Comcast Tactics Increasingly Transparent

comcast_logo_detailNew Orleans    We’ve said it before, and we’ll keep saying it again, but Comcast’s strategy to win approval of its monopoly in cable with a merger with Times-Warner has become increasingly obvious as one that builds support almost strictly on a “pay to play” basis under its architect, chief lobbyist and bullyboy, David Cohen. Tactically, it has muscled up support for its merger through its donations program almost exclusively. Even the New York Times has finally followed the crumbs back to the source.

Cohen of course denies everything as always.

None of us will forget just a couple of years ago that when our partner, Action United in Pennsylvania carried all of our grievances in Pennsylvania, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas with their fake, public relations $9.99 internet access program, despite the FCC requirement that they do the work to justify the merger with Universal the kind of performance Cohen put on. The suggestion that their outreach program, which consisted solely of leaning on schools to pass out brochures and their lobbyists wining and dining local politicians about their generosity, was woefully inadequate and they needed actual help in hitting the doors and doing real outreach, was greeted rudely by Cohen accusing us of asking for a bribe or something. Whoa there, cowboy! The FCC of course agreed with us and forced the company to pay a $750,000 fine, which Cohen probably also thought was a bribe as well, just of them rather than us, and continue their program for additional years. One of the gratuitous offers Comcast and Cohen have made to create the monopoly with Times-Warner is to continue the same program though of course still without making meaningful changes that would actually lead to any bridging of the digital divide to lower income families.

Nonprofits who are involved in partnerships with big corporations and their corporate contribution programs know the score. You take the money from their open hands for this or that, unless it’s part of a court settlement or an aggressive campaign, and the day will come when your liaison calls and carefully couches his request in the most positive light as not having been a quid pro quo but they need help before this hearing or that district or whatever and would it be possible for you to issue a statement, write a letter, testify or whatever to the work we have done together. Certainly ACORN and our banking partners on our housing program often got these calls, and we would push back or modify them to an agreeable proposition, but it was all part of the game, and chits were shelved for the future, just as antes had been placed on the past.

With a crew of reportedly 140 federally registered lobbyists and god knows how many working state by state, region by region, market by market, Cohen is no slouch, and they would know how to put a quota on their governmental relations crew to produce the number of statements they wanted to the FCC from groups that they had given money to for this or that in order to deposit money in the “future” bank for just this kind of FCC play.

Luckily, despite all of Comcast’s and Cohen’s denials, this is not the FCC’s first time at the rodeo either. It’s a shame to see so many nonprofits snared in this mess, but times are tough and rationalizations are pennies on the dollar as well in the pay-to-play political game.

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Internet Monopolies Walls are Going to Tumble

Telus better pack it up or get right!

Telus better pack it up or get right!

Dallas     At the ACORN Canada staff training and then the management meeting in Montreal, we spent a LOT of time assessing and strategizing about our next steps on our Digital Access to Opportunities campaign which, plainly stated, continues to be our effort to build bridges for lower income families across the digital divide.

In Canada the companies are even more closely held monopoly concerns with the big three Telus, Canada Bell, and Rogers than are found even in the United States, although Comcast with its proposed merger of Times-Warner clearly has its heart set on going the same way.  Despite some steps to accommodate us with a $10 per month plan in public housing in Tornoto, Rogers has not moved past that opening round and what they delivered has been less than promised.  Telus in a meeting in Vancouver had told us they were moving our way, but then have not gotten back to us, and Bell continues to be unabashedly arrogant and impervious to our concerns, having adopted what can only be seen as a Comcast head-in-the-stand, make-me-do-it, schoolyard bully approach to the problem, hoping it will disappear into the Ethernet or something.

Not clear what tea leaves their lobbyists are telling them to read, but they’ve got trouble on the horizon.  The regulators in Canada are preparing for a hearing this winter on declaring the internet a public utility, and the same thing has been promised in the US by the FCC.

ACORN is committed to participating in the Ottawa hearings, but we’re convinced the court of public opinion is where we will be able to be heard more clearly.   They may have invested in some infrastructure but surveys of our members and others reveal that people hate their cable and internet company the way they once hated the local tax man.  Furthermore their brands are ubiquitous and their tentacles stretch everywhere from their ownership to sports teams in Tornoto to the bicycle sharing program in Montreal.  That’s a big, wide butt ready for the kicking!  We’re convinced that to get them finally to take seriously the desperation of lower income families to have access to opportunities, we’re going to have to go big, go broad, and be as ubiquitous as they are.  Enough said for now.

Meanwhile the often clueless former industry lobbyist heading the FCC must have startled the big boys of the industry in the financial papers the other day by pretty graphically drawing a picture of all of the internet companies as being emperors with no clothes on.  He simply stated the obvious without stating the obvious.  He said there is little or no competition in most markets so that internet service costs too much and changing from one operator to another is prohibitively expensive.  All of which is another way of saying that the companies are anti-competitive and operating like Canadians, or what we used to call monopolies.  Chairmen Wheeler claimed 80% of Americans have access to high speed internet at 25 megbits per second, though he didn’t say at what price, but if he’s going to acknowledge as his statement indicated that the “F.C.C. planned to promote more choices and protect competition, because a lack of adequate consumer choice inhibits innovation, investment and economic benefits,” it’s hard to believe that they can’t get the message.  For a change it was even an indirect shot across Comcast’s bow, since their claim that they are not a monopoly through their purchase of Times-Warner is that they don’t often compete in the same markets.  Someone seems to have given Wheeler the memo that they are in different markets, because they don’t compete, and you can’t claim you are regulating them to assure competition when they are silently colluding to kept customers captive and control separate geographies.

Ok, yeah, maybe I’m dreaming about the FCC being something other than chattel for the companies, but maybe when they see what we have in store for the companies in Canada some of the chill will blow down from the north to cool some of the imperial monopoly dreams that are widening the digital divide.  Here’s hoping!

 

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Bring on the Trust Busters to Stop Comcast and Times-Warner Cable Monopoly!

timeswarnerNew Orleans      Simple fact:  the Justice department cannot allow Comcast to buy Times-Warner cable operations.  No way, no how!  In fact given the level of untrammeled, anti-competitive monopoly already rampant in the cable industry, which is directly responsible for both widening the internet divide and slowing down internet speeds to globally uncompetitive and exorbitantly expensive levels, possibly no existing cable company should be allowed to purchase Times-Warner’s cable operations, which are second only to Comcast in size.  Comcast with 22million subscribers has 20% of the country now.  Times-Warner with 15 million has almost 14%, so together they would control pricing in over one-third of the country.

What am I talking about?   A front page headline blared from the Wall Street Journal as the reporters were almost licking their lips at the excitement of a big billion dollar sale of Times-Warner’s cable operations.   They included in their fawning piece, two really scary spins from financial and legal hucksters.  One was the speculation that there wasn’t really competition between Comcast and Times-Warner because they had carved up different geographical markets, as if these aren’t national, FCC enabled monopolies.   The other was the conjecture that if Comcast made a bid it could succeed by agreeing to similar restrictions from the regulators as it did when it bought NBC/Universal, much of which, especially concerning access to lower income families, it has miserably failed to deliver.

Complaints that we filed in Texas, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania have already added an extension of one year to the FCC order that Comcast maintain its $9.99 cable plan, and we have filed new complaints that they are still not doing what was ordered or promised yet.  This commitment should be made permanent by the FCC if it were anything other than codependent in widening the digital divide.

With American Airlines and US Air, for a minute it seemed that the Justice Department was once again going to take seriously its responsibilities to enforce anti-trust laws.   This cable consolidation is even more important and affects even more people.   It’s time for Justice to actually deliver real justice for all this time.

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FCC Seems Unwilling to Confront Monopolies to Create Digital Access

New Orleans  In Congressional hearings vetting the President’s nominee, Tom Wheeler, as the new Chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) there seems to be little hope that we will get the progress needed in creating national standards for higher speed internet connections or a reduction of the digital divide. Wheeler was quoted yesterday stating his philosophy that “competitive markets produce better outcomes than regulated or uncompetitive markets.”  Since in the land of Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Times-Warner we have monopoly practices and uncompetitive markets, Wheeler seems clueless about the current communications environment, and he would be the person responsible for regulation.  

            Despite our campaign over the last two years to force the FCC and Comcast to finally live up to the FCC’s requirement in their order approving Comcast’s purchase of NBC/Universal that they provide a plan for less than $10 per month for lower income families, they persist in doing the least they can get away with, rather than acting in the spirit of the order.  The FCC seems either powerless or passive in its unwillingness to enforce its order with any enthusiasm despite our complaints.   Toney Orr, Local 100’s Arkansas director, reported that of the 25 customers we turned into Comcast recently, 20 have now received their “internet essentials” program, but that proves my point:  they are not doing outreach to eligible participants, only waving their hands in the direction of lower income families.  If Local 100 does the work, they are happy to lift a little finger, but lord no do not ask them to create a real program with real penetration in the market to reduce the digital divide. 

            Don’t take my word for it.  Read Professor Susan Crawford’s excellent new book:  Captive Audience:  The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.   This one sentence on page 266 says everything anyone might want to know about the effectiveness of the Comcast Internet Essentials offering or the even lamer “voluntary” promises from Cox Cable and Times-Warner to provide lower cost access to low income families:

“Voluntary services from private carriers are costly gifts that do little to move the country forward.”

Amen!

Earlier in the same paragraph Crawford is even clearer about the whole challenge:

“Moving from a high-speed Internet access model based on overcharging rich, urban residents for bundles of services while letting the state subsidize slow access for poor or rural residents to a model based on the assumption that America requires fast, standard, reliable, and unbundled fiber-optic Internet access at reasonable prices will present many challenges…government intervention is necessary to ensure unfettered competition.”

Crawford makes an excellent, irrefutable case that Comcast, AT&T, and others are simply operating now as monopolies with the sycophantic assistance of the FCC and too many in Congress are allowing them to do it.  In the name of their own profits and business model these companies are retarding America’s economic growth and competitive position around the world.  She states the obvious:  the internet and telecommunications are utilities like water and electricity.  As such they are necessities that need to be regulated in the same way, and that’s not happening now.

Unfortunately every word that came out of Wheeler’s mouth in his nomination hearing indicates that he is a captive of the monopolies and absolutely doesn’t get it!  We have trouble ahead of us.

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Short Steps on Long March to Close Digital Divide: Rogers Breakthrough!

New Orleans  When it comes to creating some form of internet equity so that lower income families have access to the internet and can overcome the digital divide, everyone “gets” it, but no one wants to do what it takes to make it happen.

            President Obama on his way to meet the Chinese Premier in California stopped by North Carolina to visit a school and made the case, yet again, that we needed to expand high speed internet access to all public schools and public libraries in the country.  Amen!   But, when it came to the “how” of it, behind the “what” of it, his proposal was that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should continue or increase the surcharge on consumer telephone bills to pay the freight.

            The FCC is good at collecting money for these programs, but seems lousy still at enforcing its own orders, as I have pointed out numerous times given what they have allowed Comcast to get away with in providing access.  And, the voluntary $10 per month programs they negotiated with Cox Cable and Times-Warner are hardly worth the paper on the press release they put out about them.  We have filed scores of complaints and are still pressing the FCC for action.

            Nonetheless, something is better than nothing, ACORN Canada has moved to spread the campaign for internet access to Canada.  A letter to Rogers Communications produced a call with a key representative who presided over their wireless operations, and in a shocking reversal given the hard-ass resistance from Comcast and other US-based companies, he actually listened, was familiar with the “internet essentials” concept, and surprised us by saying he thought Rogers could do something, and he would get back to us.  Even before the next scheduled session in mid-June, Rogers surprised us even more by announcing unilaterally that they would initiate voluntarily a program of providing internet access to any tenant of public housing in Canada for $10 per month.  Obviously, this is a huge victory and a shot in the arm for a campaign that is only just beginning in Canada.  In fact we are still waiting for responses from the other two major providers in that country, so the focus will shift to them while we see how much real progress we can make with Rogers.

            It’s great that they realize in Canada that this is the right thing to do, but without taking anything away from Rogers Communications quick, positive response, it still makes me think twice.  Not wanting to be stepped on by the hoofs of a gift horse, I can’t escape the conclusion that all of these giant communications companies know that they are sitting on public franchises and spectrum that they are mining for gold, while wittingly creating huge inequalities for lower income families without the ability to pay the charges they are assessing. 

            The companies, be they in Canada, the US, Mexico, or elsewhere are going to continue to pull as much revenue as they can from these public resources, but they must know there is a clock ticking before finally governments are going to foreswear neo-liberalism and put an end to this voluntary baloney and actually regulate the costs and speed of the programs so that all citizens have a fair chance at jobs, information, and the modern world without paying the high tolls that all of these companies are charging on the public internet highway.

Digital Divide & Rogers Audio Blog

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FCC’s Connect2Compete Disconnected at Cox Cable & Payday Embarrasses Chase

New Orleans    Remember the poor…low and moderate income families who will always be with us?  Well, more evidence keeps piling up that when it comes to internet access and a lifeline to the 21st Century, the “volunteer” efforts by the big cable companies are continuing to make the FCC’s claims of lowering the digital divide a tragic joke.

I listened to calls yesterday made by an eligible mother with school age children to Cox Cable.  Cox along with Times-Warner and several other companies supposedly after claiming in late 2011 that they were going to following the flawed promises of the Comcast settlement to provide less than $10 per month internet and a $150 computer, joined the new FCC organized Connect2compete effort to finally implement the program in the fall of 2012.  The Connect2Compete program like much of Comcast’s program has been something of a stealth campaign, but we continue to be committed to seeing if low income families can finally access lower cost internet.

This woman having heard about the program from Local 100, called Cox Cable in New Orleans on the only available number.  Cox had no idea what she was talking about?  Low priced cable?  No way!  Connect2compete?  Huh?  Then she was transferred to a technical person when she persisted in asking how to apply.  The technical person had the same responses which all added up to “no clue.”  The technical person finally transferred her to a Cox manager who after several minutes of hearing the woman describe what she had heard about the program finally replied, “oh, yeah, we tried that program with a couple of schools in the fall, but the program was terminated in January, is there anything else I can help you with?”  That’s it.  Nada!

An earlier member had also called Cox Cable in New Orleans and been told there was no such program but that she would be called back.  Miracles never cease, and she was called back and told to call another number with Connect2compete.  When she called that number, she was not able to get through on her zip code to the automatic system.  The zip code was for the famous 9th ward.  When she called again and entered another zip code, she could get no farther into the system because you had to have an authorization code passed out by one of few schools that were engaged by Cox in the program, I presume.   It hardly matters, since she was stopped there.

Whatever this connect2compete is, it is categorically NOT a program to extend internet access to the poor.  The FCC and their cable company comrades should be shamefaced at the cynicism of these efforts.

Perhaps being publicly shamed by your own con games even works every once in a while!  Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, in a rare retreat from his usual “damn the torpedoes” arrogance, reportedly admitted that their ripping off Chase customers for thousands of dollars as the collectors for payday lending companies was even past the pale for Chase.  He swears that he is going to fix the problem.  I’m not sure which problem he’s going to fix.  The one where Chase is collecting money from their customers in one the states where payday lending is banned or the one where they are allowing their buddies to hit an account with collections multiple times and run up thousands of dollars of overdraft charges to Chase’s own benefit rather than their own.  Let’s hope it’s both, but when it comes to banking and shame, there’s really only so much we can count on.

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