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Cable Companies See Big Growth in Broadband and Wireless, Big Losses in TV

Most analysts are predicting this past year will be the worst yet for video customer losses, with nearly two million cable TV customers cutting the cord in 2019, up from 1.26 million in 2018. Business is even worse for satellite TV operators, which lost 1.2 million customers in 2018 and are expected to have shed another 3.25 million customers in 2019 — mostly because of mass customer defections at AT&T’s DirecTV. Altogether, over five million Americans are estimated to have cut the cord over the past year.

Investors have largely stopped worrying about video subscriber losses, and cable operators have boldly told Wall Street they have stopped chasing video customers threatening to cancel service, claiming many are no longer profitable enough to keep. Their key competitors, online streaming video services like Sling TV, AT&T TV Now, and Hulu with Live TV are also seeing subscriber gains slowing, most likely because of price increases. One analyst predicted these online cable TV replacements would add a combined 804,000 customers in 2019, less than half of the 2.3 million they added in 2018.

Cable companies seem unfazed, in part because of record-breaking gains they are expected to have made in internet and wireless customers in the last year. One analyst suggests that most of those gains are coming directly at the expense of phone companies.

Comcast and Charter are the two largest cable companies in the United States.

“Cable’s clear speed advantage in roughly half the U.S. is driving continued strong share performance,” Jayant told clients in a research note. Jayant expects some of the biggest gains will come from ex-DSL customers in Comcast and Charter Spectrum’s service areas.

Nationwide, cable operators likely added 3.1 million new broadband customers in 2019, up 15% over last year. Phone companies are predicted to have lost at least 402,000 internet customers, up from 342,000 in 2018. Most of those departing customers are not served by fiber broadband.

Both Comcast and Charter Spectrum are also successfully attracting a growing number of mobile customers, as is Altice USA. Charter and Comcast offer their broadband customers the option of signing up for wireless mobile service, powered by Verizon Wireless. Altice USA resells Sprint service at cut-rate prices.

Comcast is estimated to have added 778,000 wireless customers in 2019 and analysts predict that the company will add another 909,000 in 2020. Charter Spectrum is expected to have gained 923,000 wireless customers in 2019, with another 1.04 million likely to sign up in 2020. Altice USA’s deal with Sprint in its Cablevision/Optimum service area has already attracted about 80,000 customers, with 550,000 more likely to follow in 2020.

Vermonters Hostile to Comcast Takeover of Southern Vermont Cable Company

Residents of southern Vermont are upset about Comcast’s proposed acquisition of an independent cable company that has served the region for more than 30 years, fearing the cable giant will bring its reputation of high rates, poor service, and abusive customer relations to an area known for resisting large corporations.

The Southern Vermont Cable Company (SVCC) owns several small cable systems serving about 2,450 subscribers around Brattleboro, just a short distance from the Massachusetts and New York borders. SVCC launched service because larger cable companies including Comcast and what was formerly Time Warner Cable did not see a viable business opportunity serving southern Vermont. The independent operator successfully launched service on its own, but has faced business pressure from cord-cutting and a constant need to upgrade its cable plant to meet growing demands for fast and robust broadband service.

“For more than 30 years, SVCC has offered great local service to its customers and has made significant capital investments in its system throughout the years,” Daniel M. Glanville, vice president of government/regulatory affairs and community impact for Comcast’s western New England region, said in testimony before state regulators reviewing the sale. “However, there is a need for continued capital investment as technology continues to evolve and video competition continues to increase due to an ever-growing number of video service options.”

Instead of offering to sell the system to the communities it serves, SVCC executives elected to sell the system to Comcast.

“I am confident that an organization like Comcast will provide SVCC’s subscribers with quality customer service and will continue to invest in SVCC’s systems,” said Ernest Scialabba, president and owner of SVCC.

Customers have a much different view, according to the Brattleboro Refomer:

Steve West of Dummerston told regulators he has “only praise for the good folks at SVCable, and nothing but contempt for Comcast.”

“As a computer repair professional for 20 years, I’ve had many dealings with Comcast/Xfinity, nearly all of it bad,” he wrote. “Many of us in rural Vermont have few options. I view them as one of the most toxic companies in the U.S., and I’ve successfully avoided being a customer.”

Martha Ramsey of Brattleboro told the commission she is a Comcast customer and “can attest, along with all my neighbors, that Comcast has a long way to go to providing reliable cable service” to southern Vermont.

“Therefore, I can only assume that this sale would simply be a hostile buyout for the benefit not of customers but of shareholders, and so should not be permitted, in order to prevent any further erosion of decent utility services in Vermont,” she wrote. “My Comcast bill has already increased by an outrageous percentage in the last five years without any credible explanation, and I expect such increases to continue. Helping Comcast to become the only player in the market would be to accelerate this race to the bottom — that is, increasingly unaffordable and increasingly shoddy infrastructure and service — that at a scary pace is impoverishing all but the very wealthy.”

“Comcast will provide increased reliability and network capacity which will enable former SVCC customers to enjoy the full suite of Comcast’s Xfinity TV services, including the X1 platform, Xfinity on Demand (Comcast’s video on demand service), multiple high-definition offerings, sports programming and international programming,” said a Comcast representative. “Comcast will also introduce Comcast Business Services, which provides business-grade products and services for businesses of all sizes. Video customers will also be able to use the Xfinity Stream app on their tablet or smartphone to view live and Xfinity On Demand programming.”

But the idea a giant multinational company like Comcast, with more than 830,000 customers, will preserve a local touch to SVCC’s operations is absurd, according to local residents.

“Please don’t allow this to happen,” Kathleen Fleischmann wrote. “One of the reasons we chose to move to Vermont was that it wasn’t owned by the multinationals. Southern Vermont Cable is a great company, and our service would certainly be degraded by having to deal with Comcast. You must be aware that they are one of the most hated corporations in the country. Their lack of customer service is legendary.”

Eli K. Coughlin-Galbraith urged the commission not to “let this one go. We’re all being strangled by massive multinational corporations piece by piece. Fight it. Fight it any way you can.”

The Vermont Department of Public Service will hold a public hearing about the proposed sale from 4-8 p.m. on Feb. 3 at the O’Brien Auditorium in the East Academic Building at Landmark College in Putney.

Comcast/NBC’s Peacock Launches This Spring – Free for Comcast & Cox Video Customers

Comcast video customers will be the first to get Comcast/NBCUniversal’s new streaming platform, dubbed “Peacock,” featuring over 400 TV series and 600 movies, mostly from the library of Universal Studios, beginning this spring.

“This is a very exciting time for our company, as we chart the future of entertainment,” NBCUniversal chairman Steve Burke said at an event this afternoon announcing details about the service to Comcast’s investors. “We have one of the most enviable collections of media brands and the strongest ad sales track record in the business. Capitalizing on these key strengths, we are taking a unique approach to streaming that brings value to customers, advertisers and shareholders.”

Peacock will feature multiple tiers of service, at least two available for free:

  • Peacock Free: This ad-supported tier (promised to include only five minutes of ads per hour) will be available to all and will feature about half of Peacock’s content library (7,500 hours). Similar to Hulu’s basic service, this free tier will offer next-day access to currently airing NBC TV series, entire seasons of selected older shows, selected movies, news, and sports programming. Some of Peacock’s original series will also be available on the free tier, along with a selection of clips and shows highlighting NBC content like Saturday Night Live, Family Movie Night, and the Olympics.
  • Peacock for Authenticated TV Subscribers (free): If you are a current Comcast or Cox cable TV subscriber, you can get Peacock’s Premium offering with a complete selection of Peacock content at no charge. This tier offers 15,000 hours of live/on-demand content, but has advertising. You can get rid of the ads by paying an extra $5 a month.
  • Peacock Premium: If you are a cord-cutter or do not subscribe to a TV package with a Comcast-partnered provider, you can subscribe directly to Peacock’s premium, ad-free version for $10 a month. This unlocks the complete lineup of Peacock content.

NBCUniversal officials also used today’s event to announce more original programming deals beyond those already announced, including new original comedies from Tina Fey, Sky Studios, Mindy Kaling and Amy Poehler. Almost all of Dick Wolf’s ubiquitous Law & Order (and its various spinoff series) will also be available for streaming, as will his current roster of Chicago-based series Fire, P.D., and Med. Peacock Premium customers will also be able to stream NBC’s late-night shows before they air on NBC. The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon will be available as early as 8 p.m. ET and Late Night with Seth Meyers will be available by 9 p.m.

Peacock will enter a very crowded field of streaming services, and is the last previously announced streaming service to launch, likely shortly after AT&T launches HBO Max. The fact there will be a free version may make the service more palatable to consumers weary of subscribing to yet another paid streaming service, on top of Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and a range of specialty streaming services featuring international programming, sports, movies, and documentaries.

Charter, Comcast Start Competing in Each Other’s Territories… But Only For Big Business Accounts

Comcast and Charter Communications have begun to compete outside of their respective cable footprints, potentially competing directly head to head for your business, but only if you are a super-sized corporate client.

Comcast Business has targeted selling large Fortune 1000 companies internet service through contractual partnerships with Charter, Cox, and Cablevision/Altice USA for a few years now. The cable giant recently entered the Canadian market, at least for U.S.-based companies that have satellite offices north of the border. Comcast now directly competes with other cable operators selling enterprise-level broadband service, whether the customer is inside Comcast’s footprint or not, but will not offer a similar service to consumers looking for better options.

The cable industry’s longstanding de facto agreement not to compete head to head for customers will probably remain intact even as Charter this week unveils its own national broadband service called Spectrum Total Connect. It will be available across the country, offering customers up to 940 Mbps broadband service at a highly competitive price, but only if you are running a large business and have an account with Spectrum Business National Accounts, which provides connectivity for large business franchises, national retailers, and companies utilizing a large network of telecommuters scattered around the country. Consumers need not apply here either.

Charter has refused to say who it has partnered with to provide the service, but it is likely a reciprocal agreement with Comcast and other cable companies it already works with to provide enterprise-level service. The new service will be rolled out in the next several weeks.

Cable companies have been successful selling connectivity products to small and medium-sized businesses, but large national companies have traditionally relied on phone companies to provide them with total connectivity packages that can reach all of their locations. Until Comcast began selling service outside of its footprint, cable companies have had to turn down business opportunities outside of their respective service areas. But now Comcast and Charter can reach well beyond their local cable systems to satisfy the needs of corporate clients.

But neither company wants to end their comfortable fiefdoms in the residential marketplace by competing head to head for customers. Companies claim it would not be profitable to install redundant, competing networks, even though independent fiber to the home overbuilders have been doing so in several cities for years. It seems more likely cable operators are deeply concerned about threatening their traditional business model supplying services that face little competition. In the early years, that was cable television. Today it is broadband. Large swaths of the country remain underserved by telephone companies that have decided upgrading their deteriorating copper wire networks to supply residential fiber broadband service is not worth the investment, leaving most internet connectivity in the hands of a single local cable operator. Most cable companies have taken full advantage of this de facto monopoly by regularly raising prices despite the fact that the costs associated with providing internet service have been declining for years.

Cherry-picking lucrative commercial customers while leaving ordinary consumers mired in a monopoly is more evidence that the U.S. broadband marketplace is broken and under regulated. Competition is the best solution to raising speeds while reducing prices — competition regulators should insist on wherever possible.

Regulators… Captured: AT&T Gets FCC to Omit Bad Internet Speed Scores It Doesn’t Like

AT&T was unhappy with the low internet speed score the FCC was about to give the telecom giant, so it made a few phone calls and got the government regulator to effectively rig the results in its favor.

“Regulatory capture” is a term becoming more common in administrations that enable regulators that favor friendly relations with large companies over consumer protection, and under the Trump Administration, a very business-friendly FCC has demonstrated it is prepared to go the distance for some of the country’s largest telecom companies.

Today, the Wall Street Journal reported AT&T successfully got the FCC to omit DSL speed test results from the agency’s annual “Measuring Broadband America” report. Introduced during the Obama Administration, the internet speed analysis was designed to test whether cable and phone companies are being honest about delivering the broadband speed they advertise. Using a small army of test volunteers that host a free speed testing router in their home (full disclosure: Stop the Cap! is a volunteer host), automated testing of broadband performance is done silently by the equipment on an ongoing basis, with results sent to SamKnows, an independent company contracted to manage the data for the FCC’s project.

In 2011, the first full year of the program, results identified an early offender — Cablevision/Optimum, which advertised speed it couldn’t deliver to many of its customers because its network was oversold and congested. Within months, the company invested millions to dramatically expand internet capacity and speeds quickly rose, sometimes beyond the advertised level. In general, fiber and cable internet providers traditionally deliver the fastest and most reliable internet speed. Phone companies selling DSL service usually lag far behind in the results. One of those providers happened to be AT&T.

In the last year, the Journal reports AT&T successfully appealed to the FCC to keep its DSL service’s speed performance out of the report and withheld important information from the FCC required to validate some of the agency’s results.

The newspaper also found multiple potential conflicts of interest in both the program and SamKnows, its contracted partner:

  • Providers get the full names of customers using speed test equipment, and some (notably Cablevision/Optimum) regularly give speed test customers white glove treatment, including prioritized service, performance upgrades and extremely fast response times during outages that could affect the provider’s speed test score. Jack Burton, a former Cablevision engineer said “there was an effort to make sure known [users] had up-to-date equipment” like modems and routers. Cablevision also marked as “high priority” the neighborhoods that contained speed-testing users, ensuring that those neighborhoods got upgraded ahead of others, said other former Cablevision engineers close to the effort.
  • Providers can tinker with the raw data, including the right to exclude results from speed test volunteers subscribed to an “unpopular” speed tier (usually above 100 Mbps), those using outdated or troublesome equipment, or are signed up to an “obsolete” speed plan, like low-speed internet. Over 25% of speed test results (presumably unfavorable to the provider) were not included in the last annual report because cable and phone companies objected to their inclusion.
  • SamKnows sells providers immediate access to speed test data and the other data volunteers measure for a fee, ostensibly to allow providers to identify problems on their networks before they end up published in the FCC’s report. Critics claim this gives providers an incentive to give preferential treatment to customers with speed testing equipment.

Some have claimed internet companies have gained almost total leverage over the FCC speed testing project.

The Journal:

Internet experts and former FCC officials said the setup gives the internet companies enormous leverage. “How can you go to the party who controls the information and say, ‘please give me information that may implicate you?’ ” said Tom Wheeler, a former FCC chairman who stepped down in January 2017. Jim Warner, a retired network engineer who has helped advise the agency on the test for years, told the FCC in 2015 that the rules for providers were too lax. “It’s not much of a code of conduct,” Mr. Warner said.

An FCC spokesman told the Journal the program has a transparent process and that the agency will continue to enable it “to improve, evolve, and provide meaningful results as we move forward.”

The stakes of the FCC’s speed tests are enormous for providers, now more reliant than ever on the highly profitable broadband segment of their businesses. They also allow providers to weaponize  favorable performance results to fight off consumer protection efforts that attempt to hold providers accountable for selling internet speeds undelivered. In some high stakes court cases, the FCC’s speed test reports have been used to defend providers, such as the lawsuit filed by New York’s Attorney General against Charter Communications over the poor performance of Time Warner Cable. The parties eventually settled that case.

In 2018, the key takeaway from the report celebrated by providers in testimony, marketing, and lobbying, was that “for most of the major broadband providers that were tested, measured download speeds were 100% or better of advertised speeds during the peak hours.”

Comcast often refers to the FCC’s results in claims about XFINITY internet service: “Recent testing performed by the FCC confirms that Comcast’s broadband internet access service is one of the fastest, most reliable broadband services in the United States.” But in 2018, Comcast also successfully petitioned to FCC to exclude speed test results from 214 of its testing customers, the highest number surveyed among individual providers. In contrast, Charter got the FCC to ignore results from 148 of its customers, Mediacom asked the FCC to ignore results from 46 of its internet customers.

Among the most remarkable findings uncovered by the Journal was the revelation AT&T successfully got the FCC to exclude all of its DSL customers’ speed test results, claiming that it would not be proper to include data for a service no longer being marketed to customers. AT&T deems its DSL service “obsolete” and no longer worthy of being covered by the FCC. But the company still actively markets DSL to prospective customers. This year, AT&T also announced it was no longer cooperating with SamKnows and its speed test project, claiming AT&T has devised a far more accurate speed testing project itself that it intends to use to self-report customer speed testing data.

Cox also managed to find an innovative way out of its poor score for internet speed consistency, which the FCC initially rated a rock bottom 37% of what Cox advertises. Cox claimed its speed test results were faulty because SamKnows’ tests sent traffic through an overcongested internet link yet to be upgraded. That ‘unfairly lowered Cox’s ratings’ for many of its Arizona customers, the company successfully argued, and the FCC put Cox’s poor speed consistency rating in a fine print footnote, which included both the 37% rating and a predicted/estimated reliability rating of 85%, assuming Cox properly routed its internet traffic.

The FCC report also downplays or doesn’t include data about internet slowdowns on specific websites, like Netflix or YouTube. Complaints about buffering on both popular streaming sites have been regularly cited by angry customers, but the FCC’s annual report signals there is literally nothing wrong with most providers.

Providers still fear their own network slowdowns or problems during known testing periods. The Journal reports many have a solution for that problem as well — temporarily boosting speeds and targeting better performance of popular websites and services during testing periods and returning service to normal after tests are finished.

James Cannon, a longtime cable and telecom engineering executive who left Charter in February admitted that is standard practice at Spectrum.

“I know that goes on,” he told the Journal. “If they have a scheduled test with a government agency, they will be very careful about how that traffic is routed on the network.”

As a result, the FCC’s “independent” annual speed test report is now compromised by large telecom companies, admits Maurice Dean, a telecom and media consultant with 22 years’ experience working on streaming, cable and telecom projects.

“It is problematic,” Dean said. “This attempt to ‘enhance’ performance for these measurements is a well-known practice in the industry,’ and makes the FCC results “almost meaningless for describing actual user experience.”

Tim Wu, a longtime internet advocate, likened the speed test program as more theoretical than actual, suggesting it was like measuring the speed of a car after getting rid of traffic.

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