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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reilly

Reilly

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jump through hoops for $9.95 Internet

Jump through hoops for $9.95 Internet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 18

SUNY Albany
Performing Arts Center
1400 Washington Avenue
Albany

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

Thursday, June 19

NYS DPS Office
90 Church Street
New York

Please bring ID with you.

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

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

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

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

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

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Stop the Cap! Invited to Participate in N.Y. PSC Hearings on Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

nys psc

The New York State Public Service Commission has invited Stop the Cap! to testify about the impact of Comcast and Time Warner Cable merging on New York State residents.

Our testimony will concentrate on an examination of whether the merger is in the best interests of consumers and customers, focusing on issues ranging from usage caps to broadband speeds and pricing and the quality of service provided by both companies. Our remarks will also include a brief overview of the impact of the merger on competition in the state and whether New York would be better served by Comcast or an independent Time Warner Cable.

We will be testifying at the hearing in Buffalo, N.Y., on Monday June 16 starting at 6pm. The public is welcome to attend and will be free to make remarks during the open forum starting at 7:30pm. We urge all New York residents to attend this hearing or others to be held in Albany and New York City. Consumers have significant weight with the New York commissioners and your comments have often derailed the agendas of telecom companies in the state (the Fire Island Verizon Voice Link fiasco, Verizon’s service improvement oversight, stopping Time Warner Cable from cutting off late-paying phone customers on nights and weekends, etc.)

comcast twcIf a sufficient number of residents voice strong concerns about the merger, there is a significant chance New York regulators could place conditions on the merger making it untenable, or could reject it outright, which could torpedo the merger nationwide.

More information from the New York Public Service Commission:

The New York State Public Service Commission will be conducting a series of informational forums and public statement hearings on the petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc. allowing Comcast to acquire Time Warner Cable.

The informational forums will consist of presentations by Comcast and other invited parties on the proposed transaction and its likely impact on consumers in New York. The Administrative Law Judge, attending Commissioner and DPS Senior Staff may ask questions of the invited speakers.

Immediately following each informational forum, there will be a public statement hearing at which interested members of the public may offer their views about the Petition in person, before an Administrative Law Judge assigned by the Commission. A verbatim transcript of each hearing will be made for inclusion in the record of the case.

The informational forums and public statement hearings will take place at the following times and places:

Monday, June 16

SUNY Buffalo
Student Union Theater
106 Student Union
Buffalo, NY

We will post driving directions to the forum next week.

Those in or near greater Rochester should contact us and let us know you are attending. We may try to arrange car pooling if there is sufficient interest.

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

Wednesday, June 18

SUNY Albany
Performing Arts Center
1400 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY

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

Thursday, June 19

NYS DPS Office
90 Church Street
New York, NY

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

It is not necessary to be present at the start of the hearing or to make an appointment in advance to speak. Persons interested in speaking will be asked to complete a card requesting time to speak when they arrive at the hearing, and will be called in the order in which the cards are received.

(Cartoon: Heller, Denver Post)

(Cartoon: Heller, Denver Post)

Speakers are not required to provide written copies of their comments.

The public statement hearings will be kept open until everyone wishing to speak has been heard or other reasonable arrangements have been made to include their comments in the record.

Disabled persons requiring special accommodations should contact the Department of Public Service’s Human Resource Management Office at (518) 474-2520 as soon as possible. TDD users may request a sign language interpreter by placing a call through the New York Relay Service at 711 to reach the Department of Public Service’s Human Resource Office at the (518) 474-2520 number. Individuals with difficulty understanding or reading English are encouraged to call the Commission at 1-800-342-3377 for free language assistance services regarding this notice.

Other Ways to Comment

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

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

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

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

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Comcast Sock Puppet Says Rejecting Merger of Comcast/Time Warner Cable Because It’s Big Is Bad

Supporting Comcast's merger agenda

Supporting Comcast’s merger agenda

A conservative think tank with ties to corporate money and the American Legislative Exchange Council says the FCC should not reject the Comcast and Time Warner Cable merger for emotional, “big is bad” sloganeering.

Seth Cooper, a former director of the ALEC Telecommunications and Information Technology Task Force and current Amicus Counsel for the corporate group made his comments about the merger under the moniker of the Free State Foundation.

The FCC’s due diligence in that examination of the deal, Cooper says, must “disregard pleas for it to reject Comcast/TWC out of hand, based on appeals to emotional incredulity or ‘big is bad’ sloganeering; Stand firm against calls that, under the guise of protecting consumers, the agency impose conditions in order to protect market rivals…; reject dragging out its review process…; and avoid the imposition of any conditions on the merger unrelated to demonstrable concerns over market power and anticompetitive conduct.”

Cooper parrots Comcast’s press releases promoting the multi-billion dollar merger, claiming it will lead to a faster transition to digital cable, faster Internet speeds via DOCSIS 3.1, and expanded wireless backhaul services.

Unfortunately for Cooper, the facts are not on his side.

As part of Time Warner Cable’s Maxx initiative, the march to digital cable in unmistakable at Time Warner. TWC Maxx-upgraded cities now get faster speeds at a lower cost than what Comcast offers, and no data caps. Both cable companies are already in the wireless backhaul market, installing fiber to cell towers to support 4G LTE broadband. But LTE-enabled towers are highly likely to already have fiber connections, limiting future growth. A merger between the two cable companies won’t dramatically change that market reality.

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NY Times’ Reality Check: Feds Should Block the Godzilla-Sized Time Warner Cable-Comcast Merger

free_press_comcast_twc_market_shares-791x1024The New York Times recommends the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission reject Comcast’s $45 billion purchase of Time Warner Cable, if only because the combined company will have an unregulated choke-hold on telecommunications services not seen since the days of the regulated AT&T/Bell monopoly.

In an editorial published Sunday, the newspaper called out many of the “merger benefit”-talking points claimed by the two cable giants as specious at best, hinting some even bordered on misleading:

By buying Time Warner Cable, Comcast would become a gatekeeper over what consumers watch, read and listen to. The company would have more power to compel Internet content companies like Netflix and Google, which owns YouTube, to pay Comcast for better access to its broadband network. Netflix, a dominant player in video streaming, has already signed such an agreement with the company. This could put start-ups and smaller companies without deep pockets at a competitive disadvantage.

There are also worries that a bigger Comcast would have more power to refuse to carry channels that compete with programming owned by NBC Universal, which it owns. Comcast executives say that they would not favor content the company controls at the expense of other media businesses.

The company argues that this deal would not reduce choice because the company does not directly compete with Time Warner Cable anywhere. Comcast would face plenty of competition in high-speed Internet service, they say, from telephone and wireless companies.

The reality is far different. At the end of 2012, according to the FCC, 64 percent of American homes had only one or at most two choices for Internet service that most people would consider broadband. Wireless services can handle streaming video, but many customers of Verizon or AT&T would blow through their monthly wireless data plan by streaming just one two-hour high-definition movie, at which point they would have to fork over extra fees.

Comcast executives argue that companies like Sprint are planning to provide very fast Internet service that will compete with wired broadband. But wireless companies have been working on such services for more than a decade with little success.

Those wireless services that do exist uniformly impose low usage caps and cost considerably more than traditional wired broadband plans, especially when considering the cost compared to the actual speed delivered to consumers.

The Times doesn’t believe imposing a litany of conditions in return for approving the deal, similar to those involving Comcast’s purchase of NBCUniversal, would be sufficient to protect consumers from monopoly abuse.

“This merger would fundamentally change the structure of this important industry and give one company too much control over what information, shows, movies and sports Americans can access on TVs and the Internet,” concluded the newspaper. “Federal regulators should challenge this deal.”

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Time Warner Cable Unsurprisingly Chooses Austin as Its Next 300Mbps Upgrade City

Greater Austin, a city served by up to four different broadband providers — three either offering or promising fiber to the home service — is getting a speed upgrade from the one company that is sticking with its fiber-coax network — Time Warner Cable.

Starting June 3, Time Warner Cable customers who receive letters regarding the upgrade will see major broadband speed boosts at no additional charge:

speed-plan-chart-2014

 

Austin: Keeping the good broadband all to themselves. (Image courtesy: Kong)

Austin: Keeping the good broadband all to themselves. (Image courtesy: Kong)

The upgraded speeds will be offered to approximately 40 percent of customers in Austin and surrounding communities in June, with the remaining customers in the area getting upgraded through early fall. Here is the upgrade schedule:

June Speed Upgrade: Downtown Austin, West Campus, Hyde Park, Clarksville, Old Enfield, North Loop, Terrytown, Highland Park West, Central East Austin, Windsor Hills, Copperfield, Springdale Heights, Harris Branch, Edinburgh Gardens, Rollingwood, West Lake Hills, Lost Creek, Barton Creek, Jollyville, Anderson Mill, Brushy Creek, Bull Creek Park, Steiner Ranch, River Place, Canyon Creek, and the Reserve at Twin Peaks, as well as these communities: Manor, Cedar Park, Jonestown, Bee Cave, Kyle, Mountain City, and Uhland.

Fall Speed Upgrade: Round Rock, Leander, San Marcos, Elgin, Marble Falls, Lockhart, Bastrop, Fredericksburg, Taylor, Smithville, Wimberley, Liberty Hill, Lago Vista, Buda, Kyle, Elroy, and Lakeway.

“These significant speed increases will allow all our Internet customers in the greater Austin area to enjoy TWC Internet better,” said Kathy Brabson, area vice president of operations for Time Warner Cable in Central Texas.

Time Warner says it is spending about $60 million to upgrade its Austin-area network. That investment may help the cable company withstand competition from providers like Grande Communications, AT&T, and Google. For most in Austin, Time Warner Cable will be the first provider to dramatically boost Internet speeds. Google Fiber has postponed its launch until this fall, AT&T’s U-verse fiber to the home service is more press release than reality, and Grande Communications, although offering 1,000Mbps service for $65, only has that service available in parts of the greater Austin area.

Some customers will need to upgrade and/or exchange their current cable modem to receive the full speed upgrade. Customers leasing a modem can get information about whether an upgrade is needed from Time Warner’s Speed Increase website. We still strongly recommend customers consider purchasing their own modem — it will pay for itself in no time. Communication to the first group of customers about the new speeds and details about equipment is being delivered to homes this week.

Separately, Time Warner also announced it is expanding its local Wi-Fi hotspot network, but did not share any specific details.

Stop the Cap! will not be surprised to see Kansas City the next upgrade choice for Time Warner Cable — Google Fiber is up, running, and competing there. The rest of us will have to wait up to two years for faster speeds to arrive.

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Comcast Hires Everyone for D.C. Lobbying Blitzkrieg for Merger Deal With Time Warner Cable

Comcast has at least 40 lobbying firms working on its merger deal with Time Warner Cable.

Comcast has at least 40 lobbying firms working on its merger deal with Time Warner Cable.

It’s shock and awe time in D.C. as Comcast pulls out all the stops to ram its $45 billion deal with Time Warner Cable down Washington’s throat.

The Hill reports Comcast is assembling one of the biggest lobbying teams ever seen inside the beltway, hiring at least seven additional lobbying firms on top of the 33 it already retains. Their mission: to pressure legislators and overwhelm regulators to accept the merger deal and ignore the critics.

The lobbying firms are loaded to the rafters with D.C.’s frequent revolving-door travelers — former legislators, staffers, regulators and their aides that worked in the Clinton and Bush Administrations who now work on behalf of the companies many used to oversee.

On Comcast’s generous payroll: former aides for the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House and Senate Judiciary committees, in addition to the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission — precisely the agencies that will review the merger for anti-trust concerns.

“If you’ve worked on the committees, or if you’ve worked in an agency overseeing a transaction like this, you’ve got knowledge about how the process works and credibility with the staff — it’s that simple,” one lobbyist told the newspaper.

A quick review of some of the players from The Hill:

Joseph Gibson of The Gibson Group, which started lobbying for Comcast in April, has held several prominent roles with the House Judiciary Committee, whose members grilled Comcast executives for four hours earlier this month. Gibson also worked at the Justice Department, including a stint advising the assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division.

Louis Dupart, a veteran of Capitol Hill, the Defense Department and the CIA who’s now at the Normandy Group. He says on his firm’s website that he “has had multiple successes at the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission on major anti-trust reviews for DuPont, Google, People Soft and other companies.”

The Normandy Group signed Comcast as a client last month. Another lobbyist at the firm, Krista Stark, served as legislative director to Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) when he was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Marc Lampkin, the managing partner of Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Schreck’s Washington office, has ties to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and bills himself as “a close confidante to a number of key Republican members of the both the House and Senate.”

Justin Gray of Gray Global Advisors, another Comcast hire, has ties to Democrats as a member of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Corporate Advisory Council. The biography on his firm’s website credits him with leading “engagement strategies with respect to antitrust and FCC approvals of mergers and other consolidation transactions on behalf of leading satellite radio and cable providers.”

comcast twcLobbyists like Gray used astroturf tactics to mobilize various unaffiliated non-profit groups to write glowing letters in support of consolidating Sirius and XM Radio, usually in return for generous contributions. It is likely to be more of the same with this merger.

In 2011, Comcast spent $19 million on its lobbying effort to win approval of its buyout of NBCUniversal. Last year, it almost spent the most on lobbying of any corporation, coming in second only to defense contractor Northrop Grumman.

Watchdog groups are repulsed by the blatant use of recently-resigned FCC personnel and former legislative aides that left positions working for the public interest to take lucrative jobs with Comcast’s lobbying teams.

“Though Comcast is not alone in its revolving door lobby strategy, what is unprecedented is the gravity of the revolving door abuse now being employed by a small handful of very wealthy communications firms,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen.

Holman found 82 percent of Comcast’s lobbying squad in 2014 had worked in the public sector before going to K Street.

Consumers and customers don’t have a well-funded lobbying team fighting for their interests.

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How Time Warner’s Glenn Britt Met Your Bank Account; Cashing Out Another $4 Million

Britt

Britt

Another two weeks, another stock sale for retired Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt. The man that oversaw a business now rated worse than the MERS coronavirus no longer has to worry about the day-to-day ordeals of running a cable company under fire. His biggest challenge is where to stash all the cash he collects selling off the generous profligate number of shares he received during 12 years at the helm of the cable operator, as well as those granted in his golden parachute retirement package.

Last Friday, Britt dumped another 30,000 shares on the open market at an average price of $136.04 a share. His total take home: $4,081,200.00.

Incredibly, no matter how many shares Britt sells, he seems to end up with the same number he started with. The Legacy reports Britt still owns 177,542 shares in the company after the sale, worth an estimated $24,152,814. That does not include what he has cashed out over the last several months.

When you consider your last rate hike, remember one of the “increased costs of doing business” facing Time Warner Cable is paying exorbitant salaries, bonuses and benefits to top executives that increase annually. That is money out of your wallet.

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New York Governor Orders Thorough Regulatory Review of Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

Cuomo

Cuomo

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has ordered the New York State Public Service to immediately start a thorough and detailed investigation into Comcast’s proposed purchase of Time Warner Cable, using new regulatory powers to reject any merger not in the “best interest” of Time Warner’s customers in New York.

“The State is taking a hands-on review of this merger to ensure that New Yorkers benefit,” Cuomo said. “The Public Service Commission’s actions will help protect consumers by demanding company commitments to strong service quality, affordability, and availability.”

New York implemented one of the nation’s strongest cable franchise laws in April that will now require the two cable operators to prove that any merger is in the public interest. An earlier law backed by the telecom industry put the burden of proof on the Commission to prove such transactions were not beneficial to the public.

Cuomo has requested the PSC check how the proposed merger will expand broadband in under-served areas and offer better broadband access to schools. The PSC will critically review the protections being offered to low income customers as well as how the proposed merger might impact consumer pricing and telecommunication competition overall.

PSC chair Audrey Zibelman said, “To determine whether the proposed transaction is in the public interest, the Commission will examine the proposal to ensure services the merged company would provide will be better than the service customers currently receive.”

comcast twcOne way to prove the merged company would not offer better service is to alert the Commission Comcast plans to reimpose usage caps on its customers while Time Warner Cable does not have any compulsory usage limits or usage billing.

Time Warner now serves 2.6 million subscribers in every major New York community: Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and the boroughs of Manhattan, Staten Island, Queens and parts of Brooklyn.

The PSC is likely to hold public forums across the state in June to hear the views of affected consumers, but the record is now open to written and telephoned comments from anyone interested in the merger.

There are several ways to provide your comments to the Commission. Comments should refer to: “Case 14-M-0183.”

Via the Internet or Mail: The public may send comments electronically to the Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary, at [email protected] or by mail or delivery to Secretary Burgess at the New York State Public Service Commission, Three Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York 12223-1350. Comments may also be entered directly into the case file by clicking on the “Post Comments” box at the top of the page.

Toll-Free Opinion Line: Individuals may choose to phone in comments by calling the Commission’s Opinion Line at 1 800-335-2120. This line is set up to receive in-state calls 24-hours a day. These calls are not transcribed, but a summary is provided to staff who will report to the Commission.

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A Merger Watch Has Been Issued for Your Internet Service, Cable-TV Provider

moneywedThe announced merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable is expected to have far-reaching implications for other companies in the video and broadband business, with expectations 2014 could be one of the busiest years in a decade for telecom industry mergers and buyouts.

AT&T + DirecTV = Less Video Competition

Bloomberg News reports an announcement from AT&T that it intends to acquire DirecTV for as much as $50 billion could be forthcoming before Memorial Day. Such a merger would drop one satellite television competitor in AT&T landline service areas and promote nationwide bundling of AT&T wireless service with satellite television.

Historically low-interest rates would help AT&T finance such a deal and would turn DirecTV into a division of AT&T, easing concerns the satellite company has been at a disadvantage because it lacks a broadband and phone package.

“While the Comcast/TWC deal was the trigger, the backdrop of a slow macro economy, new competitors, shifts in technology and consumer habits all come together and force the need for more scale,” Todd Lowenstein, a fund manager at Highmark Capital Management Inc. in Los Angeles told Bloomberg.

Satellite television companies remain technologically disadvantaged to withstand the growing influence of online video and their subscriber numbers have peaked.

If AT&T buys DirecTV, the wireless giant could theoretically bundle its service with DirecTV’s video product, and in some areas of the country its U-verse high-speed broadband to the home, to compete with cable, said Amy Yong, an analyst at Macquarie Group in New York, in a note to clients.

Sprint + T-Mobile = Less Wireless Competition

Dish + T-Mobile = A Draw

mergerIn a less likely deal Sprint is still trying to pursue T-Mobile USA for a potential merger and if regulators reject that idea, Charles Ergen’s Dish Network is said to be interested.

To prepare Washington for another telecommunications deal, SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son’s lobbying firm, Carmen Group, has again been meeting with elected officials and regulators to argue the merits of a merger with T-Mobile, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Dish, which failed to buy Sprint last year, would be interested in acquiring T-Mobile if regulators block Sprint’s efforts, Ergen said. That hinges on whether SoftBank Corp. fails to win regulatory approval for its plan to buy T-Mobile, which is controlled by Deutsche Telekom AG, Ergen said last week. The Japanese wireless company owns 80 percent of Sprint.

All three deals carry a combined value of $170 billion in equity and debt and would impact 80 million Americans.

Suitors hope regulators will be in the mood to approve merger deals as they contemplate enlarging Comcast through its purchase of Time Warner Cable.

Even if all the deals don’t pass muster, Wall Street banks will still rake in millions in fees advising players on how to structure the deals. Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan would join executives winning considerable sums for reducing the number of competitors providing telecommunications services in the U.S.

Whether customers would benefit is a question open to much debate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rare sight in southern Renssalear County.

A rare sight in southern Rensselaer County.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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