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

Phillip "I got whiplash just watching" Dampier

Phillip “I got whiplash just watching” Dampier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balto

Balto

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

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

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

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

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

Cable "competition" in Minneapolis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Albania Says Goodbye to Usage Caps: 1-100Mbps Broadband in the Land of Sheep

ABCom is Albania's largest ISP.

ABCom is Albania’s largest ISP.

Albanians no longer have to watch usage meters while browsing the Internet and downloading movies and music. The country’s largest ISP – ABCom – has eliminated data caps on all but its cheapest broadband plans (4Mbps service with a 2GB cap: $4.81 for 15 days or 4Mbps service with a 5GB cap: $9.69 for 30 days). Now residents of Tirana, Durrës, Shkodër, Elbasan, Vlorë, and Gjirokastër can browse the Internet at self-selected speeds between 1-100Mbps with no usage-based billing or fixed caps.

It is remarkable progress for Europe’s poorest country. For much of the 20th century, Albania was infamous for its oppressive Communist dictatorship under the leadership of Enver Hoxha, a man who felt Stalin was the Soviet Union’s last true Communist leader and who courted and later cut ties with both the U.S.S.R. and the People’s Republic of China over what he called their “revisionist Marxist-Leninist” policies that betrayed true socialism. Hoxha’s idea of a worker’s paradise was to force huge numbers of both blue and white color workers into the fields every summer to help harvest the country’s strawberry crop.

During Hoxha’s 40 years in power, telecommunications for most Albanians consisted of a portable radio (and occasionally an imported television). Only 1.4 out of 100 had basic telephone service. If more wanted it, they could not get it. A long waiting list guaranteed an installation date years in the future. Albania began its transformation into a democracy with just 42,000 telephone lines, despite a population of nearly three million.

After the Communist government fell in 1991, life changed little in rural Albania. Peasants found initiatives to improve rural telephone service so irrelevant they knocked out service to about 1,000 villages after commandeering telephone wire to build fences to keep their sheep herds from straying. Even in the capital city Tirana, telecommunications infrastructure was decrepit at best. Even the wealthiest Albanians had to contend with rotary dial telephones produced in a forgotten factory in Bulgaria or Romania. Many preferred refurbished telephones rebuilt with scrap parts obtained from Italy.

Today, like many other countries lacking wired infrastructure, Albanians depend mostly on their cell phones to communicate. In 2012, there were 312,000 landlines in use, but 3.5 million cell phones were active. More than a half million wireless users rely entirely on their phones for Internet access.

no limit internet

“Are you ready for unlimited Internet with guaranteed 100Mbps speed?”

In 1998, ABCom launched its Internet Service Provider business, initially selling DSL and wireless broadband. With Albania’s economy always in difficulty, the country chose the cheaper path followed by North America — adopting Hybrid Fiber-Coax (HFC) network technology instead of fiber to the home, common elsewhere in southern Europe. HFC Internet access is better known by most of us as broadband from our local cable company. Expansion of wired broadband has been very slow in Albania. The concept of delivering television, broadband, and phone service over ABCom’s cable system in a triple play package only began in 2009.

The biggest attractions to wired broadband include no data caps and more reliable fixed broadband speeds the country’s wireless providers cannot deliver. Because of wide income disparity, ABCom offers a large range of speed plans for different budgets: 1, 2, 4, 8, 12, 30, and 100Mbps.

In response, competition from wireless providers has stepped up recently. Vodafone Albania is offering five mobile Internet options for users of its 3G network. Customers can opt to pay for daily, weekly or monthly bundles. The 40MB daily bundle costs $0.58; the 250MB weekly bundle costs $2.91; the 500MB monthly bundle costs $4.85, and the 1GB monthly bundle costs $7.76. The speeds are much slower than the plans offered by ABCom, however.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ABCom Mesazh Promocional nga ABCom March 2013.mp4

ABCom produced this television ad introducing its new triple play TV, broadband, and telephone package for Albanian customers. (Albanian) (0:31)

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CenturyLink Unfazed by AT&T/Verizon’s Rural Wireless Broadband; ‘Caps Too Low, Prices Too High’

centurylinkCenturyLink does not believe it will face much of a competitive threat from AT&T and Verizon’s plans to decommission rural landline service in favor of fixed wireless broadband because the two companies’ offers are too expensive, overly usage-capped and too slow.

Both AT&T and Verizon have proposed mothballing traditional landline service in rural areas because both companies claim wireline financial returns are too low and ongoing maintenance costs are too high. In its place, both companies are developing rural fixed wireless solutions for voice and broadband service that will rely on 4G LTE networks.

CenturyLink does not traditionally compete against either AT&T or Verizon because their landline service areas do not overlap. But as both AT&T and Verizon Wireless continue to emphasize their nationwide wireless networks, independent phone companies are likely to face increased competition from wireless phone and broadband services.

CenturyLink isn’t worried.

“About two-thirds of our customers can get access to 10Mbps or higher [from us and] that continues to increase year by year,” CenturyLink chief financial officer Stewart Ewing told attendees at Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s 2014 Global Telecom & Media Conference. “Our belief is that with the increasing demands customers have for bandwidth — the Netflix bandwidth requirement — just the increasing amount of video that customers are watching and downloading over their Internet pipes, we believe will drive customers to using a provider that basically has a wire in their home because we believe you will get generally higher bandwidth and a much better experience at lower cost.”

Ewing

Ewing

CenturyLink customers consume an average of slightly less than 50GB of Internet usage per month, and that number is growing. Ewing said that CenturyLink has long believed that as bandwidth demand increases, wireless becomes less and less capable of providing a good customer experience.

“At this point, we don’t really have any concerns because people on the margin — the folks that don’t use much bandwidth — probably use a wireless connection today to download,” Ewing said. “But as the bandwidth demands grow, the wireless connection becomes more and more expensive and that could tend to drive people our way. So as long as we have 10Mbps or better to the customers, we don’t really think there is that much exposure.”

CenturyLink does not measure the difference in Internet usage between urban and rural residential customers, but the company suspects rural customers might naturally use more because alternative outlets are fewer in number outside of urban America.

“Folks in rural areas might actually can use Internet more for buying things that they can’t source [easily], but it’s hard to really count,” said Ewing. “I think our customers in the rural areas probably are not that much different from folks in urban areas.”

Prism is CenturyLink's fiber to the neighborhood service, similar to AT&T U-verse. It is getting only a modest expansion in 2014.

Prism is CenturyLink’s fiber to the neighborhood service, similar to AT&T U-verse. It is getting only a modest expansion in 2014.

CenturyLink’s largest competitor remains Comcast, which co-exists in about 40% of CenturyLink’s markets. The merger with Time Warner Cable won’t have much impact on CenturyLink, increasing Comcast’s footprint in CenturyLink territory by only about only 6-7%. CenturyLink believes most of any new competition will come in the small business market segment. Comcast’s residential pricing is unlikely to attract current CenturyLink customers in Time Warner Cable territory to consider a switch to Comcast if the merger is approved.

Ewing also shared his thinking about several other CenturyLink initiatives that customers might see sometime this year:

  • Don’t expect CenturyLink to expand Wi-Fi hotspot networks. The company found they are difficult to monetize and is unlikely to expand them further;
  • Any change in the FCC’s definition of minimum broadband speed to qualify for federal broadband expansion funds would slow rural broadband expansion. Ewing admitted a 10Mbps speed minimum is considerably more difficult to achieve over DSL than a 4 or 6Mbps minimum;
  • Don’t expect any more merger/acquisition activity from CenturyLink in the Competitive Local Exchange Carrier business. CenturyLink shows no sign of pursuing Frontier, Windstream, FairPoint, or other independent phone companies. It is focused on expanding business services, where 60% of CenturyLink’s revenue now comes;
  • CenturyLink fiber expansion will primarily be focused on reaching business offices and commercial customers in 2014;
  • CenturyLink will only modestly expand PrismTV, its fiber-to-the-neighborhood service, to an additional 300,000 homes this year. The company now offers the service to two million of its customers, with 200,000 signed up nationwide. Last year, CenturyLink expanded PrismTV availability to 800,000 homes.
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The Invisible Rate Hike: Verizon Introduces New $0.99 “Because We Can” FiOS Voice Surcharge

Unsimplify

Unsimplify

When is a rate increase not a rate increase? When it is an “administrative surcharge” of course!

Verizon FiOS phone customers will soon find the company’s latest innovation in the form of a new line on their June bill, along with a $0.99 surcharge.

Notice of Price Increase
Effective May 17, 2014, Verizon will apply an FDV Administrative Charge of $0.99 per FiOS Digital Voice line. This monthly surcharge helps defray account servicing costs associated with providing voice services. This is a Verizon surcharge, not a tax or governmental fee. Visit verizon.com for more information.

Instead of simply raising the advertised price of the service, Verizon added a new opaque charge which they admit is nothing more than an effort to increase revenue. Prospective customers will still see Verizon’s attractive promotional pricing, but only later discover the final bill is higher once taxes, fees, and other surcharges are tacked on.

In fact, Verizon’s new FiOS Digital Voice fee is subject to taxes as well, so for some the true cost of the rate increase is $1.21.

Some angry Verizon customers are switching to Ooma, a service that asks customers to pay upfront for the hardware but offers basic telephone service for free (customers pay well under $10 a month to cover taxes that Ooma does not pocket itself.) A more deluxe option including more phone features runs around $10 a month.

One annoyed customer considers the fee an end run around consumer contract law:

My concern [is] with a regulated utility’s ability to get around a contract price by labeling an increase as an “administrative charge.”

I called their customer service line to discuss/complain.  When I asked what would prevent Verizon from using this as a vehicle to increase prices by $10 or $15, assuming Time Warner/AT&T/DirectTV raised their prices as well, he admitted that he was not aware of any restrictions.  Neither am I.

I can’t find anything in my contract with Verizon that lets them increase my price by instituting back-end increases.  I’m pursuing with government regulators and encourage you all to do so as well.  If this gets through, there will be more.

In fact, one of the reasons why Verizon loves their digital voice product so much is because it is unregulated and not subject to government oversight. They can set rates at will and their current contract allows for the addition of administrative fees without violating any “price lock” agreements. So far, most companies implementing these fees have kept them low enough to avoid provoking government scrutiny, but the number of them and their respective amounts have increased over time.

Customer recourse? Complain and ask for a credit for the administrative fee or cancel service.

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AT&T’s Answer for Rural America: $80/Month for Wireless Landline Replacement, 10GB Internet

AT&T’s solution for rural Americans without access to broadband service arrived this week with the introduction of an $80/month plan bundling a mandatory wireless home landline with a 10GB usage-capped Internet plan.

AT&T Wireless Home Phone and Internet has undergone market testing in selected northeastern areas (largely outside of AT&T’s landline service territory). This week the service became available nationwide and is marketed to customers disconnected (or soon will be if regulators approve) from AT&T’s traditional landline service. AT&T is petitioning to dismantle its rural and outer suburban wired landline network and transfer customers to wireless service. But AT&T’s wireless replacement is both expensive and usage capped with an allowance that is just a fraction of what AT&T DSL offers:

att wireless plan

  • Customers start with a $20/month wireless landline phone replacement, powered by AT&T’s wireless network. Customers will keep their current phone number and home phones and will be sent a “Home Base” device that will interface between AT&T’s wireless network and up to two telephones. AT&T does not permit its device to be connected to your existing home phone wiring, so it strongly urges customers to buy cordless phones. The device is portable so it can be taken with you when traveling. The standalone service offers unlimited nationwide calling, Voicemail, caller ID and call waiting;
  • Those interested in also purchasing broadband can add one of three different data plans: $60 for 10GB, $90 for 20GB and $120 for 30GB. AT&T charges a $10 overlimit fee for each extra gigabyte. You cannot buy broadband service unless you also subscribe to AT&T’s wireless landline product. That means the lowest possible price for rural broadband is $80 a month for up to 10GB of usage. Access may be over AT&T’s 4G LTE network (5-12Mbps maximum speeds) or their much-slower, but more common 3G network. In contrast, AT&T sells DSL for as little as $15 a month with a 150GB usage allowance included.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ATT Wireless Home Phone Internet Intro 5-2014.flv

AT&T introduces its new solution for rural America — wireless home phone and Internet service, at a price much higher than what urban customers pay. (1:42)

AT&T's Home Base

AT&T’s Home Base

AT&T’s Wireless Home Phone and Internet includes plenty of fine print and disclaimers:

  • A two-year service commitment is required to avoid a $199 charge for the Home Base device;
  • 911 service is not guaranteed and you will be required to give your physical location to the 911 operator so they can send help to the proper address;
  • A backup battery powers the Home Base allowing up to 1.5 hours of talk time and 18 hours of standby time. However, a standard corded phone that does not need electric power to operate is required to place or receive calls (including 911) during a power outage;
  • Not compatible with wireless messaging services/text messaging, home security systems, fax machines, medical alert & monitoring systems, credit card machines, IP/PBX Phone systems, or dial-up Internet service. May not be compatible with DVR/Satellite systems;
  • Call quality, wireless coverage, and service reliability are not guaranteed;
  • Well-qualified credit approval required;
  • An activation fee (undisclosed) also applies.

There are many surcharges that also may apply, including a $35 restocking fee, federal, state, and local taxes and the universal service fee. Customers must also pay AT&T-originated fees kept by AT&T, including a $1.25 “cost recovery charge,” a gross receipts surcharge, administrative fees and any government-originated assessments that AT&T passes on to customers in various states.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ATT Wireless Home Phone Internet Setup 5-2014.flv

AT&T explains how to set up and configure its Home Base to receive phone and broadband service wirelessly. (3:16)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilderotter

Wilderotter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wall Street: Telecom Mergers Are Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Consumers: More Pocket-Picking

price-gouging-cake“Comcast Corp.’s bid to buy Time Warner Cable Inc. may be the opening act for a yearlong festival of telecommunications deals that would alter Internet, phone and TV service for tens of millions of Americans.” — Bloomberg News, May 14, 2014

Wall Street analysts remain certain Comcast and Time Warner Cable won’t be the only merger on the table this year as the $45 billion dollar deal is expected to spark a new wave of consolidation, further reducing competitive choice in telecom services for most Americans.

While the industry continues to insist that the current foundation of deregulation is key to investment and competition, the reality on the ground is less certain.

Let’s review history:

For several decades, the cable industry has avoided head-on competition with other cable operators. They argue the costs of “overbuilding” cable systems into territories already serviced by another company is financially impractical and reckless. But that did not stop telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon from overhauling portions of their networks to compete, and in at least some communities another provider has emerged to offer some competition. Some wonder if AT&T was willing to spend billions to upgrade their urban landline network to provide U-verse, why won’t cable companies spend some money and compete directly with one another?

The answer is simple: They can earn a lot more by limiting competition.

When only a few firms account for most of the sales of a product, those firms can sometimes exercise market power by either explicitly or implicitly coordinating their actions. Coordinated interaction is especially suspect where all firms seem to charge very similar prices and few, if any, are willing to challenge the status quo.

Since the 1980s, the telecommunications industry has been deregulated off and on to a degree not seen since the pioneer days of telephone service. That was the era when waves of mergers created near-monopolies in the oil, railroad, energy, tobacco, steel and sugar industries. By the late 1890s, evidence piled up that proved reducing the number of providers in a market leads to higher prices and poor service. The abuses eventually led to the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and later the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914.

Here is what happened when the cable industry was reined in during the early 1990s, only to be deregulated again.

Here is what happened when the cable industry was reined in during the early 1990s, only to be deregulated again.

The generation of political leaders that dominated Washington during the 1980s developed selective amnesia about economic history and dismantled many of the regulatory protections established to protect consumers, arguing competition would keep markets in check. In the broadband and cable business, that has not proved as successful as the industry represents.

At the heart of the problem is the 1996 Telecommunications Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The sweeping law is littered with lobbyist landmines for consumers and their interests. Under the guise of increasing competition, the 1996 law actually helped reduce competition by removing regulatory oversight and, perhaps unintentionally, sparking an enormous rampage of industry consolidation followed by price increases. The Bush Administration kept the war on consumers going with the appointment of Michael Powell (now the CEO of the cable industry’s lobbying group) to chair the Federal Communications Commission. Under Powell, non-discriminatory access to networks by competitors was curtailed, and Powell’s FCC gave carte blanche to the cable industry’s plan to cluster its territories into large regional monopolies and a tight national oligopoly. The FCC’s own researchers quietly admitted in the early 2000s “clustering raised prices.”

Cable prices

By January 2001, cable operators had settled on rate increases that averaged three times the rate of inflation. While the national inflation rate hovered around 1%, cable companies routinely raised basic cable rates an average of 7% annually. Powell declared rising cable rates were not a consumer problem and adopted the industry’s classic talking point that rate increases reflect the “value of the programming” found on cable. In fact, even as cable customers grew increasingly angry about rate increases, Powell told three different reporters he wanted to further relax the FCC’s involvement in cable pricing. (McClintock, Pamela, “Powell: No Cable Coin Crisis” Variety, April 30, 2001; Hearn, Ted. “Powell: Value Matters in Cable Rates,” Multichannel News, March 13, 2002; Powell Press Conference, February 8, 2001; Dreazen, Yochi. “FCC Chairman Signals Change, Plans to Limit Intervention,” Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2001.)

cost_broadband_around_the_world_v2Economists reviewing data found in publicly available corporate balance sheets soon found evidence that the “increased programming costs”-excuse for rate increases did not hold water. The less competition or number of choices available to consumers in the market unambiguously lead to higher prices. It has remained true since Consumers’ Union revealed the financial trickery in 2003:

The cable industry will claim that programming costs are driving prices up. While programming costs have certainly risen, a close look at the numbers shows that rising program costs account for only a small part of the rising rates.

If costs were really the cause of rising prices, then the cable industries’ operating margins – the difference between its revenues and costs — would not be rising. The facts are just the opposite. Operating margins have been increasing dramatically since 1997. The operating margin for the industry as a whole will reach $18.8 billion per year in 2002, $7 billion more than it was in 1997. Operating revenues per subscriber have increased dramatically over that period, from $208 per year to $273. That is, after taking out all the operating costs, including programming costs, cable operators have increased their take per subscriber by over 30 percent.

[...] The ability of cable operators to raise rates and increase revenues, even with rising programming costs, stems from the market power they have at the point of sale. They would not be able to raise prices and pass program price increases through if they did not have monopoly power.

Consumers’ Union also foreshadows what will happen if another wave of industry consolidation takes hold the way it did over a decade earlier:

While the cable industry has certainly increased capital expenditures to upgrade its plants, it has actually sunk a lot more capital into another activity – mergers and acquisitions.

It is the outrageous prices that have been paid to buy each other out and consolidate the industry that is helping to drive the rate increases. Between 1998, when the first mega merger between cable operators was announced, and 2001, when the last big merger was announced, cable companies spent over a quarter of a trillion dollars buying each other out. In those four years, they spent almost six times as much on mergers and acquisitions as they did on capital expenditures to upgrade their systems. At the same time, the average price paid per subscriber more than doubled.

countries_with_high_speed_broadbandWhen a cable operator pays such an outrageous price, the previous owner is reaping the financial rewards of his monopoly power. The acquiring company can only pay such a high price by assuming that his monopoly power will allow him to continue to increase prices. Monopoly power is being bought and sold and borrowed against. The new cable operator, who has paid for market power, may insist that the debt he has incurred to obtain it is a real cost on his books. That may be correct in the literal sense (he owes someone that money) but that does not make it right, or the abuse of market power legal.

Fast-forwarding to 2014, economist and Temple professor Joel Maxcy said the same basic economic truths still exist today with Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable.

“My concern is the merger and the consolidation of the cable and internet delivery system for consumers and what will happen to internet and cable rates and choices,” Maxcy said, voicing his hesitancy about a deal that merges the nation’s two largest cable providers. “As that industry has gotten more consolidated over time, we have seen rates go up. The answer from them is that we’ve got more choices. Are we better off or not better off? I don’t know, but certainly rates have gone up at a much faster rate than the inflation rate. The result of more monopoly power is always higher prices and less choices and it seems that this merger moves in that direction.”

“The threat from non-network content providers is a concern for the cable industry,” Maxcy added.

“We’re moving to a situation where we don’t need cable, but we still need the internet and the cable companies are the ones that have control of that,” he said. “Consolidating them together makes them more competitive against the outside forces, but the other argument makes the whole thing less competitive so they’ll have more ability to control the access to Netflix, YouTube and the like. People that may develop other similar sorts of services will have a hard time getting the access they would like to purchase those.”

Chris Stigall spoke with economist and Temple professor Joel Maxcy on Talk Radio 1210 WPHT in Philadelphia about Comcast’s attempt to purchase Time Warner Cable and what that means for consumers. Feb. 18, 2014 (12:10)
You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

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Verizon: If Your Town Doesn’t Already Have a FiOS Commitment, Forget About Fiber

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon’s FiOS expansion is still as dead as Francisco Franco.

Verizon is prepared to watch up to 30% of their copper landline customers drift away because the company is adamant about no further expansion of its FiOS fiber to the home network.

Fran Shammo, chief financial officer at Verizon, told attendees of the Jefferies Global Technology, Media & Telecom Conference that Verizon will complete the buildout of its fiber network to a total of about 19 million homes, and that is it.

“Look, we will continue to fulfill our FiOS license franchise agreements,” Frammo said. “[We will] cover about 70% of our legacy footprint. So 30%, we are not going to cover. That is where we are still going to have copper.”

That is bad news for Verizon customers stuck with the company’s copper network because Verizon isn’t planning any further significant investments in it.

“We will continue to harvest that copper network and those customers and keep them as long as we can,” Frammo said. “But we will not be building FiOS out for those areas.”

In fact, Frammo admitted ongoing cost-cutting at Verizon’s landline division is allowing the company to shift more money and resources to its more profitable wireless network.

verizon goodbye

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam doesn’t want to spend money on non-FiOS areas when more can be made from its wireless network.

“It is also taking cost structure out,” Frammo said.  “As I mentioned, the migration of copper to fiber has been very big for us. Our Lean Six Sigma projects have really significantly helped us in our capital investment in the wireline which is why I can put more money into the wireless side of the business.”

Verizon has shifted an increasing proportion of its capital investments towards its wireless division year after year, while cutting ongoing investment in wireline. Ratepayers are not benefiting from this arrangement, and critics contend Verizon landline customers are effectively subsidizing Verizon’s wireless networks.

Verizon will still complete the FiOS buildouts it committed to earlier, particularly in New York City, but it is increasingly unlikely Verizon will ever start another wave of fiber upgrades.

In fact, Michael McCormack, the Jefferies’ Wall Street analyst questioning Shammo at the conference foreshadowed what is more likely to happen to Verizon’s legacy copper customers.

“We have talked extensively in the past about the non-FiOS areas and I guess in my second reincarnation as a banker, I will try to help you get rid of those assets,” said McCormack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cogeco Won’t Lower Your Bill; Warns Customers Not to Be “Victims” of Landline Cutting

Phillip Dampier April 14, 2014 Canada, Cogeco, Competition, Consumer News No Comments

cogecoDespite growing competition from Bell’s fiber-to-the-neighborhood service Fibe, now expanding into many of Cogeco’s outer suburban service areas, Cogeco will not negotiate a better deal for customers, preferring to emphasize its customer service and “right-sizing” bundles of services to best meet customer needs.

As a result of higher prices, Cogeco’s earnings and profits are up for the second quarter of 2014. In the quarter profits rose to $58.5 million — up from $48.9 million during the same quarter a year ago. Revenue rose to $518.4 million from $458.5 million.

“We don’t like competing on price,” said Cogeco CEO Louis Audet said. “I’m not saying it’s zero, but we really don’t like competing on price.”

Audet

Audet

Customers have been offered sign up discounts from Cogeco’s most aggressive competitor on pricing – Bell. But when customers in parts of Ontario and Quebec call Cogeco to negotiate for a lower price, they are largely being turned down.

Audet said Cogeco instead emphasizes that customers will receive better customer service from the cable company, and customer retention specialists are trained to adjust packages to emphasize the services customers want without cutting their cost.

“It’s a right-sizing exercise,” Audet said. “Maybe the person wants a little less video, but they want higher Internet speeds.”

Cogeco isn’t winning the battle to keep its price-sensitive customers, however. The company lost 10,305 subscribers in the second quarter, nearly double the amount lost in the same quarter a year ago. Cogeco now serves 1.96 million Canadian cable television customers.

Customers are also dropping their Cogeco phone service, a decision Audet said makes them “victims” of cell phones. Cogeco permanently disconnected 6,000 landlines in the quarter, up from 5,550 a year ago. It still serves 473,000 phone customers.

The company lost almost 6,000 telephone customers in the quarter compared with additions of 5,550 in the same quarter last year. It had more than 473,000 residential phone customers left.

Despite the customer losses, rate increases more than made up for lost revenue, giving the company a nearly $10 million boost in profits during the second quarter alone.

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