Broadband Cable Association of Pennsylvania


June 4, 2012

Watered-down soup yields a watered-down taste. The same is true of public safety legislation.

Despite numerous calls last year for Pennsylvania to join ten other states in banning handheld cellphones while driving, the Legislature watered it down and passed a slap-on-the-wrist bill that fines people a mere $50 for texting while driving. Lawmakers, such as the bill's sponsor, Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, R-Bucks County, proclaimed a public safety victory. "I think a lot of the kids, particularly, they don't realize how dangerous texting while driving is, even at 35 or 40 miles per hour," Tomlinson said.

Gov. Tom Corbett echoed those sentiments when he signed the bill, proclaiming, "If it's not important enough to stop your car, then it's certainly not important enough to risk a life." Except it hasn't worked out that way. The problem is police have to catch people in the act to even enforce the fine. As Lower Allen Twp. police officer Gregory Thomas explains, "Unless you're above them and can see what they're doing, it's hard to tell. With everything else going on, it's one of those things that's hard to detect." The law is too difficult to enforce and, worse, it's done little to stop a dangerous situation we all know exists.

At the time lawmakers were considering the texting bill, The Patriot-News Editorial Board joined with countless police and other voices in the state calling for a full ban on all handheld devices. It's so basic we shouldn't even have to say it: Drivers should keep their eyes on the road, not on writing a text message, finding their favorite song in iTunes, looking up a phone number in their digital address book, programming their GPS navigational system or even checking headlines on their mobile device (from this newspaper or any other). And they shouldn't be holding a phone while they are having a conversation.

There are reasons drivers might need to make a phone call. We respect that. But with all the cheap "hands-free" technology available on the market, those who do need to stay in contact on the go can do so without having to lift a finger. Pennsylvania lawmakers punted last year on a chance to make our roads safer. How many more people (and it's not just teenagers) do we have to watch swerving, nearly missing traffic lights and yes, occasionally driving on the wrong side of the road because they are distracted by the device in their hands?

A texting ban only goes so far. In fact, many municipalities in the Harrisburg area haven't even issued one citation since the ban went into effect March 8. It's also unclear whether fiddling with a mapping system or checking a cellphone app would fall under the texting ban because those actions don't involve physical typing. The loopholes in the current law are too big. A complete ban on handheld phones and other electronic devices while driving would be simple and far easier to enforce. When will Pennsylvania lawmakers do what they should have done in the first place? Harrisburg Patriot-News editorial

Put plainly, Judith Hedges says she was bullied and intimidated by AT&T to upgrade from DSL Internet service to U-verse Internet. The Arlington (Texas) woman says she was warned repeatedly by mail that if she didn't call the company and upgrade, her service would be terminated.

AT&T wasn't kidding. She turned on her computer recently, and the Internet connection was dead. AT&T has found a new way to lure customers to its supposedly faster U-verse service: Force them to take it. Company spokeswoman Alejandra Arango says the marketing tactic is part of a plan "to offer a better user experience to our DSL customers. We are moving some who live in high-network-traffic areas to our advanced U-verse network." The benefits to customers, she says, are better speed and "the availability of other U-verse services and integrated features." What that means: more stuff you can buy.

Hedges wanted nothing more than her quite acceptable DSL speed for online work and play. Then the letters started coming from AT&T with dire warnings: "This is a final reminder that within the next 15 days, your current service will change to AT&T U-verse High Speed Internet Service." "Contact us now to ensure a smooth transition." "Note: if you have phone service that depends upon your high speed Internet line ... this means that you'll experience an interruption of your voice service -- including 911 emergency services."

AT&T urged Hedges to call the company and listen to "exclusive offers" and learn how she could "bundle your Internet, TV and phone for one low price." She didn't want any of that, so she didn't call. After getting that dead screen, she did call and was told that she had to take the upgrade. When I ran this scenario past Notre Dame Law School professor Joseph Bauer, an antitrust expert who opposed AT&T's failed merger with T-Mobile, his response was, "That's the kind of thing I would expect out of a small firm, not from someone like AT&T. It's pretty remarkable if they are indeed doing that. That's far over the line."

What's AT&T's reply to critics who say that it's behaving in a heavy-handed way? "This is an effort to improve our customers' experience and offer the latest and greatest technology that we have developed to service their needs," Arango told me. As with most things related to AT&T, when you ask a question of two different people, you will get two different answers. (This is known as Watchdog Nation Corollary No. 1.) That's what happened here.

Is the upgrade mandatory? The AT&T spokeswoman says the only DSL customers who don't have to switch are those in areas where U-verse isn't available. But I also wrote to AT&T's social media manager, "Mike," from the AT&T website, just as any customer can. Mike didn't write back, but "Kenneth" did. "Most times you still have a choice in keeping your traditional DSL rather than switching to U-verse. I hope that's helpful," Kenneth wrote. Yes, very helpful. Two different answers.

That leads The Watchdog to suggest this: If AT&T tries to force an upgrade on you, scream bloody murder. Tell them "Kenneth" says you don't have to. Even better, threaten to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (more on that later). Another concern: Is the upgrade free? The AT&T spokeswoman told me that "the large majority of existing customers we're reaching out to can upgrade to the same-speed package on U-verse without an increase to their broadband bill."

AT&T's warning letter to Hedges uses the word free as a come-on, too, when it states, "In order for your new service to work you'll need new equipment which will be provided to you free of charge." Believing she had little choice, Hedges agreed to the upgrade "in protest," she says. Nobody told her about other charges. AT&T salespeople usually forget to mention add-on charges, and customers often forget to ask questions that would inform them. (This is known as Watchdog Nation Corollary No. 2.) When Hedges' first bill arrived, she saw charges she didn't expect. About $300 worth. Besides the $29.95 monthly charge that she knew about, she had a $100 charge for "Internet Gateway" and a $149 charge for installation. The equipment was free, but add in prorated charges, taxes, surcharges and fees, and the total hits $337. "Now this is getting scary," Hedges says.

AT&T explains that DSL customers who live in areas where U-verse is available will switch to new rates, terms and conditions (including bundle discounts). Meanwhile, DSL customers on term plans who'd face a price increase but who don't want to upgrade will be allowed to cancel without paying early termination fees. An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment about AT&T's action. She asked me to inform Hedges that she can file a complaint with the commission. "Apparently, this is the world we live in," Hedges says. "And AT&T reigns supreme." Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Major TV networks have begun striking ad-sales deals for the fall season, winning higher prices over last year, despite resistance from one big advertiser, General Motors Co. GM is asking broadcast networks to reduce their ad rates by as much as 20% and is willing to move some of its dollars to the networks that will agree, according to people familiar with the matter. It isn't known whether GM, the third-biggest TV advertiser by spending behind Procter & Gamble Co. and AT&T Inc., has struck any deals.

In the meantime, the broadcast networks are winning price increases in the so-called upfront, when networks sell as much as 80% of their prime-time ad time for the coming fall season. Prices are set based on what an advertiser paid during last year's upfront. CBS Corp.'s CBS, which ended the just-concluded 2011-12 season as the most-watched network among all viewers, appears to be the only broadcaster getting double-digit-percentage increases in the rates based on every 1,000 viewers, media buyers said. CBS, however, has also struck some deals in the high-single-digit range, according to media buyers. Both Comcast Corp.'s NBC and Walt Disney Co.'s ABC are getting mid-single-digit increases, buyers said.

The three networks began completing some ad deals last week. The first network to wrap up its upfront negotiations, though, is expected to be Fox Broadcasting, which could finish as early as this week, according to people familiar with the matter. Fox, which ended the season on top among the 18-to-49 viewer-age demographic of most interest to advertisers, has secured ad rates for next season that are roughly 7% to 8% higher and could get as high as 9% increases in the final days of negotiating, according to media buyers. Fox is a unit of News Corp., which also owns The Wall Street Journal. Viacom Inc., parent of cable channels MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central, has also been "very active" in the marketplace, ad buyers said. Barclays Capital predicts that the four most-watched broadcast-TV networks will take in roughly $9.49 billion in upfront ad commitments, a 4.3% increase from last year, while cable networks could draw $9.88 billion, a 6.3% rise from last year's take.

The revenue growth comes even though the television business is grappling with declining viewership; deeper penetration of digital video recorders that allow viewers to zap commercials; and a growing threat from online video companies that are getting more aggressive at trying to woo TV dollars online. Price increases are being driven by a continuing view among advertisers that the splintering of the media landscape makes TV networks, with their relatively broad reach, ever more valuable, said buyers and marketers.

To be sure, the market isn't as robust as last year, when many advertisers agreed to double-digit price increases across many cable and broadcast networks. This year the market has been somewhat hampered by soft ad demand from makers of consumer packaged goods and pharmaceuticals, according to ad buyers and Wall Street analysts. Among those helping drive demand are movie studios, technology companies and auto makers-other than GM. GM's push for lower rates comes as the car maker has been remaking its global ad operations in an effort to save $2 billion over the next five years. With that in mind, in recent weeks GM has decided to bypass advertising in next year's Super Bowl and to stop buying ads on Facebook.

GM shelled out $1.1 billion last year on U.S. television ads, according to Kantar Media, an ad-tracking firm owned by WPP PLC. GM's move for lower rates was first reported by The economic headwinds could also limit the overall upfront take. "Macro uncertainty and European contagion risks remain, which could modestly limit upside," said Anthony DiClemente, an analyst at Barclays Capital, in a note to investors. Wall Street Journal

The new Apple TV will, in five years, change how people watch TV, according to an analyst with a sterling track record of predicting innovations at the tech giant.

In the most detailed report yet on what the hotly anticipated TV set from Apple will look like and how it will operate, Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray predicted the device will: Be unveiled later this year and go on sale in early 2013; Cost between $1,500 and $2,000; Include "many existing Apple styling cues including aluminum casing and reduction of wires."; Include voice-controlled Siri and connect to the Apple App Store for games and music; Permit viewers to buy channels separately instead of bundled as is the case now with cable, and store recorded shows in a data "cloud," not on the set itself.

"The bottom line is that we believe in five years Apple will have a significant hand in changing how people consume content on their TV," the report says. The innovations will, he predicts, mean the end of watching your favorite shows according to a network schedule or pay for channels you don't use. At the time of his death last year, founder Steve Jobs was reportedly working on an Apple TV set that promised to have the same effect on television that the iPod had on music. Tim Cook, who succeeded Jobs as CEO, last week teased the attendees at a digital conference about the set, saying: "Never have I seen the things I can't talk about today." New York Post