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New York City Comptroller Unimpressed With Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

one mbps

“Hey look, is that the Verizon FiOS truck?”

New York City comptroller Scott Stringer is lukewarm at best about the idea of Comcast taking over for Time Warner Cable. In a letter to the New York Public Service Commission released today, Stringer says the deal needs major changes before it comes close to serving the public interest.

“As New York City residents know all too well, our city is stuck in an Internet stone age, at least when compared to other municipalities across the country and around the world,” Stringer wrote. “According to a study by the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, New Yorkers not only endure slower Internet service than similar cities in other parts of the world, but they also pay higher prices for that substandard service. Tokyo residents enjoy speeds that are eight times faster than New York City’s, for a lower price. And Hong Kong residents enjoy speeds that are 20 times faster, for the equivalent price.”

Stringer should visit upstate New York some time. While the Big Apple is moving to a Verizon FiOS and Time Warner Cable Maxx or Cablevision/Optimum future, upstate New York is, in comparison, Raquel Welch-prehistoric, especially if your only choice is Verizon “No, We Won’t Expand DSL to Your House,” or Frontier “3.1Mbps is Plenty” Communications. If New York City’s speeds are slow, upstate New York speeds are glacial.

“The latest data from the FCC shows that, as of June 30, 2013, over 40 percent of connections in New York State are below 3Mbps,” Springer added.

Come for the Finger Lakes, but don’t stay for the broadband.

Should the merger be approved, Comcast would be obligated to comply with the existing franchise agreement between Time Warner Cable and the City of New York. However, in order for the proposed merger to truly be in the public interest, Comcast must have a more detailed plan to address these ongoing challenges and to further close the digital divide that leaves so many low-income New Yorkers cut off from the information superhighway. To date, Comcast’s efforts to close the digital divide have focused on its “Internet Essentials” program, which was launched in 2012.iii The program offers a 5 megabit/second connection for $9.95/month (plus tax) to families matching all of the following criteria:

• Located within an area where Comcast offers Internet service
• Have at least one child eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program
• Have not subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days
• Does not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment

While the aim of the program is laudatory, its slow speed, limited eligibility, and inadequate outreach have kept high-quality connectivity beyond the reach of millions of low-income Americans. Not only are the eligibility rules for Internet Essentials far too narrow, but the company has done a poor job of signing up those who do meet the criteria. In fact, only 300,000 (12 percent) of eligible households nationwide have actually signed up since the program was launched in 2011.

It is critical that the PSC not only press Comcast to significantly expand the reach of Internet Essentials, but also that it engage in appropriate oversight to ensure that the company is meeting its commitments to low-income residents of the Empire State.

Phillip "Comcast isn't the answer to the problem, it's the problem itself" Dampier

Phillip “Comcast isn’t the answer, it’s the problem” Dampier

In fact, the best way New York can protect its low-income residents is to keep Comcast out of the state. Time Warner Cable offers everyday $14.99 Internet access to anyone who wants it as long as they want it. No complicated pre-qualification conditions, annoying forms, or gotcha terms and conditions.

When a representative from the PSC asked a Comcast representative if the company would keep Time Warner’s discount Internet offer, a non-answer answer was the response. That usually means the answer is no.

“We have seen how telecommunications companies will promise to expand access as a condition of a merger, only to shirk their commitments once the merger has been approved,” Springer complained. “For instance, as part of its 2006 purchase of BellSouth, AT&T told Congress that it would work to provide customers ‘greater access and more choices for broadband, no matter where they live or work.’ However, later reports found that the FCC relied on the companies themselves to report their own merger compliance and did not conduct independent audits to verify their claims.”

Big Telecom promises are like getting commitments from a cheating spouse. Never trust… do verify or throw them out. Comcast still has not met all the conditions it promised to meet after its recent merger with NBCUniversal, according to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).

Stringer also blasted Comcast for its Net Neutrality roughhousing:

While the FCC has not declared internet providers to be “common carriers”, state law has effectively done so within the Empire State. Under 16 NYCRR Part 605, a common carrier is defined as “a corporation that holds itself out to provide service to the public for hire to provide conduit services including voice, data, or video by electrical, electronic, electromagnetic or photonic means.”

Importantly, the law requires these carriers to “provide publicly offered conduit services on demand to any similarly situated user on substantially similar terms, subject to the availability of facilities and capacity.”

In recent months, Comcast has shown that it is willing to sacrifice net neutrality in order to squeeze additional payment out of content providers, such as Netflix. As shown in the chart below, Netflix download speeds on the Comcast network deteriorated rapidly prior to an agreement whereby Netflix now pays Comcast for preferential access.

speed changes

concast careConsumers have a legitimate fear that if access to fiber-optic networks is eventually for sale to the highest bidder, then not only will it stifle the entrepreneurial energy unleashed by the democratizing forces of the Internet, but will also potentially lead to higher prices for consumers in accessing content. Under that scenario, consumers are hit twice—first by paying for Internet access to their home and second by paying for certain content providers’ preferred access.

Internet neutrality has been a core principle of the web since its founding and the PSC must examine whether Comcast’s recent deal with Netflix is a sign that the company is eroding this principle in a manner that conflicts with the public interest.

Stringer may not realize Comcast also has an end run around Net Neutrality in the form of usage caps that will deter customers from accessing competitors’ content if it could put them over their monthly usage allowance and subject to penalty rates. Comcast could voluntarily agree to Net Neutrality and still win by slapping usage limits on all of their broadband customers. Either causes great harm for competitors like Netflix.

“I urge the Commission to hold Comcast to that burden and to ensure that the merger is in the best interest of the approximately 2.6 million Time Warner Cable subscribers in New York State and many more for whom quality, affordable Internet access remains unavailable,” Stringer writes. “And I urge Comcast to view this as an opportunity to do the right thing by introducing itself to the New York market as a company that values equitable access and understands that its product—the fourth utility of the modern age—must be available to all New Yorkers.”

If Comcast’s existing enormous customer base has already voted them the Worst Company in America, it is unlikely Comcast will turn on a dime for the benefit of New York.

The best way to ensure quality, affordable Internet access in New York is to keep Comcast out of New York.

No cable company has ever resolved the rural broadband problem. Their for-profit business model depends on a Return on Investment formula that prohibits expanding service into unprofitable service areas.

These rural service problems remain pervasive in Comcast areas as well, and always have since the company took over for AT&T Cable in the early 2000s. Little has changed over the last dozen years and little will change in the next dozen if we depend entirely on companies like Comcast to handle the rural broadband problem.

A more thoughtful solution is encouraging the development of community co-ops and similar broadband enterprises that need not answer to shareholders and strict ROI formulas.

In the meantime, for the good of all New York, let’s keep Comcast south (and north) of the border, thank you very much.

 

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Rogers Harrasses Downgrading Customers With Browser Injection Messages

Plan on downgrading your Rogers cable, phone or Internet service? Be ready for messages injected into your web browsing sessions by the cable company trying to win back your business.

Daryl Fritz from Toronto decided to cancel his Rogers’ home phone and television service and downgrade his Internet service. Fritz soon found this banner intruding on every web page he tried to visit:

rogers

Your decision to leave Rogers is not something we take lightly. We value your business and care about how happy you are with your Rogers experience, so we would like to extend a special offer* in the hope that you will reconsider your decision. Please call 1-855-410-7589 (M-F 9am-9pm/Sat 10am-6pm ET) before your service disconnects to let us know why you are thinking of leaving Rogers. We appreciate your time and consideration. Please click on the “X” in the top right hand corner to acknowledge that you have received this message.

*-Offer available for a limited time for the account indicated (non-transferable) and subject to change without notice.

rogersThe banner usually disappears after the customer acknowledges receiving it. Stop the Cap! has learned the number directs callers to Rogers’ customer retention department where customers are pitched special discounts to change their mind. The prices are comparable, if not better, than new customer promotions found on Rogers’ website. Rogers is far less annoying than Comcast is when it faces losing a customer. If a customer rejects the offer (or never calls in to hear one), they are not bothered any longer and the representative thanks them for their time.

Rogers retention offers are often extremely aggressively priced, especially if mentioning you are leaving for a competitor (especially Bell). Rogers reps can slash prices, put you on a high usage broadband plan at prices lower than what regular customers pay for slower speeds, waive usage caps for a few dollars more, lock in rates for up to eight years, and offer heavy discounts off almost everything.

One current example for cable television:

  • 30% off basic cable ($28/mo instead of $40)
  • TFC ($15/mo)
  • NextBox 2.0 set-top (free) NextBox 3.0 ($2.50/mo)
  • Digital Services Fee (eliminated)
  • CRTC LPIF (it’s the government — $0.50/mo)

rogersThis can knock your Rogers cable bill down to $46/month before GST and other taxes.

Broadband customers can grab a 50% discount off plans like Hybrid Fibre 150 (GTA), normally $86 a month, but $43 on a retention plan. Customers get 150Mbps and 350GB of usage. If you don’t want a cap, demand a deal to remove it (it regularly costs $25/month extra for unlimited). The modem rental is included.

If you still want Rogers Home Phone, you are paying too much if it costs over $20 a month. Home Phone Favourites, including Call Display and one other calling feature of your choice is $15/month on retention. Add 500 long distance minutes for $5/month extra.

All three services combined should cost no more than about $104 a month before GST, which adds $13.52 in Ontario. Provincial taxes vary.

New Rogers customers can also get very aggressively priced deals. This week Rogers is selling 30/5Mbps Internet service (includes 270GB allowance and free modem) for $54.95. Regularly, it’s $61.99 with only a 70GB monthly usage allowance. That is still outrageously high by American standards, but isn’t bad for Rogers. New customers should call 1-800-605-6678 to ask about current offers.

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GCI – Alaska’s Outrageous Internet Overcharger; Customers Paying Up to $1,200 in Overlimit Fees

GCI_logoNearly 10 percent of GCI’s revenue is now earned from overlimit fees collected from Alaskan broadband customers who exceed their cable or wireless usage limits.

GCI is Alaska’s largest cable operator and for many it is the only provider able to deliver stable speeds of 10Mbps+, especially to those who live too far away for comparable DSL speeds from ACS, one of GCI’s largest competitors.

The result has given GCI a de facto monopoly on High Speed Internet (10+ Mbps) access, a position that has allowed the company to dramatically raise prices and slap usage limits on broadband users and charge onerous overlimit fees on those who exceed their allowance.

GCI already charges some of the highest broadband service prices in the country and has insisted on imposing usage caps and overlimit fees on even its most expensive plans, creating high profits for them and enormous bills for customers who have no reliable way to consistently track their usage. GCI’s suspect usage meter is often offline and often delivers usage estimates that customers insist are far from accurate. GCI says it has the last word on the accuracy of that meter and has not submitted its meter to independent testing and verification by a local or state regulatory body specializing in measurement accuracy.

GCI also makes it extremely difficult for customers to understand what happens after customers exceed their usage limits. The website only vaguely offers that overlimit fees vary from “$.001 (half penny) to $.03 (three cents) per MB,” which is factually inaccurate: $.001 does not equal a half-penny. It can equal bill shock if a customer happens to be watching a Netflix movie when their allowance runs out.

KC D’Onfro of Bethel subscribes to GCI’s Alaska Extreme Internet plan, which in February cost $100 a month for 4/1Mbps service with a 25GB usage cap. While that allowance is plenty for the countless e-mails GCI promises you can send, any sort of streaming video can chew through that allowance quickly.

Business Insider explains what happened:

One fateful night, she and her roommate decided to watch a movie on Netflix. Both of them fell asleep halfway through, but the movie played ’til the end, eating up two GBs of data too many and consequently doubling their bill for that month. (One hour of HD video on Netflix can use up to 2.3 GB of data.)

“Now, I don’t even consider Netflix until near the very end of the month, and I have to be sure that I’m no more than three-fourths of the way into my total data, at the absolute most,” KC says. (Her provider, a company called GCI, allows subscribers to view their daily usage and sends them a notice when they’ve hit 80%.) “It’s a very serious business – I have to poll people to figure out what that one very special movie should be.”

That left the D’Onfro family with a $200 broadband bill – $100 for the service and an extra $100 overlimit fee for that single Netflix movie. Today, GCI demands $114.99 a month for that same plan (with the same usage allowance) and those not subscribing to their TV service also face a monthly $11.99 “access fee” surcharge for Internet-only service.

expensive

“Many Alaska consumers have brought their GCI broadband bills to ACS for a comparative quote, providing dozens of examples of GCI overage charges,” said Caitlin McDiffett, product manager of Alaska Communications Systems (ACS), the state’s largest landline phone company. “Many of these examples include overage charges of $200 to $600 in a single month. In one instance, a customer was charged $1 ,200 in overage fees.”

GCI also keeps most customers in place with a 24-month contract, making it difficult and costly to switch providers.

McDiffett told the FCC the average Alaskan with a Netflix subscription must pay for at least a 12Mbps connection to get the 60GB usage allowance they will need to watch more than two Netflix movies a week in addition to other typical online activities. GCI makes sure that costs average Alaskans real money.

“A customer purchasing 12Mbps for standalone (non-bundled) Home Internet from GCI pays $59.99 per month plus an $11.99 monthly “access” fee for a total of $71.98 per month with a 60GB usage limit ($0.004/MB overage charge),” reports McDiffett. “Thus, the monthly bill for this service is more typically $76.98, including a $5.00 overage charge. To purchase a service with a usage limit of at least 100GB per month, a GCI customer would have to pay $81.98 per month (the $69.99 standalone rate plus $11.99 monthly access fee), subject to an overage charge of $0.003/MB.”

Rural Alaskans pay even more on GCS' expensive wireless ISP.

Rural Alaskans pay even more when using GCI’s expensive wireless ISP.

Regular Alaskan Stop the Cap! reader Scott reports that no matter what plan you choose from GCI, they are waiting and ready to slap overlimit fees on you as soon as they decide you are over your limit.

Their super-deluxe re:D service — up to 200Mbps, now available in Anchorage, MatSu, Fairbanks, Juneau, Kenai, Ketchikan, Sitka, and Soldotna areas, is not cheap.

“It’s a whopping $209.99 + taxes, and if you don’t have cable TV service bundled, the $11.99 monthly access fee also applies,” Scott says.

For that kind of money, one might expect a respite from the usage meter,  but not with GCI.

“As a top tier service, you’d think they could just offer it as ’unlimited’ at that rate,” Scott says. “Actually, it has a 500GB usage cap and $.50/GB overage fee. Again, we have a metering provider who claims the overages were to penalize bandwidth hogs, yet then offer [faster] service, increasing overall load on their network, instead of just offering a fair amount of bandwidth per customer and eliminating overages by offering unlimited usage.”

One of ACS' strong selling points is no data caps, but DSL isn't available to everyone.

One of ACS’ strong selling points is no data caps, but DSL isn’t available to everyone.

In a filing with the FCC, ACS’ McDiffett suspects usage caps are all about the money.

“GCI reported 2012 Home Internet revenue of $86 million of which $7.9 million (nearly ten percent) was derived from overage charges,” said McDiffett. “On average, about $5 per customer per month can be attributed to GCI overage charges. GCI imposes usage limits or data caps at every level of Home Internet service, from its 10 Mbps service (10GB limit, $0.005/MB overage charge) to its 100 Mbps service (500GB limit, $0.0005/MB overage charge).”

badbillOver time, and after several cases of bill shock, Alaskan Internet customers have become more careful about watching everything they do online, fearing GCI’s penalties. That threatens GCI’s overlimit revenue, and now Stop the Cap! readers report sudden, long-lasting problems with GCI’s usage checker, often followed by substantial bills with steep overlimit penalties they claim just are not accurate.

“I currently pay $184.99 a month for GCI‘s highest offered broadband service. 200/5Mbps, with a 500GB monthly data cap,” shares Stop the Cap! reader Luke Benson. “According to GCI, over the past couple months our usage has increased resulting in overage charges at $1.00 a GB.”

In May, Benson was billed $130 in overlimit fees, but after complaining, the company finally agreed to credit back $100. A month later, they recaptured $60 of that credit from new overlimit fees. This month, Benson would have to unplug his modem halfway through his billing cycle or face another $50 in penalties.

GCI’s bandwidth monitor has proved less than helpful, either because it is offline or reports no usage according to several readers reaching out to us. GCI’s own technical support team notes the meter will not report usage until at least 72 hours after it occurs. GCI itself does not rely on its online usage monitor for customer billing. Customer Internet charges are measured, calculated, and applied by an internal billing system off-limits for public inspection.

“I have reached out to GCI multiple times asking for help, suggestions, resolution,” complains Benson. “All I get told is to turn down the viewing quality of Netflix, don’t allow devices to auto update, etc. They pretty much blamed every service but their own.”

Other customers have unwittingly fallen into GCI’s overlimit fee trap while running popular Internet applications that wouldn’t exist if GCI’s caps and overlimit fees were common across the country. Lifelong Bethel resident and tech consultant John Wallace knows the local horror stories:

  • tollsTwo girls had unwittingly allowed Dropbox to continuously sync to their computers, racking up a $3,500 overcharge in two weeks;
  • One user’s virus protection updater got stuck on and it cost him $600;
  • Wallace has heard people say, “I was gaming and I got a little out of hand and I had to pay $2,800;”
  • Two six-year-old girls ran up $2,000 playing an online preschool game. Mom was totally unaware of what was going on, until she got the bill.

GCI’s own Facebook page was the home of a number of customer complaints until the complaint messages mysteriously disappeared. Stop the Cap! itself discovered it was not allowed to even ask questions on the company’s social media pages, apparently already on their banned list.

While GCI does well for itself and its shareholders, Wallace worries about the impact GCI’s control of the Alaskan Internet High Speed Internet market will have on the economy and Alaskan society.

“It’s about equal access and opportunity,” Wallace told Business Insider. “The Internet was meant to improve the lives of people in rural Alaska, but – because of the data caps and the sky-high overage fees – it ends up costing them huge amounts of money. We have one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, and some of the highest rates of suicide, sexual assault, and drug abuse. The people who can’t afford it are the ones that are getting victimized.  It was supposed to bring access – true availability of goods and services – but it really just brought a huge bill that many can’t afford.”

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

Phillip "I got whiplash just watching" Dampier

Phillip “I got whiplash just watching” Dampier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balto

Balto

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

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

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

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

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

Cable "competition" in Minneapolis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday is the Deadline for Net Neutrality Comments With the FCC; Here’s How to Get Yours Submitted

netneutralityFriday is the last day to submit your views on Net Neutrality with the Federal Communications Commission. Although there may be some future opportunities to comment, it’s important to make your voice heard with the FCC today. Almost 650,000 Americans have done so to date, and we need to see this number rise even higher to combat the influence and power of Big Telecom companies looking to turn the Internet into a corporate toll booth.

If you recall, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is promoting a scheme where big ISPs like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast can divide up the Internet and introduce toll lanes allowing preferred paid traffic to travel on the Internet at faster speeds, usually at the expense of unpaid traffic that will get relegated to an Internet slow lane. It’s pay to play, and customers of these ISPs are already getting a preview of the new corporate road map for the net. Netflix viewers on ISPs that don’t have a paid agreement to handle video traffic suffer from rebuffering and lower quality video. But ISPs collecting tolls from Netflix don’t subject their customers to a degraded online video experience. Of course, before ISPs realized they could make money selling fast lanes, Netflix worked fine on virtually all of these providers.

Wheeler’s proposal would extend the two-tiered Internet to other websites and service providers, allowing big telecom companies to hand-pick winners and losers and discriminate in favor of their own Internet traffic. Comcast does that today with online video on certain game consoles. If that video comes from Comcast, it doesn’t count against any usage caps. If it doesn’t, it could get rough sticking to Comcast’s arbitrary usage allowance.

The FCC is in way over its head, unaware of the creative ways ISPs can find loopholes large enough to drive through any well-intentioned consumer protections. There is only once certain way to keep ISPs honest — reclassify them as what they should have been all along – a telecommunications service subject to common carrier rules. That would guarantee ISPs could not meddle with your Internet service for financial gain, could not artificially slow down “non-preferred” traffic to make room for paid traffic, and would guarantee that Internet applications of the future will succeed or fail on their merits, not on how much money they are willing to spend.

Since the FCC website is jammed today, we recommend e-mailing the Commission by this Friday at: [email protected]

Our friends at Free Press have published some sample comments they are getting, which may help you formulate yours. Here is ours as well:

Dear Chairman Wheeler,

Although we believe your intentions are good, your proposed Net Neutrality rules simply do not afford enough protection to preserve a free and open Internet. Troubling signs are already clear as providers test how much they can get away with meddling with Internet traffic. The wireless experience is replete with examples of selective speed throttling, usage caps, and traffic discrimination that allows some content to escape the usage meter and throttle while competitors cannot.

The Internet is a transformative experience for many Americans because for the first time in a long time, entrepreneurs can build online businesses that are judged on their merit, not on how much money they have to spend to achieve and maintain prominence. Anything that allows an ISP to collect additional funds for a “preferred” traffic lane will come at the detriment of others who have to share the same broadband pipe. This is especially evident in the wireless world, which escaped even the light touch regulatory framework of your predecessor. Providers promptly began creating new schemes to further monetize growing data traffic, bandwidth shortage or not. Almost none of these changes really benefit customers — they are simply new revenue-making schemes.

A foreshadowing of what is likely to happen under your proposal is also apparent with Comcast and Netflix. For several years subscribers had no trouble accessing online video. But when the issue of traffic compensation was reintroduced by Internet Service Providers, the upgrades to manage natural Internet growth largely stopped and the Netflix viewing experience on these ISPs deteriorated. Verizon, AT&T and Comcast all argue that a paid traffic deal would adequately compensate them to enhance the viewing experience customers already pay good money to receive with or without a paid peering arrangement with Netflix.

Money drives these debates. If an ISP properly managed their broadband infrastructure, there would be no incentive for any company to contract for a better online experience on a so-called “fast lane” because existing service would perform more than adequately. When a company cuts back on those upgrades, a market for paid prioritization appears. Customers will ultimately pay the price, primarily to ISPs that already enjoy an enormous margin selling broadband service at inflated prices.

A rising tide floats all boats, so your focus should not be as short-sighted as allowing ISPs to divide up the limited broadband highway. The FCC should instead focus on setting the conditions to hasten new competition and force existing providers to upgrade and maintain their networks for the benefit of all subscribers and content producers. The FCC must also move swiftly to cancel state bans on community broadband networks, eliminate regulations that deter broadband start-ups, and maintain enough oversight to guarantee a level playing field on which all can compete.

There is only one way to effectively accomplish all that. Reclassify broadband service the way it should have been classified all along: as a telecommunications service subject to common carrier regulations. Canada has been very successful requiring ISPs to open their last mile networks to competitors, which have allowed people to avoid compulsory usage caps. Customers have a choice of multiple providers from their local phone or cable company, giving rise to much-needed competition.

With strong Net Neutrality, consumers can reach the websites they want without interference. Ignore nonsense suggesting Net Neutrality is a government takeover or censors the Internet — two provably false assertions. In fact, Net Neutrality is the opposite.

I urge you to move with all speed towards reclassification, if only to prevent the inevitable legal challenges to any future policies built on the shakier ground of the current framework, which has not held up well under court scrutiny. I hope the voices of more than a half-million Americans contacting you on this issue will be more than enough to overcome industry objections. We are not asking for 1950s-style telephone regulations. We just want a legally affirmed platform that allows the Internet of today to continue being successful tomorrow.

Yours very truly,

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

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

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

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

How to file your comment:

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

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

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

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

Dear Ms. Burgess,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

 

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

Bad enough

Bad enough

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

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

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

From The Economist:

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

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

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

Worse

Worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Albania Says Goodbye to Usage Caps: 1-100Mbps Broadband in the Land of Sheep

ABCom is Albania's largest ISP.

ABCom is Albania’s largest ISP.

Albanians no longer have to watch usage meters while browsing the Internet and downloading movies and music. The country’s largest ISP – ABCom – has eliminated data caps on all but its cheapest broadband plans (4Mbps service with a 2GB cap: $4.81 for 15 days or 4Mbps service with a 5GB cap: $9.69 for 30 days). Now residents of Tirana, Durrës, Shkodër, Elbasan, Vlorë, and Gjirokastër can browse the Internet at self-selected speeds between 1-100Mbps with no usage-based billing or fixed caps.

It is remarkable progress for Europe’s poorest country. For much of the 20th century, Albania was infamous for its oppressive Communist dictatorship under the leadership of Enver Hoxha, a man who felt Stalin was the Soviet Union’s last true Communist leader and who courted and later cut ties with both the U.S.S.R. and the People’s Republic of China over what he called their “revisionist Marxist-Leninist” policies that betrayed true socialism. Hoxha’s idea of a worker’s paradise was to force huge numbers of both blue and white color workers into the fields every summer to help harvest the country’s strawberry crop.

During Hoxha’s 40 years in power, telecommunications for most Albanians consisted of a portable radio (and occasionally an imported television). Only 1.4 out of 100 had basic telephone service. If more wanted it, they could not get it. A long waiting list guaranteed an installation date years in the future. Albania began its transformation into a democracy with just 42,000 telephone lines, despite a population of nearly three million.

After the Communist government fell in 1991, life changed little in rural Albania. Peasants found initiatives to improve rural telephone service so irrelevant they knocked out service to about 1,000 villages after commandeering telephone wire to build fences to keep their sheep herds from straying. Even in the capital city Tirana, telecommunications infrastructure was decrepit at best. Even the wealthiest Albanians had to contend with rotary dial telephones produced in a forgotten factory in Bulgaria or Romania. Many preferred refurbished telephones rebuilt with scrap parts obtained from Italy.

Today, like many other countries lacking wired infrastructure, Albanians depend mostly on their cell phones to communicate. In 2012, there were 312,000 landlines in use, but 3.5 million cell phones were active. More than a half million wireless users rely entirely on their phones for Internet access.

no limit internet

“Are you ready for unlimited Internet with guaranteed 100Mbps speed?”

In 1998, ABCom launched its Internet Service Provider business, initially selling DSL and wireless broadband. With Albania’s economy always in difficulty, the country chose the cheaper path followed by North America — adopting Hybrid Fiber-Coax (HFC) network technology instead of fiber to the home, common elsewhere in southern Europe. HFC Internet access is better known by most of us as broadband from our local cable company. Expansion of wired broadband has been very slow in Albania. The concept of delivering television, broadband, and phone service over ABCom’s cable system in a triple play package only began in 2009.

The biggest attractions to wired broadband include no data caps and more reliable fixed broadband speeds the country’s wireless providers cannot deliver. Because of wide income disparity, ABCom offers a large range of speed plans for different budgets: 1, 2, 4, 8, 12, 30, and 100Mbps.

In response, competition from wireless providers has stepped up recently. Vodafone Albania is offering five mobile Internet options for users of its 3G network. Customers can opt to pay for daily, weekly or monthly bundles. The 40MB daily bundle costs $0.58; the 250MB weekly bundle costs $2.91; the 500MB monthly bundle costs $4.85, and the 1GB monthly bundle costs $7.76. The speeds are much slower than the plans offered by ABCom, however.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ABCom Mesazh Promocional nga ABCom March 2013.mp4

ABCom produced this television ad introducing its new triple play TV, broadband, and telephone package for Albanian customers. (Albanian) (0:31)

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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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Academic Sock Puppets for Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger; Editorials Lack Full Disclosure

Phillip "Time Warner Cable ironically debunked Lyons' advocacy of usage-based billing" Dampier

Phillip “Time Warner Cable ironically debunked Lyons’ advocacy of usage-based billing” Dampier

As part of the broader push to drive support for the merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, academics with ties to corporate-funded think tanks and the cable industry are trotting out nearly identical guest editorials appearing in newspapers around the country that attempt to educate the masses about the wonders of cable industry consolidation.

Daniel Lyons, who has written several papers supporting and endorsing the cable industry’s business agenda, is back with his helpful advice:

Consumers have more video options than ever before. Technology has eroded the lines between hardware, content and media companies. Today, Comcast’s biggest competitive threat is not other cable and satellite providers but new entertainment sources not even imaginable a decade ago. Netflix streams video online and is responsible for one-third of all Internet traffic during peak times. Apple is transforming itself from a device manufacturer into an entertainment company that delivers music, video and games instantly through a seamless customer interface. Google has expanded beyond Internet search to video services and even broadband data networks. Verizon, a traditional telephone company, recently bought the rights to stream NFL games to smartphones. Even Walmart has entered the streaming video business.

It is a challenging transaction, one that antitrust regulators should review carefully. But they should avoid rushing to judgment merely because Comcast is consolidating its position over a stagnant cable sector. Some consolidation may be necessary for cable to avoid Blockbuster’s fate and instead compete effectively in this rich, dynamic and increasingly competitive video landscape.

It is especially hard to take Mr. Lyons seriously when he claims with a straight face the cable industry is “stagnant” and on the verge of following Blockbuster into irrelevance. The only product in the cable bundle seeing flat growth is cable television. But that has not presented a difficult financial challenge because cable operators are shifting their priorities towards broadband. Just to make sure they are covered, broadband providers have raised prices and introduced equipment fees that have more than made up the difference. Despite Lyons’ prediction of doom and gloom, industry observers still find the cable business “comically profitable.”

Lyons

Lyons

In fact, the cable industry now dominates the American broadband marketplace and is well positioned to deal with any competitive threat looming on the horizon. All of the competitors Lyons mentions depend on companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable to reach customers. Cord-cutting looks much less tenable if companies like Comcast return to a regime of usage caps on their broadband accounts. Netflix, Apple, and Google cannot sustain video streaming businesses if customers fear using these services will put them over their monthly usage allowance. Sony’s forthcoming 4K video service for its video player could consume between 40-60GB per movie. Even with Comcast’s “generous” allowance of 300GB per month in its usage-capped test markets, as few as 10 movies a month will put customers over the limit, before they do anything else with their broadband connection.

Despite the threat of Internet stagnation, Lyons is a prolific writer of pro-usage cap and usage-billing studies. In at least one of those papers, he was joined by Michigan State University Professor of Information Studies Steven Wildman, also then an adviser at the Free State Foundation. Wildman was more forthcoming about where the money comes from for these studies – the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the largest cable industry lobbying and trade group in the United States.

Unfortunately for the Free State Foundation and the NCTA, Time Warner Cable inadvertently proved Lyons and Wildman’s theories wrong.

“Pricing experimentation may also help narrow the digital divide,” Lyons wrote. “By recovering more fixed costs from heavier users, firms may have more freedom to extend service at a lower rate to light users who are unable or unwilling to pay the unlimited flat rate. There is evidence that these opportunities are beginning to emerge from companies engaged in usage-based pricing.”

What actually emerged from Time Warner Cable’s tests of discounted usage pricing is a repudiation of Lyons’ theories. Time Warner Cable admitted its usage-based pricing options were so unpopular with customers, only a few thousand out of 11 million broadband customers signed up — hardly a ringing endorsement. Even income-challenged customers preferred unlimited Internet over a usage cap. Time Warner Cable give customers a choice between a cap or no cap. The others, including Comcast, don’t offer an unlimited option and repeatedly claim usage cap tests have met with little resistance from customers, as if they had a choice.

Short Title: Total Deregulation

Short Title: Total Deregulation

Other members of Free State Foundation’s Board of Academic Advisors, including Richard A. Epstein, Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, Daniel Lyons, James B. Speta, and Christopher S. Yoo advance the cable industry agenda in other ways too.

Speta submitted an Amicus Brief: ‘In the Matter of Comcast Corporation v. FCC,’ that basically argued the Federal Communications Commission “does not have jurisdiction to address most Internet regulatory issues, because whatever expansive readings such ancillary jurisdiction has received in the past are no longer tenable.”

In fact, the Free State Foundation unabashedly supports near-total deregulation of the telecommunications industry and an elimination of most FCC powers to oversee it. In comments before the House Energy & Commerce Committee, the foundation’s Board of Academic Advisers recommended:

  • Updating the Communications Act by wiping it out — a clean slate approach is needed to adopt a “replacement” regime – a new Digital Age Communications Act, which is another way of saying near-complete elimination of all current oversight and enforcement powers exercised by the FCC;
  • Lyons, among others, supports eliminating regulation designed around the concept of “in the public interest” with a near-complete deregulation of telecommunications oversight, letting marketplace competition check any bad behavior. The only regulatory activities permitted would require the FCC to show the resulting harm from lack of sufficient competition;
  • The group supports disallowing the FCC from issuing rules to prevent anti-competitive or abusive behavior until such behavior has been proven to have taken place. Any rules that result would automatically expire after a fixed number of years;
  • States would be prohibited from regulating telecommunications services in instances where states feel federal regulation is inadequate.

Ironically, some of the biggest supporters of the group’s ideas to restrict states from writing telecommunications laws seem to have no problem letting states write laws that ban community broadband networks.

And finally, how could we forget to mention Mr. Yoo, who testified in recent hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee enthusiastically supporting the merger deal, while not bothering to mention his employer, the University of Pennsylvania law school, has close ties to Comcast. In fact David Cohen, the Comcast executive who is the company’s leading voice in Washington and was the first witness at the hearing, is chairman of the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately for readers, no newspaper to date has fully disclosed these close industry ties when publishing these guest editorials. As a public service, Stop the Cap! does.
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