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Election 2016: Trump Victory Troublesome for Tech Issues

Phillip Dampier November 10, 2016 Editorial & Site News, Public Policy & Gov't 7 Comments

donaldtrumpThe stunning victory by Donald Trump in Tuesday’s election ended two years of campaigning, negativity, and divisiveness.

Wednesday probably marked the beginning of Election 2020, which will involve four years of campaigning, negativity, and divisiveness.

Before looking at the implications of the forthcoming Trump Administration, some personal words about the results from the perspective of a lifelong resident of western New York, on the periphery of the Rust Belt region that evidently made all the difference for Mr. Trump on Tuesday night.

Casting my vote here in western New York while suffering a severe cold that has now evolved into walking pneumonia, I reflected on the fact this nasty election probably gave it to me. Despite that, I have the good fortune of living in a diverse community. Our next door neighbor, and by far the closest to us personally, is an ardent Republican who supported Sen. McCain, Gov. Romney, and Mr. Trump. Across the street, a reliable panoply of Democratic candidate lawn signs sprout every other fall. I spend my Friday afternoons in a community south of Rochester where Hillary Clinton has been largely reviled since she was a senator of New York. She didn’t win in Ontario County this year either. But Sen. Chuck Schumer routinely wins his elections with little effort or opposition.

Politics in the western half of New York State (known as “somewhere around Canada” to those in New York City and Long Island) is far more comparable to the battleground state of Ohio than reliably Democratic Manhattan. Our urban centers in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse are solidly Democratic, while the suburbs and rural areas are just as likely to elect Republicans to office. Among those disappointed Democrats pondering a surprising election of Donald Trump, many cannot understand how such a result is possible. But having been a lifelong resident in a region that has seen profound changes from the decimation of blue-collar, high-paying manufacturing jobs in states that still cling to tax rates that assume everyone still has one, the Trump rebellion predicted by Michael Moore was hardly outlandish. Across the Rust Belt, more than a few voters have given up believing politicians, and are still waiting for relief from the relentless pressure on the declining middle class. Some of the worst job declines came in this region during the first Bush Administration and then again under President Bill Clinton. Memories are still fresh.

The changes to local economies in this region are profound and extremely difficult to navigate for those who lack advanced degrees or special technical skills. A state like North Carolina understands these changes well. An economy quickly transformed away from tobacco and textiles towards high technology created enormous challenges for many families. Those problems still exist in many parts of the state where infrastructure and good jobs are still lacking more than two decades later.

In Rochester, the formerly solid and reliable employers like Eastman Kodak and Xerox are a fraction of the size they were in the 1980s. My father met my mother at Eastman Kodak, a company that also employed more than half my extended family. But not for long. I vividly recall watching the inauguration parade of President Bill Clinton on television in 1993 on a day that Eastman Kodak carried out another wave of draconian job cuts. My father’s job survived, but my uncle’s did not. My grandfather had retired by then.

Michael Moore correctly predicted the reality of a Trump victory with the support of a disaffected middle class in economically distressed states.

Michael Moore correctly predicted the reality of a Trump victory with the support of a disaffected middle class in economically distressed states.

Twenty-three years later, the largest employer by far in this area is the University of Rochester/UR Medicine, which includes the university and an enormous medical treatment infrastructure. Together, this accounts for 22,500 workers. The second largest employer in Rochester is a grocery store. A great grocery store — Wegmans, founded and based here, but a grocery store nonetheless. It accounts for 13,500 jobs. Another 13,000+ workers are employed in medical treatment and hospital services that compete with the U of R. Rounding out top employers are the Rochester City School District with 5,500 teachers, administrators and staff, which is almost as big as Monroe County’s government, which accounts for 4,500 employees. The biggest remaining manufacturer is Xerox, which employs 6,300 workers. But consider this contrast: in 1982 Kodak employed 60,400 in the Rochester area. Today, that number is just 2,300.

Rochester had it easy compared to heavy manufacturing cities to our west. Buffalo, western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan have been walloped twice — first by the offshoring of heavy industry and then a second round of manufacturing job losses many voters blame on various free trade agreements. Many tens of thousands of these displaced workers have relocated to other states. Exiting residents of Rochester overwhelmingly prefer North Carolina and Arizona for various reasons, while blue-collar workers further west often end up in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and other southern states. Many of those that remained behind and remember their old jobs are angry, very angry. Some of them supported Bernie Sanders, especially in Michigan. But once the choice came down to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, more than a few voted for Mr. Trump, not out of a great allegiance to the Republican party, but because Trump vilified free trade and business as usual in D.C. To these voters, fair or not, Hillary seemed to embody the establishment that has done little or nothing except make speeches.

The election is now over and we have the results. My candidate did not win because she did not run. (Elizabeth Warren in 2020!) On the broadband issues Stop the Cap! is concerned with, a Trump Administration is likely to be bad news for consumer protection, fair pricing, and community broadband, primarily because the people Mr. Trump has chosen thus far to advise him on tech issues are the usual sort with close ties to the largest telecommunications companies in the country, and many have penned papers that have closely aligned with those companies’ public policy positions.

Phillip Dampier: This election gave me walking pneumonia.

Phillip Dampier: This election gave me walking pneumonia.

Trump transition team adviser Jeffrey Eisenach, for example — who we wrote about back in August, could hold considerable power over the direction President-elect Trump will take tech policy in this country. Eisenach has written papers opposing Net Neutrality, is unconcerned about data caps and zero rating policies, and called fears about consolidation blowouts like the now-dead Comcast-Time Warner Cable mega-merger overblown.

Trump did state opposition to the recent merger announcement from AT&T and Time Warner, Inc., which has Wall Street concerned the deal will be DOA by the time the merger papers are filed sometime early next year in Washington. If President Trump keeps his word on that, there are many more mergers and acquisition deals that will emerge in 2017 that will likely never be on his radar, but will be reviewed by a Federal Communications Commission stacked with commissioners closer in ideology to Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly than Thomas Wheeler. In our view, Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly have yet to support any significant pro-consumer policy change on broadband before the FCC. Instead, they have largely parroted Big Telecom’s talking points.

It is our suspicion that most of the merger and acquisition deals dreamed about on Wall Street that would never have gotten through the Obama Administration’s Justice Department and FCC will receive quick approval under a Trump Administration.

While Mr. Trump alludes he will prove to be a complete game-changer to business as usual in Washington, his transition team is being swarmed by the usual faces — corporate lobbyists, big donors, and political hacks angling for cabinet or agency positions. Most of them are Beltway insiders, and many have been through D.C.’s revolving door before — lobbyist -> public servant -> lobbyist.

So while Mr. Trump tells America AT&T and Time Warner is “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few,” we remain uncertain he will speak as loudly about other likely deals, particularly involving Altice, Cox, Mediacom, CenturyLink, Windstream, Frontier, Sprint, and T-Mobile — just some of the hunters and the hunted that may get consolidated in 2017.

On other issues:

  • Net Neutrality: Republicans vilified Net Neutrality and a Republican-dominated FCC will likely kill or dramatically downplay any efforts to enforce it. Trump himself has never been a fan. Any new powers won by Chairman Wheeler to regulate internet providers under Title II will also likely be jettisoned by a Chairman Pai or O’Rielly;
  • Data Caps/Zero Rating: This issue is important to us, but isn’t likely to see any regulatory action under a GOP-dominated FCC. Internet providers are likely to see a Trump Administration as a green light for data caps and consumption billing;
  • Internet Privacy: Efforts to regulate internet privacy will also likely face a reversal from skeptical Republicans who will combine excuses for national security with a “hands off” attitude on telecommunications regulation.
  • Community Broadband: The issue of turning back bans on public/municipal broadband will have to be won on the state level. We do not expect to see many friends for municipal broadband in Republican-dominated Washington. The influence of the Koch Brothers, notoriously opposed to public internet projects, has only gotten stronger after this election.

With a GOP-sweep across the Executive and Legislative branches, we expect more deregulation, which is likely to further entrench the broadband duopoly in the United States, if not further expand it with additional consolidation-related mergers and acquisitions, at least among the small and mid-sized players.

On a more personal level, I have been involved in public policy battles surrounding telecommunications issues since 1988. In the late 1980s, I fought for increased competition and regulatory relief for home satellite (TVRO) dishowners and we joined forces to help pass the 1992 Cable Act, which laid the foundation for the emergence of competitors DirecTV and Dish Networks — the first serious competition to the cable industry. That law was vetoed by President George H.W. Bush, but that veto was overridden by the U.S. Congress — the only bill to successfully become law during the first Bush Administration over his objection. Republicans pay cable bills too.

(Image courtesy: Steve Rhodes)

(Image courtesy: Steve Rhodes)

Administrations come and administrations go, but we are still here.

The need for robust consumer protection, true competition, and a level playing field never changes. Your involvement remains essential regardless of what party is in power in Washington. Some battles will be more challenging, but not all. Direct consumer action can make an impact on companies concerned about their brand and public image. Just as consumers are passionate about rising cable bills, broadband is always a hot button issue, especially where service is unavailable or comes only at a price that resembles extortion.

The president-elect says that America doesn’t win anymore. We sure haven’t been winning on broadband, either on speed, pricing, or availability, in comparison to Europe and Asia. The solution is not to turn the problem over to the same companies that created the conditions for broadband malaise we are dealing with now. As seen in fiercely competitive markets like France, true competition is often the only regulation you need. A duopoly answers to itself. Having the choice of four, five, six, or more competing providers answers to customers. Consolidated and entrenched markets resist innovation and the need to compete stagnates. Corporate welfare and ghost-written telecom laws that forbid community broadband restricts economic growth and kills jobs, stranding countless rural residents from the digital economy. That -is- business as usual in too many states where groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) facilitate legislative fixes and legal protectionism that restricts or disadvantages competition.

If Mr. Trump truly believes the words he has spoken, he must be vigilant. He must not surround himself with the same politicians and their minders that created the very problems he promises to fix. The voters that elected him to office expect nothing less than blowing up business as usual. But the nation’s capital has a better track record of changing the politician while resisting change to the status quo.

We wish President Trump success for our country, but we’ll be watching to make certain his rhetoric meets the reality.

Altice Speeds Up Cablevision While Suddenlink Stays Capped

atice-cablevisionAltice USA today unveiled faster broadband service for Cablevision customers in the Tri-State Area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. You can now subscribe to faster service plans topping out at 300Mbps for residential customers and 350Mbps for commercial accounts.

Altice was required to boost internet speeds in New York State as part of winning approval for the buyout of Cablevision from the state’s Department of Public Service (formerly the Public Service Commission). But customers in New Jersey and Connecticut will also benefit.

New Internet Services
(bundling TV and phone service can reduce these prices and customers may need to call 1-888-298-9771 to change service if grandfathered on older plans):

Optimum Online (25/5Mbps) $59.95
Additional Modem(s) $49.95 each
Optimum 60 add $4.95
Optimum 100 add $10.00
Optimum 200 add $20.00
Optimum 300 add $55.00

Prior to the upgrade, the fastest speed most customers could get from Cablevision was 101Mbps. Based on pricing, the best value for money is the 200Mbps plan if you are looking for faster service. A $55 charge monthly charge for 300Mbps is $35 more than the logical rate step between lower speed tiers. Standalone customers would effectively pay $114.95 a month for 300Mbps vs. $79.95 for 200Mbps.

Altice has achieved the internet speed requirement imposed by New York regulators more than a year ahead of schedule. The same cannot be said for Charter Communications, which has canceled Time Warner Cable Maxx upgrades that were already underway in former Time Warner service areas. Customers may have to wait until 2019 in New York (later elsewhere) for Charter to upgrade all of its service areas to support 300Mbps. Altice’s other owned-and-operated cable operator – Suddenlink Communications, is also still laboring to boost broadband speeds and has left usage caps and usage billing in place for its customers in mostly smaller cities across the United States.

Our Take: Frontier to Bring Vantage TV to Metro Rochester, N.Y.

frontier new logoWith more than one million people in its footprint across western New York, Frontier Communications has the potential of picking up a significant number of new customers and keeping others from leaving with the introduction of its Vantage IPTV service (see our coverage from this spring to learn more about Vantage TV), set to arrive in the Greater Rochester area by the end of this year.

Rochester is Frontier’s largest legacy copper service area by population, encompassing the majority of the 585 area code. Yet for all that history and Rochester’s significant population base, over the last 15 years Frontier has owned the former Rochester Telephone, upgrades to its copper wire infrastructure have been modest. Significant segments of Frontier’s service area in Rochester still cannot support greater than 3-6Mbps DSL because the company has proportionally underinvested in network upgrades.

That underinvestment has allowed Time Warner Cable (now Charter) to amass a large majority of the residential broadband, phone, and television market in the region. Winning those customers back may be tough without considerable investment in ridding the Rochester area of large segments of copper wiring in place since the 1960s and 1970s. Frontier will be competing against a company that offers broadband speeds starting at 60Mbps and will be discounting its plans, packages and equipment fees for the next few years.

opinionVantage TV is powered by Frontier’s broadband service and will need more bandwidth than the company can now supply across parts of the three dozen communities it plans to market IPTV in the Greater Rochester area. CEO Dan McCarthy promised to upgrade much of Frontier’s copper network to support speeds of 50Mbps or higher, but that isn’t likely to happen this year in large parts of western New York.

Historically, Frontier has preferred acquiring other companies’ already-built fiber and fiber/copper networks instead of spending the money to build comparable networks from scratch. That is why there is a wide disparity between Frontier’s performance in its acquired FiOS and U-verse territories (Indiana, Pacific Northwest, and Connecticut) and its legacy network (Rochester) and acquired dilapidated copper communities (non-FiOS Verizon acquisition areas, most of West Virginia, etc.)

The Vantage TV announcement underwhelmed local media, with only one television station bothering to cover it. That may be a result of skepticism among area reporters who have had direct past experience using Frontier’s DSL service and share our attitude about Frontier’s press releases: only believe it when you actually see it.

French Unions, Media Warn America: Beware of Altice!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unemployment office in Connecticut

Unemployment office in Connecticut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Altice Slashathon Continues: 600 Cablevision Jobs Eliminated in Connecticut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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