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Corporate/Koch Brother-Linked Group Asks FCC to Repeal Charter/Spectrum’s Data Cap Prohibition

A conservative group funded by corporate interests and the Koch Brothers has asked FCC chairman Ajit Pai to answer its petition and move expeditiously to cancel the prohibition of data caps/usage-based pricing as a condition for FCC approval of Charter Communications’ acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

A number of pro-consumer deal conditions were included as part of the merger transaction’s approval, and won the support of a majority of FCC commissioners under the leadership of former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, appointed by President Barack Obama.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) is hopeful that with Wheeler out of office and a new Republican majority at the FCC under the Trump Administration means the FCC will end requirements that Charter offer unlimited data plans, discounted internet access for low-income consumers, and start allowing Charter to charge fees to Netflix and other content providers to connect to its broadband customers. CEI has every reason to be hopeful, pointing out Chairman Pai is a fan of data caps on residential broadband service, opposes Net Neutrality, and recently effectively killed a Lifeline program that would have extended inexpensive internet access to the poor.

CEI:

As then-Commissioner Pai wrote in 2016, this condition is neither “fair” nor “progressive.” Instead, he called this “the paradigmatic case of the 99% subsidizing the 1%,” as it encourages Charter to raise prices on all consumers in response to costs stemming from the activities of a “bandwidth-hungry few.” Other problematic conditions include the ban on Charter charging “edge providers” a price for interconnection and the requirement that the company operate a “low-income broadband program” for customers who meet certain criteria.

The group is optimistic Pai will oversee the unwinding of Charter’s deal conditions largely pushed by former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, after Pai recently led the charge to revoke another condition required of Charter in return for merger approval – a commitment to expand its cable network to pass at least one million new homes that already receive broadband service from another provider.

Pai also opposed the low-income internet program, calling it “rate regulation.” The CEI claimed the requirement will “undermine Charter’s ability to price its services in an economically rational manner.”

“Hopefully, the FCC’s new leadership will seize this opportunity to take a stand against harmful merger conditions that have nothing to do with the transaction at hand—by granting CEI’s petition,” the group wrote on its blog.

FCC’s Ajit Pai on Mission to Sabotage Charter-Bright House-Time Warner Cable Deal Conditions

Pai

As a result of the multibillion dollar cable merger between Charter Communications, Bright House Networks, and Time Warner Cable, the three companies involved freely admitted: your cable bill was unlikely to decrease, you won’t have any new competitive options, there was no guarantee your service would improve, or that you would get faster broadband service than what Time Warner Cable Maxx was already delivering to about half its customer base.

While shareholders and Wall Street bankers made substantial gains, top Time Warner Cable executives walked away with multimillion dollar golden parachute packages, and Charter took control of what is now the country’s supersized, second most powerful cable operator, regulators also required the dealmakers share at least a tiny portion of the spoils with customers.

Then President Donald Trump’s FCC chairman — Ajit Pai — took leadership of the telecom regulator. Now all bets are off.

Pai is reconsidering the settled deal conditions imposed by the FCC under the last administration, and wants to give Charter Communications a free pass to let them out of their commitment to compete. Last week, Pai circulated a petition among his fellow commissioners to roll back the commitment Charter acknowledged to expand its service area to at least one million new homes that already get broadband service from another cable or telephone company.

Former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler sought the competition requirement to prove that cable operators can successfully run their businesses in direct competition with each other, potentially inspiring other cable companies to face off with incumbent operators outside of their own territories. A paradigm shift worked for Google, which inspired ISPs to boost speeds in light of its gigabit Google Fiber service, which reset customer expectations.

The FCC order approving the merger deal was hardly onerous, requiring Charter to compete head-to-head for customers in places the company can choose itself. Lawmakers eliminated exclusive cable franchise agreements years ago, but established major cable operators like Charter have gone out of their way to avoid competing in areas that already receive cable service. While Wheeler may have hoped some of that competition would be directed against fellow cable companies, Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge quickly made clear to investors and the FCC Charter would continue to avoid direct cable competition, instead promising to expand service into non-cable areas that already get DSL service from the phone company or no broadband at all.

“When I talked to the FCC, I said I can’t overbuild another cable company, because then I could never buy it, because you always block those,” Rutledge said. “It’s really about overbuilding telephone companies.”

Charter’s CEO believes most phone companies are not competing on the same level as cable operators and are unwilling to make the necessary investments to upgrade their aging wired infrastructure to offer faster internet speeds. That makes competing with telephone companies like Windstream, Frontier, and Verizon’s DSL-only service areas a much better proposition than trying to compete head-to-head with Comcast, Cox, or Cablevision.

Rutledge’s clear views about Charter’s expansion plans apparently never made it to the American Cable Association, a cable industry lobbying group that defends the interests of independent and smaller cable operators. Despite Rutledge’s public statements, the ACA and its members are afraid Charter could expand on their turf anyway, potentially forcing small cable operators to compete with the same level of service Charter offers. The horror.

The ACA’s arguments found a sympathetic audience in Mr. Pai and now he wants to let Charter off the hook, at the expense of competition and better service for consumers.

Under the proposal circulated by Pai, Charter would still be required to expand its cable broadband service by at least one million new homes, but those homes would no longer have to be in areas outside of Charter’s existing service footprint. In practical terms, this would mean Charter would focus on wiring areas not far from where it provides service today — ‘DSL or nothing’-country. Charter would also be able to fritter away the number of expansions required by counting newly constructed neighborhood developments it would have likely wired anyway, as well as upgrading its remaining shoddy legacy cable systems — some still incapable of offering broadband or phone service.

The ACA’s talking points prefer to emphasize the David vs. Goliath scenario of a big bully of a cable company like Charter being forced to compete (and likely obliterate) existing small cable operators:

“The overbuild condition imposed by the FCC on Charter is stunningly bad and inexplicable government policy,” said ACA president and CEO Matthew Polka, in a statement. “On the one hand, the FCC found that Charter will be too big and therefore it imposed a series of conditions to ensure it does not exercise any additional market power. At the same time, the FCC, out of the blue, is forcing Charter to get even bigger.”

The real goal here is to minimize direct competition at all costs. The FCC’s deal conditions already included the need for more rural broadband expansion. Wheeler’s second goal was to introduce a new model — cable company competing against cable company — fighting for new customers by offering consumers better service and pricing. The existence of such competition would belie the industry’s claim that cable overbuilds and head-to-head competition is uneconomical. Wildly profitable, perhaps not, but certainly possible. Historically, the traditional way cable operators dealt with the few instances of direct cable competition was to buy them out to put them out of business. Rutledge was certainly thinking along those lines when he complained that the FCC’s order to compete did not include permission to eventually devour its competitor, effectively making competition go away.

Had Charter chosen to compete with cable companies not afraid to spend money to upgrade service above and beyond the anemic broadband speeds Charter offers, it would likely find few takers for its maximum 300Mbps broadband service that comes with a $200 install fee.

“Why would we go where we could get killed?” Rutledge admitted.

Industry claims that the cable business is already fiercely competitive are also countered by Rutledge’s own statements making clear direct competition with brethren cable companies on the cusp of speed-boosting DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades was bad for business. Instead, he would focus on competing with inferior phone companies, which he characterized as mired in debt, still skeptical about the financial wisdom of fiber optic upgrades, and the only competitor where dismal 3-10Mbps DSL service presented a ripe opportunity to steal customers away.

Clyburn – A likely “no” vote.

Charter’s merger approval and its conditions are a sealed deal that was acceptable to Charter and its shareholders and at least offered small token treats to ordinary consumers. Mr. Pai’s willingness to reopen and undo those commitments is just one reason we’ve referred to his regulatory philosophy as irresponsible, nakedly anti-consumer, and anti-competitive. Mr. Pai’s willingness to embrace things as they are comes at the same time most consumers are paying the highest broadband bills ever while also facing an epidemic of usage caps, usage billing, and increasing service and equipment fees. Mr. Pai’s other actions, including ending an effort to introduce competition into the set-top box market, curtailing customer privacy, ending inquiries on usage caps/zero rating, threatening to eliminate Net Neutrality, and reducing the FCC’s already anemic focus on consumer protection makes it clear Mr. Pai is a company man, on a mission to defend the interests of Big Telecom companies and their lobbyists (that also have a history of hiring friendly regulators for high-paying positions once their government job ends.)

That conclusion seems apt considering what Mr. Pai said about Chairman Wheeler’s vision of improving broadband: “one more step down the path of micromanaging where, when, and how ISPs deploy infrastructure.” Missing from his statement are consumers who have spent the last 20 years watching ISPs govern themselves while waiting… waiting… waiting for broadband service that never comes.

Mr. Pai’s proposal needs just one additional vote to win passage. That extra vote is unlikely until President Trump appoints another Republican commissioner. Pai’s proposal isn’t likely to win support from the sole remaining Democrat commissioner still at the FCC — Mignon Clyburn.

Ajit Pai Starts FCC Chairmanship by Clear-Cutting Pro-Consumer Policies, Cheap Internet for the Poor

Pai

Like President Donald Trump, Ajit Pai is a busy man. He’s spent his first month as FCC chairman gutting his predecessor’s legacy, reversing pro-consumer policies, ending forays into set-top box competition, fair pricing for inmate phone calls, cheap internet access for the poor, ending reviews of data caps and zero rating practices, and threatening to terminate Net Neutrality with extreme prejudice.

No wonder Bob Quinn, AT&T senior executive vice president of external & legislative affairs applauded President Trump’s appointment of Pai, proclaiming he will “quickly and decisively put back in place the commonsense regulatory framework necessary to support the President’s agenda for job creation, innovation and investment. We look forward to working with him and his team and the FCC to support President Trump’s growth agenda.”

AT&T’s only growth agenda is sending customers ever-increasing bills, and with Mr. Pai at the helm of the FCC, they are sure to get their wish.

Over their terms at the FCC under the Obama Administration, Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly frequently complained their minority voices on the Commission were ignored and newly proposed regulations or policies would come before the FCC so quickly, there was inadequate time for public review. But since Pai teamed up with O’Rielly to abolish many of the most important achievements of his predecessor, Chairman Thomas Wheeler, they have reportedly all but ignored the sole remaining Democrat currently serving on the Commission — Mignon Clyburn.

Last Friday, Clyburn accused Pai of hypocrisy for complaining about policies being rushed for a vote without explanation before doing the same thing himself late last week.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn

Clyburn

“Today is apparently ‘take out the trash day.’ In an eponymous episode of the West Wing, White House Chief of Staff Josh Lyman stated: ‘Any stories we have to give the press that we’re not wild about, we give all in a lump on Friday . . . Because no one reads the paper on Saturday,'” Clyburn said in a statement. “Today multiple Bureaus retract—without a shred of explanation—several items released under the previous administration that focus on competition, consumer protection, cybersecurity and other issues core to the FCC’s mission. In the past, then-Commissioner Pai was critical of the agency majority for not providing sufficient reasoning behind its decisions.”

Clyburn’s office asked for more than the allotted two days to review a dozen items that suddenly appeared on the FCC’s agenda.

“We were rebuffed,” Clyburn wrote.

Clyburn then accused Pai of violating the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires adequate public notice and a comment period for public input. When she asked the chairman to comply with the “reasoned decision-making requirements of the APA,” she was told ‘No deal.’

Mr. Pai’s regulatory rollback agenda has moved with breathtaking speed, according to some FCC observers. Consumer group Free Press today called Pai’s progress “Orwellian.” Over less than a month, Pai — with the help of Commissioner O’Rielly — has:

  • Announced the formation of a Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee that is expected to be stacked with industry stakeholders that will recommend reform the FCC’s pole attachment rules, identify “unreasonable” regulatory barriers to broadband deployment, encourage local governments to adopt “deployment-friendly” policies, and develop a “model code” for local franchising, zoning, permitting, and rights-of-way regulations for telecom infrastructure like cell towers. Few expect the eventual “model code” to stray far from Big Telecom companies’ wish lists;
  • Near-unilaterally loosened rules allowing AM radio stations to continue making their presence felt on the overcrowded FM band through the use of low-power FM “translator” stations that rebroadcast the AM station’s programming;
  • Changed FCC policies to give broader notice of upcoming agenda items and policy proposals, ostensibly to improve public access to FCC rulemaking procedures. But observers suggest the change will primarily benefit industry lobbyists who will have advance detailed notice about the FCC’s upcoming agenda items, allowing them time to lobby for or against the proposals, or suggest changes;
  • Rescinded “Improving the Nation’s Digital Infrastructure,” a policy paper promoting rural broadband deployment and other broadband improvements released just prior to the inauguration of President Trump. On Feb. 3, the FCC set “aside and rescinds the Digital Infrastructure Paper, and any and all guidance, determinations, recommendations, and conclusions contained therein. The Digital Infrastructure Paper will have no legal or other effect or meaning going forward.”
  • Rescinded “in its entirety and effective immediately, earlier guidance provided in a March 12, 2014, public notice, DA 14-330, “Processing of Broadcast Television Applications Proposing Sharing Arrangements and Contingent Interests,” which attempted to limit ongoing media consolidation controversies including allowing one TV station to effectively operate and provide content for so-called ‘competing’ stations in a local area.
  • Closed the FCC’s investigation into wireless carriers’ zero-rating policies, which allow subscribers free access to “preferred provider content” without it counting against their data plan. Critics call zero rating an end run around Net Neutrality, because providers treat their own content as “preferred.” AT&T charges other content providers to participate in its zero rating program.
  • Instructed the FCC’s legal team to stop defending court challenges to its authority to ensure fair and reasonable telephone rates for incarcerated prisoners held captive to using a single carrier to make phone calls at prices much higher than what the public pays. Those rates were as high as $5.70 for a 15-minute in-state collect call placed from an incarceration facility in Kentucky. In that state alone, consumers effectively paid $2.79 million in kickbacks to state prison systems or a county jail. In contrast, a similar 15-minute call placed from a West Virginia jail or prison would cost $0.48. As a result of Pai’s actions, companies like Global Tel*Link, Securus, and Telmate “can continue the practice of price gouging prisoners and their families,” according to Prison Phone Justice;
  • Ended former FCC Chairman Wheeler’s attempt to force competition in the cable set-top box marketplace, allowing consumers to take a bite out of the $20 billion cable companies make in rental fees annually. At least 99% of subscribers now pay an average of $231 a year to lease the boxes, even after the company has fully recouped their original cost. Customers in Canada can buy their own set-top boxes and DVRs.
  • Killed an expansion of the FCC’s Lifeline program to offer discounted internet access to the poor. Pai reversed approvals made to nine providers — none accused of waste, fraud, or abuse — including Kajeet, Spot On, Boomerang Wireless, KonaTel, FreedomPop, Applied Research Designs, Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico, Northland Cable Television and Wabash Independent Networks. Pai later defended the move claiming his predecessor rushed through approval of the providers and he was rescinding those “midnight rules” as current chairman. Many Republicans are seeking a complete elimination of the Lifeline program.
  • Rescinded the latest progress report on modernizing the Universal Service Fund’s E-Rate program, which is designed to subsidize telecom services for schools and libraries. It could be the first step in eliminating or dramatically reforming the Fund;
  • Gave two violators of the FCC’s rules on properly collecting and reporting information about the source of political advertising aired on stations air a free pass.
  • Threw out a white paper from the FCC’s own Homeland Security Bureau advising the agency on cybersecurity issues. Pai doesn’t think the FCC should be involved in cybersecurity, so anything contrary to his agenda of reducing the role of the FCC is likely destined for the nearest wastepaper basket.

FCC letter to AT&T’s Bob Quinn letting him know the company is off the hook with the FCC on zero rating.

“Ajit Pai has been on the wrong side of just about every major issue that has come before the FCC during his tenure,” said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press. “He’s never met a mega-merger he didn’t like or a public safeguard he didn’t try to undermine. He’s been an inveterate opponent of Net Neutrality, expanded broadband access for low-income families, broadband privacy, prison-phone justice, media diversity and more. If Trump really wanted an FCC chairman who’d stand up against the runaway media consolidation that he himself decried in the AT&T/Time Warner deal, Pai would have been his last choice — though corporate lobbyists across the capital are probably thrilled.”

Meet America’s Next FCC Chairman, An Ex-Verizon Lawyer That Snuggles With AT&T’s Talking Points

Phillip Dampier January 24, 2017 Editorial & Site News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

Ajit Pai

Meet America’s next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Ajit Varadaraj Pai (born January 10, 1973): a lawyer formerly representing Verizon who wants to take a “weed-wacker” to Net Neutrality, thinks data caps represent innovation, opposes almost every consumer protection measure introduced by his predecessor Thomas Wheeler, and believes the best solution to improving broadband is to take pressure off companies like Comcast, AT&T, Charter, and Verizon.

Pai has been a commissioner at the FCC since 2012 where he and his fellow Republican Michael O’Rielly have strongly opposed most of Chairman Wheeler’s pro-competition agenda and broadband reforms:

  • Pai and his chief of staff Matthew Berry vocally opposed efforts by Wheeler to monitor and manage providers’ implementation of data caps and zero rating schemes that exempt provider-preferred content from usage allowances or speed throttles. Pai said Wheeler’s inquiries to carriers regarding zero rating practices showed “the era of permissonless innovation is over,” followed by a Tweet from Mr. Berry complaining that, “If you come up with an innovative service, you will be hauled into FCC to explain yourself.” In 2012, Pai decried allowing Net Neutrality to take hold because it could lead to eventual regulation of usage-based pricing policies.
  • Pai fiercely opposes Net Neutrality and told an audience at the conservative Free State Foundation in December he will remove “outdated and unnecessary regulations” and “fire up the weed-wacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation.”
  • In 2015, Pai cut and pasted large sections of AT&T’s website into a dissent over the FCC’s plan to fine the phone giant $100 million for deceiving customers about its “unlimited data” plan. Pai’s statement defended AT&T’s business practices and blamed consumers for not understanding AT&T’s definition of “unlimited.”
  • Pai voted against the Charter – Time Warner Cable/Bright House Networks merger not because he opposed it. He was upset that Chairman Wheeler insisted on a seven-year ban on Charter implementing data caps. “Chairman Wheeler’s order isn’t about competition, competition, competition; it’s about regulation, regulation, regulation. It’s about imposing conditions that have nothing to do with the merits of this transaction. It’s about the government micromanaging the Internet economy,” said his spokesperson.
  • Pai partly dissented from the AT&T buyout of DirecTV because he didn’t like the deal’s conditions mandating affordable internet access for consumers, marketplace protections for competing online video services, and a strongly empowered compliance officer assigned to make certain AT&T met its obligations — a lesson the FCC learned after Comcast was accused of skirting its obligations in its acquisition of NBCUniversal.
  • Complained Comcast’s efforts to buy Time Warner Cable would be dead on arrival ‘because the Obama administration has shown itself much less likely to approve major telecom mergers — such as the blocked AT&T-T-Mobile merger — than a Republican administration might be.’
  • Opposed Wheeler’s effort to force open the set-top box marketplace to competition so consumers can buy their own cable boxes at a lower cost.
  • Called Wheeler’s push to have the minimum broadband speed standard reset to 25Mbps “incoherent,” claiming that 71 percent of consumers who can already buy access at those speeds don’t want or need it and that there was no need to push wired providers to deliver faster access because Verizon and AT&T already offer 4G LTE service to 98.5% of America.

Where your next FCC complaint will likely end up.

“Ajit Pai has been on the wrong side of just about every major issue that has come before the FCC during his tenure,” noted Craig Aaron, president of Free Press. “He’s never met a mega-merger he didn’t like or a public safeguard he didn’t try to undermine. He’s been an inveterate opponent of Net Neutrality, expanded broadband access for low-income families, broadband privacy, prison-phone justice, media diversity and more.”

In contrast, Comcast was thrilled with President Trump’s appointment.

“We commend [Pai’s] tireless efforts to develop and support policies that benefit American consumers and spur greater investment and innovation in broadband technologies to connect all Americans and drive job creation,” said David Cohen, senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer at Comcast. “This is a terrific appointment for the American consumer and the companies the FCC regulates and we look forward to continuing to work with Chairman Pai in his new role.”

That may not be too surprising, considering he spent his formative years in Washington as an associate general counsel at Verizon, where he helped the company deal with pesky regulatory matters. Pai has already given the public clues about how he is likely to respond to consumer complaints about the state of American broadband.

In January 2016, Pai complained the FCC should not be responding to the whims of public interest and consumer groups that “protest a particular [provider] offering,” referring to T-Mobile’s zero rating plan, claiming the “agency is going to jump to the tune” as a result. When the FCC starts scrutinizing providers over their “highly competitive and innovate service[s],” that represents the “very definition” of regulatory uncertainty.

For Pai, the ultimate sin seems to be bothering the incumbent telecom giants, who in his view seem to know what is best for America. So he is very likely to stay out of their way.

Stop the Cap! Reviews AT&T DirecTV Now: The Cord Cutting Revolution Continues

directvnow-planWhen AT&T announced it would offer 100+ cable television and broadcast network channels under the DirecTV Now brand for $35 a month, Wall Street had a fit.

Craig Moffett, an analyst with Moffett-Nathanson, speculated that AT&T would make at most a profit margin of $5 a month for its $35 a month plan, once programming costs were covered. But then AT&T announced it would sweeten the deal with a free Apple TV Player or Amazon Fire Stick for those confident enough to prepay for the new service. That makes DirecTV Now a purposefully unprofitable service, creating considerable stress for both the cable and satellite industry and their investors.

Variety notes the average DirecTV satellite subscriber delivers about $60 a month in profit to its owner, AT&T. That led the industry magazine to speculate DirecTV Now is a “loss leader” designed to sell its parent company’s AT&T-Time Warner, Inc. merger deal to regulators on the premise of increased competition delivering real savings to consumers.

Thankfully for Wall Street’s nerves, AT&T’s usual practice of marketing things with a lot of fine print emerged in the nick of time, and the $35 dollar price has now turned out to be an introductory offer for early adopters. In the not-too-distant future, AT&T will enroll new customers for its “Go Big” package at a much more profitable $60 a month. Customers who sign up at the $35 rate and stay customers will be able to keep that price as long as they make no changes to their account after the promotion ends.

Moffett

Moffett

But Moffett warned investors that the traditional cable television model is still under serious threat, and AT&T’s less-promoted “Live a Little” package offering 60 popular cable networks for the everyday price of $35 is the equivalent of AT&T “running with scissors” because it alone could cause millions of cable and satellite customers to cut the cord and stay more than satisfied with a slimmed down cable package.

“Virtually all the channels that anyone would really want, save for regional sports networks” are included in the lighter “Live a Little” package, Moffett added. Customers who loathe watching sports but want a beefier package can also sign up for a $50, 80-channel “Just Right” package that primarily omits sports-oriented channels and a handful of spinoff cable networks few would miss.

Moffett and other Wall Street analysts were hoping AT&T would bloat its cheaper package with home shopping, religion, and other little-watched, low-cost cable networks and then entice customers to upgrade to unlock more popular cable channels. Instead, AT&T’s most premium package — “Gotta Have It” which costs $70 a month adds the “can live without” networks like Boomerang, Cloo, El Rey, Centric, and other little-known channels that typically live unnoticed in Channel Siberia on 500+ channel cable lineups. The highest premium priced package is attractive only for those looking for Starz/Encore channels and the basic cable network that gets no respect — Hallmark Movies & Mysteries (a/k/a the Dick van Dyke Permanent Employment Network.)

prepay-directvnow“By stacking their base package with all the best networks — likely a requirement for getting the programming contracts at all — they still have the same problem that was highlighted initially,” by Moffett. “Put simply, they aren’t going to make any money.”

That quest for profit is further challenged with subscriber acquisition programs that dole out free Apple TV units to customers willing to prepay for three months of service at the $35 rate or an Amazon Fire Stick (with Echo remote) in return for prepaying for one month of service. Anyone in the market for either device can sign up for DirecTV Now, get the equipment at an attractive price, and consider the 1-3 months of service a free extra bonus. Customers were reportedly lining up at AT&T’s owned and operated retail outlets (not authorized resellers) to pick up devices and sign up for service today.

At these prices and with these promotions, AT&T DirecTV Now could first decimate the subscriber base of its immediate competitors Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, either of which offer a much less compelling value. AT&T can afford to charge a lower price because it has deeper pockets and enormous volume discounts on the wholesale price of cable programming — combining millions of DirecTV and U-verse TV subscribers together to negotiate what industry insiders suspect are major discounts the smaller providers cannot get.

But there are issues likely to be deal-breakers for some would-be DirecTV Now subscribers:

  • Local broadcast stations are available only in a handful of selected cities and only a very few include all ABC, NBC, and FOX affiliates. CBS is not participating in DirecTV Now at this time, and that is a major omission;
  • NFL Network isn’t on the lineup;
  • Regional sports networks are spotty and geographically restricted. Here is a detailed PDF outlining options by zip code;
  • There is a limit of two concurrent streams and although video quality is very good, it is not the 1080/HD experience AT&T’s marketing material would suggest. The quality of your internet connection will make a difference;
  • No DVR option at this time.

CNET compiled an excellent channel comparison chart to help consumers figure out which, if any, of these upstarts make sense as a cable TV replacement:

DirecTV Now vs. Sling TV vs. PlayStation Vue (top 169 channels, see notes below)

Channel DirecTV Now Packages Sling Package Vue Package
A&E Live a Little Orange, Blue No
ABC Yes or VOD Broadcast extra Yes or VOD
AMC Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
American Heroes Go Big No Elite
Animal Planet Live a Little No Access
Audience Live a Little No No
AXS TV Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Baby TV No Kids extra No
BBC America Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
BBC World News Go Big News extra Elite
beIN Sports No Sports extra Core
BET Live a Little Blue (Orange lifestyle extra) No
Bloomberg TV Live a Little Base No
Boomerang Gotta Have It Kids extra Elite
Bravo Live a Little Blue Access
BTN Just Right No Core
Campus Insiders No Sports extra No
Cartoon Network/Adult Swim Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
CBS No No Yes or VOD
CBS Sports No No No
Centric Go Big No No
Cheddar No Orange, Blue No
Chiller Gotta Have It No Elite
Cinemax PREMIUM ($5/month) PREMIUM No
Cloo Gotta Have It No Elite
CMT Live a Little Comedy extra No
CNBC Live a Little News extra Blue Access
CNBC World Just Right No Elite
CNN Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Comedy Central Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Comedy.TV Just Right No No
Cooking Channel Just Right Lifestyle extra Elite
CSPAN Live a Little No No
Destination America Go Big No Access
Discovery Channel Live a Little No Access
Discovery Family Go Big No Access
Discovery Life Go Big No Elite
Disney Channel Live a Little Orange Access
Disney Junior Live a Little Kids extra Orange Access
Disney XD Live a Little Kids extra Orange Access
DIY Go Big Lifestyle extra Access
Duck TV No Kids extra No
E! Live a Little Lifestyle extra Blue Access
El Rey Network Gotta Have It Orange, Blue No
Encore Gotta Have It No No
EPIX No Hollywood extra No
EPIX Drive-in No Hollywood extra No
EPIX Hits No Hollywood extra PREMIUM, Elite
EPIX2 No Hollywood extra No
ESPN Live a Little Orange Access
ESPN 2 Live a Little Orange Access
ESPN Bases Loaded No Sports extra Orange No
ESPN Buzzer Beater No Sports extra Orange No
ESPN Deportes No Spanish TV extra Orange Elite
ESPN Goal Line No Sports extra Orange No
ESPNEWS Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
ESPNU Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
Esquire No No Access
Euro News No World News Extra No
Flama No Orange, Blue No
Food Network Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Fox Yes or VOD Blue Yes or VOD
Fox Business Live a Little No Access
Fox College Sports Atlantic No No Elite
Fox College Sports Central No No Elite
Fox College Sports Pacific No No Elite
Fox News Live a Little No Access
Fox Sports 1 Live a Little Blue Access
Fox Sports 2 Go Big Blue Access
Fox Sports Prime Ticket Just Right No No
France 24 No World News Extra No
Freeform Live a Little Orange Access
Fuse Just Right No No
Fusion Just Right World News Extra Elite
FX Live a Little Blue Access
FXM Go Big No Elite
FXX Live a Little Blue Access
FYI Go Big Lifestyle extra No
Galavision Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Golf Channel Go Big Sports extra Blue Core
GSN Just Right Comedy extra No
Hallmark Live a Little Lifestyle extra No
Hallmark Movies & Mysteries No LIfestyle extra No
HBO PREMIUM ($5/month) PREMIUM PREMIUM, Ultra
HDNet Movies No Hollywood extra No
HGTV Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Hi-Yah No No Elite
History Live a Little Orange, Blue No
HLN Live a Little News extra Access
HSN No No No
IFC Just Right Orange, Blue Core
Ion No No No
Impact No No Elite
Investigation Discovery Live a Little No Access
JusticeCentral.TV Just Right No No
Lifetime Live a Little Orange, Blue No
LMN Just Right Lifestyle extra No
Local Now No Orange, Blue No
LOGO Go Big Comedy extra No
Longhorn Network Just Right No No
Machinima No No Elite
Maker No Orange, Blue No
MGM-HD No No Elite
MLB Network Just Right No No
Motors TV No Sports extra No
MSNBC Live a Little News extra Blue Access
MTV Live a Little Comedy extra No
MTV Classic Go Big No No
MTV2 Live a Little Comedy extra No
Nat Geo Wild Go Big Blue Elite
National Geographic Live a Little Blue Access
NBA TV Go Big Sports extra Core
NBC Yes or VOD Blue Yes or VOD
NBC Sports Network Just Right Blue Access
NDTV 24/7 No World News Extra No
News 18 India No World News Extra No
Newsy No Orange, Blue No
NFL Network No Blue Core
NFL Red Zone No Sports extra (Blue) PREMIUM (Core and up)
NHL Network Go Big Sports extra No
Nick Jr. Live a Little Blue No
Nickelodeon Live a Little No No
Nicktoons Live a Little Kids Extra Blue No
ONE World Sports No No Elite
Outdoor Channel No No No
Outside Television No Sports extra Elite
OWN Just Right No Access
Oxygen Just Right Lifestyle extra Blue Access
Palladia No No Elite
PBS No No No
Poker Central No No Elite
Polaris No Orange, Blue Elite
POP No No Access
QVC No No No
Revolt Go Big No No
RFD TV Live a Little No No
Russia Today No World News Extra No
Science Just Right No Access
SEC Network Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
Showtime No No PREMIUM, Elite
Spike Live a Little Comedy extra No
Sprout Go Big No Elite
Starz Gotta Have It PREMIUM No
Sundance TV Go Big Hollywood extra Core
Syfy Live a Little Blue Access
TBS Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
TCM Live a Little Hollywood extra Core
Teen Knick Live a Little Kids extra Blue Elite
Telemundo Live a Little No No
Tennis Channel Go Big No No
The Weather Channel Live a Little No No
TLC Live a Little No Access
TNT Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Travel Channel Just Right Orange, Blue Access
truTV Live a Little Blue (Orange comedy extra) Access
TV Land Live a Little Comedy extra No
TVG Go Big No No
Universal HD No No Elite
Univision Live a Little Blue (Orange Broadcast extra) No
Univision Deportes Gotta Have It Sports extra No
Univision Mas Just Right Blue (Orange Broadcast Extra) No
USA Network Live a Little Blue Access
Velocity HD Live a Little No Elite
VH1 Live a Little Lifestyle extra No
VH1 Classic No No Elite
Vibrant TV No Lifestyle extra No
Viceland Live a Little Orange, Blue No
WE tv Live a Little Lifestyle extra Access
WeatherNation Live a Little No No
Notes

Broadcast networks including ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are not available for live streaming in many cities, except where noted as “yes.” The term “VOD” means viewers can watch these shows on-demand 24 hours after airing.
Most RSNs (Regional Sports Networks) not listed; varies per locality

PREMIUM = Available for an additional monthly fee beyond base package

DirecTV Now package key:
Live a Little = $35/month (Local ABC, Fox, NBC broadcasts included in select markets)
Just Right = $50/month
Go Big = $60/month ($35 / month introductory price)
Gotta Have It = $70/month

Sling TV package key:
Orange = $20/month
Blue = $25/month
other “”extras”” = another $5 /month each (Sports extra with Blue is $10)
Broacast Extra: ABC, Univision and Univision Mas available to Sling Orange subscribers in select cities

PlayStation Vue package key:
(for New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco, Miami ONLY)
Access (Base) = $40/month
Core = $45/month (includes Access channels, some Regional Sports Networks)
Elite = $55/month (includes Access and Core channels)
Ultra = $75/month (includes Access, Core and Elite channels, plus HBO and Showtime)

(for all other cities, where ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are available via VOD only)
Access Slim (Base) = $30/month
Core Slim = $35/month (includes Access channels, some Regional Sports Networks)
Elite Slim = $45/month (includes Core and Access channels)
Ultra Slim = $65/month (includes Access, Core and Elite channels, plus HBO and Showtime)

$5 a month each for HBO and Cinemax.

$5 a month each for HBO and Cinemax.

Time Warner, Inc. did its part, offering a substantial deal to DirecTV Now to allow customers to add HBO and Cinemax for just $5 a month each, substantially less than what both networks charge customers signing up a-la-carte. This also unlocks access to streaming options on both networks’ websites.

In fact, as a DirecTV Now customer, you will also become an authenticated pay television subscriber, unlocking access on various cable network websites to extra streaming and on-demand options.

The implications of DirecTV Now depend on how long AT&T extends its $35 offer, which is going to be compelling for a lot of Americans. Moffett predicts DirecTV Now could sign up a staggering 11 million Americans — at least two million cannibalized from its own DirecTV satellite customer base, six million cutting the cord on their cable company (including AT&T U-verse) and another three million cord-cutters or “cable-nevers.” Most of the latter are Millennials, and research suggests $35 may be low enough of a price point to sign them up.

AT&T is also raising concerns among internet activists because online streaming of DirecTV Now will not count against an AT&T postpaid customer’s data allowance. This zero rating scheme is seen as an end run around Net Neutrality, particularly because AT&T is not as generous with its competitors. AT&T said it will offer other video streamers the possibility of being exempted from AT&T data allowances, if they pay AT&T for the privilege.

How It Works/Signing Up

AT&T DirecTV Now starts with the Google Chrome 50+, Safari 8+ or Internet Explorer 11+ (on Windows 8 and up) web browsers or the DirecTV Now app. AT&T recommends Chrome for desktop viewing. The service doesn’t work with Firefox, Microsoft Edge, or legacy browsers.

The first step is registering for a 7-day free trial. Before handing over your credit card number, if you scroll down you will find a small free preview option is also available that includes a largely useless streaming barker channel promoting the service and a respectable collection of video on demand options from basic cable networks. The free video streaming option will give you a clue about how the service is likely to perform on your internet connection and devices. For the record, DirecTV Now now supports:

Support for other devices like Roku is coming next year.

Customers must be within the United States to use the service. If you travel abroad or to any U.S. territories like Guam, the Virgin Islands, or Puerto Rico, DirecTV Now will stop working until you return. When you sign up, keep in mind your billing zip code will mean a lot when it comes to accessing regional sports and local broadcast channels. DirecTV Now uses your billing zip code and your actual location to determine whether you are qualified to access regional sports networks and local stations.

Score a Free Apple TV Player or Amazon Fire TV Stick

Apple TV (4th Generation): Effectively free after prepaying for three months of service.

Apple TV (4th Generation): Effectively free after prepaying for three months of service.

If you are looking to score an Apple TV (4th generation) or an Amazon Fire TV Stick, you will want to skip the 7-day free trial and enroll in a paid plan immediately, which will allow you to select which player you want. If you want the Apple TV, you will prepay for three months at $35 a month ($105). The Amazon Fire TV Stick only requires you to prepay for the first month of service ($35). One device per email address, but you can sign up for multiple accounts (using individual email addresses) and get a device for each — especially useful for larger families that could run into DirecTV Now’s two-stream limit.

Consider your choices before enrolling. If you want to add premium channels or upgrade your plan, and you select the three-month prepay option to grab an Apple TV Player, adding premium channels like HBO and Cinemax or moving to a higher plan will result in three months of prepaid charges for those upgrades as well, billed automatically to your credit card on file — which amounts to a $30 charge if you select HBO and Cinemax. After your promotional prepaid term ends, your account will continue to be billed at the $35 (plus any add-ons) rate until you cancel. AT&T covers you for the forfeited first free week by extending your bill date out by seven days. Allow 2-3 weeks for the device(s) to be shipped to you.

You can also sign up at an AT&T owned and operated retail store, but be aware AT&T “authorized” reseller stores are not participating in this promotion. That may allow you to bring home a device today.

Don’t care about the device promotions? Take the 7-day free trial, but be aware that you are giving AT&T your credit card number and charges begin immediately after the free week ends unless you cancel. Here’s how:

  1. Sign in to your account.
  2. From your User Account overview page, select Manage My Plan.
  3. Select the Cancel Plan link.
  4. Choose one of the listed reasons.
  5. Select Cancel Now to confirm cancellation.

Your subscription will continue until the end of the billing cycle. No refunds or credits are provided for partial months. Your account will revert to Freeview demo status after you cancel a subscription.  You can add a subscription package back at any time.

Oddly, AT&T is not charging sales tax for New York, California, Maryland or Virginia residents. Customers in states like Tennessee where AT&T provides local phone service were most likely to face sales taxes. Those signing up early are in the best position to exploit what appears to be an oversight, or it represents the first time the New York Department of Taxation and Finance left money on the table.

directv-now-price

Streaming from Your AT&T Wireless Device Does Not Count Against Your Data Allowance

If you’re a DirecTV Now and AT&T Wireless customer, streaming most DirecTV Now movies and programs over the AT&T wireless network won’t count against your data usage allowance, according to AT&T. But believe it or not, AT&T’s fine print indicates advertisements and non-streaming app activity do count! There are some other important disclosures to be aware of:

  • You must be on the AT&T Wireless network within the U.S. (U.S. territories are not qualified for zero rating);
  • You must be a postpaid, not a prepaid AT&T wireless customer to qualify and must not have “data block” on your mobile line;
  • If you are grandfathered on an unlimited data plan, using DirecTV Now will not count against the 22GB data threshold which subjects you to speed throttling;
  • This offer may disappear at any time and/or is subject to change.

DirecTV Now Qualifies You as an Authenticated Pay Television Subscriber

Many cable networks require customers enter their cable, satellite, or telco TV login credentials to unlock video streaming and on-demand features. DirecTV Now is a qualified provider for these websites (more coming):

Other networks are not yet enabled for DirecTV Now. CNN, for example, has a prompt for DirecTV satellite customers to log in, but DirecTV Now has its own account registration system.

Local Channels Are Very Spotty

Local over the air channels are very limited on DirecTV Now and are geographically restricted. You can access these channels only if you are located in or very near to the cities listed below and your billing zip code is in the same area. If you travel outside of the immediate area, live streaming will stop working until you return.

ABC*  NBC**  FOX  and Telemundo  are covered by DirecTV Now in selected cities. CBS is not available on the service at all at this time.

  • wlsAtlanta, GA: WAGA-TV
  • Austin, TX: KTBC
  • Boston, MA: Telemundo East
  • Charlotte, NC: WJZY
  • Chicago, IL: WLS-TV, WMAQ, WFLD, Telemundo East
  • Dallas-Ft Worth, TX: KXAS, KDFW-TV, Telemundo East
  • Denver, CO: Telemundo East
  • fox2Detroit, MI: WJBK
  • Fresno-Visalia, CA: KFSN-TV, Telemundo East
  • Gainesville, FL: WOGX
  • Hartford-New Haven, CT: WVIT
  • Houston, TX: KTRK-TV, Telemundo East
  • 4nbcLas Vegas, NV: Telemundo East
  • Los Angeles, CA: KABC-TV, KNBC, KTTV, Telemundo East
  • Miami-Ft Lauderdale, FL: WTVJ, Telemundo East
  • Minneapolis, MN: KMSP-TV
  • New York, NY: WABC-TV, WNBC, WNYW, Telemundo East
  • Orlando-Daytona, FL: WOFL
  • Philadelphia, PA: WPVI-TV, WCAU, WTXF-TV, Telemundo East
  • Phoenix, AZ: KSAZ-TV, Telemundo East
  • Raleigh-Durham, NC: WTVD-TV
  • San Diego, CA: KNSD
  • San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose, CA: KGO-TV, KNTV, KTVU
  • Tampa-St Petersburg, FL: WTVT
  • Washington, D.C.: WRC, WTTG

*Not available on Internet Explorer 11 on Windows 7. **NBC live stream available on mobile and desktop devices only.

Giving the Service a Test

Stop the Cap! enrolled as an ordinary customer this morning and gave the service a rigorous test, including multiple streams over our 50/5Mbps internet connection. The service debuted today, and there is little doubt there is intense interest from consumers, so we expected some performance problems from the initial demand. We didn’t see any evidence of traffic congestion, however, and that is a good sign.

AT&T's John Stankey explaining DirecTV Now.

AT&T’s John Stankey explaining DirecTV Now.

A similar test of Sling TV did not perform as well during peak viewing times, when streaming problems emerged. DirecTV Now seems to be built to withstand intense demand.

One customer with a 6Mbps U-verse internet connection “in the boonies” was impressed the video quality of DirecTV Now was high even on a relatively slow DSL-like connection.

“This blows SlingTV away,” the person shared. “I only have U-verse 6Mbps internet service and it is not pixelated or buffering at all. Looks exactly like my regular DirecTV picture.”

AT&T published these recommendations for DirecTV Now customers regarding internet connection speeds:

  • 150kbps – 2.5Mbps – Minimum broadband connection speed for Mobile devices
  • 2.5 – 5.0Mbps – Recommended for HD quality

We’ve been led to believe DirecTV Now should perform equivalently to 1080i HDTV service (depending on the video source of course). We cannot say we agree it does right now. We noticed significant artifacts on high-motion video and picture graininess that left us feeling this was closer to a 720p HD experience. It isn’t possible to say whether the video player reduced playback quality because of internet traffic issues we were unaware of or if this is how the picture is supposed to look. It did not significantly detract from the viewing experience and the lack of buffering and pixelation was far more important to us.

AT&T store in NYC.

AT&T store in NYC.

DirecTV Now would serve adequately as a cable TV replacement if it had local station coverage and some type of DVR. At present, DirecTV Now is limited to a “Restart” feature that allows you to restart shows already in progress on certain channels, but you cannot fast-forward or record a restarted show. Once AT&T introduces a cloud-based DVR and fills out the local station lineup, this service could be lethal to overpriced cable TV packages.

AT&T’s marketing attempts to undercut the powerful position of inertia by setting an unknown time limit for customers to enroll in the $35 a month video package. If you don’t sign up today, you may not get the “free” Apple TV or Amazon Fire Stick and a respectable cable TV package for just $35 a month — about half what cable operators are charging these days for their bloated video packages. AT&T doesn’t care if you stick with your current cable provider and signup for DirecTV Now, if only to grab free streaming video equipment while sampling the service. They get their money either way.

Had AT&T permanently kept the price at around $35, many consumers would likely sit back and wait for AT&T to sort out the streaming contract issues it has with the TV networks — CBS in particular, and come up with a DVR solution before those potential customers decided to sign up and make the change. Based on several “hot deals” websites, the mentality among many consumers is to “lock in” the $35 price now and wait for AT&T to build out the package while continuing to invest $35 a month on it. That doesn’t seem so bad when you get free electronics as part of the deal.

Our Final Take

AT&T’s DirecTV Now is a potential winner and worth signing up for because of the introductory price and free equipment offers. But if you decide not to disconnect your cable/satellite television service, it is probably safe to drop DirecTV Now after your prepayment expires and return to resume service a little later. There will probably be some warning when AT&T will end the introductory price for the service, and interested customers can hop back on board before that date arrives. DirecTV Now will be a formidable competitor, but it will fight against consumer resistance to confront the cable company and cut cable’s cord until it solves the local channels issue and has a credible DVR option. The service could also use an add-on to make adding additional concurrent streams possible and more affordable than just signing up for a second account.

Don’t count out Big Cable just yet. With data caps and other internet overcharging schemes, Comcast, Cox, Suddenlink, and others can play games with usage allowances to deter customers from streaming all of their video entertainment online at the risk of blowing past their allowance. DirecTV Now’s $35 price won’t mean much after overlimit fees begin appearing on your internet bill.

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