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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)
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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.

 

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Free Speed Upgrades, 3000th Customer for North Carolina’s Community-Owned Fibrant

fibrant speedSalisbury’s community-owned fiber network has tripled its subscriber base in three years, signing up its 3,000th customer in the community of 33,000 and is already turning a profit.

Fibrant, despite facing intense opposition from corporate-backed, conservative special interest groups with financial ties to its competitors and a state law passed at the behest of Time Warner Cable that limits its future growth opportunities, has proven very successful delivering improved Internet access to a community that received the back of Time Warner’s hand when it requested service upgrades.

Salisbury invested $33 million to install more than 250 miles of fiber in and around the community and began hooking up customers to its all-fiber network in late 2010. By the following summer, 1,200 customers signed up. Today, Fibrant serves more than 3,000 homes in the community.

WCNC-TV in Charlotte reports Fibrant is likely to break even this year after losing $4.1 million the year before — a loss Fibrant attributes to normal start-up costs faced by almost every new business.

Dale Gibson has been thrilled to be a Fibrant customer since the beginning and is even happier now that Fibrant offers gigabit speeds.

“Generally, when an Internet service provider gives a speed, it represents bandwidth, or a theoretical ‘best effort’ speed, not the ‘throughput,’ or actual speed,” Gibson told the Salisbury Post. “My speed tests are consistently above 900Mbps.”

In 2013, Fibrant raised the speed of its entry-level broadband package to 20/20Mbps for no extra charge. In the coming week, Fibrant’s basic broadband customers will be getting another free upgrade to 50/50Mbps.

Customers who want even faster speeds are also getting them for no extra charge:

  • 30/30Mbps customers will see their speed raised to 75/75Mbps;
  • 50/50Mbps customers get a free speed increase to 100/100Mbps;
  • 100/100Mbps customers get the best upgrade of all: 1,000/1,000Mbps service at no extra cost.

Fibrant’s competitions cannot come close. AT&T U-verse still tops out at around 24Mbps in this part of North Carolina and caps its customers to 250GB of usage a month. Time Warner Cable’s best speed remains 50/5Mbps at a price higher than what Fibrant charges for 100/100Mbps.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee, but mostly AT&T and Comcast)

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee, but mostly AT&T and Comcast)

Fibrant has also improved its video packages, with new features like a whole house DVR, more channels, and more HD. Customers who don’t want networks shoveled at them can buy a basic cable TV package from Fibrant for $37 a month. Those who want more can upgrade to several different packages offering a maximum of over 450 TV channels and 50 music channels.

Customers in nearby communities who want the kind of competition Fibrant delivers will have to wait a long time to get it. Time Warner Cable, with the support of the Republican state legislature, successfully introduced and eventually passed the cable company-drafted measure to essentially ban community broadband in the state. FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler promised to consider eliminating these state corporate protectionism laws, provoking a hostile response in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican with heavy backing from telecommunications giants AT&T and Comcast, introduced a measure for the benefit of large phone and cable companies that would override any effort by the FCC to increase competition by eliminating anti-competitive restrictions on public broadband.

“Blackburn’s positions line up very well with the cable and telephone companies that give a lot of money to her campaigns,” said Christopher Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “In this case, Blackburn is doing what it takes to benefit the cable and telephone companies rather than the United States, which needs more choices, faster speeds, and lower prices. The argument that Blackburn puts forth [for passage of her measure] is not coherent. It’s just politics.”

Republicans in the House responded anyway, passing her measure 223-200. Just two Democrats voted in favor. The bill is not expected to pass the Senate and would almost certainly face a presidential veto.

New York Democrat Jose Serrano relished the ideological irony of House Republicans forced to twist their positions to accommodate AT&T.

“Whatever happened to localism or local control?,” asked Serrano. “This amendment means the federal government will tell every local citizen, mayor, and county council member that they may not act in their own best interests. Any such amendment is an attack on the rights of individual citizens speaking through their local leaders to determine if their broadband needs are being met.”

As community-owned providers in North Carolina found out, Big Telecom money often speaks louder than ideological consistency.

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Time Warner Cable Promises Possible 1Gbps Upgrade for Los Angeles by 2016

gigabitAssuming Comcast doesn’t take over Time Warner Cable and change priorities, the city of Los Angeles is getting a commitment Time Warner will “be in a position to offer” gigabit broadband speeds to homes and businesses in the city no later than 2016.

“Over the last four years, Time Warner Cable has invested more than $1.5 billion to enhance our infrastructure and services in Los Angeles. This significant investment coupled with new ‘Gigasphere’ technology positions us to be able to introduce gigabit-per-second speeds in 2016,” said Peter Stern, executive vice president and chief strategy, people and corporate development officer at TWC. “Leveraging our existing network allows us to deliver these speeds faster and with less disruption than any other provider.”

The new gigabit broadband service will be deployable with an upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1 technology, which offers cable operators a more efficient way to deliver broadband over current cable system infrastructure.

“We believe the introduction of consumer gigabit speeds in our near future will facilitate even greater innovations among students, entrepreneurs and many industries powering the Los Angeles economy,” said Dinni Jain, chief operating officer at TWC. “Cable was the first to bring broadband Internet to the masses nearly 20 years ago, and thanks to the dynamic nature of our fiber-rich network, we foresee endless new possibilities as we roll-out gigabit speeds to all of Los Angeles.”

twcmaxThe first Gigasphere pilot test will begin sometime next year. But a Comcast takeover could shift priorities away from offering the kinds of broadband speeds Time Warner is providing under its TWC Maxx upgrade program. Time Warner’s Internet speeds in upgraded areas are now substantially faster and cheaper than what Comcast offers in its service areas. Comcast could decide to retire the broadband upgrade program altogether and settle on offering speeds comparable to what it already sells across much of its national footprint.

Comcast is also readying a return to usage caps and overlimit fees, with no options for unlimited service, in several test markets.

But there are some caveats on Time Warner’s side as well.

Time Warner’s careful language suggests the company may be technologically capable of providing gigabit speeds but isn’t absolutely committing to offer those speeds anytime soon. Time Warner will not complete Maxx upgrades in Los Angeles until the end of this year, and the company has made no announcements about further expanding Maxx upgrades to other cities. No pricing details were available.

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New York Public Service Commission Announces Delay in Comcast/TWC Merger Consideration

comcast twcAs more than 2,300 New Yorkers express fierce opposition to the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the New York Public Service Commission has announced a delay in the review of the proposal until October.

The PSC now expects to consider the matter at a meeting to be held October 2. The PSC is also extending the period for the public to comment on the proposed merger.

Your comments are now due no later than Aug. 8, with reply comments from various parties due no later than Aug. 25.

Your input is vital, so please take a few moments to send an e-mail to the PSC with your views.

Here’s an example of one of the letters we are seeing:

Via e-mail: [email protected]
Honorable Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary
New York State Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223

Re: 14-M-0183 – Joint Petition of Time Warner Cable and Comcast for Approval of a Holding Company Level Transfer of Control

Dear Secretary Burgess:

As a resident of this state, who is a customer of Time Warner Cable, I am writing to express my staunch opposition to the above-referenced joint petition. This application should be denied outright, simply put, because the merger of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, and Time Warner Cable, the nation’s second largest company, would be contrary to the interest of consumers in the State of New York, as well as antitrust laws.

Though executives of both applicants are adamant that this proposed merger would benefit consumers and enhance competition, the ominous, far-reaching implications that will undoubtedly follow render these claims, among others, implausible. That is, if this merger were to take place, a virtual monopoly would be created, giving Comcast unprecedented control over cable and broadband internet networks at the expense of not only consumers, who would receive nothing but fewer choices at higher prices, but also rival businesses, whose viability would certainly be stifled. The proposed merger would likewise pose a threat to net neutrality.

Given the abysmal record of Comcast, which includes being fined for failing to comply with the terms and conditions of its previous and similarly controversial merger with NBC Universal, as well as its political clout, it is clear that the approval of this joint petition would both be inconsistent with the mission of this Commission, as as well as the interest of consumers in this state. It should, accordingly, be denied in its entirety.

Respectfully submitted,
Patrick A. Berry
Volunteer, Common Cause New York

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I Love You Comcast! An Amazing 180 for Former Antitrust Attorney David Balto

Phillip "I got whiplash just watching" Dampier

Phillip “I got whiplash just watching” Dampier

A former policy director at the Federal Trade Commission and antitrust attorney at the U.S. Justice Department has managed an impressive 180 in just a few short months regarding the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

In February, David Balto told TheDeal the proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable “is a bad deal for consumers.” Today, Mr. Balto’s panoply of guest editorials, media appearances and columns — suddenly in favor of the merger — are turning up in the New York Times, the Orlando Sentinel, Marketplace, WNYC Radio, and elsewhere.

Balto’s arguments are based on “research” which, in toto, appears to have been limited to thumbing through Comcast’s press releases and merger presentation. That was enough:

First, this deal should create benefits for Time Warner customers, who will gain a significantly faster Internet and more advanced television service.

Second, competition is increasing in both the pay-TV and broadband businesses. Ninety-eight percent of viewers have a choice of three or more multichannel services, plus growing options online. Yahoo just announced a new video service, joining Netflix, Amazon and YouTube. In the last five years, cable has lost about seven million customers, satellite has gained nearly two million, and the telecommunications companies have gained six million.

Third, Comcast’s post-merger share of broadband falls closer to 20 percent when including LTE wireless and satellite providers. Over all, 97 percent of households have at least two competing fixed broadband providers — three or more if mobile wireless is included.

We used to wonder why government officials and regulators were so easily fooled by the corporate government relations people sent into their offices armed with press releases, talking points, cupcakes, and empty promises. We understand everyone isn’t a Big Telecom expert, but too often regulators’ reflexive acceptance of whatever companies bring to their table threatens to win them rube-status. We’d like to think Mr. Balto isn’t Comcast’s sucker, and we certainly hope there are no unspoken incentives on the table in return for his recent, very sudden conversion to celebrate all-things Comcast. Maybe he’s simply uninformed.

Balto

Balto

Although our regular readers — nearly all consumers and customers — are well-equipped to debunk Mr. Balto’s arguments, for the benefit of visitors, here is our own research.

First, Comcast’s Internet service is not faster than Time Warner Cable. Mr. Balto needs to spend some time away from Comcast’s merger info-pack and do some real research. He’ll find Time Warner Cable embarked on a massive upgrade program called TWC Maxx that is more than tripling broadband speeds for customers at no extra charge. Those speeds are faster than what Comcast offers the average residential customer, and come much cheaper as well. Oh, and TWC has no compulsory usage limits and overlimit penalties. Comcast’s David Cohen predicts every Comcast customer will face both within five years.

Second, that “advanced TV platform” Balto raves about requires a $99 installation fee… for an X1 set-top box. It also means equipment must be attached to every television in the house, because Comcast encrypts everything. At a time when customers want to pay for fewer channels, Comcast wants to shovel even more unwanted programming and boxes at customers. Older Americans who want their Turner Classic Movies have another nasty surprise. They will need to buy Comcast’s super deluxe cable TV package to get that network, at a cost exceeding $80 a month just for television. Ask Time Warner customers what they want, and they’ll tell you they’d prefer old and decrepit over an even higher cable TV bill Comcast has already committed to deliver.

Has competition truly increased? Not in the eyes of most Americans who at best face a duopoly and annual rate hikes well in excess of inflation. Even worse, for most consumers there is only one choice for 21st century High Speed Internet service – the cable company. Mr. Balto conveniently ignores the fact cable’s primary competitor is still DSL which is simply not available at speeds of 30+Mbps for most consumers. In some areas, like suburban Rochester, N.Y., the best the local phone company can deliver some neighborhoods like ours is 3.1Mbps. That isn’t competition. Verizon and AT&T have both stopped expanding DSL. Verizon has ended FiOS expansion and AT&T’s U-verse still maxes out at around 24Mbps for most customers. AT&T’s promised fiber upgrades have proven to be more illusory than reality, available primarily in a handful of multi-dwelling units and new housing developments. In rural areas, both major phone companies are petitioning to do away with landline service and DSL altogether.

Raise your hands if you want Comcast’s “benefits.” In New York, out of 2,300 comments before the PSC, we can’t find a single one clamoring for Comcast’s takeover. The public has spoken.

Cable "competition" in Minneapolis

Cable “competition” in Minneapolis. Charter and Comcast have also teamed up to trade cable territories as part of the Time Warner Cable merger package deal.

Satellite television’s days of providing the cable industry with robust competition have long since peaked. AT&T is seeking to further reduce that competition by purchasing DirecTV, not because it believes in satellite television, but because it wants the benefits of DirecTV’s lucrative volume discounts.

Any antitrust attorney worth his salt should be well aware of what kind of impact volume discounting can have on restraining and discouraging competition. Comcast’s deal for Time Warner will let it acquire programming at a substantial discount (one they have already said won’t be passed on to customers) so significant that any would-be competitors would be in immediate financial peril trying to compete on price.

Frontier Communications learned that lesson when it acquired a handful of Verizon FiOS franchises in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest. After losing Verizon’s volume discounts, Frontier was so alarmed by the wholesale renewal rates it received, it let loose its telemarketing force to convince customers fiber was no good for television and they should instead switch to a satellite provider they partnered with. It’s telling when a company is willing to forfeit revenue in favor of a third party marketing agreement with an outside company.

So what does this mean for a potential start-up looking to get into the business? Since programming is now a commodity, most customers buy on price. The best triple-play deals will go to the biggest national players with volume discounts – all cable operators that have long agreed never to compete directly with each other.

In the Orlando Sentinel, Mr. Balto seemed almost relieved when he concluded Comcast and Time Warner don’t compete head-to-head, somehow easing any antitrust concerns. It is precisely that fact why this deal must never be approved. Comcast has been free to compete anywhere Time Warner provides service, but has never done so. Letting Comcast, which has even worse approval ratings than Time Warner, become the only choice for cable broadband is hardly in the public interest and does nothing for competition. Instead, it only further consolidates the marketplace into a handful of giant companies that can raise prices and cap usage without restraint.

If Mr. Balto truly believes AT&T and Verizon will ride to the rescue with robust wireless broadband competition, his credibility is in peril. Those two companies, among others, are completely incapable of meeting the growing broadband demands (20-50GB) of the home user. With punishing high prices and staggeringly low usage caps, providers are both controlling demand and profiting handsomely from rationing service at the same time. Why change that?

No 3G/4G network under current ordinary traffic loads can honestly deliver a better online experience than DSL, and customers who attempt to replace their home broadband connection in favor of wireless will likely receive a punishing bill for the attempt at the end of the month. The only players who want to count mobile broadband as a serious competitor in the home broadband market are the cable and phone companies desperately looking for a defense against charges they have a broadband monopoly or are part of a comfortable duopoly.

One last point, while Mr. Balto seems impressed that Comcast would continue to voluntarily abide by the Net Neutrality policies he personally opposes, he conveniently omits the fact Comcast was the country’s biggest violator of Net Neutrality when it speed limited peer-to-peer traffic, successfully sued the government over Net Neutrality after it was fined by the FCC for the aforementioned violation, and only agreed to temporarily observe Net Neutrality as part of its colossal merger deal with NBCUniversal. It’s akin to a mugger promising to never commit another crime after being caught red-handed stealing. A commitment like that might be good enough for Mr. Balto, but it isn’t for us.

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Not Only Was Comcast’s Customer Retentions Guy Annoying, He Was Also Factually Wrong

astound-broadband-logoNearly two million people have listened to the Comcast customer service call from hell since it went viral earlier this week.

Comcast quickly decided it was best to apologize:

We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and Ms. Belmont and are contacting them to personally apologize. The way in which our representative communicated with them is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives. We are investigating this situation and will take quick action. While the overwhelming majority of our employees work very hard to do the right thing every day, we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with the utmost respect.

csrSetting aside all that, we decided to investigate why Mr. Block was willing to subject himself to 18 minutes of phone hell to cancel his service.

At one point, we learn he is switching to Astound, a provider of cable TV, broadband internet, and telephone services on the West Coast, serving over 325,000 residential and business customers within communities in the San Francisco Bay area. Astound is an overbuilder, which means it is one of those rare instances where Comcast faces head to head competition with a company that can deliver more than DSL.

Although Comcast’s rep swore Comcast had the fastest Internet speeds (it doesn’t) and can deliver maximum savings (also wrong), it turns out Astound offers both cheaper and faster Internet service. We’d probably switch too, although we wish Astound would dump its 1TB monthly usage cap. How many customers even come close to that isn’t known, but it is likely under 1%, which makes us wonder why they bother with a cap at all?

We collected pricing information from both Astound and Comcast’s websites and here is what we found:

Stop the Cap! will include this incident in our formal filings with the FCC and New York State Public Service Commission in opposition to the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast. Comcast customers tell us Mr. Block’s experiences, although extreme, are not uncommon when dealing with Comcast’s customer retention department.

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Here’s How to Tell the N.Y. Public Service Commission to Reject the Comcast/TWC Merger

ny pscThe New York Public Service Commission needs to hear from you about the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. Unlike some of the southern and midwestern states that have utility commissions that basically rubber stamp the agenda of Big Telecom companies, New York’s PSC has a reputation for being tougher and more customer-oriented. But the PSC cannot act in your interest if you don’t share your views.

It is incredibly easy to file your own comments with the PSC. Nearly 2,300 New Yorkers have done so thus far, but we need to make sure they understand our serious objections to Comcast’s usage caps, its expensive service, and customer abuse.

We have provided a sample letter below. We hope you will write your own, but offer ours as a guide that includes some of our biggest concerns. We may prepare another one soon outlining other concerns.

How to file your comment:

  • E-Mail: [email protected]
  • Mail: Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary, Public Service Commission, Three Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York 12223-1350.
  • Phone: 1-800-335-2120 (press “1″ to leave a recorded comment)

All comments should refer to “Case 14-M-0183, Petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc.”

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

Re: Case 14-M-0183, Petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc.

Dear Ms. Burgess,

I am writing to ask the Public Service Commission to reject the merger proposal of Comcast and Time Warner Cable on the ground the companies have failed to show such a merger would be in the best interests of New York and its residents.

Although Time Warner Cable has never been a prize, Comcast’s reputation for bad service, high prices, rationed Internet access, and customer abuse is well documented in just about every community the company serves. Comcast has repeatedly been voted the “Worst Company in America” by Consumer Union’s Consumerist.com. The American Consumer Satisfaction Index has documented so many complaints about Comcast, it declared it the worst company it has ever scored, performing even worse than the Internal Revenue Service. For more than three years running, Harris Interactive has called Comcast one of the least reputable companies in America.

That alone should be enough to reject this merger out of hand. Permitting it would reward this company’s appalling behavior towards its own customers and expose New Yorkers to an even bigger monopoly problem than we deal with now. Unless you live in a Verizon FiOS service area, cable is your only real choice for true broadband speeds. DSL is rapidly losing favor and market share and Verizon has shown no interest in expanding it.

Comcast already uses its market power to its advantage by raising prices… a lot. Time Warner Cable charges less for its services than Comcast does.

For example, Time Warner Cable offers a standard television service package that provides all the popular cable networks for one price. Comcast offers a similar package but stripped out cable networks including Cloo, CNBC World, Al Jazeera America, Discovery Fit & Health, Disney XD, DIY, a range of ESPN’s extra networks, EWTN, Fine Living, Fox Business News, Great American Country, IFC, Investigation Discovery, Lifetime Real Women, Military Channel, MLB, most of MTV’s extra networks, NBA, National Geographic Channel, NFL Network, NHL Network, most of Nickelodeon’s extra networks, OWN, Oxygen, Sundance, Turner Classic Movies, The Science Channel, and VH1′s extra networks.

Customers who want these networks, like Turner Classic Movies, National Geographic, and IFC will have to pay a stunning price of up to $86 a month — just for television. Many of these networks are especially popular with fixed income older residents, who will now face an even larger cable TV bill.

Comcast promotes the fact its Internet speeds are faster than Time Warner Cable, but that is not true as Time Warner Maxx upgrades arrive. Comcast Internet service costs more, is slower, and increasingly usage-capped. Time Warner Cable has made clear it will not limit customers’ Internet usage. Comcast has made clear it will, predicting usage limits/usage-based pricing will be imposed on customers across its entire footprint within five years. That is no improvement for New York. That is literally a downgrade. We can do better in New York with Time Warner Cable.

In fact, the company has promised extremely little to New York after winning your approval to merge. Comcast is so arrogant, it already announced it will not share any cost savings with customers, promising even higher cable bills for New York with the merger. Even its touted X1 set top system will cost New Yorkers — it comes with a steep installation price of almost $100. Again, how does this serve the public interest?

Comcast’s public service programs are also woefully inadequate. Its Internet Essentials is a bureaucratic nightmare that only provides temporary discounts to a small percentage of customers (with school age children) who need an affordable Internet option. I guess childless couples and the elderly poor don’t matter. Time Warner Cable offers a $14.99 discount program available to anyone who wants it, no paperwork or waiting periods required.

It is my understanding Comcast must prove this merger is in the public interest to win your approval. It has utterly failed to do so, and I expect my state’s Public Service Commission to reject this merger. This is one deal that can never be modified sufficiently to make it acceptable for people like myself. You are doing us no favors trying to negotiate for an Internet discount program or expanding Comcast’s service area by a small amount in rural upstate New York. The end result is that millions of New Yorkers will get worse service than we get today, at a higher price, with little/no competition on the horizon.

This is a rare opportunity for our state, which lost most of its oversight powers over the cable industry years ago. Cable operators have abused their deregulated status and have raised prices, provided dreadful customer service, and have kept competition away. Letting Comcast into New York from Buffalo to the Bronx will only encourage more abuse, wreaking havoc on New York’s growing digital economy. Let’s send a clear message to Comcast New York isn’t willing to put our broadband future in the hands of “the worst company in America.” Let’s make it clear enough is enough.

Sincerely,

 

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Sun Valley Conference Could Spark More Giant Merger Deals; Murdoch, Verizon Sniffing Around

Phillip Dampier July 8, 2014 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Verizon, Video No Comments
big fish

All of these media and content companies may be up for grabs.

Could Rupert Murdoch become the next owner of CNN? Will Verizon consider buying out the owner of more than a dozen cable networks, or the Walt Disney Company, owner of ABC?

Since 1983, media moguls have assembled annually in posh Sun Valley, Idaho to talk business. But never have they met while several huge consolidation and merger deals are on the table among their colleagues. Comcast acquiring Time Warner Cable and AT&T buying out DirecTV are both seen as game-changers among Wall Street bankers and the media elite, leaving many self-consciously pondering whether they are no longer big enough to stay competitive in a consolidated media world.

The Wall Street Journal and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution both report that at least one huge merger deal could emerge as a result of this week’s conference. Among the most likely buyers is FOX CEO Rupert Murdoch, who is reportedly looking to buy a major content company.

The most likely target is Time Warner (Entertainment), former owner of Time Warner Cable. After spinning off its money-losing magazine unit, TW has become much more focused on content and distribution – exactly what Murdoch is looking for. Time Warner owns New Line Cinema, HBO, Turner Broadcasting System, The CW Television Network, Warner Bros., Kids’ WB, Cartoon Network, Boomerang, Adult Swim, CNN, DC Comics, Warner Bros. Animation, Cartoon Network Studios, Hanna-Barbera, MLB Network and Castle Rock Entertainment. In fact, altogether the company owns or controls dozens of television channels which could all soon fall into the hands of Murdoch.

A Murdoch acquisition would be the last death-blow for Ted Turner’s Turner Broadcasting System, which launched CNN, TBS, and TNT and is now a division within Time Warner. Murdoch’s Fox News Channel was launched as a conservative alternative to CNN’s perceived left-leaning reporting. A Murdoch buyout would either deliver bipartisan profits to the media mogul or allow him to shut down the network or relaunch it under the Fox News brand.

Such an acquisition would not be cheap. Time Warner is worth as estimated $62 billion.

A Murdoch buyout would be especially troublesome for those already upset with corporate media consolidation. Murdoch would end up controlling three major U.S. networks – FOX, CW, and MyNetworkTV, multiple cable news channels, dozens of local television stations in major media markets, and more cable networks than most people can count. In fact, the assembled list of Murdoch-owned media properties is enormous:

Murdoch: The next owner of CNN?

Murdoch: The next owner of CNN?

Adult Swim, Boomerang, Cartoon Network, CNN Worldwide, HLN, Inside CNN Tour & Store, TBS, TCM, TheSmokingGun.com, TNT, truTV, Turner Sports, Fox Business Network, Fox News, Star India, YES Network, Twentieth Century Fox, Fox 2000 Pictures, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Fox International Productions, Twentieth Century Fox Television, Fox Home Entertainment, Shine Group, Twentieth Century Fox Animation, The Sun, The Times, The Sunday Times, Times Literary Supplement, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, The Australian, The Daily Telegraph (Australia), The Sunday Telegraph (Australia), The Herald Sun, The Sunday Herald Sun, The Courier Mail, The Sunday Mail, The Advertiser, NT News, The Sunday Territorian, The Sunday Times (Australia), The Sunday Tasmanian, Mercury, Warner Bros. Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures International, New Line Cinema, Warner Home Video, Warner Bros. Advanced Digital Services, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Warner Bros. Technical Operations, Warner Bros. Anti-Piracy Operations, Warner Bros. Television Group, Warner Bros. Television, Telepictures Productions, Warner Horizon Television, Warner Bros. Animation, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, Warner Bros. International Television Distribution, Warner Bros. International Television Production, Warner Bros. International Branded Services, Studio 2.0, The CW Television Network, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, HarperCollins General Books Group, HarperCollins Children’s Books Group, HarperCollins Christian Publishers, HarperCollins UK, HarperCollins Canada, HarperCollins Australia/New Zealand, HarperCollins India, FX, FXX, FXM, National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo WILD, Nat Geo Mundo, FSN, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports 2, FOX Soccer Plus, FOX College Sports, FOX Deportes, FOX Life, Baby TV, Fox Broadcasting Company, Sky 1, Sky Atlantic, Sky Living, Sky Arts, Sky Sports, Sky Movies, Sky News, Sky Deutschland, Sky Italia, MyNetworkTV, MundoFox, FOX International Channels, Fox Sports Enterprises, HBO, HBO On Demand, HBO GO, Cinemax, Cinemax on Demand, MAX GO, HBO2, HBO Signature, HBO Family, HBO Comedy, HBO Zone, HBO Latino, More Max, Action Max, Thriller Max, 5 Star Max, Max Latino, Outer Max, Movie Max, Barron’s, MarketWatch, Factiva, Dow Jones Risk & Compliance, Dow Jones VentureSource, All Things Digital, Amplify, News America Marketing, and Storyful.

Murdoch has already shown a willingness to spend big. He has recently taken an ownership interest in the up and coming Vice Media, popular with the under 30-viewing crowd. He also spent $415 million to buy romance novel publisher Harlequin Enterprises.

But Murdoch may not be the only one shopping for a deal. The Wall Street Journal offered a shopping list:

  • Small cable network owners: Nobody just owns three or four cable networks these days. Content conglomerates like CBS, Disney, Time Warner and Comcast own 15, 30, or even 40 different channels. Smaller players are ripe for the picking. Chief among them include Scripps Networks Interactive (Food Network, HGTV), AMC Networks (AMC, IFC, Sundance), and Crown Media (Hallmark).
  • Small studios: Owning a small Hollywood studio is quaint, but Wall Street investment bankers think the time is long past to sell out to larger corporate entities who can better leverage distribution of their releases, easy enough if you own your own theater chain, pay cable network, broadcast stations, and basic cable outlets.
Both phone companies are attending Sun Valley for the first time.

Both phone companies are attending Sun Valley for the first time.

In addition to buyout offers from the largest networks around, Discovery Networks is also in the mood to grow larger at the urging of its board of directors, which includes Dr. John Malone, CEO of Liberty Global. Malone is behind much of the cheerleading to consolidate the cable industry and helped spark the Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal when his partly owned Charter Communications sought a takeover of Time Warner Cable itself.

Wall Street bankers love even better the idea of selling Discovery to a new owner – Disney.

For the first time, phone companies AT&T and Verizon are also in attendance at Sun Valley, and analysts don’t believe the CEOs are there for summer vacation.

Jimmy Schaeffler, chairman of media and telecom consulting firm Carmel Group, says Verizon has been most lacking in the content ownership department and “needs something else right now” as rivals bulk up. AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV only underlines that sentiment among many Wall Street analysts who think Time Warner (Entertainment) could be an option if Verizon isn’t outbid by Murdoch.

All of this shopping has caused alarm for some, including CNN’s media reporter Brian Stelter who declared, “I will eat my remote control … in fact, I will eat my copy of the New York Post … if Murdoch becomes the owner of CNN.” 

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ Digits Media Consolidation 7-7-14.flv

The Wall Street Journal’s ‘Digits’ explores the ongoing consolidation of media creators and distributors. This year’s media conference in Sun Valley could spark more merger deals. (5:02)

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Antitrust Us: Is ComVerizablAsT&TWCDirecTV Really Best for American Broadband?

Bad enough

Bad enough

A big company needs a big name, and so what if you can’t say it out loud, so long as your check reaches the cable cartel on time to avoid those inconvenient late fees.

The shock waves of the $45 billion dollar proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable (not to mention AT&T and DirecTV) have reached as far as Great Britain where appalled editorial writers in the British press are pondering whether Washington has lost its mind or just its integrity… or a combination of both, by actually contemplating the unthinkable rebirth of the American Robber Baron.

Only instead of railroads powering America’s early 20th century economy, today its broadband. Overseas, broadband is plentiful, fast, and cheap. Back home, cable operators are hard at work in a comfortable monopoly/duopoly working on excuses to justify Internet rationing with usage caps, outrageous equipment rental fees, rate hikes, and usage billing for a product about as cheap to offer as a phone call on one of those unlimited calling plans you probably already have.

From The Economist:

“On “OUTLAW”, a drama that aired on NBC, a Supreme Court justice leaves the bench to join a law firm. In real life he might have begun working for Comcast, America’s largest cable company, which owns NBC. Many of Washington’s top brass are on Comcast’s payroll, including Margaret Attwell Baker, a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), America’s telecoms regulator, who in government had helped approve Comcast’s takeover of NBCUniversal in 2011. Even Barack Obama has Comcast ties. “I have been here so much, the only thing I haven’t done in this house is have seder dinner,” he quipped at a fundraiser hosted last year at the home of David Cohen, Comcast’s chief lobbyist.

“It helps to have influential friends, especially if you are seeking to expand your grip on America’s pay-TV and broadband markets.

“[...] The deal would create a Goliath far more fearsome than the latest ride at the Universal Studios theme park (also Comcast-owned). Comcast has said it would forfeit 3m subscribers, but even with that concession the combination of the two firms would have around 30m—more than 30% of all TV subscribers and around 33% of broadband customers. In the cable market alone (ie, not counting suppliers of satellite services such as DirecTV), Comcast has as much as 55% of all TV and broadband subscribers.

Worse

Worse

“Comcast will argue that its share of customers in any individual market is not increasing. That is true only because cable companies decided years ago not to compete head-to-head, and divided the country among themselves. More than three-quarters of households have no choice other than their local cable monopoly for high-speed, high-capacity internet.

“For consumers the deal would mean the union of two companies that are already reviled for their poor customer service and high prices. Greater size will fix neither problem. Mr Cohen has said, “We’re certainly not promising that customer bills are going to go down or even that they’re going to increase less rapidly.” Between 1995 and 2012 the average price of a cable subscription increased at a compound annual rate of more than 6%.”

Before blaming it all on President Obama’s close relationship with Comcast’s top executives, it was the Republicans in Washington that set this tragic monopolistic farce into motion. Michael Powell, President George W. Bush’s idea of the best man in America to protect the public interest at the FCC, represented the American people about as well as ‘Heckuva Job Brownie.’ Instead of promoting competition, Powell used his time to beef-up his résumé for a very cushy post-government job heading America’s top cable lobby – the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. Attwell-Baker was even more shameless, departing the FCC for her sweet new executive digs at Comcast just a short time after enthusiastically voting in favor of its NBCUniversal merger deal.

snakePowell and others made certain that Internet Service Providers would not be classified as “common carriers,” which would require them to rent their broadband pipes at a reasonable wholesale rate to competitors. The industry and their well-compensated friends in the House and Senate argued such a status would destroy investment in broadband expansion and innovation. Instead it destroyed the family budget as prices for mediocre service in uncompetitive markets soared. Today, consumers in common carrier countries including France and Britain pay a fraction of what Americans do for Internet access, and get faster speeds as well.

Letting Comcast grow even larger, The Economist argues, will allow one company to dominate not just your Internet experience, but also the content consumers access and at what speed.

“There is plenty for Mr Obama and Mr Cohen to discuss at their next dinner,” concludes the magazine. “But better yet, officials could keep their distance from Comcast, and reject a merger that would reduce competition, provide no benefit to consumers and sap the incentive to innovate.”

Considering the enormous sums of money Comcast has shown a willingness to spend on winning over supporters for its business agenda, restraint on the part of Washington will need voter vigilance, much the same way calling out non-profits who gush over Comcast while quietly cashing their contribution checks must also be fully exposed to regulators who will ultimately decide the fate of the merger.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Antitrust Us.mp4

Antitrust Us: Cartoonist Mark Fiore takes on the corporate idea that merging cable companies together creates more competition. (1:50)

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