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Civil Rights Group Shenanigans: Promoting the T-Mobile/Sprint Merger in Quid Pro Quo Deal

Many of the same civil rights groups that regularly advocate their support of giant corporate telecom mergers are back once again to show their support for the controversial T-Mobile/Sprint merger. But that support does not come for free.

A “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) that includes “philanthropy and community investment” that does not exclude direct financial contributions from the two wireless companies to these civil rights groups is a major part of a new “understanding” announced today between several organizations founded to represent minority interests and T-Mobile and Sprint that the wireless companies hope will deliver an imprimatur for the troubled merger deal with regulators and politicians.

The key items in the MOU:

  1. Standing up a national diversity and inclusion council comprised of non-employees from diverse groups, including each of the multicultural leadership organizations that are party to the MOU, and other highly esteemed community leaders to facilitate open communication over the development, monitoring, and evaluation of diversity initiatives and to provide advice to the New T-Mobile senior executives.

  2. With the help and input of the council, developing and implementing a Diversity Strategic Plan addressing each of the key elements of the MOU and reflecting best practices in the industry.

  3. Increasing the diversity of its leadership and workforce at all levels including its Board governance, to reflect the diversity of the communities in which it operates.

  4. Making a targeted effort to increase partnerships, business, and procurement activities with diverse business enterprises in a range of categories such as financial and banking services, advertising, legal services and asset sales. New T-Mobile aims to become a member of the Billion Dollar Roundtable by 2025.

  5. Expanding wireless offerings to low-income citizens, underserved minority populations and insular and rural areas, and to organizations serving these underserved communities [including] a significant philanthropic investment for institutions serving disadvantaged or underrepresented communities to support tech entrepreneurship and to bridge the gap in literacy.

The groups, most familiar to Stop the Cap! readers that have followed civil rights groups engaged in pay for play advocacy, include:

In a joint statement, the groups urged the FCC to approve the T-Mobile/Sprint merger “so the combined New T-Mobile can definitively launch these enhanced diversity efforts and expansion of service to all communities included in the MOU.”

“T-Mobile is honored to partner with these visionary organizations to create an action plan of this magnitude that includes commitments to diversity and inclusion that are bolder than ever before,” John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile and CEO of New T-Mobile, said in a statement. “With this MOU, we have doubled down on ensuring we represent the communities we serve today and will serve as the New T-Mobile in the future. We are excited for the New T-Mobile to become a reality so we can get to work on delivering these commitments.”

Except in most cases, these kinds of arrangements serve mostly as window dressing, gussying up otherwise nakedly anti-consumer merger deals under the guise of serving minority or disadvantaged interests. Money often quietly flows between the corporate and the non-profit side, usually in the form of donations. Some groups may also offer token advisory board positions to executives, which usually cements an ongoing advocacy relationship.

Members of these civil rights organizations have a right to be puzzled why such groups are spending significant time and resources engaged in corporate advocacy. The interests of two major corporations cementing a multi-billion dollar merger deal and civil rights groups trying to fight discrimination and improve the lives of their constituents are often tangential, if not in direct opposition to each other. Apparently the money that usually comes with these arrangements matters much more.

Comcast Completes Speed Upgrade in Northeast, But Data Cap For Many Stubbornly Remains

Despite a recognition that customers are using more data than ever as they cut traditional cable television in favor of streaming, Comcast’s data cap remains stubbornly fixed at 1 TB a month.

The nation’s largest cable operator last week completed a significant speed upgrade in 14 states in its Northeast and Mid-Atlantic service areas from Maine to Virginia. Some plans are getting as much as a 60% speed boost, but Comcast is not budging a megabyte on its fixed data cap that amounts to 1,000 MB of usage per month.

Comcast acknowledges the speed upgrades are designed to meet the exponential increase in demand for high-bandwidth video streaming in households that now average at least ten devices connected to the internet. Many of those devices are now streaming 4K video, which takes double the bandwidth of traditional HD video.

The speed upgrades:

  • Performance Starter: was 15 Mbps, now 25 Mbps
  • Performance: upgrades from 60 Mbps to 100 Mbps
  • Performance Pro: up from 150 Mbps to 200 Mbps
  • Blast: A slight upgrade from 250 Mbps to 300 Mbps
  • Extreme: This premium plan used to provide 400 Mbps, but it is now 600 Mbps.

Comcast faces significant competition in this part of the country from Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home network. That may explain why it is also the only significant part of Comcast’s service area that remains exempted from the cable company’s data caps. Verizon has no data cap of consequence, although the company has shut down some customers that were likely using their residential internet connection as a server, running up many terabytes of usage a month.

For now, Comcast’s speed upgrades come with no price hike.

The speed increases are likely to be welcomed by most customers, but Comcast’s pervasive data cap for most of its nationwide footprint is not. In November, that data cap will be tested like never before as Google launches its Stadia cloud-based video game service. Up to six million broadband customers are expected to blow through their provider’s monthly data cap while using the service, which replaces traditional home game consoles. That is because Stadia will consume an enormous amount of bandwidth — as much as 15.75 GB an hour at 4K resolution.

An article published by Vice Media warned video game enthusiasts they could easily face steep overlimit usage penalties on a future bill:

According to data from The NPD Group, America’s estimated 34 million gamers play 22 hours per week on average. Were those gamers to all shift to Stadia as their primary game platform at 4K, they’d burn through 1,386 GB of data monthly. And that’s just the bandwidth consumed by gaming; it doesn’t include music and video streaming or other activities.

The result will be an even higher broadband bill for US consumers who already pay some of the highest prices in the developed world for bandwidth. For many this will be a surprise. Of the 943 gamers surveyed by the company, only 17 percent were certain they had a broadband cap. 21 percent say they weren’t sure one way or the other whether their broadband was metered.

Most providers set their overlimit penalty at $10 per 50 GB of excess usage. Some offer to waive data caps for a monthly additional charge of $50. That makes Google’s $10 video game service much less of a bargain than many initially thought.

When questioned about the impact data caps could have on Stadia, Google vice president Phil Harrison hoped the nation’s ISPs would do the right thing by their customers.

“ISPs have a strong history of staying ahead of consumer trends and if you look at the history of data caps in those small number of markets…the trend over time, when music streaming and download became popular, especially in the early days when it was not necessarily legitimate, data caps moved up,” he said. “Then with the evolution of TV and film streaming, data caps moved up, and we expect that will continue to be the case.”

Except Harrison’s utopian world view is not accurate. In fact, most broadband providers have set data caps and left them unchanged for years, even as those same companies promote frequent speed upgrades. In effect, more and more customers are running over their usage allowances and either paying steep penalties, reducing usage, or agreeing to pay another $50 a month to dispense with the cap altogether.

Vice author Karl Bode reminds readers “broadband caps are complete nonsense.”

“Experts say the real purpose of such limits is to covertly jack up your already expensive broadband bill—and punish customers looking to cut the cord on traditional cable TV services,” Bode added.

California Governor Vetoes Rural Broadband Development Bills; AT&T and Frontier Benefit the Most

Gov. Newsom

California’s efforts to address the state’s ongoing rural broadband problems made little headway in 2019, as Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in the past week vetoed (or allowed to expire) the only two broadband measures surviving the treacherous journey through the California legislature.

Assembly Bill 1212 would have made rural broadband a priority for Caltrans — California’s Department of Transportation and the Department of Water Resources, including broadband on recommended lists of projects for funding consideration by two of the state’s largest pension investment funds: the California Public Employees Retirement System and the California State Teachers Retirement System. Current state law only allows pension boards to invest in in-state infrastructure projects that meet certain fiduciary responsibilities. By expanding investment projects to include telecommunications, funding from two major pension funds might have been unlocked and made available to future rural internet projects.

Assembly Bill 417, also known as the Agriculture and Rural Prosperity Act, included several measures targeting rural farming. Two passages in the bill would have included broadband expansion as a new priority for the California Department of Food and Agriculture (DFA):

Due to the central role of agriculture in rural California, it is necessary to achieve a detailed understanding of the economic value that agriculture brings to rural communities and to identify opportunities to improve agricultural productivity, including by increasing broadband access, advancing agricultural innovation, technology, and education, and supporting a well-trained, productive rural workforce, to benefit rural communities.

[…] Making recommendations to the secretary on actions to further the development of rural agricultural economies, including, but not limited to, increasing broadband access, providing technical, resource, and regulatory compliance assistance, advancing agricultural innovation and technology, establishing programs for education and workforce development, and evaluating recreation and tourism opportunities.

Several other proposed measures, including AB 1409 which would have created a fund for providing wireless hotspots for students and Wi-Fi service on school buses was killed last spring behind closed doors in the California Assembly’s Appropriations Committee. The annual attempt by AT&T and other telecom companies to write their own laws to deregulate themselves (this time AB 1366), was suddenly pulled from committee consideration by its author back in September.

That the two mild measures made it through the legislature to the governor’s desk was not surprising considering the sheer number of minor bills that pile up on Newsom’s desk. But for both to suffer quiet deaths through veto or expiration despite almost no public opposition speaks to the power of Sacramento insider politics.

Newsom’s explanation for killing AB 1212 was hardly compelling, as he explained he felt the measure was “unnecessary” because “existing law already encourages public retirement systems to invest in state infrastructure.” But that explanation ignores decades of state government bureaucracy, where agencies zealously guard their funding and protect their own existing project priorities to the hilt. AB 417 would have expanded the mission of the DFA, something the governor argued should only be done in the state budget and only within the specific context of the broader mission of the department, whatever that means. The head of the DFA was likely thrilled anyway.

Telecom consultant Steve Blum notes Caltrans and other state agencies were unlikely to ever consider rural broadband a funding priority, unless it was intended for their own use. Blum also believes the most likely suspects responsible for convincing the governor to kill both bills were the heads of the departments themselves.

“The simplest explanation for Newsom’s vetoes is that Caltrans, DWR and/or DFA staff asked him to do it, because those are jobs they don’t want to do,” Blum wrote on his blog. “That sort of opposition was why a Caltrans dig once policy bill was watered down in 2016.”

Blum believes the state’s largest phone companies will benefit the most from the outcome of the 2019 legislative session.

“Newsom’s vetoes bolster AT&T’s and Frontier’s rural monopoly business model, which redlines poorer and less densely populated communities and leaves them with low speed DSL service, if they’re lucky enough to get anything at all,” he wrote.

The loss of AB 1212 and 417 won’t change much for Californians waiting for rural broadband. Neither measure would have led to any immediate improvement in internet access in the less populated areas of the state. But the measures would have set a foundation to bring two more state agencies into the fight to tackle rural broadband issues.

Ultimately, just as in other states, a large amount of money will have to be found to wire those still without internet access. Governments and regulators can either make rural internet expansion a contingency of future merger deals or other business-government transactions or find suitable funding to subsidize the cost of internet expansion by for-profit companies, rural co-ops, or local governments willing to tackle the problem on the local level.

AT&T Charges Customers to Recoup Cost of Tax It Never Paid

Phillip Dampier October 14, 2019 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

AT&T customers in Portland, Ore. discovered their cell phone bills increased this summer because the wireless company decided to pass along the costs of Portland’s Clean Energy Tax to its customers. Except AT&T is exempt from paying the tax, but wants customers to pay to recoup costs the phone company is not paying.

Portland’s Revenue Bureau told Willamette Week it classifies cell phone providers as utilities, and they are exempt from the tax.

Scott Karter, a manager in the Revenue Bureau, said it was up to AT&T to decide if it will refund customers for the charges it has collected since August.

“The code does not specifically address amounts that might be over-collected from customers,” Karter said.

AT&T had no comment.

Comcast Moves Turner Classic Movies to High-Cost “Sports and Entertainment” $10 Add-On

Phillip Dampier October 14, 2019 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Online Video 1 Comment

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is now missing from Comcast TV subscribers’ basic package, moved to a high-cost add-on primarily known for its added sports channels.

Xfinity customers must now subscribe to a $9.99 “Sports Entertainment Package” to get the popular commercial-free classic movie channel back on their televisions, and many are howling in anger about the change.

“Comcast’s greed is unparalleled in modern history,” wrote Dennis Haefler. “Big oil, banks, and the railroads of the last century have nothing on Comcast.”

Customers on Comcast’s basic and economy television packages with the fewest channels will have to pay even more than $10 a month to get TCM back. Only customers signed up for at least Xfinity’s 140-channel “Starter” package and up can add the “Sports Entertainment Package” to their lineup. That could cost some as much as $30 more a month to get back a single channel. That add-on package is an odd place to put TCM, considering it is primarily a dumping ground for costly sports networks like NFL RedZone, CBS Sports Network, ESPN Goal Line & Bases Loaded, MLB, and other sports-related channels.

Comcast told the Atlanta Journal Constitution in a statement it moved TCM because most customers do not watch it:

“Every month, Comcast pays programmers like networks, local TV station owners and others, for the ability to bring their programming to you. We regularly review our programming and sometimes make changes to ensure we’re offering a wide variety of programming at the best value. We look at a variety of factors, including customer viewership and programming costs when making these decisions. Viewership of TCM is low, as over 90% of our customers watch less than two movies per month. Given this and contractual limitations on offering TCM a la carte, we decided to move TCM to the Sports Entertainment Package, which will help us manage programming costs that are passed on to our customers while continuing to make the channel available to those who want to watch it.”

TCM is making available a chart of alternative providers where subscribers can still get TCM without paying for a costly upgrade to get channels many do not want:

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  • readeraway: 2nd paragraph, cap should be listed as 1,000 GB. 1,000 MB would not get most people through a single day....
  • your: Don't forget LTE is metered (consumption based) so you pay for what you use. Double ouch....
  • Gary Clark: What happened to the holiday music station it's horrible now...
  • Keagan: Paying $80.00 just for internet now.....!! Unbelievable...
  • Paul Houle: Sad! Classic movies are one of the best things on cable. Be it staying in a hotel room or hanging out with extended family, I think a ride range...
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