Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson slammed Comcast Corp. on Friday, alleging in a lawsuit that the cable TV and internet giant overcharged customers for cable packages, charged consumers for unordered services and didn’t deliver the prepaid Visa cards promised in its promotions.
Comcast, also known by the brand name Xfinity, added home security, service protection plans, modem and other equipment charges to customers’ bills without authorization, Swanson told reporters.
To lure some customers, Swanson’s office said Comcast promised prepaid Visa cards of $200 or more if they remained in the minimum-term contract and up-to-date on monthly payments for 90 days, but did not deliver.
“It’s hard to shop for cable television if a company plays hide-the-ball on its true prices, and people shouldn’t have to watch their bills for things they didn’t buy,” Swanson said in a statement.
The lawsuit filed in Hennepin County seeks unspecified restitution and civil penalties.
Comcast responded saying it fully discloses all charges and fees and that the facts don’t support Swanson’s allegations.
“We’re committed to our customers in Minnesota, and it’s important to us to make sure customers completely understand the products and services they order,” said company spokesperson Jill Hornbacher.
The Federal Communications Commission is intervening in a court case in order to help Charter Communications avoid utility-style consumer protections related to its phone service in Minnesota. The FCC and Charter both want to avoid a precedent that could lead other states to impose stricter consumer protection rules on VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone service offered by cable companies.
The FCC has never definitively settled the regulatory status of VoIP. By contrast, traditional landline phone service and mobile phone service are both classified as “telecommunications services” by the FCC, a distinction that places them under the same Title II common carrier regulatory framework that applies to broadband Internet access. But the FCC has never decided whether VoIP services offered by cable companies are telecommunications or “information services,” which aren’t as heavily regulated.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) hoped to fill this regulatory void by trying to re-impose utility rules on Charter’s Spectrum phone service. (Charter used to be subject to Minnesota’s utility rules but evaded them starting in 2013 by transferring its phone customers to a different subsidiary.) Minnesota wants Charter to collect fees from customers in order to contribute to state programs that help poor people and the hearing-impaired access telephone service. Customers should also be able to appeal to the MPUC in the event of disputes with Charter, the state regulatory body says.
The article is good, detailed, worth reading in full. I’ll just borrow from their presentaiton of both sides…
Rule of law rendered obsolete?
Minnesota argues that VoIP phone service shouldn’t come with fewer consumer protections simply because it is provided over a different kind of network than traditional circuit-switched landline phones.
“This case presents an important question of nationwide significance: whether the rule of law may be rendered obsolete by technological innovation,” the state utility commission said.
The district court’s finding that Charter’s VoIP service is not telecommunications “strips the MPUC of its authority to regulate VoIP telephone service, [and] is contrary to binding decisions of this Court, FCC precedent, and the longstanding system of cooperative federalism established under the Telecommunications Act,” the state commission said.
The PUC also urged the appeals court to declare that Charter’s phone service is telecommunications “under the plain language of the Telecommunications Act.” The federal statute defines telecommunications as “the transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user’s choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received.”
Charter argues that the case hinges on just one question: whether Charter’s VoIP phone service is an information service under the federal communications statute.
Charter phone service “offers the ability to convert the protocol of calls when Charter’s network interconnects with other carriers,” thus fitting the statutory definition of information services as those that offer the “capability for… transforming [or] processing… information via telecommunications,” Charter wrote.
Minnesota is the only state in Charter’s footprint that “seeks to extend its regulatory reach to encompass advanced services,” the company wrote.
“Its approach not only ignores text and precedent, but would allow every state to impose idiosyncratic rules, creating a nationwide patchwork of requirements that would frustrate the FCC’s longstanding policy of insulating advanced services from such a regulatory morass,” Charter wrote.
Charter got support from other telecom companies that want to avoid stricter regulation of VoIP phone services. The brief filed by AT&T, Verizon, and USTelecom argues that VoIP is an information service because it converts voice signals from one format to another in order to carry phone calls to and from traditional landlines. AT&T and Verizon both offer utility landline phone services but are shifting toward VoIP services and want to shed the utility regulations that have long applied to phone networks.
Cable industry lobby group NCTA-The Internet & Television Association similarly filed a brief supporting Charter. “Preventing the imposition of utility regulation on VoIP will promote continued competition and benefit consumers,” NCTA wrote.
It’s hard when to consumers a phone is a phone is a phone. Internet access is internet access is internet access. But each supplier of phone/internet is treated so differently in terms of policy. That’s not a level playing field for the industry. What is also difficult is that consumers need protection. Increasingly residents need phone/internet access to live as active members of society. Yet not everyone can afford access – sometimes that a low-income issue and sometimes that’s a higher than normal prices issue. Universal service funds (in one shape or another) help get everyone online. Do we want everyone online or not? Because life without a phone/internet access is not a level playing field either. I guess the question is – which field do we want to level?
Yesterday industry folks had an opportunity to provide updates to the House Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee. Speakers included representative from Minnesota Cable Communications Association, Minnesota Telecom Alliance and AT&T Wireless. The presentations were similar to those given (by the same folks) to the Senate last week. The speakers were kind enough to share those with me last week – you can see them here. All three groups mentioned a desire to get fiber closer to the home/premise.
I tried something new for this meeting – I used Facebook Live to livestream the event. Here’s the archive:
I also took notes, which I’ll include below. It seems like there were more questions yesterday. Several Representatives were concerned about changing regulation for phone calls (landline versus VoIP) at the expense of consumer protection. One of the big concerns seems to be that VoIP requires power – so when the power goes out, the VoIP phone doesn’t work. (They have some power generators, but it’s a risk.) The push back is that VoIP is much more cost effective for the provider, especially since many customers are “cutting the cord” and going with cell phone options.
With wireless, there were questions about timeline for 5G and distance limitations. The standards for 5G have not been set yet. But AT&T wants to hit the ground running so they are currently working on small cell deployment. (Small cells make 5G work – they also improve 4G access.) Increased small cell deployment should help with distance issues – because there are distance limitations on 5G, which does make it a better solution for urban markets. Representation Hoppe remarked that they can’t legislate faster than technology can change.
While this committee doesn’t deal with the Broadband Funds, the State broadband grants did come up. One Representative had a customer in CenturyLink territory who was frustrated with his service. Apparently he has 1.5 Mbps (so I’m guessing DSL) and he runs a business. He wondered why/how a community upgrade could be so tied to a provider’s decision to upgrade or not. Panelists remarked that the grant had been a good opportunity for partnerships between provider, community and the State. But clearly that 3-legged stool only stands when all three legs are working together. Continue reading
The FCC recently released the Industry Analysis and Technology Division Wireline Competition Bureau. It’s the culmination of FCC Form 477 filled out by providers.
I think there’s an interesting look at speeds by technology and location (metro vs rural) of technology. First location – the following graph tracks ratio of subscribership by household density, or who serves urban areas and who serves rural areas. The answer is DSL is a big player in rural areas; cable is the biggest player in towns and cities. Fixed wireless and satellite are players in rural areas and almost non-existent in urban areas. This graph does not track speed – just technology.
Now it’s helpful to look at what speeds. When we look at access by speeds or 10/1 we see representation of all technologies.
When we look at speeds of 25/3, DSL is no longer represented.
Here’s another way to look at it:
DSL has a larger share of slower connections. DSL has a larger share of rural connections. The Minnesota legislature has defined speed goals or 25/3 by 2022 and 100/20 by 2026. They have dedicated funds to making it happen through the border to border grants. So there’s a recognized need for support, but the question is how to increase speeds in rural areas.
Do tools used in urban areas help rural connectivity? Do policy makers understand that there’s a significant difference in the two markets based on population density, distance to customers, limitations of transport technology and regulations and expectations of technologies based urban scenarios.
Right now Minnesota connectivity rates are well below the legislative goals (and the report only indicates download speeds):
- 200 kbps – 99.5 percent connect
- 3 Mbps – 93.0 percent connect
- 10 Mbps – 75.2 percent connect
- 25 Mbps – 54.2 percent connect
- 100 Mbps – 13.4 percent connect
Good news for many communities! Looks like most Mediacom communities in Minnesota will soon have access to 60+ Mbps – the towns of Cook and Grand Marais are stand-alone networks and are not connected to national/upgrading internet network…
Entire Mediacom Communications Broadband Network to be Gigabit-Ready by Year End
First Major U.S. Cable Company to Fully Deploy DOCSIS 3.1 Gigasphere Technology
Mediacom Park, NY – December 7, 2016 – Mediacom Communications today announced the company’s entire broadband network will be gigabit-capable by the end of 2016. Mediacom will become the first major U.S. cable company to fully transition to the DOCSIS 3.1 “Gigasphere” platform, the latest generation of broadband technology. As a result, virtually all of the 3 million homes and businesses that Mediacom serves across its 22 state footprint will be able to enjoy speeds that are up to 40 times faster than the minimum broadband definition set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
“Mediacom was founded on the principle that hard-working families in the smaller cities and towns in our nation’s heartland deserved the same advanced communications services enjoyed in the largest metropolitan areas” said Mediacom’s founder and CEO, Rocco B. Commisso. “Through our $8 billion of cumulative investments over the past 20 years in pursuit of that goal, we have enabled the communities where we operate to successfully bridge the digital divide.”
According to Mr. Commisso, “After the Gigasphere modems became available earlier this year, we accelerated the first phase of our previously announced 3-year, $1 billion capital investment plan so that Mediacom’s customers could begin taking advantage of superfast speeds as soon as possible. This will ensure that the predominantly working-class neighborhoods we serve throughout Middle America are not technologically disadvantaged in today’s global marketplace.”
He added that “I am especially proud that the substantial investments in our rural markets were made despite the heavy-handed and unfair regulatory burdens recently imposed on our company by the FCC and without depending on government subsidies. In contrast to many others who have been willing to deploy broadband in rural areas only if incentivized with loans and grants from federal and state programs, Mediacom has relied totally on private capital. Moreover, unlike some other competitors who offer 1-Gig speeds only in select neighborhoods in their service areas, our 1-Gig service will be accessible to absolutely everyone within the reach of our network, regardless of the size, income-level or other demographics of their community.”
JR Walden, Mediacom’s Chief Technology Officer, remarked that “It has taken a lot of hard work, but less than 10 months from announcing ‘Project Gigabit,’ we will have completed the upgrade of our entire broadband network to the Gigasphere platform. Deployment of this next-gen technology will considerably enhance the consumer experience today and lay the groundwork for multi-Gig capabilities in the future. With our rapid and seamless transition to this new platform, we have set our communities on an accelerated path into the gigabit era.”44
Mediacom’s network enhancements will provide a significant boost to the company’s internet speeds. The company’s new minimum entry level speed for residential customers will increase to 60 Mbps while flagship offerings of 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps will also be available. Moreover, Mediacom will begin rolling out ultra-fast 500 Mbps and 1-Gig (1000 Mbps) products on a market by market basis in the coming weeks.
Mediacom noted that the Gigasphere technology will primarily enhance speeds to its residential and small business customers. Mr. Walden said that “Mediacom Business has already been offering local businesses in our markets our Gigabit+ Fiber SolutionsTM for many years, with scalable services of up to 10-Gig speeds.”
About DOCSIS 3.1 Gigasphere Technology
The cable network is composed of a hybrid of optical fiber and coaxial cable elements, and the specification that enables use of the network for broadband is known as Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification, or DOCSIS®. Gigasphere is the brand name for products and services that use a technical specification called DOCSIS 3.1, the next generation of DOCSIS services developed and advanced by CableLabs, the U.S. cable industry’s research and development consortium, and its members. DOCSIS 3.1 provides a near-term path toward continued improvement of cable broadband performance, with network capacity of up to 10 gigabits per second in the downstream and up to 2 gigabits per second in the upstream. Equipment vendors are now supplying the necessary components. In January 2016, CableLabs certified the first DOCSIS 3.1 cable modems.
About Mediacom Communications
Mediacom Communications Corporation is the 5th largest cable operator in the U.S. serving over 1.3 million customers in smaller markets primarily in the Midwest and Southeast. Mediacom offers a wide array of information, communications and entertainment services to households and businesses, including video, high-speed data, phone, and home security and automation. Through Mediacom Business, the company provides innovative broadband solutions to commercial and public sector customers of all sizes, and sells advertising and production services under the OnMedia brand. More information about Mediacom is available at www.mediacomcable.com.
Last week I had the pleasure of attending the MACTA (Minnesota Association of Community Telecommunications Administrators) annual conference. These are the folks who work for local government on telecom, cable and broadband issues – which both an interest supporting broadband but also protecting public right-of-way. It was an interesting look at a group of folks who wear a lot of hats.
I’m going to start off topic to mention the format of their first session – 60 ideas in 60 seconds. They had four presenters – one very technical, one on regulations, one on producing TV show and one on social media. It’ was something for everyone. Very fast paced. Should be the start of every conference!
Back to the broadband-related sessions. There was a state and federal update:
State and Federal Legislative Updates (policy/legal track)
What happened during the State’s 2016 legislative session AND what is happening at the federal level that may affect cable, broadband and telecom policy? How will the election year affect legislative activities? Key legislators and policy experts will address these items … and more.
Moderator: ◦Mike Reardon | Cable Communications Officer, City of St. Paul
Speakers: ◦Margaret Anderson Kelliher | CEO, MN High Tech Association & Chair, Governor’s Broadband Task Force
◦Rep. Sheldon Johnson | State Representative, 67B (St. Paul)
◦Bree Maki | Southern Minnesota Field Representative & Broadband and Telecommunications Representative, U.S. Senator Al Franken’s office
◦Jodie Miller | Executive Director, NDC4 & 2016 NATOA President
◦Sen. Matt Schmit | State Senator, District 21 (Red Wing)
Notes from Jodie Miller’s Talk
People in other states are jealous of Minnesota. We a have good foundation: the Task Force, very early roundtables that got everyone’s view to find common ground. We have three years in a row of board to border grant legislative. In other states there are drives to stop such efforts. In Colorado, they have a super majority rule to hinder city-led broadband efforts. There were dozens of cities that have voted away from that – but they are steps behind Minnesota.
What do we want in the future?
We have 201 legislative seats open this year. That will mean more education with policymakers again.
Fiber is the foundation. Wireless is the blanket on top. And rights of way is the third leg of the stool. Fiber and a wireless is never an either/or proposition.
Knowing that there are federal efforts does not make it OK to not have a state focus too.
Local franchising – can that come up in Minnesota again? We have a second entrant in the market (CenturyLink). Google has said that removing the barrier of local franchising would make it easier to enter the market.
We need to consider budget with rights of way. It’s an asset that some folks don’t consider.
The astro-turf bill reared its head. They wanted to create a study to hear more about
Notes from discussion:
VOiP – did not get through. Big question is – Is it a telecom service or an info service? Consumer protection folks are opposed to calling it an info service, which would make it easier to deregulate.
“MN is at high risk of expensive an intrusive cyber threat”
MAK – Broadband became an issue, which elevated the telecom issues as well. 3 years ago we recommended $200 million. We were pleased to see $100 million from Governor and $85 million from Senate.
“The two items that really survived the supplemental budget are equity agenda and broadband.” That’s a win.”
Sen Schmit – “I want us to be looking at $100 million for broadband next year. We set the speed goals this year”
MAK – The $500,000 for low income household is a door open to digital efforts in the state. Looking into public housing initiatives is one way to do it. Also we need to look into where people in poverty leave. We need to remember that poverty has an impact in urban and rural areas. We need to look at racial and location inequities.
A big question is – what is affordable? We need to give guidance with affordability.
We know if you subsidize broadband for 18 months, they will find a way to keep it.
We are also looking into cyber security. And workforce issues around cyber security.
VOiP proposal probably will come back next year.
Task Force supports modernization and VOiP bills. We do want to see continued consumer protection.
QUESTION – Do you see anything in Minnesota saying we want to get rid of local franchising?
CenturyLink has mentioned it. (CenturyLink says it’s working asis.)
Google has mentioned it.
But it’s not been a strong issue.
Maybe we need to look at the approach – are there opportunities for efficiencies. Simply – is there a better way of doing this?
Local franchising authorities worry that incompetents have taken the stand a that they have. We would like to work with other providers – but the incumbents are watching every more.
Observation on Cyber Security
We need a safe method to be able to bring concerns safely to the State.
WIRELESS – there was a bill introduced (small cell bill from Verizon – they established a task force, but it was included with the VOiP bill so it did not move forward.)
We need to look at all approaches that make sense. But it’s not always an even/or. We need to understand each other’s concerns. We need impact from local communities.
We need to educate policymakers about the different before wireless and fiber.
Luncheon Keynote: Updates from NATOA – Jodie Miller | Executive Director, NDC4 & 2016 NATOA President
Cable Franchising: Hot Topics (policy/legal track)
Based on a recent query of MACTA members, cable franchise renewals and competitive franchising remain hot topics for many Minnesota cities and franchise administrators, as does tracking consumer protection complaints and consumer protection issues. This session will cover these items and any other hot topics that are current at the time of the conference.
Speaker: ◦Robert J. V. Vose | Shareholder, Kennedy & Graven, Chartered
(The video is disjointed due to technical difficulties and some musical chairs. But pretty frank talk.)
Comcast is the current cable franchise holder in Eagan – CenturyLink is looking to have a franchise as well. This presentation to the Eagan City Council is from an attorney on the topic. The presentation is really a look at why the Council should consider a second franchise and under what context.
You can watch the video. Or see the PPT presentation. The attorney really sets out what needs to happen to smooth the path to providing a franchise agreement to CenturyLink – looking at potential local and federal policy issues.
It sounds like July 21 would be the time that CenturyLink would actually present their application. It will be interesting to watch the process – in part because some of the agreements made with Comcast are not recent and the policies surrounding the issues are not necessarily recent. Although it sounds like Eagan does have fairly updated information on what residents want from a cable franchiser holder.