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Charter Spectrum Asks FCC for Freedom to Usage Cap Its Internet Customers

Charter Communications is petitioning the Federal Communications Commission for permission to usage cap its internet customers two years before the FCC’s ban on the company imposing data caps runs out.

Charter, which does business as Spectrum, is seeking an early exit from some FCC-imposed deal conditions Charter agreed to as part of an approval of its 2016 merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Out of concern that Charter’s merger could harm emerging online video streaming competition, the FCC required the company to not charge fees to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu to carry video traffic to its customers and not impose data caps and usage based billing schemes that would limit online video consumption for seven years.

“New Charter’s increased broadband footprint and desire to protect its video profits will increase incentives to impose data caps and usage-based prices in order to make watching online video more expensive, and in particular more expensive than subscribing to a traditional pay-TV bundle,” the FCC concluded in its 2016 order approving the merger, with conditions. “For seven years, we prohibit New Charter from imposing data caps or charging usage-based pricing for its residential broadband service. This condition ensures that New Charter will continue Charter’s past pricing practices and protects subscribers from paying fees designed to make online video consumption more expensive leading subscribers to stick with a traditional pay-TV bundle.”

Charter last week argued that with cord-cutting at an all-time high and video streaming alternative cable and video packages flourishing, there is no reason to continue the seven-year ban on data caps, noting that many other large providers including AT&T, Cox, Altice, and Comcast are free to impose data caps of their own.

“They are able to do so because, unlike Charter, they are not subject to a condition that artificially and unilaterally restricts the packages available to their customers,” Charter argues in its filing. “The online video distribution marketplace is almost unrecognizable compared to what existed in 2016. […] Consumers have never had more online video choices.”

Charter said a sunset of the prohibition of data caps was now overdue.

“As data usage skyrockets, the [ban on data caps and usage-based billing] artificially hamstrings Charter’s ability to allocate the costs of maintaining its network in a way that is efficient and fair for all of its customers—above-average, average, and light users alike,” the company argued. “Charter should be afforded the same flexibility as other broadband providers to respond to developments in the market. In short, tremendous changes in the marketplace have rendered the [ban on data caps and usage-based billing] no longer necessary, and thus ending it in 2021 would be in the public interest.”

The FCC’s 2016 order approving the merger between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks, with a 7-year prohibition on data caps, was not unanimous. Separate statements from Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly were highly critical of most of the deal conditions the then-Democratic majority favored. Four years later, Pai now presides as chairman over a Republican-majority FCC that could take a favorable view of Charter’s request to end deal conditions early.

In 2016, Pai’s spokesperson complained about the imposition of deal conditions in the Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House merger, telling The Hill, “The FCC’s merger review process is badly broken. [Then FCC] Chairman Wheeler’s order isn’t about competition, competition, competition; it’s about regulation, regulation, regulation. It’s about imposing conditions that have nothing to do with the merits of this transaction. It’s about the government micromanaging the internet economy.”

Charter’s June 2020 filing focuses almost exclusively on streaming video competition to argue there is no longer any need to ban the company from imposing data caps. The FCC in 2016 concluded that data caps were a powerful anti-competitive weapon that could be used to keep streaming video competition from harming cable television packages. Charter argues that consumers now have many choices for streaming video, including cable-TV alternatives, which proves they have not engaged in anti-competitive behavior.

But Charter ignored the FCC’s other chief concern about data caps and usage billing (UBP): the lack of choice of broadband competitors.

“[…] Subscribers will continue to have no (or limited) alternative cable or fiber […] options when faced with data caps and UBP designed to deter online video consumption,” the FCC concluded.

The FCC hoped that by 2023, consumers would have more options for home broadband service, likely driving usage caps out of the marketplace.

“Seven years may also provide the high-speed […] provider market sufficient time to develop further with additional investments in fiber from established wireline […] providers, Wireless 5G technology, use of smartgrid fiber for broadband, additional overbuilding, and other potential competitors to traditional wired […] providers,” the FCC wrote. “It is our expectation that these developments will foster competition in the market to make the anticompetitive use of data caps less tenable in the future.”

Unfortunately, broadband competition remains fleeting in many parts of the United States, where only one provider offers broadband service that meets the FCC’s standard of 25 Mbps for downloads.

Ironically, Charter executives were against imposing data caps on their customers when the company was seeking approval to acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

FCC:

“Charter in particular emphasizes its aversion to data caps, stating that instead of enforcing usage limits it chooses to market the absence of data caps as a competitive advantage. Charter also argues there is a strong business case for not implementing caps. Specifically, Charter explains that it terminated its enforcement of the usage limits trial in the AUP in January 2012 because the benefits to customers of continuing the trial (minimizing bandwidth consumption to preserve a positive Internet experience) would not exceed the program’s costs. Charter also states that caps create marketing challenges because they complicate consumer purchasing decisions. Furthermore, Charter argues that data caps increase churn among subscribers. Finally, Charter states that it plans to distinguish itself from its competitors based largely on the quality and speed of its broadband offerings and that data caps undermine that marketing message.”

But the FCC remained unconvinced by Charter’s statements. In a review of confidential internal company documents, the FCC found multiple instances where Time Warner Cable had not completely abandoned the idea of data caps, despite multiple high-profile consumer backlashes against the idea.

“We also note that despite Time Warner Cable’s relative lack of success in implementing usage-based billing, its internal documents leave no doubt that it is also incentivized to use data caps to protect its [cable TV] business,” the FCC concluded.

Four years later, Charter is among many cable operators reporting staggering losses of video customers that have chosen to “cut the cord” on cable television and have switched to a streaming competitor. If an incentive to data cap customers to protect video revenue was there in 2016, it stands to be much stronger today in 2020.

The FCC is now seeking public comment on Charter’s proposal until July 22, 2020. Stop the Cap! plans to file extensive comments on the matter and will shortly publish a guide for readers offering sample letters that can be sent to the FCC on this issue.

FCC’s Ajit Pai Will Meet Privately With Wall Street Analysts in Closed Door Meeting

Phillip Dampier June 17, 2020 Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Pai

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai will meet with Wall Street analysts at a Wells Fargo investors conference on Thursday closed to the public and news media.

Pai is expected to focus most of his remarks on the topics of 5G wireless networks and forthcoming spectrum auctions, but will also likely praise the Trump Administration’s overall deregulatory policies and achievements Pai feels point to the regulator’s recent successes. In attendance will be top executives from T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T, and the powerful D.C. law firm Wilkinson Barker Knauer, LLP that specializes in serving telecommunications industry clients. That firm will present a regulatory discussion entitled, “Will Washington Topple Tech and Telecom.”

A review of past investor conferences shows it is rare for a chairman of the FCC to appear at such private events, usually attended by professional analysts working for Wall Street investment firms and top executives from the businesses analysts cover for their investor clients. The propriety of public officials attending closed door events with the industries they regulate is controversial, particularly because topics discussed during informal meetings are not always disclosed to the public through “ex parte” notices filed with the Commission. But Pai has proven to be an industry-friendly chairman and formerly served as counsel for Verizon Communications.

A transcript of Pai’s formal remarks at the event will be published on the FCC’s website within a few days of his speech, and it likely Pai will speak on issues already a part of the agency’s public record. Normally the opportunity to strengthen personal ties between regulators like Pai and the regulated and a chance to meet Pai to exchange views is worth gold to many investors, but this specific event will be conducted entirely “virtually” online.

Defenders claim such meetings allow the FCC to become better informed about Wall Street investor concerns not discussed by corporate executives worried about any negative impact on their stock price. They also contend there is no opportunity for Pai to engage in “ex parte” discussions because the event is entirely webcast online. But critics note regulators that appear at such industry events rarely attend Question and Answer events open to the public. Critics view that as further evidence of the kinds of cozy D.C. relationships between the government and special interests many ‘good government’ groups decry as a conflict of interest.

FCC Chair Calls T-Mobile Network Outage ‘Unacceptable’, Vows Probe

(Reuters) – The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will probe an extensive T-Mobile network outage that impacted customers across the United States, the head of the U.S. telecommunications regulatory agency said on Monday.

“The T-Mobile network outage is unacceptable. The @FCC is launching an investigation. We’re demanding answers – and so are American consumers,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said on Twitter.

Neville Ray, president of technology at T-Mobile, said on Twitter Monday that engineers were working to resolve a voice and data issue that has affected customers around the country.

He said later that data services were now available and some calls were completing. “Alternate services like WhatsApp, Signal, iMessage, Facetime etc. are available,” he added.

T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert addressed the outage on a network status page on the company’s website late last evening:

Starting just after 12 pm ET and continuing throughout the day, T-Mobile has been experiencing a voice and text issue that has intermittently impacted customers in markets across the U.S. We are recovering from this now but it may still take several more hours before customer calling and texting is fully recovered. Neville Ray has shared updates throughout the day but I wanted to share the latest on what we know and what we’re doing to address it. This is an IP traffic related issue that has created significant capacity issues in the network core throughout the day. Data services have been working throughout the day and customers have been using services like FaceTime, iMessage, Google Meet, Google Duo, Zoom, Skype and others to connect.

I can assure you that we have hundreds of our engineers and vendor partner staff working to resolve this issue and our team will be working through the night as needed to get the network fully operational. 

Pai

Early this morning, Sievert provided this update: “These issues are now resolved. We again apologize for any inconvenience and thank you for your patience.”

T-Mobile had 86 million customers at the end of 2019. T-Mobile did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the outage.

In 2018, Pai backed the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint Corp saying it would lead to improved 5G coverage in the United States and would bring much faster mobile broadband to rural Americans.

T-Mobile on April 1 officially completed its $23 billion merger with Sprint, solidifying its position as the No.3 wireless providers in the United States.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Stephen Coates

Frontier Communications’ Rural Broadband Claims Open to Skepticism

Frontier Communications is seeking to slow or block rural broadband funding for tens of thousands of rural Americans that live inside Frontier service areas but cannot subscribe to broadband service because the company does not offer it.

Frontier is currently embroiled in a controversy over its regulatory filings with the FCC that sought to block or delay public funding of competing broadband projects in its territories by claiming such funding might be unfair and redundant, since Frontier is already supplying (or will supply) service in those communities.

The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) will eventually spend $20.4 billion on rural broadband expansion, but the Commission is bending over backwards to protect incumbent cable, phone, and wireless companies from possible competition that potentially could be funded with public money. The Commission has invited providers to cross check “census blocks” — small geographic areas it has identified as eligible for rural broadband funding and report back if any should be excluded from the first phase of the program.

Incumbent phone and cable companies can protect their service areas from interlopers by claiming broadband service already exists in areas designated for rural broadband funding. Since the FCC continues to depend on voluntary disclosures of service areas by cable and phone companies, there is no immediate consequence if those providers take a more favorable view of what constitutes “service,” even if it ultimately results in long, further delays in rural broadband coverage for tens of thousands of Americans.

In early April, Frontier filed a lengthy submission objecting to the inclusion of 16,987 census blocks where it claims it already provides suitable broadband service. The majority of RDOF funding — $16 billion of the available $20.4 billion will be spent in the first funding phase, and only on census blocks where no provider offers high speed internet. If Frontier gets the FCC to block potential new entrants from qualifying for Phase One funding, it could spare the company from facing competition and leave a lot of homes with no internet service for years.

Immediate concerns were raised with the FCC regarding Frontier’s filing, including independent research that suggested Frontier was not being entirely honest about providing broadband at speeds at or exceeding 25 Mbps.

NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association:

Simply put, as the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association noted, “it is difficult to believe that Frontier was able to provide voice and 25/3 Mbps service in each of these 16,000 census blocks in just eight months.” Such incredulity is compounded by the fact that Frontier operated under the specter of a looming bankruptcy during this period, making it difficult to envision deployment to such a large number of locations within just several months’ time after years with little meaningful progress. Indeed, as WISPA and NRECA correctly point out, Frontier just four months ago alerted the Commission to the likelihood that it would be unable to meet its interim deployment milestones to which it was beholden pursuant to broadband commitments made in 2015. Moreover, Frontier’s financial disclosures, again as WIPSA and NRECA reference, showed an operator losing subscribers and working with a financial structure that would appear to have severely limited its ability to invest capital in broadband deployment.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance also shared its concerns with the FCC, reminding the agency of Frontier’s lengthy track record of misrepresenting its service performance:

Frontier’s record in recent years offers numerous warning flags that the Commission should consider before accepting its nearly 17,000 challenges. The company has been the subject of numerous official complaints and investigations in the states in which it operates and has settled investigations in several states after extremely lengthy records were compiled showing its inability to regularly provide basic services. Consider this nonexhaustive list in just recent years:

California
CPUC investigating Frontier outages after transfer from Verizon in 2016 (2020)
Connecticut
AG and Dept. of Consumer Protection investigating Frontier for bad quality and billing (2019)
Florida
AG sent letter to Frontier after hearing complaints after transfer from Verizon (2016) and collected complaints (2016)
Ohio
PUC filed complaint that Frontier didn’t maintain service quality (2019)
Minnesota
PUC organized public hearings (2018) and settled with Commerce Department (2019)
Commerce launched a second investigation into billing and customer service (2019)
New York
PSC requested review after complaints of poor quality and outages (2019)
Nevada
Cited by AG’s Bureau of Consumer protection for misrepresenting speeds and service quality (2019)
North Carolina
AG issued civil investigative demand (2019)
Pennsylvania
AG Bureau of Consumer Protection settled with Frontier after investigation into poor quality and speeds (2020)
Utah
PSC investigated telephone outages (2019)
West Virginia
Settlement with AG for misrepresenting speeds (2015)
PSC ordered independent audit after complaints of poor quality and outages (2018)

The Commission faces a crisis of credibility on matters of broadband and telecommunications data collection, with two significant scandals in just the past 6 months.

Frontier’s claimed DSL speeds compared with actual average speeds (Courtesy: Smith Bagley, Inc.)

One company, Smith Bagley, Inc., went even further, building a spreadsheet of several disputed census blocks in an independent investigation. The company called Frontier repeatedly, posing as potential new broadband customers to test Frontier’s claims it supplied 25/3 Mbps service in several rural census blocks in New Mexico and Arizona. It found no instance where Frontier was ready to sell 25 Mbps service to any of the locations requested.

“Frontier either does not offer broadband service, or offers service at below 25/3 Mbps, in every one of the 1,300 census blocks it challenged in Arizona and New Mexico,” Smith Bagely noted in its letter to the FCC, citing another third party broadband availability database.

In a haughty response to the FCC dated May 26, Frontier waved off the criticism, claiming it was based on “a scattershot challenge to one-off census blocks, ad hominem attacks, and irrelevant sources.”

But the company also made a crucial admission about the broadband speeds it claims to offer that is worthy of a closer look:

“Frontier does not claim it serves every location in each census block at 25/3 Mbps. Under the Commission’s rules, carriers report the fastest speed available for sale in that census block, even if it is only available in one or a handful of locations.”

In other words, if Frontier found in its own internal testing, unverified by an independent third party, that it managed to provide 25 Mbps to even one out of hundreds of households, it can ignore the rest of the area’s much slower DSL speeds and petition the FCC to exclude funding for a new, more capable service provider. In fact, it need not disclose the abysmal speeds other homes might be enduring from Frontier and declare that census block to be adequately served by broadband and unworthy of additional funding, at least during Phase One.

Frontier also suddenly announced on May 23 it was now open to RDOF Phase One funding in its contested census blocks, which appeared to be a significant concession. But the company also noted the FCC’s established rules are the rules, regardless of what Frontier thinks:

“But to the extent the Commission decides to maintain its decision to include partially served census blocks in RDOF Phase II, SBI, Frontier, and any other company will be able to bid on those locations after mapping is complete and Phase II is implemented.”

Rosenworcel

The end impact of that could be a concession without any meaningful change.

Frontier also asked the FCC to dismiss concerned public interest groups and consumer complaints about its service because they are anecdotal. Besides, Frontier argued, companies seeking to enter Frontier-served areas can always apply for Phase Two funding, which will only be a small fraction of the funding available in Phase One. Because Phase Two is designed to help providers pay for improving existing service, sizeable portions of that funding will likely be awarded to companies like Frontier.

That the FCC plans to spend billions on broadband improvements based on flawed broadband availability data and imprecise census block criteria has infuriated Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

“Time and again this agency has acknowledged the grave limitations of the data we collect to assess broadband deployment. If a service provider claims that they serve a single customer in a census block, our existing data practices assume that there is service throughout the census block. This is not right. It means the claim in this report that there are only 21 million people in the United States without broadband is fundamentally flawed. Consider that another recent analysis concluded that as many as 162 million people across the country do not use internet service at broadband speeds,” Rosenworcel said in 2019. “Adding insult to injury, the same flawed data we rely on here is used to populate FCC broadband maps. For those keeping track, one cabinet official has described those maps as ‘fake news’ and one Senator has suggested they be shredded and thrown into a lake.”

This year, her Democratic colleague Commissioner Geoffrey Starks added his own concerns.

“I have zero tolerance for continuing to spend precious universal service funds based on bad data,” Starks said. “There is bipartisan—and nearly universal—agreement that our existing broadband deployment data contains fundamental flaws. And yet today’s order presses ahead with funding decisions based on mapping data that doesn’t reflect reality.”

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)

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