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Wall Street Investors Suckered By Broadband, Wireless Myths on Usage Pricing, Network Investment

verizon-protestBig Telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T use phony numbers and perpetuate myths about broadband traffic and network investments that have conned investors out of at least $1 trillion in unnecessary investments and consolidation.

Alexander Goldman, former chief analyst for CTI’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants, is warning Wall Street and investors they are at risk of losing millions more because some of the largest telecom companies in the country are engaged in disseminating bad math and conventional wisdom that relies more on repetition of their talking points than actual facts.

Goldman’s editorial, published by Broadband Breakfast, believes the campaign of misinformation is perpetuated by a media that accepts industry claims without examining the underlying facts and a pervasive echo chamber that delivers credibility only by the number of voices saying then same thing.

Goldman takes Verizon Communications CEO Lowell McAdam to task for an editorial published in 2013 in Verizon’s effort to beat back calls on regulators to oversee the broadband industry and correct some of its anti-competitive behavior.

McAdam claimed the U.S. built a global lead in broadband on investments of $1.2 trillion over 17 years to deploy “next generation broadband networks” because networks were deregulated.

Setting aside the fact the United States is not a broadband leader and continues to be outpaced by Europe and Asia, Goldman called McAdam’s impressive-sounding dollar figures meaningless, considering over the span of that 17 years, the United States progressed from dial-up to fiber broadband. Wired networks have been through a generational change that required infrastructure to be replaced and wireless networks have been through at least two significant generations of change over that time — mandatory investments that would have occurred with or without deregulation.

Over the past 17 years, the industry has gotten more of its numbers wrong than right. An explosion of fiber construction in the late 1990s based on predictions of data tsunamis turned out to be catastrophically wrong. University of Minnesota professor Andrew Odlyzko, the worst enemy of the telecom industry talking point, has been debunking claims of broadband traffic jams and the need to implement usage-based pricing and speed throttling for years. In 1998, when Wall Street was listening intently to forecasts produced by self-interested telecom companies like Worldcom that declared broadband traffic was going to double every 100 days, Odlyzko was telling his then-employer AT&T is was all a lot of nonsense. The broadband traffic emperor had no clothes, and statistics from rival telecom companies suggested Worldcom was telling tall tales. But AT&T executives didn’t listen.

fat cat att“We just have to try harder to match those growth rates and catch up with WorldCom,” AT&T executives told Odlyzko and his colleagues, believing the problem was simply ineffective sales, not real broadband demand. When sales couldn’t generate those traffic numbers and Wall Street analysts began asking why, companies like Global Crossing and Qwest resorted to “hollow swaps” and other dubious tricks to fool analysts, prop up the stock price and executive bonuses, and invent sales.

Nobody bothered to ask for an independent analysis of the traffic boom that wasn’t. Wall Street and investors saw dollars waiting to be made, if only providers had the networks to handle the traffic. This began the fiber boom of the late 1990s, “an orgy of construction” as The Economist called it, all to prepare for a tidal wave of Internet traffic that never arrived.

After companies like Global Crossing and Worldcom failed in the biggest bankruptcies the country had ever seen at the time, Odlyzko believes important lessons were never learned. He blames Worldcom executives for inflating the Internet bubble more than anyone.

A bubble of another kind is forming today in America’s wireless industry, fueled by pernicious predictions of a growing spectrum crisis to anyone in DC willing to listen and hurry up spectrum auctions. Both AT&T and Verizon try to stun investors and politicians with enormous dollar numbers they claim are being spent to hurry upgraded wireless networks ready to handle an onslaught of high bandwidth wireless video. Both Verizon’s McAdam and AT&T’s Randall Stephenson intimidate Washington politicians with subtle threats that any enactment of industry reforms by the FCC or Congress will threaten the next $1.2 trillion in network investments, jobs, and America’s vital telecom infrastructure.

Odlyzko has seen this parade before, and he is not impressed. Streaming video on wireless networks is effectively constrained by miserly usage caps, not network capacity, and to Odlyzko, the more interesting story is Americans are abandoning voice calling for instant messages and texting.

8-4WorldcomCartoonThat isn’t a problem for wireless carriers because texting is where the real money is made. Odlyzko notes that wireless carriers profit an average of $1,000 per megabyte for text messages, usually charged per-message or through subscription plan add ons or as part of a bundle. Cellular voice calling is much less profitable, earning about $1 per megabyte of digitized traffic.

Wireless carriers in the United States, particularly Verizon and AT&T, are immensely profitable and the industry as a whole haven’t invested more than 27% of their yearly revenue on network upgrades in over a decade. In fact, in 2011 carriers invested just 14.9% of their revenue, rising slightly to 16.3 percent in 2012 when companies collectively invested $30 billion on network improvements, but earned $185 billion along the way.

While Verizon preached “spectrum crisis” to the FCC and Congress and claimed it was urgently prioritizing network upgrades, company executives won approval of a plan to pay Vodafone, then a part owner of Verizon Wireless, $130 billion to buy them out. That represents the collective investment of every wireless provider in the country in network upgrades from 2005-2012. Verizon Wireless cannot find the money to upgrade their wireless networks to deliver customers a more generous data allowance (or an unlimited plan), but it had no trouble approving $130 billion to buy out its partner so it could keep future profits to itself.

Odlyzko concludes the obvious: “modern telecom is less about high capital investments and far more a game of territorial control, strategic alliances, services, and marketing, than of building a fixed infrastructure.”

That is why there is no money for Verizon FiOS expansion but there was plenty to pay Vodafone, and its executives who walked away with executive bonuses totaling $89.6 million.

As long as American wireless service remains largely in the hands of AT&T and Verizon Wireless, competition isn’t likely to seriously dent prices or profits. At least investors who are buying Verizon’s debt hope so.

Goldman again called attention to Odlyzko’s latest warning that the industry has its numbers (and priorities) wrong, and the last time Odlyzko had the numbers right and the telecommunications industry got its numbers wrong, telecommunications investors lost $1 trillion in the telecommunications dot.com bust.

As the drumbeat continues for further wireless consolidation and spectrum acquisition, investors have been told high network costs necessitate combining operations to improve efficiency and control expenses. Except the biggest costs faced by wireless carriers like Verizon are to implement strategic consolidation opportunities like the Vodafone deal, not maintain and grow their wireless network. AT&T is putting much of its spending in a proposed acquisition of DirecTV this year as well — at a cost of $48.5 billion. That could buy a lot of new cell towers and a much more consumer-friendly data plan.

Voice to text substitution (US)

year voice minutes billions texts billions
2005 1,495 81
2006 1,798 159
2007 2,119 363
2008 2,203 1,005
2009 2,275 1,563
2010 2,241 2,052
2011 2,296 2,304
2012 2,300 2,190

Cell phone network companies (if you can believe their SEC filings) are incredibly profitable, and are spending relatively little on infrastructure:

year revenues in $ billions capex in $ billions capex/revenues
2004 102.1 27.9 27.3%
2005 113.5 25.2 22.2
2006 125.5 24.4 19.4
2007 138.9 21.1 15.2
2008 148.1 20.2 13.6
2009 152.6 20.4 13.3
2010 159.9 24.9 15.6
2011 169.8 25.3 14.9
2012 185.0 30.1 16.3

Netherlands Telecom Regulator: A Broadband Duopoly Doesn’t Equal Competition

Phillip Dampier November 3, 2014 Broadband Speed, Competition, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

logo-acm-enIn the Netherlands, having access to two broadband competitors isn’t enough to guarantee broadband competition, and Dutch telecom regulators are not about to deregulate Internet service in the country until consumers have more choices for broadband access.

The Dutch telecom regulator on Friday announced it will keep wholesale access regulations in place for an extra three years to guarantee KPN – the former state-owned telephone company – plays fair with competitors.

“If ACM were not to step in, there would be too little choice: Dutch telecom company KPN and cable company UPC/Ziggo would then dominate the market,” says the Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) in a written statement. “In ACM’s opinion, having just two providers in these markets cannot be considered healthy competition.”

“Furthermore, KPN and UPC/Ziggo are challenged by their competitors to continue to invest in their networks and to innovate,” said Henk Don, a board member of ACM. “As a result, faster and better connections become available in the Netherlands.”

kpn

KPN

The Dutch telephone and mobile provider will be required to continue allowing competitors such as Vodafone and Tele2 access to KPN’s landline and fiber to the home networks to offer competitive broadband service. ACM reports that Dutch consumers are saving at least $312 million a year in lower Internet access pricing just by forcing KPN to allow other companies to compete using its network.

KPN isn’t hampered by the forced openness, because ACM has also given the phone company relaxed operating rules to allow it to invest in DSL upgrades including vectoring and the forthcoming G.Fast standard, which could dramatically boost broadband speeds.

Most Dutch consumers, like those in North America, realistically have a choice between one telephone and one cable company — usually Ziggo (currently merging with UPC), for broadband service. But unlike in the United States, Dutch regulators have remained wholly unconvinced an effective duopoly is subject to enough competitive pressure to protect consumers and nascent competition from upstarts. Therefore, ACM has applied regulatory checks and balances to protect the marketplace and consumers from abusive pricing and service practices.

U.S. telecom companies argue that regulations hamper investment and delay network improvements. In the Netherlands, where broadband speed rankings exceed the United States, prices are also lower.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Ignores Millions of Americans, Plans Fake Net Neutrality Frankenplan

frankenplanThe majority of 3.7 million comments received by the FCC advocate strong and unambiguous Net Neutrality protections for the Internet, but that seems to have had little impact on FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, who is laying the groundwork for a hybrid Net Neutrality Frankenplan that would marginally protect deep pocketed content producers while leaving few, if any, protections for consumers.

The Wall Street Journal reported late last week that Wheeler is considering a “hybrid” approach, separating broadband into two distinct services:

  • Retail Broadband, sold to consumers, would continue as a broadly deregulated service, allowing ISPs to set prices and policies with little, if any, oversight. Wheeler’s plan would allow providers to freely implement usage-based pricing, establish paid fast lanes at the request of customers, and permit ISPs to continue exempting preferred content from usage pricing while charging customers extra to access content from “non-preferred partners;”
  • Wholesale Broadband, the connection between your ISP and content producers, would be reclassified under Title II and subject to common carrier regulations, which would allow the FCC to police deals between your provider and services like Netflix.

Wheeler’s proposal would offer significant protection to wealthy content producers like Netflix, Amazon.com, broadcasters and Hollywood studios, but would leave consumers completely exposed to providers’ pricing tricks, usage caps/consumption billing, and paid fast lanes that could leave unpaid content vulnerable to network deterioration, especially during peak usage times.

Comcast_pumpkinLarge telecommunications companies argue that deregulation promotes broadband investment and expansion to create world-class service. But years of statistics and comparisons with other countries suggest deregulation has not inspired sufficient competition to keep prices in check and force regular network upgrades. In fact, competition is much more robust at the wholesale level, while the majority of retail consumers have a choice of just one or two providers that receive almost no oversight. Those providers are now exercising their market power to further monetize broadband usage to boost profits and raise prices.

Wheeler’s proposal would ignore the wishes of more than three million Americans that want comprehensive Net Neutrality protections, as well as those of President Barack Obama, who has called for a ban on paid fast lanes. A senior White House official signaled Thursday the administration has concerns about Wheeler’s proposal, noting “the president has made it abundantly clear that any outcome must protect net neutrality and ban paid prioritization—and has called for all necessary steps to safeguard an open Internet.”

“This Frankenstein proposal is no treat for Internet users, and they shouldn’t be tricked,” consumer group Free Press CEO Craig Aaron said in a statement. “No matter how you dress it up, any rules that don’t clearly restore the agency’s authority and prevent specialized fast lanes and paid prioritization aren’t real Net Neutrality.”

Broadband providers don’t like Wheeler’s plan either. Verizon last week sent comments to the FCC warning any attempt to reclassify broadband under Title II “could not withstand judicial review.” Others, including the industry-backed U.S. Telecom Association, promised swift legal action against Wheeler’s proposal.

Aaron believes the last thing broadband needs is another “hybrid” plan.

“The FCC has already tried twice before to invent new classifications on the fly instead of clear rules grounded in the law,” Aaron said. “And twice their efforts have been rejected. This flimsy fabrication will be no different. And this approach will only serve to squander the political support of millions and millions of Americans who have weighed in at the agency asking for strong rules that will stand up in court.”

Time Warner Cable Recommits: No Mandatory Usage Caps As Long As Company Remains Independent

timewarner twcTime Warner Cable today recommitted itself to providing unlimited broadband service to any customer that wants it, promising customers they won’t be forced into a tiered usage plan as long as Time Warner Cable remains an independent company.

“We have no intention of abandoning an unlimited product we think that something that customers value and are willing to pay for,” said Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus. “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.”

Marcus told Wall Street analysts on an afternoon conference call that the average Time Warner Cable customer now generates 35GB of traffic per month, and that a significant percentage of light users might realize some savings choosing a 30GB optional usage plan. But Marcus also admitted that few do.

marcus

Marcus

“I think that’s a testament to the value they place on unlimited,” said Marcus.

Marcus’ decision to stay away from compulsory usage-capped Internet was questioned by Marci Ryvicker from Wells Fargo Securities, LLC., a Wall Street investment firm. Ryvicker tied the growth of online video consumption to the implementation of usage caps as way of protecting video revenue and regaining money lost from lost cable television subscriptions.

“I guess the underlying question is do you think you can monetize the pipe enough through high-speed data pricing to offset video decline,” asked Ryvicker.

“We haven’t really viewed usage-based pricing quite the way you’re postulating,” responded Marcus. “I think there’s a separate question as to whether or not we have the ability to offset video declines with [broadband]. I think it’s fair to say we’re very bullish on the high-speed data business and think we can continue to grow it based on both subscriber volume and incremental ARPU per [broadband] customer.”

Marcus added that Time Warner can continue to boost revenue by raising broadband prices and encouraging customers to upgrade to faster speed tiers at a higher price.

Comcast has a very different philosophy about usage caps — it embraces them. Comcast continues to test mandatory usage caps in several markets, leading to howls of complaints from customers and bill shock. One customer complained their cable bill frightens them every time they receive it, not knowing how much Comcast would charge them for that month of service. The family’s last cable bill, including Internet, exceeded $560, primarily due to Comcast’s overlimit usage fees. Comcast has also received complaints about its usage meter’s accuracy, but the company adamantly bills customers according to the readings of their meter.

“I’ll tell you what really isn’t fair,” wrote one customer. “That is that in ‘test markets’ like mine, Atlanta, we have the 300GB [cap] enforced with the penalty overage charge and we pay the SAME rates as people in other markets that aren’t yet one of the ‘test markets.’

Most analysts expect Comcast will eventually roll out usage caps to all of its customers, including any it acquires from Time Warner Cable. Customers cannot choose an unlimited use option in Comcast’s usage cap test markets.

The Capitol Forum’s Insightful Review of the Comcast-Time Warner Merger Deal: A Tough Sell

be mineWall Street is increasingly pessimistic about Comcast and Time Warner Cable pulling off their merger deal as regulators stop the clock to take a closer look at the transaction.

The Capitol Forum, an in-depth news and analysis service dedicated to informing policymakers, investors, and industry stakeholders on how policy affects market competition, specializes in examining marketplace mergers and their potential impact on American consumers and the general economy. The group has shared a copy of their assessment — “Comcast/Time Warner Cable: A Closer Look at FCC, DOJ Decision Processes; Merits and Politics May Drive Merger Challenge, Especially as Wheeler Unlikely to Embrace Title II Regulation for Net Neutrality” — with Stop the Cap! and we’re sharing a summary of the report with our readers.

The two most important government agencies reviewing the merger proposal are the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice. The FCC is responsible for overseeing telecommunications in the United States and is also tasked with reviewing telecom industry mergers to verify if they are in the public interest. The Department of Justice becomes involved in big mergers as well, concerned with compliance with antitrust and other laws.

In many instances, the two agencies work separately and independently to review merger proposals, but not so with Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Sources tell Capitol Forum there is a high level of coordination and information sharing between DOJ and the FCC, potentially positioning the two agencies in a stronger legal position if they jointly challenge the merger. Readers may recall AT&T’s attempt to buy T-Mobile was thwarted in 2011 when the FCC followed the DOJ’s lead in jointly challenging the merger on competition and antitrust grounds. With a united front against the deal in Washington, AT&T quickly capitulated.

comcast cartoonDespite a blizzard of Comcast talking points claiming the cable industry is fiercely competitive, Capitol Forum’s report indicates the DOJ staff level believes the cable industry suffers dearly from a lack of competition already, and allowing further marketplace concentration would exacerbate an already difficult problem.

Capitol Forum reports the DOJ’s staff is inclined to “take an aggressive posture with regards to [antitrust] enforcement.”

The DOJ would certainly not be walking the beltway plank to its political doom if it ultimately decides to oppose the merger.

Few on Capitol Hill are likely to fiercely advocate for a cable company generally despised by their constituents. The Capitol Forum report notes that Comcast faces powerful opposition and its political support is overstated. Comcast’s lobbying efforts and ties to President Obama and several high level Democrats have also been widely exposed in the media, which makes it more difficult for D.C.’s powerful to be seen carrying Comcast’s water.

In fact, the report indicates a regulatory challenge against Comcast and Time Warner Cable would face considerably less political opposition than what the FCC faces if it reclassifies broadband as a “telecommunications service,” protecting Net Neutrality and exposing the industry to stronger regulatory oversight.

The report suggests FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, who seems intent on opposing reclassification of broadband under Title II, may appease his critics by taking a stronger stance on the Comcast/Time Warner deal instead.

Wheeler has already expressed concern about the state of competitiveness of American broadband. He considers providers capable of delivering at least 25Mbps part of broadband’s key market, which in many communities means a monopoly for the local cable operator.

Understanding “The Public Interest” and the Implications of a Combined Comcast/Time Warner Cable on Competition

comcastbuy_400_241The FCC will review the transaction pursuant to Sections 214 and 310(d) of the Communications Act of 1934, in order to ensure that “public interest, convenience, and necessity will be served thereby.”

The merger proposal must also demonstrate it does not violate antitrust laws.

It is here that merger opponents have a wealth of arguments to use against Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Despite Comcast’s insistence the deal would have no competitive implications, the Capitol Forum reports the merger’s potential anticompetitive effects are “widely recognized and evidence from the investigation could provide DOJ and FCC with a solid foundation to challenge the merger.”

Although the two cable companies don’t directly compete with each other (itself a warning sign of an already noncompetitive marketplace), the report finds “a wide array of anti-competitive effects and several antitrust theories” that would implicate the cable company in a Clayton Act violation.

Comcast is betting heavily on its surface argument that by the very fact customers will not see any change in the number of competitors delivering service to their area, the merger should easily clear any antitrust hurdles. That argument makes it more difficult for the DOJ to fall back on the usual market concentration precedents that would prevent such a colossal merger deal. To argue excessive horizontal integration — the enlarging of Comcast’s territory — the DOJ would first have to prove Comcast’s size in comparison with other cable companies is a reason for the courts to shoot down the deal. Or it could bypass Comcast’s favorite argument and move to the issue of vertical integration — one company’s ability to control not just the pipes that deliver content, but also the content itself.

octopusHere the examples of potential abuse are plentiful:

  • Comcast would enjoy increased power to force cable programmers to favor Comcast in cable programming pricing and policies while allowing it to demand restrictions on competitive online video competitors or restrict access to popular cable programming;
  • Comcast could impose data caps and usage-based pricing to deter online viewing while exempting its own content by delivering it over a Wi-Fi enabled gateway, game console or set top box, claiming all are unrelated to Comcast’s broadband Internet service or network;
  • Force consumers to use Comcast set top boxes that would not support competing providers’ online video;
  • Use interconnection agreements as a clever way to bypass the paid prioritization Net Neutrality debate. Netflix and other content producers would be forced to compensate Comcast for reliable access to its broadband customers;
  • Noting AT&T has declared U-verse can not effectively succeed in the cable television business without combining its customer base with DirecTV to qualify for better volume discounts, there is clear evidence that a super-sized Comcast could command discounts new entrants like Google Fiber could never hope to get, putting them at a distinct price disadvantage.

The FCC’s scrutiny of Comcast’s merger deal has already uncovered evidence previously unavailable because of non-disclosure agreements which show Comcast’s heavy hand already at work.

The report notes Michael Mooney, a senior vice president and group general counsel at Level 3, told the Capitol Forum the dispute earlier this year between Netflix and Comcast could have been resolved in about five minutes had Comcast added a port to relieve congestion at an interconnection point. The cost? Just $5,000. Had Comcast been willing to spend the money, millions of Comcast customers would have never experienced problems using Netflix.

Whether Comcast is ultimately deemed too large to permit another consolidating merger or whether it is given conditional approval to absorb Time Warner Cable remains a close call, according to the Capitol Forum, despite the fact consumers have urged regulators for something slightly more concrete – a single sentence, total denial of its application.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Capitol Forum The Consumer Welfare Test.mp4

The Capitol Forum broadly explores how the “consumer welfare standard” has become a part of the antitrust review process over the last 30 years. Sometimes, a strict antitrust test is not sufficient to protect “the public interest” of consumers, and allows the dominant player(s) to harm competition. In the digital economy, corporate mergers that empower companies to restrict innovation can prove far more damaging than classic monopoly abuse. (15:52)

UN: U.S. Broadband Ranking Slips Again; Now 19th Place in Penetration, 24th in Wired Connections

All of the top-10 broadband rankings for accessibility, affordability, speed, and subscription rates have been awarded to countries in Europe and Asia, while the United States continues to fall further behind.

This week, the UN Broadband Commission issued its annual report on broadband and had little to say about developments in North America, where providers have maintained the status quo of delaying upgrades, raising prices, and limiting usage. As a result, other countries are rapidly outpacing North America, preparing the infrastructure to support the 21st century digital economy while officials in the U.S.A. and Canada cater primarily to the interests of large incumbent cable and telephone companies.

The United States has fallen from 20th to 24th place in wired broadband subscriptions, per capita. Virtually every country in western Europe now beats the United States, as does Hong Kong, Belarus, and New Zealand. Canada scored better, taking 14th place.

fixed broadband penetration 2013

Only managing a meager 19th place, only 84.2% of Americans are online. Iceland has 96.5% of their population on the Internet, closely followed by the other northern European nations of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Also scoring superior to the United States: Andorra, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Canada did better than its southern neighbor as well, coming in at number 16.

percentage using the internet

With big profits to be made in wireless, large wireless phone companies like Verizon Wireless and AT&T helped the U.S. achieve its best rating — 10th place in wireless. But the countries that exceeded the United States did much better (Canada was not rated this year.)

With the arguable exception of wireless, the United States is no longer a world leader in broadband and continues a slow but steady decline in rankings as other countries leapfrog over the U.S.

At least 140 countries now have a National Broadband Plan in place, most maintaining stronger oversight over telecommunications infrastructure than the largely unregulated U.S. broadband marketplace. After reviewing broadband performance across most UN member states, the Broadband Commission for Digital Development recognized several traits common in countries where broadband has been particularly successful:

Competition is essential to promote enhanced broadband. A monopoly or duopoly (usually a telephone company and cable or wireless operator) is not enough to promote healthy broadband advancements. At least three, near-equal competitors are required to achieve the best upgrades and price competition. The presence of smaller competitors or those charging considerably different pricing had little effect on competition.

Countries with the best speeds have national policies promoting the installation of fiber optic technology, at least in multi-dwelling units and new developments. Although the cost of fiber and its installation can amount to as much as 80% of a broadband expansion project, many countries have been successful compelling competing providers to share a single fiber optic network (and its costs) to make the investment more affordable. In terms of ultra-high-speed broadband, there are still not many consumer apps and services that need Gigabit speeds, but such services are on their way. Experience shows that technology typically moves faster than most people anticipate – so countries and operators need to start planning now for the imminent broadband world.

technology cost

A coherent regulatory foundation that emphasizes competition over regulation was the most effective policy. But regulatory frameworks must guarantee a level playing field among competitors and strong oversight to make sure competitors play fair. Regulation is not keeping pace with the changes in the market – Internet players offering equivalent voice and messaging services are, by and large, subject to relatively limited requirements (including consumer protection, privacy, interoperability, security, emergency calls, lawful intercept of customer data, universal service). Asymmetric regulation has resulted in an uneven competitive landscape for services. Governments and policy-makers need to review and update their regulatory frameworks to take into account evolving models of regulation.

Telecommunication and broadband access providers need to explore business arrangements with Internet content providers that will accelerate global investment in broadband infrastructure, to the mutual benefit of all, including end-consumers. Internet companies and Internet content providers need to contribute to investment in broadband infrastructure by debating interconnection issues and agreeing fees/revenue shares with other operators and broadband providers.

That last issue is now being hotly debated in the United States, where providers are seeking compensation from streaming video providers like Netflix, which now account for a substantial amount of Internet traffic.

Comcast Extends Free 6 Months of Internet Essentials Offer An Extra 10 Days As Regulators Ponder Merger

ieAs regulators ponder Comcast’s application to acquire Time Warner Cable, the issue of affordable Internet has been a hot topic as part of the merger review. So it is no surprise Comcast has announced it is extending its recent offer of six free months of Internet Essentials service to income-challenged families with school age children an extra 10 days.

“On August 4th, we made a special announcement: we are offering any family that has not yet signed up for Internet Essentials, up to six months of free service, if they apply before September 20th,” said Comcast executive vice president David Cohen on Comcast’s blog.  “Today, I’m thrilled to announce we’re going to extend that offer through Tuesday, September 30th.”

Comcast admits that only families that have never applied for Internet Essentials in the past can receive free service. Those already enrolled or who attempted to enroll in the past do not qualify.

The cable company does not make participation easy and is intent on protecting the revenue it earns selling regularly priced Internet service by keeping current customers out of the Internet Essentials program.

Just qualifying for Internet Essentials requires navigating an obstacle course:

The program is only available to households:

  • that have at least one child who is eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program (the “NSLP”) and as confirmed annually while enrolled in the program;
  • do not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment; and
  • have not subscribed to any Comcast Internet service within the last ninety (90) days.
Internet Essentials promises no rate increases, but the fine print suggests otherwise.

Internet Essentials promises no price increases, but the fine print suggests otherwise.

The program will only accept new customers for three full school years. After that, if Comcast decides it doesn’t want to offer the service any longer, customers are out of luck. Comcast can also restrict enrollment periods when it accepts new participants and requires annual verification paperwork demonstrating continued participation in the NSLP.

Comcast can throw families out of the program: if a child relocates outside of the household, loses NSLP eligibility, if a bill is paid late, if Comcast decides to stop offering the program, or if your account is closed. If you move, your account will be closed even if you choose to continue Comcast service at your new address, so don’t plan on going anywhere.

If and when Comcast determines your participation in Internet Essentials is over, your rates will automatically reset to standard Internet pricing without further notice. So much for promises of no rate increases. Those regular prices start at around $40 a month + a monthly modem rental fee of around $8 — quite a difference from $9.95.

Although the terms and conditions do not reflect it, Comcast claims to be continuing an “amnesty program” for would-be applicants with past due balances:

If customers have an outstanding bill that is more than one year old, then as long as they meet all the other eligibility criteria, they can apply to the program and we will provide amnesty for that back due bill for the purpose of connecting to Internet Essentials. If customers’ outstanding bills are less than a year old, however, then we would like them to settle that debt with us before they can be eligible to apply for the program. We are willing to work with families whose debt is reasonable enough that that they could pay us back in installments.

For more information, visit www.internetessentials.com or, for Spanish, www.internetbasico.com. You can also call 1-855-8-INTERNET or, for Spanish, 1-855-SOLO-995.

Time Warner Cable Can Raise Pricing on 2-Year Promotions; Customer Sees $15 Surprise Rate Hike

fine printTime Warner Cable customers believing they can “lock in” prices for up to two years with one of the company’s service promotions might be surprised to learn the fine print allows the cable company to adjust prices after just one year of service, as this reddit user just discovered:

My bill went up $15. They tell me it’s ok because I’m still on the same promotion, it just went up in price. That I’m still saving over full retail price so it’s ok. The phrase “it’s only $15″ was used by the service rep.

This is complete bulls***.

edit: I really wish I thought ahead to record the call. Now that I’m off the phone he offered me a one time $15 credit to make next month better. Like that changes anything.

How can the term two-year promotion be used if it’s only good for 1 year you ask? Well Time Warner’s answer is that it’s still the same promotion, it just goes up after a year.

edit again: The one time $15 just posted to my account. They don’t even call it a customer service adjustment or anything, they call it a “Save a Sub adjustment.” Not even trying to hide it.

09/06/2014 Save a Sub Adj -15.00

This and many other Time Warner Cable customers probably missed the fine print, which reveals pricing for the promotion can, and often does, adjust after the first 6-12 months. Comcast, the potential new owner of Time Warner Cable, also runs promotions the same way. Here are examples from both companies:

Time Warner Cablecomcast twc: Three-product offers valid for new residential and existing customers. After 12 months, regular rates apply. Offers expire 10/19/14. Standard TV for $39.99 available for 12 months; in months 13-24, price will go up to $44.99; after month 24, price will go to retail.

Comcast: After first 6 months, monthly service charge increases to $109.99 for months 7-12. After 12 months, or if any service is cancelled or downgraded, regular charges apply. After 6 months, the monthly charge for HBO is $15 for 12 months and thereafter, regular rates apply.

Some cable operators bill promotions by charging the customer the regular price for service and then apply a fixed promotional credit for the length of the promotional offer. If rates increase during the promotion, the customer will see the rate increase on their bill and will end up paying more because the service credit they receive does not change to offset the increase.

Why are they allowed to do this? Because cable companies like Time Warner Cable have gradually moved away from term-length service contracts, especially where they do not face a new competitor like U-verse or FiOS entering their service area for the first time. With both competitors well-established, cable operators have moved away from two-year “contracts” to two-year “promotions,” but customers often do not know the difference.

This customer can switch providers at any time without a penalty. Instead he called and complained and received a one-time service credit. Chances are if he calls and threatens to cancel service, the retention agent will put him back on the original promotion or one offering a similar promotional price. The key word is “cancel,” which works like nothing else to motivate representatives to keep your business.

Comcast Unveiling New, Faster Wireless Gateway; No Pricing Revealed But It Won’t Come Free

res gateway dpc3941In an effort to keep up with increasing bandwidth demands on customers’ home networks, Comcast has announced a new Cisco wireless gateway that supports 802.11ac and v2.0 of the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) standard that supports a home broadband network over coaxial cable.

The new XFINITY Wireless Gateway will be Cisco’s DPC3941T, which includes a 3×3 MIMO design offering three spatial streams and 700Mbps speed across an 80MHz wide wireless data channel — two times faster than Comcast’s current fastest wireless gateway and considerably faster than competing gateways from AT&T and Verizon.

The new gateway includes a built-in DOCSIS 3.0 modem, but Comcast has not shared details about how many channels the unit can bond and it doesn’t support the next generation DOCSIS 3.1 standard.

The wireless gateway will not come free of charge, but Comcast has not indicated what the monthly lease fee will be. Many Comcast customers pay up to $8 a month to lease a wireless gateway/cable modem.

Only customers in selected markets will initially be able to get the new gateway due later this fall, with customers nationwide getting access sometime later. Comcast is inviting those interested to e-mail: [email protected] to learn when the new gateway becomes available.

Comcast’s newest model will support the XFINITY Wi-Fi project which opens up a community Wi-Fi hotspot on a separate wireless channel accessible to the public.

Comcast is expected to install eight million wireless gateways in customer homes by the end of this year.

Frontier Files Opposition to Time Warner Cable/Comcast Merger; Harms Video Competition

Frontier used Time Warner Cable's usage cap experiment against them in this ad to attract new customers in the spring of 2009.

Frontier used Time Warner Cable’s usage cap experiment against them in this ad to attract new customers in the spring of 2009.

Frontier Communications has filed a rare objection with the Federal Communications Commission opposing the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, citing concerns the merger would further harm competition and prevent Frontier and other competitors from getting fair access to programming owned by the combined cable companies.

“Comcast’s appetite for market control threatens the competitiveness of the video market,” wrote Frontier. “Comcast is already the largest Internet provider and largest video provider in the United States. If approved, Comcast’s video subscriber base would be approximately 52-times the size of Frontier’s video subscriber base.”

As Stop the Cap! wrote in its own objections to the merger, would-be competitors can and will be deterred from competing for video subscribers if they cannot obtain reasonable wholesale rates for popular cable programming. Currently, the largest providers extend the best volume discounts to the country’s largest satellite and cable operators. They make up those discounts by charging smaller customers higher rates. Frontier, as we noted in our filing, has already experienced the impact of volume discounting in its adopted FiOS TV areas in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest. Losing volume discounts originally obtained by Verizon, Frontier faced substantially higher programming costs as an independent provider — costs so great the company began asking customers to drop its own fiber television product in favor of third-party partner DISH, a satellite provider.

“Small multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) like Frontier cannot achieve the scale necessary to drive down programming costs, which are based upon an MVPD’s subscriber totals, to the same levels that Comcast can with this transaction,” noted Frontier. “Further, Comcast would own an enormous share of the “must have” programming that customers demand and could exercise its market dominance to either outright deny such programming to its competitors or to functionally deny the programming by charging exorbitant rates for content.”

“While Frontier continues to grow its subscriber base organically by delivering a quality product in its markets and also by acquiring AT&T’s wireline assets in Connecticut, the cost of content for video programming remains staggering for new entrants that lack the scale and scope of cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable individually, let alone that of the merged entity,” said Frontier. “It is no mere coincidence that AT&T announced its proposed acquisition of DirecTV shortly after Comcast announced its intention to purchase Time Warner Cable. AT&T recognized the need to improve its subscriber scale in order to compete with Comcast on video programming pricing.”

Frontier noted the Federal Communications Commission also expressed grave concerns over Comcast’s ability to affect video competition during its acquisition of NBCUniversal. That merger was approved only after Comcast agreed to several conditions to avoid anticompetitive abuse in the marketplace. But Frontier complained a further acquisition of Time Warner Cable would only exacerbate competition concerns, even as Comcast argues the FCC should not contemplate any further investigation of the subject during its current merger review.

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