Tag Archives: comcast

Cable’s broadband monopoly profile sharpens with 2017 results

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Share of U.S. broadband households, as of 31 December 2017. Source: Leichtman Research Group.

Comcast and Charter own half of U.S. residential broadband subscribers, and their share of the market – if you want to call it that – is growing. That’s one of the conclusions gleaned from a tabulation of year-end 2017 financial reports by Leichtman Research Group. As with a similar count by FierceTelecom, the numbers show telcos continue to bleed subscribers profusely, while cable – and the overall broadband universe – keep on growing.

Leichtman’s report was published before Wow cable released its final 2017 financial results, so I added those into the totals. Over the course of 2017, the top cable companies added 2.7 million broadband subscribers, while the top telcos lost 626,000 subs. Big cable’s share of the, um, market was up a point to 61%, while the largest telcos lost a point, dropping to 34%.

Overall, the race for broadband customers is down to a two and a half horses. Comcast has 26% and Charter is behind by a nose at 24%. Their combined 50% share (after rounding) is up from 48% at the end of 2016.

AT&T was the only other broadband provider to hit double digits, with 16% of U.S. broadband households. It was also the only big telco to show growth in broadband customers – fiber-to-the-home gains offset DSL loses, producing a net increase of 114,000 subs. Cincinnati Bell, a much smaller fry, was also in the black, adding 5,500 subs. All the other big telcos – Verizon, Frontier, Windstream and FairPoint – ended 2017 with fewer broadband customers than they started it with.

The top providers – seven cable companies and seven telcos – account for 95% of U.S. broadband households, according to Leichtman. Since it’s a choice between one cable and one telephone company, at most, for any given home, it’s technically a duopoly. But one with a junior partner who is on the ropes. Factor in cable’s overwhelming superiority in the 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up and better category – the minimum federal standard for modern broadband service – and it looks more and more like a one player game.

If it prices like a monopoly, slams and crams like a monopoly and shows a monopoly’s lack of respect to its customers, then it’s a monopoly.

Reporters ripped for muni broadband stories. Is Comcast behind it?

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A “visiting scholar” at the American Enterprise Institute (and a member of Donald Trump’s “landing team” at the Federal Communications Commission) has taken to trash talking writers and publications that reported on a recent municipal broadband study (I haven’t yet – it’s on my to do list). The resemblance to a Comcast-sponsored astroturfing campaign is noteworthy.

Roslyn Layton joined Jeffrey Eisenach and Mark Jamison as volunteers assigned to help cobble together telecoms policy and overhaul the Obama-era FCC. All three are affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a consulting group – think tank in Beltway speak – that serves right-of-center and industry interests.

Writing in Forbes, Layton tees off on a study done by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society that concluded that muni broadband systems “generally charge less for entry-level broadband service than do competing private providers, and don’t use initial low ‘teaser’ rates that sharply rise months later”. She spends little effort critiquing its merits. Layton’s ire is directed at publications that dared to report on the findings and, in her view, failed to properly excoriate it.

For the editor of one of those publications, Daniel Frankel at FierceCable, the attack brought to mind a 2014 campaign by AEI to discredit network neutrality policy, an effort that was linked to Comcast

At the time, Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice conceded to the [Washington Post] that the cable operator “has worked with most of the major think tanks in town who are interested in communications issues," including the Aspen Institute, the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute. She didn’t go into further detail.

I reached out to Fitzmaurice to see if she could provide any update on Comcast’s relationship with AEI. Is it now working with them on municipal broadband, an issue Comcast has stridently contested in markets including Seattle and Denver? I’m still waiting to hear back.

Layton told Frankel that “Comcast didn’t influence her column” and claimed to have “little to no knowledge” of where AEI gets the money it pays her. But that doesn’t mean that Comcast isn’t still in AEI’s decision making loop.

By their nature, astroturfing campaigns – where a company uses unidentified front organisations to push its agenda – are difficult to unmask. Absent a smoking gun, companies who engage in it don’t offer straightforward answers.

But Frankel is asking the right questions.

I make my living helping communities improve broadband infrastructure and service, including, at times, developing municipal broadband projects. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Will the FCC be as shocked by Comcast’s consumer deception as Washington’s AG?

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Comcast is even more dishonest that previously suspected, Washington’s attorney general told a Seattle court earlier this month. Bob Ferguson is suing Comcast over its habit of cramming service contracts, that don’t necessarily offer much service, onto monthly cable bills.

You can read the latest filing here. Ferguson’s office summed it up in a press release

A sample of recorded calls between [service protection plan (SPP)] subscribers and Comcast representatives obtained by the Attorney General’s Office reveal that Comcast may have signed up more than half of all SPP subscribers without their consent. Comcast deceived consumers even when mentioning the SPP, telling them the SPP plan was “free” when they signed up, when in fact, Comcast would automatically charge them every month after the first month.

“This new evidence makes clear that Comcast’s conduct is even more egregious than we first realized,” Ferguson said. “The extent of their deception is shocking, and I will hold them accountable for their treatment of Washington consumers"…

Even when Comcast actually mentioned the SPP on the sales call before signing consumers up for the SPP, Comcast continued to engage in deception. Comcast deceptively failed to disclose the SPP was a monthly recurring charge to 20 percent of the Washingtonians in the sample. Rather, Comcast often told subscribers the SPP was added for “free” to their account.

The core issue is whether a cable company, or any other telecoms service provider, can aggressively up sell customers into vaguely described packages, and then hide behind the fine print on later bills or posted on a website. It’s a particularly important question because full disclosure is the sole, broadband-specific consumer protection allowed by the Federal Communications Commission after its vote to repeal network neutrality and other common carrier rules.

The FCC’s current industry-friendly posture is not reassuring in that regard. It’s hung on to the role of consumer disclosure cop, but its recent track record doesn’t offer much reason to think it will be as tough on broadband providers as some state attorneys general. How those duties will be split between the FCC and state enforcers has yet to be determined.

Comcast, AT&T have the traffic cones ready for Internet slow lanes

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AT&T and Comcast are offering two good reasons for keeping broadband under the common carrier regulatory umbrella, and not scraping network neutrality rules. Not that they meant to do that. It’s just their nature.

Comcast is backing away from an unconditional promise to abide by net neutrality principles, regardless of whether or not federal rules require it to do so. That pledge was made in 2014, while Comcast was in the middle of an unsuccessful attempt to add cable systems owned by Time Warner and Charter Communications to its portfolio. According to an article in Ars Technica by John Brodkin, Comcast has opened the door to paid prioritisation – selling content companies fast lanes to broadband subscribers, while keeping everyone else in the slow lane…

While the company still says it won’t block or throttle Internet content, it has dropped its promise about not instituting paid prioritization.

Instead, Comcast now vaguely says that it won’t “discriminate against lawful content” or impose “anti-competitive paid prioritization.” The change in wording suggests that Comcast may offer paid fast lanes to websites or other online services, such as video streaming providers, after [the Federal Communications Commission] eliminates the net neutrality rules.

AT&T, on the other hand, announced good news: its online video service, DirecTv Now, just passed the 1 million subscriber mark. It’s good for AT&T, which is fighting to hold on to video customers, and it’s generally good for the industry and consumers. It’s more confirmation that there is a competitive market for over-the-top television, which should result in greater consumer choice.

Should.

If you’re getting broadband service from AT&T, you can freely choose between OTT platforms. But only so long as AT&T follows net neutrality rules. Once those are gone, it will have strong incentives – a million and counting – to shape its network traffic to favor DirecTv Now, while sending everyone else into the slow lane.

The FCC is still on track to vote on Thursday to scrap common carrier status for broadband service and with it, net neutrality rules.

Comcast asks FCC for privilege without responsibility

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Comcast has joined Verizon in pushing the Federal Communications Commission to override state and local laws that might affect their business. In a required notice filed after a private meeting with FCC chair Ajit Pai’s top staffers, a lawyer for Comcast said they urged the FCC to overturn its 2015 decision to regulate broadband as a common carrier service, and to make sure that state and local governments didn’t try to pick up the slack…

At the meeting, we reiterated Comcast’s support for restoring its prior classification of broadband Internet access service (“BIAS”) as an interstate information service and reversing the 2015 decision to classify BIAS as a [common carrier] telecommunications service…

We also emphasized that the Commission’s order in this proceeding should include a clear, affirmative ruling that expressly confirms the primacy of federal law with respect to BIAS as an interstate information service, and that preempts state and local efforts to regulate BIAS either directly or indirectly.

Comcast and Verizon are worried about state initiatives like California’s assembly bill 375, which would have restored consumer privacy rules scrapped at the national level. It was eventually brought down by an all out attack by telecoms lobbyists who control millions of dollars of payments made to legislators in Sacramento. But the effort will, in all likelihood, be made again next year, and Comcast wants to head it off.

But it’s about more than just a few bills. If – when – the current FCC follows through on its promise to scrap broadband’s common carrier status, Internet service providers, like Comcast, will lose their existing exemption from consumer protection laws at both the state and federal level. Although it’s under challenge in a federal appeals court, that exemption basically puts the FCC in charge of regulating most aspects of common carrier telecoms services. Even the Federal Trade Commission can’t set business rules for common carriers.

Comcast likes the advantages, such as immunity from state and federal consumer laws, that come with a common carrier label. But it doesn’t want the common carrier obligations, such as net neutrality rules or FCC oversight, that follow. It would be reckless if the FCC accommodates them.

Broadband redlining in rural California, a tale of two mayors

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Internet access in rural California is fantastic, and it’s awful. Those two messages were delivered to the California Public Utilities Commission last week by, respectively, the mayors of Mammoth Lakes and Oroville.

The reason for the difference? A big, fat open access middle mile fiber route, paid for by state and federal subsidies. The same type of project that the California legislature and governor Brown banned from future funding by the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF).

Mammoth Lakes mayor John Wentworth invited CPUC commissioners to “come over the eastern Sierra and visit the great telecommunications and broadband capacity we have over there”. He called out the Digital 395 project, an open access fiber network that runs from Reno to Barstow, going through Mammoth Lakes and most other communities on the eastern slope of the Sierra. It was built with grants from CASF and the federal government and, according to Wentworth, is providing the raw material for a high tech economy.

He was followed by Oroville mayor Linda Dahlmeier, who told commissioners about her struggle to convince AT&T and Comcast to upgrade their infrastructure to meet minimal performance standards…

One of the first thing that happens anytime it rains in my community is our services go out, because the infrastructure from AT&T…is so inefficient that it can’t supply the needs just on a regular basis. Especially if there’s any moisture in the air…

I’ve worked in the banking industry for many years…this is what banking used to call redlining. When I asked Comcast to do development on the other side, because the infrastructure is so poor on AT&T’s [side] and they will not improve it…for them to come and even cross my Oro Dam Boulevard is $2.5 million. And that’s $2.5 million that our community doesn’t have. Nor do we have access to last or middle mile because AT&T and Comcast have defined that they serve our area adequately, which is not a true statement…

You can actually drive down [highway] 162 and see on one side of the street where Comcast is a provider, which does a significantly better job, and you can see the development. On the other side where you have AT&T…it looks like a slum. It’s that big of a difference. And it’s that side of my community that is where my industrial development would happen.

Oroville, like many other rural California communities, has triple trouble. The telco – AT&T – won’t upgrade its decaying copper plant, preferring instead to milk its existing investment as long as it can and then back fill with less reliable and more expensive wireless service. The cable company – Comcast – only builds where the revenue stream from a given neighborhood meets its revenue requirements.

Finally, there’s no incentive for incumbents to change and no hope of competition.

Unlike Mammoth Lakes and the rest of the eastern Sierra, where publicly subsidised fiber is improving incumbents’ service, supporting competitive providers and driving economic development.

Comcast ready to build a channel line-up of home automation platforms

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The home automation space is a fragmented mix of apps, platforms, gateways and products, not unlike the video content business. Comcast just purchased Stringify, a meta-platform that talks to dozens of other platforms, aggregates hundreds of products and services, and delivers them to a single smartphone app. Not unlike a cable company.

Stringify was my pick for most likely to disrupt the home automation business at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show. Funded by a $6.3 million seed funding round, led by ARTIS Ventures, it’s ripened to the point where it’s ready for harvest. That’s a good job all around.

The big question will be whether home automation companies will continue to be as friendly to Comcast as they have been to Stringify. Its cloud-to-cloud communication depends on access to application programming interfaces (APIs) that are written and managed by each, individual platform. It’s one thing to support a wonky little app that makes it easier for your customers to do business with you. It’s quite another to feed Comcast’s [suck ’em dry and sell the skins]() approach to revenue maximisation, without also getting a cut of the money. And without some level of comfort that Comcast won’t try to capture their users and shift them to in-house products and platforms.

There’s nothing wrong with Comcast buying Stringify and using it to extend its channel aggregation and bundling business model to home automation. But it only has a right to try, not to succeed. Home automation manufacturers and platforms should take a hard look at how they can benefit from that model right now, and plan ahead.

The cable industry got its start by retransmitting other people’s content for free, a lesson Comcast seems to remember. Both TV stations and cable operators benefited because, in the early days, they weren’t fighting over each others’ revenue streams. But Comcast is already in the home automation space, and its competitors are now also its content suppliers. They’ll have to decide for themselves how to play this new game.

Bad telecoms regulatory decisions won’t be saved by non-existent good will

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The game isn’t over when the California Public Utilities Commission votes to impose conditions on big mergers. Telecoms companies will immediately challenge decisions, administratively and in court, and try to wriggle out of obligations by any means possible.

Comcast is doing that now in Vermont, where that state’s public utilities commission required it to build out 550 miles of line extensions into rural areas. According to an article by Jon Brodkin in Ars Technica

The company’s court complaint says that Vermont is exceeding its authority under the federal Cable Act while also violating state law and Comcast’s constitutional rights…

Comcast’s complaint also objected to several other requirements in the permit, including “unreasonable demands” for upgrades to local public, educational, and governmental (PEG) access channels and the building of “institutional networks (“I-Nets”) to local governmental and educational entities upon request and on non-market based terms”…

Comcast often refuses to extend its network to customers outside its existing service area unless the customers pay for Comcast’s construction costs, which can be tens of thousands of dollars.

When faced with demands for conditions or concessions, Comcast is particularly stroppy – rather than negotiate, it mounted a smash mouth campaign against opposition to its failed bid to do a massive three-way merger/market swap deal with Charter and Time Warner in 2015.

Other companies, that are all sweetness and light while trying to convince regulators to okay their deals, can also turn nasty once the ink has dried. For example, Frontier Communications was represented by friendly, knowledgable telecoms professionals while it sought, and received, CPUC permission to buy Verizon’s wireline telephone systems in California. But within a few months of the sale closing, those key frontline people disappeared from public view, either fired as the company downsized or relegated to back rooms. They were replaced by litigious lobbyists who engage in scorched earth opposition to any project, program or requirement that doesn’t suit their business model.

Likewise, CenturyLink is spinning a handful of feeble promises into epic concessions as it seeks CPUC permission to buy Level 3 Communications. But the actual agreement is stuffed with weasel words and CenturyLink has consistently played hardball with both opponents and the commission. There’s no reason to think it’ll be any less aggressive in pursuing its interests if and when it’s a done deal. That’s a fact of life that the CPUC would do well to consider as it grinds its way through its review.

Comcast has to defend its bill at will tactics in court

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Customer service.

A federal judge in San Francisco said that two northern California men have a legitimate case to make against Comcast, as they pursue a class action suit aimed at stopping Comcast from piling fees on subscribers anytime it feels like it. Dan Adkins and Christopher Robertson say they signed up for an advertised deal, and Comcast can’t change it without their consent.

Judge Vince Chhabria (no typo, that’s how he spells it) said that, depending on the facts, they have a makable case and Comcast will have to fight it out in court

It is plausible to infer from the complaint that, by clicking “Submit Your Order,” Adkins and Robertson agreed to pay Comcast’s advertised price, plus taxes and government-related fees, in exchange for the services Comcast offered them. It is also plausible to infer from the complaint that Comcast breached its agreements with the plaintiffs when it sent them bills charging them Broadcast TV and/or Regional Sports Fees (alleged to be neither taxes nor government-related fees) in excess of the agreed-upon price, and when it subsequently sought to raise the amount of the fees.

Comcast’s first line of defence was that it’s entitled to add pretty much anything it wants to monthly bills, since subscribers agree to its terms – that no one ever reads – which reference a second set of terms, that no one ever sees. Chhabria wasn’t buying it…

The “Pricing & Other Info” disclosure tells the customer they will be charged the “extra” fees and that such fees are “subject to change,” but Comcast subsequently tells customers that the advertised price is the “base monthly total of all recurring charges.” These statements point in different directions.

Robertson and Adkins, and the millions of Comcast customers who might be pulled along as part of the class action, haven’t won anything yet. All the judge is saying that there’s enough on the table to justify going to trial, and that’s where it’s headed.

Cable gains subs as consumers flee DSL

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Cable companies own the residential wireline broadband market and are increasing their lead over telephone companies, at least where the major players are involved. An analysis piece by Sean Buckley in FierceTelecom breaks out the subscriber numbers for the 15 biggest Internet service providers in the U.S., ranked by total subscriber count as of 30 June 2017. It shows big cable with a 64% to 36% market share advantage and positive net subscriber growth, while big telco is stuck in reverse.

In the second quarter, the seven largest cable ISPs netted 430,000 new subscribers, while the eight biggest telcos lost 16,000 subs. The reason, according to Buckley, is consumers dumping outdated DSL-based service…

The effect of cable’s DOCSIS 3.1 drive was clearly felt by traditional telcos, which lost 233,260 more wireline broadband users, a slight improvement compared to the 360,783 this group lost during the same period in 2016. A big piece of this for large telcos such as AT&T and Verizon was the decline of DSL subscribers. AT&T and Verizon lost 104,000 and 72,000 legacy DSL subscribers during the quarter. But the biggest loser was Frontier Communications, which bled an additional 101,000 wireline broadband users. CenturyLink followed closely behind, losing 77,000 in the second quarter.

Comcast and Charter alone account for more than half of the market, with 27% and 24% shares respectively. Together, the two biggest telco ISPs – AT&T and Verizon – can’t even match Charter’s market share, let alone Comcast’s. AT&T has 16% of the total and Verizon has 8%, when added together and rounded, their total is 23%.

These latest numbers are good and bad news for big cable companies. Good, because sub count is the name of the game, and they’re winning hands down. Bad, because it’s one more data point that highlights a continually growing concentration of market power into a very few hands. When you take into account the fact that cable companies deliberately don’t compete with each other, on a market by market basis their dominance is increasingly indistinguishable from a true monopoly.