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Comcast to 2,700+ NY’ers – Your Opposition to Our Merger: Unsubstantive, Should Be Ignored

Phillip Dampier August 26, 2014 Comcast/Xfinity, Time Warner Cable No Comments

psctestComcast told the New York Public Service Commission that the overwhelming majority of the substantive comments submitted to the regulator “express a strong desire and enthusiasm for the improved and expanded voice, data, video, and broadband services” that the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable will bring to the state.

new math“Given these many concrete benefits, and the lack of any harm to competition or consumers, it should come as no surprise that the overwhelming majority of the substantive comments (approximately 110 out of a total of about 140 substantive comments) filed in this proceeding support Commission approval of the transaction,” Comcast wrote in its latest submission.[1]

Comcast’s “new math” applies a subjective (and undisclosed) standard about what constitutes “substantive,” but in the end the cable company has urged the Commission to disregard the sentiments of more than 2,700 New York State residents who have filed comments in strong opposition to the merger because their remarks simply fell beneath Comcast’s standards.

“The minority of organizations and individuals who filed substantive comments opposing the transaction largely ignore the significant public interest benefits of the transaction,” writes Comcast. “Instead, these detractors raise issues that are not relevant to the transaction and are factually inaccurate and speculative – such as unfounded concerns about Comcast’s broadband management practices, misplaced criticisms of Internet Essentials, and general fears that ‘big is bad.’ None of these commenters identify any reasonable basis to reject or condition the Joint Petition.”

Comcast did not apply the same rigorous standards of ‘substantiveness’ to comments sent by its supporters, who often used what New York Assemblyman Joe Morelle admitted was a Comcast-supplied template ghost-written by the company itself.[2]

“Supporters of the transaction span a wide range of groups and individuals, including governmental officials (e.g., mayors, town supervisors, county commissioners, city councils, state legislators, and school superintendents); businesses and non-profits; state and local organizations focused on economic development; community service, youth and family, and diversity organizations; arts and education groups; and others,” writes Comcast.

chicago urban leagueBut the company never disclosed the many financial ties between Comcast and its political and civic supporters. In fact, a large percentage of the “template” letters of support originated from politicians like Assemblyman Morelle, who recently received a $1,000 check from Comcast[3] and Rochester city councilman Adam McFadden, whose group claims to receive $50,000 annually from Comcast.[4] [5]

In fact, it is hard not to find financial connections between Comcast’s supporters and the cable company itself. A random sampling uncovers multiple instances of Comcast contributions that were followed by letters of support for its merger:

The Urban League has received at least $12 million in in-kind contributions from Comcast since 2007, in addition to direct financial contributions to local chapters around Comcast’s service area.[6] In just one example Stephen Thomas, Comcast’s area vice president, who also serves on the Chicago chapter’s board of directors, presented the organization with a check for $40,000.[7] Just a few months later, Andrea L. Zopp, president of the Chicago Urban League, wrote to urge the FCC to approve Comcast’s merger deal.[8]

“Comcast is a strong supporter of the Urban League movement throughout the country. … I sincerely ask that you approve this transaction so that the Urban Leaguers and everyone else can benefit,” Zopp wrote.

Various chapters of the Boys and Girls Club also submitted glowing letters in favor of the merger. Comcast has partnered with local Boys & Girls Clubs since 2000, providing more than $68 million in cash and in-kind contributions. But no chapter was willing to openly admit Comcast asked them to share their views with New York regulators and only a few disclosed the financial ties the organization has with Comcast. The Boys and Girls Club has been a very loyal supporter of whatever Comcast has on its corporate agenda. Chapters submitted letters urging regulators to approve the Comcast-NBC merger in 2010 as well.[9]

Another strong supporter Comcast quotes from in its filing is the National Black Chamber of Commerce. But they don’t mention Comcast is a corporate sponsor of the group.[10]

Comcast (falsely) claims their Internet Essentials is the country's only discount Internet program for the disadvantaged. But Google Fiber gives it away for free.

Comcast (falsely) claims their $9.95 Internet Essentials is the country’s only discount Internet program for the disadvantaged. But Google Fiber gives it away for free to anyone who wants it.

Comcast also called criticism of its Internet Essentials discount Internet program “inaccurate and unavailing,” despite the fact the company’s own senior vice president David Cohen admitted the program was stalled to use as a political chip to win approval of its merger with NBCUniversal.[11]

Comcast also falsely claims it is the only Internet discount program for the poor of its kind.

“[Critics] simply advocate a different broadband adoption program – one that no company has ever implemented, that has never been attempted or even analyzed, and that may not be equally sustainable or popular or easy to publicize,” Comcast wrote. “Comcast is the only company to offer a program of this kind, and it has continually and voluntarily expanded the scope, breadth, and eligibility for and benefits of the program.”

In fact, it may have escaped Comcast’s attention that Google has provided residents in their fiber service areas with free Internet service with absolutely no income qualification or needs test, after paying a “construction fee” ranging from $30 in Provo, Utah [12] to $300 in Kansas City.[13] Residents in the latter community can break the somewhat steep construction fee into 12 payments of $25 each and have a guarantee of free service for up to seven years. Over the course of both programs, Google offers a more compelling and less expensive offer without onerous qualification requirements.

Yr    Google Fiber Cost  Comcast Internet Essentials Cost (@$9.95/mo)

1          $300                            $119.40
2          $0                                $119.40
3          $0                                $119.40
4          $0                                $119.40
5          $0                                $119.40
6          $0                                $119.40
7          $0                                $119.40

Over the course of seven years, a Google Fiber customer selecting discounted Internet would pay $300. A Comcast customer would pay $835.80 – a difference of $535.80.

While Google Fiber’s service area is very limited, it does offer an evidence-based challenge to Comcast’s inaccurate claim that its Internet Essentials program is unprecedented and represents the best solution for New York. A well-designed program designed to help New Yorkers will sell itself far better than the complicated, restrictive, and revenue-protection-oriented Internet Essentials, and its lack of penetration in long-standing Comcast service areas speaks for itself.

The California Emerging Technologies Fund also found serious problems with Internet Essentials from top to bottom.[14]

“Comcast makes the sign-up process long and cumbersome,” CETF claimed.[15] “The application process often takes 2-3 months, far too long for customers who are skeptical about the product in the first place, and have other pressing demands on their budgets. The waiting period between the initial call to Comcast and the CIE [Comcast Internet Essentials] application arriving in the mail can stretch 8-12 weeks, if it comes at all. After submitting the application, another 2-4 weeks elapse before the equipment arrives. Many low-income residents do not have Social Security Numbers (SSNs) and are required to travel long distances to verify their identities because Comcast has closed many of its regional offices. Recently, some potential subscribers with SSNs were rejected over the phone and told they had to visit a Comcast office. Comcast has a pilot effort in Florida that should be expanded to allow customers to fax or e-mail photocopied IDs as proof of identification.”

CETF also found widespread violations of Comcast’s own program rules when the cable company conducted credit checks on customers, which can reduce a customer’s already challenged FICO score with a credit inquiry on their file.

“Comcast conducts credit checks for some customers, contrary to CIE rules,” the CETF filing said. “Dozens of clients are receiving letters from Comcast saying that they have failed a credit check. Comcast specifically states and advertises no credit check is needed for CIE. This has repercussions beyond obtaining broadband service. The act of performing a credit check can negatively impact the consumer’s credit worthiness. Initially, some CIE service representatives told customers they could pay $150 deposit to avoid a credit check, also contrary to program rules.”

Customers have also been redirected to Comcast sales call centers, where they receive aggressive sales pitches for higher-cost products and services.

Comcast’s celebration of its commitment to minority television programming does not mention the expansion of minority programming was a condition of the FCC’s approval of the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger.

Among Comcast's "compelling" minority programming that customers are asked to pay for: Baby First Americas, a

Among Comcast’s “compelling” minority programming that customers are asked to pay for: Baby First Americas, a network for bilingual infants aged 0 to 3.

Subscribers got less than compelling programming and more rate increases to pay for it.

National Public Radio noted Comcast’s new minority channels are not exactly drawing significant audiences[16]:

Out of the gate, well, first was Baby First America — for bilingual infants aged 0 to 3.

ASPiRE, a channel focused on African-Americans, is mostly repurposed old series and gospel music videos.

ASPiRE, a channel focused on African-Americans, is mostly reruns and talk shows. Writer Anita Wilson Pringle called the network’s programming “crap.”

Next came Aspire, a family-oriented network from ex-basketball star and entertainment impresario Magic Johnson. Its lineup includes reruns of The Cosby Show plus even older fare: Julia, Soul Train and The Flip Wilson Show.

Writer Anita Wilson Pringle, for one, is no fan of that lineup of TV retreads.

“He promised innovative, new fresh ideas, new fresh programming, and it’s not,” she says.

Pringle is upset that Aspire’s managers were merely reshuffled from the old Gospel Music Channel. And she says the people Aspire is supposed to serve — African Americans — don’t exactly need more reruns or talk shows.

“It’s crap, if you really want to know the truth,” she says. “But my thing is, they did this to break that monopoly that Comcast was having on all these stations, and all that has happened is that Comcast has a stronger monopoly.”

Comcast’s commitment to improve energy efficiency is comparable to Time Warner Cable’s own commitments, providing no net gain for New York consumers.[17]

Comcast’s promised commitments to deliver better customer service have been made annually for several years with no significant improvement, as measured by independent customer satisfaction studies. Comcast relies on a quotation from a Wall Street analyst, Craig Moffett, who provides only anecdotal evidence of customer service improvements and has supported the merger’s potential benefits for shareholders.

Comcast's idea of effective competition is using your Verizon Wireless connection for home broadband use. A 16GB monthly plan will cost consumers as much as $170 a month before taxes and fees.

Comcast’s idea of effective competition is using your Verizon Wireless connection for home broadband use. A 16GB monthly plan will cost consumers as much as $170 a month before taxes and fees.

Comcast’s assertion that the Commission should ignore or downplay bad customer service experiences of customers outside New York is made despite their own admission they serve only a tiny number of New York customers today. Is Comcast suggesting it would be inappropriate to consider their customer service record in comparable-sized cities across the country, some likely served by the same national and offshore customer care centers New Yorkers will reach when they have future problems with Comcast?

Comcast’s claims of plentiful broadband competition also do not exist in the real world for many New Yorkers. The Commission has faced such a large number of complaints about Verizon landline service, which also supports DSL, it launched a Verizon Service Quality Improvement Plan. When a Verizon landline becomes inoperable for several months, as customers in Inwood experienced earlier this year[18], their DSL broadband is also inoperable. For customers served by cable, but not reached by DSL service from telephone companies like Verizon, Windstream, and Frontier Communications, their only realistic home broadband connection comes from the local cable company. Wireless broadband, advocated as a competitive alternative by Comcast, does not penetrate well indoors in large sections of rural upstate New York and is constrained by very expensive service plans and severe limits on data usage, compelling customers to pay excessive fees to obtain service.

A family consuming 16GB of data per month (less than today’s average use per person) would face Internet bills of $170 a month with Verizon Wireless ($40/mo Monthly Line Access – Internet Device + 16GB Data Plan ($130/mo Monthly Account Access)[19] Wired broadband accounts from Time Warner Cable in comparison cost as little as $14.99 a month for unlimited usage.

Where DSL service is available, it is typically offered at speeds lower than a cable operator can offer. As an example, at our residence in the Town of Brighton, N.Y., Frontier Communications can only offer a maximum speed of 3.1Mbps from their DSL service because of our distance from the central office.

Comcast will have a near-total monopoly on all broadband service in excess of 15Mbps in current Time Warner Cable territories not serviced by Verizon FiOS. Verizon’s maximum speed DSL offer is for speeds “up to 15Mbps.”[20] Verizon FiOS expansion outside of already-committed territories has ended, and the majority of upstate New York is not served by Verizon’s FiOS fiber upgrades.

Comcast claims there is a world of difference between highly regulated energy-generation utilities and the “competitive” marketplace for telecommunications.

“Proposals that the Commission approach this transaction with the same mindset, and apply the same types of burdensome conditions, are entirely unjustified,” argues Comcast.

“Electric and gas utilities remain the quintessential public service utilities,” says the cable company. “Their markets are characterized by a lack of competition, captive customer bases, and direct rate-setting and operational oversight by the Commission.”

In fact, many cable customers in New York do face a lack of competition for fast broadband speeds, are stuck with the single cable operator serving their community, and lack the consumer protections offered by the Commission that apply to other utilities.

The Commission can test Comcast’s claims of competitiveness for itself. Stop the Cap! offers a challenge to find more than one provider that can deliver consistent, widely obtainable broadband speeds of 15/3Mbps or greater in downtown Buffalo, Rochester, Albany or Syracuse.

The Commission will discover there is only one provider now capable of delivering that service across the entire urban centers of upstate New York: the local cable company.

In far western New York, Verizon FiOS is available only in small parts of South Buffalo and North Buffalo and select suburbs.

In Rochester, Frontier Communications does not offer consistent access to speeds greater than 10Mbps.

Albany and Syracuse are also bypassed by Verizon FiOS, left with Verizon DSL, which only offers speeds “up to 15/1Mbps.” Most customers get less.

Comcast would have the Commission believe any review of its broadband service is off-limits and outside of their jurisdiction anyway.

“The Commission has no authority to review broadband transactions and lacks statutory authority to regulate broadband services – and beyond this, cable broadband services are interstate information services that are not properly subject to state jurisdiction,” claimed Comcast.

It further argued the Commission must ignore “matters beyond the Commission’s jurisdiction,” quoting from a 2006 proceeding.

mergerComcast evidently forgets the law has changed in New York. In 2006, the Commission had to disprove a petition was in the public interest to reject it. In 2014, the applicant is solely responsible for carrying the burden of proof that their proposal is in the public interest.

Nothing in Section 222 of the Public Service Law places restrictions on what the Commission can consider when weighing public interest benefits.

Comcast’s claims of its wish to expand service into rural, unserved areas also must be questioned. Comcast automatically sets a high bar for expansion suggesting it will occur only “where economically feasible,” which is the same standard in place with the incumbent cable operator.

“Where economically feasible” is the reason cable companies in New York have rarely expanded their service territories, except in high growth areas where population density warrants expansion. All cable operators have an internal formula governing Return On Investment requirements that must be met before expansion begins. The Commission must review that information and compare the standards used by both applicants, because it will ultimately govern any future natural expansion of cable service in rural New York.

Conclusion

Comcast’s rosy picture of New York’s future with a merged Time Warner Cable-Comcast is belied by the real world experiences of New York consumers who have learned from long, hard experience that when a cable company starts promising a better deal, the result has too often been higher rates and fees, unwanted channels, poorer customer service, and new restrictions.

'An Extortion-for-distortion hose job.'

Don’t close your eyes to the facts.

Cable operators have enjoyed unfettered power to escape oversight with inflated claims of fierce competitiveness that they suggest will keep prices and abusive behavior in check, but in reality rates are rising and Comcast’s customer approval ratings live in the basement.

Comcast’s most recent filing continues to dismiss these very real concerns for New Yorkers who will not have a choice of a cable operator other than Time Warner Cable or Comcast. Calling the comments of more than 2,700 New Yorkers largely opposed to this merger “unsubstantive” is precisely the attitude of a cable company that has earned its bad reputation with customers.

Sending “templates” to politicians and non-profits that have received funding from Comcast and asking them to send letters to regulators urging approval of the company’s latest item on the agenda is the kind of “substantive” evidence Comcast wants the Commission to rely on in this proceeding.

But worst of all, Comcast suggests that any review of the company’s broadband service, its pricing and performance, and the potential for usage allowances and usage fees above and beyond the current high cost of Internet service is off-limits to New York regulators. The Commission already recognizes the growing importance of broadband in New York State and that it is, in reality, nearly a necessity.

Time Warner Cable recognizes that and is moving ahead on an upgrade program that delivers broadband benefits above those offered by Comcast and at a lower price, with no usage allowances or overlimit fees likely in the foreseeable future. It remains clear to us that Time Warner Cable is the better choice for New York. We have a well-documented history of not being great fans of Time Warner Cable, but we know worse when we see it, and we see it in Comcast.

[1] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={60D7F65E-3AAB-4507-B58D-7F14E31E130A}

[2] http://www.rochesterhomepage.net/story/d/story/lawmakers-write-letters-supporting-comcast-deal/38184/WjHF311jeEqZdF9IOMX7mg

[3] http://www.rochesterhomepage.net/story/d/story/lawmakers-write-letters-supporting-comcast-deal/38184/WjHF311jeEqZdF9IOMX7mg

[4] http://stopthecap.com/2014/08/11/rochester-city-councilman-adam-mcfaddens-love-for-comcast-and-the-50k/

[5] http://www.nlc.org/corporate-engagement/corporate-partners-program

[6] http://corporate.comcast.com/news-information/news-feed/national-urban-league-resource

[7] http://www.thechicagourbanleague.org/cms/lib07/IL07000264/Centricity/Domain/14/impact-jan-2014.pdf

[8] http://www.thewrap.com/consumer-groups-urge-fcc-to-reject-comcast/time-warner-cable-deal/

[9] http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=7020462210

[10] http://www.nationalbcc.org/news/progress-reports/2107-recap-of-22nd-annual-conference

[11] http://stopthecap.com/2013/07/10/comcasts-internet-essentials-facade-padding-the-bottom-line-without-cannibalizing-your-base/

[12] https://fiber.google.com/legal/subscriber/provo/

[13] https://fiber.google.com/legal/subscriber/kansascity/

[14] http://arstechnica.com/business/2014/07/comcasts-internet-for-the-poor-too-hard-to-sign-up-for-advocates-say/

[15] http://www.cetfund.org/files/140711_CETF_Partners_Comcast-TWC_FCC_PR_and_Filing.pdf

[16] http://www.npr.org/2013/11/12/244558834/comcast-deal-puts-new-minority-run-channels-in-play

[17] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/about-us/corporate-responsibility/environment.html

[18] http://manhattan.ny1.com/content/shows/ny1_for_you/203064/ny1foryou–inwood-verizon-customers-want-phone-service-outages-to-stop

[19] http://www.verizonwireless.com/wcms/consumer/shop/shop-data-plans/more-everything.html

[20] http://www.verizon.com/home/shop/shopping.htm

NYS Assembly Leader Joe Morelle Plagiarizes Comcast Testimony in Letter to Regulators

New York State Assembly Leader Joe Morelle (D-Rochester) plagiarized large sections of a Comcast press release and the Congressional testimony of Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen in a letter sent to the New York Public Service Commission endorsing the cable company’s bid to merge with Time Warner Cable.

Morelle evidently ignored or was unaware of his constituents’ overwhelming opposition to the merger deal and seemed unfazed about Comcast’s long record of dreadful customer service, constant rate increases, and the company’s plan to reimplement usage limits on consumer broadband accounts. Morelle simply cut and pasted Comcast’s own words in his letter about the merger, as we illustrate below:

 

morelleN.Y. State Assembly Leader Joe Morelle: “The combination of Comcast and Time Warner Cable will create a world-class communications, media and technology company to help meet the increasing consumer demand for advanced digital services on multiple devices in homes, workplaces and on-the-go.”

cohenDavid Cohen, executive vice-president, Comcast: “The combination of Comcast and TWC will create a world-class communications, media, and technology company to help meet the insatiable consumer demand for advanced digital services on multiple devices in homes, workplaces, and on-the-go.”

 

morelleJoe Morelle: “Comcast has a proven record of investing in new technologies, facilities and customer support to provide the best in broadband Internet access, video and digital voice services.”

cohenDavid Cohen: “Comcast has a proven record of investing in new technologies, facilities, and customer support to provide the best in broadband Internet access, video, and digital voice services.”

 

morelleJoe Morelle: “Similarly, TWC has made significant strides in offering a diverse array of video, broadband, and voice services to its customers.”

cohenDavid Cohen: “Similarly, TWC has made significant strides in offering a diverse array of video, broadband, and voice services to its customers.”

 

morelleJoe Morelle: “Combining the two companies’ complementary strengths will accelerate the deployment of next-generation broadband Internet, video and voice services across the new company’s footprint.”

cohenDavid Cohen: “Combining the two companies’ complementary strengths will accelerate the deployment of next-generation broadband Internet, video, and voice services across the new company’s footprint.”

 

morelleJoe Morelle: “Residential customers will benefit from technological innovations including a superior video experience, higher broadband speeds and the fastest in-home Wi-Fi, while also generating significant cost savings and other efficiencies.”

comcastComcast Press Release: “Through this merger, more American consumers will benefit from technological innovations, including a superior video experience, higher broadband speeds, and the fastest in-home Wi-Fi. The transaction also will generate significant cost savings and other efficiencies.”

 

morelleJoe Morelle: “In just two-and-a-half years, over 350,000 families, representing approximately 1.4 million low-income consumers, have been connected to the Internet thanks to this program. This proposed merger would extend this vital program to many more low-income households in New York by providing access to it in certain areas of the state currently only served by Time Warner.

cohenDavid Cohen: “In just two and a half years, over 300,000 families, representing some 1.2 million low-income consumers, have been connected to the transformative power of the Internet thanks to this program. The transaction will extend this vital program to millions more Americans in the areas currently served by TWC.”

Stop the Cap!’s Letter to N.Y. Public Service Commission on Comcast/TWC Merger Deal

psctest

August 6, 2014

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

Dear Ms. Burgess,

The country is watching New York to learn if our state regulators believe a merger between two unpopular cable operators is in the best interest of New York residents.

For the first time in a long time, the Public Service Commission has been empowered to provide much needed oversight over two companies that have enjoyed both deregulation and a near-monopoly across the region, particularly for High Speed Internet service at speeds above 10Mbps.

New Yorkers, like the rest of the country, consistently rank both Comcast and Time Warner Cable as some of the worst companies around.[1] The PSC has the power to facilitate franchise transfers that would effectively combine the two into one giant monolithic cable company dominating the northeastern U.S., or it can reject the proposed assignment of franchises to Comcast, letting both companies know “in the public interest” means something in New York State.

Section 222 of the New York Public Service law[2] provides the PSC with the authority to reject the application for a transfer of a franchise, any transfer of control of a franchise or certificate of confirmation, or of facilities constituting a significant part of any cable television system unless, and I paraphrase, the transfer is in the public interest.

The Commission is on record partly articulating its standard for determining the public interest. In 2013, the Commission stated several principles it considered in the matter of the acquisition of Central Hudson Gas and Electric by Fortis, Inc., to determine if the transaction would provide customers positive net benefits.[3] The Petitioners in that case were held to a standard requiring them to demonstrate the expected intrinsic benefits of the transaction exceeded its detriments and risks.

However, there are considerable differences between energy utilities and the largely deregulated marketplace for multichannel video distributors and broadband providers. While legacy telephone regulations still provide for significant oversight of this vital service, cable operators have won the right to set their own rates, service policies, and broad service areas.

Although many of us believe broadband has become an essential utility service, federal regulators do not, especially after telephone and cable companies have successfully lobbied on the federal level to weaken or eliminate regulation and oversight of television and broadband service with arguments they do business in a fiercely competitive marketplace.[4]

Regulators cannot compel cable operators to provide service in communities where they have chosen not to seek a franchise agreement, and broadband expansion programs in rural, unserved areas have largely only been successful when communities elect to construct their own broadband networks or federal funds (tax dollars and subsidies funded by ratepayers) defray the expense of last-mile networks.  While it is enticing to seek a voluntary agreement from the applicant to expand its rural service area, the public interest benefit to the relatively small number of New Yorkers getting broadband for the first time must be weighed against the interests of millions of existing subscribers in New York who are likely to see further rate increases, usage-limited broadband service, and worse service from Comcast.

New Yorkers will remain captive in most areas to choosing between one telephone and one cable company for packages of phone, television, and Internet access.[5] Promises of competition have never materialized for vast numbers of state residents, particularly those upstate who have been left behind after Verizon ceased its FiOS fiber to the home expansion project.

Unless Comcast was compelled to wire the entire state, any proposal seeking a voluntary agreement to expand Comcast’s service area in New York is likely to be insufficient to solve the pervasive problem of rural broadband availability. It would also saddle millions of New Yorkers with a company unwelcomed by consumers, with no alternative choice.

As you will see in our filing, Comcast has often promised improvements it planned to offer anyway, but held back to offer as a “concession” to regulators.

The result of past deals is one monopolistic cable operator is replaced by another, and as the American Consumer Satisfaction Index reported, bigger is not better for consumers.[6]

The nation’s two largest cable operators, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, now seek further “value creation” for their already very profitable businesses by merging.[7]

News reports indicate further consolidation is likely in the telecommunications marketplace, largely in response to this merger proposal. Soon after Comcast made its announcement, AT&T announced its desire to acquire DirecTV,[8] and Charter Communications’ efforts to bolster its size are likely to be realized acquiring Time Warner Cable customers cast off as part of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable transaction.[9]

How does this benefit New Yorkers? In our attached statement, we go far beyond the testimony offered by Comcast’s representative at the public information meeting we attended in Buffalo. It is vital for any merger review to include a careful analysis of exactly what Comcast is proposing to offer New York. But it is even more important to consider the costs of these improvements. As you will see, many of the promised upgrades come at a steep price – set top box platforms that require a $99 installation fee, the prospect faster broadband speeds will be tempered by broadband usage limits and usage penalties largely unfamiliar to New Yorkers, and other technology upgrades that are accompanied by subscriber inconvenience and added costs.

Comcast’s promised commitments for customers must also be carefully weighed against what it promised shareholders. While Comcast claims it will spend millions to upgrade acquired Time Warner Cable systems (many already being upgraded by Time Warner Cable itself), the merger announcement includes unprecedented bonus and golden parachute packages for the outgoing executives at Time Warner Cable, including a $78 million bonus for Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus, announced less than 60 days after taking the helm.[10] Comcast’s biggest investment of all will be on behalf of its shareholders, who will benefit from an estimated $17 billion share repurchase plan.[11]

The PSC should be aware that previous efforts to mitigate the bad behavior of cable companies have nearly always failed to protect consumers.

Professor John E. Kwoka, Jr., in his study, “Does Merger Control Work? A Retrospective on U.S. Enforcement Actions and Merger Outcomes,[12]” found past attempts at behavioral remedies spectacularly failed to protect against rapacious rate increases after  mergers are approved.[13]

In short, it is our contention that this merger proposal offers few, if any benefits to New York residents and is not in the public interest even if modestly modified by regulators.

The implications of this transaction are enormous and will directly impact the lives of most New Yorkers, particularly for broadband, now deemed by the industry (and consumers) its most important product.[14]

We have attached a more detailed analysis of our objections to this proposal and we urge the New York Public Service Commission to recognize this transaction does not come close to meeting the public interest test and must therefore be rejected.

 

Yours very truly,

 

Phillip M. Dampier

[1]http://arstechnica.com/business/2014/05/comcast-time-warner-cable-still-have-the-angriest-customers-survey-finds/
[2]http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/nycode/PBS/11/222
[3]http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={A55ECCE9-C3B2-4076-A934-4F65AA7E79D1}
[4]http://www.mi-natoa.org/pdfs/The_Ten_Disappointments_of_Cable.pdf
[5]http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/we-need-real-competition-not-a-cable-internet-monopoly
[6]http://www.theacsi.org/component/content/article/30-commentary-category/179-acsi-quarterly-commentaries-q1-2008
[7]http://corporate.comcast.com/images/Transaction-Fact-Sheet-2-13-14.pdf
[8]http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/05/13/att-directv-deal-analysis/9044491/
[9]http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/28/us-charter-communi-comcast-idUSBREA3R0N620140428
[10]http://money.cnn.com/2014/03/21/news/companies/time-warner-cable-golden-parachute/
[11]http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2014/02/comcast_agrees_to_purchase_of.html
[12]John E. Kwoka, Jr., “Does Merger Control Work? A Retrospective on U.S. Enforcement Actions and
Merger Outcomes,” 78 Antitrust L.J 619 (2013)
[13]7 John E. Kwoka, Jr. and Diana L. Moss, “Behavioral Merger Remedies: Evaluation and Implications for
Antitrust Enforcement,” at 22, available at
http://antitrustinstitute.org/sites/default/files/AAI_wp_behavioral%20remedies_final.pdf
[14]http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303657404576359671078105148

NY’s Broadband Future Is Better With Time Warner Cable: Comcast’s Coming Usage Caps Kill Innovation

psctest

Broadband will be critically impacted by any merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable in New York. The two companies could not be more different in their philosophies regarding access, pricing, and speeds.

say noThis merger will have an especially profound impact on broadband service in upstate New York, largely left behind out from getting Verizon’s fiber upgrades. New York’s digital economy critically needs modern, fast, and affordable Internet access to succeed. Verizon has not only ceased expansion of its FiOS fiber to the home network in New York, it has virtually capitulated competing for cable customers in non-FiOS areas by agreeing to sell Time Warner Cable service in its wireless stores.[1]  In cities like Rochester, served by Frontier Communications’ DSL, Time Warner Cable is the only provider in town that can consistently deliver broadband speeds in excess of 10Mbps.

Time Warner Cable has never been the fastest Internet provider and had a history of being slower than others to roll out speed increases. But it is also the only cable provider in the country that experimented with usage caps and consumption billing and shelved both after subscribers bitterly complained in market tests in cities including Rochester.[2]

Then CEO Glenn Britt announced the end of the usage cap trial just two weeks after it became public.[3] Britt would later emphasize that he now believed there should always be an unlimited use plan available for Time Warner Cable customers who do not want their Internet use metered.[4] In study after study, the overwhelming majority of customers have shown intense dislike of limitations on their Internet usage, whether from strict usage caps Comcast maintained for several years or usage allowances that, when exceeded, would result in overlimit fees.[5] Just this month, the Government Accounting Office confirmed these findings in a new study that reported near-universal revulsion for usage caps on home wired broadband service:[6]

In only two groups did any participants report experience with wireline UBP [usage-based pricing].

However, in all eight groups, participants expressed strong negative reactions to UBP, including concerns about:

  • The importance of the Internet in their lives and the potential effects of data allowances.
  • Having to worry about data usage at home, where they are used to having unlimited access.
  • Concerns that ISPs would use UBP as a way of increasing the amount they charge for Internet service.

Time Warner Cable has learned an important lesson regarding consumer perception of usage-based billing and usage caps on Internet service. In 2012, the company introduced optional usage caps for customers interested in a discount on their broadband service. Out of 11 million Time Warner Cable broadband customers, only a few thousand have been convinced in enroll such programs.[7]

Despite results like that, Comcast has not learned that lesson and has twice imposed unilateral, compulsory usage limits on their broadband customers, starting with a nationwide hard usage cap of 250GB per month introduced in 2008. Violators risked having their broadband service terminated by Comcast.[8] Today, for some that would be comparable to losing electricity or telephone service. The threat has profound implications in areas where Comcast is the only broadband provider.

Comcast temporarily rescinded its cap in May 2012, but has gradually reintroduced various forms of usage-related billing and caps with market trials in several Comcast service areas[9]:

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

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

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

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

courtesy-noticeComcast customers in these areas do not have the option of keeping their unlimited-use broadband accounts. Despite the fact Comcast executive vice president David Cohen refers to these as “data thresholds,” they are in fact de facto limits that carry penalty fees when exceeded.[10]

Cohen predicts these usage limits will be imposed on all Comcast customers nationwide within the next five years.[11] Time Warner Cable has committed not to impose compulsory limits on its broadband customers. Verizon has never attempted to place limits on its home broadband customers. Frontier shelved a usage limit plan of 5GB per month attempted in 2008 and currently provides unlimited service.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts sat for an interview with CNBC in June in which he implied usage growth was impinging on the viability of its broadband business, justifying usage caps. At the end of the interview, Time Warner Cable ran advertising emphasizing it has no usage caps.[12] Both companies have highly profitable broadband services, as do other providers across the country.[13]

As our group has found, usage caps and consumption billing on cable Internet and DSL are little more than a transparent rate increase and anti-competitive maneuver to restrict the growth of the industry’s biggest potential competitor: online video. If a consumer can stream all of their video programming over a broadband account, there is no reason to retain a cable TV package. Comcast’s usage cap provides a built-in deterrent for customers contemplating such a move.

While a Comcast representative offered (without any independent verification) that the average Comcast broadband user consumes fewer than 20GB of data per month, Sandvine released evidence in its Global Internet Phenomena Report 1H2014 study that cord-cutters in the U.S. – at least those whose usage indicates the use of streaming as a primary form of entertainment – now consume about 212GB of data per month (with 153GB of that going toward “real-time entertainment usage”).[14]

That would put many customers perilously close to Comcast’s current market tested usage allowance.

Approving the transfer of franchises from Time Warner Cable to Comcast has the potential of saddling the majority of New York residents with usage caps and/or consumption billing with little or no savings or benefit to the consumer while introducing a major impediment to potential online video competition to help curtail cable television pricing.

[1]http://www.verizonwireless.com/wcms/consumer/home-services/tv-internet-homephone/twc.html
[2]http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/04/16/us-timewarnercable-idUSTRE53F6EQ20090416
[3]http://stopthecap.com/2009/04/16/we-won-time-warner-killing-usage-caps-in-all-markets/
[4]http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2012/02/launching-an-optional-usage-based-pricing-plan-in-southern-texas-2/
[5]http://www.dailytech.com/Microsoft+Study+Bandwidth+Caps+Change+Internet+Users+Behavior/article24639.htm
[6]http://eshoo.house.gov/uploads/7.29.14%20Preliminary%20GAO%20Report%20Findings%20from%20Data%20Cap%20Study.pdf
[7]http://stopthecap.com/2014/03/13/time-warner-cable-admits-usage-based-pricing-is-a-big-failure-only-thousands-enrolled/
[8]http://arstechnica.com/uncategorized/2008/08/its-official-comcast-starts-250gb-bandwidth-caps-october-1/
[9] http://customer.comcast.com/help-and-support/internet/data-usage-trials-what-are-the-different-plans-launching
[10] http://customer.comcast.com/help-and-support/internet/data-usage-trials-what-are-the-different-plans-launching
[11]http://techcrunch.com/2014/05/14/comcast-wants-to-put-data-caps-on-all-customers-within-5-years/
[12]http://stopthecap.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/nocaps.png
[13]http://gigaom.com/2014/02/12/comcast-and-time-warner-cable-forget-tv-it-is-all-about-broadband/
[14]http://www.multichannel.com/news/technology/cord-cutters-gobble-down-bits-sandvine-study/374551#sthash.JYFP7o69.dpuf

			
			

Los Angeles Has Accumulated $35 Million in Cable Franchise Fees It Has No Idea How to Spend

35-LACityView

Channel 35 is Los Angeles’ Government Access station

Los Angeles cable subscribers are paying $30-50 a year in extra franchise fees the city government has no idea what to do with, allowing a bank account dedicated to housing the unspent funds to reach $35 million and counting.

A new audit by the Office of the City Controller found no misappropriation or ethical lapses by the city government, but it did criticize the lack of long-term planning regarding how franchise revenue should be used, as well as lax auditing of expenses that were paid from the fund. Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin added the city’s lack of consistent auditing of the five major cable operators servicing greater Los Angeles may be allowing cable operators to charge customers franchise fees the companies are keeping for themselves. A 2006 law passed at the behest of Verizon and AT&T allowing statewide video franchise agreements in California isn’t helping either.

For decades, communities have been able to demand up to a 5% franchise fee from cable and phone companies offering video services in their areas in return for access to public rights-of-way and other public property. Most cities, including Los Angeles, have requested the maximum allowed – 5% of the provider’s gross annual revenue earned within the city. Cable operators retaliated by recouping the franchise fee by billing cable customers for it on a separate line on monthly cable bills.

In Los Angeles, 60% of all franchise fees ($31 million) paid are transferred to the city’s all-purpose General Fund, used for all types of city expenses. The remaining 40 percent ($12.4 million) is supposed to be earmarked for a Telecommunications Fund, but the city often raids that account as well. Time Warner Cable subscribers account for 85% of Los Angeles’ cable franchise revenue, AT&T U-verse contributes another 10% with other operators paying considerably less. Last year, Charter Cable wrote a check for less than $5,000, primarily because only a tiny part of the city of Los Angeles is served by Charter today.

So where is the excess money still in the account coming from?

fund balance

The Unintended Consequences of Statewide Video Franchising

Eight years ago, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 2987:  the “Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act of 2006” (DIVCA). In reality, DIVCA was just another statewide video franchise bill heavily pushed by the state’s dominant phone companies — AT&T and Verizon — to let them begin offering video services without having to sign franchise agreements with thousands of local governments across the state.

verizon attAT&T and Verizon sold the legislation to the public as a red-tape cutter to bring Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse to millions of Californians without unnecessary bureaucratic delay.

But lobbyists from both phone companies, as well as several cable companies, were successful in inserting their own amendments into the law that undercut their arguments for passing the legislation:

  • As local franchise agreements expired, companies took their franchise renewal business direct to the state, cutting off local oversight. Communities could no longer require operators to expand into rural areas or impose fines for sub-standard service;
  • Cable companies won the right to toss Public, Educational, and Government Access (PEG) channels out of their buildings. Many communities assigned responsibility for housing and operating PEG channels as part of their franchise agreement. DIVCA rendered those agreements void and unenforceable;
  • Cable companies no longer had to offer institutional broadband networks for free or at a discount to local governments, schools and libraries, and many existing networks were closed down as soon as the local franchise agreement expired and communities balked at the new prices charged by telecom companies.

But perhaps the most controversial amendment was language that gets AT&T and Verizon out of meeting obligations to build out their fiber networks where they choose not to built them, while still compelling smaller independent telephone companies to offer service to every customer within their telephone service area within a reasonable amount of time.

So instead of promoting a rush towards video competition, both AT&T and Verizon won concessions that let them cherry pick — on their own schedule — customers for AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS:

  • Verizon is in compliance with DIVCA as long as 25% of the households where service is available are low-income and within 5 years, Verizon increases that to at least 40%;
  • AT&T stays out of trouble with DIVCA by providing video service to 35% of low-income households where service is available. Within five years, AT&T must reach at least 50%.

One of the biggest victims of DIVCA are PEG channels which lost the sponsorship of the cable companies that used to underwrite them as part of their franchise agreements. American Community Television reported in California, Illinois and Indiana, where statewide video franchising laws were passed, cable operators that operated PEG channels closed the doors, sometimes with only 30 days notice. Even in states where PEG funding remained, channels have been exiled to Channel Siberia (eg. Channel 1,512) or are under constant threat of losing their channel if they don’t meet an operator’s arbitrary quality of programming criteria.

Time Warner Cable has moved PEG channels to digital service in a majority of their service areas, requiring many customers to have an added-cost cable box to watch.

To help Californian PEG services cope, a state law permitted cities to collect an extra 1% of gross revenue from cable operators to keep funding these channels. But if a city already collects a full 5% franchise fee, any money collected from PEG channels must only be spent on their operations — no raiding of funds allowed. If the local government thinks there are bigger priorities than supporting public, educational, and government access, the future of PEG channels is questionable.

How to Spend the Untouchable Proceeds

The new home of Los Angeles' Government Access channel

The new home of Los Angeles’ Government Access channel

With Los Angeles-area cable companies collecting and sending on the proceeds of the 1% PEG surcharge to city coffers, the money has been more or less just piling up over the last seven years, unspent.

As of the end of June last year, the city had squirreled away about $22 million collected from cable TV customers stashed in a non interest-bearing account. PEG operations across the United States are not known for being profligate spenders, relying on budgets that would be insufficient to keep the lights on at a typical local public television station. So some question whether Los Angeles’ Public Access, Educational Access, and Government Access networks need $22 million to continue operations.

The city has decided the Government Access channel — the one that airs council meetings and other political functions — does need a new home.  So the city is spending $20 million to completely renovate one of the oldest buildings in Los Angeles, the long-vacant three-story Merced Theater near Olvera Street.

When complete, the state-of-the-art digital facilities of Cityview Channel 35 may rival those of some commercial television stations in Los Angeles. The building will house a small performance venue on the first floor, a studio with space for a 70-person live audience, and plenty of office space on the third floor. What it evidently won’t have room for is the Public Access and Educational Access channels that make up the rest of the PEG trio. The new facility is for the exclusive use of Channel 35.

Local residents are happy someone is finally doing something with the theater, which has been empty and unused for at least 30 years. The project could also make Los Angeles’ Government Access channel one of the most capable in the country, producing high quality programming well beyond the ubiquitous city council meetings.

“Space for a live audience of about 70 people will allow us to engage the public with debates, town halls and other events that we weren’t able to do,” Mark Wolf, executive officer at the city Information Technology Agency, which oversees Channel 35, told Downtown News. “The venue also gives us a full upgrade to digital technology, as we’ve been operating in an analog environment.”

Downtown News partly misled its readers when it suggested cable providers are footing the bill for the renovated home of Channel 35. Although money from the city’s general fund won’t be used for the project, the money did originate from cable subscribers who have paid higher cable bills since 2007 because the city elected to collect a 1% PEG franchise fee.

Galperin

Galperin

Even after spending $20 million on the Merced Theater, the money from Time Warner Cable, Cox, AT&T, Verizon, and Charter cable TV subscribers will keep rolling in. The audit found that by the time the new Merced Theater facility opens in 2016, the city will again have between $21-25 million in unspent PEG funds.

Galperin thinks throwing more money at traditional PEG operations would be a mistake, particularly when younger audiences are not even subscribing to cable television.

“We’re in a new era,” Galperin said. “The old rules that envisioned everybody getting their programming from cable are changing before our very eyes. We are in a totally different era in terms of how people get their information, so much of viewership is on the Internet now, not necessarily on cable.”

Because PEG funds can only be spent on PEG operations, as a starting point, funds could be spent to build up what is now an anemic, barely functioning website for Channel 35. Although the channel does stream online, it is intermittent in our experience. Channel 35 might also partner with local public broadcasting and minority-interest channels in co-production ventures. It should also develop a robust on-demand library of its content for site visitors because that is increasingly how Americans choose to watch television.

Galperin suggested other uses including a public Wi-Fi network and city Internet sites for programming and other information, but these may stray outside of the boundaries of what is permissible under current California and federal law.

Of course, there is one other alternative – rescind the PEG fee altogether until there is a legitimate need to collect the money from already overburdened cable subscribers.

franchise fees

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Surviving DIVCA.mp4

Silicon Valley Community Television aired this lengthy conference last fall for the benefit of local governments across California still trying to make sense of the 2006 Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act, a provider-influenced piece of legislation that has tied the hands of most communities to manage their local telecommunications infrastructure for the good of their citizens. (2 hours, 47 minutes)

 

AT&T Piles On U-verse Junk Fees: Say Hello to the 24¢ ‘Regulatory Video Cost Recovery Charge’

We get to keep all the money!

We get to keep all the money!

AT&T has begun charging U-verse television customers a new monthly fee to cover the cost of an FCC charge now extended to IPTV providers like AT&T that used to be paid only by cable operators.

AT&T’s “Regulatory Video Cost Recovery Charge” is defined by AT&T as a new “monthly fee that is charged to each U-verse TV subscriber’s bill to recover the regulatory fee imposed on providers of Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) Service.”

The new fee is reportedly set at $0.24 a month. AT&T will collect $2.88 a year from 5.7 million television customers annually beginning June 1, 2014.

Cable operators have paid similar fees all along but have generally considered them part of the cost of doing business. AT&T wants to pass the cost directly on to its customers.

But a review of the FCC’s 2013 Fiscal Year fee schedule shows a major discrepancy between the amount AT&T intends to collect from customers and the actual cost of the fee AT&T will have to pay the FCC.

While AT&T will bank $2.88 annually from each television customer, it only has to pay the FCC $1.02 a year per subscriber — a difference of $1.86. That doesn’t sound like much until you factor in the number of AT&T U-verse TV customers. AT&T will pocket $10,602,000 a year in “regulatory cost recovery” charges it will apparently keep for itself.

That suggests AT&T has imposed another hidden rate increase on customers who already pay a range of surcharges and fees. AT&T has created so many fees, surcharges, and other ancillary charges, it has published a Billing Glossary explaining them for the benefit of confused customers. AT&T usually keeps all the money associated with these fees — most are not taxes, although some fund state initiatives.

Here are some customers may already be acquainted with:

Activation Fee
A one-time fee charged when you activate new service. It is billed in full on your first bill.

Bill Statement Fee
The Bill Statement Fee is to cover the expenses associated with providing your AT&T Long Distance charges as part of your local phone company bill.

Broadcast TV Surcharge
This surcharge is to recover a portion of the amount local broadcasters charge AT&T to carry their channels.

CA Advanced Services Fund (CASF) (California Only)
The fund is used to spur deployment of broadband facilities in un-served and underserved areas of California. Funding for the CASF program will not increase total surcharges, since the CASF surcharge will be offset by an equal reduction of the High Cost Fund-B surcharge. For billing purposes, the CASF surcharge may appear as a separate item on a bill or may be combined with the CHCF-B surcharge if the item is renamed to reflect both the “CHCF-B and the CASF.”

CA CHCF A and CA CHCF B [High Cost Fund (CHCF) Surcharges A and B] (California Only)
These surcharges subsidize basic rates for local telephone companies servicing rural areas and compensate carriers for providing basic residential service in areas where the cost exceeds the CPUC determined statewide average.

CA Relay Service and Communications Devices Fund (California Only)
A surcharge utilized by the state to provide telecommunications devices to deaf or hard of hearing consumers.

CA Teleconnect Fund (California Only)
This surcharge provides discounts on telecommunications services to qualifying schools, libraries, community-based organizations, county-owned hospital and health clinics.

All these fees and surcharges...

All these fees and surcharges…

Carrier Cost Recovery Fee
This fee helps recover costs associated with providing state-to-state and international long distance service, including expenses for national regulatory fees and programs, as well as connection and account servicing charges.

Change Fee
A charge applied if a TV service or package is downgraded or cancelled within the first 30 days of ordering.

Chicago Amusement Tax (City of Chicago Only)
A tax imposed by the City of Chicago on amusement services (i.e. paid television programming, recreational activities, etc.) provided within the city limits.

Convenience Fee
A fee applied when a customer payment is processed by a customer service representative. This fee does not apply for payments made online or through our automated phone system.

CT Community Access Support Fee (Connecticut Only)
Fee required to be imposed by AT&T upon its customers by Connecticut General Statutes in order to support community access operations.

CT Public Programming Gross Earnings Tax Recovery (Connecticut Only)
Connecticut fee imposed to support Public, Educational and Governmental (PEG) programming.

CT Video Provider Gross Earnings Tax Recovery (Connecticut Only)
Connecticut fee imposed on U-verse video service.

...and their advertised price was so low.

…and their advertised price was so low.

DEAF Surcharge
This surcharge shall be identified on the telephone bill as the “CA Relay Service and Communications Devices Fund.”

Early Termination Fee
A fee associated with early termination of one or more of your services before the end of the associated service plan term.

Federal Subscriber Line Charge
This charge was instituted in 1984 to cover the costs of a portion of the local phone network.

HD Technology Fee
A monthly fee for access to high-definition (HD) U-verse television service.

High Speed Internet Equipment Fee
A monthly fee for customers who have U-verse TV and Internet equipment.

Infrastructure Maintenance Fee (IMF)
All telecommunications carriers on a customer’s bill must collect this fee. The funds for the state IMF help to support the costs of providing and maintaining utility rights of way. Revenue from the IMF is dedicated for Personal Property Replacement Tax (PPRT) and is disbursed to all taxing districts.

In-State Connection Fee
The In-State Connection Fee helps to cover the costs AT&T is charged by your local phone company to provide you access to local phone lines.

Local Connectivity Charge
This fee helps recover increased connectivity costs associated with providing local service in your state.

Local Number Portability (LNP) Charge
A charge permitted by the FCC to recover costs of upgrading the network to provide customers the ability to keep their phone numbers when changing local service providers.

moneyLocal Video Facilities Fee
A state or local government fee to support Public Educational and Governmental (PEG) programming.

Local Video Service Franchise Fee
Fee imposed by state or local government on U-verse video service.

Minimum Monthly Usage Charge
A charge to an account that does not meet a specified minimum total amount for a particular service.

Municipal Charge
A charge to cover costs of installing telephone poles and lines, manholes, and other telephone items on public property such as city streets.

NV Universal Service Fund Surcharge (Nevada Only)
A fee imposed by the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada that supports telecommunication needs of low-income households, consumers living in high cost areas, schools, libraries, and rural hospitals. This surcharge will be based on a percentage of intrastate long distance charges associated with your U-verse Voice service and will be modified as needed to stay consistent with any required changes in fund contributions.

Number Portability Service Charge
A charge permitted by the FCC to recover costs of upgrading the network to provide customers the ability to keep their phone numbers when changing local service providers.

Receiver Fee
A monthly charge for additional U-verse receivers (set top boxes).

Regulatory Video Cost Recovery Charge
The Regulatory Video Cost Recovery Charge is the monthly fee that is charged to each U-verse TV subscriber’s bill to recover the regulatory fee imposed on providers of Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) Service.

Restoral Fee
A charge to restore service that was suspended or disconnected.

State Cost-Recovery Fee (Texas Only)
Fee/Surcharge imposed by AT&T to recover franchise costs imposed on the company by Texas law.

State Infrastructure Maintenance Fee
All telecommunications carriers on a customer’s bill must collect this fee. The funds for the State IMF help to support the costs of providing and maintaining utility rights of way. Revenue from the IMF is dedicated for Personal Property Replacement Tax (PPRT) purposes and is disbursed to all taxing districts.

Universal Connectivity Charge
The Universal Connectivity Charge is the monthly fee that is charged to each residential customer’s phone bill to recover the expenses associated with AT&T’s payments into the Universal Service Fund.

Independent Cable Companies Unify Against Cable TV Programmer Rate Increases

big 7Subscribers of more than 900 independent cable companies may face an unwelcome surprise this summer in the form of a mid-year rate increase.

For years, members of the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC) have joined forces to negotiate for the kinds of volume discounts only the largest cable and satellite companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, Dish Networks, Charter, and Cablevision have traditionally received. NCTC members range from family owned cable operators, rural co-ops, community-owned providers, independent telephone companies, and small multi-system operators servicing multiple communities. With group-buying power, NCTC-member cable companies used to be able to negotiate volume discounts that could keep their rates competitive with larger providers.

But as consolidation among major network media, cable, satellite, and phone companies marches on, only the largest operators — some directly affiliated with the cable programming networks — are getting the best deals at contract renewal time. All NCTC members combined serve just five million cable TV subscribers. Comcast has 21 million, DirecTV: 20 million, Dish Networks: 14 million, and Time Warner Cable: 11 million.

When NCTC’s contract with Viacom was up for renewal, the owner of networks like MTV and Comedy Central raised the renewal price more than 40 times the rate of inflation. In fact, Viacom’s asking price was so high, operators like Cable ONE pulled the plug on 15 Viacom networks for good and replaced them with other programming. NCTC members eventually compromised on a deal to renew Viacom-owned networks, but customers of companies like Massillon, Ohio-based MCTV are paying the price in the form of a mid-year rate hike Bob Gessner, MCTV’s president, did not want to have to pass on to customers.

MCTV“I don’t like to do this because it puts me in a difficult position of raising prices, which no one likes, or reducing the product, which no one likes, or cutting back on the quality of our customer service, which no one likes,” said Gessner. “Large media companies control all the TV programming and they are raising the price.  The cost of TV programming is rising very rapidly and it is causing this rise in retail prices.”

Some facts about cable TV programming:

  • Nine media companies control 95% of the paid video content consumed in the U.S.;
  • The average household watches only 16 channels, yet networks package their channels to force you to buy those you don’t want to get those that you do want;
  • tvonmysideProgramming network fees account for the bulk of your monthly cable bill;
  • The cost of basic cable has risen 3½ times the rate of inflation over the last 15 years because of demands from networks for higher programming fees;
  • One media company honcho recently stated that, “…content is such a fundamental part of daily life that people will give up food and a roof over their heads before they give up TV.” This shows that they have lost their perspective and the demands for huge increases will continue.
Gessner

Gessner

Gessner has broken ranks with many cable operators that say little more at rate hike time than “increased programming costs.”

Gessner has produced a 20-minute video that carefully explains to his customers what is going on in the cable programming industry and why providers like MCTV are forced to shovel networks onto cable lineups few customers want or watch and how the biggest cable and satellite companies are now negotiating volume-discounted renewal pricing at the expense of smaller providers.

While the largest cable companies in the country secure lower rates through those volume discounts, programmers have found a way to make up the difference: demanding even higher rates for smaller cable companies to cover what they lose from Comcast and other big players.

Gessner, as well as other NCTC member companies, confront huge programmers like Comcast-NBCUniversal, Viacom, Time Warner (Entertainment), Discovery and Disney that first demand 3-7 year renewal contracts with built-in, automatic annual rate increases averaging 5-10 percent, regardless of the ratings of their networks. Most also demand that all of their cable networks be carried on their systems, whether customers are interested in them or not. If these companies dream up new cable networks, like ESPN’s SEC Network and the Longhorn Network, MCTV is committed to carry those channels as well, even though they are of little interest to residents of northeastern Ohio where MCTV operates.

These dream contracts (for cable programmers) are the single biggest reason cable-TV rates are skyrocketing. But Gessner says it gets even worse when those contracts expire. When renewal negotiations begin, programmers these days inevitably demand a “rate reset” which starts rate negotiations at a price 10, 30, even 60 percent higher than under the expiring contract.

local cleveland tv

Those dollar amounts cover local station retransmission consent agreements nationwide.

Gessner says he doesn’t know how much longer MCTV can afford to carry expensive networks like sports channels. If he drops them, angry subscribers could cancel cable service and switch to a provider willing to pay the asking price. Unless all of his competitors stand together, programmers will maintain the upper hand.

Some cable companies, like Cable ONE, are starting to risk the wrath of their customers by refusing to negotiate for terms they consider unreasonable. When subscribers learned the reasons why Cable ONE dropped more than dozen Viacom channels, many were supportive because the company replaced the networks with other channels and promised to keep rate increases down because they won’t have to pass on Viacom’s higher prices. Viacom retaliated by locking out Cable ONE’s Internet customers from accessing any of Viacom’s free-to-view online programming.

“Viacom lets web surfers from Albania watch Spongebob but Viacom blocks people who live in Alabama, and if you are an advocate of this thing called Net Neutrality, you should be very concerned,” Gessner said. “Viacom is blatantly violating the spirit of Net Neutrality by discriminating against certain Internet users in order to extract higher fees from TV viewers. That’s the sort of vicious bullying behavior many of the content companies use to maintain their stranglehold on the U.S. television industry.”

Gessner and other independent cable operators hope cable operators’ willingness to drop cable networks over their price is the start of something big — a pushback that could eventually force programmers to charge rational rates.

“Hopefully this will serve as a wakeup call to the rest of the industry to stop paying these ridiculous prices for TV rights,” said Gessner. “I have no illusion that sanity will come to the industry overnight — it will take time — but this is a step in the right direction.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/MCTV Rate Increase 2014.flv

MCTV president Bob Gessner hosted this thoughtful presentation to carefully explain why his customers are facing a $1-3 mid-year rate increase for cable television. Gessner breaks with tradition by explaining the cable television business model is effectively broken and needs serious reform, including more choices for customers seeking fewer channels and a lower bill. It’s well worth 20 minutes of your time. (20:11)

The Invisible Rate Hike: Verizon Introduces New $0.99 “Because We Can” FiOS Voice Surcharge

Unsimplify

Unsimplify

When is a rate increase not a rate increase? When it is an “administrative surcharge” of course!

Verizon FiOS phone customers will soon find the company’s latest innovation in the form of a new line on their June bill, along with a $0.99 surcharge.

Notice of Price Increase
Effective May 17, 2014, Verizon will apply an FDV Administrative Charge of $0.99 per FiOS Digital Voice line. This monthly surcharge helps defray account servicing costs associated with providing voice services. This is a Verizon surcharge, not a tax or governmental fee. Visit verizon.com for more information.

Instead of simply raising the advertised price of the service, Verizon added a new opaque charge which they admit is nothing more than an effort to increase revenue. Prospective customers will still see Verizon’s attractive promotional pricing, but only later discover the final bill is higher once taxes, fees, and other surcharges are tacked on.

In fact, Verizon’s new FiOS Digital Voice fee is subject to taxes as well, so for some the true cost of the rate increase is $1.21.

Some angry Verizon customers are switching to Ooma, a service that asks customers to pay upfront for the hardware but offers basic telephone service for free (customers pay well under $10 a month to cover taxes that Ooma does not pocket itself.) A more deluxe option including more phone features runs around $10 a month.

One annoyed customer considers the fee an end run around consumer contract law:

My concern [is] with a regulated utility’s ability to get around a contract price by labeling an increase as an “administrative charge.”

I called their customer service line to discuss/complain.  When I asked what would prevent Verizon from using this as a vehicle to increase prices by $10 or $15, assuming Time Warner/AT&T/DirectTV raised their prices as well, he admitted that he was not aware of any restrictions.  Neither am I.

I can’t find anything in my contract with Verizon that lets them increase my price by instituting back-end increases.  I’m pursuing with government regulators and encourage you all to do so as well.  If this gets through, there will be more.

In fact, one of the reasons why Verizon loves their digital voice product so much is because it is unregulated and not subject to government oversight. They can set rates at will and their current contract allows for the addition of administrative fees without violating any “price lock” agreements. So far, most companies implementing these fees have kept them low enough to avoid provoking government scrutiny, but the number of them and their respective amounts have increased over time.

Customer recourse? Complain and ask for a credit for the administrative fee or cancel service.

Verizon’s Idea of a “Modest Rate Increase” in New Jersey: 440%; $15 Billion Collected for Phantom Fiber

Verizon-logoWhile the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities was able to quickly settle its differences with Verizon by granting the phone company’s wish to walk away from its commitment to offer 45Mbps broadband across the state, New Jersey ratepayers are out $15 billion in excess phone charges levied since 1993 for promised upgrades many will never get.

The Opportunity New Jersey plan the state government signed with Verizon was supposed to expand advanced broadband across the state in return for “a modest amount of pricing flexibility” in the fees Verizon charged customers in New Jersey. But Verizon is not a modest company and a new report shows the phone company used the agreement to boost rates as much as 440% — primarily through ancillary surcharges including inside wire maintenance, wire investment, an investment recovery fee, a local number portability surcharge, merged local calling area charge, and various other charges for phone features including Caller ID, Call Waiting, etc.

Tom Allibone, the president of LTC Consulting joined forces with New Networks’ Bruce Kushnick to analyze more than 30 years of Verizon New Jersey phone bills and discovered when it comes to tallying up rate increases, Verizon’s addition skills are akin to taking out a bag of M&M’s and only counting the yellow ones.

“This Verizon New Jersey bill from April 2002 […] has an “FCC Subscriber Line Charge”, which was $6.21 cents per line. Verizon’s quote doesn’t include this charge in their analysis of no increases between 1985 to 2008,” Kushnick writes. “The FCC Line Charge (it has many names), is on every local phone bill and the charge started in 1985. You can’t get service without paying this charge and the money does NOT go to fund the FCC but is direct revenue to Verizon New Jersey.”

verizonnjrateincreaseAfter adding up various other surcharges, Kushnick’s bill increased a lot.

“Add up the ‘Total Monthly Charges’ for 2 phone lines— It’s ugly,” Kushnick said. “While the cost of the ‘monthly charges’ was $25.62, there’s an extra $17.70 cents — 70%. I thought that Verizon said there were no ‘increases.’”

“Anyone who has ever bought a bundled package of services from Verizon (or the other phone or cable companies) knows that they all play this shell game; the price of service you have to pay is always 10-40% more than the advertised price. That’s because the companies leave out the cost of these ancillary charges and taxes in their sale pitch,” he added.

Verizon raised local residential service rates 79% in 2008, according to Kushnick. Business customers paid 70 percent more. Caller ID rates increased 38% — remarkable for a service that has a profit margin of 5,695%. But Verizon did even better boosting the charge for a non-published number by 38% — a service that has a 36,900% profit margin as of 1999 — the services are even cheaper to offer now.

Telephone service is one of those products that should have declined in price, especially after phone companies fully depreciated their copper wire networks — long ago paid off. Companies like Verizon have cut the budgets for outdoor wire maintenance and the number of employees tasked with keeping service up and running has been reduced by over 70 percent since 1985, dramatically reducing Verizon’s costs. But Verizon customers paid more for phone service, not less.

The cost of service might not have been as much of an issue had Verizon taken the excess funds and invested them in promised upgrades, but that has not happened for a significant percentage of the state and likely never will. Instead, they just increased company profits. More recently, Verizon has directed much of its investments into its more profitable wireless division.

Even though Verizon achieved total victory with the Christie Administration-dominated BPU, the company is still making threats about any future plans for investment.

“It’s important that regulators and legislators support public policies that encourage broadband growth in New Jersey rather than ones that could jeopardize the state’s highly competitive communications industry, or risk future investments by providers like Verizon,” wrote Sam Delgado, vice president of external affairs.

Wall Street: Telecom Mergers Are Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Consumers: More Pocket-Picking

price-gouging-cake“Comcast Corp.’s bid to buy Time Warner Cable Inc. may be the opening act for a yearlong festival of telecommunications deals that would alter Internet, phone and TV service for tens of millions of Americans.” — Bloomberg News, May 14, 2014

Wall Street analysts remain certain Comcast and Time Warner Cable won’t be the only merger on the table this year as the $45 billion dollar deal is expected to spark a new wave of consolidation, further reducing competitive choice in telecom services for most Americans.

While the industry continues to insist that the current foundation of deregulation is key to investment and competition, the reality on the ground is less certain.

Let’s review history:

For several decades, the cable industry has avoided head-on competition with other cable operators. They argue the costs of “overbuilding” cable systems into territories already serviced by another company is financially impractical and reckless. But that did not stop telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon from overhauling portions of their networks to compete, and in at least some communities another provider has emerged to offer some competition. Some wonder if AT&T was willing to spend billions to upgrade their urban landline network to provide U-verse, why won’t cable companies spend some money and compete directly with one another?

The answer is simple: They can earn a lot more by limiting competition.

When only a few firms account for most of the sales of a product, those firms can sometimes exercise market power by either explicitly or implicitly coordinating their actions. Coordinated interaction is especially suspect where all firms seem to charge very similar prices and few, if any, are willing to challenge the status quo.

Since the 1980s, the telecommunications industry has been deregulated off and on to a degree not seen since the pioneer days of telephone service. That was the era when waves of mergers created near-monopolies in the oil, railroad, energy, tobacco, steel and sugar industries. By the late 1890s, evidence piled up that proved reducing the number of providers in a market leads to higher prices and poor service. The abuses eventually led to the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and later the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914.

Here is what happened when the cable industry was reined in during the early 1990s, only to be deregulated again.

Here is what happened when the cable industry was reined in during the early 1990s, only to be deregulated again.

The generation of political leaders that dominated Washington during the 1980s developed selective amnesia about economic history and dismantled many of the regulatory protections established to protect consumers, arguing competition would keep markets in check. In the broadband and cable business, that has not proved as successful as the industry represents.

At the heart of the problem is the 1996 Telecommunications Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The sweeping law is littered with lobbyist landmines for consumers and their interests. Under the guise of increasing competition, the 1996 law actually helped reduce competition by removing regulatory oversight and, perhaps unintentionally, sparking an enormous rampage of industry consolidation followed by price increases. The Bush Administration kept the war on consumers going with the appointment of Michael Powell (now the CEO of the cable industry’s lobbying group) to chair the Federal Communications Commission. Under Powell, non-discriminatory access to networks by competitors was curtailed, and Powell’s FCC gave carte blanche to the cable industry’s plan to cluster its territories into large regional monopolies and a tight national oligopoly. The FCC’s own researchers quietly admitted in the early 2000s “clustering raised prices.”

Cable prices

By January 2001, cable operators had settled on rate increases that averaged three times the rate of inflation. While the national inflation rate hovered around 1%, cable companies routinely raised basic cable rates an average of 7% annually. Powell declared rising cable rates were not a consumer problem and adopted the industry’s classic talking point that rate increases reflect the “value of the programming” found on cable. In fact, even as cable customers grew increasingly angry about rate increases, Powell told three different reporters he wanted to further relax the FCC’s involvement in cable pricing. (McClintock, Pamela, “Powell: No Cable Coin Crisis” Variety, April 30, 2001; Hearn, Ted. “Powell: Value Matters in Cable Rates,” Multichannel News, March 13, 2002; Powell Press Conference, February 8, 2001; Dreazen, Yochi. “FCC Chairman Signals Change, Plans to Limit Intervention,” Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2001.)

cost_broadband_around_the_world_v2Economists reviewing data found in publicly available corporate balance sheets soon found evidence that the “increased programming costs”-excuse for rate increases did not hold water. The less competition or number of choices available to consumers in the market unambiguously lead to higher prices. It has remained true since Consumers’ Union revealed the financial trickery in 2003:

The cable industry will claim that programming costs are driving prices up. While programming costs have certainly risen, a close look at the numbers shows that rising program costs account for only a small part of the rising rates.

If costs were really the cause of rising prices, then the cable industries’ operating margins – the difference between its revenues and costs — would not be rising. The facts are just the opposite. Operating margins have been increasing dramatically since 1997. The operating margin for the industry as a whole will reach $18.8 billion per year in 2002, $7 billion more than it was in 1997. Operating revenues per subscriber have increased dramatically over that period, from $208 per year to $273. That is, after taking out all the operating costs, including programming costs, cable operators have increased their take per subscriber by over 30 percent.

[…] The ability of cable operators to raise rates and increase revenues, even with rising programming costs, stems from the market power they have at the point of sale. They would not be able to raise prices and pass program price increases through if they did not have monopoly power.

Consumers’ Union also foreshadows what will happen if another wave of industry consolidation takes hold the way it did over a decade earlier:

While the cable industry has certainly increased capital expenditures to upgrade its plants, it has actually sunk a lot more capital into another activity – mergers and acquisitions.

It is the outrageous prices that have been paid to buy each other out and consolidate the industry that is helping to drive the rate increases. Between 1998, when the first mega merger between cable operators was announced, and 2001, when the last big merger was announced, cable companies spent over a quarter of a trillion dollars buying each other out. In those four years, they spent almost six times as much on mergers and acquisitions as they did on capital expenditures to upgrade their systems. At the same time, the average price paid per subscriber more than doubled.

countries_with_high_speed_broadbandWhen a cable operator pays such an outrageous price, the previous owner is reaping the financial rewards of his monopoly power. The acquiring company can only pay such a high price by assuming that his monopoly power will allow him to continue to increase prices. Monopoly power is being bought and sold and borrowed against. The new cable operator, who has paid for market power, may insist that the debt he has incurred to obtain it is a real cost on his books. That may be correct in the literal sense (he owes someone that money) but that does not make it right, or the abuse of market power legal.

Fast-forwarding to 2014, economist and Temple professor Joel Maxcy said the same basic economic truths still exist today with Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable.

“My concern is the merger and the consolidation of the cable and internet delivery system for consumers and what will happen to internet and cable rates and choices,” Maxcy said, voicing his hesitancy about a deal that merges the nation’s two largest cable providers. “As that industry has gotten more consolidated over time, we have seen rates go up. The answer from them is that we’ve got more choices. Are we better off or not better off? I don’t know, but certainly rates have gone up at a much faster rate than the inflation rate. The result of more monopoly power is always higher prices and less choices and it seems that this merger moves in that direction.”

“The threat from non-network content providers is a concern for the cable industry,” Maxcy added.

“We’re moving to a situation where we don’t need cable, but we still need the internet and the cable companies are the ones that have control of that,” he said. “Consolidating them together makes them more competitive against the outside forces, but the other argument makes the whole thing less competitive so they’ll have more ability to control the access to Netflix, YouTube and the like. People that may develop other similar sorts of services will have a hard time getting the access they would like to purchase those.”

Chris Stigall spoke with economist and Temple professor Joel Maxcy on Talk Radio 1210 WPHT in Philadelphia about Comcast’s attempt to purchase Time Warner Cable and what that means for consumers. Feb. 18, 2014 (12:10)
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