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Damage Control Amateur Hour at the N.Y. Assembly Majority Leader’s Office

grammarly

Assemblyman Joe Morelle’s letter to N.Y. regulators failed this online plagiarism checker when it found the majority of the text was lifted from Comcast’s own press statements and congressional testimony, without attribution.

News that Assemblyman Joe Morelle cut and pasted the majority of his letter to New York regulators directly from a Comcast press release and executive testimony before Congress has begun to create some problems for the assemblyman and his office.

The story has been picked up by a Rochester television station, two New York newspapers and the National Journal (so far). We have now learned that Assemblyman Morelle also cashed a $1,000 campaign contribution check from Comcast earlier this year.

In response to our story, the assemblyman’s office today issued a litany of excuses about why it now fronts for Comcast, none of them particularly convincing. In fact, the damage control effort may actually be making the problems for Mr. Morelle and Comcast worse:

WROC-TV:

Sean Hart, said Comcast approached the assemblyman for his support. “They provided a draft letter of support for our consideration. We made several edits of the letter. This is common practice for any organization asking for an elected official’s support to provide a sample letter.”

Comcast is not an “organization.” It is a multi-billion dollar telecommunications and entertainment conglomerate. We are grateful to have confirmation that Comcast is sending out “templates” to elected officials with talking points already prepared and ready to go. The only issue is whether an elected official will steer clear of promoting giant corporate merger deals they don’t understand (and Mr. Morelle clearly does not have a clue.)

Did Mr. Morelle consult with his own constituents before deciding to tote water for Comcast? Not that we are aware of. Even the Public Service Commission’s own staff recognizes the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers communicating with them on this issue (nearly 3,000 and counting), are vehemently opposed to the deal. Many have past personal experiences dealing with Comcast, and they don’t have the benefit of a $1,000 check from the cable company to give them warm feelings of goodwill.

Although it may be common practice for a company to do this kind of advocacy work, it is not common for most elected officials to barely rewrite the company’s own press releases and executive testimony. Out of thousands of elected officials in New York, only a dozen or so have weighed in with the PSC on this issue.

Our favorite attempt at damage control came from Mr. Hart’s comments to The Journal News:

“It is common practice for an organization seeking support to provide a sample letter with suggested language,” Hart wrote. “I am certain if you were to review letters of support for any number of projects/causes submitted by elected officials, at every level of government, you would find that many opt to extract language from a sample letter provided to them.”

Hart rejected the suggestion that Morelle plagiarized the Comcast and Time Warner executives’ testimony, as suggested by Stop the Cap. The letter to the Public Service Commission was signed by Morelle and printed on official Assembly letterhead.

“I realize I probably do not need to point this out to a journalist, but the definition of plagiarism is ‘an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own,'” Hart wrote. “Morelle has authorization from Comcast to use the language included in his letter to the NYSPSC.”

He continued: “It is one thing to disagree with the Majority Leader’s opinion. It is another to make outlandish claims that lack merit.”

Morelle

Morelle

We have reviewed over 8,000 comments filed with regulators on the state and national level since 2008. We have rarely encountered a cut and paste job as obvious as Mr. Morelle’s letter. When you review as many filings as we do, when talking points are quoted word for word, it stands out because we have heard them from Comcast again and again.

Mr. Hart does not help Mr. Morelle’s cause defending the fact he had Comcast’s permission to cut and paste their press releases in comments sent on the Majority Leader’s letterhead and signed by him personally. Comcast could and should have co-signed it. The fact that it happened at all should ring alarm bells for any voter, particularly those who don’t appreciate an elected official inviting America’s most-hated cable company into New York State.

As for the matter of plagiarism, perhaps we missed the part where Mr. Morelle made sure to credit the source for his testimonial. Oh wait, we didn’t. It wasn’t in there. Would Mr. Hart’s excuses fly by your college professor after being caught cutting and pasting someone else’s words in a paper you ostensibly wrote without any attribution?

Maybe we were wrong, so we decided to run Mr. Morelle’s letter through an online plagiarism checker to see what it thought.

Uh oh: Grammarly not only fired off a warning, but a full-scale “!” plagiarism alert, even after we discounted our own (and others) coverage of the story, which also quotes from his letter.

If Mr. Hart wants to attack us for exposing the sordid affair, we’re fine with that. We’re tough and can take it. He’ll find few (unpaid) defenders of Comcast to stand with the assemblyman.

Frankly, the only “outlandish claims that lack merit” are Comcast’s promises for New York. If Mr. Morelle is that comfortable extending his own credibility to vouch for Comcast, we’ll still be around to remind his constituents the promised dreams of better days inevitably devolved into a consumer nightmare, just as it has in Comcast’s primary service areas. Voters should know Comcast has Joe Morelle’s full and unwavering support.

The best damage control? Rescind the letter. All will be forgiven. Mr. Morelle won’t be the first (or last) elected official suffering collateral damage from Comcast.

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NYS Assembly Leader Joe Morelle Plagiarizes Comcast Testimony in Letter to Regulators

New York State Assembly Leader Joe Morelle (D-Rochester) plagiarized large sections of a Comcast press release and the Congressional testimony of Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen in a letter sent to the New York Public Service Commission endorsing the cable company’s bid to merge with Time Warner Cable.

Morelle evidently ignored or was unaware of his constituents’ overwhelming opposition to the merger deal and seemed unfazed about Comcast’s long record of dreadful customer service, constant rate increases, and the company’s plan to reimplement usage limits on consumer broadband accounts. Morelle simply cut and pasted Comcast’s own words in his letter about the merger, as we illustrate below:

 

morelleN.Y. State Assembly Leader Joe Morelle: “The combination of Comcast and Time Warner Cable will create a world-class communications, media and technology company to help meet the increasing consumer demand for advanced digital services on multiple devices in homes, workplaces and on-the-go.”

cohenDavid Cohen, executive vice-president, Comcast: “The combination of Comcast and TWC will create a world-class communications, media, and technology company to help meet the insatiable consumer demand for advanced digital services on multiple devices in homes, workplaces, and on-the-go.”

 

morelleJoe Morelle: “Comcast has a proven record of investing in new technologies, facilities and customer support to provide the best in broadband Internet access, video and digital voice services.”

cohenDavid Cohen: “Comcast has a proven record of investing in new technologies, facilities, and customer support to provide the best in broadband Internet access, video, and digital voice services.”

 

morelleJoe Morelle: “Similarly, TWC has made significant strides in offering a diverse array of video, broadband, and voice services to its customers.”

cohenDavid Cohen: “Similarly, TWC has made significant strides in offering a diverse array of video, broadband, and voice services to its customers.”

 

morelleJoe Morelle: “Combining the two companies’ complementary strengths will accelerate the deployment of next-generation broadband Internet, video and voice services across the new company’s footprint.”

cohenDavid Cohen: “Combining the two companies’ complementary strengths will accelerate the deployment of next-generation broadband Internet, video, and voice services across the new company’s footprint.”

 

morelleJoe Morelle: “Residential customers will benefit from technological innovations including a superior video experience, higher broadband speeds and the fastest in-home Wi-Fi, while also generating significant cost savings and other efficiencies.”

comcastComcast Press Release: “Through this merger, more American consumers will benefit from technological innovations, including a superior video experience, higher broadband speeds, and the fastest in-home Wi-Fi. The transaction also will generate significant cost savings and other efficiencies.”

 

morelleJoe Morelle: “In just two-and-a-half years, over 350,000 families, representing approximately 1.4 million low-income consumers, have been connected to the Internet thanks to this program. This proposed merger would extend this vital program to many more low-income households in New York by providing access to it in certain areas of the state currently only served by Time Warner.

cohenDavid Cohen: “In just two and a half years, over 300,000 families, representing some 1.2 million low-income consumers, have been connected to the transformative power of the Internet thanks to this program. The transaction will extend this vital program to millions more Americans in the areas currently served by TWC.”

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Syracuse Wants More Choices Than Comcast and Verizon: Considers Building Publicly-Owned FTTH Alternative

Downtown Syracuse (Image: Post-Standard)

Downtown Syracuse (Image: Post-Standard)

The city of Syracuse is facing an unpleasant broadband reality: the current cable company is about to be bought out by Comcast (which has usage caps in store for broadband customers) and the phone company has thrown in the towel on further expanding FiOS — fiber to the home broadband.

Mayor Stephanie Miner isn’t willing to let the city get trapped by a lack of broadband options from Comcast and Verizon, so she’s developing a plan to build a publicly owned alternative.

“I’m putting together a plan that we can do it ourselves, as a community,” Miner told the Post-Standard

If approved, Syracuse would join Chattanooga, Lafayette, La.,  Wilson and Salisbury, N.C., and several other cities providing local citizens with broadband speeds up to 1,000/1,000Mbps.

“Would we have to do that in phases? What would that look like? How would we pay for it? What would the model be? Those are all things that we are currently looking at, ” Miner noted.

Many of those questions have already been worked out by the best clearinghouse Stop the Cap! knows for excellent community broadband project development: the team at the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

The Community Broadband Networks Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, works with communities across the United States to create the policies needed to make sure telecommunications networks serve the community rather than a community serving the network. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a non-profit organization that started in Washington D.C. in 1974.

ILSR’s Mission:

The Institute’s mission is to provide innovative strategies, working models and timely information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development. To this end, ILSR works with citizens, activists, policymakers and entrepreneurs to design systems, policies and enterprises that meet local or regional needs; to maximize human, material, natural and financial resources; and to ensure that the benefits of these systems and resources accrue to all local citizens.

No community should attempt to build a community broadband network without first consulting with ILSR. They are particularly effective at helping combat the misinformation campaigns that often arise when an incumbent duopoly discovers they are about to get serious competition for the first time.

If your community wants something better than the local cable and phone company, have your local official(s) E-mail or call Christopher Mitchell at ILSR: 612-276-3456 x209

With entrenched providers unwilling to meet the needs of communities for affordable fast Internet, more American communities are providing the service themselves, much as they take care of local roads, bridges, and other public infrastructure. Comcast’s toll information superhighway may work wonders for shareholders, but it leaves most customers cold. Syracuse, like most upstate New York cities, has also watched Verizon flee from investments in FiOS expansion beyond a handful of wealthy suburbs. Verizon has diverted much of its investment away from wired networks in favor of wireless, a much more profitable business.

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Rochester City Councilman Adam McFadden’s Love for Comcast (and the $50k)

McFadden

McFadden

Rochester city councilman Adam McFadden wrote a gushing letter in support of the merger deal between Comcast and Time Warner Cable published today on the N.Y. Public Service Commission website that doesn’t come close to fully disclosing the financial ties between Comcast and a lobbying group he presides over, funded in part by Comcast.

I write to you today from one of our state’s and the country’s oldest centers for enterprise and industry, Rochester. I am proud to represent my lifelong home as City Councilman for the South District. The proposed transaction between Time Warner Cable and Comcast has attracted a lot of attention here in New York, and deserves to be fully considered. I write to you today to urge your approval of the transaction so that Rochester residents, and New Yorkers across the state, can be empowered by Comcast’s innovative and dedicated service.

My area is currently served by Time Warner Cable, but would receive Comcast coverage following the approval of the transaction. I am lucky to represent my community not just locally, but on the national stage. Through my experience with the National League of Cities, and as the vice president of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, I’ve heard about Comcast’s track record of serving the public good in communities like mine.

We don’t doubt for a moment McFadden has “heard” about Comcast. McFadden is listed as president of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials’ Board of Directors, a group whose website is emblazoned with Comcast’s logo as a generous “capstone partner” of the NBC-LEO and National League of Cities. Capstone partners must give an “annual investment” of at least $50,000. In fact, Comcast isn’t just a passive member of the group McFadden helps to run. Ron Orlando, senior director of Comcast’s lobbying/government affairs department sits on the group’s “Corporate Partners Leadership Council Roster.”

“The Council shares the perspectives of the corporate and not-for-profit sectors and makes recommendations for activities that promote the exchange of ideas between corporate and city leaders,” claims the website.

That is a nice way of saying corporate sponsors can use the group as a front to insert its corporate agenda into the public dialogue, while avoiding disclosure it is, in fact, pulling the strings. Capstone members get plenty of face time with the group… in private, through “exclusive access to the voluntary leadership and targeted member groups at NLC conferences and special VIP events.

But our favorite is allowing corporate members access to discounted mailing lists maintained by the NLC that left companies directly target elected and career officials in all cities with a population greater than 10,000 to spread their talking points.

McFadden’s constituents might be wondering whether he represents their interests or Comcast when he pens a letter to New York regulators urging them to allow an unpopular merger between two colossal cable companies. McFadden didn’t write his letter under the name(s) of the two groups that have direct financial ties to Comcast. He wrote it in his role as a city councilman.

We consider it highly unethical that McFadden did not disclose the strong direct financial ties between Comcast and the organizations he represents and has not exactly trumpeted his full-throated support for the cable merger deal among his constituents, who probably like Time Warner Cable and Comcast a lot less than he does. But then, $50,000 a year can bring a lot of goodwill if your group is getting the check.

[Update 1:30pm 8/12: We are told Mr. McFadden has denied knowledge of the $50k and claims he wrote the letter because he "hates Time Warner Cable." Nice try. Follow the links and get back to us about how we could find this information in about 10 minutes and you couldn't. If you hated Time Warner, you will despise Comcast... but then there is that $50,000 annually to think about.... - PMD"]

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Stop the Cap!’s Letter to N.Y. Public Service Commission on Comcast/TWC Merger Deal

psctest

August 6, 2014

Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess
Secretary, Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223-1350

Dear Ms. Burgess,

The country is watching New York to learn if our state regulators believe a merger between two unpopular cable operators is in the best interest of New York residents.

For the first time in a long time, the Public Service Commission has been empowered to provide much needed oversight over two companies that have enjoyed both deregulation and a near-monopoly across the region, particularly for High Speed Internet service at speeds above 10Mbps.

New Yorkers, like the rest of the country, consistently rank both Comcast and Time Warner Cable as some of the worst companies around.[1] The PSC has the power to facilitate franchise transfers that would effectively combine the two into one giant monolithic cable company dominating the northeastern U.S., or it can reject the proposed assignment of franchises to Comcast, letting both companies know “in the public interest” means something in New York State.

Section 222 of the New York Public Service law[2] provides the PSC with the authority to reject the application for a transfer of a franchise, any transfer of control of a franchise or certificate of confirmation, or of facilities constituting a significant part of any cable television system unless, and I paraphrase, the transfer is in the public interest.

The Commission is on record partly articulating its standard for determining the public interest. In 2013, the Commission stated several principles it considered in the matter of the acquisition of Central Hudson Gas and Electric by Fortis, Inc., to determine if the transaction would provide customers positive net benefits.[3] The Petitioners in that case were held to a standard requiring them to demonstrate the expected intrinsic benefits of the transaction exceeded its detriments and risks.

However, there are considerable differences between energy utilities and the largely deregulated marketplace for multichannel video distributors and broadband providers. While legacy telephone regulations still provide for significant oversight of this vital service, cable operators have won the right to set their own rates, service policies, and broad service areas.

Although many of us believe broadband has become an essential utility service, federal regulators do not, especially after telephone and cable companies have successfully lobbied on the federal level to weaken or eliminate regulation and oversight of television and broadband service with arguments they do business in a fiercely competitive marketplace.[4]

Regulators cannot compel cable operators to provide service in communities where they have chosen not to seek a franchise agreement, and broadband expansion programs in rural, unserved areas have largely only been successful when communities elect to construct their own broadband networks or federal funds (tax dollars and subsidies funded by ratepayers) defray the expense of last-mile networks.  While it is enticing to seek a voluntary agreement from the applicant to expand its rural service area, the public interest benefit to the relatively small number of New Yorkers getting broadband for the first time must be weighed against the interests of millions of existing subscribers in New York who are likely to see further rate increases, usage-limited broadband service, and worse service from Comcast.

New Yorkers will remain captive in most areas to choosing between one telephone and one cable company for packages of phone, television, and Internet access.[5] Promises of competition have never materialized for vast numbers of state residents, particularly those upstate who have been left behind after Verizon ceased its FiOS fiber to the home expansion project.

Unless Comcast was compelled to wire the entire state, any proposal seeking a voluntary agreement to expand Comcast’s service area in New York is likely to be insufficient to solve the pervasive problem of rural broadband availability. It would also saddle millions of New Yorkers with a company unwelcomed by consumers, with no alternative choice.

As you will see in our filing, Comcast has often promised improvements it planned to offer anyway, but held back to offer as a “concession” to regulators.

The result of past deals is one monopolistic cable operator is replaced by another, and as the American Consumer Satisfaction Index reported, bigger is not better for consumers.[6]

The nation’s two largest cable operators, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, now seek further “value creation” for their already very profitable businesses by merging.[7]

News reports indicate further consolidation is likely in the telecommunications marketplace, largely in response to this merger proposal. Soon after Comcast made its announcement, AT&T announced its desire to acquire DirecTV,[8] and Charter Communications’ efforts to bolster its size are likely to be realized acquiring Time Warner Cable customers cast off as part of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable transaction.[9]

How does this benefit New Yorkers? In our attached statement, we go far beyond the testimony offered by Comcast’s representative at the public information meeting we attended in Buffalo. It is vital for any merger review to include a careful analysis of exactly what Comcast is proposing to offer New York. But it is even more important to consider the costs of these improvements. As you will see, many of the promised upgrades come at a steep price – set top box platforms that require a $99 installation fee, the prospect faster broadband speeds will be tempered by broadband usage limits and usage penalties largely unfamiliar to New Yorkers, and other technology upgrades that are accompanied by subscriber inconvenience and added costs.

Comcast’s promised commitments for customers must also be carefully weighed against what it promised shareholders. While Comcast claims it will spend millions to upgrade acquired Time Warner Cable systems (many already being upgraded by Time Warner Cable itself), the merger announcement includes unprecedented bonus and golden parachute packages for the outgoing executives at Time Warner Cable, including a $78 million bonus for Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus, announced less than 60 days after taking the helm.[10] Comcast’s biggest investment of all will be on behalf of its shareholders, who will benefit from an estimated $17 billion share repurchase plan.[11]

The PSC should be aware that previous efforts to mitigate the bad behavior of cable companies have nearly always failed to protect consumers.

Professor John E. Kwoka, Jr., in his study, “Does Merger Control Work? A Retrospective on U.S. Enforcement Actions and Merger Outcomes,[12]” found past attempts at behavioral remedies spectacularly failed to protect against rapacious rate increases after  mergers are approved.[13]

In short, it is our contention that this merger proposal offers few, if any benefits to New York residents and is not in the public interest even if modestly modified by regulators.

The implications of this transaction are enormous and will directly impact the lives of most New Yorkers, particularly for broadband, now deemed by the industry (and consumers) its most important product.[14]

We have attached a more detailed analysis of our objections to this proposal and we urge the New York Public Service Commission to recognize this transaction does not come close to meeting the public interest test and must therefore be rejected.

 

Yours very truly,

 

Phillip M. Dampier

[1]http://arstechnica.com/business/2014/05/comcast-time-warner-cable-still-have-the-angriest-customers-survey-finds/
[2]http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/nycode/PBS/11/222
[3]http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={A55ECCE9-C3B2-4076-A934-4F65AA7E79D1}
[4]http://www.mi-natoa.org/pdfs/The_Ten_Disappointments_of_Cable.pdf
[5]http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/we-need-real-competition-not-a-cable-internet-monopoly
[6]http://www.theacsi.org/component/content/article/30-commentary-category/179-acsi-quarterly-commentaries-q1-2008
[7]http://corporate.comcast.com/images/Transaction-Fact-Sheet-2-13-14.pdf
[8]http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/05/13/att-directv-deal-analysis/9044491/
[9]http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/28/us-charter-communi-comcast-idUSBREA3R0N620140428
[10]http://money.cnn.com/2014/03/21/news/companies/time-warner-cable-golden-parachute/
[11]http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2014/02/comcast_agrees_to_purchase_of.html
[12]John E. Kwoka, Jr., “Does Merger Control Work? A Retrospective on U.S. Enforcement Actions and
Merger Outcomes,” 78 Antitrust L.J 619 (2013)
[13]7 John E. Kwoka, Jr. and Diana L. Moss, “Behavioral Merger Remedies: Evaluation and Implications for
Antitrust Enforcement,” at 22, available at
http://antitrustinstitute.org/sites/default/files/AAI_wp_behavioral%20remedies_final.pdf
[14]http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303657404576359671078105148
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Stop the Cap’s Formal Written Submission Opposing Comcast-Time Warner Merger Filed With N.Y. PSC

(Ed. Note: Our formal written submission to the New York Public Service Commission is presented in this series of articles. Please note that any graphics included on Stopthecap.com were not included in the formal filing, but are presented here to make the material more reader-friendly. — PMD)

psctest

STATE OF NEW YORK

PUBLIC SERVICE COMMISSION


Joint Petition of Time Warner Cable Inc. and

Comcast Corporation For Approval of a                                       Case 14-M-0183

Holding Company Level Transfer of Control.


 

 

Statement of Opposition to Joint Petition
Phillip M. Dampier, Director and Founder: Stop the Cap!
Rochester, New York
August 1, 2014

Stop the Cap! is a not-for-profit group founded in Rochester in 2008 to fight against the introduction of artificial limits on broadband usage (usage caps, consumption billing, speed throttling) and for better broadband speeds and service for consumers. Our group does not solicit or accept funding from lobbyists, companies, or others affiliated with the telecommunications industry. We are entirely supported by individual donors who share our views.

telecompromising

Regulators cannot outsmart multi-billion dollar corporate giants with temporary merger mitigation strategies that end up not helping consumers for very long, if it all.

Introduction

Our opposition to the Joint Petition is based on our belief it does not meet the “public interest”  test established in Section 222 of the New York Public Service law, and must therefore be denied.

We are concerned the Commission may attempt a mitigation of Comcast’s failure to demonstrate a public interest benefit for New York residents in its application. The Commission may even attempt to negotiate a monetary public benefit adjustment to afford Comcast the opportunity to pay its way to approval of a merger the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers who have shared their views with the Commission ardently oppose. We submit that the recent change in New York law obligates the applicant alone to demonstrate its proposal is in the public interest. It is not the Commission’s responsibility to propose mitigation formulas that tip the balance in favor of an applicant.

Also lacking in the discussion is a careful analysis and comparison of Time Warner Cable’s existing products and services in contrast with Comcast and, more importantly, the impact of its own upgrade program now underway. It is our contention New York will be better served by retaining Time Warner Cable as the dominant cable provider and rejecting Comcast’s attempt to transfer Time Warner’s franchise agreements to itself. We are not opposed to Comcast independently entering New York and competing head-to-head with Time Warner Cable, although we believe it is unlikely.

Ultimately, we believe Comcast’s executive vice-president David Cohen made one of the strongest arguments why this merger simply does not make sense for New York:

“We are certainly not promising that customer bills will go down or increase less rapidly.”[1]

[1]http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2014/02/comcast-no-promise-that-prices-will-go-down-or-even-increase-less-rapidly/
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Comcast’s “Improvements,” Including Digital TV, Come at a High Cost for Customers

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Comcast has offered the Commission a vague preview of how it intends to improve cable television service for New York customers, but rarely discloses important details about the costs and limitations their “improvements” will bring.

comcast octupusWhile Comcast is excited about the proposition of transitioning Time Warner Cable customers away from the current mixed analog-digital platform to an all-digital lineup, Time Warner Cable customers have paid less and avoided costly, unwanted extra equipment as a result of the choices consciously made by Time Warner Cable.

Comcast and Time Warner Cable have different philosophies about how to best deliver the bulging cable television packages most cable systems now offer:

  • Time Warner Cable adopted “Switched Digital Video” from BigBand Networks, a technology that lets Time Warner deliver only the digital signals that are being watched in a service group or node, instead of the entire lineup.[1] Since it is unlikely subscribers are watching every niche channel on offer, Time Warner has been able to reclaim unused bandwidth. As a result, customers using older cable-ready televisions can continue to access analog television channels without the use of a costly, often unwanted set top box.
  • Comcast has more aggressively chosen a  path to all-digital television service, moving most of their television channels to encrypted digital technology that requires a Comcast set top box, a less costly Digital Transport Adapter (DTA) designed for secondary-use televisions, or a CableCARD. Customers must choose one of these technologies, usually at an added-cost to access their cable television service.[2]

Time Warner Cable also began deploying DTA equipment in certain areas to free up additional bandwidth on its cable systems while still leaving most analog channels intact. The DTA boxes are supplied free of charge during an introductory phase lasting up to a year, after which a $0.99 monthly charge for each box is imposed.[3] (That fee has recently been raised in certain markets, including New York City, to $1.50/mo.[4] [5])

In contrast, Comcast customers were initially entitled to receive up to three no-cost DTAs to install on televisions not equipped with a Comcast set top box.[6]

comcast-cisco-dtaOn January 1, 2013 Comcast began informing subscribers a new $1.99/month “additional outlet service charge,” now applied for each DTA installed. [7]

Public officials in Eagan, Minn., responding to consumer complaints about the new charge, suspected Comcast was attempting an end run around the Federal Communications Commission’s prohibition of “excessive fees for cable equipment.”[8] The additional outlet fee was deemed by Comcast to be a service fee, not an equipment charge.[9]

Attorney Mike Bradley was hired by a group of suburban Minneapolis cable commissions to investigate the legitimacy of Comcast’s new DTA service charge. If the fee were classified as an equipment charge, Comcast would charge 50 cents per DTA based on rate forms filed with the Minnesota cable commissions he represents, Bradley told The Pioneer Press.[10]

For the average Comcast subscriber, the result was another rate increase in return for digital television service. Subscribers with three DTA’s now pay up to $5.97 extra per month in order to continue to receive the exact same programming on the same number of televisions within their household – a $25 annual surcharge per DTA, $75 if the customer uses three DTA’s, complained Eagan, Minn. Mayor Mike Maguire in a letter to Sen. Amy Klobuchar.[11]

Comcast’s fees, in addition to being well in excess of the actual cost of the equipment, will earn the company at least $550 million annually in new revenue – all for equipment that costs the company around $50 per unit.[12] Because Comcast is encrypting its lineup, even televisions equipped with QAM tuners, capable of receiving digital television signals without a set top box, will also eventually need the new equipment to unscramble television signals.

[1]http://www.cedmagazine.com/news/2009/09/time-warner-cable-serves-up-sdv-in-n.y.,-dallas,-l.a.
[2]http://customer.comcast.com/help-and-support/cable-tv/how-bill-will-change-with-digital-migration
[3]http://www.cedmagazine.com/news/2012/01/time-warner-cable-wraps-up-all-digital-conversion-pilot-in-maine
[4]http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2013/04/were-converting-analog-signals-to-digital-across-the-new-york-region/
[5]http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/residential-home/support/faqs/faqs-tv/basictvencryption/what-will-the-digital-adapter-cost.html
[6] http://www.twincities.com/ci_22617153/comcast-fee-plan-cause-confusion-controversy
[7]http://customer.comcast.com/help-and-support/cable-tv/how-bill-will-change-with-digital-migration
[8]http://transition.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Cable/News_Releases/nrcb4009.txt
[9]http://stopthecap.com/2013/02/21/comcast-calls-1-99-charge-for-digital-adapters-a-service-fee-to-avoid-fcc-complications/
[10]http://www.twincities.com/ci_22617153/comcast-fee-plan-cause-confusion-controversy?IADID=Search-www.twincities.com-www.twincities.com
[11]https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/9008/pioneerpress/yourtechweblog/Eagan%20-%20Sen%20Klobuchar%20ltr%20re%20Cable%20Rate%20Concerns%203-5-13.pdf
[12]http://cisco-news.tmcnet.com/news/2011/04/25/5464600.htm
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How Comcast’s Volume Discounts Will Kill Cable-TV Competition

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You can still read a book instead of everything else.

You can still read a book instead of everything else.

Allowing Comcast to dominate New York’s cable television marketplace will deter future competitors from entering the market, particularly for television programming.

One of the arguments made by proponents of the merger is the possibility of decreased wholesale television programming costs won through volume discounts available to the largest nationwide providers. Unfortunately for consumers, Comcast has already declared customers will not benefit from those discounts in the form of lower cable bills.

A prospective new entrant considering providing cable television service will face competition with Comcast without any benefit of volume discounts on programming.[1] That makes it unlikely a provider will offer a competing television package.

This is not a theoretical problem.

In Ohio, independent cable company MCTV discovered that while large cable operators like Comcast were benefiting from volume discounts, it faced contract renewal prices more than 40 times the rate of inflation.[2] Cable ONE, owned by the Washington Post, had to drop more than a dozen Viacom owned channels for good because it could not afford the asking price.[3]

MCTV president Bob Gessner reminds us of just how concentrated the entertainment business has become, noting that nine media companies (Comcast is one of them) now control 95% of all paid video content consumed in the United States.[4]

MCTV’s survival plan includes membership in the 900-member National Cable Television Cooperative, the only way smaller providers can pool resources and win discounts of their own. It is no longer effective as mergers and acquisitions continue to consolidate the cable and telco-TV business. All 900 NCTC members serve a combined five million customers. Comcast has 21 million, DirecTV: 20 million, Dish Networks: 14 million, and Time Warner Cable: 11 million.[5]

media_consolidation

AT&T confesses it cannot compete effectively with Comcast and other larger competitors for the same reason. AT&T’s solution, like Comcast, is to buy a competitor, in this case DirecTV.[6]

Frontier Communications faced a similar problem after adopting Verizon FiOS franchises in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest after purchasing Verizon landline networks in several states. When Frontier lost Verizon’s volume discounts on programming, Frontier’s solution was to begin a marketing campaign to convince its fiber customers to abandon the technology and switch to one of its satellite television partners.[7]

[1]http://www.fiercecable.com/story/comcast-twc-deal-will-squeeze-programming-and-technology-vendors/2014-02-13
[2]http://stopthecap.com/2014/06/05/independent-cable-companies-unify-against-cable-tv-programmer-rate-increases/
[3]http://online.wsj.com/articles/viacom-60-cable-firms-part-ways-in-rural-u-s-1403048557
[4]http://stopthecap.com/2014/06/05/independent-cable-companies-unify-against-cable-tv-programmer-rate-increases/
[5]http://stopthecap.com/2014/06/05/independent-cable-companies-unify-against-cable-tv-programmer-rate-increases/
[6]http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-05-02/dish-or-directv-need-deal-most-in-at-t-love-triangle-real-m-a.html
[7]http://stopthecap.com/2011/08/16/frontiers-fiber-mess-company-losing-fios-subs-landline-customers-but-adds-bonded-dsl/
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Comcast’s ‘We Don’t Compete With TWC’ Argument Opens the Door to Merging With Every Cable Company

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competitionComcast has argued there should be no antitrust concerns over their merger with Time Warner Cable because the two companies do not directly compete with each other.

That is precisely the problem. Nothing has ever precluded Comcast from applying to provide service throughout New York in direct competition with Time Warner Cable, but that has never happened. If one accepts Comcast’s logic, nothing should preclude it from acquiring every cable company in the United States because in almost no cases do cable operators compete head-to-head for customers.

Comcast must not be convinced of its own argument, because it has voluntarily agreed to limit its television market share to less than 30 percent by selling groups of Time Warner Cable customers to Charter Communications.[1]

The lack of competition is profound in New York, particularly upstate, and will only grow worse if this merger is permitted.

comcast whoppersWhile sections of the state enjoy competition from Verizon FiOS fiber to the home service, enormous regions, including metropolitan Rochester and Binghamton have no prospect of widely available fiber broadband speeds consistently above 10Mbps because Frontier Communications almost entirely relies on DSL and its variants in Rochester and Verizon suspended its fiber expansion before even contemplating upgrading Binghamton.

The cities of Buffalo and Syracuse can only find FiOS in wealthy suburban areas, while inner-city residents are left either choosing Time Warner Cable or Verizon DSL, if offered.

It is also critical to note both cable operators fiercely compete with each other for sports programming rights and advertising dollars, both of which have major implications in a large metropolitan market like New York. Both Comcast and Time Warner Cable have records of withholding sports programming from competitors or charging excessively for access.[2]

[1]http://time.com/79053/comcast-time-warner-cable-charter/
[2]http://judiciary.house.gov/_cache/files/665684a1-49d4-4aca-9bc1-79ae9ad387b9/grunes-testimony.pdf
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Comcast/Time Warner: We Dare You to Compare – ‘Our Regular Retail Prices Are a Secret’

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One of the most difficult questions you can ask a customer service representative of either Comcast or Time Warner Cable is what their regular price is for service. As a Buffalo News reporter discovered in August 2013, Time Warner Cable refused repeated attempts to ascertain the non-promotional price of its broadband service.[1]

merger benefitsMaking a direct comparison between the prices charged by Comcast and those of Time Warner Cable require unnecessary perseverance made even more difficult by the fact Comcast only serves a tiny portion of New York State.

Both companies offer promotional deals to new customers as well as those threatening to cancel service, but those prices fluctuate wildly and eventually expire.

Time Warner Cable has made it even more difficult this year by completely eliminating the most popular plans from its retail price list: bundled service packages known in the industry as “double-play” (two services) or “triple play” (three services).[2]

A Time Warner Cable spokesman told the Los Angeles Times the company is required by regulators to provide pricing information for only some of its fees, and Internet rates are not one of them.[3] This year, Time Warner kept the size of its broadband rate hikes to itself. It is much the same for Comcast.

Both cable companies make a point of telling the news media that these prices, including installation, reflect the “rack rates” and that “most customers will pay less […] after cutting a deal for their programming package.”

ratehike1In 2011, Time Warner Cable raised some of its “rack rates” by up to 51.1 percent.[4]

That makes a rate comparison for television service difficult because the retail rates often do not reflect reality. But beyond rates, regulators need to understand Comcast television packages are very different from what Time Warner Cable customers are used to finding.[5] While Time Warner Cable bundles the vast majority of networks into a Standard TV package, Comcast offers a more extensive variety of packages. While at first glance this may seem to allow customers to better customize a package to meet their needs, Comcast has also taken care to break some of the most popular networks out of lower-cost packages and force customers to choose cable television packages costing much more to get them back.[6]

Sports fans and those who enjoy networks like Turner Classic Movies will have to pay Comcast $87.89 a month for its “Digital Preferred,” package[7], just to get back channels already included in the standard Time Warner Cable TV packages we are familiar with in New York.

At regular prices, a Comcast triple play customer should expect to pay $147.49 for the most bare bones TV, phone, and broadband package, $154.99 for the most popular package without premium channels, and $164.99 a month for a bundle that brings along a similar lineup to what TWC offers, along with Starz.[8] Comcast’s nearest equivalent to Time Warner Cable’s $200 Signature Home service costs $239.99 a month and offers no better Internet speeds than what Preferred Plus customers get.

[1]http://www.buffalonews.com/city-region-whats-the-big-secret-about-pricing-20130805
[2]http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/support/account-and-billing/topics/retail-rates.html
[3]http://articles.latimes.com/2014/mar/17/business/la-fi-lazarus-20140318
[4]http://articles.latimes.com/2011/dec/27/business/la-fi-lazarus-20111227
[5]http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/tv/digital-cable-tv.html
[6]http://www.comcast.com/Corporate/Learn/DigitalCable/digitalcable.html
[7]http://www.comcast.com/Corporate/Learn/DigitalCable/TVChannelLineUp.html
[8]http://www.comcast.com/shop/deals-dealfinder
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