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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.

Charter Donating $10 Million to Civil Rights Groups That Lobbied for Time Warner Cable Merger

Al Sharpton: Friend of Charter/Spectrum

During a period of renewed consciousness about the Black Lives Matter movement, many U.S. corporations are stepping up to donate money and resources to address what they call systemic racism. Charter Communications, which owns and operates Spectrum, is one such company.

The cable and broadband provider announced this week it was “investing $10 million” with the National Urban League and Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. The two civil rights groups coincidentally are long-standing recipients of Charter’s sponsorships and donations and are among the cable company’s best non-profit friends, reliably writing letters to regulators urging them to approve whatever is on the cable company’s agenda, including mergers and acquisitions, rolling back regulations, or blocking pro-consumer legislation.

Charter claimed in a press release its $10 million “investment” would help provide low-interest loans to businesses in underserved communities:

Charter’s Spectrum Community Investment Loan Fund (the Loan Fund) will invest $3 million in NUL’s community development financial institution (CDFI), the Urban Empowerment Fund (UEF), which will make individual loans to minority-owned small businesses and, under the direction of and on behalf of NAN, the Loan Fund will invest an additional $3 million in low-interest loans directly to CDFIs. In addition, Charter will provide $3.5 million in PSA value to promote its partners’ Loan Fund opportunities, and will contribute a $500,000 capacity grant to the NUL for revitalizing its CDFI platform including funding for staffing, infrastructure, and operations.

“In all communities, small business ownership and growth are fundamental to developing and sustaining economic power, which is critical to their long-term success,” said Tom Rutledge, chairman and CEO of Charter Communications. “Building on our valued partnerships with the National Urban League and National Action Network, these investments will support small diverse-owned businesses through access to much-needed low-interest capital and help build thriving communities across the country.”

The contributions might also be seen as “returning the favor” for the groups’ work on behalf of Charter’s 2016 merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Both non-profit groups were instrumental in contacting state and federal regulators, urging them to approve that merger that proved unpopular with many consumers.

Wilson, N.C.’s Fight for Better Internet Found Lots of Opposition from Big Telecom and Republicans

If you’ve ever lived in small-town America, you know how bad the internet can sometimes be. So one town in North Carolina decided: If we can’t make fast internet come to us, we’ll build it ourselves. And they did, despite laughter and disbelief from Time Warner Cable (today known as Spectrum).

When the city started installing fiber optics, the incumbent cable and phone companies did not like the competition and fought back, hiring an army of 40 lobbyists. The telecom companies enlisted the support of the now Republican-controlled state legislature, often with the help of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other conservative groups. Together, they hammered home scare stories with suspect studies critical of municipal broadband written by not-so-independent researchers ghost-funded by many of the same big cable and phone companies.

National Public Radio’s “Planet Money” looks at what happened when the City of Wilson decided to try and start its own internet provider, and how it started a fight that eventually spread to dozens of states, a fight about whether cities should even be allowed to compete with big internet providers, and what the effect the outcome might have on working remotely. But the citizens of Wilson seem to love Greenlight Community Broadband, right down to its well-regarded customer service, which includes dropping by elderly customers’ homes during lunch to troubleshoot set-top boxes and nefarious remote control confusion. (22:47)

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)

Audit Critical of NY Public Service Commission’s Performance Holding Telecom Companies Accountable

New York’s Public Service Commission (PSC) has come under fire in an audit by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli for “falling short” monitoring Charter Spectrum, Altice-Optimum, and Windstream, some of the state’s largest telecom companies.

“When New Yorkers flip on the lights, log in or make a call, they should be confident that someone is making sure these service providers are living up to their promises,” DiNapoli said. “My auditors found the state Public Service Commission was not doing enough to make sure utilities are holding up their end of the deal. PSC lacked critical equipment to do its job and rarely inflicted financial consequences when companies did not deliver. This has to change.”

The audit found that the regulator was often arbitrary in its orders, frequently failed to verify compliance of conditions imposed on providers, and quietly dropped compliance penalties including fines and merger revocation orders when the Commission faced pushback from companies.

Most of the audit’s criticism was directed at how the PSC managed the 2016 merger-acquisition of Time Warner Cable by Charter Communications (better known as Spectrum). The merger was approved after Charter agreed to ten deal conditions. But DiNapoli’s auditors found Charter failed to either complete four of these conditions or the PSC failed to verify they were completed. New York also lost the opportunity to collect $5 million from Charter’s failure to meet its rural broadband commitments. Instead, the PSC settled for $1 million and agreed to extend the deadline for Charter to expand its rural footprint, rewarding the company for its failure.

DiNapoli’s audit criticized the PSC’s verification procedures to determine if Charter adequately upgraded its cable systems to all-digital technology and raised broadband speeds by the end of 2018. Instead, the Comptroller found the Commission often took Charter’s word for it because it lacked the equipment and resources to independently verify Charter’s performance.

DiNapoli

The auditors also complained Charter offered scant evidence of compliance with two other terms of its merger approval agreement — wiring 50 community locations for free broadband service and investing at least $50 million to improve service quality for New York customers. The audit found no evidence Charter had wired any community locations for free broadband service, and the Commission failed to verify Charter made suitable investments in service improvements by its May 2018 deadline.

The Commission disagreed with several of the audit’s findings. The Commission claimed it held comprehensive proceedings to review the Charter acquisition of Time Warner Cable, imposed deadlines on the conditions, and eventually threatened to revoke Charter’s cable franchises for the company’s failure to comply with its orders.

“After pursuing escalating enforcement actions, the Commission in mid-2018, revoked the merger authorization,” the Commission responded. “This final enforcement action which revoked the company’s authorization to operate in in the state set an important precedent in New York — and across the nation — as this type of enforcement remedy had not been previously utilized in the regulatory community. Ultimately, the enforcement action was settled in a manner that resulted in a company commitment to expand its network entirely Upstate at an estimated cost of more than $600 million, more than twice the original estimate at the time of the merger approval, and $12 million paid by the company in lieu of penalty for additional network expansion work.”

The settlement effectively rendered the PSC’s fines against Charter for not meeting its rural broadband expansion deadlines moot. The Commission argued New Yorkers benefited more from Charter’s additional commitments to expand its cable footprint even further than originally envisioned.

“The Department utilizes penalty actions in a strategic manner to address violations,” the Commission explained. “It can be more beneficial to the state’s customers to obtain at shareholder expense expanded infrastructure, reductions in rates, or improvements in customer service rather than imposing financial penalties, and when that is the case, the [Commission] does indeed prefer the best response for customers.”

But DiNapoli’s audit noted that utilities are well aware of how to avoid paying fines by delaying their collection indefinitely through legal remedies. The audit slammed the PSC for walking away from collecting the fines owed, noting it “creates a lack of accountability and inspires little motivation to stay in compliance.” It also complained that regardless of what additional remedies the PSC extracted from Charter in a final settlement, tens of thousands of rural New Yorkers remain without the internet service they were promised, and will probably have to wait until as late as 2021 to get it.

“As 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,” the audit found. “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.”

The PSC also claimed it was distracted by legal actions it was taking surrounding the revocation of the merger’s approval, but after the case was settled, the Commission did undertake random speed testing to verify Charter had raised the broadband speeds as agreed in the merger agreement.

“Staff is confident that, in all areas field tested to date, the Charter network is capable of providing broadband service with download speed in excess of 300 Mbps, and the network itself has the potential to provide download speed beyond 1 Gbps. In fact, the company is marketing 1 Gbps service in much of the New York State service footprint,” the Commission argued.

The Commission confirmed Charter has not yet showed it is providing free broadband service to 50 community service locations, such as libraries, schools, or town halls. Charter initially refused to provide information about the service locations it selected for complimentary service “for privacy reasons.” But since the Commission placed no deadline on complying with this condition, it cannot penalize Charter for not meeting it on a timely basis.

“After multiple discussions, Charter finally provided a list of the 50 Anchor Institutions on July 17, 2019 and included bill copies and/or account screen shots demonstrating no charge for broadband service to these institutions,” the Commission responded. “Staff has been able to independently confirm that 33 of the 50 institutions are receiving broadband service from Charter at no charge. For the remaining institutions, Charter was asked to provide additional evidence that these institutions have been provided this complimentary service. If Charter cannot definitively demonstrate that the 17 institutions are receiving free service, Charter must select a replacement institution in order to fulfill this condition. Once Charter has provided this information, Staff will then begin its independent confirmation.”

The Commission also claims Charter met its obligation to invest at least $50 million in service improvements.

“In its May 2018 Annual Update, Charter provided a list of expenditures totaling over $90 million to comply with this condition. From that list, Staff identified completed projects totaling approximately $70 million that were dedicated to New York State. To verify these expenditures, Staff requested and analyzed actual invoices to determine whether the expenditures were made,” the Commission claimed.

The audit found some of these same issues also applied to two other telecom merger and acquisition deals impacting New York consumers. Altice’s acquisition of Cablevision’s Optimum cable service received approval with five deal conditions. The audit found the Commission failed to adequately verify compliance with three of those conditions, relating to internet speed and performance, free broadband service to 40 community institutions, and improvements to customer service requiring Altice to fix customer issues within two days. The Commission responded that its belated verification found no non-compliance, but the audit urged the Commission not to delay its verification procedures going forward.

FairPoint is now known under the name of its owner, Consolidated Communications.

FairPoint Communications offers telephone and internet service to 13,700 customers in a few rural communities in New York. Its new owner, Consolidated Communications, was required to implement eight deal conditions, and the audit found it failed to meet two of them. FairPoint was required to invest at least $4 million in network reliability and service quality improvements, including the expansion of internet access service to at least 300 additional locations. FairPoint submitted an expansion plan, and updated reports, including the number of locations completed which is claimed to be over 300.

But the audit found the Commission failed to verify these claims, citing inadequate staffing to visit FairPoint’s rural service areas to perform field inspections. The audit found the Commission didn’t bother to verify service improvements in any location. Another deal condition was designed to protect FairPoint’s “customer-facing” employees from layoffs. Soon after the merger, “FairPoint reclassified 9 of the 39 customer-facing positions and ultimately eliminated them, claiming they ‘duplicated work being performed in other work centers.'” The audit’s initial findings triggered an investigation by the PSC to determine if FairPoint violated the terms of its merger order. Ultimately, the Commission found it did not, but the audit warned the PSC was completely unaware of the employment changes until the audit discovered them.

The Comptroller’s Office made four recommendations the PSC should either implement or improve:

  1. Actively monitor all conditions listed in Orders to ensure all utilities are in compliance.
  2. Develop and issue Orders that include well-defined, measurable, and enforceable conditions. The Orders should also include the consequences for non-compliance, as appropriate.
  3. Verify the accuracy of data submitted by utilities that is used by the Commission or Department to evaluate or make decisions concerning the utilities. This includes data submitted for performance metrics, safety standards, and Utility Service Quality Reports.
  4. Develop policies and procedures that provide employees with standard monitoring steps to perform when overseeing compliance with merger or acquisition Orders, as well as steps addressing the auditing of data submitted in support of Utility Service Quality Reports.

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