Broadband Cable Association of Pennsylvania


May 21, 2012

Five large cable operators said Monday they will join forces to give customers access to each other's wireless Internet hot spots in the most sweeping Wi-Fi roaming agreement struck by the industry to date. The consortium includes Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable Inc., Cablevision Systems Corp., Bright House Networks LLC and Cox Communications Inc. Consumers will be able to access more than 50,000 Wi-Fi hot spots in the New York area, Los Angeles, Tampa, Orlando and Philadelphia. Most of the operators offer the service only as a perk to current broadband subscribers-but Time Warner Cable has offered a pay-as-you-go option for non-customers as well.

The roaming partnership comes as the cable industry is seeking to differentiate its offerings from rival phone and satellite companies-and when the entire pay-TV industry is trying to keep up with consumers watching greater amounts of video on mobile devices. "Mobility is an increasingly important part of Comcast's product road map, said Dave Watson, chief operating officer of Comcast, in the joint statement released by the cable operators Monday. "Wi-Fi technology, coupled with our agreements with Verizon Wireless, are two significant ways we are executing on our strategy."

A similar roaming agreement was announced in 2010 by Comcast, Cablevision and Time Warner Cable but it has had limited impact. The hot spots appeared on customer's devices under the separate brands of Cablevision's Optimum, Time Warner Cable's Road Runner and Comcast's Xfinity. The service wasn't fully built out in some of the denser areas-like Manhattan-and some customers reported difficulty signing on and getting decent Internet speeds. Cablevision's hot spots have been around since 2008, but only 30% of its broadband customers have used it. Cablevision said that about 250,000 of customers use its Wi-Fi every day.

Since then, some of the cable operators, including Time Warner Cable, have built out Wi-Fi infrastructure in more of their service areas. Cablevision has said it would increase its investment in Wi-Fi this year. And to simplify signing on, the cable operators have created one network name-"CableWiFi"-which all their various subscribers will see instead of the different brands when attempting to sign on. The cable operators said that in coming months, customers will be able to have their devices connect automatically to the network without having to sign on again each time they approach a hot spot. Wall Street Journal

Technology is helping communication companies merge telephone, television and Internet services, but a push to deregulate may leave some customers on the wrong side of the digital divide during this convergence, according to a Penn State telecommunications researcher. "Moving away from copper lines is an example of abandoning obsolete technology and embracing technology that is faster, better, cheaper and more convenient," said Rob Frieden, Pioneers Chair in Cable Television and professor of telecommunications and law. "But the risk is that we may be creating a digital divide - not necessarily a divide between the rich and poor, but between the information rich and information poor."

Telephone companies are lobbying for government regulators to free them of their traditional role as a public utility, citing the convergence and availability of new communication technologies, such as cellular phones and fiber optic cable, that make copper-based telephone land lines obsolete, according to Frieden. However, not all these alternatives are as affordable and as ubiquitous as copper landlines, a problem that could leave many rural residents underserved, he said. The researcher, who presented his critique at the End of the Phone System workshop held at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, today (May 17), said that rural customers could replace land line telephones with cellular phones, for example, but most cell phone companies charge a fee for each minute of use - metering - while most fees for land lines are unmetered and are paid through a fixed monthly charge.

Frieden also doubts that cellular service will be as dependable as landlines. "Cell phone companies have these colorful maps that show how well they cover areas," Frieden said. "But there are lots of places - including places in rural Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York - that do not have cell phone service, or offer limited services not suitable for broadband Internet access."

Fiber optic lines are glass wires that can carry voice, television and Internet signals. For instance, fiber optic equipment is often used for Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) a technology that uses broadband Internet to carry services such as voice, texting and fax. While fiber optic lines are more common now, they usually are not found in rural or remote areas. "The phone companies are right," said Frieden. "There are other forms of competition now, but these alternatives are not fair or adequate everywhere."

As communication technologies merge, telephone companies face stiff competition from cable companies, which are classified as information service providers by the government and face limited regulation. Frieden said that telephone companies, however, are regulated as a utility. As a utility, phone companies - called carriers of last resort - are obligated to provide service to customers. To increase profitability, telephone companies would like to be released from the carrier-of-last-resort designation that binds them to providing high-cost, labor-intensive telephone landline service. Frieden said that the push to end the phone company's status as carriers of last resort may be the first step toward complete deregulation. While telephone company lobbyists suggest that the market forces will ensure that all customers will eventually receive equal service in a deregulated environment, Frieden is skeptical about this promise. "Everyone wants to say, the marketplace is great," Frieden said. "But there's also something called market failure particularly in rural and low-income areas." Gant Media (Clearfield)

It's the moment you've been waiting for. Five minutes to kickoff, but the man cave is vacant. The nachos aren't noshed. The beer stays in the fridge. Instead, you cram into a bar with the other refugees, forced outside into the January day by - a blank TV screen.

Now Verizon cable's winter woes - a January retransmission dispute that blocked a Baltimore Ravens playoff game from local home televisions and a software glitch that darkened screens in March - might face new scrutiny. The 31 midstate municipalities with franchise agreements through the Capital Region Council of Governments are considering a review of Verizon Pennsylvania's compliance with cable delivery and service promises: part due diligence, part policing in light of past wrongs.

Pittsburgh-based Cohen Law Group, which negotiated the 2008 agreements that brought Verizon FiOS to the region, proposed the review in April. The review would examine Verizon's accurate payment of franchise fees to municipalities, compliance with customer service standards and service interruption requirements, progress in building out the cable system throughout Verizon's telephone service areas, service to government and schools, and other matters. Dan Cohen of Cohen Law Group said he normally recommends compliance reviews every four years. One reason is that franchise fees paid to municipalities are based on complicated equations of 20 revenue sources, subject to clerical errors or mistakes in assigning subscribers to the correct municipality, Cohen said.

But this winter's blank screens also "caused consternation for Verizon customers," and the COG has received complaints recently of poor customer service, including technicians missing appointments and long wait times on the phone, according to Cohen Law Group's proposal for the review. "We'd like to look into the real cause of the interruptions and whether the customers should have gotten credits on their bills, and what steps can be taken to try to ensure that it won't happen in the future," Cohen said.

Compliance reviews are written into franchise agreements, and Verizon will comply fully, spokesman Lee Gierczynski said. "Verizon's FiOS TV service continues to receive high marks from customers," Gierczynski said. "The American Customer Satisfaction Index survey that came out earlier this week rated FiOS TV No. 1 in customer satisfaction, value and reliability for three years in a row."

The January issue that kept the Baltimore Ravens out of midstate homes was a common retransmission dispute - similar to a DirecTV tussle that threatened a NASCAR race and other Fox Network programs in March - not subject to regulations regarding service interruptions, Gierczynski said. Customers were not refunded for the lost channels in January, but those who complained about the March interruption - it was not a blanket problem affecting all subscribers - received a $20 to $25 credit, he said.

Cumberland County Commissioner Jim Hertzler, the commissioners' liaison to the COG, said he is in favor of the compliance review. This year, Hertzler said he complained to the Federal Communications Commission that "Verizon FiOS provided inadequate notice to customers and the franchise authorities and did not meet its obligations to carry local broadcast stations." "There's a lot to be desired here with respect to what occurred," Hertzler said. "Hopefully, it won't happen again, but we have no guarantee of that." Calls to a sampling of midstate municipalities found three that have agreed to join the review: Mechanicsburg and Upper Allen and Susquehanna townships. The Hampden Twp. commissioners might vote at a future meeting, said Keith Metts, township manager.

The Lower Paxton Twp. supervisors haven't voted, but seem to have a "general consensus" to participate for due-diligence reasons "if that's the direction chosen by the COG," said George Wolfe, township manager. Cohen Law Group's fees would range from $1,900 to $3,900 per municipality, depending on population. The discounted group rates depend on 25 of the 31 municipalities belonging to the 2008 Verizon franchise agreements joining the review. Cohen imposed a May 31 deadline but said it could be extended if municipalities need more time to consider. Capital Region COG Executive Director Ann Simonetti said she will know after a COG meeting on Monday how many municipalities have signed on so far. The COG oversaw a compliance review of Comcast cable services in 2008, but a repeat review has not been proposed, she said.

Municipalities in the Capital Region Council of Government's 2008 Verizon franchising agreement include: Cumberland County: Camp Hill, Lemoyne, Mechanicsburg, New Cumberland, Shiremanstown and Wormleysburg boroughs; East Pennsboro, Hampden, Lower Allen, North Middleton, Silver Spring, South Middleton and Upper Allen, and townships; Dauphin County: Highspire, Hummelstown, Middletown, Paxtang, Penbrook, Royalton and Steelton boroughs; Derry, Londonderry, Lower Paxton, Lower Swatara, Susquehanna, Swatara, and West Hanover townships; Perry County: Marysville; York County: Dillsburg borough; Carroll and Fairview townships. Harrisburg Patriot-News

The advertising onslaught of the fall presidential election has begun in Pennsylvania and a handful of other states that may be up for grabs between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Republicans and Democrats both insist that their candidate can win Pennsylvania. But the state has delivered for the Democrat in five straight presidential election wins. That makes it theoretically more predictable than ten states that have switched party allegiances during the last three presidential elections. So should Pennsylvania be considered a swing state? Only time will tell. But Christopher Borick, a pollster and professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, says Pennsylvania will continue receiving attention because the races are usually close and Pennsylvania's large number of electoral votes makes it hard to ignore. Associated Press