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

Phillip "I got whiplash just watching" Dampier

Phillip “I got whiplash just watching” Dampier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balto

Balto

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

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

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

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

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

Cable "competition" in Minneapolis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABCom is Albania's largest ISP.

ABCom is Albania’s largest ISP.

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

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

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

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

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

no limit internet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CenturyLink Unfazed by AT&T/Verizon’s Rural Wireless Broadband; ‘Caps Too Low, Prices Too High’

centurylinkCenturyLink does not believe it will face much of a competitive threat from AT&T and Verizon’s plans to decommission rural landline service in favor of fixed wireless broadband because the two companies’ offers are too expensive, overly usage-capped and too slow.

Both AT&T and Verizon have proposed mothballing traditional landline service in rural areas because both companies claim wireline financial returns are too low and ongoing maintenance costs are too high. In its place, both companies are developing rural fixed wireless solutions for voice and broadband service that will rely on 4G LTE networks.

CenturyLink does not traditionally compete against either AT&T or Verizon because their landline service areas do not overlap. But as both AT&T and Verizon Wireless continue to emphasize their nationwide wireless networks, independent phone companies are likely to face increased competition from wireless phone and broadband services.

CenturyLink isn’t worried.

“About two-thirds of our customers can get access to 10Mbps or higher [from us and] that continues to increase year by year,” CenturyLink chief financial officer Stewart Ewing told attendees at Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s 2014 Global Telecom & Media Conference. “Our belief is that with the increasing demands customers have for bandwidth — the Netflix bandwidth requirement — just the increasing amount of video that customers are watching and downloading over their Internet pipes, we believe will drive customers to using a provider that basically has a wire in their home because we believe you will get generally higher bandwidth and a much better experience at lower cost.”

Ewing

Ewing

CenturyLink customers consume an average of slightly less than 50GB of Internet usage per month, and that number is growing. Ewing said that CenturyLink has long believed that as bandwidth demand increases, wireless becomes less and less capable of providing a good customer experience.

“At this point, we don’t really have any concerns because people on the margin — the folks that don’t use much bandwidth — probably use a wireless connection today to download,” Ewing said. “But as the bandwidth demands grow, the wireless connection becomes more and more expensive and that could tend to drive people our way. So as long as we have 10Mbps or better to the customers, we don’t really think there is that much exposure.”

CenturyLink does not measure the difference in Internet usage between urban and rural residential customers, but the company suspects rural customers might naturally use more because alternative outlets are fewer in number outside of urban America.

“Folks in rural areas might actually can use Internet more for buying things that they can’t source [easily], but it’s hard to really count,” said Ewing. “I think our customers in the rural areas probably are not that much different from folks in urban areas.”

Prism is CenturyLink's fiber to the neighborhood service, similar to AT&T U-verse. It is getting only a modest expansion in 2014.

Prism is CenturyLink’s fiber to the neighborhood service, similar to AT&T U-verse. It is getting only a modest expansion in 2014.

CenturyLink’s largest competitor remains Comcast, which co-exists in about 40% of CenturyLink’s markets. The merger with Time Warner Cable won’t have much impact on CenturyLink, increasing Comcast’s footprint in CenturyLink territory by only about only 6-7%. CenturyLink believes most of any new competition will come in the small business market segment. Comcast’s residential pricing is unlikely to attract current CenturyLink customers in Time Warner Cable territory to consider a switch to Comcast if the merger is approved.

Ewing also shared his thinking about several other CenturyLink initiatives that customers might see sometime this year:

  • Don’t expect CenturyLink to expand Wi-Fi hotspot networks. The company found they are difficult to monetize and is unlikely to expand them further;
  • Any change in the FCC’s definition of minimum broadband speed to qualify for federal broadband expansion funds would slow rural broadband expansion. Ewing admitted a 10Mbps speed minimum is considerably more difficult to achieve over DSL than a 4 or 6Mbps minimum;
  • Don’t expect any more merger/acquisition activity from CenturyLink in the Competitive Local Exchange Carrier business. CenturyLink shows no sign of pursuing Frontier, Windstream, FairPoint, or other independent phone companies. It is focused on expanding business services, where 60% of CenturyLink’s revenue now comes;
  • CenturyLink fiber expansion will primarily be focused on reaching business offices and commercial customers in 2014;
  • CenturyLink will only modestly expand PrismTV, its fiber-to-the-neighborhood service, to an additional 300,000 homes this year. The company now offers the service to two million of its customers, with 200,000 signed up nationwide. Last year, CenturyLink expanded PrismTV availability to 800,000 homes.
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Public Service Commission to N.Y. Towns: You Have No Negotiating Leverage Over Time Warner Cable

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

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

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

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

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

A rare sight in southern Renssalear County.

A rare sight in southern Rensselaer County.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Zain Bahrain vs. AT&T/Verizon: See How Much You’re Getting Gouged for 4G LTE Service

zain 4g

This week, mobile customers in Bahrain can now sign up for uncongested, ultra-fast 4G LTE broadband packages that include 120GB of usage and a free LTE router or MiFi device, all priced less than what AT&T and Verizon Wireless charge for just 1GB of mobile broadband and the cost of the device to use it.

att verizonZain Bahrain began offering mobile broadband packages this week that start at under $32 a month. For video lovers and downloaders, the company charges $53 a month for up to 120GB of usage at speeds up to 25Mbps, equipment included at no extra charge. Customers upgrading to 250GB or 1000GB usage allowances also get much faster performance on the company’s LTE network — up to 100Mbps.

Customers that exceed those usage allowances are not billed overlimit fees. Their speeds are temporarily throttled to a still-usable 2-4Mbps, depending on the chosen plan. There is a 4GB daily usage limit.

In the United States, AT&T customers pay $50 a month for a DataConnect plan offering up to 5GB of usage, with a $10/GB overlimit fee. A smartphone customer pays a combined $65 a month for a 1GB plan and device fee.

A Verizon Wireless customer pays $50 as month for a shared data plan offering a 4GB data allowance and includes the monthly device fee. A smartphone customer pays $80 a month ($70 if on Verizon’s Edge plan) for a 1GB plan and device fee.

“We are delighted that we are leveraging the investment in our new network to benefit our customers with new offers,” said Zain Bahrain’s enterprise broadband products and services manager Mohammed Al Alawi. “Today’s broadband customers are bandwidth hungry, with diverse connectivity needs; our new 4G LTE broadband packages are custom-designed to meet these needs and enable a digital lifestyle like never before.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Why should you switch to 4G LTE with Zain 2014.mp4

Zain produced this English language video to introduce its 4G LTE service offering speeds up to 100Mbps in Kuwait. Unlike in the United States, generous usage allowances from Zain make wireless broadband a prospect for Internet users in the home and on the go. (2:20)

 

 

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Wireless Company Lobbyists Add Cell Tower Deregulation to Connect Every Iowan Act

Is a cell tower coming to your backyard?

Is a cell tower coming to your neighbor’s backyard?

Amended language in a bill that would expand broadband service to rural Iowa strips local communities from regulating where wireless companies can place their cell towers, potentially threatening its passage.

The “killer” amended language originated from wireless phone company lobbyists, most likely working for AT&T, and suddenly appeared in the Iowa House version of the bill.

AT&T has routinely proposed such language in several states, claiming the new regulations are designed to “streamline” the expansion of cellular networks often held up by ‘spurious objections’ from local citizens opposed to the unsightly towers in their immediate neighborhoods.

Local governments have also regularly weighed in on approving cell towers in areas where they pose an aesthetic threat or a potential safety risk and some, according to AT&T, have interminably delayed consideration of cell site proposals.

The language in the House bill introduces time limits on cell tower approvals, prohibits communities from rejecting tower placement except under limited circumstances, and denies communities access to cell site documentation deemed private, competitive information by wireless companies.

(Unless you want to put a cell tower here)

(Unless you want to put a cell tower here)

The cell tower language is included in the House version of the Connect Every Iowan Act, legislation considered a priority by Gov. Terry Branstad this year. Branstad wants to remove financial and regulatory impediments and offer tax credits to stimulate expansion of broadband into areas most providers have previously deemed uneconomical to serve.

AT&T sees wireless broadband as a sensible alternative and the company has publicly advocated using wireless 4G technology in rural areas. If the House measure is approved, AT&T and other wireless companies can affix microcells or other cellular antennas to utility poles, street signs, or water towers without seeking permission from local authorities.

Colleagues in the Iowa state Senate were concerned about the language in the House version of the bill.

“The language in the House bill, in my view, is pretty egregious,” Sen. Steve Sodders, (D-State Center), who is leading the effort on the Senate bill. He told the Associated Press, “It really took away all local control of cell tower siting.”

“The real angst there is that without local control on these towers, these things can be built right in your neighborhood,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, (D-Des Moines). “Nobody wants to come home and see that. Finding that balance is going to be key.”

att-logo-221x300Des Moines city attorney Jeff Lester noted the language in the bill cleverly favors cellular companies with a built-in guarantee of approval of their cell tower requests:

The bill does not require cellular companies to provide company and business plan information to local governments when applying for a new cell tower site. Should municipal authorities deny a request, and a cellular company then brings the case to federal court, local authorities wouldn’t have the evidence necessary to justify their denial.

Lester said under federal law, company information serves as evidence in these appeals. Without it, there is no basis for denial, he said, and the ruling would be in favor of the cellular company.

Rep. Peter Cownie, (R-West Des Moines), who spearheaded the effort in the House, said determining where towers can or cannot go is a difficult task, but that it’s not his intent to weaken anyone’s say in their placement.

“I do not want to take away the authority of local officials in terms of cell tower siting,” he told AP. “I don’t think anyone’s goal is to take that away.”

Subcommittees in both chambers plan to meet to discuss the legislation next week.

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New Jersey’s Fiber Ripoff: Verizon Walks Away from Fiber Upgrades Customers Already Paid For

Bait and switch broadband

Bait and switch broadband

Since 1991, Verizon telephone customers in New Jersey have paid at least $15 billion in surcharges for a promised high-speed broadband network that would reach every home in the state by 2010. But now critics charge Verizon diverted much of that money to shareholder dividend payouts and building infrastructure for its highly profitable wireless network, leaving almost half the state with slow speed DSL or no broadband at all.

In the early 1990s, Verizon’s predecessor — Bell Atlantic — launched “Opportunity New Jersey,” a plan promising the state it would have the first 100% fiber telecommunications network in the country. In return, the company enjoyed more than two decades of generous tax breaks and collected various surcharges from customers to finance network construction. But a review of Verizon’s promises vs. reality suggest the company has reneged on the deal it signed with the state back when Bill Clinton was beginning his first term as president.

Verizon promised at least 75 percent of New Jersey would have a fiber service by 1996 offering 384 television channels and 45/45Mbps broadband service for $40 a month. The network would be open to competitors and be deployed without regard to income or its potential customer base.

The state suspected trouble as far back as 1997, when the Division of the Ratepayer Advocate with the New Jersey Board of Regulatory Commissioners blasted the company’s progress five years into the project:

Bell Atlantic-New Jersey (BA-NJ) has over-earned, underspent and inequitably deployed advanced telecommunications technology to business customers, while largely neglecting schools and libraries, low-income and residential ratepayers and consumers in Urban Enterprise Zones as well as urban and rural areas.

Verizon's wired success story

By 2006, New Jersey was being introduced to FiOS, which some believed was part of Verizon’s commitment to the state. But a decade after Verizon’s target dates, customers were still waiting for FiOS video service, the maximum broadband speeds offered at that point were 30/5Mbps and the cost of the package ranged from $180-200 a month. Most of Verizon’s FiOS deployments were in the northern half of the state, leaving southern New Jersey with few, if any service improvements.

Despite Verizon’s repeated failures to meet its target dates, that same year New Jersey made life even easier for the phone company by passing a statewide video franchise law allowing Verizon to bypass negotiating with each town and city regarding its video services and instead run FiOS TV as it pleases anywhere in the state. The company argued a statewide video franchise would allow for more rapid deployment of Verizon’s fiber network. In reality, the company was falling further and further behind. By 2013, when Verizon sought renewal of its statewide franchise, Verizon only offered FiOS TV to 352 of the 526 communities hoping for service. At least 174 communities still waiting for FiOS are likely never going to get the fiber service, despite paying Verizon’s surcharges for more than 20 years. Verizon suspended its FiOS expansion project more than two years ago.

Bait and Switch Broadband

From promises of a cutting edge fiber future to good-enough DSL....

From promises of a cutting edge fiber future to good-enough DSL.

Despite early commitments of providing New Jersey with advanced fiber broadband speeds unheard of elsewhere in the country in the 1990s, Verizon changed its tune when it became clear the company wanted to prioritize investment in its more lucrative wireless network. Instead of a commitment of 45/45Mbps, providing basic DSL broadband at any speed was now seen as adequate. Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski told both Newsweek and the Inquirer the company never promised a statewide deployment of FiOS.

“Nobody knew what FiOS was 20 years ago,” Gierczynski said. “It wasn’t until 2004 when FiOS came on the scene.”

Forget about that commitment for 45/45Mbps speed as well.

“It didn’t say a minimum of 45mbps,” Gierczynski said, “it just says ‘up to’.”

That means DSL service will be a part of southern New Jersey for the near future. Customers unimpressed with the 5Mbps DSL service they get from Verizon can always pay substantially more for access to Verizon Wireless’ usage capped LTE 4G network that Gierczynski believes can be used to download movies.

In effect, ratepayers that wrote checks to pay artificially higher phone bills to help subsidize a promised 100% fiber optic future have instead funneled working capital to Verizon Wireless’ network expansion and helped enrich shareholders with generous dividend payouts.

Opportunity New Jersey Verizon: Christie Administration Proposes Letting Verizon Off the Hook Permanently

Gov. Christie

Gov. Christie

Most victims of costly bait and switch schemes get angry and demand justice. In New Jersey, the Christie Administration believes Verizon is the victim of unreasonable expectations and has proposed a sweetheart deal to both let the company off the hook and keep the surcharges it collected from New Jersey ratepayers for the last 21 years.

While the rest of the country clamors for better broadband, Governor Christie’s State Commission, his Attorney General’s Office and the state Consumer Rate Counsel believe that basic DSL is good enough, and making life difficult for Verizon by insisting it live up to its part of a mutual agreement just isn’t very nice.

All eyes were on incoming president of the Board of Public Utilities Dianne Solomon, wife of close Christie associate Lee Solomon. The BPU has direct authority over Verizon’s compliance with its promises to the state. But Dianne’s only apparent experience is as an official with the United States Tennis Association. Critics immediately pounced on the odd nomination, accusing the governor of using the BPU as a lucrative parking lot for political patronage. Three of the four current commissioners are all politically connected and their experience navigating telecommunications law is questionable.

Instead of demanding that Verizon be held to its commitment to the state, government officials are bending over backwards to let Verizon walk away from its promises forever.

A stipulation proposal would allow the company to shred its commitment to upgrade New Jersey with fiber optics. Instead, Verizon gets permission to discontinue service if you have any other option for service — including cable or wireless. Not only would this stipulation eliminate any hope bypassed communities have to eventually get Verizon FiOS, it would also let Verizon scrap its rural landline network and kill DSL, forcing customers to its lucrative wireless broadband product instead.

Solomon

Solomon

The agreement also eliminates any commitment Verizon had to deliver fiber-fast speeds. Instead, Verizon will be considered in good standing if it matches the slowest speed on offer from Verizon DSL.

“Broadband is defined as delivering any technology including Verizon’s 4G wireless, fiber, copper or cable, data transmission service at speeds no less than the minimum speed of Verizon New Jersey’s Digital Subscriber line (DSL) that is provided by Verizon New Jersey today.”

New Jersey customers can file comments about the proposed agreement until March 24, 2014 with the Board of Public Utilities.

We have found a good sample letter you should edit to make your own. You can e-mail the secretary directly and/or send your message to the general e-mail address: [email protected] (be sure to include “Verizon New Jersey, Docket No. TO12020155″ on the Subject line):

New Jersey Board of Public Utilities
Kristi Izzo, Secretary
44 South Clinton Avenue, 9th Floor
P.O. Box 350 Trenton, NJ 08625-0350

Email: [email protected]

Re: In the Matter of Verizon New Jersey, Inc. Docket# TO 12020155

Dear Secretary Izzo:

I want to alert you to an urgent matter pending before the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. Pursuant to a 1993 law called Opportunity New Jersey, Verizon NJ was obligated to upgrade New Jersey’s “copper wire” network by 2010. To fund the Opportunity New Jersey expansion, Verizon NJ was permitted to collect excess charges from their customers and received lucrative tax breaks from the State. These charges and tax breaks began in the 1990s and are still being collected today.

Verizon failed to meet its timeframe requirements under the Opportunity New Jersey agreement to New Jersey residents. As a result of Verizon’s failures, on March 12, 2012, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities initiated a legal action against Verizon NJ. The Board and Verizon NJ have now entered into a proposed settlement agreement which I believe is inadequate and not in the best interests of myself and other New Jersey residents who have paid for this service that was not fully delivered.

I oppose the Board’s proposed settlement agreement and demand that The Board of Public Utilities hold Verizon to the original Opportunity New Jersey agreement which requires Verizon to expand broadband services to every customer in the State. The proposed settlement has the potential of costing myself and other residents even more money than I have already paid for the last 21 years. The Board of Public Utilities should not allow Verizon to flagrantly disregard the stipulations which are the framework for the charges and tax breaks that Verizon has enjoyed for 21 years.

I am asking the Board of Public Utilities to be my advocate and investigate where our dollars were spent and to require Verizon to give me what I was originally promised under Opportunity New Jersey agreement of 1993.

Sincerely,

[Your Name, Address, Phone Number]

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Verizon: Prioritization and Compensation for Certain Traffic is the Future of the Internet

McAdam

McAdam

The head of Verizon believes two concepts will become Internet reality in the short-term future:

  1. Those that use a lot of Internet bandwidth should pay more to transport that content;
  2. The “intelligent” Internet should prioritize the delivery of certain traffic over other traffic.

Welcome to a country without the benefit of Net Neutrality/Open Internet protection. A successful lawsuit brought by Verizon to toss out the Federal Communications Commission’s somewhat informal protections has given Verizon carte blanche to go ahead with its vision of your Internet future.

Lowell McAdam, Verizon’s CEO, answered questions on Tuesday at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference, attended by Wall Street investors and analysts.

McAdam believes groups trying to whip Net Neutrality into a major issue are misguided and uninformed about how companies manage their online networks.

“The carriers make money by transporting a lot of data,” McAdam said. “And spending a lot of time manipulating this, that accusation is by people that don’t really know how you manage a network like this. You don’t want to get into that sort of ‘gameplaying.’”

netneutralityMcAdam believes there is nothing wrong with prioritizing some Internet traffic over others, and he believes that future is already becoming a reality.

“If you have got an intelligent transportation system, or you have got an intelligent healthcare system, you are going to need to prioritize traffic,” said McAdam. “You want to make sure that if somebody is going to have a heart attack, that gets to the head of the line, ahead of a grade schooler that is coming home to do their homework in the afternoon or watch TV. So I think that is coming to realization.”

But McAdam also spoke about the need for those generating heavy Internet traffic to financially compensate Internet Service Providers, resulting in better service for content producers like Netflix — not considered ‘priority traffic’ otherwise.

“You saw the Netflix-Comcast deal this week which I think — or a couple weeks ago — which is smart because it positions them farther out into the network, so they are not congesting the core of the Internet,” said McAdam. “And there is some compensation going back and forth, so they recognize those that use a lot of bandwidth should contribute to that.”

McAdam reported to investors he had spoken personally with FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who seems to be taking an even more informal approach to Net Neutrality than his predecessor Julius Genachowski did.

Verizon's machine-to-machine program is likely to be a major earner for the company.

Verizon’s machine-to-machine program is likely to be a major earner for the company.

“In my discussions with Tom Wheeler, the Chairman, he has made it very clear that he will take decisive action if he sees bad behavior,” McAdam said, without elaborating on what might constitute ‘bad behavior.’ “I think that is great; great for everybody to see that. And I think that is what we would like to see him do, is have a general set of rules that covers all the players: the Netflixes, the Microsofts, the Apples, the Googles, and certainly the Comcasts and the Verizons. But the only thing to do is not — you can’t just regulate the carriers. They’re not the only players in making sure the net is healthy. And I think we all want to make sure that investment continues in the Internet and that customers get great service.”

Verizon has already reported success monetizing wireless broadband usage that has helped deliver growing revenue and profits at the country’s largest carrier. Now McAdam intends to monetize machine-to-machine communications that exchange information over Verizon’s network.

McAdam believes within 3-4 years Americans will have between five and ten different devices enabled on wireless networks like Verizon’s in their cars, homes, and personal electronics. For that, McAdam expects Verizon will earn between $0.25 a month for the average home medical monitor up to $50 a month for the car. Verizon is even testing wireless-enabled parking lots that can direct cars to empty parking spaces.

For those applications, McAdam expects to charge enough to guarantee a 50% profit margin.

“These can be very nice margin products,” McAdam told the audience of investors. “So even at $0.25 if you are doing 10 million of them and it’s 50% or better margins, those are attractive businesses for us to get into.”

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AT&T Proposes Pulling the Plug on Landline Service in Alabama and Florida

carbon hill

Carbon Hill, Ala.

AT&T is seeking permission to disconnect traditional landline service in Alabama and Florida as it plans to abandon its copper wire network and move towards Voice Over IP in urban areas and force customers to use wireless in suburbs and rural communities.

AT&T’s BellSouth holding company has asked the Federal Communications Commission to approve what it calls “an experiment,” beginning in the communities of West Delray Beach, Fla., and Carbon Hill, Ala.

The first phase of the plan would start by asking residents to voluntarily disconnect existing landline service in favor of either U-verse VoIP service or a wireless landline replacement that works with AT&T’s cellular network. In the next phase of the experiment, traditional copper-based landline service would be dropped altogether as AT&T and the FCC study the impact.

“We have proposed conducting the trials in Carbon Hill, Ala., and in West Delray Beach, Fla.,” AT&T writes on the company’s blog. “We chose these locations in an effort to gain insights into some of the more difficult issues that likely will be presented as we transition from legacy networks. For example, the rural and sparsely populated wire center of Carbon Hill poses particularly challenging economic and geographic characteristics.  While Kings Point’s suburban location and large population of older Americans poses different but significant challenges as well.  The lessons we learn from these trials will play a critical role as we begin this transition in our approximately 4700 wire centers across the country to meet our goal of completing the IP transition by the end of 2020.”

Delray-Beach-CrossFit1The transition may prove more controversial than AT&T is willing to admit. A similar effort to move landline customers to wireless service was met with strong resistance when Verizon announced it would not repair wired infrastructure on Fire Island, N.Y., damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Hundreds of complaints were registered with the New York Public Service Commission over the poor quality of service residents received with Verizon’s wireless landline replacement. The company eventually abandoned the wireless-only transition and announced it would also offer FiOS fiber optic service to customers seeking a better alternative.

“Be ready, beware,” Jim Rosenthal, a seasonal Fire Island resident, told Bloomberg News when asked what communities need to know about the changes. “Get your ducks in order. Make the alliances. Speak loudly, make sure you’re not roadkill.”

Customers that have already dropped landline service in favor of wireless and do not depend on AT&T for broadband will not notice any changes. Neither will customers  subscribed to U-verse phone and broadband service. But those who rely on AT&T DSL are likely to lose their wired broadband service and asked to switch to a very expensive wireless broadband alternative sold by AT&T. That alternative may be their only broadband option if the neighborhood is not serviced by a cable competitor.

The biggest impact will be in rural Carbon Hill, where 55% of AT&T customers will only be able to get wireless phone and broadband service, according to AT&T documents. At least 4% of local residents will get no service at all from AT&T, because they are outside of AT&T’s wireless coverage area. The phone company has no plans to expand its U-verse deployment in the rural community northwest of Birmingham. In contrast, every customer in West Delray Beach will be offered U-verse service. That means AT&T’s DSL customers will eventually be forced to switch to either U-verse for broadband or a wireless broadband plan that costs $50 a month, limited to 5GB of usage.

AT&T promises the transition will be an upgrade for customers, but that isn't always the case.

AT&T promises the transition will be an upgrade for customers, but that isn’t always true.

AT&T’s wireless home phone replacement is not compatible with fax machines, home or medical monitoring services, credit card machines, IP/PBX phone systems, dial-up Internet, and other data services. AT&T also disclaims any responsibility for mishandled 911 emergency calls that lack accurate location information about a customer in distress. The company also does not guarantee uninterrupted service or coverage.

AT&T chose Carbon Hill, which was originally a coal mining town, because it represents the classic poor, rural community common across AT&T’s service area. At least 21 percent of customers live below the poverty line. Many cannot afford cable service (if available). AT&T selected Alabama and Florida because both states have been friendly to its political agenda, adopting AT&T-sponsored deregulation measures statewide. AT&T was not required to seek permission from either state to begin its transition, and it is unlikely there will be any strong oversight on the state level.

“We looked for places where state law wasn’t going to be an issue, where the regulatory and legal environment in the state was conducive to the transition,” admitted Christopher Heimann, an AT&T attorney, at a briefing announcing the experiment.

Verizon faced a very different regulatory environment in New York, where unhappy Fire Island customers dissatisfied with Verizon’s wireless landline replacement Voice Link found sympathy from Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who appealed to the state PSC to block the service. Sources told Stop the Cap! the oversight agency was planning to declare the service inadequate, just as Verizon announced it would offer its fiber optic service FiOS as an alternative option on the island.

Voice Link sparked complaints over dropped calls, poor sound quality, inadequate reception, and inadequacy for use with data services of all kinds. Customers were also upset Verizon’s service would not work as well in the event of a power interruption and the company disclaimed responsibility for assured access to 911.

carbon hill

Carbon Hill, Ala.

Although millions of Americans have disconnected landline telephone service in favor of wireless alternatives, traditional landlines are still commonly used in businesses and by poor and elderly customers. Many medical and security monitoring services also require landlines.

The loss of AT&T’s wired network could also mean no affordable broadband future for rural residents — wireless broadband is typically much more expensive. AT&T admits it will not guarantee DSL customers they will be able to keep wired broadband after the transition.

AT&T will “do our very best” to provide Internet-based services in trial areas, Bob Quinn, senior vice president for federal regulatory matters, said in a 2012 blog post proposing the trials.

“For those few we cannot reach with a broadband service, whether wireline or wireless, they will still be able to keep voice service,” Quinn said. “We are very cognizant that no one should be left behind in this transition.”

AT&T is likely to be the biggest winner if it successfully scraps its copper network. The company wants to drop landline service completely by 2020, saving the company millions while ending government oversight and eliminating service obligations.

“It’s a big darn deal,” said AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. “The amount of cost that it removes from our legacy businesses is dramatic and it’s significant.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ATT The Next Generation IP Network 2-21-14.mp4

An AT&T-produced video showing a sunny future with IP-based phone service. But the future may not be so great for AT&T’s rural DSL customers. (1:31)

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