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

jd powerLove can be a fickle thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midwestern Cities Worry About Comcast’s Replacement: Already Debt-Laden GreatLand Connections

The merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable includes castoffs that will be served by a completely unknown spinoff - GreatLand Communications, that nobody can speak with and does not have a website.

The merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable includes castoffs that will be served by a completely unknown spinoff – GreatLand Connections, that nobody can speak with and does not have a website.

At least 2.5 million Comcast customers in cities like Detroit and Minneapolis could soon find their service switched to a new provider that doesn’t have a website, doesn’t answer questions, and won’t give detailed information to municipal officials about its plans, pricing, or service obligations.

GreatLand Connections is the dumping ground for communities Comcast no longer wants to serve, including cities in Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

Formerly known as “SpinCo” for the benefit of Wall Street investment banks advising Comcast, the new cable company has been created primarily to help Comcast convince regulators to approve its merger with Time Warner Cable. Comcast believes supersizing itself with Time Warner Cable will win a pass with the FCC by self-limiting its potential television market share. The deal is also structured to dump a large amount of debt on the brand new cable company, allowing Comcast to avoid a significant tax bill.

GreatLand will, for all intents and purposes, be Charter Cable under a different name. Charter will act as the “management company,” which means it will be in charge of most consumer-facing operations.

Beyond that, almost nothing is known about the new cable company, except that it will open its doors laden with $7.8 billion in debt, according to a securities filing. That is equal to five times EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. In comparison, Comcast is 1.99 times EBITDA and Time Warner Cable is 3.07 times EBITDA, making the new cable company highly leveraged above industry averages. Charter Cable, which declared bankruptcy in 2009, is loaded down it debt itself, as it continues to acquire other cable operators.

Finances for the new company appear to be “less-than-middling,” according to MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett, in a note to investors.

Because cable operators face little serious competition, the chances of any significant cable company liquidating in bankruptcy is close to zero, but a heavily indebted company may be very conservative about spending money on employees and operations. It may also leverage its market position and raise prices to demonstrate it can repay those obligations.

exitWith many customers having only one choice for High Speed Internet access above 15-25Mbps — the cable company — the arrival of GreatLand concerns many municipalities facing deadlines to approve a transfer of franchise agreements from Comcast to the new entity.

Jodie Miller, executive director of the Northern Dakota County Cable Communications Commission in suburban Minneapolis said it was impossible to find anyone to talk to at GreatLand. The commission needs to sign off on franchise transfers by mid-December, but nobody can reach GreatLand and the company has no track record of service anywhere in the country.

“We’re not even saying it’s unqualified,” she told Businessweek. “We’re saying we don’t really have information.”

Coon Rapids, Minn. has put franchise renewal negotiations on hold. Michael Bradley, a municipal cable TV attorney and the city’s longtime cable counsel said the deadline has been extended from Oct. 15 to Dec. 15.

“It’s a challenge,” he said. “No one knows who we can deal with locally. Nothing is certain yet and discussions are on hold.”

“We don’t have the answers we need,” added Ron Styka, an elected trustee with responsibility for cable-service oversight in Meridian Township, Michigan, a town served by Comcast about 80 miles west of Detroit.

“Answers have been inadequate at best and mostly not forthcoming,” echoed David Osberg, city administrator of Eagan, Minn. in a filing to the Federal Communications Commission.”It’s not clear whether GreatLand will be financially qualified.”

Eagan has had problems with Comcast in the past, and does not want new ones with GreatLand, especially with broadband service, which is vital to an effort to attract technology jobs to the community.

UN: U.S. Broadband Ranking Slips Again; Now 19th Place in Penetration, 24th in Wired Connections

All of the top-10 broadband rankings for accessibility, affordability, speed, and subscription rates have been awarded to countries in Europe and Asia, while the United States continues to fall further behind.

This week, the UN Broadband Commission issued its annual report on broadband and had little to say about developments in North America, where providers have maintained the status quo of delaying upgrades, raising prices, and limiting usage. As a result, other countries are rapidly outpacing North America, preparing the infrastructure to support the 21st century digital economy while officials in the U.S.A. and Canada cater primarily to the interests of large incumbent cable and telephone companies.

The United States has fallen from 20th to 24th place in wired broadband subscriptions, per capita. Virtually every country in western Europe now beats the United States, as does Hong Kong, Belarus, and New Zealand. Canada scored better, taking 14th place.

fixed broadband penetration 2013

Only managing a meager 19th place, only 84.2% of Americans are online. Iceland has 96.5% of their population on the Internet, closely followed by the other northern European nations of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Also scoring superior to the United States: Andorra, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Canada did better than its southern neighbor as well, coming in at number 16.

percentage using the internet

With big profits to be made in wireless, large wireless phone companies like Verizon Wireless and AT&T helped the U.S. achieve its best rating — 10th place in wireless. But the countries that exceeded the United States did much better (Canada was not rated this year.)

With the arguable exception of wireless, the United States is no longer a world leader in broadband and continues a slow but steady decline in rankings as other countries leapfrog over the U.S.

At least 140 countries now have a National Broadband Plan in place, most maintaining stronger oversight over telecommunications infrastructure than the largely unregulated U.S. broadband marketplace. After reviewing broadband performance across most UN member states, the Broadband Commission for Digital Development recognized several traits common in countries where broadband has been particularly successful:

Competition is essential to promote enhanced broadband. A monopoly or duopoly (usually a telephone company and cable or wireless operator) is not enough to promote healthy broadband advancements. At least three, near-equal competitors are required to achieve the best upgrades and price competition. The presence of smaller competitors or those charging considerably different pricing had little effect on competition.

Countries with the best speeds have national policies promoting the installation of fiber optic technology, at least in multi-dwelling units and new developments. Although the cost of fiber and its installation can amount to as much as 80% of a broadband expansion project, many countries have been successful compelling competing providers to share a single fiber optic network (and its costs) to make the investment more affordable. In terms of ultra-high-speed broadband, there are still not many consumer apps and services that need Gigabit speeds, but such services are on their way. Experience shows that technology typically moves faster than most people anticipate – so countries and operators need to start planning now for the imminent broadband world.

technology cost

A coherent regulatory foundation that emphasizes competition over regulation was the most effective policy. But regulatory frameworks must guarantee a level playing field among competitors and strong oversight to make sure competitors play fair. Regulation is not keeping pace with the changes in the market – Internet players offering equivalent voice and messaging services are, by and large, subject to relatively limited requirements (including consumer protection, privacy, interoperability, security, emergency calls, lawful intercept of customer data, universal service). Asymmetric regulation has resulted in an uneven competitive landscape for services. Governments and policy-makers need to review and update their regulatory frameworks to take into account evolving models of regulation.

Telecommunication and broadband access providers need to explore business arrangements with Internet content providers that will accelerate global investment in broadband infrastructure, to the mutual benefit of all, including end-consumers. Internet companies and Internet content providers need to contribute to investment in broadband infrastructure by debating interconnection issues and agreeing fees/revenue shares with other operators and broadband providers.

That last issue is now being hotly debated in the United States, where providers are seeking compensation from streaming video providers like Netflix, which now account for a substantial amount of Internet traffic.

Kentucky Wakes Up: AT&T Dereg Bills Will Not Bring Better Broadband, Will Make Rural Service Worse

luckykyQuestion: How will ripping out landline infrastructure in Kentucky help improve broadband service for rural areas?

Answer: It won’t.

This is not for a lack of trying though. AT&T has returned to the Kentucky state legislature year after year with a company-written bill loaded with more ornaments than a Christmas tree. In the guise of “modernizing” telecom regulation, AT&T wants to abolish most of it, replaced by a laissez-faire marketplace for telecommunications services not seen in the United States since the 1910s. AT&T claims robust competition will do a better job of keeping providers in check than a century of oversight by state officials. But customers in rural Kentucky have a better chance of sighting Bigfoot than finding a competitive alternative to AT&T’s telephone and DSL service. AT&T retains a monopoly in broadband across much of the state where cable operators like Time Warner don’t tread.

This year, Senate Bill 99, dubbed “The AT&T Bill” received overwhelming support from the Kentucky Senate as well as in the House Economic Development Committee. AT&T made sure the state’s most prominent politicians were well-compensated with generous campaign contributions, which helped move the bill along.

Since 2011, AT&T’s political-action committee has given about $55,000 to state election campaigns in Kentucky, including $5,000 to the Senate Republican majority’s chief fundraising committee and $5,000 more to the House Democratic majority’s chief fundraising committee. The company spent $108,846 last year on its 22 Frankfort lobbyists.

That generosity no doubt helped Republican Floor Leader Jeff Hoover find his way to AT&T’s talking point that only by “modernizing” Kentucky’s telecom laws would the state receive much-needed broadband improvements.

Hoover

Hoover

Hoover is upset that the state’s House Democratic leadership stopped AT&T’s bill dead in its tracks, despite bipartisan begging primarily from AT&T’s check-cashers that the bill see a vote. Speaker Greg Stumbo, whose rural Eastern Kentucky district would have seen AT&T’s landline and DSL service largely wiped out by AT&T’s original proposal, would hear none of it.

He has been to AT&T’s Deregulation Rodeo before.

“When I served as attorney general, I dealt with deregulation firsthand to protect consumers as much as possible,” he wrote in a recent editorial. “In most cases, deregulation led to worse service and less opportunity to correct the problems customers invariably faced. It is now our job as House leaders to continue defending Kentucky’s consumers.”

Stumbo, like many across Kentucky, have come to realize that AT&T’s custom-written legislation gives the company a guarantee it can disconnect rural landline service en masse, but does not guarantee better broadband as a result.

“In fact, there is nothing in the legislation guaranteeing better landline, cell or Internet service,” Stumbo noted.

Hoover declared that by not doing AT&T’s bidding, Kentucky was at risk of further falling behind.

“This decision by Stumbo and House Democrat leadership, like many others, has unfortunately had a real effect on the lives of Kentuckians as we will go, at minimum, another year before these private businesses can focus on increasing broadband speed throughout the commonwealth,” he wrote. “It is another year in which we risk falling further behind our neighboring states and others in the competitive world of economic development.”

Stumbo

Stumbo

Stumbo responded the Republicans seemed to have a narrow vision of what represents progress. Hoover and his caucus voted against the House budget that included $100 million for a broadband improvement initiative spearheaded by Gov. Steve Beshear, Rep. Hal Rogers, and private interests.

By relying entirely on a deregulated AT&T, rural Kentucky residents may lose both landline and DSL service and be forced to wireless alternatives that come at a high price.

“There are citizens, many of whom are elderly or on fixed income, who depend on their landline or cannot afford more expensive options; these are the people I am fighting for,” said Stumbo. “I do not want to get a call from a family member who lost a loved one because that person could not reach a first responder in time.”

State residents watching the debate have increasingly noticed discrepancies between what AT&T wants and what it is promising Kentucky.

“No one has ever been able to satisfactorily explain to me how allowing phone companies to abandon landline service will help expand broadband Internet, especially since DSL service requires phone lines,” said H.B. Elkins, Public Information Officer at KYTC District 10.

Matt Simpson recognizes that Senate Bill 99 and other similar measures will not change the economic realities of AT&T’s for-profit business.

“Without regulation, the for-profit companies like AT&T are going to invest in the most profitable areas,” he wrote. “If they thought they could make a huge profit providing broadband in rural areas, they would already be doing it. Deregulation is not going to change that profit calculation. They will still view rural broadband as unprofitable, and they still won’t do it. The bill was a total giveaway to the industry, with no offsetting benefit to the consumers.”

Michael Yancy summed up his views more colorfully.

“The ‘AT&T bill should be classified as a sheep bill. It was all about pulling the wool over the eyes of the public,” Yancy said. “Anyone who thinks the people of Kentucky will benefit from more of the same, needs to make inquiries into moving the Brooklyn Bridge to the Ohio River.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KET Phone Deregulation Kentucky Tonight 1 2-19-13.mp4

Kentucky Educational Television aired a debate between AT&T and the Kentucky Resources Council on the issue of telephone deregulation in 2013. The same issues were back this year in AT&T’s latest failed attempt to win statewide deregulation and permission to switch landline customers in rural Kentucky to less reliable wireless service. In this clip AT&T argues it should be able to shift investment away from landline service towards wireless because wireless is the more popular technology, but not everyone gets good coverage in Kentucky. (Feb. 19 2013) (3:00)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KET Phone Deregulation Kentucky Tonight 2 2-19-13.mp4

In this second clip, AT&T claims customers who want to keep landline service can, but Kentucky Resources Council president Tom Fitzgerald reads the bill and finds AT&T’s claims just don’t hold up under scrutiny. The carrier of last resort obligation which guarantees quality landline phone service to all who want it is gone if AT&T’s bill passes. Customers can be forced to use wireless service instead. (Feb. 19 2013) (4:33)

Comcast/Time Warner: We Dare You to Compare – ‘Our Regular Retail Prices Are a Secret’

psctest

One of the most difficult questions you can ask a customer service representative of either Comcast or Time Warner Cable is what their regular price is for service. As a Buffalo News reporter discovered in August 2013, Time Warner Cable refused repeated attempts to ascertain the non-promotional price of its broadband service.[1]

merger benefitsMaking a direct comparison between the prices charged by Comcast and those of Time Warner Cable require unnecessary perseverance made even more difficult by the fact Comcast only serves a tiny portion of New York State.

Both companies offer promotional deals to new customers as well as those threatening to cancel service, but those prices fluctuate wildly and eventually expire.

Time Warner Cable has made it even more difficult this year by completely eliminating the most popular plans from its retail price list: bundled service packages known in the industry as “double-play” (two services) or “triple play” (three services).[2]

A Time Warner Cable spokesman told the Los Angeles Times the company is required by regulators to provide pricing information for only some of its fees, and Internet rates are not one of them.[3] This year, Time Warner kept the size of its broadband rate hikes to itself. It is much the same for Comcast.

Both cable companies make a point of telling the news media that these prices, including installation, reflect the “rack rates” and that “most customers will pay less […] after cutting a deal for their programming package.”

ratehike1In 2011, Time Warner Cable raised some of its “rack rates” by up to 51.1 percent.[4]

That makes a rate comparison for television service difficult because the retail rates often do not reflect reality. But beyond rates, regulators need to understand Comcast television packages are very different from what Time Warner Cable customers are used to finding.[5] While Time Warner Cable bundles the vast majority of networks into a Standard TV package, Comcast offers a more extensive variety of packages. While at first glance this may seem to allow customers to better customize a package to meet their needs, Comcast has also taken care to break some of the most popular networks out of lower-cost packages and force customers to choose cable television packages costing much more to get them back.[6]

Sports fans and those who enjoy networks like Turner Classic Movies will have to pay Comcast $87.89 a month for its “Digital Preferred,” package[7], just to get back channels already included in the standard Time Warner Cable TV packages we are familiar with in New York.

At regular prices, a Comcast triple play customer should expect to pay $147.49 for the most bare bones TV, phone, and broadband package, $154.99 for the most popular package without premium channels, and $164.99 a month for a bundle that brings along a similar lineup to what TWC offers, along with Starz.[8] Comcast’s nearest equivalent to Time Warner Cable’s $200 Signature Home service costs $239.99 a month and offers no better Internet speeds than what Preferred Plus customers get.

[1]http://www.buffalonews.com/city-region-whats-the-big-secret-about-pricing-20130805
[2]http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/support/account-and-billing/topics/retail-rates.html
[3]http://articles.latimes.com/2014/mar/17/business/la-fi-lazarus-20140318
[4]http://articles.latimes.com/2011/dec/27/business/la-fi-lazarus-20111227
[5]http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/tv/digital-cable-tv.html
[6]http://www.comcast.com/Corporate/Learn/DigitalCable/digitalcable.html
[7]http://www.comcast.com/Corporate/Learn/DigitalCable/TVChannelLineUp.html
[8]http://www.comcast.com/shop/deals-dealfinder

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