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FCC’s Ajit Pai Takes Credit for America’s Alleged Broadband Wonderland

Santa Broadband: Ajit Pai’s magical world of broadband

God bless deregulation and your local phone and cable companies for making American Broadband Great Again.

That’s the message FCC Chairman Ajit Pai hopes will be the take away in the forthcoming 2019 Broadband Deployment Report — a highly dubious and over optimistic assessment of America’s rural broadband landscape.

“For the past two years, closing the digital divide has been the FCC’s top priority,” Chairman Pai said. “We’ve been tackling this problem by removing barriers to infrastructure investment, promoting competition, and providing efficient, effective support for rural broadband expansion through our Connect America Fund. This report shows that our approach is working. But we won’t rest until all Americans can have access to broadband and the 21st century opportunities it provides to communities everywhere.”

Except closing the rural-urban broadband gap has been a FCC priority for more than two years, and was a particularly high priority for the previous administration, which devoted a large amount of controversial stimulus funding after the Great Recession to internet expansion during the Obama Administration. In fact, Chairman Pai repeatedly claimed credit for broadband expansion projects that were funded by the previous administration, while at the same time criticizing the FCC under former Chairman Thomas Wheeler for harming investment in broadband with the enforcement of net neutrality.

The FCC continues to rely on dubious and flawed data to produce its reports — unverified data typically volunteered by the country’s phone and cable companies. The FCC has been frequently criticized for relying on inaccurate broadband availability maps, taking providers at their word on broadband speeds that fail to materialize in the real world, and reporting expansion projects that do not directly benefit consumers.

Pai’s office this week released a press release attempting to conflate broadband gains to his deregulatory policies and the banishment of net neutrality.

“The private sector has responded to FCC reforms by deploying fiber to 5.9 million new homes in 2018, the largest number ever recorded. And overall, capital expenditures by broadband providers increased in 2017, reversing declines that occurred in both 2015 and 2016.”

But Pai does not offer any evidence to back up those claims. In fact, as Stop the Cap! has reported, many of the country’s largest telecom companies have been cutting capital expenditures, many initiated as part of system upgrades to convert to digital cable television or to increase the amount of fiber optics to increase cable system reliability — neither relevant to the debate about net neutrality. This year, Charter Communications has announced a dramatic drop in spending (despite the repeal of net neutrality) because their long-planned system upgrades surrounding the retirement of analog cable television are now complete. Charter also had its merger agreement with Time Warner Cable revoked in New York for failing to meet its rural broadband commitments in that state.

Comcast cut spending by 3% because it bought fewer set-top TV boxes in light of cord-cutting customer losses. Verizon, which has been aggressively promoting its forthcoming 5G millimeter wave wireless network, slashed spending from $17.2 billion in 2017 to between $16.6-17 billion last year, and a significant sum of that money was earmarked for 5G buildouts in urban areas, not expanding rural internet. AT&T’s capital expenditures for 2019 are not expected to move much, placed in the $23 billion range for 2019, just a little more than last year. But AT&T is expecting to be reimbursed $1.6 billion by the federal government for AT&T’s FirstNet public safety network buildout, and much of its other spending is targeting its wireless business, including a plan to launch 5G services in 19 cities this year. That means less money for AT&T’s wireline network, including fiber broadband for homes and businesses.

Pai’s claims about the increased availability of broadband, at higher speeds, comes largely at similar incremental rates to progress under the Obama Administration. In New York, which is seeking to approach near universal broadband coverage, what moved the needle the most was a large sum of funding available to subsidize rural broadband expansion. The availability of substantial financial assistance from the state government, which some described as corporate welfare, appeared to be the most effective broadband expansion motivator for an industry Pai praised in his press release, not deregulation or the repeal of net neutrality.

Kagan: Cable Company Wireless Is Designed to Trap You in a Bundle, Not Compete in Wireless Business

Comcast and Charter Communications have no real interest in competing head-to-head in wireless with AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint. Instead, the two cable companies hope to trap you in a bundled package of services too inconvenient to cancel.

Jeff Kagan, a longstanding telecommunications analyst specializing in the cable industry, believes Comcast, Charter, and other cable operators entering the wireless business have no intention of being a serious competitor to the country’s four largest mobile companies.

“The goal of XFINITY Mobile [from Comcast] is to offer their customers another service and to create a sticky bundle,” Kagan said. “It’s not to lead the wireless wars. It’s not to increase their market share for traditional reasons. It is simply to create a sticky bundle to stabilize and grow their customer base.”

Kagan

XFINITY Mobile and Spectrum Mobile (from Charter), both require customers to be signed up for their respective internet services. If a customer cancels internet service, they will lose their mobile service. That could prove to be a major hassle for wireless customers, because they will have to properly port out their existing phone number(s) to another provider before dropping broadband.

Kagan believes cable operators will use mobile service to further strengthen their bundle by tying discounts to the number of services each customer takes through the cable company.

“Customers who use one service find it easy to switch away to a competitor,” Kagan said. “However, when they use multiple services and get a discount for the bundle, they become sticky and generally stay put. And the more services a customer uses, the larger the discount, the stickier they get and the less likely they are to wander.”

That is also likely to be true with Altice, which operates Optimum (Cablevision) and SuddenLink and has partnered with Sprint to offer cell service.

Sprint and T-Mobile, which are planning to merge, have repeatedly argued cable operators will be aggressive new players in the mobile business, giving the potentially combined carrier fierce new competitors. But Kagan doubts that will prove true.

“The problem is, the sticky bundle is not a low-cost solution,” Kagan offered. “With that said, the higher cost to the cable television companies is less than that of losing their customer base. So, the cost makes sense as simply a cost of doing business.”

The challenge cable operators face is that none plan to own and operate their own traditional cellular network. Comcast and Charter have partnered with Verizon Wireless to resell access to its 4G LTE network and Altice will rely on Sprint. Leasing access on an ongoing basis is likely to be more expensive that relying on your own network, but beyond offering Wi-Fi calling and experimental access to future 5G-type services in the emerging CBRS band, cable operators will remain almost completely dependent on their wireless provider partners, limiting their effective ability to compete.

Kagan believes the goals of the two industries are different. Wireless operators are trying to monetize their networks through usage, while cable operators are trying to find new services that will keep customers loyal and are willing to ignore monetizing their wireless side businesses to achieve that goal.

Comcast Moving Away from Customer Retention Discounts for Cable TV

Phillip Dampier February 11, 2019 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News No Comments

Despite the growing impact of cord-cutting, Comcast is following companies like Charter Spectrum by cutting back customer retention discounts that savvy subscribers negotiate to keep their cable bill reasonable. Despite losing more than 344,000 cable television customers in 2018, almost twice as many as it lost in 2017, Comcast has lost interest in cutting prices to keep customers.

Traditionally, customers using the word “cancel” with a customer service representative would quickly be offered deeply discounted service if they agreed to stay. Customers willing to stand their ground in tough negotiations with the cable company could win promotional pricing indefinitely, often saving several hundred dollars a year without losing channels or services. In 2016, after Charter Communications completed its merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge vowed to impose “pricing discipline” on Time Warner Cable’s “Turkish bazaar of promotional deals” after Charter took control of the company.

Rutledge called out the ‘madness’ of offering customers fire sale prices on internet and television service at a MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit in May 2017.

“Time Warner wanted to make a video number, and there were data packages that cost less if you took video than if you didn’t,” Rutledge said. “And a lot of those were churning out. And a lot of them were basic-only. So on the margin, at the end – in the last year, I think they were selling 40% of their connects as basic-only. [TWC had] 90,000 different promotional offers, many of them deeply discounted and piled on top of each other.”

Rutledge said Time Warner Cable represented the worst of an industry practice that gave unprecedented power to customers to get what they wanted, at least for awhile.

“You’d call in, bargain … And so there’s a lot of that out there. And they’re also exploding packages. Meaning, at the end of the term, they go back to full price,” Rutledge complained.

Rutledge called an end to negotiations by offering customers the opportunity of keeping their current package, but gradually raising it to a price that was often higher than Spectrum’s own non-negotiable packages and pricing. Regardless of what package a customer chose, it was a win for Charter because regular pricing ensured the company was making money either way.

Comcast has apparently been won over by Rutledge’s message to the industry and is now gradually moving in a similar direction.

Strauss

Matt Strauss, executive vice president of XFINITY Services, told Business Insider Comcast will now attempt to keep and win back its cord-cutting customers not by discounting prices, but by creating much smaller cable TV packages with fewer channels — a practice known as slimming down packages into “skinny bundles.” Comcast also plans to stop pushing customers into its “best value” triple-play packages of television, phone, and internet services, understanding many customers have no interest in some of those services.

“Our strategy is very focused on segmentation and getting more sophisticated in putting together the right video offering for the right customer at the right time in their life,” Strauss said, not by offering deep discounts on bloated packages (including a landline or hundreds of unwanted TV channels) that would reduce profitability.

Charter is already offering an ultra-slim, a-la-carte local TV package combining Music Choice with the customer’s pick of 10 national cable channels for $21.99 a month. The package is targeted to those with internet-only service and is accessed through a Roku set-top box. DVR service is available, if a customer was willing to pay a steep DVR service and box rental fee.

Comcast’s new strategy will market internet packages that include the added-cost option of a super-slim TV package of local channels and a handful of cable networks.

Strauss disagrees with some industry pundits who have suggested cable companies are planning to abandon selling cable television altogether in favor of internet-only service.

“We continue to be very bullish on video, but you’re just going to see us be more focused on how we go to market with video,” Strauss said.

Comcast-NBC Announces Direct to Consumer Streaming Service for 2020

Comcast-owned NBCUniversal today announced a 2020 launch of a new, advertiser-supported streaming service, relying on content libraries and distribution platforms from America’s NBCUniversal and Europe’s Sky.

In a press release about the new venture, NBCUniversal claims the service will reach over 90 million U.S. households and will include “some of the world’s most popular television and film franchises, including homegrown original programming as well as content from outside partners.”

The new service is a rare reminder that the cable industry’s “TV Everywhere” project — offering streamed and on-demand content to “authenticated pay television customers” is still alive and kicking. NBCUniversal plans to offer the service to consumers for free, as long as they can prove they have an active cable or satellite TV subscription. Comcast and Sky will be the first to debut the service to their combined 52 million subscribers, with other providers likely to offer the service sometime later. Cord cutters will be able to purchase a subscription to the service, and a paid, ad-free option will also be available.

TV Everywhere, the cable industry’s effort to make on-demand content available for little or no charge, as long as you are an “authenticated pay-TV customer.”

NBCUniversal also announced an executive shuffle to reposition itself for the streaming venture. With Comcast’s 2018 acquisition of Sky, Europe’s largest satellite television provider, the yet-to-be-named streaming venture will draw talent from both sides of the Atlantic. Programming is expected to rely heavily on both NBCUniversal-owned content and a growing library of original shows and movies produced by Sky. European audiences will see more American programming and Americans will have greater access to popular Sky content, particularly from the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The new streaming service represents an acknowledgment that traditional live, linear television is becoming less important as viewers increasingly shift towards on-demand viewing. NBCUniversal itself has recognized a trend away from live niche programming, and has closed down some of its lower-rated cable networks, including Cloo and Esquire. Original content on some lesser-known basic cable networks often amounts to little more than an hour or two a day, with the rest of the schedule populated with program length commercials or reruns of older network shows. Since NBCUniversal has a deep library of both original and older programming, it can offer viewers on-demand access to new shows and old favorites, attracting younger audiences.

“People are watching premium content more than ever, but they want more flexibility and value,” said NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke. “NBCUniversal is perfectly positioned to offer a variety of choices, due to our deep relationships with advertisers and distribution partners, as well as our data-targeting capabilities. Advertising continues to be a major part of the entertainment ecosystem and we believe that a streaming service, with limited and personalized ads, will provide a great consumer experience.”

For now, Comcast/NBCUniversal will retain a 30% ownership in the Hulu venture.

Comcast Introduces $5.99/mo Service to Protect Your Devices from Hackers

Phillip Dampier January 10, 2019 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News 1 Comment

Comcast internet customers have a new add-on option – xFi Advanced Security, an “artificial intelligence” security package designed to identify and block Wi-Fi intrusions and hack attacks on Internet of Things (IoT) equipment like lights, thermostats, smart meter apps, Wi-Fi equipped home appliances, security cameras, doorbells, voice enabled personal assistants, and garage door openers.

Comcast will sell the package for $5.99 a month (except for xFi Advantage customers, who get Advanced Security included at no additional cost), based on claims that hacker attacks on IoT devices are up 600% from 2016-2017.

xFi Advanced Security provides an added layer of protection for your entire network by preventing you from inadvertently accessing malicious sites, blocking remote access to smart devices from unknown or dangerous sources and monitoring activity in real time to detect when devices are behaving in unusual ways that could indicate a network threat.

Whenever a threat is detected, it’s automatically blocked and you are notified in xFi and given tips on how to resolve.

“As the digital world gets more complex, we wanted to make it simple and easy for our customers to protect their home networks. That’s why we developed xFi Advanced Security,” said Fraser Stirling, senior vice president of digital home, devices and AI for Comcast. “We want to give customers digital peace of mind for the devices they already own and the confidence to expand and evolve their connected homes knowing that every new camera, voice-assisted speaker or smart thermostat they add will be protected.”

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