Home » Rural » Recent Articles:

FCC Chairman Complains About State of U.S. Broadband But Offers Few Meaningful Solutions

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler doesn’t like what he sees when looks at the state of American broadband.

At a speech today given to the 1776 community in Washington, Wheeler complained about the lack of broadband competition in the United States.

“The underpinning of broadband policy today is that competition is the most effective tool for driving innovation, investment, and consumer and economic benefits,” Wheeler said. “Unfortunately, the reality we face today is that as bandwidth increases, competitive choice decreases.”

faster speed fewer competitors

“The lighter the blue, the fewer the options,” Wheeler said, gesturing towards his chart. “You get the point. The bar on the left reflects the availability of wired broadband using the FCC’s current broadband definition of 4Mbps. But let’s be clear, this is ‘yesterday’s broadband.’ Four megabits per second isn’t adequate when a single HD video delivered to home or classroom requires 5Mbps of capacity. This is why we have proposed updating the broadband speed required for universal service support to 10Mbps.”

But Wheeler added that even 10Mbps was insufficient as households increasingly add more connected devices — often six or more — to a single broadband connection.  When used concurrently, especially for online video, it is easy to consume all available bandwidth at lower broadband speeds.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Wheeler’s new informal benchmark is 25Mbps — “table stakes” in 21st century communications. About 80 percent of Americans can get 25Mbps today or better, but typically only from one provider. Wheeler wants even faster speeds than that, stating it is unacceptable that more than 40% of the country cannot get 100Mbps service. Wheeler seemed to fear that phone companies have largely given up on competing for faster broadband connections, handing a de facto monopoly to cable operators the government has left deregulated.

“It was the absence of competition that historically forced the imposition of strict government regulation in telecommunications,” Wheeler explained. “One of the consequences of such a regulated monopoly was the thwarting of the kind of innovation that competition stimulates. Today, we are buffeted by constant innovation precisely because of the policy decisions to promote competition made by the FCC and Justice Department since the 1970s and 1980s.”

Wheeler said competition between phone and cable companies used to keep broadband speeds and capacity rising.

“In order to meet the competitive threat of satellite services, cable TV companies upgraded their facilities,” Wheeler said. “When the Internet went mainstream, they found themselves in the enviable position of having greater network capacity than telephone companies. Confronted by such competition, the telcos upgraded to DSL, and in some places deployed all fiber, or fiber-and-copper networks. Cable companies further responded to this competition by improving their own broadband performance. All this investment was a very good thing. The simple lesson of history is that competition drives deployment and network innovation. That was true yesterday and it will be true tomorrow. Our challenge is to keep that competition alive and growing.”

But Wheeler admits the current state of broadband in the United States no longer reflects the fierce competition of a decade or more ago.

“Today, cable companies provide the overwhelming percentage of high-speed broadband connections in America,” Wheeler noted. “Industry observers believe cable’s advantage over DSL technologies will continue for the foreseeable future. The question with which we as Americans must wrestle is whether broadband will continue to be responsive to competitive forces in order to produce the advances that consumers and our economy increasingly demand. Looking across the broadband landscape, we can only conclude that, while competition has driven broadband deployment, it has not yet done so a way that necessarily provides competitive choices for most Americans.”

Wheeler recognized what most broadband customers have dealt with for years — a broadband duopoly for most Americans.

antimonopoly“Take a look at the chart again,” Wheeler said. “At the low end of throughput, 4Mbps and 10Mbps, the majority of Americans have a choice of only two providers. That is what economists call a “duopoly”, a marketplace that is typically characterized by less than vibrant competition. But even two “competitors” overstates the case. Counting the number of choices the consumer has on the day before their Internet service is installed does not measure their competitive alternatives the day after. Once consumers choose a broadband provider, they face high switching costs that include early termination fees, and equipment rental fees. And, if those disincentives to competition weren’t enough, the media is full of stories of consumers’ struggles to get ISPs to allow them to drop service.”

Wheeler emphasized that true competition would allow customers to change providers monthly, if a vibrant marketplace forced competitors to outdo one another. That market does not exist in American broadband today.

“At 25Mbps, there is simply no competitive choice for most Americans,” Wheeler added. “Stop and let that sink in…three-quarters of American homes have no competitive choice for the essential infrastructure for 21st century economics and democracy. Included in that is almost 20 percent who have no service at all. Things only get worse as you move to 50Mbps where 82 percent of consumers lack a choice. It’s important to understand the technical limitations of the twisted-pair copper plant on which telephone companies have relied for DSL connections. Traditional DSL is just not keeping up, and new DSL technologies, while helpful, are limited to short distances. Increasing copper’s capacity may help in clustered business parks and downtown buildings, but the signal’s rapid degradation over distance may limit the improvement’s practical applicability to change the overall competitive landscape.”

Wheeler finds little chance wireless providers will deliver any meaningful competition to wired broadband because of pricing levels and miserly data caps. Such statements are in direct conflict with a traditional industry talking point.

In a remarkable admission, Wheeler added that the only hope of competing with cable operators comes from a technology phone companies have become reluctant to deploy.

“In the end, at this moment, only fiber gives the local cable company a competitive run for its money,” Wheeler said. “Once fiber is in place, its beauty is that throughput increases are largely a matter of upgrading the electronics at both ends, something that costs much less than laying new connections.”

Wheeler also continued to recognize the urban-rural divide in broadband service and availability, but said little about how he planned to address it.

Wheeler’s answer to the broadband dilemma fell firmly in the camp of promoting competition and avoiding regulation, a policy that has been in place during the last two administrations with little success and more industry consolidation. Most of Wheeler’s specific commitments to protect and enhance competition apply to the wireless marketplace, not fixed wired broadband:

1. comcast highwayWhere competition exists, the Commission will protect it. Our effort opposing shrinking the number of nationwide wireless providers from four to three is an example. As applied to fixed networks, the Commission’s Order on tech transition experiments similarly starts with the belief that changes in network technology should not be a license to limit competition.

In short, don’t expect anymore efforts to combine T-Mobile and Sprint into a single entity. Wheeler only mentioned “nationwide wireless providers” which suggests it remains open season to acquire the dwindling number of smaller, regional carriers. Wheeler offers no meaningful benchmarks to protect consumers or prevent further consolidation in the cable and telephone business.

2. Where greater competition can exist, we will encourage it. Again, a good example comes from wireless broadband. The “reserve” spectrum in the Broadcast Incentive Auction will provide opportunities for wireless providers to gain access to important low-band spectrum that could enhance their ability to compete. Similarly, the entire Open Internet proceeding is about ensuring that the Internet remains free from barriers erected by last-mile providers. Third, where meaningful competition is not available, the Commission will work to create it. For instance, our efforts to expand the amount of unlicensed spectrum creates alternative competitive pathways. And we understand the petitions from two communities asking us to pre-empt state laws against citizen-driven broadband expansion to be in the same category, which is why we are looking at that question so closely.

Again, the specifics Wheeler offered pertain almost entirely to the wireless business. Spectrum auctions are designed to attract new competition, but the biggest buyers will almost certainly be the four current national carriers, particularly AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Although low-band spectrum will help Sprint and T-Mobile deliver better indoor service, it is unlikely to drive new market share for either. Wheeler offered no specifics on the issues of Net Neutrality or municipal broadband beyond acknowledging they are issues.

3. Incentivizing competition is a job for governments at every level. We must build on and expand the creative thinking that has gone into facilitating advanced broadband builds around the country. For example, Google Fiber’s “City Checklist” highlights the importance of timely and accurate information about and access to infrastructure, such as poles and conduit. Working together, we can implement policies at the federal, state, and local level that serve consumers by facilitating construction and encouraging competition in the broadband marketplace.

competitionMost of the policies Wheeler seeks to influence exist on the state and local level, where he has considerably less influence. Based on the overwhelming interest shown by cities clamoring to attract Google Fiber, the problems of access to utility poles and conduit are likely overstated. The bigger issue is the lack of interest by new providers to enter entrenched monopoly/duopoly markets where they face crushing capital investment costs and catcalls from incumbent providers demanding they be forced to serve every possible customer, not selectively choose individual neighborhoods to serve. Both incumbent cable and phone companies originally entered communities free from significant competition, often guaranteed a monopoly, making the burden of wired universal service more acceptable to investors. When new entrants are anticipated to capture only 14-40 percent competitive market share at best, it is much harder to convince lenders to support infrastructure and construction expenses. That is why new providers seek primarily to serve areas where there is demonstrated demand for the service.

4. Where competition cannot be expected to exist, we must shoulder the responsibility of promoting the deployment of broadband. One thing we already know is the fact that something works in New York City doesn’t mean it works in rural South Dakota. We cannot allow rural America to be behind the broadband curve. Our universal service efforts are focused on bringing better broadband to rural America by whomever steps up to the challenge – not the highest speeds all at once, but steadily to prevent the creation of a new digital divide.

Again, Wheeler offers few specifics. Current efforts by the FCC include the Connect America Fund, which is nearly entirely devoted to subsidizing rural telephone companies to build traditional DSL service into high-cost areas. Cable is rarely a competitor in these markets, but Wireless ISPs often are, and they are usually privately funded and consider government subsidized DSL expansion an unwelcome and unfair intrusion in their business.

“Since my first day as Chairman of the FCC my mantra has been consistent and concise: ‘Competition, Competition, Competition,’” said Wheeler. “As we have seen today, there is an inverse relationship between competition and the kind of broadband performance that consumers are increasingly demanding. This is not tolerable.”

Under Wheeler’s leadership, Comcast has filed a petition to assume control of Time Warner Cable, AT&T is seeking permission to buy DirecTV, Frontier Communications is acquiring the wired facilities of AT&T in Connecticut, and wireless consolidation continues. A forthcoming test of Wheeler’s willingness to back his rhetoric with action is whether he will support or reject these industry consolidating mergers and acquisitions. Wheeler’s FCC has also said little to nothing about the consumer-unfriendly practice of usage caps and usage-based billing — both growing among wired networks even as they upgrade to much-faster speeds and raise prices.

Share

Frontier’s Buyout of AT&T Connecticut Rejected By Regulators; Deal Offers Little Benefit to Customers

puraConnecticut’s tough Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) has rejected a settlement between state officials and Frontier Communications to acquire AT&T Connecticut, saying the deal offers very little to Connecticut ratepayers.

The settlement between Frontier, Connecticut’s Consumer Counsel and the Connecticut Attorney General’s office included commitments from Frontier governing contributions to state non-profit groups, phone rates and broadband expansion.

The Authority was told it could either approve or reject the settlement, but not suggest or require changes. It decided late last week to reject the settlement deal.

The regulator cited several reasons for its disapproval:

  • PURA_new_area_code_mapA landline rate freeze offers little benefit to Connecticut ratepayers because landline rates have been stable for years and any attempt to increase them will only fuel additional disconnections;
  • Frontier’s commitments to improve broadband service in Connecticut are vague, lacking specific speed improvements and rural broadband expansion targets to meet;
  • Frontier attempted to insert weakened rules governing pole inspections, which should be part of a separate regulatory proceeding;
  • The agreement might limit PURA’s ability to launch cost-recovery proceedings and flexibility to maintain oversight over Frontier’s performance in the state;
  • A contractual agreement requiring Frontier to make specific contributions to state non-profit groups is inappropriate and unenforceable;
  • A lack of information about how Frontier and AT&T will collaborate after the transaction is complete, particularly with AT&T’s U-verse offering;
  • No details about how Frontier U-verse intends to handle Public, Educational, and Government Access channels on its television platform;
  • A lack of a detailed disaster preparedness plan from Frontier to handle major service disruptions.

PURA’s Acting Executive Secretary Nicholas Neeley said the goal is to “improve the likelihood of success of Frontier as it assumes the duties, obligations and responsibilities currently held by AT&T in Connecticut.”

“(It seeks to) balance the interests of all parties affected by this transaction, promote competition and preserve the public’s rights to safe and adequate communications services,” Neeley wrote in a public notice. “The Authority hopes that such a session will produce an amended proposal from Frontier that would be deemed acceptable for consideration.”

The rejection also seeks to protect and preserve Connecticut’s regulatory oversight power over Frontier.

Frontier received a better reception from the Communications Workers of America. The phone company has traditionally maintained reasonably good relations with its unionized workforce. CWA approved of Frontier’s purchase of AT&T Connecticut after winning commitments for new union jobs, a job security program, a payout of 100 shares of company stock to each union member, and Frontier’s commitment to prioritize Connecticut-based call centers.

Wall Street is less impressed. This morning, Morgan Stanley downgraded Frontier’s stock to “underweight,” citing complications in the AT&T Connecticut deal and Frontier’s increasing debt load. Frontier is financing $1.55 billion of the $2 billion transaction by selling two groups of senior notes of $775 million each, due in 2021 and 2024. As of June 30, Frontier had amassed $7.9 billion in debt with just $805 million in cash on hand.

Frontier's proposed northeastern service areas would add almost the entire state of Connecticut to its holdings in mostly-rural upstate New York and Pennsylvania and the urban metropolitan Rochester, N.Y. 585 area code region.

Frontier’s proposed northeastern service areas would add almost the entire state of Connecticut to its holdings in mostly rural upstate New York and Pennsylvania and the metropolitan Rochester, N.Y. 585 area code region where the company got its name.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Frontier Communications Connecticut 1-2014.mp4

Frontier Communications introduces itself to AT&T Connecticut customers in this company-produced video. (4:03)

Share

Sprint’s New Plans: Putting Lipstick on a Pig and Enraging Your Soon-to-Be Ex-Customers

tmobileIf this is the best Sprint’s Marcelo Claure can do, Softbank needs to keep shopping for another CEO.

Claure’s decision to deep-six the appallingly stupid Framily Plan was a no-brainer. Sprint’s own customer service agents barely understood the multi-level marketing scheme it actually was, and I never saw much value in alienating friends and family by cajoling them to use the atrociously bad Sprint network. Neither did Sprint employees who loudly cheered its upcoming demise.

Even Claure trashed Sprint’s network performance and upgrade program as glacier-slow and highly disruptive to customers who find nearby cell sites here today, gone tomorrow, and maybe back again someday when network upgrades have been finished. Unlike AT&T or Verizon where a cell tower outage might cut a few bars of signal strength, when a Sprint cell tower drops, it’s roaming time. It is not uncommon for residents along Lake Ontario’s shorelines in the United States to find their phones preferring to roam on Canadian networks (especially Rogers) to avoid Sprint.

Claure’s commitment to cut prices while cruelly excluding your current customer base from getting any of those savings is a sure-fire way to accelerate their departure… mostly to T-Mobile. John Legere is waiting with open arms.

Sprint doesn’t need to just cut prices, it needs to butcher them, and fast. Sprint’s loyal customers have been promised a lot since the company unveiled its Network Vision upgrade plan during the French Revolution of 1789. The Bastille might still be standing today had Sprint slapped a working 4G LTE antenna on top of it. But alas, let them suffer with Sprint 3G, declared Dan Hesse, on a network so bad that throttled customers in heavy-use prison actually saw their speeds rise. Some customers in western New York simply turn Sprint 3G data off to save the battery.

When Sprint 4G LTE finally did arrive in western New York (illogically first in rural communities like the stiflingly-dull town of Dansville), many barely noticed because Sprint’s backhaul connection between the cell tower and Sprint’s data network often stayed the same — congested and slow.

Although T-Mobile’s coverage is not that different from Sprint, its network upgrades are.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere has confidently pushed Sprint around over its newest plan, but if it does start to eat into T-Mobile’s business, Legere will no doubt respond with some new plans of his own. For current Sprint customers, T-Mobile is definitely the upgrade Sprint has promised for at least five years, and should be considered at contract renewal time. But current Verizon and AT&T customers paying Cadillac pricing should not be expected to switch to Sprint after recalling dropped calls in a store, home or in an emergency on Sprint’s less robust network. They are very unlikely to change carriers no matter what shade of lipstick Sprint applies to its plans.

Claure has the right idea — slash prices and actually deliver on promises of a better network going forward, but those commitments deserve to apply to both existing and new customers. So far Claure has managed to inflict only superficial wounds. The price cuts must go much deeper to attract business from customers of the larger carriers willing to compromise for the right price and upgrades have to be real and delivered immediately.

Sprint still doesn’t understand it cannot charge Honda Accord prices on a Chevy Spark network. Until they do, T-Mobile is likely to continue taking them to school.

 

Share

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
Share

Comcast/Time Warner Claim Their Rates, Walk-In Locations, and Merger Plans Are Off Limits to the Public

topsecretComcast and Time Warner Cable want New York State regulators to believe disclosing the locations of their customer care centers, revealing the prices they are charging, and describing exactly what Comcast will do to Time Warner Cable employees and customers post-merger are all protected trade secrets that cannot be disclosed to the general public.

New York Administrative Law Judge David L. Prestemon found scant evidence to support many of the claims made by the two cable companies to keep even publicly available information confidential, despite an argument that disclosure of the “trade secrets” would cause substantial competitive injury. His ruling came in response to a detailed Freedom of Information Law request from New York’s Utility Project which, like Stop the Cap!, is having major problems attempting to find any public interest benefits for the merger of the two cable companies.

The information Comcast and Time Warner Cable want to keep off-limits is vast, including the prices the companies charge for service, their licensed franchise areas, the locations of their call centers and walk-in customer care locations, and what exactly Time Warner Cable is doing with New York taxpayer money as part of the state’s rural broadband expansion program:

“In general, the redacted trade secret information and the Exhibits identified below include, without limitation, information and details concerning (i) the current operations and future business plans of the Companies, (ii) strategic information concerning their products and services, (iii) strategic investment plans, (iv) customer and service location information, and (v) performance data. This highly sensitive information has not been publicly disclosed and is not expected to be known by others. Moreover, given the highly competitive nature of the industries in which Comcast and Time Warner Cable compete, disclosure of these trade secrets would cause substantial injury to the Companies’ competitive positions– particularly since the Companies do not possess reciprocal information about their competitors.”

That’s laughable, declares the Public Utility Law Project.

Norlander (Photo: Dan Barton)

Norlander (Photo: Dan Barton)

“The ‘competition’ for TV, broadband, and phone business in New York generally boils down to a duopoly (phone company or cable ) or at best oligopoly (maybe phone and cable companies plus Dish or wireless), in which  providers are probably able to deduce who has the other customers and likely know, due to interconnection and traffic activity, what their ‘rivals’ are doing,” said Gerald Norlander, who is aggressively fighting the merger on behalf of the Public Utility Project.

Stop the Cap! wholeheartedly agrees and told regulators at the Public Service Commission’s informational meeting held last month in Buffalo that Comcast’s promised merger benefits are uniformly vague and lack specifics. Now we understand why. The public does not have a right to know what Comcast’s plans are.

“When it comes to divulging their actual performance and actual intentions regarding matters affecting the public interest, such as Internet service to schools, extension of rural broadband, service quality performance, jobs in the state, universal service, and so forth, well, that is all a ‘trade secret’ justified by nonexistent competition,” said Norlander. “Thus, the situation remains the same, there is insufficient available evidence to conclude that the putative incremental benefits of the merger outweigh its risks.”

Here is a list of what Comcast and Time Warner Cable believe is none of your business. Judge Prestemon’s rulings, announced this morning, follow. He obviously disagrees. But his decisions can be appealed by either company:

  • nyup“Details of Time Warner Cable’s current broadband deployment plans in New York. In particular, the information contains the specific details about such plans, including the franchise area, county, total miles of deployment, number of premises passed and the completion or planned completion date. Such information is kept confidential by Time Warner Cable” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information regarding the Companies’ promotional rates for service in various locations within their respective footprints – as well as competitive intelligence concerning competitor offerings. This compilation and competitive analysis are not publicly available.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “specific details of Time Warner Cable’s current build-out plans to rural areas of New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans in this area. The information also contains anticipated financial expenditures for Time Warner Cable’s build-out plans. Such information has not been publicly disclosed.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the New York schools and libraries served by Time Warner Cable, as well as information concerning Comcast’s future business plans to serve such entities. This information is kept confidential by Time Warner Cable and has not been disclosed to the public.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the number of Comcast’s “Internet Essentials” customers in New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans for the “Internet Essentials” program.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “the Companies’ detailed customer and service quality data.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the Companies’ current operations and staffing levels in New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans concerning post-merger operations and employee levels.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • Comcast-Logo“information setting forth the number of subscribers to Time Warner Cable’s “Everyday Low Price” broadband service.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • Comcast’s handling of customer requests for an unlisted service, and how Comcast handles customer inquiries related to this subject matter.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “Comcast’s future business plans with respect to particular subject matters.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information and performance statistics relating to the Companies’ call centers in New York and the Northeast.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Time Warner Cable’s operations as they relate to projects funded by federal or state [energy efficiency or distributed energy resource] programs.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Comcast’s operations and future business plans relating to avoidance of truck rolls and vehicle fleets.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information relating to the number of Wi-Fi hotspots that Time Warner Cable has deployed in New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans in this area.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Comcast’s handling of cyber-security issues associated with its Xfinity Home service.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the Companies’ operations and customers in relation to cellular backhaul service.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Time Warner Cable’s projects funded by NYSERDA” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “projects developed in conjunction with New York State” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
Share

New York City Comptroller Unimpressed With Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

one mbps

“Hey look, is that the Verizon FiOS truck?”

New York City comptroller Scott Stringer is lukewarm at best about the idea of Comcast taking over for Time Warner Cable. In a letter to the New York Public Service Commission released today, Stringer says the deal needs major changes before it comes close to serving the public interest.

“As New York City residents know all too well, our city is stuck in an Internet stone age, at least when compared to other municipalities across the country and around the world,” Stringer wrote. “According to a study by the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, New Yorkers not only endure slower Internet service than similar cities in other parts of the world, but they also pay higher prices for that substandard service. Tokyo residents enjoy speeds that are eight times faster than New York City’s, for a lower price. And Hong Kong residents enjoy speeds that are 20 times faster, for the equivalent price.”

Stringer should visit upstate New York some time. While the Big Apple is moving to a Verizon FiOS and Time Warner Cable Maxx or Cablevision/Optimum future, upstate New York is, in comparison, Raquel Welch-prehistoric, especially if your only choice is Verizon “No, We Won’t Expand DSL to Your House,” or Frontier “3.1Mbps is Plenty” Communications. If New York City’s speeds are slow, upstate New York speeds are glacial.

“The latest data from the FCC shows that, as of June 30, 2013, over 40 percent of connections in New York State are below 3Mbps,” Springer added.

Come for the Finger Lakes, but don’t stay for the broadband.

Should the merger be approved, Comcast would be obligated to comply with the existing franchise agreement between Time Warner Cable and the City of New York. However, in order for the proposed merger to truly be in the public interest, Comcast must have a more detailed plan to address these ongoing challenges and to further close the digital divide that leaves so many low-income New Yorkers cut off from the information superhighway. To date, Comcast’s efforts to close the digital divide have focused on its “Internet Essentials” program, which was launched in 2012.iii The program offers a 5 megabit/second connection for $9.95/month (plus tax) to families matching all of the following criteria:

• Located within an area where Comcast offers Internet service
• Have at least one child eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program
• Have not subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days
• Does not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment

While the aim of the program is laudatory, its slow speed, limited eligibility, and inadequate outreach have kept high-quality connectivity beyond the reach of millions of low-income Americans. Not only are the eligibility rules for Internet Essentials far too narrow, but the company has done a poor job of signing up those who do meet the criteria. In fact, only 300,000 (12 percent) of eligible households nationwide have actually signed up since the program was launched in 2011.

It is critical that the PSC not only press Comcast to significantly expand the reach of Internet Essentials, but also that it engage in appropriate oversight to ensure that the company is meeting its commitments to low-income residents of the Empire State.

Phillip "Comcast isn't the answer to the problem, it's the problem itself" Dampier

Phillip “Comcast isn’t the answer, it’s the problem” Dampier

In fact, the best way New York can protect its low-income residents is to keep Comcast out of the state. Time Warner Cable offers everyday $14.99 Internet access to anyone who wants it as long as they want it. No complicated pre-qualification conditions, annoying forms, or gotcha terms and conditions.

When a representative from the PSC asked a Comcast representative if the company would keep Time Warner’s discount Internet offer, a non-answer answer was the response. That usually means the answer is no.

“We have seen how telecommunications companies will promise to expand access as a condition of a merger, only to shirk their commitments once the merger has been approved,” Springer complained. “For instance, as part of its 2006 purchase of BellSouth, AT&T told Congress that it would work to provide customers ‘greater access and more choices for broadband, no matter where they live or work.’ However, later reports found that the FCC relied on the companies themselves to report their own merger compliance and did not conduct independent audits to verify their claims.”

Big Telecom promises are like getting commitments from a cheating spouse. Never trust… do verify or throw them out. Comcast still has not met all the conditions it promised to meet after its recent merger with NBCUniversal, according to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).

Stringer also blasted Comcast for its Net Neutrality roughhousing:

While the FCC has not declared internet providers to be “common carriers”, state law has effectively done so within the Empire State. Under 16 NYCRR Part 605, a common carrier is defined as “a corporation that holds itself out to provide service to the public for hire to provide conduit services including voice, data, or video by electrical, electronic, electromagnetic or photonic means.”

Importantly, the law requires these carriers to “provide publicly offered conduit services on demand to any similarly situated user on substantially similar terms, subject to the availability of facilities and capacity.”

In recent months, Comcast has shown that it is willing to sacrifice net neutrality in order to squeeze additional payment out of content providers, such as Netflix. As shown in the chart below, Netflix download speeds on the Comcast network deteriorated rapidly prior to an agreement whereby Netflix now pays Comcast for preferential access.

speed changes

concast careConsumers have a legitimate fear that if access to fiber-optic networks is eventually for sale to the highest bidder, then not only will it stifle the entrepreneurial energy unleashed by the democratizing forces of the Internet, but will also potentially lead to higher prices for consumers in accessing content. Under that scenario, consumers are hit twice—first by paying for Internet access to their home and second by paying for certain content providers’ preferred access.

Internet neutrality has been a core principle of the web since its founding and the PSC must examine whether Comcast’s recent deal with Netflix is a sign that the company is eroding this principle in a manner that conflicts with the public interest.

Stringer may not realize Comcast also has an end run around Net Neutrality in the form of usage caps that will deter customers from accessing competitors’ content if it could put them over their monthly usage allowance and subject to penalty rates. Comcast could voluntarily agree to Net Neutrality and still win by slapping usage limits on all of their broadband customers. Either causes great harm for competitors like Netflix.

“I urge the Commission to hold Comcast to that burden and to ensure that the merger is in the best interest of the approximately 2.6 million Time Warner Cable subscribers in New York State and many more for whom quality, affordable Internet access remains unavailable,” Stringer writes. “And I urge Comcast to view this as an opportunity to do the right thing by introducing itself to the New York market as a company that values equitable access and understands that its product—the fourth utility of the modern age—must be available to all New Yorkers.”

If Comcast’s existing enormous customer base has already voted them the Worst Company in America, it is unlikely Comcast will turn on a dime for the benefit of New York.

The best way to ensure quality, affordable Internet access in New York is to keep Comcast out of New York.

No cable company has ever resolved the rural broadband problem. Their for-profit business model depends on a Return on Investment formula that prohibits expanding service into unprofitable service areas.

These rural service problems remain pervasive in Comcast areas as well, and always have since the company took over for AT&T Cable in the early 2000s. Little has changed over the last dozen years and little will change in the next dozen if we depend entirely on companies like Comcast to handle the rural broadband problem.

A more thoughtful solution is encouraging the development of community co-ops and similar broadband enterprises that need not answer to shareholders and strict ROI formulas.

In the meantime, for the good of all New York, let’s keep Comcast south (and north) of the border, thank you very much.

 

Share

Thoughts on the NY Public Service Commission’s Information Meeting in Buffalo on Comcast-TWC Merger

Phillip "The new unofficial spokesman of Time Warner Cable?" Dampier

Phillip “The new unofficial spokesperson for Time Warner Cable?” Dampier

I testified last evening at the Buffalo Public Information Meeting held by the New York Public Service Commission on the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

The regulator invited four witnesses to testify about the merger last evening. The other three:

  • Mark E. Reilly, Comcast’s senior vice president of government affair, northeast division (for);
  • Aaron Bartley, executive director of PUSH Buffalo (against);
  • Christine Carr, executive director of Computers for Children (neutral).

The meeting was sparsely attended with only about two dozen in the audience, a good number of those arriving from Rochester. Also in attendance were groups with direct financial connections to Comcast, some partly disclosed during the evening, others not. Readers will not be surprised they were strongly in favor of the merger. Common Cause was represented and was clearly against the merger, although their representative also had harsh words for Time Warner Cable.

Niagara County Legislator David E. Godfrey (R-Wilson) and Orleans County Legislator Lynne M. Johnson (R-Lyndonville), representing the Niagara Orleans Regional Alliance, spoke on behalf of rural New Yorkers who lack broadband service. Neither went on record opposing the merger but seemed to suggest its approval be tied to a rural broadband solution. The record on successfully pulling that off in earlier deals has been mixed at best. The cable industry treats its Return On Investment formulas like a biblical text. If expanding service isn’t going to make the companies money in the short term, it is very unlikely to happen. We believe New York’s broadband subsidy program is a better deal for consumers if it means keeping Comcast out of New York.

The audience was almost entirely silent during the event and it wrapped up earlier than originally planned. Buffalo seemed less engaged on broadband issues than I would have expected. Had the hearing been held in Rochester, I have no doubt the audience would have been far larger. Broadband matters in Rochester have always drawn crowds and significant news coverage. One Buffalo resident offered that the PSC chose its meeting location poorly — on “an out of the way” college campus in Amherst now in summer session that charges for parking (although we did park for free). Others have told us the meetings were poorly advertised. Thankfully, the PSC is keeping the record open for comments in writing and by phone.

The strongest contrast of views came from testimony from Mr. Reilly and myself, although the meeting was not configured as a debate.

Reilly

Reilly

Mr. Reilly did not seem well-informed about specifics regarding Comcast’s products and pricing. He stumbled through incomplete answers when asked directly (twice) to compare Comcast’s prices against Time Warner Cable. Unfortunately, the question and answer session did not allow for interjection from other witnesses, because if it did, I was more than ready to help Mr. Reilly answer that question because I brought the rate cards for both companies with me. Perhaps he did not want to answer, because as the evidence clearly shows, Comcast costs more.

He also implied Comcast had widely deployed up to 505Mbps broadband service in its service area. Speeds of 300-500Mbps are offered only to a limited number of customers that can, number one afford the high asking price ($300/month plus installation fee) and second are passed by Comcast’s fiber or Metro Ethernet networks.

We also disagreed over usage caps. Reilly claimed the average Comcast customer used just 17GB a month. Comcast’s own website claims median monthly data usage is 20-25GB per month. But according to Digital Trends, the average family with Internet-only service uses 212GB of data each month — more than seven times those who watch traditional television. That is because after cutting cable-TVs cord, they are watching shows over their broadband connection. That number is rising, and fast. Over the four years Comcast had a nationwide cap, it did not adjust it upwards even once to account for broadband growth.

Independent analysis from Sandvine found that Internet users, in general, are accessing increasingly larger amounts of data. The overall mean usage on North American fixed-access networks (as opposed to mobile networks) was 51.4 GB in March, which is up from the 44.5 GB noted in Sandvine’s most recent previous study. Cord-cutters as a whole now dominate network usage, accounting for a 54-percent majority of total monthly network traffic. Cord-cutters are also responsible for some of the cable industry’s biggest revenue challenges with their television packages.

The old industry meme that usage caps affect only a tiny minority of customers was also trotted out. We did not have the opportunity to ask, “if only a tiny percentage of customers exceed their allowance, why bother with usage caps at all?”

Time Warner Cable was not represented at the meeting, and in an ironic twist, that left me as their unofficial spokesbooster. In fact, nobody seemed aware of Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program which is delivering faster, more affordable Internet access than Comcast offers over its cable broadband network without the threat of looming usage caps.

Jump through hoops for $9.95 Internet

Jump through hoops for $9.95 Internet

Internet affordability emerged as a major topic last evening. Predictably Comcast touted its $9.95 Internet Essentials program without mentioning its highly restrictive pre-qualification requirements:

The program is only available to households that (i) are located where Comcast offers Internet service; (ii) have at least one child who receives free/reduced rate school lunches through the National School Lunch Program (the “NSLP”) and as confirmed annually while enrolled in the program; (iii) do not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment; and (iv) have not subscribed to any Comcast Internet service within the last ninety (90) days (sections 1(i)-(iv) collectively are defined as “Eligibility Criteria”). The program will accept new customers for three (3) full school years, unless extended at the sole election of Comcast. Comcast reserves the right to establish enrollment periods at the beginning of each academic year in which it accepts new customers that may limit the period of time each year in which you have to enroll in the program.

2. In order to confirm your eligibility for the program, Comcast will need to verify that your children receive free/reduced rate school lunches through the NSLP in the initial enrollment year and each subsequent year you are enrolled in the program. In order to confirm eligibility, participants in the program will be required to provide copies of official documents establishing that a child in the household is currently receive free/reduced rate school lunches through the NSLP. Each year you will be required to reconfirm your household’s current eligibility by providing Comcast or its authorized agent with up-to-date documentation. If you fail to provide documentation proving your eligibility in the program, you will be deemed no longer eligible to participate in the program.

3. You will no longer be eligible to participate in the program if (i) you no longer have at least one child living in your household who receives free/reduced rate school lunches under the NSLP; (ii) you fail to maintain your Comcast account in good standing; (iii) Comcast ceases to provide the Covered Service to your location; or (iv) your account opened under the program is closed. A change in address may result in your account being closed, even if you continue to receive Comcast services at a different address. Program participation also may be terminated if the Covered Service is upgraded, altered or changed by you for any reason. If you are no longer eligible for the program, but continue to receive the Covered Service from Comcast, regular rates, and any other applicable terms and conditions will apply to the Covered Service.

In brief, you can only qualify if you don’t have Comcast Internet service already. If you do, Comcast demands you stay without Comcast Internet service for at least 90 days before applying (good luck making that work). This is nothing more than a revenue protection mechanism for Comcast so that customers don’t downgrade to discounted Internet. Only poor families with school age children qualify and Comcast intrusively re-verifies eligibility regularly. Had a past due bill in the past or loss/stolen equipment? You are not qualified. Miss a payment? Comcast can kick you off the program. Try to upgrade any part of your Comcast package? You are done with Internet Essentials. Move to a new address? Your Internet discount isn’t going with you.

John Randall from the Roosevelt Institute came to a similar conclusion:

Comcast’s Internet Essentials program does more to benefit Comcast’s customer acquisition, public relations, and lobbying departments than to help people in America who need high-speed Internet access at a reasonable price. The reality is that the program is a cleverly designed customer acquisition program that benefits Comcast’s bottom line.

It was also a cynical way to help Comcast win approval of its merger with NBCUniversal. Comcast held back the program until they could use it as a political chip in their merger lobbying campaign. As we reported back in 2012:

In 2009, Comcast insiders were hard at work on a discount program for the disadvantaged who could not afford Comcast’s regular prices for broadband service. But the program was stalled at the direction of Cohen, who wanted it to be a chip with regulators to win approval of its acquisition of NBC-Universal. The program, sure to be popular among advocates of the digitally disadvantaged, was a key part of approving the $30 billion deal.

“I held back because I knew it may be the type of voluntary commitment that would be attractive to the chairman [of the FCC],” Cohen said in a recent interview.

You would probably take this used car to a mechanic before deciding whether to buy. Why doesn't Comcast know the state of Time Warner's cable systems before they made an offer?

You would probably take this used car to a mechanic before deciding whether to buy. Why doesn’t Comcast know the state of Time Warner’s cable systems before they made a $45 billion offer?

Lastly, Mr. Reilly repeatedly confessed Comcast did not know the state of Time Warner Cable’s system and equipment and could not answer questions about precisely how much Comcast would invest in upgrades. He admitted Comcast’s part-acquisition of Adelphia Cable (its systems were largely divided up between Comcast and Time Warner) resulted in a major under-estimate of repair and upgrade work required.

If I buy a used car, I take it to an expert who can describe its current condition, alert me to likely service required both now and in the near future, and predictions about the vehicle’s anticipated lifetime. Apparently Comcast buys cable systems sight-unseen.

It was widely known in the industry at the time that troubled Adelphia Cable properties were neglected as the company neared bankruptcy. Imagine Adelphia as a metaphor for the state of Sears or K-Mart these days.

Two members of the Rigas family that founded Adelphia were convicted on multiple charges of securities fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and bank fraud. Prosecutors said the Rigases hid the fact the company was dangerously overextended with $2.3 billion in unreported debts. The family used the company’s bank accounts to finance a range of personal follies, including 100 pairs of slippers for Timothy Rigas and more than $3 million to produce a film by John Rigas’ daughter. We don’t know if the film was actually any good.

At the end of the evening in Buffalo, we were still left with the impression Comcast’s promises and commitments were vague and the much-touted benefits were much to be desired as soon as you began reading the fine print.

But frankly, I was disappointed by the low turnout. Consumers who do not want Comcast to be their next Internet provider -must- make their feelings known or that is precisely what is going to happen. We need all New Yorkers within travel distance of Albany or New York City to pack the PSC’s meeting rooms and have the courage to get up and speak. You can talk for 30 seconds or 3-5 minutes. You can also write or call the PSC if you want to extend your remarks in writing. New Yorkers have the power to throw a major wrench into a deal very few of us wants. But only if they make their voices heard:

Wednesday, June 18

SUNY Albany
Performing Arts Center
1400 Washington Avenue
Albany

6:00 pm: Informational Forum
7:30 pm: Public Statement Hearing

Thursday, June 19

NYS DPS Office
90 Church Street
New York

Please bring ID with you.

6:00 pm: Informational Forum
7:30 pm: Public Statement Hearing

Those who cannot attend or prefer not to speak at a public statement hearing may comment electronically to Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary, at [email protected] or by mail or delivery to the Secretary at the Public Service Commission, Three Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York 12223-1350. Comments should refer to “Case 14-M-0183, Petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc.”

Toll-Free Opinion Line: You may call the Commission’s Opinion Line at 1-800-335-2120. This number is set up to take comments about pending cases from in-state callers, 24 hours a day. Press “1″ to leave comments, mentioning the Comcast/Time Warner merger.

All comments provided through these alternative methods should be submitted, or mailed and postmarked, no later than July 31, 2014. All such statements and comments will become part of the record and be reported to the Commission for its consideration.

All submitted comments may be accessed on the Commission’s Web site at www.dps.ny.gov, by searching Case 14-M-0183.

Share

CenturyLink Unfazed by AT&T/Verizon’s Rural Wireless Broadband; ‘Caps Too Low, Prices Too High’

centurylinkCenturyLink does not believe it will face much of a competitive threat from AT&T and Verizon’s plans to decommission rural landline service in favor of fixed wireless broadband because the two companies’ offers are too expensive, overly usage-capped and too slow.

Both AT&T and Verizon have proposed mothballing traditional landline service in rural areas because both companies claim wireline financial returns are too low and ongoing maintenance costs are too high. In its place, both companies are developing rural fixed wireless solutions for voice and broadband service that will rely on 4G LTE networks.

CenturyLink does not traditionally compete against either AT&T or Verizon because their landline service areas do not overlap. But as both AT&T and Verizon Wireless continue to emphasize their nationwide wireless networks, independent phone companies are likely to face increased competition from wireless phone and broadband services.

CenturyLink isn’t worried.

“About two-thirds of our customers can get access to 10Mbps or higher [from us and] that continues to increase year by year,” CenturyLink chief financial officer Stewart Ewing told attendees at Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s 2014 Global Telecom & Media Conference. “Our belief is that with the increasing demands customers have for bandwidth — the Netflix bandwidth requirement — just the increasing amount of video that customers are watching and downloading over their Internet pipes, we believe will drive customers to using a provider that basically has a wire in their home because we believe you will get generally higher bandwidth and a much better experience at lower cost.”

Ewing

Ewing

CenturyLink customers consume an average of slightly less than 50GB of Internet usage per month, and that number is growing. Ewing said that CenturyLink has long believed that as bandwidth demand increases, wireless becomes less and less capable of providing a good customer experience.

“At this point, we don’t really have any concerns because people on the margin — the folks that don’t use much bandwidth — probably use a wireless connection today to download,” Ewing said. “But as the bandwidth demands grow, the wireless connection becomes more and more expensive and that could tend to drive people our way. So as long as we have 10Mbps or better to the customers, we don’t really think there is that much exposure.”

CenturyLink does not measure the difference in Internet usage between urban and rural residential customers, but the company suspects rural customers might naturally use more because alternative outlets are fewer in number outside of urban America.

“Folks in rural areas might actually can use Internet more for buying things that they can’t source [easily], but it’s hard to really count,” said Ewing. “I think our customers in the rural areas probably are not that much different from folks in urban areas.”

Prism is CenturyLink's fiber to the neighborhood service, similar to AT&T U-verse. It is getting only a modest expansion in 2014.

Prism is CenturyLink’s fiber to the neighborhood service, similar to AT&T U-verse. It is getting only a modest expansion in 2014.

CenturyLink’s largest competitor remains Comcast, which co-exists in about 40% of CenturyLink’s markets. The merger with Time Warner Cable won’t have much impact on CenturyLink, increasing Comcast’s footprint in CenturyLink territory by only about only 6-7%. CenturyLink believes most of any new competition will come in the small business market segment. Comcast’s residential pricing is unlikely to attract current CenturyLink customers in Time Warner Cable territory to consider a switch to Comcast if the merger is approved.

Ewing also shared his thinking about several other CenturyLink initiatives that customers might see sometime this year:

  • Don’t expect CenturyLink to expand Wi-Fi hotspot networks. The company found they are difficult to monetize and is unlikely to expand them further;
  • Any change in the FCC’s definition of minimum broadband speed to qualify for federal broadband expansion funds would slow rural broadband expansion. Ewing admitted a 10Mbps speed minimum is considerably more difficult to achieve over DSL than a 4 or 6Mbps minimum;
  • Don’t expect any more merger/acquisition activity from CenturyLink in the Competitive Local Exchange Carrier business. CenturyLink shows no sign of pursuing Frontier, Windstream, FairPoint, or other independent phone companies. It is focused on expanding business services, where 60% of CenturyLink’s revenue now comes;
  • CenturyLink fiber expansion will primarily be focused on reaching business offices and commercial customers in 2014;
  • CenturyLink will only modestly expand PrismTV, its fiber-to-the-neighborhood service, to an additional 300,000 homes this year. The company now offers the service to two million of its customers, with 200,000 signed up nationwide. Last year, CenturyLink expanded PrismTV availability to 800,000 homes.
Share

United States of AT&T: DirecTV Acquired by AT&T in $48.5 Billion Deal

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ ATT Buys DirecTV 5-19-14.flv

For $48.5 billion, AT&T will vault itself into second place among the nation’s largest pay television providers with the acquisition of DirecTV. The Wall Street Journal reports the executives at AT&T have been looking to for a giant deal for several years. Most executives earn special bonuses and other incentives worth millions for successfully completing these kinds of transactions. (3:03)

AT&T plans to spend $48.5 billion to acquire the nation’s biggest satellite television provider, allowing AT&T to become the second largest pay television company, behind a merged Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

att directvThe deal, finalized on Sunday, pays $95 per DirecTV share in a combination of stock and cash, about a 10% premium over DirecTV’s closing price on Friday. Including debt, the acquisition is AT&T’s third-largest deal on record, behind the purchase of BellSouth for $83 billion in 2006 and the deal for Ameritech Corp., which closed in 1999, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“This is a unique opportunity that will redefine the video entertainment industry and create a company able to offer new bundles and deliver content to consumers across multiple screens – mobile devices, TVs, laptops, cars and even airplanes. At the same time, it creates immediate and long-term value for our shareholders,” said Randall Stephenson, AT&T chairman and CEO. “DirecTV is the best option for us because they have the premier brand in pay TV, the best content relationships, and a fast-growing Latin American business. DirecTV is a great fit with AT&T and together we’ll be able to enhance innovation and provide customers new competitive choices for what they want in mobile, video and broadband services. We look forward to welcoming DirecTV’s talented people to the AT&T family.”

The announced acquisition has left some on Wall Street scratching their heads.

“Like any merger born of necessity rather than opportunity, the combination of AT&T and DirecTV calls to mind images of lifeboats and rescues at sea,” telecommunications analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson Research wrote this week. AT&T, Moffett wrote, is in “dire need of a cash producer to sustain their dividend.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg ATT DirecTV Deal a Head Scratcher 5-19-14.flv

Craig Moffett, founder of MoffettNathanson LLC, talks about AT&T Inc.’s plan to buy DirecTV for $48.5 billion. Moffett speaks with Tom Keene, Scarlet Fu, William Cohan, and Adam Johnson on Bloomberg Television’s “Surveillance.” StockTwits founder Howard Lindzon also speaks. (5:12)

pay market shareThe deal would combine AT&T’s wireless, U-verse, and broadband networks with DirecTV’s television service, creating bundling opportunities for some satellite customers. As broadband becomes the most important component of a package including phone, television, and Internet access, not being able to offer broadband has left satellite TV companies at a competitive disadvantage. AT&T’s U-verse platform – a fiber to the neighborhood network – has given AT&T customers an incremental broadband speed upgrade, but not one that can necessarily compete against fiber to the home or cable broadband.

Some analysts are speculating AT&T will eventually shut down its U-verse television service and dedicate its bandwidth towards a more robust broadband offering. Existing television customers would be offered DirecTV instead.

But deal critics contend AT&T is spending a lot of money to buy its competitors instead of investing enough in network upgrades.

“The amount of cash alone AT&T is spending on this deal — $14.55 billion — is as much as it cost Verizon for its entire FiOS deployment, which reaches more than 17 million homes,” Free Press’ Derek Turner tells Stop the Cap! “Add in the $33 billion in AT&T stock and $18.6 billion in debt, and you can see just how wasteful this merger is.”

In effect, AT&T is spending nearly $50 billion to buy DirecTV’s customer relationships, its satellite platform, and its agreements with programmers, all while removing one competitor from the market. Cable has 54 percent of the pay TV market, satellite has 34 percent, and AT&T and Verizon share 11 percent. AT&T’s U-verse has 5.7 million TV customers. DirecTV has 20.3 million. Combining the two gives AT&T 26 million television customers, second only to Comcast/Time Warner Cable.

Rural Americans will effectively see their choice in competitors drop by one-third, giving them the option of the phone company or Dish Network.

AT&T intends to persuade regulators to approve the deal despite its antitrust implications by offering several commitments the company says are in the public interest and protect consumers:

  • 15 Million Customer Locations Get More High Speed Broadband Competition. AT&T will use the merger synergies to expand its plans to build and enhance high-speed broadband service to 15 million customer locations, mostly in rural areas where AT&T does not provide high-speed broadband service today, utilizing a combination of technologies including fiber to the premises and fixed wireless local loop capabilities. This new commitment, to be completed within four years after close, is on top of the fiber and Project VIP broadband expansion plans AT&T has already announced. Customers will be able to buy broadband service stand-alone or as part of a bundle with other AT&T services.
  • Stand-Alone Broadband. For customers who only want a broadband service and may choose to consume video through an over-the-top (OTT) service like Netflix or Hulu, the combined company will offer stand-alone wireline broadband service at speeds of at least 6Mbps (where feasible) in areas where AT&T offers wireline IP broadband service today at guaranteed prices for three years after closing.
  • Nationwide Package Pricing on DIRECTV. DIRECTV’s TV service will continue to be available on a stand-alone basis at nationwide package prices that are the same for all customers, no matter where they live, for at least three years after closing.
  • Net Neutrality Commitment. Continued commitment for three years after closing to the FCC’s Open Internet protections established in 2010, irrespective of whether the FCC re-establishes such protections for other industry participants following the DC Circuit Court of Appeals vacating those rules.
  • Spectrum Auction. The transaction does not alter AT&T’s plans to meaningfully participate in the FCC’s planned spectrum auctions later this year and in 2015. AT&T intends to bid at least $9 billion in connection with the 2015 incentive auction provided there is sufficient spectrum available in the auction to provide AT&T a viable path to at least a 2×10 MHz nationwide spectrum footprint.

a dtv 2

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN ATT DirecTV Merger 5-19-14.flv

CNN says AT&T’s buyout of DirecTV is about getting video programming to customers using all types of technology, but public interest groups suspect it’s about reducing competition. (1:17)

A closer look at AT&T’s commitments exposes several loopholes, however.

AT&T U-verse and DirecTV compete head-on in these areas.

AT&T U-verse and DirecTV compete head-on in these areas.

  • AT&T’s “commitment” to expand broadband to 15 million new locations is in addition to their Project VIP U-verse expansion now underway. However, AT&T does not say how many rural customers will see wired U-verse service finally become available vs. how many will lose their landlines permanently and have to rely on AT&T’s wireless landline replacement and expensive, usage-capped wireless broadband;
  • AT&T’s speed commitment is largely unenforceable and falls apart with language like, “where feasible.” Anywhere they don’t deliver 6Mbps DSL speed can easily be explained away as “unfeasible.” AT&T also only commits to providing DSL where it already offers DSL, so no expansion there;
  • The FCC’s Net Neutrality protections never covered wireless and three years is a very short time to commit to the “light touch” approach the FCC had with Net Neutrality back in 2010;
  • AT&T’s wireless auction commitment comes with loopholes like “meaningfully,” “provided there,” and “a viable path to at least.”

“You can’t justify AT&T buying DirecTV by pointing at Comcast’s grab for Time Warner, because neither one is a good deal for consumers,” said Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “On the heels of Comcast’s bid for Time Warner Cable, AT&T is going to try to pull off a mega-merger of its own. These could be the start of a wave of mergers that should put federal regulators on high alert.  AT&T’s takeover of DirecTV is just the latest attempt at consolidation in a marketplace where consumers are already saddled with lousy service and price hikes. The rush is on for some of the biggest industry players to get even bigger, with consumers left on the losing end.”

“The captains of our communications industry have clearly run out of ideas,” said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press. “Instead of innovating and investing in their networks, companies like AT&T and Comcast are simply buying up the competition. These takeovers are expensive, and consumers end up footing the bill for merger mania. AT&T is willing to pay $48.5 billion and take on an additional $19 billion in debt to buy DirecTV. That’s a fortune to spend on a satellite-only company at a time when the pay-TV industry is stagnating and broadband is growing. For the amount of money and debt AT&T and Comcast are collectively shelling out for their respective mega-deals, they could deploy super-fast gigabit-fiber broadband service to every single home in America.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN Al Franken Skeptical About DirecTV Deal 5-19-14.flv

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) appeared on CNN’s New Day this morning to express his skepticism about the consumer benefits of a merger between AT&T and DirecTV. “We need more competition, not less.” (2:40)

Share

Public Service Commission to N.Y. Towns: You Have No Negotiating Leverage Over Time Warner Cable

rensselaer countyRensselaer County is just a short drive to the east of New York’s capital city Albany, but for residents in the southern half of the county, it might as be in the middle of nowhere.

Welcome to the world of broadband have’s and have-nots. If you live in the county seat — Troy, Internet access is widely available. But if you live in a community like Nassau, in the southern part of the county, getting Internet access is strictly a hit or miss affair, and in practical terms, the only entity that will decide if you have reasonable access to broadband is Time Warner Cable.

Verizon has decided that the days of expanding DSL in rural areas are over. There is no possibility those without access to DSL now will ever see Verizon’s fiber network FiOS coming their way either. That has left many residents with an unfortunate choice between heavily usage-capped and slow satellite Internet access or heavily usage-capped and expensive wireless Internet from a cell phone company.

Nassau does have a franchise agreement with Time Warner Cable, the only cable operator willing to offer service in this part of upstate New York. The contract specifies Time Warner will bring service to any neighborhood where there are at least 20 residences within a one-mile radius.

The Record News covered negotiations for a franchise renewal for the cable company last year, and found Time Warner Cable held all the cards and the town had almost no leverage in the negotiations:

A rare sight in southern Renssalear County.

A rare sight in southern Rensselaer County.

“We really have no negotiating leverage or power and the Public Service Commission (PSC) was helpful in looking at the contract, but told us we were basically out of luck with any efforts to require anything,” said town Supervisor David Fleming, who said he was told by Time Warner Cable that specific areas in Nassau are “not currently serviceable.”

The town had marked out all the areas that were not served and met with Time Warner to try to gain extensions of service.

“This only succeeded in a couple of areas,” he said. “This is because PSC told us we have no bargaining power. The only big concession we were able to get was to reduce the number of houses per mile needed for service, but this was a pretty standard fall back for Time Warner.”

The town succeeded in negotiating standards down to 20 dwellings per cable mile from 30. “We continue to explore this matter, but frankly, there has been a great deal of unwillingness to expand service in our community,” Fleming said. “The state has been of no help in expanding services.”

As a result, Time Warner has been generally adamant about not expanding service to residents like Alan Austin, who lives on a street where 11 houses are built within a half-mile, technically the same ratio required by Time Warner Cable.

Rensselaer sign“We’ve asked them to bring the service and they won’t,” Austin told the newspaper.

Actually, Time Warner is willing to expand into Austin’s neighborhood — for the right price.

Time Warner agreed it would install cable service if the 11 homes collectively paid a $12,000 installation fee.

“We’re out of luck because we’re never going to get another nine houses in this mile,” Austin said. “We can’t get anybody to bring service here, unless we’re willing to pay an exorbitant amount.”

As for alternatives, don’t call Verizon, they’ll call you. The phone company has suggested rural residents consider their wireless broadband and phone service, assuming a cell tower can reach them with a reasonable signal. But the cost is very high — at least $50 for only 4GB of usage per month and another $20 for telephone service.

Austin is lucky enough to receive some reception from Sprint, which is slightly more reasonably priced. But to get a reliable signal, he has to place his mobile Wi-Fi hotspot in his non-climate-controlled attic. When temperatures fall or soar, the hotspot stops working. Austin has rigged a remote-powered fan in the attic to blow cool air on the hotspot this summer to keep it up and running.

“It’s ridiculous,” he admitted. “People don’t believe me when I tell them these things, but that’s what we deal with.”

The newspaper also pondered the impact of being an Internet have-not with respect to education. In more than a few communities in the county, teachers avoid giving assignments that require students to do research over the Internet, putting them at a potentially serious disadvantage when they attend college.

Businesses also avoid areas where broadband poses a significant challenge, which affects jobs. Selling a home in a broadband blackout zone can also be difficult as savvy buyers increasingly now insist on Internet accessibility.

Without the benefit of bundling discounts, rural Americans pay substantially higher prices for telecommunications services. A promotional bundle from Time Warner Cable can provide phone, Internet, and television service for less than $100 a month. Austin says his package costs more than twice that — more than $220 monthly between paying bills for Verizon phone service, DirectTV television and Sprint for broadband Internet.

These kinds of challenges are ready-made to be addressed on the local government level, but cable and phone companies lobbied successfully for near-total deregulation, making it impossible for town officials to provoke change. In fact, had the community successfully revoked Time Warner Cable’s franchise, no other commercial provider would be willing to step in. That remains common in every community considering its future relationship with the area’s cable company. An informal understanding between cable operators keep them from competing outside of their defined territories.

That leaves Nassau officials with no options, except whether to renew Time Warner’s franchise on the company’s terms for five or ten years. Time Warner wouldn’t hear of a five-year contract so the town capitulated and agreed to a 10-year franchise renewal that will continue to leave residents like Austin without much hope for cable broadband service indefinitely.

Share

Search This Site:

Contributions:

Recent Comments:

  • Jeanette Sharp: I was told by a twc rep they made an error and didnt mail my reward card to me within the two weeks they were to mail them. Finally I get a call from ...
  • Tommy S: I have been with ATT of and on for a long time then with Uverse i hit hard time so i dropped every thing and went with Comcast with 24 mps plus 10+ ch...
  • Jim Livermore: I for one am glad to hear this. AT&T has more than enough resources to bring Connecticut up to speed, they just don't want to spend the money. Fro...
  • Jim Livermore: Great report Phillip. I'm convinced there is extraterrestrial life, and the Ferengi have taken over the entire northern hemisphere. When do the janito...
  • Ian L: Sounds like "please buy us because our name is not well thought out" to me. If the merger + spinoff happens, I give GreatLand two or three years befor...
  • dave: Can't wait till google comes here and puts these guys out of business. Suddenlink service has been degrading in quality the last few years, they aren...
  • Anon E. Mouse: Quote "I have to say, for a giant, faceless corporation customer service at AT&T has generally been great. " Wow, how can anyone say that. I me...
  • nick: why would it be the responsiblity of the cable company to provide wireless service when the dead spots are not caused by them. Custoemers who have de...
  • wilner franck: I need an usb internet service no contract unlimited do u guys haven't...
  • Ian L: Yeah; in the case of GVoice, outbound calls to US numbers are free, so I'll give 'em a little slack on call quality (they've also been fine for callin...
  • Budwyzer: “We have to look out for the interests of our members,” Rick Harnish, executive director of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association in Oss...
  • txpatriot: The Oregon PUC has been investigating rural call completion problems in that state as early as 2012: http://www.oregonlive.com/forest-grove/index.ssf...

Your Account: