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AT&T Treats Their Retirees as Bad as the Rest: California Couple Fights for $3,000 in Denied Discounts

Phillip Dampier July 9, 2014 AT&T, Consumer News, Video, Wireless Broadband No Comments

attA Mill Valley, Calif. woman was overcharged by more than $3,000 after AT&T removed her company retiree discount and refused to reimburse her for its own billing mistake.

Tes Norlin and her husband travel the world and make a lot of overseas calls using their AT&T cell phone along the way. It wasn’t much of a surprise when the couple began receiving AT&T bills for more than $600, but when their travel was finished, AT&T wasn’t — the Norlin family continued to see surprisingly high bills.

high billTes is a victim of autobill complacency. The convenience of automatic bill payments has too often given people an excuse not to scrutinize their monthly bills, as long as the amount seems somewhat reasonable. It is only after an unexpectedly high bill arrives when customers finally begin to investigate.

The Norlin family bundles every telecommunications service they have with AT&T – cell phones, broadband, and television service. For that loyalty, and because of Norlin’s former employment with AT&T, she qualified for a substantial discount — $263 a month. AT&T mistakenly removed that discount when it deleted her Social Security number from the account… 14 months earlier.

“And [that discount] amounted to over $3,000 which is a substantial amount of money,” Tes told San Francisco television station KGO. “$263.88 times the 14 months, basically. Then you can do the math.”

AT&T did its own math. Despite more than two dozen calls to AT&T customer service and executive customer relations, the company’s final offer was a courtesy credit amounting to three months of the missing discount AT&T admitted accidentally removing.

deniedThe phone company says it’s the customer’s fault if they don’t analyze their AT&T bill and promptly call attention to billing errors.

“Rules are rules,” said AT&T.

Of course, AT&T wrote those rules and when KGO threatened to tell the story on the evening news, a full refund was quickly on the way.

“We provided an adjustment for the full amount, as requested, after discovering that the customer had been removed from the database of former employees eligible to receive this discount,” said AT&T in a change of heart.

Customers who don’t have the backing of Channel 7′s investigative reporter are much less likely to win that outcome so a word to the wise: even if your account is configured with autopay, always scrutinize your monthly bill for mistakes. Many cell phone companies are deleting employee discounts for customers that do not respond to employer verification requests. The re-verification procedure is detailed on the bill you may be ignoring.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KGO San Francisco Woman struggles to get employee discount from ATT 7-9-14.flv

KGO TV’s consumer reporter helps wrestle a substantial service credit from AT&T over a discount the company accidentally deleted from a customer’s account. (3:24)

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Cox Cable’s Anachronistic World of Nonsense About Data Caps: Inventing New Ways to Bill You More

Cox is behind the times.

Cox is behind the times.

While the rest of the world is moving towards gigabit broadband and unlimited access, Cox Cable continues to live in the past with a regime of data caps the company blames on increased data usage. Your only solution is to upgrade to a bigger data plan you may not want or really need.

Somehow, the folks at Cox can’t seem to manage the natural growth of the Internet while start-ups ranging from Google Fiber to a local fiber provider just getting started in our own community goes out of their way to point out how unnecessary usage limits and usage billing really are.

At Stop the Cap!, we’ll let you in on a little secret the “tech wonder twins” at Cox forgot to mention: data caps are not about managing Internet traffic, they are about managing to control costs, protect cable-TV revenue, and eventually empty customers’ wallets.

Since data caps don’t make much sense in the 21st century reality-based community, Cox attempted a longer-form rationale for data caps in a video that resembles a bad VHS copy of an interrogation by your local homicide squad. Don’t worry, only the truth gets murdered by the ironically named “Tech Talk with Todd and Sarah.” Six minutes later, you still know they’re full of it.

Tip: Next time, bring “the tech.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Cox Tech Talk with Todd and Sarah Internet Usage Trends.mp4

What Cox still fails to understand (and what Google will have to teach them when they invade Cox’s biggest territories, including Phoenix) is that data caps and usage billing are as anachronistic as those 1978 limited edition Diana Prince/Wonder Woman glasses Sarah is still wearing. (6:17)

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Sun Valley Conference Could Spark More Giant Merger Deals; Murdoch, Verizon Sniffing Around

Phillip Dampier July 8, 2014 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Verizon, Video No Comments
big fish

All of these media and content companies may be up for grabs.

Could Rupert Murdoch become the next owner of CNN? Will Verizon consider buying out the owner of more than a dozen cable networks, or the Walt Disney Company, owner of ABC?

Since 1983, media moguls have assembled annually in posh Sun Valley, Idaho to talk business. But never have they met while several huge consolidation and merger deals are on the table among their colleagues. Comcast acquiring Time Warner Cable and AT&T buying out DirecTV are both seen as game-changers among Wall Street bankers and the media elite, leaving many self-consciously pondering whether they are no longer big enough to stay competitive in a consolidated media world.

The Wall Street Journal and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution both report that at least one huge merger deal could emerge as a result of this week’s conference. Among the most likely buyers is FOX CEO Rupert Murdoch, who is reportedly looking to buy a major content company.

The most likely target is Time Warner (Entertainment), former owner of Time Warner Cable. After spinning off its money-losing magazine unit, TW has become much more focused on content and distribution – exactly what Murdoch is looking for. Time Warner owns New Line Cinema, HBO, Turner Broadcasting System, The CW Television Network, Warner Bros., Kids’ WB, Cartoon Network, Boomerang, Adult Swim, CNN, DC Comics, Warner Bros. Animation, Cartoon Network Studios, Hanna-Barbera, MLB Network and Castle Rock Entertainment. In fact, altogether the company owns or controls dozens of television channels which could all soon fall into the hands of Murdoch.

A Murdoch acquisition would be the last death-blow for Ted Turner’s Turner Broadcasting System, which launched CNN, TBS, and TNT and is now a division within Time Warner. Murdoch’s Fox News Channel was launched as a conservative alternative to CNN’s perceived left-leaning reporting. A Murdoch buyout would either deliver bipartisan profits to the media mogul or allow him to shut down the network or relaunch it under the Fox News brand.

Such an acquisition would not be cheap. Time Warner is worth as estimated $62 billion.

A Murdoch buyout would be especially troublesome for those already upset with corporate media consolidation. Murdoch would end up controlling three major U.S. networks – FOX, CW, and MyNetworkTV, multiple cable news channels, dozens of local television stations in major media markets, and more cable networks than most people can count. In fact, the assembled list of Murdoch-owned media properties is enormous:

Murdoch: The next owner of CNN?

Murdoch: The next owner of CNN?

Adult Swim, Boomerang, Cartoon Network, CNN Worldwide, HLN, Inside CNN Tour & Store, TBS, TCM, TheSmokingGun.com, TNT, truTV, Turner Sports, Fox Business Network, Fox News, Star India, YES Network, Twentieth Century Fox, Fox 2000 Pictures, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Fox International Productions, Twentieth Century Fox Television, Fox Home Entertainment, Shine Group, Twentieth Century Fox Animation, The Sun, The Times, The Sunday Times, Times Literary Supplement, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, The Australian, The Daily Telegraph (Australia), The Sunday Telegraph (Australia), The Herald Sun, The Sunday Herald Sun, The Courier Mail, The Sunday Mail, The Advertiser, NT News, The Sunday Territorian, The Sunday Times (Australia), The Sunday Tasmanian, Mercury, Warner Bros. Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures International, New Line Cinema, Warner Home Video, Warner Bros. Advanced Digital Services, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Warner Bros. Technical Operations, Warner Bros. Anti-Piracy Operations, Warner Bros. Television Group, Warner Bros. Television, Telepictures Productions, Warner Horizon Television, Warner Bros. Animation, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, Warner Bros. International Television Distribution, Warner Bros. International Television Production, Warner Bros. International Branded Services, Studio 2.0, The CW Television Network, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, HarperCollins General Books Group, HarperCollins Children’s Books Group, HarperCollins Christian Publishers, HarperCollins UK, HarperCollins Canada, HarperCollins Australia/New Zealand, HarperCollins India, FX, FXX, FXM, National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo WILD, Nat Geo Mundo, FSN, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports 2, FOX Soccer Plus, FOX College Sports, FOX Deportes, FOX Life, Baby TV, Fox Broadcasting Company, Sky 1, Sky Atlantic, Sky Living, Sky Arts, Sky Sports, Sky Movies, Sky News, Sky Deutschland, Sky Italia, MyNetworkTV, MundoFox, FOX International Channels, Fox Sports Enterprises, HBO, HBO On Demand, HBO GO, Cinemax, Cinemax on Demand, MAX GO, HBO2, HBO Signature, HBO Family, HBO Comedy, HBO Zone, HBO Latino, More Max, Action Max, Thriller Max, 5 Star Max, Max Latino, Outer Max, Movie Max, Barron’s, MarketWatch, Factiva, Dow Jones Risk & Compliance, Dow Jones VentureSource, All Things Digital, Amplify, News America Marketing, and Storyful.

Murdoch has already shown a willingness to spend big. He has recently taken an ownership interest in the up and coming Vice Media, popular with the under 30-viewing crowd. He also spent $415 million to buy romance novel publisher Harlequin Enterprises.

But Murdoch may not be the only one shopping for a deal. The Wall Street Journal offered a shopping list:

  • Small cable network owners: Nobody just owns three or four cable networks these days. Content conglomerates like CBS, Disney, Time Warner and Comcast own 15, 30, or even 40 different channels. Smaller players are ripe for the picking. Chief among them include Scripps Networks Interactive (Food Network, HGTV), AMC Networks (AMC, IFC, Sundance), and Crown Media (Hallmark).
  • Small studios: Owning a small Hollywood studio is quaint, but Wall Street investment bankers think the time is long past to sell out to larger corporate entities who can better leverage distribution of their releases, easy enough if you own your own theater chain, pay cable network, broadcast stations, and basic cable outlets.
Both phone companies are attending Sun Valley for the first time.

Both phone companies are attending Sun Valley for the first time.

In addition to buyout offers from the largest networks around, Discovery Networks is also in the mood to grow larger at the urging of its board of directors, which includes Dr. John Malone, CEO of Liberty Global. Malone is behind much of the cheerleading to consolidate the cable industry and helped spark the Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal when his partly owned Charter Communications sought a takeover of Time Warner Cable itself.

Wall Street bankers love even better the idea of selling Discovery to a new owner – Disney.

For the first time, phone companies AT&T and Verizon are also in attendance at Sun Valley, and analysts don’t believe the CEOs are there for summer vacation.

Jimmy Schaeffler, chairman of media and telecom consulting firm Carmel Group, says Verizon has been most lacking in the content ownership department and “needs something else right now” as rivals bulk up. AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV only underlines that sentiment among many Wall Street analysts who think Time Warner (Entertainment) could be an option if Verizon isn’t outbid by Murdoch.

All of this shopping has caused alarm for some, including CNN’s media reporter Brian Stelter who declared, “I will eat my remote control … in fact, I will eat my copy of the New York Post … if Murdoch becomes the owner of CNN.” 

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ Digits Media Consolidation 7-7-14.flv

The Wall Street Journal’s ‘Digits’ explores the ongoing consolidation of media creators and distributors. This year’s media conference in Sun Valley could spark more merger deals. (5:02)

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New Series: Will You Survive a Comcast Service Call Answered by Sketchy Subcontractors?

Omario Kris Henley Carlyle, 33, a Comcast subcontracted service technician, was charged with burglary and two counts of battery after kicking in the door of two Comcast customers and attacking them in Florida.

Omario Kris Henley Carlyle, 33, was charged with burglary and two counts of battery after kicking in the door of two Florida Comcast customers and attacking them.

At the recent Public Service Commission hearing held in Buffalo, I promised the commissioners a comparison of the type of service Comcast customers have gotten in the past vs. what Time Warner Cable customers have received. Neither company is a prize by any means, but at least with Time Warner Cable, your chances of surviving a service call unscathed are far better than being robbed, raped, or murdered by one of Comcast’s sketchy sub-contractors.

There are too many examples to bring to light in just one article so we’re launching a regular series of reports, illustrating these are not isolated problems and are unlikely to go away anytime soon.

In today’s edition, Comcast’s image isn’t helped hiring a homeless man who defecated in a customer’s yard, Comcast sub-contractor rapists run amuck, and why you should never leave a Comcast worker alone in your home:

The Chicagoist: “When he cut my throat I thought I was going to be dead,” said Natasha Saine. Saine was attacked in 1996 in Little Rock, Arkansas by Ceotis Franks, an independent contractor paid by Comcast to install their cable service. Franks also, “…raped her, threw her in a bathtub and tried electrocuting her. He even set her bedroom on fire.”

Boston Globe: Braintree Town Council reprimanded Comcast this week after one (homeless) worker for a subcontractor it hired to hand out flyers door-to-door allegedly defecated in a resident’s yard, and two others were arrested by police on outstanding warrants.

XFINITY Wi-Fi may be here, but good customer service sure isn't as these Walden residents wait in line over an hour for a barely-functioning Comcast employee to assist them.

XFINITY Wi-Fi may be here, but good customer service sure isn’t as these Walden residents wait in line over an hour for assistance.

Gloucester Times: A cable television salesman and installer admitted yesterday to swiping jewelry from two apartments in a Route 1 complex where he was working last month. But Brian Kuschner, 37, of Manchester, N.H., is only serving time for one of those thefts, after making an unusual deal with Danvers police. Kuschner was part of a crew of workers hired by a subcontractor for Comcast selling cable packages and upgrading cable service at the upscale Endicott Green Apartments on Route 1 on the evening of Nov. 23 when he was sent to apartment 1303. The resident told police that when she went into the bedroom after Kuschner left she realized that a Rolex watch was missing from a dresser. She immediately called police, who rounded up all the Comcast workers at the complex’s clubhouse.

TCPalm: Comcast cable installer accused of attacking customers in their home in Indian River County – A cable service contractor kicked in the door of a home and attacked two customers at their home Saturday, according to an Indian River County Sheriff’s Office affidavit.

J.R. Roberts Security Strategies/Sacramento Bee: A former cable television installer with a history of sex crimes was sentenced to 37 years in prison Friday for raping a developmentally disabled Carmichael, California woman while working in her neighborhood. Judge Michael T. Garcia sentenced Luis Jeovanny Saravia, 31, in Sacramento Superior Court, closing the criminal prosecution for the 20-year-old woman and her family. Luis Saravia had worked for Links Communication, a Sacramento-based firm contracted by Comcast.

Semmes, Attorneys At Law: How Comcast legally washes its hands of any responsibility for the conduct of their subcontractor installers.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Worst ever customer service from Comcast.mp4

In this lighter moment, Comcast kept these customers in Malden, Mass. waiting more than one hour at their customer service center with just one employee barely interacting with customers while the other three service windows remained closed and the line stretched out the door. Finally, someone offering worse service than the DMV! (1:44)

 

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Comcast’s TV Everywhere: “A Horrible Viewing Experience;” Same Audi Ad Shown 16 Times During 1 Show

Phillip Dampier July 2, 2014 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Online Video, Video 1 Comment
audi

The same Audi ad shown 16 times during one Comcast TV Everywhere On-Demand show.

What would you think about the cable company that offered you on-demand viewing of your favorite shows interrupted repeatedly by the same commercial shown over and over? What would you think of the company whose product appeared 16 times in one hour, filibustering your viewing experience without any ability to fast forward.

Welcome to Comcast’s TV Everywhere, America’s most annoying on-demand video experience.

Rich Greenfield from BTIG Research, a Wall Street analyst firm, sat through a single Audi ad — during a pre-roll and then three times in a row during five commercial breaks, while watching FX’s Americans over Comcast’s TV Everywhere.

“You almost can’t make this up, it is such a horrible viewing experience,” Greenfield said. “I’m starting to hate Audi at this point.”

Other cable companies like Time Warner also show ads during on-demand programming, but most can be fast-forwarded and a typical ad break consists of just one or two short commercials.

With Comcast, “you get the exact same Audi ad all three times during this commercial break as well as every other commercial break during this programming and we tried multiple different episodes. [...] The only ad that was running incessantly was this Audi commercial to the point where I’d like to never see this advertisement again.”

With a viewing experience like this, Greenfield speculates the result will be to increasingly drive viewers to Netflix and Amazon Prime for commercial-free viewing instead of suffering through more than eight minutes of Audi advertising.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BTIG The Ad Problems Within TV Everywhere 7-2-14.mp4

BTIG Research’s Rich Greenfield shows off the endemic problems of Comcast’s TV Everywhere on-demand viewing: Advertising torture hell for customers. (4:08)

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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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Los Angeles Has Accumulated $35 Million in Cable Franchise Fees It Has No Idea How to Spend

35-LACityView

Channel 35 is Los Angeles’ Government Access station

Los Angeles cable subscribers are paying $30-50 a year in extra franchise fees the city government has no idea what to do with, allowing a bank account dedicated to housing the unspent funds to reach $35 million and counting.

A new audit by the Office of the City Controller found no misappropriation or ethical lapses by the city government, but it did criticize the lack of long-term planning regarding how franchise revenue should be used, as well as lax auditing of expenses that were paid from the fund. Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin added the city’s lack of consistent auditing of the five major cable operators servicing greater Los Angeles may be allowing cable operators to charge customers franchise fees the companies are keeping for themselves. A 2006 law passed at the behest of Verizon and AT&T allowing statewide video franchise agreements in California isn’t helping either.

For decades, communities have been able to demand up to a 5% franchise fee from cable and phone companies offering video services in their areas in return for access to public rights-of-way and other public property. Most cities, including Los Angeles, have requested the maximum allowed – 5% of the provider’s gross annual revenue earned within the city. Cable operators retaliated by recouping the franchise fee by billing cable customers for it on a separate line on monthly cable bills.

In Los Angeles, 60% of all franchise fees ($31 million) paid are transferred to the city’s all-purpose General Fund, used for all types of city expenses. The remaining 40 percent ($12.4 million) is supposed to be earmarked for a Telecommunications Fund, but the city often raids that account as well. Time Warner Cable subscribers account for 85% of Los Angeles’ cable franchise revenue, AT&T U-verse contributes another 10% with other operators paying considerably less. Last year, Charter Cable wrote a check for less than $5,000, primarily because only a tiny part of the city of Los Angeles is served by Charter today.

So where is the excess money still in the account coming from?

fund balance

The Unintended Consequences of Statewide Video Franchising

Eight years ago, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 2987:  the “Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act of 2006” (DIVCA). In reality, DIVCA was just another statewide video franchise bill heavily pushed by the state’s dominant phone companies — AT&T and Verizon — to let them begin offering video services without having to sign franchise agreements with thousands of local governments across the state.

verizon attAT&T and Verizon sold the legislation to the public as a red-tape cutter to bring Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse to millions of Californians without unnecessary bureaucratic delay.

But lobbyists from both phone companies, as well as several cable companies, were successful in inserting their own amendments into the law that undercut their arguments for passing the legislation:

  • As local franchise agreements expired, companies took their franchise renewal business direct to the state, cutting off local oversight. Communities could no longer require operators to expand into rural areas or impose fines for sub-standard service;
  • Cable companies won the right to toss Public, Educational, and Government Access (PEG) channels out of their buildings. Many communities assigned responsibility for housing and operating PEG channels as part of their franchise agreement. DIVCA rendered those agreements void and unenforceable;
  • Cable companies no longer had to offer institutional broadband networks for free or at a discount to local governments, schools and libraries, and many existing networks were closed down as soon as the local franchise agreement expired and communities balked at the new prices charged by telecom companies.

But perhaps the most controversial amendment was language that gets AT&T and Verizon out of meeting obligations to build out their fiber networks where they choose not to built them, while still compelling smaller independent telephone companies to offer service to every customer within their telephone service area within a reasonable amount of time.

So instead of promoting a rush towards video competition, both AT&T and Verizon won concessions that let them cherry pick — on their own schedule — customers for AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS:

  • Verizon is in compliance with DIVCA as long as 25% of the households where service is available are low-income and within 5 years, Verizon increases that to at least 40%;
  • AT&T stays out of trouble with DIVCA by providing video service to 35% of low-income households where service is available. Within five years, AT&T must reach at least 50%.

One of the biggest victims of DIVCA are PEG channels which lost the sponsorship of the cable companies that used to underwrite them as part of their franchise agreements. American Community Television reported in California, Illinois and Indiana, where statewide video franchising laws were passed, cable operators that operated PEG channels closed the doors, sometimes with only 30 days notice. Even in states where PEG funding remained, channels have been exiled to Channel Siberia (eg. Channel 1,512) or are under constant threat of losing their channel if they don’t meet an operator’s arbitrary quality of programming criteria.

Time Warner Cable has moved PEG channels to digital service in a majority of their service areas, requiring many customers to have an added-cost cable box to watch.

To help Californian PEG services cope, a state law permitted cities to collect an extra 1% of gross revenue from cable operators to keep funding these channels. But if a city already collects a full 5% franchise fee, any money collected from PEG channels must only be spent on their operations — no raiding of funds allowed. If the local government thinks there are bigger priorities than supporting public, educational, and government access, the future of PEG channels is questionable.

How to Spend the Untouchable Proceeds

The new home of Los Angeles' Government Access channel

The new home of Los Angeles’ Government Access channel

With Los Angeles-area cable companies collecting and sending on the proceeds of the 1% PEG surcharge to city coffers, the money has been more or less just piling up over the last seven years, unspent.

As of the end of June last year, the city had squirreled away about $22 million collected from cable TV customers stashed in a non interest-bearing account. PEG operations across the United States are not known for being profligate spenders, relying on budgets that would be insufficient to keep the lights on at a typical local public television station. So some question whether Los Angeles’ Public Access, Educational Access, and Government Access networks need $22 million to continue operations.

The city has decided the Government Access channel — the one that airs council meetings and other political functions — does need a new home.  So the city is spending $20 million to completely renovate one of the oldest buildings in Los Angeles, the long-vacant three-story Merced Theater near Olvera Street.

When complete, the state-of-the-art digital facilities of Cityview Channel 35 may rival those of some commercial television stations in Los Angeles. The building will house a small performance venue on the first floor, a studio with space for a 70-person live audience, and plenty of office space on the third floor. What it evidently won’t have room for is the Public Access and Educational Access channels that make up the rest of the PEG trio. The new facility is for the exclusive use of Channel 35.

Local residents are happy someone is finally doing something with the theater, which has been empty and unused for at least 30 years. The project could also make Los Angeles’ Government Access channel one of the most capable in the country, producing high quality programming well beyond the ubiquitous city council meetings.

“Space for a live audience of about 70 people will allow us to engage the public with debates, town halls and other events that we weren’t able to do,” Mark Wolf, executive officer at the city Information Technology Agency, which oversees Channel 35, told Downtown News. “The venue also gives us a full upgrade to digital technology, as we’ve been operating in an analog environment.”

Downtown News partly misled its readers when it suggested cable providers are footing the bill for the renovated home of Channel 35. Although money from the city’s general fund won’t be used for the project, the money did originate from cable subscribers who have paid higher cable bills since 2007 because the city elected to collect a 1% PEG franchise fee.

Galperin

Galperin

Even after spending $20 million on the Merced Theater, the money from Time Warner Cable, Cox, AT&T, Verizon, and Charter cable TV subscribers will keep rolling in. The audit found that by the time the new Merced Theater facility opens in 2016, the city will again have between $21-25 million in unspent PEG funds.

Galperin thinks throwing more money at traditional PEG operations would be a mistake, particularly when younger audiences are not even subscribing to cable television.

“We’re in a new era,” Galperin said. “The old rules that envisioned everybody getting their programming from cable are changing before our very eyes. We are in a totally different era in terms of how people get their information, so much of viewership is on the Internet now, not necessarily on cable.”

Because PEG funds can only be spent on PEG operations, as a starting point, funds could be spent to build up what is now an anemic, barely functioning website for Channel 35. Although the channel does stream online, it is intermittent in our experience. Channel 35 might also partner with local public broadcasting and minority-interest channels in co-production ventures. It should also develop a robust on-demand library of its content for site visitors because that is increasingly how Americans choose to watch television.

Galperin suggested other uses including a public Wi-Fi network and city Internet sites for programming and other information, but these may stray outside of the boundaries of what is permissible under current California and federal law.

Of course, there is one other alternative – rescind the PEG fee altogether until there is a legitimate need to collect the money from already overburdened cable subscribers.

franchise fees

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Surviving DIVCA.mp4

Silicon Valley Community Television aired this lengthy conference last fall for the benefit of local governments across California still trying to make sense of the 2006 Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act, a provider-influenced piece of legislation that has tied the hands of most communities to manage their local telecommunications infrastructure for the good of their citizens. (2 hours, 47 minutes)

 

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Comcast’s Gain, Our Pain: New Yorkers Flood PSC With Comments Opposing Merger Deal

Nearly 2,000 New York residents and counting have urged the state Public Service Commission to reject the proposed merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

A review of the comments finds little interest in compromise and setting conditions in return for merger approval. Those commenting overwhelmingly want nothing to do with Comcast even if the company agrees to broaden its Internet Essentials program for the poor or agrees to continue voluntarily supporting Net Neutrality principles.

comcast no

Consumers Union stormed the streets of Philadelphia during Comcast’s annual shareholder meeting to protest its merger deal with Time Warner Cable.

“There are ample examples of the rottenness of Comcast,” wrote I. VanKeuren from Wallkill. “It seems to me that instead of holding hearings on a possible merger of these two bad companies, the PSC should be investigating why Comcast has been so bad for so long.”

VanKeuren is hardly alone in his thinking.

A new survey from the Consumer Reports National Research Center found scant support for the merger among Americans.

The survey found 56% of Americans oppose the merger, and only 11% of respondents were in favor of it, with the rest either undecided or resigned to the belief it is out of their hands.

Cable companies rank among the least trusted organizations that most Americans do business with, so it’s not surprising that the people are concerned. Seventy-four percent of the public says they believe that prices will rise if the merger goes through, and two-thirds say that Comcast will have less incentive to improve customer service. The study, which drew on a nationally representative pool of 1,573 people, was conducted on behalf of the Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

“Most Americans don’t have time to follow complicated corporate mergers but this deal has definitely captured the public’s attention,” Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union, said. “Consumers are tired of rising monthly bills and lousy customer service for cable and Internet and have little faith that this mega merger will make things any better.”  The new Comcast would control more than two-thirds of all cable television subscribers in the country, and nearly 40 percent of the high-speed Internet market.

Those statistics and past experiences dealing with Comcast have New York consumers like VanKeuren concerned.

“If [...] the PSC approves this merger, then the PSC itself should [itself] be investigated with a complete reorganization as its goal,” said VanKeuren.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/No ComcastTime Warner Mega Merger 5-23-14.mp4

Consumers Union protested outside of Comcast’s annual meeting in Philadelphia in opposition to its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. (1:48)

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Aereo Declared Illegal by Supreme Court; 6-3 Decision is Certain to End Streaming Venture

aereo_logo

“We did try, but it’s over now.” — Barry Diller, a major investor in Aereo

The multibillion dollar broadcasting conglomerates that control over-the-air television and most cable networks got everything they wanted today from a 6-3 decision in the U.S. Supreme Court that declared Aereo, an independent provider of online over-the-air television streams, illegal.

The court’s liberal justices joined Chief Justice John Roberts and moderate Anthony Kennedy in a complete repudiation of the legality of Aereo’s business model – selling over the air television signals received by individual tiny antennas and streamed over the Internet — without seeking permission from the stations involved. In a sweeping ruling, the court found that no matter the technology involved, any effort to resell access or copies of television programs without the permission of the copyright holders is illegal. “We conclude that Aereo is not just an equipment supplier,” Justice Breyer wrote in the opinion. “We do not see how the fact that Aereo transmits via personal copies of programs could make a difference.”

Aereo CEO and founder Chet Kanojia quickly released a statement declaring the decision “a massive setback for the American consumer.”

“We’ve said all along that we worked diligently to create a technology that complies with the law, but today’s decision clearly states that how the technology works does not matter. This sends a chilling message to the technology industry,” Kanojia said. “We are disappointed in the outcome, but our work is not done. We will continue to fight for our consumers and fight to create innovative technologies that have a meaningful and positive impact on our world.”

That is news to Barry Diller, perhaps Aereo’s biggest investor. He has said for months if Aereo loses in the Supreme Court, the service will be shut down. He repeated that today on CNBC.

“We did try, but it’s over now.” Diller said.

Image: Wall Street Journal

Image: Wall Street Journal

Reed Hundt, former FCC chairman under the Clinton Administration, said despite the fact the ruling may inconvenience Aereo subscribers, the court wasn’t wrong in its decision.

“Aereo has very little chance surviving in the business and Barry Diller got his hands caught in the regulatory cookie jar,” Hundt said. “You can’t use technological tricks to bypass [cable network] rules and regulations. I think that’s a very reasonable decision.”

Observers worried about the impact the Aereo case might have on ancillary services unintentionally caught up in any broad legal language, but the court appeared to carefully avoid those complications.

The ruling leaves antenna manufacturers unaffected because antenna users simply capture over-the-air signals for reception in the home without paying the kind of ongoing subscription fees Aereo charged its customers.

The decision also protects the legality of cloud computing, DVR recordings, and other new technologies not directly related to the lawsuit. “We agree with the Solicitor General that “[q]uestions involving cloud computing, [remote storage] DVRs, and other novel issues not before the Court, as to which ‘Congress has not plainly marked [the] course,’ should await a case in which they are squarely presented,” Breyer wrote.

The court’s liberal wing shared Breyer’s opinion. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan all voted in favor of broadcasters including Walt Disney (ABC), Comcast (NBC), CBS Corp., and FOX.

Conservatives slammed the majority ruling against Aereo, claiming the court was bending over backwards for Hollywood and giant broadcasting conglomerates. Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent ripped the majority’s ruling, claiming it would “sow confusion for years to come.” Scalia predicts there will be plenty of new litigation before the courts on issues related to online transmission of copyright works as a result of today’s decision.

Although Aereo was still pre-registering customers as of this afternoon, that isn’t likely to stay true for much longer. Aereo’s only bid to stay alive is to seek licensing agreements with the stations it distributes over its service. With broadcasters’ strengthened hand, it is unlikely they will be receptive to pricing agreements that would allow Aereo to continue providing service for $8 a month. Major cable and satellite operators are signing retransmission consent agreements with volume discounts that run above $1 a month per subscriber for each television station in a local area. In most cities, that would amount to at least $5 a month, but Aereo will likely face even higher costs because it lacks access to discounts.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN Supreme Court rules against Aereo 6-25-14.mp4

CNN attempts to explain the meaning of the Aereo case to its less-informed viewers with mixed success. But the story explains why this is relevant to cord cutters. (4:41)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Supreme Court Rules Against Aereo in Landmark Case 6-25-14.flv

Bloomberg News reports the Aereo case was a decisive victory for programmers who now have a strengthened hand asking for more compensation during retransmission consent negotiations with cable and satellite providers. (1:55)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Aereo Ruling Gets Positive Response from Broadcasters 6-25-14.flv

Broadcasters called today’s victory “pro-consumer” but that is open to debate. Bloomberg News digs deeper into what this case means for DVR and cloud storage services as well. (5:26)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Aereo Violating Broadcaster Copyrights Stocks Up 6-25-14.flv

Wall Street is rewarding big television networks and station owner groups with higher stock prices after winning a decisive victory against Aereo, Bloomberg reports. (2:35)

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A Better Alternative to Comcast’s Internet Essentials’ Tricks & Traps: EveryoneOn’s Discount Internet Access

internet essentialsWhile regulators sort through the thicket of fine print that keeps hundreds of thousands of families from qualifying for Comcast’s $9.95 Internet Essentials affordable Internet program, a much simpler offer has emerged that doesn’t work overtime to protect Comcast’s broadband revenue from being cannibalized. In short, regulators don’t need to cut deals to expand programs like Internet Essentials in return for saddling residents with America’s “worst cable company.” There are alternatives.

EveryoneOn markets Comcast’s Internet Essentials where appropriate, but the group also gives low-income residents without school-age children other options that won’t require a $45 billion merger deal to expand.

EveryoneOn’s website asks visitors to enter their zip code to determine eligibility for discounted Internet access in neighborhoods with below-average standards of living. In western New York, we found few programs available in wealthy suburban zip codes, but most city neighborhoods were eligible for substantial discounts off wireless Internet access:

Mobile Beacon, like FreedomPop, uses the Clear WiMAX network at the moment.

mobile beacon coverage

Mobile Beacon relies on Sprint’s Clear 4G WiMAX network.

Mobile Beacon utilizes Sprint’s Clear 4G WiMAX network at the moment, and does not throttle or limit customer usage. The $10 rate plan is by far the cheapest around for unlimited access, but speeds are limited to 1Mbps. That may not be a problem for many Clear WiMAX users who can’t get speeds faster than that anyway.

howItWorksModemFreedomPop offers 1GB of monthly data for free, after a $49 setup charge.

Both offers are readily available to public with almost no pre-qualifications. The biggest downsides to both plans include Clear’s very limited WiMAX coverage area and the fact Sprint is gradually decommissioning its WiMAX network.

To remain committed to low-income Internet access, Sprint will offer free wireless broadband service to 50,000 low-income students nationwide.

Microsoft is also actively promoting EveryoneOn’s affordable Internet service offers to school districts nationwide as a solution to their home connectivity problems.  Microsoft will also help deploy Windows devices below $300 to classrooms across the country. Schools can buy Windows 8.1 Pro at a discounted rate and get “Office 365 Education” at no extra cost after they buy Office for teachers and administrators.

New York regulators are getting an earful from public interest and non-profit groups about solving a digital divide that is critical to the state’s economic future. The Internet is no longer merely a nice thing to have. It’s now essential:

  • A 2013 Jobvite survey revealed 94% of recruiters use or plan to use social media to find potential employees.
  • Fifty percent of today’s jobs require technology skills, and this percentage is expected to grow to 77% in the next decade.
  • The new GED test is being offered only on a computer, requiring all taking the test to have a level of comfort with technology;
  • The typical US household saves approximately $8,000 per year by using the Internet, according to an industry-backed Internet Innovation Alliance report.
  • 21% of uninsured Americans  do not  use the Internet, making it impossible for them to use the online health exchanges.
  • A Pew Internet Report revealed 59% of caregivers with internet access say that online resources have been helpful to their ability to provide care and support for the person in their care.
  • The New York Times reported Internet access and literacy allows seniors to stay socially connected to friends and family, maintain their health and increase longevity.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Mobile Beacon Nation Case Study.mp4

Mobile Beacon isn’t just powering income-challenged Americans. The 4G wireless broadband project is also connecting communities, schools, and social service agencies in communities under economic pressure. Mobile Beacon won’t put cable customers under more economic pressure from skyrocketing cable bills, either. It’s not owned by a cable operator. (13:21)

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