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Only 34% of Broadband Customers Would Recommend Their ISP to Others

Usage caps and usage billing are especially unpopular.

Usage caps and usage billing are especially unpopular.

Americans do not have a love affair with their phone or cable company, according to a new study that found most customers either wouldn’t recommend or are neutral about their Internet Service Provider (ISP).

A survey conducted by Incognito Software Systems unintentionally stumbled on the fact consumers deal with either a monopoly or duopoly for broadband service, giving them few alternative options if they do not like the service they are getting. Despite the mediocre ratings many customers give their ISP, only 10% have switched providers in the last year.

“This could reflect a lack of choices in certain regions, or it may be indicative of subscriber apathy toward Internet Service Providers,” the survey found.

Urban and suburban residents hold slightly more favorable views about their broadband service than their rural counterparts. The report found rural residents were less satisfied with service speeds and pricing options, which in most cases involve traditional DSL service from the local phone company.

broadband reportIncognito’s findings show broadband providers are reducing initiatives to acquire new customers as broadband penetration in the United States approaches 90%. Instead, they want current subscribers to pay more to satisfy demands for higher average revenue per customer. Customers already believe their current ISP is charging too much for too slow service.

“In this era of subscriber monetization, it’s essential that broadband providers clearly grasp what’s important to their existing subscribers,” Stephane Bourque, president and CEO of Incognito, said in a statement. “As our survey shows, providers are expected to do more than ever before: provide faster speeds, lower prices and superior WiFi capabilities to live up to their subscribers’ demands.”

“Most subscribers want to pay less (39%) for faster Internet services (24%),” the survey found. At least 33% want faster speeds and 28% are looking for better Wi-Fi reliability. An additional 32% want more choice in Internet plans at different prices.

The survey also found one thing customers absolutely do not want from their ISP: usage-based pricing. The fact that 58% of respondents didn’t want a usage-based billing plan might seem low until the report explains another 27% did not know what usage-based plans were. Only 15% of consumers would prefer a usage-based plan, assuming it would save them money. Most usage billing plans available to customers today do not, unless a customer is willing to cut their usage to 5GB or less per month.

In an effort to appease disappointed cable and phone company executives, the report’s authors optimistically suggest “further education could go a long way into changing the subscribers’ perception” about usage pricing.

Besides raising speeds and reducing prices, the value-added feature customers want their ISP to offer the most in the future is a robust network of accessible Wi-Fi hotspots.

Comcast Raising Usage Caps to 1TB, Boosts Price of Unlimited Add-On to $50 a Month

Comcast-LogoWith the FCC’s increasing skepticism that Comcast’s data caps are about fairness and not an attempt to discourage cable TV customers from cutting the cord and watching all of their shows online, Comcast today announced it was overhauling its data cap allowance and unlimited add-on plan.

Effective June 1, Comcast will increase its current 300GB monthly data cap to a terabyte (1,000GB) for all speed plans. For those exceeding one terabyte in usage, Comcast will sell you an unlimited add-on plan for an extra $50 a month to avoid the overlimit fee of $10 per 50GB of excess usage.

“In our trials, we have experimented with different offers, listened to feedback, and learned a lot,” said Marcien Jenckes, executive vice president of Consumer Services at Comcast Cable. “That is what we said we would do when we launched our trials four years ago – analyze and assess our customers’ reaction to the data plans, including being open to increasing them over time. We have learned that our customers want the peace of mind to stream, surf, game, download, or do whatever they want online. So, we have created a new data plan that is so high that most of our customers will never have to think about how much data they use.”

Comcast-Usage-MeterComcast is also likely responding to thousands of customer complaints filed with the FCC complaining about Comcast’s data caps and the cost of their insurance plan (previously $30-35 depending on market) to avoid overlimit fees.

Despite near universal opposition to Comcast’s data caps, the company has gradually introduced them in a growing number of cities, mostly in the southern United States.

“Comcast doesn’t listen to its customers,” complains Miguel Santos, a Comcast customer in Miami. “It never has and never will. Our family was facing a $200 Internet bill after Comcast introduced caps in Miami-Dade. Now we grudgingly pay them more than $100 a month just for unlimited Internet. It is totally ridiculous.”

Comcast’s decision comes almost a month to the day after AT&T announced it was increasing usage allowances for its U-verse and DSL customers, albeit less generously than Comcast. Most AT&T DSL customers will face 300GB caps, while most U-verse customers will get a boost to 600GB. Only U-verse customers with speeds over 100Mbps will get 1TB of usage.

“We’ve always said that we’d look carefully at the feedback from our trials, continue to evolve our offers, and listen to our customers,” said Jenckes. “We’re currently evaluating our plans to roll this out in other markets, we’ll keep listening – and we’ll be open to making further changes in the future to deliver the best high-speed data service to our customers.”

“That probably means Comcast’s version of generosity will be coming to your city soon,” predicts Santos.

Analysis: FCC, Justice Dept. Ready to Approve Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House Merger

charter twc bhThe Justice Department and FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler are prepared to accept a massive $55 billion merger between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks, but at a cost of stringent conditions governing the creation of America’s second largest cable conglomerate.

In a joint agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the FCC, Charter executives have agreed to do nothing to harm online video competition or implement usage caps or usage-based billing for at least seven years. Charter will also be forced to broaden its cable service to reach at least two million additional homes, some already served by other providers, setting the stage for potential head-to-head competition between two closely-matched competitors.

The deal will directly affect 19.4 million customers of the three companies, which will eventually combine under the Charter Communications brand name and marketing philosophy — selling customers simplified television, phone, and broadband packages that reduce customer options. Little is expected to change for the rest of 2016, however, with Time Warner Cable and Bright House likely to continue operations under existing packaging and pricing until sometime in 2017. Technicians told Stop the Cap! earlier in April they were told not to acquire new outfits with the Time Warner Cable logo and branding, and the cable company is also making preparations to gradually repaint its massive fleet of vans and service vehicles with the Charter logo.

President Obama Expected To Nominate Rep. Mel Watt For Director Of The Federal Housing Finance Agency

Wheeler

Most of the concessions seemed to have originated from FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, who has been one of the strongest proponents of online video competition, improved broadband, and direct head-to-head competition between cable operators. The Justice Department focused its attention on challenging the cable industry’s almost-united front against online video competition. Under former CEO Glenn Britt’s leadership, Time Warner Cable was considered “the industry leader” in contract language that guaranteed it would share the lowest price negotiated by any other cable, satellite, telephone company or online video provider. Those agreements also often included clauses that restricted programmers from putting streamed programming online for non-subscribers. That explains why cord-cutters frequently run into barriers watching networks online unless they can prove they are already a pay-TV customer.

Under conditions from the Justice Department, those sections of agreements with Charter, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks will become invalid and unenforceable. But that doesn’t mean restrictions will disappear overnight. Comcast, Cox, Cablevision, and other cable companies also enforce similar conditions which will be unaffected by the Justice Department decision, at least for now. But the precedent has sent shudders across an industry concerned about protecting its still-profitable cable TV business, under assault from increased programming costs and a greater reluctance by consumers to tolerate annual rate increases.

analysisGene Kimmelman, chief executive of consumer interest group Public Knowledge, told the Wall Street Journal the conditions were “a clear signal to the content industry and entertainment companies that the enforcement agencies are giving them a green light to grow online video and experiment as a direct competitor to cable, and they will prevent cable from interfering.”

Of greater interest to consumers are the deal conditions proposed by Chairman Wheeler. As Stop the Cap! reported almost a year ago, sources told us the FCC would “get serious” about data caps if companies like Comcast imposed them on customers nationwide. At the moment, Comcast is testing caps affecting just under 15% of their total customer base, already generating thousands of customer complaints with the FCC in response. Although Charter promised three years of cap-free service, Wheeler and his staff obviously felt it was important to send a message that they agree with cap opponents that data caps are more about preventing competition than technical need. By making long term data cap prohibition a core part of a settlement agreement with Charter, Wheeler sends a strong message to Comcast that the FCC isn’t drinking cable industry Kool Aid about the rationale for usage caps and usage billing.

Some consumer groups worry Charter has overextended itself in debt over-acquiring other cable companies.

Some consumer groups worry Charter has overextended itself in debt over-acquiring other cable companies.

“New Charter will not be permitted to charge usage-based prices or impose data caps,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Second, New Charter will be prohibited from charging interconnection fees, including to online video providers, which deliver large volumes of internet traffic to broadband customers. Additionally, the Department of Justice’s settlement with Charter both outlaws video programming terms that could harm online video distributors (OVDs) and protects OVDs from retaliation– an outcome fully supported by the order I have circulated today. All three seven-year conditions will help consumers by benefitting OVD competition. The cumulative impact of these conditions will be to provide additional protection for new forms of video programming services offered over the Internet. Thus, we continue our close working relationship with the Department of Justice on this review.”

Wheeler is also intent on proving there is a viable market for cable operators overbuilding into new territories. To prove that point, Wheeler has gotten an agreement that Charter will introduce service to one million new customers where it will intrude on another operator’s service area and directly compete with it. The other provider has to already offer service at 25Mbps or greater. That could mean Charter competing directly with a cable company like Comcast or building service into an area already served by Verizon FiOS, AT&T U-verse, or another provider offering something beyond traditional DSL.

Copps

Copps

Another million customers just outside of areas served by the three cable companies may also finally get service, as Charter will be compelled to wire at least another million homes for cable service for the first time.

Despite the conditions, many consumer groups and former public officials remain unhappy the merger won approval.

“Creating broadband monopoly markets raises consumer costs, kills competition, and points a gun at the heart of the news and information that democracy depends upon,” said Michael Copps, a former Democratic commissioner at the FCC and a special adviser to the Common Cause public interest group. “FCC approval of this unnecessary merger would be an abandonment of its public interest responsibilities.”

“There’s nothing about this massive merger that serves the public interest. There’s nothing about it that helps make the market for cable TV and Internet services more affordable and competitive for Americans,” said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press. “Customers of the newly merged entity will be socked with higher prices as Charter attempts to pay off the nearly $27 billion debt load it took on to finance this deal. The wasted expense of this merger is staggering. For the money Charter spent to make this happen it could have built new competitive broadband options for tens of millions of people. Now these billions of dollars will do little more than line the pockets of Time Warner Cable’s shareholders and executives. CEO Rob Marcus will walk away with a $100 million golden parachute.”

Wheeler’s draft order is likely to receive a final vote in the coming days before the Commission. The only remaining holdout is California’s telecom regulator, which is expected to reach a decision by May 10.

Suddenlink Unveiling New Unlimited Data Plan for Premium Customers April 1

SuddenlinkLogo1-630x140Stop the Cap! has learned customer complaints about Suddenlink Communications’ data caps have made an impact, and the company is planning to rollout a new campaign starting April 1 allowing premium customers to get their unlimited data back, eventually at a price.

A source tells us residential customers will now qualify for unlimited if they subscribe to either of Suddenlink’s two fastest Internet plans in any respective market. In most areas, that means signing up for 100/10 or 200/20Mbps service. Where gigabit plans exist, customers will need to subscribe to either 200/20 or 1,000/50Mbps service.

DSL Comparison Chart 10.22.15_2Customers will need to call Suddenlink to sign up for the offer (we’ve reached out to the company to learn the details we will share if we receive them), which provides unlimited service free for the first year. In year two, unlimited will cost $5 extra a month and after the second year Suddenlink will charge customers $10 extra.

Suddenlink claims its Internet plans already come with “generous” allowances, but fails to disclose them upfront to customers. In fact, there is no apparent way for a prospective customer to learn what their usage cap is without calling in or waiting until after they sign up for service:

Quoted from Suddenlink's customer FAQ

Quoted from Suddenlink’s customer FAQ

Kent

Kent

As with every other Internet Service Provider implementing data caps, Suddenlink claims practically nobody is affected by them.

“The residential data we offer should be more than sufficient for the vast majority of our customers,” the company says. “The relatively few customers who desire more may wish to consider upgrading to a faster speed with a larger data plan, where available, or purchasing one or more supplemental data packages.”

But in November 2015, the outgoing CEO of Suddenlink Jerry Kent told Wall Street an entirely different story.

“Overage charges have become a significant revenue stream for us,” Kent said, noting usage cap overlimit fees were a major factor for the company’s 3.6% year over year growth in revenue, which reached $605.1 million.

Customers were given this explanation for Suddenlink’s decision to implement data caps:

“Data plans are one step among several that help us continue delivering a quality Internet experience for our customers. Other steps include the sizable investments we’ve made and continue making to provide greater downstream and upstream system capacity and more bandwidth per home. Even with those investments, a relatively few customers use a disproportionate amount of data, which can negatively affect the Internet experience of those who use far less. That’s why, as a complement to our network investments, we’ve established data plans.”

But Kent explained things back in 2010 somewhat differently to Wall Street and his investors:

“I think one of the things people don’t realize [relates to] the question of capital intensity and having to keep spending to keep up with capacity,” Kent said. “Those days are basically over, and you are seeing significant free cash flow generated from the cable operators as our capital expenditures continue to come down.”

AT&T Tells Customers $30 Extra for Unlimited Internet is Good News (for AT&T)

fat cat attAT&T has indirectly announced it will enforce hard data caps on its U-verse broadband service for the first time, imposing overlimit fees for customers that exceed their allowance unless they agree to pay $30 extra a month for a new unlimited add-on plan.

AT&T’s Consumer Blog announced effective May 23, AT&T was increasing the usage allowances on its DSL and U-verse broadband service and is introducing a new $30 unlimited option for broadband-only customers many actually had all along because AT&T never enforced its cap for U-verse.

Customers currently bundling video and data services from AT&T/DirecTV will get a break – the unlimited option will apply at no extra charge if you agree to a single, combined bill for all of your AT&T services. The decision to apply usage caps to broadband-only customers, often cord-cutters, while effectively exempting current U-verse TV/DirecTV video customers is sure to raise eyebrows.

AT&T originally told customers its usage caps were designed “to ensure it is providing a sustainable network to customers.”  But in a company FAQ, AT&T destroys its own argument for the need to cap anyone. “Will offering unlimited data negatively impact the AT&T network? No. AT&T will continue to actively manage the network to handle the increasing demand for data.”

AT&T’s need for data caps is also eroded by company claims only a small percentage of customers exceed them.

Why caps again?

Why caps again?

“Today, our home Internet customers use just over 100GB of data per month on average,” AT&T wrote. “So even with our smallest U-verse Internet data allowance of 300 GB the average customer has plenty of data to do more.”

At least for now.

A review of AT&T’s past average usage claims is revealing. In 2011, AT&T told Tom’s Hardware the average customer consumed about 18GB a month. In 2015, AT&T’s cached support site claimed average customers used around 35GB a month. As of this week, AT&T says average users now exceed 100GB a month. If AT&T decides not to regularly revisit allowances (AT&T took five years to revisit the subject this week, having introduced 150GB caps on DSL and 250GB on U-verse in 2011), customers are likely to face pressure to sign up for the $30 unlimited add-on or buy television service from AT&T to avoid overlimit charges that will top out at $200 in penalties for DSL customers, $100 for U-verse overlimit fees.

average usage

Beginning May 23, AT&T’s website will include a data usage meter to help avoid AT&T’s overlimit penalty: $10 for each 50GB increment one exceeds their allowance. AT&T claims only 4% of its customers will exceed their future data allowances. They wouldn’t say how many exceed the current ones.

Because U-verse customers have avoided AT&T’s usage caps in the past, the company is now reminding customers it will give several warnings before you experience bill shock:

  • In the first bill cycle when you reach 100% of your data allowance, AT&T will update you via email, but there will be no charges.
  • In the second bill cycle, AT&T will notify you via email at 65%, 90%, and 100%, and still without charges.
  • In the third bill cycle, and each bill cycle thereafter, you’ll receive reminder emails at 65% and 90%. At 100% AT&T will notify you and add an additional 50GB of data to your account for $10 each time you exceed the allowance. Customers will receive reminders about their data usage for the additional 50GB at 75% and 100%.

All usage — including uploads and downloads — counts towards the cap. There is just one exception. Wireless traffic from an AT&T MicroCell, designed to boost weak cell signals inside the home, is not included in AT&T’s Internet data usage allowance. To help ensure accurate billing, you have to register your AT&T MicroCell account and residential AT&T Internet account.

Here are the new data allowances that will take effect May 23rd:

monthly data allowance

DSL Reports’ Karl Bode is skeptical of the “consumer benefits” AT&T is touting as part of the change:

That last bit is a fairly transparent ploy to address a spike in cord cutting at AT&T — by forcing customers into signing up for television services they may not actually want if they want to avoid usage restrictions. Whether using arbitrary caps to force users to sign up for TV technically violates net neutrality (either the FCC’s rules or the concept in general) is something that’s likely to be hotly debated.

It’s also curious that just as AT&T indicates it’s backing away from U-Verse TV (which should technically free up more bandwidth on the AT&T network), it’s implementing caps on a network it originally stated didn’t need caps thanks to “greater capacity.” That’s because as with Comcast, caps really aren’t about capacity or financial necessity, they’re about protecting traditional TV revenue from Internet video. At the end of the day, AT&T’s just charging $30 a month (or more) for the same service, while trying to frame it as a net positive for consumers.

Attacks on Tennessee’s EPB Municipal Broadband Fall Flat in Light of Facts

latinos for tnThe worst enemy of some advocacy groups writing guest editorial hit pieces against municipal broadband is: facts.

Raul Lopez is the founder and executive director for Latinos for Tennessee, a 501C advocacy group that reported $0 in assets, $0 in income, and is not required to file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service as of 2014. Lopez claims the group is dedicated to providing “Latinos in Tennessee with information and resources grounded on faith, family and freedom.”

But his views on telecom issues are grounded in AT&T and Comcast’s tiresome and false talking points about publicly owned broadband. His “opinion piece” in the Knoxville News Sentinel was almost entirely fact-free:

It is not the role of the government to use taxpayer resources to compete with private industry. Government is highly inefficient — usually creating an inferior product at a higher price — and is always slower to respond to market changes. Do we really want government providing our Internet service? Government-run health care hasn’t worked so well, so why would we promote government-run Internet?

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn't for the good of anyone.

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn’t for the good of anyone.

Lopez’s claim that only private providers are good at identifying what customers want falls to pieces when we’re talking about AT&T and Comcast. Public utility EPB was the first to deliver gigabit fiber to the home service in Chattanooga, first to deliver honest everyday pricing, still offers unlimited service without data caps and usage billing that customers despise, and has a customer approval and reliability rating Comcast and AT&T can only dream about.

Do the people of Chattanooga want “the government” (EPB is actually a public utility) to provide Internet service? Apparently so. Last fall, EPB achieved the status of being the #1 telecom provider in Chattanooga, with nearly half of all households EPB serves signed up for at least one EPB service — TV, broadband, or phone service. Comcast used to be #1 until real competition arrived. That “paragon of virtue’s” biggest private sector innovation of late? Rolling out its 300GB usage cap (with overlimit fees) in Chattanooga. That’s the same cap that inspired more than 13,000 Americans to file written complaints with the FCC about Comcast’s broadband pricing practices. EPB advertises no such data caps and has delivered the service residents actually want. Lopez calls that “hurting competition in our state and putting vital services at risk.”

Remarkably, other so-called “small government” advocates (usually well-funded by the telecom industry) immediately began beating a drum for Big Government protectionism to stop EPB by pushing for a state law to ban or restrict publicly owned networks.

Lopez appears to be on board:

Our Legislature considered a bill this session that would repeal a state municipal broadband law that prohibits government-owned networks from expanding across their municipal borders. Thankfully, it failed in the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee, but it will undoubtedly be back again in future legislative sessions. The legislation is troubling because it will harm taxpayers and stifle private-sector competition and innovation.

Or more accurately, it will make sure Comcast and AT&T can ram usage caps and higher prices for worse service down the throats of Tennessee customers.

epb broadband prices

EPB’s broadband pricing. Higher discounts possible with bundling.

Lopez also plays fast and loose with the truth suggesting the Obama Administration handed EPB a $111.7 million federal grant to compete with Comcast and AT&T. In reality, that grant was for EPB to build a smart grid for its electricity network. That fiber-based grid is estimated to have avoided 124.7 million customer minutes of interruptions by better detection of power faults and better methods of rerouting power to restore service more quickly than in the past.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Public utilities can run smart grids and not sell television, broadband, and phone service, leaving that fiber network underutilized. EPB decided it could put that network to good use, and a recent study by University of Tennessee economist Bento Lobo found EPB’s fiber services helped generate between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs and added $865.3 million to $1.3 billion to the local economy. That translates into $2,832-$3,762 per Hamilton County resident. That’s quite a return on a $111.7 million investment that was originally intended just to help keep the lights on.

So EPB’s presence in Chattanooga has not harmed taxpayers and has not driven either of its two largest competitors out of the city.

Lopez then wanders into an equally ridiculous premise – that minority communities want mobile Internet access, not the fiber to the home service EPB offers:

Not all consumers access the Internet the same way. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics and African-Americans are more likely to rely on mobile broadband than traditional wire-line service. Indeed, minority communities are even more likely than the population as a whole to use their smartphones to apply for jobs online.

[…] Additionally, just like people are getting rid of basic at-home telephone service, Americans, especially minorities, are getting rid of at-home broadband. In 2013, 70 percent of Americans had broadband at home. Just two years later, only 67 percent did. The decline was true across almost the entire demographic board, regardless of race, income category, education level or location. Indeed, in 2013, 16 percent of Hispanics said they relied only on their smartphones for Internet access, and by 2015 that figure was up to 23 percent.

That drop in at-home broadband isn’t because fewer Americans have access to wireless broadband, it’s because more are moving to a wireless-only model. The bureaucracy of government has trouble adapting to changes like these, which is why government-owned broadband systems are often technologically out of date before they’re finished.

But Lopez ignores a key finding of Pew’s research:

In some form, cost is the chief reason that non-adopters cite when permitted to identify more than one reason they do not have a home high-speed subscription. Overall, 66% of non-adopters point toward either the monthly service fee or the cost of the computer as a barrier to adoption.

What community broadband provides communities the big phone and cable companies don't.

So it isn’t that customers want to exclusively access Internet services over a smartphone, they don’t have much of a choice at the prices providers like Comcast and AT&T charge. Wireless-only broadband is also typically usage capped and so expensive that average families with both wired broadband and a smartphone still do most of their data-intensive usage from home or over Wi-Fi to protect their usage allowance.

EPB runs a true fiber to the home network, Comcast runs a hybrid fiber-coax network, and AT&T mostly relies on a hybrid fiber-copper phone wire network. Comcast and AT&T are technically out of date, not EPB.

Not one of Lopez’s arguments has withstood the scrutiny of checking his claims against the facts, and here is another fact-finding failure on his part:

Top EPB officials argue that residents in Bradley County are clambering for EPB-offered Internet service, but the truth is Bradley County is already served by multiple private Internet service providers. Indeed, statewide only 215,000 Tennesseans, or approximately 4 percent, don’t have broadband access. We must find ways to address the needs of those residents, but that’s not what this bill would do. This bill would promote government providers over private providers, harming taxpayers and consumers along the way.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

The Chattanoogan reported it far differently, talking with residents and local elected officials on the ground in the broadband-challenged county:

The legislation would remove territorial restrictions and provide the clearest path possible for EPB to serve customers and for customers to receive high-speed internet.

State Rep. Dan Howell, the former executive assistant to the county mayor of Bradley County, was in attendance and called broadband a “necessity” as he offered his full support to helping EPB, as did Tennessee State Senator Todd Gardenhire.

“We can finally get something done,” Senator Gardenhire said. “The major carriers, Charter, Comcast and AT&T, have an exclusive right to the area and they haven’t done anything about it.”

So while EPB’s proposed expansion threatened Comcast and AT&T sufficiently to bring out their lobbyists demanding a ban on such expansions in the state legislature, neither company has specific plans to offer service to unserved locations in the area. Only EPB has shown interest in expansion, and without taxpayer funds.

The facts just don’t tell the same story Lopez, AT&T, and Comcast tell and would like you to believe. EPB has demonstrated it is the best provider in Chattanooga, provides service customers want at a fair price, and represents the interests of the community, not Wall Street and investors Comcast and AT&T listen to almost exclusively. Lopez would do a better job for his group’s membership by telling the truth and not redistributing stale, disproven Big Telecom talking points.

Broadband Spending Drops: Equipment Costs Falling, Your Prices Rising

Phillip Dampier March 21, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Internet Overcharging No Comments
Fixed (wired) broadband is now the most important revenue component of the TV-Internet-Phone package.

Fixed (wired) broadband is now the most important revenue component of the TV-Internet-Phone package.

Despite ordering 41 percent more downstream network equipment in 2015 than the year before, cable operators enjoyed a 3% drop in broadband equipment expenses, according to researcher SNL Kagan.

While your cable operator blames the cost of upgrades and usage growth for your latest broadband rate hike, cable company spending on broadband actually declined thanks to lower prices and more efficient broadband networks.

ARRIS, a major supplier of cable broadband equipment, also saw its revenue from equipment sales decline as cable operators used software virtualization to cut the price of DOCSIS channels over new, more efficient converged cable access platforms.

Cable operators are feeling heat in some markets from emerging fiber-based competitors, but the imminent arrival of DOCSIS 3.1 has made meeting those competitive challenges easy and less costly than ever before.

ARRIS closed out the year as the global revenue leader in broadband equipment, grabbing 53% of total revenue among providers of cable broadband infrastructure. ARRIS benefitted immensely from the focus of its primary North American customers, including Comcast and Time Warner Cable, on dramatically increasing throughput to stay competitive with Verizon FiOS, AT&T U-verse, and Google Fiber.

“The imminent availability of DOCSIS 3.1 linecards and full-spectrum channels won’t slow the continued purchase and deployment of current DOCSIS 3.0 channels as cable operators must continue to increase throughput to reduce the likelihood of churn among their broadband subscribers,” said Jeff Heynen, senior research analyst for SNL Kagan.

But the costs to deliver those service improvements are now so low, providers are enjoying actual declines in their annual expenses for equipment upgrades, while at the same time many are raising prices and introducing or increasing modem rental fees and usage caps.

FCC Prepares to Approve Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House Merger

mergerDespite clamoring for more competition in the cable industry, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler is reportedly ready to circulate a draft order granting Charter Communications’ $55 billion dollar buyout of Time Warner Cable, with conditions.

The Wall Street Journal reported late last night the order will be reviewed by the four other commissioners at the FCC and could be subject to change before coming to a vote.

Wheeler’s order is likely to follow the same philosophical approach taken by New York State’s Public Service Commission — approving the deal but adding temporary consumer protections to blunt anti-competition concerns.

Most important for Wheeler is protecting the nascent online video marketplace that is starting to threaten the traditional cable television bundle. Dish’s Sling TV, the now defunct Aereo, as well as traditional streaming providers like Hulu and Netflix have all been frustrated by contract terms and conditions with programmers that prohibit or limit online video distribution through alternative providers. The draft order reportedly would prohibit Charter from including such clauses in its contracts with programmers.

fccCritics of the deal contend that might be an effective strategy… if Charter was the only cable company in the nation. Many cable operators include similar restrictive terms in their contracts, which often also include an implicit threat that offering cable channels online diminishes their value in the eyes of cable operators. Programmers fear that would likely mean price cuts as those contracts are renewed.

Wheeler has also advocated, vainly, that cable operators should consider overbuilding their systems to compete directly with other cable operators, something not seen to a significant degree since the 1980s. Cable operators have maintained an informal understanding to avoid these kinds of price and service wars by respecting the de facto exclusive territories of fellow operators. Virtually all cable systems that did directly compete at one time were acquired by one of the two competitors by the early 1990s. It is unlikely the FCC can or will order Charter to compete directly with other cable operators, and will focus instead on extracting commitments from Charter to serve more rural and suburban areas presently deemed unprofitable to serve.

gobble-til-you-wobbleMost of the other deal conditions will likely formalize Charter’s voluntary commitments not to impose data caps, modem fees, interconnection fees (predominately affecting Netflix) or violate Net Neutrality rules for the first three years after the merger is approved. As readers know, Stop the Cap! filed comments with the FCC asking the agency to significantly extend or make permanent those commitments as part of any approval, something sources say may be under consideration and a part of the final draft order. Stop the Cap! maintains a cable operator’s commitment to provide a better customer experience and be consumer-friendly should not carry an expiration date.

It could take a few weeks for the draft order to be revised into a final order, and additional concessions may be requested, a source told the newspaper.

Meanwhile, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is still reviewing the deal. News that the FCC is prepared to accept a merger is likely to dramatically reduce any chance California regulators will reject the merger out of hand. Stop the Cap!’s Matthew Friedman is continuing discussions with the CPUC to bolster deal conditions to keep usage caps, usage-based billing, and other consumer-unfriendly charges off the backs of California customers. New York customers will automatically benefit from any additional concessions California gets from Charter, as the PSC included a most-favored state clause guaranteeing New Yorkers equal treatment. Any conditions won in California and New York may also extend to other states to unify Charter’s products and services nationwide.

An independent monitor to verify Charter is complying with deal approval conditions is likely to be part of any order approving the transaction, although critics of big cable mergers point out Comcast has allegedly thumbed its nose at conditions imposed as part of its acquisition of NBCUniversal, and only occasionally punished for doing so.

Altice to New York Public Service Commission: Butt Out of Our Cablevision Buyout!

nosyBillionaire cable magnate and Swiss luxury property connoisseur Patrick Drahi excels at “take it or leave it” offers on behalf of Altice, the cable conglomerate he founded.

The potential new owner of Cablevision, which serves customers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut has rejected recommendations that Cablevision customers share equally in the proceeds of the $17.7 billion deal. Altice’s lawyers have countered that 15% is more than enough.

Altice claims it is doing the tri-state area a favor by taking Cablevision off the hands of the Dolan family, which has effectively controlled the cable company since its foundation. Altice claims customers will get tangible benefits from the deal:

  • Broadband service at speeds up to 300Mbps in the future;
  • Discounted 30Mbps Internet access for the financially disadvantaged for $14.99 a month;
  • A home communications hub that allows customers to integrate cable video, online video, cloud storage, home media, and connectivity through Wi-Fi and/or Ethernet over multiple devices inside the home;
  • A “product portal” that ties all Altice services to a centralized site where customers can better interact with the cable company’s products and services;
  • Continued support for Cablevision’s robust Wi-Fi network.

Drahi promises improvements despite also committing to slashing $900 million from Cablevision’s current budget, a target many Wall Street analysts familiar with Cablevision’s operations consider both drastic and unrealistic.

Altice1Critics of the deal include consumer groups concerned about the poor performance of other Drahi-run cable systems and Cablevision’s organized labor force, unhappy about Drahi’s statements to Wall Street that he prefers to pay only minimum wage wherever possible. Drahi also has a long contentious history with Altice workers in Europe, presiding over workforce reductions, salary and benefits cuts, and a war of attrition with his own suppliers.

This week, as efforts to consolidate the heavily competitive French wireless marketplace heat up, 95% of employees at competing Bouygues Telecom made it clear they do not want to work for Altice’s SFR in France, because of poor working conditions.

Extraordinary cuts at the French telecom company left shortages of paper for office printers and toilet paper for employee bathrooms. Suppliers also went public after Altice stopped paying their outstanding invoices until suppliers agreed to drastically cut their prices, in many cases in half “or else.”

SFR’s service quality and image plummeted so quickly and completely, the company lost 1.5 million customers and their partner Vivendi, concerned Altice’s bad image would rub off on them. They sold their remaining 20 percent stake in SFR to Mr. Drahi.

Drahi

Drahi

“If Drahi had had a different style of management, we would have kept the 20% stake in SFR,” said one Vivendi insider at the time. “But he had very bad press as a result of his management style. We didn’t want to be associated with any of that.”

Suddenlink and Cablevision customers may not have much of a choice. Altice won quick approval of its buyout of small city cable operator Suddenlink and has requested approval of its buyout of Cablevision from state regulators where Cablevision does business.

The staff at the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) recognized Drahi’s reputation in Europe and that many of his deal commitments for Cablevision seemed vague, insufficient and somewhat non-committal. Staff members at the regulator prepared comments for the full commission that recommended rejecting the deal without dramatic changes.

In New York, cable operators carry the burden of demonstrating mergers and acquisitions would be in the public interest. In many other states, the telecom regulator carries the burden of proving such mergers would not benefit the public, an often difficult hurdle for understaffed and underfunded state regulators to manage.

optimumNew York regulators usually insist that state residents share in the proceeds of any sale that comes before the commission for review. In most cases, this is in the form of an agreement to invest in infrastructure or service improvements, improve customer service standards, and protect jobs. As with Time Warner Cable and Charter, the staff recommended the commission first consider a roughly 50/50 share of any deal savings or synergies, evenly split between customers and shareholders.

Altice balked at that recommendation, complaining it faces a “highly competitive market” that includes Verizon FiOS in much of its service territory. As a result, Cablevision customers deserved less… much less.

“[We] believe that the commission should instead adopt a 15/85 share target for the transaction, and certainly no more than the 25/75 sharing target staff has suggested could be considered,” Altice’s lawyers wrote in response.

Altice implied as other cable companies were operating almost as a monopoly facing little threat from phone companies, it was competing with Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home service in 60% of its service area.

ny psc“The contrast between the competitive landscape faced by Cablevision as compared to other large cable operators in New York State is stark,” the lawyers wrote. “Verizon FiOS is available in just two Comcast communities, 3% of Time Warner Cable communities, and zero Charter communities in the state.”

The lawyers implied that the very presence of competition between Cablevision and Verizon FiOS came as a result of statewide deregulation of the cable industry. Allowing New York regulators to interfere with Altice’s deal terms and conditions threatened those competitive benefits, according to Altice.

“Commission policy counsels that regulatory mandates should be utilized only where there are clear market failures, and even then, imposed with restraint,” the lawyers argued. “Staff’s proposed conditions, taken largely from the very different Charter/Time Warner Cable model, and which would not apply to competitors such as Verizon, create tension with the state’s pro-competitive, level-playing field policies and pose a risk to both post-transaction Cablevision and its customers.”

Altice is maxing out its credit cards. (Image: FT)

Altice is maxing out its credit cards. (Image: FT)

Altice argues that because competition exists, “it is reasonable to assume that a substantial portion of synergy savings will be re-invested in network infrastructure and new technologies—including research and development associated with such investment—rather than simply returned to customers or shareholders.”

Except that has not proven true with other telecom operators. Last year, Comcast bought back more than $2 billion of its stock, or 35.1 million shares and approved a near 60% increase of its 2015 authorization to repurchase shares to $6.75 billion. In February, Comcast boosted its dividend payout to shareholders by 10% and planned to repurchase another $5 billion of its own stock during 2016. Last year, Verizon announced it was returning capital to its shareholders through a $5 billion accelerated share-repurchase program and raised its dividend payout to the highest level (56.5¢ per share) since at least 2000. From 2012-2014, AT&T paid out nearly $27 billion to investors through its own share repurchase program. This quarter, it announced a 48¢ share dividend payout, also the highest amount since at least 2000.

Altice also argued New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut customers did not deserve a bigger share of Cablevision’s synergy savings because Altice also has to contend with its purchase of Suddenlink.

“The Commission should instead take into consideration Suddenlink’s operations, which Altice acquired at the end of 2015, just as it took into account all of the U.S. entities comprising New Charter post-closing,” Altice’s lawyers argued. The hole in that argument, deal critics claim, is that Altice doesn’t extend the synergy savings from its deal with Suddenlink to anyone except itself.

Altice also pushed back on other PSC staff recommendations:

  • Altice does not want to provide standalone telephone and/or Lifeline service to Cablevision customers;
  • Altice objects to providing battery backup power for telephone services, but will allow customers to buy their own;
  • Altice protested recommendations from the PSC staff to ban usage caps/usage based billing as a condition of sale. Altice claims usage caps may benefit customers and objects to a rulemaking that prohibits Cablevision from imposing them while leaving their competitors free to cap at will. “Cablevision’s competitors are launching aggressive service offers that Cablevision will have to match or beat—and if the company is subject to regulatory restrictions its competitors do not face, it will be handicapped in keeping up with market demands,” Altice argued.
  • New York City should have no say whether this sale is approved or not, claiming the sale does not trigger the city’s right of review.

If the PSC is unimpressed with Altice’s arguments, the cable operator has one other: federal and state law prohibits the commission from imposing most of the terms and conditions its staff recommended. The presentation is unlikely to win much favor at the PSC, particularly because Altice concedes almost nothing and objects to nearly everything on the staff’s menu of deal conditions.

The Communications Workers of America has also attacked the deal, arguing much of Altice’s presentation to the PSC is less than meets the eye. The CWA notes Altice intends to erect a money silo around Cablevision, purporting to protect its finances and operations from the rest of Altice’s telecom empire. But that also means Altice will invest none of its own money in Cablevision upgrades and service improvements, relying on Cablevision’s existing resources, credit lines, and debt obligations to cover the costs. Considering Drahi’s management style, that is likely to drive up debt.

The Financial Times reports Altice has already run up debt, ballooning over the past two years from €1.7 billion in 2012 to just over €50 billion by the end of this year, assuming its acquisition of Cablevision goes through. The warning signs of high leverage are already clear to some investors: With Cablevision’s acquisition, Altice would have net debt at about seven times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) — compared with about four times for its European units.

With jitters over European banks, interest rates, oil and gas, and the general state of the stock market, investors are expressing concern.

“From a general valuation perspective, companies with high leverage start becoming a source of fear,” one Altice investor told the Financial Times.

The PSC will likely adopt many of the staff recommendations regardless of Altice’s objections if it approves the sale. Some of those conditions are likely to include broadband service improvements, a low-income discounted Internet access program, and coverage area expansion into currently unserved areas.

Usage Caps/Metered Billing Has a New Name: the Usage Economy

Phillip Dampier March 9, 2016 Editorial & Site News, Internet Overcharging 1 Comment

LogiSenseWhen reviewing your latest Comcast cable bill with overlimit fees on it (or a $30-35 upcharge to buy their insurance plan to keep extra fees off your bill), did you realize you are part of the Usage Economy?

With some Internet Service Providers and most wireless companies rushing to monetize your Internet usage (while also jacking up the price of service), a cottage industry of software and engineering “solutions”-developers have emerged to grab a piece of Monetize Pie.

This week LogiSense Corporation celebrated itself for another deployment of its EngageIP usage and rating platform. Granted, many of its customers are using it for business class services, but we enjoyed the word salad LogiSense created about the future of usage monetizing schemes that too often effectively gouge customers:

LogiSense enables enterprises to power the Usage Economy: The dynamic convergence of subscription- and usage-based billing models, allowing service providers to monetize in real-time any triggered event in the connected world to gain significant competitive advantages. Today’s usage economy is a highly complex environment with a matrixed ecosystem of consumers and providers generating transactions that require metering, measurement and monetization. EngageIP’s real-time rating, charging, billing and customer care capabilities enable providers to monetize any subscription, over any medium and from any provider. The system transforms clients’ business practices by empowering rapid turn up of new services, enabling innovation and new revenue streams thus ensuring longevity and relevance in a rapidly evolving market.

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