Tag: "antitrust"

Posted January 28, 2014 by christopher

When we think about the threat of monopoly, we almost always focus on how monopolies can raise prices beyond what is reasonable. But there are many threats from monopolies and many are much more dangerous to a free society than higher prices. This week, monopoly expert Barry Lynn joins us for the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Lynn is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of a book that I recommend very highly - Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction. Buy it a local bookstore or from an independent bookstore online.

We discuss whether companies like Comcast are correctly termed "monopoly" when they face some nominal competition and what the threat from monopoly is. Barry explains how both political parties have encouraged centralization even as both parties have had vocal opponents of such policies. And finally, we discuss how policies dealing with monopoly now are fundamentally different than they were for the vast majority of American history.

This is a great discussion - one of the most important we have done. You can read a transcript of our discussion here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

Thanks to Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Posted January 9, 2014 by christopher

This the second in a series of posts exploring lessons learned from the Seattle Gigabit Squared project, which now appears unlikely to be built. The first post is available here and focuses on the benefits massive cable companies already have as well as the limits of conduit and fiber in spurring new competition.

This post focuses on business challenges an entity like Gigabit Squared would face in building the network it envisioned. I am not representing that this is what Gigabit Squared faced but these issues arise with any new provider in that circumstance. I aim to explain why the private sector has not and generally will not provide competition to companies Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Gigabit Squared planned to deliver voice, television, and Internet access to subscribers. Voice can be a bit of hassle due to the many regulatory requirements and Internet access is comparatively simple. But television, that is a headache. I've been told by some munis that 90% of the problems and difficulties they experience is with television services.

Before you can deliver ESPN, the Family Channel, or Comedy Central, you have to come to agreement with big channel owners like Disney, Viacom, and others. Even massive companies like Comcast have to pay the channel owners more each year despite its over 10 million subscribers, so you can imagine how difficult it can be for a small firm to negotiate these contracts. Some channel owners may only negotiate with a provider after it has a few thousand subscribers - but getting a few thousand subscribers without good content is a challenge.

Many small firms (including most munis) join a buyer cooperative called the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC) that has many of the contracts available. But even with that substantial help, building a channel lineup is incredibly difficult and the new competitor will almost certainly be paying more for the same channels as a competitor like Comcast or Time Warner Cable. And some munis, like Lafayette, faced steep barriers in just joining the coop.

FCC Logo

(An...

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Posted January 6, 2014 by christopher

A few weeks ago, a Geekwire interview with outgoing Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced that the Gigabit Squared project there was in jeopardy. Gigabit Squared has had difficulty raising all the necessary capital for its project, building Fiber-to-the-Home to several neighborhoods in part by using City owned fiber to reduce the cost of building its trunk lines.

There are a number of important lessons, none of them new, that we should take away from this disappointing news. This is the first of a series of posts on the subject.

But first, some facts. Gigabit Squared is continuing to work on projects in Chicago and Gainsville, Florida. There has been a shake-up at the company among founders and it is not clear what it will do next. Gigabit Squared was not the only vendor responding to Seattle's RFP, just the highest profile one.

Gigabit Squared hoped to raise some $20 million for its Seattle project (for which the website is still live). The original announcement suggested twelve neighborhoods with at least 50,000 households and businesses would be connected. The project is not officially dead, but few have high hopes for it given the change in mayor and many challenges thus far.

The first lesson to draw from this is what we say repeatedly: the broadband market is seriously broken and there is no panacea to fix it. The big cable firms, while beating up on DSL, refuse to compete with each other. They are protected by a moat made up of advantages over potential competitors that includes vast economies of scale allowing them to pay less for advertising, content, and equipment; large existing networks already amortized; vast capacity for predatory pricing by cross-subsidizing from non-competitive areas; and much more.

So if you are an investor with $20 million in cash lying around, why would you ever want to bet against Comcast - especially by investing in an unknown entity that cannot withstand a multi-year price war? You wouldn't and they generally don't. The private sector invests for a return and overbuilding Comcast with fiber almost...

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Posted September 24, 2013 by christopher

For my money, the best headline of last week was "The U.S.'s crap infrastructure threatens the cloud." The rant goes on to explain just how crummy our access to the Internet is.

As a patriotic American, I find the current political atmosphere where telecom lobbyists set the agenda to be a nightmare. All over the world, high-end fiber is being deployed while powerful monopolies in the United States work to prevent it from coming here. Some of those monopolies are even drafting "model legislation" to protect themselves from both community broadband and commercial competition.

He nails a number of important points, including the absurdity of allowing de facto monopolies to write the legislation that governs them. However, Andew Oliver's article is a bit muddled on the issue of "monopoly." I have argued with several people that the term "monopoly" has historically meant firms with large market power, not the more stringent definition of "the only seller" of a good. It is not clear how Oliver is using the term.

Because of this confusion, you can come away from his piece with the firm idea that it is primarily government's fault we have a duopoly of crap DSL and less crappy cable. He repeatedly says "state-sponsored monopolies." However, no local or state government may offer exclusive franchises for cable or telecom services and the federal government hasn't officially backed monopolies for decades.

This is a key point that many still fail to understand - a majority seem to believe that local governments bless monopolies when local governments actually are desperate for more choices. This is why they fall all over themselves to beg Google to invest in their community or they build they own networks (over 400 communities have wired telecom networks that offer services to some local businesses and/or residents).

Poor laws and regulations have helped the massive cable and telephone companies to maintain their status - that is why they spend so much on lobbying and political contributions at all levels of government. They want to and have successfully corrupted the process, neutralizing the power of government to protect consumer interests and prevent a few firms from dominating the market.

...

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Posted February 12, 2013 by christopher

Glasgow was a true pioneer in community owned broadband networks, starting with its own cable plant in the 1980s. Billy Ray, CEO of Glasgow Electric Plant Board, has been an inspiration for municipal broadband networks -- one can't dig into the early history of LUS Fiber in Louisiana without running into something from Billy Ray, for instance. Glasgow's network has been a tremendous success, resulting in tens of millions of dollars of benefits to the community.

In our interview, we discuss the bitter legal fights of the early years as Glasgow built its own cable network and eventually began offering Internet access. Additionally, we discuss the important role of these information networks in creating more efficient (and less costly) electrical systems -- an incredibly important implication that does not get enough coverage.

Given the extraordinary history of Billy Ray and Glasgow EPB, we hope this will be the first of several conversations exploring that community. You can read more from Billy Ray on his blog.

Read the transcript from our call here. Also, we created a video on Glasgow called The Birth of Community Broadband.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 27 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Posted December 3, 2012 by lgonzalez

Last year, when Comcast unveiled its Internet Essentials program, the corporate powerhouse received accolades from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. The program was promoted as an example of corporate philanthropy helping to bridge the digital divide.

Comcast received all kinds of positive media coverage for its program. Most of that coverage failed to note that the FCC required Comcast to integrate the program as one of the supposed concessions offered in return for Comcast being able to take over NBC -- giving the largest cable monopolist in the US even more market power.

DSLReports has publicly exposed what many of us suspected all along -- the program was not a concession on Comcast's part. Internet Essentials was originally conceived as a program that would offer slower connections to certain low income households at affordable rates that nevertheless remain profitable for Comcast.

A recent Washington Post Technology profile on Comcast's Chief Lobbyist David Cohen, notes how the program was actually conceived in 2009, but:

At the time, Comcast was planning a controversial $30 billion bid to take over NBC Universal, and Cohen needed a bargaining chip for government negotiations.

“I held back because I knew it may be the type of voluntary commitment that would be attractive to the chairman” of the Federal Communications Commission, Cohen said in a recent interview.

Eligibility depends on four factors:

  • Participants must reside in an area serviced by Comcast
  • Participants must not have an overdue Comcast bill or have unreturned equipment
  • Participants could not have had Comcast service within the last 90 days
  • Participants must have at least one child in the house that qualifies for free or reduced lunches

...

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Posted October 29, 2012 by lgonzalez

We have long argued that smart antitrust policy promotes investment and competition in the market. Allowing a few firms to consolidate too much power allows them to ignore our needs because we lack alternative service providers. In economic terms, they can use their market power to prevent market entry from innovative new firms.

Harold Feld recented provided more empirical evidence for our view by comparing the present cellular wireless market against that of 20 months ago. He notes new investment from abroad in T-Mobile and Sprint and that U.S. Cellular plans to expand its footprint; AT&T is planning upgrades in its spectrum holdings. Bottom line - investment is starting to happen, which was not the case a year ago. 

Feld breaks out details in FCC and DoJ activities to show the relationship. In addition to the DoJ and FCC mutual block of the AT&T/T-Mobile deal, Feld notes the FCC's new attitude regarding regulatory reform. From the Feld blog:

On top of this, the FCC sudden[ly] started getting all serious about regulatory reforms designed to keep carriers other than AT&T and Verizon in the game as serious players. This included not just the long-awaited data roaming order (which now looks like it will probably survive review by the D.C. Circuit after all), but also revisiting special access, 700 MHz Interoperability, and renewed interest in clarifying the spectrum screen/possibly reviving the spectrum cap. While the last three are still in progress, the fact that the FCC is even talking about them in a serious way is so radically different from what folks expected at the beginning of 2011 that it puts heart into investors and competitors who were looking for some sign that anyone in DC gave a crap or if competitive wireless would end up going the way of competitive telecom and competitive ISPs.

Feld acknowledges that there will be those that jump to conclusions and discourages an all-or-nothing viewpoint in favor of a more measured approach. Also from his blog post:

The actual lesson is: “the argument that antitrust enforcement and/or other types of regulation always  discourage investment and cannot possibly create jobs or...

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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 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 June 6, 2012 by lgonzalez

If you live in Boston, Baltimore, Albany, Syracuse, or Buffalo, you won't be getting FiOS from Verizon. Absent any public investment, you will likely be stuck with DSL and cable... like 80% of the rest of us.

Not long after Verizon announced it would cease expanding FiOS, we learned that Verizon was coming to an arrangement with the cable companies that would essentially divide the broadband market. Verizon won't challenge cable companies with FiOS and the cable companies won't challenge Verizon's "Rule the Air" wireless domain.

For a while now, the FCC has reviewed a potential deal for a Verizon purchase of Comcast's wireless spectrum. The possible deal involves multi-layered questions of anti-competitive behavior, collusion, and corporate responsibility. 

Along with many other interested parties, such as the Communications Workers of America, Free Press, Public Knowledge, and  the five towns are publicly opposing the deal. They have expressed their derision to the FCC but whether or not they will influence the result remains to be seen.

From a FierceTelecom article by Sean Buckley:

Curt Anderson, chair of the Baltimore City Delegation to the Maryland House of Delegates, expressed...outrage on the agreement the telco made.

"Under this transaction, Baltimore will never get a fiber-optic network, and the city will be at a disadvantage," he said. "The direct job loss will be the hundreds of technicians that would be employed building, installing and maintaining FiOS in the area. The indirect costs of this deal are even higher: the lack of competition in telecommunications will raise prices and reduce service quality.

And:

The deal, said Albany Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin, "is not in the best interest of those who need to get and stay connected the most and is "a step backwards in bridging the digital divide."

Though these five cities...

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