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GOP Tax Cut Law Will Deliver $14.4 Billion to Comcast for Mergers, Share Buybacks by 2021

Phillip Dampier January 18, 2018 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

The Republican-pushed corporate tax rollback will bring a $14.4 billion increase in available cash flow for Comcast to use for future mergers and acquisitions or share buybacks by 2021, even as the cable company has no plans to share its tax savings bonanza with subscribers in the form of lower rates.

MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett noted Comcast will likely only spend the largess on two things — acquiring other companies to further concentrate the media marketplace or, more likely use its newly available cash flow on a blockbuster share buyback program, which will boost Comcast’s stock price and deliver dramatically higher bonuses to the company’s top executives.

Moffett believes Comcast is following in the footsteps of Time Warner Cable a decade ago, shortly after the company was split away from Time Warner, Inc. The former Time Warner Cable fueled interest in its stock by committing to keep its leverage at a stable 3.25 x EBITDA, which means it would not be spend a lot of money or take on a lot of debt to upgrade its cable systems, make expensive acquisitions, or cut rates for subscribers. As a result, Comcast’s free cash will quickly accumulate, which it will either use to buy other companies, return to investors in the form of a dividend payout, or buy back large numbers of shares of its own stock, making shares already owned by investors more valuable. Since most executive compensation packages tie bonuses to the share price of the company’s stock, and often include stock share awards for executives, top officials can take home tens of millions of dollars in bonuses.

The Trump Administration claimed the dramatic cut in the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% would create new investment, result in new job creation and higher pay. But at Comcast, its existing investment plans developed before the tax cut law was passed remain largely unchanged, the company laid off nearly 1,000 workers in the last month, and so far has only committed to giving qualified employees a one-time $1,000 bonus, which will cost the company a one time charge of less than $150 million — about 1.04% of Comcast’s tax cut cash haul.

More Rogers Employees Speak Out: “A Calculated Game of Misery” for Customers

Phillip Dampier January 18, 2018 Canada, Consumer News, Rogers No Comments

Rogers Communications’ call center workers treated customers as adversaries and allegedly placed unauthorized charges on customer bills, didn’t disclose service fees, and avoided downgrading or disconnecting service while managers encouraged these practices and lectured workers it was not their job to worry about what customers thought.

Days after CBC News’ Go Public unit revealed stories of customer abuse shared by Rogers’ call center workers, more than two dozen additional current and former workers have now come forward confirming the first report and declaring the company’s call center work environment was uniformly “toxic,” “intense,” “high pressure,” and abusive to employees and customers alike.

“It was a calculated game of misery.” 

Rogers management cares about only one thing, employees claim — making money any way a representative can, even if it means pushing products and services on unsuspecting customers.

A four-year employee at Rogers call center in Brampton, Ont., who left in 2015, still vividly remembers he was trained to trick customers at every turn.

  • He and his colleagues were trained not mention cancellation fees charged by other providers when a customer switched to Rogers.

“Because these fees were not charged by Rogers itself, we were told to gloss over them as quickly, vaguely and incoherently as possible,” he writes. “Often while the customer was speaking at the same time.”

  • Agents were shown how to quietly remove some services from a customer’s account while adding others that counted towards a monthly sales goal, hoping the customer wouldn’t notice.

This trick, he told CBC News, involved secretly reducing certain services — such as the number of television channels a customer received — so an agent could add new services, such as a home phone line they didn’t necessarily need, but that earned points towards monthly sales target.

“It was a calculated game of misery,” he says. “How much could you lower their existing services so they wouldn’t immediately notice, while at the same time adding as much in new services as you could?”

“It’s not your job to care.”

In its original report, CBC News quoted a Rogers spokesperson who denied knowledge of these practices and declared there was no tolerance for employees who mistreated customers. But the latest group of employees to come forward consider the abuses systematic and occurred with the full knowledge of company managers and supervisors.

The former worker in Brampton noted that when he brought concerns to his manager questioning the ethics of some of the business practices he was reminded he worked in sales and was told, “It’s not your job to care.”

Intentionally Frustrating Customers Until They Give Up and Hang Up

If a customer called in to complain about something on their bill, downgrade, or cancel service — all things that could affect sales targets, it was ‘all hands on deck’ among call center workers and their colleagues. In addition to hanging up on customers trying to cancel service, Rogers customer service representatives tricked customers trying to escalate a problem to a manager. Instead of transferring calls to an actual manager, employees were taught to transfer the call to a fellow agent who was prepared to repeat claims there was nothing Rogers could do to resolve the issue.

“The goal,” he says, “was for the customer to be so frustrated, speaking to someone who couldn’t do anything more than you, that they ended the call.”

“The things that go on behind closed doors would leave you speechless.”

Debbie Sears (Image courtesy of: Debbie Sears/CBC)

Making a call to Rogers’ customer service can be risky business for customers, because it gives call center workers access to your account, where they can add services without your knowledge to help make their monthly sales targets.

Nicole McDonnell worked at a third-party call center in London, Ont., contracted with Rogers to provide customer service. She quit three months ago disturbed about what she saw. She told CBC News she witnessed agents making unauthorized changes to customer accounts, such as adding lucrative cellphone activation charges without the knowledge of the customer.

“The things that go on behind closed doors would leave you speechless,” she writes.

Debbie Sears echoed McDonnell. Taking calls from her home office in Kingston, N.S. through a subcontractor, Sears was trained to do one thing above all else: sell.

“We were constantly being threatened that we would be fired if we did not upsell — add a home line or a cellphone to the account,” she says. “It was a pressure cooker. They expected you to sell on every call. And you were told time and again, ‘Never take no for an answer. Push, push, push!'”

Sears said she was trained to push phone protection plans for cellphones for $12 a month, but was told not to mention a replacement fee of up to $200 applied if a customer ever made a claim. Other times, she claims, managers would approve cellphone sales even when a credit check suggested a customer was opening a fraudulent account or had very poor credit.

“I have a hard time selling something that’s useless to them [customers],” says Sears. “I told them right from the start, and they said, ‘Oh well, you’ll get used to it.'”

Apparently not. Sears said she began having panic attacks before her shift would begin and her blood pressure “went through the roof.”

Like other Rogers employees that don’t make their sales targets, she was eventually terminated.

“My doctor was very worried I’d have a stroke,” she says. “When I got laid off [for not selling], they did me a favor.”

Former Rogers Manager: ‘My job was to manage out the low performers — witch-hunt those people. Grown men would be crying.’

One former Rogers manager reached out to Go Public to share how he was trained to put pressure on workers in the Ottawa call center.

The pressure for sales reached a new level of intensity in 2015 when Rogers issued a memo directing senior leadership to light a fire under call center workers to get them to sell more services. At least two-thirds of all call center workers were placed on a “performance improvement plan” that most employees understood was the kiss of death to their employment in the near future. The message was perfectly clear – sell more or risk being terminated.

CBC:

“Every day we’d have a meeting about sales targets,” he says. “A big part of my job was to manage out the low performers. Witch-hunting those people.”

On the other hand, he says, top sellers were protected — even if they behaved unethically.

“Senior leadership would often issue directives to the team managers to protect their top-level performers by turning a blind eye,” he says. “Protect the tops.”

Once an employee found themselves assigned to the “performance improvement plan,” managers knew most would have to go, and they had no patience for anything except a radical turnaround. If the employee still struggled making sales, their future was bleak. The ex-manager told CBC News he would squeeze every minute out of their last day at the company, tapping them on the shoulder five minutes before the end of their shift to put them in a private room, and then fire them.

“Grown men would be crying, desperate because they couldn’t sell enough,” he says. “But sales was everything.”

When it got too much for even him and he began questioning Rogers’ way of doing business, he was fired too.

‘Shocking and appalling’

Vancouver labor lawyer Lia Moody says she’s been following the Rogers employees’ allegations, and finds them “shocking and appalling.”

Moody told the CBC Rogers’ apparent business practices ‘contravenes what Canadians consider their ethics and values.”

“I think it’s important that people are speaking out. Public shaming,” she says, “is the only way a company will make changes.”

U.S. Net Neutrality Move May Lead to Trade War with Chinese Internet Firms

Phillip Dampier January 17, 2018 Competition, Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

BEIJING — A recent decision by the United States’ Federal Communications Commission to repeal net neutrality, which are rules designed to prevent the selective blocking or slowing of websites, has wide-ranging implications for China, which never believed in net neutrality and banned hundreds of foreign websites. The decision could result in a major trade war involving Chinese telecom and Internet companies, which are interested in accessing the U.S. market, analysts said.

The move will allow American telecom service providers to charge differential prices for various services and even examine the data of their customers. Though this aspect has stirred controversy in the United States, the situation there is still very different from the realities in China.

“In China, the government is monitoring and controlling the networks whereas [in U.S.] it is, at least so far, it is telecommunication companies. At this point, the government does not have access, we know it does not have access to manipulating the flow of traffic in the U.S. Internet,” Aija Leiponen, a professor at Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, said.

The FCC decision could help U.S. telecom service providers offer high-priced premium services.

Trade war

But this would also open up an opportunity for U.S. service providers to charge high rates from foreign customers. At present, foreign companies can easily access the U.S. cyber market without facing the kind of resistance American companies encounter in China and elsewhere.

“I think it (FCC decision) has an impact potentially for Chinese technology companies that want to do business in the U.S.,” said Benjamin Cavender, a senior analyst at the Shanghai-based China Market Research Group (CMR). “You are asking about companies like Alibaba or Tencent, what this means for them in the U.S. markets– and I could very possibly see this being used as a trade war tool–and the U.S. government saying, ‘Look, we are going to restrict access to companies to our ISPs and force them to pay a lot of money.”

U.S. telecom companies are getting increasing integrated with content providers and might look at foreign players as a source of serious competition. They might go further and even consider blocking some foreign players, including Chinese Internet giants, he said.

“I can also see this happening that they (Chinese Internet firms) just get completely blocked because of the U.S. using this more as a trade tool trying to get more access to the Chinese market because if you are a U.S. technology company you are working at a great disadvantage in the Chinese market. I do see this being used as a trade tool,” Cavender said.

The point is about applying pressure on China to open up its Internet market to American players in exchange for similar treatment in the United States. Washington has usually avoided this kind of tit-for-tat game, but the situation may be changing under the Trump administration, analysts said.

“They (U.S. telecom companies) could at some point say, ‘Look, if you want to have confidential, fast access to the U.S. you have to kind of allow us to do the same thing, allow us to invest more heavily in Chinese firms.’ I could see that happening,” Cavender said.

Moral high ground

China has been advocating the idea of ‘Internet sovereignty,’ which allows governments to create boundaries in cyber space and block foreign sites that it perceives as potential threats to security. Proponents of ‘open Internet’ have been protesting against the idea of ‘Internet sovereignty.’

The Obama administration lobbied and argued with China for nearly a decade to open up Internet access for American companies like YouTube, Twitter and Netflix. It was an important aspect of the annual strategic economic dialogue between the two countries.

The FCC decision coupled with the controversy over alleged cyber spying by Russia is a moral boost of support for China’s online restrictions, which include a ban on major sites like Google, YouTube and Twitter. The moral high ground enjoyed by the United States under the past administration may be at risk, analysts said.

“Even democracies are beginning to think about the need to regulate content. So the Chinese, you know, might take a little comfort in that,” James Lewis, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said. “When you look at Europeans talking about blocking each other’s content, when you look at the U.S. talking about blocking Russian political warfare, the Internet cannot be the wild west that it’s been for a couple of decades. So, everyone’s moving in this direction and I guess the Chinese can take comfort from that.”

Meanwhile, Chinese experts are protesting a new bill introduced in the U.S. Congress that would prevent branches of the U.S. government from working with service providers that use any equipment from two Chinese companies, Huawei and ZTE, for security reasons.

“This (prejudice towards Chinese companies) seems like a problem that can’t be solved, at least not in the short term,” Liu Xingliang, head of the Data Center of China Internet, told the Global Times newspaper in Beijing.

At the same time, “Chinese firms can’t give up the U.S. market and just focus on smaller countries if they want to really achieve their global goals,” Liu Dingding, an independent tech expert told the paper.

Reported by: Saibal Dasgupta, VOANews

Erie County Executive Blasts Bad Internet Access for Harming Western N.Y. Economy

Western New York

In a recent survey of 2,000 residents living in Erie County (Buffalo), N.Y., it was clear almost nobody trusts their internet service provider, and 71% were dissatisfied with their internet service.

Seventeen years after many western New York residents heard the word “broadband” for the first time at a 2000 CNN town hall at the University of Buffalo, where then U.S. Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton called for increased federal funding for high-speed internet, many upstate residents are still waiting for faster access.

The Buffalo News featured two stories about the current state of the internet in western New York and found it lacking.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz blames internet service providers for serving up mediocre broadband, and no service at all in some parts of the county he represents.

“It’s been put in the hands of the private sector, and the private sector has, for whatever reason, elected to not expand into particular areas or not increase speeds in particular areas, putting those areas behind the eight ball,” he said.

Poloncarz effectively fingers the three dominant internet providers serving upstate New York – phone companies Verizon and Frontier and cable company Charter/Spectrum. He argues that companies will not even consider locating operations in areas lacking the most modern high-speed broadband. The digital economy is essential to help the recovery of western New York cities affected by the loss of manufacturing jobs and the ongoing departure of residents to other states.

Poloncarz

An important part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s statewide broadband improvement initiative is prodding Charter Communications and its predecessor Time Warner Cable to do a better job offering faster internet speeds and more rural broadband expansion. The New York Public Service Commission, as part of its approval of Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable, extracted more concessions from the cable giant than any other state. Among them is a commitment to expand the cable company’s footprint into adjacent unserved areas by 2020 to reach at least 145,000 homes and businesses now outside of Charter’s service area.

Last week, the cable company told the PSC it was ahead of schedule on its expansion commitment, now reaching 42,889 additional households and businesses, which is above its goal of 36,771. It has two years left to add at least another 102,111 buildings.

Charter also recently increased broadband speeds to 100 Mbps for 99% of its customers in New York and has committed to boosting those speeds to 300 Mbps by the end of next year.

But where Charter does not provide service, broadband problems come courtesy of western New York’s biggest phone companies – Verizon and Frontier. In Erie County, a broadband census found a lack of service in parts of South Buffalo, the far West Side and East Side of Buffalo, as well as in parts of every town in the county except in the prosperous communities of West Seneca and Orchard Park. Verizon FiOS can be found in a handful of well-to-do Buffalo suburban towns, but not in the city itself or in rural parts of the region.

Verizon spokesman Chris McCann said the company had no further plans to expand FiOS service in upstate New York, and stopped announcing additional expansions in 2010. In the rest of its service area, Verizon supplies DSL service as an afterthought, and has made no significant investments to improve or expand service. Frontier Communications, which is the dominant phone company in the greater Rochester region, also provides service in some other rural western New York communities, but its DSL service rarely meets the FCC’s minimum speed definition to qualify as  broadband.

Rep. Collins

Both phone companies have no plans for significant fiber optic upgrades that would boost internet speeds. There is little pressure on either company to begin costly upgrades. In rural communities, both companies lack cable competition and in more urban areas, both have written off their ongoing customer losses to their cable competitor. That leaves towns like North Collins in a real dilemma. Poloncarz told the newspaper residents frequently park in the town library parking lot at night to connect to the library’s Wi-Fi service, because they lack internet service at home.

A political divide has opened up between area Democrats and Republican officials on how to solve the rural broadband problem. Democrats like Poloncarz are exploring solving the rural internet problem with a county-owned fiber network that would be open to all private ISPs to assist them in expanding service. He is joined by Erie County legislator Patrick Burke, who thinks it is time to spend the estimated $16.3 million it will take to build an “open access network” across Erie County.

“There are literally geographic dead zones, and it’s unnecessary,” said Burke, a Buffalo Democrat. “There’s no excuse.”

Poloncarz is more cautious and told the newspaper he will only propose the idea if he is convinced it will solve the problem, but is willing to continue studying it.

Republicans from the western New York congressional delegation believe deregulation and other incentives may give private companies enough reasons to begin upgrades and expansion.

Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence-area congressman with close ties to the Trump White House, defended FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s recent decision to eliminate net neutrality. Pai was born in Buffalo.

Collins argues net neutrality only raised the cost of business for ISPs, and being rid of it would inspire cable and phone companies to boost investment in 105 exurban and rural towns in his district, which covers eight counties and extends from the Buffalo suburbs east to Canandaigua, 80 miles away. More than 65% of those areas are under-served because DSL is often the only choice, and at least 3.3% had no internet options at all.

Rep. Tom Reed (R-Corning) has just as many internet dead zones in his district, if not more. Reed represents the Southern Tier region of western New York in a district that runs along the Pennsylvania border from the westernmost part of New York east nearly to Binghamton. Much of recent broadband development in this part of New York comes as a result of Gov. Cuomo’s state-funded broadband expansion initiative, not private investment.

Reed has a record in Congress that is better at explaining the rural broadband dilemma than solving it.

“In a rural district, there are areas that are just physically difficult to serve,” Reed shrugged.

Collins’ hope that the banishment of net neutrality will inspire Frontier, Verizon, and Charter to use their own money to expand into the frontiers of western New York seems unlikely. Gov. Cuomo’s plan, which uses public funds to help subsidize mostly private companies to expand into areas where Return On Investment fails to meet their metrics has had more success.

But the rural broadband debate has been accompanied by a fierce pushback among upstate New Yorkers against the Republican-controlled FCC and elected officials like Collins who support the recent gutting of net neutrality. A backlash has developed in his district, and some have accused Collins of aiding and abetting a corporate takeover of the internet.

“The hysteria and narrative that this will kill the internet is blatantly false,” responded Collins. “Internet service providers have said they do not increase speeds for certain websites over others, and I have signed onto legislation that would make such a practice illegal.”

Goodbye FairPoint, New Owner Rebrands as Consolidated Communications

Just shy of 10 years after FairPoint Communications acquired Verizon’s landline properties in the northern New England states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, both the company and its name are disappearing forever.

Consolidated Communications, which announced it would acquire FairPoint in December 2016, intends to put FairPoint’s name and reputation behind it, and is rebranding the phone company as Consolidated Communications with plans for significant broadband upgrades for its customers.

FairPoint bought the assets of Verizon’s landline network in the three northern New England states in 2007 for $2.4 billion. The transition from Verizon to FairPoint did not go well, and the company stumbled for years trying to keep up with billing and service problems and the need to continually expand broadband service to stay competitive, all while also trying to pay off the debts it incurred in the acquisition. The company failed on all accounts and declared bankruptcy in 2009, eventually emerging with a new business plan in 2011.

FairPoint’s performance post-bankruptcy has relied on cautious spending, cost-cutting measures and benefits cutbacks for its employees, which triggered a 131-day strike in 2014 among FairPoint’s union workforce — the longest walkout of any company that year. Replacement workers sent in to handle service calls and network maintenance were criticized by customers and lacked experience to manage New England’s rough winters.

By early 2016, executives claimed their “turnaround” plan for FairPoint had made significant strides. By that summer, activist shareholders were demanding FairPoint be put up for sale, in part to allow them to quickly recoup their investments in company debt that could not be monetized unless another company acquired FairPoint and assumed those debts.

In late 2016, Consolidated Communications did exactly that, acquiring FairPoint’s assets in northern New England and many other states where it operates small phone companies for $1.5 billion — a significant drop in value for assets that sold for nearly $1 billion more nine years earlier.

Rob Koester, Consolidated Communications vice president for consumer products clearly wants to put FairPoint behind him.

“It is a new beginning,” he said. “It’s a new chapter for us. It’s a re-dedication to our customers.”

Some of the biggest planned changes appear to be more job cuts. Consolidated recently eliminated FairPoint’s state president positions in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont and will depend on regional management instead. The phone company will also once again face negotiations with unions that represent much of its workforce later this year. Most expect the unions will not be friendly to anticipated company efforts to further consolidate and reduce benefits.

Promised broadband upgrades from speed increases come with few details, except a broad commitment to raise speeds for 300,000 internet customers over the course of this year — which represents about 30% of FairPoint customers. Spokeswoman Angelynne Amores claims there will be no price hikes for faster internet speeds.

But Consolidated will also be under the watchful eye of Wall Street, which does not want the company to invest too much in broadband upgrades until shareholders are comfortable with the company’s financial future. There are few business successes in wireline acquisitions and mergers these days, as Frontier Communications can attest from its purchase of Verizon’s network in Florida, California, and Texas.

Any upgrades cannot come soon enough for FairPoint customers forced to endure its DSL service as their only internet access option.

Michael Charter, a FairPoint customer in Jericho, Vt., lives just outside the state’s largest city, Burlington, where there are several internet service providers. But in his part of Jericho, FairPoint is the only broadband provider available, and it does not come close to offering actual broadband speeds.

Charter told the Associated Press his current solution is to buy two DSL accounts from FairPoint and divide up the load from his family’s streaming, internet browsing, downloading and telecommuting across two different accounts. His television and computers share one FairPoint DSL account hooked up to one router while other internet usage is confined to a second router connected to a second account. FairPoint is unable to bond the two connections together to increase speed, so two slow DSL lines is the best option for him for now.

Consolidated isn’t likely to make a lot of money taking over FairPoint’s residential and business landlines or DSL accounts. But it could earn substantial revenue from FairPoint’s extensive fiber network laid across the three northern New England states it serves. Companies and public institutions rely on fiber connectivity, as do cell towers — including the future swarm of 5G small cells expected to eventually be placed across the phone company’s footprint.

The phone company’s biggest rival is Comcast, which has some cable coverage in the region, but large sections of all three states are bypassed by Comcast and Charter Communications, which has a substantial presence in eastern Maine.

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  • Chris: Im in Tri-Cities, WA and just caught wind of the upgrade. Charter said they'd be doing this at some point over the last year and it finally happened f...
  • JayS: It will be interesting to see how companies in Utility-Monopoly like markets (Cable Tv, Electric, Wired Internet) treat the "tax rate windfall". Then...
  • Adam Bryant: Please give us any updates you have on this! I received an approval letter on 11/29/2017 12:16 PM sayign they would be sending a check within 10 busin...
  • jgbbmodelrailroad: New York State has a weird law that means Internet Service Providers pay they same taxes on infrastructure regardless of how many customers it serves,...
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  • Phillip Dampier: Charter has not fully converted former Time Warner Cable customers to its legacy Charter website and support platform, which is why TWC customers ente...
  • Phillip Dampier: Folks, I should have been more clear that this list is for approved CUSTOMER-OWNED modems for Charter/Spectrum customers. It does not include modems s...
  • Curious George: use this list too the ubee is on this list under Modems offered by Spectrum https://www.timewarnercable.com/en/support/internet/topics/modems.html#/...
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  • EJ: Yep, yep they have essentially created another way to profit off of their shotty lower up time network. Give the guy that thought of this a big fat ra...

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