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FCC to AT&T: Put Up or Shut Up; Agency Seeks Details About AT&T’s Fiber Pause Over Net Neutrality

Stephenson: No fiber for you

Stephenson: No fiber for you

AT&T’s decision to suspend fiber broadband upgrades over the Obama Administration’s strong support for Net Neutrality may backfire on the telecom giant’s multi-billion dollar bid to acquire DirecTV.

The Federal Communications Commission has dispatched a letter to Robert W. Quinn, Jr., AT&T’s senior vice President and federal regulatory & chief privacy officer, inquiring whether AT&T really meant what it said about plans to suspend fiber expansion and that might impact at least two million additional homes that are part of a broadband expansion commitment included in AT&T’s offer to acquire DirecTV.

The FCC’s Jamillia Ferris wants AT&T to clarify CEO Randall Stephenson’s comments at a recent investor event, requesting information that may reveal whether AT&T was using the suspension of its fiber buildout as a political weapon against Net Neutrality.

“We made some comments in the DirecTV announcement that we would build fiber to two million additional homes,” Stephenson said at a Wells Fargo technology conference last week. “We will obviously commit to that once the DirecTV deal is done, we will keep going. But what we have also announced on top of that is that we are going to deploy fiber to 100 cities. And look, we can’t go out and just invest that kind of money deploying fiber to 100 cities other than these two million not knowing under what rules that investment will be governed. And so we have to pause and we have to just put a stop on those kinds of investments that we are doing today.”

The FCC’s request suggests the company’s answers may impact how the FCC treats AT&T’s request for approval of its merger with DirecTV.

Requested from AT&T no later than Nov. 21:

(a) Data regarding the Company’s current plans for fiber deployment, specifically:

(1) the current number of households to which fiber is deployed and the breakdown by technology (i.e., FTTP or FTTN) and geographic area of deployment;

(2) the total number of households to which the Company planned to deploy fiber prior to the Company’s decision to limit deployment to the 2 million households and the breakdown by technology and geographic area of deployment; and

(3) the total number of households to which the Company currently plans to deploy fiber, including the 2 million households, and the breakdown by technology and geographic area of deployment;

(b) A description of

(1) whether the AT&T FTTP Investment Model demonstrates that fiber deployment is now unprofitable; and

(2) whether the fiber to the 2 million homes following acquisition of DirecTV would be unprofitable; and

(c) All documents relating to the Company’s decision to limit AT&T’s deployment of fiber to 2 million homes following the acquisition of DirecTV.

Big Cable, Telcos Spent $42 Million In 2013-2014 Lobbying for Deregulation, Against Net Neutrality

AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner Cable and the cable industry’s chief lobbying group spent $42.8 million during the 2013-2014 election cycle to weigh in on issues including burying Net Neutrality, outlawing community broadband competition, winning tax breaks for themselves, and avoiding consumer protection regulations.

A Common Cause analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics and the Institute for Money in State Politics shows that the usual suspects poured money into political coffers on the state and federal level to influence lawmakers.

2014-contributions-from-net-1

On the federal level, murky party committees received the largest individual checks: a total of $862,223 for House and Senate Republicans and $552,605 for Democrats. Individual members of Congress also received their own contributions, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner ($98,175 from Comcast) and Democratic Senator Mark Pryor ($88,650 from Comcast, TWC, and National Cable and Telecom. Assn.) Pryor will need to spend his contributions quickly. He was de-elected by Arkansas voters last Tuesday.

Net Neutrality is a major topic on the minds of the cable and telco companies, as is ongoing deregulation and decommissioning rural landline service, and pushback on revelations AT&T and Verizon were only too happy to turn over your phone records to the federal government.

In the states, the bigger the issues coming up in the legislature, the bigger the campaign checks. In Florida, AT&T is the state’s single largest source of political donations, giving $1.53 million to state lawmakers in the past year and another $660,000 to Gov. Rick Scott (R) and his appointed heads of state agencies. AT&T is lobbying for eliminating Florida’s telecommunications tax, win the right to place cell towers wherever they wish without much interference from local officials, and further deregulation. Most of AT&T’s money goes into the hands of the state’s Republicans.

In New York and California, Democrats got a major chunk of money from Comcast and Time Warner Cable — New York Governor Andrew Cuomo received $60,800 each from both Comcast and Time Warner Cable (totaling $121,600). California Governor Jerry Brown received $54,400 from Time Warner Cable and $27,200 from Comcast. Both states are reviewing the merger of the two companies this year. AT&T and Verizon are also major donors – AT&T wants to dismantle the rural telephone network in California and Verizon is trying to convince the New York legislature to approve its own rural landline replacement – Voice Link. It also wants reduced scrutiny of its landline performance in New York and more access to New York City buildings where it faces resistance from property owners who want compensation from Verizon to install FiOS.

2014-contributions-from-net

AT&T Blackmails America: No (Phony) Fiber Upgrades Until You Kill Net Neutrality

Phillip Dampier November 12, 2014 AT&T, Consumer News, Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

ransomAT&T is putting its gigabit fiber network upgrades on hold as long as President Barack Obama continues to insist on robust Net Neutrality for American broadband.

AT&T Randall Stephenson told Wall Street investors attending this morning’s Wells Fargo Technology, Media, and Telecom Conference that the current state of “uncertainty” created after President Obama delivered remarks Monday in favor of strong Net Neutrality protections makes any investment in fiber upgrades too risky to continue.

“We can’t go out and just invest that kind of money deploying fiber to 100 cities […] not knowing under what rules that investment will be governed,” Stephenson said, excluding the two million customers already upgraded under AT&T’s Project VIP, AT&T’s effort to boost its wireless infrastructure in rural areas and upgrade U-verse to handle incrementally faster broadband speeds. “We have to just put a stop on those kinds of investments that we are doing today.”

But Stephenson’s accusation that the president’s strong support for Net Neutrality is responsible for putting AT&T’s plans on hold ignores the financial realities that have been a part of AT&T’s proposed upgrades since the company first announced them in April 2014.

Construction of Verizon’s fiber to the home FiOS network required significantly enhanced spending for several years, much to the consternation of Wall Street, that frequently criticized the project as too costly. In contrast, there have been few complaints about AT&T’s much larger 100 city fiber project because financial reports show no significant spending increases or large-scale capex investments by AT&T. In fact, on Friday — three days before the president made his remarks on Net Neutrality — AT&T announced investment cuts of at least $3 billion for 2015.

Stop the Cap! has reported AT&T’s fiber upgrades lack appropriate financial support and will require billions in increased investments to offer more than a handful of demonstration projects limited to new housing developments and multi-dwelling units where construction costs are considerably lower.

Stephenson admitted that most of the company’s Project VIP upgrade effort is now nearly complete, allowing the company to return to “normal” spending levels seen when major upgrades are not underway.

“You say okay, here has been the [increased spending in the budget], those projects are finished, we spiked it,” Stephenson said. “Now we’re bringing it down to a more normal rate.”

Stephenson reminded investors that they will see a dramatic savings in investment spending starting late this year.

“Just the cost [to AT&T over the last few years of Project VIP and] to be putting away this much investment, [it has been] a big operating expense block […] that we have been dragging through the last three years as we did all these buildouts,” said Stephenson. “You will see in 2014 the fourth quarter that [level of] capex start to tail off.”

Net Neutrality Freakout: Wall Street Popping Prozac, GOP Furious, Big ISPs, Allies Shocked and Appalled

President Barack Obama’s strong commitment to robust Net Neutrality protections for the Internet has created a nightmare scenario for Net Neutrality opponents who can no longer count on an ex-telecom industry lobbyist now in charge at the Federal Communications Commission to take care of their business interests with watered down, damage-controlled, net-protection-in-name-only.

The attacks on President Obama’s convictions began almost immediately after his video was published on whitehouse.gov with Sen. Ted Cruz’s declaration that Net Neutrality was Obamacare for the Internet, a statement that may have played well with his Texas tea party base, but was quickly parodied on social media:

4

Hal Singer from the ironically named Progressive Policy Institute opined that President Obama’s decision to declare real Net Neutrality would likely lead to the new majority of Republicans to completely defund the agency in retaliation. PPI is strongly opposed to Net Neutrality and many other consumer protection measures and represents the interests of the George W. Bush wing of the Democratic Party, which consists of about six people (and Harold Ford, Jr. probably wishes he was one of them.)

net neutrality fee“We are stunned,” Michael Powell, a former FCC chairman who is now president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said in an e-mail to Bloomberg reporters. After six years of supine oversight of giant telecommunications companies from former FCC chairman Julius “Data caps are innovative” Genachowski and the installation of an ex cable and wireless industry lobbyist as chief regulator of the country’s telecommunications industry, AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have faced few challenges to their regulatory wish lists.

The Washington Post “Innovations” editorial page proved once again the Post is now the leading publication neocons and pro-business conservatives keep hidden under their mattresses next to the Wall Street Journal for those private moments. WaPo devoted news space to a hack editorial from Larry Downes, who turned up in Congress earlier this summer to cheerlead the merger of AT&T and DirecTV and has vociferously opposed Net Neutrality since at least 2011.

In his generally fact-challenged piece, Downes proclaims the Obama Administration was seeking nothing less than to saddle the Internet with oppressive outdated regulations written in 1934, that the courts threw out earlier hybrid/compromise Net Neutrality regulations simply because they lacked the words “commercially unreasonable,”  and that implementing Net Neutrality would destroy investment in the world’s leading cable, mobile, and fiber networks.

Downes does not get out much, because other countries as diverse as South Korea, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Japan and Singapore have long since passed the United States, with much of Europe poised to follow their lead. Some of them even enforce Net Neutrality and the sky failed to collapse as a result. Broadband life is good in Bucharest.

Nothing about the Obama Administration’s proposal for Net Neutrality would do anything beyond preserving the Internet as we know and love it and judges told the FCC’s attorneys they had no authority to impose Net Neutrality under the freak flawed framework established by Michael Powell, former FCC chairman-turned cable industry lobbyist.

Downes also laims he is shocked, shocked I tell you to discover the FCC isn’t immune to political pressure from the White House and other Beltway forces. Except he is one of those Beltway forces.

The Post was content disclosing that Downes was simply a co-author of “Big Bang Disruption:  Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation” (Portfolio 2014) and the project director at the harmless-sounding Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy.

If you suspected Downes was just a tad closer to the industry he often advocates for than the newspaper was letting on, you would be right.

net neutrality comicIn fact, Downes is a “fellow” at the Bell Mason Group, a corporate advisory firm “passionate about partnering with forward-thinking corporate venturing and innovation executives, […] helping clients build risk-reduced, impactful programs and overcome corporate antibodies and obstacles [and deliver] measurable value.”

Net Neutrality is an example of one of those “risky corporate obstacles” to total monopoly control that could deliver Big Telecom companies “measurable value.” Among Downes’ past clients is a tiny phone company named AT&T, but you wouldn’t know it from Bell Mason’s well-scrubbed website. Too bad for them archive.org took a snapshot of an earlier version of his bio, revealing his less-than-arm’s-length relationship with AT&T.

None of this is apparently pertinent to the editors of the Washington Post. Disclosing Downes’ co-authorship of a far-less germane book one critic called a “big bang disappointment” was more than enough.

Bloomberg News avoided the hopelessly unbelievable talking points about Internet takeovers and concluded President Obama threw his FCC chairman under the bus. But even that conclusion originated from the conservative, anti-Net Neutrality group the Heritage Foundation, quoted in the piece:

“He threw Tom Wheeler under the bus,” said James Gattuso, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based policy group. Obama’s strong stance makes it harder for Wheeler to reach a compromise among proponents of regulation, Gattuso said.

Except proponents of Net Neutrality are tired of compromises that favor ungrateful telecom companies that routinely sue even the most minor consumer protections out of existence. Wheeler was rumored to be proposing yet another compromise as late as last week, one that would protect deep-pocketed content companies but leave consumers open to further abuse from high cost fast lanes and speed throttles.

Various tea party groups ginned up with claims of an imminent Obama socialist takeover of the Internet, Maoist censorship and protectionist rate regulation took to the comment sections of various news pieces and wrote comments like this:

“I don’t want government control that would force private companies not to control what I can see on the Internet.” 

riskyFor public policy mavens that claim Net Neutrality is a solution in search of a problem, countering Wall Street’s decisive view that Net Neutrality is a disaster for plans of revenue boosting schemes are harder to counter.

Obama’s intervention effectively kills Wheeler’s mixed plan, Paul de Sa, a senior analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York, said in a note. It will be hard for the FCC, with a majority of Democrats appointed by Obama, to deviate significantly from his preference, and strong rules are likely, de Sa said.

Obama’s intervention “does not lead to price regulation of broadband,” in part because the FCC has no desire to do so, he said. Debate in Washington will intensify, with Congress holding “interminable hearings” and trying to prohibit the FCC from applying the strong rules, de Sa said.

The meaning to investors was clear: Internet profiteering plans are on indefinite hold. Comcast Corp. fell 63 cents or 1.2 percent, to $52.33 at 10:39 a.m. in New York trading, and are down as much as 5.1 percent this week. Time Warner Cable Inc. dropped $3.34, or 2.5 percent. AT&T Inc. fell 16 cents to $34.97 and Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) fell 15 cents to $50.57.

A move to fully reclassify broadband, even if it includes “forbearance” from rate regulation, as President Obama suggested, would send investors scurrying, according to Kim Wallace, a policy analyst at Renaissance Macro Research. That is because it would cast doubt on cable and telecom companies’ abilities to generate a “sufficient return” on capital investments, which they expect to be sky high based on the limited amount of competition that exists today.

Craig Moffett, perennial cable stock booster, had the temerity to blame the latest developments on Comcast.

“The great irony is Comcast helped start this ball rolling by trying to buy Time Warner Cable in the first place,” said Moffett, an analyst at MoffettNathanson. “With the specter of possible price regulation hanging in the balance, [the question is] would Comcast still want to increase its exposure to distribution assets” in broadband.

The Wall Street press provides some salve for the chafed telecom industry high-flyer — the likely prospect of litigation tying up Net Neutrality long enough for Republicans to write new telecom laws that would lead to near-total regulatory capitulation and a free hand for providers. But investors sure hate uncertainty, so the Money Party will have to be postponed for now.

We have four illuminating news stories to share today on Net Neutrality:

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/PBS Why is Obama weighing in on net neutrality 11-10-14.mp4

More than 3 million commenters crashed the Federal Communications Commission website in July to weigh in on the issue of net neutrality. Now President Obama has added his strong support, directing the FCC to protect equal access to all web content. Judy Woodruff speaks with U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith about the president’s move. (7:33)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Ex-FCCs Furchtgott-Roth Copps Debate Net Neutrality 11-10-14.flv

Former Federal Communications Commission members Harold Furchtgott-Roth and Michael Copps talk about President Barack Obama’s call for the “strongest possible rules” to protect the open Internet and the value of so-called net-neutrality rules. They speak with Cory Johnson on Bloomberg Television’s “Bloomberg West.” (7:00)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN Here is why you should care about net neutrality 11-10-14.flv

CNN explores why you should care about Net Neutrality and reminds us in a world of distorted punditry exactly what “Net Neutrality” is. (3:58)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Fox Business Michael Powell Net Neutrality 11-10-14.flv

Fox Business gives former FCC chairman Michael Powell an unchallenged platform to present his views on Net Neutrality. It becomes clear which side Fox is on when they call porn peddler Larry Flynt the quintessential Net Neutrality advocate. (5:08)

Net Neutrality: President Obama Calls on FCC to Reclassify Wired/Mobile Broadband Under Title 2

tollIn a major victory for net roots groups, President Barack Obama today announced his support for the strongest possible Net Neutrality protections, asking the Federal Communications Commission to quickly reclassify broadband as a “telecommunications service” subject to oversight and consumer protection regulatory policies that would prohibit paid fast lanes, the blocking or degrading of websites for financial reasons, and more transparency in how Internet Service Providers handle traffic.

“For almost a century, our law has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access in and out of your home or business,” said the president. “That is why a phone call from a customer of one phone company can reliably reach a customer of a different one, and why you will not be penalized solely for calling someone who is using another provider. It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information — whether a phone call, or a packet of data.”

“’Net neutrality’ has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation — but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted,” President Obama added. “We cannot allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. That is why today, I am asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to answer the call of almost four million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect Net Neutrality.”

The president’s call will likely force FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler to abandon efforts to reclassify only certain types of Internet traffic under Title 2 regulations while leaving consumers vulnerable to paid fast lanes and other traffic monetizing schemes. Wheeler was rumored to be working on a limited Net Neutrality plan that would protect large online video content distributors like Netflix and Amazon from unfair compensation deals with ISPs. The plan would have given the FCC authority to review agreements between your Internet provider and some of the net’s biggest traffic generators.

President Obama’s statement goes beyond Wheeler’s tolerance for “individualized, differentiated arrangements” that could let cable and phone companies offer compensated “preferred partnership” deals with websites and applications, granting them special treatment or exemptions from speed throttles or usage caps not available to others.

The president’s four principles for a free and open Internet represent “common-sense steps that reflect the Internet you and I use every day, and that some ISPs already observe:”

  • netneutralityNo blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business;
  • No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others — through a process often called “throttling” — based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences;
  • Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet;
  • No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.

The president also expressed a desire to see the same rules applied to mobile networks. That is a significant departure from the policies of the FCC under Wheeler’s predecessor Julius Genachowski, who served as chairman during the Obama Administration’s first term in office. His Net Neutrality policies exempted wireless carriers.

“The rules also have to reflect the way people use the Internet today, which increasingly means on a mobile device,” said the president. “I believe the FCC should make these rules fully applicable to mobile broadband as well, while recognizing the special challenges that come with managing wireless networks.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/111014_NetNeutrality_Final.mp4

President Barack Obama recorded this message supporting strong Net Neutrality protections for the Internet. (1:56)

Republicans in Congress and large telecommunications companies both immediately pounced on the president’s Net Neutrality plans.

Cruz Control

Cruz

“Net Neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet,” tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) “The Internet should not operate at the speed of government.”

Cruz’s spokeswoman,  Amanda Carpenter, added that Net Neutrality would place the government “in charge of determining pricing, terms of service, and what products can be delivered. Sound like Obamacare much?”

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association expressed surprise over the president’s strong public support for Net Neutrality action.

“We are stunned the President would abandon the longstanding, bipartisan policy of lightly regulating the Internet and call for extreme Title II regulation,” the NCTA wrote. “The cable industry strongly supports an open Internet, is building an open internet, and strongly believes that over-regulating the fastest growing technology in our history will not advance the cause of Internet freedom. There is no dispute about the propriety of transparency rules and bans on discrimination and blocking. But this tectonic shift in national policy, should it be adopted, would create devastating results.”

“Heavily regulating the Internet will lead to slower Internet growth, higher prices for consumers, and the threat of excessive intervention by the government in the working of the Internet,” stated the NCTA release. “This will also have severe and profound implications internationally, as the United States loses the high ground in arguing against greater control of the Internet by foreign governments. There is no substantive justification for this overreach, and no acknowledgment that it is unlawful to prohibit paid prioritization under Title II. We will fight vigorously against efforts to impose this backwards policy.”

Republican Victory Sparks Potential Lobbying Frenzy Rewriting/Deregulating Nation’s Telecom Laws

Thune

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) will assume the leadership of the Senate Commerce Committee in January.

The Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate could have profound implications on U.S. telecommunications law as Congress contemplates further deregulation of broadcasting, broadband, and telecom services while curtailing oversight powers at the Federal Communications Commission.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), expected to assume leadership over the Senate Commerce Committee in January, has already signaled interest in revising the 1996 Communications Act, which was built on the premise that deregulation would increase competition in the telecommunications marketplace.

“Our staff has looked at some things we might do in the area of telecommunications reform,” Thune told Capital Journal.” That hasn’t been touched in a long time. A lot has changed. The last time that the telecom sector of the economy was reformed was 1996, and I think in that bill there was one mention of the Internet. So it’s a very different world today.”

Republicans have complained the 1996 Telecom Act is dependent on dividing up services into different regulatory sectors and subjecting them to different regulatory treatment. In the current Net Neutrality debate, for example, a major component of the dispute involves which regulatory sector broadband should be classified under — “an information service” subject to few regulations or oversight or Title 2, a “telecommunications service” that has regulatory protections for consumers who have few choices in service providers.

Republicans have advocated streamlining the rules and eliminating “broad prescriptive rules” that can have “unintended consequences for innovation and investment.” Most analysts read that as a signal Republicans want further deregulation across the telecom industry to remove “uncertainty for innovators.”

Republicans have been particularly hostile towards imposing strong Net Neutrality protections, particularly if it involves reclassification of broadband as a “telecommunications service” under Title 2 of the Communications Act. Most expect Thune and his Republican colleagues will oppose any efforts to enact Net Neutrality policies that open the door for stronger FCC regulatory oversight.

The move to re-examine the Communications Act will result in an enormous stimulation of the economy, if you happen to run a D.C. lobbying firm. Just broaching the subject of revising the nation’s telecommunications laws stimulates political campaign contributions and intensified lobbying efforts. From 1997-2004, telecommunications companies advocating for more deregulation spent more than $44 million in direct soft money and PAC donations — $18 million to Democrats, $27 million to Republicans. During the same period, eight companies and trade groups in the broadcasting, cable and telephone sector collectively spent more than $400 million on lobbying activities alone, according to Common Cause.

Reopening the Telecom Act for revision is expected to generate intense lobbying activity, as Congress contemplates subjects like eliminating or curtailing FCC oversight over broadband, how wireless spectrum is distributed to wireless companies, how many radio and television stations a company can own or control, maintaining or strengthening bans on community broadband networks, oversight of cable television packages, and compensation for broadcast stations vacating frequencies to make room for more cellular networks.

Common Cause notes ordinary citizens had little say over the contents of the ’96 Act and consumer group objections were largely ignored. When the bill was eventually signed into law by President Bill Clinton, its sweeping provisions affected almost every American:

Good times at K Street lobbying firms are ahead

Good times at K Street lobbying firms are ahead

BROADCASTING

  1. The 96 Act lifted the limit on how many radio stations one company could own. The cap had been set at 40 stations. It made possible the creation of radio giants like Clear Channel, with more than 1,200 stations, and led to a substantial drop in the number of minority station owners, homogenization of playlists, and less local news. Today, few listeners can tell the difference between radio stations with similar formats, regardless of where they are located.
  2. Lifted from 12 the number of local TV stations any one corporation could own, and expanded the limit on audience reach. One company had been allowed to own stations that reached up to a quarter of U.S. TV households. The Act raised that national cap to 35 percent. These changes spurred huge media mergers and greatly increased media concentration. Together, just five companies – Viacom, the parent of CBS, Disney, owner of ABC, FOX-News Corp., Comcast-NBC, and Time Warner now control 75 percent of all prime-time viewing.
  3. The Act gave broadcasters, for free, valuable digital TV licenses that could have brought in up to $70 billion to the federal treasury if they had been auctioned off. Broadcasters, who claimed they deserved these free licenses because they serve the public, have largely ignored their public interest obligations, failing to provide substantive local news and public affairs reporting and coverage of congressional, local and state elections. Many television stations have discontinued local news programming altogether or have relied on partnerships with other stations in the same market to produce news programming for them. Most local television stations are now owned by out-of-state conglomerates that control dozens of television stations and now expect to be compensated by viewers watching them on cable or satellite television.
  4. The Act reduced broadcasters’ accountability to the public by extending the term of a broadcast license from five to eight years, and made it more difficult for citizens to challenge those license renewals.

TELECOMMUNICATIONS

  1. The 1996 Act preserved telephone monopoly control of their networks, allowing them to refuse new entrants who depend on telco infrastructure to sell their services.
  2. The Act was designed to promote increased competition but also allowed major telephone companies to refuse to compete outside of their home territories. It also allowed Bell operating companies to buy each other, resulting in just two remaining major operators — AT&T and Verizon.

CABLE

  1. The ’96 Act stripped away the ability of local franchising authorities and the FCC to maintain oversight of cable television rates. Immediately after the ’96 Act took effect, rate increases accelerated.
  2. The Act permitted the FCC to ease cable-broadcast cross-ownership rules. As cable systems increased the number of channels, the broadcast networks aggressively expanded their ownership of cable networks with the largest audiences. In the past, large cable operators like Time Warner, TCI, Cablevision and Comcast owned most cable networks. Broadcast networks acquired much of their ownership interests. Ninety percent of the top 50 cable stations are owned by the same parent companies that own the broadcast networks, challenging the notion that cable is any real source of competition.

net-neutral-cartoon“Those who advocated the Telecommunications Act of 1996 promised more competition and diversity, but the opposite happened,” said Common Cause president Chellie Pingree back in 1995. “Citizens, excluded from the process when the Act was negotiated in Congress, must have a seat at the table as Congress proposes to revisit this law.”

Above all, the legacy of the 1996 Telecom Act was massive consolidation across almost every sector.

Over ten years, the legislation was supposed to save consumers $550 billion, including $333 billion in lower long-distance rates, $32 billion in lower local phone rates, and $78 billion in lower cable bills. But most of those savings never materialized. Indeed, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who opposed the legislation, noted in 2003: “From January 1996 to the present, the consumer price index has risen 17.4 percent … Cable rates are up 47.2 percent. Local phone rates are up 23.2 percent.”

Advocates of deregulation also promised the Act would create 1.4 million jobs and increase the nation’s Gross Domestic Product by as much as $2 trillion. Both proved wrong. Consolidation meant the loss of at least 500,000 “redundant” jobs between 2001-2003 alone, and companies that became indebted in the frenzy of mergers and acquisitions ended up losing more than $2 trillion in the speculative frenzy, conflicts of interest, and police-free zone of the deregulated telecom marketplace.

The consolidation has also drastically reduced the number of independent voices speaking, writing, and broadcasting to the American people. Today, just a handful of corporations control most radio and TV stations, newspapers, cable systems, movie studios, and concert ticketing and facilities.

The law also stripped away oversight of the broadband industry which faces little competition and has no incentive to push for service-enhancing upgrades, costing America’s leadership in broadband and challenging the digital economy. What few controls the FCC still has are now in the crosshairs of large telecom companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon.

All are lobbying against institutionalized Net Neutrality, oppose community broadband competition, regulated minimum speed standards, and service oversight. AT&T and Verizon are lobbying to dismantle the rural telephone network in favor of their much more lucrative wireless networks.

Consumers Union predicted the outcome of the 1996 Telecom Act back in 2000, when it suggested a duopoly would eventually exist for most Americans, one dedicated primarily to telephone services (AT&T and Verizon Wireless’ mobile networks) and the other to video and broadband (cable). The publisher of Consumers Reports also accurately predicted neither the telephone or the cable company would compete head to head with other telephone or cable companies, and High Speed Internet would be largely controlled by cable networks using a closed, proprietary network not open to competitors.

Analysts suggest a 2015 Telecom Act would largely exist to further cement the status quo by prohibiting federal and state governments from regulating provider conduct and allowing the marketplace a free hand to determine minimum standards governing speeds, network performance, and pricing.

In fact, the most radical idea Thune has tentatively proposed for consideration in a revisit of the Act is his “Local Choice” concept to unbundle broadcast TV channels from all-encompassing cable television packages. His proposal would allow consumers to opt out of subscribing to one or more local broadcast television stations now bundled into cable television packages.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Ignores Millions of Americans, Plans Fake Net Neutrality Frankenplan

frankenplanThe majority of 3.7 million comments received by the FCC advocate strong and unambiguous Net Neutrality protections for the Internet, but that seems to have had little impact on FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, who is laying the groundwork for a hybrid Net Neutrality Frankenplan that would marginally protect deep pocketed content producers while leaving few, if any, protections for consumers.

The Wall Street Journal reported late last week that Wheeler is considering a “hybrid” approach, separating broadband into two distinct services:

  • Retail Broadband, sold to consumers, would continue as a broadly deregulated service, allowing ISPs to set prices and policies with little, if any, oversight. Wheeler’s plan would allow providers to freely implement usage-based pricing, establish paid fast lanes at the request of customers, and permit ISPs to continue exempting preferred content from usage pricing while charging customers extra to access content from “non-preferred partners;”
  • Wholesale Broadband, the connection between your ISP and content producers, would be reclassified under Title II and subject to common carrier regulations, which would allow the FCC to police deals between your provider and services like Netflix.

Wheeler’s proposal would offer significant protection to wealthy content producers like Netflix, Amazon.com, broadcasters and Hollywood studios, but would leave consumers completely exposed to providers’ pricing tricks, usage caps/consumption billing, and paid fast lanes that could leave unpaid content vulnerable to network deterioration, especially during peak usage times.

Comcast_pumpkinLarge telecommunications companies argue that deregulation promotes broadband investment and expansion to create world-class service. But years of statistics and comparisons with other countries suggest deregulation has not inspired sufficient competition to keep prices in check and force regular network upgrades. In fact, competition is much more robust at the wholesale level, while the majority of retail consumers have a choice of just one or two providers that receive almost no oversight. Those providers are now exercising their market power to further monetize broadband usage to boost profits and raise prices.

Wheeler’s proposal would ignore the wishes of more than three million Americans that want comprehensive Net Neutrality protections, as well as those of President Barack Obama, who has called for a ban on paid fast lanes. A senior White House official signaled Thursday the administration has concerns about Wheeler’s proposal, noting “the president has made it abundantly clear that any outcome must protect net neutrality and ban paid prioritization—and has called for all necessary steps to safeguard an open Internet.”

“This Frankenstein proposal is no treat for Internet users, and they shouldn’t be tricked,” consumer group Free Press CEO Craig Aaron said in a statement. “No matter how you dress it up, any rules that don’t clearly restore the agency’s authority and prevent specialized fast lanes and paid prioritization aren’t real Net Neutrality.”

Broadband providers don’t like Wheeler’s plan either. Verizon last week sent comments to the FCC warning any attempt to reclassify broadband under Title II “could not withstand judicial review.” Others, including the industry-backed U.S. Telecom Association, promised swift legal action against Wheeler’s proposal.

Aaron believes the last thing broadband needs is another “hybrid” plan.

“The FCC has already tried twice before to invent new classifications on the fly instead of clear rules grounded in the law,” Aaron said. “And twice their efforts have been rejected. This flimsy fabrication will be no different. And this approach will only serve to squander the political support of millions and millions of Americans who have weighed in at the agency asking for strong rules that will stand up in court.”

Commentary: Verizon’s New Tech News Website Censors Out Net Neutrality, Electronic Spying, Credibility

“Verizon’s treatment of the news is a testament to the need for strong Net Neutrality protections.”

Sugarstring's logo is as twisty as its editorial policies.

Sugarstring’s logo is as twisty as its editorial policies.

Verizon Wireless’ launch of Sugarstring, a high-budget tech news website targeting millennial 20-somethings with tech and lifestyle news they can use seemed innocent enough until its editor revealed in a private e-mail Verizon considers reporting on electronic spying and Net Neutrality issues “verboten.

Verizon is deeply embroiled in both issues and evidently has no interest spending money enlightening the masses, so it has told its staff (but not you) both topics are forbidden.

The Daily Dot reported the revelation straight from Cole Stryker, Sugarstring’s editor.

“I’ve been hired to edit SugarString.com,” writes Stryker in a recruiting email to Daily Dot’s Patrick Howell O’Neill. “Downside is there are two verboten topics (spying and net neutrality), but I’ve been given wide berth to cover pretty much all other topics that touch tech in some way.”

Verizon’s cavalier censorship policies say a lot about the company’s interest in controlling the messages that people see and read online. The news site is intended to be a high-profile destination for Verizon Wireless’ mobile customers and will logically get significant exposure from the company bankrolling it.

Verizon might argue that since it pays the bills, it has a right to decide what information should pass through its websites. It is hardly a big stretch for them to argue that if they own the wires over which you receive Internet service, they should have a say in what travels across those as well.

Censorship need not be crude and obvious as it often was on foreign propaganda broadcasts during the Cold War. Today’s “news management” is much more subtle and more insidious.

Take RT (formerly Russia Today), the Moscow-based 24/7 English-language news network. Although dropped by many major cable systems including Time Warner Cable after Russian troops invaded eastern Ukraine, the network is still growing and finding more places on the air around the world.

Radio Moscow during the Cold War represented a more overt form of propaganda. Corporations like Verizon have learned to be more subtle.

Radio Moscow during the Cold War represented a more overt form of propaganda. Corporations like Verizon have learned to be more subtle.

RT is nothing like what shortwave listeners used to endure from English-language Radio Moscow World Service during the Communist years. You couldn’t miss that station. Broadcasting on up to 47 frequencies simultaneously, 24 hours a day, it was easily the most commonly encountered signal on the shortwave dial. Plodding features like, “On the Occasion of the 45th Anniversary of the Stunning Achievements of World Socialism,” or “The Voices of Soviet Public Opinion Demand Peace and Progress for the Non-Aligned World” (Part 36) were everything you might expect and less.

Radio Moscow boldly told listeners in its series, “The History of the Soviet Union, the Socialist Revolution, and Its Aims and Results,” that elections in the USSR were superior to those in other countries because the government took the money out of politics. Only by putting national infrastructure entirely in the hands of the people, along with public ownership of the means of production, can a nation achieve true democracy. They didn’t bother to mention the USSR was a one-party state, which made elections pro-forma, or that the entire Soviet economy was a basket case since the days of Leonid Brezhnev. (10:01) You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Radio Moscow has been replaced by RT Television, which in the post-Soviet era now exists primarily to boost all-things Putin. The propaganda has been sharpened up by employing U.S. reporters and moving to the far more subtle practice of “self-censorship.” A former RT reporter fed up with increasingly strident propaganda over the matter of Russia, Crimea and the Ukraine quit live on the air. In a later interview on CNN, Liz Wahl told Anderson Cooper that RT’s staff was made up mostly of impressionable young people eager to win favor from RT’s management. They quickly learned and accepted that certain points of view or story subjects were either frowned upon or outright verboten. Instead of being sent to a gulag for disobedience, those straying from Putin’s party line were taken off stories, reassigned to menial work, or shunned. Who wants that?

Avoiding certain topics or points of view at the behest of corporate management (or the state) is just as insidious as directly slanting the news to one’s favor. Few real journalists would accept a job (or stay) at a news organization that was compromised by coverage limits or editorial interference that came from conflict with a corporate or political agenda.

That Verizon chooses to ban stories that embarrass Verizon, such as Edward Snowden’s revelations that Verizon voluntarily provided the National Security Agency (NSA) the phone records of all of its customers and is still actively engaged in tracking its customers’ web activities, does not mean it is going to block you from visiting CNN.com tomorrow. That Verizon doesn’t want to fuel the public consciousness of Net Neutrality is understanding considering the company has paid its lawyers plenty to fight the principle in court, openly admitting it favors paid fast lanes for traffic. But Verizon is clearly on a road that, if unchecked, eventually leads to content and traffic manipulation.

Verizon steps far over the line of jounalistic integrity informing editors to avoid both issues while saying nothing to readers and it isn’t the first time Verizon has crossed the line.

censorshipTim Karr from Free Press reminds us Verizon has a very different view about the First Amendment that the rest of us:

In a 2012 legal brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Verizon mangled the intent of the First Amendment to claim that the Constitution gives the phone company the right to control everyone’s online information. In the brief, which was part of the company’s successful bid to overturn the FCC’s Open Internet Order — Verizon argued that the First Amendment gives it the right to serve as the Internet’s editor-in-chief. The company’s attorneys claimed that “broadband providers possess ‘editorial discretion.'” even when they are “transmitting the speech of others.”

Verizon continued in this vein, asserting that “Just as a newspaper is entitled to decide which content to publish and where, broadband providers may feature some content over others.” And that means that Verizon could privilege its SugarString version of the news over the content of real news sites, because the company believes it should be able to “give differential pricing or priority access” to its own content.

What Verizon cannot “manage,” it wants the right to censor:

When it comes to a question of customer freedom vs. profits, Verizon follows the money every time:

In 2011, Free Press and others caught Verizon Wireless blocking people from using tethering applications on their phones. Verizon had asked Google to remove 11 free tethering applications from the Android marketplace. These applications allowed users to circumvent Verizon’s $20 tethering fee and turn their smartphones into Wi-Fi hotspots on their own. By blocking those applications, Verizon violated a Net Neutrality pledge it made to the FCC as a condition of the 2008 airwaves auction.

All of these examples challenge Verizon’s ongoing assertion it has no incentive to censor, block, or interfere with online content, making Net Neutrality unnecessary. You have just seen another example of why Net Neutrality is urgently needed. Verizon has demonstrated repeatedly it puts its own interests above its customers, so regulators should respond with a clear, unambiguous, and robustly enforced policy of Net Neutrality that protects the interests of you and I.

The Capitol Forum’s Insightful Review of the Comcast-Time Warner Merger Deal: A Tough Sell

be mineWall Street is increasingly pessimistic about Comcast and Time Warner Cable pulling off their merger deal as regulators stop the clock to take a closer look at the transaction.

The Capitol Forum, an in-depth news and analysis service dedicated to informing policymakers, investors, and industry stakeholders on how policy affects market competition, specializes in examining marketplace mergers and their potential impact on American consumers and the general economy. The group has shared a copy of their assessment — “Comcast/Time Warner Cable: A Closer Look at FCC, DOJ Decision Processes; Merits and Politics May Drive Merger Challenge, Especially as Wheeler Unlikely to Embrace Title II Regulation for Net Neutrality” — with Stop the Cap! and we’re sharing a summary of the report with our readers.

The two most important government agencies reviewing the merger proposal are the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice. The FCC is responsible for overseeing telecommunications in the United States and is also tasked with reviewing telecom industry mergers to verify if they are in the public interest. The Department of Justice becomes involved in big mergers as well, concerned with compliance with antitrust and other laws.

In many instances, the two agencies work separately and independently to review merger proposals, but not so with Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Sources tell Capitol Forum there is a high level of coordination and information sharing between DOJ and the FCC, potentially positioning the two agencies in a stronger legal position if they jointly challenge the merger. Readers may recall AT&T’s attempt to buy T-Mobile was thwarted in 2011 when the FCC followed the DOJ’s lead in jointly challenging the merger on competition and antitrust grounds. With a united front against the deal in Washington, AT&T quickly capitulated.

comcast cartoonDespite a blizzard of Comcast talking points claiming the cable industry is fiercely competitive, Capitol Forum’s report indicates the DOJ staff level believes the cable industry suffers dearly from a lack of competition already, and allowing further marketplace concentration would exacerbate an already difficult problem.

Capitol Forum reports the DOJ’s staff is inclined to “take an aggressive posture with regards to [antitrust] enforcement.”

The DOJ would certainly not be walking the beltway plank to its political doom if it ultimately decides to oppose the merger.

Few on Capitol Hill are likely to fiercely advocate for a cable company generally despised by their constituents. The Capitol Forum report notes that Comcast faces powerful opposition and its political support is overstated. Comcast’s lobbying efforts and ties to President Obama and several high level Democrats have also been widely exposed in the media, which makes it more difficult for D.C.’s powerful to be seen carrying Comcast’s water.

In fact, the report indicates a regulatory challenge against Comcast and Time Warner Cable would face considerably less political opposition than what the FCC faces if it reclassifies broadband as a “telecommunications service,” protecting Net Neutrality and exposing the industry to stronger regulatory oversight.

The report suggests FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, who seems intent on opposing reclassification of broadband under Title II, may appease his critics by taking a stronger stance on the Comcast/Time Warner deal instead.

Wheeler has already expressed concern about the state of competitiveness of American broadband. He considers providers capable of delivering at least 25Mbps part of broadband’s key market, which in many communities means a monopoly for the local cable operator.

Understanding “The Public Interest” and the Implications of a Combined Comcast/Time Warner Cable on Competition

comcastbuy_400_241The FCC will review the transaction pursuant to Sections 214 and 310(d) of the Communications Act of 1934, in order to ensure that “public interest, convenience, and necessity will be served thereby.”

The merger proposal must also demonstrate it does not violate antitrust laws.

It is here that merger opponents have a wealth of arguments to use against Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Despite Comcast’s insistence the deal would have no competitive implications, the Capitol Forum reports the merger’s potential anticompetitive effects are “widely recognized and evidence from the investigation could provide DOJ and FCC with a solid foundation to challenge the merger.”

Although the two cable companies don’t directly compete with each other (itself a warning sign of an already noncompetitive marketplace), the report finds “a wide array of anti-competitive effects and several antitrust theories” that would implicate the cable company in a Clayton Act violation.

Comcast is betting heavily on its surface argument that by the very fact customers will not see any change in the number of competitors delivering service to their area, the merger should easily clear any antitrust hurdles. That argument makes it more difficult for the DOJ to fall back on the usual market concentration precedents that would prevent such a colossal merger deal. To argue excessive horizontal integration — the enlarging of Comcast’s territory — the DOJ would first have to prove Comcast’s size in comparison with other cable companies is a reason for the courts to shoot down the deal. Or it could bypass Comcast’s favorite argument and move to the issue of vertical integration — one company’s ability to control not just the pipes that deliver content, but also the content itself.

octopusHere the examples of potential abuse are plentiful:

  • Comcast would enjoy increased power to force cable programmers to favor Comcast in cable programming pricing and policies while allowing it to demand restrictions on competitive online video competitors or restrict access to popular cable programming;
  • Comcast could impose data caps and usage-based pricing to deter online viewing while exempting its own content by delivering it over a Wi-Fi enabled gateway, game console or set top box, claiming all are unrelated to Comcast’s broadband Internet service or network;
  • Force consumers to use Comcast set top boxes that would not support competing providers’ online video;
  • Use interconnection agreements as a clever way to bypass the paid prioritization Net Neutrality debate. Netflix and other content producers would be forced to compensate Comcast for reliable access to its broadband customers;
  • Noting AT&T has declared U-verse can not effectively succeed in the cable television business without combining its customer base with DirecTV to qualify for better volume discounts, there is clear evidence that a super-sized Comcast could command discounts new entrants like Google Fiber could never hope to get, putting them at a distinct price disadvantage.

The FCC’s scrutiny of Comcast’s merger deal has already uncovered evidence previously unavailable because of non-disclosure agreements which show Comcast’s heavy hand already at work.

The report notes Michael Mooney, a senior vice president and group general counsel at Level 3, told the Capitol Forum the dispute earlier this year between Netflix and Comcast could have been resolved in about five minutes had Comcast added a port to relieve congestion at an interconnection point. The cost? Just $5,000. Had Comcast been willing to spend the money, millions of Comcast customers would have never experienced problems using Netflix.

Whether Comcast is ultimately deemed too large to permit another consolidating merger or whether it is given conditional approval to absorb Time Warner Cable remains a close call, according to the Capitol Forum, despite the fact consumers have urged regulators for something slightly more concrete – a single sentence, total denial of its application.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Capitol Forum The Consumer Welfare Test.mp4

The Capitol Forum broadly explores how the “consumer welfare standard” has become a part of the antitrust review process over the last 30 years. Sometimes, a strict antitrust test is not sufficient to protect “the public interest” of consumers, and allows the dominant player(s) to harm competition. In the digital economy, corporate mergers that empower companies to restrict innovation can prove far more damaging than classic monopoly abuse. (15:52)

Cable Lobby Forgot to Mention It’s the Sole Backer of Sock Puppet Group ‘Onward Internet’

onward-internetWith millions at stake charging content producers extra for guaranteed fast lanes on the Internet, some lobbyists will go to almost any length to throw up roadblocks in opposition to Net Neutrality.

The sudden appearance of Onward Internet, a group that erects enormous “Internet suggestion boxes” at busy intersections in New York and San Francisco is a case in point.

At least a half-dozen 20-somethings, some dressed for a science fiction convention, staff the displays while encouraging people to write and toss in their own ideas about what they expect from the Internet over the next decade.

A higher bill and usage caps, unsurprisingly, were not among the suggestions. But it is doubtful the mysterious people behind Onward Internet are interested in hearing that.

Advocacy group ProPublica spent weeks trying to find who was paying for the youthful exuberance, giant black boxes, and hopelessly optimistic YouTube videos telling viewers the Internet was made to move data, and how amazing it was your Internet Service Providers valiantly kept up with the demand, helped connect industries and even topple dictatorships. Well, not corporate dictatorships in this country anyway.

With that kind of “feel good” message, ProPublica undoubtedly smelled industry money, especially after seeing lines like, “The Internet is a wild, free thing; unbounded by limits, unfettered by rules, it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the Internet continues to advance.” But it took a leak from a worker hired to file permits and buy space in San Francisco for the street displays to finally blow the whistle.

Onward Internet = the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, America’s largest cable industry lobbyist.

This appears to be a repurposed dumpster.

This appears to be a repurposed dumpster.

You couldn’t find a bigger critic of Net Neutrality if you tried.

The NCTA played coy with ProPublica when the group first confronted the cable lobby with the evidence.

“What led you to the conclusion that this is an NCTA effort,” asked NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz.

Busted, Dietz followed up with a statement suggesting the NCTA needed to keep its involvement top-secret because it might ‘bias’ the feedback they received:

“We’ve kept NCTA’s brand off Onward Internet because we want to collect unbiased feedback directly from individuals about what they want for the future of the Internet and how it can become even better than it is today,” Dietz told ProPublica. “The cable industry is proud of our role as a leading Internet provider in the U.S. but we feel it’s important to hear directly from consumers about how they envision the future so we can work hard on delivering it.”

“We had always intended to put the NCTA brand on it but we wanted to collect as much unbiased feedback as we could for a few weeks before putting our name on it,” Dietz later told VentureBeat.

The NCTA is hoping unwitting consumers submit comments they can use to oppose Net Neutrality and Title 2 reclassification of broadband as a “telecommunications service.”

Because if that happens, the Money Party may end before it even begins.

The NCTA’s astroturf effort is nothing new. A panoply of well-funded, telecom-industry backed sock puppet groups muddy the waters on these issues everyday, from Broadband for America to various think tanks and bought and paid for researchers.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Onward Internet Decide the future of the Internet 10-8-14.mp4

Onward Internet is hoping you will share comments they can use to prove you oppose Net Neutrality. The NCTA is a strong opponent of Net Neutrality, which allows LOLCATS, movies, and dictatorship toppling to occur without paying even MORE money to the cable company for a fast lane that should have been fast in the first place, considering how much we are spending on it. Now Big Cable also want usage caps and allowances. The revolution has been capped. (1:22)

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