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Charter Quickly Settles California Internet Speed Lawsuit

Charter Communications, doing business as Time Warner Cable, has quickly moved to settle a lawsuit filed last week by the district attorneys of Los Angeles, San Diego, and Riverside, Calif.

The lawsuit, filed in California Superior Court, alleged that Time Warner Cable misrepresented the internet speeds it marketed to California consumers and failed to deliver the level of service advertised.

“We cooperated fully in the review, have resolved this matter comprehensively, and this is expressly not a finding nor an admission of liability,” Charter said in a statement.

The lawsuit is very similar to one filed in New York in 2017 and later settled by Charter involving Time Warner Cable Maxx service, which offered internet speeds in upgraded service areas around New York City up to 300 Mbps.

The suit claimed that Time Warner Cable knowingly oversold its services using infrastructure incapable of meeting the level of service customers paid for. The California suit claimed Time Warner Cable allegedly engaged in unlawful business practices starting as early as 2013. Time Warner Cable was sold to Charter Communications in 2016 and began operating as Spectrum by the end of that year.

The district attorneys requested civil damages and a formal injunction prohibiting Spectrum from advertising internet speeds it cannot support. None of the district attorneys involved in the case had any comment about the settlement. It is not known what damages, if any, Charter has agreed to pay in return for settling the case out of court.

Streaming Services Are Monitoring Customers for Signs of Password Sharing

Large media companies and streaming services are on to many of you.

If you are among the two-thirds of subscribers that have reportedly shared your Netflix, HBO GO, Hulu, or Disney+ password with friends and family, your provider probably already knows about it.

A recent report from HUB Entertainment Research found that at least 64% of 13-24-year-olds have shared a password to a streaming service with someone else, with 31% of consumers admitting they are sharing passwords with people outside of their home.

The reason many people share passwords is to save money on the cost of signing up for multiple streaming services. Many trade a Netflix password in return for a Hulu password, or hand over an HBO GO password in exchange for access to your Disney+ account. Research firm Park Associates claims that streamers lost an estimated $9.1 billion in revenue from password sharing, and can expect to lose nearly $12.5 billion by 2024 if password sharing is not curtailed.

Oddly, most streaming services are well aware of password sharing and the lost revenue that results from sharing accounts, and most care little, at least for now.

Marketplace notes a lot of the complaints about password sharing are coming from cable industry executives, shareholders, and Wall Street analysts, but for now most streaming services are just monitoring the situation instead of controlling it.

“I think we continue to monitor it,” said Gregory K. Peters, Netflix’s chief product officer, on the 2019 third quarter earnings call. “We’ll see those consumer-friendly ways to push on the edges of that, but I think we’ve got no big plans to announce at this point in time in terms of doing something differently there.”

Netflix sells different tiers of service that limit the number of concurrent streams to one, two, or four streams at a time. The company believes that if customers that share accounts bump into the stream limits, many will upgrade to a higher level of service which will result in more revenue.

Newcomer Disney+ not only recognizes password sharing is going on, it almost embraces it.

“We’re setting up a service that is very family friendly. We expect families to consume it,” Disney CEO Bob Iger said in an interview with CNBC. “We will be monitoring [password sharing] with the various tools that we have.”

The biggest tool Disney has to monitor account sharing is Charter Spectrum, which is aggressively encouraging streaming services to crack down hard on password sharing. Spectrum internet customers who watch Disney+ are now tracked by Spectrum, recording each IP address that accesses Disney+ content over Spectrum’s broadband service. When multiple people at different IP addresses access Disney+ content on a single account at the same time, Spectrum can flag those customers as potential password sharers.

Synamedia, a streaming provider security firm, uses geolocation tools to determine who is watching streaming services from where. If someone is watching one stream from one address and another person is watching from another city at the same time, password sharing is the likely culprit. For now, most companies are quietly collecting data to learn just how big a problem password sharing is and are not using that information to crack down on customers.

Streaming providers are more interested in stopping the pervasive sale of stolen account credentials on services like eBay and shutting down stolen accounts used to harvest content for unauthorized resale. But as sharing grows, so will calls from stakeholders to curtail the practice. Those in favor of vigorous crackdowns on password sharing argue billions of dollars of lost revenue will be lost. If a service like Netflix blocked password sharing, that could lead to dramatic increases in account sign-ups. But less established brands like Disney+ seem more concerned about losing the unofficial extra viewers that are watching and buzzing about shows on its new streaming platform.

Cable companies are frustrated about losing scores of cable TV customers to competitors that may be effectively giving away service for free. That has raised tempers at companies like Charter Communications.

“Pricing and lack of security continue to be the main problems contributing to the challenges of paid video growth,” Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge said in recent prepared remarks with Wall Street analysts. “The traditional bundle … is very expensive, and the actual unit rate of that product continues to rise, and that’s priced a lot of people out of the market. And it’s free to a lot of consumers who have friends with passwords. So our ability to sell that product is ultimately constrained by our relationship with content [companies], and we have to manage that in terms of the kinds of power that the content companies have.”

Charter’s power comes from its willingness to distribute cable networks like The Disney Channel to tens of millions of homes around the country. That forces Disney to listen to Charter’s concerns about piracy and password sharing and the issue is even documented in the latest carriage contract between the two companies.

Cable industry executives believe a crackdown on password sharing is inevitable, eventually. Just as the cable industry was forced to combat cable pirates during its formative years, streaming providers that welcome extra viewers today may lament the lost revenue those subscribers don’t bring to the table tomorrow.

 

Marketplace reports on the growing issue of streaming service password sharing. (2:19)

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.

N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo Vetoes Public Rural Broadband Feasibility Study as the Unserved Struggle On

No service.

Despite New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $500 million, 2015 Broadband for All initiative which guaranteed broadband service for anyone  that wanted home internet access, five years later rural broadband gaps continue to plague the state.

A bill that would set aside funds to complete a feasibility study to launch a state owned broadband provider of last resort was quietly vetoed by Cuomo at the end of 2019. Assembly member Aileen Gunther (D-Monticello) sponsored the bill after hearing scores of complaints about terrible or non-existent internet access from constituents in her district, which covers the parts of the rural Catskills region north of the Pennsylvania border.

Gunther complained that despite the governor’s broadband initiative, private phone and cable companies were still ignoring rural customers, leaving them with slow DSL service or no internet access at all. Gunther’s bill was a first step in potentially allowing the state to step in and provide service to New Yorkers unable to get broadband from any private provider.

New York has spent over $500 million on its Broadband for All program and made Charter Spectrum an integral part of its broadband expansion plans in return for approval of its 2016 acquisition of Time Warner Cable. But a growing number of the governor’s critics claim the program has failed to deliver on its mandate, stranding thousands of New Yorkers without internet service and tens of thousands more with just one option — unpopular satellite internet access.

Gunther

Gunther was upset to learn that New York was prepared to hand over more than a half billion dollars to large private telecom companies including Frontier Communications and Verizon while not being willing to spend a penny to fund projects to reach New Yorkers for-profit companies could not be dragged kicking and screaming to service.

“We’re all spending millions and millions of dollars on privately owned internet service providers,” said Gunther. “In return for promises, a lot of our communities do not have access to the internet, or if they do have access to the internet, it’s slow and these companies are not, I think, fulfilling the promises made.”

The rural broadband problem is not resolved in the Finger Lakes or Southern Tier regions of New York either. This week, Yates County announced it was joining an effort by Schuyler, Steuben, and Tioga counties, and the Southern Tier Network, to complete a broadband feasibility study to improve internet access in the four counties. Fujitsu Broadband will manage the study and hopes to have results by June. The study will target the pervasive problem of inadequate broadband service in the region, which includes crucial tourist, winery, and agricultural businesses vital to New York’s rural economy.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York in 2015.

Gov. Cuomo has called such initiatives “well-intentioned” but was non committal about contributing more state funds to construct new networks or underwrite further expansion of existing ones. New York is about to begin its annual hard-fought budget negotiations in hopes of completing the state budget by April. Finding funding for such projects will probably require a powerful political advocate able to wrestle funding for further broadband improvements.

Even after spending $500 million, New York’s rural broadband problem has not been resolved. That offers insight into the merits of other state broadband programs, which often limit annual broadband expansion funding to under $30 million annually.

Those still without service are likely in high-cost service areas, where each customer could cost over $20,000 to reach. New York’s Broadband for All program relied on a reverse auction that required private companies to bid to service each unserved address. No wireline provider bid on any high-cost service areas, leaving Hughes Satellite as a subsidized satellite provider of last resort. But inadequate broadband mapping left scores of rural New Yorkers behind without even the option of subsidized satellite internet access.

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.

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