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Maine Considers New Law Forcing Cable Companies to Sell TV Channels A-La-Carte

Charter Spectrum serves a significant part of the state of Maine.

The Maine state government is reviewing a measure that would require all cable operators in the state to offer customers the chance to buy individual cable channels instead of being forced into a large and costly package of dozens, if not hundreds of unwanted TV channels.

“The senior citizens in my area want to watch the Boston Red Sox,” says Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, an independent from Friendship. “The package that Spectrum is offering in Maine that includes the Red Sox costs about a hundred bucks. These people are making $800 bucks a month on Social Security. They’re bemoaning to me at the doors, you know, ‘I can’t afford television anymore Jeff.’ And they grew up in an era when television was free.”

Maine Public Radio reports Evangelos’ solution is an insertion of a single sentence into the state franchising law:

A cable system operator shall offer subscribers the option of purchasing access to cable channels, or programs on cable channels, individually.

The proposed change won support from a state legislative committee, but scorn from cable industry lobbyists that claim the proposed measure violates federal law.

Chris Hodgdon, a Comcast lobbyist, pointed to the specific statute forbidding states from telling cable operators how to conduct business: “No state shall regulate the products, rates, services of a cable provider.”

Charter Spectrum’s regional lobbyist Melinda Kinney warned any such law would likely face immediate court challenges. Kinney complained the measure was unfair because it targets cable operators while excluding satellite and streaming providers. But consumer advocates argue that the law could actually help the cable industry as cord-cutting becomes a national phenomenon. Subscribers agree.

“I’d sign back up for cable TV in a minute if I could pick my own channels and pay a reasonable price,” said Jack Winters, 71, a former Comcast customer near Brunswick. “Comcast makes you take all or nothing so I took nothing. I miss not getting Fox News Channel, Turner Classic Movies, and Hallmark, but my bank account doesn’t.”

Sen. Angus King, the independent senator from Maine, has done his part to investigate whether such a state law would violate federal deregulation measures. He took the proposal to the FCC.

Patrick Webre, chief of the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau responded that no state has passed such a law before, so he couldn’t say much:

“In your letter you asked whether a state mandate that a cable operator provide a-la-carte services would be pre-empted by federal law. This poses a question of first impression, and we could not locate any specific Commission rules that addresses your exact issue. Thus we are not in a position to express an opinion on the question you raise.”

Under the Trump Administration, however, the Republican majority controlling the FCC would likely oppose the measure because it would introduce new regulations on the industry, something that has historically been anathema to Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly. Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr, formerly a lawyer for Wiley Rein, which represents the interests of several large telecom companies, would likely also oppose the measure.

The bill now moves to the full Legislature on a tri-partisan vote of 8-2 and will be debated first in the House.

A proposed new law would require cable operators in Maine to sell individual cable channels to customers. (4:08)

Comcast Working on New Device to Track Your Health; It Knows How Often You Use the Bathroom

Phillip Dampier May 21, 2019 Comcast/Xfinity, Competition, Consumer News 1 Comment

Comcast wants to keep track of your health with a new device, similar to Google Home or Amazon Echo, that it plans to beta test starting later this year.

The yet-to-be-named home health monitor will use “ambient sensors” to monitor activity in your home, and will first be targeted for at-risk, stay-at-home seniors and others with special needs. The device can keep track of bathroom and sleep habits, detect falls, and offer a voice-activated alert system allowing owners to contact family members or emergency personnel, if needed.

Because many seniors may not report or share evidence of deteriorating health, the new Comcast device will be able to intelligently track any potential warning signs, such as staying in bed for increasing periods of time. It could also remind users to take their medication.

If the beta test is successful, Comcast will market the medical monitoring device to older seniors, those just out of hospital, and individuals with disabilities. The device will use a voice-activated response system, but will not offer support for intelligent home devices like lights or security alarms.

CNBC notes the move would bring Comcast into competition with a number of technology companies. Google is looking at using its Nest and Google Home devices in senior living facilities, Apple added fall detection and heart health tracking to its smartwatch, and Amazon has been exploring opportunities in tech for the growing aging population for several years.

Hulu… by Disney; Comcast Becomes Passive Partner in Streaming Service

Effective today, Hulu is now under the full control of the Walt Disney Company, ending a decade of a sometimes-uneasy partnership between rivals NBC-Universal, 21st Century Fox, Disney-ABC and Time Warner (Entertainment).

This morning, Disney and Comcast, the last two partners in the streaming venture, reached an agreement that will give full operational control of Hulu to Disney, in return for either company having the right to force Disney to buy out Comcast’s remaining 33% interest in the service beginning in 2024. In effect, with Comcast giving up its three seats on Hulu’s board and its veto power, the cable company now becomes a passive partner in the venture. At a Disney-guaranteed value of at least $27.5 billion five years from now, Comcast could eventually walk away from Hulu with at least $9 billion in compensation.

Today’s agreement means Disney will own and control multiple streaming services. Disney today announced it has big plans for Hulu, despite preparing to launch its own Disney+ streaming service and already operating its own streaming platform for ESPN. Disney CEO Robert Iger said Disney+ will now be focused on kids and family-friendly entertainment, while Hulu will be Disney’s platform for adult-focused movies and series. Disney’s recent acquisition of the 20th Century Fox content library and FX’s suite of cable channels gives it plenty of additional content to bring to both of its general entertainment streaming services.

To make sure of a smooth transition, both companies have agreed to a lucrative extension of Hulu’s license to stream NBC-Universal content and networks, as well as a retransmission consent agreement to allow Hulu Live to continue carrying NBC-Universal networks and TV channels until the end of 2024. That will deliver a significant revenue boost to Comcast, which can use the money to help build its own forthcoming streaming platform, launching in 2020.

“We are now able to completely integrate Hulu into our direct-to-consumer business and leverage the full power of The Walt Disney Company’s brands and creative engines to make the service even more compelling and a greater value for consumers,” said Iger in a statement.

NBC-Universal chief executive Steve Burke said in a statement that the deal is “a perfect outcome for us” because the “extension of the content-licensing agreement will generate significant cash flow for us, while giving us maximum flexibility to program and distribute to our own direct-to-consumer platform.”

For consumers, Iger is expected to consider offering a discounted bundled package to Hulu subscribers who also sign up for Disney+. With a combination of Hulu and Disney+, Netflix’s biggest U.S. rival is about to get considerably bigger.

14,000 Consumers Cut Cable TV’s Cord Every Day Says New Study

The top 10 service providers in the United States collectively lost over 1.25 million paid television customers in the first three months of 2019, providing further evidence that cord-cutting is accelerating.

Multiscreen Index estimates if that trend continues, an average of 14,000 Americans cancel their paid cable or satellite television service daily.

AT&T suffered the greatest losses, primarily from its satellite television service DirecTV. More than a half-million satellite customers canceled service in the first quarter of the year. AT&T lost another 89,000 streaming customers as news spread that the service was increasing prices and restricting generous promotions to attract new subscribers. DISH Network, DirecTV’s satellite competitor, also lost more than 250,000 customers.

Many cable television providers announced this quarter they would no longer fret about the loss of cable TV customers, and many have dropped retention efforts that included deeply discounted service. As a result, customers are finding it easier than ever to cancel service. Comcast lost 107,000 TV customers, while Charter Spectrum lost 152,000. Spectrum recently increased the price of its Broadcast TV Fee to $11.99 a month and has pulled back on promotions discounting television service.

United States
Service Change
quarter
Subscribers
(millions)
1,280,200 81.90
AT&T TV/DirecTV -544,000 22.36
Comcast -107,000 20.85
Charter Spectrum -152,000 15.95
DISH Network -266,000 9.64
Verizon FiOS -53,000 4.40
Altice USA -10,200 3.30
Sling TV 7,000 2.42
DirecTV Now -89,000 1.44
Frontier -54,000 0.78
Mediacom -12,000 0.76
Source: informitv Multiscreen Index.

“There were losses across the top 10 television services in the United States, with even the DirecTV Now online service losing customers following previous heavy promotion. Between them, they lost over one-and-a-quarter million subscribers in three months. They still command a significant number of customers but the rate of attrition has increased,” said Dr. William Cooper, the editor of the informitv Multiscreen Index.

The total figures for the quarter show roughly 81.90 million Americans are still paying one of the top-10 providers for cable or satellite television service, amounting to less than 70% of television homes — a significant drop. Privately held Cox Communications is excluded because it does not report subscriber numbers or trends.

Virginia Capitulates on Providers Revealing Their Broadband Service Gaps

Virginia officials cannot get broadband providers to reveal full details about their actual service areas, so the state now believes cable and phone companies will be more forthcoming if they can quietly share that information with each other, keeping the state government in the dark.

Virginia Public Radio reports that there are more than 600,000 residents that have no access to high-speed internet, because the state’s dominant telecom companies — Verizon, Cox, and Comcast, choose not to provide service. But the state’s efforts to fund rural broadband projects to reach the unserved have been repeatedly complicated by the lack of accurate information about who actually has access to broadband, and who does not.

“If you call them and say, “I live at this address can I get connected?’ They can tell you yes or no. They will not share that information nationally,” Evan Feinman, Virginia’s chief broadband advisor, told VPR.

State officials cannot get straight answers because telecom companies treat their service areas as confidential and proprietary business information. Broadband availability maps have been criticized as inaccurate as well, with providers volunteering the information with little, if any, independent verification. That creates problems when a would-be provider for an unserved area completes a broadband grant application that results in immediate objections from incumbent providers that claim they already offer service in the proposed project’s service area.

Feinman believes that if the state steps out of any referee roll of verifying what areas actually get service, providers will suddenly begin sharing service information with each other.

Feinman

“Comcast is interested in helping us avoid having to fund an overbuild… if they don’t bid on covering the rest of the county then they’re not interested in covering the rest of the county,” Feinman explains. “So when another ISP comes in I have high confidence that when that ISP asks Comcast ‘Hey I want to cover the rest of this county, how much of that do I need to do?’ Comcast will share that information.”

That is not the experience of other states, where providers like Charter Communications treat any disclosure of their rural broadband service areas and intended expansion areas as “highly confidential information.” In New York, companies will share information with the state, especially when state taxpayers are helping to subsidize their costs, but under no circumstances will they share service and expansion intentions with other providers, calling them competitors.

That would leave Virginia taxpayers footing the bill for rural broadband funding, without the state being a fully informed partner, able to audit projects and their service areas.

This year, Virginia intends to spend $19 million on rural broadband funding, a comparatively tiny amount for the number of residents still lacking service (New York spent over a half billion dollars), but still an increase over earlier years. But where those funds are spent may now be up to the same cable and phone companies that have never been willing to offer service in those areas before, and may not be too interested in letting someone else serve those areas either.

The stakes are high, as Feinman pointed out.

“I have conversations with corporate leaders who say, ‘Well am I going to be able to get in touch with my manager at 1 am and will he or she be able to send me a document?’ If the answer is no that community’s off the list,” says Feinman.

Virginia could follow the lead of Wall Street analysts that have conducted detailed studies by using a provider’s own website to query service availability and information for each individual address in a proposed service area. It would be a labor intensive project, but one that would put providers on record about whether they actually offer service or not.

Virginia Public Radio reports the state’s goal for universal broadband has been hampered by a lack of accurate broadband mapping. Now the state proposes to allow cable and phone companies to sort it out themselves. (1:43)

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