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YouTube TV Announces 30% Rate Hike: Now $64.99/mo for Streaming TV Package

Phillip Dampier June 30, 2020 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video, YouTube TV No Comments

YouTube TV has announced the addition of eight new Viacom-owned networks to their lineup, but has also passed along word the price is going up 30%, from $49.99 to $64.99/mo effective from Tuesday for new customers, Aug. 1 for existing customers.

Google last raised the price of the service in April 2019 when a YouTube TV subscription increased by 25% to $49.99.

Today we are also adding more of ViacomCBS’s family of channels to YouTube TV, which includes 8 of your favorites: BET, CMT, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Paramount Network, TV Land, and VH1.

To continue delivering the best content and service possible, we’re also updating our price for new and existing members to $64.99/month. Existing members will see these changes reflected in their subsequent billing cycle after July 30, 2020.

YouTube TV was widely perceived to be the best value streaming service combined with the best interface and feature set, including unlimited DVR service and the ability to share the service with up to six family members (up to three watching concurrently). The service has benefited from unfettered price hikes by its streaming competitors, notably AT&T TV Now (formerly DirecTV Now). But social media channels show customers are not thrilled about a $15 rate increase, even with the addition of eight channels to the lineup:

Charter Spectrum Asks FCC for Freedom to Usage Cap Its Internet Customers

Charter Communications is petitioning the Federal Communications Commission for permission to usage cap its internet customers two years before the FCC’s ban on the company imposing data caps runs out.

Charter, which does business as Spectrum, is seeking an early exit from some FCC-imposed deal conditions Charter agreed to as part of an approval of its 2016 merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Out of concern that Charter’s merger could harm emerging online video streaming competition, the FCC required the company to not charge fees to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu to carry video traffic to its customers and not impose data caps and usage based billing schemes that would limit online video consumption for seven years.

“New Charter’s increased broadband footprint and desire to protect its video profits will increase incentives to impose data caps and usage-based prices in order to make watching online video more expensive, and in particular more expensive than subscribing to a traditional pay-TV bundle,” the FCC concluded in its 2016 order approving the merger, with conditions. “For seven years, we prohibit New Charter from imposing data caps or charging usage-based pricing for its residential broadband service. This condition ensures that New Charter will continue Charter’s past pricing practices and protects subscribers from paying fees designed to make online video consumption more expensive leading subscribers to stick with a traditional pay-TV bundle.”

Charter last week argued that with cord-cutting at an all-time high and video streaming alternative cable and video packages flourishing, there is no reason to continue the seven-year ban on data caps, noting that many other large providers including AT&T, Cox, Altice, and Comcast are free to impose data caps of their own.

“They are able to do so because, unlike Charter, they are not subject to a condition that artificially and unilaterally restricts the packages available to their customers,” Charter argues in its filing. “The online video distribution marketplace is almost unrecognizable compared to what existed in 2016. […] Consumers have never had more online video choices.”

Charter said a sunset of the prohibition of data caps was now overdue.

“As data usage skyrockets, the [ban on data caps and usage-based billing] artificially hamstrings Charter’s ability to allocate the costs of maintaining its network in a way that is efficient and fair for all of its customers—above-average, average, and light users alike,” the company argued. “Charter should be afforded the same flexibility as other broadband providers to respond to developments in the market. In short, tremendous changes in the marketplace have rendered the [ban on data caps and usage-based billing] no longer necessary, and thus ending it in 2021 would be in the public interest.”

The FCC’s 2016 order approving the merger between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks, with a 7-year prohibition on data caps, was not unanimous. Separate statements from Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly were highly critical of most of the deal conditions the then-Democratic majority favored. Four years later, Pai now presides as chairman over a Republican-majority FCC that could take a favorable view of Charter’s request to end deal conditions early.

In 2016, Pai’s spokesperson complained about the imposition of deal conditions in the Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House merger, telling The Hill, “The FCC’s merger review process is badly broken. [Then FCC] Chairman Wheeler’s order isn’t about competition, competition, competition; it’s about regulation, regulation, regulation. It’s about imposing conditions that have nothing to do with the merits of this transaction. It’s about the government micromanaging the internet economy.”

Charter’s June 2020 filing focuses almost exclusively on streaming video competition to argue there is no longer any need to ban the company from imposing data caps. The FCC in 2016 concluded that data caps were a powerful anti-competitive weapon that could be used to keep streaming video competition from harming cable television packages. Charter argues that consumers now have many choices for streaming video, including cable-TV alternatives, which proves they have not engaged in anti-competitive behavior.

But Charter ignored the FCC’s other chief concern about data caps and usage billing (UBP): the lack of choice of broadband competitors.

“[…] Subscribers will continue to have no (or limited) alternative cable or fiber […] options when faced with data caps and UBP designed to deter online video consumption,” the FCC concluded.

The FCC hoped that by 2023, consumers would have more options for home broadband service, likely driving usage caps out of the marketplace.

“Seven years may also provide the high-speed […] provider market sufficient time to develop further with additional investments in fiber from established wireline […] providers, Wireless 5G technology, use of smartgrid fiber for broadband, additional overbuilding, and other potential competitors to traditional wired […] providers,” the FCC wrote. “It is our expectation that these developments will foster competition in the market to make the anticompetitive use of data caps less tenable in the future.”

Unfortunately, broadband competition remains fleeting in many parts of the United States, where only one provider offers broadband service that meets the FCC’s standard of 25 Mbps for downloads.

Ironically, Charter executives were against imposing data caps on their customers when the company was seeking approval to acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

FCC:

“Charter in particular emphasizes its aversion to data caps, stating that instead of enforcing usage limits it chooses to market the absence of data caps as a competitive advantage. Charter also argues there is a strong business case for not implementing caps. Specifically, Charter explains that it terminated its enforcement of the usage limits trial in the AUP in January 2012 because the benefits to customers of continuing the trial (minimizing bandwidth consumption to preserve a positive Internet experience) would not exceed the program’s costs. Charter also states that caps create marketing challenges because they complicate consumer purchasing decisions. Furthermore, Charter argues that data caps increase churn among subscribers. Finally, Charter states that it plans to distinguish itself from its competitors based largely on the quality and speed of its broadband offerings and that data caps undermine that marketing message.”

But the FCC remained unconvinced by Charter’s statements. In a review of confidential internal company documents, the FCC found multiple instances where Time Warner Cable had not completely abandoned the idea of data caps, despite multiple high-profile consumer backlashes against the idea.

“We also note that despite Time Warner Cable’s relative lack of success in implementing usage-based billing, its internal documents leave no doubt that it is also incentivized to use data caps to protect its [cable TV] business,” the FCC concluded.

Four years later, Charter is among many cable operators reporting staggering losses of video customers that have chosen to “cut the cord” on cable television and have switched to a streaming competitor. If an incentive to data cap customers to protect video revenue was there in 2016, it stands to be much stronger today in 2020.

The FCC is now seeking public comment on Charter’s proposal until July 22, 2020. Stop the Cap! plans to file extensive comments on the matter and will shortly publish a guide for readers offering sample letters that can be sent to the FCC on this issue.

Internet Service Tax Ending on July 1 in 7 States, But Will Streaming Services Be Targeted Next?

Phillip Dampier June 15, 2020 Consumer News, Online Video, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

Residents of Hawaii, New Mexico, North and South Dakota, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin will get a slight reprieve on their internet bill starting July 1, as taxes on internet access will end in the few remaining states that have been taxing service since 1998.

The Internet Tax Freedom Act prohibits states and local municipalities from taxing internet access, but seven states already taxing service at the time the law was passed were permitted to phase out the tax over several years. Time is up for those states on July 1st, the first day the internet tax ban will apply in all 50 states.

If providers did not pass taxes along to subscribers, those cable and phone companies will pocket up to $500 million in tax savings annually. If taxes were passed along to subscribers, they could see a lower internet bill starting next month.

The seven states are likely to take a significant budget hit as a result of the lost taxation. Revenue officials estimate Texas will lose at least $500 million a year in tax revenue, while Ohio will take a hit of up to $207 million annually. In Wisconsin, $170 million less taxes will be collected, while New Mexico will collect $81 million less. The amounts in North and South Dakota will be $20-25 million for each state, and Hawaii will emerge relatively unscathed, as their internet tax collects less than $1 million annually.

But a growing number of states hungry for tax revenue might make up revenue shortfalls by implementing new taxes or fees on streaming services instead.

Steve Lacoff, formerly with The Walt Disney Co. and Comcast, is now general manager of communications at Avalara, which provides cloud-based SAAS (software as a service) tax compliance. He told Multichannel News, “You are starting to see jurisdictions impose streaming-specific taxes on things like Netflix and Disney+ subscriptions. Roughly half the states [in the country] are applying sales and use taxes, and seven or eight of them are applying streaming ‘comm style’ taxes.”

Such fees can add 6-10% to the monthly cost of a subscription to services like Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, and others.

Lacoff thinks the seven states losing the ability to tax internet service could soon join many others now surcharging online streaming services to find more tax revenue.

“I think that is absolutely an issue that states are actively considering as the tax revenue base continues to decline,” Lacoff said. “Some of these [taxes] are statewide, some are in specific municipalities. For example, Chicago has an amusement tax whose origins, I think, go back to fairs and they have used this as a means to tax streaming service.”

AT&T Exempts Its Own HBO Max Service from AT&T Wireless Caps

AT&T mobile customers can watch AT&T-owned HBO Max without fearing any impact on their data allowances, despite the fact competing services like Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Hulu, and Netflix will not be given similar treatment.

The Verge confirmed with AT&T that customers with AT&T mobile service can watch an unlimited amount of HBO Max and not exceed data allowances or the soft cap of 22-50 GB a month that unlimited use plan customers have.

The practice of exempting some content from data caps is known as “zero rating” and critics of the practice contend it is an “end run” around net neutrality. AT&T defends itself claiming HBO Max is paying AT&T to sponsor customer usage.

“According to an AT&T executive familiar with the matter, HBO Max is using AT&T’s ‘sponsored data’ system, which technically allows any company to pay to excuse its services from data caps,” according to the story in The Verge. “But since AT&T owns HBO Max, it’s just paying itself: the data fee shows up on the HBO Max books as an expense and on the AT&T Mobility books as revenue. For AT&T as a whole, it zeroes out. Compare that to a competitor like Netflix, which could theoretically pay AT&T for sponsored data, but it would be a pure cost.”

In short, AT&T is moving money from one of its pockets to the other, which may tangentially benefit AT&T mobile customers, but will also leave competing streaming services at a disadvantage, allowing AT&T to give preferential treatment to its own streaming service, which may discourage subscriptions to other services.

Ars Technica confirmed AT&T is not extending the data cap exemption to customers with AT&T DSL or Fiber service.

CBS All Access Getting a New Name, A Bigger Library and a Relaunch This Summer

With the merger of CBS and Viacom now complete, the combined company is preparing to overhaul its subscription streaming service CBS All Access with a rebranding and a relaunch this summer.

“We believe audiences want their entertainment on demand and their news, sports and events live, and our expanded offering will be the service that gives them what they want, how they want it all in one place and then a great value,” ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish told investors during a quarterly results conference call on Thursday.

The relaunched service will be dramatically larger than the current CBS All Access, adding content from Smithsonian TV and Viacom’s various cable networks including BET, Comedy Central, Logo, MTV, Nickelodeon, Pop TV, and the Paramount Network. The new streaming platform will also integrate more closely with Viacom’s free-to-view, advertiser-supported Pluto TV and Showtime, CBSViacom’s premium pay movie channel.

Subscribers will not have to wait until summer to see some changes on the All Access platform. Paramount added over 100 movie titles to the service earlier this week.

Currently, CBS All Access and Showtime together boast about 10 million subscribers, with ads-included All Access priced at $6 per month and Showtime at $11. Viacom’s advertising-supported streaming service Pluto TV, which Viacom bought in January 2019 for $340 million, has attracted almost 20 million monthly users.

Bakish believes the new ViacomCBS service will be as robust as competitors like Hulu or Disney+. It will enter a marketplace already dominated by Netflix (167 million subscribers), Amazon Prime (150 million subs), Hulu (30.7 million subs), Disney+ (28.6 million subs), ESPN+ (7.6 million subs), Starz (6.3 million subs) and YouTube TV (2 million subs). It will also have to compete against newly launched Apple TV+ and the forthcoming debuts of HBO Max and Peacock.

CBS All Access currently includes live streams of local CBS affiliates, streaming news network CBSN, and a variety of live and on-demand entertainment and sports programming. Its content library currently includes CBS TV network shows and a long-standing selection of evergreen off-network shows including Perry Mason, the original Hawaii 5-0, and The Brady Bunch.

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