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Comcast Invades Europe With Sky Satellite Takeover; Analysts Predict Big Rate Hikes are Coming

Comcast kicks the door open to the European television market.

Europe is about to get a taste of Comcast, the cable company most Americans abhor, after the Philadelphia-based cable giant won control of Sky, Europe’s largest satellite TV provider.

Comcast, criticized in some circles for overbidding, easily eclipsed 21st Century Fox’s bid to win control of the television provider that is a household name in the United Kingdom.

Sky customers are being groomed to think highly of the deal by Comcast’s PR department, promised a healthy increase in original programming, expansion into more European markets beyond the UK and Ireland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy, and a richer selection of American and European programming owned or controlled by Comcast, which also owns NBCUniversal.

Analysts expect European customers will soon get the bitter taste of what their American counterparts have endured for decades — frequent and steep rate hikes widely expected from Sky’s new owner.

Comzilla

Comcast sees the American television market as saturated, but Europe is wide open for more television services. Comcast believes Sky is not meeting its value potential, giving the company plenty of room for hike rates as new programming and channels are introduced, especially on the European continent. British viewers already benefit from the consolidation of English language global media brands, bringing most American network fare to British and Irish audiences. But there is plenty of room to grow in Italy and Germany, where state public broadcasters are hardly meeting their audience potential and pay television networks are still lacking.

Sky currently has 27 million subscribers across Europe. Just 5.2 million of those subscribers are in Germany, a country with nearly 83 million people. Most are attracted to Sky’s ad-free movie service and sports networks. Sky has traditionally lacked the deep pockets necessary to compete effectively with global streaming providers like Netflix, which have scooped up a considerable amount of foreign language content.

These days, Sky is typically a co-partner in original programming ventures, but it rarely comes away with key ownership rights. Comcast’s ownership of NBCUniversal is expected to dramatically change that, with NBC and Universal Studios capable of aggressively entering the original programming business on behalf of Sky, keeping rights in-house.

European regulators will be watching how the Comcast-owned venture develops. Many countries already have concerns about the American “invasion” of entertainment programming, often a mainstay on the lineups of European networks. Comcast’s involvement will only escalate the amount of American content seen on European televisions, either in its original English, subtitled, or dubbed.

Currently, UK customers subscribing to the full Sky HD package, including the Sky Q set-top box, pay up to $119 a month. In Germany, the smaller “full package” costs $82 a month after promotional pricing expires. Comcast is likely to raise prices significantly over the next few years, possibly reaching $150 a month in the UK and $100 in Germany. In contrast, Netflix is building a giant market share in Europe keeping pricing low. A 4-screen subscription to Netflix currently costs $13 a month in the UK, with Netflix’s new Ultra subscription priced at $19.96 in Germany.

Despite potential price increases, few believe Sky will lose many subscribers, at least as long as it continues to hold the rights to must-have sports programming, notably the English Premier League soccer matches in the UK and Bundesliga matches in Germany, which Sky Deutschland shares with public broadcaster ZDF and Eurosport.

 

Comcast & Spectrum Open Up Free Wi-Fi Service in Georgia and the Carolinas

Hurricane Florence

Comcast and Charter Communications are providing free and open access to more than 12,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in Georgia and the Carolinas as Hurricane Florence begins impacting the three states.

“In response to Hurricane Florence, we have opened up more than 5,100 Spectrum Wi-Fi hotspots in North and South Carolina. These hotspots are open to all users until further notice in coastal communities like Wilmington, N.C., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., as well as inland to the Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Fayetteville and Greensboro areas,” Charter said in a statement.

To connect your device, look for the “SpectrumWiFi” network under your device’s WiFi settings in Charter service areas, “xfinitywifi” in Comcast country.

“It’s critical that impacted residents are able to communicate during challenging weather events such as Hurricane Florence,” said Doug Guthrie, regional senior vice president for Comcast.

As a result, Comcast is opening up almost 7,000 hotspots in Augusta and Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C. Both cable companies are welcoming subscribers and non-subscribers alike.

Hurricane Florence, although currently downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane, remains a vast hurricane with a large wind field of hurricane force winds, and will likely pummel the region until Saturday. Combined with intense rainfall and catastrophic storm surges, devastation is likely along coastal regions of all three states. Duke Energy, which serves North and South Carolina, anticipates extended outages for at least three million customers during Hurricane Florence.

As of 5 p.m. ET Thursday, the center of Florence was 100 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, N.C. and 155 miles east of Myrtle Beach, S.C. The hurricane has slowed to just 5 mph.

Other states likely to be impacted by flooding rains, storm surge, and winds are Maryland and Virginia.

Actual landfall of Florence is not expected until at least Friday afternoon, according to Neil Jacobs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Cable outages are often a result of power outages. If electricity goes out in an area, cable services will go as well, and remain unavailable until power is restored. If cable infrastructure is also damaged, service won’t return when electricity does and outages should be reported to the cable company. Traditional landline service is powered independent of the electric grid. Report any service outages to the telephone company.

If infrastructure is severely damaged, it could take several weeks to restore electric, phone, and cable service after a major hurricane.

Mass. Taxpayers Give Comcast $4 Million to Expand Monopoly Broadband Service

State and local officials gather to welcome Comcast’s state-funded service expansion in western Massachusetts. (From left to right: MBI chairman Peter Larkin; Carolyn Kirk, deputy secretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development; Michael Parker, senior vice president for Comcast’s Western New England region; Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito; Kevin Hart, former chair of the Montague Broadband Committee; and Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington.) (Image: MBI )

Two years after Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker imposed a state-mandated “pause” on WiredWest, a collaborative, multi-community, publicly owned fiber to the home broadband network for western Massachusetts, Comcast is celebrating the introduction of expanded service in the towns of Buckland, Chester, Conway, Hardwick, Huntington, Montague, Northfield, Pelham and Shelburne, made possible with a $4 million taxpayer-funded grant to the nation’s largest cable operator.

While state officials continually questioned the economics of WiredWest, which by that time enrolled more than 7,000 eager would-be customers with $49 deposits, Comcast repeatedly declared it was “uneconomic” to provide broadband service to most rural western Massachusetts communities, at least until state officials paid the cable giant millions of dollars to reach 1,089 previously unserved homes and businesses in the nine towns, effectively giving Comcast a broadband monopoly.

“We were pleased to work with Comcast, who met the two-year timeline we set to deliver critical 21st-century broadband connections to more homes and businesses,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito in a press release this week. She called the project “a great example of a public-private partnership” that would help resolve rural Massachusetts broadband problems.

WiredWest could not have met Polito’s two-year timeline, primarily because the collaborative has been blocked and ambushed repeatedly after Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick left office. State officials in Boston and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), responsible for funding broadband initiatives, began a campaign of fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the project shortly after Gov. Baker took office, culminating in recommendations from then-MBI director Eric Nakajima imploring towns not to sign agreements with WiredWest, and eventually withholding critical funding from the broadband cooperative, questioning its governance and operating model.

It soon became clear Gov. Baker preferred an industry solution to the rural broadband problem, which caused broadband advocate Susan Crawford to slam the decision in early 2017.

“This is the story of a dramatic failure of imagination and vision at the state level: Governor Charlie Baker’s apparent insistence that Massachusetts relegate small towns to second-rate, high-priced, monopoly-controlled (and unregulated) communications capacity,” Crawford wrote. “It’s a slow-rolling tragedy that will blight western Massachusetts for generations.”

A divide and conquer campaign to peel off communities from the WiredWest project has been underway for years. Earlier this year, MBI dangled $3.1 million in grants available exclusively to Charter Communications to build out its network in several towns in the region. When asked if those taxpayer dollars would be available to publicly owned broadband projects like WiredWest, Peter Larkin, MBI’s current board chairman, responded “no.”

Despite the roadblocks, many of the communities staying loyal to the WiredWest concept have hired Westfield Gas & Electric’s ‘Whip City Fiber’ division to help design and construct their own fiber to the home networks, which will be superior to what Charter or Comcast plans for the region.

For exasperated residents and businesses who have waited more than four years for broadband, the politics and constant delays have become secondary issues to getting broadband… from somewhere. That may explain why Kevin Hart, who frequently objected to Comcast’s proposal to build an inferior copper-fiber network while chairing the Montague Broadband Committee, suddenly switched sides and praised the Comcast project this week for its timely introduction of broadband service.

In contrast, Montague Broadband Committee member Robert Steinberg in 2016 called Comcast’s cash infusion from taxpayers “corporate welfare.”

WWLP in Springfield reports several towns are getting expanded cable and broadband service from Comcast. (1:21)

AT&T and Comcast Successfully Slow Google Fiber’s Expansion to a Crawl

AT&T and Comcast have successfully delayed Google Fiber’s expansion around the country long enough to finish upgrades that can nearly match the upstart’s speedy internet service.

Nearly four years after Google Fiber announced it would offer gigabit speed in Nashville, most residents still have no idea when they will be able to have the service installed. Although officially announced in January 2015, Google has only managed to connect 52 apartment buildings and a limited number of single family homes in parts of Charlotte Park, Edgehill, Sylvan Heights, Sylvan Park, East and North Nashville, and Burton Hills. In all, less than 30% of the homes originally promised service actually have it, forcing Google to seek an extension from the Tennessee Public Utilities Board, which was granted last week.

Google’s problems originate within itself and its competitors. The company’s contractors have been criticized for damaging existing wiring, tearing up streets and yards, piercing water pipes causing significant water damage, and inappropriate microtrenching, which caused some of its fiber infrastructure in Nashville to be torn out of the ground by road repair crews.

But the biggest impediment keeping Google from moving faster is its two competitors — AT&T and Comcast, successfully collaborating to stall Google, giving the phone and cable company plenty of time to improve services to better compete. Both companies have also aggressively protected their customers from being poached by offering rock bottom-priced retention plans that some claim are only available in Google Fiber-ready areas.

“It’s still complicated,” Nashville Google Fiber Manager Martha Ivester told the Tennessean newspaper. “Building this fiber optic network throughout the whole city is a long process, and we never expected it wouldn’t be a long process. Obviously, we have had our challenges here.”

WZTV Nashville reports East Nashville residents were upset over road work related to Google Fiber that lasted for months, severely restricting residential parking. (2:37)

Google Fiber Huts – Nashville, Tenn.

Google’s ability to expand has been restrained for years, despite an informal alliance with city officials, primarily over pole attachment issues. Much of middle Tennessee is challenged by a difficult-to-penetrate layer of limestone close to the surface, making underground utility service difficult and expensive. Google’s negotiations with Nashville Electric Service (NES), which owns 80% of the utility poles in Nashville and AT&T, which owns the remaining 20%, have been long and contentious at times. To bring Google Fiber to a neighborhood, existing wires on utility poles have to be moved closer together to make room for Google Fiber. In real terms, that has taken several months, as AT&T and Comcast independently move at their own pace to relocate their respective lines.

An effort to use independent contractors to move all lines in unison — known as “One Touch Make Ready,” was fiercely opposed by AT&T and Comcast, claiming it would violate contracts with existing workers and could pose safety issues, despite the fact both companies use independent contractors themselves to manage wiring. Both companies successfully challenged One Touch Make Ready in court. A federal judge ruled that only the FCC could regulate poles owned by AT&T, while another judge ruled the city had no authority to order the municipally owned electric company to comply with One Touch Make Ready.

In August, the FCC issued an order allowing One Touch Make Ready to apply to AT&T’s poles, but NES still refuses to change its policy of relocating service lines one line at a time. The electric utility did not explain its reasons. AT&T also recently eased its position on One Touch Make Ready, but with NES still stonewalling, Google Fiber’s delays are likely to continue.

AT&T Fiber is being embraced by some customers tired of waiting for Google Fiber.

In the interim, both AT&T and Comcast have upgraded their respective systems. AT&T Fiber offers a fiber-to-the-home connection available in some areas while Comcast offers near-gigabit download speeds over its existing Hybrid Fiber-Coax (HFC) network. The upgrades have taken the wind out of Google Fiber for some tired of waiting.

Google has recently tried to speed progress using underground “shallow trenching” for installation, which buries cable as little as four inches deep. The company has amassed more than 24,000 permits to lay fiber under roads and yards in Nashville, which may speed some deployment, but for some it is too little, too late.

“It has been more than a year since we expected Google Fiber to serve us and they won’t tell us when they will get here, so I gave up and signed a two-year contract for AT&T Fiber service instead,” said Drew Miller. “Google Fiber just isn’t as exciting as it was when it was announced because other providers have similar service now and I get a better deal bundling it with my AT&T cellphone service.”

Attitudes like that obviously concern Google, as have reports that customers in Google Fiber-ready neighborhoods are getting very aggressively priced retention offers if they stay with their current provider.

“Comcast cut my bill from close to $200 to around $125 if I did not switch,” said Stop the Cap! reader Olivia. “I also got double internet speed. I don’t need a gigabit, so I stayed with Comcast. If I get close to their usage limit I will switch to Google then.”

Olivia notes her mother had exactly the same services from Comcast, but Comcast would not offer her the same promotion because she lived in an area not yet wired for Google Fiber.

With upgrades and aggressive customer retentions, the longer Google takes to string fiber, the fewer customers are likely to switch for what was originally “game-changing” internet speeds and service.

WTVF Nashville shows off Google’s microtrenching, burying fiber optic cables just a few inches underground. (2:36)

Pricing Comparisons

Google Fiber

  • Fiber 100: $50 a month, internet speeds up to 100 Mbps
  • Fiber 1000: $70 a month, internet speeds up to 1,000 Mbps, downloads and uploads
  • Fiber 100 + TV: $140 a month, internet speeds up to 100 Mbps, 155+ channels, premium channels (HBO, Showtime) available
  • Fiber 1000 + TV: $160 a month, internet speeds up to 1,000 Mbps, 155+ channels, premium channels (HBO, Showtime) available

AT&T

  • Internet-only: $50 a month for first 12 months, then $60 thereafter. $99 installation fee. Unlimited data costs an extra $30 a month. Early termination fee: $180 (pro-rated). Speeds range from 10 to 100 Mbps
  • Direct TV + Internet: $75/mo first 12 months, then $121. Customers pay a $35 activation fee and $30 a month for unlimited data. 155 channels. Speeds vary. 24 month contract required.
  • Internet 1000: $90 a month during first 12 months, then $100/mo thereafter. Bundled discount can reduce cost of package to $80-90. Up to 960 Mbps downloads. Early termination fee: $180 (pro-rated).

Comcast

  • Performance Starter: $20 a month, increases to $50 after two-year promotion. Up to 25 Mbps.
  • Blast!: $45 a month, increases to $80 a month after two-year promotion. 150 Mbps.
  • Gigabit (DOCSIS 3.1): $70 a month, increased to $140 after two-year promotion. 940/35 Mbps.

WSMV Nashville reports Google’s microtrenching has been problematic as road crews unintentionally dig up Google’s optical fiber cables mistakenly buried just two inches underground. (2:44)

Comcast Extends $9.95 Internet Essentials to Low-Income Veterans

Comcast announced this week it is expanding its $9.95 discount internet access program Internet Essentials to qualified low-income veterans.

“Veterans have stood up for our country, and for our way of life, and we believe it’s time for all of us to stand up for those veterans,” said David L. Cohen, Comcast’s senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer, speaking at a news conference Monday at a veterans housing complex under construction in Philadelphia. Cohen claimed the program’s expansion “will enable us to reach about a million low-income veterans.”

Comcast’s Internet Essentials

  • $9.95/month
  • 15/2 Mbps service
  • No activation fees and no equipment rental fees
  • Option to purchase laptop/computer for $149.99 + tax
  • Access to free internet training online, in print and in person
  • A free Comcast Wireless Gateway, delivering in-home Wi-Fi at no additional cost

Comcast requires all applicants, including veterans, to pre-qualify for the service with an application and agree to submit re-qualification paperwork annually. The cable company has carefully shielded its program from cannibalizing existing internet revenue by excluding almost everyone who currently subscribes to Comcast internet service or has a pre-existing past due balance. Applicants have to certify they have not had Comcast internet service for at least 90 days before submitting an application (not applicable to customers in the city of Philadelphia), must prove their low-income status by sending proof they are enrolled in one of several federal assistance programs, and prove their veteran status.

Qualified Assistance Programs

  • Medicaid
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
  • National School Lunch Program’s Free Lunch Program
  • Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled and Children (EAEDC)
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps or SNAP)
  • Federal Public House Assistance
  • Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance
  • Tribally-Administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TTANF)
  • Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR)
  • Head Start

In the seven years of its existence, Comcast has only managed to enroll six million people in the program, a fraction of those that would otherwise qualify who live in Comcast service areas. Most critics blame Comcast’s onerous qualification requirements for the relatively low enrollment.

Bryan Mercer, executive director of West Philadelphia’s Media Mobilizing Project, told The Inquirer Internet Essentials offers “speeds that don’t even meet the FCC definition of broadband” and a “series of restrictions” that disqualify those who already manage to scrape enough money together to buy Comcast internet access without the benefit of the Internet Essentials discount program. Mercer says the restrictions that insist customers go without Comcast internet for at least three months and never have an outstanding bill are particularly hard for many low-income people to meet.

“That is a real roadblock to someone trying to keep their utilities affordable and their families online,” Mercer told the newspaper.

About 70 percent of low-income veterans presently lack internet access. In Philadelphia, the nation’s poorest large city, the contrast between super-wealthy Comcast and the thousands of poverty-level residents is striking. Because of its large low-income population, only about 75% of Philadelphia’s residents have internet access. Detroit, which has seen major depopulation and is no longer deemed a “large city,” is even worse, with only 60.9% of city residents signed up for internet.

Nearly half of all adults with an income below $30,000 don’t have home broadband service or a traditional computer, a 2017 Pew Research study found.

Comcast has been testing expansion of its Internet Essentials program, which originally only targeted families with school-age children, with new qualifying groups to boost subscriber numbers:

  • Low-Income Seniors: (SSI, Medicaid, and other low-income program participation required). Only available in: Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Fresno County, Calif., Hartford County, Conn., Houston, Miami-Dade County, Fla., Palm Beach County, Fla., Philadelphia, San Francisco, Santa Clara County, Calif., and Seattle.
  • Housing Assistance: Everywhere Comcast is available. Enrollees have to prove they receive qualifying housing assistance.
  • Internet Essentials Philadelphia: Only available in Philadelphia, this program offers less pre-qualification restrictions, but maintains proof of low-income requirements to enroll.
  • Community College: Available only to those enrolled in a participating two-year community college in Illinois or Colorado, and receive a Pell Grant.

Comcast was required to offer and finance Internet Essentials as a deal condition for approval of is 2011 acquisition of NBCUniversal. Although that deal commitment expired in 2014, Comcast has voluntarily extended it since then, but reserves the right to change or discontinue the program at any time.

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  • Mike W.: They are not doing the right thing by any means. This is simply a PR stunt to make them look good to everyone who doesn't realize this is a BS progra...
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