mr. Balto isn’t Comcast’s sucker, and we certainly hope there are no unspoken incentives on the table in return for his recent, very sudden conversion to celebrate all-things Comcast. Maybe he’s simply uninformed.

Balto

Balto

Although our regular readers — nearly all consumers and customers — are well-equipped to debunk Mr. Balto’s arguments, for the benefit of visitors, here is our own research.

First, Comcast’s Internet service is not faster than Time Warner Cable. Mr. Balto needs to spend some time away from Comcast’s merger info-pack and do some real research. He’ll find Time Warner Cable embarked on a massive upgrade program called TWC Maxx that is more than tripling broadband speeds for customers at no extra charge. Those speeds are faster than what Comcast offers the average residential customer, and come much cheaper as well. Oh, and TWC has no compulsory usage limits and overlimit penalties. Comcast’s David Cohen predicts every Comcast customer will face both within five years.

Second, that “advanced TV platform” Balto raves about requires a $99 installation fee… for an X1 set-top box. It also means equipment must be attached to every television in the house, because Comcast encrypts everything. At a time when customers want to pay for fewer channels, Comcast wants to shovel even more unwanted programming and boxes at customers. Older Americans who want their Turner Classic Movies have another nasty surprise. They will need to buy Comcast’s super deluxe cable TV package to get that network, at a cost exceeding $80 a month just for television. Ask Time Warner customers what they want, and they’ll tell you they’d prefer old and decrepit over an even higher cable TV bill Comcast has already committed to deliver.

Has competition truly increased? Not in the eyes of most Americans who at best face a duopoly and annual rate hikes well in excess of inflation. Even worse, for most consumers there is only one choice for 21st century High Speed Internet service – the cable company. Mr. Balto conveniently ignores the fact cable’s primary competitor is still DSL which is simply not available at speeds of 30+Mbps for most consumers. In some areas, like suburban Rochester, N.Y., the best the local phone company can deliver some neighborhoods like ours is 3.1Mbps. That isn’t competition. Verizon and AT&T have both stopped expanding DSL. Verizon has ended FiOS expansion and AT&T’s U-verse still maxes out at around 24Mbps for most customers. AT&T’s promised fiber upgrades have proven to be more illusory than reality, available primarily in a handful of multi-dwelling units and new housing developments. In rural areas, both major phone companies are petitioning to do away with landline service and DSL altogether.

Raise your hands if you want Comcast’s “benefits.” In New York, out of 2,300 comments before the PSC, we can’t find a single one clamoring for Comcast’s takeover. The public has spoken.

Cable "competition" in Minneapolis

Cable “competition” in Minneapolis. Charter and Comcast have also teamed up to trade cable territories as part of the Time Warner Cable merger package deal.

Satellite television’s days of providing the cable industry with robust competition have long since peaked. AT&T is seeking to further reduce that competition by purchasing DirecTV, not because it believes in satellite television, but because it wants the benefits of DirecTV’s lucrative volume discounts.

Any antitrust attorney worth his salt should be well aware of what kind of impact volume discounting can have on restraining and discouraging competition. Comcast’s deal for Time Warner will let it acquire programming at a substantial discount (one they have already said won’t be passed on to customers) so significant that any would-be competitors would be in immediate financial peril trying to compete on price.

Frontier Communications learned that lesson when it acquired a handful of Verizon FiOS franchises in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest. After losing Verizon’s volume discounts, Frontier was so alarmed by the wholesale renewal rates it received, it let loose its telemarketing force to convince customers fiber was no good for television and they should instead switch to a satellite provider they partnered with. It’s telling when a company is willing to forfeit revenue in favor of a third party marketing agreement with an outside company.

So what does this mean for a potential start-up looking to get into the business? Since programming is now a commodity, most customers buy on price. The best triple-play deals will go to the biggest national players with volume discounts – all cable operators that have long agreed never to compete directly with each other.

In the Orlando Sentinel, Mr. Balto seemed almost relieved when he concluded Comcast and Time Warner don’t compete head-to-head, somehow easing any antitrust concerns. It is precisely that fact why this deal must never be approved. Comcast has been free to compete anywhere Time Warner provides service, but has never done so. Letting Comcast, which has even worse approval ratings than Time Warner, become the only choice for cable broadband is hardly in the public interest and does nothing for competition. Instead, it only further consolidates the marketplace into a handful of giant companies that can raise prices and cap usage without restraint.

If Mr. Balto truly believes AT&T and Verizon will ride to the rescue with robust wireless broadband competition, his credibility is in peril. Those two companies, among others, are completely incapable of meeting the growing broadband demands (20-50GB) of the home user. With punishing high prices and staggeringly low usage caps, providers are both controlling demand and profiting handsomely from rationing service at the same time. Why change that?

No 3G/4G network under current ordinary traffic loads can honestly deliver a better online experience than DSL, and customers who attempt to replace their home broadband connection in favor of wireless will likely receive a punishing bill for the attempt at the end of the month. The only players who want to count mobile broadband as a serious competitor in the home broadband market are the cable and phone companies desperately looking for a defense against charges they have a broadband monopoly or are part of a comfortable duopoly.

One last point, while Mr. Balto seems impressed that Comcast would continue to voluntarily abide by the Net Neutrality policies he personally opposes, he conveniently omits the fact Comcast was the country’s biggest violator of Net Neutrality when it speed limited peer-to-peer traffic, successfully sued the government over Net Neutrality after it was fined by the FCC for the aforementioned violation, and only agreed to temporarily observe Net Neutrality as part of its colossal merger deal with NBCUniversal. It’s akin to a mugger promising to never commit another crime after being caught red-handed stealing. A commitment like that might be good enough for Mr. Balto, but it isn’t for us.

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Stop the Cap!’s Testimony Before the N.Y. Public Service Commission on Comcast-TWC Merger

lousy-tshirt-640x640For the benefit of new visitors, text items in bold are clickable links. A complete video from this event will be posted as soon as possible.

Good evening. My name is Phillip Dampier from Stop the Cap!, a Rochester-based all-volunteer consumer group fighting for better broadband service and against Internet usage caps.

This is a critical moment for New York. The Internet has become a necessity for most of us and the future is largely in the hands of one company capable of delivering 21st century broadband to the majority of upstate New York. That company isn’t Verizon, which has ended FiOS fiber expansion while abandoning most of its upstate customers with slow speed DSL. Indeed, as their market share will attest, our broadband future is held in the hands of Time Warner Cable.

Comcast could have become a big player in New York had it chosen to compete head to head with Time Warner. But large cable operators avoid that kind of competition, preferring comfortable fiefdoms that only change hands at the whim of the companies involved. As local officials from across New York have already discovered, no major cable operator will compete for an expiring franchise currently held by another major cable operator.

Ironically, Comcast is using that fact in its favor, noting that since neither company competes directly with the other, making Comcast larger has no impact on competition. But that should hardly be the only test.

At issue is whether this merger is in the public interest. This year, for the first time in a long time, the rules have changed in New York. In the past, the Commission had to prove the merger was not in the best interests of New Yorkers. Now the onus is on Comcast to prove it is. It has fallen far short of meeting that burden.

Let’s start with Comcast’s dysfunctional relationship with its customers. With more than 75 citizen comments filed with the Commission so far. Comcast’s reputation clearly precedes it. The consensus view is perhaps best represented by one exasperated Clinton-area resident who wrote, I quote, “No. No no no. HELL no.

dream onThat kind of reaction is unsurprising considering Consumer Reports ranked Comcast 15th out of 17 large cable companies and called their Internet service and customer relations mediocre. Every year since 2007, Comcast’s CEO acknowledges the problems with customer service and promises to do better. Seven years later, the American Customer Satisfaction Index reports absolutely no measurable improvement. In fact, ACSI has concluded Comcast had the worst customer satisfaction rating of any company or government agency in the country, including the IRS.

In order to sell this $45 billion boondoggle to a skeptical public, Comcast has hired 76 lobbyists from 24 different firms and will reportedly spend millions trying to convince regulators and our elected leaders this deal is good for New York. If the deal gets done, Comcast’s biggest spending spree won’t be on behalf of its customers. Instead, Comcast has announced a $17 billion share buyback to benefit their shareholders. Imagine if this money was instead spent on improving customer service and selling a better product at a lower price.

don't careThe only suitable response to this merger deal is its outright rejection. Some may recommend imposing a handful of temporary conditions in return for approval – like the kind Sen. Al Franken accused Comcast of reneging on after its earlier merger with NBCUniversal. But this is one of those cases where you just can’t fit a round peg into a square deal for consumers, no matter how hard you try.

With respect to television, volume discounts have a huge impact on cable programming costs and competition. The biggest players get the best discounts, smaller ones are stunned by programming rate hikes and new competitors think twice about getting into the business.

AT&T said last week its 5.7 million customer U-verse television service was too small to get the kind of discounts its cable and satellite competitors receive. AT&T’s solution is to buy DirecTV, which might be good for AT&T but is bad for competition.

Frontier Communications has also felt the volume discount sting after adopting several Verizon FiOS franchises. When it lost Verizon’s volume discounts, Frontier began a relentless marketing effort to convince its customers to abandon FiOS TV and switch to technically inferior satellite TV.

Combining Comcast and Time Warner Cable will indeed help Comcast secure better deals from major programmers (including Comcast itself). But Comcast is already on record warning those savings won’t be shared with customers.

Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen summed it up best: “We are certainly not promising that customer bills will go down or increase less rapidly.”

Is that in the public interest?

xfinity_blowsComcast suggests this merger will make its cable television market share no larger than it had in 2002 when it bought the assets of AT&T Cable. But this is 2014 and cable television is increasingly no longer the industry’s biggest breadwinner. Broadband is, and post-merger Comcast will control 40-50 percent of the Internet access market nationwide.

So what do Time Warner Cable customers get if Comcast takes over? A higher bill and worse service.

Several months before Comcast sought this merger, Time Warner announced a series of major upgrades under an initiative called TWC Maxx. Over the next two years, Time Warner Cable plans to more than triple the Internet speeds customers get now at no additional charge. Those upgrades are already available in parts of New York City, Los Angeles, and Austin.

A Time Warner Cable customer in Queens used to pay $57.99 for 15 megabit broadband. As of last month, for the same price, they get 50 megabits.

In contrast, Comcast’s Internet Plus plan delivers just 25 megabits and costs $69.95 a month – nearly $12 more for half the speed. Who has the better broadband at a better price? Time Warner Cable.

New York State’s digital economy depends on Internet innovation, which means some customers need faster speeds than others. Time Warner Cable’s Maxx initiative already delivers far superior speeds than what Comcast offers, despite claims from Comcast this merger would deliver New York a broadband upgrade.

isp blockTime Warner’s new top of the line Internet service, Ultimate 300 (formerly Ultimate 50), delivers 300 megabit service for $74.99 a month. Comcast’s top cable broadband offer listed on their website is Extreme 105, offering 105 megabit speeds at prices ranging from $99.95 to $114.95.

Is the public interest better served with 300 megabits for $74.99 from Time Warner Cable or paying almost $40 more for one-third of that speed from Comcast? Again, Time Warner Cable has the better deal for customers.

But the charges keep coming.

At least 90 percent of cable customers lease their cable modem from the cable company, and Comcast charges one of the highest lease rates in the industry – $8 a month. Time Warner Cable charges just under $6.

So I ask again, is this merger really in the public interest when broadband customers will be expected to pay more for less service?

Then there is the issue of usage caps, a creative way to put a toll on innovation. Usage caps make high bandwidth applications of the future untenable while also protecting cable television revenue.

If the PSC approves this transaction, the vast majority of New York will live under Comcast’s returning usage cap regime. There is simply no justification for usage limits on residential broadband service, particularly from a company as profitable as Comcast. Verizon FiOS does not have caps. Neither does Cablevision. But the majority of upstate New Yorkers won’t have the option of choosing either.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable lived through a two week public relations nightmare when they attempted an experiment with compulsory usage caps on customers in Rochester. After Stop the Cap! pushed back, then CEO Glenn Britt shelved the idea. Britt would later emphasize he now believed Time Warner should always have an unlimited use tier available for customers who want it.

Whether intended or not, Time Warner actually proved that was the right idea. In early 2012, the company introduced optional usage caps in return for discounts. They quickly discovered customers have no interest in having their Internet usage measured and limited, even for a discount. Out of 11 million Time Warner Cable broadband customers, only a few thousand have been convinced to enroll.

comcast sucksComcast doesn’t give customers a choice. In 2008, a strict 250GB usage cap was imposed on all residential customers with disconnect threats for violators. Since announcing it would re-evaluate that cap in May 2012, it now appears Comcast has settled on a new residential 300GB usage allowance gradually being reintroduced in Comcast service areas starting in southern U.S. markets.

Comcast executive vice president David Cohen cutely calls them “usage thresholds.” At Stop the Cap! we call it Internet Overcharging.

Cohen predicts Comcast will have broadband usage thresholds imposed on every city they serve within five years. Whether you call it a cap or a threshold, it is in fact a limit on how much Internet service you can consume without risking overlimit fees of $10 for each 50GB increment over your allowance.

Unlike Time Warner Cable, Comcast isn’t offering a discount with its usage cap, so those who use less will still pay the same they always have, proving again that usage caps don’t save customers money. (See below for clarification)

At the end of May I watched CNBC interview Comcast CEO Brian Roberts who implied during a discussion about Comcast’s usage caps that usage growth was impinging on the viability of its broadband business. Moments later, Time Warner Cable ran an ad emphasizing its broadband service has no usage caps. Both companies are making plenty of money from broadband.

This merger is bad news for customers faced with Comcast’s legendary bad service, its forthcoming usage caps, or the higher prices it charges. Even promised innovations like their much touted X1 set top platform comes with a gotcha Comcast routinely forgets to mention. Customers have to pay a $99 installation fee.

Stop the Cap! will submit a more comprehensive filing with the PSC outlining all of our objections to this merger, and there are several more. We invite anyone in the audience to visit stopthecap.com for this and other matters related to cable television and broadband. We appreciate being invited to share our views with the Commission and hope to bring a consumer perspective to this important development in our shared telecommunications future. I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/TWC News Hearing on Comcast 6-16-14.mp4

Time Warner Cable News covered the Public Service Commission hearing in Buffalo, which included testimony from Stop the Cap!’s Phillip Dampier. Also appearing was a representative from the National Black Chamber of Commerce advocating that telecom companies merge as fast as possible. The Chamber has received significant support from Comcast for several years now and representatives routinely testify in favor of Comcast’s business initiatives. (2:30)

Clarification: Comcast has different trials in different cities:

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. $10/50GB 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.

Comcast suggested customers can enroll in a cheaper usage plan in some of these markets. Yes they can, but only if they downgrade to Economy Plus service which offers speeds only up to 3Mbps. Their $5 discount is not available on any other plan.

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

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

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

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

usa

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

verizon att

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

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

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

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

verizon throttle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, that would highlight their responsibility for the problem.

Milch

Milch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Frontier to Introduce $4.99 Security Landline Service, Gives Up on Expanding Video Services

Frontier is introducing a new $5 a month disaster landline service in June.

Frontier is introducing a new $5 a month disaster landline service in June.

With plenty of talk about the impact of global climate change, Frontier Communications will soon introduce a new inexpensive landline service to help customers plagued by weather disasters.

Frontier Security Phone is a $5 a month landline that can only reach 411 and 911 — perfect for those who lose their Voice over IP phone service in a power failure or find cell service clogged or otherwise unavailable.

“Our [service areas] are very prone to severe weather, lots of hurricanes, tornadoes and the mud slides in Washington State,” said Frontier CEO Maggie Wilderotter. “We have markets that are very plagued by bad weather and having a landline phone that works when your power goes out where we have a density of 34 homes a mile is important.”

Frontier will market the bare bones landline service to customers planning to disconnect service in favor of another provider as well as those that already have. Unlike basic budget service, Frontier Security Phone will not be able to make or receive regular phone calls — it is intended for emergency-use only.

Little known to most Frontier customers (and only mentioned on their website in a thicket of tariff filings) is that different types of landline service are available. By switching away from flat rate service to a measured-rate plan, where each local outgoing call is charged at a prevailing per-call rate (usually under 10 cents), customers can still have the option of making and receiving calls on a budget, especially considering incoming calls are free. In large cities like Rochester, Frontier charges $18.03 a month for flat rate local calling. If one switched to a measured-rate plan, the charge is $12.07 a month. Those interested will have to call Frontier at 1-800-921-8101 and specifically inquire about measured rate local telephone service.

Frontier is also exploring a market trial of a new Voice over IP landline service sold as a bundle with DSL.

Wilderotter told investors attending the JPMorgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference that Frontier believes streaming, on-demand video is the future of Frontier, not traditional linear/live television.

Wilderotter

Wilderotter

Therefore, despite the fact Frontier will continue to support legacy FiOS TV services in adopted Verizon markets in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest, and will likely take ownership of AT&T U-verse in Connecticut, the company has no plans to introduce cable-TV service anywhere else. The biggest reason is the cost of video programming for smaller competitors like Frontier.

“We’re never to going to be big like some of these big guys are, which is why we have a partnership with the Dish Network, because they’re big,” Wilderotter explained. “They go negotiate all the content deals and then we offer those packages to our customers and we get paid a sales commission and a monthly customer service and billing fee from Dish on behalf of that service.”

Although Frontier applauded AT&T for its announced intention to acquire DirecTV, Frontier customers in Connecticut currently subscribed to DirecTV through AT&T will eventually be switched to Dish Network — Frontier’s chosen video partner.

Wilderotter explained that Frontier can leverage its broadband network to support streaming video services without assuming the costs of licensing the content. As Comcast and AT&T grow larger, they can negotiate better volume discounts unheard of among smaller competitors, keeping companies like Frontier at a major cost disadvantage. But if a customer wants Netflix or YouTube, they will need a broadband connection to get it, which is where Frontier comes in.

“If you think about Frontier, we’re in 27 states today, soon to be 28 with the Connecticut acquisition, about 30,000 communities, predominantly rural and suburban. That’s sort of our footprint,” said Wilderotter. “So when we think strategically about the assets that we have as a company, first and foremost is [the] networks in all of those markets, and those networks have been upgraded. So for us, the cost of adding another customer to broadband is really the upfront sales cost, because the network is already in place and the capabilities are already [there].”

Wilderotter adds Frontier’s average payback on its investment to hook up a new broadband customer is about three months.

“We also have industry-leading margins in our company,” Wilderotter said. “Our margins are in the mid-40% range and we’ve typically always had very strong margins in terms of how we run the business from an efficiency and effective perspective.”

Wilderotter also told investors that Frontier plans to add several additional services powered by its broadband network over the course of this year.

“We’re really looking in the categories of home automation, security, lifestyle products and monitoring products,” Wilderotter said. “And with that, there is ongoing monthly recurring revenue in terms of the tech support that we put with that product set when we sell it to a customer.”

When Wilderotter was asked about recent price hikes implemented by Frontier, she admitted the primary reason for the increase was the lack of competitive cable pricing in the market.

“If you look at what cable is offering in our markets, they offer a standalone broadband product somewhere $35 and $65,” she said. “And that doesn’t include the modem. So we felt we could increase the price, still be very competitive in the marketplace and have a product set that made more sense for our customers at a convenient price.”

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Frontier Raises Standalone Broadband, FiOS Video Pricing: $5 Increase for New Customers

frontier simply broadbandAs of May 1st, Frontier Communications has raised the price of its standalone DSL service $5 a month, primarily because its competitors have also raised prices.

Current subscribers to Frontier’s basic 6Mbps ADSL service Simply Broadband will continue to pay $29.99 a month for now, but new customers will see a rate increase to $34.99.

“We increased the price [... because it] better reflects the value of that offering, given the robust capability of our network and comparable pricing from our competitors,” Frontier CEO Maggie Wilderotter told Wall Street analysts on a quarterly results conference call.

Frontier also announced Frontier FiOS TV price increases that “reflect increasing programming costs” also taking effect this month.

Frontier added 37,000 new broadband customers during the first quarter, a record for the company and the fifth consecutive quarter of broadband customer growth. Frontier increasingly depends on broadband to retain existing customers and develop new customer relationships in rural areas where broadband service has not been available in the past.

“As of April, 74% of our customers have access to 12Mbps, up from 60% in the fourth quarter,” said chief operating officer Dan McCarthy. “Now 61% of households we pass can get 20Mbps or greater, and 83% can get 6Mbps. At the end of the fourth quarter in 2012 only 40% of our network was capable of 20Mbps and only 50% was capable of 12Mbps.”

frontier frankDespite the speed increases, cable competitors still made their presence known. Most cable companies sell faster service than Frontier offers and on the low-end, Time Warner Cable’s 2Mbps $15 broadband package, marketed to current DSL customers, was acknowledged to have an impact by Wilderotter, but not enough to bring a significant change in competitive intensity.

Frontier continues to argue that broadband speeds are simply not that important to most customers. McCarthy claimed that less than 20% of Frontier’s broadband customers subscribe to speeds above 6Mbps.

“Quite frankly we’ve had focus groups with our customers and potential customers [...] and what they say is that they don’t really know what speed they have,” McCarthy said. “They just need enough and that’s really what it’s about — providing a good quality product that’s reliable and gives them the speed that they need. It’s not necessarily a 60Mbps connection that they’re really never going to use.”

“We’ve also found [in the focus groups that we do] that a lot of customers, even those upgrading to higher speeds don’t really change their behavior,” Wilderotter added. “It’s not like they have 10Mbps more so now they’re a gamer. They just keep doing the same thing they were doing before. We still have the majority of our customers taking around 6Mbps and they have a choice to go up but they decide that that’s enough for what they’re doing and we’re happy to sell them just what they need.”

Frontier has also reduced its landline losses nationwide to 9,600 during the last quarter. It will begin running advertising this year that reminds customers landline service is often more robust than wireless or Voice over IP during power or weather-related outages. Wilderotter said emphasizing the traditional landline as a protective and security measure really resonates with Frontier’s customers.

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Time Warner Cable, Comcast Crash, Burn in Consumer Reports’ 2014 Ratings

consumer reportsDespite claims of improved customer service and better broadband, Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s customer satisfaction scores are in near-free fall in the latest Consumer Reports National Research Center’s survey of consumers about their experiences with television and Internet services.

Although never popular with customers, both cable operators plummeted in the 2014 Consumer Reports ratings — Time Warner Cable is now only marginally above the perennial consumer disaster that is Mediacom. Comcast performs only slightly better.

In the view of Consumers Union, this provides ample evidence that two wrongs never make a right.

“Both Comcast and Time Warner Cable rank very poorly with consumers when it comes to value for the money and have earned low ratings for customer support,” said Delara Derakhshani.  “A merger combining these two huge companies would give Comcast even greater control over the cable and broadband Internet markets, leading to higher prices, fewer choices, and worse customer service for consumers.”

These ratings reflect Internet service only.

These ratings reflect Internet service only.

Comcast ranked 15th among 17 television service providers included in the ratings and earned particularly low marks from consumers for value for the money and customer support.  Time Warner ranked 16th overall for television service with particularly low ratings for value, reliability, and phone/online customer support.

Another ratings collapse for Comcast and Time Warner Cable

Another ratings collapse for Comcast and Time Warner Cable

Comcast and Time Warner Cable were mediocre on overall satisfaction with Internet service.  Both companies received especially poor marks for value and low ratings for phone/online customer support.

“In an industry with a terrible track record with consumers, these two companies are among the worst when it comes to providing good value for the money,” said Derakhshani.  “The FCC and Department of Justice should stand with consumers and oppose this merger.”

For as long as Stop the Cap! has published, Mediacom has always achieved bottom of the barrel ratings, with satellite fraudband provider HughesNet — the choice of the truly desperate — scoring dead last for Internet service. We’re accustomed to seeing the usual bottom-raters like Frontier (DSL), Windstream (DSL), and FairPoint (DSL) on the south end of the list. But now both Comcast and Time Warner Cable have moved into the same seedy neighborhood of expensive and lousy service. Comcast couldn’t even beat the ratings for Verizon’s DSL service, which is now barely marketed at all. Time Warner Cable scored lower than CenturyLink’s DSL.

Breathing an ever-so-slight sigh of relief this year is Charter Communications, which used to compete with Mediacom for customer raspberries. It ‘rocketed up’ to 18th place.

If you want top-notch broadband service, you need to remember only one word: fiber. It’s the magical optical cable phone and cable companies keep claiming they have but largely don’t (except for Verizon and Cincinnati Bell, among a select few). If you have fiber to the home broadband, you are very happy again this year. If you are served by an independent cable company that threw away the book on customer abuse, you are relieved. Topping the ratings again this year among all cable operators is WOW!, which has a legendary reputation for customer service. Wave/Astound is in second place. Verizon and Frontier FiOS customers stay pleased, and even those signed up with Bright House Networks and Suddenlink report improved service.

Ratings are based on responses from 81,848 Consumer Reports readers. Once again they plainly expose Americans are not happy with their telecom options. The average cost of home communications measured by the Mintel Group is now $154 a month — $1,848 a year. That’s more expensive than the average homeowner’s clothing, furniture or electricity budget. The same issues driving the bad ratings last year are still there in 2014: shoveling TV channels at customers they don’t want or need, imposing sneaky new fees along with broad-based rate increases every year, low value for money, and customer service departments staffed by the Don’t Care Bears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Time Warner Cable Phone Customers May See Their Phone Numbers Go Unlisted

Phillip Dampier March 10, 2014 Competition, Consumer News, Frontier, Time Warner Cable No Comments

digital phoneTime Warner Cable telephone customers may find their phone numbers missing from directory assistance records and residential phone books.

This year, the cable company began charging directory publishers for its residential customer listings and some, including Frontier Communications, have refused to pay.

As a result, customers are likely to find their next copy of the White Pages thinner than it used to be.

The usefulness of telephone directories and directory assistance services have both been in decline for years as customers migrate to unlisted cell phones. But the loss of cable phone customers from phone books is a new trend. In the past, cable companies provided the listings for free to most directory publishers as a service to customers who wanted to keep their phone numbers in the directory. But now those listings are a money-maker, only available for sale.

Phil Yawman, Frontier Communications vice president and general manager for the Rochester, N.Y. area — Frontier’s largest urban market — told WXXI News the phone company opted not to buy the listings. 

Time Warner Cable spokesperson Joli Plucknette-Farmen said charging a fee for residential directory listings is accepted by the Federal Communications Commission.

Frontier, like many other phone companies, also no longer provides automatic delivery of residential White Pages listings, although the lucrative Yellow Pages will still appear on customer doorsteps. 

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Peer Wars: Netflix SuperHD Streaming May Explain Video Traffic Slowdowns for Some Customers

The largest drops in streaming speeds are coming from ISPs that may be stalling necessary upgrades at the expense of their customers' online experience.

The largest drops in Netflix streaming speeds are coming from ISPs that may be stalling necessary upgrades at the cost of their paying customers’ online experience.

Netflix performance for Verizon customers is deteriorating because Verizon may be delaying bandwidth upgrades until it receives compensation for handling the growing amount of traffic coming from the online video provider.

Verizon customers have increasingly complained about Netflix slowdowns during prime-time, especially in the northeast, and Netflix’s latest statistics confirm FiOS customers have seen average performance drop by as much as 14% in the last month alone.

Verizon told Stop the Cap! a few weeks ago the company was not interfering with Netflix traffic or degrading its performance, but there is growing evidence that may not be the whole story. The Wall Street Journal reports Netflix and at least one bandwidth provider suspect phone and cable companies are purposely stalling on upgrading connections to handle traffic growth from Netflix until they are compensated for carrying its video traffic.

The dispute involves the plumbing behind parts of the Internet that are invisible to consumers. As more people stream movies and television, that infrastructure is getting strained, intensifying the debate over who should pay for upgrades needed to satisfy America’s online-video habit.

Netflix wants broadband companies to hook up to its new video-distribution network without paying them fees for carrying its traffic. But the biggest U.S. providers—Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and AT&T Inc. —have resisted, insisting on compensation.

The bottleneck has made Netflix unwatchable for Jen Zellinger, an information-technology manager from Carney, Md., who signed up for the service last month. She couldn’t play an episode of “Breaking Bad” without it stopping, she said, even after her family upgraded their FiOS Internet service to a faster, more expensive package. “We tried a couple other shows, and it didn’t seem to make any difference,” she said. Mrs. Zellinger said she plans to drop her Netflix service soon if the picture doesn’t improve, though she will likely hold on to her upgraded FiOS subscription.

She and her husband thought about watching “House of Cards,” but she said they probably will skip it. “We’d be interested in getting to that if we could actually pull up the show,” she said.

Netflix relies on third-party traffic distributors to deliver much of its streamed programming to customers around the country. Cogent Communications Group is a Netflix favorite. Cogent maintains two-way connections with many Internet Service Providers. When incoming and outgoing traffic are generally balanced, providers don’t complain. But when Cogent started delivering far more traffic to Verizon customers than what it receives from them, Verizon sought compensation for the disparity.

“When one party’s getting all the benefit and the other’s carrying all the cost, issues will arise,” Craig Silliman, Verizon’s head of public policy and government affairs told the newspaper. The imbalance is primarily coming from the growth of online video, and as higher definition video grows more popular, traffic imbalances can grow dramatically worse.

A spat last summer between Cogent and some ISPs is nearly identical to the current slowdown. Ars Technica reported the traditional warning signs providers used to start upgrades are increasingly being ignored:

“Typically what happened is when the connections reached about 50 percent utilization, the two parties agreed to upgrade them and they would be upgraded in a timely manner,” Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer told Ars. “Over the past year or so, as we have continued to pick up Netflix traffic, Verizon has continuously slowed down the rate of upgrading those connections, allowing the interconnections to become totally saturated and therefore degrading the quality of throughput.”

Schaeffer said this is true of all the big players to varying degrees, naming Comcast, Time Warner, CenturyLink, and AT&T. Out of those, he said that “AT&T is the best behaved of the bunch.”

Letting ports fill up can be a negotiating tactic. Verizon and Cogent each have to spend about $10,000 for equipment when a port is added, Schaeffer said—pocket change for companies of this size. But instead of the companies sharing equal costs, Verizon wants Cogent to pay because more traffic is flowing from Cogent to Verizon than vice versa.

Cablevision, which participates in Netflix's Open Connect program experiences no significant speed degradation during prime time. The same cannot be said with Time Warner Cable, which refuses to participate.

Cablevision, which participates in Netflix’s Open Connect program, experiences no significant speed degradation during prime time. The same cannot be said of Time Warner Cable, which refuses to take part.

Netflix offered a solution to help Internet Service Providers manage its video traffic. Netflix’s Open Connect offers free peering at common Internet exchanges as well as free storage appliances that ISPs can connect directly to their network to distribute video to customers. Free is always good, and Netflix claims many ISPs around the world have already taken them up on the offer, slashing their transit costs along the way.

A few major North American ISPs have also agreed to take part in Open Connect, including Frontier Communications, Clearwire, Telus, Bell, Cablevision and Google Fiber. Open Connect participating ISPs also got an initial bonus for participating they could offer customers – exclusive access to SuperHD streaming.

But most Americans would not get super high-resolution streaming because the largest ISP’s refused to participate, seeking direct compensation from content providers to carry traffic across their digital pipes instead.

On Sep. 26, 2013 Netflix decided to offer SuperHD streaming to all customers, regardless of their ISP. As a result, one major ISP told the newspaper Netflix traffic from Cogent at least quadrupled. ISPs taking Netflix up on Open Connect saw almost no degradation from the increased traffic, but not so for Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Comcast customers.

Net Neutrality advocates fear the country’s largest phone and cable companies are making an end-run around the concept of an Open Internet. Providers can honestly guarantee not to interfere with certain web traffic, but also refuse to keep up with needed upgrades to accommodate it unless they receive payment. The slowdowns and unsatisfactory performance are the same in the end for those caught in the middle – paying customers.

“Customers are already paying for it,” said industry observer Benoît Felten. “You sell a service to the end-user which is you can access the Internet. You make a huge margin on that. Why should they get extra revenue for something that’s already being paid for?”

Some of the web’s biggest players including Microsoft, Google and Facebook may have already capitulated — agreeing to pay major providers for direct connections that guarantee a smoother browsing experience. Netflix has, thus far, held out against paying ISPs to properly manage the video content their subscribers want to watch but in some cases no longer can.

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From the Frying Pan Into the Fire: Time Warner Customers to Be Burned by Comcast Buyout

Phillip "Ouch!" Dampier

Phillip “Ouch!” Dampier

Spending the day watching cable business news channels gush approval of last night’s surprise announcement that Comcast would acquire Time Warner Cable is just one excellent reason this deal should never be approved.

CNBC, owned by Comcast, particularly fell all over itself praising the transaction. Some of the reporters — many Time Warner Cable customers — actually believed Comcast would be a significant improvement over TWC. It is, if you want higher modem rental fees, higher cable TV bills, and faster broadband speeds you can’t use because of the company’s looming reintroduction of usage caps. CNBC didn’t bother to mention any of that, and why should they? CNBC reporter David Faber was the first to break the story of the merger last evening and among the first this morning to score an extended, friendly interview with the CEOs of both Comcast and Time Warner Cable, pitching softball questions to the two of them for nearly 15 minutes.

That’s a problem. How often do you hear news reports that include the fact the parent company of the channel has an ownership interest in one of the players. Do you think you are getting the full story when a Comcast employee asks Comcast’s CEO about a multi-billion dollar deal on a network owned and operated by Comcast. Incorporating Time Warner Cable and its news operations into Comcast only makes the problem worse.

As far as cable business news networks and the parade of Wall Street analysts are concerned, this is a fine deal for shareholders, consumers, and the cable business. Ironically, several on-air reporters and commentators defended the merger claiming it isn’t an antitrust issue because Comcast and Time Warner Cable never compete with each other. They never asked why that is so.

They're here!

They’re here!

Comcast is hoping the government will give its merger a pass with few conditions for the same reason, without bothering to note the cable industry has existed as a cartel in the United States for decades, each company with a territory they informally agree not to cross. With this deal, Comcast’s fiefdom will now cover about half of all cable subscribers in the U.S., covering 43 of the 50 largest metropolitan markets, and have about a 30% total market share among all competing providers — by far the largest. An 800 pound gorilla is born.

Three million current Time Warner Cable subscribers will not be coming along for the ride and will likely be auctioned off to Charter or another cable operator in a token gesture to keep Comcast’s total market share at the 30% mark the FCC formerly insisted on as an absolute ownership limit — before Comcast successfully sued to have that limit overturned.

The rest of us can say goodbye to our unlimited broadband plans and get ready to pay substantially more for cable and broadband service. Despite claims from remarkably shallow media reports, an analysis of Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s rates clearly show TWC charges lower prices with fewer “gotcha” fees.

Reviewing some recent promotional offers for new customers, Comcast customers pay nearly $35 more for a triple play package than Time Warner customers pay:

Time Warner Cable's Rob Marcus gets a $56.5 million golden parachute after 43 days on the job as CEO.

Time Warner Cable’s Rob Marcus gets a $56.5 million golden parachute after 43 days on the job as CEO.

The Comcast Starter plan costs $99 per month for the first 12 months with a 2-year agreement that includes a nasty divorce penalty. After 12 months, your price increases to $119.99 for the remaining year. The $99 plan accidentally doesn’t bother to mention that customers renting a Comcast cable modem/gateway will pay an extra $8 a month, which raises the price. Since many cable subscribers also want HD DVR service, that only comes free for the first six months, after which Comcast slaps on a charge ranging from $16-27 a month for the next 18 months. Assuming you are happy with the limited channel lineup of the Starter package (and many are not), you will pay up to $154 a month. Oh, we forgot to mention the Broadcast TV surcharge just introduced that increases the bill another $1.50 a month.

Time Warner Cable’s new customer promotions typically cost around $96 a month, including their annoying modem rental fee. DVR service can range from free to $23 a month depending on the promotion, making your monthly rate around $119 a month for 12 months, with no contract and no penalty if you decide to cancel.

“It is pro-consumer, pro-competitive, and strongly in the public interest,” said Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, defending the deal.

Actually, it is in Comcast’s interest. If approved, the biggest investment Comcast will make is spending $10 billion — not to upgrade Time Warner Cable systems — but to launch a major stock buyback program that will directly benefit shareholders.

“On a personal level, it’s never easy to cede control of a company,” said Rob Marcus, Time Warner Cable’s chief executive. “However in this case, it just makes too much sense.”

Before reaching for a Kleenex to wipe any tears away, consider the fact Marcus will do just fine giving up his leadership of TWC just over a month after taking over. His generous goodbye package is worth $56.5 million, not bad for 43 days of work. Time Warner Cable employees won’t share that bounty. In fact, with $1.5 billion in promised savings from the deal’s “synergies” — code language for layoffs, among other things — a substantial number of Time Warner Cable employees can expect to be fired during the first year of the combined company.

The biggest impact of this deal is a further cementing of the duopoly of cable and phone companies into their cozy positions. Instead of encouraging competition, Comcast’s new size-up will guarantee fewer competitors thanks to the concept of volume discounts. The largest providers get the best prices from cable programmers, while smaller ones pay considerably more for access to CNN, ESPN, and other popular channels. Comcast will benefit from reduced pricing for cable programming, which we suspect will never reach customers through price reductions. But any potential startup will have to think twice before selling television programming at all because the prices they will pay make it impossible to compete with Comcast.

Another satisfied customer

Another satisfied customer

Frontier discovered this problem after acquiring FiOS systems from Verizon in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest. When Verizon’s volume discount prices expired, Frontier’s much smaller customer base meant much higher programming costs on renewal. They were so high, in fact, Frontier literally marketed FiOS customers asking them to give up fiber optic television in favor of satellite.

Unless you have pockets as deep as Google, offering cable TV programming may be too expensive for Comcast’s competitors to offer.

Broadband is already immensely profitable for both Time Warner Cable and Comcast, but now it can be even more profitable as Comcast persuades customers to adopt their wireless gateway/modems (for a price) and imposes a usage cap of around 300GB per month. Yes, Comcast will deliver speed increases Time Warner Cable couldn’t be bothered to offer, but with a pervasive usage cap, the value of more Internet speed may prove limited. It’s a case of moving away from Time Warner’s argument that you don’t need faster Internet speed to Comcast’s offer of faster speed that you can’t use.

Customers hoping for a better customer service experience may have been cheered by this misleading passage in today’s New York Times:

Nonetheless, about 8 million current Time Warner Cable customers will become Comcast customers. That may be a good thing for those customers, as Comcast is seen as an industry leader in terms of providing high-quality television and Internet services, while Time Warner Cable has a reputation for poor customer service.

It may be seen as an industry leader by Comcast itself, but consumers despise Comcast just as much as they hate Time Warner Cable. In fact, the American Consumer Satisfaction Index found Comcast was hardly a prize:

  • ACSI’s lowest rated ISP
  • Second-lowest ranked TV service
  • Third-lowest ranked phone service

Comcast consistently scores as one of the lowest rated companies across all the segments it participates in. It has the dubious description of being the lowest rated company in the lowest rated industry.

So why the near universal disdain for ISPs? Even cable companies have to compete with satellite providers. That’s not the case here. Add to that the relatively few companies, regional near-monopolies, high costs, and unreliable service and speed and you have a recipe for bad customer service and little incentive to improve it.

Customers particularly dislike their experiences with call centers, and the range and pricing of available plans.

Higher prices, usage caps, surcharges, and fewer channels for more money. What’s not to love about that?

Just about a week ago, Rob Marcus unveiled his vision of an upgraded Time Warner Cable that looked good to us, and retained unlimited use broadband service. Apparently this is all a case of “never mind.”

The fact is, a merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable will only benefit the companies, executives, and shareholders involved, while doing nothing to improve customer service, expand broadband, increase speeds, cut prices, and give customers the service they want. It is anti-consumer, further entrenches Comcast’s enormous market power (it also owns NBC and Universal Studios), and gives one company far too much control over content and distribution, particularly for customers who don’t have AT&T U-verse or Verizon FiOS or a community-owned provider as an alternative.

This deal needs to be rejected. When T-Mobile found itself out of a deal with AT&T, it survived on its own even better than expected. So can Time Warner Cable, with the right management team.

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