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Average Cable TV Bill Now Over $100/Month; “Every Year is a New Record High”

Phillip Dampier September 28, 2016 Competition, Consumer News No Comments

640px-obverse_of_the_series_2009_100_federal_reserve_noteFor the first time, the average American now pays over $100 a month just to watch television.

Leichtman Research Group, which has measured cable television rates annually for years, just released a report finding the average amount paid for cable television is now $103.10 a month. That’s an increase of about 4% over last year, the lowest annual increase in five years. But it’s still a 39% increase from 2011-2015, which is nearly eight times the rate of inflation.

As rates rise, customers are increasingly cutting cable’s cord for good. More than 800,000 Americans said goodbye to cable TV in the second quarter of this year alone, according to cable industry researcher SNL Kagan. eMarketer says the biggest reason customers are leaving is obvious: higher bills.

“About 82% of households that use a TV currently subscribe to a pay-TV service. This is down from where it was five years ago, and similar to the penetration level eleven years ago,” said Bruce Leichtman, president and principal analyst for Leichtman Research Group, Inc. “The rates of those exiting the category, or intending to leave, are actually similar to recent years. The decline in penetration is also due to a lack of those who are coming into the category, and the industry not keeping pace with movers and related rental housing growth.”

Customers are no longer fooled by promotional rates that offer cable TV for $30-50 a month, usually expiring after one year. Once their first bill arrives, they are unhappy to discover growing mandatory equipment fees and bill padding charges for sports programming, local stations, fake official-sounding surcharges like “regulatory recovery fees,” and more.

“Once the XFINITY bill arrives, my $60 television promotion is $104 after the $5 fee for local stations, $3 for sports, additional outlet charges, equipment rental fees, and taxes/surcharges,” said Comcast customer Dan Ho from central California. “You almost have to take the internet and phone service just to feel like you are getting anything of value for your money, because the bundle price seems like a better deal.”

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The cable industry argues cord-cutting won’t save consumers much money, but as Fortune magazine reports, those arguments are traditionally based on temporary rates that never tell the whole story,

“Too often, the comparisons quote a low, promotional, or entry-level price for the cost of a cable TV package instead of looking at the real prices people actually pay,” wrote Fortune author Aaron Pressman. “Left out of the superficial analysis all too often are set-top box fees, regional sports network fees, fees dressed up as faux taxes, and actual taxes.”

Fortune adds every year is a new record high for cable television bills.

Leichtman Research reports that once consumers cut the cord, an increasing number never look back, while those still subscribed to cable are often earching for a better deal:

  • Overall, about 3% of TV households last subscribed to a cable/pay-TV service 1-3 years ago, about 6% subscribed over 3 years ago, and about 6% never subscribed to a pay-TV service;
  • 7% of current cable subscribers did not subscribe to a TV service for more than a month at some time over the past two years;
  • 25% of those who moved in the past year do not currently subscribe to a cable TV service — a higher level than in previous years;
  • 12% of cable subscribers are likely to switch from their provider in the next six months — similar to 11% in 2015, and 12% in 2014;
  • 6% of pay-TV subscribers are likely to disconnect from their provider and not subscribe to any TV service in the next six months — similar to 7% in 2015, and 7% in 2014.

Average Broadband Usage Reaches Cap-Bustin’ 190GB a Month

online-videoThe average American broadband-equipped household now uses 190GB a month, more than 95% of which is online video, according to a new report from iGR Research.

The detailed 125-page study of broadband speeds and usage, priced at $1,950, included some surprising changes in usage patterns.

In the past, as consumers upgraded their broadband plan to get faster speeds, their corresponding usage also increased. But iGR Research found that trend is no longer true as speed increases accelerate.

Iain Gillott, president of iGR Research, noted households with higher-speed connections don’t necessarily consume more data than those with lower-speed connections. Once broadband speeds achieve a rate fast enough to support high quality online video, further speed increases don’t always result in substantially higher consumption.

Gillott pointed out his own family recently upgraded to a 200Mbps connection and found little change in their monthly usage. That could be a problem for internet providers that cap customer usage while blaming increased demand.

“If we download a movie, it used to take 20 minutes to get HD. Now it takes three,” Gillott told Telecompetitor. “But it doesn’t mean we use any more data; it’s just that it took longer.”

Gillott noted customers upgrading from a slow speed DSL connection are another matter. Because DSL may only be able to support one or two concurrent video streams, many customers intentionally limited their simultaneous use of the internet to maintain usability. But once speeds increase to manage online video demands, usage often increases.

The report, U.S. Home Broadband and Wi-Fi Usage Forecast, 2015-2020, does forecast advancements in online video are likely to drive usage substantially higher than the current broadband allowances offered by many providers. The growth in 4K video alone could spike usage to as much as 500GB a month.

“What drives usage is more high-definition [content],” commented Gillott. “It doubles the amount of data used.”

Online video is driving almost all the usage growth in the United States. Gillott points to a cultural change in how television programming is being viewed in the United States. In short, fewer people are sharing time together watching the same show. Today, many people watch their own shows on their own devices.

“TV has become a personal activity,” said Gillott. “If you have four people in a household now, that means four times the data going in.”

Open Technology Institute Wants FCC to Raise Minimum Broadband Speed to 50Mbps

Phillip Dampier September 27, 2016 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 3 Comments

50-20The Federal Communications Commission should redefine broadband as speeds of at least 50/20Mbps, according to the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.

The advocacy group argues that the FCC’s current definition of 25/3Mbps is too slow to support the growth of high-bandwidth online applications including high-definition video, cloud computing, and online gaming.

“People use their connections for many reasons, and often multitask,” the group writes in a filing submitted to the FCC this month. “It is easy to see how multiple people with multiple devices engaging in multiple online activities on the same residential connection can quickly lead to buffering, slow load times, and frustration even with a 25/3 connection.”

In general, consumer groups want the FCC to push providers to offer faster speeds, particularly telephone companies still relying on ADSL, a technology that first became widely available in the 1990s. There are millions of consumers still reliant on DSL technology on copper wire phone networks that can only support speeds of 6Mbps or less. Many of those are Verizon and AT&T customers, particularly in suburban and rural areas bypassed by Verizon FiOS or AT&T U-verse. Almost no AT&T or Verizon ADSL customers come close to achieving the FCC’s current minimum definition of broadband: 25/3Mbps.

The OTI argues that it isn’t just the speed required by applications, it is also the number of concurrent connections. As emerging technology like the Internet of Things introduces new devices that will share a user’s home broadband connection, faster internet speeds may be needed.

“The general consensus around IoT is that, with potentially billions of new devices connecting to the Internet via Wi-Fi or cellular signals, capacity will need to increase,” the organization writes.

But the OTI will have to contend with provider opposition to redefining broadband speeds upwards. The NCTA – the Internet and Television Association, the nation’s largest cable lobbying group, wants the current definition maintained by the FCC.

“The current benchmark accommodates the expected needs of even those households using an atypically large amount of bandwidth, accounting for multiple streams of bandwidth intensive applications like HD streaming video, in addition to web browsing, email, and other applications,” the NCTA wrote. “The Commission should reject the notion of adopting a future-oriented, ‘aspirational’ benchmark, which would be necessarily divorced from the realities of the marketplace.”

Many NCTA members already offer speeds in excess of 50Mbps, although many cable companies also cap their customers’ usage.

Cheapest Thing Verizon Wireless Employee Ever Sold: Your Private Customer Records

vzw-for-saleA Verizon Wireless employee is facing up to five years in prison for peddling customer phone records and location data to private investigators for as little at $50 a month.

The employee, Daniel Eugene Traeger, worked as a network technician for Verizon and agreed to supply a private investigator with private customer information for a pittance, making it perhaps the cheapest service ever offered with the Verizon Wireless name attached.

Traeger’s lawyer worked out a plea agreement with prosecutors that could substantially shorten his possible sentence for pleading guilty to a felony count prohibiting unauthorized access to a protected computer. The Consumerist obtained a copy of the plea agreement.

Traeger quickly adopted the Verizon Wireless way of doing business, substantially raising his snooping rate to as much as $750 a month by 2013.

In all, prosecutors claim he earned more than $10,000 selling customer data using network tools readily available to Verizon’s network technicians.

Programmer Conglomerates Preparing to Ax Smaller Cable TV Networks

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Is this the future of satellite TV?

Ten years ago, large programmers like NBC-Universal, Fox, Viacom, and Time Warner started bundling new niche channels into their programming packages, forcing pay television providers to add networks few wanted just to get a contract renewal agreement in place for the networks they did want. Now, in the era of cord-cutting, those programming conglomerates are preparing to slim down.

One of the largest — Comcast/NBCUniversal — is the first to admit “there are just too many networks,” to quote NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke.

Burke warned investors back in July that axing networks like Style and G4 was just the beginning.

“You’ll see us and others trimming channels,” Burke said during Comcast’s second-quarter earnings call. “We will continue to invest what we need to invest into our bigger channels, and we’ll continue to trim the smaller ones.”

Cable operators hope that day arrives sooner rather than later as cord-cutting continues to have an impact on cable-TV subscriptions.

For every popular cable network like USA and Bravo, cable operators get stuck carrying ratings-dogs like CNBC World, Centric, Cloo, VH1 Classic, Fox Business Network, and Fuse — all of which attract fewer than 100,000 viewers nationwide at any one time. Fuse barely attracted 51,000 viewers in 2015. But just about every cable TV customer pays for these channels, and many more.

Many cable channels wouldn’t survive without subscription fees because advertisers consider them too small to warrant much attention.

cable tvWhile Burke’s prediction has yet to slash the cable dial by more than a few networks so far, it has slowed down the rate of new network launches considerably. One millennial-targeted network, Pivot, will never sign on because it failed to attract enough cable distribution and advertisers, despite a $200 million investment from a Canadian billionaire. Time, Inc.’s attempts to launch three new networks around its print magazines Sports Illustrated, InStyle and People have gone the Over The Top (OTT) video route, direct to consumers who can stream their videos from the magazines’ respective websites.

Fierce Cable this week opined that forthcoming cord cutter-targeted TV packages streamed over the internet from players including DirecTV/AT&T and Hulu, among others, will likely start a war of cable network attrition, which may make the concept of a-la-carte cable a thing of the past. Editor Daniel Frankel believes the future will be a finite number of cable networks delivered primarily over IP networks, which are expected to dramatically pare down the traditional cable TV bundle into fewer than 100 channels. Only the most popular networks will be included in a traditional cable TV lineup, and some of these providers expect to deliver a bundle of fewer than 50 channels, including local stations. Those booted out of the bundle may still find life from viewers going OTT, if those networks can attract enough people to watch.

AT&T is hoping for the best of both worlds as it prepares to launch an internet-based package of networks under its DirecTV brand called DirecTV Now. Sources told Bloomberg News AT&T is hoping DirecTV Now will attract more subscribers by 2020 than its satellite service. At some point in the future, it may even replace DirecTV’s satellite television service.

directvDirecTV Now is expected by the end of this year and will likely offer a 100 channel package of programming priced at between $40-55 a month, viewable on up to two screens simultaneously. The app-based service will be available for video streaming to televisions and portable devices like tablets and phones. No truck rolls for installation, no service calls, and no equipment to buy or rent are all attractive propositions for AT&T, hoping to cut costs.

Since AT&T has taken over DirecTV, it has lost over 100,000 satellite customers. The threat to AT&T U-verse TV is also significant as customers increasingly look for alternatives to cable TV’s bloated and expensive programming packages. AT&T no doubt noticed the impending arrival of Hulu’s cable TV streaming platform next year and other services like Sling TV. Deploying their own streaming alternative with AT&T’s volume discounts from the combined subscribers of DirecTV and U-verse means AT&T can sell its streaming service at a substantial discount.

If consumers find the offerings from DirecTV Now and Hulu a credible alternative to traditional cable television, cord cutting could dramatically accelerate, provoking a response from cable operators likely to offer their own slimmed-down packages. So being among the 100 or so networks carried on DirecTV Now, or among the 50 or so networks Hulu is planning to offer, could be crucial to the future survival of any cable network. Those stranded in the 500-channel Universe of today’s cable television packages could be forced off the air or to an alternative means of reaching an audience such as OTT.

The lesson learned by the cable television industry is that customers are tapped out and unwilling to pay ever-rising cable TV bills for dozens of networks they’ve never watched and don’t intend to. The longer term lesson may be even more scary for some networks. Live, linear television as a concept may have seen its time come and go, at least for entertainment programming. While viewers are always going to seek live television for sports and breaking news, alternative on-demand viewing of everything else, preferably commercial-free, is a growing priority for many, especially if the price is right.

Cox Customers Pushed Into New Set-Top Boxes Or Else They Lose Channels

Phillip Dampier September 22, 2016 Consumer News, Cox 1 Comment

COX_RES_RGBCox Communications is requiring cable customers to add a cable box to their television set(s) or they will start losing channels as the company continues its nationwide effort to digitally encrypt all of its television services.

Customers in Las Vegas are the latest to be pushed to add a digital adapter, dubbed a “minibox” by Sept. 27 or they will start losing channels. By Nov. 9, all cable channels are expected to be encrypted and on Dec. 6, local stations will also be encrypted and viewable only with a cable box or similar equipment.

Cox calls the move a customer-pleasing “upgrade.”

“It will enable us to implement more advanced services down the road,” Cox spokesman Juergen Barbusca told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “We deployed home automation in the last couple of years and home security. We are trying to get as much bandwidth out of your cable potential as possible and one way to do that is to go completely digital.”

cox-miniboxCox customers with a basic Starter package of more than 40 channels at $24.99 a month will get two miniboxes free for two years. Those with the second tier Essential package ($75.99) with more than 90 channels will get two miniboxes free for one year. You read that right. If you pay Cox more, you get free boxes for half the time lower-paying customers do. Each additional box is $2.99 a month. A traditional HD-capable set-top box from Cox rents for $8.50 a month.

Cox’s miniboxes are more advanced that traditional digital adapters provided by some other cable companies, supporting service like Music Choice, HDTV, parental controls and an on-screen program guide.

Customers are generally okay with getting the boxes for free, but are convinced it will cause their cable bills to rise in the years ahead.

“I’m not happy with that. That’s more money and I’m only getting basic service. I’m already at $146 a month for cable, internet and phone,” Cox customer Monique Patton said. “Not everybody can afford that. It’s too expensive now. They’re not giving us what they should for our money.”

California Consumer Seeks Class Action Case Against Frontier for False Advertising

frontier new logoDorothy Ayer said she was quoted a price of $69 a month for a package including landline phone and broadband service from Frontier Communications, but when she received her first bill, she claims she was charged $426.55.

Ayer filed a class action complaint against Frontier Communications Sept. 12 in U.S. District Court for the Central Division of California, claiming the phone company regularly engages in unlawful, unfair, and deceptive business practices including false advertising.

Ayer claims Frontier promised her all installation charges, activation fees and other miscellaneous costs found on her first bill would be waived, but now that the bill is in her mailbox, the company wants to be paid in full.

The lawsuit asks the court to recognize the economic harm and injury done not only to Ms. Ayer, but to other similarly situated Frontier customers. The lawsuit claims Frontier Communications benefits from falsely advertising the prices of its services without properly informing customers of the many other charges the company levies on the first bill.

If Ayer is successful, Frontier will be forced to notify all affected customers and presumably refund or credit their accounts.

The case is being handled by attorneys Todd M. Friedman and Adrian R. Bacon of Law Offices of Todd M. Friedman PC in Woodland Hills, Calif.

CableLabs Working on Symmetrical DOCSIS 3.1; Equal Upload/Download Speeds Coming

Phillip Dampier September 21, 2016 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News 1 Comment

1000mbpsThe cable industry’s broadband Achilles’ heel has always been upstream speeds that are set much lower than download speeds. But the days of asymmetric cable broadband may soon be a thing of the past if CableLabs successfully defines a new Full Duplex extension for DOCSIS 3.1 — bringing symmetrical broadband speeds to cable companies across the country.

CableLabs sees the potential of eventually offering multi-gigabit broadband over today’s existing hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) cable systems. Marketing 1,000/1,000Mbps internet access could keep cable operators competitive with fiber to the home services that already offer symmetrical internet speeds.

The cable industry-supported research group is collaborating with vendors, according to Belal Hamzeh, vice president of wireless for CableLabs, in a blog post.

“The ecosystem support for the Full Duplex DOCSIS 3.1 technology has been staggering, with many vendors collaborating and contributing to the development of the technology,” Hamzeh wrote. “A recent example is Cisco’s contribution of a new silicon reference design of a digital echo canceler that maximizes the use of HFC capacity to provide a scalable multi-gigabit return path.”

The Full Duplex DOCSIS 3.1 project transitioned from the innovation phase to the R&D phase in June. A working group will continue to meet on a regular basis to finalize the specification, which will allow vendors to begin producing modems that support the new standard.

Want 100Mbps from Charter? Fork Over $200 for Activation/Upgrade Fee

charter-spectrumStop the Cap! reader Gabe, a Time Warner Cable customer, recently decided to upgrade his service to Charter’s fastest internet plan in his area — Ultra/100Mbps. That upgrade stopped dead in its tracks when Charter Communications informed him there is a mandatory $200 “activation” fee for customers selecting 100Mbps service.

We learned this upgrade fee is not new for Charter Communications’ existing customers. First implemented in 2012, Charter Communications claims the activation fee is set at a level commensurate with the value of having premium speed service.

“Ultra is a premium service which results in higher incremental network investments, equipment costs, and other operating expenses,” Charter Communications wrote in 2012. “In an effort to maintain reasonable monthly recurring service fees, we have implemented a higher installation fee for Ultra customers.”

We’ve taken a look to see if this fee can be waived and we found no instance where customers can avoid it. However, customers signing up for business service, which costs about the same as residential service, can subscribe to 100Mbps and face a $99 installation fee instead of $200 in most areas.

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