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Comcast Introduces $5/mo Flex Streaming Device for Cord Cutters

Xfinity Flex

Comcast today announced the launch of Xfinity Flex, a $5/month service targeting Comcast’s internet-only customers with a streaming set-top box capable of accessing Comcast-approved apps including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO, and other services.

Subscribers must have a Comcast-supplied internet connection, no video package, and an xFi Gateway (a cable modem/router combination that costs between $10-13 a month to lease). After the new service becomes available nationwide next week, those enrolling will receive a small set-top box comparable to a Roku capable of streaming 4K HDR video. Comcast also supplies its own voice remote, and bundles access to Comcast’s apps that manage in-home Wi-Fi, mobile, security, and automation services for easy access.

“Xfinity Flex will deepen our relationship with a certain segment of our Internet customers and provide them with real value,” said Matt Strauss, executive vice president of Xfinity Services for Comcast Cable. “For just five dollars a month, we can offer these customers an affordable, flexible, and differentiated platform that includes thousands of free movies and shows for online streaming, an integrated guide for accessing their favorite apps and connected home devices, and the ease of navigating and managing all of it with our voice remote.”

A closer look at the device and the fine print suggests customers may want to carefully evaluate whether Flex offers good value for money. Instead of buying a traditional streaming set-top box like Roku, customers can only lease the Flex box for $5 a month… indefinitely. Comcast is not including any programming with the box, just hardware to access streaming content already available, often for free, on other streaming or desktop platforms. Flex’s search function is supposed to make it easier to find programming across a wide number of services, but you will have to subscribe to each service independently.

Comcast also warns that using Flex will count against your monthly data cap.

The 4K capable Roku 3920R can be purchased from Best Buy for $39.99.

Comcast has also carefully designed the box to protect the cable company from any competitive threats. Competing streaming services like DirecTV Now, Sling TV, YouTube TV, Hulu Live, and other services are intentionally blocked, another example of life without net neutrality. The only available path to cable TV programming using Flex is to visit the ‘easy upgrade’ app that will sign you up for Comcast’s X1 cable TV service, presumably the one you cord-cut before you signed up for Flex.

The service is also designed to protect other cable companies from competition from Comcast. Only Comcast internet customers can purchase Flex service, so it is not available to customers of Charter Spectrum, Cox, Altice, or other cable operators.

The $5 subscription fee is also misleading, because you will also have to rent Comcast’s own xFi Gateway, which costs between $10-13 a month, instead of using your own cable modem. That suddenly makes Flex a $15 a month service that essentially just gives you access to a walled garden of the services Comcast approves of for around $180 a year (including the Gateway).

Comcast probably won’t attract a big audience for Flex because of all the restrictions it comes with.

Consider buying a streaming set-top box outright instead of living with Comcast’s restrictions and mandatory gateway fees. Shoppers can find basic Roku devices for purchase under $30, with more capable 4K-compatible devices starting at around $40.

Democrats Unveil New Net Neutrality Bill Restoring 2015 Openness Rules

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with fellow Senate Democrats and FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (upper left corner), speaks at the announcement of a new bill that would codify net neutrality as federal law.

Democrats in Congress this morning unveiled a new bill that would effectively reinstate the 2015 Open Internet rules repealed under the Trump Administration’s Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission.

The new bill, “Save the Internet Act of 2019,” was hailed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as a “pillar of economic opportunity” for the digital 21st century information economy and a bill that will stop internet service providers from raising broadband prices even higher.

“A full 86% of Americans oppose the Trump assault on net neutrality including 82% of Republicans,” Pelosi said at an announcement ceremony held in Washington this morning. “With the Save the Internet Act, Democrats are honoring the will of the people and restore the protections that do this — stop unjust discriminatory practices by ISPs that try to throttle the public’s browsing speed, block your internet access, and increase your costs. This is about freedom, this is about cost.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his intention to repeal net neutrality in 2017, and despite tens of millions of letters protesting that decision, Pai began rolling back net neutrality rules last year.

The three-page bill was co-sponsored by 46 Democrats in the U.S. Senate. It codifies the language from the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet rules as a standalone federal law, no longer subject to reinterpretation or dismissal by the FCC. A companion bill is expected to be introduced in the House on Friday.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) implored Senate Republicans to get on board with Democrats to support the re-establishment of a level playing field on the internet, criticizing their lack of support during last year’s effort to resurrect net neutrality.

“Unfortunately, all but three Senate Republicans voted on behalf of the special interests,” Schumer said, noting the measure still passed the Senate in 2018 but ultimately was shelved by the then-Republican controlled House. “So now we have a Democratic House, and Republicans will have a second chance — there are second chances — to right the Trump Administration’s wrong.”

Net neutrality has faced multiple legal challenges and intense lobbying by the telecommunications industry, especially by large cable and phone companies that generally oppose the concept, claiming it would impede management of their networks and block the creation of new innovative services that could deliver extra bandwidth on demand. Telecom companies also complain content providers like Netflix unfairly utilize their networks without fair compensation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Senate Democrats introduce the Save the Internet Act of 2019, a bill re-establishing net neutrality as federal law. (31:35)

 

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.

Charter Communications Slashing Investments in Its Cable Systems by $1.9 Billion in 2019

Spending less, charging more in 2019.

Despite repeated claims from some in Washington that eliminating net neutrality would stimulate U.S. telecommunications companies to invest more in their networks, Charter Communications has announced a dramatic $1.9 billion cut in capital expenditures (CapEx) spending on its Spectrum cable systems for 2019.

Charter posted 2018 revenue of $43.6 billion (up 4.9 percent over 2017), with especially healthy returns for its internet service, which grew 7.1%. Charter earned $11.2 billion in revenue, up 5.9% in the fourth quarter of 2018 alone, partly from rate increases, reduced costs, and additional broadband customers.

Republican FCC commissioners have repeatedly argued that deregulating the internet by sweeping away net neutrality would stimulate companies to invest more in their networks. But it now appears the reverse is true. In 2017, Charter spent $8.7 billion on network investments; in 2018 the company spent $9.1 billion. But this year, with net neutrality no longer the law of the land, the cable company is planning to dramatically cut investments in 2019 to just $7 billion. The combined company, which now includes Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Bright House Networks (BH), has never spent this little on capital expenditures. The 2016 merger between Charter and TWC and BH forced a 189.4% spike in spending after the deal was completed, as Charter began a cable system overhaul and upgrade.

Charter is expecting it can distribute more of its revenue to shareholders, share buybacks, and debt payments as a result of the completion of its all-digital conversion project, which eliminated analog television signals from cable systems to make more room for revenue-enhancing internet service. The company also gets to lease more set-top boxes to customers seeking to view digital television signals on older analog TV sets.

Charter also reports it has successfully completed its DOCSIS 3.1 internet upgrade to more than 99% of its cable systems, allowing the introduction of premium-priced gigabit internet speed.

Charter executives signaled investors earlier this month Charter expects to post greater revenue and profits as a result of the spending reductions, but these new-found gains will have no effect on the company’s ongoing plans to continue mildly aggressive rate increases in 2019.

Charter has not disclosed how much it plans to spend on its new mobile business in 2019. The company is marketing its mobile phone service more aggressively this year as it prepares to accept customers bringing existing phones to its cellular service, powered by Charter’s in-home and in-business Wi-Fi and Verizon Wireless’ 4G LTE network.

Your CenturyLink Internet Access Blocked Until You Acknowledge Their Ad

(Image courtesy of: Rick Snapp)

CenturyLink customers in Utah were rudely interrupted earlier this month by an ad for CenturyLink’s pricey security and content filtering software that left their internet access disabled until they acknowledged reading the ad.

Dear Utah Customer,

Your internet security and experience is important to us at CenturyLink.

The Utah Department of Commerce, Division of Consumer Protection requires CenturyLink to inform you of filtering software available to you. This software can be used to block material that may be deemed harmful to minors.

CenturyLink’s @Ease product is available here and provides the availability of such software.

As a result of the forced ad, all internet activity stopped working until a customer opened a browser session to first discover the notification, then clear it by hitting the “OK” button at the bottom of the screen. This irritated customers who use the internet for more than just web browsing.

One customer told Ars Technica he was watching his Fire TV when streaming suddenly stopped. After failed attempts at troubleshooting, the customer checked his web browser and discovered the notification message. After clicking “OK,” his service resumed.

A CenturyLink spokesperson told KSL News, “As a result of the new law, all CenturyLink high-speed internet customers in Utah must acknowledge a pop-up notice, which provides information about the availability of filtering software, in order to access the internet.”

In fact, according to a detailed report by Ars Technica, CenturyLink falsely claimed that the forced advertisement was required by Utah state law, when in fact the company would be in full compliance simply by notifying such software was available “in a conspicuous manner.”

CenturyLink chose to turn the Utah law to their profitable advantage by exclusively promoting its own product — @Ease, a costly ISP-branded version of Norton Security. CenturyLink recommended customers choose its Advanced package, which costs $14.95 a month. But parental filtering and content blocking tools are not even mentioned on the product comparison page, leaving customers flummoxed about which option to choose.

In effect, CenturyLink captured an audience and held their internet connection hostage — an advantage most advertisers can only dream about. CenturyLink countered that only residential customers had their usage restricted, and that because of the gravity of the situation, extraordinary notification methods were required.

But as Ars points out, no other ISP in the state went to this extreme level (and used it as an opportunity to make more money with self-interested software pitches).

Bill sponsor Sen. Todd Weiler (R), said ISPs were in compliance simply by putting a notice on a monthly bill or sending an e-mail message to customers about the software. Weiler added that ISPs had all of 2018 to comply and most had already done so. AT&T, for example, included the required notice in a monthly bill statement. CenturyLink waited until the last few weeks of the year, and used it as an opportunity to upsell customers to expensive security solutions most do not need.

With the demise of net neutrality, ISPs that were forbidden to block or throttle content for financial gain are now doing so, with a motivation to make even more money from their customers.

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