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FCC Chairman Complains About State of U.S. Broadband But Offers Few Meaningful Solutions

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler doesn’t like what he sees when looks at the state of American broadband.

At a speech today given to the 1776 community in Washington, Wheeler complained about the lack of broadband competition in the United States.

“The underpinning of broadband policy today is that competition is the most effective tool for driving innovation, investment, and consumer and economic benefits,” Wheeler said. “Unfortunately, the reality we face today is that as bandwidth increases, competitive choice decreases.”

faster speed fewer competitors

“The lighter the blue, the fewer the options,” Wheeler said, gesturing towards his chart. “You get the point. The bar on the left reflects the availability of wired broadband using the FCC’s current broadband definition of 4Mbps. But let’s be clear, this is ‘yesterday’s broadband.’ Four megabits per second isn’t adequate when a single HD video delivered to home or classroom requires 5Mbps of capacity. This is why we have proposed updating the broadband speed required for universal service support to 10Mbps.”

But Wheeler added that even 10Mbps was insufficient as households increasingly add more connected devices — often six or more — to a single broadband connection.  When used concurrently, especially for online video, it is easy to consume all available bandwidth at lower broadband speeds.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Wheeler’s new informal benchmark is 25Mbps — “table stakes” in 21st century communications. About 80 percent of Americans can get 25Mbps today or better, but typically only from one provider. Wheeler wants even faster speeds than that, stating it is unacceptable that more than 40% of the country cannot get 100Mbps service. Wheeler seemed to fear that phone companies have largely given up on competing for faster broadband connections, handing a de facto monopoly to cable operators the government has left deregulated.

“It was the absence of competition that historically forced the imposition of strict government regulation in telecommunications,” Wheeler explained. “One of the consequences of such a regulated monopoly was the thwarting of the kind of innovation that competition stimulates. Today, we are buffeted by constant innovation precisely because of the policy decisions to promote competition made by the FCC and Justice Department since the 1970s and 1980s.”

Wheeler said competition between phone and cable companies used to keep broadband speeds and capacity rising.

“In order to meet the competitive threat of satellite services, cable TV companies upgraded their facilities,” Wheeler said. “When the Internet went mainstream, they found themselves in the enviable position of having greater network capacity than telephone companies. Confronted by such competition, the telcos upgraded to DSL, and in some places deployed all fiber, or fiber-and-copper networks. Cable companies further responded to this competition by improving their own broadband performance. All this investment was a very good thing. The simple lesson of history is that competition drives deployment and network innovation. That was true yesterday and it will be true tomorrow. Our challenge is to keep that competition alive and growing.”

But Wheeler admits the current state of broadband in the United States no longer reflects the fierce competition of a decade or more ago.

“Today, cable companies provide the overwhelming percentage of high-speed broadband connections in America,” Wheeler noted. “Industry observers believe cable’s advantage over DSL technologies will continue for the foreseeable future. The question with which we as Americans must wrestle is whether broadband will continue to be responsive to competitive forces in order to produce the advances that consumers and our economy increasingly demand. Looking across the broadband landscape, we can only conclude that, while competition has driven broadband deployment, it has not yet done so a way that necessarily provides competitive choices for most Americans.”

Wheeler recognized what most broadband customers have dealt with for years — a broadband duopoly for most Americans.

antimonopoly“Take a look at the chart again,” Wheeler said. “At the low end of throughput, 4Mbps and 10Mbps, the majority of Americans have a choice of only two providers. That is what economists call a “duopoly”, a marketplace that is typically characterized by less than vibrant competition. But even two “competitors” overstates the case. Counting the number of choices the consumer has on the day before their Internet service is installed does not measure their competitive alternatives the day after. Once consumers choose a broadband provider, they face high switching costs that include early termination fees, and equipment rental fees. And, if those disincentives to competition weren’t enough, the media is full of stories of consumers’ struggles to get ISPs to allow them to drop service.”

Wheeler emphasized that true competition would allow customers to change providers monthly, if a vibrant marketplace forced competitors to outdo one another. That market does not exist in American broadband today.

“At 25Mbps, there is simply no competitive choice for most Americans,” Wheeler added. “Stop and let that sink in…three-quarters of American homes have no competitive choice for the essential infrastructure for 21st century economics and democracy. Included in that is almost 20 percent who have no service at all. Things only get worse as you move to 50Mbps where 82 percent of consumers lack a choice. It’s important to understand the technical limitations of the twisted-pair copper plant on which telephone companies have relied for DSL connections. Traditional DSL is just not keeping up, and new DSL technologies, while helpful, are limited to short distances. Increasing copper’s capacity may help in clustered business parks and downtown buildings, but the signal’s rapid degradation over distance may limit the improvement’s practical applicability to change the overall competitive landscape.”

Wheeler finds little chance wireless providers will deliver any meaningful competition to wired broadband because of pricing levels and miserly data caps. Such statements are in direct conflict with a traditional industry talking point.

In a remarkable admission, Wheeler added that the only hope of competing with cable operators comes from a technology phone companies have become reluctant to deploy.

“In the end, at this moment, only fiber gives the local cable company a competitive run for its money,” Wheeler said. “Once fiber is in place, its beauty is that throughput increases are largely a matter of upgrading the electronics at both ends, something that costs much less than laying new connections.”

Wheeler also continued to recognize the urban-rural divide in broadband service and availability, but said little about how he planned to address it.

Wheeler’s answer to the broadband dilemma fell firmly in the camp of promoting competition and avoiding regulation, a policy that has been in place during the last two administrations with little success and more industry consolidation. Most of Wheeler’s specific commitments to protect and enhance competition apply to the wireless marketplace, not fixed wired broadband:

1. comcast highwayWhere competition exists, the Commission will protect it. Our effort opposing shrinking the number of nationwide wireless providers from four to three is an example. As applied to fixed networks, the Commission’s Order on tech transition experiments similarly starts with the belief that changes in network technology should not be a license to limit competition.

In short, don’t expect anymore efforts to combine T-Mobile and Sprint into a single entity. Wheeler only mentioned “nationwide wireless providers” which suggests it remains open season to acquire the dwindling number of smaller, regional carriers. Wheeler offers no meaningful benchmarks to protect consumers or prevent further consolidation in the cable and telephone business.

2. Where greater competition can exist, we will encourage it. Again, a good example comes from wireless broadband. The “reserve” spectrum in the Broadcast Incentive Auction will provide opportunities for wireless providers to gain access to important low-band spectrum that could enhance their ability to compete. Similarly, the entire Open Internet proceeding is about ensuring that the Internet remains free from barriers erected by last-mile providers. Third, where meaningful competition is not available, the Commission will work to create it. For instance, our efforts to expand the amount of unlicensed spectrum creates alternative competitive pathways. And we understand the petitions from two communities asking us to pre-empt state laws against citizen-driven broadband expansion to be in the same category, which is why we are looking at that question so closely.

Again, the specifics Wheeler offered pertain almost entirely to the wireless business. Spectrum auctions are designed to attract new competition, but the biggest buyers will almost certainly be the four current national carriers, particularly AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Although low-band spectrum will help Sprint and T-Mobile deliver better indoor service, it is unlikely to drive new market share for either. Wheeler offered no specifics on the issues of Net Neutrality or municipal broadband beyond acknowledging they are issues.

3. Incentivizing competition is a job for governments at every level. We must build on and expand the creative thinking that has gone into facilitating advanced broadband builds around the country. For example, Google Fiber’s “City Checklist” highlights the importance of timely and accurate information about and access to infrastructure, such as poles and conduit. Working together, we can implement policies at the federal, state, and local level that serve consumers by facilitating construction and encouraging competition in the broadband marketplace.

competitionMost of the policies Wheeler seeks to influence exist on the state and local level, where he has considerably less influence. Based on the overwhelming interest shown by cities clamoring to attract Google Fiber, the problems of access to utility poles and conduit are likely overstated. The bigger issue is the lack of interest by new providers to enter entrenched monopoly/duopoly markets where they face crushing capital investment costs and catcalls from incumbent providers demanding they be forced to serve every possible customer, not selectively choose individual neighborhoods to serve. Both incumbent cable and phone companies originally entered communities free from significant competition, often guaranteed a monopoly, making the burden of wired universal service more acceptable to investors. When new entrants are anticipated to capture only 14-40 percent competitive market share at best, it is much harder to convince lenders to support infrastructure and construction expenses. That is why new providers seek primarily to serve areas where there is demonstrated demand for the service.

4. Where competition cannot be expected to exist, we must shoulder the responsibility of promoting the deployment of broadband. One thing we already know is the fact that something works in New York City doesn’t mean it works in rural South Dakota. We cannot allow rural America to be behind the broadband curve. Our universal service efforts are focused on bringing better broadband to rural America by whomever steps up to the challenge – not the highest speeds all at once, but steadily to prevent the creation of a new digital divide.

Again, Wheeler offers few specifics. Current efforts by the FCC include the Connect America Fund, which is nearly entirely devoted to subsidizing rural telephone companies to build traditional DSL service into high-cost areas. Cable is rarely a competitor in these markets, but Wireless ISPs often are, and they are usually privately funded and consider government subsidized DSL expansion an unwelcome and unfair intrusion in their business.

“Since my first day as Chairman of the FCC my mantra has been consistent and concise: ‘Competition, Competition, Competition,’” said Wheeler. “As we have seen today, there is an inverse relationship between competition and the kind of broadband performance that consumers are increasingly demanding. This is not tolerable.”

Under Wheeler’s leadership, Comcast has filed a petition to assume control of Time Warner Cable, AT&T is seeking permission to buy DirecTV, Frontier Communications is acquiring the wired facilities of AT&T in Connecticut, and wireless consolidation continues. A forthcoming test of Wheeler’s willingness to back his rhetoric with action is whether he will support or reject these industry consolidating mergers and acquisitions. Wheeler’s FCC has also said little to nothing about the consumer-unfriendly practice of usage caps and usage-based billing — both growing among wired networks even as they upgrade to much-faster speeds and raise prices.

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Bell’s Efforts to Take Bell Aliant Private Will Divert $160 Million in Expansion Funds to Shareholders

Bell-Aliant-FibreOP

Bell Aliant’s FibreOp fiber to the home service may suffer as Bell/BCE redirects upgrade investments into shareholder dividend payouts.

Bell Aliant customers in Atlantic Canada won’t benefit from Bell Canada’s (BCE) efforts to take subsidiary Bell Aliant, Inc. private unless they happen to be shareholders.

In July, Bell Canada Enterprises announced its intention to privatize Bell Aliant, which serves customers in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, expecting at least $100 million a year in savings from reduced operating costs and capital investments.

Bell Aliant has operated largely independent of Bell Canada from its headquarters in Halifax, N.S. Bell Aliant customers have received FibreOp fiber to the home upgrades in several Atlantic provinces in recent years, providing more advanced services than Bell’s fiber to the neighborhood platform Fibe in Ontario and Quebec. Bell Aliant customers have also avoided usage caps and usage-based billing, getting access to unlimited use broadband at speeds up to 400/350Mbps.

Politicians in Nova Scotia immediately raised the alarm about the possibility of job cuts. Both Tory and NDP opposition leaders complain the Liberal premier has not done enough to protect jobs.

Bell Canada Enterprises

Bell Canada Enterprises

NDP MLA Dave Wilson said all three parties agreed to work on economic issues for the province. Wilson said he fears if the government isn’t vocal about its support for the jobs, Bell might look to move them elsewhere.

The news is better for those holding stock in the company. Existing public minority shareholders are being offered cash or shares of BCE stock (or a combination of both) in return for selling their Bell Aliant stock.

Bell wants to take Bell Aliant private to get access to its consistent $1 billion in cash revenue earned annually, mostly to satisfy BCE shareholders with a more reliable and consistent dividend payout.

Although Bell promises it will continue to invest in Atlantic Canada, its own financial disclosures show customers in the region will see spending on upgrades and other service improvements cut as a result of Bell’s actions.

Bell has committed to spending an average of $420 million a year across Atlantic Canada, but as an independent, Bell Aliant was investing $578 million annually, primarily on fiber upgrades. Over the next few years $160 million of the investment budget will be diverted to maintain a healthy divided payout for BCE stockholders. As of May 2014, BCE was paying a dividend of $0.6175 per quarter with common shares outstanding of 777.3 million, for a quarterly dividend payout of about $480 million per quarter, or $1.92 billion per year. As Bell Aliant shareholders cash out their holdings or convert them to BCE shares, the growing number of BCE shareholders will require Bell to spend more to satisfy dividend payouts. In fact, BCE may transfer enough money out of Bell Aliant’s operations to raise its dividend for all BCE shareholders to attract new investors.

Reduced spending will mean reduced upgrades for Bell Aliant customers. Bell is not promising significant cost savings from merger-related synergy, so capital spending will likely suffer the most as a result. So will customers.

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Stop the Cap! Files Testimony in Opposition to Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger With FCC

Stop the Cap! completed and today filed a formal submission with the Federal Communications Commission opposing the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

We joined tens of thousands of filers — mostly consumers — strongly opposed to the merger on the grounds it is not in the public interest.

Earlier today, Consumers Union filed its petition with more than 20,000 signatures of ordinary Americans across the United States who want nothing to do with Comcast.

Back here in New York, Comcast this afternoon filed a response with the Public Service Commission regarding our (and other) submissions opposed to the merger. We will be analyzing and rebutting their response straight away. Comcast went all-out name-dropping people and groups (many with direct, usually undisclosed financial ties to Comcast) to sell New York regulators the theory ‘the groups and people who matter’ are in favor of their merger while those opposed are mostly out-of-state rabble or unsubstantial individuals of few words.

“Given these many concrete benefits, and the lack of any harm to competition or consumers, it should come as no surprise that the overwhelming majority of the substantive comments (approximately 110 out of a total of about 140 substantive comments) filed in this proceeding support Commission approval of the transaction,” writes Comcast.

Comcast did not share their subjective standard of what constitutes “substantive” but a quick review of the groups cited in Comcast’s response show some substantive was involved - a check from Comcast either recently or in the past. Our view is that it doesn’t take more than a sentence to express extreme displeasure about Comcast taking over Time Warner Cable, and those views should matter just as much as a virtual Hallmark card from a group or politician that used a Comcast-provided “template” with a detachable check at the bottom.

Our favorite was Comcast’s highly defensive ‘hey New York PSC, it’s none of your business that Comcast is testing usage caps and you cannot use it against us’:

The Writers Guild of America, West, Inc. (“WGAW”), Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu, and Stop the Cap! argue that Comcast will extend data caps and usage-based pricing to New York to impose restraints on online content and drive up consumer costs.

This broadband-related claim is irrelevant to this proceeding and beyond the Commission’s jurisdiction. Indeed, the FCC expressly approved of usage-based billing in its 2010 Open Internet Order and is again examining the issue in the pending Open Internet rulemaking.

In other words, whether data caps are appropriate is a matter of federal regulatory concern, not one that relates to this proceeding or that is even transaction specific (since nothing precludes TWC from adopting caps at any time, as it has in the past).

So regardless of whether data caps are in the public interest or not, New York should not be allowed to weigh in because former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said usage based billing could be an innovative way to bill for broadband.

In reality, New York can decide for itself what is in the best interests of its residents, and Time Warner Cable determined what was best after a two-week firestorm in 2009 that taught them compulsory usage caps were a really bad idea. But Comcast isn’t terribly interested in the views of the unsubstantive masses — which is comparable to their attitude toward customers, so no change there. It’s just a free preview weekend of what we all have in store if Comcast takes over.

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Syracuse Wants More Choices Than Comcast and Verizon: Considers Building Publicly-Owned FTTH Alternative

Downtown Syracuse (Image: Post-Standard)

Downtown Syracuse (Image: Post-Standard)

The city of Syracuse is facing an unpleasant broadband reality: the current cable company is about to be bought out by Comcast (which has usage caps in store for broadband customers) and the phone company has thrown in the towel on further expanding FiOS — fiber to the home broadband.

Mayor Stephanie Miner isn’t willing to let the city get trapped by a lack of broadband options from Comcast and Verizon, so she’s developing a plan to build a publicly owned alternative.

“I’m putting together a plan that we can do it ourselves, as a community,” Miner told the Post-Standard

If approved, Syracuse would join Chattanooga, Lafayette, La.,  Wilson and Salisbury, N.C., and several other cities providing local citizens with broadband speeds up to 1,000/1,000Mbps.

“Would we have to do that in phases? What would that look like? How would we pay for it? What would the model be? Those are all things that we are currently looking at, ” Miner noted.

Many of those questions have already been worked out by the best clearinghouse Stop the Cap! knows for excellent community broadband project development: the team at the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

The Community Broadband Networks Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, works with communities across the United States to create the policies needed to make sure telecommunications networks serve the community rather than a community serving the network. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a non-profit organization that started in Washington D.C. in 1974.

ILSR’s Mission:

The Institute’s mission is to provide innovative strategies, working models and timely information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development. To this end, ILSR works with citizens, activists, policymakers and entrepreneurs to design systems, policies and enterprises that meet local or regional needs; to maximize human, material, natural and financial resources; and to ensure that the benefits of these systems and resources accrue to all local citizens.

No community should attempt to build a community broadband network without first consulting with ILSR. They are particularly effective at helping combat the misinformation campaigns that often arise when an incumbent duopoly discovers they are about to get serious competition for the first time.

If your community wants something better than the local cable and phone company, have your local official(s) E-mail or call Christopher Mitchell at ILSR: 612-276-3456 x209

With entrenched providers unwilling to meet the needs of communities for affordable fast Internet, more American communities are providing the service themselves, much as they take care of local roads, bridges, and other public infrastructure. Comcast’s toll information superhighway may work wonders for shareholders, but it leaves most customers cold. Syracuse, like most upstate New York cities, has also watched Verizon flee from investments in FiOS expansion beyond a handful of wealthy suburbs. Verizon has diverted much of its investment away from wired networks in favor of wireless, a much more profitable business.

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Stop the Cap’s Formal Written Submission Opposing Comcast-Time Warner Merger Filed With N.Y. PSC

(Ed. Note: Our formal written submission to the New York Public Service Commission is presented in this series of articles. Please note that any graphics included on Stopthecap.com were not included in the formal filing, but are presented here to make the material more reader-friendly. — PMD)

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STATE OF NEW YORK

PUBLIC SERVICE COMMISSION


Joint Petition of Time Warner Cable Inc. and

Comcast Corporation For Approval of a                                       Case 14-M-0183

Holding Company Level Transfer of Control.


 

 

Statement of Opposition to Joint Petition
Phillip M. Dampier, Director and Founder: Stop the Cap!
Rochester, New York
August 1, 2014

Stop the Cap! is a not-for-profit group founded in Rochester in 2008 to fight against the introduction of artificial limits on broadband usage (usage caps, consumption billing, speed throttling) and for better broadband speeds and service for consumers. Our group does not solicit or accept funding from lobbyists, companies, or others affiliated with the telecommunications industry. We are entirely supported by individual donors who share our views.

telecompromising

Regulators cannot outsmart multi-billion dollar corporate giants with temporary merger mitigation strategies that end up not helping consumers for very long, if it all.

Introduction

Our opposition to the Joint Petition is based on our belief it does not meet the “public interest”  test established in Section 222 of the New York Public Service law, and must therefore be denied.

We are concerned the Commission may attempt a mitigation of Comcast’s failure to demonstrate a public interest benefit for New York residents in its application. The Commission may even attempt to negotiate a monetary public benefit adjustment to afford Comcast the opportunity to pay its way to approval of a merger the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers who have shared their views with the Commission ardently oppose. We submit that the recent change in New York law obligates the applicant alone to demonstrate its proposal is in the public interest. It is not the Commission’s responsibility to propose mitigation formulas that tip the balance in favor of an applicant.

Also lacking in the discussion is a careful analysis and comparison of Time Warner Cable’s existing products and services in contrast with Comcast and, more importantly, the impact of its own upgrade program now underway. It is our contention New York will be better served by retaining Time Warner Cable as the dominant cable provider and rejecting Comcast’s attempt to transfer Time Warner’s franchise agreements to itself. We are not opposed to Comcast independently entering New York and competing head-to-head with Time Warner Cable, although we believe it is unlikely.

Ultimately, we believe Comcast’s executive vice-president David Cohen made one of the strongest arguments why this merger simply does not make sense for New York:

“We are certainly not promising that customer bills will go down or increase less rapidly.”[1]

[1]http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2014/02/comcast-no-promise-that-prices-will-go-down-or-even-increase-less-rapidly/
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NY’s Broadband Future Is Better With Time Warner Cable: Comcast’s Coming Usage Caps Kill Innovation

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Broadband will be critically impacted by any merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable in New York. The two companies could not be more different in their philosophies regarding access, pricing, and speeds.

say noThis merger will have an especially profound impact on broadband service in upstate New York, largely left behind out from getting Verizon’s fiber upgrades. New York’s digital economy critically needs modern, fast, and affordable Internet access to succeed. Verizon has not only ceased expansion of its FiOS fiber to the home network in New York, it has virtually capitulated competing for cable customers in non-FiOS areas by agreeing to sell Time Warner Cable service in its wireless stores.[1]  In cities like Rochester, served by Frontier Communications’ DSL, Time Warner Cable is the only provider in town that can consistently deliver broadband speeds in excess of 10Mbps.

Time Warner Cable has never been the fastest Internet provider and had a history of being slower than others to roll out speed increases. But it is also the only cable provider in the country that experimented with usage caps and consumption billing and shelved both after subscribers bitterly complained in market tests in cities including Rochester.[2]

Then CEO Glenn Britt announced the end of the usage cap trial just two weeks after it became public.[3] Britt would later emphasize that he now believed there should always be an unlimited use plan available for Time Warner Cable customers who do not want their Internet use metered.[4] In study after study, the overwhelming majority of customers have shown intense dislike of limitations on their Internet usage, whether from strict usage caps Comcast maintained for several years or usage allowances that, when exceeded, would result in overlimit fees.[5] Just this month, the Government Accounting Office confirmed these findings in a new study that reported near-universal revulsion for usage caps on home wired broadband service:[6]

In only two groups did any participants report experience with wireline UBP [usage-based pricing].

However, in all eight groups, participants expressed strong negative reactions to UBP, including concerns about:

  • The importance of the Internet in their lives and the potential effects of data allowances.
  • Having to worry about data usage at home, where they are used to having unlimited access.
  • Concerns that ISPs would use UBP as a way of increasing the amount they charge for Internet service.

Time Warner Cable has learned an important lesson regarding consumer perception of usage-based billing and usage caps on Internet service. In 2012, the company introduced optional usage caps for customers interested in a discount on their broadband service. Out of 11 million Time Warner Cable broadband customers, only a few thousand have been convinced in enroll such programs.[7]

Despite results like that, Comcast has not learned that lesson and has twice imposed unilateral, compulsory usage limits on their broadband customers, starting with a nationwide hard usage cap of 250GB per month introduced in 2008. Violators risked having their broadband service terminated by Comcast.[8] Today, for some that would be comparable to losing electricity or telephone service. The threat has profound implications in areas where Comcast is the only broadband provider.

Comcast temporarily rescinded its cap in May 2012, but has gradually reintroduced various forms of usage-related billing and caps with market trials in several Comcast service areas[9]:

Nashville, Tennessee: 300 GB per month with $10/50GB overlimit fee;

Tucson, Arizona: Economy Plus through Performance XFINITY Internet tiers: 300 GB. Blast! Internet tier: 350 GB; Extreme 50 customers: 450 GB; Extreme 105: 600 GB. $10 per 50GB overlimit fee;

Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee and Charleston, South Carolina: 300 GB per month with $10/50GB; XFINITY Internet Economy Plus customers can choose to enroll in the Flexible-Data Option to receive a $5.00 credit on their monthly bill and reduce their data usage plan from 300 GB to 5 GB. If customers choose this option and use more than 5 GB of data in any given month, they will not receive the $5.00 credit and will be charged an additional $1.00 for each gigabyte of data used over the 5 GB included in the Flexible-Data Option;

Fresno, California, Economy Plus customers also have the option of enrolling in the Flexible-Data Option.

courtesy-noticeComcast customers in these areas do not have the option of keeping their unlimited-use broadband accounts. Despite the fact Comcast executive vice president David Cohen refers to these as “data thresholds,” they are in fact de facto limits that carry penalty fees when exceeded.[10]

Cohen predicts these usage limits will be imposed on all Comcast customers nationwide within the next five years.[11] Time Warner Cable has committed not to impose compulsory limits on its broadband customers. Verizon has never attempted to place limits on its home broadband customers. Frontier shelved a usage limit plan of 5GB per month attempted in 2008 and currently provides unlimited service.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts sat for an interview with CNBC in June in which he implied usage growth was impinging on the viability of its broadband business, justifying usage caps. At the end of the interview, Time Warner Cable ran advertising emphasizing it has no usage caps.[12] Both companies have highly profitable broadband services, as do other providers across the country.[13]

As our group has found, usage caps and consumption billing on cable Internet and DSL are little more than a transparent rate increase and anti-competitive maneuver to restrict the growth of the industry’s biggest potential competitor: online video. If a consumer can stream all of their video programming over a broadband account, there is no reason to retain a cable TV package. Comcast’s usage cap provides a built-in deterrent for customers contemplating such a move.

While a Comcast representative offered (without any independent verification) that the average Comcast broadband user consumes fewer than 20GB of data per month, Sandvine released evidence in its Global Internet Phenomena Report 1H2014 study that cord-cutters in the U.S. – at least those whose usage indicates the use of streaming as a primary form of entertainment – now consume about 212GB of data per month (with 153GB of that going toward “real-time entertainment usage”).[14]

That would put many customers perilously close to Comcast’s current market tested usage allowance.

Approving the transfer of franchises from Time Warner Cable to Comcast has the potential of saddling the majority of New York residents with usage caps and/or consumption billing with little or no savings or benefit to the consumer while introducing a major impediment to potential online video competition to help curtail cable television pricing.

[1]http://www.verizonwireless.com/wcms/consumer/home-services/tv-internet-homephone/twc.html
[2]http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/04/16/us-timewarnercable-idUSTRE53F6EQ20090416
[3]http://stopthecap.com/2009/04/16/we-won-time-warner-killing-usage-caps-in-all-markets/
[4]http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2012/02/launching-an-optional-usage-based-pricing-plan-in-southern-texas-2/
[5]http://www.dailytech.com/Microsoft+Study+Bandwidth+Caps+Change+Internet+Users+Behavior/article24639.htm
[6]http://eshoo.house.gov/uploads/7.29.14%20Preliminary%20GAO%20Report%20Findings%20from%20Data%20Cap%20Study.pdf
[7]http://stopthecap.com/2014/03/13/time-warner-cable-admits-usage-based-pricing-is-a-big-failure-only-thousands-enrolled/
[8]http://arstechnica.com/uncategorized/2008/08/its-official-comcast-starts-250gb-bandwidth-caps-october-1/
[9] http://customer.comcast.com/help-and-support/internet/data-usage-trials-what-are-the-different-plans-launching
[10] http://customer.comcast.com/help-and-support/internet/data-usage-trials-what-are-the-different-plans-launching
[11]http://techcrunch.com/2014/05/14/comcast-wants-to-put-data-caps-on-all-customers-within-5-years/
[12]http://stopthecap.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/nocaps.png
[13]http://gigaom.com/2014/02/12/comcast-and-time-warner-cable-forget-tv-it-is-all-about-broadband/
[14]http://www.multichannel.com/news/technology/cord-cutters-gobble-down-bits-sandvine-study/374551#sthash.JYFP7o69.dpuf

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Comcast: ‘We Were Against Net Neutrality Before We Clamed to Be For It’

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Should this merger be approved, Comcast will control 40-50 percent of all broadband access nationwide.[1] That offers Comcast market power that can be used to discriminate against others.

Comcast paid homeless people to "hold their seats" at an FCC hearing in 2008. (Image: Free Press)

Comcast paid homeless people to “hold their seats” at an FCC hearing in 2008. (Image: Free Press)

Comcast’s recent past contains several disturbing incidents that came as a result of its market power and its vast resources to influence telecommunications public policy debates:

  • In 2008, Comcast admitted to paying homeless people in Boston to pack an FCC meeting on Net Neutrality, keeping company critics out of the room.[2]
  • The company that now promises to abide voluntarily to Net Neutrality regulations is also one of the few found culpable for violating the principle. In mid-2008, the FCC ruled that Comcast’s policy of interfering with peer-to-peer file traffic was a violation of Net Neutrality rules. When customers found out, the company voluntarily ended the speed throttling, imposing usage caps instead.[3]
  • This month, Comcast reportedly stepped in and ordered the removal of news content critical of its Net Neutrality policies from a publication in which it has an ownership interest.[4]
  • In May 2011, a Comcast manager threatened to pull funding from a Seattle-based media advocacy group that criticized the company for hiring a former Republican FCC official, Meredith Attwell Baker, just after she supported the NBC Universal deal.[5]
  • Comcast has aggressively pursued agreements with over-the-top (online video) competitors that effectively force them to sign special connection agreements that mitigate the deteriorating quality of streamed video Comcast customers receive from services like Netflix.[6] Comcast’s size gives it de facto control over its customers’ online experiences.

While we note Comcast has agreed to temporarily abide by Net Neutrality principles, the Commission should know Comcast has a long record lobbying against Net Neutrality on philosophical grounds.[7]

Comcast agreed to abide by Net Neutrality principles as a condition to win approval of its acquisition of NBCUniversal, approved by the FCC in 2011. But as Brian Fung from the Washington Post noted, its agreement with the government will expire just four years from now[8]:

But what Comcast doesn’t say is that its commitment to “full” net neutrality expires in 2018. After that, it will no longer be legally bound to follow the 2010 rules, and it’ll be free to abandon that commitment literally overnight.

Just one year earlier, Comcast was before the United States Court of Appeals – D.C. Circuit suing the FCC over its authority to enforce Net Neutrality policies. Comcast won its suit.[9]

If Comcast now feels favorable towards Net Neutrality, it should voluntarily agree to abide by its guiding principles in perpetuity.

[1]http://broadcastingcable.com/news/washington/judiciary-raises-programming-broadband-control-issues-comcasttwc/130396
[2]http://www.mediabistro.com/fishbowlny/homeless-comcast-will-pay-to-attend-fcc-hearings_b7915
[3]http://www.dailydot.com/politics/net-neutrality-violations-history/
[4]http://www.republicreport.org/2014/comcast-affiliated-newsite-censored-my-article-about-net-neutrality-lobbying/
[5]http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-tech/post/comcast-yanks-funds-for-nonprofit-after-tweet-about-fcc-bakers-jump/2011/05/19/AF7aGG7G_blog.html
[6]http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304899704579391223249896550
[7]http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB125354032776727741
[8]https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20140724/13525627992/comcast-ramps-up-ad-campaign-claiming-to-support-net-neutrality-even-as-it-really-supports-killing-it.shtml
[9]http://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/EA10373FA9C20DEA85257807005BD63F/$file/08-1291-1238302.pdf
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Surprise Bid for T-Mobile USA from Iliad’s Free Mobile Has Wireless Competitors, Wall Street Unnerved

french revolutionThe French Revolution in wireless could be spreading across the United States if Paris-based Iliad is successful in its surprise $15 billion bid to acquire T-Mobile USA (right out from under Sprint and Japan-based Softbank). Wall Street hopes it isn’t true.

If you named one wireless carrier in the world guaranteed to provoke groans, sweat, and Excedrin headaches from powerful wireless industry executives living high on 40%+ annual margins, Iliad and its notorious Free Mobile would be the chief provocateur. Initially dismissed as an irrelevant upstart (much like T-Mobile itself) when it announced service on a less-robust network in 2012, as soon as Free Mobile announced its groundbreaking prices, panic was rife in the boardrooms and executive suites of competitors Orange, SFR and Bouygues Telecom, who couldn’t slash their own prices fast enough.

As one wireless executive in Paris put it, when Free Mobile launched, “the tsunami hit.”

In short order, Free Mobile has taken nearly five million of their competitors’ very profitable customers in France, mostly from its vicious price-cutting that results in rates half that of any other competitor.

Orange and other carriers promptly announced slashed shareholder dividend payouts and implemented cost-saving measures after being forced to cut pricing.

American wireless executives visiting Europe were aghast at the prices charged by the French upstart, suggesting they were reckless and would eliminate necessary investment in upgrades. Although France has been behind the United States in launching 4G service upgrades, French customer satisfaction with their wireless service is higher than in the U.S., and Free Mobile has the lowest customer loss (churn) rate of any carrier in France.

Iliad’s reputation as a nasty competitor is fine with self-made billionaire CEO Xavier Niel, who has become extremely wealthy selling cutting edge, yet affordable, telecommunications products without losing touch of his more modest roots. But he is reviled by most of his competitors for disrupting the comfortable wireless service business models his competitors have maintained for years. Niel has thrown marketing bombs into every sector of the French telecom market, ruthlessly cutting prices for customers while relying on in-house innovations to keep costs low.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Euronews Telecoms turmoil in France 2012.mp4

Euronews reported on the turmoil Iliad caused incumbent wireless carriers when it forced them to respond with major price-cuts to stay competitive. (0:44)

freemobileFree’s customer care center is run on Ubuntu-based, inexpensive notebook and desktop computers. Free’s wired broadband, television, and phone service is powered by set-top boxes and network devices custom-developed inside Iliad to keep costs down. Its creative spirit has been compared to Google, much to the chagrin of its “business by the book” competitors.

“It’s not done like this,” is a common refrain heard when Free Mobile announces more price cuts, an easing of usage caps, or completely free add-ons.

Today, a typical Free Mobile customer pays $26.75US a month for wireless service which includes:

  • Unlimited calls to France and 100 other destinations, including the U.S., Canada, China, and all French overseas departments (eg. Guadeloupe, Tahiti, Mayotte, etc.);
  • Unlimited SMS/text messages;
  • Unlimited MMS messages to French numbers;
  • 20GB of 4G access before the speed throttle kicks in;
  • Unlimited free Wi-Fi on Free’s extensive Wi-Fi network.

A Free Mobile customer that also subscribes to Free’s wired broadband or television service gets an even bigger discount. Their monthly wireless bill for the same features? $21.40US a month.

Niel said the reason he has not brought the Free Mobile brand to the United States is because the wireless industry here is highly anti-competitive. The fact T-Mobile USA is now up for sale represents ‘the opportunity of a lifetime,’ a “one-time opportunity to enter the world’s-largest telecoms market,” a person familiar with the matter said prior to the announcement.

“The competitive landscape in the U.S. is a lot less aggressive than what we are used to in France,” added Niel. “There is enormous potential. It is almost too good to be true.”

A number of Wall Street analysts who prefer the current business model of high cost/high profits are keeping their fingers crossed the Iliad offer is just a pipe dream. Some, including analysts on Bloomberg TV, dismissed Niel as a former pornographer and suggested “for the guppies, it is whale season,” a reference to Iliad’s small size relative to T-Mobile USA.

“To say this is surprising is something of an understatement; it is one of the most bizarre bits of potential M&A we have ever witnessed in the sector,” said analysts from Espirito Santo in a note to investors.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Who Is T-Mobiles New French Suitor 8-1-14.flv

Some on Wall Street are mocking the deal as a guppy hoping to swallow a whale. T-Mobile is considerably larger than Iliad, says CNBC. “It’s preposterous. Who put them up to it?” (6:18)

“Iliad is about a third of the size of T-Mobile US, and we don’t think there would be synergies from the deal,” said Jonathan Chaplin, an analyst at New Street Research, in a note. “It would be tough to finance without Xavier Neil relinquishing control. Sprint and anyone else with synergies should be able to outbid them.”

Should Free Mobile enter the United States, its cutthroat pricing would make CEO John Legere’s “bad wireless boy” campaign to make T-Mobile the “uncarrier” quaint in comparison. Every wireless carrier in the U.S. could be forced to cut rates by one-third or more to stay competitive should Niel adopt a similar business model for Free Mobile in the U.S. market.

Some worry that Softbank’s bid to merge Sprint and T-Mobile together has just become even less likely with the possibility of a new player in the U.S. market, competing against three other carriers, not two as the Softbank deal proposes.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Sprint Deal with T-Mobile Has Little Chance 8-1-14.flv

CNBC spoke with Nik Stanojevic, equity analyst at Brewin Dolphin, who was surprised Iliad threw in a bid for T-Mobile, but believes Softbank/Sprint’s deal to acquire T-Mobile has very little chance getting by regulators. (2:40)

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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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