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Charter Communications Facing $1 Million Fine and NYC Franchise Revocation

The Chair of the New York State Public Service Commission announced today that the Commission is seeking a possible revocation of Charter Communication’s franchise to serve New York City and a $1 million fine payable to New York State for failing to meet its network buildout obligations agreed to as part of its 2016 merger with Time Warner Cable.

“It is critically important that regulated companies strictly adhere to the state’s rules and regulations,” said Commission chair John B. Rhodes. “If a regulated entity like Charter’s cable business decides to violate or ignore the rules, we will take swift action and hold them accountable to the full extent of the law.”

The most serious potential consequence is the revocation of Charter’s franchise agreement with New York City, which would force the cable operator out of the most important media market in the country. The Commission has opened an official proceeding to investigate whether Charter has tried to achieve its network expansion targets by using addresses in New York City where the company was allegedly already offering service or should have been.

Is Charter Meeting its Buildout Obligations in New York?

One of the key requirements Charter had to meet in New York in return for approval of its buyout of Time Warner Cable was an expansion of its cable footprint to at least 145,000 additional New York homes or businesses over a four-year buildout period. These “passings” — where service would be available for the first time, had to be in areas where the company was not already compelled to offer service through its existing franchise agreements. This requirement was designed to overcome the cable company’s traditional objections to servicing a location because of inadequate Return On Investment. A detailed audit performed by the Commission discovered more than 14,000 ineligible passings included by Charter in its December milestone report. Once these addresses were disqualified, Charter fall short of its obligation by more than 8,000 passings. As a result, this triggers an automatic $1 million fine, payable each time Charter fails to meet its agreed-upon buildout milestones.

New York City officials were concerned that Charter’s most recent milestone report asserted the cable company expanded service to 12,467 addresses in New York City, despite an existing franchise agreement with the city that included requirements that would guarantee those addresses either already had or should have had cable service available. If those allegations are proven true, Charter attempted to meet its buildout obligations by fudging the numbers.

“Metropolitan NYC is one of the most-wired cities in America and the world, and essentially, 100% of the NYC areas are served by one or more 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) wireline providers
such as Verizon FiOS, Cablevision, RCN, and Charter itself,” the Commission wrote.

The PSC’s staff conducted detailed reviews of 490 of those addresses claimed by Charter as having cable service available for the first time. None of them were found to be valid for inclusion in Charter’s service expansion reports, either because they were already serviced by Charter’s network or received service from a competing provider offering at least 100 Mbps service, or both.

In two instances, the staff found Charter was claiming new service expansion in buildings clearly already covered by the city’s existing franchise agreement.

“In a more egregious example, Charter also listed the Reuters Building as countable toward the December 2017 target in Charter’s January 2018 filing, which has a listed address of 3 Times Square,” the PSC wrote. “Staff could not find any photos of the building prior to 2014 beside aerial views, but construction was completed in 2001, well before the effective date of the current franchise agreements.”

In either case, Charter may be stuck between a rock and a hard place. If the company argues it did, in fact, provision cable service only recently, Charter probably materially breached its franchise agreement with the city, providing immediate grounds to begin franchise revocation proceedings under PSL §227.11. If Charter argues instead it was in compliance with its franchise agreement and did in fact already offer cable service to those addresses, Charter would be subject to an investigation about why it misled the regulator by claiming those locations as “new passings” when they were not.

Franchise Fee Dispute

A second controversy involves the amounts of franchise fee payments payable to New York City. City officials claim those payments have declined year-over-year since Charter completed its merger with Time Warner Cable.


A decline in franchise fee payments could be the result of cord-cutting, which has taken its toll on cable TV subscriptions at almost every cable company in the country. The fewer cable TV subscribers, the more likely revenue declines are going to occur, which in turn cuts franchise fee payments.

Charter Communications’ business model is also a departure from its predecessor, Time Warner Cable. In addition to ending many pricing promotions, Charter also stopped marketing stripped down, budget-conscious television packages. Many customers also faced dramatic rate increases as a result of Charter’s new bundled TV packages, which in some cases required customers to pay substantially more to keep all the channels included in their original Time Warner Cable package. As a result, many customers changed providers. Others decided to “cut the cord” and drop television service altogether while retaining broadband. The franchise fee does not apply to internet or phone service — just television.

Still, the PSC wants to audit Charter’s books to verify the company’s accounting has not departed from Time Warner Cable’s interpretation of the franchise fee agreement and unfairly undercut the city.

Charter has been given 21 days to respond with clear and convincing evidence it is not in violation of its franchise agreement with New York City or its merger obligations with New York State. If the Commission does not receive satisfactory evidence by the deadline, it is likely to begin hearings on whether Charter has committed material breaches of its agreements serious enough to warrant fines and/or franchise revocation.

Times of London: Sprint Parent SoftBank Lays Groundwork for Takeover of Charter/Spectrum

Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son

Japan’s SoftBank “has laid the groundwork” for a $100 billion bid to acquire Charter Communications, better known to its customers as Spectrum, and merge it with Sprint, the American wireless company it controls, according to a report this morning in the Times of London.

London financial district sources leaked information early Monday morning that SoftBank’s billionaire CEO Masayoshi Son has already quietly purchased nearly 5% of Charter Communications stock, a prerequisite for launching a takeover bid. By purchasing a solid stake in Charter, the company hopes to be to taken more seriously about its proposition to combine America’s second largest cable company with the country’s fourth largest wireless carrier.

This isn’t the first time SoftBank has expressed an interest in a merger with Charter. Late in 2017, Masayoshi approached both Charter and its largest shareholder, Dr. John Malone, about the prospect of a merger. Malone was reportedly lukewarm about the deal, while Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge and the rest of his management team opposed the deal. But apart from Malone and Rutledge, many of Charter’s top shareholders were in favor of a merger — particularly the Newhouse family, which sold its interests in Bright House Networks, a mid-sized cable operator, to Charter in 2016.

Masayoshi has been a strong advocate of consolidation in the wireless industry, and has repeatedly lobbied for permission to acquire T-Mobile USA to combine it with Sprint. But regulator concerns during the Obama Administration made such a deal impossible. By targeting the acquisition of a cable operator, SoftBank can argue the transaction will have no material impact on competition because Sprint and Charter Communications operate different businesses.

Trump’s FTC Nominees Signal Agency Will Take More Relaxed Approach to Consumer Protection

At a hearing Wednesday to question President Donald Trump’s nominees for the Federal Trade Commission, Democrats expressed concern about some signals from the three Republican and one Democratic nominees that they intend to enforce consumer protection laws as long as there is evidence they have the indisputable authority to act.

What happens when corporate interests and special interest groups insist the FTC’s regulatory powers are uncertain, limited by precedent, blocked by court opinions, or contrary to the wishes of Congress remained uncertain after the hearing.

The Senate Commerce Committee is facing some urgency to approve the nominations to fill a large number of vacancies at the FTC, which currently prevents the agency from taking votes on actions. If all four nominees are approved, the FTC will still have a single open commissioner’s seat on the Democratic side.

The nominated FTC commissioners are:


Joseph J. Simons, nominated for chairman for the FTC, is a Republican antitrust lawyer who has taken a few trips through Washington’s revolving door, serving as chief of the FTC’s Competition Bureau, investigating mergers and anticompetitive conduct from 2001 to 2003 under President George W. Bush. During his tenure, the FTC mostly pursued high-profile cases that brought clear evidence of antitrust harm. Under Simons, the FTC blocked Libbey, Inc. from acquiring its chief glassware rival Anchor Hocking. Vlasic Foods International and Claussen Pickle found an unreceptive FTC for their merger, eventually also blocked. Simons was noted for investigating pharmaceutical companies that applied for misleading drug patents designed to delay the entry of cheaper generic versions of brand name pharmaceutical products. After his tenure at the FTC, Simons accepted a lucrative $1.9 million partnership at the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, which handles corporate mergers and acquisitions for corporate clients.


Christine S. Wilson, a Delta Air Lines executive, is also a frequent flyer through D.C.’s revolving door. During the George W. Bush administration, she was chief of staff for then-FTC chairman Tim Muris. She also held three other significant corporate-public policy positions that advised companies and the U.S. government about antitrust matters. In 2011, Wilson accepted a high paying partnership at Kirkland and Ellis, a firm well-regarded for helping corporations successfully complete antitrust reviews of their mergers and acquisitions. Wilson’s latest employer was Delta Air Lines, which offered her an executive position in August 2016 as the company’s senior vice president for legal, regulatory, and international affairs. In addition to the $521,000 in distributions Wilson earned from her partnership at Kirkland and Ellis, Wilson accepted an undisclosed cash signing bonus, $136,000 in bonuses in 2017 from a management incentive plan, and a regular salary of $390,000. Wilson retains various amounts of unvested Delta stock and stock options that would normally be lost after leaving the company, but Delta apparently wanted to part with Wilson on the friendliest of terms, granting her pro rata compensation for the stock and waiving the usual requirement that an employee leaving so quickly after being hired should pay back 50% of their signing bonus.


Noah Joshua Phillips served as chief counsel for Republican Sen. John Cornyn at the Senate Judiciary Committee. Before coming to Capitol Hill, Phillips was an associate at Steptoe & Johnson LLP in Washington and at Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York. He focused on civil litigation.

Consumer Federation of America senior fellow Rohit Chopra is a Democrat and the only nominee with a long record of representing consumer interests and pushing for increased consumer protection and better oversight of financial services and products targeting consumers. Chopra was previously assistant director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where he oversaw the agency’s agenda on students and young consumers. He specialized in targeting the student loan industry for abusive practices and secured hundreds of millions of dollars in relief for student loan borrowers.


Because of the unprecedented number of vacancies at the Commission, President Trump’s nominees could have an enormous impact on the direction of the FTC over the next several years. Traditionally, three of the commissioners belong to the current president’s political party and two belong to the other party.

Observers suggest the nominees are not atypical for a Republican president to nominate and some have served at the FTC before. None have attracted the kind of controversy that followed Makan Delrahim, Trump’s pick for head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. Most expect the Republican majority-led FTC will bend towards the interests of businesses unless there is clear and convincing evidence of significant consumer harm, especially in cases of mergers and acquisitions.

“Traditionally, Republican commissioners tend to be more lenient in merger enforcement on the marginal case, and we haven’t seen any evidence to indicate that [Simons] would depart from the traditional Republican posture,” said Mary Lehner, a partner with Freshfields and a former FTC attorney who also served as an adviser to two chairmen of the agency.

A major concern for some Democrats is that the FTC is now being tasked with protecting what remains of net neutrality, the open internet protocol that was swept away by the Republican majority at the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC reclassified internet service providers once again as “information services,” under Title 1 of the Communications Act. That transfers oversight back to the FTC — an agency not known for careful oversight of internet providers’ business practices.

At the hearing, Simons equivocated on how the FTC will deal with allegations of ISP abuse and signaled his concern that a Ninth Circuit court ruling found that telecommunications companies that also serve as common carriers (ie. telephone companies) are completely exempt from FTC authority.

Some Democrats interpreted Simons’ remarks as suggesting he could adopt a “my hands are tied” approach to ISP oversight, claiming that the FTC lacks the authority to keep an eye out for industry abuses.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) seized on such comments, asking Simons to confirm if he believes the FTC specifically “lacks rulemaking authority” on net neutrality while the FCC, directly responsible for transferring net neutrality enforcement away from itself, “does have rulemaking authority to prevent blocking, throttling and paid prioritization by ISPs.”

Simons prevaricated in his answer, telling Markey, “We both have rulemaking, and they’re different types of rulemaking.”


“I’d want to talk to the general counsel’s office before I gave a specific answer to that, but I’m not entirely clear,” Simons said in response to a followup question pressing the issue.

“We are going to take the [statutory] authority we have and use it as best we can,” Simons told senators at the Senate Commerce Committee hearing. “I don’t know exactly what types of anti-competitive or deceptive and unfair practices may come up. If something comes up that we can’t reach under our statute, then I would certainly talk to you about a federal legislative fix.”

But observers note such a fix could take years, and the FTC often takes a year or more to complete investigations of alleged wrongdoing before starting to act.

Chopra, the lone Democratic nominee, agreed with Democrats that he also feared the FTC’s authority to act is uncertain, and that lack of certainty is likely to delay any enforcement actions. Chopra comments suggested the telecom industry is likely to use the Ninth Circuit court ruling to their advantage.

“I share a lot of the skepticism and concerns,” Chopra told the committee. “The FTC may face an unlevel playing field where some major market participants are exempt from the commission’s authority while others are subject to it.”


Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said that single Ninth Circuit court ruling could provide the telecom industry with a ready-made loophole to escape the FTC’s jurisdiction altogether. An ISP could acquire “a minor side business” like a small rural telephone company subject to common carrier rules and win blanket corporate immunity from FTC oversight. Although Simons said he would support striking the common carrier exemption from the Federal Trade Commission Act which defines the FTC’s authority, such a change could take several years to get through Congress and a well-funded telecom industry lobbying effort.

Phillips seemed impatient about the net neutrality debate which occupied a significant part of the hearing, characterizing it as a side issue worth sidestepping to focus on broader issues.

“We can’t allow contentious issues to distract us from the bread and butter of the agency […] looking out for children, veterans, the elderly and Americans generally,” Phillips said.

Aside from the net neutrality debate, the Republican nominees signaled their interest in the possibility of investigating large tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook for antitrust activities. Republicans have been especially critical of Google, and some conservatives believe Twitter and Facebook exhibit political bias against them. The president has also frequently attacked Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos. Bezos owns the Washington Post, one of the many news outlets Trump said has been unfair to him. Trump has also accused Amazon of stiffing the government on sales taxes.

“Oftentimes companies get big because they are successful with the consumer, they offer a good service at a low price,” Simons said. “And that’s a good thing, and we don’t want to interfere with that. On the other hand, companies that are already big and influential can sometimes use inappropriate means — anticompetitive means — to get big or to stay big. And if that’s the case then we should be vigorously enforcing the antitrust laws.”

Another issue the FTC nominees promised to prioritize: online security/data breaches which expose consumers’ private information.

GOP Tax Cut Law Will Deliver $14.4 Billion to Comcast for Mergers, Share Buybacks by 2021

Phillip Dampier January 18, 2018 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

The Republican-pushed corporate tax rollback will bring a $14.4 billion increase in available cash flow for Comcast to use for future mergers and acquisitions or share buybacks by 2021, even as the cable company has no plans to share its tax savings bonanza with subscribers in the form of lower rates.

MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett noted Comcast will likely only spend the largess on two things — acquiring other companies to further concentrate the media marketplace or, more likely use its newly available cash flow on a blockbuster share buyback program, which will boost Comcast’s stock price and deliver dramatically higher bonuses to the company’s top executives.

Moffett believes Comcast is following in the footsteps of Time Warner Cable a decade ago, shortly after the company was split away from Time Warner, Inc. The former Time Warner Cable fueled interest in its stock by committing to keep its leverage at a stable 3.25 x EBITDA, which means it would not be spend a lot of money or take on a lot of debt to upgrade its cable systems, make expensive acquisitions, or cut rates for subscribers. As a result, Comcast’s free cash will quickly accumulate, which it will either use to buy other companies, return to investors in the form of a dividend payout, or buy back large numbers of shares of its own stock, making shares already owned by investors more valuable. Since most executive compensation packages tie bonuses to the share price of the company’s stock, and often include stock share awards for executives, top officials can take home tens of millions of dollars in bonuses.

The Trump Administration claimed the dramatic cut in the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% would create new investment, result in new job creation and higher pay. But at Comcast, its existing investment plans developed before the tax cut law was passed remain largely unchanged, the company laid off nearly 1,000 workers in the last month, and so far has only committed to giving qualified employees a one-time $1,000 bonus, which will cost the company a one time charge of less than $150 million — about 1.04% of Comcast’s tax cut cash haul.

Fierce Cable Predicts 2018 Will Be A Year of Big Cable Mergers

While giant cable company mergers unexpectedly took a breather in 2017, Fierce Cable predicts this year isn’t likely to be a repeat of last year.

“With polls showing Democrats poised to begin sweeping back into power with the 2018 midterm elections, look for cable operators to make hay on the current regulatory climate and start turning their rivals into that most precious of resources: scale,” writes Daniel Frankel.

With time for large cable operators to get easy approval of merger deals from deregulation-minded Republicans potentially running out, 2018 could bring dramatic consolidation in the cable industry, with Comcast a likely buyer and Charter Communications a potential seller… if the offer is good enough.

Many industry observers expected the first year of the Trump Administration to be a banner year for cable mergers, especially with the entry of Altice, a European cable conglomerate known for its willingness to overpay to acquire cable operators. Altice has since run into significant financial challenges and investor blowback, forcing the company to shelve acquisition plans for now and focus on debt reduction and developing a stronger business plan to operate its ailing cable and wireless properties in Europe. Altice USA, which owns Suddenlink and Cablevision, has not shelved its plans to upgrade many of its customers to fiber to the home service, but is also no longer seen as an immediate bidder for Charter, Cable One, or WideOpenWest.

Fierce Cable expects Comcast to respond to AT&T’s merger with Time Warner, Inc., assuming the deal successfully overcomes Department of Justice objections in court, and 21st Century Fox’s asset sales to Disney. Both transactions threaten to consolidate programming production and distribution around an even smaller group of media giants, which could challenge Comcast’s NBCUniversal unit as well as the cost of cable programming networks. Comcast has shied away from acquisitions after an embarrassing failure of its attempt to buy Time Warner Cable a few years ago.

If Comcast wants to build scale, it would naturally target an acquisition of Charter Communications, the second largest cable company in the country. The deal would give Comcast dominance over the New York and Los Angeles media markets and broadband service provision across most major American cities. Comcast could also seek a less controversial acquisition of Cox Communications, one of the few major independent cable companies left. But Comcast could also seek acquisitions in Hollywood to bolster its production capabilities.

Most other cable acquisition options would be considered scraps by the largest operators. Altice could be persuaded to prematurely exit the American market and sell Cablevision and Suddenlink if convinced it has no chance of building adequate scale to stand with Comcast and Charter. Beyond that are smaller rural and regional operators including Mediacom, Midco, WOW!, GTT, RCN, and many others that serve fewer than one million customers.

Company executives may be hoping the objections to the AT&T/Time Warner deal are an anomaly for the Trump Administration. But it’s clear that whatever smooth waters exist for upcoming mergers will get choppy as the midterm elections approach. Should Democrats win back the House and/or Senate, life will get considerably more difficult for future media consolidation deals.

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