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Time Warner Cable Restoring Service in Parts of SE Texas Nine Years After Hurricane Rita

The Golden Triangle of southeastern Texas encompasses the cities of Orange to the east, Port Arthur to the south, and Beaumont to the west.

The Golden Triangle of southeastern Texas encompasses the cities of Orange to the east, Port Arthur to the south, and Beaumont to the west.

Nine years after Hurricane Rita swamped parts of the Golden Triangle region of southeastern Texas, Time Warner Cable is finally getting around to restoring service to parts of Orange County that haven’t had cable broadband since 2005.

A warm spring has allowed crews to start construction to parts of Orange County affected by the storm that wreaked havoc on the area nearly a month after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Although some properties were severely damaged by the hurricane, other utilities restored service to the area years ago. Time Warner Cable is the last, and it cannot come soon enough for Chelsey Walters.

The Orange, Tex. resident is forced to get usage-capped DSL broadband from AT&T, and her last monthly bill reached over $750.

“Both of my car notes are less than that and even with our Internet you cannot do anything because it drops and there are times when it does not work,” Walters told KBMT-TV in Beaumont. “When we first moved out there, they (Time Warner) came out and ran all the cables in my house, then called us and said – oh we do not service that area.”

The construction schedule for Orange County, Tex.:

  • Hwy. 105 East on Hwy. 62 to Caribou Ln. is forecast to be serviceable by the middle of May
  • From Woodcock St. to Michell Rd. is forecast to be serviceable by the middle of May
  • On Hwy. 62 from S. Meadow Dr. to Egan Dr. is forecast to be serviceable by the middle of May
  • On Tulane Rd. from Hwy. 62 to Burton Dr. is forecast to be serviceable by the middle of June
  • On Tulane Rd. from Burton Dr. to Old Hwy. 90 is scheduled to be on by the middle of June
  • On Old Hwy. 90 from Tulane Rd. to E. Wood Fern St. is forecast to be serviceable by the end of June
  • I-10 west from Med Davis Rd. to N. Lewis Dr. is forecast to be serviceable by the first of July
  • I-10 West from Naquin Rd. to Peru Rd. is forecast to be serviceable by the first of July
  • From Moss Ln. to Hartzog Rd. is forecast to be serviceable by the first of August

California Delays Consideration of Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger, Charter Realignment Until May

comcastbuy_400_241Californians get a reprieve from the menacing Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger with an announcement from the California Public Utilities Commission it is putting further consideration of the merger deal on hold until later this spring.

Consumer groups loudly protested the PUC for holding its single public hearing on the merger in San Francisco, which has been served almost exclusively by Comcast for years. Most of the impact of the merger will be felt in Los Angeles, where Time Warner Cable provides service to around 1.8 million customers. The deal also involves Charter Communications customers in the region, who will also end up as Comcast customers if the deal is approved.

The PUC eventually agreed to hold a meeting in Los Angeles, but then scheduled it for Good Friday. Now it has changed the date for the four-hour public input session to April 14, one day before tax returns are due. No specific information about the time of the meeting could be located on the CPUC website, but we do know it will be held in the auditorium of the Public Utilities Commission’s building at 320 West 4th St. in downtown Los Angeles.

That the CPUC seems to be heading towards approving the deal does not come as much of a surprise. The CPUC has been surprisingly friendly to the communications companies it regulates, in the past approving questionable statewide video franchise reforms on behalf of AT&T and generally permitting most of the merger and consolidation transactions that arrive at the commission for review.

An advising administrative law judge attached a long list of recommended temporary conditions that should be included in any approval, covering everything from lobbying about municipal broadband to discount Internet service for the poor. Although Comcast claims it is willing to accept many of the short-term conditions, it also signaled objections to some of the most significant requirements, a potential sign Comcast might exercise its legal options in the future to be rid of the deal’s most onerous conditions.

Independent consumer groups not financially aligned with the cable industry are almost universally opposed to the merger as are many Californians.

New York Public Service Commission Delays Decision on Comcast-Time Warner Merger for the 7th Time

ny pscNew York regulators have once again kicked the can down the road, delaying a final decision on the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger for the seventh time.

Pursuant to a request from Department of Public Service staff in the above-referenced matter, Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc. agree to extend the time for action by the Public Service Commission on the Joint Petition, with a final order issued no later than Monday, April 20, 2015.

There is no clear sign why the Public Service Commission has further delayed its final decision, but the merger remains mired in controversy on both the state and federal level. The FCC recently stopped the clock on further consideration of the merger as legal wrangling continues over who gets to see copies of cable programming contracts with Comcast.

A draft report from California regulators recommended approval of the merger in February, but only after dozens of conditions were recommended to protect the public and competition. Final consideration of the merger request may come next week at a general meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission.

 

Sorry, That Competing Online Video/Cord-Cutter Competitor is Dead in the Water When Usage Caps Arrive

Phillip "It isn't so dumb to own the pipes" Dampier

Phillip “It isn’t so dumb to own the pipes” Dampier

In 2006, AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre thought his company was at a disadvantage being stuck with “dumb pipes” while Google, Yahoo! (remember them?) and Vonage couldn’t count their earnings fast enough. While AT&T sold consumers plain DSL service, content was king on Wall Street and Whitacre groused it was unfair for bandwidth hogs to use “the pipes for free.” That one statement was the equivalent of throwing a lit match on a hillside in Malibu Canyon and a predictable firestorm over Net Neutrality ensued.

Nine years later, Net Neutrality is now official FCC policy, although the sour grape-eating Republicans will continue to throw Congressional hissyfits along the way. While they rely on tissue-thin evidence to back their assertion the FCC secretly colluded with the Obama Administration to stick it to AT&T and demand its repeal, the future of Net Neutrality will more likely be decided in a courtroom a year or two from now.

Back in 2006 AT&T primarily sold DSL service and was looking for cash to finance its then emerging U-verse platform. AT&T planned to follow cable’s lead, devoting most of the available bandwidth on its fiber to the neighborhood network to cable television programming. Broadband speeds were limited to just under 25Mbps — even less if a large household had multiple television sets in use.

But as the Great Recession arrived and wages stagnated, the cost of what used to be a “must-have” service for most Americans increasingly began to exceed the household budget and the day finally arrived when cable companies started losing more television customers than they were adding. Even worse, cable programming costs continue to spiral upwards and no major cable company can increase cable television rates fast enough to support the usual profit margin the industry counted on.

What Whitacre failed to realize nine years earlier is that broadband providers did not simply own “dumb pipes.” AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, Charter and other providers actually occupy two gilded catbird seats, with AT&T and Verizon dominating the wireless Internet business and Comcast, Time Warner, and Charter dominating at-home viewing and wired broadband. Lawmakers who deregulated both industries predicted pitting AT&T against Comcast or Verizon against Time Warner Cable would create competition not seen since Coke vs. Pepsi. Consumers would benefit and world-class service would result.

Instead, Time Warner Cable now sells Verizon Wireless phone service. Verizon gave up on expanding its FiOS network and is selling off its DSL and FiOS business in pieces to focus on its best moneymaker, Verizon Wireless. Comcast in turn threw in the towel on any notion of offering competing cellular service and, in fact, sold its acquired wireless spectrum to Verizon.

PlayStation Vue's lineup

PlayStation Vue’s lineup

The best way to make money is to avoid price wars with your competitors and the evidence shows there is growing peace in America’s Telecom Valley. Comcast can now raise your broadband bill because, for most, Verizon FiOS isn’t an option. AT&T U-verse does not have to hurry speed upgrades to customers if Time Warner Cable delivers no better than 50/5Mbps service in large parts of its service area. Google Fiber remains a minor threat, only available in a handful of cities. AT&T distributed more copies of its press release touting U-verse Gigapower — its gigabit Internet offering — than there are customers qualified to sign up.

Notice that we’ve drifted away from talking about cable television programming. So has the industry, now increasingly dependent on broadband rate increases to make up the difference in revenue they used to take home from their television packages.

But now that the biggest players have a predictable source of revenue, allowing disruptors to further challenge earnings isn’t something your local cable and phone company will allow for long. At the moment, those most likely to cause problems are the growing number of “over the top” streaming video services that do not require a cable television subscription to watch. But they do need broadband — Whitacre’s “dumb pipes” — to reach subscribers. To manage that, services like Apple, PlayStation Vue and Sling TV and their customers must deal with the gatekeepers — AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon and others.

What Whitacre thought was a disadvantage is now becoming the best thing in the world — manning a toll booth on the only two roads most Americans can use to access online content.

Today, Sony officially launched its Internet-TV service, “PlayStation Vue” in three cities (New York, Chicago and Philadelphia) with a base price of $49.99/month. In includes more than 50 cable networks and in the three launch cities — local network affiliates. In Chicago and Philadelphia, where Comcast provides cable service, potential customers will need to pay $50 a month for Vue and another $64.95 a month for 50Mbps broadband — the least expensive broadband-only tier that is suitable for high quality viewing. Your combined bill for both services is $114.94 a month. Comcast charges $99.99 a month for its double play – 220 TV channels and 50Mbps broadband — almost $15 a month less for its package, and it includes around 150 more channels than Vue.

Comcast explans its new usage caps.

Comcast explains its new usage caps.

But Comcast also has another weapon it is testing is several of its markets — the resumption of usage caps and overlimit fees on its broadband service. Comcast customers in most test markets are given 300GB a month, after which they face overlimit fees of $10 for each additional increment of 50GB. While web browsing and e-mail fit more than comfortably within those caps, watching HD video may not. That leaves a potential Vue customer with a major dilemma. Should they pay $15 a month more for service than they can pay Comcast for a better package -and- chew away their usage allowance using it?

Comcast has yet to figure out how to install a coin collector on top of your television set, so you can watch as much Comcast cable television as you’d like. But watching streaming video could get very expensive if it exceeds a future Comcast usage allowance.

Smaller video packages from providers like Sling TV or the forthcoming Apple streaming service might make more sense, but will still be subject to Comcast’s usage caps if/when they are reintroduced around the country, while Comcast’s own television service will not.

This is why cable and phone companies hold enormous power over their potential competitors, even if Net Neutrality is fiercely enforced. Usage caps and usage-based billing represent an end run around Net Neutrality and both are permitted. The FCC has consistently refused to engage on the issue of broadband usage caps, leaving providers with a useful weapon to deter customers from dropping their television package in favor of an online alternative.

With most Americans having a choice of only one or two “dumb pipes” over which they can reach these services, being an owner of those pipes and getting to set the rates and conditions to use them is a very comfortable (and profitable) place to be.

California Public Utilities Commission Predictably Issues Tentative Approval of Comcast-TWC Merger

cpucWe grant the application of Comcast Corporation (Comcast), Time Warner Cable Inc. (Time Warner), Time Warner Cable Information Services (California), LLC (TWCIS) and Bright House Networks Information Services (California), LLC (Bright House) for approval of the transfer of control of TWCIS and Bright House to Comcast. In addition, we grant the application of Comcast, TWCIS and Charter Fiberlink CA-CCO, LLC (Charter Fiberlink) to transfer a limited number of business customers and associated regulated assets of Charter Fiberlink. — Proposed Decision of California Administrative Law Judge Karl J. Bemesderfer

In a decision widely expected by observers for almost a year, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is poised to conditionally approve the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable with dozens of pages of conditions to appease state politicians, concerned commissioners, and interest groups seeking to protect Californians from the competitive impact of what will easily become the state’s largest cable provider, serving 84% of households.

Administrative Law Judge Karl J. Bemesderfer issued his lengthy “proposed decision” in February, acknowledging the deal’s opponents have proved their contention the merger is not in the interests of Californian consumers, but then recommends approving it anyway:

In more concrete terms, the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner reduces the possibilities for content providers to reach the California broadband market. While the FCC’s pending reworked Net Neutrality rules may mitigate some of this effect, the sheer dominance of Comcast’s post-merger position causes us concern.

Parties have made a convincing showing of the anti-competitive consequences that Comcast’s post-merger market power may have on the deployment of broadband in California, and of anti-competitive harms that would occur in California if the merger is consummated. We are also persuaded by evidence of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program’s weak performance in closing the digital divide in California and fulfilling universal service goals, and thus do not view it as a mitigating factor without additional conditions.

While the protesters and intervenors vigorously assert that we should deny the applications outright, they also urge us, in the alternative, to impose conditions ameliorating the potential harms should we decide that such conditions are within our powers and sufficient to render the resulting transaction not adverse to the public interest.

While we are troubled by the protesters’ and intervenors’ many examples of potential harms that may flow from the merger, we believe that those harms may be mitigated by the imposition of conditions on our approval consistent with our powers under state and federal law.

comcast twcBemesderfer proposes a lengthy list of conditions the cable giant must meet for at least five years after merging, including offering discounted Internet service programs, improve customer service, provide free backup batteries for Comcast phone service, and promise it will stop lobbying against community broadband projects.

But the judge said nothing about Comcast’s runaway rate increases likely in a de facto monopoly environment, its own vice president’s prediction that all Comcast broadband customers will be enrolled in a usage-based billing scheme within five years, and lacks specificity explaining the enforcement measures the CPUC will take against Comcast if it fails to meet the commission’s conditions.

The five-member commission could take up Bemesderfer’s recommendations as early as the end of this month, but is more likely to postpone consideration until later this spring. The commission can adopt, change, or discard Bemesderfer’s recommendations.

Accusations that the CPUC has grown too cozy with the companies it regulates only grew louder after consumer groups complained Bemesderfer bent over backwards trying to get Comcast’s merger deal closer to the concept of “the public interest.” For them, it isn’t nearly close enough.

“To read the recent 100-plus-page decision from the CPUC, you wouldn’t think this proposed merger is good for anyone,” writes Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of Media Alliance, which opposes the deal. “The regulator approved the merger with more than two dozen conditions to mitigate the bad impacts on Californians.”

Rosenberg hints the CPUC is ill-equipped to effectively watch over a multi-billion dollar telecom giant like Comcast. By proposing an ambitious set of requirements the CPUC cannot possibly enforce or defend in court with its current limited budget. Taxpayers may have to dig deep to cover legal bills likely to pile up in Sacramento if Comcast decides to rid itself of CPUC meddling in the courts. Comcast has already announced strenuous objections to at least 20 of the 25 conditions Bemesderfer recommends imposing.

Image courtesy: cobalt123

Comcast to California: Hey, slow down a moment. We don’t like your pre-conditions.

Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin chronicles Comcast’s objections in a convenient clickable format:

The table of contents of Comcast’s 46-page report gives a sense of just how much the cable company disagrees with California’s proposed conditions. Here are the main bullet points as written in Comcast’s argument; we’ve added hyperlinks and additional text in italics to further explain the requirements and Comcast’s objections:

The proposed decision improperly expands the scope of the proceeding beyond the commission’s jurisdiction and authority.

  • The proposed decision would impose sweeping common carrier utility type regulation on the merged entity’s broadband and VoIP services in derogation of federal and state law.
  • Other conditions in the proposed decision exceed the commission’s authority or are otherwise unlawful. [According to Comcast, these conditions include requirements related to Lifeline phone service, diversity, website design standards, backup batteries, video programming, non-interference with competing voice services, buildout requirements, opposition to municipal broadband projects, and privacy complaints.]

The proposed decision adopts intervenors’ [merger opponents] flawed analyses and claims regarding market share and competition.

  • The transaction will not increase market power or reduce consumer choice.
  • The FCC’s new definition of “advanced telecommunications capability” has no relevance to this proceeding. [The Federal Communications Commission recently said that Internet service must provide at least 25Mbps download speeds and 3Mbps upload to qualify as broadband or “advanced telecommunications capability.” That decision increased Comcast’s “broadband” market share to 56 percent nationwide.]
  • Concerns regarding future overbuilding are baseless and unsupported by the record. [The question here is whether Comcast and Time Warner Cable would ever compete against each other directly if they cannot merge.]
  • The transaction presents no risk to edge providers [companies that deliver content and applications over the Internet], the highly competitive internet backbone, or consumers’ access to broadband content.

Other factual findings in the proposed decision are invalid and do not support the suggested conditions.

  • TWC is not a “policy competitor” to Comcast. [The California judge’s proposal said TWC is a “policy competitor” to Comcast because it has different positions and business models. “For example, Time Warner has applied to the Commission to offer Lifeline as a tariffed service, while Comcast has not,” the judge wrote.]
  • Mandatory diversity measures are unnecessary. [Comcast says California’s requirements amount to mandatory race-based quotas that violate state law and the US Constitution.]
  • Concerns regarding Comcast’s battery backup program and other network safety issues are based on inaccurate assertions.
  • The transaction will not harm wholesale offerings.
  • Internet Essentials is successful by any objective metric and the program’s extension to TWC and Charter areas will provide substantial public interest benefits. [Internet Essentials is a low-cost Internet service for the poor that Comcast was required to create in exchange for approval of its 2011 acquisition of NBCUniversal. California wants Comcast to expand program eligibility further than Comcast is willing to. Comcast objects to a requirement to double download speeds from 5Mbps to 10Mbps. California also wants Comcast to achieve a 45 percent adoption rate among eligible consumers, which Comcast says is an unrealistic goal.]
  • The proposed decision imposes unlawful rate and performance regulations based on inaccurate assumptions about TWC services and is in all events unjustified. [California wants Comcast to offer standalone broadband service for five years at prices not exceeding those charged by Time Warner Cable.]
  • The proposed decision adopts incorrect data regarding Comcast’s quality of service and network safety and reliability.
  • The “benchmark” competition theory adopted in the proposed decision is refuted by the record evidence. [California proposes an annual report requirement because the merger would eliminate the commission’s ability to compare reliability, customer service, prices, and service offerings of Comcast and TWC.]
  • Other suggested conditions are unauthorized and unnecessary. [This section further covers a requirement to not interfere with voice services. Comcast says “it is unnecessary because Comcast does not interfere with voice services or degrade customers’ ability to complete calls.” This section also addresses a website accessibility requirement, which Comcast says is unnecessary because the company “already offers a comprehensive and user-friendly website that benchmarks to best practices for website accessibility.”]

Rosenberg argues a merger like Comcast and Time Warner Cable should have been easy to reject just on the basis of its size and scope.

“Economists use a scale called the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index to measure the level of concentration in a market,” Rosenberg said. “Anything with an HHI increase of more than 200 points is likely to enhance market power. The HHI increase for the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable is a 4,927-point increase in the fixed broadband market.”

In plain English, “California customers have nowhere to run,” Rosenberg writes. “If they had a choice, many of Comcast’s customers wouldn’t be their customers. If the merger with Time Warner goes through, that choice is about to get a whole lot worse.”

Instead of accommodating a merger proposal that seems clearly the opposite of the public interest, Rosenberg suggest an easier alternative.

“If something takes two dozen onerous conditions to prevent significant damage, then maybe the public is better off without it,” Rosenberg writes. “On March 26, the commission will vote on the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. A million conditions can’t make this a good enough deal. There comes a time to just say no.”

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