Tag Archives: comcast

Comcast tells CPUC it must say yes to rural cherrypicking because it can’t say no

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Paicines pole route

Comcast took its best shot at explaining why it should be allowed to jump the queue and start competing against Ponderosa Telephone before the California Public Utilities Commission decides what the future will be for small, rural telephone companies. The answer: because the developer wants us and the Federal Communications Commission says we can.

The dispute centers on Tesoro Viejo, an upscale master planned community under construction in the foothills of Madera County. Comcast claims the developers offered Tesoro Viejo as a cherry ripe for picking, and it wants to oblige them. There’s nothing preventing Comcast from providing video and broadband service, but if it wants to bundle in telephone service and offer the full triple play, it needs the CPUC’s permission.

That’s because Ponderosa Telephone serves the foothills of Madera and Fresno counties, as well as more remote communities further up in the Sierra Nevada. It’s one of ten small, highly subsidised telephone companies that serve deeply rural areas of California, the edges of which are now right in the path of exurban development. The CPUC protects those rural telcos from competition in an effort to minimise the amount of taxpayer dollars it takes to keep them afloat.

That policy is under review, but Comcast doesn’t want to wait. Ponderosa, on the other hand, doesn’t want to be nibbled to death. It argues that top level policy has to be decided first “because competition raises public policy questions with a collective impact on stakeholders throughout the state”.

It’s a tough question. Comcast is an unlikely champion. It moves quickly to kill potential competition whenever its territory is threatened. But regardless of how disingenuous it’s being, Comcast is correct in saying that more choice brings greater benefits to consumers. Once its process is complete, the CPUC might trim, or even eliminate, the privileges that rural telcos enjoy.

Might.

That’s a decision that needs to be taken deliberately and with the full consequences for all – rural residents, exurban immigrants, California taxpayers – in mind. Doing it reactively in response to rich targets of opportunity is a disservice to everyone.

Collected documents regarding Comcast’s expansion into Ponderosa’s territory are here.

Comcast has to explain why it’s okay to start cherry picking rich, rural customers right now

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tesoro viejo youtube

The California Public Utilities Commission won’t jump the gun and give Comcast permission to compete directly with the Ponderosa Telephone Company. At least not yet. Comcast has to first explain why past CPUC decisions don’t apply to its request for permission to offer telephone service in Tesoro Viejo, an upscale master planned community of 5,200 homes in Madera County. Among other things, those rules protect highly subsidised rural telephone companies from competitors that want to cherry pick affluent customers in densely populated exurban developments, and ignore people in poorer and more sparsely populated communities.

The CPUC has been thinking about changing those rules for the past twelve years, with no decision yet on the horizon. It’s the normal course of business for the commission, which considers these kinds of issues in excruciating detail via an adversarial process that includes anyone with an interest in the outcome. It doesn’t happen quickly.

In a ruling last week, commissioner Liane Randolph rejected Comcast’s request for an immediate exception to current policy, saying that questions about why those rules do or don’t apply have to be answered first. That means considering a study of rural broadband and telephone competition completed last year, and a 2014 CPUC decision that concluded that companies like Comcast…

…may tend to serve only small portions of any of the [rural telco] service areas with high quality, high reliable voice service and…may be likely to “cherry pick” business customers rather than serve significant portions of rural service territories, particularly customers whose cost to serve is high.

That’s exactly what Comcast proposes to do in Madera County. It’s been clear that its ambitions are limited to the newly built homes, and that it does not plan to offer service to homes and businesses in the surrounding area. Ponderosa’s service territory includes traditional foothill ranch lands and remote Sierra Nevada towns, as well as new and wealthier exurbs.

Comcast and Ponderosa have two weeks to answer Randolph’s questions.

Collected documents regarding Comcast’s expansion into Ponderosa’s territory are here.

Comcast protests we’re not cherrypicking, it’s our cherry that’s been picked

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Comcast tried to paint itself as a champion consumer choice, as its lawyers clashed with those representing Ponderosa Telephone at the California Public Utilities Commission last week. The question is whether Comcast should be allowed to compete as a telephone company against Ponderosa, which is a small, heavily subsidised rural telco. But the core issue is whether allowing wireline telephone competitors to target high revenue potential customers in rural telco service areas will lead to even greater taxpayer subsidies for less affluent and less densely populated communities that companies like Ponderosa are required to serve.

In this case, the wrangling is mostly about Tesoro Viejo, a new, upscale master planned community of 5,200 homes in Madera County, although Comcast also hinted that other areas that are lucrative enough to meet its return on investment model will likewise be targeted. Ponderosa wants Comcast’s application for permission to enter its market to be iced until the CPUC makes a cosmic decision as to whether the dozen or so rural telcos remaining in California will face such competition. The commission’s concern is that competitors will cherrypick customers on the high side of the digital divide and leave the rest even worse off than before.

In a completely disingenuous argument – and that’s the kindest way to characterise it – Zeb Zankel, a lawyer representing Comcast, tried to make the administrative law judge hearing the case to believe that corporate strategy has nothing to do with it

We didn’t reach out. We didn’t pick. Comcast did not pick. We were picked. And we were picked presumably because Comcast has service offerings that presumably Tesoro Viejo just sought its service offerings in addition to Ponderosa, as it should. Consumers should have choice. So I think this repeated allegation of cherry picking is simply untrue.

What Zankel, um, neglected to mention was that redlined communities routinely reach out to Comcast and other cable companies for service, and are just as routinely turned down. Unless the potential customers can afford a sufficiently hefty monthly bill and they are densely packed enough to keep the cost of delivering service low.

If what Zankel said is true, then Comcast would be jumping on the chance to extend service throughout southern Madera County. But it’s not. It wants to serve Tesoro Viejo, with the income levels and household density of a suburb, and ignore the surrounding rural residents.

That’s cherrypicking.

Collected documents regarding Comcast’s expansion into Ponderosa’s territory are here.

Comcast reveals plan to pick a juicy cherry in Madera County

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tesoro viejo

Comcast wants permission to offer phone service to a new Madera County development in Ponderosa Telephone’s territory. In a required public disclosure of a private meeting between a California Public Utilities Commission staffer and a lobbyist and a lawyer for Comcast, the company revealed that it is targeting Tesoro Viejo, a master planned community of 5,200 upscale homes on two and a half square miles of rural land in southern Madera County.

According to the filing, Comcast says that if it offers phone service in the development, it would create “additional consumer choice” but “would have limited effect on Ponderosa and its draw on [a rural telco subsidy] fund”. As a matter of general policy, the CPUC doesn’t authorise competitive phone service in areas where small, heavily subsidised rural telcos, like Ponderosa, operate. That policy is under review, but Comcast doesn’t want to wait, presumably because it’s already put out a press release saying it will provide…

A wide range of innovative and advanced technology solutions, including high speed broadband, WiFi, video entertainment and “smart home/smart business” security/automation offerings, to homes, businesses and public spaces throughout the new Tesoro Viejo master-planned community.

Telephone service isn’t specifically mentioned – it would make for an awkward conversation at the CPUC – but the press release’s boilerplate includes phone service in the list of Comcast’s otherwise unregulated offerings.

Ponderosa wants to block Comcast, arguing that the CPUC already has concerns about competing telephone service leading to higher subsidy costs in rural areas, and if Comcast is allowed to pursue its plan, “the cherry-picking problem will be exacerbated”.

Comcast’s claim of a “limited effect” on CPUC subsidy requirements is disingenuous. The effect will be limited to the relatively affluent and densely packed customers in the development, who would otherwise be paying Ponderosa for phone and, perhaps, broadband, service. The CPUC will still have to help keep Ponderosa afloat so that its less well off and more scattered rural customers can continue to be served. Less revenue from the most profitable customers means more subsidies than would otherwise be required.

On the other hand, Comcast is correct when it says that allowing it to compete with Ponderosa will lead to greater consumer choice. At least for consumers who 1. have sufficient income to meet its revenue targets, and 2. are close enough together to minimise its cost and maximise its profit.

The CPUC has a hard decision to make: limit consumer choice and the need for taxpayer subsidies for all, or pick up the increased tab for rural residents while their new, more affluent neighbors reap the benefits of an open market. It’s a question that should be deliberatively answered at a top policy level, and not ad hoc in response to a company’s target of opportunity.

Collected documents regarding Comcast’s expansion into Ponderosa’s territory are here.

Comcast seeks CPUC blessing to compete with rural telco, but only for not so rural customers

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Sierra 625

Comcast says it’s striking a blow for telecoms competition, Ponderosa Telephone says no, it’s cherrypicking business customers at the expense of rural residents. At issue is Comcast’s request to expand the area in which it’s authorised to offer telephone service to include the service territory of Ponderosa Telephone Company, a small, incumbent local exchange carrier (ILEC) that serves parts of Fresno, Madera and San Bernardino counties. Presumably, Comcast is eyeing Fresno and/or Madera counties, where both it and Ponderosa operate.

Historically the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates telco operating authority, has protected small, rural phone companies from competition. That’s not because of sentimental attachment. Those small telcos serve communities that aren’t sufficiently lucrative markets to attract big incumbents like AT&T and, consequently, are heavily subsidised. As Ponderosa points out in its protest, the CPUC previously concluded that allowing competitors to pick and chose their customers in rural communities would “result in the small ILECs losing revenue and needing to seek a larger draw from the [telephone subsidy] program”.

With no apparent sense of irony, Comcast claims to be fighting for a competitive telecoms market, reminding the commission that it has “found that the presence of competition in local telecommunications markets leads to efficient pricing, improved service quality, expanded product and service capabilities, greater reliability, and increased consumer choice”. But Comcast’s application also says that it won’t expand its footprint and will only increase service in areas where it presently offers video service – areas that are densely populated enough to support its urban/suburban business model. This isn’t about upgrading service or infrastructure in truly rural communities.

Comcast is correct about the benefits of competition, despite going to great expense to avoid facing it elsewhere. But Ponderosa’s point is also true. The more it relies on revenue from remote and economically deprived communities, the more taxpayer subsidies it will need to continue to serve them.

The dispute is formally about voice telephone service, but it involves broadband policy too. Both Comcast and Ponderosa are retail Internet service providers, who rely on privileges granted by state law – either as telephone or video companies – to build wireline infrastructure in the public right of way and access wholesale services. Changing those privileges and protections will also change the economics, and consequently the availability, of broadband service in Ponderosa’s territory.

Do you limit the choices available to homes and businesses in places where revenue runs thicker in order to reduce the subsidies needed to maintain baseline service in more sparsely populated communities? Or do you maintain the status quo – in service as well as public support – for all?

That’s the choice the CPUC has to make, and it comes as no surprise. The commission is in the process of reexamining its telecoms competition policy in rural areas, as both Comcast and Ponderosa point out. Ponderosa argues, correctly, that this is a major policy decision and shouldn’t be made by default in a narrow, administrative proceeding. Near term, the CPUC should reject Comcast’s application, but long term, it has a difficult problem to solve.

Collected documents regarding Comcast’s expansion into Ponderosa’s territory are here.

Comcast continues aggressive bill at will tactics against customers, Minnesota attorney general says

by Steve Blum • ,

Comcast deceived thousands of customers in Minnesota, according to a complaint filed last month by the state’s attorney general’s office. It’s a familiar story: customers are lured in by impossibly low prices that aren’t honored, and by additional fees for services that customers didn’t order and that no one thought to mention.

According to a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune by Torey Van Oot, a major problem is that Comcast’s phone representatives – who don’t have a sterling reputation to begin with – can’t be trusted…

The complaint outlines practices and communications that state prosecutors say put Comcast afoul of Minnesota’s consumer protection laws against deception and fraud. Those actions include quoting a fixed price and then charging another, much higher rate and signing consumers up for new services or products without their permission.

Those hikes often come in the form of added fees that [then-attorney general Lori Swanson] said can boost a customer’s quoted package price by upward of 30 percent…

Barbara Laporte saw her bill jump from $107 to $143 a month between 2016 and 2018, even though she thought she was signing up for a fixed two-year rate. During one 2016 customer service call released by Swanson’s office, a representative repeatedly assures Laporte that she will receive the lower price of $107.38, even “after taxes and equipment.”

Comcast’s response was typical. Instead of addressing the corporate practices and policy at the root of the problem, the company issued a general denial and oiled squeaky wheels by addressing a few of the individual complaints.

Since the lawsuit was filed, Swanson was replaced as attorney general by former congressman Keith Ellison. All mention of the case, including the original press release, has disappeared from the attorney general office’s website. Presumably, the case will be pursued, despite the changing of the guard, but that’s yet to be confirmed.

Consumers say they’re paying too much for poor Internet service

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Big Internet service providers hit all time low in customer satisfaction ratings, according to the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) telecommunications company rankings. The survey ranks telecoms companies and service offerings on a 100-point scale. ISPs dropped from an overall industry average of 64 out of 100 in 2017 to 62 this year, and overall the broadband industry is making people very unhappy.

According to ACSI, it’s a case of the bad just getting worse…

Internet service providers (ISPs) are down 3.1% to 62—an all-time low for the industry that along with subscription TV already had the poorest customer satisfaction among all industries tracked by the ACSI.

Customers are unhappy with the high price of poor service, but many households have limited alternatives as more than half of all Americans have only one choice for high speed broadband. Every major ISP deteriorates this year except for Comcast’s Xfinity, which is unchanged.

Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home service is still top rated with a score of 70, and AT&T wasn’t far behind with 68. Charter Communications and Comcast are below the industry already dismal customer satisfaction average – both scored 60. Suddenlink wasn’t much better at 61, both it and Charter saw a year over year decrease of 5 points.

Frontier Communications and Cox Communications bring up the rear among major California ISPs, with customer satisfaction ratings of 54 and 59, respectively.

As a group, small ISPs did better than average, but still not great, getting a combined score of 63.

On specific aspects of service, call centers are the biggest pain point for consumers, getting a 59 out of 100 rating, while bricks and mortar store staff are well regarding, topping the benchmarks at 76. But all customer experience ratings are down from last year’s…

Internet service is less reliable (69), more prone to outages (68), and performance during peak hours is worse (68). Video streaming quality is unchanged (68), but overall data transfer speed is lagging compared with a year ago (–3% to 67), as is the quality of email, storage, and security (–3% to 69).

The rankings are based on an email survey conducted this past March and April. More than 45,000 customers responded.

As TV subs cancel, monopoly control of broadband pipes is Comcast’s best hope to grow business

by Steve Blum • , ,

As TV subs cancel, monopoly control of broadband pipes is Comcast's best hope to grow business

Comcast offered the perfect example last week of why big, monopoly broadband companies hate the idea of network neutrality, and are stuffing politician's pockets with cash arguing so eloquently against it.

Comcast's traditional cable television business is bleeding subscribers and revenue at an increasing pace, but its broadband business is booming. The company reported its second quarter 2018 financial results last week. It gained 260,000 broadband subs, but lost 140,000 video customers, which led to a 1.9% decrease in video revenue. Losing video subs is nothing new, but declining revenue is. It's the first time that's happened, according to a story by Ben Munson in FierceVideo.

The reason is Netflix and its over the top kin, according to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, who spoke on a conference call with analysts

Continuing competition from virtual contributed to our 140,000 video customer net losses in the second quarter. We remain focused on segments that we can serve profitably as part of a broader relationship with the customer centered on a whole home experience.

One way of creating that “broader relationship” with a “whole home experience” is to manipulate customers' Internet traffic so the video content Comcast sells comes first and the bandwidth used to carry it is cheaper.

That's what paid prioritisation is all about. There are different ways to game it and Comcast lobbyists have tied themselves up in semantic knots trying to redefine paid prioritisation so that Comcast can claim to be against it while building fast lanes for itself. But it comes down to the same thing: use monopoly control of Internet service to make, say, Netflix's video streams slower and more expensive for consumers than Comcast's.

The potential, and the reality, of that kind of abuse of market power is the reason that the concept of non-discriminatory access and open pricing for critical infrastructure came in being – the common carrier principle. It's as applicable to broadband today as it was to ferries four hundred years ago.

Cable, telcos hit rock bottom in consumer satisfaction rankings

by Steve Blum • , , ,

The broadband industry is pissing off its customers. According to the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) telecommunications company rankings, the consumer businesses at the very bottom of the list are subscription television service (a rating of 62 out of 100), Internet service (also 62), video-on-demand service (68) and fixed line telephone service (70).

In other words, the misery caused by your local telco is only exceeded by the pain inflicted by your cable company. Both do a worse job of keeping you happy than the U.S. post office, airlines and health insurance companies (but not by much – they’re tied with social media platforms for fifth worst with a score of 73).

Mobile phone service isn’t much better. It rates a 74. Just above it at 75 are video streaming services and both investor-owned and municipal utilities.

Over-the-top (OTT) video providers like Netflix offer consumers better and friendlier service than cable and telcos, with devastating effect according to ACSI…

OTT operators have raised the bar by providing greater personalization, lower prices, more mobility—and much better customer service. As a result, cable and satellite television customers think they are paying higher prices for lesser value and receiving poor service to boot.

The effect is widespread. The entire sector faces repercussions as many of the same large companies offer service for internet, television, and voice via bundling. Subscription television and internet service providers rank last among all industries tracked by the ACSI. The implication is clear: moving in on the video streaming market won’t be enough to keep TV subscribers unless customer satisfaction improves as well.

Consumer electronics companies do the best, topping the list at 85 out of 100. Of course, there’s nothing like a cold drink to go along with a binge watching session, so breweries and soft drink makers are in second place with an 84. Online retailers and credit unions round out the top five with a score of 82.

Cable’s broadband monopoly profile sharpens with 2017 results

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

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.