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Cincinnati Bell Plans to Shutdown Telegraph Grade Service, On Offer Since the 1800s

telegraph key

Telegraph key

If you thought your Internet service was slow, consider being a customer of Cincinnati Bell’s 75 baud Telegraph Grade service, on offer to subscribers since the 1800s for low-speed stock quotes, telegrams, and office-to-home communications. But don’t consider it too long, because the service is about to be discontinued.

The first telegram in the United States was sent on Jan. 11, 1838 using the newly developed “Morse Code” system introduced by Samuel Morse. The message was sent unceremoniously across two miles of wire strung across the sprawling Speedwell Ironworks outside of Morristown, N.J. But the experiment didn’t attract much attention until it was repeated in 1844 in Washington, D.C., where members of Congress looked on as the message, “What hath God wrought” successfully traveled from Washington to Baltimore, Md. A decade later, telegraph lines were strung to every major city on the east coast. By 1861, telegraph cables stretched across the territories west of the Mississippi and reached the West Coast, putting the Pony Express out of business.

It would be a decade after that before The City and Suburban Telegraph Company, later Cincinnati Bell Telephone, was officially incorporated on July 5, 1873, becoming the first company in the city to offer direct communication between the city’s homes and businesses. Only the wealthiest families could afford a private telegraph line, which cost $300 a year provided you lived no more than a mile from the company’s office. After four years, the company only managed to attract 50 paying customers, mostly business tycoons who relied on the telegraph to stay in contact with the office while at home. Other businesses used telegraphs to connect their different offices. Most employed young men to serve as telegraph operators, translating short written messages into a series of dots and dashes and back again.

Telegraph stamps, used to prove payment for sending and receiving messages.

Telegraph stamps, used to prove pre-payment for telegraph messages.

Business was better further east. The story of two men that would change the course of the telegraph and launch a company that remains a household name to this day started in 1838 when banker and real estate entrepreneur Hiram Sibley moved to Rochester, N.Y. He saw plenty of opportunities in upstate New York and quickly settled in, later becoming elected Monroe County Sheriff. That position soon led to his introduction to Judge Samuel L. Selden, who had the patent rights to the House Telegraph system. Seeing an opportunity, the two embarked on their own telegraph business — the New York State Printing Telegraph Company. It did not take long for them to realize competing against the larger New York, Albany, and Buffalo Telegraph Co., was a financial disaster. The two decided it would be smarter to consolidate existing providers instead of building new networks to compete. The first craze of telecommunications company consolidation was underway. With the assistance of deep pocketed investors in Rochester, Sibley and Selden founded the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company. The new entity would string some of its own telegraph lines westwards, but more importantly it would focus on acquiring its rivals, especially in areas where fierce competition kept profits low and expectations of monopoly wealth even lower.

sibley

Sibley

By 1854, Sibley and Selden were confronted with competitors using two different messaging systems among 13 different companies. Sibley’s solution? Buy them out and unify them with the Morse system, available thanks to a separate acquisition of the Erie & Michigan Telegraph Company. In 1856, the company that had its beginnings in Rochester was renamed the “Western Union Telegraph Company,” which referred to the union of the different telegraph systems of the “western states” of that era (today considered the midwest).

Between 1857 and 1861 merger mania hit almost all the telegraph companies, and by the end of this period, most formerly independent companies were owned by one of six conglomerates:

  • American Telegraph Company (covering the Atlantic and some Gulf states),
  • Western Union Telegraph Company (covering states North of the Ohio River and parts of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Minnesota),
  • New York Albany and Buffalo Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company (covering New York State),
  • Atlantic and Ohio Telegraph Company (covering Pennsylvania),
  • Illinois & Mississippi Telegraph Company (covering sections of Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois),
  • New Orleans & Ohio Telegraph Company (covering the southern Mississippi Valley and the Southwest).

Much like the cable industry today, these six giants maintained a mutually friendly alliance and never competed for territory. Any remaining independents quickly learned cooperation with these larger systems was essential. But once competition stalled in the telegraph business, so did interest in investing in challenging upgrades.

western unionBy 1860, as the United States continued its expansion westward and tension grew between the northern and southern states over issues like slavery and self-determination, the administration of President James Buchanan realized having a reliable national telegraph network was critical to the security of the country. Unfortunately for the president, his priorities ran headlong into private company intransigence. Persuading the for-profit companies to expand their networks to connect the west coast seemed impossible. None wanted to risk investor dollars on a telegraph line they believed would be too expensive and difficult to maintain.

That same year Congress passed, and President James Buchanan signed, the Pacific Telegraph Act, which authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to seek bids for constructing a transcontinental telegraph line, financed by the federal government. Two of the three bidders eventually dropped out, leaving Hiram Sibley’s Western Union the sole bidder.

The Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 resulted in the construction on this telegraph line extending from Nebraska to Nevada.

The Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 resulted in the construction of this telegraph line extending from Nebraska to Carson City, Nev.

To insulate his other business interests from the project, Sibley organized the Pacific Telegraph Company to be responsible for construction of the new telegraph line to the west, starting in Omaha, Neb. Sibley also consolidated several small local companies into the California State Telegraph Company, which in turn launched the Overland Telegraph Company, managing construction of the cable eastward from Carson City, Nev., to Salt Lake City. The line was finally completed in October, 1861, seven months after the outbreak of the Civil War.

While newly elected president Abraham Lincoln was distracted settling into office starting March 4, 1861, Sibley was quietly preparing to consolidate control over the new taxpayer-funded cross-country cable. After the project was complete, Pacific Telegraph and California State Telegraph were quickly merged into Western Union, making Hiram Sibley the undisputed king of the telegraph industry. Any future ventures rising to challenge Western Union were instead eaten up by acquisition. By 1866, Western Union announced it was moving its company headquarters from Rochester to 145 Broadway in New York City.

Sibley retired from Western Union in 1869, and went into the seed and nursery business in Rochester and Chicago. He left the company during its most powerful era, having a virtual monopoly on the telegraph business at least a decade before the telephone would arrive on the scene. He retired the richest man in Rochester, and his home in the East Avenue Historical District still stands today. He gave generously to charity after retirement and helped incorporate a new college in the Southern Tier of New York called Cornell University.

The Hiram Sibley House, constructed in 1869, still stands today at 400 East Ave, Rochester, N.Y.

The Hiram Sibley House, constructed in 1868, still stands today at 400 East Avenue, Rochester, N.Y.

As the 1870s arrived, the Civil War was five years finished and huge changes were coming. Although telegraph service was already in place in many eastern seaboard cities, it took longer to arrive in smaller cities in the midwest and southern United States, and it was not too long after that before the telephone followed.

In Cincinnati, the telegraph service that began in 1873 was threatened by the arrival of the telephone in 1878 — just five years later. That fall, Cincinnati’s telegraph company signed an agreement with Bell Telephone Company of Boston, the first telephone company in the country. Bell held several patents essential for manufacturing telephones and granted the telegraph company an exclusive contract to sell phone service within a 25-mile radius of the city.

Bell Telephone arrived in the era of the Robber Barons, where trusts and monopolies were the product of unfettered capitalism. Bell’s business planners were more than happy following the telegraph industry to the glory days of consolidation and monopolization.

By 1879, the Bell Telephonic Exchange was well on its way, up and running on the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets in downtown Cincinnati — the 10th phone exchange in the nation and the first in Ohio. That year, Cincinnati’s first phone book was printed and the young men that operated the telegraph lines were not welcome manning the huge expanse of manual cord boards built inside the central office.

City and Suburban believed women served as better ambassadors for the newly emerging telephone company and the concept of “Hello Girls” was born. Only later would the Bell System insist on referring to these professional employees as “operators.” In Cincinnati, around two dozen women manned the cord boards in the exchange office during its first year. They were required to memorize the names of all callers and had to quickly learn how to complete calls — a process that involved connecting a patch cable between the caller and the person called on a giant board with a plug for every subscriber. They managed nearly 150,000 completed calls during the first year for over 1,000 customers.

1930s: View of half of the world's longest switchboard at the City and Suburban Telegraph Company (later Cincinnati Bell Telephone). The board held 88 positions and handled a record of 9,722 outgoing calls in 1937. Cincinnati, Ohio. 01/01/1935 Photo by Cincinnati Historical Society/Getty Images

Jan. 1, 1935: View of half of the world’s longest switchboard at the City and Suburban Telegraph Company (later Cincinnati Bell Telephone). The board held 88 positions and handled a record of 9,722 outgoing calls in 1937. (Photo by Cincinnati Historical Society/Getty Images)

The simplicity and directness of the telephone quickly proved a major challenge for the telegraph industry. Western Union saw opportunities investing in telegraph networks overseas to stay ahead of this trend. It also launched a stock ticker service and a money transfer service, allowing people to send money across the country in a matter of hours. Despite the innovation, by 1875, financier Jay Gould had finally managed to assemble a formidable competitor to Western Union — the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company. An overabundance of Western Union stock on the market by 1881 made it possible for Gould to finally launch a successful takeover.

A Telex machine in use during the 1970s.

A Telex machine in use during the 1970s.

Telegraph lines remained in use well into the 20th century, used primarily for business communications, cables, and telegrams which were printed and delivered by messenger. Cincinnati Bell sold telegraph grade data lines for a variety of business applications, including slow speed data services. Even after the Morse code telegraph of the 1800s was long gone, other data services existed well before the arrival of the fax machine and the home computer. Telex messages were exchanged over a network of “teleprinters” which resembled an oversized manual typewriter. AT&T’s Teletypewriter eXchange (TWX) network was common in large businesses during the late 1960s into the 1970s. One of Cincinnati Bell’s other large customers for slow speed data lines was the military.

Cincinnati Bell customers signed up for telegraph grade service received an unconditioned telephone line capable of transmitting at 0-75 baud or 0-150 baud in half-duplex or duplex operation. That was half the data speed of computer modems common in the mid 1980s supporting up to 300 baud — which transmits text at a speed most can read and follow along in real-time.

Remarkably, Cincinnati Bell still needs the permission of regulators to drop the Civil War era telegraph service and in discontinuance requests sent to state and federal authorities, it reminded regulators the change will have no impact on the “public convenience and necessity” because there has been no demand for the service for a long time.

In fact, Cincinnati Bell has no customers to notify of the impending doom of telegraph grade service, because there have been no customers subscribed to it.

cincinnati bellCincinnati Bell’s request would have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for the long legacy of the telegraph era. Western Union dispatched its last telegram on Jan. 27, 2006, after 155 years of continuous service, and largely kept quiet about it, only notifying current customers: “Effective 2006-01-27, Western Union will discontinue all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact a customer service representative.”

Those nostalgic for telegrams might be interested to know another company has risen where Western Union left off. iTelegram promises to bring back the experience of a messenger at your front door, but it’s a costly trip down Memory Lane. A Priority Telegram costs $28.95 + $0.75 per word and is delivered usually within 24 hours, and includes proof of delivery. A “MailGram,” dispatched through the U.S. Mail is a slightly less expensive option, costing $18.95 and includes up to 100 words. It arrives in 3-5 days. Or you could send an e-mail for approximately nothing.

While Cincinnati Bell’s request recalls a distant past, Verizon and AT&T are also asking to discontinue services that customers were still using in the 1990s. Verizon wants to drop postpaid calling cards and personal 800 services that customers used to buy from MCI, now a Verizon subsidiary. For its part, AT&T wants to drop operator-assisted services due to almost no customer demand. In many areas, dialing “0” no longer even works to reach one of those Hello Girls… pardon me, I meant operators.

Stop the Cap! Joins 21 Other Consumer Groups Asking FCC to Block Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger

charter twc bhOn Monday, Stop the Cap! joined 21 other public interest organizations in sending a joint letter urging the Federal Communications Commission to deny Charter’s bid to take over Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Late last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler may be planning to circulate a draft order approving the $90 billion merger.

The Center for Media Justice, CREDO Action, Daily Kos, Demand Progress, Free Press and Presente.org were among the media justice, Internet rights and public interest groups calling on the FCC to reject this deal, which would create a national broadband duopoly.

Together, Charter and Comcast would control nearly two-thirds of the nation’s high-speed broadband subscribers and would offer service to nearly 80 percent of U.S. households. The letter notes that this substantial increase in market power, coupled with Charter’s $66 billion in debt, would give the company both the incentive and the heightened ability to raise prices at will. This would broaden the digital divide, hitting low-income communities the hardest.

Stop the Cap! earlier filed objections to the merger with the FCC and in two states seen as critical to the deal – New York and California. In our view, no cable merger has ever resulted in better service or lower prices for consumers. Such deals deliver handsome sums to executives and shareholders while saddling customers with relentless rate hikes and no improvement in service. Charter’s history is troubling and its ability to meet its financial obligations while saddled in debt is dubious. Charter declared bankruptcy in 2009, after accumulating $21.7 billion in debt accumulated from years of mergers and consolidation efforts. As credit markets tightened up, Charter’s ability to manage its debt fell apart. Now the company is back to its old modus operandi, piling up debt buying Time Warner Cable — a much larger operation, and trying to combine it with Bright House Networks, another cable operator prominent in Florida.

Earlier this year, several of the signers delivered petitions to the FCC from more than 300,000 Americans opposing the merger, and thousands have called the agency in recent days to weigh in against the deal. Political leaders including Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid have spoken out about the merger’s many harms.

“Too many Washington insiders have given up on challenging this deal despite its serious harms,” said Free Press policy director Matt Wood. “Instead of forecasting its chances for approval, the groups signing this letter will keep fighting to block this merger, along with the guaranteed price increases it would foist on people and communities who can least afford it.

“If Charter gets this merger approved, nothing will stop it from raising its rates for high-speed broadband and video customers who have nowhere else to turn. Temporary promises and weak conditions aren’t going to preserve competition and choice in the long run, and they’re not going to do anything to stop these price hikes. The FCC is charged with promoting the public interest, and there’s no way in which this merger benefits the public. Higher prices and fewer choices won’t help anyone but the companies pitching this bad bargain.”

“If its takeover of Time Warner Cable goes through, Charter will have a broadband footprint as big as Comcast’s,” said Demand Progress executive director David Segal. “This would turn an industry that’s already too concentrated into a duopoly, paving the way for higher rates today and the eventual formation of a new cross-sector behemoth that controls content production and delivery.

“Americans increasingly understand that corporate concentration is jacking up prices and lowering quality for all sorts of basic goods and services. At a hearing of a Senate antitrust subcommittee this month, lawmakers made it clear that they see companies that are allegedly too big to fix in many industries, not just the banking sector. This FCC must now decide whether it wants to stem the swelling tide of concentration, or enable these monopolies.”

Free Press and Stop the Cap! contributed elements of this story.

FCC Prepares to Approve Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House Merger

mergerDespite clamoring for more competition in the cable industry, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler is reportedly ready to circulate a draft order granting Charter Communications’ $55 billion dollar buyout of Time Warner Cable, with conditions.

The Wall Street Journal reported late last night the order will be reviewed by the four other commissioners at the FCC and could be subject to change before coming to a vote.

Wheeler’s order is likely to follow the same philosophical approach taken by New York State’s Public Service Commission — approving the deal but adding temporary consumer protections to blunt anti-competition concerns.

Most important for Wheeler is protecting the nascent online video marketplace that is starting to threaten the traditional cable television bundle. Dish’s Sling TV, the now defunct Aereo, as well as traditional streaming providers like Hulu and Netflix have all been frustrated by contract terms and conditions with programmers that prohibit or limit online video distribution through alternative providers. The draft order reportedly would prohibit Charter from including such clauses in its contracts with programmers.

fccCritics of the deal contend that might be an effective strategy… if Charter was the only cable company in the nation. Many cable operators include similar restrictive terms in their contracts, which often also include an implicit threat that offering cable channels online diminishes their value in the eyes of cable operators. Programmers fear that would likely mean price cuts as those contracts are renewed.

Wheeler has also advocated, vainly, that cable operators should consider overbuilding their systems to compete directly with other cable operators, something not seen to a significant degree since the 1980s. Cable operators have maintained an informal understanding to avoid these kinds of price and service wars by respecting the de facto exclusive territories of fellow operators. Virtually all cable systems that did directly compete at one time were acquired by one of the two competitors by the early 1990s. It is unlikely the FCC can or will order Charter to compete directly with other cable operators, and will focus instead on extracting commitments from Charter to serve more rural and suburban areas presently deemed unprofitable to serve.

gobble-til-you-wobbleMost of the other deal conditions will likely formalize Charter’s voluntary commitments not to impose data caps, modem fees, interconnection fees (predominately affecting Netflix) or violate Net Neutrality rules for the first three years after the merger is approved. As readers know, Stop the Cap! filed comments with the FCC asking the agency to significantly extend or make permanent those commitments as part of any approval, something sources say may be under consideration and a part of the final draft order. Stop the Cap! maintains a cable operator’s commitment to provide a better customer experience and be consumer-friendly should not carry an expiration date.

It could take a few weeks for the draft order to be revised into a final order, and additional concessions may be requested, a source told the newspaper.

Meanwhile, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is still reviewing the deal. News that the FCC is prepared to accept a merger is likely to dramatically reduce any chance California regulators will reject the merger out of hand. Stop the Cap!’s Matthew Friedman is continuing discussions with the CPUC to bolster deal conditions to keep usage caps, usage-based billing, and other consumer-unfriendly charges off the backs of California customers. New York customers will automatically benefit from any additional concessions California gets from Charter, as the PSC included a most-favored state clause guaranteeing New Yorkers equal treatment. Any conditions won in California and New York may also extend to other states to unify Charter’s products and services nationwide.

An independent monitor to verify Charter is complying with deal approval conditions is likely to be part of any order approving the transaction, although critics of big cable mergers point out Comcast has allegedly thumbed its nose at conditions imposed as part of its acquisition of NBCUniversal, and only occasionally punished for doing so.

Altice to New York Public Service Commission: Butt Out of Our Cablevision Buyout!

nosyBillionaire cable magnate and Swiss luxury property connoisseur Patrick Drahi excels at “take it or leave it” offers on behalf of Altice, the cable conglomerate he founded.

The potential new owner of Cablevision, which serves customers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut has rejected recommendations that Cablevision customers share equally in the proceeds of the $17.7 billion deal. Altice’s lawyers have countered that 15% is more than enough.

Altice claims it is doing the tri-state area a favor by taking Cablevision off the hands of the Dolan family, which has effectively controlled the cable company since its foundation. Altice claims customers will get tangible benefits from the deal:

  • Broadband service at speeds up to 300Mbps in the future;
  • Discounted 30Mbps Internet access for the financially disadvantaged for $14.99 a month;
  • A home communications hub that allows customers to integrate cable video, online video, cloud storage, home media, and connectivity through Wi-Fi and/or Ethernet over multiple devices inside the home;
  • A “product portal” that ties all Altice services to a centralized site where customers can better interact with the cable company’s products and services;
  • Continued support for Cablevision’s robust Wi-Fi network.

Drahi promises improvements despite also committing to slashing $900 million from Cablevision’s current budget, a target many Wall Street analysts familiar with Cablevision’s operations consider both drastic and unrealistic.

Altice1Critics of the deal include consumer groups concerned about the poor performance of other Drahi-run cable systems and Cablevision’s organized labor force, unhappy about Drahi’s statements to Wall Street that he prefers to pay only minimum wage wherever possible. Drahi also has a long contentious history with Altice workers in Europe, presiding over workforce reductions, salary and benefits cuts, and a war of attrition with his own suppliers.

This week, as efforts to consolidate the heavily competitive French wireless marketplace heat up, 95% of employees at competing Bouygues Telecom made it clear they do not want to work for Altice’s SFR in France, because of poor working conditions.

Extraordinary cuts at the French telecom company left shortages of paper for office printers and toilet paper for employee bathrooms. Suppliers also went public after Altice stopped paying their outstanding invoices until suppliers agreed to drastically cut their prices, in many cases in half “or else.”

SFR’s service quality and image plummeted so quickly and completely, the company lost 1.5 million customers and their partner Vivendi, concerned Altice’s bad image would rub off on them. They sold their remaining 20 percent stake in SFR to Mr. Drahi.

Drahi

Drahi

“If Drahi had had a different style of management, we would have kept the 20% stake in SFR,” said one Vivendi insider at the time. “But he had very bad press as a result of his management style. We didn’t want to be associated with any of that.”

Suddenlink and Cablevision customers may not have much of a choice. Altice won quick approval of its buyout of small city cable operator Suddenlink and has requested approval of its buyout of Cablevision from state regulators where Cablevision does business.

The staff at the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) recognized Drahi’s reputation in Europe and that many of his deal commitments for Cablevision seemed vague, insufficient and somewhat non-committal. Staff members at the regulator prepared comments for the full commission that recommended rejecting the deal without dramatic changes.

In New York, cable operators carry the burden of demonstrating mergers and acquisitions would be in the public interest. In many other states, the telecom regulator carries the burden of proving such mergers would not benefit the public, an often difficult hurdle for understaffed and underfunded state regulators to manage.

optimumNew York regulators usually insist that state residents share in the proceeds of any sale that comes before the commission for review. In most cases, this is in the form of an agreement to invest in infrastructure or service improvements, improve customer service standards, and protect jobs. As with Time Warner Cable and Charter, the staff recommended the commission first consider a roughly 50/50 share of any deal savings or synergies, evenly split between customers and shareholders.

Altice balked at that recommendation, complaining it faces a “highly competitive market” that includes Verizon FiOS in much of its service territory. As a result, Cablevision customers deserved less… much less.

“[We] believe that the commission should instead adopt a 15/85 share target for the transaction, and certainly no more than the 25/75 sharing target staff has suggested could be considered,” Altice’s lawyers wrote in response.

Altice implied as other cable companies were operating almost as a monopoly facing little threat from phone companies, it was competing with Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home service in 60% of its service area.

ny psc“The contrast between the competitive landscape faced by Cablevision as compared to other large cable operators in New York State is stark,” the lawyers wrote. “Verizon FiOS is available in just two Comcast communities, 3% of Time Warner Cable communities, and zero Charter communities in the state.”

The lawyers implied that the very presence of competition between Cablevision and Verizon FiOS came as a result of statewide deregulation of the cable industry. Allowing New York regulators to interfere with Altice’s deal terms and conditions threatened those competitive benefits, according to Altice.

“Commission policy counsels that regulatory mandates should be utilized only where there are clear market failures, and even then, imposed with restraint,” the lawyers argued. “Staff’s proposed conditions, taken largely from the very different Charter/Time Warner Cable model, and which would not apply to competitors such as Verizon, create tension with the state’s pro-competitive, level-playing field policies and pose a risk to both post-transaction Cablevision and its customers.”

Altice is maxing out its credit cards. (Image: FT)

Altice is maxing out its credit cards. (Image: FT)

Altice argues that because competition exists, “it is reasonable to assume that a substantial portion of synergy savings will be re-invested in network infrastructure and new technologies—including research and development associated with such investment—rather than simply returned to customers or shareholders.”

Except that has not proven true with other telecom operators. Last year, Comcast bought back more than $2 billion of its stock, or 35.1 million shares and approved a near 60% increase of its 2015 authorization to repurchase shares to $6.75 billion. In February, Comcast boosted its dividend payout to shareholders by 10% and planned to repurchase another $5 billion of its own stock during 2016. Last year, Verizon announced it was returning capital to its shareholders through a $5 billion accelerated share-repurchase program and raised its dividend payout to the highest level (56.5¢ per share) since at least 2000. From 2012-2014, AT&T paid out nearly $27 billion to investors through its own share repurchase program. This quarter, it announced a 48¢ share dividend payout, also the highest amount since at least 2000.

Altice also argued New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut customers did not deserve a bigger share of Cablevision’s synergy savings because Altice also has to contend with its purchase of Suddenlink.

“The Commission should instead take into consideration Suddenlink’s operations, which Altice acquired at the end of 2015, just as it took into account all of the U.S. entities comprising New Charter post-closing,” Altice’s lawyers argued. The hole in that argument, deal critics claim, is that Altice doesn’t extend the synergy savings from its deal with Suddenlink to anyone except itself.

Altice also pushed back on other PSC staff recommendations:

  • Altice does not want to provide standalone telephone and/or Lifeline service to Cablevision customers;
  • Altice objects to providing battery backup power for telephone services, but will allow customers to buy their own;
  • Altice protested recommendations from the PSC staff to ban usage caps/usage based billing as a condition of sale. Altice claims usage caps may benefit customers and objects to a rulemaking that prohibits Cablevision from imposing them while leaving their competitors free to cap at will. “Cablevision’s competitors are launching aggressive service offers that Cablevision will have to match or beat—and if the company is subject to regulatory restrictions its competitors do not face, it will be handicapped in keeping up with market demands,” Altice argued.
  • New York City should have no say whether this sale is approved or not, claiming the sale does not trigger the city’s right of review.

If the PSC is unimpressed with Altice’s arguments, the cable operator has one other: federal and state law prohibits the commission from imposing most of the terms and conditions its staff recommended. The presentation is unlikely to win much favor at the PSC, particularly because Altice concedes almost nothing and objects to nearly everything on the staff’s menu of deal conditions.

The Communications Workers of America has also attacked the deal, arguing much of Altice’s presentation to the PSC is less than meets the eye. The CWA notes Altice intends to erect a money silo around Cablevision, purporting to protect its finances and operations from the rest of Altice’s telecom empire. But that also means Altice will invest none of its own money in Cablevision upgrades and service improvements, relying on Cablevision’s existing resources, credit lines, and debt obligations to cover the costs. Considering Drahi’s management style, that is likely to drive up debt.

The Financial Times reports Altice has already run up debt, ballooning over the past two years from €1.7 billion in 2012 to just over €50 billion by the end of this year, assuming its acquisition of Cablevision goes through. The warning signs of high leverage are already clear to some investors: With Cablevision’s acquisition, Altice would have net debt at about seven times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) — compared with about four times for its European units.

With jitters over European banks, interest rates, oil and gas, and the general state of the stock market, investors are expressing concern.

“From a general valuation perspective, companies with high leverage start becoming a source of fear,” one Altice investor told the Financial Times.

The PSC will likely adopt many of the staff recommendations regardless of Altice’s objections if it approves the sale. Some of those conditions are likely to include broadband service improvements, a low-income discounted Internet access program, and coverage area expansion into currently unserved areas.

Time Warner Cable Maxx Heads to Syracuse, N.Y., Arrives in Wilmington, N.C.

syrSyracuse residents will be the first in upstate New York to benefit from Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program, which has been gradually moving across the cable company’s footprint.

This month customers will receive communications from TWC outlining its transition to a 100%-digital network. Moving to an all-digital lineup frees up bandwidth to make faster Internet speeds possible. Each analog channel takes the space of three to four HD channels and up to 12 digital networks.

The upgrade means customers using older analog-only televisions will need set-top boxes (or similar equipment) after Time Warner drops analog television service starting in April. The company plans to introduce Maxx service this year to all TWC customers in Syracuse and its suburbs, along with the following central and northern New York service areas: Auburn, Boonville, Burlington, Champlain, Clayton, Cortland, Dixon, Fulton, Gouverneur, Hamilton, Herkimer, Ilion, Indian River, Ithaca, Lake Placid, Lowville, Madison, Malone, Massena, Meridian, Ogdensburg, Old Forge, Oneida, Oswego, Potsdam, Rome, Saranac Lake, Utica, Watertown and West Carthage.

twc maxxBroadband speeds will increase starting later this spring, with customers experiencing increases up to six times faster, depending on their current level of Internet service. For example, customers who subscribe to Standard, formerly up to 15Mbps, will receive up to 50Mbps; customers who subscribe to Extreme, formerly up to 30Mbps, will receive up to 200Mbps; and customers who subscribe to Ultimate, formerly up to 50Mbps, will receive up to 300Mbps, with no change in their monthly plan price.

Some customers will need to switch out their modems to receive the faster speeds and they will be communicated with via mail, email and phone messages with information on how to get a new modem.

Further south, in Wilmington, N.C., some customers are already finding they have faster Internet speeds, if they happen to live in a neighborhood that is a part of the now completed first phase of the Maxx rollout. Customers throughout the rest of the Wilmington and surrounding areas will see their speeds increase by the end of summer 2016.

wilmington“Our customers have asked for faster Internet speeds and we’re now able to provide these faster speeds at no additional cost to all of our customers in the Wilmington area,” said Darrel Hegar, regional vice president of operations for Time Warner Cable. “This is just the beginning of the benefits customers will see from our TWC Maxx initiative that will enhance our Internet, video and reliability.”

In the Wilmington area, Time Warner Cable has rolled out more than 1,500 TWC Wi-Fi Hotspots located both in popular outdoor areas and in indoor small business locations throughout the area, like restaurants, cafes, salons and shopping malls, with more hotspots to be added through 2016. In upstate New York, Time Warner primarily offers Wi-Fi access through Business Class Internet customers that volunteer to host hotspots. In New York, Time Warner has focused most of its owned and operated hotspot buildout downstate, particularly in Manhattan.

CWA, New York City to Altice: ‘Thanks, But No Thanks’ on Cablevision Buyout

altice debtThe Communications Workers of America has told the New York Public Service Commission it should reject Altice’s proposal to buy Cablevision for more than $17 billion, claiming it’s a bad deal for customers and employees alike.

Citing Altice’s massive debt and the company’s documented history of cutting expenses and investment, Dennis Trainor, vice president for the CWA-District One, said approving the deal would load Cablevision down in debt, making any significant investments in Cablevision’s future doubtful.

“This is a bad deal for Cablevision customers and employees,” Trainor said. “Altice overpaid for Cablevision, and is financing that overpayment by loading Cablevision with debt. That will inevitably lead to worse service for customers.”

The CWA also heavily criticized Altice and Cablevision for stalling sharing documentation with the labor union as ordered by a New York Administrative Law Judge. It filed initial comments opposing the transaction with the PSC under protest.

Optimum-Branding-Spot-New-Logo“As late as the morning of Feb. 5, [the Joint Applicants] have continued their grudging and incomplete disgorgement of relevant and probative material to which CWA is entitled,” the CWA wrote. “CWA now possesses documents and data which are contradictory and require reconciliation.”

The CWA considers the deal good for Altice and Cablevision’s owners and investors, but a raw one for customers.

“For example, Cablevision’s top five executives will have almost $160 million in ‘golden parachute’ compensation available to them under certain circumstances if the transaction is approved, of which almost $100 million will become automatically triggered and payable upon consummation of the merger,” the CWA stated. “In sum, after the transaction closes, Cablevision will be the same company, with the same plant and equipment, but with substantially more debt and relatively little cash on hand,” the CWA concluded.

The CWA also cited Stop the Cap!’s own reporting of the consequences of increasing debt and reduced investment at SFR, an Altice-owned telecommunications provider in France:

“We refer the Commission to publicly available reports of a collapse of service quality for customers of SFR, one of France’s largest telecom service providers, owned by Altice. This has caused a doubling of complaints from wired customers between 2014 and 2015 and a corresponding increase in complaints about wireless service of 50%. Altice had two responses: First, it blamed the company it purchased SFR from ‘we pay the price of underinvestment from the previous [owner]’. Second, it disputes whether the level of complaint is unacceptable ‘For now, we are not very good, but we are not bad.'”

cwa_logoNew York City’s Office of the Public Advocate is no fan either. In its filing, the OPA also cited Altice’s enormous debt load, which has increased dramatically over the last four years.

“[Altice CEO Patrick] Drahi has already driven away customers and alienated employees in France since his acquisition [of SFR],” writes the OPA. “In SFR’s case, Altice eliminated costs to boost SFR’s profit margins. Among Altice’s practices with SFR were: efforts to stall payments for suppliers, initiating salary and job cuts, and a reduction in spending on meaningful service upgrades.”

The OPA also cites reporting by Stop the Cap! documenting how SFR performed after being acquired by Altice.

Leticia James, Public Advocate for the City of New York

Leticia James, Public Advocate for the City of New York

“We know, for example, SFR was forced to completely stop paying suppliers in order to force a renegotiation for cheaper supplies,” writes the OPA. “The French government appointed a mediator to resolve the issues. Moreover, these business practices failed to effectuate Altice’s goals. Just four months ago, Altice reported ‘worse-than-expected’ third quarter results for SFR that drove the company’s shares down 10 percent. In fact, SFR lost one million customers in just one year. Investors correctly attribute customer losses to Altice’s aggressive cost-trimming. As one expert explains, ‘the savings came first immediately and now the churn (or customer defection) goes up.’ Another analyst describes Altice’s ‘dangerous’ actions as not only cutting out the fat, but also the meat and the bones.”

The PSC staff reviewing the transaction also expressed concern that Altice’s willingness to keep data caps at its other acquisition Suddenlink may result in similar data caps being implemented on Cablevision customers after the merger.

Especially notable to the PSC staff was the fact that under Suddenlink’s 1000/50Mbps data-capped plan, “if the connection is utilized at its rated speeds […] a customer could reach the data cap in less than two hours.”

“If Altice were to import Suddenlink’s pricing into Cablevision service territory and impose data caps on its existing plans, some customers would be forced to upgrade not for the increased speed, but for larger data caps,” the PSC staff wrote. “For example, customers on Cablevision’s low-end 5Mbps plan, if limited to a 250GB monthly cap, would technically be able to hit their cap after just five days of constant use. More practically, they would be limited to approximately 83 hours (a little less than three hours a day) of video streaming, if the connection were not used for anything else.”

“Simply put, the introduction of Suddenlink-type data caps in Cablevision’s New York service territory post-transaction would limit the ability of New York consumers to utilize their broadband connections at their own discretion, as they currently enjoy with Cablevision service today, and would lessen the ability of over-the-top voice and video providers to compete with Cablevision’s bundled services,” the PSC staff concluded. “The imposition of Suddenlink-type data caps would be a significant detriment to New York consumers, and should not be allowed as a condition of the transaction.”

Stop the Cap! Files for Party Status in California’s Charter-TWC Merger Proceeding

stopthecap-logoStop the Cap! has filed a motion before California’s Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to request party status in the Charter-Time Warner Cable merger proceeding, better positioning ourselves to influence the outcome.

As other consumer groups in California continue to formally oppose the merger, we are also filing to ask regulators to consider our request to impose conditions on the deal should the CPUC decide to approve it anyway. As we promised after the New York Public Service Commission approved the deal with significant conditions, we are once again taking a hard look at Charter’s three-year commitment not to impose data caps or usage pricing — a term we find completely inadequate.

cpucIt remains our belief three years is far too short a commitment, and it is unlikely consumers will find plentiful alternatives for broadband service should Charter impose caps in 2019 anymore than they can today. As a reminder to consumers and regulators, deal conditions imposed by regulators on the 2011 merger of Comcast and NBC-Universal have already begun to expire, with relatively little change in competition in the marketplace.

Our late filing for party status comes partly in response to inadequate public notice from Charter Communications and new information and suggestions that came as a result of the New York State PSC proceeding that would be directly informative and beneficial for California residents.

In states where public utility regulators have approved the transaction with ‘most-favored state’ provisions, any benefits we can win for consumers in California will also apply in New York and other states as well.

As always, we are extremely grateful to our newest member of the Stop the Cap! team, Matthew Friedman, who has dramatically strengthened our ability to monitor the marketplace on the west coast to broaden our consumer protection efforts.

We remain an all-volunteer organization, so if you’d like to join our team, use the Contact Us button at the top of the page and send a message. We’d love to have more volunteers helping identify and write about pressing broadband issues throughout the U.S. and Canada, and we’re happy to help with the editing.

The full text of our motion appears below:

BEFORE THE PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA
MOTION OF STOP THE CAP! FOR PARTY STATUS

I. Introduction
Pursuant to Rule 1.4 of the California Public Utilities Commission’s (“CPUC” or the “Commission”) Rules of Practice and Procedure, Stop the Cap! respectfully requests to be granted party status in the above captioned proceeding.

II. Background and Interest in this Proceeding
Stop the Cap! is a consumer group founded in 2008 to fight against the introduction of artificial limits on broadband usage (such as data caps, usage based pricing, and speed throttling) and to promote better broadband speeds and service for consumers. Our group does not accept funding from lobbyists, companies, or any individual affiliated with the telecommunications industry. We return all corporate donations.

Stop the Cap! understands that this is a relatively late file for party status. While Stop the Cap! is generally opposed to this transaction, we feel that the Intervenors are strongly making the case that the Commission should deny the application, and we would refrain from contributing in that regard. However, should the Commission approve this transaction, Stop the Cap! has a deep and detailed knowledge of data caps and usage based pricing (DC/UBP) from our past 8 years of work on this very specific issue. This information and experience would definitely aid the Commission’s process of tailoring effective mitigation conditions, and our input would be complementary to the existing Intervenors’. Based on our direct experience at the recent Los Angeles PPH, we now understand that an issue as complicated as DC/UBP can’t be effectively dealt with by us as an informal commenter. We have no lawyers guiding us through this process —we are merely a group of individual consumers who have banded together to address a common concern. We therefore respectfully request that the Commission forgive our late filing, and note that we would still be able to take part in full in the discussion of relevant conditions, should this transaction reach that stage.

As a party, Stop the Cap! would aim to protect and promote the public interest of our members and other Californians on the issue of DC/UBP. We have attached the discussion we submitted at the Los Angeles PPH to this filing. It details how the issue of DC/UBP affects numerous other concerns in this proceeding, and presents significant and numerous harms to consumers, especially to low income ones. The submission lays out how DC/UBP can increase prices, foster anti-competitive behavior, circumvent net neutrality, hinder innovation and investment, slow broadband deployment, threaten network security, remove educational opportunities, and can even completely erase any “lifeline” broadband condition this Commission may design. The document also explains why the CPUC’s approval of this transaction would make DC/UBP much more likely to be imposed on existing Time Warner Cable subscribers. It details TWC’s repeated and public pledge to “NEVER” impose DC/UBP on its customers. It discusses why the Commission should be particularly suspect of New Charter when it comes to DC/UBP. Finally, it shows that Charter’s opening testimony actually supports a mitigation condition that sunsets based on a competition test, as opposed to an arbitrarily short three years. This is the kind of information we can present to aid in the Commission’s decision making process.

III. Notice
Service of notices, orders, and other correspondence in this proceeding should be directed to Stop the Cap! [extraneous information deleted]

IV. Conclusion
Stop the Cap!’s participation in this proceeding will not prejudice any party and will not delay the schedule or broaden the scope of the issues in the proceeding. For the reasons stated above, Stop the Cap! respectfully requests that the CPUC grant this motion for party status filing.

Dated: February 2, 2016
Respectfully submitted,

/s/ Matthew Friedman
Matthew Friedman
Stop the Cap!

Time Warner Cable Maxx Upgrades Coming This Year in the Northeast/Midwest

twc maxxTime Warner Cable has announced it will refocus its Maxx upgrade program, boosting broadband speeds to up to 300Mbps, on the Northeast and Midwest in 2016.

CEO Robert Marcus told investors on a morning conference call the company will continue making robust investments in improving its network and service regardless of the pending merger with Charter Communications.

“We have an ambitious 2016 financial and operating plan marked by continued subscriber growth, better financial performance, and continued investment to improve the customer experience,” Marcus said. “We plan to continue the rollout of TWC Maxx, completing cities begun in 2015, and adding cities primarily in the Northeast and Midwest.”

Coinciding with that announcement, Time Warner this afternoon announced its first new Maxx upgrade for 2016 will focus on the Hudson Valley in upstate New York.

Starting this week, customers will receive communications from TWC outlining a transition to a 100%-digital network. Moving to an all-digital lineup is required to free up the necessary capacity to offer faster Internet speeds in the Hudson Valley area, beginning this spring.

“With TWC Maxx, we’re essentially reinventing the TWC experience,” said, Gary Withey, area vice president of operations for Albany and Hudson Valley. “We will boost Internet speeds for customers up to six times faster, dramatically improve the TV product and set a high bar in our industry for differentiated, exceptional customer service.”

New York's Hudson Valley

New York’s Hudson Valley

TWC Maxx will be available to all customers in the following Hudson Valley service areas: Hunter, Liberty, Middletown, Monticello, Newburgh, Olive, Port Ewen, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie, Rhinebeck, Rosendale, Saugerties, Walden, Woodstock and Wurtsboro.

Time Warner Cable’s resumed focus on the Northeast comes more than a year after launching Maxx upgrades in the New York City area. This year, upgrades are expected to target upstate New York, western Massachusetts, Maine, and Ohio.

Customers receiving Maxx upgrades get much faster Internet service or the opportunity to downgrade to a cheaper Internet plan that still delivers up to six times faster speed than customers now receive.

Starting this spring, customers who subscribe to Standard, formerly up to 15Mbps, will receive up to 50Mbps, customers who subscribe to Extreme, formerly up to 30Mbps, will receive up to 200Mbps; and customers who subscribe to Ultimate, formerly up to 50Mbps, will receive up to 300Mbps, with no change in their monthly plan price.

Some customers will need to switch out their modems to receive the faster speeds and they will be communicated with via mail, email and phone messages with information on how to obtain a new modem. Stop the Cap! still recommends customers buy their own modems and save the $10 a month Time Warner now charges to lease a cable modem.

The transition to an all-digital network will require video customers without TWC digital equipment (customers who plug their cable line directly into the TV, VCR or similar device) to order a TWC digital adapter.

TWC will offer existing TV customers one or more digital adapters at no charge, for any outlets that do not currently have digital equipment, through June 29, 2017. To qualify, customers must order their digital adapters by October 23, 2016. After this free period, each adapter will be billed at the prevailing price. TWC residential customers can order digital adapters through www.TWC.com/digitaladapter, calling 1-844-841-5085 or in person at a Time Warner Cable store.

N.Y. Approves Charter-Time Warner Merger; Stop the Cap!’s Impact on Deal Conditions

charter twc bhConditions recommended by Stop the Cap! to protect New York consumers after a merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable are expected to cost the two cable companies almost one billion dollars and will guarantee statewide adoption of Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade, guaranteeing all customers receive speed upgrades ranging from 60-300Mbps.

On Friday, the N.Y. Public Service Commission announced its conditional approval of the merger transaction, but only if Charter agrees to a series of wide-ranging conditions to guarantee that New York customers receive tangible benefits as a result of the merger:

The Commission agrees that in order for the proposed merger to be in the public interest, the Petitioners must agree to make concrete and enforceable commitments to modernize their cable system and services, expand access, address the digital divide and improve customer service. To this end, we find that with the acceptance by the Petitioners of the enforceable conditions, as discussed in the body of this Order and Appendix A, the proposed merger is in the public interest. These conditions are designed to help ensure a near ubiquitous world-class communications network that meets the needs of all New Yorkers. Absent acceptance of these conditions, the public interest standard cannot be met, and the petition for transaction approval is denied.

Stop the Cap! was quoted and footnoted extensively in the PSC order. We provided the PSC with insight beyond the public relations machine of Charter and Time Warner Cable. We exposed the fact Charter’s promised service improvements were actually more modest than what Time Warner Cable has undertaken on its own through its Maxx upgrade program. We educated regulators about the inadequacy of Charter’s initial commitment to offer low-cost Internet access for low-income families. We questioned the consumer benefits of certain upgrades that could actually increase costs for consumers because of additional equipment fees. We alerted the PSC that Charter would discontinue Time Warner’s affordable $14.99 Internet offer. We strongly recommended the PSC consider making rural broadband expansion a part of this transaction. We also sought additional protections from any future compulsory usage caps or usage-based billing.

special reportAlthough Stop the Cap! was opposed to the transaction from the outset, doubting it was in the public interest, we recognized the chances for approval were greater than the Comcast-TWC merger that was eventually withdrawn. Therefore, we made it a priority to outline multiple conditions we felt should be imposed on Charter if the deal was to be approved.

Our constituency is ordinary consumers and ratepayers. Too often these kinds of mergers are approved with token conditions that only benefit minority or special interests, favored non-profit or government entities, or those with vested business interests (programmers, equipment manufacturers, etc.) It was important to us that any approval bring something beyond free Internet service for schools or community centers, agreements to continue carrying certain cable networks, or a temporary discount or low value coupon that ends up in the mailboxes of customers a year or two from now.

We know what Time Warner Cable customers in New York want: better service, faster speeds, no data caps, no gotcha fees, affordable Internet options, and job protection.

It appears New York regulators understand that as well and intend to force Charter to offer customers a better deal.

Despite publicly saying little about the merger, just a few hours after the PSC’s decision, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office issued a press release taking credit for the merger conditions and unveiling the “tenth signature proposal of his 2016 agenda: dramatically expanding and improving access to high-speed Internet in communities statewide.” Once again, the governor will try to entice providers like Time Warner Cable, Frontier Communications, and Verizon to expand rural broadband in New York using public dollars.

Although lacking a catchy title, the “New New York Broadband Program” includes a $500 million solicitation for private sector partners to subsidize rural broadband expansion with state dollars. The key goals of the 2016 program include:

  • stcAccess to broadband at speeds of at least 100Mbps; 25Mbps in the most remote areas of the State.
  • Public-private partnerships with a required 50 percent match in private sector investment targeted across the program.
  • Priority for projects that improve broadband Internet access in unserved areas, libraries and educational opportunity centers.
  • Applications will be chosen through a “reverse-auction” process, which will award funding to bidders seeking the lowest State investment.
  • Auctions to be held within each Regional Economic Development Council region to ensure statewide allocations of funding.

Much of the funding from earlier years ended up going to Time Warner Cable for modest expansion of its cable service, especially in eastern upstate New York. Likely applicants in 2016 include Time Warner Cable, Frontier Communications, community-owned/co-op broadband providers and rural wireless ISPs. Verizon and Cablevision are unlikely to apply.

Despite the governor’s efforts, most New York homes and businesses will be more affected by the Charter-Time Warner Cable merger, if it wins federal approval.

Gov. Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo

The Public Service Commission took its role very seriously, issuing a 93-page decision that took recommendations from consumer groups including Stop the Cap! very seriously. It did not share the industry’s belief that telecommunications providers in New York are heavily competitive.

“Time Warner serves close to 50% of New York State and we have a legitimate interest in ensuring that, when a company of this size provides customers with a service so affected by the public interest, as is communications, that real benefits accrue to consumers as a result of a given transaction,” the PSC wrote.

The PSC had an easier time sorting through comments about this merger, which generated considerably less interest than Comcast’s failed attempt to buy Time Warner.

“Generally, comments supporting the proposed transaction assert that, among other things, the merger will create jobs and provide better products at more affordable rates,” the PSC concluded in its ruling. “Those opposing the transaction state that the merger will inevitably lead to higher rates and potential data caps on broadband services in the future.”

The PSC took a very skeptical approach to Charter’s promised benefits, often finding them vague, questionable, or likely to have occurred with or without Charter’s involvement.

new-yorkFor example, the PSC questioned Charter’s promised network investments and upgrades:

Petitioners, however, decline to specify where in the national footprint of Charter, TWC and BHN these investments will be made or to identify the decisional factors to be used to channel these capital resources to specific areas or customers. There is no analysis to indicate that a reasonable proportion of these investments will be to systems in New York or for the benefit of New York customers. Similarly, there is no proposal by the Petitioners to describe the specific commitments that are being made or the specific enforcement mechanisms that would be used in the event the Petitioners’ implementation fell short of their commitments. Further, in order for these investments to be characterized as part of a net public benefit, Staff concludes, and we agree, that Petitioners would have to establish that these investments would not have been made in the absence of the proposed merger.

In the absence of a demonstration that there is “a tangible commitment to make new investments or invest beyond Time Warner’s current capital investment budgets,” it is difficult to characterize these capital expenditures as a certain benefit to New York customers or a satisfaction of the public interest under the New York statutes.

One of Stop the Cap!’s core arguments in our comments to the PSC was that Charter’s upgrade commitments were not particularly meaningful because Time Warner Cable was gradually upgrading its own systems to a level of service superior to what Charter plans to offer. The PSC clearly understood this and our warning that Charter’s commitments lacked specificity:

Public Benefit Assessment Staff and several commenters suggest that the proposed merger, as described in the Joint Petition and Petitioners’ Reply Comments, does not have sufficient net benefits to warrant a finding that the transaction is in the public interest. We concur. Many of the asserted benefits from the proposed transaction are events triggered by actions taken independently from the merger, and others are likely to be undertaken by TWC in any event, should the merger not be approved. Further, many asserted benefits are only described on a national scale and there is no way to determine if the investments or expenditures will occur in New York. Similarly, many of the projected benefits are described in terms that are too indefinite to permit us to assume that the benefits will occur as described to make a meaningful contribution to the transaction’s net benefits.

Time Warner Cable Maxx speed improvements.

Time Warner Cable Maxx speed improvements.

As a result, the PSC has looked more closely at Time Warner Cable’s Maxx program to be the benchmark for New York, not Charter’s proposed upgrades. They have adopted our recommendation that every Time Warner Cable customer in New York get the same kind of service upgrade residents in New York City enjoy today.

Another argument made by Stop the Cap! dealt with affordable Internet access. Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Price Internet ($14.99/mo for 2Mbps) is not fast, but it is affordable and free of the kind of revenue-protecting pre-conditions usually placed on Internet access for the poor. Time Warner’s plan is available to every customer at any time with no restrictions or contracts. In contrast, Charter’s originally proposed affordable Internet program required participants have school-age children, enroll only in the late summer, not have current cable broadband service (or be willing to forego it for 60 days), and not have any prior balance. As with Comcast, pre-conditions like this limit participation. The PSC agreed and now customers will be able to keep their more affordable Internet plans without jumping through artificial hoops launched by Charter.

The days of rural New Yorkers being quoted $20,000 to install Time Warner Cable service are also going to be a thing of the past. In addition to a commitment to pay for line extensions reaching 145,000 unserved or underserved customers, Charter is now required to work with New York’s Broadband 4 All program to receive supplementary funding, as available, to complete service extensions to eventually reach every customer that lives within a franchise area and wants cable service.

There are several other benefits outlined below that make this a better (although not great) deal, at least for New Yorkers. If any other state regulator manages to get an even better deal for that state’s residents, New Yorkers will automatically benefit because of a “most favored state clause” in the PSC’s order, which requires Charter to share those benefits with New York residents.

ny pscAll in all, the New York State Public Service Commission has lived up to its reputation as a consumer-protective body that is responsive to the needs of the public. This is in great contrast to many other states where regulators seem themselves as a business facilitator (and occasionally come directly from the businesses being regulated). In these states, the merger won approval with few, in any, preconditions.

We were delighted to have been extensively quoted and footnoted in the PSC’s order, having proven our case the Charter-Time Warner deal didn’t offer very much for New York. But we’re not happy the PSC punted on data caps. While recognizing they are a concern, the PSC seemed satisfied a three-year guarantee of no data caps was adequate. We disagree. As an increasing number of Comcast customers can attest, data caps are anti-competitive, anti-consumer, and unnecessary. Whatever benefits faster speeds can deliver can be easily curtailed by a data cap. So can online video competition. With much of upstate New York totally dependent on a single provider – Time Warner or Charter – for broadband speeds above 10Mbps, there is plenty of room for mischief that would otherwise be controlled by competitive forces. The PSC saw fit to avoid using its power of approval to get creative on keeping flat rate Internet affordable and available. That is a mistake we predict will be back to haunt us in the future.

Here are the specific conditions, most advocated by Stop the Cap!, that Charter Communications must agree to as a condition of the deal’s approval in New York:

Rural Broadband Access [$355 Million Value]

In addition to the goals accomplished by Gov. Cuomo’s New New York Broadband Program, Charter must agree to unilaterally build-out its network to reach an additional 145,000 “unserved” and “underserved” homes and businesses within four years. This will be an easy target for Charter to reach because the PSC defines “underserved” as any home with less than 100Mbps service. That represents much of upstate New York bypassed by TWC Maxx, so a speed upgrade in just one upstate city will achieve this requirement.

However, the PSC also included a second condition. Subject to the final terms and conditions of the Broadband 4 All Program being comparable to the Connect New York Program, Charter will be required to bid for Broadband 4 All Program funding to offer line extensions to any remaining unserved and underserved home across its entire New York service territory, which means every New Yorker within a cable franchise service area that wants service will be able to get it without being quoted tens of thousands of dollars for construction costs.

This will finally help would-be customers like Stop the Cap! reader Jesse Walser in Jamesville who has tried to get wired broadband in his home for over a decade. Verizon won’t upgrade its network and Time Warner Cable quoted him between $5,900 and $26,000 for installation of a line extension to reach his home.

All Digital Cable System Upgrade

Charter must convert their existing New York systems to an all-digital network (including upgrading the Columbia County Charter cable system to enable broadband communications) capable of delivering faster broadband speeds.

In Columbia County, residents are currently better served by smaller local providers. Both Germantown Telephone and Mid-Hudson Cable offer high-speed access throughout their territories. Berkshire Telephone has almost 100% DSL coverage, and Taconic Telephone has expanded DSL service to much of their huge service territory. Frontier Communications offers some DSL in southern Columbia County. The biggest problem providers are Verizon, which has no plans for DSL service in the area, and Charter Cable, which still runs a basic cable television-only system in the county.

In New York, Charter now provides cable television and other communication services to a relatively small number of customers, from two cable system clusters in and around Plattsburgh (14,000 customers) and Columbia County (2,500 customers). Plattsburgh gets television, phone and broadband service from Charter, but Columbia County is still served by a now-ancient, cable television only system.

Network Modernization and Speed Increases [$305 Million Value]

Charter must convert all of its systems in New York to all-digital within 30 months of the closing of the merger transaction. Charter is also required to offer broadband speeds up to 100Mbps to all customers by the end 2018 and match TWC Maxx speeds of 300Mbps by the end of 2019.

Charter’s all digital upgrade in upstate New York will facilitate faster broadband service, but it will also mean a set-top box or other similar device for every cable connected television in the home.

Broadband Affordability [$250 Million Value]

Despite Charter’s simplified menu of options (two broadband speed tiers and one video package), the PSC has required Charter to allow customers to keep their current plans, at least for the next several years:

  • Charter is required to maintain and advance its commitment to an affordable standalone Internet offering through the continuation of the Time Warner Everyday Low Price $14.99
    service throughout the Time Warner New York territory for up to two years and allow existing customers to keep the service for three years.
  • Charter is required to offer its 60Mbps standalone broadband product throughout New York at uniform national pricing. [$125 million value]
  • Charter is required to allow existing Time Warner customers to retain, without material changes that have the intent to discourage, the standalone and bundled broadband services they subscribe to at the close of the transaction for three years from the date of the closing.
  • Charter is required to provide a low-income broadband offering to eligible customers throughout its New York footprint. The PSC-ordered plan will offer 30Mbps for $14.99 a month to any household eligible for the National School Lunch Program and senior citizens 65 years and older eligible for the federal Supplemental Security Income program. No credit check shall be required and conditions requiring current broadband customers to wait 60 days to qualify and cover any past due bills have been deleted.

Customer Service [$55 Million Value]

Within two years after the close of the proposed transaction, Charter shall invest a minimum of $50 million in service improvement programs.

Charter is required to show a 35% reduction in Time Warner Cable’s 2014 cable PSC Complaint Rate by the end of 2020, with a 17.5% reduction due by the end of 2018. If they don’t achieve that, Charter must invest an additional $2.5 million in its service for each failure.

Job Protection

For the next four years, Charter cannot cut the number of customer facing jobs in New York.

New York City Questions Public Interest of Altice Buyout of Cablevision; Suddenlink Workers Worry

altice debtNew York City officials are questioning the promised benefits of allowing Patrick Drahi’s Altice to acquire Cablevision in an all-cash deal that would combine ownership of Suddenlink and Cablevision under the European-based cable conglomerate.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s chief legal counsel told the Wall Street Journal she is skeptical about Altice’s proposed $900 million in cost cutting at Cablevision leading to better service.

“Altice is talking about $900 million in synergies. Well, what’s getting cut? How’s that going to impact the economy of New York and quality of services?” asked Maya Wiley. “We certainly are not afraid to disapprove a transaction.”

Altice’s Public Interest Statement, outlining the public benefits of the acquisition, was perceived as long on rhetoric but woefully short on specifics. Altice officials made vague promises to expand fiber optics across Cablevision’s footprint in return for approval of the transaction, but stopped short of committing to offer fiber to the home service.

Stop the Cap!’s Special Report, reviewing the proposed acquisition of Cablevision, attracted the interest of investors on Wall Street as well as several New York City public officials we spoke with about the proposed buyout.

City Hall of New York (Photo: Will Steacy)

City Hall of New York (Photo: Will Steacy)

On our recommendation, New York officials reviewed French press coverage of Altice and its colorful CEO Patrick Drahi. Dozens of articles have covered Drahi’s controversial business practices over the years, including efforts to stall payments for suppliers, initiating salary and job cuts, and a reduction in spending on meaningful service upgrades. His French operation SFR-Numericable lost one million customers in just one year. Earlier this year, he promised increased investment to turn those subscriber numbers around.

Wall Street is also increasingly skeptical about Drahi’s American business plans.

Cablevision’s stock price has dropped well below Altice’s all-cash offer of $34.90 a share, telegraphing concern the deal will not escape regulator scrutiny and ultimately will not close.

“The spread has widened in large part because people have become increasingly concerned that neither the city nor the state will find that the transaction is in the public interest, or alternatively, they’ll demand so much in terms of givebacks that ultimately the deal won’t be palatable to Altice,” Craig Moffett, analyst at MoffettNathanson LLC, told the Journal. “Altice dramatically overpaid, and their attempts to cut costs are both overly ambitious and are potentially injurious to what we already expected to be very weak operating results.”

Optimum-Branding-Spot-New-LogoIf Drahi wins approval to take over Cablevision, Altice is likely to curtail promotional spending at the cable company. The cable operator competes head-to-head with Verizon FiOS across much of its downstate New York, New Jersey and Connecticut service areas. That will likely lead to higher prices and fewer deals for consumers as price competition cools down.

The deal remains under review by the New York Public Service Commission and the FCC. Decisions from both are not expected until next spring.

On Monday, Altice closed its acquisition deal for Suddenlink, a cable operator serving states with more forgiving and business-friendly regulators.

As expected, Altice immediately named an executive team that will oversee significant cost cutting and reorganization at the cable operator that serves mostly rural and small city customers.

Two Suddenlink employees reached out to Stop the Cap! on Tuesday to tell us morale was dropping among middle managers at the cable operator.

SuddenlinkLogo“Most of our employees have little idea who Patrick Drahi or Altice is and they are not aware of the business reviews we’ve been told are coming after the holidays,” said one West Virginia based middle manager. “Some of my colleagues in customer care are updating their resumes this week and I’ve also heard concerns from technicians and IT workers. Some want to jump out early to secure new jobs before expected job cuts cause a small flood of resumes all over the state.”

“It’s a worrisome Christmas because we are not sure how many will be let go,” writes a Suddenlink mid-level IT manager working in Texas. “Salaries at Suddenlink have never been high but a lot of us prefer to work in our hometown and not move to Dallas or Houston to work for companies like Time Warner Cable or AT&T. It’s also a more relaxed work environment, but now there is a lot of concern what the new management will be doing.”

Goei

Goei

Chairman and CEO Jerry Kent announced he will be leaving Suddenlink in those roles but has agreed to chair a new advisory council at Altice USA, the subsidiary established to manage Altice’s American cable assets.

Head chopper Michel Combes, the new chief operating officer of Altice NV, is expected to coordinate U.S. operations. Combes brings his reputation for ruthless cost-cutting from his last job — CEO of Alcatel-Lucent. In an effort to boost profitability and cut costs, Combes presided over 10,000 job cuts and a salary freeze (except for himself and select others) at the company better known as the former Bell Labs. Two years after wielding the hatchet, Combes engineered a sale of the company to Nokia and secured a large golden parachute package for himself. The optics of Combes’ overseeing salary freezes and job cuts while later lobbying for a retirement package focusing on his own personal enrichment caused a political furor in France.

The new management of Suddenlink has limited experience in cable but plenty of experience working at Wall Street banks.

The chairman of Altice USA is Dexter Goei, who joined Altice in 2009 after a career in investment banking at JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley that spanned 15 years. Charles F. Stuart, also a former investment banker at Morgan Stanley, will become co-president and chief financial officer. Abdelhakim Boubazine, former CEO of Altice’s operations in the Dominican Republic, will also serve as co-president and chief operating officer. His LinkedIn profile mentions his involvement in telecommunications began in 2013. His educational background strongly emphasizes fossil fuel engineering.

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