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Cable Industry’s Profitable Money Party Under Threat As Net Neutrality, FCC Oversight Looms

Moffett

Moffett

Nearly 20 years after the 1996 Telecom Act deregulated much of the cable industry, the renewed threat of increased consumer protection and oversight by the Federal Communications Commission and the dwindling chance regulators will approve the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable has increased pessimism about guaranteed high cable industry profits on Wall Street.

Craig Moffett, senior analyst at MoffettNathanson has departed from his usual optimism about the prospects of cable industry stocks and downgraded Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications this morning to “neutral,” suggesting the Title II reclassification of broadband could eventually lead to FCC mandated price cuts on broadband after the agency finalizes Net Neutrality regulations.

The cable industry had maintained high hopes for the Republican majority in Congress to trample Net Neutrality and allow the cable industry to continue boosting rates and introducing other pricing schemes including usage-based billing, but Moffett has grown increasingly convinced Republicans cannot override President Obama’s veto power if Congress attempts to change or end FCC oversight over the broadband business.

The cable industry has grown increasingly panicked over a new spirit of activism inside the FCC, particularly after FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler began asserting their “worst-case scenarios” for broadband speed and Net Neutrality. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association has warned Net Neutrality and Title II would stifle innovation. But Moffett fears it will more likely stifle profits.

money“It would be naïve to suggest that the implication of Title II, particularly when viewed in the context of the FCC’s repeated findings that the broadband market is non-competitive, doesn’t introduce a real risk of price regulation,” Moffett wrote. “Not tomorrow, of course, so yes, near term numbers won’t change. But terminal growth rate assumptions need to be lowered. Multiples will have to come down.”

Moffett, who had been optimistic about the likely approval of the merger deal between Comcast and Time Warner Cable is much less so today.

His earlier 70-30 odds in favor of the merger are now down to 60-40. The headwind of negative press and the reclassification of broadband to a minimum speed of 25Mbps poses considerable risk the deal will be ruled anti-competitive.

Moffett claims the cable industry was also banking on jacking up prices for Internet access, already a very profitable service, to cover reduced profits from cable television. But now the FCC will be watching.

“In the past, changes to broadband pricing would have been the natural remedy,” Moffett said. “That avenue may be no longer open.”

Enjoy Better: Maine Lawmakers Slumming in the Off-Season at Maine Resort, Sponsored by Time Warner Cable

inn by the sea

Welcome to Inn by the Sea, where relaxed coastal luxury comes naturally.

Come for the unpretentious elegance, but don’t stay for the broadband.

Time Warner Cable’s war on competitive broadband in the state of Maine tastes delicious, if you are a lawmaker who enjoys a $26 herb marinated skirt steak with roasted mushrooms, chimichurri, piquillo aioli, and herbed hand cut steak fries in the dining room of the Cape Elizabeth seaside resort Inn by the Sea. Time Warner Cable (and you) picked up the tab, and for those lawmakers too full to drive, the cable company was ready with complimentary rooms at the Inn that retail off-season for $205-355 a night.

twcWelcome to the 2015 Time Warner Cable Winter Policy Conference, held Jan 22-23 at the remodeled resort and spa where a stay during the summer can cost $500 a day.

Thursday night’s dinner was followed by an all-day information lobbying event Friday — a workday when Maine lawmakers would normally be expected to serve the public interest, but served Time Warner Cable’s instead.

The overall theme of the conference: Defending Time Warner Cable’s performance in Maine and why letting community-owned providers compete with them is a really bad idea.

While lawmakers enjoyed complimentary access to the Inn by Sea’s high-speed Wi-Fi connection, Internet service around the rest of Cape Elizabeth is considerably less sublime, with Angie’s List reporting only 23 percent of the locals consider their broadband provider reliable. Maine itself is ranked 49th out of 50 states for quality of service and availability and no steak dinner will convince honest lawmakers the state is prepared with robust broadband required for the 21st century digital economy. Several members have introduced various measures to aid communities trying to move beyond DSL provided by FairPoint Communications and up to 50Mbps broadband from Time Warner Cable.

SWFIMG_080723_15590228_5EG1FThe thought of competition is enough to give any cable lobbyist indigestion, especially if the new entrant provides fiber to the home service, something almost unknown among commercial providers in Maine.

Lawmakers caught attending the shindig claimed they attended the “educational forum” to become informed.

But a review of the presenter list suggests this was hardly a 60 Minutes/Edward R. Murrow moment. Lawmakers may not have been aware the presentations were about as balanced as a program length commercial:

  • Moderator (Session 1): Jadz Janucik, National Cable & Telecommunication Association – The NCTA is the nation’s largest cable industry lobbying group;
  • Dave Thomas, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP: A corporate attorney representing cable companies, particularly when they face competitive threats;
  • Lisa Schoenthaler, National Cable & Telecommunication Association;
  • Moderator (Session 2): Charlie Williams, Time Warner Cable;
  • Charles Davidson and Michael Santorelli from the Advanced Communications Law and Policy Institute at New York Law School. Both have received direct compensation from Time Warner Cable for their  “research” reports and are very active and frequent defenders of Time Warner Cable’s public policy agenda;
  • Joe Gillan, Gillan Associates – an economist working under paid contract with the cable industry;
  • Moderator (Session 3): Tom Federle, Federle Law: Chief lobbyist for Time Warner Cable in Maine for over seven years;
  • Robin Casey, Enockever LLP: Casey is one of the nation’s pre-eminent cable industry lawyers, called by the Texas Cable Association “the authority on the telecom industry;”
  • Mary Ellen Fitzgerald, Critical Insights: A Maine pollster hired by Time Warner Cable to carry out the company’s carefully worded survey on broadband issues;
  • Moderator (Session 5): Melinda Poore, senior vice president of governmental relations, Time Warner Cable Maine.

spa lobby“If we want good public policy, there’s reason for all of us to be worried,” utilities expert Gordon Weil, the state’s first Public Advocate, who represented the interests of ratepayers before regulators, told the Maine Center for Public Integrity. Such treatment of legislators is “obviously intended to persuade them by more than the validity of the arguments; it’s intended to persuade by the reception they’re given.”

That sentiment was echoed in a glowing review from a Time Warner colleague given to Tom Federle, the company’s top lobbyist.

“Tom has been the primary lobbyist for Time Warner Cable’s Maine operations for the past seven years,” said Melinda Poole, an executive vice president for governmental relations at Time Warner Cable. “He has a real knack for distilling complex issues for policy makers, has always been able to advance our positions effectively, and consistently has outperformed for us. Tom is well respected by legislators on both sides of the aisle.”

Lawmakers contacted by the Maine Center for Public Integrity seemed to sidestep or downplay the ethical issues of attending the company-sponsored event.

“I think this idea of meals and conversations is how Augusta functions on some level,” said Rep. Mark Dion (D-Portland), who attended the event in Cape Elizabeth, did not stay overnight but was provided dinner and breakfast by Time Warner.

Sen. Andre Cushing (R-Hampden), for whom Time Warner paid the cost of meals and the room, said he thought “about a dozen” legislators attended the Thursday night dinner. Dion said “30 or 35″ attended the second day’s sessions.

Partying-ExecsScott Pryzwansky, Time Warner Cable’s director of public relations for the eastern U.S., declined to answer any specific questions but replied by email: “As one of Maine’s leading employers and telecommunications companies, we designed this second biannual educational forum to help policymakers and others better understand some of the complex telecommunications issues confronting Maine and the nation.”

Critics contend such “educational” meetings held at posh locations where company lobbyists hand out free meals and room keys do more to obfuscate than clarify issues for lawmakers, who are likely to remember the accommodations and who provided them more than the seminar.

“I would have said, ‘Fine, if you want to meet with me, come meet on state facilities, no steak dinner,’ said Weil. “If steak dinners didn’t work, they wouldn’t give them steak dinners.”

Time Warner Cable’s two-day event included a packet of handouts, obtained by Stop the Cap!, that illustrate exactly how one-sided the affair was:

  • sock puppetA highly slanted (refuted here) presentation opposing “Government Operated Networks” (or GONs – a favorite acronym used by industry-funded think tanks to oppose municipal broadband) produced by the Advanced Communications Law and Policy Institute;
  • an NCTA-produced sheet opposing taxes on Internet access;
  • a Time Warner Cable-written summary of recent Maine Public Utility Commission conclusions about the availability of affordable telephone service;
  • a guest letter to the editor from Fred Campbell, who has a long history running industry-funded groups that are supposed to advocate for competition, except when an industry friend’s merger deal is on the line;
  • and a blog post from the Koch Brothers-funded corporate-friendly Reason.com.

The slanted push-poll part of the presentation was also unsurprisingly predictable.

“Do you approve or disapprove of the current practice of Maine’s government using tax dollars and fees on consumers to subsidize public entities to compete with private businesses?” asked one question.

Another asked if residents would favor “using taxpayer supported debt to build government-owned broadband networks,” ignoring the fact many projects are covered by bonds that carry little or no risk to taxpayers. Some profitable projects could even return money to local communities.

At least one lawmaker was quickly skeptical of the veracity of the company-sponsored poll.

State Rep. Sarah Gideon (D- Freeport) said some of the questions were “leading.”

“Nobody’s going to say ‘Yes, I want my state to incur debt,’” said Gideon. “We see lots of surveys as policymakers and we have to be smart enough to look at what questions are asked.”

Since 2008, Time Warner has donated more than $240,000 to Maine politicians: $127,360 to Democrats and Democratic PACs, and $113,250 to Republicans and Republican PACs. Most of the minor improvements in the state’s broadband rankings since 2013 come from community providers providing a quantum speed leap over traditional DSL and cable broadband services most Maine residents receive.

Philadelphia Daily News Columnist Helps Beleaguered Comcast Customers by Calling CEO’s Mom

momcast

Image from the Philadelphia Daily News

Comcast customers in Philadelphia, home to Comcast’s world headquarters, get no better treatment from the cable company than anyone else. But customers in the city of Brotherly Love now at least have a small edge on the rest of America.

A Philadelphia Daily News columnist just so happens to have the direct phone number of Comcast CEO’s 92-year old mom and is willing to use it.

“I grew up in a neighborhood where even the really bad kids could be brought back in line when someone tattled on them to their moms,” wrote columnist Ronnie Polaneczky. “That’s why I picked up the phone and called the 92-year-old mother of Comcast Corporation’s chairman and CEO Brian Roberts. We all know that Roberts’ company has been very, very bad. Comcast is in the news every other day with another irate customer’s tale of horrible treatment from the behemoth cable provider.”

Polaneczky decided to use the nuclear option after reading an email sent by Diana and Jason Airoldi, recent Philly transplants from Washington, D.C. The Airoldi’s had an appointment with Comcast to install service Dec. 23. It was now Feb. 1 and after multiple broken promises they were still waiting.

“In almost the same amount of time it took Noah to float the Ark, the country’s biggest cable company and home Internet-service provider hasn’t been able to turn on the Internet and cable in the Airoldis humble South Street apartment,” the columnist noted.

But they were by no means alone. There were also sad stories from:

  • Sandy and Charles Arnold, who have tried since Dec. 14 to get Comcast cable and Internet at their Ocean City home;
  • Bridie Gallagher, a senior citizen who has tried for months to get the overcharge on her bill fixed;
  • And Christine Yelovich, whose odyssey into the Comcast’s multiple circles of service hell should only be told with a horror-movie soundtrack playing behind it.

Answer: Call Mama

Suzanne Roberts, the 92-year old mother of Brian, accomplished more for the Airoldi family in one day than the entire Comcast juggernaut could manage in more than a month. By day’s end, the Comcast trucks descended on the neighborhood and the family was finally connected.

Unfortunately, Comcast does not offer 1-800-SUZANNE for beleaguered customers, who have developed a seething dislike for the cable company. One horror story after another, accompanied by news of PR disasters that routinely spread across the country faster than measles all testify to Comcast’s bottom of the barrel customer ranking as among the most hated companies in America.

comcast service cartoonEven PR damage control marketing experts now consider Comcast hopeless.

“The stories that come out about them are just unbelievable in terms of the torture – not just bad service, but torture – they inflict on customers,” said Chris Malone, managing partner of Fidelum Partners in Newtown Square, a specialist in fixing the reputations of companies that shoot themselves in the proverbial foot. “I feel quite confident that if their services were offered more broadly, their ranking would be much lower.”

Malone told Polaneczky the reason more Americans hate Comcast than BP — the company that threatened the Gulf of Mexico’s entire ecosystem after recklessly allowing more than 200 million gallons of oil to spill and stain the beaches from Louisiana to Florida — is the cable company’s relentless greed.

‘At the root of Comcast’s problem,’ Malone says, is that ‘the company is focused on maximizing financial benefits at the expense of its customers and employees,’ who know that “the company does not have their best interests in mind.”

Even Comcast’s new customer service czar, Charlie Herrin — head of “customer experience,” hired to “ensure that we are delighting our customers at each touch point,” has waved the white flag, seemingly admitting the company is an unmitigated mess.

Despite annual commitments from Comcast management starting in 2007 that Comcast was “redoubling” its efforts at improving customer service, the pesky fact that twice nothing is still nothing left Herrin sheepishly lowering expectations:

“In fact,” Herrin said, “it may take a few years before we can honestly say that a great customer experience is something we’re known for.”

A few years?

polaneczky1

Polaneczky

These facts should be penetrating the offices of every state and federal regulator contemplating the public interest benefits of approving a merger deal between Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Sweeping aside the Comcast-ghostwritten letters non-profit, civil rights, and political groups have sent to regulators (while running to the bank to cash Comcast’s checks), the columnist for the Daily News is scratching his head pondering why anyone would even think of letting the bad become bigger to get even worse.

“If Comcast is badly serving so many customers now, why should it be allowed the opportunity to badly serve millions more?,” she asked. “After my column ran, I got a call from Jeff Alexander, the regional spokesman for Comcast’s local operations. He apologized for what had happened to the Airoldis and invited me to visit some of Comcast’s shiny new retail stores, where customers can pay bills, return cable boxes and such. ‘Sure,’ I said, to be agreeable. But honestly, who cares?”

The most useful thing Polaneczky got from Alexander was his direct e-mail address with an invitation to forward complaints to his personal attention to resolve. So why not use it?

“Email me ([email protected]) about your Comcast problems,” Polaneczky wrote. “Detail the ways the company has been torturing you, and I will pass your stories along to Alexander, who seems like a very nice man. I can’t guarantee results. Lord knows your complaints have been cheerfully heard then ignored before. But I can promise that if Alexander doesn’t resolve your problems, I’m calling Mama Roberts again. I have her number on speed-dial.”

Perhaps Mama should come out of retirement and take on the job Perrin seems be ready to quit. It probably wouldn’t take “years” to see improvements if the CEO’s mom carried a big stick around Comcast’s Philadelphia headquarters. She should start in her son’s executive suite.

When Fiber Competition Arrives, Time Warner Cable Slashes Prices As Customers Call to Cancel

david-and-goliathThe day had finally arrived. After months watching construction crews work their way towards the house she and her boyfriend rent in Rochester, N.Y., Brenda Ververs called Time Warner Cable to cancel service. She thought it would take five minutes to dispense with a barely-tolerated relationship she has maintained with the cable company for nearly 20 years. Instead, she got a retention offer too good to dismiss out of hand.

Greenlight Networks, an East Rochester-based fiber overbuilder has been slowly expanding its footprint into a handful of neighborhoods in Rochester and its suburbs, providing 100/20Mbps service for $50 or 1,000/100Mbps for $250 a month. But only a fraction of area residents have heard of the company and even fewer qualify to sign up for their service.

“When the neighbors first saw their construction crews and we found out it was a company called Greenlight, we thought they were there to install red light traffic enforcement cameras,” Ververs said.

Greenlight uses a similar approach to Google Fiber, informally recruiting “fiberhoods” of potential customers. Once enough interest is shown, the company schedules fiber construction in the neighborhood.

But the process remains largely a mystery to many, because unlike Google, Greenlight does not update its website with neighborhood rankings or a detailed service map.

Time Warner Cable, Greenlight’s chief competitor, is well-aware of its fiber competition but considers it too minor to warrant any attention, at least until customers like Ververs call to cancel service.

Time Warner Cable’s national customer retention centers often confuse Greenlight Networks in Rochester, N.Y. with Greenlight, the larger municipally owned fiber to the home network in Wilson, N.C.

“They thought I was moving to North Carolina and was canceling service to start a new account down there, but they finally found Rochester’s Greenlight Networks in their system and went into a script about how Time Warner Cable was an established company and Greenlight was basically a fly-by-night operation that could fail any day,” said Ververs.

Other customers have told Stop the Cap! Time Warner alternates between recognizing Greenlight as a legitimate competitor worth their respect and one that cannot be trusted with your business. But the customer retention effort eventually ends up in the same place — offering customers drastic rate cuts to stay with the cable company.

Not what competition fans want to see: Greenlight's "Expansion Plans" web page is blank.

Not what competition fans want to see: Greenlight’s “Expansion Plans” web page is blank.

“They asked me why I would consider switching to Greenlight for $50 for 100Mbps broadband-only service when for $69 they will give me 50/5Mbps service, cable television, and phone service for two years,” Ververs said. “They emphasized it was less than $20 more for all three services from Time Warner vs. $50 for Internet-only service from Greenlight. They even promised a free upgrade to 100Mbps when it arrives in Rochester sometime this year.”

Some departing customers are also being offered modem fee waivers and free extras, like premium movie channels and expanded international free long distance calling.

Greenlight does not charge modem or franchise fees or hidden surcharges like regulatory recovery fees.

Behind the scenes, Time Warner Cable is also making an effort to lock up the most likely places a fiber overbuilder would want to expand service – multi-dwelling units that are less expensive to wire than single family homes.

Cable operators aggressively recruit apartment managers and neighborhood associations to sign contracts that include discounted service for every home, apartment or condo in a complex, usually offered as “included in the rent or neighborhood association fee.” Many contracts of this type give the cable company exclusive access to existing wiring, discouraging would-be competitors by requiring them to pay considerably higher construction costs to independently wire multi-dwelling units.

Readers also tell us Time Warner is offering departing customers the service improvement many wish they had all along, including a commitment to check and rewire customer homes for free if service quality is among the reasons a customer plans to cancel service. Some customers are also offered specialized customer service contact numbers normally available only to premium-class Signature Home customers. Still others are being given substantial bill credits or rebates if they agree to stay with the cable company.

Ververs hates Time Warner Cable service and the constant rate increases, but the $69 retention offer, apparently only available to customers in competitive areas, has kept them from making a final decision to switch to Greenlight.

“Greenlight doesn’t offer a video or telephone package — just broadband, and we cannot ignore the fact we used to pay Time Warner $160 and can now get three services and free HBO for almost $100 less than we were paying, less than $20 a month more than we would pay Greenlight, and Time Warner plans to match Greenlight’s 100Mbps speeds this year,” said Ververs.

Downtown Rochester, N.Y.

Downtown Rochester, N.Y.

But broadband-only customers are less impressed with Time Warner’s retention efforts in a community than has yet to see cable broadband speeds increase beyond 50Mbps.

Stop the Cap! reader Joseph Corriea writes his friend just signed up for Greenlight in the Highland Park area of Rochester and Time Warner immediately countered with an offer of Extreme Internet (30/5Mbps) for $39 a month. The deal breaker may have been the modem fee Time Warner didn’t offer to waive. Corriea’s friend left Time Warner for Greenlight and is happy with their flat $50 a month bill with no hidden gotcha fees.

Corriea wonders exactly how much bandwidth Time Warner Cable is withholding from barely competitive markets like Rochester.

The answer is plenty. Frontier Communications continues to lose an already meager broadband market share in areas of western New York wired for cable. The majority of its DSL customers only qualify for slowband speeds of 12Mbps or less and although the company recently claimed to have spent $9 million on upgrades in the area, many wonder where the money went.

“Frontier is a joke, they have always been a joke, and the only people doing business with them don’t know any better,” said Riga resident David Sobcek. “DSL is a dinosaur and although they claim faster speeds are available, it is very hit or miss to qualify for them and when the weather is bad, it’s a miss even if you did qualify. They locked my speed at a fraction of what they were selling and gave me nothing but excuses. Time Warner Cable has a monopoly for 99% of this area.”

Western New York is not on Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade list for 2015, which boosts speeds up to 300Mbps. Google has intentionally avoided fiber projects in the northeastern United States because Verizon (and its limited deployment of FiOS fiber) dominates the region, and Frontier Communications has no plans to upgrade cities like Rochester to fiber to the neighborhood service similar to AT&T U-verse.

For the foreseeable future, that leaves Rochester with David vs. Goliath competition – a multi-billion dollar cable company vs. a fiber upstart. But with Time Warner Cable carrying more customer dissatisfaction baggage than American Airlines, nobody should count Greenlight Networks out, especially when the biggest complaint about Greenlight is why it is taking so long to expand their service area.

Time Warner Cable Launches Maxx Upgrades in Dallas Metroplex; Launching Metrowide Wi-Fi for Its Customers

twc maxxTime Warner Cable customers in the Dallas Metroplex will soon see broadband speeds rise as high as 300Mbps as the company’s Maxx upgrade project arrives, bringing along a metropolitan-wide Wi-Fi network available at no charge to Time Warner Cable broadband customers.

The first noticeable presence of the Wi-Fi expansion will be found at area businesses as Time Warner recruits commercial broadband customers to host its hotspots. As spring arrives, the company will accelerate the installation of Wi-Fi antennas around the metropolitan region.

Home Maxx upgrades will deliver dramatically faster broadband speeds at no extra charge:

  • Standard 15Mbps service rises to 50/5Mbps;
  • Turbo is boosted from 20Mbps to 100/10Mbps;
  • Extreme increases from 30/5 to 200/20Mbps;
  • Ultimate, formerly 50/5 is increased to 300/20Mbps.

Existing customers will also be able to swap out their existing DVR boxes for a new Arris Enhanced DVR offering six tuners and a 1TB internal drive.

Because the conversion will drop analog channels, Time Warner Cable is offering free Digital Transport Adapters through April 21, 2016, as long as customers order the boxes by Aug 19. Many Time Warner Cable customers may end up avoiding charges for the DTA equipment even after that. Several packages from Time Warner waive the DTA fees.

The official list of metro Dallas locations getting the Maxx upgrade includes:

Addison, Allen, Arlington, Bedford, Carrollton, Cedar Hill, Cockrell Hill, Colleyville, Commerce, Coppell, Dallas, DeSoto, Double Oak, Euless, Farmers Branch, Farmersville, Flower Mound, Frisco, Garland, Grand Prairie, Grapevine, Greenville, Highland Village, Hutchins, Irving, Kennedale, Lancaster, Lewisville, McKinney, Mesquite, Murphy, Pantego, Plano, Princeton, Richardson, Rockwall, Rowlett, Sachse, St. Paul, Sunnyvale, The Colony and Wylie.

Dallas faces imminent competition from AT&T U-verse upgrades.

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