Tag: "cable"

Posted September 5, 2012 by lgonzalez

We have frequently written of Comcast's anti-consumer actions past posts, so we were not surprised to learn that the Department of Justice (DOJ) recently decided to investigate the cable company for antitrust. The borders between antitrust and hyper competitive business practices are grey; Comcast has experimented in the shadows on more than one occasion. We looked into one nine-year-old case, that recently advanced in the Pennsylvania courts.

The Behrend v. Comcast class action case began in 2003 against the cable giant. The suit alleges that Comcast violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by building itself into an “illegal monopoly.” The plaintiffs are current and former customers of Comcast and damages are estimated at $876 million, although the amount could be tripled under the Act.

The plaintiffs claim that Comcast’s strategy was to “cluster” as a way to eliminate competition and be able to raise rates above the market. “Clustering” involved acquiring the cable systems of other large multi-system operators that operated and offered multichannel video programming distributor service in various franchise areas in the Philadelphia area. There are internal documents, referred to in the April 12 Summary Judgment Memorandum [pdf], supporting the argument that Comcast’s business strategy was to eliminate competition through clustering.

Growing by gobbling up smaller entities in the same industry is not a new idea and certainly not illegal on its face. The issues in the 2003 case were how Comcast went about expanding, why they did it, and to what extent they took steps to hinder competition. There was a cable system asset swap with AT&T and the two worked together to divide up the Philadelphia assets of former MediaOne, rather than compete with each other during the bidding process. Other swaps involved Aldelphia, Time Warner, and even smaller operators, like Patriot Media & Communications.

Swapping and clustering with intent to eliminate competition may be considered Sherman Act violations. There were also allegations that Comcast took steps to prevent a...

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Posted August 31, 2012 by lgonzalez

In our recent podcast interview with Vince Jordan of Longmont Power and Communications (LPC), we shared the story of Colorado's newest community network. Vince told the story of the community's struggle to overcome a massive misinformation campaign by Comcast and progress since. LPC is proving itself to be innovative, creative, and centered on community - all attributes that should drive their success.

We asked what future plans may be in the works for the expanding the network or the different potential services coming to residents and businesses, wondering if triple-play services may be offered. Vince noted that in LPC's current online survey, video and voice are two products that have sparked the public's interest. Because video can be one of the most expensive and least profitable ventures, LPC is once again approaching the community desires creatively.

LPC is looking into options for video and voice services that are accessible with a blazing broadband connection and plan to create a clearinghouse for customers on their website. Direct links and information on Hulu, Netflix, Roku,...

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Posted August 30, 2012 by lgonzalez

Once again, we are witnessing the federal government allowing a few massive telecommunications companies to collude rather than compete. Verizon is about to ally itself with major cable companies, to the detriment of smaller competitors in both wireless and wireline.

One of the reasons we so strongly support the right of communities to decide locally whether a community network is a smart investment is because the federal government does a terrible job of ensuring communities have fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet. By building their own networks, communities can avoid any dependence on the big cable or telephone companies that are more interested in consolidating and boosting shareholder dividends than they are in building the real infrastructure we need.

The Department of Justice released a statement on August 16th, that it will allow the controversial Verizon/SpectrumCo deal to move forward with changes. We have watched this deal, bringing you you detailed review and analysis by experts along with opinions from those affected. One week later, the slightly altered deal was also blessed by the FCC.

Many telecommunications policy and economic experts opposed the deal on the basis that it will further erode the already feeble competition in the market. In addition to a swap of spectrum between Verizon and T-Mobile, the agreement consists of side marketing arrangements wherein Verizon agrees not to impinge in the market now filled with SpectrumCo (Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, and Bright House Communications).

Verizon has been accused of hoarding spectrum it doesn't need. The marketing arrangements constitute anti-competitive tools that the DOJ has decided need some adjusting. From the announcement:

The department said that, if left unaltered, the agreements would have harmed competition by diminishing the companies’ incentive...

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Posted August 21, 2012 by lgonzalez

If you are a current or potential Verizon customer, by now you know that you no longer have the option to order stand alone DSL. When the business decision became public knowledge in April, DSL Reports.com looked into the apparent step backward and found existing customers were grandfathered in but:

However, if you disconnect and reconnect, or move to a new address -- you'll have to add voice service. Users are also being told that if they make any changes to their existing DSL service (increase/decrease speed) they'll also be forced to add local phone service. One customer was actually told that he needed to call every six months just to ensure they didn't change his plan and auto-enroll him in voice service.

By alienating customers from DSL, Verizon can begin shifting more customers to its LTE service, which is more expensive. Susie Madrak, from Crooks and Liars, speculated on possible repercussions for rural America:

Rural areas could see the biggest impact from the shift, as Verizon pulls DSL and instead sells those users LTE services with at a high price point ($15 per gigabyte overages). Verizon then hopes to sell those users cap-gobbling video services via their upcoming Redbox streaming video joint venture. Expect there to be plenty of gaps where rural users suddenly lose landline and DSL connectivity but can't get LTE. With Verizon and AT&T having killed off regulatory oversight in most states -- you can expect nothing to be done about it, despite both companies having been given billions in subsidies over the years to get those users online.

The belief is that current DSL customers who don't want (or can't afford) the switch to the LTE service will move to Verizon's cable competition. Normally, losing customers to the competition is to be avoided, but when your new marketing partners ARE the competition, it's no big deal.

Recall that Verizon entered into an agreement with Time Warner Cable, Cox, Bright House (collectively SpectrumCo) to a purchase...

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Posted August 16, 2012 by christopher

In Star Tribune coverage of Mediacom's war against real broadband in rural Minnesota, we learn that Mediacom will not sue Lake County to disrupt its plan to serve thousands of unserved residents and local businesses.

And for all its accusations, Larsen says Mediacom will not sue. Spending millions of dollars on a lawsuit in a place where the company serves so few homes, he said, "is not a great business decision."

We have previously covered the many false and disproved accusations Mediacom have leveled against Lake County. The Strib article reiterates that these charges have been found to have no merit.

The article also reiterates that the County has a real need that private companies have failed to meet:

The conflict that ensued is part of a national struggle. Public officials and some of their constituents argue that rural broadband is like rural electrification: It's a lifeline for small-town America that the free market will not extend.

"We've been ridiculously underserved in this area for years," said Andy Fisher, who owns a Lake County bed-and-breakfast and a rural cross-country skiing lodge. The cable companies "are working in the interest of their profits. But if they're not going to serve this area, what are we going to do?"

And yet, Mediacom sees itself as the underdog!

"Lake County wants to make this into a David and Goliath story, where Mediacom is Goliath and poor little Lake County is David," said Tom Larsen, Mediacom's group vice president of legal and public affairs. "The truth is we're David because we're fighting [the government]. It's just the same story repeated all over the country."

Fascinating. Mediacom has billions in revenues whereas the County deals with budgets in the millions. Sure Mediacom is between 100 and 1000 times bigger than Lake County, it still wants to stop a project serving thousands of unserved people (that it believes is doomed to fail) because it is too disadvantaged.

Mediacom logo

If Mediacom actually met the needs of its subscribers, it...

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Posted August 8, 2012 by lgonzalez

A major difference between Main Street and Wall Street is that we view Comcast's lack of competition as a major problem. The prospect of Comcast increasing our rates year after year makes us want to scream. Prepare to scream. Or throw things.

The Lafayette Pro-Fiber Blog alerted us to a piercingly honest analysis from Wall Street. The article on SeekingAlpha.com, titled We-re Big Fans Of Comcast's Cash-Flow Generation captures one of the major policy failures of our time:

Comcast's traditional Cable Communications continues to grow and generate copious cash flow. Video revenue, Xfinity and other cable TV products, grew 2.8% to $5 billion, while High-Speed Internet revenue grew 8.9% to $2.4 billion. We're big fans of the firm's Video and High-Speed Internet businesses because both are either monopolies or duopolies in their respective markets. Further, we believe that both services have become so sticky and important to consumers that Comcast will be able to effectively raise prices year after year without seeing too much volume-related weakness.

Wow.

SeekingAlpha.com, describes itself as "…the premier website for actionable stock market opinion and analysis, and vibrant, intelligent finance discussion."

We want to empower local businesses and communities to control their own destiny. Monopolistic telecommunications companies, with their Goliath market share, Wall Street priorities, and armies of lobbyists continue to attack local control and self-reliance. They are extracting assets from Main Street and shipping it to Wall Street.

Yet we see the FCC, Congress, and many states pretending that the public interest is best served by giving more power to these massive companies. And we will continue to hear industry-funded think tanks claiming that broadband has robust competition and should be subject to less public oversight. Coming soon to an op-ed page near you.

Photo courtesy of JSquish via Wikipedia Commons

Posted July 27, 2012 by lgonzalez

Several months ago, we wrote this post but it got lost in the system. We think it still worthwhile, so here it is.

The word "cartel" drums up many negative annotations - drug cartels, oil cartels. Never anything positive, such as bunny cartels or chocolate cartels. Harold Feld (of Public Knowledge) explains the emergence of another cartel in My Insanely Long Field Guide To The Verizon/SpectrumCo/Cox Deal, on his Tales of the Sausage Factory blog. This is  great tutorial on how the deal came about and what it can mean for the future of broadband.

Rather than chocolate, drugs, oil, or bunnies, the product in question is telecommunications services. At the heart of the cartel are the familiar names: Verizon, Cox, and SpectrumCo. The latter being a consortium of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House. All the big hitters in telecom are involved in a way that is veiled, secretive, and not good for competition.

"It's almost as if your companies got in a room together, and you agreed to throw in the towel and stop competing against each other," Sen. Al Franken to representatives from Verizon and the cable companies at the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights, March 21, 2012.

Feld's investigation begins with the licensing and collecting of spectrum by SpectrumCo but ends with a more practical look at how these big hitters have decided that it is better to join forces than to compete. Side agreements, secretive multi-layered entities, and threaded loopholes keep the FCC at bay. This begins as an article about telecommunications, but quickly expands into an antitrust primer. The most alarming facet of this situation is that the product in question is information.

Joel Kelsey of Free Press testified at that same committee, warning how this deal will compromise access, quality, and affordability to broadband in America and how drive us further behind the rest of the world.

Update:

On August 16, 2012, the Department of Justice announced that it approved the deal with changes. Citing:

"...the spectrum transactions facilitate active use of an...

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Posted July 26, 2012 by christopher

Google Fiber is unveiled. And it sucks to be Time Warner Cable right now. But they already knew that.

Google is offering 3 packages in Kansas City - a gigabit Internet connection for $70/month, a TV + Gigabit Internet connection for $120/month, and a free Internet tier of 5/1Mbps (subject to a one time $300 connect cost). The first two packages also have the $300 connect fee but it is waived with a contract.

The details are available via DSL Reports and The Verge. There are several interesting enticements along with the connectivity.

Plans and pricing is here. I'm surprised at the number of television channels that are available on that package. Notable channels missing include Disney and ESPN, probably because ABC was trying to rake Google over the coals on pricing.

Neighborhoods will be competing to get enough presubscriptions to get connected (at $10 per potential subscriber). It will be interesting to see how this goes - the approach makes sense from a business perspective but could result in a patchwork of neighborhoods lacking access.

Google Fiber

In short, this will be interesting to watch. How will Time Warner Cable respond? How enthusiastic will ordinary people be? Google's marketing talent is considerably more advanced than that of the local governments and small companies (Sonic.net) that first blazed this trail. Speaking of which, I have not yet seen how other service providers will be able to use this network, if at all.

The free 5/1 connection is interesting. For a massive company like Google, providing hundreds or thousands of 5/1 connections essentially has zero cost. This is also true of Comcast and CenturyLink, which is why they are profitable on those $10/month low-income packages.

This is not a Google experiment. Those running this project are expected to earn a profit. How Google chooses to calculate that, we do not know.

Our biggest fear with this project is that we will see communities looking to Google to...

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Posted July 21, 2012 by lgonzalez

Time Warner Cable's announced intention to expand its usage based billing for broadband has recently received a little media attention. The company currently uses tiers for customers in parts of Texas, allowing customers to sign on to a plan which limits the amount of usage per month. If they come in under the plan amount (currently 5 gigabytes), they get a $5 dscount. If they go over, they are charged $1 per gigabyte over the tier limit.

One commentary we find particularly insightful is from Susan Crawford, "The Sledgehammer of usage-based billing." Crawford not only addresses TWC's billing change, but critiques New York Times' "Sweeping Effects as Bradband Moves To Meters" by Brian Stelter.

Crawford points out several statements in Stelter's article that sound rational on paper, but are actually "holes" in the fabric of reality. Based on what we have seen from companies like Time Warner Cable, we concur.

Stelter justifies Time Warner's decision to shift to usage-based billing based on the fact that its competitors are doing it. Crawford points out that:

Time Warner does not have competitors among cable companies – if by competition you mean a cable distributor that could constrain Time Warner’s pricing or ability to manage its pipe for its own purposes. Time Warner’s DOCSIS 3.0 services do compete with Verizon’s FiOS, but FiOS is available in just a tiny part of Time Warner’s footprint. The major cable distributors long ago divided up the country among themselves.

The Stelter article raises the issue of high usage and congestion, their connections to the usage tier billing model, and claims that there is no other way to handle high usage. Crawford calls out this error as it relates to the new billing plan:

Cable distributors have a choice: They could maintain the 90+ % margins they enjoy for data services and the astonishing levels of dividends and buybacks their stock produces, or they could rearchitect their networks to serve obvious consumer demand. But they are in harvesting mode, not expansion mode. And no competitor is pressuring them to expand.

Stelter quotes Comcast...

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Posted July 14, 2012 by christopher

On Friday, July 13, I was a guest on TWiT Specials on the This Week in Tech Network, discussing bandwidth caps with Dane Jasper, Reid Fishler, and Benoit Felten. Hosted by Tom Merritt. It was a very good discussion over the course of one hour.

The video can be viewed here.

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