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DirecTV kept charging regional sports fee while channel was blacked out

https://arstechnica.com/?p=1596243

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Star Wars-themed illustration of the AT&T and DirecTV logos.

DirecTV and Comcast are being investigated by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, who objects to the TV providers continuing to charge regional sports network (RSN) fees despite not providing one of the major regional sports networks. While Comcast is giving customers partial bill credits, DirecTV apparently hasn’t done so.

Weiser sent letters to the AT&T-owned DirecTV and Comcast on October 23, asking why the companies kept charging RSN fees after they stopped providing the Altitude Sports network. The network broadcasts games played by the state’s major professional basketball, hockey, and soccer teams (the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and Colorado Rapids, respectively). The AG’s letters said that Comcast’s and DirecTV’s conduct “may constitute a deceptive trade practice under the Colorado Consumer Protection Act” and “may result in the imposition of civil penalties up to $20,000 per violation.” The letters also said the AG is investigating other potentially misleading fees.

Altitude was blacked out on both DirecTV and Comcast two months ago because the TV providers didn’t want to pay Altitude as much as it asked for. Altitude finally reached a deal with DirecTV a few days ago but is still negotiating with Comcast. Altitude is also blacked out on Dish satellite TV, but Dish doesn’t charge a regional sports network fee.

Comcast giving partial bill credits

Comcast responded to the AG’s office with a letter on October 31, saying that it had already begun giving partial credits to customers. Comcast’s RSN fee in Colorado is $8 a month, while DirecTV charges $8.50, according to the AG’s letters.

Comcast wrote in its letter to the AG:

Comcast has been proactive and has shared both publicly and in direct communications with its customers that we are providing a partial credit of the RSN fee, due to Comcast not currently carrying Altitude as part of our cable packages in Colorado. Comcast continues to provide other regional sports programming which accounts for the remaining RSN fee charged to customers.

The other regional sports programming offered by Comcast includes the AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain channel, which broadcasts Colorado Rockies baseball games, and the Pac-12 network that broadcasts college sports.

We asked Comcast how big of a credit it is giving to customers, but the company declined to provide a specific number. Comcast told us that “the amount of the partial credit varies based on what RSNs are available in the customers’ area.”

AT&T actions “very concerning”

Weiser’s office gave both companies until November 7 to respond. Comcast said it will provide an additional, more detailed response to the AG by then. AT&T’s DirecTV division hasn’t responded to Weiser’s office yet, Weiser’s office told Ars today. We contacted AT&T today and will update this article if we get a response.

The actions of DirecTV, which apparently hasn’t offered credits to customers, have been “very concerning,” Weiser told The Denver Post.

“Based on early conversations with DirecTV and AT&T, we didn’t believe they were taking the request with the seriousness that they should,” a spokesperson for Weiser also told the Post.

AT&T would have less of an excuse than Comcast to keep charging an RSN fee while Altitude was blacked out, because AT&T itself owns the other major RSN for professional sports in Colorado. TV providers claim they need to charge customers RSN fees to cover the high carriage prices charged by regional sports networks. But when the TV provider owns the network, as AT&T does with AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain, those carriage payments are simply going from one part of the company to another.

Comcast also owns regional sports networks, but none in Colorado.

While Weiser’s inquiry to Comcast and DirecTV focused mainly on charging the RSN fee during the Altitude blackout, the AG is also conducting a broader investigation into fees charged by TV and broadband providers. The letters to Comcast and DirecTV said:

In addition to investigating the assessment of a Regional Sports Fee, the OAG [Office of the Attorney General] has opened an investigation of other fees and charges that providers impose on subscribers of television and Internet services that have the potential to confuse and mislead consumers. The imposition of such fees and charges may violate [state law on deceptive trade practices].

Years of controversy

The RSN fees have long been controversial. Comcast, DirecTV, and other providers don’t include RSN fees in their advertised prices, so they contribute to the bill shock customers experience when they find out they’re going to pay more than the companies claimed they would. TV providers also routinely raise RSN fees even while customers are under contract.

Comcast’s regional sports fee was only $1 in 2015 but has increased eight-fold since then. Comcast told Ars that it “itemizes the RSN fee to be transparent with our customers about the factors driving pricing.” TV providers have used the same approach with “broadcast TV” fees, which they say cover the cost of retransmission consent fees paid to broadcast networks.

Colorado is not the first state to investigate RSN fees. Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson sued Comcast in December 2018, alleging among other things that Comcast reps falsely told customers that the company’s RSN and broadcast TV fees were mandated by the government and not controlled by Comcast itself. Comcast was also sued by customers over the sports and broadcast TV fees in 2016, but the case was settled in 2018.

Separately, Cord Cutters News reported last week that Comcast has been removing other channels from TV packages but not lowering its prices.

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These ten enterprise M&A deals totaled over $40B in 2019

It would be hard to top the 2018 enterprise M&A total of a whopping $87 billion, and predictably this year didn’t come close. In fact, the top 10 enterprise M&A deals in 2019 were less than half last year’s, totaling $40.6 billion. This year’s biggest purchase was Salesforce buying Tableau for $15.7 billion, which would…

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These ten enterprise M&A deals totaled over $40B in 2019

It would be hard to top the 2018 enterprise M&A total of a whopping $87 billion, and predictably this year didn’t come close. In fact, the top 10 enterprise M&A deals in 2019 were less than half last year’s, totaling $40.6 billion.

This year’s biggest purchase was Salesforce buying Tableau for $15.7 billion, which would have been good for third place last year behind IBM’s mega deal plucking Red Hat for $34 billion and Broadcom grabbing CA Technologies for $18.8 billion.

Contributing to this year’s quieter activity was the fact that several typically acquisitive companies — Adobe, Oracle and IBM — stayed mostly on the sidelines after big investments last year. It’s not unusual for companies to take a go-slow approach after a big expenditure year. Adobe and Oracle bought just two companies each with neither revealing the prices. IBM didn’t buy any.

Microsoft didn’t show up on this year’s list either, but still managed to pick up eight new companies. It was just that none was large enough to make the list (or even for them to publicly reveal the prices). When a publicly traded company doesn’t reveal the price, it usually means that it didn’t reach the threshold of being material to the company’s results.

As always, just because you buy it doesn’t mean it’s always going to integrate smoothly or well, and we won’t know about the success or failure of these transactions for some years to come. For now, we can only look at the deals themselves.

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Jumia, DHL, and Alibaba will face off in African ecommerce 2.0

The business of selling consumer goods and services online is a relatively young endeavor across Africa, but ecommerce is set to boom. Over the last eight years, the sector has seen its first phase of big VC fundings, startup duels and attrition. To date, scaling e-commerce in Africa has straddled the line of challenge and…

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Jumia, DHL, and Alibaba will face off in African ecommerce 2.0

The business of selling consumer goods and services online is a relatively young endeavor across Africa, but ecommerce is set to boom.

Over the last eight years, the sector has seen its first phase of big VC fundings, startup duels and attrition.

To date, scaling e-commerce in Africa has straddled the line of challenge and opportunity, perhaps more than any other market in the world. Across major African economies, many of the requisites for online retail — internet access, digital payment adoption, and 3PL delivery options — have been severely lacking.

Still, startups jumped into this market for the chance to digitize a share of Africa’s fast growing consumer spending, expected to top $2 billion by 2025.

African e-commerce 2.0 will include some old and new players, play out across more countries, place more priority on internet services, and see the entry of China.

But before highlighting several things to look out for in the future of digital-retail on the continent, a look back is beneficial.

Jumia vs. Konga

The early years for development of African online shopping largely played out in Nigeria (and to some extent South Africa). Anyone who visited Nigeria from 2012 to 2016 likely saw evidence of one of the continent’s early e-commerce showdowns. Nigeria had its own Coke vs. Pepsi-like duel — a race between ventures Konga and Jumia to out-advertise and out-discount each other in a quest to scale online shopping in Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.

Traveling in Lagos traffic, large billboards for each startup faced off across the skyline, as their delivery motorcycles buzzed between stopped cars.

Covering each company early on, it appeared a battle of VC attrition. The challenge: who could continue to raise enough capital to absorb the losses of simultaneously capturing and creating an e-commerce market in notoriously difficult conditions.

In addition to the aforementioned challenges, Nigeria also had (and continues to have) shoddy electricity.

Both Konga — founded by Nigerian Sim Shagaya — and Jumia — originally founded by two Nigerians and two Frenchman — were forced to burn capital building fulfillment operations most e-commerce startups source to third parties.

That included their own delivery and payment services (KongaPay and JumiaPay). In addition to sales of goods from mobile-phones to diapers, both startups also began experimenting with verticals for internet based services, such as food-delivery and classifieds.

While Jumia and Konga were competing in Nigeria, there was another VC driven race for e-commerce playing out in South Africa — the continent’s second largest and most advanced economy.

E-tailers Takealot and Kalahari had been jockeying for market share since 2011 after raising capital in the hundreds of millions of dollars from investors Naspers and U.S. fund Tiger Global Management.

So how did things turn out in West and Southern Africa? In 2014, the lead investor of a flailing Kalahari — Naspers — facilitated a merger with Takealot (that was more of an acquisition). They nixed the Kalahari brand in 2016 and bought out Takelot’s largest investor, Tiger Global, in 2018. Takealot is now South Africa’s leading e-commerce site by market share, but only operates in one country.

In Nigeria, by 2016 Jumia had outpaced its rival Konga in Alexa ratings (6 vs 14), while out-raising Konga (with backing of Goldman Sachs) to become Africa’s first VC backed, startup unicorn. By early 2018, Konga was purchased in a distressed acquisition and faded away as a competitor to Jumia.

Jumia went on to expand online goods and services verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few) and in April 2019 raised over $200 million in an NYSE IPO — the first on a major exchange for a VC-backed startup operating in Africa.

Jumia’s had bumpy road since going public — losing significant share-value after a short-sell attack earlier in 2019 — but the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and generates $100 million in revenues (even with losses).

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Airbnb’s New Year’s Eve guest volume shows its falling growth rate

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between. It’s finally 2020, the year that should bring us a direct listing from home-sharing giant Airbnb, a technology company valued at tens of billions of dollars. The company’s flotation will be a key event in…

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Airbnb’s New Year’s Eve guest volume shows its falling growth rate

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

It’s finally 2020, the year that should bring us a direct listing from home-sharing giant Airbnb, a technology company valued at tens of billions of dollars. The company’s flotation will be a key event in this coming year’s technology exit market. Expect the NYSE and Nasdaq to compete for the listing, bankers to queue to take part, and endless media coverage.

Given that that’s ahead, we’re going to take periodic looks at Airbnb as we tick closer to its eventual public market debut. And that means that this morning we’re looking back through time to see how fast the company has grown by using a quirky data point.

Airbnb releases a regular tally of its expected “guest stays” for New Year’s Eve each year, including 2019. We can therefore look back in time, tracking how quickly (or not) Airbnb’s New Year Eve guest tally has risen. This exercise will provide a loose, but fun proxy for the company’s growth as a whole.

The numbers

Before we look into the figures themselves, keep in mind that we are looking at a guest figure which is at best a proxy for revenue. We don’t know the revenue mix of the guest stays, for example, meaning that Airbnb could have seen a 10% drop in per-guest revenue this New Year’s Eve — even with more guest stays — and we’d have no idea.

So, the cliche about grains of salt and taking, please.

But as more guests tends to mean more rentals which points towards more revenue, the New Year’s Eve figures are useful as we work to understand how quickly Airbnb is growing now compared to how fast it grew in the past. The faster the company is expanding today, the more it’s worth. And given recent news that the company has ditched profitability in favor of boosting its sales and marketing spend (leading to sharp, regular deficits in its quarterly results), how fast Airbnb can grow through higher spend is a key question for the highly-backed, San Francisco-based private company.

Here’s the tally of guest stays in Airbnb’s during New Years Eve (data via CNBC, Jon Erlichman, Airbnb), and their resulting year-over-year growth rates:

  • 2009: 1,400
  • 2010: 6,000 (+329%)
  • 2011: 3,1000 (+417%)
  • 2012: 108,000 (248%)
  • 2013: 250,000 (+131%)
  • 2014: 540,000 (+116%)
  • 2015: 1,100,000 (+104%)
  • 2016: 2,000,000 (+82%)
  • 2017: 3,000,000 (+50%)
  • 2018: 3,700,000 (+23%)
  • 2019: 4,500,000 (+22%)

In chart form, that looks like this:

Let’s talk about a few things that stand out. First is that the company’s growth rate managed to stay over 100% for as long as it did. In case you’re a SaaS fan, what Airbnb pulled off in its early years (again, using this fun proxy for revenue growth) was far better than a triple-triple-double-double-double.

Next, the company’s growth rate in percentage terms has slowed dramatically, including in 2019. At the same time the firm managed to re-accelerate its gross guest growth in 2019. In numerical terms, Airbnb added 1,000,000 New Year’s Eve guest stays in 2017, 700,000 in 2018, and 800,000 in 2019. So 2019’s gross adds was not a record, but it was a better result than its year-ago tally.

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