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GOP Majority at FCC Relaxes TV Station Ownership Limits; New Wave of Consolidation Likely

Phillip Dampier April 20, 2017 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Ajit Pai, Chairman of U.S Federal Communications Commission, delivers his keynote speech at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted 2-1 on Thursday to reverse a 2016 decision that limits the number of television stations some broadcasters can buy.

The decision could lead to a possible acquisition by Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc of Tribune Media Co, some Democrats in Congress said.

Tribune did not discuss any tie up, but said in a statement the FCC decision “will serve the important interest of localism by enabling broadcasters to better serve their communities.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he plans to take a new look at the current overall limit on companies owning stations serving no more than 39 percent of U.S. television households.

Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn called the vote a “huge gift for large broadcasters with ambitious dreams of more consolidation.” She said it “will have an immediate impact on the purchase and sale of television stations.”

Her concern was echoed by the top Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, who a day earlier urged the Federal Communications Commission to cancel the vote.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi warned that the changes could be harmful to consumers, hitting their wallets and their access to an independent media voice, as she cited press reports of a possible acquisition by Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc of Tribune Media Co stations.

Clyburn

In a letter, Pelosi and Representative Frank Pallone, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, urged Pai to drop the plan, which could allow the Sinclair-Tribune tie-up.

“That would be bad news for consumers in Tribune’s markets in two ways: First, consumers would lose an independent voice in their media market; and second, consumers could see their cable bills go up because Sinclair charges cable operators more than Tribune for retransmission consent,” they wrote.

Another Democrat, Representative Anna Eshoo, wrote Pai asking him to drop the plan, saying that further consolidation “will ensure there are fewer independent news outlets serving as a counter-balance to misleading or inaccurate information.”

Meredith Corp spokesman Art Slusark said on Thursday the vote “may open up the opportunity for more acquisition opportunities … We are always interested in adding quality properties to our broadcast portfolio.”

Under rules adopted in 1985, stations with weaker over-the-air signals could be partially counted against a broadcaster’s ownership cap. But last year, the FCC under Democratic President Barack Obama said those rules were outdated after the 2009 conversion to digital broadcasting, which eliminated the differences in station signal strength. It revoked the rule in September.

There is a dispute over whether the FCC has the authority to amend the 39 percent ownership limit.

The 2016 decision did not require any company to sell existing stations, but could bar acquisitions. Twenty-First Century Fox Inc in September challenged the FCC rule in court.

Reuters reported in March that Sinclair had approached Tribune to discuss a potential combination, which would hinge on regulations being relaxed.

Pai said the FCC previously effectively tightened ownership rules and then companies previously below the national cap suddenly exceeded it. He said the FCC “did not examine whether the facts justified a more stringent cap.”

Pai, who was named by U.S. President Donald Trump to head the FCC in January, said it will begin a comprehensive review of the national cap this year. That could launch a new wave of consolidation in the broadcast television industry.

Clyburn cited comments from CBS Corp Chairman and Chief Executive Leslie Moonves in February that Pai would be “very beneficial to our business.” Moonves said the company would like to acquire more stations if the cap is lifted.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)

AT&T Getting Pushback from Consumer Groups Over Dropping Landline Service in Illinois

Phillip Dampier April 20, 2017 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video No Comments

A telecommunications bill largely written at the behest of AT&T now working its way through the Illinois legislature would allow AT&T to discontinue landline telephone service in the state, potentially eliminating traditional phone service that more than a million Illinois residents and businesses still depend on.

“The Illinois Telecom Act is up for review in the 2017 legislative session, and AT&T is pushing two deregulation bills—Senate Bill 1381 and House Bill 2691,” says the Citizen’s Utility Board (CUB) website. “The bills would open the door for the company to end traditional home phone service in Illinois and push consumers onto less affordable and reliable alternatives.”

Consumer advocates urged Illinoisans to visit SaveOurPhoneService.com to send messages to the General Assembly against AT&T’s deregulation bills, or they can also call a special toll-free hotline, at 1-844-220-5552, to talk to their legislators.

With Illinois’ Telecommunications Act under review and set to expire July 1, AT&T’s bills would:

  • Abolish the state requirement that AT&T serve traditional landline customers. That authority would be ceded to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and Illinois would be stripped of any meaningful oversight to protect AT&T’s 1.2 million business and residential landline customers from inferior service.
  • Abolish low-cost calling plans. The General Assembly mandates that AT&T offer three “Consumer’s Choice” plans, which were created by CUB under a legal settlement. Illinois’ best local phone deals, which cost about $3 to $20 a month, have saved callers millions of dollars, and are under a state-mandated price freeze.

For many in Illinois still bypassed by AT&T’s U-verse fiber-to-the-neighborhood system, the measure could leave customers with just two choices for home phone service – a local cable operator or a wireless mobile provider — both potentially more expensive and less reliable than basic landline service.

“It doesn’t take someone with an economic degree that one option, one unregulated option for people, isn’t very cheap. So I’m sure cable is sitting back licking their chops,” said Citizens Utility Board director of governmental affairs Bryan McDaniel.

Some Chicago-area residents, like Michele Charous and Carol Kolen, prefer traditional landline service for its cost and reliability. A significant percentage of older residents still depend on affordable rotary dial landline phone service from AT&T — a service the phone company now wants to scrap.

AT&T claims more than 90% of Illinois customers have either replaced landline service for a cell phone or have switched to digital U-verse phone service from AT&T or a cable operator. But AT&T doesn’t mention its network upgrades have bypassed large rural sections of the state, and its U-verse phone service can cost more than a traditional landline.

Kolen and Charous claim their AT&T landline service has proven reliable for decades, while cell service has not, especially in an emergency.

Katherine Panny adds she is in her 80s, does not have a cellphone or a computer and has a rotary dial phone on her kitchen wall. She said she likes it.

“I depend on this landline with my life,” she said.

“We are not at the point we can guarantee that this is going to work all the time,” added Kolen.

AT&T’s part supplier.

“I would be just isolated because how would I be able to talk anybody if the battery died or I forgot to charge it what would I do,” Charous said.

“For a lot of people a landline is there most reliable and affordable lifeline to vital services,” said Jim Chilsen, of the Citizens Utility Board. “Our fear is that, what AT&T really wants to do is push consumers onto phone options that tend to be more expensive and tend to be less reliable.”

AT&T Illinois and Midwest president Paul La Schiazza gave some stark admissions to reporters about the state of AT&T’s wireline network in Illinois.

By the end of this year, “less than 10 percent of the households [in Illinois] will have an old style, voice-only line in their home,” La Schiazza said. AT&T is losing about 1,000 traditional landline customers a day. Maintenance on the traditional telephone system is also getting more difficult, and the phone company is turning to some unique sources for parts these days.

“Believe it or not, even AT&T at times, has to go to eBay to scrounge for parts to keep these ‘old-style’ switches running,” he said.

WMAQ in Chicago reports some Illinois consumers are worried AT&T is about to pull the plug on their landline home phone service. (2:38)

FCC Considering Making It Easier for Telcos to Kill Landline/DSL Service

The FCC has circulated a draft rulemaking that proposes to make it easier for phone companies to end landline and DSL service in areas they are no longer interested in maintaining existing infrastructure.

“We propose eliminating some or all of the changes to the copper retirement process adopted by the Commission in the 2015 Technology Transitions Order,” according to the draft, which would allow phone companies to end service “where alternative voice services are available to consumers in the affected service area.”

The proposed new policy would depart significantly from the one put in place during the Obama Administration because it would end assurances that competing providers would have reasonable and affordable access to wholesale broadband and voice services after phone companies mothball their copper wire networks in favor of wireless or fiber alternatives. If the FCC proposal passes, incumbent phone companies like Verizon and AT&T could end rural landline and DSL service and not make provisions for competitors to have access to the technology alternatives the phone companies would offer affected customers.

Verizon immediately praised the FCC proposal, saying it was “encouraged the FCC has set as a priority creating a regulatory environment that encourages investment in next-generation networks and clears away outdated and unnecessary regulations,” wrote Will Johnson, senior vice-president of federal regulatory and legal affairs at Verizon. “This action is forward-looking, productive and will lead to tangible consumer benefits.”

Previous attempts by Verizon to discontinue landline and DSL service did not lead to “tangible consumer benefits” as Verizon might have hoped. Instead, it led to a consumer backlash, particularly in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Verizon elected not to rebuild its copper wire infrastructure in affected coastal communities in New York and New Jersey. Instead, it introduced a wireless landline replacement called Voice Link that proved unpopular and caused a revolt among residents on Fire Island. The wireless replacement did not support data, health monitoring, credit card transaction processing, faxing, and was criticized for being unreliable. Verizon eventually relented and opted to expand its FiOS fiber to the home network on the island instead.

Verizon also attempted to market Voice Link to New York residents in certain urban and rural service areas affected by extended service outages in lieu of repairing its existing infrastructure. Under the proposed changes, the FCC would ease the rules governing the transition away from copper-based services, which include traditional landline service and DSL, in favor of wireless technology replacements and fiber optics.

Because telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon have made mothballing rural wireline infrastructure a priority, the FCC strengthened its rules in 2015 by doubling the notification window from 90 to 180 days, giving more time for affected customers to make other service arrangements or complain to regulators that there were no suitable alternatives. The FCC wants to roll back that provision to its earlier 90-day notification window in response to telephone company complaints that maintaining copper wire infrastructure is expensive and diverted investment away from next-generation networks.

AT&T has been lobbying for several years to win permission from state legislatures to abandon copper wireline infrastructure, mostly in rural areas, where the company has chosen not to upgrade to fiber optic networks. AT&T claims only about 10% of their original landline customer base still have that service.

Both Verizon and AT&T have shown an interest in moving rural consumers to more proprietary wireless networks, preferably their own, where consumers would get voice and data services. But consumer advocates complain customers could lose access to competitive alternatives, may not have a guarantee of reliable service because of variable wireless coverage, could pay substantially more for wireless alternatives, and may be forced to use technology that either does not support or works less reliably with home security systems, medical monitoring, faxing, and data-related transactions like credit card processing.

Other consumer groups like AARP and Public Knowledge have complained that shortening the window for a transition away from basic landline and DSL service to alternative technology could disproportionately affect the customers most likely to still depend on traditional wireline service — the elderly, poor, and those in rural areas.

Trump Ready to Sign Repeal of Internet Privacy Regs; Net Neutrality Repeal Up Next

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump plans to sign a repeal of Obama-era broadband privacy rules as a bigger fight looms over rules governing the openness of the internet, the White House said on Wednesday.

Republicans in Congress on Tuesday narrowly passed the repeal of the privacy rules with no Democratic support and over the strong objections of privacy advocates.

The fight over privacy sets the stage for an even larger battle later this year over Republican plans to overturn the net neutrality provisions adopted by the administration of former President Barack Obama in 2015.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said he did not know when Trump would sign the bill.

The privacy bill would repeal regulations adopted in October by the Federal Communications Commission under the Obama administration requiring internet service providers to do more to protect customers’ privacy than websites like Alphabet Inc’s Google or Facebook Inc.

Under the rules, internet providers would need to obtain consumer consent before using precise geolocation, financial information, health information, children’s information and web browsing history for advertising and marketing.

The reversal is a win for AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp and Verizon Communications Inc. Websites are governed by a less restrictive set of privacy rules overseen by the Federal Trade Commission.

Republican commissioners have said the rules would unfairly give websites the ability to harvest more data than internet service providers.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in a tweet the vote was “Terrible for American people, great for big biz.”

Republicans next plan to overturn Net Neutrality provisions that in 2015 reclassified broadband providers and treated them like a public utility.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, in December said he believes that Net Neutrality’s days are numbered.

The rules bar internet providers from obstructing or slowing down consumer access to web content and prohibit giving or selling access to speedy internet, essentially a “fast lane” on the web’s information superhighway, to certain internet services.

Critics say the rules opened the door to potential government rate regulation, tighter oversight and would provide fewer incentives to invest billions in broadband infrastructure.

Pai told Reuters in February be backs “a free and open internet and the only question is what regulatory framework best secures that” but has steadfastly declined to disclose his plans.

Trump has not talked as president about Net Neutrality but in 2014 tweeted he opposed it.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Republican-Controlled House Votes 215-205 to Repeal Internet Privacy Regulations

Phillip Dampier March 29, 2017 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters 5 Comments

U.S. House of Representatives

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House voted on Tuesday 215-205 to repeal regulations requiring internet service providers to do more to protect customers’ privacy than websites like Alphabet Inc’s Google or Facebook Inc.

The White House said earlier Tuesday that President Donald Trump strongly supports the repeal of the rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission in October under then-President Barack Obama.

Under the rules, internet providers would need to obtain consumer consent before using precise geolocation, financial information, health information, children’s information and web browsing history for advertising and marketing.

Last week, the Senate voted 50-48 to reverse the rules in a win for AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp and Verizon Communications Inc.

The White House in its statement said internet providers would need to obtain affirmative “opt-in” consent from consumers to use and share certain information, but noted that websites are not required to get the same consent. “This results in rules that apply very different regulatory regimes based on the identity of the online actor,” the White House said.

Websites are governed by a less restrictive set of privacy rules overseen by the Federal Trade Commission.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai in a statement praised the decision of Congress to overturn “privacy regulations designed to benefit one group of favored companies over another group of disfavored companies.” Last week, Pai said consumers would have privacy protections even without the Obama internet provider rules, but critics say they will weaker.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the measure, said companies “should not be able to use and sell the sensitive data they collect from you without your permission.”

An Internet & Television Association statement called the repeal “an important step toward restoring consumer privacy protections that apply consistently.”

One critic of the repeal, Craig Aaron, president of Free Press advocacy group, said major Silicon Valley companies shied away from the fight over the rules because they profit from consumer data.

“There are a lot of companies that are very concerned about drawing attention to themselves and being regulated on privacy issues, and are sitting this out in a way that they haven’t sat out previous privacy issues,” Aaron said.

Representative Michael Capuano, a Massachusetts Democrat, said Tuesday that Comcast could know his personal information because he looked up his mother’s medical condition and his purchase history. “Just last week I bought underwear on the internet. Why should you know what size I take? Or the color?” Capuano asked. “They are going to sell it to the underwear companies.”

Comcast declined to comment.

Representative Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican, said the rules “unfairly skews the market in favor” of websites that are free to collect data without consent.

Republican commissioners, including Pai, said in October that the rules would unfairly give websites like Facebook, Twitter Inc or Google the ability to harvest more data than internet service providers and thus further dominate digital advertising. The FCC earlier this month delayed the data rules from taking effect.

(Reporting by David Shepardson. Additional reporting by David Ingram and Stephen Nellis in San Francisco; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool)

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