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Department of Justice Wants T-Mobile and Sprint to Create a New 4th National Wireless Carrier

Officials in the Justice Department are asking T-Mobile and Sprint to spin off a portion of their networks to lay the foundation to create a new national wireless carrier, with its own network, as a deal condition for approving their $26.5 billion merger.

Bloomberg News reports the launch of a new “fourth largest” U.S. wireless company would help win Justice Department approval for the merger deal, according to unnamed sources. Such a network could be created with the spinoff of Sprint’s Boost Mobile, a prepaid MVNO dependent on Sprint’s wireless network. Since a considerable percentage of Sprint’s existing network was expected to be scrapped after the merger won approval, Sprint could theoretically give up part of its network that would have been deemed redundant anyway to appease regulators. But Wall Street is unlikely to approve of the prospect of creating a new competitor, especially in a transaction designed to reduce the number of wireless competitors in the United States.

Boost Mobile, according to Reuters, could be worth $3 billion in a sale — potentially more if an already-built wireless network is included in the deal.

Critics wonder why the Justice Department would approve a deal merging T-Mobile and Sprint at all if officials were worried about reducing the number of wireless options for consumers. Industry observers suspect T-Mobile and Sprint would be unlikely to support such a network spinoff plan, and the resulting emergence of a new carrier likely to be even smaller than Sprint would leave it in a difficult position in a marketplace that would be dominated by three much larger national carriers planning to spend billions to develop 5G networks.

A source told Bloomberg News Justice Department antitrust chief Makan Delrahim “still wants four carriers” and remains unmoved by T-Mobile and Sprint’s arguments that combining operations would lead to more competition and lower prices for consumers. 

Many state attorneys general remain opposed to the merger, fearing that it will lead to less competition and higher prices.  They are waiting for the Justice Department to make its decision before contemplating lawsuits to block the merger if the deal wins approval in Washington.

Big Telecom and Utilities Schmoozing New Republican Lawmakers and Governor in Ohio

Phillip Dampier February 7, 2019 AT&T, Charter Spectrum, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

Gov. Mike DeWine and his wife, Francis.

Ohio’s incoming Republican state officeholders are being showered in gifts, cash, food and drink to celebrate their 2018 election victories and get their start of the 2019 legislative term off ‘in the right direction’, all courtesy of Ohio’s biggest telecommunications and for-profit utility companies.

It’s the perfect opportunity for powerful state lobbyists to introduce themselves and get their feet in the doors of the incoming Republican officeholders that dominate the governor’s office and state legislature. At least $1.7 million in gifts and cash were directed to incoming Gov. Mike DeWine and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted alone.

Some familiar companies donated the maximum $10,000 apiece to the DeWine-Husted Transition Fund, a special set-aside account to cover inauguration activities and allow incoming politicians to count stacks of $100 bills. AT&T and Charter Communications — the dominant phone and cable companies in Ohio — each maxed out their contributions just before DeWine announced a new industry-friendly appointment to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) and prepares the 2019 budget for the Consumers’ Counsel, an underfunded state office that represents the interests of Ohio consumers dealing with problem utilities, phone, and cable companies.

DeWine did not disappoint his corporate benefactors, this week announcing the appointment of Samuel Randazzo, a retired lawyer with a 40 year history of representing the interests of utility companies, as the newest commissioner at PUCO.

“We are disappointed in this choice, as Mr. Randazzo has a lengthy career fighting against renewable energy and energy efficiency in Ohio,” Heather Taylor-Miesle, president of the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund, said in a release. “This move is out-of-step with the rest of the Midwest, where governors are committing to the future of energy, instead of the past.”

Randazzo has a long record of opposing utility mandates or regulations that interfere with the industry’s ability to generate profits, and is expected to be one of the friendliest regulators for utility companies in recent Ohio memory. Where did DeWine get Randazzo’s name? Scott Elisar, an attorney in Randazzo’s former law firm, was also a member of the nominating council that presented the list of four candidates for DeWine to consider for the PUCO position.

Consumer groups are also concerned that DeWine will soon appoint another member of the Commission after current PUCO Chairman Asim Haque leaves on March 1 to pursue a new job opportunity.

Randazzo

“We recommend that [his] seat be filled with a bona fide representative of residential consumers, especially considering that the current PUCO commissioners include two former utility representatives,” a statement from the Office of the Ohio Consumers Counsel said this week.

Other newly elected officials are also getting a taste of the action, with donor contributions limited to $2,500 each. Considering the number of special interests writing checks this year, several members of DeWine’s administration are also enjoying considerable free cash, despite the contributions limit: Attorney General David Yost of Columbus, $33,500; state Auditor Keith Faber of Celina, $29,000; Secretary of State Frank LaRose of Hudson, $30,500; and state Treasurer Robert Sprague of Findlay, $15,000.

An early test of what corporate influence can buy from Ohio legislators suggests it does not cost very much to participate in “pay for play” politics. FirstEnergy Solutions, Ohio’s bankrupt utility that reported “massive financial problems” last spring, still managed to scrape together $172,000 in campaign contributions for Ohio House candidates — mostly Republican, and another $565,000 for the Republican Governors Association during the 2018 election.

FirstEnergy spent much of last year lobbying the legislature to stick ratepayers with a $30 annual rate increase to bail out some of its unprofitable power generation facilities. It failed, along with a more comprehensive proposed corporate bailout package worth $2.5 billion. FirstEnergy became one of DeWine’s biggest supporters in his race for governor. DeWine, in turn, has signaled his support for the FirstEnergy bailout rejected last year. That could explain why DeWine received five times more money in contributions from the utility than his Democratic opponent.

On the first day of Ohio’s new 2019 legislative session, by sheer coincidence, the General Assembly announced a new standing committee on power generation, which will have the authority to approve a new bailout package for the troubled utility. FirstEnergy also announced it was abandoning some of its more costly energy producing facilities. Decommissioning costs will likely be financed by new surcharges on Ohio residential and business customer utility bills.

J.D. Power Survey Rates Charter Spectrum and Frontier Among Worst in Satisfaction

Charter Spectrum and Frontier Communications are among America’s most-hated telecom companies, especially east of the Mississippi River, according to the latest J.D. Power 2018 Residential Satisfaction Study that measures customer satisfaction scores across four geographic regions of the country.

Among the best for internet access, AT&T/DirecTV took top honors in their wireline service areas in the south, north-central, and parts of the western United States where gigabit fiber upgrades have dramatically improved service over older DSL and U-verse internet products. In the east, Verizon’s FiOS network was by far the best rated ISP.

“It is clear wireline companies are putting the customer experience first, and it is paying off,” said Ian Greenblatt, Technology, Media & Telecom Practice Lead at J.D. Power. “Finding ways to make call centers more efficient and clarifying billing statements and contracts are just a few relatively easy things companies can be doing to improve the customer experience. Additionally, methods in which companies are communicating service and product updates have been evolving with the technology itself and has proven to be a valuable approach to high customer satisfaction.”

Also scoring above average for internet service:

  • West: Cable One, Cox Communications, Spectrum, Comcast/XFINITY
  • South: Comcast/XFINITY

In the eastern and north-central regions, Spectrum scored second worst for internet access, only avoiding last place because Frontier Communications, which relies primarily on DSL service in these areas of the country, did worse.

In the south, Suddenlink scored poorly, but not as bad as regional phone companies Frontier, CenturyLink, and bottom-rated Windstream, which all offer DSL service.

In the west, customers especially loathed CenturyLink, Mediacom — Consumer Reports’ perennial favorite for worst cable operator, and dead last Frontier.

Comcast appears to have improved its customer satisfaction scores slightly when compared against almost 20 years of earlier satisfaction studies performed annually by J.D. Power. In contrast, Frontier continues its decline in customer satisfaction, predominately in areas where it still only offers DSL service. Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks appears to have done few favors for consumers, who dislike Charter Spectrum just as much, if not more than its predecessors.

The ratings are based on responses from 27,765 customers that returned surveys evaluating cable/satellite/telco TV, internet access and landline telephone providers. Customers were asked to rank each provider on network performance and reliability, cost of service, billing, communication, and customer service.

Exploring the FCC’s Latest Proposal to “Streamline” Rules; And What About That $225 Complaint Fee?

Pai

In an effort to “streamline” procedural rules and paperwork at the Federal Communications Commission, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is proposing to theoretically weaken the existing informal complaints process, leaving consumers with unresolved complaints only one firm option — paying a $225 filing fee to pursue a formal complaint at the Commission regarding their internet service provider.

“This Order streamlines and consolidates the procedural rules governing formal complaints against common carriers, formal complaints regarding pole attachments, and formal complaints concerning advanced communications services and equipment,” the FCC proposal reads. “We base these rule refinements on 20 years of experience adjudicating formal complaints and conducting mediations. We find that these rule revisions will eliminate inconsistencies among various complaint proceedings, promote a fully developed record in each case, foster disposition of formal complaints in a timely manner, and conserve resources of the parties and the Commission.”

With thousands of informal complaints about the nation’s cable, phone, wireless, and satellite companies arriving at the FCC every week, and millions of comments to process on hot-button topics like net neutrality, the federal agency is trying to distance itself from being a government’s version of the Better Business Bureau. Under the Obama Administration, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler invited consumers to bring their complaints about internet service providers to the FCC’s attention. In 2015, the FCC launched a Consumer Help Center that, like Pai’s latest proposal, also claimed to “streamline the complaint system.”

FCC’s online Complaint Center

“The first responsibility of the FCC is to represent consumers,” the agency noted in a 2015 blog post. “Facilitating consumer interface with the Commission is a major component of that responsibility.”

Three years ago, the FCC stepped up involvement in the consumer complaints process to keep an eye on the marketplace and its providers — to see whether consumers were being well-served and ferret out companies that were not responsive or “bad actors” in the industry. The best way the FCC determined that was to track and measure consumer complaints.

“The information collected will be smoothly integrated with our policymaking and enforcement processes,” the FCC wrote in 2015. “The result will be better results for consumers and better information for the agency. The insights we gain will help identify trends in consumer issues and enable us to focus Commission time, money, and resources on the issues that matter most.”

The proposed changes supported by Chairman Pai are subtle, but in the regulatory world, a few words can mean a lot — something the New York State Public Service Commission and Charter/Spectrum are debating right now. A single appendix in the 2016 Merger Order approving Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable and the cable company’s interpretation of it led to threats by the PSC to de-certify the multi-billion dollar merger.

Matthew Berry, the FCC’s chief of staff, promptly attacked as “fake news” a partly specious article on the subject published by The Verge (which was substantially modified from the original this afternoon).

But Berry ignores the fact the proposal states up front it amends or changes current rules. Whether the FCC intends to make changes in its day-to-day operations as a result is a separate matter from the rules that govern the FCC’s work. The former can be changed almost at will, the latter cannot.

The section that has sparked controversy this week is: § 1.717 Procedure. It details what happens when the FCC receives an informal complaint from a consumer, either from a web-based complaint form or written complaint:

Current Language:

The Commission will forward informal complaints to the appropriate carrier for investigation. The carrier will, within such time as may be prescribed, advise the Commission in writing, with a copy to the complainant, of its satisfaction of the complaint or of its refusal or inability to do so. Where there are clear indications from the carrier’s report or from other communications with the parties that the complaint has been satisfied, the Commission may, in its discretion, consider a complaint proceeding to be closed, without response to the complainant. In all other cases, the Commission will contact the complainant regarding its review and disposition of the matters raised. If the complainant is not satisfied by the carrier’s response and the Commission’s disposition, it may file a formal complaint in accordance with § 1.721 of this part.

Proposed Language:

The Commission will forward informal complaints to the appropriate carrier for investigation and may set a due date for the carrier to provide a written response to the informal complaint to the Commission, with a copy to the complainant. The response will advise the Commission of the carrier’s satisfaction of the complaint or of its refusal or inability to do so. Where there are clear indications from the carrier’s response or from other communications with the parties that the complaint has been satisfied, the Commission may, in its discretion, consider a complaint proceeding to be closed. In all other cases, the Commission will notify the complainant that if the complainant is not satisfied by the carrier’s response, or if the carrier has failed to submit a response by the due date, the complainant may file a formal complaint in accordance with § 1.721 of this part.

At first glance, these two sections appear nearly identical. The subtle changes relate to defining, in writing, the exact responsibilities of the FCC. Weasel words like “may,” “advise,” “in its discretion,” and “consider” are red flags. When these kinds of words replace black letter words like “will,” the rules are weakened by making them discretionary. In such cases, a decision to pursue a matter is no longer a requirement, it’s an option.

In this case, Mr. Pai is proposing to reduce the FCC’s obligations to oversee an informal consumer complaint from the moment it is received to its ultimate disposition.

Under the current complaint rules, the FCC has collected a lot of information about the nature and resolution of consumer complaints. Let’s say Nancy Smith files a informal complaint against Comcast using the FCC’s online complaint center. Right now, the FCC requires Comcast to respond to Nancy’s complaint within 30 days. Comcast knows that the FCC will be monitoring the complaint and Comcast’s response. If Comcast were to ignore the letter or dismiss it, the FCC will be watching.

Consumers getting squeezed by reduced oversight.

The high complaint rates earned by telecom companies have been fodder for regulators and politicians for years, so most companies refer complaints filed with the FCC to their highest level “executive customer service” personnel empowered to resolve complaints almost anyway they can. If Mrs. Smith is pleased with the response from Comcast, the cable operator knows the FCC sees that as well. Comcast is also sensitive to the fact the FCC might one day act on unresolved issues that generate the most complaints. Over time, statistics gathered by the FCC will reveal the companies least willing to cooperate with their customers and those most motivated to resolve issues. That could count if a company like Comcast sought a merger with another cable company with a lower complaint rate, for example.

Under the proposed informal complaint rules, the FCC’s role is effectively reduced to a complaint letter-forwarder. Nancy Smith’s letter sent to the FCC under the new rules will still be forwarded to Comcast and probably arrive with a 30 day deadline to respond, should the FCC choose to maintain that requirement. In a theoretical response to Mrs. Smith, the FCC can immediately notify her it has forwarded her complain to Comcast and regardless of the provider’s response (assuming Comcast sends one), her only recourse if she remains dissatisfied is to pursue a formal complaint — the one that involves a previously established $225 filing fee and comes with a mass of terms, conditions, and requirements comfortable only for lawyers and lobbyists.

The FCC attempts to explain away the changes in a footnote (emphasis ours):

We also clarify rule 1.717, which addresses informal Section 208 complaints. See 47 CFR § 1.717. In addition to wording revisions that do not alter the substance of the rule, we delete the phrase “and the Commission’s disposition” from the last sentence of that rule because the Commission’s practice is not to dispose of informal complaints on substantive grounds. We also add a rule memorializing MDRD’s staff-assisted mediation process, which enables parties to attempt to resolve their disputes before or after the filing of a formal complaint.”

A “practice” is not a “rule” or “requirement,” however. “Substantive grounds” is also undefined in the footnote and could be subject to interpretation. After all, Mr. Pai has also claimed that repealing net neutrality would have no substantive impact on the internet.

D.C.’s lobbyists routinely make regulatory language change suggestions on behalf of their clients.

Lobbyists are paid handsomely to urge adoption of similar, subtle modifications in regulatory rules and laws because they can establish loopholes large enough to drive a truck through. In virtually every proceeding, comments routinely focus on proposed language changes. This will be the core part of the discussion at the FCC before voting on the rule change proposal as early as tomorrow – July 12, 2018.

In practical terms, the changes are designed to subtly distance the FCC from involvement in consumer disputes with their providers. Oversight is weakened in this proposal, but more importantly, the focus of the FCC’s mandate changes from “the first responsibility of the FCC is to represent consumers” in 2015 to “if the complainant is not satisfied by the carrier’s response, or if the carrier has failed to submit a response by the due date, the complainant may file a formal complaint.” Only then, assuming a consumer successfully navigates a very complicated procedure to file a formal complaint and correctly follow notification requirements, will the FCC be compelled by the rules to stay involved with a complaint from start to finish.

Keep in mind companies that frequently have regulatory business before the FCC have staff attorneys and employees familiar with the FCC’s bureaucracy and rules. A $225 filing fee is an afterthought. For the average consumer, neither is probably true.

The likely result of the change will act as a deterrent for consumers relying on the FCC to help them resolve problems. Providers will also quickly recognize the FCC is no longer as willing to scrutinize customer complaints.

Ranking Member Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee of Communications and Technology Mike Doyle (D-Penn.), who both serve on the House Energy & Commerce Committee, quickly realized the implications of the FCC’s proposed rule changes and fired off a letter to Mr. Pai this week:

We are deeply concerned that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is poised to adopt a rule that would eliminate the agency’s traditional and important role of helping consumers in the informal complaint process. Too often, consumers wronged by communications companies face unending corporate bureaucracy instead of quick, meaningful resolutions. Historically, FCC staff has reviewed responses to informal complaints and, where merited, urged companies to address any service problems. Creating a rule that directs FCC staff to simply pass consumers’ informal complaints on to the company and then to advise consumers that they file a $225 formal complaint if not satisfied ignores the core mission of the FCC — working in the public interest.

At a time when consumers are highly dissatisfied with their communications companies, this abrupt change in policy troubles us.

After reviewing a lot of regulatory proceedings and comments over the last ten years of Stop the Cap!, it troubles us too.

Jangling Shiny Keys of Distraction: Pai Claims Twitter, Edge Providers are the Real Threat to Open Internet

Pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has gone all out to defend internet service providers and his plan to jettison Net Neutrality, claiming companies like Twitter and other “edge providers” that offer a platform to a diversity of voices are a much bigger threat to an open internet than companies like AT&T and Comcast.

Speaking at the Future of Internet Freedom conference in Washington, Pai faced down the torrent of criticism that has been expressed about his plans to roll back Title II enforcement of ISPs and Net Neutrality rules that protect internet content from discriminatory behavior. In remarks to the audience, Pai used partisan framing to criticize companies like Twitter that he claims have targeted bans on conservative users who violate its terms and conditions and removes tweets for political reasons.

“Now look, I love Twitter, and I use it all the time,” Pai said. “But let’s not kid ourselves; when it comes to an open internet, Twitter is part of the problem. The company has a viewpoint and uses that viewpoint to discriminate. As just one of many examples, two months ago, Twitter blocked Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) from advertising her Senate campaign launch video because it featured a pro-life message. Before that, during the so-called Day of Action [to preserve Net Neutrality], Twitter warned users that a link to a statement by one company on the topic of internet regulation ‘may be unsafe.’  And to say the least, the company appears to have a double standard when it comes to suspending or de-verifying conservative users’ accounts as opposed to those of liberal users.  This conduct is many things, but it isn’t fighting for an open internet.”

Pai also used additional examples of “edge provider” censorship that he claims targets conservatives far more often than liberals:

  • Apple’s app store bars apps from cigar aficionados as promoting tobacco use
  • YouTube “restricts videos from the likes of conservative commentator Dennis Prager on subjects he considers ‘important to understanding American values.'”
  • Mysterious algorithms target content to specific users but without transparency and disclosure
  • Edge providers champion their own free speech while supporting online censorship at the behest of foreign governments for business reasons.

But Pai’s own statements lacked transparency:

  1. Twitter blocked, then rescinded its block, on one sponsored Tweet from Blackburn that claimed in the ad she ‘stopped the sale of baby body parts.’ Twitter declared the ad was inflammatory and violated Twitter’s advertising standards. Other media fact-checkers were less polite, calling her claim false advertising. “No investigation ever found proof of actual tissue sales. The only criminal charges stemming from the videos were filed against antiabortion activist David Daleiden and another activist in California for violations of privacy. Yet to this day, ‘baby body parts’ remain a rallying cry in conservative and antiabortion circles,” according to a Washington Post story. Twitter’s advertising standards differ from its general code of user conduct.
  2. Apple’s app store does indeed block apps promoting products deemed harmful to users. There is no financial incentive to block these apps, however. The specific language: “Apps that encourage consumption of tobacco products, illegal drugs, or excessive amounts of alcohol are not permitted on the App Store. Apps that encourage minors to consume any of these substances will be rejected. Facilitating the sale of marijuana, tobacco, or controlled substances (except for licensed pharmacies) isn’t allowed.”
  3. Pai suggests YouTube is unfairly restricting Mr. Prager’s videos, but in fact it is only placing advisories on some of his more inflammatory content warning the video may not be suitable for some audiences. YouTube also demonetized certain videos, making them ineligible for pre-roll advertisements, primarily because advertisers do not want to be associated with inflammatory content. But no videos have been censored, blocked, or removed. Anyone can view them by acknowledging the content advisory. Members of the LGBTQ community have also been upset with YouTube for similar actions, so there is scant evidence YouTube’s motives are political and target conservatives.
  4. Pai’s ‘mysterious algorithms’ have existed across the internet for years, including Verizon’s “super cookie” and AT&T that extracted more money from customers to switch off its monitoring and tracking software following customers’ internet usage. Pai was highly instrumental in blocking internet privacy regulations that would have forced the kind of disclosure of practices he suddenly objects to now.
  5. Pai’s claims about American companies caving in to foreign governments’ censorship policies seem to echo his similar 2015 claim that Net Neutrality also helps authoritarian regimes, as long as one interprets Net Neutrality as a “government takeover” of the internet. “If in the United States we adopt regulations that assert more government control over how the internet operates… it becomes a lot more difficult for us to go on the international stage and tell governments: ‘Look, we want you to keep your hands off the internet. Even if the ideas aren’t completely identical, you can appreciate the optical difficult[y] in trying to make that case,” Pai said. But that argument distorts like a fun house mirror. Pai’s declaration that Net Neutrality is a bad thing is based on his premise it would hand the keys to information control to the government to act as gatekeeper. He prefers trusting private companies to be more reliable and safer gatekeepers than the FCC or the Trump Administration. But that argument puts Pai at war with himself, considering his attacks on edge providers — private companies — for bias and censorship. Incidentally and ironically, he raised many of his 2015 objections on RT — the external television service of Russian State Television.

Pai reserved much of his remarks to attack Hollywood celebrities that occasionally inelegantly promote Net Neutrality with inexact language Pai loves to exploit. Among his targets were Mark Ruffalo, who played Hulk, Cher, and George “Sulu” Takei.

Takei

Pai called out Mr. Takei for his suggestion eliminating Net Neutrality would allow internet companies to further monetize the internet by selling additional packages of services to access certain internet content.

“The complaint by Mr. Takei and others doesn’t hold water. They’re arguing that if the plan is adopted, Internet Service Providers would suddenly start doing something that Net Neutrality rules already allow them to do. But the reason that Internet service providers aren’t offering such packages now, and likely won’t offer such packages in the future, is that American consumers by and large don’t want them.”

But of course that didn’t prevent ISPs like Comcast and AT&T to impose data caps on their customers with scant evidence of their necessity and with purely arbitrary allowances. From this regime of data caps, Wall Street analysts push providers to further monetize internet usage to raise revenue to return to shareholders. What customers want has not had much impact on Comcast’s business decisions, as the record on data caps illustrates. The threat of regulation like Net Neutrality enforcement has cooled enthusiasm for these pricing schemes, however, until recently. In April, after Mr. Pai introduced his Net Neutrality repeal plan, Comcast quietly repealed its self-ban on paid prioritization — internet fast lanes.

In a barely competitive marketplace, what customers want may not count for much if they have few, if any alternatives.

Chip Pickering, CEO of INCOMPAS, which includes as member major Silicon Valley edge providers, called Pai’s speech a diversion from the real issues.

“Chairman Pai’s attack on Twitter is like a boxer losing a fight and taking wild and erratic swings,” Pickering said. “Preventing hate speech and bullying behavior online is not the same thing as allowing cable companies to block, throttle and extort money from consumers and the websites they love. Twitter is an amazing platform for left, right and center. Donald Trump might not be President without it, and Chairman Pai’s plan to kill Net Neutrality will put Comcast and AT&T in charge of his Twitter account.”

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