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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.”

AT&T Whistleblower: Our Successful CSR’s are “Liars and Sleaze”; Many Others on Anti-Depressants

Phillip Dampier January 4, 2016 AT&T, Consumer News 70 Comments

repeating mistakesAT&T customers reaching out for customer service are likely to encounter dysfunctional call center employees that will lie, cheat, and scam customers just to meet their monthly targets, while three-quarters of the rest rely on high-powered antidepressants and anxiety medication just to get through the day.

Those shocking allegations come directly from a 17-year AT&T insider that has blown the whistle on “the catastrophe” that is AT&T’s customer service.

“For 10 years, The [Dallas Morning News‘] Watchdog has received a steady flow of complaints about AT&T,” writes consumer reporter Dave Lieber. “Hundreds upon hundreds. More than any other company by far.” (Dallas isn’t served by Comcast.)

Lieber writes that the newspaper’s embarrassing publicity about unresolved consumer complaints always gets the problems he writes about fixed, but the company never seems to correct the chronic problems that bring readers to the newspaper in droves as a last resort.

“I don’t know why this continues to happen, but a recent letter I received may help us understand,” Lieber explains.

Last fall, a career employee at an AT&T call center with 17 years of history with AT&T and its predecessor decided to blow the whistle. She signed the letter, but the newspaper felt it prudent to withhold her name from publication for obvious reasons.

The letter details several customer service practices that are now routine at AT&T call centers — practices that could interfere with a customer’s ability to argue for a better deal or cancel service. Recent belt-tightening by AT&T on promotional spending has left call center workers almost no chance to “delight” customers with a good experience saving their business. In fact, the employee alleges, those not on medication to manage the depression and anxiety that comes from dealing with angry and disappointed customers are capable of thriving at work only by checking their conscience at the door.

“Dear Watchdog, I’ve worked 17 years for AT&T. I have never, in all my years, imagined it would become the catastrophe it is now.

“As retention reps, we are told to not only retain existing customers after their promotions expire, but to also sell more to these people.

“In most cases, a customer’s bill will jump up $83 a month after the ‘intro’ pricing ends. We as reps are allotted at the beginning of week 5 ‘limited use’ promotions, giving folks the maximum of $40 off.

“By Monday afternoon, these are generally depleted as we take about 40 calls a day.

“This has created a culture of reps promising promos, but not adding them. Or telling the customer they are disconnecting the service, but just not doing it. Reps do not want to disconnect a customer, as this counts against the rep.

“You are right to request a user ID [of the rep]. However, it does not help, as every account is noted with the ID of the rep, and management does nothing to discourage the reps’ behavior (as the manager’s pay also is negatively affected by each disconnect their rep does).

“This goes all the way up to sales center manager, general manager and VP. None of the higher-ups care or do anything to stop it.

“They also turn a blind eye to ‘cramming’ by reps (mostly nonunion employees overseas) and erroneous misquotes.

“It’s very frustrating to be an ethical rep there anymore, as you are constantly under their scrutiny for not meeting numbers. The only way to meet these numbers is to be a liar and a sleaze. Three-quarters of my call center is on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicine just to deal with the company. It shouldn’t be like that.

[…] “The problem with this is none of these general managers communicate. Each state is covered by different laws and regulations. You in Texas may call and get a rep in California. In California, I do not have to let you record the call. You also have the option not to be recorded.

“Now that we are national, you have GMs in charge of call centers in California, Missouri, Texas and Georgia. They don’t train you, don’t care about you, don’t care about the customer as long as they are getting commission off your work.

“They know nothing of government regulations, and frankly, do not care.

“I’ve been through so many GMs and vice presidents. However, this is by far the most inept. We should be helping our customers, not forcing products on them they do not want. … I really don’t think anyone in the government cares.”

att_logo“Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing if this is an employee of our company,” AT&T’s response begins. “But the picture painted is not the experience we create, promote or endorse. We have some of the best call center employees in the industry. We set expectations and limit the offers they can use. But we also provide new agents with 12 weeks of intensive training — with a focus on keeping customers with integrity and with offers based on needs determined during the conversation.”

AT&T’s reaction to the letter missed the point, Lieber wrote, only addressing the identity of the author, not the specific complaints.

In practical terms, many of the allegations raised by the employee seem borne out in AT&T’s own customer support forum, where customers routinely complain about promotions promised but never delivered, billing errors, bills higher than originally quoted, and service never cancelled despite repeated customer requests.

In just the last few weeks, one customer was misled about a U-verse promotion that turned out to last only 90 days, after which the bill soared to $180 a month (with six months still remaining on a one-year contract). Another cancelled U-verse service on Nov. 16, but the service, and the bills… keep on coming. Another customer was promised a retention offer that AT&T reneged on, increasing his bill $80 a month.

Cable Customers Who Bought Their Own Modems Will Pay Built-In Modem Fee With Charter

time warner cable modem feeTime Warner Cable customers who purchased their own cable modems to avoid the company’s $8 monthly rental fee will effectively be forced to indirectly pay those fees once again if Charter Communications wins approval to buy the cable operator.

A major modem manufacturer, Zoom Telephonics, has asked the Federal Communications Commission to reject Charter’s buyout of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks because it will hurt cost-conscious consumers that invested in their own equipment to avoid costly modem rental fees.

Zoom’s argument is that Charter builds modem fees into the price of its broadband service and offers no discounts to consumers that own their own equipment. At least 14% of Time Warner Cable customers have purchased their own modems and are not charged the $8 rental fee. Charter has promised not to charge separate modem fees for three years after its acquisition deal is approved, but that also means the company is building the cost of that equipment into the price of broadband service.

Zoom has an interest in the outcome because Charter has yet to approve any Zoom cable modem model for use on its network. Time Warner Cable has certified at least one Zoom model in the past. Assuming the buyout is approved, consumers would have a disincentive to buy Zoom cable modems (or those manufactured by anyone else) because the equipment will be provided with the service.

Zoom has tangled with Charter before, most recently in the summer of 2014 when it criticized Charter’s policy forbidding new customers from using their own modems with Charter’s service. From June 26, 2012 until Aug. 22, 2014, Charter’s website stated, “For new Internet Customers and customers switching to our New Package Pricing, we will no longer allow customer owned modems on our network.”

Zoom claims Charter modified that policy three days before a key FCC filing deadline that could have eventually brought regulator attention on the cable operator. But Zoom remains unhappy with how Charter deals with the issue of customer-owned equipment.

“Charter has still not adopted certification standards that are open to Zoom and other cable modem producers, nor has Charter yet made a commitment for timely certifications under this program,” Zoom claimed in the summer of 2014. “Of the 17 cable modems Charter shows as qualified for customer attachment to its network, not one is stocked by leading cable modem retailers Walmart, Staples, and Office Depot and not one has 802.11ac wireless capability. Charter still does not separately list the cost of its leased modems on customer bills, and Charter does not offer a corresponding savings to all customers who buy a qualified cable modem and attach it to the Charter network.”

zoomZoom wants Charter to be required to offer consumers that own their own equipment a tangible monthly discount for broadband service as a condition of any merger approval.

“The Communications Act says that cable companies should sell cable modem leases and Internet service separately,” Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center who is representing Zoom, told the Los Angeles Times. “By combining the prices, Charter’s customers are deprived of the ability to purchase advanced cable modems and save the cost of monthly rental fees.”

Charter argues the Act only covers set-top boxes used for cable television service, not modem fees. Charter also claims its introductory prices are lower than what most cable companies charge, modem fee or not.

“Customers will benefit from Charter’s pro-customer and pro-broadband model with transparent billing policies,” Tamara Smith, a Charter spokeswoman, told the newspaper. “It features straightforward, nationally uniform pricing with no data caps, no usage-based pricing, no modem fees, no early termination fees and does not pass on federal or state Universal Service Fund fees to customers.”

But Charter is only guaranteeing those customer-friendly policies for three years, after which it can raise prices and add fees at will.

AT&T Leveraging Its DirecTV Acquisition to Cut Customer Promotions, Raise Prices

yay attWith one less significant competitor in the marketplace, AT&T feels safe cutting back customer promotions to raise prices and profitability, even if it means losing customers.

AT&T’s original argument for acquiring DirecTV was to negotiate cost savings from cable programmers by qualifying for greater volume discounts available from combining 5.7 million U-verse TV customers with DirecTV’s roughly 20.3 million U.S. subscribers. But AT&T has now made it clear it is keeping those savings for itself.

“We have our target to get to $2.5 billion or more in savings,” said John J. Stephens, AT&T’s chief financial officer, in a conference call with investors. “We already are realizing some of that in our content and supplier relationships. We really like our momentum here, and we are confident we can continue to expand margins and cut costs, even with pressure from our international operations.”

At the same time AT&T is enjoying billions in savings, in recognition of the fact its customers now have fewer competitors with whom they can do business, the time is right to cut back on money-saving promotional plans, effectively raising prices for customers.

“Because of our focus on profitability, we really got away from promotional pricing, and those customers who were cost-sensitive just had a propensity to churn,” Stephens said, referring to an industry term that means customers canceled service either because it got too expensive or they found a better deal elsewhere.

Stephens

Stephens

Stephens told investors its new pricing strategy, as expected, brought reductions in the number of U-verse video subscribers during the latest quarter. The company is also pushing more customers towards DirecTV and away from U-verse because programming costs are lower on the satellite platform. The new focus on profits means fewer customers are choosing AT&T and many existing DSL customers are resisting efforts to force them on to the U-verse platform.

“Net adds dropped with fewer promotions and shifting our focus to the lower content cost DirecTV platform,” Stephens admitted. “We added 192,000 IP broadband customers in the quarter, as migrations from our DSL base continued to slow. U-verse video losses also put some pressure on broadband numbers due to our high attachment rates.”

Stephens noted the customer growth declines occurred at the same time pressure on AT&T’s costs are dropping significantly. In October, the company signed an agreement with Viacom for its cable programming networks Stephens says represents “best-in-industry pricing,” made possible from the enhanced volume discounts AT&T now receives.

DirecTV will also allow AT&T to curtail additional U-verse expansion into its more rural service areas.

att directv“They don’t have television in these areas, or I should say we didn’t have a video offering,” Stephens said of AT&T’s rural customer base, mostly still dependent on DSL. With its ownership of a satellite TV provider, there is less urgency to expand rural U-verse. “These were generally out of the U-verse footprint, but now we do. And now we’ll be able to provide them with a video offering through DirecTV, and we’re very pleased with that. So we are hopeful that now this nationwide video service will help us in improving our overall broadband positioning.”

AT&T’s deal with the government to win approval of its merger with DirecTV committed the company to expand high-speed fiber optic broadband to at least 12.5 million customer locations and offer discounts to low-income customers. AT&T’s interpretation of the agreement means it will expand broadband service mostly in urban areas while continuing to allow its rural DSL broadband networks to lose customers.

“Over the last few years, the real trend has been a migration from DSL to IP broadband [eg. U-verse],” Stephens said. “And that’s been something that we’ve encouraged ourselves, and we’re beginning to complete that process or near completion where the DSL customers we have left is a much lower percentage than [those with U-verse] broadband capabilities from us.”

att cricket“I’m going to tell you, I think on the consumer side we’re down into the two million range on total DSL customers,” Stephens said. “[…] I would suggest to you it has changed dramatically over the course of four or five years, where it used to be 90% plus of our broadband base and now it’s a much lower percentage. So we’ve gone through that migration not completely, but almost completely.”

AT&T’s commitment to aid low-income customers is not clear, as customers report AT&T less willing to offer or extend money-saving promotions. On the wireless side of AT&T’s business, the company is increasingly pushing price-sensitive customers out of its network.

“Our focus is to provide the best customer experience while increasing profitability and not just chase customer counts,” Stephens said. “Our third quarter results drive that point home. We had our highest ever wireless service [profit] margins at 49.4%.”

In particular, AT&T is sacrificing its low-revenue feature phone customers by cutting back on handset choices and trying to shift certain prepaid customers to the less venerable Cricket brand. AT&T acquired Cricket from Leap Wireless in the spring of 2014. It completed a nationwide shutdown of Cricket’s competitive CDMA wireless network this fall and has pushed Cricket’s current customer base onto AT&T’s GSM network, often at a higher cost to customers.

Stephens reported AT&T Cricket customers now pay nearly $10 more a month than departing AT&T customers that maintained postpaid feature phones until the end of their two-year contracts.

“On the churn, first and foremost, yes, the feature phone churn is hitting us and having an impact on us, and those are decisions we made not to chase those customers,” Stephens informed investors. “[We] can’t make the math work not only on the pricing for those customers but the impact throughout our base.”

Stephens claimed profits are now AT&T’s number one priority.

“We’re going to be focused on profitable growth, not just chasing customer counts or specific targets,” Stephens said. “We’re going to really be focused on just getting the most profits out of the business.”

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