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FCC Panel Recommends Taxing Websites and Giving the Proceeds to Big Telecom Companies

The telecom industry wants a new tax on broadband services to pay for rural broadband expansion.

Nearly two years after FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced the formation of a new federal advisory committee on broadband development, the telecom industry-stacked panel has recommended implementing a new tax on websites and online subscription services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video and turning over the proceeds to many of the same companies dominating the Committee.

The proposal is part of a large set of recommendations from the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) designed to promote and streamline broadband expansion, especially in rural areas. If adopted by the states, the new tax would create a large broadband deployment fund that could be accessed by telecommunications companies like AT&T and Comcast to expand service without having to pay back the funds or give up part ownership of the taxpayer-funded expansion.

What caught many by surprise was the sweeping impact the new tax could have on the internet economy, because online businesses, streaming services, and even many website owners could be subject to the tax, if enacted:

Entities that financially benefit from access to a broadband system located in the state, including advertising providers, shall contribute to the Broadband Deployment Fund.

A comprehensive piece by Jon Brodkin on Ars Technica points out defining the meaning of “entities” and “advertising providers” will be crucial to determine who will have to pay the tax and who won’t:

Article 11 of the BDAC’s model state code would create a Rural Broadband Deployment Assistance Fund, paid for by contributions from broadband providers and “Broadband Dependent Services.”

The definition of “Broadband Dependent Services” is where things get interesting. An earlier version of that definition—available in this document—reads as follows:

“Broadband Dependent Service” means a subscription-based retail service for which consumers pay a one time or recurring fee which requires the capabilities of the Broadband Service which the consumer has purchased and shall also include entities that financially benefit from access to a broadband system located in the state, including advertising providers.

The BDAC met on December 7 and pared that definition back a bit to exclude “entities that financially benefit from access to a broadband system.” Video is available here; the discussion on the definition starts around 2:04:45.

BDAC Chair Elizabeth Bowles, who also runs an Arkansas-based wireless Internet service provider called Aristotle, expressed concern that the original version of the definition “was including every small business in America,” potentially forcing them all to pay the new tax.

Nurse

AT&T has been one of the strongest advocates for the new tax, and argued it should be as expansive as possible.

“It basically is everybody [that should be taxed] because this is a societal objective,” said Chris Nurse, assistant vice president for state legislative and regulatory affairs at AT&T. “Universal service is a societal objective. We want to spread that $20 or $30 billion burden more broadly so the tax is low on everybody.”

Google Fiber policy chief John Burchett objected, claiming under AT&T’s vision, everyone who has an internet connection would be taxed. In his view, AT&T’s proposal was “absurd.”

As the debate raged on, it became clear AT&T was once again looking for a way to be compensated by companies like Amazon and Facebook — using its ‘pipes’ without contributing towards the cost of the network.

“Who are we cutting out and who are we leaving in?” Nurse asked. “Today it’s basically the telephone companies [who pay] and not Google and not Amazon and not Facebook, right? And they’re gigantic beneficiaries from the broadband ecosystem. Should they contribute or not? Someone has to pay.”

Burchett

In the end, the BDAC settled on adopting a compromise over what broadband entities will be subject to the new tax:

“Broadband Dependent Service” means a subscription-based retail service for which consumers pay a one time or recurring fee, and shall also include advertising-supported services which requires the capabilities of the Broadband Service which the consumer has purchased.

This compromise definition primarily targets the new tax on streaming video services — the ones AT&T itself competes with. But it will also cover any websites sponsored with online advertising — like Facebook and Google, ISPs, subscription services delivered over the internet, as well as AT&T’s broadband competitors.

The proposal also seeks to guarantee that rural residents be granted access to affordable broadband, but the industry-dominated Committee chose to define “affordable” as the cost of internet access in urban areas, which some would argue isn’t affordable at all.

The draft proposal has been criticized by many stakeholders, including the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, representing electric cooperatives. The group implied the new proposal was just the latest attempt to get the telecom industry’s wish list enacted.

“Instead of focusing on solutions for unserved and underserved rural communities, many of the recommendations focus on issues specific to urban areas where broadband is already available,” said NRECA CEO Jim Matheson. “Ignoring the precedent of federal law and laws in 20 states, the state model code would treat co-op poles like those belonging to large investor-owned utilities. The state model code would also cap pole attachment rates in state statute, effectively making those rates permanent. This code, in effect, increases regulatory burdens while giving co-ops less time and less money to comply with those regulations.”

The National Multifamily Housing Council also objected to another proposal approved in the draft.

“Article 8 of the MSC grants broadband providers the unilateral right to install facilities in all multifamily residential and other commercial buildings and mandate construction of broadband facilities at the property owner’s expense without regard to the rights and concerns of the owner,” the organization claimed. “NMHC/NAA and its real estate industry partners argued that Article 8 of the MSC is riddled with many practical and legal problems. Among the most serious issues with the MSC is that it interferes with private property rights, disrupts negotiations and existing contracts between property owners and communications service providers and will lead to costly regulation and litigation at the state level without any assurance of actually spurring broadband deployment.”

AT&T would be among the biggest beneficiaries of the tax fund, already receiving $428 million annually from another rural broadband fund to expand wireless internet access in rural areas. If Nurse’s predictions are correct, the tax could collect $20-30 billion, far more than has ever been spent on rural broadband before.

Liccardo

Critics also contend the BDAC’s industry-friendly proposals are predictable for a Committee created by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and well-stacked with telecom industry executives and lobbyists. The former head of the BDAC was arrested by the FBI on fraud charges, and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo quit the Committee in January, writing, “the industry-heavy makeup of BDAC will simply relegate the body to being a vehicle for advancing the interests of the telecommunications industry over those of the public” in his letter of resignation.

Whatever the BDAC ultimately decides, the final proposal has a long road to travel before becoming law. Each state can choose to adopt the proposal, part of it, or none of it. In the end, it is just a “model code” for states to consider. But it will be part of the argument made by the telecom industry that laws must be streamlined to prevent delays in deploying service, and that those benefiting from broadband should cover more of the costs to provide it.

Ironically, the person most likely to be embarrassed by the model code could be FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who has almost universally rejected new taxes and fees on broadband services. But his approval is not required to advance the argument and the model code to the states, where the telecom industry’s lobbyists are waiting to begin advocating the passage of new state laws enacting its recommendations.

Cable One Changing Name to Sparklight in the Summer of 2019 to Refocus on Broadband

Phillip Dampier December 12, 2018 Broadband Speed, Cable One, Consumer News, Data Caps 1 Comment

Cable One will rebrand itself Sparklight starting in the summer of 2019, reflecting a refocus on selling broadband service.

“We are very excited for this evolution to our new brand and the next chapter in our story,” Cable One CEO Julie Laulis said in a statement. “Over the past several years we have evolved and our new brand will better convey who we are and what we stand for – a company committed to providing our communities with connectivity that enriches their world.”

The corporate name will remain Cable One, but like Charter’s Spectrum or Comcast’s XFINITY, customers will primarily know the company under its new brand.

Cable One provides service in these areas.

Cable One has just over 800,000 customers in 21 states nationwide, primarily in the South. The company’s decision to hold the line on the wholesale cost of its cable television package resulted in the company dropping Viacom-owned cable networks, which caused a significant number of customers to cancel service. Today, nearly 60% of its customers are broadband-only.

The cable company has also been criticized for dramatically raising the price of its internet service and for its regime of data caps, which limits most of its customers to 300 GB of usage a month. Customers who exceed their usage allowance three times during a calendar year “may be required to upgrade to an appropriate plan for data usage.”

Cable One currently offers four broadband options:

  • Starter Plan (100/3 Mbps) $55/mo with up to 300 GB of usage
  • Family Plan (150/5 Mbps) $80/mo with up to 600 GB of usage
  • Streamer and Gamer Plan (200/10 Mbps) $105/mo with up to 900 GB of usage
  • GigaONE (1000/50 Mbps) $175/mo with up to 1,500 GB of usage

Under the rebrand, the company will “streamline” its residential broadband options and pricing, which will likely push customers towards a more expensive, higher-speed tier. Sparklight will also offer unlimited data on any of its revamped tiers for an additional monthly fee. Both measures are likely to boost revenue, and customer bills.

“As consumer data consumption continues to increase, multi-device households become the norm, and businesses expect a broad suite of services, Sparklight will continue to evolve with our customers by offering innovative options to fit their needs, while providing helpful, proactive and personal local service,” Laulis said.

The Return of Court TV: Law and Order Networks Struggle to Gain Carriage

Phillip Dampier December 11, 2018 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video, Video No Comments

In the era of cord-cutting, getting a new, independently owned cable network on cable lineups can be an exercise in futility.

With most new channel additions coming as part of renewal agreements with major cable network owners or sports teams, launching a new 24-hour cable network and getting it on the lineup has never been so difficult. That isn’t stopping a relaunch of Court TV — a well-known former cable network that literally burned its logo into some television sets that were reliably tuned to coverage of the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, which ran from January-October, 1995.

“Court TV was a top-20 cable network and at the height of its popularity when the network was taken off the air in 2008,” said Jonathan Katz, CEO of Katz Networks. “Today, while consumer interest in the real-life drama of true-crime programming is at an all-time high, there is no dedicated daily court coverage on television. We expect the new Court TV to fill that void on cable, satellite, over-the-air and over-the-top.”

A promotional video for Court TV, returning in May, 2019 (0:44)

Katz Networks, a division of E.W. Scripps Co., has acquired the rights to the Court TV name and other intellectual property from its old owner, Time Warner (Entertainment). That includes over 100,000 hours of pre-recorded programming and trial coverage in the Court TV archives. The new venture has hired Vinnie Politan, a former Court TV presenter, as its lead anchor. The new Court TV has also hired back some of its old employees who either left the network or transitioned to its replacement – Tru TV.

The new Court TV will run 24 hours a day, everyday, and is expected to concentrate on live coverage of high-profile trials.

The thought of bringing back Court TV has not been enough to attract much attention from the cable industry. When the network launches in May 2019, it is expected to achieve coverage in 25% of cable homes at best. Most viewers will be able to watch Court TV as a digital subchannel offered by a local over-the-air station. Katz already specializes in running digital sub-networks, including Bounce (African-American targeted channel) and Laff (comedy).

Multichannel News reports several station owner groups will carry Court TV, giving it coverage of about half the country at launch:

Dan Abrams hosting a show on the Law & Crime Trial Network

Tribune Broadcasting will carry Court TV in 22 markets, including New York; Los Angeles; Chicago; Philadelphia; Dallas-Fort Worth; Houston; Miami-Fort Lauderdale; Denver; St. Louis; Seattle-Tacoma, Washington; and Sacramento, Calif.

Eight Scripps markets will carry Court TV, including Tampa, Fla.; Detroit; Cleveland; Cincinnati; Las Vegas; Tulsa, Okla.; Green Bay, Wis. and Tucson, Ariz.

Entravision Communications’ 10 Court TV markets include Boston; Orlando, Fla. and Wichita, Kan.

Univision Communications will carry the network in San Antonio; Albuquerque, N.M. and Bakersfield, Calif.

Citadel Communications will air Court TV in Providence, R.I.

Court TV already has at least one minor competitor. Dan Abrams, a former well-known Court TV personality who now hosts the popular A&E show Live PD, also runs the Law & Crime Trial Network, which relies primarily on live video streaming online to attract viewers. While the network has garnered little attention since it began streaming multiple feeds of live trial coverage over its website, YouTube, and Facebook Live, it did attract A+E Networks, which announced its involvement in the project in March, 2018.

Like Court TV, Abrams’ Law & Crime depends on live trial coverage during the day and analysis and documentary-style programming at night. So far, it is free to watch. Its future may be overshadowed by the higher profile return of Court TV, however, unless A+E bundles it into its suite of networks offered to cable and satellite providers.

Dan Abrams pitches his Law & Crime Trial Network to potential partners. (1:29)

America’s 25 Worst Connected Cities

Phillip Dampier December 11, 2018 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

Using data from the 2017 American Community Survey (ACS), released in September 2018 by the U.S. Census Bureau, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance ranked all 191 U.S. cities with more than 50,000 households by the percentage of each city’s households that lack home Internet connections of any kind.

Note that this data is not an indication of the availability of home broadband service, but rather of the extent to which households are actually connected to it.

In general, affordability and familiarity are the two biggest impediments that stop someone from signing up for internet access. With broadband providers boosting speeds, but also dropping affordable lower-speed plans, a digital divide based on dollars has worsened in many communities, despite the availability of discounted internet access plans for poor families with school age children or elderly users on disability. Kansas City, Kan. is a remarkable entry at 23rd worst in the country. It, along with its much larger counterpart across the Missouri border, was the first Google Fiber city.

  1. Laredo, Texas
  2. Brownsville, Texas
  3. Hialeah, Florida
  4. Detroit, Michigan
  5. Cleveland, Ohio
  6. Memphis, Tennessee
  7. Miami, Florida
  8. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  9. Newark, New Jersey
  10. Syracuse, New York
  11. Chattanooga, Tennessee
  12. Springfield, Massachusetts
  13. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  14. New Orleans, Louisiana
  15. Shreveport, Louisiana
  16. Birmingham, Alabama
  17. Mobile, Alabama
  18. Macon-Bibb County, Georgia
  19. Richmond, Virginia
  20. Dayton, Ohio
  21. Rochester, New York
  22. Topeka, Kansas
  23. Kansas City, Kansas
  24. Baltimore, Maryland
  25. Montgomery, Alabama

Census Bureau Reports Internet Penetration Lowest in Urban Poor and Rural Areas

There are stark contrasts in internet subscription rates depending on where you live and how much money you make, according to newly released findings from the U.S. Census Bureau.

As the cost of internet access continues to rise, affordability is increasingly a problem for poor Americans. In rural areas, a lack of broadband availability is also holding down subscription rates.

Telfair County, Ga. has the dubious distinction of being America’s worst connected county, with just 25% of households signed up for internet access. The most connected communities are found in suburban areas surrounding major cities along the Pacific Coast and northeastern U.S. More than 90% of households also have internet access in suburban areas outside of the District of Columbia, Atlanta, and Denver.

Urban Poor Americans Can’t Afford Increasingly Expensive Service Plans; Many Turn to Smartphones Instead

Although internet subscription rates are sky-high in wealthier suburban areas, poor inner city neighborhoods score poorly for internet subscriptions. In the Chicago metropolitan area, 77% of Cook County households subscribe to the internet. In downtown Los Angeles, just 80% are signed up. In D.C., only 78% subscribe.

In Philadelphia, there were some neighborhoods with just 25% of residents getting internet service. In the Tioga-Nicetown neighborhood, only 37.1% of households had internet service. Persistent poverty, crime, unemployment, and low-income in poorer parts of the inner city have conspired to make it very difficult for residents to afford internet access at prices often over $50 a month.

Increasingly, poor urban residents are turning to their smartphones as their sole source of internet. In the Philadelphia neighborhood of Fairhill, where internet subscriptions are below 38%, 12% of homes report smartphones are the only way they connect to the internet.

Pew Research Center senior researcher Monica Anderson told The Inquirer that 31 percent of Americans who earn less than $30,000 a year now rely only on smart phones for internet access, a percentage that has doubled since 2013.

“We are seeing smartphones help more people get online,” she told the newspaper, adding that data caps and data plan costs lead people to cancel or suspend services.

Rural and Native Americans Suffer Without Service, If They Can Afford It

Some of the worst scoring counties where internet subscription rates were lower than average are located in rural areas across the upper Plains, the Southwest and South. The desert states of Arizona and New Mexico, south Texas, the lower Mississippi through Southern Alabama and some areas of the Piedmont of Georgia, the Carolinas and Southern Virginia were notable for containing many counties with low broadband internet subscription rates, although there were exceptions throughout.

Only 67% of Native Americans have signed up for internet access, compared with 82 percent for non-Native Americans. Native Americans living on American Indian land had a subscription rate of 53 percent.

Thirteen percent of the counties achieving better than an 80% subscription rate were located in “mostly rural” or “completely rural” counties, often getting telecommunications services from a local co-op or municipal utility. Assuming a rural customer can buy internet access, the next impediment is often cost.

In “mostly urban” counties with median household incomes of $50,000 and over, the average broadband internet subscription rate was roughly 80 percent, while in “completely rural” counties with the similar median incomes, the average broadband internet subscription rate was only 71 percent.

“Mostly urban” counties with median household incomes below $50,000, however, only reported average broadband internet subscription rates of 70 percent while “completely rural” counties with similar median incomes had average broadband internet subscription rates of just 62 percent.

This contrast showed up most dramatically in the South. Of the 21 counties with populations of at least 10,000 and broadband internet subscription rates at or above 90 percent, 12 were in the South, four were in the Midwest, four in the West, and one in the Northeast. Conversely, of the 24 counties with broadband internet subscription rates at or below 45 percent and populations of at least 10,000, 21 were in the South, two were in the West, and one was in the Midwest.

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  • Andy: They hiked the legacy ELP internet from 19.99 to 24.99 in november 2018. It used to be 14.99. The only reason these Charter spectrum effin ass holes a...
  • Frank D: Second Spectrum $20 price hike within a year. Signed up as $99/mo with time warner cable triple bundle. That became $130/mo after promo ended. Earli...
  • Dylan: Look at their prices. Absolutely ludicrous compared to many companies, especially Charter Spectrum. I pay $60 a month for 100/10 with unlimited data. ...
  • Paul Houle: For a long time communities have been frustrated in that they don't have any power to negotiate with cable companies. This town refused to enter into...
  • Ian S Littman: To be fair, you aren't wrong. Spectrum likely knows it won't have any competition for years in Lamar, so they'll quickly get take rates of >70% (re...
  • Ian S Littman: Are you in an area that can even get Spectrum service? Because in areas where they actually have to compete, they're actually pretty decent now. Yes,...
  • Ian S Littman: A more odd entry in that list is Chattanooga. The entire area has FTTH via EPB. Yet apparently folks can't swing the $57/mo starting price for 100 Mbp...
  • Ian S Littman: The issue here is that the NY PSC's threats have no teeth because, well, who will take over the cable systems if Spectrum is forced to sell? Either Al...
  • Bill Callahan: Phil, National Digital Inclusion Alliance just published interactive Census tract maps for the entire US based on the same ACS data. Two datapoints a...
  • Carl Moore: The idiots that run the cable companies must be also using drugs...a lot of people are cutting their cable services because of the higher rate and inc...
  • EJ: This will require a New Deal approach. Municipals need the ability to either be granted money or loaned money for broadband expansion. Until this is d...
  • Bob: I also got $1 increase for my 100/10 internet from Spectrum. A rep said it's for the speed increase that's coming in 2019. I complained that I was pro...

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