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New York City Comptroller Unimpressed With Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

one mbps

“Hey look, is that the Verizon FiOS truck?”

New York City comptroller Scott Stringer is lukewarm at best about the idea of Comcast taking over for Time Warner Cable. In a letter to the New York Public Service Commission released today, Stringer says the deal needs major changes before it comes close to serving the public interest.

“As New York City residents know all too well, our city is stuck in an Internet stone age, at least when compared to other municipalities across the country and around the world,” Stringer wrote. “According to a study by the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, New Yorkers not only endure slower Internet service than similar cities in other parts of the world, but they also pay higher prices for that substandard service. Tokyo residents enjoy speeds that are eight times faster than New York City’s, for a lower price. And Hong Kong residents enjoy speeds that are 20 times faster, for the equivalent price.”

Stringer should visit upstate New York some time. While the Big Apple is moving to a Verizon FiOS and Time Warner Cable Maxx or Cablevision/Optimum future, upstate New York is, in comparison, Raquel Welch-prehistoric, especially if your only choice is Verizon “No, We Won’t Expand DSL to Your House,” or Frontier “3.1Mbps is Plenty” Communications. If New York City’s speeds are slow, upstate New York speeds are glacial.

“The latest data from the FCC shows that, as of June 30, 2013, over 40 percent of connections in New York State are below 3Mbps,” Springer added.

Come for the Finger Lakes, but don’t stay for the broadband.

Should the merger be approved, Comcast would be obligated to comply with the existing franchise agreement between Time Warner Cable and the City of New York. However, in order for the proposed merger to truly be in the public interest, Comcast must have a more detailed plan to address these ongoing challenges and to further close the digital divide that leaves so many low-income New Yorkers cut off from the information superhighway. To date, Comcast’s efforts to close the digital divide have focused on its “Internet Essentials” program, which was launched in 2012.iii The program offers a 5 megabit/second connection for $9.95/month (plus tax) to families matching all of the following criteria:

• Located within an area where Comcast offers Internet service
• Have at least one child eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program
• Have not subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days
• Does not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment

While the aim of the program is laudatory, its slow speed, limited eligibility, and inadequate outreach have kept high-quality connectivity beyond the reach of millions of low-income Americans. Not only are the eligibility rules for Internet Essentials far too narrow, but the company has done a poor job of signing up those who do meet the criteria. In fact, only 300,000 (12 percent) of eligible households nationwide have actually signed up since the program was launched in 2011.

It is critical that the PSC not only press Comcast to significantly expand the reach of Internet Essentials, but also that it engage in appropriate oversight to ensure that the company is meeting its commitments to low-income residents of the Empire State.

Phillip "Comcast isn't the answer to the problem, it's the problem itself" Dampier

Phillip “Comcast isn’t the answer, it’s the problem” Dampier

In fact, the best way New York can protect its low-income residents is to keep Comcast out of the state. Time Warner Cable offers everyday $14.99 Internet access to anyone who wants it as long as they want it. No complicated pre-qualification conditions, annoying forms, or gotcha terms and conditions.

When a representative from the PSC asked a Comcast representative if the company would keep Time Warner’s discount Internet offer, a non-answer answer was the response. That usually means the answer is no.

“We have seen how telecommunications companies will promise to expand access as a condition of a merger, only to shirk their commitments once the merger has been approved,” Springer complained. “For instance, as part of its 2006 purchase of BellSouth, AT&T told Congress that it would work to provide customers ‘greater access and more choices for broadband, no matter where they live or work.’ However, later reports found that the FCC relied on the companies themselves to report their own merger compliance and did not conduct independent audits to verify their claims.”

Big Telecom promises are like getting commitments from a cheating spouse. Never trust… do verify or throw them out. Comcast still has not met all the conditions it promised to meet after its recent merger with NBCUniversal, according to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).

Stringer also blasted Comcast for its Net Neutrality roughhousing:

While the FCC has not declared internet providers to be “common carriers”, state law has effectively done so within the Empire State. Under 16 NYCRR Part 605, a common carrier is defined as “a corporation that holds itself out to provide service to the public for hire to provide conduit services including voice, data, or video by electrical, electronic, electromagnetic or photonic means.”

Importantly, the law requires these carriers to “provide publicly offered conduit services on demand to any similarly situated user on substantially similar terms, subject to the availability of facilities and capacity.”

In recent months, Comcast has shown that it is willing to sacrifice net neutrality in order to squeeze additional payment out of content providers, such as Netflix. As shown in the chart below, Netflix download speeds on the Comcast network deteriorated rapidly prior to an agreement whereby Netflix now pays Comcast for preferential access.

speed changes

concast careConsumers have a legitimate fear that if access to fiber-optic networks is eventually for sale to the highest bidder, then not only will it stifle the entrepreneurial energy unleashed by the democratizing forces of the Internet, but will also potentially lead to higher prices for consumers in accessing content. Under that scenario, consumers are hit twice—first by paying for Internet access to their home and second by paying for certain content providers’ preferred access.

Internet neutrality has been a core principle of the web since its founding and the PSC must examine whether Comcast’s recent deal with Netflix is a sign that the company is eroding this principle in a manner that conflicts with the public interest.

Stringer may not realize Comcast also has an end run around Net Neutrality in the form of usage caps that will deter customers from accessing competitors’ content if it could put them over their monthly usage allowance and subject to penalty rates. Comcast could voluntarily agree to Net Neutrality and still win by slapping usage limits on all of their broadband customers. Either causes great harm for competitors like Netflix.

“I urge the Commission to hold Comcast to that burden and to ensure that the merger is in the best interest of the approximately 2.6 million Time Warner Cable subscribers in New York State and many more for whom quality, affordable Internet access remains unavailable,” Stringer writes. “And I urge Comcast to view this as an opportunity to do the right thing by introducing itself to the New York market as a company that values equitable access and understands that its product—the fourth utility of the modern age—must be available to all New Yorkers.”

If Comcast’s existing enormous customer base has already voted them the Worst Company in America, it is unlikely Comcast will turn on a dime for the benefit of New York.

The best way to ensure quality, affordable Internet access in New York is to keep Comcast out of New York.

No cable company has ever resolved the rural broadband problem. Their for-profit business model depends on a Return on Investment formula that prohibits expanding service into unprofitable service areas.

These rural service problems remain pervasive in Comcast areas as well, and always have since the company took over for AT&T Cable in the early 2000s. Little has changed over the last dozen years and little will change in the next dozen if we depend entirely on companies like Comcast to handle the rural broadband problem.

A more thoughtful solution is encouraging the development of community co-ops and similar broadband enterprises that need not answer to shareholders and strict ROI formulas.

In the meantime, for the good of all New York, let’s keep Comcast south (and north) of the border, thank you very much.

 

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New York Public Service Commission Announces Delay in Comcast/TWC Merger Consideration

comcast twcAs more than 2,300 New Yorkers express fierce opposition to the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the New York Public Service Commission has announced a delay in the review of the proposal until October.

The PSC now expects to consider the matter at a meeting to be held October 2. The PSC is also extending the period for the public to comment on the proposed merger.

Your comments are now due no later than Aug. 8, with reply comments from various parties due no later than Aug. 25.

Your input is vital, so please take a few moments to send an e-mail to the PSC with your views.

Here’s an example of one of the letters we are seeing:

Via e-mail: [email protected]
Honorable Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary
New York State Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223

Re: 14-M-0183 – Joint Petition of Time Warner Cable and Comcast for Approval of a Holding Company Level Transfer of Control

Dear Secretary Burgess:

As a resident of this state, who is a customer of Time Warner Cable, I am writing to express my staunch opposition to the above-referenced joint petition. This application should be denied outright, simply put, because the merger of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, and Time Warner Cable, the nation’s second largest company, would be contrary to the interest of consumers in the State of New York, as well as antitrust laws.

Though executives of both applicants are adamant that this proposed merger would benefit consumers and enhance competition, the ominous, far-reaching implications that will undoubtedly follow render these claims, among others, implausible. That is, if this merger were to take place, a virtual monopoly would be created, giving Comcast unprecedented control over cable and broadband internet networks at the expense of not only consumers, who would receive nothing but fewer choices at higher prices, but also rival businesses, whose viability would certainly be stifled. The proposed merger would likewise pose a threat to net neutrality.

Given the abysmal record of Comcast, which includes being fined for failing to comply with the terms and conditions of its previous and similarly controversial merger with NBC Universal, as well as its political clout, it is clear that the approval of this joint petition would both be inconsistent with the mission of this Commission, as as well as the interest of consumers in this state. It should, accordingly, be denied in its entirety.

Respectfully submitted,
Patrick A. Berry
Volunteer, Common Cause New York

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Not Only Was Comcast’s Customer Retentions Guy Annoying, He Was Also Factually Wrong

astound-broadband-logoNearly two million people have listened to the Comcast customer service call from hell since it went viral earlier this week.

Comcast quickly decided it was best to apologize:

We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and Ms. Belmont and are contacting them to personally apologize. The way in which our representative communicated with them is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives. We are investigating this situation and will take quick action. While the overwhelming majority of our employees work very hard to do the right thing every day, we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with the utmost respect.

csrSetting aside all that, we decided to investigate why Mr. Block was willing to subject himself to 18 minutes of phone hell to cancel his service.

At one point, we learn he is switching to Astound, a provider of cable TV, broadband internet, and telephone services on the West Coast, serving over 325,000 residential and business customers within communities in the San Francisco Bay area. Astound is an overbuilder, which means it is one of those rare instances where Comcast faces head to head competition with a company that can deliver more than DSL.

Although Comcast’s rep swore Comcast had the fastest Internet speeds (it doesn’t) and can deliver maximum savings (also wrong), it turns out Astound offers both cheaper and faster Internet service. We’d probably switch too, although we wish Astound would dump its 1TB monthly usage cap. How many customers even come close to that isn’t known, but it is likely under 1%, which makes us wonder why they bother with a cap at all?

We collected pricing information from both Astound and Comcast’s websites and here is what we found:

Stop the Cap! will include this incident in our formal filings with the FCC and New York State Public Service Commission in opposition to the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast. Comcast customers tell us Mr. Block’s experiences, although extreme, are not uncommon when dealing with Comcast’s customer retention department.

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Here’s How to Tell the N.Y. Public Service Commission to Reject the Comcast/TWC Merger

ny pscThe New York Public Service Commission needs to hear from you about the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. Unlike some of the southern and midwestern states that have utility commissions that basically rubber stamp the agenda of Big Telecom companies, New York’s PSC has a reputation for being tougher and more customer-oriented. But the PSC cannot act in your interest if you don’t share your views.

It is incredibly easy to file your own comments with the PSC. Nearly 2,300 New Yorkers have done so thus far, but we need to make sure they understand our serious objections to Comcast’s usage caps, its expensive service, and customer abuse.

We have provided a sample letter below. We hope you will write your own, but offer ours as a guide that includes some of our biggest concerns. We may prepare another one soon outlining other concerns.

How to file your comment:

  • E-Mail: [email protected]
  • Mail: Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary, Public Service Commission, Three Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York 12223-1350.
  • Phone: 1-800-335-2120 (press “1″ to leave a recorded comment)

All comments should refer to “Case 14-M-0183, Petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc.”

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

Re: Case 14-M-0183, Petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc.

Dear Ms. Burgess,

I am writing to ask the Public Service Commission to reject the merger proposal of Comcast and Time Warner Cable on the ground the companies have failed to show such a merger would be in the best interests of New York and its residents.

Although Time Warner Cable has never been a prize, Comcast’s reputation for bad service, high prices, rationed Internet access, and customer abuse is well documented in just about every community the company serves. Comcast has repeatedly been voted the “Worst Company in America” by Consumer Union’s Consumerist.com. The American Consumer Satisfaction Index has documented so many complaints about Comcast, it declared it the worst company it has ever scored, performing even worse than the Internal Revenue Service. For more than three years running, Harris Interactive has called Comcast one of the least reputable companies in America.

That alone should be enough to reject this merger out of hand. Permitting it would reward this company’s appalling behavior towards its own customers and expose New Yorkers to an even bigger monopoly problem than we deal with now. Unless you live in a Verizon FiOS service area, cable is your only real choice for true broadband speeds. DSL is rapidly losing favor and market share and Verizon has shown no interest in expanding it.

Comcast already uses its market power to its advantage by raising prices… a lot. Time Warner Cable charges less for its services than Comcast does.

For example, Time Warner Cable offers a standard television service package that provides all the popular cable networks for one price. Comcast offers a similar package but stripped out cable networks including Cloo, CNBC World, Al Jazeera America, Discovery Fit & Health, Disney XD, DIY, a range of ESPN’s extra networks, EWTN, Fine Living, Fox Business News, Great American Country, IFC, Investigation Discovery, Lifetime Real Women, Military Channel, MLB, most of MTV’s extra networks, NBA, National Geographic Channel, NFL Network, NHL Network, most of Nickelodeon’s extra networks, OWN, Oxygen, Sundance, Turner Classic Movies, The Science Channel, and VH1′s extra networks.

Customers who want these networks, like Turner Classic Movies, National Geographic, and IFC will have to pay a stunning price of up to $86 a month — just for television. Many of these networks are especially popular with fixed income older residents, who will now face an even larger cable TV bill.

Comcast promotes the fact its Internet speeds are faster than Time Warner Cable, but that is not true as Time Warner Maxx upgrades arrive. Comcast Internet service costs more, is slower, and increasingly usage-capped. Time Warner Cable has made clear it will not limit customers’ Internet usage. Comcast has made clear it will, predicting usage limits/usage-based pricing will be imposed on customers across its entire footprint within five years. That is no improvement for New York. That is literally a downgrade. We can do better in New York with Time Warner Cable.

In fact, the company has promised extremely little to New York after winning your approval to merge. Comcast is so arrogant, it already announced it will not share any cost savings with customers, promising even higher cable bills for New York with the merger. Even its touted X1 set top system will cost New Yorkers — it comes with a steep installation price of almost $100. Again, how does this serve the public interest?

Comcast’s public service programs are also woefully inadequate. Its Internet Essentials is a bureaucratic nightmare that only provides temporary discounts to a small percentage of customers (with school age children) who need an affordable Internet option. I guess childless couples and the elderly poor don’t matter. Time Warner Cable offers a $14.99 discount program available to anyone who wants it, no paperwork or waiting periods required.

It is my understanding Comcast must prove this merger is in the public interest to win your approval. It has utterly failed to do so, and I expect my state’s Public Service Commission to reject this merger. This is one deal that can never be modified sufficiently to make it acceptable for people like myself. You are doing us no favors trying to negotiate for an Internet discount program or expanding Comcast’s service area by a small amount in rural upstate New York. The end result is that millions of New Yorkers will get worse service than we get today, at a higher price, with little/no competition on the horizon.

This is a rare opportunity for our state, which lost most of its oversight powers over the cable industry years ago. Cable operators have abused their deregulated status and have raised prices, provided dreadful customer service, and have kept competition away. Letting Comcast into New York from Buffalo to the Bronx will only encourage more abuse, wreaking havoc on New York’s growing digital economy. Let’s send a clear message to Comcast New York isn’t willing to put our broadband future in the hands of “the worst company in America.” Let’s make it clear enough is enough.

Sincerely,

 

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A Better Alternative to Comcast’s Internet Essentials’ Tricks & Traps: EveryoneOn’s Discount Internet Access

internet essentialsWhile regulators sort through the thicket of fine print that keeps hundreds of thousands of families from qualifying for Comcast’s $9.95 Internet Essentials affordable Internet program, a much simpler offer has emerged that doesn’t work overtime to protect Comcast’s broadband revenue from being cannibalized. In short, regulators don’t need to cut deals to expand programs like Internet Essentials in return for saddling residents with America’s “worst cable company.” There are alternatives.

EveryoneOn markets Comcast’s Internet Essentials where appropriate, but the group also gives low-income residents without school-age children other options that won’t require a $45 billion merger deal to expand.

EveryoneOn’s website asks visitors to enter their zip code to determine eligibility for discounted Internet access in neighborhoods with below-average standards of living. In western New York, we found few programs available in wealthy suburban zip codes, but most city neighborhoods were eligible for substantial discounts off wireless Internet access:

Mobile Beacon, like FreedomPop, uses the Clear WiMAX network at the moment.

mobile beacon coverage

Mobile Beacon relies on Sprint’s Clear 4G WiMAX network.

Mobile Beacon utilizes Sprint’s Clear 4G WiMAX network at the moment, and does not throttle or limit customer usage. The $10 rate plan is by far the cheapest around for unlimited access, but speeds are limited to 1Mbps. That may not be a problem for many Clear WiMAX users who can’t get speeds faster than that anyway.

howItWorksModemFreedomPop offers 1GB of monthly data for free, after a $49 setup charge.

Both offers are readily available to public with almost no pre-qualifications. The biggest downsides to both plans include Clear’s very limited WiMAX coverage area and the fact Sprint is gradually decommissioning its WiMAX network.

To remain committed to low-income Internet access, Sprint will offer free wireless broadband service to 50,000 low-income students nationwide.

Microsoft is also actively promoting EveryoneOn’s affordable Internet service offers to school districts nationwide as a solution to their home connectivity problems.  Microsoft will also help deploy Windows devices below $300 to classrooms across the country. Schools can buy Windows 8.1 Pro at a discounted rate and get “Office 365 Education” at no extra cost after they buy Office for teachers and administrators.

New York regulators are getting an earful from public interest and non-profit groups about solving a digital divide that is critical to the state’s economic future. The Internet is no longer merely a nice thing to have. It’s now essential:

  • A 2013 Jobvite survey revealed 94% of recruiters use or plan to use social media to find potential employees.
  • Fifty percent of today’s jobs require technology skills, and this percentage is expected to grow to 77% in the next decade.
  • The new GED test is being offered only on a computer, requiring all taking the test to have a level of comfort with technology;
  • The typical US household saves approximately $8,000 per year by using the Internet, according to an industry-backed Internet Innovation Alliance report.
  • 21% of uninsured Americans  do not  use the Internet, making it impossible for them to use the online health exchanges.
  • A Pew Internet Report revealed 59% of caregivers with internet access say that online resources have been helpful to their ability to provide care and support for the person in their care.
  • The New York Times reported Internet access and literacy allows seniors to stay socially connected to friends and family, maintain their health and increase longevity.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Mobile Beacon Nation Case Study.mp4

Mobile Beacon isn’t just powering income-challenged Americans. The 4G wireless broadband project is also connecting communities, schools, and social service agencies in communities under economic pressure. Mobile Beacon won’t put cable customers under more economic pressure from skyrocketing cable bills, either. It’s not owned by a cable operator. (13:21)

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Stop the Cap!’s Testimony Before the N.Y. Public Service Commission on Comcast-TWC Merger

lousy-tshirt-640x640For the benefit of new visitors, text items in bold are clickable links. A complete video from this event will be posted as soon as possible.

Good evening. My name is Phillip Dampier from Stop the Cap!, a Rochester-based all-volunteer consumer group fighting for better broadband service and against Internet usage caps.

This is a critical moment for New York. The Internet has become a necessity for most of us and the future is largely in the hands of one company capable of delivering 21st century broadband to the majority of upstate New York. That company isn’t Verizon, which has ended FiOS fiber expansion while abandoning most of its upstate customers with slow speed DSL. Indeed, as their market share will attest, our broadband future is held in the hands of Time Warner Cable.

Comcast could have become a big player in New York had it chosen to compete head to head with Time Warner. But large cable operators avoid that kind of competition, preferring comfortable fiefdoms that only change hands at the whim of the companies involved. As local officials from across New York have already discovered, no major cable operator will compete for an expiring franchise currently held by another major cable operator.

Ironically, Comcast is using that fact in its favor, noting that since neither company competes directly with the other, making Comcast larger has no impact on competition. But that should hardly be the only test.

At issue is whether this merger is in the public interest. This year, for the first time in a long time, the rules have changed in New York. In the past, the Commission had to prove the merger was not in the best interests of New Yorkers. Now the onus is on Comcast to prove it is. It has fallen far short of meeting that burden.

Let’s start with Comcast’s dysfunctional relationship with its customers. With more than 75 citizen comments filed with the Commission so far. Comcast’s reputation clearly precedes it. The consensus view is perhaps best represented by one exasperated Clinton-area resident who wrote, I quote, “No. No no no. HELL no.

dream onThat kind of reaction is unsurprising considering Consumer Reports ranked Comcast 15th out of 17 large cable companies and called their Internet service and customer relations mediocre. Every year since 2007, Comcast’s CEO acknowledges the problems with customer service and promises to do better. Seven years later, the American Customer Satisfaction Index reports absolutely no measurable improvement. In fact, ACSI has concluded Comcast had the worst customer satisfaction rating of any company or government agency in the country, including the IRS.

In order to sell this $45 billion boondoggle to a skeptical public, Comcast has hired 76 lobbyists from 24 different firms and will reportedly spend millions trying to convince regulators and our elected leaders this deal is good for New York. If the deal gets done, Comcast’s biggest spending spree won’t be on behalf of its customers. Instead, Comcast has announced a $17 billion share buyback to benefit their shareholders. Imagine if this money was instead spent on improving customer service and selling a better product at a lower price.

don't careThe only suitable response to this merger deal is its outright rejection. Some may recommend imposing a handful of temporary conditions in return for approval – like the kind Sen. Al Franken accused Comcast of reneging on after its earlier merger with NBCUniversal. But this is one of those cases where you just can’t fit a round peg into a square deal for consumers, no matter how hard you try.

With respect to television, volume discounts have a huge impact on cable programming costs and competition. The biggest players get the best discounts, smaller ones are stunned by programming rate hikes and new competitors think twice about getting into the business.

AT&T said last week its 5.7 million customer U-verse television service was too small to get the kind of discounts its cable and satellite competitors receive. AT&T’s solution is to buy DirecTV, which might be good for AT&T but is bad for competition.

Frontier Communications has also felt the volume discount sting after adopting several Verizon FiOS franchises. When it lost Verizon’s volume discounts, Frontier began a relentless marketing effort to convince its customers to abandon FiOS TV and switch to technically inferior satellite TV.

Combining Comcast and Time Warner Cable will indeed help Comcast secure better deals from major programmers (including Comcast itself). But Comcast is already on record warning those savings won’t be shared with customers.

Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen summed it up best: “We are certainly not promising that customer bills will go down or increase less rapidly.”

Is that in the public interest?

xfinity_blowsComcast suggests this merger will make its cable television market share no larger than it had in 2002 when it bought the assets of AT&T Cable. But this is 2014 and cable television is increasingly no longer the industry’s biggest breadwinner. Broadband is, and post-merger Comcast will control 40-50 percent of the Internet access market nationwide.

So what do Time Warner Cable customers get if Comcast takes over? A higher bill and worse service.

Several months before Comcast sought this merger, Time Warner announced a series of major upgrades under an initiative called TWC Maxx. Over the next two years, Time Warner Cable plans to more than triple the Internet speeds customers get now at no additional charge. Those upgrades are already available in parts of New York City, Los Angeles, and Austin.

A Time Warner Cable customer in Queens used to pay $57.99 for 15 megabit broadband. As of last month, for the same price, they get 50 megabits.

In contrast, Comcast’s Internet Plus plan delivers just 25 megabits and costs $69.95 a month – nearly $12 more for half the speed. Who has the better broadband at a better price? Time Warner Cable.

New York State’s digital economy depends on Internet innovation, which means some customers need faster speeds than others. Time Warner Cable’s Maxx initiative already delivers far superior speeds than what Comcast offers, despite claims from Comcast this merger would deliver New York a broadband upgrade.

isp blockTime Warner’s new top of the line Internet service, Ultimate 300 (formerly Ultimate 50), delivers 300 megabit service for $74.99 a month. Comcast’s top cable broadband offer listed on their website is Extreme 105, offering 105 megabit speeds at prices ranging from $99.95 to $114.95.

Is the public interest better served with 300 megabits for $74.99 from Time Warner Cable or paying almost $40 more for one-third of that speed from Comcast? Again, Time Warner Cable has the better deal for customers.

But the charges keep coming.

At least 90 percent of cable customers lease their cable modem from the cable company, and Comcast charges one of the highest lease rates in the industry – $8 a month. Time Warner Cable charges just under $6.

So I ask again, is this merger really in the public interest when broadband customers will be expected to pay more for less service?

Then there is the issue of usage caps, a creative way to put a toll on innovation. Usage caps make high bandwidth applications of the future untenable while also protecting cable television revenue.

If the PSC approves this transaction, the vast majority of New York will live under Comcast’s returning usage cap regime. There is simply no justification for usage limits on residential broadband service, particularly from a company as profitable as Comcast. Verizon FiOS does not have caps. Neither does Cablevision. But the majority of upstate New Yorkers won’t have the option of choosing either.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable lived through a two week public relations nightmare when they attempted an experiment with compulsory usage caps on customers in Rochester. After Stop the Cap! pushed back, then CEO Glenn Britt shelved the idea. Britt would later emphasize he now believed Time Warner should always have an unlimited use tier available for customers who want it.

Whether intended or not, Time Warner actually proved that was the right idea. In early 2012, the company introduced optional usage caps in return for discounts. They quickly discovered customers have no interest in having their Internet usage measured and limited, even for a discount. Out of 11 million Time Warner Cable broadband customers, only a few thousand have been convinced to enroll.

comcast sucksComcast doesn’t give customers a choice. In 2008, a strict 250GB usage cap was imposed on all residential customers with disconnect threats for violators. Since announcing it would re-evaluate that cap in May 2012, it now appears Comcast has settled on a new residential 300GB usage allowance gradually being reintroduced in Comcast service areas starting in southern U.S. markets.

Comcast executive vice president David Cohen cutely calls them “usage thresholds.” At Stop the Cap! we call it Internet Overcharging.

Cohen predicts Comcast will have broadband usage thresholds imposed on every city they serve within five years. Whether you call it a cap or a threshold, it is in fact a limit on how much Internet service you can consume without risking overlimit fees of $10 for each 50GB increment over your allowance.

Unlike Time Warner Cable, Comcast isn’t offering a discount with its usage cap, so those who use less will still pay the same they always have, proving again that usage caps don’t save customers money. (See below for clarification)

At the end of May I watched CNBC interview Comcast CEO Brian Roberts who implied during a discussion about Comcast’s usage caps that usage growth was impinging on the viability of its broadband business. Moments later, Time Warner Cable ran an ad emphasizing its broadband service has no usage caps. Both companies are making plenty of money from broadband.

This merger is bad news for customers faced with Comcast’s legendary bad service, its forthcoming usage caps, or the higher prices it charges. Even promised innovations like their much touted X1 set top platform comes with a gotcha Comcast routinely forgets to mention. Customers have to pay a $99 installation fee.

Stop the Cap! will submit a more comprehensive filing with the PSC outlining all of our objections to this merger, and there are several more. We invite anyone in the audience to visit stopthecap.com for this and other matters related to cable television and broadband. We appreciate being invited to share our views with the Commission and hope to bring a consumer perspective to this important development in our shared telecommunications future. I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/TWC News Hearing on Comcast 6-16-14.mp4

Time Warner Cable News covered the Public Service Commission hearing in Buffalo, which included testimony from Stop the Cap!’s Phillip Dampier. Also appearing was a representative from the National Black Chamber of Commerce advocating that telecom companies merge as fast as possible. The Chamber has received significant support from Comcast for several years now and representatives routinely testify in favor of Comcast’s business initiatives. (2:30)

Clarification: Comcast has different trials in different cities:

Nashville, Tennessee: 300 GB per month with $10/50GB overlimit fee;

Tucson, Arizona: Economy Plus through Performance XFINITY Internet tiers: 300 GB. Blast! Internet tier: 350 GB; Extreme 50 customers: 450 GB; Extreme 105: 600 GB. $10/50GB overlimit fee;

Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee and Charleston, South Carolina: 300 GB per month with $10/50GB; XFINITY Internet Economy Plus customers can choose to enroll in the Flexible-Data Option to receive a $5.00 credit on their monthly bill and reduce their data usage plan from 300 GB to 5 GB. If customers choose this option and use more than 5 GB of data in any given month, they will not receive the $5.00 credit and will be charged an additional $1.00 for each gigabyte of data used over the 5 GB included in the Flexible-Data Option;

Fresno, California, Economy Plus customers also have the option of enrolling in the Flexible-Data Option.

Comcast suggested customers can enroll in a cheaper usage plan in some of these markets. Yes they can, but only if they downgrade to Economy Plus service which offers speeds only up to 3Mbps. Their $5 discount is not available on any other plan.

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Thoughts on the NY Public Service Commission’s Information Meeting in Buffalo on Comcast-TWC Merger

Phillip "The new unofficial spokesman of Time Warner Cable?" Dampier

Phillip “The new unofficial spokesperson for Time Warner Cable?” Dampier

I testified last evening at the Buffalo Public Information Meeting held by the New York Public Service Commission on the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

The regulator invited four witnesses to testify about the merger last evening. The other three:

  • Mark E. Reilly, Comcast’s senior vice president of government affair, northeast division (for);
  • Aaron Bartley, executive director of PUSH Buffalo (against);
  • Christine Carr, executive director of Computers for Children (neutral).

The meeting was sparsely attended with only about two dozen in the audience, a good number of those arriving from Rochester. Also in attendance were groups with direct financial connections to Comcast, some partly disclosed during the evening, others not. Readers will not be surprised they were strongly in favor of the merger. Common Cause was represented and was clearly against the merger, although their representative also had harsh words for Time Warner Cable.

Niagara County Legislator David E. Godfrey (R-Wilson) and Orleans County Legislator Lynne M. Johnson (R-Lyndonville), representing the Niagara Orleans Regional Alliance, spoke on behalf of rural New Yorkers who lack broadband service. Neither went on record opposing the merger but seemed to suggest its approval be tied to a rural broadband solution. The record on successfully pulling that off in earlier deals has been mixed at best. The cable industry treats its Return On Investment formulas like a biblical text. If expanding service isn’t going to make the companies money in the short term, it is very unlikely to happen. We believe New York’s broadband subsidy program is a better deal for consumers if it means keeping Comcast out of New York.

The audience was almost entirely silent during the event and it wrapped up earlier than originally planned. Buffalo seemed less engaged on broadband issues than I would have expected. Had the hearing been held in Rochester, I have no doubt the audience would have been far larger. Broadband matters in Rochester have always drawn crowds and significant news coverage. One Buffalo resident offered that the PSC chose its meeting location poorly — on “an out of the way” college campus in Amherst now in summer session that charges for parking (although we did park for free). Others have told us the meetings were poorly advertised. Thankfully, the PSC is keeping the record open for comments in writing and by phone.

The strongest contrast of views came from testimony from Mr. Reilly and myself, although the meeting was not configured as a debate.

Reilly

Reilly

Mr. Reilly did not seem well-informed about specifics regarding Comcast’s products and pricing. He stumbled through incomplete answers when asked directly (twice) to compare Comcast’s prices against Time Warner Cable. Unfortunately, the question and answer session did not allow for interjection from other witnesses, because if it did, I was more than ready to help Mr. Reilly answer that question because I brought the rate cards for both companies with me. Perhaps he did not want to answer, because as the evidence clearly shows, Comcast costs more.

He also implied Comcast had widely deployed up to 505Mbps broadband service in its service area. Speeds of 300-500Mbps are offered only to a limited number of customers that can, number one afford the high asking price ($300/month plus installation fee) and second are passed by Comcast’s fiber or Metro Ethernet networks.

We also disagreed over usage caps. Reilly claimed the average Comcast customer used just 17GB a month. Comcast’s own website claims median monthly data usage is 20-25GB per month. But according to Digital Trends, the average family with Internet-only service uses 212GB of data each month — more than seven times those who watch traditional television. That is because after cutting cable-TVs cord, they are watching shows over their broadband connection. That number is rising, and fast. Over the four years Comcast had a nationwide cap, it did not adjust it upwards even once to account for broadband growth.

Independent analysis from Sandvine found that Internet users, in general, are accessing increasingly larger amounts of data. The overall mean usage on North American fixed-access networks (as opposed to mobile networks) was 51.4 GB in March, which is up from the 44.5 GB noted in Sandvine’s most recent previous study. Cord-cutters as a whole now dominate network usage, accounting for a 54-percent majority of total monthly network traffic. Cord-cutters are also responsible for some of the cable industry’s biggest revenue challenges with their television packages.

The old industry meme that usage caps affect only a tiny minority of customers was also trotted out. We did not have the opportunity to ask, “if only a tiny percentage of customers exceed their allowance, why bother with usage caps at all?”

Time Warner Cable was not represented at the meeting, and in an ironic twist, that left me as their unofficial spokesbooster. In fact, nobody seemed aware of Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program which is delivering faster, more affordable Internet access than Comcast offers over its cable broadband network without the threat of looming usage caps.

Jump through hoops for $9.95 Internet

Jump through hoops for $9.95 Internet

Internet affordability emerged as a major topic last evening. Predictably Comcast touted its $9.95 Internet Essentials program without mentioning its highly restrictive pre-qualification requirements:

The program is only available to households that (i) are located where Comcast offers Internet service; (ii) have at least one child who receives free/reduced rate school lunches through the National School Lunch Program (the “NSLP”) and as confirmed annually while enrolled in the program; (iii) do not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment; and (iv) have not subscribed to any Comcast Internet service within the last ninety (90) days (sections 1(i)-(iv) collectively are defined as “Eligibility Criteria”). The program will accept new customers for three (3) full school years, unless extended at the sole election of Comcast. Comcast reserves the right to establish enrollment periods at the beginning of each academic year in which it accepts new customers that may limit the period of time each year in which you have to enroll in the program.

2. In order to confirm your eligibility for the program, Comcast will need to verify that your children receive free/reduced rate school lunches through the NSLP in the initial enrollment year and each subsequent year you are enrolled in the program. In order to confirm eligibility, participants in the program will be required to provide copies of official documents establishing that a child in the household is currently receive free/reduced rate school lunches through the NSLP. Each year you will be required to reconfirm your household’s current eligibility by providing Comcast or its authorized agent with up-to-date documentation. If you fail to provide documentation proving your eligibility in the program, you will be deemed no longer eligible to participate in the program.

3. You will no longer be eligible to participate in the program if (i) you no longer have at least one child living in your household who receives free/reduced rate school lunches under the NSLP; (ii) you fail to maintain your Comcast account in good standing; (iii) Comcast ceases to provide the Covered Service to your location; or (iv) your account opened under the program is closed. A change in address may result in your account being closed, even if you continue to receive Comcast services at a different address. Program participation also may be terminated if the Covered Service is upgraded, altered or changed by you for any reason. If you are no longer eligible for the program, but continue to receive the Covered Service from Comcast, regular rates, and any other applicable terms and conditions will apply to the Covered Service.

In brief, you can only qualify if you don’t have Comcast Internet service already. If you do, Comcast demands you stay without Comcast Internet service for at least 90 days before applying (good luck making that work). This is nothing more than a revenue protection mechanism for Comcast so that customers don’t downgrade to discounted Internet. Only poor families with school age children qualify and Comcast intrusively re-verifies eligibility regularly. Had a past due bill in the past or loss/stolen equipment? You are not qualified. Miss a payment? Comcast can kick you off the program. Try to upgrade any part of your Comcast package? You are done with Internet Essentials. Move to a new address? Your Internet discount isn’t going with you.

John Randall from the Roosevelt Institute came to a similar conclusion:

Comcast’s Internet Essentials program does more to benefit Comcast’s customer acquisition, public relations, and lobbying departments than to help people in America who need high-speed Internet access at a reasonable price. The reality is that the program is a cleverly designed customer acquisition program that benefits Comcast’s bottom line.

It was also a cynical way to help Comcast win approval of its merger with NBCUniversal. Comcast held back the program until they could use it as a political chip in their merger lobbying campaign. As we reported back in 2012:

In 2009, Comcast insiders were hard at work on a discount program for the disadvantaged who could not afford Comcast’s regular prices for broadband service. But the program was stalled at the direction of Cohen, who wanted it to be a chip with regulators to win approval of its acquisition of NBC-Universal. The program, sure to be popular among advocates of the digitally disadvantaged, was a key part of approving the $30 billion deal.

“I held back because I knew it may be the type of voluntary commitment that would be attractive to the chairman [of the FCC],” Cohen said in a recent interview.

You would probably take this used car to a mechanic before deciding whether to buy. Why doesn't Comcast know the state of Time Warner's cable systems before they made an offer?

You would probably take this used car to a mechanic before deciding whether to buy. Why doesn’t Comcast know the state of Time Warner’s cable systems before they made a $45 billion offer?

Lastly, Mr. Reilly repeatedly confessed Comcast did not know the state of Time Warner Cable’s system and equipment and could not answer questions about precisely how much Comcast would invest in upgrades. He admitted Comcast’s part-acquisition of Adelphia Cable (its systems were largely divided up between Comcast and Time Warner) resulted in a major under-estimate of repair and upgrade work required.

If I buy a used car, I take it to an expert who can describe its current condition, alert me to likely service required both now and in the near future, and predictions about the vehicle’s anticipated lifetime. Apparently Comcast buys cable systems sight-unseen.

It was widely known in the industry at the time that troubled Adelphia Cable properties were neglected as the company neared bankruptcy. Imagine Adelphia as a metaphor for the state of Sears or K-Mart these days.

Two members of the Rigas family that founded Adelphia were convicted on multiple charges of securities fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and bank fraud. Prosecutors said the Rigases hid the fact the company was dangerously overextended with $2.3 billion in unreported debts. The family used the company’s bank accounts to finance a range of personal follies, including 100 pairs of slippers for Timothy Rigas and more than $3 million to produce a film by John Rigas’ daughter. We don’t know if the film was actually any good.

At the end of the evening in Buffalo, we were still left with the impression Comcast’s promises and commitments were vague and the much-touted benefits were much to be desired as soon as you began reading the fine print.

But frankly, I was disappointed by the low turnout. Consumers who do not want Comcast to be their next Internet provider -must- make their feelings known or that is precisely what is going to happen. We need all New Yorkers within travel distance of Albany or New York City to pack the PSC’s meeting rooms and have the courage to get up and speak. You can talk for 30 seconds or 3-5 minutes. You can also write or call the PSC if you want to extend your remarks in writing. New Yorkers have the power to throw a major wrench into a deal very few of us wants. But only if they make their voices heard:

Wednesday, June 18

SUNY Albany
Performing Arts Center
1400 Washington Avenue
Albany

6:00 pm: Informational Forum
7:30 pm: Public Statement Hearing

Thursday, June 19

NYS DPS Office
90 Church Street
New York

Please bring ID with you.

6:00 pm: Informational Forum
7:30 pm: Public Statement Hearing

Those who cannot attend or prefer not to speak at a public statement hearing may comment electronically to Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary, at [email protected] or by mail or delivery to the Secretary at the Public Service Commission, Three Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York 12223-1350. Comments should refer to “Case 14-M-0183, Petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc.”

Toll-Free Opinion Line: You may call the Commission’s Opinion Line at 1-800-335-2120. This number is set up to take comments about pending cases from in-state callers, 24 hours a day. Press “1″ to leave comments, mentioning the Comcast/Time Warner merger.

All comments provided through these alternative methods should be submitted, or mailed and postmarked, no later than July 31, 2014. All such statements and comments will become part of the record and be reported to the Commission for its consideration.

All submitted comments may be accessed on the Commission’s Web site at www.dps.ny.gov, by searching Case 14-M-0183.

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Glenn Britt, Former CEO of Time Warner Cable, Loses His Battle With Cancer

Phillip Dampier June 11, 2014 Editorial & Site News, Time Warner Cable No Comments
Britt

Britt

The former chairman and CEO of Time Warner Cable Glenn Britt lost his battle with cancer and died early this morning at his New York home. Britt was 65 and retired from Time Warner Cable at the end of December, 2013.

“Glenn left us with a legacy of innovation, integrity and inclusion,” Rob Marcus, Time Warner Cable’s current chairman & CEO, said in a statement. “We were guided for many years by his strong belief that a company must be willing to reinvent itself to be successful; his commitment to saying what you mean and doing what you say; and his conviction that a richly diverse workforce – diverse in ethnicity, culture, beliefs, perspectives, experiences and lifestyles – is necessary to best serve our diverse customers and communities.”

Although Britt’s leadership of Time Warner Cable was not always in the best interests of customers, he stood alone among major cable providers in supporting the availability of an unlimited use tier for broadband service. Britt presided over the company’s messy test of usage-based billing in the spring of 2009, but was willing to shelve the idea after customers protested. Britt’s idea of testing optional usage based plans attached to discounts helped expose the unpopularity of usage pricing after only a few thousand customers showed any interest.

Britt also complained loudly about increasing programming costs and threw a handful of networks off the lineup when they demonstrated a lack of value for money. But with so many programming contracts tied to carriage of other, less popular channels, Britt’s hands were effectively tied in dropping expensive sports and niche networks.

Despite our disagreements with Time Warner Cable, we are sorry to hear Britt has passed away and send our wishes to his family.

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Stop the Cap! Invited to Participate in N.Y. PSC Hearings on Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

nys psc

The New York State Public Service Commission has invited Stop the Cap! to testify about the impact of Comcast and Time Warner Cable merging on New York State residents.

Our testimony will concentrate on an examination of whether the merger is in the best interests of consumers and customers, focusing on issues ranging from usage caps to broadband speeds and pricing and the quality of service provided by both companies. Our remarks will also include a brief overview of the impact of the merger on competition in the state and whether New York would be better served by Comcast or an independent Time Warner Cable.

We will be testifying at the hearing in Buffalo, N.Y., on Monday June 16 starting at 6pm. The public is welcome to attend and will be free to make remarks during the open forum starting at 7:30pm. We urge all New York residents to attend this hearing or others to be held in Albany and New York City. Consumers have significant weight with the New York commissioners and your comments have often derailed the agendas of telecom companies in the state (the Fire Island Verizon Voice Link fiasco, Verizon’s service improvement oversight, stopping Time Warner Cable from cutting off late-paying phone customers on nights and weekends, etc.)

comcast twcIf a sufficient number of residents voice strong concerns about the merger, there is a significant chance New York regulators could place conditions on the merger making it untenable, or could reject it outright, which could torpedo the merger nationwide.

More information from the New York Public Service Commission:

The New York State Public Service Commission will be conducting a series of informational forums and public statement hearings on the petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc. allowing Comcast to acquire Time Warner Cable.

The informational forums will consist of presentations by Comcast and other invited parties on the proposed transaction and its likely impact on consumers in New York. The Administrative Law Judge, attending Commissioner and DPS Senior Staff may ask questions of the invited speakers.

Immediately following each informational forum, there will be a public statement hearing at which interested members of the public may offer their views about the Petition in person, before an Administrative Law Judge assigned by the Commission. A verbatim transcript of each hearing will be made for inclusion in the record of the case.

The informational forums and public statement hearings will take place at the following times and places:

Monday, June 16

SUNY Buffalo
Student Union Theater
106 Student Union
Buffalo, NY

We will post driving directions to the forum next week.

Those in or near greater Rochester should contact us and let us know you are attending. We may try to arrange car pooling if there is sufficient interest.

6:00 pm: Informational Forum
7:30 pm: Public Statement Hearing

Wednesday, June 18

SUNY Albany
Performing Arts Center
1400 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY

6:00 pm: Informational Forum
7:30 pm: Public Statement Hearing

Thursday, June 19

NYS DPS Office
90 Church Street
New York, NY

6:00 pm: Informational Forum
7:30 pm: Public Statement Hearing

It is not necessary to be present at the start of the hearing or to make an appointment in advance to speak. Persons interested in speaking will be asked to complete a card requesting time to speak when they arrive at the hearing, and will be called in the order in which the cards are received.

(Cartoon: Heller, Denver Post)

(Cartoon: Heller, Denver Post)

Speakers are not required to provide written copies of their comments.

The public statement hearings will be kept open until everyone wishing to speak has been heard or other reasonable arrangements have been made to include their comments in the record.

Disabled persons requiring special accommodations should contact the Department of Public Service’s Human Resource Management Office at (518) 474-2520 as soon as possible. TDD users may request a sign language interpreter by placing a call through the New York Relay Service at 711 to reach the Department of Public Service’s Human Resource Office at the (518) 474-2520 number. Individuals with difficulty understanding or reading English are encouraged to call the Commission at 1-800-342-3377 for free language assistance services regarding this notice.

Other Ways to Comment

Internet or Mail: Those who cannot attend or prefer not to speak at a public statement hearing may comment electronically to Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary, at [email protected] or by mail or delivery to the Secretary at the Public Service Commission, Three Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York 12223-1350. Comments should refer to “Case 14-M-0183, Petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc.”

Toll-Free Opinion Line: You may call the Commission’s Opinion Line at 1-800-335-2120. This number is set up to take comments about pending cases from in-state callers, 24 hours a day. Press “1″ to leave comments, mentioning the Comcast/Time Warner merger.

All comments provided through these alternative methods should be submitted, or mailed and postmarked, no later than July 31, 2014. All such statements and comments will become part of the record and be reported to the Commission for its consideration.

All submitted comments may be accessed on the Commission’s Web site at www.dps.ny.gov, by searching Case 14-M-0183. Many libraries offer free Internet access.

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New York Governor Orders Thorough Regulatory Review of Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

Cuomo

Cuomo

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has ordered the New York State Public Service to immediately start a thorough and detailed investigation into Comcast’s proposed purchase of Time Warner Cable, using new regulatory powers to reject any merger not in the “best interest” of Time Warner’s customers in New York.

“The State is taking a hands-on review of this merger to ensure that New Yorkers benefit,” Cuomo said. “The Public Service Commission’s actions will help protect consumers by demanding company commitments to strong service quality, affordability, and availability.”

New York implemented one of the nation’s strongest cable franchise laws in April that will now require the two cable operators to prove that any merger is in the public interest. An earlier law backed by the telecom industry put the burden of proof on the Commission to prove such transactions were not beneficial to the public.

Cuomo has requested the PSC check how the proposed merger will expand broadband in under-served areas and offer better broadband access to schools. The PSC will critically review the protections being offered to low income customers as well as how the proposed merger might impact consumer pricing and telecommunication competition overall.

PSC chair Audrey Zibelman said, “To determine whether the proposed transaction is in the public interest, the Commission will examine the proposal to ensure services the merged company would provide will be better than the service customers currently receive.”

comcast twcOne way to prove the merged company would not offer better service is to alert the Commission Comcast plans to reimpose usage caps on its customers while Time Warner Cable does not have any compulsory usage limits or usage billing.

Time Warner now serves 2.6 million subscribers in every major New York community: Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and the boroughs of Manhattan, Staten Island, Queens and parts of Brooklyn.

The PSC is likely to hold public forums across the state in June to hear the views of affected consumers, but the record is now open to written and telephoned comments from anyone interested in the merger.

There are several ways to provide your comments to the Commission. Comments should refer to: “Case 14-M-0183.”

Via the Internet or Mail: The public may send comments electronically to the Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary, at [email protected] or by mail or delivery to Secretary Burgess at the New York State Public Service Commission, Three Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York 12223-1350. Comments may also be entered directly into the case file by clicking on the “Post Comments” box at the top of the page.

Toll-Free Opinion Line: Individuals may choose to phone in comments by calling the Commission’s Opinion Line at 1 800-335-2120. This line is set up to receive in-state calls 24-hours a day. These calls are not transcribed, but a summary is provided to staff who will report to the Commission.

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