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The N.Y. Times Exposes Corporate-Backed Think Tanks

Sock Puppets: Ostensibly "independent" people quietly on the payroll of Big Telecom companies and advocating their positions.

Sock Puppets: Ostensibly “independent” people quietly on the payroll of Big Telecom companies and advocating their positions.

“Net Neutrality would not improve consumer welfare or protect the public interest,” came the considered view of one Jeffrey A. Eisenach, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2014. “The potential costs of Net Neutrality regulation are both sweeping and severe. It is best understood as an effort by one set of private interests to enrich itself by using the power of the state.”

Mr. Eisenach was introduced on the printed formal agenda as a “visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.” If one looked at a transcript of his written testimony, they would find he also co-served as “co-chair of NERA Economic Consulting’s Communications, Media and Internet Practice.” But his views could have effectively represented all the above and more.

The New York Times this week published a two-part article examining the thin lines between public policy scholars, lobbyists, researchers, advocates, corporations, and private citizens. It is an important piece that details the shady world of bought and paid for research, academia, corporate lawyers and lobbyists, and Washington lawmakers that too often accept what they are told without following the money.

On that September day back in 2014 Eisenach wanted his views to be attributed only to him.

Eisenach

Eisenach

“While I am here in my capacity as a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, the views I express are my own, should not be attributed to A.E.I. or to any of the organizations with which I am affiliated,” Eisenach told the Senate committee.

What was considerably less clear is the name of the client (or an affiliated trade organization) that has underwritten almost every one of a dozen studies he has published on internet-related issues from 2007-2016 — Verizon, the same company that shares his hostile views towards Net Neutrality.

Over the years, it has become difficult to tell whether Eisenach’s views, articles, and study findings are his own, those of his study sponsor, and/or those of his employer. Just tracking Eisenach’s ever-changing employment record was no easy task. In the fall of 2013, Eisenach was the director of the American Enterprise Institute’s new “Center on Media and Internet Policy.” Just a few months later, he joined NERA, one of the country’s oldest economic consultancy firms, as a senior vice president in its telecommunications practice.

From each of these positions, Eisenach can pen the views of some of America’s largest telecommunications companies under the guise of an “independent” study, an invaluable cover tool for a member of Congress confronted with voting on behalf of corporate friends at the cost of consumers in the district.

“A report authored by an academic is going to have more credibility in the eyes of the regulator who is reading it,” Michael J. Copps, a former FCC commissioner who is now a special adviser for the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause, told the newspaper. “They are seeking to build credibility where none exists.”

A former Verizon employee who still does some consulting of his told the Times how the game is played.

aei“Let’s say you’re in legal and you want to have a paper that says what you want it to say,” said ex-Verizon economist Dennis Weller. “You could have a bunch of economists in house and ask them if they agree with you. How much easier would it be to go to an outside economist and say, ‘How about if I pay you $100,000 to write this?’”

With appropriate disclosure that a company like Verizon paid $100,000 for a report that exactly matches Verizon’s public policy agenda might raise questions on Capitol Hill as to its veracity and independence. If that disclosure goes missing or is hidden under a third-party like a trade association, a lawmaker might assume the report was produced independently and the strong corroboration of Verizon’s views is just a coincidence. That kind of credibility can be worth millions to any company confronting a debate over regulatory policy.

“[Eisenach] is good at linking big theoretical ideas to policy, and he’s been good at making money doing that,” added Weller. “He’s been good at moving from think tank to think tank and company to company, and I don’t think he’s ever lost money doing it.”

The New York Times investigation found while Eisenach testified before Congress ostensibly as a private citizen, he was also filing formal comments to the FCC as a “scholar” with the American Enterprise Institute, was meeting privately with FCC commissioners, organized public briefings that featured powerful senators like John Thune (R-S.D.), who happens to be the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. That committee also has direct oversight over the FCC and has spent the last three years scrutinizing FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler. Eisenach even briefed the two Republican FCC commissioners about what AEI’s general counsel had to say about Wheeler’s efforts to get Net Neutrality in place at the FCC. Eisenach offered both commissioners speaking time at AEI events, urging at least one of them to attack Net Neutrality.

“Net Neutrality is obviously top of mind,” he said in an email to that commissioner, Michael O’Rielly. “I’d be delighted if you would use the opportunity to lay out the case against.”

net_neutralityThe Times reported Eisenach was hardly alone opposing Net Neutrality. Just weeks after becoming chairman, Wheeler received a letter signed by more than a dozen prominent economists and scholars affiliated with various Washington think tanks or academic institutions. They wanted Wheeler to reject Net Neutrality regulations. The letter attempted to distance the signers from any corporate agenda, noting in a footnote that nobody was compensated for their signature on the letter.

On the other hand, of the dozen studies that were included or referenced in their letter as “evidence,” more than half were entirely funded by giant telecom companies that oppose Net Neutrality. Mr. Wheeler would need a magnifying glass and plenty of free time to ferret out the industry funding disclosures in those attached studies, which were buried in footnotes.

When the industry took the FCC to court over broadband regulation or Net Neutrality, it was more of the same. Verizon was successful opposing an earlier FCC rule on Net Neutrality by trotting out almost two dozen studies and declarations that opposed regulatory oversight — more than half sponsored entirely by the telecommunications companies or trade associations that despise Net Neutrality. Many other studies were written by think tanks and scholars that also had direct financial ties to the companies.

Litan

Litan

Another key factor in the debate about Net Neutrality was the cost of implementing it. Again, the incestuous ties between the telecom industry, think tanks, and academia would serve up the “right answers” for Big Telecom’s case against Neutrality when two economists issued a controversial “policy brief” that claimed Net Neutrality would cost $15 billion in new fees and retard broadband expansion and upgrades. (The $15 billion figure came under immediate ridicule by consumer groups that effectively suggested the study authors ‘made it up,’ a case that may have been proven to some degree when the authors suddenly revised it down to $11 billion.)

Robert Litan, then a senior fellow at Brookings and Hal Singer, who used to work at the Progressive Policy Institute, would quickly come under greater scrutiny than Eisenach, probably because their report became central to the industry’s battle against Net Neutrality. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) even built an advertising campaign against Net Neutrality around their study. Politicians opposed to Net Neutrality also regularly quoted from Litan and Singer’s findings to explain their strong opposition to the net policy.

Lost in the debate is who paid Mr. Litan and Mr. Singer for their work. Their employer, Economists Inc., yet another inside-the-Beltway consulting firm, didn’t exactly publicize their “select clients” included AT&T and Verizon — two of the largest opponents of Net Neutrality.

Using think tanks to bolster corporate lobbying has become so common, it has attracted the attention of some members of Congress.

Litan collided with one of the Senate’s fiercest consumer advocates and watchdogs — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in a September 2015 hearing about a rules change fiercely opposed by investment bankers that would require financial advisers recommending retirement-associated investments to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own personal gain. Warren has championed the cause of ending high bank and investment-related fees that eat away investor returns. Some of the worst offenders convinced financial advisers to recommend their funds by kicking back large bonus commissions, which enriched the adviser and the investment bank but left seniors hit hard by lost potential earnings.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Litan’s research questioned the potential benefits of upping ethical standards. He wrote the costs to the banking and investment community to implement the rules would far outweigh any benefits to investors. Litan casually mentioned his affiliation with Brookings, a think tank, to promote his research’s credibility. He didn’t call attention to the fact his 28-page study was produced for a client: Capital Group — a massive financial services company with $1.39 trillion in assets. It would be directly impacted by the imposition of the new rules, which it strongly opposed.

Capital Group paid Economists, Inc. $85,000 for the study. Litan’s cut of the action was $38,800 — or $1,386 per page.

Warren complained Litan was not exactly forthcoming in disclosing his personal gain and his ties to a major opponent of the new rules under consideration.

“These disclosures are problematic: they raise significant questions about the impartiality of the study and its conclusions, and about why a Brookings-affiliated expert is allowed to use that affiliation to lend credibility to work that is…editorially compromised,” Sen. Warren wrote in a letter to Brookings President Strobe Talbott.

The embarrassment to Brookings, which has increasingly relied on corporate-funded research to fund its work, led to rumors Litan was asked to leave, and he resigned shortly thereafter. Litan downplayed the event, calling it a “minor technical violation” of Brookings’ ethics policy, which prohibits those associated with the think tank from using their affiliation with Brookings in any research report or testimony.

The incident fueled consumer groups’ arguments that cozy arrangements between purportedly independent scholars and academics and corporate entities too often results in bought-and-paid-for- research not worth the paper it is printed on. A clear conflict of interest and the lack of prominent funding disclosures makes such reports suspect at best and worthless in many other cases, because no company paying for a report is going to make it public if it conflicts with their agenda.

Singer

Singer

Remarkably, other economists, many also engaged in producing reports for corporate clients, rushed to the defense of… Mr. Litan, calling his removal from Brookings the result of a witch hunt.

A letter signed by former Clinton economic advisers W. Bowman Cutter and Everett Ehrlich; Harvard University international trade and investment professor Robert Z. Lawrence; former Clinton chief budget economist Joseph Minarik; and former Clinton economic adviser Hal Singer, who co-authored the report that got Litan in hot water with Sen. Warren, claimed as a result of Litan’s forced resignation, critics of their reports could threaten the credibility of their work with an “ad hominem attack on any author who may be associated with an industry or interest whose views are contrary to [Sen. Warren].”

“Businesses sometimes finance policy research much as advocacy groups or other interests do,” the economists wrote. “A reader can question the source of the financing on all sides, but ultimately the quality of the work and the integrity of the author are paramount.”

Singer has since left the Progressive Policy Institute.

D.C.’s revolving door has also provided lucrative work for those out of government jobs and now working in the private sector, often lobbying those still in government.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) had no problem introducing a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece into the Congressional Record written by Robert McDowell, who wears several hats at the Hudson Institute. He’s a “scholar,” a “telecommunications industry lawyer” at a firm retained by AT&T to fight Net Neutrality, and a lobbyist. If his name is familiar to you, that might be because McDowell used to be a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission from June 1, 2006 to May 17, 2013. Now he is paid to kill Net Neutrality for AT&T.

None of that seem to faze Walden or raise questions about the credibility of the opinion piece he sought to have added to the official record.

“Everyone’s got their point of view,” Walden said last year. “And some of them get paid to have that point of view.”

Attacks on Tennessee’s EPB Municipal Broadband Fall Flat in Light of Facts

latinos for tnThe worst enemy of some advocacy groups writing guest editorial hit pieces against municipal broadband is: facts.

Raul Lopez is the founder and executive director for Latinos for Tennessee, a 501C advocacy group that reported $0 in assets, $0 in income, and is not required to file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service as of 2014. Lopez claims the group is dedicated to providing “Latinos in Tennessee with information and resources grounded on faith, family and freedom.”

But his views on telecom issues are grounded in AT&T and Comcast’s tiresome and false talking points about publicly owned broadband. His “opinion piece” in the Knoxville News Sentinel was almost entirely fact-free:

It is not the role of the government to use taxpayer resources to compete with private industry. Government is highly inefficient — usually creating an inferior product at a higher price — and is always slower to respond to market changes. Do we really want government providing our Internet service? Government-run health care hasn’t worked so well, so why would we promote government-run Internet?

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn't for the good of anyone.

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn’t for the good of anyone.

Lopez’s claim that only private providers are good at identifying what customers want falls to pieces when we’re talking about AT&T and Comcast. Public utility EPB was the first to deliver gigabit fiber to the home service in Chattanooga, first to deliver honest everyday pricing, still offers unlimited service without data caps and usage billing that customers despise, and has a customer approval and reliability rating Comcast and AT&T can only dream about.

Do the people of Chattanooga want “the government” (EPB is actually a public utility) to provide Internet service? Apparently so. Last fall, EPB achieved the status of being the #1 telecom provider in Chattanooga, with nearly half of all households EPB serves signed up for at least one EPB service — TV, broadband, or phone service. Comcast used to be #1 until real competition arrived. That “paragon of virtue’s” biggest private sector innovation of late? Rolling out its 300GB usage cap (with overlimit fees) in Chattanooga. That’s the same cap that inspired more than 13,000 Americans to file written complaints with the FCC about Comcast’s broadband pricing practices. EPB advertises no such data caps and has delivered the service residents actually want. Lopez calls that “hurting competition in our state and putting vital services at risk.”

Remarkably, other so-called “small government” advocates (usually well-funded by the telecom industry) immediately began beating a drum for Big Government protectionism to stop EPB by pushing for a state law to ban or restrict publicly owned networks.

Lopez appears to be on board:

Our Legislature considered a bill this session that would repeal a state municipal broadband law that prohibits government-owned networks from expanding across their municipal borders. Thankfully, it failed in the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee, but it will undoubtedly be back again in future legislative sessions. The legislation is troubling because it will harm taxpayers and stifle private-sector competition and innovation.

Or more accurately, it will make sure Comcast and AT&T can ram usage caps and higher prices for worse service down the throats of Tennessee customers.

epb broadband prices

EPB’s broadband pricing. Higher discounts possible with bundling.

Lopez also plays fast and loose with the truth suggesting the Obama Administration handed EPB a $111.7 million federal grant to compete with Comcast and AT&T. In reality, that grant was for EPB to build a smart grid for its electricity network. That fiber-based grid is estimated to have avoided 124.7 million customer minutes of interruptions by better detection of power faults and better methods of rerouting power to restore service more quickly than in the past.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Public utilities can run smart grids and not sell television, broadband, and phone service, leaving that fiber network underutilized. EPB decided it could put that network to good use, and a recent study by University of Tennessee economist Bento Lobo found EPB’s fiber services helped generate between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs and added $865.3 million to $1.3 billion to the local economy. That translates into $2,832-$3,762 per Hamilton County resident. That’s quite a return on a $111.7 million investment that was originally intended just to help keep the lights on.

So EPB’s presence in Chattanooga has not harmed taxpayers and has not driven either of its two largest competitors out of the city.

Lopez then wanders into an equally ridiculous premise – that minority communities want mobile Internet access, not the fiber to the home service EPB offers:

Not all consumers access the Internet the same way. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics and African-Americans are more likely to rely on mobile broadband than traditional wire-line service. Indeed, minority communities are even more likely than the population as a whole to use their smartphones to apply for jobs online.

[…] Additionally, just like people are getting rid of basic at-home telephone service, Americans, especially minorities, are getting rid of at-home broadband. In 2013, 70 percent of Americans had broadband at home. Just two years later, only 67 percent did. The decline was true across almost the entire demographic board, regardless of race, income category, education level or location. Indeed, in 2013, 16 percent of Hispanics said they relied only on their smartphones for Internet access, and by 2015 that figure was up to 23 percent.

That drop in at-home broadband isn’t because fewer Americans have access to wireless broadband, it’s because more are moving to a wireless-only model. The bureaucracy of government has trouble adapting to changes like these, which is why government-owned broadband systems are often technologically out of date before they’re finished.

But Lopez ignores a key finding of Pew’s research:

In some form, cost is the chief reason that non-adopters cite when permitted to identify more than one reason they do not have a home high-speed subscription. Overall, 66% of non-adopters point toward either the monthly service fee or the cost of the computer as a barrier to adoption.

What community broadband provides communities the big phone and cable companies don't.

So it isn’t that customers want to exclusively access Internet services over a smartphone, they don’t have much of a choice at the prices providers like Comcast and AT&T charge. Wireless-only broadband is also typically usage capped and so expensive that average families with both wired broadband and a smartphone still do most of their data-intensive usage from home or over Wi-Fi to protect their usage allowance.

EPB runs a true fiber to the home network, Comcast runs a hybrid fiber-coax network, and AT&T mostly relies on a hybrid fiber-copper phone wire network. Comcast and AT&T are technically out of date, not EPB.

Not one of Lopez’s arguments has withstood the scrutiny of checking his claims against the facts, and here is another fact-finding failure on his part:

Top EPB officials argue that residents in Bradley County are clambering for EPB-offered Internet service, but the truth is Bradley County is already served by multiple private Internet service providers. Indeed, statewide only 215,000 Tennesseans, or approximately 4 percent, don’t have broadband access. We must find ways to address the needs of those residents, but that’s not what this bill would do. This bill would promote government providers over private providers, harming taxpayers and consumers along the way.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

The Chattanoogan reported it far differently, talking with residents and local elected officials on the ground in the broadband-challenged county:

The legislation would remove territorial restrictions and provide the clearest path possible for EPB to serve customers and for customers to receive high-speed internet.

State Rep. Dan Howell, the former executive assistant to the county mayor of Bradley County, was in attendance and called broadband a “necessity” as he offered his full support to helping EPB, as did Tennessee State Senator Todd Gardenhire.

“We can finally get something done,” Senator Gardenhire said. “The major carriers, Charter, Comcast and AT&T, have an exclusive right to the area and they haven’t done anything about it.”

So while EPB’s proposed expansion threatened Comcast and AT&T sufficiently to bring out their lobbyists demanding a ban on such expansions in the state legislature, neither company has specific plans to offer service to unserved locations in the area. Only EPB has shown interest in expansion, and without taxpayer funds.

The facts just don’t tell the same story Lopez, AT&T, and Comcast tell and would like you to believe. EPB has demonstrated it is the best provider in Chattanooga, provides service customers want at a fair price, and represents the interests of the community, not Wall Street and investors Comcast and AT&T listen to almost exclusively. Lopez would do a better job for his group’s membership by telling the truth and not redistributing stale, disproven Big Telecom talking points.

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.

Canada Talks TV: Preparing for A-La-Carte Cable TV; Providers Threaten Rate Hikes

alacarte

Does Canada’s Food TV need special protection when it made 53% gross profits on the backs of cable subscribers that pay for the network whether they watch it or not?

“If you cut your cable, then your Internet is going to go up,” predicts Gary Pelletier, president of the Canadian chapter of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing.

That is just one of several predictions many Canadian cable and phone companies are claiming will come from the “disastrous decision” to allow consumers the freedom to pick and pay for only the cable channels they want to watch. Amidst claims that over 10,000 jobs will be lost, chaos and bankruptcy will stalk minority and niche cable networks, consumers will pay much higher bills, and American programming will boycott Canada fearing a-la-carte could make its way into the United States, Canada is at least having an adult discussion about the future of television and where it fits in the country’s identity.

Big changes are coming as a result of the latest great soul-searching made by our good neighbors to the north, always concerned about the potential of the Canadian Experience being overrun, if not decimated by the United States’ entertainment hegemony. In a moment of clarity, regulators have just realized what the rest of English-speaking Canada already knew: protectionist content regulations don’t work on the Internet. Canadians routinely bypass geographical restrictions and Canadian content laws with virtual private networks that relocate them, online at least, to a home address in the U.S. so they can binge-watch the unrestricted American versions of Netflix, Hulu and other online video services.

Regulators have now adopted the attitude – “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” encouraging Canadian entertainment producers to create fewer, but better shows that will not only attract Canadian audiences, but those abroad.

Only the exchange is supposed to be mutual. High quality Canadian television productions like Orphan Black, Schitt’s Creek, X Company, The Book of Negroes, This Life, 19-2, Vikings, Killjoys, Rookie Blue, and Murdoch Mysteries are all among Canadian critics’ top favorites. But relatively few Americans know these shows exist or assume they are co-productions owned by some American entertainment conglomerate. Only a brief glimpse of a Canadian flag during the warp speed end credits might clue viewers this isn’t the case.

Despite protectionist media policies that have endured since 1970, the Canadians are now boldly going where Americans have so far feared to tread. They are having the conversation about the future of television and online entertainment in all forms while American media barons remain in denial.

For average consumers, the biggest change will begin next spring when the era of Canadian a-la-carte cable television arrives, allowing consumers to take an ax to the expensive 120-300 channel television package once and for all. Starting March 1, all Canadian providers will be required to offer consumers a basic cable package priced at no more than $25 a month, containing Canadian and U.S. over the air stations and networks, educational, and public channels. If you want more, you can have it by buying channels or mini-packages of networks individually to create a personalized cable TV lineup of networks you actually care to watch.

Programmers across Canada, particularly those catering to sports fans, foreign audiences, religious viewers, and minorities are horrified by the idea. So are media critics that fear the change could help bring an end to Canada’s unique multilingual and multicultural identity.

special reportCustomers like James Rehor of Hamilton explains why.

“Why would I pay for it? Why do I get it? Why does it come on my TV?” asks the 60-year-old construction worker. He’s ready on day one to purge the large number of French and other non-English channels from his Cogeco Cable lineup. Rehor offers comfort to sports programmers, however. He’s a big fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, so Leafs TV, Sportnet, and TSN will stay.

Non-sports fans are another matter. They can’t wait to ditch the sports networks that are always the most expensive channels in a Canadian cable package.

“Clearly the most expensive (channels) will always be sports,” Pelletier tells the Canadian Press. “At the end of the day, for sports watchers, their cable bill will probably stay the same or increase, maybe … In the case of someone who doesn’t watch any sports at all, their bill will probably decrease.”

An Age of Abundance: Canadian telecom regulators are transforming media regulations in Canada, recognizing the way Canadians watch television has changed. Quality, not quantity, is now most important. CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais discusses the new reality. (6:08)

Pelletier and his industry friends are on a mission to convince Canadians to leave well enough alone and not drop the current all-for-one price cable television package for a-la-carte — not realizing the potential consequences.

catnipSome in the cable industry have tried other scare tactics to no avail.

One industry-backed study predicted pick-and-pay could cost the economy 10,000 jobs. Consumers could care less. Unifor, a union that represents many in the television sector, seemed to agree Canada’s cultural heritage will be at risk with lowest common denominator programming dominating from St. John’s to Vancouver, much of it shoveled from the United States. But Canadians still want their House of Cards and Homeland.

Howard Law, a media spokesman for Unifor, predicts less profitable Canadian channels will fold under a pick-and-pay pricing model.

“The introduction of pick and pay will, in itself, lead to a major loss of revenues to Canadian broadcasting system, which ultimately plays out in less Canadian content and less Canadian jobs and less Canadian broadcasting,” he said in an interview on CBC’s The Exchange with Amanda Lang.

Minority interest and religious channels are also worried about their future. Most of those networks are classified as “specialty channels” by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Legacy networks that have been around since at least the 1990s have been sitting pretty, protected by their designation as a “Category A” specialty station. Unlike in the United States, Canadian cable networks are licensed to operate by the CRTC, and at least 60 of those Category A networks also enjoy “genre protection,” a CRTC policy that guarantees their channel carriage on Canadian cable, satellite, and telco TV systems and protection from other cable networks that want to run the same kind of programming.

For decades, protectionist Canadian content regulations made certain Canadian television reflected its audience. But online video and the Internet has allowed Canadians to bypass traditional cable television to watch they want, not what the government hopes they will. New CRTC rules reflect that reality as Canadian TV rethinks how to get the viewer’s attention. From CBC-TV’s The National (4:16)

CRTC policies have allowed Canadian specialty channels to flourish despite operating in a smaller marketplace with fewer viewers than their American counterparts. That means networks like FoodTV and HGTV in Canada have profit margins ranging from 53-58 percent. Fashion Television and BookTV made an improbable $2.7 million in pre-tax profit, not so much from viewers but from the licensing fees every Canadian cable customer pays for the four networks whether they watch them or not.

From its inception, Canadian TV has always faced a looming shadow from the south. Protecting Canada's identity has been a priority for decades.

From its start, Canadian TV has always faced a looming shadow from the south. Protecting Canada’s identity has been a priority for decades.

“If you’re a specialty channel that’s lived within the protective cocoon of bundling for years, you’ve gotten used to having a full-time job with benefits,” independent technology analyst Carmi Levy told CBC News. “Contrast that with living outside the protective cocoon, you’re essentially a freelancer, you fight for every contract, you have no benefits, there are no guarantees that money will be coming tomorrow or next week.”

It probably won’t be coming from subscribers like Mr. Rehor, who won’t hesitate to drop channels if they go unwatched.

The CRTC is also doing some dropping of its own, starting with genre protection, which could lead many specialty networks to follow American cable networks that today depend on chasing ratings to justify their licensing fees. The unintended result in the United States has been questionable lineup changes like the appearance of Law & Order rerun marathons on WEtv, a network supposedly dedicated to women’s entertainment. Ovation, a fine arts independent cable network that is about a niche as a network can be, depended on weekend binges of PBS’ Antiques Roadshow reruns in 2012 just to attract enough viewers to show up in the ratings.

Lesser known networks like OutTV, Canada’s only network dedicated to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender viewers, may face an uncertain future if it can’t charge a premium price to make up for expected subscriber losses from pick and pay. Other niche channels may have to merge with other networks or more likely relaunch with an online platform and deliver a reduced menu of content to audiences.

crtcLarge Canadian mainstream networks and programmers don’t expect too much change from pick and pay, as most Canadians will likely still demand a package with their programming included. But distributors – cable, satellite, and telco TV platforms, do expect some major changes. The average Canadian now pays around $50 a month for basic cable, a price that will be cut in half next spring.

Rogers Cable already knows what is coming. It ran a trial in 2011 in London, Ont., with 1,000 customers who were given the choice of picking and paying for the channels they wanted. It didn’t take long for the cable company to discover customers loved it and TV stations and cable programmers hated it.

“We found that customers like bundles, but want to build their own. They want a basic package and an extra package they create,” Rogers spokesman Kevin Spafford told the Toronto Sun. “We did get push back from TV stations. There was concern about offering this service. They did not want us to proceed with that model.”

After the trial ended, Rogers allowed the pilot project participants to keep their pick and pay packages, something they’ve held tightly for over four years.

Rogers’ pilot offered something like what the CRTC is demanding be available to all Canadians:

rogers logoROGERS PICK AND PLAY PILOT

  • $20 a month for “skinny basic” TV package of Canadian stations. (The CRTC plan mandates no more than $25.)
  • 15-channel package for $27 a month. Other packages of 20 and 25 stations also offered, for more money. (The CRTC wants networks to offer channels individually or in mini-bundles.)
  • U.S. major networks offered for $3 a month. (Under the CRTC policy, these stations may appear under the basic or a-la-carte tiers.)

REGULAR ROGERS

  • Basic: $40 a month, 190 channels
  • Digital Plus: $63, 220 channels
  • Sports packages: $77, 230 channels
  • VIP TV: $77, 270 channels
  • VIP Ultimate: $119, 320 channels

The upcoming changes are probably the biggest in Canadian cable television history, but they still may not be enough to attract cord-nevers — those who have never subscribed to cable TV. Most are under 30 and already watch all their favorite shows online. Some budget-minded Canadians who want to cut their cable bill may consider joining them by cutting the cord altogether or slimming down their cable packages, but Pelletier warns that cable operators will not leave their money on the table.

cablecordSupplementing a slimmer cable package with a streaming service or two could increase data charges, Pelletier warns. Plus, you may have to surrender any discounts you get from bundling cable with home phone, Internet and/or wireless service.

Usage capped Internet is also still an effective deterrent for cord-cutting and whether your television entertainment comes over the cable or online, providers will still make a run for your wallet. Some observers predict providers will dramatically increase the retail prices of a-la-carte networks to limit potential savings while also continuing to raise broadband prices.

A 2014 national PIAC poll found 90 per cent of 1,000 consumers polled were willing to pay an additional $1 a month per channel, while 54 per cent would be willing to go $3 a month, and 21 per cent would be willing to pay $5 a month for an extra channel of their choosing. Many don’t realize under the current system the wholesale rate for many channels is under 50 cents a month. Considering what Canadians are willing to pay, it is likely cable companies will price channels according to what the marketplace will tolerate, which could be around $3 for each channel a month.

Suspicion about any cable company offering a New Deal is something Americans and Canadians have in common. Mr. Rehor is already keeping a wary eye.

“I think it’s a good idea, I just don’t know how they’re going to really work it,” he says, fearing it could ultimately end up costing the same amount he pays now.

CBC News offers this extended discussion about the implications of “pick and pay” cable television. (10:11)

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.

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