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Montana’s 3 Rivers Communications Getting Out of the Cable TV Business On Oct. 31

After years of increasing costs for video programming, the disadvantages of not being large enough to qualify for lucrative volume discounts, and a declining customer base, a Montana cooperative says it is calling it quits on cable television service later this year to focus on its broadband business.

3 Rivers Communications, a rural telecommunications cooperative based in Fairfield, Mont., this week announced it was discontinuing television service on Oct. 31, 2019, inviting its members to choose a streaming TV provider (DirecTV Now, YouTube TV, etc.) instead.

The co-op serves 15,000 customers across two significant service areas in Montana. Only 1,800 still subscribe to cable television service — a number that has dropped steadily since the introduction of streaming TV alternatives. Most cable networks and local stations charge a sliding scale fee to carry their programming, with substantial volume discounts offered exclusively to large providers like Comcast, Charter, AT&T, DirecTV and Dish Networks. Small, independent companies are at a disadvantage because they must charge substantially more to cover their higher wholesale costs. Many have attempted to mitigate these high fees by pooling resources and buying programming through a national cooperative, but even that arrangement cannot keep costs low enough to prevent subscribers from canceling service after each rate increase.

Local TV station rate inflation, along with sports programming price hikes, have made offering cable television untenable for a growing number of small cable operators. As an example, 3 Rivers customers in Big Sky pay $32.99 for a basic cable TV package of 23 channels, including C-SPAN, Local Access, three religious networks, three home shopping channels, and around a half-dozen digital multicast TV networks. A comprehensive digital cable TV package costs $104.99 a month, just for television.

The 3 Rivers Communications television lineup for Big Sky, Mont.

In the last ten years, 3 Rivers has been focused on expanding its fiber to the home network, now reaching 65% of its customers. But the costs to provide service in rural Montana remain high, and internet packages remain costly. A 10 Mbps unlimited internet account costs $74.95/mo, 20 Mbps costs $94.95/mo, and 30 Mbps costs $114.95 (add around $10/mo for voice service). Offering television service originally boosted the average revenue received from each subscriber, but now that costs have skyrocketed, 3 Rivers now feels it should focus its investments on better broadband service.

“With all the new streaming options available, [including] Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime, in addition to traditional satellite providers like Dish and DirecTV, we just can’t really compete anymore,” 3 Rivers marketing director Don Serido told KRTV News. “We’re getting out of the TV business and we’re really going to focus on providing the best broadband we can to all of our cooperative members. That’s really what people want and need.”

Serido also said the company’s lack of support for pay-per-view and on demand programming also hurt its TV business. As a convenience to members, 3 Rivers is waiving all early termination fees and will continue to honor its promotional agreements until service is ended on Oct. 31.

The biggest impact will likely be felt by Montana TV stations that will lose retransmission consent revenue from 3 Rivers. Only a handful of streaming providers offer TV stations from the Great Falls market, forcing many cord-cutters to depend on on-demand viewing from services like Hulu and over-the-air antennas to pick up local stations.

As a member-owned cooperative, 3 Rivers returns all of its profits to members through capital credits. At the end of each fiscal year, the cooperative allocates a percentage of the margins to each patron on a pro-rata basis according to the total amount paid or produced for services. These allocations to patrons are known as capital credits. Upon approval of the Board of Trustees, these allocations are refunded to cooperative patrons. As a result, 3 Rivers has no incentive to overcharge its customers. Instead, it often invests its funds in improving service for its customers. When the cooperative was formed in 1953, it was the only provider of telephone service in north-central Montana. It has offered internet service for the last 20 years, with television only becoming a part of its menu of offerings a decade ago.

3 Rivers Communications will get out of the cable television business this fall, reports KRTV News in Great Falls, Mont. (1:05)

N.Y. and California Head 10-State Lawsuit to Block T-Mobile/Sprint Merger

 James

New York Attorney General Letitia James and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra today filed an unusual multi-state lawsuit, along with eight other State Attorneys General to halt the proposed merger of telecom giants T-Mobile and Sprint, deciding not to wait for a decision from the Department of Justice, which is also reviewing the merger. The complaint, filed in the federal Southern District of New York court in coordination with Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Virginia, and Wisconsin alleges that the merger of two of the four largest national mobile network operators would deprive consumers of the benefits of competition and drive up prices for cellphone services.

“When it comes to corporate power, bigger isn’t always better,” said Attorney General Letitia James. “The T-Mobile and Sprint merger would not only cause irreparable harm to mobile subscribers nationwide by cutting access to affordable, reliable wireless service for millions of Americans, but would particularly affect lower-income and minority communities here in New York and in urban areas across the country. That’s why we are going to court to stop this merger and protect our consumers, because this is exactly the sort of consumer-harming, job-killing megamerger our antitrust laws were designed to prevent.”

“Although T-Mobile and Sprint may be promising faster, better, and cheaper service with this merger, the evidence weighs against it,” said Attorney General Xavier Becerra. “This merger would hurt the most vulnerable Californians and result in a compressed market with fewer choices and higher prices. Today, along with New York and eight other partner states, we’ve filed a lawsuit to block this merger and protect the residents of our state.”

The states departed from traditional courtesies in the case, deciding to launch a pre-emptive legal challenge to the transaction without providing Justice Department officials advance notice of their decision to sue. That decision may have come after FCC Chairman Ajit Pai gave his full support for the merger, with indications the Republican majority on the FCC would also vote in favor of approving the deal. Staffers in the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department object to the merger, and are recommending it be rejected. But the Justice Department’s unpredictability, and its poor track record trying to block the AT&T-Time Warner (Entertainment) merger in court may have pushed the state attorneys general to also act on their own.

T-Mobile USA and Sprint are the third and fourth largest mobile wireless networks in the U.S., and are the lower-cost carriers among the “Big Four” — with market leaders Verizon Wireless and AT&T controlling the larest share of the wireless market. Intense competition, spurred in particular by T-Mobile and Sprint, has delivered declining prices, increased coverage, and better quality for all mobile phone subscribers. According to the Labor Department, the average cost of mobile service has fallen by roughly 28 percent over the last decade, while mobile data consumption has grown rapidly. The merger, however, would put an end to that fierce competition, argue the attorneys general, which has delivered a great number of benefits to consumers.

States with large urban poor communities are particularly sensitive to the merger, because both T-Mobile and Sprint focus their coverage on urban areas. With the average U.S. household spending $1,100 annually on wireless phone service, even small rate increases can dramatically increase service suspensions or disconnections due to late or non-payment.

“Low-and moderate-income (LMI) New Yorkers put a greater share of their household income toward their phone bill, and when you are looking at a budget that is already stretched thin, every dollar counts,” said Mae Grote, CEO of the Financial Clinic. “Cellphones now not only give us the ability to communicate with friends and family, here and abroad, but are increasingly the way we engage with many critical services. Our customers use cellphone apps to access public information, send and receive money, manage their SNAP benefits, look for a job, and even communicate with their doctors, and maintaining competition in the market for this critical service ensures LMI consumers have the same access to quality, affordable service as the more financially secure. The Clinic is proud to advocate on behalf of the communities we serve to protect their inclusion in the modern economy.”

The attorneys general investigation laid bare many of the alleged merger benefits offered by T-Mobile and Sprint to win approval of the merger. The group found many of the claimed benefits were completely unverifiable and were likely to be delivered years into the future, if ever. But within weeks of approving such a merger, the companies would have an immediate incentive to raise prices and reduce service quality. Sprint’s network, in particular, was scheduled to be largely mothballed as a result of the merger, even though Sprint provides coverage in some areas that T-Mobile does not. Although the two companies could identify several self-serving deal efficiencies that would reduce their costs and staffing needs, there is no evidence the merger would deliver consumers lower prices and were outweighed by the merger’s immediate harm to competition and consumers.

Additionally, the merger would harm thousands of hard-working mobile wireless independent dealers in New York and across the nation. The ten states are concerned that further consolidation at the carrier level would lead to a substantial loss of retail jobs, as well as lower pay for these workers in the near future.

Becerra

“CWA applauds the Attorneys General and especially General Letitia James’ leadership in taking decisive action today to prevent T-Mobile and Sprint from gaining anti-competitive power at the expense of workers, customers, and communities,” added Chris Shelton, president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). “Reducing the number of national wireless carriers from four to three would mean higher prices for consumers, job loss for retail wireless workers, and downward pressure on all wireless workers’ wages. The states’ action today is a welcome development for American workers and consumers, and a reminder that regulators must take labor market concerns seriously when evaluating mergers.”

Before filing suit, the states gave significant consideration to T-Mobile and Sprint’s claims of increased coverage in rural areas. However, T-Mobile has yet to provide plans to build any new cell sites in areas that would not otherwise be served by either T-Mobile or Sprint. As stated in the complaint, the U.S. previously won the “race to LTE” as a direct result of vigorous competition among wireless carriers. Finally, continued competition, not concentration, is most likely to spur rapid development of a nationwide 5G network and other innovations.

“This merger is bad for competition, and it is bad for consumers, especially those living in or traveling through rural areas, who will experience fewer choices, price increases, and substandard service,” stated Carri Bennet, general counsel for the Rural Wireless Association. “We are pleased that the New York Attorney General, along with nine states have filed their lawsuit to block the merger. The process at the FCC has not been transparent and the FCC appears to be blindly accepting New T-Mobile’s words as truth.”

The complaint was filed under seal, because it contains unredacted confidential information, in United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.  A redacted copy of the lawsuit is likely to be made available later.

T-Mobile currently has more than 79 million subscribers, and is a majority-owned subsidiary of Germany’s Deutsche Telekom AG. Sprint Corp. currently has more than 54 million subscribers, and is a majority-owned subsidiary of Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp.

Comcast Hiking Some TV Prices at Least $10 a Month In 2019

Phillip Dampier April 15, 2019 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News 2 Comments

Comcast has begun gradually rolling out 2019’s rate increases for cable television, equipment, and various service fees, starting with some markets on the east coast, sending the cost of Xfinity’s Digital Starter TV package over $100 a month when customers add typical equipment fees and surcharges.

Comcast has also set a $70 charge for service calls, a $70 installation fee, and up to $99.99 for a complete setup of Xfinity Home.

Customers on lower priced tiers will find the paperless bill discount is gone, as are discounts for selecting more than one service. In fact, Multi Product discounts no longer apply to certain Xfinity TV and Xfinity internet services, including but not limited to: Limited Basic, Digital Starter, Internet Essentials, and services purchased under a bulk service agreement.

Cable TV Rates for 2019:

  • Limited Basic: $32.95
  • Basic: (Includes Limited Basic, Streampix, and high definition programming) $30.00
  • Extra: (Includes Limited Basic, Sports & News, Kids & Family, Entertainment, Streampix, high definition programming, and 20 hours of Cloud DVR) $70.00
  • Preferred: (Includes Extra plus additional digital channels) $90.00
  • Digital Starter: (Includes Limited Basic, additional digital channels, TV Box and remote for primary outlet, access to Pay-Per-View and On Demand programming and Music Choice) $69.95

Fees (often compulsory) for 2019:

  • Broadcast TV Fee: $10.00
  • Regional Sports Fee: $8.25
  • DVR Service: $10.00
  • HD Technology Fee: $9.95

Xfinity Internet Prices for 2019 (discounts apply for some packages when bundled)

  • Performance Starter: $50.00
  • Performance: $70.00
  • Blast!: $80.00
  • Extreme: $90.00
  • Extreme Pro: $100.00
  • Gigabit Speed: $110.00
  • Gigabit Pro: $299.95

YouTube TV Follows Others, Raises Subscription Price to $49.99 a Month

Phillip Dampier April 10, 2019 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video, YouTube TV 3 Comments

YouTube TV is raising rates 25-43%, depending on your existing package.

Effective today, the company is raising the price of its YouTube TV package to $49.99 a month and is notifying customers it is ending grandfathered pricing arrangements that allowed some customers to pay as low as $35 a month for service.

The price change comes at a time when many of YouTube TV’s competitors have announced or implemented rate increases to cover the rising costs of programming. To reduce the sting, YouTube TV will coincide its rate hike with the addition of eight new channels from Discovery: Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, HGTV, Food Network, ID, MotorTrend, TLC, and the Travel Channel beginning today.

All existing customers will be billed at the new $49.99 rate beginning May 13. New signups will be billed the higher rate immediately. Customers billed by Apple will be penalized the most, with a new rate of $54.99/mo.

The company argues its new package price is still a good value because it now includes more than 70 channels, including robust carriage of local stations in more than 90% of the country. YouTube TV also offers unlimited cloud DVR service and up the three simultaneous streams.

Comcast Gives Up on Rescuing Cord Cutting TV Customers; No More Deals

Phillip Dampier March 12, 2019 Comcast/Xfinity, Competition, Consumer News 3 Comments

Watson

Unhappy about your cable TV bill? Don’t bother complaining to Comcast, because the cable company is ready to tell you to take your business elsewhere.

New competition usually means those already in the business freshen their game, get creative, cut prices, or out-compete the competition with a better product. But Comcast plans to lose its restless cable television customers if they complain about the company’s prices for cable TV.

Dave Watson, president and CEO of Comcast Cable, told investors at the Deutsche Bank 2019 Media, Internet & Telecom Conference in Palm Beach the company is done handing out retention deals with cut-rate pricing to keep cable TV customers from leaving.

“[Comcast is] simply not going to chase unprofitable video relationships,” Watson said, noting with the growing number of new streaming video competitors, more and more customers are calling looking for better deals and threatening to cut the cord. Watson says Comcast is prepared to let them.

“Because of consumer choice, because of all this competition, we’re just not going to chase video [customers],” Watson repeated.

Comcast’s new “we don’t negotiate” attitude with its customers isn’t groundbreaking in the industry. Satellite providers and some cable companies like Charter/Spectrum have largely stopped negotiating with customers as well.

Some cable operators have intentionally avoided significant video price hikes in recent years, already sensitive to the cord-cutting calls that increase after each rate hike announcement. Others hide rate increases in surcharges, often for local TV stations or regional sports channels. For some companies, giving customers a better deal may even make their video pricing unprofitable.

To compensate for tightening margins on cable television, most providers have been significantly increasing broadband pricing in recent years, knowing broadband is one service customers are least likely to drop as a result of rate increases.

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  • Ian Littman: The Cox thing doesn't sound like LLD at all. It instead sounds like something similar to the WTFast service that Asus bundles with some of their route...
  • Suzanne: Jane, I did that same thing, so very fed up with Spectrum and their rates, and their (lack of any) customer service to keep a customer. It's going fi...
  • Alison: I just got offered 85 for choice for 12 months. Set up disconnect date. Hoping to get a better offer before then so I don’t have to switch to streamin...
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  • Debebe Gebeyehu: I am a senior retired with a very low monthly benefit. Thanks to the food stamp program which is very helpful. I hope the Internet Essential will ke...
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