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Seven States Face End to Their Internet-Related Taxes by 2020

Phillip Dampier February 2, 2016 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

itfaSeven states that adopted Internet access taxes prior to 1998 and have continued them grandfathered under the Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA) may be required to phase them out by June 2020, leaving no states allowed to tax online access.

Congress is considering an extension of the ITFA this week because if they don’t, it is scheduled to expire on Friday. The law prohibits state and local jurisdictions from imposing telecommunications taxes on Internet services, which come predominately from charging state/local sales tax on Internet access.

Internet-related taxes are still collected by many jurisdictions in Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin because those states successfully won exemptions from the law. All were collecting sales and other taxes before the bill’s passage in 1998.

“This week, long-time proponents of making ITFA permanent attached a permanent extension to an unrelated measure covering federal customs and border protection,” wrote Michael Mazerov, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “The legislation also would repeal the grandfather clause [allowing those seven states to continue taxes] in 2020. Repeal would deprive these seven states of several hundred million dollars in annual revenue. ”

Most consumers in these states find the tax on their phone, cable, and wireless bills either from sales tax or a telecommunications tax on their Internet access or data plan.

Congress can either extend the provisions of the ITFA or let it expire without action later this week.

California Public Hearing on Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger is Tonight; Stop the Cap! Will Be There

cpucCalifornians will have their chance to speak out about the proposed merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable at a public hearing in Los Angeles tonight before an administrative law judge working for the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

California will be the last major state capable of killing the transaction should the CPUC reject the merger on the grounds of it not being in the public interest. New York regulators approved the merger, but only with a lengthy list of conditions designed to improve service for New York residents.

Stop the Cap! will be represented at the hearing tonight by Matt Friedman, who will help us improve our vigilance of cable and phone companies serving the west coast. Friedman has done an incredible job exposing the sham of usage caps and compulsory usage-based pricing in his written testimony, which will be published here after being filed with the CPUC. As with most CPUC public hearings, we expect speakers will only be given a few minutes at most to state their views on the merger. As we did in New York, Stop the Cap! will oppose it on the grounds it is not in the public interest.

charter twcWe remain suspicious about Charter’s commitment to not impose usage caps or usage pricing for only three years. Most consumers will not see much of a change in the broadband marketplace over the next few years. Charter can afford to wait 36 short months before potentially slapping on usage caps/billing — after winning additional regulatory approval to buy out even more companies. While the CEO of Time Warner Cable will walk away with over $100 million in golden parachute benefits if he successfully sells Time Warner Cable, we anticipate most customers will win a higher bill.

Friedman will share our ongoing concerns that Charter’s offer is less impressive than Time Warner Cable’s own Maxx upgrade initiative, which will deliver 300Mbps service for the price Time Warner Cable customers currently pay for 50Mbps. Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 budget Internet service is also on Charter’s chopping block, to be replaced with an entry-level tier offering 60Mbps for about $60 a month — four times more expensive. In short, the only honest reason to allow this deal to succeed is if we want to further enrich Time Warner Cable executives and shareholders while customers take all the risks of higher bills, worse service, and usage caps starting in 2019, with few if any other options.

Also planning to attend are Common Cause, Free Press, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which all argue allowing this deal to succeed sets up America for a national virtual duopoly between Comcast and Charter, with just two companies controlling the majority of broadband connections in the United States.

The CPUC could reject the merger outright or approve it, usually with conditions. While we remain opposed to the merger, should the CPUC ultimately make a different decision, we are advocating:

  • A ban on compulsory usage caps or usage pricing. An affordable, unlimited option broadband tier should always be available, at prices comparable to what consumers pay today for Internet service.
  • Charter should be forced to commit to upgrading its entire service area in California to an equal level of service offered by Time Warner Cable Maxx.
  • Charter should be required to keep Time Warner Cable’s affordable, no-contract/no-requirement $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet plan and boost its speed.
  • Most-favored state status for California, automatically giving California consumers the benefits won from conditions imposed by regulators in other states.
  • …and other consumer-targeted service improvements.

If you are in Los Angeles and want to attend or possibly share your own views with the CPUC, the hearing is open to the public:

Location: Junipero Serra State Office Building – Auditorium (Carmel Room)  — 320 West 4th Street, Los Angeles
Time: The meeting starts at 6:00pm

Frontier Communications: New Logo, Same Old Service

Phillip Dampier January 11, 2016 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Frontier 1 Comment

frontier

Frontier Communications is making a splash in 2016 with a new logo and a press release explaining it:

Frontier Communications Corporation today announced a new logo. The evolved look reflects a transformed typeface, a brighter color palette, and a reimagining of the arc to represent the transfer of data and the importance of connectivity. The logo also uses the name Frontier Communications, instead of just Frontier, to avoid confusion in the marketplace. Today’s launch comes as the 81-year-old company prepares to close a $10.54 billion acquisition of Verizon’s wireline, broadband and FiOS assets in California, Florida and Texas at the end of March.

“2016 is the year of transformation for Frontier,” said Cecilia McKenney, Executive Vice President and Chief Customer Officer, who oversees marketing for the company. “Our company is growing and expanding into new markets: the perfect time to showcase a new logo. We are also in the process of refining a brand promise to be unveiled upon the closing of the $10.54 billion acquisition from Verizon at the end of this quarter.”

Unfortunately, nothing was mentioned about using the new logo as an opportunity to commit to significantly better and faster DSL service for large parts of Frontier’s legacy service areas, still serviced by copper wire networks that are often incapable of delivering anything faster than 3Mbps service.

“A logo change will not bring me usable Internet service at night,” said Ralph Tennant whose wife has struggled with Frontier DSL in her office for years in West Virginia.

“We can either get usage-capped Internet from Suddenlink or unlimited and unusable Internet from Frontier,” said Tennant. “Two bad choices not made better by a pretty new logo.”

Time Warner Cable Quotes Rural Ky. Resident $410/Mo + 5 Yr. Contract for Broadband

green acresIf residents in rural Kentucky want Time Warner Cable to offer broadband service, they better be prepared to pay for it.

As Time Warner customers consider the company’s latest rate increases, which now include a $10 modem rental fee and an increasingly common $4.99 “Wi-Fi Fee” if you don’t use your own wireless router, there are other customers signing contracts for residential Internet service from Time Warner at prices as high as $410 a month.

Jack Prindle lives in the Big Bone community near Union, Ky., — close enough to Cincinnati to be a suburb, but rural enough to be bypassed for broadband. Two dozen of his neighbors live along a nine-tenths of a mile stretch of Big Bone Church Road, which isn’t exactly a priority for Time Warner Cable. The families have spent a decade trying to entice anyone to offer broadband Internet access. Insight Communications (Time Warner’s predecessor) and Cincinnati Bell have never shown much interest. Time Warner Cable, however, has been engaged in a type of cat and mouse game, offering service at ever-escalating prices only to change its mind at the last minute.

“Within the last year, I have signed contracts with Time Warner for Internet service starting at $300 a month, with a three-year contract, only to have them come back and raise it to $350 for five years, and then $410 a month with a commitment of five years,” Prindle wrote in the Community Recorder. “Then only to be told a month later they were not going to provide Internet. Others of the 24 have similar bizarre stories concerning Time Warner and Cincinnati Bell.”

“Prindle’s story is an example of what is wrong with rural broadband in the United States,” writes Cynthia Rawley, who shared the story with Stop the Cap! “Unchecked cable and phone companies get federal dollars and the benefit of a fake broadband map that has no relationship to reality, leaving many to believe there is no rural broadband problem to solve. But there is.”

Union, Ky.

Union, Ky.

Rawley points out the FCC’s official National Broadband Map shows the two dozen homes around Prindle are all provided 5-50Mbps broadband service by both Time Warner Cable and Cincinnati Bell, despite the fact neither offers any broadband service to anyone in the vicinity.

“Boone County Judge-executive Gary Moore wrote to inform the FCC of this error and failed to get a response,” Prindle noted. What bothers him even more is his tax dollars have paid to subsidize rural Internet service he cannot get at any price.

“Some basic research reveals that Time Warner has received millions of taxpayer dollars to provide broadband Internet in rural areas,” Prindle notes. “The commonwealth of Kentucky has given over $100 million to Internet providers alone to provide broadband Internet in rural areas alone. Opensecrets.org reports that Time Warner spent $4,950,000 in lobbying efforts of federal, state, and local governments in 2015. With this amount of money changing hands, the conspiracy theorists among us see a 20/20 episode coming.”

Prindle better have his rabbit ears ready to watch, because at the rate providers are not expanding rural broadband, he will have a long wait before being able to watch that 20/20 episode online.

The Peaceful War Against Comcast’s Data Caps: Don’t Like ‘Em? Get Off Your Butt

Licensed to print money

Licensed to print money

In 2008, Stop the Cap! was launched because the telephone company that serves our hometown of Rochester, N.Y., decided on a whim that it was appropriate to introduce a usage allowance of 5GB per month for their DSL customers. Frontier Communications CEO-at-the-time Maggie Wilderotter defended the idea with the usual claim that the included allowance was more than enough for the majority of Frontier customers. DSL customers already have to endure a lot of issues with Internet service and data caps should certainly not be one of them.

Stop the Cap! drew media attention and focus on the issue of data capping, organized customers for a coordinated pushback, and sufficiently hassled Frontier enough to get them to make the right decision for their customers by quietly rescinding the “allowances.”

As it would turn out, Frontier’s correct decision to suspend usage caps would prove an asset to them less than one year later when Time Warner Cable made it known it would trial its own usage caps in Austin and San Antonio, Tex., Greensboro, N.C., and yes… Rochester, N.Y. starting in the summer of 2009.

Time Warner Cable was slightly more generous with its arbitrary allowance — 40GB of usage for $55 a month. Customers already paying a lot for Internet access would now also have an arbitrary usage allowance and overlimit penalty fees with no service improvements in sight. Frontier’s decision the year before to rescind data caps played to their advantage and the company quickly launched advertising in Rochester attacking Time Warner Cable for its data caps, inviting customers to switch to cap-free Internet with Frontier.

Data caps are here!

Data caps are here!

Time Warner Cable’s experiment lasted less than two weeks and was permanently shelved, never to return. Four years later, Comcast began its own usage cap trial that not only continues to this day, but has expanded to cover more than 1,000 zip codes. Capped service areas typically live with a 300GB usage allowance with an overlimit fee of $10 per 50GB.

Yesterday at the investor-oriented UBS Global Media and Communications Brokers Conference, Comcast chief financial officer Mike Cavanagh assured Wall Street and shareholders Comcast’s desire to boost revenue from monetizing broadband usage remained an “important contributor” to the company’ goal of “demonstrat[ing] value and derive value from that pricing.”

Cavanagh said the company is using the line ‘heavy users should pay more’ to justify its caps.

“It’s been an experiment that we are using that the key data point behind it is kind of intuitive – ‘10% of our client base uses 50% of capacity.'”

While not ready to announce Comcast’s cap plan would be introduced nationwide, Cavanagh assured investors the experiments will continue as Comcast makes sure that over time it is “compensated for the investments that today’s marketplace requires us to make.”

The difference that makes it possible for Comcast to carry its usage cap experiments forward while Time Warner Cable had to quickly end theirs comes down to one thing: organized customer pushback. Time Warner Cable got heat from relentless, organized opposition in the four cities where caps mattered the most to consumers. Comcast, for the most part, is getting about as much heat as it usually does from customers. It’s time to turn the heat up.

protest

In fighting this battle for the last seven years, I can share with readers what works to force change and what doesn’t:

In 2009, Time Warner Cable faced protesters opposed to usage limits at this rally in front of the company's headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable faced protesters opposed to usage limits at this rally in front of the company’s headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.

Generally Useless

  • Complaining about usage caps in the comment sections of websites;
  • Signing online petitions;

Impotent But Potentially Useful in Large Numbers

  • Calling the provider to complain about usage caps;
  • Complaining about usage caps to a provider’s social media team (Facebook, Twitter, etc.);
  • Writing complaints on a company’s open support forum;

Useful, But Unlikely to Bring Immediate Results

  • Writing a letter or making a call complaining to elected officials about usage caps;
  • Advocating for more competition, especially from public/municipal broadband;
  • Filing formal complaints with the FCC and Better Business Bureau;
  • Complaining to state telecom regulators and your state Attorney General (they have no direct authority but can attract political attention);
  • Canceling or downgrading service, blaming usage caps for your decision.

Gasoline on a Lit Fire

  • Organizing a protest in front of the local cable office, with local media given at least a day’s notice and invited to attend;
  • Contacting local newsrooms and asking them to write or air stories about usage caps, offering yourself as an interview subject;
  • Sending local press clippings or links to media coverage to your member of Congress and two senators. Suggest another media-friendly event and invite the elected official to attend and speak, which in turn generates even more media interest.
In 2009, Time Warner Cable planned to implement mandatory usage pricing starting in Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and San Antonio and Austin, Tex.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable planned to implement mandatory usage pricing starting in Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and San Antonio and Austin, Tex.

In the battle with Time Warner Cable, we did all the above, but especially the latter, which quickly spun the story out of control of company officials sent to distribute propaganda about usage cap “fairness” and “generous” allowances. We were so relentless, we managed to get under the skin of at least one company spokesperson caught on camera being testy in an on-air interview, which backfired on the company and angered customers even more.

In the case of Comcast, very few of these techniques have been used in the fight against their endless data cap experiment. Customers seem satisfied writing angry comments and signing online petitions. Some have filed complaints with the FCC which are useful measures of hot button issues on which the FCC may act in the last year of the Obama Administration. But there is no detectable organized opposition on the ground to Comcast’s data caps. That may explain why Comcast’s CEO has repeatedly told investors your reactions to Comcast’s caps have been “neutral to slightly positive.” Many Wall Street analysts obviously believe that, because some are advocating the time is right to raise broadband prices even higher. After all, if your reaction to data caps was muted, raising the price another $5 a month probably won’t cost you as a customer either.

It would be very different if these analysts saw regular news reports of small groups of angry customers protesting in front of Comcast offices in different areas of the country. That would likely trigger questions about whether broadband pricing has gotten out of hand. Coverage like that often attracts politicians, who cannot lose opposing a cable company. Once Congress gets interested, the fear regulation might be coming next is usually enough to get companies to pull back and reconsider.

comcast sucksIf you are living with a Comcast data cap and want to see it gone, you can do something about it. Consider organizing your own local movement by tapping fellow angry customers and recruiting local activist groups to the cause. In Rochester, there was no shortage of angry college students and groups ready to protest. Google local progressive political groups, technology clubs, and technology-dependent organizations in your immediate area. Some are likely to be a good resource for building effective public protests, sign-making, and other TV-friendly protest techniques. Contact town governments, the mayor’s office of your city, technology-oriented newspaper columnists, radio talk show/computer support show hosts, etc., to build a mailing list for coordinated announcements about your efforts. Many local officials also oppose data caps.

If a local news reporter has covered tech or consumer issues in the past, many station websites now offer direct e-mail options to reach that reporter. If you give them a good TV-friendly story to cover, they will be back for more coverage as your local protest grows. We helped coordinate and share news about efforts against Time Warner in the cities that were subject to experiments, which also gave us advance notice of their talking points and an ability to offer a consistent response. Several stations carried multiple stories about the cap issue, supported by calls to TV newsrooms to thank them for their coverage and to encourage more.

We realize Comcast’s responsiveness to customers is so atrocious it approaches criminal, but Comcast does respond to Wall Street and shareholders who do not want the company under threat of fact-finding hearings, FCC regulatory action, or Congressional attention. They also don’t want any talk of municipal broadband alternatives. Sidewalk protests in front of the local cable office on the 6 o’clock news is a nightmare.

In the end, Time Warner Cable didn’t want the hassle and got the message — customers despise data caps and want nothing to do with them. Time Warner hasn’t tried compulsory usage caps again. If you want Comcast to get the same message, those living inside Comcast service areas (especially customers) need to lead the charge in their respective communities. We remain willing to help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frontier: Less is More – Deregulate² and Stop Bugging Us About Broadband Speeds

frontier frankRequiring Frontier Communications to increase broadband speeds could make the service unaffordable for rural and poor Americans, the company is arguing before federal and state regulators.

In separate filings with the New York Public Service Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, Frontier has asked both for further deregulation and less oversight to ease everything from minimum broadband speed definitions to video franchising regulations.

Frontier’s market focus is primarily on rural communities where it delivers traditional DSL broadband service, typically up to 6Mbps, although many customers complain they get lower speeds than advertised. The FCC is working to modernize the Lifeline program, which offers substantial discounts on basic telephone service to low-income Americans. The Commission is studying the possibility of requiring providers to offer Lifeline Internet access for the first time. What worries Frontier is the Commission’s proposed requirement that providers offer Lifeline Internet speeds starting at 10/1Mbps, something Frontier strongly opposes.

frontier dslFrontier’s ability to deliver consistent 10Mbps service in rural areas is the issue.

“Certain rural consumers […] may not currently have access to 10/1Mbps fixed Internet speeds and would thus be prevented from choosing to use Lifeline for a fixed Internet service,” Frontier wrote in its filing with the Commission. “Even if higher speeds are available, a minimum speed standard may prevent a customer from opting for a lower speed plan that may better meet their budget.”

Frontier told the Commission that most subscribers are happy buying 6Mbps service from Frontier, coincidentally the same speed it advertises as widely available across its service areas. Frontier argues if it was required to consistently provide 10Mbps service, the cost of the service may become unaffordable to many.

While Frontier argues against speed standards that are difficult for its aging copper-based network to consistently provide, it is using that same copper network as an argument against further regulation and oversight in New York.

“Traditional telephone service providers like Frontier continue to be legitimate and viable competitors in the marketplace—a testament to our tenacity and the quality of our services,” Frontier wrote in comments to the Public Service Commission. “To ensure that this continues to be the case, in the near-term, an immediate no-cost investment that the State can make in the existing copper-based network is to eliminate the regulatory requirements that apply to [traditional phone companies] but that do not apply to other telecommunications providers.

Frontier added, “consumers have a multitude of communications channels available to them including wireline and wireless voice services and wireline, wireless, cable and satellite broadband services.”

Frontier did West Virginia few favors when it took over Verizon's landline business in the state.

Frontier did West Virginia few favors when it took over Verizon’s landline business in the state.

Ironically, Frontier argued New York’s allegedly robust and fast broadband networks (offered by its competitors but usually not itself) are reason enough to support a “light regulatory touch.”

“Today, every municipality in New York has access to one or more wired or wireless networks that can provide voice, video and data services to residents and businesses,” Frontier claimed. “Over 95% of the state has access to the FCC benchmark speed of 25/3 Mbps and 98% of the State has 200kbps speed in at least one direction. New York’s broadband speeds are significantly faster than the national average and other countries.”

But Frontier failed to mention it is incapable of providing consistent access at or above the FCC benchmark speed because it still relies on a antiquated copper-based network throughout most of its New York service areas. Despite Frontier’s claims of offering quality service, the J.D. Power U.S. Residential Telephone Service Provider Satisfaction Study (2015) ranks Frontier dead last among all significant providers in the eastern U.S. It dropped Frontier this year from consideration for its Internet Provider Satisfaction Study, but a year earlier rated Frontier the worst ISP in the eastern U.S.

Although Frontier suggests it faces “robust competition” from “over 100 different broadband providers, especially at lower speeds,” in most of its service areas in New York it faces Time Warner Cable or no competitor at all.

Frontier’s latest defense over why it has failed to significantly upgrade its network infrastructure to remain competitive with cable is ‘customers don’t want or need faster speeds.’ While advertising lightning fast service on its acquired Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse networks, Frontier argues New York regulators “must keep in mind the consumer demands on broadband speeds.”

Frontier points to two rural broadband projects in New York, one in Hamilton County and the other in Warren County to make its speed argument (emphasis ours):

“These projects are examples of the importance of collaboration and innovation—rather than dogmatic adherence to performance requirements that are largely aspirational for many NYS citizen—in bringing high quality and transformative broadband access to unserved and underserved communities. Flexibility with regard to technology and broadband speed will enhance an already robust marketplace and result in greater affordability and access.”

Frontier has also told New York officials it wants to eliminate local oversight of video franchising and move New York to a “statewide video franchising” system to “promote competition and to streamline competitive entry into the video market in the state.”

“This will provide enhanced consumer choice as well as additional investment in broadband and video services,” Frontier argued. “In other states that have followed this model, such as Connecticut, consumers have a rich array of video providers and services from which to choose at competitive prices.”

That “rich array of video providers” in Connecticut is primarily Cablevision and Frontier. Frontier acquired a pre-existing U-verse network originally owned and operated by AT&T in the state.

New York Attorney General Launches Investigation Into Broadband Speeds and Performance

Schneiderman

Schneiderman

(Reuters) – New York state’s attorney general is probing whether three major Internet providers could be shortchanging consumers by charging them for faster broadband speeds and failing to deliver the speeds being advertised, according to documents seen by Reuters.

The letters, sent on Friday to executives at Verizon Communications, Cablevision Systems, and Time Warner Cable ask each company to provide copies of all disclosures they have made to customers, as well as copies of any testing they may have done of their Internet speeds.

“New Yorkers deserve the Internet speeds they pay for. But, it turns out, many of us may be paying for one thing, and getting another,” Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement.

In statements, spokesmen for the three companies expressed confidence in the speeds of their Internet services.

“We’re confident that we provide our customers the speeds and services we promise them and look forward to working with the AG to resolve this matter,” Time Warner Cable spokesman Bobby Amirshahi said.

Cablevision spokesman Charlie Schueler said the company’s Optimum Online service “consistently surpasses advertised broadband speeds, including in FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and internal tests. We are happy to provide any necessary performance information to the Attorney General as we do to our customers.”

A Verizon spokesman said the company would cooperate with Schneiderman’s office. “Verizon is confident in the robust and reliable Internet speeds it delivers to subscribers,” the spokesman said.

BroadbandMap_rev1The attorney general’s investigation is particularly focused on so-called interconnection arrangements, or contractual deals that Internet service providers strike with other networks for the mutual exchange of data.

In the letters, Schneiderman’s office says it is concerned that customers paying a premium for higher speeds may be experiencing a disruption in their service due to technical problems and business disputes over interconnection agreements.

A 2014 study by the Measurement Lab Consortium, or M-Lab, found that customers’ Internet service tended to suffer at points where their broadband providers connected with long-haul Internet traffic carriers, including Cogent Communications Group.

“Internet service provider interconnection has a substantial impact on consumer Internet performance – sometimes a severely negative impact,” the study said, adding that business relationships rather than technical issues were often at the root of the problem.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said the 2014 study’s findings, coupled with consumer complaints and internal analysis, prompted the inquiry into Internet speeds.

Some of the letters also raise questions about speeds delivered by Time Warner Cable and Cablevision to consumers over “the last mile,” a term that refers to the point where a telecommunication chain reaches a retail consumer’s devices.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Peter Cooney, Christian Plumb and Jonathan Oatis)

Stop the Cap!’s Formal Testimony to N.Y. PSC Opposing Charter/Time Warner Cable Merger

charter twc bhSTATE OF NEW YORK

PUBLIC SERVICE COMMISSION

_______________________________________

Joint Petition of Charter Communications and Time

Warner Cable for Approval of a Transfer of Control

of Subsidiaries and Franchises, Pro Forma                                Case 15-M-0388

Reorganization, and Certain Financing Arrangements.                               

_______________________________________

Statement of Opposition to Joint Petition and

Response to Redacted Comments of DPS Staff

Phillip M. Dampier, Director and Founder: Stop the Cap!

Rochester, New York

September 25, 2015

Stop the Cap! is a Rochester-based consumer group founded in 2008 to fight against the introduction of artificial limits on broadband usage (usage caps, consumption billing, speed throttling) and to promote better broadband speeds and service for consumers. Our group does not solicit or accept funding from lobbyists, companies, or others affiliated with the telecommunications industry. We are entirely supported by individual donors who share our views.

Introduction

Our opposition to the Joint Petition is based on our belief it does not meet the “public interest”  test established in Section 222 of the New York Public Service law, and must therefore be denied.

For the sake of brevity, we wish to associate ourselves with most of the views of the DPS Staff contained in their redacted comments regarding this case, published on the DPS website on September 16, 2015. Most of our testimony will seek to expand on their findings or add additional information to the record for the Commission’s consideration.

As we stated in our remarks regarding the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, New York law obligates the applicant alone to demonstrate its proposal is in the public interest. If the Commission finds the application does not meet the public interest or provide sufficient public benefits, it should be rejected. The DPS staff has reported to you Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable have not met their burden. We agree.

The DPS staff then proposes a mitigation strategy in an effort to tip the balance in favor of the applicant. It remains our view it is not the Commission’s responsibility to help tip the balance in favor of an applicant that has failed to meet its burden.

Nevertheless, we offer the Commission our insight about Charter Communications, its proposals, and the DPS staff recommendations with the hope it will be useful to win commitments from Charter should the Commission choose to proceed with approval, enforcing modifications to deliver the public interest benefits consumers across New York tell us they actually want and need from their providers.

Discussion

Phillip Dampier

Phillip Dampier

New York State, particularly across the upstate region, is not well positioned to take advantage of next generation broadband networks. Just two providers deliver telecommunications services to the majority of New York: Verizon Communications and Time Warner Cable. Although Frontier Communications and Cablevision also deliver service, their service areas are much smaller than the two dominant incumbents. The decisions Verizon and Time Warner Cable make about their investments in broadband and telephone service affect millions of New Yorkers.

Many New York residents have only one choice for Internet service that meets the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband: 25Mbps download speed and at least 3Mbps upload speed.[1] In areas where Verizon FiOS is not available, Time Warner Cable is the only significant provider consistently providing service options at or above 25Mbps. The most common alternative is DSL, which rarely meets the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband.

With this in mind, the FCC reported 53 percent of rural Americans lack access to broadband service achieving speeds of 25Mbps or better. As much as 20 percent still lack access to broadband at speeds achieving the FCC’s old benchmark of 4Mbps. Upstate New York, in particular, is a long way away from achieving the goals of 100Mbps broadband set by Gov. Cuomo, unless you have access to a cable broadband provider.

In Rochester, the majority of residents have only one choice for a provider that meets the FCC’s definition of broadband: Time Warner Cable. While Frontier Communications has made investments to improve their wireline network, only a small minority of customers qualify for DSL service that can meet the FCC’s benchmarks.

While Verizon Communications has done an admirable job delivering its fiber to the home service FiOS to portions of New York, the company has suspended expansion of the service and has not even met its service obligations in cities like New York.[2]

Even more concerning is the fact none of the significant incumbent providers serving New Yorkers have expressed any interest in providing residential gigabit speed service. Google Fiber has not announced any expansion into New York State and other significant gigabit speed providers, including AT&T, do not provide wireline service in New York.

In contrast, in states including Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee, many consumers have the option of choosing at least two gigabit service providers (Google or AT&T) as well as municipal or public broadband providers such as EPB, which serves the Chattanooga area. Time Warner Cable has focused much of its upgrade activity on these communities to remain competitive, delivering 300Mbps broadband service for the price it used to charge for 50Mbps speeds.

In western New York, the fastest broadband speed most residential customers can buy is just 50Mbps. Charter Communications proposes to increase that speed in some areas to a maximum of 100Mbps, along with their entry level 60Mbps plan. Although helpful, that offers little solace to residents and small businesses that would like the option to purchase considerably faster Internet speeds that are now becoming available in other parts of the country.

The Commission’s decision will have an enormous impact on what kinds of telecommunications services will be available to New Yorkers for years to come. Verizon has shown no interest in resuming fiber service upgrades, so most customers will continue to purchase Internet access from the incumbent cable operator to obtain the broadband speeds they require. Today that usually means Time Warner Cable. Sometime next year, that could be Charter Communications.

Time Warner Cable vs. Charter Communications

The most important question before the Commission is which cable operator is better positioned to deliver the services customers in this state want and/or need. We argue that operator is Time Warner Cable, not Charter Communications.

Since the termination of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, Time Warner Cable has responsibly invested in their infrastructure without assuming an irresponsible amount of debt.

twc maxxTime Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus reported significant progress in their first quarter 2015 report to shareholders and customers, despite the distraction of the Comcast merger[3]:

Over the past 16 months, we’ve made significant investments to improve our customers’ experience:

  • Investing more than $5.2 billion to, among other things, improve the reliability of our network and upgrade customer premise equipment – including set-top boxes and cable modems – with the latest technologies and expand its network to additional residences, commercial buildings and cell towers;
  • Launching TWC Maxx, which features greater reliability, all-digital video, advanced TV services, standard tier of Internet speeds at 50 Mbps, and higher tiers of service up to 300 Mbps. New York, Los Angeles and Austin are complete; Dallas, San Antonio and Kansas City are underway; Charlotte, Raleigh and Hawaii are slated for later this year; and San Diego is expected to be done in early 2016;
  • Introducing Enhanced DVR, a six-tuner set-top box that allows customers to record up to six shows simultaneously and store up to 150 hours of HD content;
  • Increasing the number of Cable Wi-Fi hotspots available to our customers to 400,000;
  • Rolling out our cloud-based video guide to 8 million set-top boxes to date. The guide also makes it easier to browse our On Demand library, which now sits at 30,000 free and paid titles and continues to grow;
  • Expanding our industry-leading TWC TV app – which allows customers to watch live TV and On Demand content and control and program their DVR from inside and outside the home. TWC TV is now available on Xbox One, Xbox 360, Amazon Kindle Fire HD and HDX tablets, Android and IOS phones and tablets, Fan TV, PCs, Samsung TV and Roku;

Serving customers on their schedules rather than ours. We expanded one-hour appointment windows across the company and in Q1 met that window 97 percent of the time. We continue to add nighttime and weekend appointments.

Marcus

Marcus

Since that report, Time Warner Cable has announced new Maxx service upgrade areas – Greensboro and Wilmington, N.C. At least 45 percent of Time Warner Cable’s national footprint will be serviced with Maxx upgrades by the end of this year, and Marcus has indicated additional cities will receive upgrades in 2016.[4]

Marcus has indicated repeatedly he intends to see Maxx service upgrades extend even further. On the January 29, 2015 quarterly results conference call with investors, Marcus indicated Maxx upgrades delivered tangible benefits to the company, including increased customer satisfaction, higher network reliability, and a stronger product line. Based on those factors, it would be logical to assume Time Warner Cable would continue its upgrade project, and indeed Marcus confirmed this in his remarks:

“Our aim is to have 75% of our footprint enabled with Maxx […] by the end of [2016], and my guess is we’re continuing to roll it out beyond that,” said Marcus[5]. “So the only question is prioritization, and obviously as we think about where to go first, competitive dynamics are a factor. So that includes Google, although it’s not explosively dictated by where Google decides to go. In fact I think we announced the Carolinas before Google did their announcement this week. So competitors are certainly relevant obviously.

At the rate Time Warner Cable has been rolling out Maxx upgrades, which were first announced on January 30, 2014[6], with 45% of its service area upgraded within 23 months, it is likely the company would complete its Maxx upgrade to all of its service areas within the next 24-30 months. The DPS staff also notes, “there is no indication that Petitioner’s plan for converting to all-digital in New York is any different from Time Warner’s existing plan.”

Charter’s upgrade proposal is, in fact, generally inferior to what Time Warner Cable is accomplishing on its own. We strongly recommend the Commission carefully consider whether Charter’s proposal is as truly compelling as they claim.

Charter Communications’ upgrade proposal is not a good deal for New York.

We agree with the DPS staff’s conclusion Time Warner Cable, on its own, would likely complete its Maxx upgrade program across upstate New York at or around the same time Charter’s proposed upgrades would be complete. Therefore, when comparing Charter’s proposal with Time Warner Cable’s existing service, we urge you to use Time Warner Cable Maxx service as the benchmark, not the existing level of service provided in upstate New York today.

chartersucksTime Warner Cable Maxx offers 50/5 Mbps speeds under its most popular Standard plan. In contrast, Charter proposes to offer 60/5Mbps service under its most-popular Spectrum plan. While Charter’s offer is superior at first glance, it comes at a cost to customers looking for more budget-priced service or those seeking faster speeds.

Charter has no plans to continue Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet service – a very important offer for low income residents and senior citizens who are unable to afford the nearly $60 regular price both companies charge for their 50 or 60Mbps tiers. Time Warner Cable offers this tier without preconditions, restricted qualifiers, contracts, or limits on what types of services can be bundled with it. Any consumer qualifies for the service and can bundle it with Time Warner Cable telephone service for an additional $10 a month, which offers a nationwide local calling area, as well as free calls to the European Union, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and several Asian nations.

The loss of a $25 plan that includes basic Internet access and a bundled, 911-capable telephone line would be devastating to low-income New Yorkers and senior citizens. During the Comcast-Time Warner Cable hearings, no topic elicited as much interest as Internet affordability. Time Warner Cable clearly offers a superior product line for these customers, including two other Internet service tiers offering stepped up Internet speeds in $10 increments. These options would be unavailable from Charter.

Charter’s proposed solution to serve low-income New Yorkers is adoption of Bright House Networks’ Connect2Compete program, which offers restricted access to $9.95/month Internet service for those who qualify.

Stop the Cap! investigated Bright House Networks’ existing offer in a report to our readers[7] in June 2015, and we urge the Commission to look much more closely at the specific conditions Bright House customers have had to endure to qualify to subscribe:

1) You must have at least one child qualified for the National School Lunch Program. They need not be enrolled now.

2) You cannot have been a Bright House broadband customer during the last three months. If you are a current customer, you must first cancel and go without Internet service for 90 days (or call the phone company and hope to get a month-to-month DSL plan in the interim.)

3) If you have an overdue bill older than 12 months, you are not eligible until you pay that bill in full.

4) Bright House does not enroll customers in discounted Internet programs year-round. From a Bright House representative:

“We do participate in this particular program, however, it is only around September that we participate in it. This is a seasonal offer that we have which can only be requested from the middle of August to the middle of September, which is when most start up with school again for the year.”

5) Bright House does not take orders for the Low-Income Internet plan over the Internet. You have to enroll by phone: (205) 591-6880.

connect2competeFamilies fall into poverty every day of the year, and poverty-stricken families move from one school district to another every day of the year. So it’s horribly unfair to tell them they’d qualify for this program if only they had fallen into poverty sometime between the middle of August and the middle of September.

It has been our experience covering service providers across all 50 states that most design these low-cost Internet access programs with revenue protection first in mind. Charter Communications is no different. As with Comcast, Connect2Compete is only available to families with school age children. Applicants face an intrusive, complicated, and time-restricted enrollment process designed to dampen and discourage enrollment.

The interest in meeting the needs of low-income customers would be laudable if not for the insistence otherwise-qualified existing customers cannot downgrade their regular price broadband plan to Connect2Compete unless they voluntarily go without Internet service for three months.

We strongly recommend Charter Communications be compelled to continue Time Warner’s $14.99 Internet plan, but at speeds no less than 25Mbps, the minimum definition of entry-level “broadband” by the FCC. We also recommend Charter be required to further discount this plan to $9.95 a month for qualified customers who meet a simple income test the Commission can define and establish. These discount programs should not just be available to families with school-age children. Everyone needs affordable Internet access, whether you are single and looking for your first job or a fixed income senior citizen.

All restrictions for existing customers or those with an outstanding balance must be prohibited and sign-ups must be accepted 365 days a year with re-qualification occurring not more than once annually.

Charter’s broadband offers for lower-income New Yorkers are not adequate, and neither are their plans for customers who need enhanced service.

Time Warner Cable Maxx delivers a more compelling offer for consumers and small businesses that need much faster Internet access. Charter’s upgrade will offer customers two choices: 60 or 100Mbps service. Time Warner Cable Maxx offers considerably more[8]:

SpeedChart

Charter Communications has only committed to provide customers with unlimited Internet access for three years. Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus has repeatedly made it clear compulsory usage caps are off the table at Time Warner Cable – a lesson they learned after customers pushed back and forced them to shelve a usage cap experiment planned for Rochester and other cities in April 2009[9]. The company has never raised the possibility of compulsory usage limits or usage-based billing again.

“We have no intention of abandoning an unlimited product we think that something that customers value and are willing to pay for,” said Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus. “The way we’ve approached usage-based pricing is to offer it as an option for customers who prefer to pay less because they tend to use less. And we’ve made those available at 5 gigabytes per month and 30 gigabytes per month levels.[10]

Time Warner Cable again offers a better choice for New Yorkers. With many New Yorkers having no practical alternatives, imposing usage limits or forcing customers into even higher-priced usage billing plans would only make New York even less attractive for those who need high quality Internet access for education, telecommuting, or to assist in running a small business. Google Fiber, in contrast, offers 1,000Mbps service with no usage caps at all. Many other providers also have no plans to introduce usage caps.

Charter Communications has a history of capping their customers’ usage. Less than three months before announcing it would acquire Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications quietly dropped usage caps in place on its broadband plans since 2009, without explanation and the FCC now wants to know why, as they also contemplate the impact of the merger[11] [12]. In addition to the anti-consumer practice of placing customers on an unnecessary usage allowance, such usage limits may also be established for anti-competitive reasons to limit exposure to online video streaming, which competes directly with cable television. Customers who watch a lot of online video are those most likely to face service suspension or find overlimit usage fees applied to their bill.

junk3Almost all of Charter’s so-called customer-friendly commitments and policies have a very unfriendly expiration date of three years, which should be unacceptable to the Commission. There is no reason Charter cannot extend its commitments to not charge modem fees, adhere to the basic principles of Net Neutrality, and not impose usage caps or other forms of usage billing permanently. Without such a commitment, consumers could soon pay much higher prices for broadband service, and without robust competition unlikely to develop in most of New York over the next three years, there will be every incentive for Charter to further boost earnings by imposing modem fees and usage pricing on its customers.

One of those incentives is the level of debt Charter Communications will assume in this transaction. DPS staff is correct when they noted New Charter’s debt and lowered credit rating “represents the single most substantial risk of the proposed transaction.”[13]

Debt servicing costs and more expensive credit are both deterrents to investment and are likely to limit the scope of Charter’s ongoing system upgrades and maintenance. Charter is a much smaller cable operator than Time Warner Cable, and is itself still in the process of repairing and upgrading its own cable systems and those it acquired in earlier acquisition deals. Time Warner Cable, in contrast, is in a much stronger financial position to carry out its commitments associated with the Maxx upgrade program.

consumer reportsSpecifics about Charter’s commitments to expand service into unserved areas of New York were either vague and non-specific or redacted. The past history of winning expansion commitments from cable operators who rely on Return On Investment (ROI) formulas to determine which homes and businesses they will serve have met with limited success.

The pervasive problem of rural broadband availability is unlikely to be resolved substantially by this transaction without the strongest buildout requirements. But even that is unlikely to be of much help for large sections of New York outside of existing video franchise areas. Compelling Charter Communications to adopt universal service obligations within all existing Time Warner Cable franchise areas may be a good start. Under such a requirement, any consumer or business that wants cable service and lives within the geographic boundaries of an existing franchise area would receive it upon request without construction fees, surcharges, or other passed-along fees to reach that customer, regardless of their distance from the existing cable plant or ROI formula. The largest impact of this would be to extend cable service into business parks and commercial buildings, which often lack cable service, but many suburban and exurban residential customers would also benefit.

But the Commission must look carefully at Charter’s financial capacity to meet these obligations after assuming control of a company much larger than itself. No commitment is worth much if a company ultimately fails to deliver on it.

An overburdened cable operator is also unlikely to make substantial investments in improving customer service, and that makes the risk of depending on Charter Communications to improve Time Warner Cable’s already poor customer service rating doubtful. Competition is the biggest incentive to improve customer service and responsiveness, and that is unlikely to prove much of a factor for large sections of New York over the next few years. In fact, we argue customer service is likely to deteriorate for New Yorkers in the short term because of the disruptiveness of any ownership change and eventual billing system integration. Again, Charter’s proposal offers no compelling public interest benefit to New Yorkers. The fact DPS staff is proposing a performance incentive mechanism to compel service improvements illustrates absent punitive measures, Charter Communications is unlikely to offer any improvement over Time Warner Cable, and may in fact perform worse.

Consumer Reports rates both companies’ Internet Service poorly[14]:

  • Charter: 63 (Reader Score), Poor Value, Fair Reliability, Good Speed, Mediocre Phone/Online Support, Fair In-Home Support
  • Time Warner Cable: 57 (Reader Score), Poor Value, Fair Reliability, Fair Speed, Mediocre Phone/Online Support, Fair In-Home Support

Virtually nothing Charter Communications has offered as a public interest benefit meets that criteria. Its commitment to improve cable television does not offer any significant benefit to New York cable TV subscribers. Both Time Warner Cable and Charter propose to move to all-digital cable television to free up bandwidth to offer improved broadband.

Rutledge

Rutledge

While consumers clamor for smaller, less-costly cable television packages, Charter Communications’ CEO Thomas Rutledge is credited for inventing the “triple play” concept of convincing customers to package more services – broadband, television and telephone — together in return for a discount. Reuters cited his penchant for “simplified pricing,”[15] which is why Charter offers most customers only two options for broadband service and one giant television package dubbed Spectrum TV containing more than 200 channels.[16]

Unfortunately, any benefits from an all-digital television package are likely to be dismissed when customers get the bill. Currently, many Time Warner Cable customers watch analog television channels on television sets around the home without the need to rent a costly set top box. Any transition to digital television will require the rental of a set top box or purchase of a third-party device to view cable television programming. These can represent costly add-ons for an already high cable bill.

With approximately 99 percent of customers renting their set-top box directly from their pay-tv provider, the set-top box rental market may be worth more than $19.5 billion per year, with the average American household spending more than $231 per year on set-top box rental fees. These are some of the findings from Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal’s (D-Conn.) query of the top-ten pay-tv multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs).[17]

Passed by Congress in December, the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014 repealed the set-top box integration ban, which enabled consumers to access technology that allowed use of a set-top box other than one leased from their cable company. Without the integration ban, by the end of this year, cable companies will no longer be required to make their services compatible with outside set-top boxes, like TiVo for example, bought directly by consumers in the retail marketplace.

American cable subscribers spend, on average, $89.16 a year renting a single set-top box. The average set-top box rental fee for each company was used to calculate an overall set-top box rental cost average across companies: $7.43 a month, or $89.16 per year. Considering many homes rent a DVR box to make and view recordings and maintain less-capable boxes on other televisions, the total cost adds up quickly. The average household spends $231.82 a year on set-top box rental fees, according to Sens. Markey and Blumenthal.

Charter proposes to introduce a new generation of set top boxes but as far as we know, has not disclosed the monthly cost of these IP-capable boxes to subscribers. We anticipate they will cost more than the current equipment provided by Time Warner Cable, which has also been increasing the cost of its set top box rentals.

Time Warner Cable’s entry level Digital Transport Adapters, which convert digital/HD signals for older analog-only television sets, almost tripled in price over just one year. Originally introduced for $0.99 a month, the rental fee increased this year to $2.75 a month for customers in Rochester.[18]

Other points the Commission should consider in reviewing this transaction:

  1. DPA staffers claim the transaction is unlikely to alter the competitive landscape because Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable do not have overlapping service areas. While it is true Charter and Time Warner don’t compete for the same customers, it is inaccurate to suggest the transaction will not alter competition. Cable industry consolidation is underway, in part, to help larger combined operators secure better volume discounts for increasingly expensive video programming.

    AT&T’s primary motivation to acquire satellite provider DirecTV was to secure better prices for video programming, both for DirecTV customers but more importantly for its own, much smaller, U-verse TV operation.[19]

    The cost barrier for new, directly competing entrants into the cable television business is well-recognized, even by smaller independent cable television providers that are having difficulty staying profitable and maintaining investments in broadband as they lack the ability to secure similar volume discounts for themselves. The American Cable Association, representing small operators, warned the FCC “existing providers of both broadband and MVPD services and new entrants will be deterred from expanding their broadband networks or otherwise undertaking new builds” as a result of increasing programming costs.[20]

    As a result, it is unlikely a new provider will be able to develop a sustainable business model that includes cable television while paying wholesale programming costs that are dramatically higher than what combined companies like New Charter will pay.

  2. The Commission must insist that upstate New York is treated equally to the New York City market. If the deal is approved, Charter must be compelled to commit to continue Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade initiative across all of its service areas in New York State, to be completed within 30 months. Nothing less than that should be acceptable to the Commission. We agree with the DPS staff’s recommendation that Charter also be compelled to upgrade facilities to support gigabit broadband, but this should be extended to include all of its service areas in New York, not just the largest cities.

    This does not pose a significant challenge to any cable operator. With the upcoming introduction of DOCSIS 3.1 technology, cable operators even smaller than Charter will support 1Gbps broadband speeds as they drop analog television signals. Suddenlink[21], MidContinent[22], Cox[23], and Mediacom[24] already have gigabit deployment plans in the works. If Fargo, N.D. is getting gigabit broadband from MidContinent Communications in the near future, Charter should have no problem offering similar service to customers in Jamestown, Penn Yan, Watertown, Binghamton, and beyond.

  3. The Commission must establish and enforce meaningful enforcement mechanisms should Charter fail to achieve its commitments as part of this transaction. Cable consolidation has never significantly benefited consumers. Charter is not guaranteeing Time Warner Cable customers will receive a lower bill as a result of this merger. Nor is it committing to pass along the lower prices it will achieve through negotiations for video programming volume discounts. Cable rates, especially for broadband, will continue to increase. Without meaningful competition, there is no incentive to give consumers a better deal or better service.

    That is why if the Commission feels it must approve this transaction, the conditions that accompany it to achieve a true public interest benefit must be meaningful and ongoing. Any failure to deliver on those commitments must include a direct benefit to customers, not just to the state government. If fines are imposed, customers should receive a cash rebate or equivalent service credit for services not provided as part of any agreement.

Cable operators know once they secure a franchise or become the incumbent provider, no other cable company will negotiate with city officials to take over that franchise if the current provider’s application is denied during renewal. Once Charter (or any other cable company) establishes a presence, there is little or no chance a community will be able to get rid of that provider if it fails to perform. That is why any franchise transfer that comes from an acquisition or merger must be treated with the upmost seriousness. Customers will likely live with the decision the Commission makes for the next 10-20 years or more.

dpsAs Time Warner Cable customers loudly reminded the Commission in the Comcast merger proceeding, there is such a thing as a cable operator even worse than Time Warner Cable, already one of the lowest rated companies in the country. Comcast’s reputation preceded its intended entry into New York on a massive scale and the application was eventually withdrawn.

As the Commission must realize, this transaction does not just involve entertainment. Last week the Obama Administration declared broadband Internet access a “core utility.”[25]

“Broadband has steadily shifted from an optional amenity to a core utility for households, businesses and community institutions,” according to a report from the administration’s Broadband Opportunity Council. “Today, broadband is taking its place alongside water, sewer and electricity as essential infrastructure for communities.”

Unfortunately, the federal government has seen to it that this core utility is provided without the ability of local and state governments to properly deliver needed oversight. While the Public Service Commission lacks the authority to enforce consumer protections and quality of service standards for Internet access, it retains the very powerful ability to determine whether a company seeking to make a fortune selling consumers broadband service in a monopoly/duopoly market for many New Yorkers is a good or bad thing for consumers.

Our group strongly believes New York should not take a risk on Charter’s less-then-compelling offer when Time Warner Cable has demonstrated it is in a better financial position and has a proven track record of delivering on its commitments to improve service with its Maxx upgrade project. Time Warner Cable has superior options for low-income New Yorkers, has a large number of New York-based call centers providing valuable employment for our residents, offers more broadband options and faster speeds for entrepreneurs remaking themselves in the digital/information economy, and has committed to providing unlimited Internet access – a critical prerequisite for consumers choosing to drop cable television’s one-size-fits-all bloated video package and watch only the shows they want to see and pay for online.

We urge the Public Service Commission to deny Charter’s application. If it sees fit to make a different choice, we strongly recommend you demand the best possible deal for New York consumers and businesses that, as the DPS staff wrote, deserve best-in-class communications services.

  • [1] http://stopthecap.com/2015/02/03/fcc-now-defines-minimum-broadband-speed-25mbps-everything-less-now-slowband/
  • [2] http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/415-15/de-blasio-administration-releases-audit-report-verizon-s-citywide-fios-implementation
  • [3] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2015/04/twc-gains-momentum-with-best-ever-subscriber-growth-customer-enhancements/
  • [4] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2015/07/twc-maxx-expands-rollout-in-2015/
  • [5] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2864536-time-warner-cables-twc-ceo-rob-marcus-on-q4-2014-results-earnings-call-transcript?
  • [6] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2014/01/get-the-details-on-twcs-plan-to-transform-ctv-internet-experience/
  • [7] http://stopthecap.com/2015/06/25/bright-houses-mysterious-internet-discount-program-charter-wants-to-adopt-nationwide/
  • [8] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/enjoy/better-twc/internet.html
  • [9] http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=7368388
  • [10] http://stopthecap.com/2014/10/30/time-warner-cable-recommits-mandatory-usage-caps-long-company-remains-independent/
  • [11] http://stopthecap.com/2015/09/23/fcc-demands-details-about-charters-suddenly-retired-usage-caps/
  • [12] http://www.multichannel.com/news/fcc/fcc-seeks-data-dump-charter-twc-bright-house/394010
  • [13] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={C60985CC-BEE8-43A7-84E8-5A4B4D8E0F54} (p.39)
  • [14] http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/electronics-computers/computers-internet/telecom-services/internet-service-ratings/ratings-overview.htm
  • [15] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/30/us-charter-timewarnercable-rutledge-anal-idUSBREA0T01D20140130
  • [16] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/tv#/channel-lineup
  • [17] http://www.markey.senate.gov/news/press-releases/markey-blumenthal-decry-lack-of-choice-competition-in-pay-tv-video-box-marketplace
  • [18] http://stopthecap.com/2014/12/22/time-warner-cable-deck-halls-8-modem-fees-fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-2-75-dta-fee/
  • [19] http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2015/07/24/fcc-approves-ts-acquisition-directv/30626421/
  • [20] http://www.americancable.org/node/5229
  • [21] http://www.multichannel.com/news/technology/suddenlink-boots-1-gig-broadband/392087
  • [22] https://www.midco.com/PressRoom/2014/midcontinent-bringing-gigabit-internet-access-to-the-northern-plains/
  • [23] http://www.multichannel.com/news/distribution/cox-plots-docsis-31-plans/393996
  • [24] http://www.multichannel.com/news/cable-operators/mediacom-sets-residential-1-gig-rollout/393585
  • [25] http://thehill.com/policy/technology/254431-obama-administration-declares-broadband-core-utility-in-report

N.Y. Public Service Commission Staff Unimpressed With Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger Proposal

ny pscStaffers at the New York State Department of Public Service have recommended the Public Service Commission reject the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable unless significant concessions are made, largely because the alleged benefits are insufficient for New York cable customers.

Although cable operators are largely deregulated under federal law, state and local governments retain control over cable franchise agreements, which permit operators to sell cable television programming. To complete its merger, Charter Communications must win approval to transfer Time Warner Cable franchise agreements to the merged entity, dubbed “New Charter.” That gives state regulators leverage to win concessions and oversight mostly eliminated after the cable industry was deregulated by the federal government.

New York law requires cable operators seeking to join forces to prove the merger is in the public interest and that ratepayers will obtain a “net positive benefit” from the merger. In plain English, Charter must share the benefits of the merger with cable customers in New York, either from lower prices, better service, or both. Charter proposes to offer those benefits in the form of improved service:

  • Additional investments in all-digital systems in Time Warner’s service areas by completing digitization within 30 months of the close of the proposed transaction. This would include faster (60 megabits per second (Mbps) minimum) broadband speed offerings;
  • Merger-specific efficiencies, which would generate savings in a number of areas including combined purchasing power, overhead, product development, engineering, and information technology;
  • Merging Charter’s New York assets, now isolated from the rest of its service territories, to create efficiencies through reduced costs, improved customer service and additional service offerings;
  • Bringing overseas Time Warner jobs back to the United States and adding in-house positions;
  • Expanding to New York, within three years of the close of the proposed transaction, Bright House Networks’ low-income broadband option (Connect2Compete) which partners with schools to provide a $9.95 low-cost Internet service, discounts on Internet-capable devices, and innovative digital literacy training;
  • Promoting the deployment of advanced voice services and enhancing competition in the voice marketplace by creating a more robust competitor;
  • Pledging not to block or throttle Internet traffic or engage in paid prioritization, whether or not the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Open Internet Order is upheld. This commitment would continue for three years, without regard to the outcome of the ongoing litigation challenging federal reclassification.

charter twc bhThe Public Service Commission staff looked at the reported annual “synergy savings” of $800 million anticipated by New Charter from streamlining operations and winning enhanced volume discounts to determine the “net positive benefit” for New York consumers from the merger. Here is the formula the PSC used:

  • New York customers represent 10.879% of New Charter’s customer base — 2.6 million of New Charter’s 23,900,000 combined Charter and Time Warner Cable customers;
  • The agency presumes customers and shareholders nationwide should each receive 50% of the $800 million in savings;
  • Knowing New York deserves roughly 11% of that $800 million, divided equally between customers and shareholders, New Charter owes New Yorkers $43.5 million in benefits annually.

Staffers at the PSC prefer to deal in hard numbers and solid commitments when determining how New Charter intends to meet its obligation to New Yorkers, and all signs indicate the cable company was less than forthcoming. In colloquial terms, New Charter’s response to the PSC’s math can be summed up, ‘Whatever, you can trust us to work out the details after the merger.’

Alleged Deal “Benefits”

New Charter’s promises to invest more capital in New York than Time Warner Cable came with no specific investment commitments, despite repeated efforts to pin New Charter down on its spending plans. Some of the details about New Charter’s spending proposals are redacted in the document, but it isn’t difficult to discern reading between the lines New Charter has no plans to continue Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program beyond commitments already made, which in New York is limited to New York City, leaving all of upstate New York off the Maxx upgrade list. PSC staffers believe if Time Warner Cable remained independent, some or all of upstate New York would receive those Maxx upgrades in the near future.

new-charter-combined-footprint-640x480New Charter claims another merger benefit is their plan to upgrade Time Warner customers with new and improved IP-capable ‘Worldbox’ equipment and DVR’s offering more recording capacity. While conceding there were some minor benefits from offering customers more capable equipment, PSC staffers were skeptical New Charter’s plan represented much of a “consumer benefit,” because the equipment is not cheap and New Charter’s plan to eliminate analog television signals will mean every customer will have to rent one of Charter’s new boxes or a near equivalent.

New Charter’s promises of faster Internet speeds and upgraded cable systems would normally be seen as a direct consumer benefit, except Time Warner Cable already committed to its own Maxx upgrade effort that often outperforms what New Charter is promising. “Digitalization and associated speed increases can only truly be considered a benefit if [New Charter] can adequately demonstrate that Time Warner would not have otherwise completed a similar transition to an all digital, faster network in a similar timeframe [roughly 30 months],” PSC staffers concluded.

New Charter’s promise to expand low-income Internet access to Time Warner Cable customers, utilizing Bright House Networks’ Connect2Compete program, comes with many of the same restrictions Comcast’s own Internet Essentials program include. That issue was hotly debated during Comcast’s attempt to acquire Time Warner Cable, and many public interest groups opposed the merger for that reason. New Charter has also made no commitments to continue Time Warner’s no-restriction/no-contract/no-prequalification affordable $14.99 Internet service. In fact, the merger may worsen the affordable Internet problem, not improve it.

New Charter’s proposed expansion of Time Warner Cable’s Wi-Fi hotspot program is vague and mostly undefined beyond a general commitment to deploy at least 300,000 new out-of-home Wi-Fi access points across its national footprint within four years. New York regulators want to know how many of those would be in New York. Using the same formula to find how many New Charter customers are located in New York, it seems reasonable that redacted sections regarding the Wi-Fi hotspot program included an inquiry if New Charter planned at least 30,000 new access points for New York. New Charter did mention that once the proposed transaction is complete, it expected to evaluate the merits of leveraging in-home routers as public Wi-Fi access points, much like Comcast is doing today. Because Time Warner Cable has no firm plans about its Wi-Fi hotspot deployment program beyond this year, PSC staffers found it difficult to determine which company had the better Wi-Fi proposal for New Yorkers.

WiFiZonelogoNew Charter’s plans for expanded business broadband were also found to be vague, making it difficult to measure how much benefit New Charter would bring commercial clients in New York.

Status Quo

Time Warner cable systems will become indirect, wholly owned subsidiaries of New Charter. New Charter states that they are not seeking authority for the transfer of customers or for any changes in rates, terms or conditions of service and New Charter will also continue to provide Lifeline Discounted Telephone Service (Lifeline).

The PSC expects that customers will keep the same digital phone number they had with Time Warner; will have the same billing account information; and, other technology will continue to work seamlessly. In other words, the transaction should be technologically transparent for consumers.

The regulator also acknowledges that, after the proposed transaction, there should be no diminution in the number of service provider options available to consumers in the video market because Charter and Time Warner do not have overlapping service areas in New York. Since the potential for direct competition no longer exists, this assertion is in no way a benefit of the proposed transaction, it simply maintains the status quo.

The Bad and the Ugly

Despite claims from both cable companies there will be no negative impact as a result of the proposed transaction, PSC staff identified a number of serious issues that are likely to result if the merger is approved without any enforceable conditions or commitments:

Charter will be among America's top junk bond issuers. (Image: Bloomberg News)

Charter will be among America’s top junk bond issuers. (Image: Bloomberg News)

New Charter intends to load itself with massive debt to pay for the merger. As a result, the combined company’s credit rating will take a significant hit. PSC staffers fear New Charter will be vulnerable if economic conditions decline, even to the point of default or bankruptcy. But before that happens, New Charter’s need to cope with its debt could result in reduced investment in system upgrades.

“If the operating environment declines for cable companies […] New Charter will have more difficulty maintaining the investments necessary to bring expanded products and provide good service quality to its customers and, thus, this represents the single most substantial risk of the proposed transaction,” the PSC staff warns. “Accordingly, the Commission should seek to mitigate this risk and ensure that New York receives net benefits that are sufficient to offset this and the other potential harms.”

After requesting Charter disclose its often hidden regular, non-promotional prices most cable customers eventually pay, the PSC discovered contrary to Charter’s claims its prices are lower than Time Warner Cable, in fact they are often higher. Time Warner Cable customers typically also receive more cable television channels for their dollar than Charter customers do. Consumers who bundled multiple services together got the best savings, but even those deals were priced comparably to what Time Warner Cable charges. In short, promises of savings are illusory.

Time Warner Cable offers $14.99 to anyone without paperwork.

Time Warner Cable offers $14.99 to anyone without paperwork. Charter does not.

Broadband customers will also lose less-expensive broadband options they receive from Time Warner Cable. New Charter will drop Time Warner’s $14.99 “Everyday Low Price” 2Mbps Internet package, along with its Basic 3Mbps ($29.99) and Standard 15Mbps ($34.99) plans. New Charter’s least expensive broadband option for all consumers will be its Spectrum Internet 60Mbps plan, which carries an initial promotional price of $39.99 a month and a regular price just under $60.

“Time Warner’s lower priced offerings represent choices for New York consumers,” PSC staff concluded. “Any loss of these services would likely result in consumers paying more to ensure they have access to the same level of high-speed Internet service and its important resources.”

Jobs: New York is at risk of losing Time Warner Cable’s five call centers employing about 1,996 staff, 61 retail/walk-in centers employing 2,674 staff, nine corporate offices employing around 1,257 staff, nine service/maintenance locations employing approximately 1,687 staff, two media offices employing 435 staff, and 11 other service related functions employing about 1,003 staff, with total employment in the state of nearly 9,052.

PSC staffers have only received a commitment New Charter will not reduce the number of “customer facing” jobs in New York, but has said nothing about where the rest of its New York employees might be heading.

“There is a real danger that New Charter will look to gain operational efficiencies by moving/consolidating customer-facing jobs and other positions to out-of-state locations, despite any claims to the contrary,” the PSC staff reports. “Out-of-state service centers would make it difficult for it to maintain its current level of customer service. Longer wait times and lack of local knowledge could lead to increased frustration and dissatisfaction on the part of New York customers, and a significant decline in the overall level of service provided.”

What New York Regulators May Demand from New Charter to Approve a Merger

The PSC wants Charter to develop gigabit broadband for New York's top-five cities.

The PSC wants Charter to develop gigabit broadband for New York’s top-five cities.

When the PSC staffers added everything up it found the proposed merger offered little benefit to New Yorkers and would not result in a net positive benefit for New York. The staff recommended the merger be denied unless specific commitments are made to sweeten the deal for New York customers.

First, New Charter should be required to develop a strategic implementation plan to build-out its all-digital network to every remaining unserved or underserved Charter and Time Warner franchise area in New York. This would mean that any resident in a town serviced by either cable company would be able to buy service even if the company does not now offer it. Currently, areas considered unprofitable to serve within a franchise area are often bypassed. This would no longer be permitted, and New Charter would have to wire any commercial building, business, school, or home.

Second, Charter’s record of performance in New York is already less than impressive. In Columbia County, Charter operates an ancient one-way video service-only cable system serving Chatham, N.Y. The PSC staff recommends Charter be required to bring that cable system up to date. More broadly, the staff recommends Charter be forced to spend more money on system upgrades and improved service than Time Warner Cable would have on its own.

Third, qualifications to subscribe to Charter’s proposed $9.95 discount Internet program should be broadened to exclude fewer customers. Its speed should also be raised to at least 10Mbps. For everyone else not qualified to subscribe to Connect2Compete, the PSC staff recommends requiring New Charter to continue offering Time Warner’s Everyday Low Price $14.99 Internet tier at an enhanced speed of 3Mbps for a minimum of five years.

Fourth, Time Warner customers in New York should be granted promotional broadband pricing without modem fees for a minimum of three years, making New Charter’s ongoing price of its 60Mbps tier $39.99 a month, not the $59.99 a month Charter typically charges after one year.

Fifth, New Charter should be required to offer broadband service at speeds up to 100Mbps throughout its New York footprint within 30 months of the close of the proposed merger. New Charter should also be compelled to install infrastructure capable of offering 1,000Mbps (1Gbps) service in New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany by 2020.

Six, New York should require New Charter to change its current merger proposal to decrease leveraged debt and present a plan to restore the company’s credit rating to a level more comparable with Time Warner Cable.

Seven, New Charter should submit to oversight of its customer service performance by New York regulators, which will monitor how New Charter treats its customers. If the company falls below acceptable service standards, the PSC will have the authority to intervene based on an agreement with New Charter.

Finally, New Charter will agree to limit any significant changes to its New York call center or other customer-facing positions for at least two years and provide 90 days notice of any significant job relocations or reductions.

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