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Comcasts Invests in Theme Parks Rather than Better Broadband

While its network continues to offer last generation speeds at high prices and their customer service reps go viral harassing customers who try to leave their grasp, Comcast executives have decided it is time to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade... their theme parks. That's right, as they shift call centers to the Philippines to save money, they are reinvesting it into roller coasters.

Having acquired Universal Orlando Resorts as part of their 2011 merger with NBC Universal, Comcast has decided to step outside its core business of providing Internet access, cable TV, and phone service in noncompetitive markets. According to a March CED Magazine article, Comcast plans to invest hundreds of millions in theme parks in both Florida and California in an effort to challenge Disney’s traditional dominance of the field. Attractions in Orlando will include an 1,800 room beach resort and a new Harry Potter ride.

This investment in rides occurs against the backdrop of falling infrastructure investment in the broadband industry, despite rapidly increasing bandwidth demands and claims by ISPs that services such as Netflix are straining their networks and must pay extra for “fast lane” service.

It is possible to imagine a world in which broadband markets are sufficiently competitive to force Comcast, CenturyLink and other incumbents to invest sufficiently in building out and upgrading their networks, delivering better service to their customers. But in our world, Comcast can spend the comparatively small sum of $18.8 million on lobbying (in 2013 according to OpenSecrets.org), becoming the seventh biggest campaign contributor in the nation and pushing legislation like the recent Blackburn amendment that eliminates potential public sector competitors.

KGNU From Boulder Interviews Chris for Independent Colorado Radio

KGNU from Boulder recently interviewed Chris on It's the Economy. This 27 minute interview is a crash course in all the intertwined topics that have the telecom policy crowd buzzing.

Host Gavin Dahl asked Chris about SB 152, the 2005 Colorado statute that constricted local authority and has prevented communities in that state from investing in telecommunications infrastructure. As many of our readers know, the Colorado communities of Longmont, Montrose, and Centennial, have held elections to reclaim that authority under that statute's exepmtion. The two also discussed legislative activities in Kansas and Utah inspired by big cable and telecommunications lobbyists. 

The conversation also delved into gigabit networks, network neutrality, the Comcast/Time Warner mergers, legislative influence, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's recent statement about local authority.

In short, this interview packs a tall amount of information into a short amount of time - highly recommended! 

You could also read a transcript of the interview here.

Community Networks: Checks and Balances

As both AT&T and Comcast seek to increase their market power by buying rivals instead of competing, Barry Lynn reminds us of our history of fighting such consolidated power. From Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction.

In the modern era in the United States, efficiency was a favorite defense by industrial autocrats like John D. Rockefeller and financial autocrats like J.P. Morgan of their used of corporate power to arbitrarily determine particularly political economic outcomes. The progressive elite, meanwhile, later turned efficiency into a veritable religion.

That's why the American people learned long ago to reject efficiency as either a goal or a means to public or private governance, and why we consistently rejected it for the first two hundred years of our nation. We understood that efficiency was a code word for top-down autocratic rule by the lords and the private corporate estates or the "public" state. Hence we rejected efficiency in the Declaration of Independence and again in the Constitution. We rejected efficiency when we wrote the Sherman Antitrust Act, then reiterated our rejection time and again in our other antimonopoly laws.

The Supreme Court unanimously rejected efficiency as an excuse for industrial dictatorship when it ordered the breakup of Standard Oil despite the fact that the company had lowered the cost of a gallon of kerosene by more than half. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the efficiency argument again in 1935 when it ruled President Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional. In every case, the American people embraced not efficiency but freedom and moved to protect that freedom through the erection of intricate systems of checks and balances designed to scatter power.

Network Neutrality Update

The FCC is hearing the massive public outcry over its plan that would allow the big cable and telephone companies to create fast and slow lanes on the wires most of us depend on to access the Internet. Chairman Wheeler has made some bold claims that he would not allow commercially unreasonable deals but many doubt the FCC has the authority to enforce his tough talk.

Now we see that FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel wants to slow down the rulemaking for "at least a month" given the outcry.

Resistance to the plan does seem to be building with the emergence of over 100 Internet-dependent companies decrying the possibility of fast and slow lanes. Full letter here [pdf].

Mozilla has developed an alternative approach to reclassification that some are saying just might work, but as a naturally conservative person, I will want to see it vetted by trusted experts like Harold Feld. The main problem with reclassification seems to be that Republicans would demagogue it as Obama attempting to take over the Internet - a problem for Democrats already facing an uphill battle in November.

However, Barbara van Schewick - one of the most knowledgeable people on this matter - makes a strong case for the FCC rebooting the whole process, gathering more input, and ultimately reclassifying Internet access as Title II while forebearing many of the Title II powers that would allow the FCC to wield too much control over access to the Internet.

Much like the FCC has long overseen telephone access without censoring the content of our speech, it would be possible for the FCC to reclassify Internet access without getting involved in content.

However, the larger problem remains - the market power of the massive firms like Comcast and AT&T. As long as they continue to wield the power they do (which will grow if consolidation continues), they will buy support in Congress and use the FCC's revolving door to their advantage; no amount of regulation will ultimately contain them.

To preserve the open Internet over the long haul, we have to reduce the overwhelming power of those companies. We can do that with an "all hands on deck" approach to expanding Internet access - ensuring local governments are free to build their own networks as they choose or partner with trusted entities. On this matter, Chairman Wheeler has said he will use FCC power to remove state barriers to communities make those decisions, a tremendous step forward for preserving the open Internet.

This is a very important moment. We need the FCC to preserve the open Internet by continuing to prevent paid prioritization schemes and we need to create alternative networks to end the cable monopoly and reduce their power in DC and state houses.

Below is an excellent video on this subject that explains the problem and what can be done. As we noted in our podcast with Scott Bradner, the way this video presents the key question of who should pay who represents a break with the past traditions, but it may be time to reconsider who should pay when faced with a cable monopoly for Internet access.

Video: 
See video

No Scale Advantage in Netflix Speed Ranking

Netflix has continued to publish monthly rankings of ISPs average speed in delivering Netflix video content to subscribers. Though they first published data about the largest, national ISPs like Comcast, AT&T, and the link, they have an expanded list with many more ISPs.

I recognize two municipal networks on the expanded list of 60 ISPs. For March 2014, the Chattanooga EPB network is ranked 4th and CDE Lightband of Clarksville, Tennessee, is ranked 7th.

With the exception of Google Fiber and Cablevision, the top 10 are regional or somewhat smaller ISPs. Combined with the significant spread across the rankings of the biggest ISP, we see no empirical evidence for any kind of benefits to subscribers from scale. That is to say, Netflix data shows that bigger ISPs do not deliver better customer experience.

We do see more evidence that fiber networks deliver faster speeds on average, with cable following, and DSL trailing distantly. This is why DSL networks are losing customers where people have a choice and cable is gaining (most often where there is no fiber option).

Any claims by Comcast that allowing it to merge with Time Warner Cable would result in better service should be subject to extreme skepticism. Many much smaller networks deliver faster connections and raise rates far less often that Comcast, which is at the high end of frequency in rate hikes.

The problem with the biggest companies is that they focus on generating the highest returns for Wall Street, not delivering the best experience to Main Street.

Long List of Public Interest Groups Sign on to Free Press Letter Opposing Comcast Time Warner Cable Merger

The Free Press announced that more than 50 public interest groups, including the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, signed on to its letter in opposition to the Time Warner/Comcast merger.

The letter, addressed and delivered to Attorney General Eric Holder and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, begins:

The proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger would give one company enormous power over our nation’s media and communications infrastructure. This massive consolidation would position Comcast as our communications gatekeeper, giving it the power to dictate the future of numerous industries across the Internet, television and telecommunications landscape.

In the press release, Craig Aaron, President and CEO of the Free Press, stated:

“The question before the FCC is whether this deal serves the public interest. The answer is clear: A bigger Comcast is bad for America.

“Merging the nation’s two biggest cable-Internet providers would turn Comcast into our communications gatekeeper, able to dictate the cost and content of news, information and entertainment. We need an Internet and video marketplace that offers people high-quality options at prices they can afford — not a near-national monopoly determining what we can watch and download.

“In the past four years, Comcast has raised basic cable rates in some markets by nearly 70 percent. Its top lobbyist has admitted that the price increases will continue to skyrocket if the merger goes through. And that's about the only thing Comcast has said about this deal that you should believe.

“The growing chorus of groups opposing this takeover knows the truth. The only rational choice is for the FCC and Justice Department to reject this merger."

 

Process Matters: Harold Feld's Guide to the Time Warner Cable/Comcast Merger

The proposed Comcast/Time Warner Cable deal will be on everyone's mind for many months to come. Thanks to Harold Feld, it is now possible to follow the process as it moves forward. Feld began a series of posts earlier this month that map out the review as it moves from the Department of Justice Antitrust Division to the Federal Communications, and finally to Congress. As Feld notes, the entire process will last six months at least and could run for more than a year. 

In addition to drawing a process map, Feld provides insightful subtleties on the purpose behind each step in the review. He also offers political analysis that may influence the outcome. Feld gets into the unique review process, burdens of proof, and relevant definitions at each stop along the way. Highly recommended, especially for law students.

Part I - Introduction

Part II - Antitrust Review at the DOJ

Part III - Federal Communications Commission analyzes public interest

Part IV - The proposal moves through the committee process and the public has a chance to express themselves to their elected officials (including lobbyists)

 

Lexingtonians Consider Municipal Network Options in Kentucky

Community leaders in Lexington are the latest to stand at a fork in the broadband road. In September, the franchise agreement between the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government (LFUCG) and Time Warner Cable expired, resulting in a month-to-month agreement continuation. As they negotiate a new contract, local citizens have called for consideration of a municipal network.

When the contract was originally negotiated in the 1990s, the community was primarily interested in cable TV servce. As broadband has become critical infrastructure for residents, businesses, and government, the community's focus shifted. Lexington customers have complained repeatedly about Internet and cable TV service from Time Warner Cable. A February Kentucky.com article noted that local consumers complained over 300 times to Lexington's Urban County Government, the entity responsible for contract negotiations. According to the article:

The biggest single category of complaints was about price and the volatility of monthly rates. Other complaints were that the cable TV service "repeatedly fails, resets or freezes"; that there was an extended wait time and/or "unhelpful responses" in customer service; and that email and Internet "had declined in service" and showed "significantly slower service."

The City Council considered the situation bad enough to debate whether or not to appoint an ombudsman to advocate for Lexington consumers.

The community wonders how the proposed merger between Time Warner Cable and Comcast will impact their current service. While the Vice Mayor seems to think it is an "almost golden opportunity" to deal with a different provider, local citizen Roy M. Cornett has a different perspective. He wrote for Business Lexington.com:

We can choose to maintain the status quo and allow out-of-state corporations to continue to control our access to the Internet, or we can rescind the franchise agreements to the copper and fiber lying in the ground around our community and treat the Internet as the piece of infrastructure essential for our future economic growth that it is. 

We would just note that this is not an either/or proposition. They can both develop a new franchise or not separately from deciding to move forward with some smart municipal investments.

As the LFCUG has moved forward with franchise negotiations, they opened up the discussion at City Council meetings. Cornett attended a Cable Franchise Workshop to learn about the process. What he learned is that the LFCUG possesses very little power in negotiations, due to federal law. In fact, if Time Warner Cable meets a very low standard, the LFCUG has no option but to renew.

Lexington Kentucky Logo

Cornett and others in the community wonder if Lexington wants to go down the same Internet road again - expensive, unreliable, and ruled from a far off corner office. He addresses the question in another article on the Barefoot and Progressive site:

If the Time Warner [Cable] and Comcast merger goes through, Lexington will not only have piss poor download speeds, but caps on the amount of data you can use in a month. Comcast currently has a cap of 300 gigabytes per month for customers in Elizabethtown and Campbellsville, Kentucky. To put this in perspective, my family’s usage as of February 15, was 99 gigabytes for the month and we still have two weeks to go. I am terrified of what it will be in a few years when my youngest kids become teenagers. 

Cornett reached out to us when he wanted to learn more about the possibilities of a muni for Lexington:

The City of Chattanooga just recently built a municipal ISP to provide gigabit service to 147,000 homes at a cost of $330 million (of which $111 million was provided by the feds). Christopher Mitchell, the director of Telecommunications as Commons Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, did some very rough back-of-the-envelope calculations for the City of Lexington and estimates that a full gigabit fiber network to every resident and business would be somewhere in the $200 million range. 

Those are huge numbers and should give anyone pause, but consider that we are spending $1.6 million on sidewalks for Tates Creek Road, $17 million for resurfacing a few blocks of South Limestone and $310 million dollars renovating Rupp Arena. Ask yourself if any of the above projects could come close to offering the economic impact that gigabit internet service would bring. It isn’t even close.

In his Business Lexington.com article, Cornett encourages a new coalition, the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement (BEAM), to take up the muni possibility. The group is a collaboration between Louisville and Lexington with support from the Brookings Institute. The goal of BEAM is to bring quality jobs to the Bluegrass and increase export activity.

Cornett, who we expect to hear more from, writes in his Barefoot and Progressive article:

I won’t speculate on the motives of the corporations for attempting to kill competition, but the issue of our city possessing a modern, reasonably priced, continually upgraded network is essential to our future.

This is not a fight we should shy away from. On the contrary, this is a fight we need to embrace, and it can be the lynchpin that takes the BEAM super region from a good idea to a shining success. I urge Mayors Gray and Fischer to – at the very least – explore the option of retaking control of this vital component of our infrastructure.

Krugman Calls out the Barons of Broadband

We should probably be thanking Comcast for its attempt to take over Time Warner Cable. It has inspired a shocking amount of vitriol against the cable monopolies, including an entertaining but NSFW video with strong language from Funny or Die.

Whereas people were largely content to mostly silently hate Comcast and Time Warner Cable separately, the idea of them officially tying the knot to screw consumers even more has apparently hit a tipping point. As I noted a few days ago, we are seeing a more communities considering their own networks to avoid being stuck with a Wall Street monopoly forever.

Paul Krugman was inspired to write "Barons of Broadband," which accurately reflects the modern dynamic:

The point is that Comcast perfectly fits the old notion of monopolists as robber barons, so-called by analogy with medieval warlords who perched in their castles overlooking the Rhine, extracting tolls from all who passed. The Time Warner deal would in effect let Comcast strengthen its fortifications, which has to be a bad idea.

Krugman talks about monopoly as well, reminding me of one of our most important podcasts - Barry Lynn, Monopoly Expert.

And the same phenomenon may be playing an important role in holding back the economy as a whole. One puzzle about recent U.S. experience has been the disconnect between profits and investment. Profits are at a record high as a share of G.D.P., yet corporations aren’t reinvesting their returns in their businesses. Instead, they’re buying back shares, or accumulating huge piles of cash. This is exactly what you’d expect to see if a lot of those record profits represent monopoly rents.

It’s time, in other words, to go back to worrying about monopoly power, which we should have been doing all along. And the first step on the road back from our grand detour on this issue is obvious: Say no to Comcast.

There is no public benefit to this merger - none. Meanwhile it will give even more power to a corporation already slowing our economy by refusing to invest in communities that desperately need better connections so businesses can remain competitive. Allowing this merger will be just another step in the direction of powerful corporate lobbyists officially running the country rather than unofficially.

In Fear of Comcast Warner Cable

It is hard to say just how bad of an idea it is for us to allow Comcast to buy Time Warner Cable. This is not just about consumers having to pay more, which they do every time we allow massive consolidation, but about access to information.

I can't help but think back to our conversation with Barry Lynn on monopoly a few weeks ago. People get so focused on consumer prices and a narrow view of competition that they miss important impacts of consolidation.

One impact is moving Comcast from the seventh biggest DC lobbyist to the fourth.

This consolidation is a recognition that the private sector simply will not provide meaningful competition for Internet access. Communities need to recognize what a do-nothing approach means: relying on a distant cable monopoly for the most important services of the 21st century.

If I had to guess what will happen - Comcast will buy Time Warner Cable but have to sell off some pieces to get approval. Comcast will grow larger and more powerful, making future mergers even more difficult to stop despite more and more evidence that these firms are strangling our economy. We can stop it - but will we? Specifically, will we force our representatives in DC to stop it?

Stay tuned to the organizations that are covering it well - Free Press, Karl Bode, Public Knowledge, Common Cause, and many others.