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Slow Broadband = Low Usage, Finds New Study

kcl-logoHow much you use the Internet is often a matter of how fast your broadband connection is, according to a new study.

King’s College London researchers found a clear correlation between bad broadband and low usage rates, as customers avoided high bandwidth apps like online video because they were frustrating or impossible to use. One analyst said the findings show rural areas are being “deprived of the full benefits of broadband.”

One of Britain’s most used apps is the BBC iPlayer, which streams live and on-demand programming from multiple BBC radio and television networks. It is a well-known bandwidth consumer, using a significant proportion of a customer’s broadband connection to deliver up to HD-quality video streams. The study found users in South Ayrshire, Ards, the Isle of Wight, the East Riding of Yorkshire, North Down and Midlothian were among the areas where people used iPlayer the least. It wasn’t because they didn’t want to. Those areas were identified by Ofcom, the British telecom regulator, as receiving some of the worst Internet speeds in the UK. Conversely, areas with robust broadband, including London, south Gloucestershire and Bristol, showed above average usage.

Dr. Sastry

Dr. Sastry

“It is clear that high-speed broadband is an important factor in the use of bandwidth-intensive applications such as BBC iPlayer,” said Dr. Nishanth Sastry, a senior lecturer at King’s College London and the lead researcher. “With technological advancements, it is likely that more services important to daily life will move online, yet there is a significant proportion of the population with inadequate broadband connections who won’t be able to access such services.”

Ian Watt, a telecommunications consultant with the analyst Ovum, said broadband speeds must get higher to assure users can watch HD video and simultaneously share their Internet connection with other members of the household.

“Recent Ovum research indicated a speed of 25Mbps was an appropriate target access speed to provide a high quality experience for video services,” Watt said. In the United States, 25Mbps is the current minimum speed to qualify as broadband, according to the most recent FCC definition.

The findings may also explain why U.S. broadband providers only capable of delivering relatively low-speed Internet access report lower average usage than those capable of providing service at or above 25Mbps. Those offering the fastest speeds are also the most likely to attract higher volumes of Internet traffic as customers take advantage of those speeds.

Spring 2016: An Update and Progress Report for Our Members

stcDear Members,

We have had a very busy winter and spring here at Stop the Cap! and we thought it important to update you on our efforts.

You may have noticed a drop in new content online over the last few months, and we’ve had some inquiries about it. The primary reason for this is the additional time and energy being spent to directly connect with legislators and regulators about the issues we are concerned about. Someone recently asked me why we spend a lot of time and energy writing exposés to an audience that almost certainly already agrees with us. If supporters were the only readers here, they would have a point. Stop the Cap! is followed regularly by legislators, regulators, public policy lobbyists, consumer groups, telecom executives, and members of the media. Our content is regularly cited in books, articles, regulatory filings, and in media reports. That is why we spend a lot of time and energy documenting our positions about data caps, usage billing, Net Neutrality, and the state of broadband in the United States and Canada.

A lengthy piece appearing here can easily take more than eight hours (sometimes longer) to put together from research to final publication. We feel it is critical to make sure this information gets into the hands of those that can help make a difference, whether they visit us on the web or not. So we have made an extra effort to inform, educate, and persuade decision-makers and reporters towards our point of view, helping to counter the well-funded propaganda campaigns of Big Telecom companies that regularly distort the issues and defend the indefensible.

Four issues have gotten most of our attention over the last six months:

  1. The Charter/Time Warner Cable/Bright House merger;
  2. Data cap traps and trials (especially those from Comcast, Blue Ridge, Cox, and Suddenlink);
  3. Cablevision/Altice merger;
  4. Frontier’s acquisition of Verizon landlines and that phone company’s upgrade plans for existing customers.

We’ve been successful raising important issues about the scarcity of benefits from telecom company mergers. In short, there are none of significance, unless you happen to be a Wall Street banker, a shareholder, or a company executive. The last thing an already-concentrated marketplace needs is more telecom mergers. We’re also continuing to expose just how nonsensical data caps and usage-based billing is for 21st century broadband providers. Despite claims of “fairness,” data caps are nothing more than cable-TV protectionism and the further exploitation of a broadband duopoly that makes it easy for Wall Street analysts to argue “there is room for broadband rate hikes” in North America. Stop the Cap! will continue to coordinate with other consumer groups to fight this issue, and we’ve successfully convinced at least some at the FCC that the excuses offered for data caps don’t hold water.

Dampier

Dampier

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s broadening of Charter’s voluntary three-year moratorium on data caps to a compulsory term as long as seven years sent a clear message to broadband providers that the jig is up — data caps are a direct threat to the emerging online video marketplace that might finally deliver serious competition to the current bloated and overpriced cable television package.

Wheeler’s actions were directly responsible for Comcast’s sudden generosity in more than tripling the usage allowance it has imposed on several markets across the south and midwest. But we won’t be happy until those compulsory data caps are gone for good.

More than 10,000 Comcast customers have already told the FCC in customer complaints that Comcast’s data caps are egregious and unfair. Considering how unresponsive Comcast has been towards its own customers that despise data caps of any kind, Comcast obviously doesn’t care what their customers think. But they care very much about what the FCC thinks about regulatory issues like data caps and set-top box monopolies. How do we know this? Because Comcast’s chief financial officer this week told the audience attending the JPMorgan Technology, Media and Telecom Broker Conference Comcast always pays attention to regulator headwinds.

“I think it’s our job to make sure we pivot and react accordingly and make sure the company thrives whatever the outcome is on some of the regulatory proposals that are out there,” said Comcast’s Mike Cavanagh. We suspect if Chairman Wheeler goes just one step further and calls on ISPs to permanently ditch data caps and usage billing, many would. We will continue to press him to do exactly that.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Other companies are also still making bad decisions for their customers. Besides Comcast’s ongoing abusive data cap experiment, Cox’s ongoing data cap trial in Cleveland, Ohio is completely unacceptable and has no justification. The usage allowances provided are also unacceptably stingy. Suddenlink, now owned by Altice, should not even attempt to alienate their customers, particularly as the cable conglomerate seeks new acquisition opportunities in the United States in the future. We find it telling that Altice feels justified retaining usage caps on customers in smaller communities served by Suddenlink while denying they would even think of doing the same in Cablevision territory in suburban New York City. Both Suddenlink and Cablevision have upgraded their networks to deliver faster speed service. What is Altice’s excuse about why it treats its urban and rural customers so differently? It frankly doesn’t have one. We’ll be working to convince Altice it is time for Suddenlink’s data caps to be retired for good.

We will also be turning more attention back on the issue of community broadband, which continues to be the only competitive alternative to the phone and cable companies most Americans will likely ever see. The dollar-a-holler lobbyists are still writing editorials and articles claiming “government-owned networks” are risky and/or a failure, without bothering to disclose the authors have a direct financial relationship to the phone and cable companies that don’t want the competition. We will be pressing state lawmakers to ditch municipal broadband bans and not to enact any new ones.

We will also continue to watch AT&T and Verizon — two large phone companies that continue to seek opportunities to neglect or ditch their wired services either by decommissioning rural landlines or selling parts of their service areas to companies like Frontier. AT&T specializes in bait-n-switch bills in state legislatures that promise “upgrades” in return for further deregulation and permission to switch off rural service in favor of wireless alternatives. That’s great for AT&T, but a potential life-threatening disaster for rural America.

We continue to abide by our mandate: fighting data caps and consumption billing and promoting better broadband, regardless of what company or community supplies it.

As always, thank you so much for your financial support (the donate button that sustains us entirely is to your right) and for your engagement in the fight against unfair broadband pricing and policies. Broadband is not just a nice thing to have. It is an essential utility just as important as clean water, electricity, natural gas, and telephone service.

Phillip M. Dampier
Founder & President, Stop the Cap!

Charter Completes Time Warner Cable/Bright House Merger Today

charter twc bhAmerica has a new second largest cable conglomerate with 17 million customers and a new name.

Charter Communications formally completed their $55 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks today, creating a new cable giant that more closely rivals number one Comcast in size and scope.

The approval came despite warnings from a team at the FCC assigned to review the impact of the merger.

The Deal is Likely to Trigger an Abusive Money Party at the Expense of Customers… Merger Approved

“We conclude that the transaction will materially alter [Charter’s] incentives and abilities in ways that are potentially harmful to the public interest,” an FCC report about the impact of the merger states.

The FCC concluded the deal could become an enormous money-maker for Charter and its investors through the eventual metering of online usage. There are strong incentives, according to the FCC, for Charter “to impose data caps and usage-based prices in order to make watching online video more expensive, and in particular more expensive than subscribing to a traditional pay-TV bundle” after its voluntary commitment not to impose data caps expires.

Existing Charter customers warn this isn't the cable company you are looking for.

Existing Charter customers warn this isn’t the cable company you are looking for.

The FCC is also certain Charter will enjoy considerable pricing power with its near broadband monopoly at speeds of 25Mbps or higher. That means one thing: substantial rate increases unchecked by competition.

Despite the gloomy prospects, FCC commissioners found a “compromise” that will impose consumer-friendly conditions on the merger, but will expire between 5-7 years from today. After that, in the absence of robust competition from a player like Google Fiber, it will be open season on broadband customers.

Consumer advocates were less than pleased.

“There’s nothing about this massive merger that serves the public interest. There’s nothing about it that helps make the market for cable TV and Internet services more affordable and competitive for Americans,” said Free Press president and CEO Craig Aaron. “Customers of the newly merged entity will be socked with higher prices as Charter attempts to pay off the nearly $27 billion debt load it took on to finance this deal. The wasted expense of this merger is staggering. For the money Charter spent to make this happen it could have built new competitive broadband options for tens of millions of people. Now these billions of dollars will do little more than line the pockets of Time Warner Cable’s shareholders and executives. CEO Rob Marcus will walk away with a $100 million golden parachute.”

[Image: WSJ.com]

In fact, the golden parachutes will extend far beyond retiring Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus. According to a regulatory filing, Marcus’ contract was written to allow him to sell the company and effectively be “terminated without cause,” which activates the equivalent of a Powerball Powerplay. Marcus will automatically qualify to receive several years’ worth of his original salary, expected bonuses, and compensation in stock for showing himself to the exit. That alone is expected to exceed $100 million. Marcus’ ancillary benefits also add up, and will be eventually disclosed in future filings with the Securities & Exchange Commission.

Marcus’ colleagues won’t leave empty-handed either. The chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Time Warner Cable could each get $32 million in compensation. The general counsel of Time Warner will retire with around $22 million and some mid-level executives could leave with around $18 million each.

Familar names on Wall Street will also enjoy proceeds worthy of Donald Trump Lotto. Everyone’s favorite financial casino Goldman Sachs is sitting pretty with millions in fees advising Charter on both its acquisitions of Bright House and Time Warner Cable. UBS helped lead the financing of the whopping $55 billion deal on behalf of Charter and is the sole financial adviser to Advance/Newhouse, which owns Bright House. That means big bucks for the Swiss bank.

fishThe Small Swallow the Big

Charter was a much smaller, and not well-regarded cable company before it financed the acquisition of two of its non-competing rivals. In fact, Time Warner Cable was already the country’s second largest cable operator before the acquisition, and Charter will have to contend with managing a cable operator much larger than itself. Charter executives have hinted it will take many months to manage that transition, with the eventual retirement of both the Time Warner Cable and Bright House brands, in favor of Charter and its Spectrum product suite.

Those not already Charter customers will be subjected to a publicity campaign to manage the introduction of Charter in the best possible light, despite the fact current Charter customers rate the cable operator as mediocre in consumer surveys. Its reputation is well-known, especially in the middle of the country where many Charter systems operate.

Charter will continue to be led by CEO Thomas Rutledge, who will also hold the titles of president and chairman of the board. But the man behind-the-scenes expected to have a substantial amount of influence in how Charter is run in the future is ex-Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) CEO Dr. John Malone through his entity Liberty Broadband, which will control three seats on Charter’s board of directors, including one for Malone himself. Malone advocated for Rutledge to become CEO of Charter after the cable company emerged from bankruptcy reorganization in 2009.

makeoverHow to Remake Your Image: Change the Name

Renaming Time Warner Cable isn’t likely to fix the scandalously low regard its customers hold the company. But it couldn’t hurt either.

“It’s not surprising Charter wants to rebrand Time Warner Cable,” said David VanAmburg, managing director of the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which regularly rates Time Warner Cable (and often Comcast trading places) the worst companies in the country. “Charter has scored better than Time Warner Cable in recent years, so it could bode well for Time Warner Cable customers. But the data suggests leaps-and-bounds improvement could be difficult.”

ACSI graded Charter 57 in 2015. Time Warner Cable managed a 58 — both effectively failing grades on a scale of 0-100.

What kinds of services Charter is now compelled to offer is dependent on the state of the cable system serving each area and if regulators extracted concessions on the state level to guarantee better service. The state that worked the hardest to compel upgrades and insist on a more customer-friendly transition is New York, where the Public Service Commission forced concessions to upgrade all of the state and allow customers to keep their current Time Warner Cable plans if they wished.

“On Day One, customers of (Time Warner) won’t really see any changes,” Charter spokesman Justin Venech told the Albany Times Union. “Time Warner Cable and Charter Spectrum will continue offering their current suite of advanced products and services to customers in their markets.”

“As we go all digital market by market, we will launch the Spectrum brand product, pricing and packaging, and Charter will also launch Spectrum in those markets in which (Time Warner has) already gone all digital,” Venech said. “We will be communicating directly with customers, letting them know when they will start seeing the Spectrum brand. In addition, when our Spectrum packages launch, if a customer likes the package they are currently in, they will be able to stay in that package.”

Analysis: FCC, Justice Dept. Ready to Approve Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House Merger

charter twc bhThe Justice Department and FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler are prepared to accept a massive $55 billion merger between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks, but at a cost of stringent conditions governing the creation of America’s second largest cable conglomerate.

In a joint agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the FCC, Charter executives have agreed to do nothing to harm online video competition or implement usage caps or usage-based billing for at least seven years. Charter will also be forced to broaden its cable service to reach at least two million additional homes, some already served by other providers, setting the stage for potential head-to-head competition between two closely-matched competitors.

The deal will directly affect 19.4 million customers of the three companies, which will eventually combine under the Charter Communications brand name and marketing philosophy — selling customers simplified television, phone, and broadband packages that reduce customer options. Little is expected to change for the rest of 2016, however, with Time Warner Cable and Bright House likely to continue operations under existing packaging and pricing until sometime in 2017. Technicians told Stop the Cap! earlier in April they were told not to acquire new outfits with the Time Warner Cable logo and branding, and the cable company is also making preparations to gradually repaint its massive fleet of vans and service vehicles with the Charter logo.

President Obama Expected To Nominate Rep. Mel Watt For Director Of The Federal Housing Finance Agency

Wheeler

Most of the concessions seemed to have originated from FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, who has been one of the strongest proponents of online video competition, improved broadband, and direct head-to-head competition between cable operators. The Justice Department focused its attention on challenging the cable industry’s almost-united front against online video competition. Under former CEO Glenn Britt’s leadership, Time Warner Cable was considered “the industry leader” in contract language that guaranteed it would share the lowest price negotiated by any other cable, satellite, telephone company or online video provider. Those agreements also often included clauses that restricted programmers from putting streamed programming online for non-subscribers. That explains why cord-cutters frequently run into barriers watching networks online unless they can prove they are already a pay-TV customer.

Under conditions from the Justice Department, those sections of agreements with Charter, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks will become invalid and unenforceable. But that doesn’t mean restrictions will disappear overnight. Comcast, Cox, Cablevision, and other cable companies also enforce similar conditions which will be unaffected by the Justice Department decision, at least for now. But the precedent has sent shudders across an industry concerned about protecting its still-profitable cable TV business, under assault from increased programming costs and a greater reluctance by consumers to tolerate annual rate increases.

analysisGene Kimmelman, chief executive of consumer interest group Public Knowledge, told the Wall Street Journal the conditions were “a clear signal to the content industry and entertainment companies that the enforcement agencies are giving them a green light to grow online video and experiment as a direct competitor to cable, and they will prevent cable from interfering.”

Of greater interest to consumers are the deal conditions proposed by Chairman Wheeler. As Stop the Cap! reported almost a year ago, sources told us the FCC would “get serious” about data caps if companies like Comcast imposed them on customers nationwide. At the moment, Comcast is testing caps affecting just under 15% of their total customer base, already generating thousands of customer complaints with the FCC in response. Although Charter promised three years of cap-free service, Wheeler and his staff obviously felt it was important to send a message that they agree with cap opponents that data caps are more about preventing competition than technical need. By making long term data cap prohibition a core part of a settlement agreement with Charter, Wheeler sends a strong message to Comcast that the FCC isn’t drinking cable industry Kool Aid about the rationale for usage caps and usage billing.

Some consumer groups worry Charter has overextended itself in debt over-acquiring other cable companies.

Some consumer groups worry Charter has overextended itself in debt over-acquiring other cable companies.

“New Charter will not be permitted to charge usage-based prices or impose data caps,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Second, New Charter will be prohibited from charging interconnection fees, including to online video providers, which deliver large volumes of internet traffic to broadband customers. Additionally, the Department of Justice’s settlement with Charter both outlaws video programming terms that could harm online video distributors (OVDs) and protects OVDs from retaliation– an outcome fully supported by the order I have circulated today. All three seven-year conditions will help consumers by benefitting OVD competition. The cumulative impact of these conditions will be to provide additional protection for new forms of video programming services offered over the Internet. Thus, we continue our close working relationship with the Department of Justice on this review.”

Wheeler is also intent on proving there is a viable market for cable operators overbuilding into new territories. To prove that point, Wheeler has gotten an agreement that Charter will introduce service to one million new customers where it will intrude on another operator’s service area and directly compete with it. The other provider has to already offer service at 25Mbps or greater. That could mean Charter competing directly with a cable company like Comcast or building service into an area already served by Verizon FiOS, AT&T U-verse, or another provider offering something beyond traditional DSL.

Copps

Copps

Another million customers just outside of areas served by the three cable companies may also finally get service, as Charter will be compelled to wire at least another million homes for cable service for the first time.

Despite the conditions, many consumer groups and former public officials remain unhappy the merger won approval.

“Creating broadband monopoly markets raises consumer costs, kills competition, and points a gun at the heart of the news and information that democracy depends upon,” said Michael Copps, a former Democratic commissioner at the FCC and a special adviser to the Common Cause public interest group. “FCC approval of this unnecessary merger would be an abandonment of its public interest responsibilities.”

“There’s nothing about this massive merger that serves the public interest. There’s nothing about it that helps make the market for cable TV and Internet services more affordable and competitive for Americans,” said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press. “Customers of the newly merged entity will be socked with higher prices as Charter attempts to pay off the nearly $27 billion debt load it took on to finance this deal. The wasted expense of this merger is staggering. For the money Charter spent to make this happen it could have built new competitive broadband options for tens of millions of people. Now these billions of dollars will do little more than line the pockets of Time Warner Cable’s shareholders and executives. CEO Rob Marcus will walk away with a $100 million golden parachute.”

Wheeler’s draft order is likely to receive a final vote in the coming days before the Commission. The only remaining holdout is California’s telecom regulator, which is expected to reach a decision by May 10.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CBS All-Access Not Exactly a Runaway Success; Discounts Coming

Phillip Dampier March 9, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 5 Comments

cbs all accessAttempts by CBS to get consumers to pay the network $5.99 a month to stream ad-filled network shows, classics, and local affiliates has proven less compelling than the network originally thought.

CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves admitted to investors “All-Access” has not met the company’s expectations, even after CBS added options to watch several of its network affiliates around the country.

Speaking at the Deutsche Bank Technology, Media & Telecom conference in Palm Beach, Fla., Moonves said CBS was considering discounting the service, especially if customers bundle it with Showtime’s standalone online video service, now priced at $10.99 a month.

Moonves

Moonves

Instead of relying entirely on other companies to create so-called “skinny bundles” of pared down video packages offered as an alternative of one-size-fits-all cable TV, CBS has kept some of its online video offerings in-house under the All-Access brand, which launched in October 2014.

But convincing the public to pay $6 a month for ad-laced shows is proving as much of a challenge for CBS as it had been for Hulu’s Plus option. Moonves suggested CBS is considering adding a premium ad-free option like the one Hulu offers now, for an additional $4 a month, and is also trying to get the National Football League to allow NFL game streams on All-Access in the future.

CBS’ best chance of success for its subscription service may come from offering original shows exclusively to subscribers, particularly a new Star Trek series premiering in January. Moonves predicted that would help make All-Access an “extraordinary success.”

“Next year it’s going to add substantially to our bottom line,” he added.

Moonves called cord-cutting “inevitable,” as consumers gravitate away from traditional cable television packages.

“Someone is going to figure out how to do this and how to give people what they want […] and not for $100 a month,” Moonves said. “It will [sell] for $35-39 dollars a month [and] you’ll get the 12 to 15 or 18 channels that you care about, and not the Karate Channel for 25¢ a month. That doesn’t make sense anymore.”

Netflix’s $5 Billion Budget for Content Guarantees Program Spending Arms Race

Phillip Dampier March 3, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 2 Comments

Total-Cable-Rate-increase-FCC6Years of broadcast and cable networks relying on cheap reality TV fare, game shows, and lurid news magazines to save money are coming to an end as media companies realize the only way to stop the viewing shift to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon is to create better programming viewers want to see.

With online video services like Netflix spending millions to create original content like House of Cards and Fuller House, viewers are becoming disenchanted with shoveled reality fare and reruns littering basic cable networks.

A decade ago, cable networks started pushing the envelope on their programming lineups to boost ratings. Sober educational history documentaries on The History Channel began to make way in 2008 for reality shows like Pawn Stars and Ax Men, along with dubious pseudo-documentaries like Ancient Aliens and UFO Hunters. Consistent weather forecast information on The Weather Channel often had to wait for various weather chasing reality shows and other long form programming. Even The Learning Channel ditched educational programming as early as 2001 to feature “lifestyle” shows maligned and lampooned by critics as “freak show” television.

Broadcast networks suffering through an interminable advertising recession increasingly ditched scripted dramas for much cheaper reality and game shows. Even though some of these shows are considered popular, the total number of households viewing them have been in decline for years.

With the advent of series and movies created and funded by online video providers, traditional television networks and cable outlets have realized they can no longer rely on Law & Order reruns and shows like The Real Housewives of Dallas to keep viewers. They have to spend more money to create quality new shows.

bill shockBloomberg News reports networks hit the panic button after learning Netflix intends to spend almost $5 billion this year alone on programming, far more than any broadcast or cable network would ever consider.

The new strategy in response: spend, spend, spend.

“All these companies have been raising the amount they’re spending on programming pretty consistently,” said Doug Creutz, an analyst with Cowen & Co. “TV is losing audiences, and you’re trying to have new stuff to keep audiences engaged with your programming.”

Discovery Communications, Viacom and Starz are among those planning spending boosts to deliver better programming to compete. Although that may be great news for television aficionados, consumers are likely to be handed the bill in the form of higher cable rates to cover the “increased programming expenses.”

The large broadcast networks, movie studios, and cable networks may have created this problem for themselves after they began dramatically boosting the cost of licensing movies and TV shows for ventures like Netflix, in hopes of limiting its growth while also profiting handsomely from their deep content libraries. In response to growing restrictions on licensing content, Netflix embarked on a plan to create some of their own exclusive content instead. Many entertainment executives did not take Netflix seriously until the arrival of House of Cards, a series that could easily have been created and financed by any major network.

Other online video companies quickly followed suit, often using the British TV model of creating affordable, high quality mini-series that might include 8-10 episodes per season instead of the usual two dozen common on American networks. Co-productions with content-starved networks abroad also helped share expenses, secure talent, and move into something beyond conventional programming.

Cable networks have also had increasing success creating shows not just for the American market, but also for export to the rest of the English-speaking world, particularly Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, and Canada.

discoverySome Wall Street analysts like Rich Greenfield at BTIG Research have gone as far as predicting the traditional cable TV bundle is threatened with extinction as cost conscious viewers continue to abandon linear/live television for on-demand content like that offered by Netflix instead. That has delivered a three-way punch: pressures on revenue as program creation spending increases, growing cord-cutting, and cable rate inflation cable executives are increasingly desperate to control.

The day the 500 channel cable package model falls apart may not be too far off. The cost of programming at Discovery’s cable networks, other than sports, has grown 55% from 2013 to 2016, according to projections from researcher MoffettNathanson.

Discovery is using the money to push aside some of its near-endless reality TV fare for scripted programming, developing 10 shows with Lions Gate Entertainment. Viacom, another major cable programmer, saw expenses rise more than 25%, in part to create a new night of programming on VH1, doubling animation at Nickelodeon, and budgeting for more special events programming on BET. Some smaller cable operators were not impressed with the asking price and dropped all of Viacom’s networks from their cable systems.

Starz-LogoStarz, dwarfed by HBO and Showtime, is spending $250 million on its own original programming including Outlander, Survivor’s Remorse and Power. Subscribers who want more will get it as Starz increases budgets enough to allow producers to create 80-90 original episodes this year, up from 75 in 2015. To introduce subscribers to the shows, Starz commonly offers cable subscribers free trials as part of ongoing cable company promotions.

If you run an entertainment studio, are employed in the entertainment field, or can act, these are good times. In fact, demand for scripted shows may be outpacing the capacity of studios to produce them.

John Landgraf, CEO of Fox’s FX Networks, asserted there’s “too much TV,” noting over 400 scripted shows were filmed last year.

Until the late 1980s, most of the demand for scripted shows came from NBC, CBS, ABC, and the then-new FOX, because they were the only ones with enough money to afford the high production costs. Today, cable subscribers foot the bill for most cable network original shows, causing cable rates to spiral. With Netflix ready to spend at least $11 billion on programming over the next five years, the days of rate hikes are far from over.

Sanders, Warren Raise Doubts About Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House Merger

Sens. Sanders and Warren

Sens. Sanders and Warren

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind.-Vt.) has expressed serious doubts about the claimed consumer benefits of a multi-billion dollar cable company merger between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks.

In a joint letter with Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Sanders told FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Attorney General Loretta Lynch the deal would create a “nationwide broadband duopoly, with New Charter and Comcast largely in control of the essential wires that connect most Americans to how we commonly communicate and conduct commerce in the 21st century.”

The senators explained that “broadband service is not a luxury; it is an economic and social necessity for consumers and businesses.”

The five Democrats believe the merger could have negative effects on consumer choice, competition, and innovation in broadband and online video. With Comcast and New Charter controlling at least two-thirds of the high-speed broadband lines in the country, Sanders and his colleagues are concerned this will allow Comcast and New Charter to raise rates while reducing broadband innovation, allowing the United States to fall even further behind other industrialized nations with superior broadband.

The senators asked the Department of Justice and the FCC to carefully evaluate how the proposed deal could impact the marketplace.

“New Charter must not only prove that this deal would not harm consumers, but they must also demonstrate that it would actually benefit them and promote the public interest,” the senators argued.

This week, New Jersey regulators approved the merger transaction in that state, leaving California as the last major challenge for Charter executives. Federal regulators are not expected to rule on the deal until the spring or summer.

Bad Karma: Sprint and Data Caps Kill Neverstop Plan; Customers Claim Bait & Switch

Karma's very expensive $150 startup equipment package.

Karma’s very expensive $150 startup equipment package.

After customers spent $150 on a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot device promising unlimited LTE wireless Internet access for $50 a month, Karma – the company offering the service – has put a stop to its “Neverstop” plan four months after introducing it.

“Karma is a bitch,” complained one customer who spent $250 with Karma trying to find a replacement for Clear’s now discontinued WiMAX service for his rural home. “After spending hundreds for nothing, it should be obvious to everyone why Karma turned off the comment section on its website.”

Neverstop customers have been through a rough ride during the brief life of the service, which started last November. Customers were promised unlimited 5Mbps service for $50 a month, after buying the $150 in required hardware. But not long after the plan was introduced, customers discovered their speeds were throttled to as low as 1.5Mbps to discourage customers from excessively using the service.

Insiders tell us the likely cause of the plan’s demise is Sprint, the wireless company Karma contracts with to offer the service. Sprint reseller contracts are closely guarded, but there is a clear track record of wireless companies taking action against resellers that place unexpected burdens on their networks. Millenicom, a similar provider that won customers largely through word-of-mouth, saw its unlimited offerings curtailed long before Karma announced its Neverstop plan, because wireless companies didn’t appreciate the fact some Millenicom customers relied entirely on the service for Internet access in the home.

Karma-Neverstop

Karma sold a plan that encouraged heavier data usage and then punished customers for using it.

Karma officials claim most of their customers never exceeded 15GB a month, but apparently enough did to get Sprint’s attention. Karma’s own internal research found that despite its insistence Neverstop was not a home broadband replacement, at least 60% of their customers used it exactly for that purpose. A handful of customers ran up hundreds of gigabytes of usage from online video, cloud storage/backup, and file trading. But a larger percentage used the service because they had no access to DSL or cable broadband, and used about as much data as the average household – an amount deemed by Sprint and/or Karma as “unsustainable.” Karma quickly moved to impose universal speed reductions on the service, dropping from 5Mbps to 1.5Mbps in an effort to curtail usage.

“Bait and switch,” complained Shannon Krakosky on Karma’s Facebook page. Many of the company’s earliest customers found the throttles arrived just as their 45-day return window for the expensive equipment expired, saddling them with a $150 paperweight. The company’s Black Friday offer inspired still more customers to sign up at a discount, only to find the equipment backordered, arriving at around the same time the traffic reduction speed throttles were announced.

Just one week before the speed reductions took effect, new customers were enticed with a year-end signup offer, further increasing traffic loads. Then customers received this:

[We] were surprised to learn how many of you are also using it heavily at home. We’ve seen lots of you binge watch Netflix in HD all day, back up your hard drives over the internet, and even connect your Xboxes through ingenious means. It’s a glimpse of how the internet should be, and we love it… but it’s putting a strain on the service and it’s not what the product is meant for today.​

After spending $150 on hardware for $50 unlimited LTE service, less than four months later these are your new choices.

After spending $150 on hardware for $50 unlimited LTE service, less than four months later these are your new choices.

But usage should have never surprised Karma, considering the firm marketed Neverstop in November and December as the perfect answer for “heavier usage, streaming, downloading….”

Only after imposing a speed throttle — later increased to 2.5Mbps — came changes in how Neverstop marketed its service. In early January, Neverstop was now sold as the perfect solution for “daily usage, worry-free browsing, on-the-go work, travel, occasional streaming, and more.” Also gone was the marketing that promoted unlimited usage. The new message to customers: lay off.

Many customers were unhappy about the sudden changes and have filed false advertising complaints with the Better Business Bureau and several state attorneys general.

Karma continued to modify its Neverstop plan later in January, claiming to relent on speed throttling and moving to impose a 15GB usage cap on Neverstop instead. The company claimed the usage cap would allow it to restore 5Mbps service, but most customers complained their speeds remained slow. In effect, customers were being asked to continue paying $50 a month for a shadow of the service originally advertised.

As of late last week, Karma revisited customers again to announce the once unlimited wireless data experience of Neverstop was being stopped… permanently.

van Wel

van Wel

Karma CEO Steven van Wel told Verge the company came to the realization that Neverstop was unsustainable after observing a month of customer usage following January’s adjustments. Even with the restrictive throttling, half of Neverstop customers reached the 15GB cap before the end of their billing cycle, and there was no way for them to easily continue high-speed service, whether by changing plans or paying overage fees. Just one month earlier van Wel told Verge only a few customers were likely to exceed their 15GB cap.

“You bait and switched us again,” came a chorus of complaints before Karma switched off public comments on all but its Facebook page.

“Poor business at best,” added Daniel Frisch. “Sell a customer one thing and then switch it to something completely different. You sold me an unlimited data device at a reasonable price and now you have gone from throttling that data to a high-priced limited data plan like everybody else.”

Karma’s latest plan is called Pulse and Neverstop customers will gradually find their existing Neverstop service transitioned to the new plan over the coming month, which will sell 5GB of service for $40 a month. Many complain there are better deals available elsewhere.

Stop the Cap! will continue to seek out options for rural or on-the-go customers who depend on wireless Internet access where DSL and cable broadband are not available. For now, we cannot recommend Karma because of the company’s unstable service plans and the high upfront cost of equipment.

Stop the Cap! Files Formal Opposition to Charter-TWC Merger in California

stcStop the Cap! this week formally filed our opposition to the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), citing our concerns about data caps/usage-based pricing, Internet competitiveness, affordability, and quality of service.

Matthew Friedman, Stop the Cap!’s new director of our California branch, spoke in opposition to the transaction at a public meeting held by the CPUC in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Friedman authored our formal 10,500-word opposition, particularly focusing attention on Charter’s commitment not to cap or meter broadband usage for only three years after the deal is approved.

Charter’s temporary “good behavior” commitments open Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers to the potential of the same kind of usage caps and usage pricing being tested by Comcast, with little likelihood imminent competition will give consumers alternative cap-free choices.

Stop the Cap! proposed a permanent ban on compulsory data caps with New York regulators, which was not adopted. In California, we are asking the CPUC to consider allowing Charter’s “good behavior” commitments to expire only when customers have access to near-equivalent competitors offering unlimited service options, either from resellers of Charter’s broadband network or from existing or new competitors.

It is our view usage caps and usage-based billing represent an end run around Net Neutrality and will be used to limit online video competition.

We also repeat our assertion that Charter’s commitments for Time Warner Cable customers are less compelling than the benefits of Time Warner Cable’s own ongoing upgrade program, dubbed “Maxx.” Charter has committed to providing Time Warner customers with broadband speeds up to 100Mbps. Time Warner Cable Maxx offers a maximum speed of 300Mbps — three times faster than Charter.

Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet option, available to any customer without conditions or contracts would be terminated, with customers forced to spend just under $60 for entry-level broadband service. Charter’s offers remove customer choices from the marketplace in an attempt to “simplify” pricing. But that will also force customers into packages with services they don’t want or need.

Here is our formal filing in full, also available for download:

Before the CALIFORNIA PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION

      

Re: Application 15-07-009

Charter/Time Warner/Bright House Transfer

Comments on Data Caps and Usage Based Pricing and Statement of Opposition

January 26, 2016

Stop the Cap! California Branch, Matthew Friedman

 

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

Executive Summary

Part 1 of this document proposes a mitigation condition relating to data caps and usage based pricing (DC/UBP) that would not sunset after an arbitrary number of years. Instead, it would sunset based on the existence of actual competition in the wireline broadband marketplace.

This document details how data caps and usage based pricing present significant and numerous harms to consumers and competition in general, and why the CPUC’s approval of this transaction would make DC/UBP much more likely to be imposed on existing Time Warner Cable subscribers. We detail TWC’s long-standing, public, and vocal commitment against imposing DC/UBP. We explain why the Commission should be particularly suspect of Charter when it comes to DC/UBP. Finally, we show that Charter’s opening testimony actually supports the mitigation condition that is being proposed here.

Stop the Cap! believes that this transaction is clearly not in the public interest, and the Commission should deny the transfer. If however, for some reason the Commission decides to approve the transfer, we respectfully submit this mitigation condition to protect Californians from one of the severe harms this merger will certainly bring.

Part 2 of this document is a broader examination of why the transaction is not in the public interest. We detail how Time Warner Cable is stronger company with superior offerings to Charter, and we show why Charter is proposing a deal that is not only not in the public interest, but a large step backwards for consumers.

The Commission should deny this transfer.

The Proposed Transaction is Not in the Public Interest

Stop the Cap! strongly believes that it’s clear that the Commission should NOT approve this transaction. The testimony of the Intervenors has shown that the “benefits” Charter is claiming are tenuous at best, if even present at all. The only real benefit of this transaction appears to be to the applicants’ shareholders, and possibly not even them.

There are an immense amount of risks, potential harms, and even certain harms that will come to consumers if this transaction is allowed to proceed–more than were present even in the Comcast/TWC scenario. The certain harms far outweigh any potential benefits.

In these comments we focus on data caps and usage based pricing in particular. These practices are almost always detrimental to consumers, as TWC management has recognized, and they shouldn’t be imposed at all. One of the negative aspects of this proposed merger is that TWC customers would lose the “no data caps EVER” pledge from TWC. If for some reason the Commission decides to approve the transfer, the loss of TWC’s anti-data cap corporate attitude must be mitigated, and in a way that matches the permanence of TWC’s current pledge.

If, however, the Commission does decide to approve this transfer, the loss of TWC’s vocal commitment to NEVER impose DC/UBP must be mitigated, and it must be mitigated in a way that matches the permanence of TWC’s commitment. Mitigation conditions that are only temporary in nature are not sufficient to offset those harms.

Proposed Mitigation Condition

New Charter shall refrain from imposing data caps and/or usage-based pricing (DC/UBP) on all of its broadband offerings. New Charter will refrain from increasing prices on non-DC/UBP plans to compensate for this mitigation condition.

This mitigation condition shall sunset when ONE of the following scenarios comes to pass; however, the condition shall sunset only for those New Charter customers for whom one of the following scenarios is true. In all other New Charter areas where none of these scenarios exist, the mitigation condition shall remain in force.

  1. There are at least three (including New Charter) competing wireline broadband providers for the area in which New Charter wishes to sunset this mitigation condition. Resellers leasing lines from New Charter may be counted as competitors only if New Charter does not impose any sort of usage based billing or data caps on the resellers.
  1. There are at least three competing broadband providers (both wired and wireless) for the area in which New Charter wishes to sunset this mitigation condition, and the wireless providers offer a non-usage-based billing plan that is no more expensive than similar non-usage-based billing plans offered by the wireline providers. Providers that offer unlimited data but throttle speed after a certain amount of data is consumed shall be considered as utilising data caps for the sake of this evaluation.

Should a New Charter customer demonstrate that the competing wireless provider is unable to supply actual broadband speed to their physical address (for instance, due to poor reception), then New Charter shall continue to offer that customer data plans not subject to DC/UBP. Additionally, New Charter shall refrain from increasing the price of this non DC/UBP plan above the cost of the comparable DC/UBP plan (before considering any data overage fees).

  1. There is a functional community-owned broadband alternative available to the customers for which New Charter wishes to sunset this mitigation condition.

This condition defines “broadband” as providing the minimum broadband speed as set by the FCC at the time of evaluation for sunsetting.

What is DC/UBP?

“Usage Based Pricing” (sometimes referred to as “Metered Billing” or “Data Caps”) is when an Internet Service Provider places an upper limit on the amount of data a customer can use in a given month. Typically in wireline internet situations, if the customer goes over their monthly allowance, they are charged an additional fee for a set amount of additional data. If this additional data allotment is used, the customer is charged again for a second allotment, and so on until the monthly billing period ends. For instance, Comcast charges its data capped customers $10 for each additional 50GB used.[1] A good way to understand DC/UBP is to begin with what it is not.

DC/UBP is NOT about network management

This assertion has been debunked by scientific research for almost ten years,[2] and now even ISPs themselves are acknowledging the same. In January 2015, National Cable and Telecommunications Association president Michael Powell told a Minority Media and Telecommunications Association audience that while a lot of people had tried to label the cable industry’s interest in the issue as about congestion management, “That’s wrong,” he said. “Our principal purpose is how to fairly monetize a high fixed cost.”[3] However, even this explanation is myth-based. (See discussion next section.)

On 14 August 2015, Comcast’s Vice President of Internet Services, Jason Livingood, stated publicly that DC/UBP was not a network management decision, but a “business decision” that he had no part in making.[4]

Then, on 5 November 2015, an internal Comcast document instructing CS Reps how to answer questions about DC/UBP was leaked. That document instructs Comcast personnel “Do not say: The [DC/UBP] Program is about network management. (It is not.)[5]   (Emphasis added).

Time Warner Cable’s CEO Robert Marcus similarly has spoken about DC/UBP as a business decision (and is his opinion a bad one).[6]

DC/UBP is NOT about pricing fairness

If DC/UBP were truly about pricing fairness, subscribers would pay for exactly the amount of data they used, and no more. This model would be like water or power: there would be no monthly charge whatsoever (or perhaps only a miniscule one): if you used a kilobyte, you’d pay for a kilobyte. If you happened to be on vacation for a month and didn’t use any data, then your broadband bill would be zero. There would be no startup or termination charges. There would be no modem fees, just as there are no gas meter or electrical transformer fees. Tight government regulation over pricing would be beneficial as well.

None of these conditions is present in any of the wireline DC/UBP plans in the US currently, and none that I know of anywhere in the world, though I haven’t done an extensive search. Regardless, it’s clear that the purpose of DC/UBP is not to provide “pricing fairness.”

The GAO’s explanation of DC/UBP

In 2014, the U.S. Government Accountability Office performed a study on DC/UBP. The GAO determined that while it is possible for providers to employ DC/UBP to the consumers’ advantage, “providers facing limited competition could use UBP to increase profits, potentially resulting in negative effects, including increased prices, reductions in content accessed, and increased threats to network security. Several researchers and stakeholders that the GAO interviewed said that UBP could reduce innovation for applications and content if consumers ration their data.”[7]

Simply put: absent sufficient competition, the purpose is two-fold. First, DC/UBP allows cable providers to use their monopoly (or in some much rarer cases duopoly) powers to extract additional revenues from customers. Upon the imposition of DC/UBP, the vast majority of customers have no competing provider of wireline broadband to whom they can turn.[8]

Secondly, DC/UBP gives cable internet providers the ability to use their “terminating monopoly” power to quash competition to their core video offerings. For instance, SlingTV CEO Roger Lynch in early December accused Comcast of setting its data caps just low enough to prevent customers from replacing cable TV with online video streaming.[9]

To see how this terminating monopoly power works, consider one of the increasing number of “cord cutting” households. By some estimates, 1 in 7 Americans are currently television cord-cutters.[10] These consumers do not subscribe to cable television. Instead, they purchase broadband only and subscribe to services such as Hulu, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube, Crackle, Fandor, etc. These services offer direct competition to cable providers’ video offerings. The imposition of “usage based billing” can artificially increase the price of cord cutting so that it is no longer a viable option for consumers.

A typical “cord-cutting” home uses an average of 328GB/mo,[11] exceeding most data-capped plans’ initial allowances. In fact, in October the Associated Press reported that 8% (and rising) of Comcast customers regularly exceed their data allowances and are charged overage fees.[12] As the emergence of UHD and 4k video offerings by streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon continues, these percentages will rise dramatically.[13] Since cable operators’ core video offerings are excluded from a user’s data count, it can quickly become cheaper to subscribe to a bloated cable package than pay data overage fees in addition to a la carte streaming service subscriptions. Then consumers must pay still more additional fees for DVRs to replace streaming’s de facto “on demand” nature. And yet more fees for additional cable boxes. This then is the true purpose of DC/UBP: increasing revenue, in part from overage fees and in part from pushing consumers into traditional cable packages with additional fees.

Potential Public Harms from DC/UBP

DC/UBP financially harms ratepayers, especially lower income customers

The effect of the financial penalties that streaming Netflix (and other such services) carries under DC/UBP plans will push consumers to New Charter’s own, more expensive, subscription offerings since watching video through New Charter’s traditional cable network would not count against consumers’ data allotments. These services are bundled such that subscribers must pay for hundreds of channels they have no interest in in order to get the 10-20 that they actually want to watch, thus artificially inflating their cable bill. (For instance, a recent Civic Science survey found that 56% of pay-tv subscribers would drop ESPN from their lineup in order to save $8/mo on their cable bills.[14] Cable companies, however, do not offer this as an option.) When DC/UBP is not present, cord-cutting is cheaper than cable, sometimes significantly so depending on the type of television in which the cord-cutter is interested.[15] Lower income Californians will be hit especially hard as DC/UBP forces them into those bloated, expensive cable “bundles.” For lower income viewers, this money-saving alternative will no longer be accessible since their prices are artificially inflated by DC/UBP.

This in turn stifles demand for broadband, running counter to Section 706(a)’s mandate. The CPUC has a statutory duty to protect ratepayers from a monopoly player stifling competition and investment, and that mandate is not limited to an arbitrary number of years.

The Commission is correct to want to expand broadband access to underserved areas, but it must also protect against that same access being used to prevent lower-income Californians from saving money on television bills by “cord-cutting.”

New Charter can use DC/UBP to circumvent Net Neutrality rules

Comcast is currently attempting an end-run around net neutrality rules and strongly pushing customers to their new streaming service “Stream TV” over competitors such as Hulu and Netflix. Comcast is exempting their own (more expensive) cord-cutting streaming service from usage-based metering, while competing services count against subscribers’ data allotments. While this is illegal under net neutrality, Comcast is arguing that since Stream TV exclusively uses its own IP network, and not the internet per se, net neutrality doesn’t apply.[16] As Wired.com put it, “Comcast may have found a major net neutrality loophole.”[17] (Note that this example directly contradicts the testimony of Charter’s Dr. Scott Morton.[18])

This is a loophole that New Charter could also use in order to attempt to circumvent net neutrality regulations. However, if the CPUC bars New Charter from instituting DC/UBP, this end-run loophole would be closed, and New Charter would not be able to engage in the anti-competitive customer-harming behavior that Comcast is now attempting.

It’s important to note here that the Commission cannot rely on the federal government to provide this protection to Californians. A number of U.S. Congress members have filed briefs requesting that courts overturn the FCC’s net neutrality rules.[19] Further, at the time of this writing, a number of house members are attempting to insert a net neutrality defunding clause into the omnibus spending bill.[20]

Under a Republican president and Congress, it’s clear that California should expect the federal government to abandon any and all open internet and net neutrality regulations. But as with climate change and carbon emissions legislation, California has the opportunity to lead the country by ensuring net neutrality and protecting competition, in part by adopting this proposed mitigation measure.

DC/UBP also gives ISPs the ability to leverage sponsored data programs. Such programs pose an existential threat to net neutrality, but on a more basic level, harm consumers by increasing fees for the services that participate. Sponsored data programs also present a barrier to entry for new, innovative, and less well-funded competing services.[21]

DC/UBP facilitates anti-competitive behavior

As the GAO report put it,  “…fixed providers—many of whom also provide television video content—could use UBP as a means to raise the price for watching online streaming video services—a competitor to their video services—as households continue to substitute television with streaming video.”[22] New Street Research analyst Jonathan Chaplin points out that usage-based billing would be one of Charter’s strongest potential weapons against online video competitors.[23]

DC/UBP hinders innovation and investment

Again, from the GAO report:

“Because UBP can make it more expensive to watch data-heavy content such as streaming video, it may discourage people from accessing such content and, therefore, discourage them from eliminating their television service. This might adversely affect firms that provide online video streaming services and reduce competition and innovation in the market for providing streaming video content, thereby negatively affecting consumers.

In addition, two industry stakeholders we interviewed believe UBP could in general inhibit innovation that results from experimentation and unlimited access to the Internet. Greater innovation could result in the development of more content and applications that consumers demand and value. Some Internet users, such as heavy data users, may pay more for access under UBP. As a result, some of them may limit their Internet use—as mentioned earlier, some focus group participants said that they have reduced their mobile data usage as a result of UBP—particularly of data-heavy content and applications such as online learning and video. This could lead to reduced use of some beneficial Internet applications and innovation in such applications. For example, one public interest group said that the limits that UBP may impose on the market for innovative applications and content may limit the potential of new startups.”[24]

The report goes on to discuss additional ways DC/UBP might reduce innovation, and the above citation is worth reading in full.

These are the same concerns present in Commissioner Florio’s Alternate Proposed Decision in the Comcast proceeding.[25] The alternate PD discusses these concerns as potential harms of Comcast creating a bottleneck between retail subscribers and edge providers, however, the same concerns are equally applicable to an ISP instituting DC/UBP.

DC/UBP has negative effects on network security

According to a 2012 study, DC/UBP may result in consumers—in an attempt to reduce data usage—foregoing automatic security updates to their computers, which could have negative implications for network security.[26]

DC/UBP removes educational opportunities for lower income citizens

In a June 2014 article, US News and World Report explained how online education can provide a significantly lower-cost and more flexible path to a degree. The article cites a Georgia Institute of Technology announcement that it would be offering an online master’s degree in computer science for $6,600 – about $35,000 less than its on-ground program.[27]

The online education model can put a higher degree in reach for countless people who otherwise could not afford that opportunity. However, this model relies heavily on video teleconferencing and video lectures. DC/UBP could inflate the price of online education such that it too could be unaffordable for lower-income Californians, completely pricing them out of higher degrees that could move them out of poverty into the middle class.

Charter could use DC/UBP as a loophole to completely avoid providing “Lifeline” low cost internet service, thus increasing the digital divide.

Envision a worst-case scenario where New Charter agrees to carry on TWC’s existing $14.99 low-cost plan, but caps the data at 5GB, then charges (as Comcast is currently trialing) $10 for each additional 50GB the subscriber uses. For a typical cord-cutting household that uses approximately 330GB of data a month, that would make the price of this “low-cost lifeline” plan $79.95/mo. A “low-cost” internet option of $80/month will do nothing to close the digital divide.[28]

Mitigating the Loss of TWC’s Commitment Against DC/UBP

Time Warner Cable has frequently stated publicly that it will “NEVER” impose DC/UBP. Over time, TWC has demonstrated an extremely different corporate culture and attitude towards DC/UBP than Charter has demonstrated. TWC’s CEO Robert Marcus has time and again made it clear that compulsory usage caps are off the table at Time Warner Cable – a lesson TWC learned after customers pushed back and forced it to shelve a usage cap experiment planned for Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and Austin, San Antonio, and Beaumont, Tex. in April 2009.[29]

TWC subsequently admitted their flirtation with DC/UBP was a mistake. That story, along with the pledge to never impose usage-based billing, is still on Time Warner Cable’s official blog at the time of this writing.[30]

The company has never raised the possibility of compulsory usage limits or usage-based billing again. In fact, Marcus often seems to be evangelizing AGAINST DC/UBP in general. On an October 2014 Wall Street analyst conference call, Marcus stated “We have no intention of abandoning an unlimited product we think is something that customers value and are willing to pay for. The way we’ve approached usage-based pricing is to offer it as an option for customers who prefer to pay less because they tend to use less. And we’ve made those available at 5 gigabytes per month and 30 gigabytes per month levels.”[31]

It’s notable that while Comcast maintained the price point of the plans it converted from unlimited to mandatory UBP, TWC’s optional UBP plans came with a price discount. However, the discounts on those packages were minimal, and as of 11/21/2015 those packages are no longer advertised on the TWC website.

Marcus has continued to be publicly vocal about TWC’s decision to keep its non-usage-based pricing intact. He spoke to this point at the Deutsche Bank Media, Internet, and Telecom Conference in March of 2014,[32] and again in a July 2015 investor conference call.[33]

On an October 2015 investor call Marcus was questioned by analyst Jonathan Chaplin on TWC’s lack of DC/UBP. Marcus responded that the way to increase revenue was to deliver more utility. DC/UBP is the opposite of that, he said.[34]

If the CPUC approves this transaction without mitigation, it will be allowing for the destruction of the largest US wireline broadband entity dedicated to NEVER instituting compulsory DC/UBP in favor of a mere three year commitment. It would forever remove a policy competitor that subscribers to other wireline broadband providers could point to and say, “Yes, a cable company can be profitable without DC/UBP.” More directly, the loss of TWC’s corporate culture and belief that DC/UBP is a poor business decision would be an immense harm to current and future TWC customers.

Charter Is Particularly Suspect Concerning DC/UBP

This merger’s financing model gives New Charter every incentive to impose DC/UBP

Post-merger, New Charter will be in a precarious financial position.[35] One of the strongest incentives for rate increases is the level of debt Charter Communications will assume in this transaction. The New York Department of Public Service staff, in examining this transaction for that state, concluded that New Charter’s debt and lowered credit rating “represents the single most substantial risk of the proposed transaction.”[36]

Charter’s Mr. Fisher disagrees with this analysis in his opening testimony, stating that “New Charter will be financially healthy to the benefit of its shareholders and consumers throughout the State of California.”[37] [emphasis added]. If this is true, then this proposed mitigation will help ensure that consumers do in fact see some of those benefits, and that they are not all given only to shareholders, an occurrence that happens far too often in transactions such as the one currently under consideration. This is especially important since when Mr. Fisher later lists the benefits that will come from the merger, none of the benefits he lists are in the area of consumer pricing.[38] As we detail later in these comments, prices will actually go UP after the merger.

Charter has provided inaccurate information about their history with DC/UBP

Charter’s expert Dr. Fiona Scott Morton, a professor of economics at the Yale School of Management, stated in FCC testimony:

“For 3 years, New Charter will not charge consumers additional fees to use specific third-party Internet applications, or engage in zero-rating (discriminatory exemptions from a data cap).

These binding commitments provide further assurance beyond the economic reasoning I describe below — assurance that New Charter will not engage in these types of conduct: charging higher interconnection fees, using discriminatory data plans, or reducing the quality of OVD signals. (Note that Charter already does not have data caps for its residential broadband customers. Notwithstanding the dramatic but welcome rise in data usage by broadband customers, Charter has not had an active data cap since January 2012.)”[39]

But this statement is simply incorrect. As of November 2013 Charter had data caps ranging from 100-500GB.[40] Customers in some areas were called by Charter for exceeding their usage allowance,[41] and usage rationing remained in Charter’s Acceptable Use Policy until late 2014,[42] not January 2012 as Dr. Scott Morton claims. In fact, as of 21 November 2015, Charter’s AUP still allows it to define “excessive use of bandwidth” however it sees fit, and take any action that Charter in its sole opinion it deems reasonable.[43] Dr. Scott Morton does not believe Charter has any interest in imposing data caps on customers, despite the fact Charter quietly shelved existing caps on Oct. 1, 2014, just several months before unveiling its bid for both Time Warner and Bright House, neither of which have capped customer usage.[44]

The FCC is rightly concerned about this discrepancy, and has requested that Charter detail when it adopted bandwidth usage caps, when it dropped them, and why.[45] The CPUC would be right to be concerned as well.

Charter has a history of misleading customers and regulators.

For example, Charter advertises Spectrum TV Stream service at $12.99/mo, when most users will actually pay at least $20/mo, some more.[46] While some “padding” via fees is unfortunately normal, this is upwards of a 50% differential. Note that this is in direct contradiction to Mr. Fisher’s opening statement to the CPUC, in which he claims that Charter “does not separately charge users incremental fees that other providers in the industry commonly add on to the advertised price… As a result, consumers have a clearer understanding of… the price that they will see on their bill.”[47]

Another example: The FCC is concerned about 26% owner John Malone’s involvement with this merger, as he has engaged in anticompetitive behaviour in the past.[48] Malone, whom Senator Al Gore once referred to as “The Darth Vader of telecom,”[49] is currently best known as the owner of SiriusXM satellite radio. The two satellite companies merged in 2008 with a mitigation condition forbidding any rate hikes for three years.[50] Upon the expiration of that condition, SiriusXM promised investors an immediate price hike.[51] Based on past history, there’s no reason to believe that any mitigation conditions the CPUC imposes on this transaction won’t be discarded immediately upon expiration.

And a third example: on 20 January 2016 Charter released the results of a survey that it sponsored itself. Charter claims that the results show public support for the merger. However, the statements Charter used in the poll pertaining to data caps were extremely misleading. Respondents were told by the pollster that  “Charter has said that it will not impose data limits on customers after the merger.”[52] However, there was no mention of the incredibly brief 3 year time limit on this commitment, nor the fact that Time Warner has promised for years to never impose data limits on customers. It is definitely misleading, possibly deceitful, for Charter to use responses to this deceptive statement as “proof” of public support for this transaction.

A fourth example: Dr. Scott Morton’s November 2 statement is less than forthcoming in many regards. On Page 10 (Section 27) Dr. Scott Morton completely omits a fourth characteristic of a valuable MVPD partner: the commitment to refrain from implementing DC/UBP. Implementation of DC/UBP would artificially increase the cost of the OVD’s product to the consumer, thus decreasing demand for that service. This increased cost over which the OVD has no control is in effect a barrier to market entry, and therefore a disincentive to innovation and reduction of competition.

It’s also telling that Dr. Scott Morton’s conclusion in Part 49 is that Charter’s “technology” promotes entry of OVDs. Conspicuously absent is the statement that Charter’s “policies” promote entry of OVDs. Even more conspicuous is that as noted in Part 128, Charter promises a mere three years of refraining from disadvantaging OVDs. What Charter is promising is both flimsy and transparent: “You have nothing to worry about, but only hold us to it for three years.”

Still further, in Part 130, Dr. Scott Morton notes Netflix’s statement that “Charter’s new peering policy is a welcome and significant departure from the efforts of some ISPs to collect excess tolls to the Internet.” However, the CPUC must guard against New Charter shifting these “excess tolls” directly onto subscribers as the GAO report referenced earlier warned. DC/UBP would be a prime means for New Charter to do just that.

A fifth example: the opening testimony of Charter’s Mr. Falk is likewise misleading on a number of points. Mr. Falk claims that the merger will come with “no countervailing harms,”[53] however, according to his own statement, there are clearly price increases coming for many TWC customers.[54] Mr. Falk testifies about Charter’s “customer friendly billing practices,” but in reality those practices are not friendly to consumers at all.[55] Mr. Falk then goes on to make a claim that is flatly contradicted by his own expert’s testimony to the FCC,[56] makes misleading statements about the significance of wireline competition,[57] and a statement that is materially false regarding pricing of Charter’s base internet speed tier.[58]

Charter has flatly failed to comply with multiple Commission rulings.

Charter has refused to comply with certain requirements of DIVCA even though the company submitted an affidavit to the Commission swearing to do so.[59] More recently, Charter ignored the January 20 ALJ ruling of A.15-07-009, which required that “Charter and TWCIS shall provide notice to their respective customers not less than 5, nor more than 30 days, prior to” the

Los Angeles Public Participation Hearing scheduled for January 26.[60]  As of the morning of January 25, I had received no such notice either by email or postal mail, even though I hold not one but two California-based TWC accounts. Note that I did check my SPAM folder, and no notices had been diverted there.

The point being… both consumers and the CPUC should be extremely suspect of anything Charter says regarding the benefits of this merger, including their reasoning that DC/UBP is something that they have no interest in instituting. Mitigations should be designed to protect consumers against a potentially hostile and untrustworthy monopolistic player, particularly around an issue as nuanced and complex as usage based pricing.

Charter’s Opening Testimony Supports this Proposed Condition

New Charter should not object to this proposed mitigation condition, since it is substantially supported by Dr. Scott Morton’s November 2 statement, as well as the opening testimony from Mr. Fisher, the Senior VP of Corporate Finance at Charter, and Mr. Falk, Charter’s Senior VP for State Government Affairs.

In her November 2 testimony, Part 132, Dr. Scott Morton discusses New Charter’s open internet commitments. While not addressing DC/UBP directly, in her discussion of other conditions addressing issues such as paid prioritization, zero rating, throttling, etc, Dr. Scott Morton states that the fact these conditions have a finite life should not be cause for concern. She explains that in three years’ time market conditions would be such that “a strategy of foreclosure or otherwise trying to impede OVDs would be even more unprofitable for New Charter.”

Dr. Scott Morton then suggests that should New Charter decide to engage in anticompetitive behaviour in three years’ time, consumers could simply switch to an alternate broadband provider. However, as Dr. Scott Morton goes on to point out, there is currently a lack of competing broadband providers in most of New Charter’s proposed footprint. Other experts have also testified that the US market for fixed broadband is not effectively competitive, and this situation will persist for the foreseeable future.[61] This is true for New Charter’s proposed footprint in California as well.[62]

“Currently AT&T/Verizon have usage allotments that make it economically unattractive to use wireless as an in-home broadband service,” Dr. Scott Morton explains. “T-Mobile and Sprint do offer “unlimited” plans, however, they… de-prioritize traffic above usage thresholds…”[63] So even by her own testimony, wireless providers do not count as potential broadband competition for New Charter.

Dr. Scott Morton goes on to examine what little wireline broadband competition does exist, but as the CPUC is well aware, the companies she cites are not available in most of New Charter’s proposed footprint.

In summary, Dr. Scott Morton testifies that in three years time there will be adequate broadband competition present to prevent New Charter from behaving in an anti-competitive manner. If she is correct, then this proposed mitigation condition will sunset based on the existence of that very competition. If she is incorrect about the amount of time it takes for that competitive marketplace to form, then this mitigation will simply continue to protect consumers until the competition Dr. Scott Morton discussed does actually come into existence.

The mitigation condition being proposed here simply ensures that New Charter only has the ability to behave in an anticompetitive way when the “competing broadband provider[s]” Dr. Scott references are actually in existence. It’s designed in a way to be fair to both consumers, and New Charter.

Why Competition Must Be the Only Trigger for Sunsetting this Condition

The 2014 GAO report examined four mobile providers that impose DC/UBP. ALL OF THEM have increased the variety of plans offered, but even more significantly, ALL OF THEM have increased the amount of their monthly data allowances. That’s not true of the fixed internet providers studied. Some of those providers have introduced higher priced, higher speed plans that also come with increased allowances, but NONE of them have increased the data allowances without an accompanying price increase.[64]

The obvious difference between the wireless and wireline providers’ circumstances is the presence of competition in the mobile sphere, and the lack of competition in the wireline sphere. The GAO report affirms this analysis.[65] The report goes on to explain that without adequate competition (and much evidence proves that duopoly markets do not constitute effective competition[66]), wireline customers have fewer plan choices. Only two of the wireline providers examined even offered discounted UBP plans. The two that did offer discounted plans offered discounts far inferiour to the discounts offered by the more competitive wireless market.[67]

For further evidence, consider the example of Comcast’s usage-based pricing “trial.” Comcast’s DC/UBP policies have resulted in a deluge of FCC complaints, potentially upwards of 11,000.[68] Comcast customers report gross inaccuracies in the company’s data meter, resulting in erroneous overage charges.[69] Customers are also reporting that once they pay Comcast’s $35 add-on for truly unlimited service, speeds for services that compete with Comcast (such as Netflix and Hulu) actually DROP.[70] The company then uses these speed issues to attempt to force customers into renting a modem from Comcast. When pressed hard enough by customers with technical knowledge of modems and routers, however, Comcast reps finally do resolve the speed issues remotely.[71]

The logical action for these customers would be to leave Comcast for a different provider; however, for the vast majority of them there is no other provider available. While admittedly Comcast is a different company from Charter, this example underscores the absolute necessity to sunset mitigation conditions only when actual wireline competition exists in the market…  NOT after an arbitrary number of years. As Commissioner Florio’s Alternate Proposed decision stated:

“We find that conditions that only temporarily or incompletely mitigate identified harms to the public interest are not sufficient to offset those harms. Such conditions also do not ‘preserve the jurisdiction of the commission,’ as required by § 854(c)(7).[72]

Summary on DC/UBP

In the Comcast proceeding, the Proposed Decision offered a condition (specifically #17) which would have restricted Comcast from implementing either data caps or mandatory usage based pricing (DC/UBP) for a period of five years. However, as Commissioner Florio’s Alternate Proposed Decision noted, that condition would have been insufficient to effectively mitigate the underlying potential harm due to the condition’s temporary nature.

Many mitigation conditions in the Comcast PD had no sunset clauses at all, such as Conditions 11 and 12 expanding the Internet Essentials program. Just as a sunset for the expansion of IE would have been unreasonable, so the sunset clause for the prohibition on DC/UBP was inadequate. Additionally, it would have run afoul of the Commission’s mandate under § 854(c)(7).

The behaviour of companies in this industry in general, and Charter’s past behaviour specifically, makes it clear that the CPUC should not take a risk on Charter’s less-than-compelling offer of a mere three year delay of the institution of data caps and usage-based pricing.

Beyond this particular issue, we believe that there is overwhelming evidence that this merger clearly would not be in the best interest of Californians, and that the CPUC should deny the transfer of licenses. However, should the CPUC for some reason allow the transfer to take place, we’d strongly request that the CPUC tailor the mitigation condition concerning data caps and usage-based pricing as this paper has suggested. Only a mitigation condition designed in this way would truly protect Californians, yet also be fair to New Charter by allowing the condition to sunset when the competition that Charter’s experts have testified is so important actually comes into existence.

Part 2 — Additional Reasons This Transaction is Not in the Public Interest

Time Warner Cable’s Superior Recent Upgrade Performance

The most important question before the Commission is which cable operator is better positioned to deliver the services customers in this state want and need. We argue that that operator is Time Warner Cable, not Charter Communications.

Since the termination of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, Time Warner Cable has responsibly invested in their infrastructure without assuming an irresponsible amount of debt. Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus reported significant progress in their first quarter 2015 report to shareholders and customers, despite the distraction of the Comcast merger[73]:

Over the past 16 months, we’ve made significant investments to improve our customers’ experience:

  • Investing more than $5.2 billion to, among other things, improve the reliability of our network and upgrade customer premise equipment – including set-top boxes and cable modems – with the latest technologies and expand its network to additional residences, commercial buildings and cell towers;
  • Launching TWC Maxx, which features greater reliability, all-digital video, advanced TV services, standard tier of Internet speeds at 50 Mbps, and higher tiers of service up to 300 Mbps. New York, Los Angeles and Austin are complete; Dallas, San Antonio and Kansas City are underway; Charlotte, Raleigh and Hawaii are slated for later this year; and San Diego is expected to be done in early 2016;
  • Introducing Enhanced DVR, a six-tuner set-top box that allows customers to record up to six shows simultaneously and store up to 150 hours of HD content;
  • Increasing the number of Cable Wi-Fi hotspots available to our customers to 400,000;
  • Rolling out our cloud-based video guide to 8 million set-top boxes to date. The guide also makes it easier to browse our On Demand library, which now sits at 30,000 free and paid titles and continues to grow;
  • Expanding our industry-leading TWC TV app – which allows customers to watch live TV and On Demand content and control and program their DVR from inside and outside the home. TWC TV is now available on Xbox One, Xbox 360, Amazon Kindle Fire HD and HDX tablets, Android and IOS phones and tablets, Fan TV, PCs, Samsung TV and Roku;

Serving customers on their schedules rather than ours. We expanded one-hour appointment windows across the company and in Q1 met that window 97 percent of the time. We continue to add nighttime and weekend appointments.

Since that report, Time Warner Cable has announced new Maxx service upgrade areas – Greensboro and Wilmington, N.C. At least 45 percent of Time Warner Cable’s national footprint was serviced with Maxx upgrades by the end of 2015, and Marcus has indicated additional cities will receive upgrades in 2016.[74]

Marcus has indicated repeatedly he intends to see Maxx service upgrades extend even further. On the January 29, 2015 quarterly results conference call with investors, Marcus indicated Maxx upgrades delivered tangible benefits to the company, including increased customer satisfaction, higher network reliability, and a stronger product line. Based on those factors, it would be logical to assume Time Warner Cable would continue its upgrade project, and indeed Marcus confirmed this in his remarks:

“Our aim is to have 75% of our footprint enabled with Maxx […] by the end of [2016], and my guess is we’re continuing to roll it out beyond that,” said Marcus[75]. “So the only question is prioritization, and obviously as we think about where to go first, competitive dynamics are a factor. So that includes Google, although it’s not explosively dictated by where Google decides to go. In fact I think we announced the Carolinas before Google did their announcement this week. So competitors are certainly relevant obviously.”

At the rate Time Warner Cable has been rolling out Maxx upgrades, which were first announced on 30 January 2014[76], with 45% of its service area upgraded within 23 months, it is likely the company would complete its Maxx upgrade to all of its service areas within the next 24-30 months. Note that in Los Angeles these speed increases came with no corresponding price increase. In evaluating this transaction in New York, the NYDPS staff noted, “there is no indication that Petitioner’s plan for converting to all-digital in New York is any different from Time Warner’s existing plan.” The CPUC should examine this issue as well.

Charter, on the other hand, is saddled with debt servicing costs and more expensive credit, both of which are deterrents to investment and are likely to limit the scope of Charter’s ongoing system upgrades and maintenance, not to mention also placing upward pressure on the prices New Charter will charge consumers. Charter is a much smaller cable operator than Time Warner Cable, and is itself still in the process of repairing and upgrading its own cable systems and those it acquired in earlier acquisition deals. Time Warner Cable, in contrast, is in a much stronger financial position to carry out its commitments associated with the Maxx upgrade program.

Charter’s upgrade proposal is, in fact, both technically and generally inferior to what Time Warner Cable is accomplishing on its own. We strongly recommend the Commission carefully consider whether Charter’s proposal is as truly compelling as it claims.

Charter Communications’ Network Upgrade Proposal Is Not a Good Deal for California

Time Warner Cable Maxx offers 50/5 Mbps speeds under its most popular Standard plan. In contrast, Charter proposes to offer 60/5Mbps service under its most-popular Spectrum plan for a markedly higher price. The extra expense over the TWC 50Mbps plan does not justify a mere 10Mbps speed increase. (Currently in Los Angeles, TWC offers 200Mbps for $65/mo… roughly the same price as Charter’s 60/5 plan. TWC’s plan is over three times as fast as Charter’s for nearly the same amount). But perhaps more concerning, this 10Mbps increase comes at a high cost to customers looking for more budget-priced service than those seeking faster speeds.

Charter has no plans to continue Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet service – a very important offer for low income residents and senior citizens who are unable to afford the nearly $60 regular price Charter charges for their 60Mbps tier, or those who have no interest in streaming media.

Time Warner Cable offers its $14.99 tier without preconditions, restricted qualifiers, contracts, or limits on what types of services can be bundled with it. Any consumer qualifies for the service and can bundle it with Time Warner Cable telephone service for an additional $10 a month, which offers a nationwide local calling area, as well as free calls to the European Union, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and several Asian nations.

The loss of a $25 plan that includes basic Internet access and a bundled, 911-capable telephone line would be devastating to low-income Californians and senior citizens. During the Comcast-Time Warner Cable hearings, no topic elicited as much interest as Internet affordability. Time Warner Cable clearly offers a larger, superior product line for less money at ALL speed levels in California. Charter would bring Californians fewer options at more expensive prices.

Charter’s proposed solution to serve low-income Californians is the adoption of Bright House Networks’ Connect2Compete program, which offers restricted access to $9.95/month Internet service for those who qualify.

Stop the Cap! investigated Bright House Networks’ existing offer in a report to our readers[77] in June 2015, and we urge the Commission to look much more closely at the specific conditions Bright House customers have had to endure to qualify to subscribe:

1) You must have at least one child qualified for the National School Lunch Program. They need not be enrolled now.

2) You cannot have been a Bright House broadband customer during the last three months. If you are a current customer, you must first cancel and go without Internet service for 90 days (or call the phone company and hope to get a month-to-month DSL plan in the interim.)

3) If you have an overdue bill older than 12 months, you aren’t eligible until you pay it in full.

4) Bright House does not enroll customers in discounted Internet programs year-round. From a Bright House representative:

“We do participate in this particular program, however, it is only around September that we participate in it. This is a seasonal offer that we have which can only be requested from the middle of August to the middle of September, which is when most start up with school again for the year.”

5) Bright House does not take orders for the Low-Income Internet plan over the Internet. You have to enroll by phone: (205) 591-6880.

Families fall into poverty every day of the year, and poverty-stricken families move from one school district to another every day of the year. So it’s horribly unfair to tell them they’d qualify for this program if only they had fallen into poverty sometime between the middle of August and the middle of September.

It has been our experience covering service providers across all 50 states that most design these low-cost Internet access programs with revenue protection first in mind. Charter Communications is no different. As with Comcast, Connect2Compete is only available to families with school age children. Applicants face an intrusive, complicated, and time-restricted enrollment process designed to dampen and discourage enrollment.

The interest in meeting the needs of low-income customers would be laudable if not for the insistence that otherwise-qualified existing customers cannot downgrade their regular price broadband plan to Connect2Compete unless they voluntarily go without Internet service for three months.

We strongly recommend Charter Communications be compelled to continue Time Warner’s $14.99 Internet plan, but at speeds no less than 25Mbps, the minimum definition of entry-level “broadband” by the FCC. We also recommend Charter be required to further discount this plan to $9.95 a month for qualified customers who meet a simple income test the Commission can define and establish. These discount programs should not just be available to families with school-age children. Everyone needs affordable Internet access, whether you are single and looking for your first job or a fixed income senior citizen.

All restrictions for existing customers or those with an outstanding balance must be prohibited and sign-ups must be accepted 365 days a year with re-qualification occurring not more than once annually.

Charter’s broadband offers for lower-income Californians are simply not adequate.

Charter Communications’ Cable Pricing Is More Expensive and Less Flexible than Time Warner Cable’s Pricing

Charter’s commitment to improve cable television does not offer any significant benefit to cable TV subscribers. Both Time Warner Cable and Charter propose to move to all-digital cable television to free up bandwidth to offer improved broadband.

While consumers clamor for smaller, less-costly cable television packages, Charter Communications’ CEO Thomas Rutledge is credited for inventing the “triple play” concept of convincing customers to package more services – broadband, television and telephone — together in return for a discount. Reuters cited his penchant for “simplified pricing,”[78] which is why Charter offers most customers only two options for broadband service and one giant television package dubbed Spectrum TV containing more than 200 channels.[79]

Unfortunately, any benefits from an all-digital television package are likely to be dismissed when customers get the bill. Currently, many Time Warner Cable customers watch analog television channels on television sets around the home without the need to rent a costly set top box. Any transition to digital television will require the rental of a set top box or purchase of a third-party device to view cable television programming. These can represent costly add-ons for an already high cable bill.

With approximately 99 percent of customers renting their set-top box directly from their pay-tv provider, the set-top box rental market may be worth more than $19.5 billion per year, with the average American household spending more than $231 per year on set-top box rental fees. These are some of the findings from Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal’s (D-Conn.) query of the top-ten pay-tv multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs).[80]

Passed by Congress in December, the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014 repealed the set-top box integration ban, which enabled consumers to access technology that allowed use of a set-top box other than one leased from their cable company. Without the integration ban, by the end of this year, cable companies will no longer be required to make their services compatible with outside set-top boxes, like TiVo for example, bought directly by consumers in the retail marketplace.

American cable subscribers spend, on average, $89.16 a year renting a single set-top box. The average set-top box rental fee for each company was used to calculate an overall set-top box rental cost average across companies: $7.43 a month, or $89.16 per year. Considering many homes rent a DVR box to make and view recordings and maintain less-capable boxes on other televisions, the total cost adds up quickly. The average household spends $231.82 a year on set-top box rental fees, according to Sens. Markey and Blumenthal.

Charter proposes to introduce a new generation of set top boxes but as far as we know, has not disclosed the monthly cost of these IP-capable boxes to subscribers. We anticipate they will cost more than the current equipment provided by Time Warner Cable, which has also been increasing the cost of its set top box rentals. However, Time Warner allows customers to effectively purchase their set top boxes in the form of the Roku device, giving consumers the ability to completely eliminate the set top box rental fee is they so wish.[81]

Other Points the Commission Should Consider in Reviewing This Transaction

  • California must receive ‘most favored state’ status, meaning that whatever conditions other state commissions get from Charter must automatically apply to all Californians as well.
  • The Commission must insist that rural California is treated equally to the Los Angeles market. If this transaction is approved, Charter must be compelled to commit to continue Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade initiative across all of its service areas in California, to be completed within 30 months. Nothing less than that should be acceptable to the Commission. We agree with the New York DPS staff’s recommendation that Charter also be compelled to upgrade facilities to support gigabit broadband, and that should apply to California as well.This upgrade does not pose a significant challenge to any cable operator. With the upcoming introduction of DOCSIS 3.1 technology, cable operators even smaller than Charter will support 1Gbps broadband speeds as they drop analog television signals. Suddenlink[82], MidContinent[83], Cox[84], and Mediacom[85] already have gigabit deployment plans in the works. If Fargo, N.D. is getting gigabit broadband from MidContinent Communications in the near future, Charter should have no problem offering similar service to customers in the likes of Carlsbad, Hesperia, Jurupa Valley, and beyond.
  • The Commission must establish and enforce meaningful enforcement mechanisms should Charter fail to achieve its commitments as part of this transaction. Cable consolidation has never significantly benefited consumers. Charter is not guaranteeing Time Warner Cable customers will receive a lower bill as a result of this merger. Nor is it committing to pass along the lower prices it will achieve through negotiations for video programming volume discounts. Cable rates, especially for broadband, will continue to increase. Without meaningful competition, there is no incentive to give consumers a better deal or better service.

Again, we feel Commissioner Florio’s Alternate PD in the Comcast matter applies equally well here and that the application should be denied. If the Commission feels it must approve this transaction, however, the conditions that accompany it to achieve a true public interest benefit must be meaningful and ongoing. Any failure of New Charter to deliver on those commitments must include a direct benefit to customers, not just to the state government. If fines are imposed, customers should receive a cash rebate or equivalent service credit.
Conclusion

Cable operators know that once they secure a franchise or become the incumbent provider, no other cable company will negotiate with city officials to take over that franchise if the current provider’s application is denied during renewal. Once Charter (or any other cable company) establishes a presence, there is little to no chance that a community will be able to get rid of that provider if it fails to perform. That is why any franchise transfer that comes from an acquisition or merger must be treated with the utmost seriousness. Customers will likely live with the decision that this Commission makes for the next 20 years or more.

As the Commission must realize, this transaction does not involve just entertainment. Several months ago the Obama Administration declared broadband Internet access a “core utility:”[86]

“Broadband has steadily shifted from an optional amenity to a core utility for households, businesses and community institutions,” according to the report from the administration’s Broadband Opportunity Council. “Today, broadband is taking its place alongside water, sewer and electricity as essential infrastructure for communities.”

Our group strongly believes that California should not take a risk on Charter’s less-than-compelling offer when Time Warner Cable has demonstrated it is in a better financial position and has a proven track record of delivering on its commitments to improve service with its Maxx upgrade project. Time Warner Cable has superior options for low-income Californians, offers more broadband options and faster speeds, and has committed to providing unlimited Internet access – a critical prerequisite for consumers choosing to drop cable television’s one-size-fits-all bloated video packages.

[1] Comcast XFinity website: http://goo.gl/OlWFu3

[2] For instance: “Internet traffic is growing fast — but capacity is keeping pace” Telegeography. 3 September 2008. https://goo.gl/OFBPHX; and Bode, Karl. “The ‘Bandwidth Hog’ is a Myth” DLSreports. 30 November 2011. https://goo.gl/lv6jE5

[3] DSLreports.com (https://goo.gl/0sZasc)

[4] Brodkin, Jon. “Comcast VP: 300GB data cap is ‘business policy’ not ‘technical necessity’ Ars Technica.  14 August 2015. http://goo.gl/1lAFwJ

[5] Morran, Chris. “Leaked Comcast Doc Admits: Data Caps Have Nothing To Do With Congestion” Consumerist. 6 November 2015. http://goo.gl/Uq9o5c

[6] TWC 2014 Q3 Earnings Call. http://goo.gl/Oz9hnL

[7] U.S. Government Accountability Office. “FCC Should Track the Application of Fixed Internet Usage-Based Pricing and Help Improve Consumer Education. November 2014. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-108

[8] Reply Testimony of Lee L. Selwyn. 15 January 2016. Pages 75-77.

[9] Brodkin, Jon.  “Sling CEO: Comcast data caps so low they hurt competing video providers” Ars Technica. 7 December 2015. http://goo.gl/w98cqJ

[10] Pew Research Center “Home Broadband 2015” report. Page 19, as cited in NHMC reply testimony.

[11] Brodkin, Jon. “Watch out for data caps: Video hungry cord-cutters use 328GB a month” Ars Technica. 14 May 2014.  http://goo.gl/0O8vtR

[12] Arbel, Tali. “How Comcast wants to meter the internet” Associated Press. 27 October 2015. http://goo.gl/tnc66p

[13] Horn, Leslie. “You can burn through your entire broadband data cap in one long weekend” Gizmodo. 18 February 2014. http://goo.gl/Z0yQfY; and also Reply Testimony of Lee L. Selwyn, 15 January 2016, page 114.

[14] Frankel, Daniel. “Survey: 56% of pay-tv customers would ditch ESPN in order to save $8 every month.” FierceCable. 13 Jan 2016. http://goo.gl/CQRCpp

[15] Heisler, Yoni. “How much money does cutting the cord really save?” BGR.  12 November 2015. https://goo.gl/tmiQL2; also Jones, Stacy. “Cost of cable TV vs internet streaming” Bankrate. 24 November 2014. http://goo.gl/tGJqK5

[16] Brodkin, Jon. “Comcast launches streaming TV service that doesn’t count against data caps” Ars Technica. 19 November 2015. http://goo.gl/ITJusN

[17] Finley, Klint. “Comcast may have found a major net neutrality loophole” Wired. 20 November 2015. http://goo.gl/zyFJku

[18] 2 November 2015 Statement of Dr. Scott Morton, Parts 132-133, pages 48-49.

[19] Brodkin, Jon. “House Republicans urge court to throw out net neutrality rules” Ars Technica.

11 November 2015. http://goo.gl/TBV56e

[20] Fung, Brian. “Republicans are trying to defund net neutrality. Will it work?” Washington Post. 24 July 2015.  https://goo.gl/Shk99e

[21] Ravenscraft, Eric. “Sponsored Data Is The Newest, Biggest Threat to Net Neutrality” Lifehacker. 20 January 2016. http://goo.gl/SXtl9C

[22] GAO “Report to the Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives” (GAO-15-108) page 26. http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/667164.pdf

[23] Dampier, Phillip. “Wall Street: Usage Caps Are an Important Weapon in Fight Over Cord-Cutting.” Stop the Cap!  18 January 2016. http://goo.gl/FKhsFO

[24] GAO “Report to the Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives” (GAO-15-108) page 26.

[25] CPUC A.14-04-013, A14-06-012 Alternate Proposed Decision, pages 71-72.

[26] Marshini Chetty, Richard Banks, A.J. Bernheim Brush, Jonathan Donner, and Rebecca E. Grinter. “‘You’re Capped!’ Understanding the Effects of Bandwidth Caps on Broadband Use in the Home.” ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. May 2012.

[27] Haynie, Devon. “Why Online Education May Drive Down the Cost of Your Degree” US News and World Report.  3 June 2014.  http://goo.gl/HSH1Pp

[28] Kehl, Danielle and Lucey, Patrick. “Artificial Scarcity: How Data Caps Harm Consumers and Innovation”  Open Technology Institute. 30 June 2015. https://goo.gl/zt5Jj9

[29] Yao, Deborah. “Time Warner Cable shelves some Internet cap plans” ABC News. 18 April 2009.  http://goo.gl/YynOiM

[30] Simmermon, Jeff. “Launching An Optional Usage-Based Broadband Pricing Plan In Southern Texas” TWC “Untangled” Blog. 27 February 2012.  http://goo.gl/PoS5nR

[31] Dampier, Phillip. “Time Warner Cable Recommits: No Mandatory Usage Caps As Long As Company Remains Independent” Stop the Cap! 30 October 2014.  http://goo.gl/6vxXNx

[32] Dampier, Phillip. “Time Warner Cable Admits Usage-Based Pricing is a Big Failure; Only Thousands Enrolled” Stop the Cap! 13 March 2014. http://goo.gl/lCqp4k

[33] Q2 2015 Time Warner Cable Results-Earnings Call. 30 June 2015. http://goo.gl/JINiwn

[34] Q3 2015 Time Warner Cable Earnings Call. 29 October 2015. https://goo.gl/piDDDc

[35] Media Alliance Reply Testimony to Joint Applicants Opening Testimony, pages 2-3. 15 January 2015.

[36] “Redacted Comments of the New York State Department of Public Service Staff” September 16, 2015. Page 39. http://goo.gl/C1Xpph

[37] Opening Testimony of Charles Fisher, page 6.

[38] Id at 7-8.

[39] “Statement of Dr. Fiona Scott Morton re the Merger of Charter, TWC, and BHN” 2 November 2015. Page 48. http://goo.gl/eEtY5Z

[40] Higginbotham, Stacey. “Want to know if your ISP is capping data? Check our updated chart.” GigaOm. 15 November 2013. https://goo.gl/owGq96

[41] DSL Reports: https://goo.gl/1RXjgm

[42] DSL Reports: https://goo.gl/aoFvuT

[43] “Charter Residential Internet Acceptable Use Policy.” https://goo.gl/8ICMe1

[44] Testimony of Laura Blum Smith, 15 January 2016. Page 14.

[45] Eggerton, John. “FCC Seeks Data Dump from Charter, TWC, Brighthouse” Multichannel News. 23 September 2015.  http://goo.gl/nJEazB

[46] Dampier, Phillip. “Charter and Time Warner Cable Try Internet-Only TV Service to Combat Cord-Cutting, Cord-Nevers” Stop the Cap! 26 October 2015.  http://goo.gl/doimuR

[47] Opening Testimony of Charles Fisher, page 4.

[48] Shields, Todd. “Cable Magnate Malone’s Stakes Scrutinized in Charter-TWC Deal” Bloomberg News. 9 November 2015. http://goo.gl/s6VTMw

[49] Kang, Cecilia and Fung, Brian. “The Darth Vader of Telecom is Back” Washington Post. 26 May 2016.  https://goo.gl/qWS480

[50] Lasar, Matthew. “Sirius/XM merger approved with new conditions” Ars Technica. 28 July 2008. http://goo.gl/LO4aaQ

[51] Lieberman, David. “Sirius XM CEO Mel Karmazin Vows Big Vows Big Consumer Price Hike (If the FCC Allows It)” Deadline Hollywood. 3 May 2011.  https://goo.gl/tTYZE3

[52] Cox, Kate. “Poll Sponsored By Charter Says Charter Is Great, More Charter is Greater” Consumerist. 20 January 2016. http://goo.gl/Xp0wsJ

[53] Opening Testimony of Adam Falk, page 2.

[54] Charter currently charges just under $65/mo for its 60Mbps tier of standalone internet with wireless gateway (outside of promotions). In Los Angeles, though, Time Warner Cable offers for that exact same amount 200Mbps also with a wireless gateway. Time Warner provides over three times the speed Charter does for the same price. That certainly is a countervailing harm to consumers.

[55] Unlike Time Warner, Charter bakes its modem fee into the internet plan. So every single customer is paying that modem fee… even if they own their own modem (like many Time Warner customers do). Not only is that not a “customer friendly billing practice,” but it’s another countervailing harm as well. Later on page 18 of his opening statement, Mr. Falk says “New Charter will bring base speed tiers from 15 Mbps to Charter’s current standard of 60 Mbps at uniform pricing within a year of closing.” Those unfortunate consumers get to take a double hit: not only will Charter be increasing the price of the comparable tier, but they will be taking away even the option to have a cheaper tier should the customer want it. It’s a massive price hike with fewer options available. That certainly doesn’t sound like the “customer friendly billing practices” Mr. Falk is touting, nor does it make his claim that consumers will face no harms from this merger ring particularly true.

[56] On page 3 of his opening statement, Mr. Falk claims that New Charter will face “other forms of competition (e.g., wireless providers).” But as described above, Dr. Scott Morton admits that wireless providers are actually NOT competition for New Charter’s internet offerings.

[57] Also on page 3, Mr. Falk states that “New Charter will face significant competition from wireline competitors (e.g., AT&T and Frontier).” But in reality, the areas where AT&T and/or Frontier (or even Verizon) actually overlap New Charter territory is extremely limited. And at any rate, this proposed mitigation condition would sunset where that overlap is present.

[58] Mr. Falk’s states: “Charter offers its base 60 Mbps service at lower prices than other providers for comparable service, without modem fees…” This simply isn’t true. Currently, Time Warner offers a 50 Mbps off contract for $45/mo. That’s comparable and significantly less expensive than Charter. TWC also offers 100Mbps at $55/mo… still less than Charter’s price for the slower 60Mbps. Mr. Falk’s statement is simply false.

[59] Testimony of Marc Puckett on behalf of Intervenor Town of Apple Valley, page 2. 15 January 2015.

[60] CPUC ALJ Ruling A.15-07-009 page 2.

[61] Testimony of Martyn Roetter on behalf of the County of Monterey. 15 January 2015. Page 1.

[62] Reply Testimony of Lee L. Selwyn. 15 January 2016. Page 116.

[63] Statement of Dr. Scott Morton. 2 November 2015. Page 51, footnote 187.

[64] USGAO. “Report to the Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives” (GAO-15-108). November 2014. Page 11. http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/667164.pdf

[65] Id. at 23.

[66] Reply Testimony of Lee L. Selwyn. 15 January 2016. Page 132.

[67] Id pages 24-25.

[68] Brodkin, Jon. “Complaint Factory: Angry Internet subscribers tee off against Comcast, Verizon, AT&T.” Ars Technica. 29 December 2015.  http://goo.gl/484NYO

[69] Dampier, Phillip. “Comcast Customers Buy $35 Usage Cap Insurance, Report ‘Unlimited’ is Slower Than Ever.” Stop the Cap! 28 December 2015.  http://goo.gl/SMfsOg

[70] Id.

[71] Id.

[72] CPUC A.14-04-013, A14-06-012 Alternate Proposed Decision, page 77.

[73] TWC Untangled Blog. 30 April 2015. http://goo.gl/6gp3er

[74] TWC Untangled Blog. 14 July 2015. http://goo.gl/eWZEGl

[75] TWC Q4 2014 Earnings Call Transcript on Seeking Alpha. http://goo.gl/c8QZtR

[76] TWC Untangled Blog. 14 July 2015. http://goo.gl/jafclZ

[77] Dampier, Phillip. “Bright House’s Mysterious Internet Discount Program Charter Wants to Adopt Nationwide” 25 June 2015. http://goo.gl/DVlwpF

[78] Baker, Liana. “Analysis: Charter’s bid for Time Warner Cable hinges on Rutledge’s skill. Reuters. http://goo.gl/QndjSd

[79] Charter Channel Lineup. https://www.charter.com/browse/content/tv#/channel-lineup

[80] Senator Ed Markey Press Release. 30 July 2015. http://goo.gl/PNy2b0

[81] Mlot, Stephanie. “Replace your Time Warner Cable Box with a Roku” PC Magazine. 10 November 2015. http://goo.gl/GkSbu7

[82] Baumgartner, Jeff. “Suddenlink Boots Up 1-Gig Broadband” Multichannel News. 9 July 2015. http://goo.gl/U2SK4X

[83] Midco Press Release. 17 November 2014. https://goo.gl/pKmChH

[84] Baumgartner, Jeff. “Cox Plots DOCSIS 3.1 Plans” Multichannel News. 22 September 2015. http://goo.gl/LDIFsR

[85] Baumgartner, Jeff. “Mediacom Sets Residential 1-Gig Rollout” Multichannel News. 9 September 2015. http://goo.gl/MGFQ02

[86] Trujillo, Mario. “Obama administration declares broadband ‘core utility’ in report” The Hill. 21 September 2015. http://goo.gl/5vazOL

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