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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.

Patrick Drahi’s “Public Interest” Flim-Flam: CWA Opposes Altice-Cablevision Merger

3634flimThe Communications Workers of America today filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission opposing the proposed sale of Cablevision to Patrick Drahi’s Altice NV, arguing the claimed public interest benefits are illusory.

The CWA, which represents some of Cablevision’s workers in Brooklyn, took a hard look at Altice’s merger proposal and the $8.6 billion in debt Altice will take on to close the deal and called it dangerous, resulting in “considerable harm with no offsetting concrete, verifiable benefits for consumers, workers, and communities.”

“Altice’s track record in France and Portugal clearly shows the danger this deal poses to Cablevision’s customers and employees,” said Dennis Trainor, vice president of Communications Workers of America District 1. “Altice takes on too much debt, outsources as much work as possible and then downsizes its workforce. Customers get worse service and employees lose their job. Unless Altice makes commitments to protect customer service and Cablevision employees, the FCC should reject this deal.”

The CWA is also concerned about the disparity between what Altice is telling regulators and what the company is saying to Wall Street.

Altice’s Public Interest Statement, which outlines the benefits to the public of the proposed transaction, stands out for its lack of specificity. In fact, the application’s only concrete commitments are vague promises to bring Altice’s “expertise” and access to capital for Cablevision’s use. Altice also promises to upgrade Cablevision’s IT systems, including customer care, service, and billing systems, and alluded it would expand Cablevision’s fiber optics deeper into its network, but comes short of promising a direct fiber to the home connection. In fact, the only promised benefit of pushing fiber further out would be “the removal or reduction from the network of coaxial RF amplifiers, which consume substantial electricity and can be the cause of difficult-to-detect service outages (RF amplifier failures).”

“Deeper fiber deployment would enable Cablevision to reduce its power costs and to further improve network reliability, resulting, in turn, in a greater ability to invest further in the network and improved service delivery to subscribers,” Altice dubiously claimed.

cwa_logoMany of Altice’s claims appeared “disingenuous and misleading” to the CWA. From the CWA’s filing:

To finance its $17.7 billion acquisition of Cablevision, Altice is taking on $8.6 billion in new debt, which when added to Cablevision’s already heavy debt load of $5.9 billion, will leave the new Cablevision with a total net debt of $14.5 billion.  Given the high cost of the new debt financing, the annual interest payments needed to finance the $8.6 billion in new debt amount to $654 million on top of Cablevision’s current interest payments of $559 million for a total of $1.2 billion in annual interest payments at the new Cablevision, representing a full 112 percent increase in Cablevision debt. The new interest payment ($654 million) plus Altice’s announced $ 1.05 billion in cuts means that the new Cablevision will have $1.7 billion less cash available to spend on the network and service.

“Altice’s business model, the one that it has used to fuel its explosive global growth, requires the acquired company – in this instance, Cablevision — to finance its own acquisition and to provide cash to the parent for future acquisitions,” the CWA argues. “Altice chief financial officer Dennis Okhuijsen explained the capital structure of post-transaction Cablevision: ‘[W]e’re not going to lever up the existing business. This is a stand-alone capital structure, so we’re levering up the target for Cablevision….’”

altice debtTranslation: Cablevision alone is responsible for the debt Altice raised to pay for Cablevision. Or, as Altice explained to investors in its third quarter 2015 earnings report, the parent company operates its various subsidiaries as “distinct credit silos in Europe and the U.S.”

Altice CEO Patrick Drahi’s business formula is always the same. To raise money to help offset the mountain of debt dumped on the acquired company, Altice’s designated managers helicopter in to the acquired company to begin slashing expenses and find money it can send to Altice headquarters to help fill its coffers to acquire even more companies. French telecom giant Numericable-SFR, while on the road to losing one million customers in just one year, was preoccupied borrowing nearly $2 billion, not to improve the company’s service, but rather to pay Altice a special dividend to help pay down the huge amount of debt Altice incurred when it bought the 60 percent stake in the French mobile and cable company it did not already own.

To keep Altice afloat, Drahi’s business strategy requires a steady supply of company acquisitions to deliver the increased cash flows Altice needs to finance its debt. The CWA warned regulators Altice may require Cablevision to spend its cash flow to help Drahi acquire other companies in the future, further reducing the amount of money Cablevision needs to attract and keep subscribers.

To make the deal a long term success, Altice-Cablevision will either have to cut its return to shareholders, raise its prices, and/or slash expenses and jobs. Past experience with Altice shows shareholders come first, which means company management will likely preside over a harvest of Cablevision’s assets to meet the expectations of Wall Street banks and investors. Customers will feel the cuts from the reduction in service and slowed investments and upgrades.

At the same time Altice was promising the FCC it would continue Cablevision’s “first in class” level of service, the company was telling Wall Street it was planning cuts to the bone. Among Altice’s already-proposed cuts for Cablevision:

  • Capital expense: $150 million cut
  • Network and Operations: $ 315 million cut
  • Customer operations: $135 million cut
  • Sales and marketing: $45 million cut
  • Eliminate duplicative functions and “public company” costs: $135 million cut
  • Other unspecified cuts: $135 million cuts.

dilbert-budget-cuts

The impact of these cuts shift costs onto others, argues the CWA, including making the acquired firm pay for its own demise, making the workforce pay through job loss and reduced compensation, making customers pay through deteriorating service, and making suppliers become Drahi’s bankers by delaying payments.

The CWA says customers will also pay for the privilege of getting declining service.

“In Israel, the cable provider Hot Telecommunications has raised prices multiple times since it was bought by Altice, including a cable rate increase of 20 percent in 2014 and the attempt to raise prices again this year,” the CWA argues. “The top Israeli cable regulator called the price hike ‘greed for its own sake’ which was not justified based on the company’s profit margins.”

In the United States, nobody oversees cable pricing.

“In summary, the experience in France, Portugal, Israel, and elsewhere provides concrete evidence that the Altice business model – one that it plans to replicate with its Cablevision acquisition – does not serve the public interest,” concludes the CWA. “Making an acquired company pay off massive debt load with service-impacting cost cutting has serious and negative consequences for customers, suppliers, communities, and workers. The lesson from France is clear: cutting to the bone leads to massive customer defection. It is not a business model that will benefit the people of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.”

Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House Merger Likely Stalled Until Next June

charter twc bhAny final approval of Charter Communication’s planned acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks will likely not come before next summer, as regulators in California decide to take a closer look at the blockbuster merger deal that would make Charter the second largest cable company in the country.

An administrative law judge is contemplating the merger’s impact on California, and a decision is unlikely to come before May 2016, with a final vote of the California Public Utilities Commission tentatively scheduled for June 16th. The judge agreed with consumer groups that the deal warrants evidentiary hearings — a sign the deal deserves additional scrutiny.

New York State’s Public Service Commission is also still reviewing the transaction, although it is expected to render a decision within the next few months. On the federal level, the FCC has also not held back, recently requesting answers to a number of questions regarding John Malone’s involvement in the future of “New Charter.” Malone remains Charter’s biggest single shareholder and could wield considerable control over New Charter’s operations. Considering Malone’s long history of antagonizing customers and engaging in what lawmakers called anti-competitive behavior during his realm at Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), regulators may not want to see history repeat itself.

What was originally anticipated by industry observers to be an ‘easy approval,’ is now looking more like Comcast’s failed bid for Time Warner Cable, as regulators seem to be in no hurry to give Charter’s deal a green light.

If regulators do ultimately approve the deal, it is likely to come with a number of conditions designed to at least temporarily protect consumers and competitors. Stop the Cap! argued in filings with state and federal regulators Charter’s proposal was uncompelling and consumers were unlikely to benefit from the deal. Time Warner Cable’s ongoing Maxx upgrade program delivers faster Internet speeds and better service than Charter’s more modest proposal offering upgrades up to 100Mbps. Time Warner Cable Maxx offers customers up to 300Mbps broadband for the price the company now charges for 50Mbps.

Altice Attempts to Win Over N.Y. Regulators With Promise of Cablevision Fiber Upgrades

atice-cablevisionPatrick Drahi is hoping New York regulators will look more favorably on his proposal to buy Cablevision with a promise to upgrade more than three million of its customers in New York City to fiber-to-the-home service.

The New York Post reports Altice representatives have held private talks with the N.Y. Public Service Commission and the New York City Department of Information Technology, which regulates telecom services in the Big Apple, about fiber optic upgrades.

With news Drahi has proposed major salary and job cuts at Cablevision as part of an effort to wring $900 million in cost savings annually from the Bethpage, Long Island-based cable company, regulators are likely to express concern about the merger and its impact on customers. Promising a fiber upgrade appears to be a calculated effort to win those regulators over, reports the Post.

Altice is capitalizing on the recent negative publicity Verizon has received for failing to meet its obligation to deliver its FiOS service to any New Yorker that requests it. Cablevision is likely to face fewer hurdles performing fiber upgrades, because the company only serves New York City customers in Bronx and parts of Brooklyn, and already operates a hybrid fiber-coax network. Cablevision would only need to replace the last mile of coaxial cable between its fiber connection points and the customer. Verizon has to replace decades-old copper phone wiring in conduits often left in disrepair.

While promising to do better than Verizon, a closer look at Altice’s largest market – France, suggests Drahi’s company isn’t meeting customer expectations either.

Altice’s French operations have lost at least one million customers so far this year, mostly as a result of severe cost cutting. The company’s promise to upgrade 3.1 million New Yorkers to fiber service will likely draw scrutiny in France. Despite similar promises of fiber upgrades to its French customers, Altice admitted in April it has so far only managed to deliver fiber to the home service to fewer than 200,000 of its own SFR customers. At least 5.2 million others are still waiting, still relying on the company’s lower performing DSL service.¹

Union organizers are attempting to step up recruitment efforts at Cablevision in advance of an Altice takeover. The Cablevision99 Facebook page, run by the Communications Workers of America, has been warning Cablevision employees their job security and compensation may be at risk if the company is sold to Altice.

¹ page 21

Frontier: Less is More – Deregulate² and Stop Bugging Us About Broadband Speeds

frontier frankRequiring Frontier Communications to increase broadband speeds could make the service unaffordable for rural and poor Americans, the company is arguing before federal and state regulators.

In separate filings with the New York Public Service Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, Frontier has asked both for further deregulation and less oversight to ease everything from minimum broadband speed definitions to video franchising regulations.

Frontier’s market focus is primarily on rural communities where it delivers traditional DSL broadband service, typically up to 6Mbps, although many customers complain they get lower speeds than advertised. The FCC is working to modernize the Lifeline program, which offers substantial discounts on basic telephone service to low-income Americans. The Commission is studying the possibility of requiring providers to offer Lifeline Internet access for the first time. What worries Frontier is the Commission’s proposed requirement that providers offer Lifeline Internet speeds starting at 10/1Mbps, something Frontier strongly opposes.

frontier dslFrontier’s ability to deliver consistent 10Mbps service in rural areas is the issue.

“Certain rural consumers […] may not currently have access to 10/1Mbps fixed Internet speeds and would thus be prevented from choosing to use Lifeline for a fixed Internet service,” Frontier wrote in its filing with the Commission. “Even if higher speeds are available, a minimum speed standard may prevent a customer from opting for a lower speed plan that may better meet their budget.”

Frontier told the Commission that most subscribers are happy buying 6Mbps service from Frontier, coincidentally the same speed it advertises as widely available across its service areas. Frontier argues if it was required to consistently provide 10Mbps service, the cost of the service may become unaffordable to many.

While Frontier argues against speed standards that are difficult for its aging copper-based network to consistently provide, it is using that same copper network as an argument against further regulation and oversight in New York.

“Traditional telephone service providers like Frontier continue to be legitimate and viable competitors in the marketplace—a testament to our tenacity and the quality of our services,” Frontier wrote in comments to the Public Service Commission. “To ensure that this continues to be the case, in the near-term, an immediate no-cost investment that the State can make in the existing copper-based network is to eliminate the regulatory requirements that apply to [traditional phone companies] but that do not apply to other telecommunications providers.

Frontier added, “consumers have a multitude of communications channels available to them including wireline and wireless voice services and wireline, wireless, cable and satellite broadband services.”

Frontier did West Virginia few favors when it took over Verizon's landline business in the state.

Frontier did West Virginia few favors when it took over Verizon’s landline business in the state.

Ironically, Frontier argued New York’s allegedly robust and fast broadband networks (offered by its competitors but usually not itself) are reason enough to support a “light regulatory touch.”

“Today, every municipality in New York has access to one or more wired or wireless networks that can provide voice, video and data services to residents and businesses,” Frontier claimed. “Over 95% of the state has access to the FCC benchmark speed of 25/3 Mbps and 98% of the State has 200kbps speed in at least one direction. New York’s broadband speeds are significantly faster than the national average and other countries.”

But Frontier failed to mention it is incapable of providing consistent access at or above the FCC benchmark speed because it still relies on a antiquated copper-based network throughout most of its New York service areas. Despite Frontier’s claims of offering quality service, the J.D. Power U.S. Residential Telephone Service Provider Satisfaction Study (2015) ranks Frontier dead last among all significant providers in the eastern U.S. It dropped Frontier this year from consideration for its Internet Provider Satisfaction Study, but a year earlier rated Frontier the worst ISP in the eastern U.S.

Although Frontier suggests it faces “robust competition” from “over 100 different broadband providers, especially at lower speeds,” in most of its service areas in New York it faces Time Warner Cable or no competitor at all.

Frontier’s latest defense over why it has failed to significantly upgrade its network infrastructure to remain competitive with cable is ‘customers don’t want or need faster speeds.’ While advertising lightning fast service on its acquired Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse networks, Frontier argues New York regulators “must keep in mind the consumer demands on broadband speeds.”

Frontier points to two rural broadband projects in New York, one in Hamilton County and the other in Warren County to make its speed argument (emphasis ours):

“These projects are examples of the importance of collaboration and innovation—rather than dogmatic adherence to performance requirements that are largely aspirational for many NYS citizen—in bringing high quality and transformative broadband access to unserved and underserved communities. Flexibility with regard to technology and broadband speed will enhance an already robust marketplace and result in greater affordability and access.”

Frontier has also told New York officials it wants to eliminate local oversight of video franchising and move New York to a “statewide video franchising” system to “promote competition and to streamline competitive entry into the video market in the state.”

“This will provide enhanced consumer choice as well as additional investment in broadband and video services,” Frontier argued. “In other states that have followed this model, such as Connecticut, consumers have a rich array of video providers and services from which to choose at competitive prices.”

That “rich array of video providers” in Connecticut is primarily Cablevision and Frontier. Frontier acquired a pre-existing U-verse network originally owned and operated by AT&T in the state.

New York Attorney General Launches Investigation Into Broadband Speeds and Performance

Schneiderman

Schneiderman

(Reuters) – New York state’s attorney general is probing whether three major Internet providers could be shortchanging consumers by charging them for faster broadband speeds and failing to deliver the speeds being advertised, according to documents seen by Reuters.

The letters, sent on Friday to executives at Verizon Communications, Cablevision Systems, and Time Warner Cable ask each company to provide copies of all disclosures they have made to customers, as well as copies of any testing they may have done of their Internet speeds.

“New Yorkers deserve the Internet speeds they pay for. But, it turns out, many of us may be paying for one thing, and getting another,” Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement.

In statements, spokesmen for the three companies expressed confidence in the speeds of their Internet services.

“We’re confident that we provide our customers the speeds and services we promise them and look forward to working with the AG to resolve this matter,” Time Warner Cable spokesman Bobby Amirshahi said.

Cablevision spokesman Charlie Schueler said the company’s Optimum Online service “consistently surpasses advertised broadband speeds, including in FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and internal tests. We are happy to provide any necessary performance information to the Attorney General as we do to our customers.”

A Verizon spokesman said the company would cooperate with Schneiderman’s office. “Verizon is confident in the robust and reliable Internet speeds it delivers to subscribers,” the spokesman said.

BroadbandMap_rev1The attorney general’s investigation is particularly focused on so-called interconnection arrangements, or contractual deals that Internet service providers strike with other networks for the mutual exchange of data.

In the letters, Schneiderman’s office says it is concerned that customers paying a premium for higher speeds may be experiencing a disruption in their service due to technical problems and business disputes over interconnection agreements.

A 2014 study by the Measurement Lab Consortium, or M-Lab, found that customers’ Internet service tended to suffer at points where their broadband providers connected with long-haul Internet traffic carriers, including Cogent Communications Group.

“Internet service provider interconnection has a substantial impact on consumer Internet performance – sometimes a severely negative impact,” the study said, adding that business relationships rather than technical issues were often at the root of the problem.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said the 2014 study’s findings, coupled with consumer complaints and internal analysis, prompted the inquiry into Internet speeds.

Some of the letters also raise questions about speeds delivered by Time Warner Cable and Cablevision to consumers over “the last mile,” a term that refers to the point where a telecommunication chain reaches a retail consumer’s devices.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Peter Cooney, Christian Plumb and Jonathan Oatis)

Charter & Time Warner Cable Try Internet-Only TV Service to Combat Cord-Cutting, Cord-Nevers

Phillip Dampier October 26, 2015 Charter, Consumer News, Online Video, Time Warner Cable 2 Comments

charter spectrum logoCharter Communications and Time Warner Cable believe they can win the war against cord-cutting by offering broadband-only customers a less expensive video package with a free Roku 3.

Charter Communications has been quietly testing a subscription service called Spectrum TV Stream that’s aimed at broadband-only customers, starting at $12.99* per month and includes a free Roku 3 streaming player.  Customers can start with a package of around 15-20 local/over the air, home shopping, religion, and weather channels, along with the option of adding Showtime or HBO for an extra $12.99 a month. Several extra cable channels, including: ABC Family, ESPN, Food Network, Hallmark, HGTV, LMN, Nat GEO, AMC, Discovery, History, FX, History 2, TBS and TLC are also available as an option for an extra $7 a month.

Because it’s Charter, there are some gotchas, as indicated by our *asterisk. The most disappointing is Charter’s insistence on applying its usual $5-8/month Broadcast TV Surcharge fee (it varies by market) to the streaming service. Other taxes, fees and surcharges also apply, which means most will pay at least $20 a month for a service Charter is advertising for $12.99. The Charter-supplied Roku 3 ($99 value, which includes a remote and headphones) is required to use the service and comes pre-activated. Customers can also access the service through Charter’s phone/device app, but out of home viewing does not function for some networks for contractual reasons.

Because the service is so new, Charter’s sales representatives have offered inconsistent information about the service. One current Charter customer was charged a $29.99 service change fee to transition to Spectrum TV Stream while several others were told they could not drop existing cable TV service and sign up for streaming without first canceling and disconnecting all Charter services for at least 30 days. To be fair, some representatives offered to open a new account in the name of another household member to avoid the 30 day waiting period and another used the opportunity to offer the customer a retention discount to encourage him not to change his service.

Gotcha with that $30 change fee.

Gotcha with that $30 change of service fee, which may turn out to be a billing mistake. Also notice the out-the-door price of Spectrum TV Stream is higher than advertised.

Based on these experiences, it seems likely Charter is using revenue protection measures to discourage current cable television customers from switching to a less-costly plan.

You need Charter's Internet service to subscribe.

You need Charter’s Internet service to subscribe.

Charter’s flyer about the service has been sent to cord-cutters, cord-nevers, and broadband-only customers with satellite TV subscriptions. But since a copy landed in our hands, we’re sharing the details with everyone.

To ask if the service is available in your area or to subscribe, customers need to call a special toll-free number: 1-844-560-5730. You will need Charter broadband service to qualify for the streaming TV service. The Roku 3 device is shipped to arrive within one week, and requires a customer signature or waiver on file for FedEx delivery. Although Charter claims the offer of the free Roku 3 expires Nov. 15, 2015, it is likely to be extended. Customers signing up will be considered qualified cable TV subscribers, allowing authenticated access to on-demand content from cable programmer websites, including premium services like HBO Go (if you subscribe). Up to 15 devices can be registered for viewing, five in simultaneous use. There is a 30-day money back guarantee and customers can cancel and keep the Roku 3 with no further obligations to Charter.

Quality and performance was rated fair by beta testers already signed up. The service works over Charter’s broadband network, which may be another reason the company dropped usage caps several months ago. Regular viewing will run up your usage numbers, but not as much as high-definition streams from Netflix or Amazon.

Charter’s Spectrum TV Stream apparently uses MPEG-2 compression and video quality is reportedly not comparable to traditional satellite TV or cable. Some claim it performs about equal to Netflix’s lowest resolution stream setting. Others complain it can take 3-4 seconds to change channels and streaming quality can dynamically change based on Charter’s broadband performance. Cable customers will also likely miss functionality they get with a DVR to pause, rewind, and start-over television programs — features all absent from Charter’s streaming service.

But even those disappointed with the service are welcoming the consolation prize of an effectively free Roku 3, which Charter allows you to keep with cancellation just for trialing the service.

TWC-TV-New-LogoTime Warner Cable is reportedly planning to launch its own streaming television package today for its broadband-only customers, starting with those in New York City. Usually reliable sources tell Engadget Time Warner Cable will launch a beta test of a new version of its TWC TV service. As with Charter, Time Warner Cable will supply a free Roku 3 tied to the customer’s Time Warner Cable broadband account.

Time Warner will offer its “Starter TV” package as a broadband add-on for $10 a month. That package offers viewers (in NYC): WABC, WCBS, C-SPAN, C-SPAN 2, C-SPAN 3, WWOR, WPXN, WLNY, WMBC, UniMas, WRNN, RISE, WYNJ, Educational Access, EVINE Live, WNYW, Galavision, Government Access, HSN, Music Choice, WNBC, WNET/WLIW, Public Access, QVC, SHOP NBC, TBN, TBS, Telemundo, TWC News, Univision, WGN America, WPIX, and several international/special interest channels.

Showtime and Starz will also be available in an optional package priced at $20 a month. If you want all of Time Warner’s channels and those premiums, they are bundled together for an extra $50 a month. We are not certain if the $50 bundle covered Time Warner’s “Standard” or “Preferred” TV lineup as of press time.

In essence, the package will look a lot like what current Time Warner Cable customers can access over the company’s TWC TV app. The difference is this is the first time Time Warner will sell IPTV service to consumers who now avoid cable television. These streaming-only customers will also never have to lease a cable set top box.

in homeAs with Charter’s service, Time Warner Cable customers will have to give up DVR services like pause, fast-forwarding, rewind, and start-over. The service offers no recording capability either, and maintains the same contractual restrictions that limit the number of channels you can watch on devices outside of the home.

Customers can stream video on up to four registered devices, including the Xbox One/Xbox 360, Android, iOS, Fan TV, Kindle Fire and Samsung’s Smart TVs.

It’s our contention these IPTV services are the likely future of cable television. It’s inevitable cable operators will eventually use their fiber/coax networks to deliver one platform — broadband, on which it will sell Internet access, television, and phone service. This could mean the eventual end of the set top box, replaced with inexpensive devices like a Roku. DVR’s can be replaced with cloud-based DVR-like services to manage time shifting and similar conveniences. That would be welcomed by many cable subscribers who detest the current generation of power hungry devices and their monthly rental costs, especially as cable systems continue to move to all-digital service, necessitating a box on every connected television in the home.

The current TWC TV app offers both good and bad to users. The alphabetic channel lineup is a welcome change from trying to find a channel by its number. The app is also ready-made for out of the home viewing, at least when programmers allow Time Warner the ability to offer that option. But TWC TV has also suffered from regular buffering glitches, service or channel outages, video quality degradation at peak usage times, and in our experience runs up to a minute behind live television.

Stop the Cap! Testimony to N.Y. Public Service Commission Advocating Major Telecom Study

logoOctober 20, 2015

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

Dear Ms. Burgess,

New York State’s digital economy is in trouble.

While providers claim portions of New York achieve some of the top broadband speeds in the country, the vast majority of the state has been left behind by cable and phone companies that have never been in a hurry to deliver the top shelf telecom services that New Yorkers need and deserve.

The deregulation policies of the recent past have resulted in entrenched de facto monopoly and duopoly markets with little or no oversight. Those policies, instead of benefiting New Yorkers, are ultimately responsible for allowing two companies to dominate the state’s telecommunications marketplace.

In virtually all of upstate New York, the services consumers receive depend entirely on the business priorities of local incumbent providers, not market forces or customer demand. As a result, New Yorkers face relentless, unchecked rate increases, well-documented abysmal and unresponsive customer service, and inadequate broadband provided by a workforce under siege from downsizing, cost-cutting, and outsourcing.

Certain markets, particularly those in the New York City area, have at least secured a promise of better broadband from Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home upgrade. But at least 100,000 New Yorkers have languished on Verizon’s “waiting list,” as the company drags its feet on Non Standard Installation orders.[1] In upstate New York, Verizon walked away from its FiOS expansion effort five years ago, leaving only a handful of wealthy suburbs furnished with fiber service while effectively abandoning urban communities like Buffalo and Syracuse with nothing better than Verizon’s outdated DSL, which does not meet the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband – 25Mbps.[2]

Cablevision’s broadband performance dramatically improved because of investment in network upgrades, and the company has been well-regarded for its broadband service ever since.[3] But the proposed new owner of Cablevision – Altice, NV — has sought “cost savings” from cuts totaling $900 million a year, which will almost certainly devastate that provider’s future investments, its engineering and repair crews, and customer service.[4]

At least downstate New York has the prospect for +100Mbps broadband service. In upstate New York, three providers define the broadband landscape for most cities and towns:

  • Time Warner Cable dominates upstate New York with its cable broadband service and has the largest market share for High Speed Internet. As of today, Time Warner Cable’s top broadband speed outside of New York City is just 50Mbps, far less than the 1,000Mbps service cities in other states are now on track to receive or are already getting.[5]
  • Verizon Communications is the largest ILEC in upstate New York. Outside of its very limited FiOS service areas, customers depend on Verizon’s DSL service at speeds no better than 15Mbps, below the FCC’s minimum speed to qualify as broadband;[6]
  • Frontier Communications has acquired FiOS networks from Verizon in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest, and AT&T U-verse in Connecticut. Frontier has made no significant investment or effort to bring FiOS or U-verse into New York State. In fact, in its largest New York service area, Rochester, there are significant areas that can receive no better than 3.1Mbps DSL from Frontier. The vast majority of Frontier customers in New York do not receive service that meets the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband, and some investors predict the company is “headed for financial disaster.”[7]

The competitive markets the DPS staff envisions in its report to the Commission are largely a mirage. When an ILEC like Frontier Communications admits its residential broadband market share “is less than 25% in our 27 states excluding Connecticut,” that is clear evidence the marketplace has rejected Frontier’s legacy DSL service and does not consider the company an effective competitor.[8]

While incumbent cable and phone companies tout ‘robust competition’ for service in New York, if the Commission investigated the market share of Time Warner Cable upstate, it would quickly realize that ‘robust competition’ has been eroding for years, with an ongoing shift away from DSL providers towards cable broadband.[9]

Frontier’s primary market focus is on rural communities where it often enjoys a monopoly and can deliver what we believe to be inadequate service to a captive customer base. The company is currently facing a class action lawsuit in West Virginia, where it is alleged to have failed to provide advertised broadband speeds and delivers poor service.[10]

Verizon’s ongoing investment in its legacy wireline network (and expansion of DSL to serve new customers) has been regularly criticized as woefully inadequate.[11] From all indications, we expect the company will eventually sell its legacy wireline networks, particularly those upstate, within the next 5-10 years as it has done in northern New England (sold to FairPoint Communications) and proposes to do in Texas, California, and Florida.[12] (Verizon also sold off its service areas in Hawaii, West Virginia, and much of its territory acquired from GTE.)

Across New York, service problems and controversial deals between telecom providers have made headlines. Here are just a few:

  1. Superstorm Sandy’s impact on Verizon’s legacy wireline network on Fire Island and in other downstate communities left many without service. Instead of repairing the damage, Verizon proposed to scrap its wireline network and substitute inferior wireless service with no possibility of wired broadband.[13] The DPS received a large number of comments from the public and local elected officials fiercely opposed to this proposal, one that Verizon eventually withdrew in the face of overwhelming opposition.[14]
  2. There are growing allegations Verizon may be underspending on its legacy wireline network and even worse, may be misallocating costs and revenues to deceive the Commission.[15] Some allege much of the company’s ongoing investments, charged to the wireline operation, in reality are for the benefit of its wireless network. This may have allowed Verizon Communications/New York to claim significant losses on its wireline books the company then argued justified rate increases on ratepayers.[16] A full scale accounting of Verizon’s books is essential for all concerned and corrective action may be necessary if these allegations are proven true.
  3. Verizon’s foot-dragging on FiOS buildouts in New York City led to a damning audit report commissioned by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer and oversight hearings were held last week by the City Council of New York.[17] [18] Despite Verizon’s creative definition of “homes passed,” a substantial number of New Yorkers cannot receive the benefits of “today’s networks” the DPS staff refers to. Instead, many are stuck with poorly-performing DSL or no service at all.[19] Regardless of whether fiber passes in front of, over, in between, or behind buildings, Verizon signed an agreement compelling them to give customers a clear timeline to establish FiOS service. It is apparent Verizon is not meeting its obligations.[20]
  4. The proposed sale of Time Warner Cable to Comcast led the Commission’s staff to admit the majority of respondents to requests for public input were strongly opposed to the merger and without substantial modifications concluded would not be in the public interest.[21] Comcast eventually withdrew its proposal in the face of overwhelming opposition.
  5. The proposed sale of Time Warner Cable to Charter Communications, where the DPS staff concluded as the application stood, there would be no public interest benefits to the transaction.[22]

Those are just a few examples of why aggressive oversight of telecommunications is critical for all New Yorkers. In most of these examples, the DPS never ruled one way or the other. The companies individually made their own decisions, and we believe they would have decided differently if they did not face grassroots opposition from consumers.

New Yorkers deserve an active DPS prepared to aggressively represent our interests, ready to investigate what Verizon is doing with its legacy wireline network, legacy wired broadband services, FiOS and Verizon Wireless. With Time Warner Cable having such a dominant presence in western and central New York, its sale should never be taken lightly, as it will impact millions of New Yorkers for years to come.

While the DPS seems prepared to passively wait around to discover what Time Warner Cable, Frontier and Verizon are planning next, the rest of the country is getting speed upgrades New York can only dream about.

Google Fiber and AT&T, among others, are aggressively rolling out 1,000Mbps fiber service upgrades in other states, while a disinterested Verizon refuses to invest further in FiOS expansion, leaving millions of New York customers with nothing better than DSL.

The lack of significant competition upstate is why we believe Time Warner Cable has not yet chosen any market in New York except New York City for its Maxx upgrade program, which offers substantially faster speeds and better service.[23] There is no compelling competitive reason for Time Warner to hurry upgrades into areas where they already enjoy a vast market share and no threat of a broadband speed race. So much for robust competition.

Charter’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable proposes a modest upgrade of broadband speeds to 60-100Mbps, but as we wrote in our comments to the DPS regarding the merger proposal, upstate New York would be better off waiting for Time Warner Cable to complete its own Maxx upgrades over what will likely be 100% of its footprint in the next 24-30 months.[24] Time Warner Cable Maxx offers maximum broadband speeds three times faster than what Charter proposes for upstate New York, while also preserving affordable broadband options for those less fortunate. Approving a Charter buyout of Time Warner Cable will only set upstate New York back further.

We confess we were bewildered after reviewing the initial staff assessment of telecommunications services competition in New York. Its conclusions simply do not reflect reality on the ground, particularly in upstate communities.

It was this type of incomplete analysis that allowed New York to fall into the trap of irresponsible deregulation and abdication of oversight that has utterly failed to deliver the promised competition that would check rate hikes, guarantee better customer service, and provide New York with best-in-class service. In reality, we have none of those things. Rates continue to spiral higher, poor customer service continues, and New York has been left behind with sub-standard broadband that achieves no better than 50Mbps speeds in most upstate communities.

This summer, the American Customer Satisfaction Index told us something we already know. Americans dislike their cable company more than any other industry in the nation.[25] A survey of more than 14,000 customers by ACSI found service satisfaction achieving a new all-time low, scoring 63 out of 100.

“Customers expect a lot more than what the companies deliver,” said ACSI managing director David VanAmburg, who called poor customer service from cable operators “endemic.”

This year, Time Warner Cable again scored the worst in the country. As the only cable provider for virtually all of upstate New York, if residents in New York are given a choice between Time Warner Cable and the phone company’s slow-speed DSL, they are still likely to choose Time Warner Cable, but only because they have no other choices for broadband that meets the FCC definition of broadband.

Providers are quick to suggest consumers can turn to so-called competitors like satellite broadband or wireless Internet from mobile providers. They conveniently ignore the fact satellite-delivered Internet is such a provider of last resort, less than 1% of New Yorkers choose this option. Those that have used satellite broadband tell the companies providing it they rarely achieve the claimed speeds and are heavily speed throttled and usage capped.[26] It’s also costly, particularly when measuring the price against its performance.

Mobile Internet, which some ILECs have advocated as a possible replacement for rural wireline networks, is also a very poor substitute for wired Internet access. Wireless broadband pricing is high and usage allowances are low. Attempts to convince New Yorkers to abandon Verizon landline service in favor of Verizon’s 4G LTE wireless replacement have led to consumer complaints after learning their existing unlimited Verizon DSL service would be substituted for a wireless plan starting at $60 a month with a 10GB usage allowance.[27]

A customer with a 6Mbps DSL line from Verizon consuming 30GB of usage a month – hardly a heavy user – pays Verizon $29.99 a month for DSL service during the first year. In contrast, that same customer using Verizon Wireless’ home 2-5Mbps wireless LTE plan will pay $120 a month – four times more, with the added risk of incurring a $10 per gigabyte overlimit fee for usage in excess of their allowance.[28]

None of this information is a secret, yet it seems to have escaped the notice of the DPS staff in its report. Part of the reason why may be the complete lack of public input to help illuminate and counter incumbent providers’ well-financed public and government relations self-praise campaigns. If only actual customers agreed with their conclusions, we’d be well on our way to deregulation-inspired broadband nirvana.

Except New Yorkers do not agree all is well.

Consumer Reports:

Our latest survey of 81,848 customers of home telecommunications services found almost universally low ratings for value across services—especially for TV and Internet. Those who bundled the three services together for a discount still seemed unimpressed with what they were getting for their money. Even WOW and Verizon FiOS, which got high marks for service satisfaction, rated middling or lower for value, and out of 14 providers, nine got the lowest possible value rating.

What is it about home telecommunications that leaves such a sour taste in customers’ mouths? When we asked Consumer Reports’ Facebook followers to tell us their telecom stories, the few happy anecdotes of attentive service technicians and reliable service were overwhelmed by a tidal wave of consumer woe involving high prices, complicated equipment, and terrible service.[29]

The effective competition that would rely on market forces to deter abusive pricing and poor customer service is simply not available in a monopoly/duopoly marketplace. New entrants face enormous start-up costs, particularly provisioning last-mile service.

The nation’s telephone network was first constructed in the early half of the last century by providers guaranteed monopoly status. The cable industry developed during a period where regulators frequently considered operators to be a “natural monopoly,” unable to survive sustained competition.[30] Many cable operators were granted exclusive franchise agreements which helped them present a solid business case to investors to fund a costly network buildout. The end of franchise exclusivity happened years after most cable operators were already well established.

Today, those marketplace protections are unavailable to new entrants who face a variety of hurdles to achieve success. Some are competitive, others are regulatory. Google Fiber, which provides competitive service in states other than New York, publishes a guide for local communities to make them more attractive prospects for future Google Fiber expansion.[31]

For many overbuilders, pole attachment issues, zoning and permitting are significant obstacles to making new service available to residential and commercial customers. New York must ensure pole owners provide timely, non-discriminatory, and reasonable cost access. Permitting and zoning issues should be resolved on similar terms to speed network deployment.

Because a long history of experience tells us it is unreasonable to expect a competing telephone or cable company to enter another provider’s territory, in many cases the only significant possibility for competition will come from a new municipal/co-op/public-owned broadband alternative.

The hurdles these would-be providers face are significant. Incumbent provider opposition can be substantial, especially on a large-scale buildout. In rural areas, incumbents can and do refuse to cooperate, even on projects that seek to prioritize access first to unserved/underserved areas currently bypassed by those incumbents.

The effort to wire the Adirondack Park region is a case in point. Time Warner Cable has refused to provide detailed mapping information about their existing network, making it difficult to assess the viability of a municipal and/or a commercial broadband expansion project into these areas. Time Warner Cable maintains it has exclusivity to granular map data showing existing networks for “competitive reasons,” effectively maintaining an advantageous position from which it can strategically apply for state broadband expansion funding to expand its network using public funds.

Time Warner Cable benefits from access to publicly-owned rights of way and sanctioned easements. Without this access, their network would likely be untenable. As a beneficiary of that public access, making granular map data available to broadband planners is a fair exchange, and nothing precludes Time Warner from building its network into those unserved/underserved areas – something that might deter a would-be competitor’s business argument to overbuild a high-cost, rural area. The Commission should ask itself how many rural New York communities have two (or more) competing cable companies serving the same customers. If the answer is none, Time Warner Cable does not have a valid argument.

There is ample evidence the Commission needs to begin a full and comprehensive review of telecommunications in this state. It must build a factual, evidence-based record on which the Commission can build a case that oversight is needed to guarantee New Yorkers get the high quality telecommunications services they deserve.

Broadband and telephone service is not just a convenience. In September 2015, the Obama Administration declared broadband was now a “core utility,” just as important as telephone, electric, and natural gas service. Isn’t it about time the Department of Public Service oversee it as such?[32]

Respectfully submitted for your consideration,

Phillip M. Dampier

Director, Stop the Cap!

[1] http://stopthecap.com/2015/10/19/n-y-city-council-investigates-verizon-foot-dragging-fios-possible-contract-violations/
[2] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303410404575151773432729614
[3] https://www.fcc.gov/reports/measuring-broadband-america-2014
[4] http://variety.com/2015/biz/news/altice-group-patrick-drahi-cablevision-bid-1201599986/
[5] http://www.pcmag.com/slideshow/story/310861/if-you-want-gigabit-internet-move-here/1
[6] https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-finds-us-broadband-deployment-not-keeping-pace
[7] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2888876-frontier-communications-headed-for-financial-disaster
[8] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2633375-frontier-communications-ftr-ceo-maggie-wilderotter-q3-2014-results-earnings-call-transcript?part=single
[9] http://www.leichtmanresearch.com/press/051515release.html
[10] http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20141020/GZ01/141029992
[11] http://www.cwa-union.org/news/entry/cwa_calls_for_regulators_to_investigate_verizons_refusal_to_invest_in_landl
[12] http://stopthecap.com/2015/05/05/fla-utility-says-negotiations-with-verizon-make-it-clear-verizon-will-exit-the-wireline-business-within-10-years/
[13] http://money.cnn.com/2013/07/22/technology/verizon-wireless-sandy/
[14] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/MatterManagement/CaseMaster.aspx?Mattercaseno=13-C-0197
[15] http://www.cwa-union.org/news/entry/cwa_calls_for_regulators_to_investigate_verizons_refusal_to_invest_in_landl
[16] http://newnetworks.com/publicnn.pdf/
[17] http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/415-15/de-blasio-administration-releases-audit-report-verizon-s-citywide-fios-implementation
[18] http://arstechnica.com/business/2015/10/verizon-tries-to-avoid-building-more-fiber-by-re-defining-the-word-pass/
[19] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/27/nyregion/new-york-city-and-verizon-battle-over-fios-service.html?_r=0
[20] http://www.nyc.gov/html/doitt/downloads/pdf/verizon-audit.pdf
[21] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={0A5EAC88-6AB7-4F79-862C-B6C6B6D2E4ED}
[22] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId=%7BC60985CC-BEE8-43A7-84E8-5A4B4D8E0F54%7D
[23] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/enjoy/better-twc/internet.html
[24] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={FCB40F67-B91F-4F65-8CCD-66D8C22AF6B1}
[25] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-most-hated-cable-company-in-america-is-2015-06-02
[26] https://community.myhughesnet.com/hughesnet?topic_list%5Bsettings%5D%5Btype%5D=problem
[27] http://www.verizon.com/home/highspeedinternet/
[28] http://www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/lte-internet-installed/
[29] http://www.consumerreports.org//cro/magazine/2014/05/how-to-save-money-on-triple-play-cable-services/index.htm
[30] http://www.citi.columbia.edu/elinoam/articles/Is_Cable_Television_Natural_Monopoly.pdf (p.255)
[31] https://fiber.storage.googleapis.com/legal/googlefibercitychecklist2-24-14.pdf
[32] http://thehill.com/policy/technology/254431-obama-administration-declares-broadband-core-utility-in-report

N.Y. City Council Investigates Verizon Foot-Dragging FiOS, Possible Contract Violations

fios_logo182More than 100,000 Verizon customers in New York City asking for FiOS fiber optic service are still waiting — 75% of them for more than a year — for a service Verizon promised would be available to every city resident by 2014.

In many of those cases, Verizon gave customers nothing but excuses and false information, sometimes in apparent violation of Verizon’s contract with the City of New York.

That was the opening contention of Vincent J. Gentile, chairman of the New York City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations, in a four and a half hour-long hearing on Verizon FiOS availability held Oct. 14.

City officials are frustrated with Verizon’s performance under its FiOS franchise. Complaints about service availability have persisted for years and Mayor Bill de Blasio has been critical of Verizon’s foot-dragging to make fiber service available to every New Yorker that wants the service. As little as 30 minutes before the hearing, complaints continued to reach public officials from customers being told FiOS was not available. In fact, many were instead steered to a Verizon package that bundled satellite television instead of fiber optics.

special reportNew York City is Verizon’s largest market for FiOS fiber optic service. Verizon’s Leecia Eve, vice president of government affairs for the Tri-State Region, claimed the company has invested more than $3 billion upgrading New York City for fiber service and took umbrage at suggestions the company was reneging on its commitments, telling committee members Verizon fulfilled its FiOS commitments “one thousand percent.”

Such claims cause Verizon FiOS-less customers across New York City to bristle. In August, the New York Times reported Barbara Cooke-Johnson, a resident on Putnam Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn had waited for two years for Verizon to reach her block. She isn’t alone. City Council members have been inundated with complaints from residents unable to get FiOS service, even after placing orders well over a year ago.

“For years, I have heard complaints from residents in my district, who have attempted to sign on to the Verizon FiOS service, but learned their area did not provide coverage, “said council member Annabel Palma, who represents the neighborhoods of Parkchester, Soundview, Castle Hill, Clason Point and Harding Park in the Bronx. “New Yorkers need affordable and reliable high-speed broadband access throughout all the five boroughs, but especially in the Bronx.”

Several council members blamed the prior Bloomberg Administration for negotiating a broadly Verizon favorable contract that maintained a largely hands-off policy on oversight of the company’s fiber optic deployment, with few penalties at the city’s disposal to keep Verizon to its word. The Bloomberg Administrated granted multiple requests made by Verizon between 2008-2011 to reduce the performance bond the company agreed to secure as an assurance to city officials it would meet the terms of its franchise agreement.

Kevin Service (L), vice president, region operations - New York City and Leecia Eve, vice president of government affairs - New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut testify before the City Council of New York.

Kevin Service (L), vice president, region operations – New York City and Leecia Eve (R), vice president of government affairs – New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut testify before the City Council of New York.

Verizon’s agreement with the city required it to “pass all households” with fiber optic service within the franchise service area by June 30, 2014. Verizon blamed Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy for missing that deadline, but claims it finally achieved it in October 2014.

Councilman Gentile pressed Service for more information about the gap between what city officials consider to be “homes passed” and what Verizon considers that term to mean.

“We do consider it to be passed if we’re in the realm of ‘substantial fiber placement,'” responded Kevin Service, Verizon’s vice president of region operations – New York City. “I’m not a lawyer, so here is what I would say. We’ve passed a household if when we get a request for service and have the necessary rights of way, what we have left to do does not create a delay in bringing service to that customer. Under that ‘Kevin Service definition,’ we’ve passed every household in New York City.”

Gentile countered that Verizon officials sent documents to the city admitting 23.6% of New York City blocks that Verizon deems “passed” have no buildings with Verizon FiOS service installed.

Much of the dispute between Verizon and New York City officials now centers on a widening gap between the city’s definition of “homes passed” and the one Verizon is now relying on to defend itself against charges it is violating its agreement.

Both sides agree nobody bothered to precisely define “premises passed” in the contract. The term is commonly used by the cable industry to reflect availability of cable service. Nielsen Media, among others, defines it to mean, “households with the ability to receive a particular cable service, and which may opt to subscribe.” The Fiber to the Home Council offers a more detailed definition, one used by the city’s auditors reviewing Verizon’s performance:

“The number of “Homes Passed” is the potential number of premises to which an operator has capability to connect in a service area, but the premises may or may not be connected to the network. This definition excludes premises that cannot be connected without further installation of substantial cable plant such as feeder and distribution cable (fiber) to reach the area in which a potential subscriber is located.” (emphasis added).

Verizon dismissed the Fiber to the Home Council’s definition as one prepared only “for purposes of its ‘market research,'” and claimed it had no standing because the organization is not party to the agreement between Verizon and the city.

Verizon used a dictionary to create its own definition of the phrase in a rebuttal to the city audit:

“General dictionary definitions of the term refer to going by, past, beyond, or through a place (such as a building), and include no requirement as to how close a place must be approached in order to constitute a “passage.” Thus, there is nothing inherent in the word itself that would require Verizon to run cable directly in front of every building in the City in order to “pass” those buildings.”

NYCDOITT.svg“The argument that ‘passing’ a premises with fiber optic cable includes no requirement of any proximity to that premises is manifestly untenable,” city auditors concluded.

If the dispute ends up in court, Verizon’s definition loophole may not prove much of a defense when a judge reviews the rest of the agreement. Whether Verizon has fiber facilities sufficiently nearby or not may not matter once a customer requests service. Under the terms of the contract, Verizon generally has to deliver FiOS within 6-12 months of a customer request, and there is ample evidence Verizon is not meeting that obligation.

The auditors found Verizon customer service agents were quick to tell customers FiOS service was unavailable to them and often failed to offer customers a “non-standard installation” (NSI), which starts the 6-12 month deadline to provide service. Even requesting an NSI was no guarantee of getting fiber service. Auditors found 74.68% of the 41,928 customer requests for an NSI were still outstanding as of Dec. 31, 2014, more than 12 months after the order was taken.

A raucous audience in the hearing room frequently jeered Verizon’s claims it was in full compliance with its franchise contract. Verizon officials defended the company’s performance, noting it was the first in New York City to offer service to every borough to compete with Cablevision and Time Warner Cable (and their predecessors) — cable companies that built their networks under the protection of a monopoly and given more favorable terms to gradually expand their infrastructure over a decade or more. Eve said Verizon achieved success despite the obstacles that have arisen, including objections from some building owners that have refused to admit Verizon technicians to install FiOS service for tenants.

Service admitted Verizon currently has a backlog of at least 100,000 requests for Verizon FiOS service in the city it has not yet met. Service blamed that number mostly on building access disputes, an excuse that allowed him to insist Verizon was in compliance with its agreement.

Service also suggested the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT – pronounced “Do-It”) and some of the company’s unions have sought to muddy the waters by unilaterally redefining Verizon’s contract with New York.

http://phillipdampier.com/video/WNBC New York Verizon FiOS Not Installing High-Speed Internet for 25 Percent of NYers Who Want It 7-15-15.flv

WNBC-TV in New York reported 25% of New Yorkers seeking Verizon FiOS Internet were turned away by the company. [Report originally aired: July 15, 2015] (2:01)

“To simplify the issue, the pass all homes obligation involves strategically placing fiber optic cables throughout the streets of New York City such that the fiber optic network can then be extended into specific buildings upon request, provided that we can get access to the building and into that building,” Service said. “It does not mean, contrary to some public confusion, that Verizon’s network would have been extended into every New York City household. Where we have not brought our FiOS service to a customer that has requested it, it’s because we haven’t yet secured all the necessary rights of way to do so.”

Verizon workers install fiber optic cables in New York City.

Verizon workers install fiber optic cables in New York City.

“I think it’s important to note that the city’s franchise agreements with Cablevision and Time Warner included an express obligation to run facilities in front of each building in the city,” Service reminded the audience. “In stark contrast, Verizon’s agreement does not include that language. This is no accident. The parties recognized while the agreement was being negotiated that Verizon would deploy its all-fiber network as an upgrade to its existing copper network, running the fiber along the same routes as it historically used to serve the buildings in the city. […] Although there are now attempts by some to unilaterally and retroactively revise the intent and meaning of the agreement, the word ‘passed’ was always understood and used by Verizon and the city in that context.”

Service explained getting FiOS service involves a multi-step process and it is not as simple as passing a fiber cable through a neighborhood.

“In order to fulfill [our] obligation [to provide FiOS] to a resident in an [multi-dwelling unit] not only does the building have to be passed by Verizon’s facilities, as all buildings are today, it also must be network created,” Service said. “In other words, the deployed fiber used to serve the building must be extended into the building from the street or backyard, or is frequently the case, through adjoining buildings to provide service to the individual units in the building.”

Customers can expect delays if they are the first in a building to request FiOS service.

“When a single resident requests service, it is Verizon’s policy to make the entire building ready for FiOS service. After that is complete, subsequent requests for service will no longer be considered NSI requests. Instead they are standard installation requests,” Service added, noting this is more efficient than simply provisioning service one customer at a time.

Union members who work for Verizon scoffed at Service’s explanations, accusing the company of systematically cutting back on FiOS spending and diverting money into its more profitable Verizon Wireless operation.

“They tend to blame landlords,” CWA representative Pete Sikora told Gothamist. “They tend to blame everyone but themselves. They didn’t have a gun held to their heads; they signed that agreement willingly, because they want to make more money. What they’re doing here is effectively picking and choosing which streets to serve.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CWA Verizon FiOS Broken Promises 10-13-15.mp4

The Communications Workers of America have begun running ads criticizing Verizon for failing to bring FiOS service to New Yorkers. (0:30)

Customers didn’t readily accept Verizon’s explanations either.

“As a board member of my co-op, I’ve been trying to get FIOS in our building for four years now,” wrote one Gothamist reader. “I’ve spoken with everybody at Verizon about this and the outcome has been that Verizon will wire the block and its buildings when Verizon feels like it.

Council member Brad Lander

Council member Brad Lander

Most of those seeking FiOS service and not getting it learn FiOS is “not available” from Verizon’s website or a customer service agent. When asked when the service might be available, it is common for representatives to answer they have no idea. Critics say that violates the terms of the contract, which requires Verizon to make a good faith effort to give an estimated wait time before an installation can be made. Service was on the defensive explaining why customers are routinely told no service is available.

“There is no area in the city [we do not service] and nobody should be told that,” Service said. “Having said that, we have 12,000 employees — we have a large employee body that we are constantly training and retraining and to the extent that they have told somebody that service is not available, that’s an indication that we have more to do in that area.”

“I must tell you that Councilman Lander just whispered in my ear that he was told 30 minutes ago that where he lives in Brooklyn is not serviced,” responded Councilman James Vacca.

Councilman Brad Lander, the deputy leader of policy, later confronted the two Verizon representatives about his own unsuccessful attempts to get FiOS service at his own home in Park Slope and questioned their solution to the problem.

“It sounds to me like you are saying the problem is not that FiOS is unavailable at my house, the problem is that Stacy [a Verizon customer service representative] didn’t say to me ‘Mr. Lander it’s available in your neighborhood, just not to you.'”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Council Member Brad Lander Takes Verizon Apart.mp4

Council member Brad Lander shares his experience not being able to get FiOS service from Verizon at last week’s City Council hearing. (2:45)

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