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CenturyLink: Usage-Based Billing That Makes No Sense, But Will Earn Dollars

followthemoneyCenturyLink will begin a usage-based billing trial in Yakima, Wa., starting July 26 that will combine usage caps with an overlimit fee on customers that exceed their monthly usage allowance. The trial in Washington state may soon be a fact of life for most CenturyLink customers across the country, unless customers rebel.

Already at a speed disadvantage with its cable competitors, CenturyLink will likely alienate customers with a new 300GB usage cap on DSL customers who can manage speeds up to 7Mbps, and 600GB for those lucky enough to exceed 7Mbps. Customers will be given a browser-injected warning when they reach 65% and 85% of their allowance. If a customer exceeds it, they will have overlimit fees forgiven twice before the usual de facto industry overlimit penalty rate of $10 for 50 additional gigabytes will be added to their bill, not to exceed $50 in penalties for any billing cycle.

DSL Reports received word from readers in Yakima they had the unlucky privilege of serving as CenturyLink’s first test market for hard caps and overlimit fees, and was the first to bring the story to the rest of the country.

CenturyLink hasn’t wanted to draw much attention to the usage-based billing change, quietly adjusting their “excessive usage policy FAQ” that takes effect on July 26. But it has begun directly notifying customers who will be enrolled in the compulsory trial.

“Data usage limits encourage reasonable use of your CenturyLink High Speed Internet service so that all customers can receive the optimal internet experience they have purchased with their service plan,” states the FAQ.

But counterintuitively, CenturyLink will exempt those likely to consume even more of CenturyLink’s resources than its low-speed DSL service allows by keeping unlimited use policies in place for their commercial customers and those subscribed to gigabit speed broadband.

CenturyLink’s justification for usage caps with customers seems to suggest that “excessive usage” will create a degraded experience for other customers. But CenturyLink’s chief financial officer Stewart Ewing shines a light on a more plausible explanation for CenturyLink to slap the caps on — because their competitors already are.

“Regarding the metered data plans; we are considering that for second half of the year,” Ewing told investors on a conference call. “We think it is important and our competition is using the metered plans today and we think that exploring those starts and trials later this year is our expectation.”

CenturyLink's overlimit penalties (Image courtesy: DSL Reports)

CenturyLink’s new overlimit penalties (Image courtesy: DSL Reports)

In fact, CenturyLink has never acknowledged any capacity issues with their broadband network, and has claimed ongoing upgrades have kept up with customer usage demands. Until now. On the west coast, CenturyLink’s competitors are primarily Comcast (Pacific Northwest) and Cox Communications (California, Nevada, Arizona). Both cable operators are testing usage caps. In many CenturyLink markets further east, Comcast is also a common competitor, with Time Warner Cable/Charter present in the Carolinas. But in many of the rural markets CenturyLink serves, there is no significant cable competitor at all.

Usage Cap Man is back.

Usage Cap Man is back, protecting high profits and preserving the opportunity of charging more for less service.

As Karl Bode from DSL Reports points out, for years CenturyLink has already been collecting a sneaky surcharge from customers labeled an “internet cost recovery fee,” supposedly defraying broadband usage and expansion costs. But in the absence of significant competition, there is no reason CenturyLink cannot charge even more, and also enjoy protection from cord-cutting. Customers who use their CenturyLink DSL service to watch shows online will face the deterrent of a usage cap. Customers subscribed to CenturyLink’s Prism TV will be able to access many of those shows on-demand without making a dent in their usage allowance.

For years, American consumers have listened to cable and phone companies promote a “robust and competitive broadband marketplace,” providing the best internet service money can buy. But in reality, there is increasing evidence of a duopoly marketplace that offers plenty of opportunities to raise prices, cap usage, and deliver a substandard internet experience.

As Stop the Cap! has argued since 2008, the only true innovations many phone and cable companies are practicing these days are clever ways to raise prices, protect their markets, and cut costs. Consumers who have experienced broadband service in parts of Asia and Europe understand the difference between giving customers a truly cutting-edge experience and one that requires customers to cut other household expenses to afford increasingly expensive internet access.

We recommend CenturyLink customers share their dislike of CenturyLink’s style of “innovation” in the form of a complaint against usage caps and usage-based billing with the FCC. It takes just a few minutes, and adding your voice to tens of thousands of Americans that have already asked the FCC to ban usage caps and usage pricing will keep this issue on the front burner. It will help strengthen our case that providers must stop treating internet usage as a limited resource that has to be rationed to customers. Wall Street believes the FCC has given a green light to usage caps and usage pricing, and the risk of attracting regulator attention by imposing higher broadband prices on consumers is pretty low. We need to change that thinking so analysts warn providers against being too greedy, out of fear the FCC will impose a regulatory crackdown.

America’s 5G Revolution Comes By Giving Wireless Industry Whatever It Wants

Wheeler

Wheeler

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler today told an audience at the National Press Club that 5G — the next generation of wireless networks — “is a national priority, and why, this Thursday, I am circulating to my colleagues proposed new rules that will identify and open up vast amounts of spectrum for 5G applications.”

Wheeler’s proposal, dubbed “Spectrum Frontiers,” is supposed to deliver wireless connectivity as fast as fiber optic broadband, and in Wheeler’s view, will deliver competitive high-speed access for consumers.

“If the Commission approves my proposal next month, the United States will be the first country in the world to open up high-band spectrum for 5G networks and applications,” said Wheeler. “And that’s damn important because it means U.S. companies will be first out of the gate.”

Central to Wheeler’s 5G proposal is opening up very high frequency millimeter wave spectrum — for unlicensed and licensed data communications. Wheeler named two in his speech: a “massive” 14GHz unlicensed band and a 28GHz “shared band” that will allow mobile and satellite operators to co-exist.

“Consider that – 14,000 megahertz of unlicensed spectrum, with the same flexible-use rules that has allowed unlicensed to become a breeding ground for innovation,” Wheeler said.

5g“Sharing is essential for the future of spectrum utilization. Many of the high-frequency bands we will make available for 5G currently have some satellite users, and some federal users, or at least the possibility of future satellite and federal users,” Wheeler noted. “This means sharing will be required between satellite and terrestrial wireless; an issue that is especially relevant in the 28GHz band. It is also a consideration in the additional bands we will identify for future exploration. We will strike a balance that offers flexibility for satellite users to expand, while providing terrestrial licensees with predictability about the areas in which satellite will locate.”

The CTIA – The Wireless Association, America’s largest mobile carrier lobbying and trade association, is all for opening up new spectrum for the use of their members — AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile, among others. They just don’t want to share it. Ironically, they are calling on the FCC to regulate who gets access to what frequencies and what services can use them. They’d also appreciate federal rules restricting or preempting local officials responsible for approving where new cell towers can be located, and some form of price regulation for backhaul services would also be nice:

First, we need the right rules for high-band spectrum based on a time-tested regulatory framework. It must strike a reasonable balance for licensed and unlicensed use while promoting investment with clear service and licensing rules. We should avoid experimenting with novel spectrum sharing regimes or new technology mandates.

Second, we need the right rules to help build our 5G infrastructure. Traditional spectrum travels many miles, depending on large cell towers to transmit signals. In contrast, high-band spectrum – capable of carrying greater amounts of data –travels meters, not miles and will require the deployment of thousands of new small cells the size of smoke alarms. This network evolution requires a new infrastructure approach, and Congress, the FCC and states must streamline and simplify local siting and rights of way rules.

Wheeler recognizes that 5G services will work very differently from the 3G and 4G networks we’ve used in the past.

ctia

CTIA is the wireless industry’s biggest lobbyist and trade association.

“5G will use much higher-frequency bands than previously thought viable for mobile broadband and other applications,” Wheeler said. “Such millimeter wave signals have physical properties that are both a limitation and a strength: they tend to travel best in narrow and straight lines, and do not go through physical obstacles very well. This means that very narrow signals in an urban environment tend to bounce around buildings and other obstacles making it difficult to connect to a moving point. But it also means that the spectrum can be reused over and over again.”

In other words, think about 5G as an initially limited range wireless network that may turn out to be best suited for fixed wireless service or limited range hotspots, especially before network densification helps make 5G service more ubiquitous. The wireless industry doesn’t think Wheeler’s vision will be enough to resolve capacity issues in the short term, and is calling on the FCC to release even more low and mid-band spectrum in the 600MHz range that can travel inside buildings and offer a wider coverage area.

Wheeler’s recognition that 5G’s shorter range signals will likely require a massive overlay of new infrastructure has also opened the door for the CTIA to call on the FCC to revisit local zoning and antenna placement rules and policies, with the likely goal of preempting or watering down local authority to accept or reject where cell phone companies want to place their next small cell or cell tower. Wireless companies are also expected to push for easy access to utility poles, time limits to approve new cell tower construction applications, and pricing regulation for fiber lines needed to connect 5G infrastructure to backhaul networks.

Cell tower camouflage failure.

Cell tower camouflage failure.

On the issue of backhaul — the connection between a cell tower and the wireless carrier’s network, the FCC is planning a pro-regulatory “anchor pricing” approach to benefit wireless companies. Consumers can also relate to being overcharged for slow speed Internet access with little or no competition, but the FCC is only acting for the benefit of the wireless companies for now — the same companies that would undoubtedly complain loudly if anchor pricing was ever applied to them.

“Lack of competition doesn’t just hurt the deployment of wireless networks today, it threatens as well to delay the buildout of 5G networks with its demand for many, many more backhaul connections to many, many more antennae,” complained Wheeler. “Before the end of this year the Commission will take up a reform proposal – supported by the nation’s leading wireless carriers, save one – that will encourage innovation and investment in Business Data Services while ensuring that lack of competition in some places cannot be used to hold 5G hostage.”

While Wheeler’s goals are laudable, there are stunning examples of hypocrisy and self-interest from the wireless industry. Yet again, the industry is seeking regulatory protection from having to share spectrum with unlicensed users, existing licensees, or competitors.  No letting the “free market” decide here. Second, there are absolutely no assurances the wireless industry will deliver substantial home broadband competition. Verizon and AT&T will be effectively competing with themselves in areas where they already offer wired broadband. Is there a willingness from AT&T and Verizon to sell unlimited broadband over 5G networks or will customers be expected to pay “usage pack”-prices as high as $10 per gigabyte, which doesn’t include the monthly cost of the service itself. Offering customers unlimited 5G could cannibalize the massive profits earned selling data plans to wireless customers.

Cactus or cell tower

Cactus or cell tower

Upgrading to 5G service will be expensive and take years to reach many neighborhoods. Verizon’s chief financial officer believes 5G wireless will be more cost-effective to deploy than its FiOS fiber to the home network, but considering Verizon largely ended its deployment of FiOS several years ago and has allowed its DSL customers to languish just as long, 5G will need to be far more profitable to stimulate Verizon’s interest in spending tens of billions on 5G infrastructure. It does not seem likely the result will be $25/month unlimited, fiber-like fast, Internet plans.

Although the mobile industry will argue its investment dollars should be reason enough to further deregulate and dis-empower local officials that oversee the placement of cellular infrastructure, it would be a tremendous mistake to allow wireless carriers to erect cell towers and small cells wherever they see fit. Most small cells aren’t much larger than a toaster and will probably fit easily on utility poles. But it will likely spark another wave of pole access controversies. The aesthetics of traditional cell tower placement, especially in historical districts, parks, and suburbs, almost always create controversy. The FCC should not tip the balance of authority for tower placement away from those that have to live with the results.

The mobile industry doesn’t make investments for free, and before we reward them for investing in their networks, let’s recall the United States pays some of the highest mobile service prices in the world. The industry argues what you get in return for that $100+ wireless bill is better than ever, an argument similarly used by the cable industry to justify charging $80 a month for hundreds of channels you don’t watch or want. Therefore, incentives offered to the wireless industry should be tied to permanent pro-consumer commitments, such as unlimited 5G broadband, better rural coverage, and the power to unbundle current wireless packages and ditch services like unlimited texting many customers don’t need. Otherwise, it’s just another one-sided corporate welfare plan we can’t afford.

Unintended Consequences: Feds Let Telecom Companies Skirt Taxes While States Crack Down

Tax-FreeSome of America’s largest telecommunications companies continue to pay almost nothing in federal taxes even as state taxing authorities hungry for revenue  are getting more aggressive about denying access to tax loopholes and suing some for failing to pay their fair share.

Special interest-inspired “pro-business” loopholes have been a growing part of the U.S. tax code since the Reagan Administration. The premise seemed reasonable enough: high corporate taxes are simply passed on to consumers as a cost of doing business, so lowering them will trickle savings down to the consumer and also free capital to create more jobs. It has not worked that way, however. Product pricing for services like broadband have been based more on what customers believe the product is worth, not what it costs to deliver, and Verizon was among the companies cited for significant job cuts after its corporate tax rate plummeted. Regardless of corporate tax rates, providers continue to raise broadband prices, even as the costs to provide the service are declining. The old maxim of charging what the market will bear is alive and well. So where do the tax savings go? Into share buybacks, shareholder dividend payouts, increased executive salaries and bonuses, and lobbying.

Some states are discovering they have been leaving money on the table when they don’t insist on collecting owed state taxes, and as state budgets continue to be strapped with increasing medical and infrastructure-related expenses, taking companies to court who try to avoid their tax obligations is getting more popular.

One of the biggest potential windfalls could eventually fill New York State coffers with $300 million in damages and penalties courtesy of Sprint, which was accused of deliberately not billing customers for state taxes on its wireless services over seven years.

SprintYesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court turned away Sprint’s effort to void an October 2015 New York Court of Appeals decision that would allow the state to proceed to court arguing Sprint intentionally failed to collect more than $100 million in taxes from New Yorkers from 2005 on. At the time, Sprint was attempting to rebuild its market share by luring customers with cheaper mobile service. One way to offer a lower price is to stop charging tax. In New York alone, municipalities lost $4.6 million a month as a result of the scheme.

Sprint has repeatedly argued the lawsuit is invalid because a 2000 federal law trumps a 2002 New York State law that covered state taxes. The court disagreed, and the fact a whistleblower at Sprint revealed what Sprint was up to didn’t help. The case will now likely head to state court or get settled.

Verizon-Tax-Dodging-bannerWhile $300 million sounds like a lot, it pales in comparison to the money Verizon manages to dodge paying the Internal Revenue Service. The phone company is the poster child of corporate tax dodging according to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Sanders targeted Verizon because between 2008-2013, Verizon not only did not pay a nickel in federal taxes, it actually received a refund from the federal government after achieving a federal tax rate of -2.5%, despite booking $42.5 billion in profits. American taxpayers effectively subsidized Verizon when it got its refund check.

In the last two years, Verizon is paying federal taxes once again, but at a rate of 12.4%, well below the tax rate of most middle class Americans.

It’s a sensitive matter for Verizon, because CEO Lowell McAdam launched a full-scale media blitz trying to paint the Sanders campaign as inaccurate. McAdam claims Verizon actually paid a 35% tax rate in 2015, which would only be true if the company added the tax obligations it owes on the billions of dollars it stashes in overseas bank accounts. Foreign taxes don’t help the American taxpayer, suggest critics, and Citizens for Tax Justice consider McAdam’s claims “artificial.”

“In fact, over the past 15 years, Verizon has paid a federal tax rate averaging just 12.4 percent on $121 billion in U.S. profits, meaning that the company has found a way to shelter about two-thirds of its U.S. profits from federal taxes over this period,” the group claims. “In five of the last 15 years, the company paid zero in federal taxes. While there is no indication that this spectacular feat of tax avoidance is anything but legal (the company’s consistently low tax rates are most likely due to overly generous accelerated depreciation tax provisions that Congress has expanded over the last decade), few Americans would describe the company avoiding tax on $78 billion of profits as ‘fair.’”

unintendedBruce Kushnick, executive director of the New Networks Institute, claims Verizon also specializes in dumping most of its costs and “losses” on Verizon Communications, which owns its legacy wireline network, which helps them cut their tax obligations.

Too often, changes to the U.S. tax code have unintentional consequences, especially when corporations can hire tax attorneys that outclass those working for the federal government.

Fredric Grundeman helped draft a tax bill that was supposed to curb loopholes in the estate tax and though well-trained as a trusted attorney at the Treasury Department, the bill quickly backfired. The new law opened even larger loopholes than those it was originally written to close, allowing some of America’s richest families to pass on money to heirs with no tax implications at all. Grundeman admits legislators often don’t recognize a new tax law’s potential for abuse.

“How do I say it?” Grundeman told Bloomberg News back in 2013. “When Congress enacts a law, it isn’t always well thought out.”

That is also true on the state level.

Oregon officials push a button to exempt Google Fiber from a state property tax.

Oregon officials push a legislative button and give Google Fiber a tax break. Then Comcast shows up.

Oregon wants to attract Google Fiber to Portland, but Google objected to one of the state’s property tax provisions that affects companies that sell data services. Oregon partly sets the tax rate commensurate with the value of the provider’s brand name, among other factors. It’s all very vague, but not so vague that Google would miss it could pay an even higher tax rate that its competitors — Comcast and CenturyLink.

Oregon’s legislature voted to correct the problem by exempting providers that offer gigabit broadband. The tax law changes were tailored to benefit Google, assuming Comcast and CenturyLink would continue to drag their feet to upgrade their Oregon networks.

But the enterprising lawyers at Comcast promptly requested the same tax exemption that Google would get in return for building its fiber network in the state. The reason? Comcast had introduced its own gigabit Internet service on a much more limited scale.

Rep. Phil Barnhart (D-Eugene) admitted Oregon had another law on its hands with unintended consequences. Barnhart told utility regulators this spring his fellow lawmakers never intended to give the tax break to Comcast, which charges hundreds of dollars for 2,000Mbps service. But nobody bothered to set any price guidelines in the law, meaning Google can charge $70 a month for gigabit service and get a tax break and Comcast can offer 2Gbps service in a limited number of locations, at the “go away” price of $300 a month, with start-up costs up to $1,000, and a multi-year contract, and get the exact same tax break.

Barnhart

Barnhart

Or maybe not, at least for now.

Last week, the Oregon Department of Revenue ruled Comcast is not eligible for that tax break, at least not this year, according to The Oregonian. The department wouldn’t explain why, citing taxpayer confidentiality. For good measure, the same department also rejected applications from Google Fiber and Frontier Communications (Frontier operates a very limited FiOS fiber to the home network in communities including Beaverton, Hillsboro, and Gresham that it inherited from Verizon), claiming Google and Frontier’s gigabit networks were theoretical in Oregon and there needed to be gigabit service actually up and running to qualify.

That leaves Google in a classic catch-22. It won’t bring fiber to Oregon so long as it faces a stiff tax bill and tax authorities won’t forgive the tax until there is gigabit fiber up and running. For some taxpayers, what burns the most is the legislature paved the road to tax bliss to attract Google Fiber, but the only company that may actually ultimately travel down it is Comcast.

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!

Bell Acquires Manitoba Telecom for $3.9 Billion; Cell Phone Rates Expected to Rise

bell badBCE, Inc., the parent company of Bell Canada, has acquired Manitoba Telecom Services, Inc. (MTS), in a deal worth $3.9 billion, further enlarging Canada’s largest telecommunications company.

“Under the terms of this transaction, MTS will achieve much more than it could have as an independent company,” Manitoba Telecom president and CEO Jay Forbes said in a conference call with analysts. “BCE’s commitment to invest $1 billion over five years into Manitoba’s telecommunications infrastructure will also contribute greatly to the prosperity of our province and the quality of our customer experience.”

Many MTS customers and consumer advocates disagree with Forbes’ assessment, noting the deal will further consolidate Canada’s wireless marketplace by eliminating the province’s largest wireless carrier – MTS. The wireless business has nearly 500,000 customers – by far the largest provider in the region. Under the deal, BCE will sell off about one-third of MTS’ customers and retail storefronts to competitor Telus in a separate transaction.

Manitoba and neighboring residents in Saskatchewan pay some of the lowest prices for telecom services in Canada. MTS offers unlimited, flat rate Internet plans for both its broadband and wireless customers — plans likely to disappear or become more expensive after Bell takes over. The result, according to one Canadian telecom expert, will be higher rates.

“With MTS out of the way — and Bell and Telus sharing the same wireless network — prices are bound to increase to levels more commonly found in the rest of the country,” lawyer Michael Geist wrote on his blog.

The deal is also likely to deliver a death-blow to a government commitment assuring Canadians of at least four competing choices for wireless service. If Bell’s buyout is approved by regulators, Manitoba will be served by just three competitors — all charging substantially more than MTS.

...but soon we'll be with Bell.

…but soon we’ll be with Bell.

“Compare Bell’s wireless pricing for consumers in Manitoba and Ontario,” offered Geist. “The cost of an unlimited nationwide calling share plan in Manitoba is $50. The same plan in Ontario is $65. The difference in data costs are even larger: Bell offers 6GB for $20 in Manitoba. The same $20 will get you just 500MB in Ontario. In fact, 5GB costs $50 in Ontario, more than double the cost in Manitoba for less data. The other carriers such as Rogers and Telus also offer lower pricing in Manitoba. The reason is obvious: the presence of a fourth carrier creates more competition and lower pricing.”

That Manitoba Telecom would be up for sale at all came as a result of its controversial privatization in 2006 under a previous Conservative provincial government. The decision to privatize came despite a commitment from then-Premier Gary Filmon that Manitoba Telecom should remain a provincially-owned telecom company. Critics point to one possible reason for the flip-flop. Shortly after leaving politics, Filmon was appointed to the board of directors of the privatized company and was given $1.4 million in director fees and compensation over ten years, along with company shares with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Economist Toby Sanger compared costs and returns of Manitoba Telecom and SaskTel, Saskatchewan’s publicly-owned telecommunications company. After two decades, the cost of a basic landline with SaskTel is $8 less per month than MTS, and SaskTel paid $497 million in corporate income taxes to the citizens of Saskatchewan – SaskTel’s shareholders – over the past five years, compared to $1.2 million paid by MTS over the same time period. In 2014, the CEO of SaskTel earned $499,492 compared to $7.8 million paid to the CEO of MTS for managing a very similar sized operation.

The acquisition will be reviewed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the Competition Bureau and Industry Canada, and could be approved later this year or early 2017.

Cable Industry & Friends Freak Out Over Set-Top Box Competition: It Destroys Everything

comcast-set-topIt’s all hands on deck for a cable industry desperate to protect billions in revenue earned from a monopoly stranglehold on the set-top box, now under threat by a proposal at the FCC to open up the market to competition.

While cable industry groups decry the proposal as a solution looking for a problem, at least 99 percent of cable customers are required to lease the equipment they need to watch pay television. That has become a reliable source of revenue for the industry and set-top box manufacturers, who share the $231 each customer pays a year in rental fees. Collectively that amounts to $20 billion in annual revenue. The FCC argues there is ample evidence cable operators and manufacturers are taking advantage of that captive marketplace, raising rental fees an average of 185% over the last 20 years while other electronic items have seen price declines as much as 90 percent.

With that kind of money on the line and a recent statement from the Obama Administration it fully supports FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler’s proposal, Wall Street has gotten jittery over cable stocks — a clear sign investors are worried about the economic impact of additional competition and lower prices.

Wheeler

Wheeler

“Instead of spending nearly $1,000 over four years to lease a set of behind-the-times boxes, American families will have options to own a device for much less money that will integrate everything they want — including their cable or satellite content, as well as online streaming apps — in one, easier-to-use gadget,” Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in a White House blog post.

The proposal would coordinate the establishment of an “open standard” for set-top box technology, making it possible for multiple manufacturers to enter the market and compete.

The idea is not without precedent. The cable modem marketplace uses a DOCSIS standard any manufacturer can use to launch their own modem. Once the modem is certified, broadband consumers can choose to either rent the modem from their cable operator ($10 a month from Time Warner) or buy one outright, usually for less than $70, easily paying for itself in less than one year.

But the set-top box proposal just doesn’t add up, argues Comcast — one of the strongest opponents of Chairman Wheeler’s proposal.

“A new government technology mandate makes little sense when the apps-based marketplace solution also endorsed by the FCC’s technical advisory committee is driving additional retail availability of third-party devices without any of the privacy, diversity, intellectual property, legal authority, or other substantial concerns raised by the chairman’s mandate,” wrote David Cohen, Comcast’s top lobbyist.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) — the country’s largest cable industry lobbying group, said much the same thing.

The Roku set top streaming device.

The Roku set-top streaming device.

“By reading the White House blog, you have to wonder how they could ignore that the world’s largest tech companies — which are often touted in other Administration initiatives — including Apple, Amazon, Google, Netflix and many others are providing exactly the choice in video services and devices that they claim to want,” the NCTA wrote.

Their argument is that a competitive set-top box market has already emerged without any interference from the FCC. Time Warner Cable, for example, voluntarily offers most of its lineup on the Roku platform. Comcast’s XFINITY TV app allows subscribers to watch cable channels over a variety of iOS and Android devices. Several operators also support videogame consoles as an alternative to renting set-top boxes.

But few allow customers to completely escape renting at least one set-top box, especially for premium movie channels. Others don’t support more than one or two streaming video consoles like Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire TV.

In Canada, cable customers can often buy their own set-top boxes and DVRs (known as PVRs up north) from major electronics retailers like Best Buy. For example, Shaw customers in western Canada can purchase a XG1 500GB HD Dual Tuner PVR with 6 built-in tuners and a 500GB hard drive (upgradable), which supports recording up to 6 HD shows simultaneously, for under $350. With some cable companies charging up to $15 a month for similar equipment, it would take just under two years to recoup the purchase cost. Many cable subscribers rent the same DVR for as long as five years before the hard drive starts acting up, necessitating replacement (of the drive).

Endangered?

Endangered cable network? Minority programmers say set-top box competition will destroy their networks.

Arguing the technical issues of cable box competition isn’t apparently enough of a winning argument, so the industry has drafted the support of minority cable programmers and friendly legislators who have taken Hyperbole Hill with declarations that set-top box competition will result in “the ultimate extinction of minority and special-interest programmers.”

How?

A competitive set-top box manufacturer may decide to ignore the way cable channels are now numbered on the cable dial. With everything negotiable, many programmers offer discounts or other incentives to win a lower channel number, avoiding the Channel Siberia effect of finding one’s network on a four digit channel number that channel surfers will likely never reach.

Their fear is that an entity like Google or Apple will pay no attention to how Comcast or Time Warner chooses to number its channels, and will use a different system that puts the most popular channels first.

Fees:

Fees: $34.95 for TV package, $35.90 in equipment and service fees.

But that assumes consumers care about channel numbers and not programs. Those who argue the days of linear TV are coming to an end doubt opening the set-top box market up for competition presents the biggest threat to these minority and specialty programmers. Those that devote hours of their broadcast day to reruns and program length commercials are probably at the most risk, because they lack quality original programming viewers want to see.

Hal Singer, who produces research reports for the telecom industry-backed Progressive Policy Institute, even goes as far as to suggest competitive set-top boxes will discourage telephone companies from building fiber to the home service, because they won’t get the advertising revenue for TV service they might otherwise receive from a captive set-top box market. But Singer ignores the fact Verizon effectively stopped substantial expansion of its FiOS network in 2010 (except in Boston) and AT&T now focuses most of its marketing on selling DirecTV service to TV customers, not U-verse – it’s fiber to the neighborhood service.

But Singer may be accurate on one point. If the cable industry loses revenue from set-top box rental fees, it may simply raise the rates it charges for cable television to make up the difference.

“So long as high-value customers for home video also demand more set-top boxes—a reasonable assumption—then pay TV operators can use metering to reduce the total price of home entertainment for cable customers,” Singer opines. “If this pricing structure were upended by the FCC’s proposal, economic theory predicts that pay TV prices would rise, thereby crowding out marginal video customers.”

Comcast Spreads Its Love to Universal Studios Hollywood With a 21% Rate Hike; $115 a Ticket

Phillip Dampier March 23, 2016 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News No Comments

wizarding-world-of-harry-potter-logoComcast is taking its well-known reputation for being loathed in the cable business to the world of theme parks, where a trip to Comcast-owned Universal Studios Hollywood will now cost visitors 21% more for a walk-up one-day pass.

The cable operator believes it has left your money on the table, under charging for visits to the popular tourist destination. It has corrected that with the introduction of “on-demand pricing,” just a few weeks before the April 7 opening of its new Harry Potter attractions.

Steve Burke, who runs Comcast’s theme park and entertainment divisions, realized Comcast has “underestimated the theme parks business.” So it has raised prices… a lot, just in time for the arrival of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, featuring a giant castle, magic wand shops and a simulated ride on a broomstick that has caused even seasoned employees at the park to retch.

Also likely to turn stomachs is the new $115 per adult one-day pass price. One theme park designer told Bloomberg News he anticipated Harry Potter-related attractions will bring at least one million new visitors to the park, which will deliver a handsome $115 million to Comcast’s coffers.

Those looking for a less expensive ticket will need to plan well ahead and visit when park attendance is at its lowest, typically on weekdays. The new “on-demand pricing” means visitors will buy tickets like airline seats. Monday-Friday visits in April will cost $95, according to the website. Advance purchases of tickets good only on a specified Saturday or Sunday cost $105. If you don’t want to wait in line, you can buy “front of the line” passes for $179-239 per person. The $115 ticket is what visitors will get when they don’t buy tickets in advance.

But Comcast stands ready to collect even more from your visit, from food and beverage sales to ubiquitous Harry Potter merchandise. An “interactive wand” will set you back $48, a Hogwarts-approved tie costs $32, and a wizarding robe will make your pocketbook disappear at $110 each.

Comcast isn’t the only theme park owner in a hurry to raise rates. Variable pricing has also taken hold at Walt Disney theme parks. Ticket price inflation is already putting a strain on many visitors’ vacation budgets. At the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World in Orlando, single-day adult admission rose from $85 in 2011 to $89 in 2012, $95 in 2013, $99 in 2014, to $105 in 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leticia James, Public Advocate for the City of New York

Leticia James, Public Advocate for the City of New York

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

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

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

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

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

AT&T Gets Stingy With DirecTV Promotions for Existing Customers; $100+ for TV-Only Service

directvDirecTV under AT&T’s ownership is turning out to be no bargain for customers finding it increasingly tough getting a promotional rate package with the satellite provider.

Fred Johnson has been a DirecTV customer in rural Iowa for almost six years and has had to call DirecTV every time his on-contract promotion nears an end. Off-contract customers generally do not receive the best promotions and DirecTV’s regular prices can make the average cable company blush.

“It is not unusual for DirecTV customers to get quoted rates of $80 a month for satellite television and then receive a bill for over $100 once the surcharges, rental fees, taxes, and other hidden fees are added to your bill,” Johnson tells Stop the Cap! “There are months when the bill can go up even higher with no explanation, and even the customer service department cannot explain all the mysterious charges.”

At the end of the usual two-year contract, it has become customary for many long time DirecTV customers to call and threaten to cancel if they cannot get a renewed promotional rate, and for years DirecTV had been happy to oblige.

In 2015, AT&T bought the satellite provider and is in the process of integrating it as part of the AT&T family of services, next to U-verse, AT&T Mobility, and traditional landline service. That is the year the discounts seemed to evaporate for customers like Johnson and Evelyn Wiedmer, who subscribes to DirecTV for the family’s recreational vehicle.

Recreational vehicle owners are among the most loyal to satellite television.

Recreational vehicle owners are among the most loyal to satellite television.

“We were just told our bill was going to increase $45 a month starting in February and there is little we can do about it,” Wiedmer tells us. “The call center lady mentioned that the new owner of DirecTV is going in a different direction with promotions and we no longer qualify for any specials, unless we also want to get an AT&T cell phone.”

Wiedmer and her husband are retired and travel the country in their RV and do not have room in the budget to pay AT&T an extra $540 a year for the same package of channels they used to get for about $65 a month.

“They apparently do not want us to be customers anymore because DISH Networks will sell us a comparable package for about $60 a month, which is much less than the $105 DirecTV is charging us starting next month,” Wiedmer writes. “It looks like DirecTV won’t be competing with AT&T U-verse and the cable company anymore at their prices.”

Critics charge that is exactly the point. Adam Levine-Weinberg called the AT&T-DirecTV merger “one more step towards oligopoly,” warning approval of the merger would remove a serious competitor for tens of millions of customers also served by AT&T U-verse.

“That means there [were] tens of millions of people who [had] a choice between AT&T and DirecTV (as well as the local cable company and satellite TV rival DISH Networks,” said Levine-Weinberg. “The merger [reduced] many consumers’ pay-TV options from four to three, giving the remaining companies more pricing power.”

AT&T is flexing that pricing power by pulling back on promotions and discounts. In addition to curtailing retention plans and promotions for existing customers, AT&T also announced rate increases for DirecTV that take effect tomorrow:

The monthly pre-tax price of DirecTV’s “Select” and “Entertainment” programming tiers will go up by $2, to $51.99 and $61.99, respectively. The “Choice” and “Xtra” bundles will increase $4 to $74.99 and $81.99, respectively; the “Ultimate” pack will go up $5 a month to $91.99; and the “Premier” bundle will grow by $8 to $144.99. That is well over $150 a month after taxes and fees are added, just to watch television. AT&T is also applying a 50 cent increase to a fee DirecTV charges for… selling television service. The so-called “TV Fee” will now cost $7.00 a month.

(Courtesy: zidanetribal17)

(Courtesy: zidanetribal17)

“You used to switch to satellite to save money, but now cable companies offer returning customers lower prices than what DirecTV will offer,” notes Johnson. “It’s almost like they want to drive customers away. It worked. Our neighbors are now collecting money to convince Mediacom to extend their cable down our rural street and after these price increases we finally have enough willing to contribute to switch to cable television and remove the satellite dishes from our rooftops.”

Wiedmer has also canceled her DirecTV service this week, switching to DISH Networks.

“Would you sign another two-year contract agreeing to pay $540 more a year for two years with nothing in return for the extra money?” Wiedmer asks. “AT&T and DirecTV can take a hike.”

Wall Street: Usage Caps Are an Important Weapon in Fight Over Cord-Cutting

charter v dishA behind the scenes struggle between DISH Networks and Charter Communications over DISH’s online video service Sling TV has led to an admission by a Wall Street analyst that “usage-based billing” is an important tool for stifling over-the-top online video competition.

On Dec. 21, DISH’s legal team sent a letter to the FCC complaining about Charter’s attempts to “address” the competitive threat of Sling TV, DISH’s online video alternative to cable television.

“Charter’s laser-like focus on Sling TV shows that it views Sling TV as a serious competitive threat rather than a benign interest,” wrote DISH’s attorneys. “Charter is focused on protecting its video subscriber base rather than enhancing the broadband Internet experience for its subscribers. Charter’s documents further reveal thinly veiled complaints to programmers about making their programming available to Sling TV and other [online video] products.”

In the highly redacted filing, Dish suggested Charter was making thinly veiled threats to Disney and Scripps Networks over their willingness to allow their content to be included on Sling TV. DISH has complained to the FCC the cable company was attempting to undermine the new competitor.

A sample from DISH lawyer's highly-redacted submission to the FCC shows much of this fight is occurring out of public view.

A sample from DISH lawyer’s highly redacted submission to the FCC shows much of this fight is occurring out of public view.

On Thursday, the FCC also received an ex parte filing alerting the public that Time Warner (Entertainment) and HBO executives privately met with FCC staff last week, at their invitation, telling them Charter was likely threatening other programmers with unspecified action if they continued to allow their programming to appear on Sling TV.

In that meeting, HBO executives suggested “New Charter” — the combination of Charter Cable, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks — “would be inclined to take action directed at programmers” if services like Sling TV continued to grow. Those threats seem to have been confirmed by Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge, who warned the company would take ‘competitive action’ against programmers selling content to the competition.

In the past, several cable executives have hinted that allowing wider distribution of cable networks over competitors’ networks or direct-to-consumer would dilute the value of those networks to cable operators. That would likely lead to demands for reduced prices when cable networks sought contract renewal. Some cable companies might also drop those networks altogether, arguing customers can get them elsewhere. Either retaliatory move would cut viewer numbers, which in turn would force networks to charge less for advertising.

That the FCC would invite further discussions on the issue of online video competition has some on Wall Street concerned about the prospects of Charter winning approval to buy Time Warner Cable and Bright House.

On Friday, BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield wrote investors, wondering if “we should be less confident in deal approval than we currently are.” With both the Justice Department and the Obama Administration pushing hard for competitive online alternatives to cable television, the FCC may be worried allowing New Charter to have 25-30 percent of the broadband market. With broadband a prerequisite for signing up for services like Sling TV, Rutledge’s “competitive action” could dissuade consumers from choosing online video instead of cable television.

New Street Research analyst Jonathan Chaplin admitted one of Charter’s strongest potential weapons against online video competitors is usage-based Internet billing. That Charter has committed to avoiding usage pricing for the next three years would seem to delay any attempt by Charter to deploy usage caps and usage pricing to stop online competition.

But three years may also not be long to wait, especially if the current “cap-free” commitment helps win merger approval. Chaplin believes Charter’s current commitment to not impose usage caps weakens DISH’s argument, but it could be the subject of special conditions from regulators if the deal is ultimately approved.

The topic appears to be sensitive enough to have provoked Charter to push back hard against DISH and Time Warner (Entertainment) in a blog post published last Friday afternoon.

We are happy to report that the vast majority of stakeholders are pleased with the merger and excited about New Charter.  It’s no surprise, though, that there are some who seek to use the regulatory review process to extract concessions or conditions that further their business goals.  Following the well-worn play book, to achieve that goal, they must first try to discredit the merger, but their allegations are often not based on the facts. For example, charges by Dish and Time Warner’s HBO that New Charter will harm Online Video Distributors simply do not make sense. As we have demonstrated, there is no more OVD-friendly provider than Charter, with our slowest speed at 60Mbps, no data caps, no usage-based billing, no annual contracts and no modem fees. Additionally, we’ve committed that New Charter will offering settlement-free peering to Internet companies, which means we will continue to invest in interconnection to avoid congestion. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, a supporter of the transaction, stated “the key thing about the Charter deal is it’s all Internet companies that benefit — us, Hulu, Amazon, HBO Now — so that we can all compete for consumers’ affection.”

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