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French Unions, Media Warn America: Beware of Altice!

Look what's in the box. MergeMaster Patrick Drahi. (Illustration: Michel Kichka)

Look what’s in the box. MergeMaster Patrick Drahi. (Illustration: Michel Kichka)

Cable conglomerate baron Patrick Drahi promised American, French and Portuguese consumers he would bring them value for money by taking control of large established telecom companies in both countries and revamp their products and services to bring improved service. Consumer advocates in all three countries continue to argue customers are still waiting for Drahi’s debt-laden Altice empire to deliver on its promises.

A flurry of mid-summer articles in the French media continue to acknowledge Drahi’s formula has brought results — for him and his top executive minions, but has caused headaches for employees, customers, and even the government.

The biggest firestorm involves Altice-owned SFR’s newly-announced plan to slash at least 5,000 more jobs at France’s fourth-largest mobile operator, which also provides wired cable-TV and broadband services in parts of the country. That represents at least one-third of SFR’s total workforce. The planned cuts run so deep, some in the French press call them “violent.” These new cuts are on top of the 1,200 jobs Drahi cut when he took control of SFR two years ago. An Altice executive warned that if they still perceive to be “fat on the bone,” there will be further cuts after that, presumably starting in 2019.

The job cuts have raised the ire of some in the French press because one of the conditions of Altice’s takeover of SFR was a commitment not to cut jobs. But some reporters may have missed the fine print negotiated with regulators  — the job protection agreement expires in July 2017, after which Drahi can slash at will. And he will.

Investment banks love it. American and European banks have loaned €50 billion ($55 billion) — a record amount — to Drahi to buy up telecom companies on a virtual credit card and deliver short-term results by slashing expenses, which at least temporarily boosts profits. When customers find out the implications of the draconian cuts, they complain and tend to leave. But savvy investors learn how to cash out before that happens, often walking away with huge returns. Such methods have been business-as-usual in the United States for a long time. But Drahi has improved on the old formula of relying on OPM – Other People’s Money – to build his empire.

Altice1Some of the money flowing through Altice’s coffers comes from the French taxpayer, currently footing the bill for unpopular French President François Hollande’s key measure to boost the competitiveness of French companies — the Tax Credit for Competitiveness and Employment (CICE), which significantly cuts employer’s labor expenses. Altice has been a grateful recipient of this gift from French taxpayers, who pay for it through new ecological taxes and an increase in Value Added Tax (VAT) rates, which like our sales tax, applies to goods and services one buys. The standard VAT rate in France is now 20%, with 10% charged on restaurant meals, transport, renovation/improvement works and certain medical drugs, and 5.5% on food, water and non alcoholic beverages, books, special equipment for the disabled and school meals. The other half of the money spent implementing the CICE came from decreased public spending on infrastructure and social service programs. Take from the poor and middle class and give to the corporations, Hollande’s critics claim. The program was supposed to protect employment, but critics say it has had little or no effect beyond enriching large corporate conglomerates who hire and fire for their own reasons, and are not particularly concerned about what that could do to future government payouts.

French newspaper l’Humanité is calling on the government and Mr. Drahi to account for his use of taxpayer-funded CICE aid. The paper demands the Hollande government to disclose exactly how much Altice’s SFR has received from the program.

Unemployment office in Connecticut

Unemployment office in Connecticut

Altice continues to claim the job cuts will be voluntary — a suggestion scoffed at by employee unions in both France and Portugal, where Altice operates telecommunications companies. In addition to asking Altice-owned Suddenlink and Cablevision employees whether the recent sudden separation from their paychecks was voluntary, unions claim they have the benefit of past experience.

“When they say ‘no job cuts’ and 1,200 have already been cut over the past 18 months, how can we trust them?” asked Frederic Retourney, a spokesman for the CGT-FAPT employee union. “We know that voluntary redundancies are made under duress in most cases. When SFR announces 5,000 job cuts when there are 14,400 employees at the company now, we do not see how one can speak of voluntary departures.”

The job cuts at Altice’s U.S. operations — Suddenlink and Cablevision — have just begun. In a filing with the Connecticut Department of Labor, Altice disclosed it is issuing a total of 587 termination notices in that state — 482 call center workers in Shelton who will lose their jobs Nov. 1 and another 105 in Stratford leaving in two waves Oct. 14 and Dec. 15. Cablevision’s chief Connecticut competitor Frontier Communications is turning Altice’s lemons into Frontier’s lemonade by capitalizing on the job cuts with a quickly organized media push for a job fair on Aug. 31 in New Haven targeting the soon-to-be-former Cablevision workers.

Frontier will hold interviews for the former Altice call-center workers and field technicians. The alternative, if those former Cablevision workers still want to work for Altice, is to move to New York or New Jersey and hope their jobs don’t get cut again. With Frontier, they can stay in Connecticut.

madagascarAltice-owned SFR Francophone call center workers face even bigger challenges from relentless demands for cost cuts. In 2015, Altice announced it was open to relocating its Moroccan-based customer care call center to Madagascar, a large and severely economically depressed island nation off the eastern coast of southern Africa. Drahi, who told Wall Street he likes to pay as little as he can in salaries, is evidently upset labor costs in Morocco now force Altice to pay salaries up to €500 a month ($560). The company said it was open to seeking solace hiring French-fluent replacement workers in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital city, where the average annual salary is $260. In contrast, Connecticut call center workers make an average of $14.80/hour, according to Indeed.

Connecticut State Rep. Laura Hoydick (R-Stratford) acknowledges employee life with Altice in charge of Cablevision may be a tough ride.

“Having gone through unemployment with family members — and now me — emphasizes how the Cablevision employees are nervous for their livelihood and existence,” Hoydick told The Hour. “I thought it was great that the Frontier folks saw that there was an already-trained workforce here in Connecticut.”

Other state Republicans are attempting to blame Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for Cablevision’s job cuts, characterizing them as evidence employers are fleeing the high taxes and expenses associated with running a business in Connecticut.

“People are making a choice: ‘Do I stay in Connecticut and weather the storm, or do I move out of the state?’” said state Rep. Jason Perillo (R-Shelton).

lexpressFor now, those decisions are mostly made by Altice’s cable company call center workers and some members of middle management. But Patrick Drahi’s long-term plan to conquer the media business depends on implementing his “convergence” strategy, which means owning and controlling not only the means of distribution, but also the product being distributed. l’Humanité compared Drahi’s business to a multibillion cephalopod, with octopus-like tentacles extending his control and influence well beyond the cable business.

In France, he is accomplishing his mission by buying up cable networks, newspapers, and other media outlets which he packages together. Now a customer doesn’t just buy cable TV — he buys TV, internet, phone, the daily newspaper, and magazines for one flat price. For about $22 a month, SFR customers get unlimited digital access to 17 newspapers and magazines including Libération, l’Express, and l’Expansion. Then you can watch Drahi’s new sports channels and local news channel — all owned by Altice. Drahi told the French Senate his new bundled media model could “save the press.” But dig a little deeper and you discover Drahi’s altruism is considerably more limited.

By bundling everything together, the Altice-owned businesses each enjoy the enormous benefit of having their products taxed at the special press VAT rate of 2.1%, down from the usual 20% that would be otherwise owed. Altice pockets the savings for itself — a considerable boost in gross revenue.

More conservative investors worry about how Altice is managing to pay for all of its acquisitions and still manage to cover its existing massive debt, especially as Drahi plots to bring his model to the United States. His goal in America: to create the largest or second-largest telecom company in the country. Worried shareholders have been placated by the news massive layoffs are in SFR’s future, with the cost-savings they bring. Those still not satisfied were quieted after Numericable, another Altice concern, borrowed almost two billion dollars and raided Altice’s treasury for another billion to finance a dividend payout to shareholders worth more than $2.5 billion. Of course, Mr. Drahi himself is among the top recipients.

Altice Slashathon Continues: 600 Cablevision Jobs Eliminated in Connecticut

Optimum-Branding-Spot-New-LogoAt least 600 Cablevision employees will be out of a job by this November as parent company Altice USA continues to slash expenses to squeeze cost savings out of the cable business for the benefit of shareholders.

Altice announced this morning that the Cablevision call center in Shelton and a back office in Stratford, Conn., will be closed, with some jobs shifted to existing Altice USA call centers in New Jersey and Long Island, N.Y. The job cuts hit hard, with 50-100 employees being employed by Cablevision for more than 15 years, with some close to retiring.

“People have kids and everything like that to take care of at home. So, I’m sure it was sudden for a lot of them to hear this news.”

Employees said about 50 to 100 workers had been there over 15 years, some close to retiring.

“People have kids and everything like that to take care of at home,” an unnamed employee told WTNH-TV. “So, I’m sure it was sudden for a lot of them to hear this news. Some people are upset for sure.”

A spokesperson for Cablevision said employees will be given a severance package and can re-apply for an unspecified number of jobs in and out of the state.

“Over the last few years, there have been investments and enhancements to our Optimum products and services, making them more reliable and providing more customer service touch points than ever before,” the company said in a statement. “As a result, we have seen a significant improvement in customer call volume and patterns. As we look to strengthen our operations in the nation’s most competitive market, we are aligning our contact center organization to meet the current needs of our customers.”

Some employees speculate the real motive is saving money. An employee told WTNH that customer calls have slowed down, but Cablevision is also still hiring workers, presumably for less compensation.

“I don’t think it’s because of calls to be honest. They’re hiring a lot of people to work from home too,” the employee said.

Altice told New York and New Jersey regulators it wouldn’t lay off customer service employees for four years, but made no such agreement in Connecticut.

Editorial: N.Y. Governor’s Broadband Initiative Saddles Us With a Slower Internet

Thanks, Gov. Cuomo

Thanks, Gov. Cuomo

In Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s zeal to take credit for broadband enhancements across New York State, he also took partial-credit for convincing Charter Communications to speed its plan to deliver internet speeds of 100Mbps across upstate New York by early 2017, calling it “sweeping progress toward achieving its nation-leading goal of broadband for all.”

Unfortunately for New Yorkers, the governor forgot to mention his plan, coupled with the state government’s approval of Charter’s merger with Time Warner Cable, will actually result in slower and more expensive broadband for all of upstate New York.

“Access to high-speed internet is critical to keeping pace with the rising demands of the modern economy,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “The New NY Broadband Program is advancing our vision for inclusive, interconnected communities that empower individuals, support small businesses, and advance innovation. These actions are a major step forward in creating the most robust broadband infrastructure network in the nation, and ensuring that reliable, high-speed internet is available to all New Yorkers.”

While the governor’s goals for rural broadband expansion in New York are laudable and have actually produced significant results, his belief in Charter’s broadband enhancement plan is misplaced and will actually leave cities in upstate New York at a serious broadband speed disadvantage that could remain an indefinite problem.

It is difficult to admit that New York was better off leaving Time Warner Cable as the dominant cable operator in New York State. As we warned last fall in our testimony to the N.Y. Public Service Commission, Charter’s merger proposal included promises of broadband enhancements considerably less robust than what Time Warner Cable had already undertaken on its own initiative. Time Warner Cable Maxx would have brought upstate New York free speed upgrades ranging from 50/5Mbps for Standard internet customers (up from 15/1Mbps) to 300/20Mbps (up from 50/5Mbps) for customers subscribed to Time Warner’s Ultimate tier.

Charter only advertises its 60Mbps tier. You have to dig to discover they also sell 100Mbps, for $100 a month and a $200 installation fee.

Charter only advertises its 60Mbps tier. You have to dig through their website to discover they also sell 100Mbps, for $100 a month and usually a $200 installation fee.

Charter this week made it clear those Maxx upgrades are dead, except in areas where they have already been introduced. Instead, upstate New York (and likely other Maxx-less areas around the country) will get two internet speed tiers instead: 60 and 100Mbps.

Getting 100Mbps is better than 50Mbps, at least until you check the price. Customers should be sitting down for this. Charter’s 100Mbps tier costs $100 a month after a one-year promotional rate and often includes a one-time $200 installation fee. In contrast, Time Warner Cable charges about $65 a month for 300/20Mbps internet-only service, which incrementally rises after one year if you don’t threaten to cancel service. There is usually no installation or upgrade fee.

This is the “benefit” Gov. Cuomo is touting?

In fact, with Charter Communications to be the overwhelmingly dominant cable operator throughout upstate New York, this leaves cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, and Binghamton in a relative broadband swamp. While cities of similar sizes in other states are qualifying for Google Fiber, AT&T’s gigabit fiber upgrade, or fiber to the home service from community-owned broadband providers, Charter’s competition includes a barely trying Frontier Communications which still offers little more than slow speed DSL, Verizon Communications which stopped expanding FiOS in New York (except Fire Island) in 2010, and a handful of small independent phone companies and fiber overbuilders serving very limited service areas.

Charter is still required to offer 300Mbps service… by 2019 in New York as part of a commitment to regulators we fought for and won. That represents a speed equal to Time Warner Cable Maxx, but Charter has three years to offer what many New Yorkers either already had or were slated to get by next year from Time Warner Cable for much less money.

It takes chutzpah to proclaim broadband victory from this kind of avoidable defeat. Gov. Cuomo’s plan for better broadband allows Charter to cheat millions of New Yorkers out of Time Warner’s much better upgrade that was scheduled to be finished this summer in Central New York and ready to commence in Rochester this fall and Buffalo early next year. The governor should be on the phone with Charter management today insisting that all of New York get the 300Mbps internet service Time Warner Cable was planning for this state. Anything less leaves New York worse off, not better.

Consider again this cold, hard reality: Time Warner Cable was the better option — that is how bad things are in New York.

Upstate cities considering their economic future must not rely on the state or federal government to solve their broadband problems. Considering what Charter and Gov. Cuomo are proposing, waiting for the cable company to make life better isn’t a solution either. The only alternative is for local community leaders to start taking control of their own broadband destiny and launch community-owned, gigabit-capable, fiber to the home service. Charter won’t do it, Frontier can’t, and Verizon is too busy making piles of money from its wireless network to worry if your city will ever have 21st century internet access it needs to compete in the digital economy.

N.Y. Governor Announces “Sweeping Progress” Towards Broadband-for-All-NY’ers Goal

broadband nyGovernor Andrew M. Cuomo yesterday announced that the “New NY Broadband Program” is well on its way to achieving “sweeping progress toward achieving its nation-leading goal of broadband for all” New Yorkers.

The governor claimed that 97% of New York residents will have access to high-speed internet access by 2017, with a vague goal of serving 100% of New Yorkers by the end of 2018.

To do this, Gov. Cuomo relies heavily on the state’s new and overwhelmingly dominant cable operator – Charter Communications, which closed on its acquisition of Time Warner Cable earlier this summer. A press release promoting the governor’s efforts quotes Charter’s executive vice president of government affairs Catherine Bohigia as being excited to work with the governor and his administration to expand service to about 145,000 households currently not served by Time Warner Cable or Charter in New York.

Charter officials are working with the Public Service Commission to identify the households to be served, and highly redacted documents suggest Charter is identifying new housing developments and areas immediately next to existing Charter/Time Warner Cable service areas for this expansion.

A second separate plan to subsidize private cable and phone companies to help cover the costs of reaching another 34,000 homes that won’t be served by Charter is only expected to reach 50% of the remaining unserved homes and businesses in the state. A further round of funding will target the the remainder of unserved areas, including certain rural landline areas where Verizon has shown no interest in offering customers internet access of any kind.

Charter Communications

Charter Communications has effectively canceled the Time Warner Cable Maxx upgrades that were either underway, in progress, or in the planning stage in upstate New York. Instead, Charter plans to speed up the roll-out its own originally proposed upgrade, which includes two tiers: 60 and 100Mbps, for more than two million upstate homes and businesses by early 2017 in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton and Albany.

Customers in Central New York are likely to be left in limbo, some already getting Maxx upgraded 300Mbps internet access while others were scheduled to get the speed upgrade the same week Charter froze further Maxx upgrades. Those customers are now likely to receive a maximum of 100Mbps service sometime next year under Charter’s new plan.

Charter is also negotiating with state officials about where it will deploy broadband to 145,000 currently unserved homes in upstate New York over the next four years.

State-funded Rural Broadband Awards – Round I

New York State will help subsidize broadband rollouts to approximately 34,000 homes and businesses currently not served (or not served adequately) in rural areas. All but two of these projects will rely on fiber to the home service and each will offer service to a few thousand people:

Applicant Namesort descending Technology REDC Region Census Blocks Housing Units Total Units State Grant Total Private Match Total Project Cost
Armstrong Telecommunications, Inc. FTTH Finger Lakes, Southern Tier, Western NY 176 1,135 1,162 $3,930,189 $982,549 $4,912,738
Armstrong Telephone Company FTTH Southern Tier, Western NY 74 466 504 $1,778,256 $444,564 $2,222,820
Citizens Telephone Company of Hammond, N.Y., Inc. FTTH North Country 146 1,789 1,860 $3,316,810 $829,202 $4,146,012
Empire Access FTTH Southern Tier 124 719 724 $1,797,894 $449,474 $2,247,368
Empire Access FTTH Southern Tier 117 1,202 1,268 $1,598,480 $399,620 $1,998,100
Frontier Communications FTTH Southern Tier 1 62 65 $67,592 $16,899 $84,491
Frontier Communications FTTH North Country 3 188 216 $129,634 $32,409 $162,043
Frontier Communications FTTH Southern Tier 12 129 142 $197,104 $49,276 $246,380
Frontier Communications FTTH Capital Region 23 391 394 $318,304 $79,576 $397,880
Frontier Communications FTTH Mohawk Valley 30 402 405 $924,663 $231,166 $1,155,829
Frontier Communications FTTH North Country 105 1,928 2,096 $1,702,246 $425,562 $2,127,808
Germantown Telephone Company FTTH Capital Region 208 2,195 2,334 $2,512,562 $628,140 $3,140,702
Haefele TV Inc. FTTH Southern Tier 413 3,029 3,238 $271,568 $67,892 $339,460
Hancock Telephone Company FTTH Southern Tier 136 1,505 1,675 $4,915,920 $1,228,981 $6,144,901
Heart of the Catskills Communications Hybrid-Fiber Coax Southern Tier 216 2,836 3,177 $1,224,946 $524,977 $1,749,923
Margaretville Telephone Company FTTH Mid-Hudson, Southern Tier 209 1,882 2,002 $4,791,505 $2,053,503 $6,845,008
Mid-Hudson Data Corp Fixed Wireless Capital Region 60 647 663 $950,184 $237,546 $1,187,730
Mid-Hudson Data Corp FTTH Capital Region 6 354 362 $59,155 $14,789 $73,944
State Telephone Company, Inc. FTTH Capital Region 231 3,801 4,134 $5,805,600 $1,451,400 $7,257,000
State Telephone Company, Inc. FTTH Capital Region 101 516 595 $2,914,960 $728,740 $3,643,700
TDS Telecom FTTH Southern Tier 156 2,369 2,423 $1,895,390 $1,895,390 $3,790,780
TDS Telecom FTTH North Country 74 506 543 $1,084,000 $1,084,000 $2,168,000
TDS Telecom FTTH Central NY, Finger Lakes 106 996 1,038 $1,424,793 $1,424,793 $2,849,586
TDS Telecom FTTH Southern Tier 395 3,528 3,551 $4,989,570 $4,989,570 $9,979,140
The Middleburgh Telephone Company FTTH Capital Region, Mohawk Valley 250 1,596 1,651 $5,562,548 $1,390,637 $6,953,185
Federally Funded Rural Broadband Awards – Round II

After Verizon abdicated any interest in participating in rural broadband expansion funding through the FCC’s Connect America Fund, New York’s Broadband Program Office (BPO) and the Public Service Commission urged the FCC to keep the original funding intended for rural New York intact and open to other applicants seeking to build rural broadband projects. The FCC has not fully committed to do this, but it is an agenda item. Assuming this funding becomes available, it will be used to help pay for independent broadband providers or rural cable operators to begin delivering broadband service into still unserved parts of New York not included in the Charter expansion or Round I projects noted above. Many Verizon territories are expected to be included.

Applicants will have to provide at least 100Mbps service in most places or a minimum of 25Mbps in the most remote corners of New York. The application form discourages applicants from delivering broadband over DSL or wireless and clearly favors fiber to the home or cable broadband technology. Price controls will be in place for the first few years to assure affordability and those winning funding are strictly prohibited from introducing usage caps or usage-billing.

A vaguely defined “third phase” is scheduled to launch early next year to offer internet access to all remaining unaddressed service areas. Nobody mentions where the money is coming from to cover the last 1-3% of unserved areas, which are likely to be notoriously expensive to reach.

Gov. Cuomo explains progress on his New York Broadband for All program. (26:31)

Verizon Sues New York Over Tax Refund Regulators Want Spent on Network Improvements

Phillip Dampier July 27, 2016 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Verizon No Comments

verizon repairVerizon Communications is taking the New York Public Service Commission to court over the regulator’s ruling that $8 million in property tax refunds rebated to the phone company through a tax certiorari proceeding should be spent on improving Verizon’s service quality in the state.

Verizon wants to pocket the refunds of $1 million from New York City, $2 million from Oyster Bay, and $5 million from Hempstead for the benefit of the company and its investors, but regulators are insisting Verizon use the money to boost “capital expenditures to address purported service quality and network reliability concerns about its New York network.”

The PSC has been monitoring Verizon’s landline performance in the state since at least 2010 under its Verizon Service Quality Improvement Plan proceeding. Local officials and customers have filed complaints with the PSC about extremely long repair times, service outages, unreliable service, and sub-par line quality for several years, especially in downstate areas around New York City that have not yet been upgraded to Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home service.

Regulators want those issues resolved, particularly after Verizon made it clear it has suspended its FiOS expansion outside of New York City. Customers with long-standing service issues are often offered a controversial wireless landline replacement called Voice Link, that has earned mixed reviews, instead of a permanent repair of their existing service.

ny pscVerizon calls the regulator’s demands arbitrary and unwarranted confiscation of its property.

“The commission did something it had never done before — it allowed Verizon to retain the refunds as it had in the past but this time also imposed a spending mandate which required Verizon to use the funds for a particular purpose,” the company claimed.

Verizon used the company’s long and successful track record convincing New York regulators that Verizon’s wireline networks have faced hard times as it bled landline customers, so it deserved regulatory and rate relief. Because the PSC recognized Verizon’s marketplace challenges when it “found that a lightened regulatory approach for traditional incumbent telephone carriers was warranted and necessary in order to level the playing field and enable them to remain viable providers in the future,” it is unwarranted to suddenly now demand the company spend its tax refund on network improvements, Verizon argued in its lawsuit.

In the past, Verizon added, the PSC allowed the phone company to keep its tax refund money for itself, even as it reduced spending on its infrastructure. The company claimed that to be “a proper regulatory response to the financial stress Verizon claims it is and will be under as it continues its transition to an increasingly competitive market.”

Earlier this year, the commission began to take a more formal look at the mounting service complaints it was receiving from Verizon customers and found troubling evidence Verizon might not be taking its copper landline network as seriously as it once did, especially in areas where FiOS upgrades have not been scheduled.

“…[T]here may be an unwillingness on the part of Verizon to compete to retain and adequately serve its regulated wireline customer base, and warrants further investigation into Verizon’s service quality processes and programs,” minutes from a March commission meeting state.

Frontier Expanding Vantage TV; Applying for Video Franchises in New York and Ohio

Phillip Dampier July 18, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Frontier No Comments

vantage tvIf you live in parts of the Hudson Valley (N.Y.) or Ohio where Frontier Communications provides phone service, Vantage TV may be coming to your neighborhood soon.

Frontier’s cable television solution for customers still served by its legacy copper wire telephone network appears to be an IPTV service similar to AT&T’s U-verse. Vantage TV is already available to around 200,000 Connecticut customers served by Frontier, inherited from AT&T. Frontier also offers Vantage in Durham, N.C. and has applied for a statewide video franchise in Ohio (granting authority to offer service anywhere in the state it chooses) and another to serve Middletown, N.Y., a community of 28,000 in the Hudson Valley.

Frontier claims over the next four years it will offer Vantage in as many as 40 of its markets, many still served by legacy copper wiring. That represents about three million homes. After a second phase of buildouts, Frontier claims it will to provide video service to about half of the 8.5 million homes in its service area.

In late June, Frontier applied for a video franchise agreement in Middletown, where it expects to compete against Charter Communications (formerly Time Warner Cable). It will be the first time Frontier offers video service in New York.

frontier new logoVantage TV offers up to 300 channels typically bundled with phone and internet service. Customers are provided a “total-home DVR” with 1TB of storage that can record up to six shows at the same time and played back on up to four wireless cable boxes attached to different televisions. An upgraded version 3.0 of Ericsson’s Mediaroom platform offers advanced set-top box features like improved visual search and the ability to watch up to four channels at once in a mosaic. Another feature lets customers bring up a small video screen showing another channel, useful if you are channel surfing during an ad break.

Multichannel News interviewed several Frontier executives about the service, which the company is confident will give it a competitive video product to market to customers. Until Frontier bought AT&T’s Connecticut customers (and its U-verse fiber-to-the-neighborhood system), its only experience selling cable television came from its acquisition of Verizon FiOS systems serving Fort Wayne, Ind., and parts of Oregon and Washington. Frontier quickly learned the value of Verizon’s volume discounts for video programming, which it lost soon after acquiring the systems. In 2011, customers faced massive price hikes for video service and an unusual effort to convince them to switch to satellite TV instead — quite a downgrade from fiber to the home service.

middletownConnecticut, in contrast, is served with a mix of fiber and old copper wiring that has been in place for decades, since the days the state was served by the independent Southern New England Telephone Company. Learning how to deliver reasonable video quality over copper wires in Connecticut gave Frontier experience to go ahead with targeted upgrades that can boost broadband speeds and deliver HD video over an internet connection as low as 2.6Mbps in other states.

In short, Frontier’s business plan for video may work if it can keep network expansion and technology costs as low as possible. Video programming costs are likely to be another matter, however. As programming costs increase in contract renewals, some cable operators are playing hardball and dropping channels that get too expensive for comfort. But many of those channel drops alienate customers. Frontier appears to be following an opposite formula — making sure potential customers know they are still carrying networks the cable operator in the area dropped. Comcast dropped Yankees regional sports channel YES, but Frontier still offers it to its Connecticut customers and goes out of its way to promote its availability.

Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries — two networks popular with older viewers who are among the most loyal to cable television, got the axe in 2010 on AT&T U-verse in Connecticut. After Frontier acquired the Connecticut system, it put the two networks back on the lineup.

The more customers Frontier can show it has at the negotiating table, the better position Frontier is in to secure discounts for the video programming it carries. Volume, volume, volume makes all the difference when competing against giant cable conglomerates like Comcast and Charter. Even if Frontier finds it eventually has to drop overpriced channels, it has a much more friendly relationship with over-the-top online video services like Netflix to offer customers as an alternative. Vantage customers can find Netflix’s main menu as a traditional TV channel on the Vantage lineup, allowing subscribers to choose any Netflix show to watch on their television. In the future, Frontier might offer customers other network’s apps as well, making it easy to stream on demand video without having to use a Roku or other similar device.

Altice Making Big Changes With Cablevision Purchase Now Complete

drahi stuffWith today’s completion of Cablevision’s absorption into the Altice empire, the European cable conglomerate announced big changes that are expected to refocus the “center of gravity” and Altice’s future profits on the United States instead of Europe.

Altice today becomes America’s fourth largest cable operator, serving 4.6 million customers in 20 states. But Altice is not finished empire-building, and is widely expected to target privately held Cox Communications for acquisition sometime next year.

To lay the groundwork for future expansion, current controlling shareholder Patrick Drahi is turning over leadership of his growing U.S. operations to trusted lieutenant Dexter Goei, who will be chairman and CEO of Altice USA. Goei’s first mission is to lead a team of fierce cost-cutters into the offices of Suddenlink and Cablevision and ruthlessly slash expenses. Much of those savings are expected to come from significant job cuts among Cablevision’s 14,000 workers, especially middle management, engineering, and administrative workers. Last fall, Altice told investors Cablevision’s workers in the high cost suburban New York area were ripe for cutbacks, with much of the work currently managed by six figure salaried Cablevision employees likely to be transferred to Missouri-based Suddenlink, which operates in smaller cities in low labor cost states where employees are paid considerably less.

Approval of Cablevision’s sale to Altice by the New York Public Service Commission was given with the requirement Altice is prohibited from laying off, involuntarily reducing or taking any action “intended to reduce (excepting attrition and retirement incentives) any customer-facing jobs in New York,” such as call centers or walk-in centers for a period of four years. But as Altice’s call center employees at France’s SFR-Numericable attest, that does not prevent Altice from closing current call centers and transferring those jobs to cheaper locations in New York staffed by those willing to work for much less.

drahi“The number of customer service agents is exactly the same, but their competency to handle customer problems, and their salaries, are not,” said Jean Libessart, whose fiancé lost a job with Altice after call centers were moved overseas. “They stayed within the competition authority’s rules by exploiting the loopholes.”

Altice is seeking cuts of “hundreds of millions of dollars” from Cablevision’s expenses within the first six months of ownership. After that, Drahi wants to earn 50% of Altice’s future revenue by refocusing the business on “the madness of margins” in the United States — a term that acknowledges the United States tolerates deregulated telecom duopolies that can raise prices at will, something European governments would consider to be unconscionable. Drahi noted there are just four super-sized telecom companies in the United States facing down smaller companies, many that agree not to compete in territories already served by other companies.

Les Echos notes France is the antithesis of the American model, with more than 100 competing mobile and wired telecom operators fighting for some of the same customers. The result is that telecom rates in France are the lowest in Europe. It’s hard for a billionaire to make billions more when he cannot raise prices. That is why Mr. Drahi is setting his sights on the United States, where constant rate increases are actually expected by consumers. Just as surprising to Europeans, the ever-increasing prices are tolerated by regulators and members of Congress that sometimes end up working for the same telecom companies they oversaw during their stay in Washington.

Drahi can usually find loan money to buy up more American cable companies, because those companies can raise prices to pay back the massive debts Altice has already accumulated during several years of spending sprees.

cablevision“In every country, my strategy is to be number one or two,” Drahi told a hearing of the Economic Affairs Committee of the French Senate this month. In France, Altice is already number two and it will be very difficult to pass Orange, the dominant leader in French telecom. In the United States, there is still plenty of room to grow. After the completion of the acquisition of Cablevision, Altice will only control 2% of the market, giving Drahi plenty of room to push towards at least 10% market share starting in 2017.

Drahi originally had no intention of waiting even a year to further consolidate the U.S. cable market, but financial markets trembled over the €50 billion debt Drahi’s companies have amassed. The new line is that Altice will wait until next year before it acquires more companies in the United States, to give it a chance to properly merge Suddenlink and Cablevision into a more efficient operation.

“We want get bigger in the U.S., but I don’t know when, clearly not in 2016, which is the year of integration of our assets and operations,” Goei said in a recent interview. “Thereafter, you’d be surprised if we didn’t do anything, but we’re not going to buy things at stupid prices.”

Wall Street analysts are not so sure. More than a few believe Altice vastly overpaid for both Suddenlink and Cablevision. Many believe Drahi will have to be extremely generous to bring Cox Communications into the Altice family as well.

Unintended Consequences: Feds Let Telecom Companies Skirt Taxes While States Crack Down

Tax-FreeSome of America’s largest telecommunications companies continue to pay almost nothing in federal taxes even as state taxing authorities hungry for revenue  are getting more aggressive about denying access to tax loopholes and suing some for failing to pay their fair share.

Special interest-inspired “pro-business” loopholes have been a growing part of the U.S. tax code since the Reagan Administration. The premise seemed reasonable enough: high corporate taxes are simply passed on to consumers as a cost of doing business, so lowering them will trickle savings down to the consumer and also free capital to create more jobs. It has not worked that way, however. Product pricing for services like broadband have been based more on what customers believe the product is worth, not what it costs to deliver, and Verizon was among the companies cited for significant job cuts after its corporate tax rate plummeted. Regardless of corporate tax rates, providers continue to raise broadband prices, even as the costs to provide the service are declining. The old maxim of charging what the market will bear is alive and well. So where do the tax savings go? Into share buybacks, shareholder dividend payouts, increased executive salaries and bonuses, and lobbying.

Some states are discovering they have been leaving money on the table when they don’t insist on collecting owed state taxes, and as state budgets continue to be strapped with increasing medical and infrastructure-related expenses, taking companies to court who try to avoid their tax obligations is getting more popular.

One of the biggest potential windfalls could eventually fill New York State coffers with $300 million in damages and penalties courtesy of Sprint, which was accused of deliberately not billing customers for state taxes on its wireless services over seven years.

SprintYesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court turned away Sprint’s effort to void an October 2015 New York Court of Appeals decision that would allow the state to proceed to court arguing Sprint intentionally failed to collect more than $100 million in taxes from New Yorkers from 2005 on. At the time, Sprint was attempting to rebuild its market share by luring customers with cheaper mobile service. One way to offer a lower price is to stop charging tax. In New York alone, municipalities lost $4.6 million a month as a result of the scheme.

Sprint has repeatedly argued the lawsuit is invalid because a 2000 federal law trumps a 2002 New York State law that covered state taxes. The court disagreed, and the fact a whistleblower at Sprint revealed what Sprint was up to didn’t help. The case will now likely head to state court or get settled.

Verizon-Tax-Dodging-bannerWhile $300 million sounds like a lot, it pales in comparison to the money Verizon manages to dodge paying the Internal Revenue Service. The phone company is the poster child of corporate tax dodging according to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Sanders targeted Verizon because between 2008-2013, Verizon not only did not pay a nickel in federal taxes, it actually received a refund from the federal government after achieving a federal tax rate of -2.5%, despite booking $42.5 billion in profits. American taxpayers effectively subsidized Verizon when it got its refund check.

In the last two years, Verizon is paying federal taxes once again, but at a rate of 12.4%, well below the tax rate of most middle class Americans.

It’s a sensitive matter for Verizon, because CEO Lowell McAdam launched a full-scale media blitz trying to paint the Sanders campaign as inaccurate. McAdam claims Verizon actually paid a 35% tax rate in 2015, which would only be true if the company added the tax obligations it owes on the billions of dollars it stashes in overseas bank accounts. Foreign taxes don’t help the American taxpayer, suggest critics, and Citizens for Tax Justice consider McAdam’s claims “artificial.”

“In fact, over the past 15 years, Verizon has paid a federal tax rate averaging just 12.4 percent on $121 billion in U.S. profits, meaning that the company has found a way to shelter about two-thirds of its U.S. profits from federal taxes over this period,” the group claims. “In five of the last 15 years, the company paid zero in federal taxes. While there is no indication that this spectacular feat of tax avoidance is anything but legal (the company’s consistently low tax rates are most likely due to overly generous accelerated depreciation tax provisions that Congress has expanded over the last decade), few Americans would describe the company avoiding tax on $78 billion of profits as ‘fair.’”

unintendedBruce Kushnick, executive director of the New Networks Institute, claims Verizon also specializes in dumping most of its costs and “losses” on Verizon Communications, which owns its legacy wireline network, which helps them cut their tax obligations.

Too often, changes to the U.S. tax code have unintentional consequences, especially when corporations can hire tax attorneys that outclass those working for the federal government.

Fredric Grundeman helped draft a tax bill that was supposed to curb loopholes in the estate tax and though well-trained as a trusted attorney at the Treasury Department, the bill quickly backfired. The new law opened even larger loopholes than those it was originally written to close, allowing some of America’s richest families to pass on money to heirs with no tax implications at all. Grundeman admits legislators often don’t recognize a new tax law’s potential for abuse.

“How do I say it?” Grundeman told Bloomberg News back in 2013. “When Congress enacts a law, it isn’t always well thought out.”

That is also true on the state level.

Oregon officials push a button to exempt Google Fiber from a state property tax.

Oregon officials push a legislative button and give Google Fiber a tax break. Then Comcast shows up.

Oregon wants to attract Google Fiber to Portland, but Google objected to one of the state’s property tax provisions that affects companies that sell data services. Oregon partly sets the tax rate commensurate with the value of the provider’s brand name, among other factors. It’s all very vague, but not so vague that Google would miss it could pay an even higher tax rate that its competitors — Comcast and CenturyLink.

Oregon’s legislature voted to correct the problem by exempting providers that offer gigabit broadband. The tax law changes were tailored to benefit Google, assuming Comcast and CenturyLink would continue to drag their feet to upgrade their Oregon networks.

But the enterprising lawyers at Comcast promptly requested the same tax exemption that Google would get in return for building its fiber network in the state. The reason? Comcast had introduced its own gigabit Internet service on a much more limited scale.

Rep. Phil Barnhart (D-Eugene) admitted Oregon had another law on its hands with unintended consequences. Barnhart told utility regulators this spring his fellow lawmakers never intended to give the tax break to Comcast, which charges hundreds of dollars for 2,000Mbps service. But nobody bothered to set any price guidelines in the law, meaning Google can charge $70 a month for gigabit service and get a tax break and Comcast can offer 2Gbps service in a limited number of locations, at the “go away” price of $300 a month, with start-up costs up to $1,000, and a multi-year contract, and get the exact same tax break.

Barnhart

Barnhart

Or maybe not, at least for now.

Last week, the Oregon Department of Revenue ruled Comcast is not eligible for that tax break, at least not this year, according to The Oregonian. The department wouldn’t explain why, citing taxpayer confidentiality. For good measure, the same department also rejected applications from Google Fiber and Frontier Communications (Frontier operates a very limited FiOS fiber to the home network in communities including Beaverton, Hillsboro, and Gresham that it inherited from Verizon), claiming Google and Frontier’s gigabit networks were theoretical in Oregon and there needed to be gigabit service actually up and running to qualify.

That leaves Google in a classic catch-22. It won’t bring fiber to Oregon so long as it faces a stiff tax bill and tax authorities won’t forgive the tax until there is gigabit fiber up and running. For some taxpayers, what burns the most is the legislature paved the road to tax bliss to attract Google Fiber, but the only company that may actually ultimately travel down it is Comcast.

Financial Mess for Altice Abroad, U.S. Cable Customers Will Help Cover the Losses

altice debtAs Patrick Drahi’s telecom empire continues to strain under massive debts, a customer exodus in France, and cut throat competition in Europe that has reduced prices of some plans to less than $5 a month, the one thing his parent company Altice can count on is the deep pockets of the American cable subscriber.

The two cable companies that could make all the difference in helping Mr. Drahi keep the proverbial lights on at Empire Altice are his American acquisitions: Suddenlink and, if regulators ultimately approve, Cablevision. The French newspaper Les Echos notes Suddenlink customers are already helping cover Altice’s terrible financial performance in Europe, thanks to that cable company’s 42.5% profit margin. Suddenlink customers will be doing even more to help bail out Drahi’s difficult situation in France, thanks to future rate increases and the continued implementation of broadband usage plans that will push customers towards upgrades. But there is more to come.

“Cablevision will complete the ‘desensitization’ of France’s turbulent [telecom] marketplace for Altice,” reports the newspaper. Cablevision gives Altice an opportunity to cut costs and rely on New York, New Jersey and Connecticut customers to squeeze money out of the New York-based cable operator, validating Drahi’s “American adventure” — acquiring barely competitive cable companies to bolster revenue and profits. Customers are not expected to see lower cable bills, despite the cost cutting.

Overleveraged

Overleveraged

Altice’s troubled SFR-Numericable, which provides cable and mobile service in France, continues to endure a wholesale customer exodus, losing another 272,000 wireless customers during the first three months of 2016. Another 61,000 customers canceled cable and broadband service at the same time, despite price cuts. Even with cut-rate promotions, more than 1.4 million customers asked SFR-Numericable for a divorce over the last 15 months.

“They can’t give the service away for free,” says François Beauparlant, who dropped SFR-Numericable in January. “The company specializes in broken promises and shady deals. They promised upgrades and left us with service that regularly fails or Internet speeds only a small amount of what they promoted.”

Beauparlant rebuffed SFR despite its well-publicized offer of a wireless service package with 20GB of data and unlimited calls and text messages for $4.50 a month for a year.

Meanwhile, in Bethpage, N.Y., the neighbors are hopeful that quieter skies are in their future as the long-predicted Great Slash-a-thon at Cablevision is reportedly about the begin, starting with the permanent grounding of the cable company’s fleet of four executive helicopters which regularly fly in and out of Cablevision’s corporate headquarters.

The executives that relied on them won’t have much time to lament the loss, as the New York Post reports Drahi is ready to show Cablevision’s top-10 executives the door within weeks. Drahi wants everyone earning $300,000 or more out of the company as soon as possible.

Altice's cost-cutting Huns arrive.

Altice’s cost-cutting warriors arrive.

“I do not like to pay salaries. I pay as little as I can,” Drahi told investors at a conference last year.

Drahi also said he prefers to pay minimum wage wherever possible, a fact lesser Cablevision employees are likely to find out this summer. While those in lower level positions are likely to get “take it or leave it” offers, the top echelon of well-paid Cablevision executives will be paid even more in golden parachute exit packages, expected to be worth millions.

Among the recipients will likely be CEO James Dolan, general counsel David Ellen and vice-chairmen Hank Ratner and Gregg Seibert. Dolan’s wife Kristen, appointed chief operating officer several years ago, is still up in the air. She won’t be working at Altice’s pay scale, but may form a data-oriented joint venture with Altice later, according to the Post.

Drahi still insists he can find $900 million to cut from Cablevision’s annual budget. Critics of Altice’s acquisition of Cablevision insist those savings will come at the cost of customers, who could end up with the consequences of a dramatically reduced budget to manage upgrades, outsourced customer service, and dubious subcontractors.

Drahi’s willingness to withhold payments from vendors and suppliers to extract discounts is also likely to affect Cablevision’s relationships with cable programming networks and TV stations. The Post reports he is looking to offer slimmed-down cable TV packages, which means confronting powerful entertainment conglomerates like Disney, Viacom, Discovery, Comcast, and News Corp. Playing hardball with Viacom has not gone well for smaller cable conglomerates like Cable One, which dropped Viacom-owned channels from its lineup when it could not win enough price concessions. Disney’s ESPN has shown a willingness to sue if its expensive sports network is shunned from discounted cable TV packages.

Drahi concedes Altice and SFR-Numericable may not be the most popular companies in France, but ultimately it may not matter if he owns and controls the content customers want to watch. He is pouring money into French media acquisitions, including newspapers, launching his own Paris-based news channel, and acquiring TV networks and the exclusive rights to show popular sports like English football on them.

Commentary: CPUC Unanimously Approves Charter-TWC-Bright House Merger

charter twcCharter Communications could not have closer friends than the commissioners on the California Public Utilities Commission who unanimously voted in favor of the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable while some almost apologized for bothering the cable company with pesky deal conditions.

CPUC president Michael Picker quickly dispensed with the glaring omission of a sunset provision on Charter’s three-year voluntary commitment to abide by the FCC’s Open Internet Order by inviting his fellow commissioners to add it back for Charter’s benefit. How nice of him. The cable company lobbyists in attendance at today’s hearing did not even need to ask.

Picker’s review of the merger benefits effectively recited a Charter press release and he seemed genuinely pleased with himself for making it all possible. For example, the CPUC considered the addition of a provision allowing consumers to buy their own cable modems and set-top boxes without a penalty from their provider “unprecedented,” while never mentioning they failed to adopt recommendations that customers be given a discount for providing their own equipment. Score Charter, which can continue to collect modem fees built into the price of its broadband service even when you provide your own.

Dampier

Dampier

New Charter’s “exciting” commitment to upgrade to 300Mbps by 2019 sounds good, until one realizes Time Warner Cable was committed to finishing their own 300Mbps upgrade at least one year earlier, and at a lower cost to customers. In fact, while California celebrates 300Mbps by 2019, thanks to the efforts of Stop the Cap! and the New York Public Service Commission, Charter is required to be ready to offer gigabit service across the state that same year. See what is possible when you actually try, CPUC?

The commissioners repeatedly thanked Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable while ignoring the consumer groups that contributed opposing comments and tangible suggestions to improve benefits for consumers — almost entirely ignored by the CPUC. That will cost Californians dearly and borders on regulatory malpractice. If the CPUC required California to at least enjoy the same benefits other state utility regulators won for their constituents, Californians would get a substantially better deal. Instead, the CPUC insisted on giving California and even worse deal than the FCC, by granting Charter’s right to gouge customers with usage caps and usage billing in three years, even after the FCC agreed to seven years of cap-free Internet. Mr. Picker and the other commissioners owe California an explanation for letting them down, and the scandal-plagued CPUC needs to demonstrate it is reforming after the shameful performance of its former chairman Michael Peevey.

“Today was a travesty for Californian consumers, and frankly we were shocked to watch ostensibly independent commissioners carry water for Charter Communications,” said Stop the Cap! president Phillip Dampier. “We saw clear evidence of a commission more concerned about Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable than for the average citizens of California that will face higher cable bills, time limits on unlimited Internet access, and a longer wait for upgrades as a direct result of today’s decision. Consumer groups like Stop the Cap! brought clear and convincing evidence to the commission that the benefits of this merger have time limits and plenty of fine print. We offered concrete suggestions on how to improve the deal for consumers — ideas accepted in other states, but the CPUC clearly wasn’t interested in anything that might make Charter uncomfortable.”

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