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Verizon: Prioritization and Compensation for Certain Traffic is the Future of the Internet

McAdam

McAdam

The head of Verizon believes two concepts will become Internet reality in the short-term future:

  1. Those that use a lot of Internet bandwidth should pay more to transport that content;
  2. The “intelligent” Internet should prioritize the delivery of certain traffic over other traffic.

Welcome to a country without the benefit of Net Neutrality/Open Internet protection. A successful lawsuit brought by Verizon to toss out the Federal Communications Commission’s somewhat informal protections has given Verizon carte blanche to go ahead with its vision of your Internet future.

Lowell McAdam, Verizon’s CEO, answered questions on Tuesday at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference, attended by Wall Street investors and analysts.

McAdam believes groups trying to whip Net Neutrality into a major issue are misguided and uninformed about how companies manage their online networks.

“The carriers make money by transporting a lot of data,” McAdam said. “And spending a lot of time manipulating this, that accusation is by people that don’t really know how you manage a network like this. You don’t want to get into that sort of ‘gameplaying.’”

netneutralityMcAdam believes there is nothing wrong with prioritizing some Internet traffic over others, and he believes that future is already becoming a reality.

“If you have got an intelligent transportation system, or you have got an intelligent healthcare system, you are going to need to prioritize traffic,” said McAdam. “You want to make sure that if somebody is going to have a heart attack, that gets to the head of the line, ahead of a grade schooler that is coming home to do their homework in the afternoon or watch TV. So I think that is coming to realization.”

But McAdam also spoke about the need for those generating heavy Internet traffic to financially compensate Internet Service Providers, resulting in better service for content producers like Netflix — not considered ‘priority traffic’ otherwise.

“You saw the Netflix-Comcast deal this week which I think — or a couple weeks ago — which is smart because it positions them farther out into the network, so they are not congesting the core of the Internet,” said McAdam. “And there is some compensation going back and forth, so they recognize those that use a lot of bandwidth should contribute to that.”

McAdam reported to investors he had spoken personally with FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who seems to be taking an even more informal approach to Net Neutrality than his predecessor Julius Genachowski did.

Verizon's machine-to-machine program is likely to be a major earner for the company.

Verizon’s machine-to-machine program is likely to be a major earner for the company.

“In my discussions with Tom Wheeler, the Chairman, he has made it very clear that he will take decisive action if he sees bad behavior,” McAdam said, without elaborating on what might constitute ‘bad behavior.’ “I think that is great; great for everybody to see that. And I think that is what we would like to see him do, is have a general set of rules that covers all the players: the Netflixes, the Microsofts, the Apples, the Googles, and certainly the Comcasts and the Verizons. But the only thing to do is not — you can’t just regulate the carriers. They’re not the only players in making sure the net is healthy. And I think we all want to make sure that investment continues in the Internet and that customers get great service.”

Verizon has already reported success monetizing wireless broadband usage that has helped deliver growing revenue and profits at the country’s largest carrier. Now McAdam intends to monetize machine-to-machine communications that exchange information over Verizon’s network.

McAdam believes within 3-4 years Americans will have between five and ten different devices enabled on wireless networks like Verizon’s in their cars, homes, and personal electronics. For that, McAdam expects Verizon will earn between $0.25 a month for the average home medical monitor up to $50 a month for the car. Verizon is even testing wireless-enabled parking lots that can direct cars to empty parking spaces.

For those applications, McAdam expects to charge enough to guarantee a 50% profit margin.

“These can be very nice margin products,” McAdam told the audience of investors. “So even at $0.25 if you are doing 10 million of them and it’s 50% or better margins, those are attractive businesses for us to get into.”

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Sen. Al Franken vs. Time Warner Cable/Comcast Merger

Franken

Franken

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has turned over much of his campaign website to expressing concern about the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

Franken has maintained a comparatively low profile since arriving in the U.S. Senate and rarely grants interviews to reporters outside of Minnesota, but after the announced $45 billion merger deal between the two largest cable companies in the country, he started making exceptions.

Franken has repeatedly tangled with Comcast, the dominant cable operator in his home state, since being elected. He favors Net Neutrality/Open Internet policies, strongly opposed Comcast’s purchase of NBCUniversal, and believes cable rates are too high and service quality is too low.

Although the senator claims he remains undecided about the merger, his public comments suggest he is likely going to oppose the deal.

“We need more competition, not less,” said Franken, who mocked Comcast’s claim that the two cable companies never compete with each other. “This is going exactly in the wrong direction. Consumers, I am very concerned, are going to pay higher bills and get even worse service and less choice.”

Although the merger will leave the combined company serving nearly one in three households, Comcast says it plans to keep its total nationwide broadband market share under 30%. But Franken points out Comcast isn’t just a cable company. It also owns a major television network and has ownership interests in nearly three dozen cable networks and television stations around the country — many in America’s largest cities.

Franken mass e-mailed his campaign supporters to express concern about the current state of the cable and broadband business and asked consumers what they thought about their cable company. More than 60,000 have shared their mostly negative views so far.

Minnesota Public Radio takes a closer look at why Sen. Al Franken is interested in the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast. Feb. 24, 2014 (4:32)
You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

competitionThat may prove to be smart politics for Franken, seen as a polarizing figure in the left-right divide. The near-universal loathing among consumers for both Comcast and Time Warner Cable threaten to rise above traditional partisan politics. Republican lawmakers have kept largely quiet about the merger deal, and some are even openly questioning it. Franken may tapped into a re-election issue that voters across Minnesota are likely to support — especially older Republican-leaning independents.

Franken claims his survey is trying to level the playing field by getting consumers involved in the issue. For Washington regulators accustomed to only hearing from company lobbyists and various third party groups often financially tied to merger advocates, it could be a game-changer.

Comcast’s connections in Washington are legendary. Former Republican FCC commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker wasted no time taking a job as a senior Comcast lobbyist shortly after voting in favor of Comcast’s buyout of NBCUniversal. Former Republican FCC chairman Michael Powell today heads the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the cable industry’s largest lobbying group and supporter of the merger.

The merger deal’s regulatory review will be conducted by current FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, a past president of the NCTA and former cable and wireless industry lobbyist. Bill Baer is in charge of the Antitrust Division that will examine the merger at the U.S. Department of Justice. His last job was leading the law firm that represented NBC in support of the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN Al Franken Talks With CNN About TWC-Comcast Merger 2-13-14.flv

Sen. Al Franken spoke to CNN’s Jake Tapper earlier this month about the Time Warner Cable-Comcast merger. Tapper admitted he dropped Comcast because he was dissatisfied with their service. (7:45)

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Netflix Agrees to Pay Comcast for Improved Video Streaming; Could ‘Limit Competition’

comcast toll plazaNetflix has agreed to compensate Comcast in return for assurances that the cable company’s subscribers would no longer be caught in the middle of a dispute between Comcast and one of Netflix’s content distributors.

The multi-year agreement between the two companies will bring Netflix direct access to Comcast’s broadband network with a Service Level Agreement that will guarantee streaming stability for customers who have loudly complained about Netflix’s deteriorating performance.

The controversial arrangement has probably established a precedent for other large Internet Service Providers likely to seek compensation to handle Netflix traffic. As of this evening, both AT&T and Verizon have already acknowledged they are negotiating with Netflix for similar arrangements.

Caught in the middle of the dispute are Comcast customers paying for a reliable Internet connection and getting slowing connections and re-buffering problems while attempting to watch Netflix content during peak usage times.

One side accuses Comcast of violating Net Neutrality while the other blames Netflix for dumping enormous Internet traffic on Internet Service Providers without compensation for network upgrades. Also in the crossfire is Cogent, a third-party company delivering Netflix content to Comcast’s front door.

How Netflix Distributes Its Streaming Movies and TV Shows

netflix cdnNetflix has traditionally avoided owning the “pipes” that distribute movies and TV shows to paying customers. Instead, it usually contracts with “transit providers” to send content from Netflix headquarters on to “content distribution networks (CDN)” that manage video streaming. A Netflix video may pass through a number of connections on a variety of independently owned networks before it arrives at the front door of your Internet Service Provider. Companies like Comcast handle “the last mile” of the journey that began at Netflix and ends at your computer or television set.

Netflix does not rely on just one transit provider to handle its traffic. Level 3, Cogent, and XO Communications all reportedly serve in that capacity, depending on where traffic is headed. The same is true for the CDN’s Netflix contracts with to regionally stream content to each subscriber.

Netflix determines how to handle your streaming movie request behind the scenes, selecting a CDN that is close to you and capable of delivering the most stable streaming experience at that moment. If you are a Comcast or Verizon customer, Netflix often selects Cogent to handle its content. Cogent is also well known for its relatively low cost.

If you are served by Cablevision, Frontier, or certain other providers like Google Fiber, Netflix will instead direct your streaming request to a CDN located within your provider’s own network. These “Open Connect” boxes store Netflix content in a type of cache and can stream it to customers directly without sending video packets across multiple third-party networks. Theoretically, Open Connect offers an efficient and stable way of distributing Netflix content to customers. It also saves Netflix money and in return, it costs the ISP nothing — Netflix pays for the equipment and service.

Cogent vs. Big Telecom

220px-CogentlogoNetflix and YouTube together are now estimated to cover 50 percent of all video traffic on the Internet, and that traffic is growing. Cogent dutifully passes that video content along to Internet Service Providers like Verizon and Comcast that have customers waiting to watch. But it is a two-way street. Any outbound traffic from customers could also be forwarded to Cogent to send on. Traditionally, both sides have managed the traffic by gradually increasing the bandwidth and speed of their connections to one-another. But as Netflix traffic grows and grows, companies like Comcast and Verizon believe they are being saddled with the costs to upgrade their networks in ways that are out of proportion to the traffic they send in the other direction. ISPs often grumble about the cost but keep on upgrading to keep paying customers happy. Verizon and Comcast are suspected of dragging their feet on those upgrades in an effort to win compensation.

Verizon and Comcast argue they should be paid by content producers responsible for generating tons of Internet traffic to help cover the cost of upgrades. Instead, Netflix offered its Open Connect boxes, which keep Netflix traffic within an ISPs own network, reducing the necessity of constantly upgrading connections with other transit providers. Verizon and Comcast don’t want Netflix’s solution — they want cold hard cash.

Conflict of Interest

Some network engineers cannot understand all the controversy about Comcast’s arrangement with Netflix. Some believe Netflix is simply shifting traffic away from third-party Cogent to Comcast directly, presumably at a cost savings. They suggest customers will be happy that streaming quality is restored and Netflix also wins a guaranteed level of performance they never had with Cogent.

2hatBut that argument does not explain why Netflix was compelled to make a financial arrangement with Comcast. The two companies have been in negotiations on the subject of traffic compensation for months. Many industry observers believe those talks went nowhere until Netflix customers began complaining about the increasing network slowdowns. Some even dropped their Netflix subscriptions over the issue.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings admitted he made a deal with Comcast to restore customer confidence in Netflix and end subscriber frustration. It was also increasingly clear Comcast was in no hurry to improve things on its own, despite the fact its own customers were the ones most directly affected.

So why wouldn’t Comcast (or Verizon or Time Warner Cable) take Netflix up on its offer of free Open Connect boxes that would reasonably solve streaming problems without forcing anyone to spend a fortune on upgrades? Simply put, all three companies are direct competitors of Netflix. Helping Netflix offer a top quality streaming experience is not in the best interests of Comcast (or others) that are facing potential cord-cutting customer losses in their subscription video businesses. Verizon has partnered with Redbox to deliver streamed video, Comcast operates Streampix, its own online streaming service, and Time Warner Cable offers a variety of on-demand and streamed video content for its cable TV subscribers. None of these services have suffered from traffic congestion issues.

ISP Payday

ISP Payday

What About Net Neutrality? What About Paying Customers?

With Net Neutrality tossed out by the courts, there is little any regulator can do to resolve disputes until Net Neutrality can be properly enforced under a stronger regulatory framework. Some argue the congestion issues creating the problems with Netflix are not a true violation of Net Neutrality in any event because providers are not artificially prioritizing traffic.

They are simply not keeping up with upgrades that just so happen to directly impact a competitor while leaving their own services unscathed.

Providers also seem characteristically unconcerned about complaining customers, passing blame for the problem on to Netflix. Besides, they remind you, paying for an Internet connection alone does not entitle you to any guarantee of performance.

The Dam Breaks

With this week’s agreement between Comcast and Netflix, both AT&T and Verizon wasted no time admitting they are both seeking compensation from Netflix as well. Other providers are likely to follow.

Netflix warned investors that paid agreements with ISPs could adversely affect its earnings due to increased costs. Although stopping short of suggesting price increases for Netflix customers could come as a result, Wall Street wasted no time worrying about the financial impact of deals like the one between Netflix and Comcast.

The Wall Street Journal reported the momentum appears to be shifting in favor of large Internet providers like Comcast and AT&T and away from content producers.

Janney Capital analyst Tony Wible suggested Comcast’s toll booth could create a barrier for other content producers if the cable company asks for significant compensation.

“Although there is no prioritization benefit [from the deal], we suspect that the exchange of money for resolution/performance could (if large) effectively limit competition,” said Wible. “In essence, Netflix could be trading [profit] margins for subscribers. Few others can match Netflix’s [spending budget to acquire content] without incurring massive losses. The competition may now have to cope with additional fees that sway their willingness to compete if they do not already have a large subscriber base.”

In other words, a new Internet startup could face hard questions from investors about how it intends to cover ISP demands for compensation in return for a suitable connection to reach customers. A large venture like Netflix has enough resources to handle those costs and negotiate for a better deal while a smaller startup may not.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ Netflix Comcast Agreement 2-24-14.flv

Netflix has signed a deal with Comcast to ensure smooth streaming, in what is being called a landmark agreement. Wall Street Journal reporter Shalini Ramachandran explains the agreement. (3:39)

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Peer Wars: Netflix SuperHD Streaming May Explain Video Traffic Slowdowns for Some Customers

The largest drops in streaming speeds are coming from ISPs that may be stalling necessary upgrades at the expense of their customers' online experience.

The largest drops in Netflix streaming speeds are coming from ISPs that may be stalling necessary upgrades at the cost of their paying customers’ online experience.

Netflix performance for Verizon customers is deteriorating because Verizon may be delaying bandwidth upgrades until it receives compensation for handling the growing amount of traffic coming from the online video provider.

Verizon customers have increasingly complained about Netflix slowdowns during prime-time, especially in the northeast, and Netflix’s latest statistics confirm FiOS customers have seen average performance drop by as much as 14% in the last month alone.

Verizon told Stop the Cap! a few weeks ago the company was not interfering with Netflix traffic or degrading its performance, but there is growing evidence that may not be the whole story. The Wall Street Journal reports Netflix and at least one bandwidth provider suspect phone and cable companies are purposely stalling on upgrading connections to handle traffic growth from Netflix until they are compensated for carrying its video traffic.

The dispute involves the plumbing behind parts of the Internet that are invisible to consumers. As more people stream movies and television, that infrastructure is getting strained, intensifying the debate over who should pay for upgrades needed to satisfy America’s online-video habit.

Netflix wants broadband companies to hook up to its new video-distribution network without paying them fees for carrying its traffic. But the biggest U.S. providers—Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and AT&T Inc. —have resisted, insisting on compensation.

The bottleneck has made Netflix unwatchable for Jen Zellinger, an information-technology manager from Carney, Md., who signed up for the service last month. She couldn’t play an episode of “Breaking Bad” without it stopping, she said, even after her family upgraded their FiOS Internet service to a faster, more expensive package. “We tried a couple other shows, and it didn’t seem to make any difference,” she said. Mrs. Zellinger said she plans to drop her Netflix service soon if the picture doesn’t improve, though she will likely hold on to her upgraded FiOS subscription.

She and her husband thought about watching “House of Cards,” but she said they probably will skip it. “We’d be interested in getting to that if we could actually pull up the show,” she said.

Netflix relies on third-party traffic distributors to deliver much of its streamed programming to customers around the country. Cogent Communications Group is a Netflix favorite. Cogent maintains two-way connections with many Internet Service Providers. When incoming and outgoing traffic are generally balanced, providers don’t complain. But when Cogent started delivering far more traffic to Verizon customers than what it receives from them, Verizon sought compensation for the disparity.

“When one party’s getting all the benefit and the other’s carrying all the cost, issues will arise,” Craig Silliman, Verizon’s head of public policy and government affairs told the newspaper. The imbalance is primarily coming from the growth of online video, and as higher definition video grows more popular, traffic imbalances can grow dramatically worse.

A spat last summer between Cogent and some ISPs is nearly identical to the current slowdown. Ars Technica reported the traditional warning signs providers used to start upgrades are increasingly being ignored:

“Typically what happened is when the connections reached about 50 percent utilization, the two parties agreed to upgrade them and they would be upgraded in a timely manner,” Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer told Ars. “Over the past year or so, as we have continued to pick up Netflix traffic, Verizon has continuously slowed down the rate of upgrading those connections, allowing the interconnections to become totally saturated and therefore degrading the quality of throughput.”

Schaeffer said this is true of all the big players to varying degrees, naming Comcast, Time Warner, CenturyLink, and AT&T. Out of those, he said that “AT&T is the best behaved of the bunch.”

Letting ports fill up can be a negotiating tactic. Verizon and Cogent each have to spend about $10,000 for equipment when a port is added, Schaeffer said—pocket change for companies of this size. But instead of the companies sharing equal costs, Verizon wants Cogent to pay because more traffic is flowing from Cogent to Verizon than vice versa.

Cablevision, which participates in Netflix's Open Connect program experiences no significant speed degradation during prime time. The same cannot be said with Time Warner Cable, which refuses to participate.

Cablevision, which participates in Netflix’s Open Connect program, experiences no significant speed degradation during prime time. The same cannot be said of Time Warner Cable, which refuses to take part.

Netflix offered a solution to help Internet Service Providers manage its video traffic. Netflix’s Open Connect offers free peering at common Internet exchanges as well as free storage appliances that ISPs can connect directly to their network to distribute video to customers. Free is always good, and Netflix claims many ISPs around the world have already taken them up on the offer, slashing their transit costs along the way.

A few major North American ISPs have also agreed to take part in Open Connect, including Frontier Communications, Clearwire, Telus, Bell, Cablevision and Google Fiber. Open Connect participating ISPs also got an initial bonus for participating they could offer customers – exclusive access to SuperHD streaming.

But most Americans would not get super high-resolution streaming because the largest ISP’s refused to participate, seeking direct compensation from content providers to carry traffic across their digital pipes instead.

On Sep. 26, 2013 Netflix decided to offer SuperHD streaming to all customers, regardless of their ISP. As a result, one major ISP told the newspaper Netflix traffic from Cogent at least quadrupled. ISPs taking Netflix up on Open Connect saw almost no degradation from the increased traffic, but not so for Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Comcast customers.

Net Neutrality advocates fear the country’s largest phone and cable companies are making an end-run around the concept of an Open Internet. Providers can honestly guarantee not to interfere with certain web traffic, but also refuse to keep up with needed upgrades to accommodate it unless they receive payment. The slowdowns and unsatisfactory performance are the same in the end for those caught in the middle – paying customers.

“Customers are already paying for it,” said industry observer Benoît Felten. “You sell a service to the end-user which is you can access the Internet. You make a huge margin on that. Why should they get extra revenue for something that’s already being paid for?”

Some of the web’s biggest players including Microsoft, Google and Facebook may have already capitulated — agreeing to pay major providers for direct connections that guarantee a smoother browsing experience. Netflix has, thus far, held out against paying ISPs to properly manage the video content their subscribers want to watch but in some cases no longer can.

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How Charter Communications Let Time Warner Cable Slip from its Grasp

surpriseFew were surprised more by the sudden announcement that Comcast was seeking to acquire Time Warner Cable all by itself than the negotiating team from Charter Communications.

Working for weeks to settle how Comcast and Charter would divide the second largest cable company in the country between them, they learned about the sudden deal with Comcast the same way the rest of the country heard about it — over Comcast-owned CNBC.

After Charter endured weeks of rejection from Time Warner Cable executives over what they called “a lowball offer,” Comcast had entered the fray to help Charter boost its offer and bring more cash to the table to change Time Warner Cable’s mind. In return, Comcast expected to acquire Time Warner’s east coast cable systems and much more.

That is where the trouble began.

Charter_logoAccording to Bloomberg News, the talks broke down because Charter wanted to hold onto as many Time Warner Cable assets as possible. Comcast chief financial officer Michael Angelakis expected Charter to divest more than just the New England, New York, and North Carolina Time Warner Cable systems. Angelakis also wanted control of Time Warner’s valuable regional sports networks in Los Angeles. When he didn’t get them, he stormed out of a meeting threatening to do a deal for Time Warner Cable without involving Charter at all.

The Wall Street Journal confirms the account, adding that both Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and Angelakis agreed the talks with Charter seemed to be going nowhere.

Roberts

Roberts

Roberts called a secret meeting with top Comcast executives including Angelakis, Comcast Cable head Neil Smit, Comcast’s lobbying heavyweight David Cohen, and NBCUniversal CEO Steven Burke. Roberts asked each about the options on the table and their conclusion was to buy Time Warner Cable by themselves and cut Charter out of the deal.

Within days, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts reinitiated talks with Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus. The two companies had talked off and on ever since Charter Communications set its sights on acquiring Time Warner Cable. It was clear from the beginning Marcus and his predecessor Glenn Britt were cool to Charter’s overtures. Not only was Charter a much smaller operation, it also had a checkered past including a recent bankruptcy that wiped out shareholder value and was loaded with debt again.

The alliance between Charter and Liberty Global’s John Malone was also unsettling. Those in the cable industry had watched how ruthless Malone could be back in the 1990s when a then much-smaller Comcast secretly attempted to acquire control of Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) — then the nation’s largest cable operator run by Malone. Malone was furious when he learned about the effort and went all out to kill the deal, acquiring the stake Comcast sought himself.

Malone’s cable empire would eventually fall with the sale of TCI to AT&T just a few years later. When AT&T decided it didn’t to stay in the cable business, it sold TCI’s old territories to Comcast, making it the largest cable operator in the country.

Malone

Malone

Malone’s brash attitude has also occasionally rubbed the cable industry’s kingpins the wrong way, especially in his public comments. Last year, Malone criticized Roberts’ more conservative operating style, which means Comcast pays a higher tax rate. Malone specializes in deals that leave his acquisitions with enormous debt loads, manipulating the tax code to stiff the Internal Revenue Service. In June, Malone was back again criticizing the lack of a unified national cable cartel better positioned to defeat the competition.

Under his leadership at TCI, many cable programmers didn’t get on TCI’s cable dial unless they sold part-ownership to TCI. Competitors were dispatched ruthlessly — home satellite dish service, then the most viable competitor, strained under TCI-led efforts to enforce channel encryption.

TCI-owned networks routinely required satellite subscribers to sign up with the nearest TCI cable system, which often billed them at prices higher than what cable subscribers paid. Subscribers had to buy not one, but eventually two decoder modules for several hundred dollars apiece before they could even purchase programming. The cable industry also worked behind the scenes to promote and defend enhanced zoning laws that made installing satellite dishes difficult if not impossible, and denied access to some programming at any price, unless it was delivered by a cable system.

Comcast-LogoMalone called today’s divided industry “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and insisted on a new major consolidation wave to enhance “value creation” and deliver some major blows to satellite and telephone company competitors.

Despite Liberty Global’s ongoing consolidation wave of European cable systems, his lack of financial resources to put his money where his mouth was left Time Warner Cable executives cold.

Already loaded with debt, Malone’s part ownership stake in Charter could not make up for Charter’s current status — a medium-sized cable operator with dismal customer ratings primarily serving smaller communities bypassed by larger operators.

A deal with Charter would mean Time Warner Cable's bonds would be downgraded to junk status.

A deal with Charter would mean Time Warner Cable’s bonds would be downgraded to junk status.

Moody’s Investor Service warned Charter’s offer to acquire Time Warner Cable was primarily financed with the equivalent of a credit card, and would leave the combined entity with $60 billion in debt with bonds promptly downgraded to junk level. Time Warner Cable had always considered its bonds “investment grade.”

Charter’s first clue something was wrong came when Comcast stopped returning e-mail and phone calls. That’s always cause for alarm, but Charter officials had no idea Comcast was secretly negotiating with Time Warner Cable one-on-one. In fact, Comcast’s Roberts was negotiating with Time Warner Cable over a cell phone while attending the Sochi Olympics.

Malone finally got the word the deal was off just a short while before Comcast and Time Warner Cable leaked the story to CNBC.

Ironically, it was Malone who convinced Comcast to seek out a deal with Time Warner Cable. Comcast’s thinking had originally been it had grown large enough as a cable operator and sought out expansion in the content world, acquiring NBCUniversal. But Malone warned online video competitors like Netflix would begin to give customers a reason to cut cable’s cord or at the very least take their business to AT&T or Verizon’s competing platforms.

Comcast executives were convinced that gaining more control over content and distribution was critical to protect profits. Only with the vast scale of a supersized Comcast could the cable company demand lower prices and more control over programming. By dominating broadband, critics of the deal warn Comcast can also keep subscribers from defecting while charging higher prices for Internet access and imposing usage limits that can drive future revenue even higher.

Just like the “good old days” where customers had to do business with the cable company at their asking price or go without, a upsized Comcast will dominate over satellite television, which cannot offer broadband or phone service, as well as the two largest phone companies — AT&T, which so far cannot compete with Comcast’s broadband speed and Verizon, which has pulled the plug on further expansion of FiOS to divert investment into its highly profitable wireless division. If Comcast controls your Internet connection, it can also control what competitors can effectively offer customers. Even if Comcast agrees to voluntarily subscribe to Open Internet principles like Net Neutrality, its usage cap can go a long way to protect it from online video competitors who rely on cable broadband to deliver HD video in the majority of the country not served by U-verse or FiOS.

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More Hackery on Broadband Regulation from the AT&T-Funded Progressive Policy Institute

Phillip "Follow the Money" Dampier

Phillip “Follow the Money” Dampier

“In the 1990s, U.S. policymakers faced critical choices about who should build the Internet, how it should be governed, and to what extent it should be regulated and taxed. For the most part, they chose wisely to open a regulated telecommunications market to competition, stimulate private investment in broadband and digital technologies, and democratize access.” — Will Marshall, guest columnist

Is competition in Internet access robust enough for you? Has your provider been sufficiently stimulated to invest in the latest broadband technologies to keep America at the top of broadband speed and availability rankings? Is Net Neutrality the law of the land or the latest victim of a Verizon lawsuit to overturn the concept of democratizing access to online content?

I’m not certain what country Will Marshall lives in, but for most Americans, Internet access is provided by a duopoly of providers that must be dragged kicking and screaming to upgrade their networks without jacking up prices and limiting usage.

Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, a so-called “third way” group inspired by centrist Democrats led by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Unlike traditional liberals suspicious of corporate agendas, these Democrats were friendly to big business and welcomed the largess of corporate cash to keep them competitive in election races. It was under this atmosphere that Clinton signed the bought-and-paid-for 1996 Telecom Act, ghostwritten by lobbyists for big broadcasters, phone and cable companies, and other big media interests. Long on rhetoric about self-governing, free market competition but short on specifics, the ’96 law transformed the media landscape in ways that still impact us today.

ppiMedia ownership laws were relaxed, allowing massive buyouts of radio stations under a handful of giant corporations like Clear Channel, which promptly dispensed with large numbers of employees that provided locally produced programming. In their place, we now get cookie-cutter radio that sounds the same from Maine to Oregon. Television stations eagerly began lobbying for a similar framework for relaxing ownership limits in their business. Phone companies won their own freedoms from regulation, including largely toothless broadband regulations that allowed Internet providers to declare victory regardless of how good or bad broadband has gotten in the United States.

Marshall’s views appeared in a guest column this week in The Orlando Sentinel, which is open to publishing opinion pieces from writers hailing from Washington, D.C., without bothering to offer readers with some full disclosure.

Marshall

Marshall

While Marshall’s opinions may be his own, readers should be aware that PPI would likely not exist without its corporate sponsors — among them AT&T, hardly a disinterested player in the telecommunications policy debate.

Marshall’s column suggests competition is doing a great job at keeping prices low and allows you – the consumer – to decide which technologies and services thrive. There must be another reason my Time Warner Cable bill keeps increasing and my choice for broadband technology — fiber optics — is nowhere in sight. I don’t have a choice of Verizon FiOS, in part because phone and cable companies maintain fiefdoms where other phone and cable companies don’t dare to tread. That leaves me with one other option: Frontier Communications, which is still encouraging me to sign up for their 3.1Mbps DSL.

“The broadband Internet also is a powerful magnet for private investment,” Marshall writes. “In 2013, telecom and tech companies topped PPI’s ranking of the companies investing the most in the U.S. economy. And America is moving at warp speed toward the ‘Internet of Everything,’ which promises to spread the productivity-raising potential of digital technology across the entire economy.”

Nothing about AT&T or the cable companies is about “warp speed.” In reality, AT&T and Verizon plan to pour their enormous profits into corporate set-asides to repurchase their own stock, pay dividends to shareholders, and continue to richly compensate their executives. It’s good to know that PPI offers rankings that place telecom companies on top. Unfortunately, those without a financial connection to AT&T are less optimistic. The U.S. continues its long slide away from broadband leadership as even developing countries in the former Eastern Bloc race ahead of us. Verizon’s biggest single investment of 2013 wasn’t in the U.S. economy — it was to spend $130 billion to buyout U.K.-based Vodafone’s 45% ownership interest in Verizon Wireless. Verizon’s customers get stalled FiOS expansion, Cadillac-priced wireless service, and a plan to ditch rural landlines and push those customers to cell service instead.

AT&T financially supports the Progressive Policy Institute

AT&T financially supports the Progressive Policy Institute

“A recent federal court decision regarding the FCC’s Open Internet Order has prompted pro-regulatory advocates from the ’90s to demand a rewrite of the legal framework that allowed today’s Internet to flourish,” Marshall writes in a section that also includes insidious NSA wiretapping and Internet censorship in Russia and China.

Marshall’s AT&T public policy agenda is showing.

Net Neutrality proponents don’t advocate an open Internet for no reason. It was AT&T’s former CEO Ed Whitacre that threw down the gauntlet declaring Google and other content providers would not be allowed to use AT&T’s pipes for free. AT&T has since patented technology that will allow it to discriminate in favor of preferred web traffic while artificially slowing down content it doesn’t like on its network.

“Pro-regulatory advocates” are not the ones advocating change — it is AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, among others, that want to monetize Internet usage and web traffic for even higher profits. Net Neutrality as law protects the Internet experience Marshall celebrates. He just can’t see past AT&T’s money to realize that.

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AT&T U-verse Expansion Peaks This Year; Company Raked in $6.9 Billion in Profits Last Quarter

att-logo-221x300AT&T’s investment in U-verse expansion is expected to peak this year as part of its “Project VIP” effort to bring the fiber to the neighborhood service to more areas and offer faster broadband speeds to current customers.

AT&T is spending $6 billion over three years to broaden the footprint of U-verse, which now earns AT&T 57% of its total consumer revenues. In 2013, AT&T earned $13 billion in revenue from U-verse, up 28%.

AT&T’s investment in U-verse is dwarfed by the company’s efforts to benefit shareholders. In the last quarter of 2013, AT&T realized $6.9 billion in profits on revenue of $33.2 billion. For 2013, AT&T repurchased 366 million shares of its own stock for around $13 billion and paid out another $10 billion in shareholder dividends. Together, the total return for shareholders for the year was $23 billion and in the last two years AT&T achieved a new record benefiting shareholders with $45 billion in returns. In contrast, AT&T will spend just $6 billion on the current round of U-verse upgrades, with those markets left out likely pushed to wireless-only service if the company succeeds in winning approval to decommission its rural landline network.

Most of AT&T’s revenue growth is coming from its wireless business, particularly wireless data. After AT&T eliminated its flat rate plans, monetizing data usage has become very profitable — $23 billion per year and growing at 17% annually. Because increasing wireless usage forces customers to upgrade to higher cost plans offering more generous usage allowances, AT&T’s average revenue per customer increased by 3.9% — the highest in the wireless industry and the 20th consecutive quarter of customers collectively paying higher cell phone bills.

“The next steps are to make our networks even more powerful and layer on services that will drive new growth in the years ahead,” said AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.

AT&T is counting on even higher customer bills as the company moves forward on several revenue-enhancing initiatives:

  1. Moving an increasing number of customers away from subsidized handsets. AT&T Next allows wireless customers to get a new handset every year, but in return AT&T no longer subsidizes equipment purchases. Instead, most Next customers finance their current phone and will finance their next one, assuring AT&T of a constant revenue stream for equipment. AT&T expects to gradually move away from phone subsidies altogether;
  2. Data plans for cars are forthcoming, as auto manufacturers install wireless capability in new vehicles. Many are signing agreements with AT&T that will make it easy for current customers to add vehicles to their existing plan, but customers of other carriers may find signing up for a new plan prohibitively expensive;
  3. Internet-connected home security systems are getting a major marketing push in 2014 with advertising blitzes and other promotions. The alarm systems are connected to and use AT&T’s wireless data network;
  4. AT&T customers are being pushed to wireless data plans with much higher data allowances than they need, delivering extra profits for AT&T with no impact on its wireless network;
  5. AT&T wants to begin selling “sponsored data” services to companies willing to foot the bill for accessing preferred websites. AT&T calls it “toll-free data” but Net Neutrality advocates complain it monetizes data usage and establishes a unlevel playing field where deep pocketed companies can help customers avoid AT&T’s usage meter while others have to contend with customers worried about their data allowance.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ATT Next -- Get A New Smartphone Every Year from ATT Wireless 1-2014.flv

AT&T explains its Next program, which lets customers upgrade to a new smartphone every 12 or 18 months. AT&T doesn’t tell you the plan is effectively a lease that benefits them by not having to pay a phone subsidy worth hundreds of dollars to discount a phone they will eventually refurbish and resell after you return it. AT&T Next, as intended, is an endless installment payment plan that never stops as long as you keep upgrading your phone. You also can’t leave AT&T until you pay your current phone off. (1:30)

A new way for AT&T to end phone subsidies.

A new way for AT&T to end phone subsidies.

Despite fierce competition from T-Mobile, AT&T so far has seen little impact from T-Mobile’s aggressive marketing. AT&T added 566,000 new contract customers in the last quarter and sold 1.2 million smartphones to its customer base. AT&T’s customer churn rate — the number of customers coming and going — remains very low despite T-Mobile’s latest offer to cover AT&T’s early termination fees to encourage customers to switch.

Stephenson says AT&T’s superior wireless 4G LTE network and its larger coverage area make customers think twice about taking their business to a smaller carrier.

In 2014, AT&T laid out these plans during its quarterly results conference call this week:

  • U-verse will get an expanded TV Everywhere service allowing customers to view programming on smartphones and tablets inside their home and out;
  • U-verse broadband speed enhancements should be available to at least two-thirds of customers, with speeds up to 45Mbps;
  • LTE coverage expansion targets are expected to be ahead of schedule;
  • AT&T will begin a “big effort” on network densification — adding overlapping cell towers and small cell technology in current coverage areas — to handle network congestion;
  • AT&T will focus on improving its wired and wireless networks to prioritize video delivery;
  • If approved by the government, AT&T will use its acquired Leap/Cricket brand for aggressive new no-contract plans marketed to customers with spotty credit without tainting or devaluing the AT&T brand;
  • AT&T will use its agreements with GM, Ford, Nissan, Audi, BMW, and Tesla to offer AT&T wireless connectivity in new 2015 model year vehicles.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg ATT Latest Results Good 1-28-14.flv

Bloomberg notes AT&T’s latest financial results are ahead of analyst expectations. Despite competition from T-Mobile, AT&T’s customer defection rate is at a historic low. (2:03)

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Paying Your Cable Bill Helps Shower Millions on D.C. Fatcats Working Against Your Interests

nctaA portion of your cable bill pays for much more than programming, with millions diverted to Koch Brothers-backed astroturf groups, tea party candidates, fat paychecks for former public officials taking a trip through D.C.’s revolving door, and generous allowances for travel  expenses racked up by high-flying industry lobbyists.

The Center for Public Integrity took a trip through the 2012 tax return of America’s top cable trade group: the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), which collected $60 million last year in membership dues from America’s top cable operators, who in turn were reimbursed by you when paying your monthly cable bill. They needed a shower when the journey was over.

NCTA president and CEO Michael K. Powell, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during President George W. Bush’s first term, was well compensated in his new role representing the same cable industry he used to barely oversee, taking home more than $3 million in pay last year. Eight other employees, including NCTA’s executive vice-president, collectively cleared over a million dollars in salary according to the groups’ Form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

The revolving door at NCTA headquarters is kept well-greased, with 78 out of 89 federal-level NCTA lobbyists formerly working in government jobs representing the American people. Now they work for the interests of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and other large operators.

Collectively, the NCTA spent $19 million on lobbying activities last year, much of it bankrolling “dark money” groups that refuse to disclose their donors and consider it their life mission to defeat President Barack Obama and blockade Democrats in Congress — the ones still most likely to demand more oversight and regulation of the free-spending cable industry. Among the groups receiving cable’s cash:

Americans for Prosperity, which received $50,000, spent $33.5 million opposing Obama during the 2012 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign spending. Americans for Prosperity often supports Tea Party causes and candidates and is the main political arm of billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. As the Center reported Thursday, the group spent a staggering $122 million overall in 2012. Americans for Prosperity is also actively involved in blocking community-owned broadband projects and advocates passing laws forbidding communities getting into the broadband business if a cable company got there first. Now you know why.

Phil Kerpen with Glenn Beck

Phil Kerpen with Glenn Beck

Americans for Tax Reform, which received $50,000, spent $15.8 million on the 2012 federal election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The group’s president and founder, Grover Norquist, is famous for his Taxpayer Protection Pledge, by which legislators and candidates promise to oppose all tax increases. The cable industry is also an advocate of tax forgiveness policies that would let cable operators repatriate the cash they stashed overseas, avoiding the same taxman they snuck around opening overseas bank accounts.

American Commitment, which received $10,000, spent $1.9 million on the 2012 federal election to advocate for and against political candidates — mostly to help U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) defeat Democrat Richard Carmona. American Commitment also spent some of its money to oppose Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Obama. American Commitment Founder and President Phil Kerpen is the former policy and legislative strategist at Americans for Prosperity and previously worked at Club for Growth, another group that doesn’t disclose its donors. Kerpen joined Glenn Beck on his program in 2009 to nod agreement when Beck hopped aboard the crazy train suggesting the Obama Administration’s support for Net Neutrality represented a Marxist-Maoist takeover of the Internet. Silly Beck, doesn’t he realize AT&T already called dibs?

The Center for Individual Freedom, which received $20,000, has been actively fighting against proposals for increased disclosure of donors to politically active nonprofits. It spent $1.8 million during the 2012 election cycle mostly opposing Democratic congressmen Steven Horsford, Bill Owens and Dan Maffei, all from New York.

'Your money is good here, whether it comes from AT&T or the cable industry.' -- LULAC

‘Your money is always good here, whether it comes from AT&T or the cable industry.’ — LULAC

The cable industry also bankrolls a number of our “favorite” sock puppet groups that reflexively support cable’s cause even when straying far beyond their alleged core missions and constituencies the groups claim to represent. Among those on cable’s payroll, sharing $5.8 million in “grant” funding, are some very familiar names to any regular Stop the Cap! reader:

  • The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation
  • The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
  • LULAC
  • The National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce
  • The National Urban League

The largest grant – $2 million, went to the industry mouthpiece Broadband for America, the largest telecom industry astroturf group in the United States, featuring honorary Democratic co-chairman Harold Ford, Jr., who now spends most of his life in MSNBC green rooms after being bounced from office in a failed Senate bid in 2006.

Ford landed on his feet after losing the election, fleeing Tennessee for big money New York, peddling his inside the beltway influence to Merrill Lynch, winning him the position of vice chairman and senior policy adviser, until Merrill Lynch nearly collapsed in the Great Recession and was bailed out by U.S. taxpayers. Ford kept his $2 million annual salary and bonuses, but it wasn’t enough.

He quickly upgraded to a senior managing director at Wall Street firm Morgan Stanley, supplying him with enough cash to buy a $3 million co-op in a tony Manhattan neighborhood.

Broadband for America, brought to you by America's Big Telecom companies.

Broadband for America, brought to you by America’s Big Telecom companies.

From his perch in New York City, Ford pretends to know what is best for the little people across America suffering from no broadband, rationed access, or overpriced service.

His answer: buy it, if you can, from your cable company.

Ford’s co-chair at BfA is former Republican Sen. John Sununu who, by the way, also happens to sit on the board of Time Warner Cable. Need we say more?

There is no reason NCTA lobbyists shouldn’t travel in style when performing their advocacy efforts either. In 2012, they ran up nearly $800,000 in travel expenses.

Unsurprisingly, nobody involved was willing to comment.

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Incoming FCC Chair Stresses Competition Will Be Agency’s Top Priority

Wheeler

Wheeler

Incoming Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler believes competition can be a more effective regulator of telecom industry practices and pricing than “micromanaging” the companies selling service.

“The first goal ought to be to make sure there is effective competition,” Wheeler told the Wall Street Journal in an interview Wednesday. “But I also know competition isn’t something that happens all by itself. We very much have a responsibility to make sure that there is access, at reasonable prices, to competitive broadband services. The way you do that is go back to competition.”

But Wheeler refused to share his views on whether Americans now enjoy his definition of “effective competition” from a wireless industry dominated by AT&T and Verizon and wired broadband service available from only one cable and telephone company in most communities.

“The reason why the U.S. is the world leader on the Internet is because we have the home-field advantage,” Wheeler said. “We want to keep that home-field advantage. One of the ways to do that is to keep the environment competitive, so it’s not the regulators determining what companies do.”

But the United States is not a broadband leader in speed, price, or penetration according to the OECD.

Wheeler seems reluctant to intervene in the market unless he is convinced competition is lacking. As a former lobbyist for the same companies he is now tasked with overseeing, a key test will be if Wheeler adopts the industry view that broadband is already a fiercely competitive and highly regulated business, or the one held by many consumer groups that a consolidated telecommunications marketplace retards competition, leading to higher prices and more restrictive service.

In an article posted on the FCC website, Wheeler described the philosophy governing his chairmanship of the FCC:

During my confirmation hearing I described myself as “an unabashed supporter of competition because competitive markets produce better outcomes than regulated or uncompetitive markets.” Yet we all know that competition does not always flourish by itself; it must be supported and protected if its benefits are to be enjoyed. This agency is a pro-competition agency.

We stand for the things that are important regardless of the network technology being used:

  • To promote economic growth – technological innovation, growth and national economic leadership have always been determined by our networks; competition drives the benefits of those networks; and we have a responsibility to see to the expansion of those networks, including the appropriate allocation of adequate amounts of spectrum.
  • To maintain the historic compact between networks and users – a change in technology may occasion a review of the rules, but it does not change the rights of users or the responsibilities of networks.
  • To make networks work for everyone – it isn’t just that we expand high-speed Internet, but what we will be doing with that capacity. How networks enable a 21st century educational system, enable the expansion of capabilities for Americans with disabilities; and assure diversity, localism and speech are basic underpinnings of our responsibility.

One surprising appointment announced by Wheeler was Public Knowledge’s Gigi Sohn, who will become special counsel for external affairs. Sohn has been a frequent critic of the FCC and its former chairman, Julius Genachowski. She is also a strong advocate of Net Neutrality.

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