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Rural New York Legislators Slam Charter Spectrum’s Request to Limit Rural Broadband Funding

With an estimated 90,000 New Yorkers stranded without broadband service, a proposal from Charter Communications to block funding for future projects is coming under fire from a bipartisan group of rural legislators.

Charter, which does business as Spectrum, filed a request with the Federal Communications Commission to exclude certain census blocks for funding under the agency’s new $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). The cable company claims it intends to privately fund expansion of internet service in those areas, and does not welcome government-subsidized competition.

“Good cause plainly exists to grant the waiver to avoid overbuilding areas in which Charter has already begun the process of deploying service and is investing private capital well in excess of $600 million,” company officials wrote. “This will ensure scarce universal service support is deployed to close the gap/digital divide in actually unserved areas. The commission has previously granted rule waivers where, as here, the purposes of the rule would be disserved by its strict application, and where waiver would affirmatively serve the public interest.”

Many of the rural homes Charter claims it intends to serve have been waiting for internet access for well over a decade. Many were hopeful that wait would end shortly after the cable company agreed to expand service to an additional 145,000 rural New York households as part of an agreement with state regulators approving its merger with Time Warner Cable. But a March 2020 audit conducted by the Comptroller of New York found Charter was not meeting its commitments:

“[…] It has been over three years since the merger was approved. Network expansion should have already been provided to approximately 126,875 unserved or underserved premises based on the 2016 Commission Order approving the merger. As of July 2019, Charter had only extended its network to 64,827 premises. Based on the original Order, 62,048 additional customers should have received access to these services. Charter now has until September 2021 to complete the network expansion of 145,000 premises previously scheduled to be completed by May 2020.”

Barrett

Some New York legislators believe Charter is out of line asking the FCC to exclude funding for other rural broadband projects while taking its time meeting its own commitments.

“Charter’s waiver request is simply self-serving and will in no way benefit the residents of upstate New York who, even in the year 2020, are struggling to access adequate broadband by any provider,” Rep. Didi Barrett (D-Hudson) wrote in a letter to the FCC. “Charter’s petition is a blatant attempt to reduce competition and leave consumers with no choice but to wait around for Charter to finish a job that should already be complete. In Upstate New York, tens of thousands of residents and businesses are still waiting for internet service because of Charter’s years-long effort to renege on their obligations to New York State and the people who live in rural communities. We must continue to call Charter out until every household and business is served as planned under their agreement with New York State.”

Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik from Schuylerville agrees with many of Barrett’s views, blasting Spectrum for seriously delaying its rural rollout commitments. Stefanik worked with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to change the qualification requirements for the RDOF program, which originally would have excluded New York from receiving funding. If the FCC adopts Charter’s request, it would block much of her district from receiving broadband funds, either because Charter previously indicated it would (eventually) offer service or because the state previously supplied broadband subsidies, which would also seem to disqualify RDOF grants.

“I have heard directly from constituents and local elected officials that this decision would have a severe impact on their ability to gain rural broadband access, which is essential, especially during this time of crisis,” Stefanik said. “Charter’s request would exclude parts of the North Country from this critical federal funding, and I will work with my upstate colleagues and the FCC to keep it available.”

WNYT in Albany reports rural New York communities like Stillwater have waited years for Charter Spectrum to provide broadband service. The addresses Spectrum grudgingly will serve in the area are routinely quoted installation fees starting at $8,000. (2:16)

Justice Dept. Ready to Approve T-Mobile/Sprint Merger

The Justice Department has helped engineer an approvable merger deal between T-Mobile and Sprint that will get antitrust regulators’ blessings as early as tomorrow, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

The sticking point that held up merger approval for weeks was the divestiture of certain wireless assets to Dish Network, which claims it will temporarily use Sprint and T-Mobile’s wireless networks to offer a new nationwide “fourth option” for cell phone service. Dish’s new cell phone service will come from a $1.4 billion acquisition of prepaid carrier Boost Mobile, which currently relies on reselling Sprint’s 4G network. Dish would inherit Boost’s nine million customers. Dish will also be able to lease access to T-Mobile and Sprint’s existing wireless networks for up to seven years while it builds out its own network of cell towers. The deal also includes a guarantee that Dish can pay $3.6 billion to acquire 800 MHz wireless licenses held by Sprint.

The Justice Department claims that lower frequency spectrum will allow Dish to service rural communities, assuming Dish is willing to invest in cell tower construction in high cost, low return areas.

Regulators in the Trump Administration’s Justice Department claim shaving assets from a super-sized T-Mobile will preserve the competition that will be lost when Sprint becomes a part of T-Mobile. But Dish will emerge as a miniscule player with only a fraction of the 100+ million customers that AT&T and Verizon have, and at least 80 million customers signed with T-Mobile. One of the core arguments T-Mobile and Sprint made in favor of their merger was that each was too small to afford to deploy 5G service quickly and efficiently. Dish will have even less money to build out a basic 4G wireless network.

Another merger requirement for the combined T-Mobile and Sprint will be mandatory support for eSIM, which allows consumers to change wireless carriers quickly without investing in a physical SIM card. But that requirement will not impact AT&T or Verizon Wireless, which both continue to push physical SIM cards on the much larger customer bases.

If the Justice Department does publicly approve the merger, the last hurdle the wireless companies will have to overcome is a multi-state lawsuit filed by attorneys general that argue the merger will impact low-income customers and is anti competitive. That court case is unlikely to be heard until late fall at the earliest.

CNBC’s David Faber reports that T-Mobile and Sprint have settled with the Department of Justice to go through with their merger deal. (6:14)

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.

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