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Digital Sub-Channels, Cost-Cutting Cause Havoc for Adjacent Market Cable-TV Carriage

wbngTime Warner Cable subscribers in Otsego County, N.Y. have been able to watch WBNG-TV, the CBS affiliate in Binghamton, since there has been a cable company called Time Warner Cable. But as of yesterday, that is no longer the case. In Baxter County, Ark.,  Suddenlink customers suddenly lost KARK (NBC) and KTHV (CBS), two stations from Little Rock, after the cable company decided it would henceforth only carry KYTV (NBC) and KOLR (CBS) instead. Part of the problem for subscribers is those two stations are located in Springfield, Missouri, a different state.

Time Warner Cable wasted no time yanking WBNG off the lineup of their Oneonta and Cooperstown cable systems. WBNG received a letter informing them of the decision on June 16. Two weeks later, the channel was replaced with WKTV from Utica, which is a secondary affiliate of CBS (WKTV has been an NBC affiliate for decades, but through the use of digital subchannels, WKTV has managed to lock down affiliations with CBS, NBC, CW, and Me-TV). Time Warner argues Otsego County is in the Utica television market, such as it is, so there is no reason to spend more to put Binghamton stations on the lineup as well.

Oneonta, N.Y. is located between Binghamton and Utica.

Oneonta, N.Y. is located between Binghamton and Utica.

karkAnother cable company with cost-cutting fever is Altice-owned Suddenlink, which stopped carrying the two Little Rock-based broadcast stations in northern Arkansas on June 7, leaving KATV (ABC) as the only central Arkansas-based news outlet on the cable provider’s Mountain Home-area system.

The decision to drop the two Little Rock channels was made at the corporate level, local employees told The Baxter Bulletin, and the Mountain Home office had no input in that decision and were not allowed to talk about it.

The mayor of Mountain Home sure is, however.

“We’ve had a lot of people calling in, coming by the office,” Mayor Joe Dillard told the newspaper. “Several have been in a couple times. I do not understand why we got two of our main channels in the state taken away.”

An authorized Suddenlink spokesperson finally admitted it was about the money.

“In recent years, local broadcast station owners have begun asking for increasingly larger amounts of money in exchange for allowing us to renew contracts to carry their stations,” said Gene Regan, senior director of corporate communications for Suddenlink. “To help keep down the costs of providing services to our customers, we have made the decision to drop out-of-market stations that duplicate network affiliations with other existing in-market stations.”

That policy has been gradually implemented in a growing number of Suddenlink-served communities, which are often exurban or rural towns located between two larger metropolitan areas. These are the areas most likely to receive multiple network affiliates from different nearby cities.

mountain homeSuddenlink has standing orders from Altice to look for savings wherever possible, but none of those savings are returned to subscribers. The loss of the stations has not reduced anyone’s cable bill and Suddenlink recently moved TBS and INSP — a Christian cable network — to a more costly Expanded Basic tier. In place of the two networks dropped from the Basic package are home shopping networks that actually make Suddenlink money – Evine Live and Jewelry TV.

“I’m disappointed,” Anna Hudson of Bull Shoals told the newspaper. “I have friends in Little Rock, in Batesville. I like to know what’s going on in Arkansas, not in Missouri. It doesn’t help when the Legislature is in session, that will not be covered by the Springfield stations.”

Lionsgate Studio Buys Starz in $4.4 Billion Deal

Phillip Dampier June 30, 2016 Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

starzPremium movie channels Starz and Encore have been sold to Lionsgate in a $4.4 billion cash and stock deal.

Originally created as a counterweight to increasingly expensive premium movie channels, John Malone wanted a cheaper in-house alternative and launched Starz in 1994 on many of his Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) cable systems nationwide. The movie channel never proved to pose a significant threat to Time Warner (Entertainment) or CBS/Viacom, which own HBO and Showtime respectively.

Malone maintained an interest in Starz and the mini-pay Encore Movieplex even after selling TCI cable systems to AT&T (which in turn sold most of them to Comcast) under his Liberty Media holding companies until 2013, when Starz (and Encore) were spun off as an independent company.

lionsgateThe sale was not a surprise and was expected for months.

Lionsgate gains a dependable outlet for its content and Starz and Encore gain access to 16,000 movie and TV shows and a studio to help it produce original content. Lionsgate is already known for its productions including Mad Men and Nurse Jackie. In a media release, Lionsgate says it currently produces 87 original series for 42 different American networks and has earned $7 billion in revenue from its movie releases in the last four years.

Starz continues to be the lesser known premium network, with 24 million subscribers. But many of those subscribers receive the premium movie channel for free or at a profoundly discounted rate as a promotion from their pay television provider. Encore, dubbed a “mini-pay” channel — a reference to the fact it costs about half the price of HBO and other premium channels — has a larger viewer base with 32 million subscribers.

Lionsgate is expected to be less committed to protecting the integrity of the cable television bundle and will likely broaden independent distribution of Starz and Encore through online video outlets and direct sales to consumers.

Comcast Angry It Had to Pay a Pole Attachment Fee on Time or Get Disconnected

Comzilla

Comzilla

Comcast just felt for itself what can happen if their customers don’t pay their bills. They threaten to cut them off.

With just one day remaining before Duck River Electric Membership Corporation claimed it would rip Comcast’s equipment and wiring off its utility poles for non-payment of pole attachment fees, Comcast showed up with a check.

“To avoid an interruption of service, Comcast has once again agreed to pay Duck River significantly more than what is owed under our current contract, despite Duck River’s refusal to negotiate reasonable terms,” Alex Horwitz, vice president of public relations at Comcast, told Times-Free Press reporters.

Duck River officials dispute that and say Comcast was behind (again) on its pole attachment fee payments and is the only utility company complaining about the price.

duck river“Size-wise, they’re the Godzilla of telecommunications,” said Steve Oden, director of member services at the tiny electric co-op. “And we’re just a lowly electric co-op here in Middle Tennessee.”

Oden claimed he is treating Comcast exactly the same way they would treat their own customers.

“If you don’t pay your Comcast cable TV or internet bill, they’re going to do what?” The answer, Oden said, is they “cut you off.”

Comcast claimed in turn Duck River is using their position as a monopoly to gouge customers with high rates.

“Unfortunately, the utility has been unwilling to compromise and has billed Comcast for arbitrary pole rates that are nearly three times the national average,” said Horwitz.

Had Comcast not come up with a payment, Duck River was prepared to start removing Comcast’s wiring and equipment from its poles, and cut power to Comcast’s equipment, which would have killed service for about 7,000 Comcast customers.

The two are now talking (again) about securing a long-term contract that will stabilize pole attachment rates and keep Duck River’s local power co-op from having to make collection calls in the future.

Cable One: Your Price and Customer Service Depend on Your Credit Worthiness

Phillip Dampier June 29, 2016 Cable One, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

no-thanksFirst credit cards were tied to your credit score, then auto insurance, and now how much you pay for cable television and what kind of support you receive from customer service may also depend on your creditworthiness, at least at Cable One.

CEO Thomas Might ignited controversy over his remarks at a recent J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference when he told Wall Street analysts the company was working hard to reduce the “hollow profitability” of its cable TV business. Fierce Cable caught the transcript. One of the biggest reasons to blame for low profits may be Cable One’s deadbeat customers who don’t pay their bills. Starting in 2013, Might ordered a “very rigorous FICI credit scoring process” on all video customers to weed out the good from the bad.

Might suggested Cable One discovered those with low credit scores were among the company’s low value customers, and they deserve much less from the cable company in return.

“We don’t turn people away,” Might said, but the cable company’s technicians aren’t going to “spend 15 minutes setting up an iPhone app” for a customer who has a low FICO score. “What we found is that through lifestyle and billing analysis, we could start to pinpoint where churn and bad debt was coming from, and credit scoring started to be a really good test.”

cable oneCable One has even stopped direct marketing its cable service, even though it was winning nine percent of new customer sign-ups. The customers Cable One attracted were so low quality, Might claims the company didn’t make a penny from the marketing effort.

“It was the worst of the lifetime value segments we had,” Might said.

Cable One’s unwelcome credit challenged customers returned the favor and canceled their service in droves. Although bad debt is down 70 percent under the new credit check policy, Cable One has lost about half of their cable TV customers, most leaving for AT&T U-verse or satellite television.

Might

Might

Might’s intemperate remarks evidently triggered the company’s recent decision to contact the FCC to “clarify” the situation. Chief operating officer Julie Laulis tried to quell any controversy Cable One treats its customers differently based on how they handle their credit.

“Cable One runs a consumer credit pre-qualification, with the applicant’s consent, solely during the new customer sign-up process,” Laulis said. “The pre-qualification results are used to determine the size of the deposit and the installation charge, if any, that would be appropriate for the particular customer to offset the customer to offset the non-payment of bills or the non-return of equipment, as well as any introductory offers the customer may be eligible to receive.”

But once signed up, Laulis admitted the company still treats customers differently based on an internal scoring system it calls Lifetime Value (LTV), which determines what perks and special deals each customer is qualified to receive.

“Importantly, the LTV program has nothing at all to do with the use of credit scores,” Laulis added. “Any Cable One customer can, through a good payment history, achieve the highest LTV level and achieve additional levels of customer service and other benefits. This LTV level is independent of a credit score, and a credit score is not used to determine levels of service or loyalty rewards.”

Laulis claimed “the media” confused Might’s positions on credit scoring inside Cable One, although the cable company never asked for any corrections. Laulis also doesn’t deny the amount of customer service assistance available to customers may still depend on their creditworthiness.

Told You: Altice Brings Its Special Kind of Cost-Cutting to Suddenlink and Cablevision

Phillip Dampier June 28, 2016 Altice NV, Cablevision, Consumer News, Suddenlink No Comments

cheapDespite vociferous denials to New York regulators that Altice’s unique way of cost-cutting expenses in Europe would mean the same in the United States, a Suddenlink employee in the Appalachians found herself visiting a nearby Kroger supermarket recently to pick up some “forever” postage stamps after the office’s postage meter machine stopped working.

“Nobody paid the bill, leaving us to raid petty cash to get some mail out,” the Suddenlink employee told Stop the Cap! “They got the problem resolved later that week, but this was only the most recent of several incidents that make it clear our new owner doesn’t like us spending any money.”

Suddenlink employees in West Virginia needed money to get a broken ice machine in their office fixed and got the third degree instead of a quick answer.

The Wall Street Journal reports during a March “investment committee” meeting, Altice’s bean counters pelted employees with questions about the nature of the ice machine business in the United States and whether it would be smarter to buy or lease.

“A complete waste of people’s time and energy,” said the former Suddenlink employee.

In North Carolina, call center employees are updating their resumes after watching job positions slowly get eliminated starting this past April.

“Since that time, rumors have been spreading that the call center [itself] may be closing soon,” shared another employee. “And if you’re paying attention the writing is on the wall that the rumors are true. But no one from upper management or corporate will share any information.”

SuddenlinkLogo1-630x140When Altice took over Cablevision, employees were stunned when top executives dined in the staff canteen on their first day after the deal closed. That was never the style of former CEO James Dolan and other executives who avoided hobnobbing with anyone too far from the executive suites. Dolan himself often used a helicopter to travel back and forth from the office, occasionally with bodyguards.

Charles Stewart, chief financial officer of Altice U.S., warns everyone better get used to it.

“[Cost discipline is] our whole philosophy,” Stewart said. “It triggers a discussion at a very nitty-gritty level, which is where the difference is made.”

atice-cablevisionWith a commitment to slash $900 million in expenses out of Cablevision alone during 2016, that’s a lot of discipline. Employees are echoing their French counterparts at Altice’s SFR-Numericable when they call life at Suddenlink and Cablevision “a culture of fear,” watching workers exiting each week without being replaced. Much the same happened in Europe, despite commitments not to engage in job-cutting. In both cases, Altice claims the slow but steady trickle of employee departures are “normal churn,” not layoffs.

Altice designed its “investment committee” to be an authoritarian hellhole on purpose. Those who dare to attend the weekly meetings, which extend for hours, face micro-scrutiny of every expense brought before it, with employees peppered with questions to justify their expenses. The same occurred in France, where Altice officials debated how often they should pay to vacuum the carpets and clean the restrooms.

Employees figure out soon enough it is easier not to ask (or to simply buy what you need on your own), before enduring a prolonged debate on mundane topics like using new or recycled toner cartridges.

“It creates consternation for about two months,” admitted Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei. “Then people realize, ‘Boy, I really don’t want to go to the investment committee. We just got 500 printers a year ago; we can probably extend their life one more year.’”

While Altice has a deal with regulators not to layoff “customer-facing” Cablevision employees in New York, it is already slashing one of Dolan’s pet projects: Freewheel, a Wi-Fi powered wireless phone, SMS, and data service.

Coming next: Channel Renewal Battles. Altice executives believe it’s time to declare total war on channel carriage costs, even it leads to prolonged channel blackouts.

“We have about half of our programming lineup that’s up for renewal very soon,” Goei said. “There are clearly a lot of channels that we’d like to get rid of.” But Goei also told the Wall Street Journal many of the networks he doesn’t want are part of broader programming deals that require all of a company’s channels to be carried.

So what is next? Altice has stated emphatically it wants to be either the largest or second largest cable operator in the U.S. That guarantees more acquisitions, probably beginning next year. Cox and Mediacom — both privately held — may decide not to sell, which means Altice will have to refocus on taking over Charter Communications, which itself just absorbed Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, or divert to making acquisitions in wireless — T-Mobile or Sprint, perhaps, or content, which likely means one or more Hollywood studios.

Is Your Landlord Taking Kickbacks to Keep Better Internet Out of Your Building?

xfinity communitiesIs your cable television service included in your rent or condo “services” fee? Have you ever called another provider and told service was not available at your address even through others outside of your condo neighborhood or apartment complex can sign up for service today? Chances are your landlord or property management company is receiving a kickback to keep competition off the property, while you may be stuck paying for substandard services you neither want or need. Worst of all, chances are it’s all legal and everyone is getting a piece of the action… except you.

Welcome to the world of Multiple Dwelling Unit (MDU) Bulk Service Agreements, the seedy underbelly of the anti-competitive cable and telco-TV world. When cable TV first got going, most people wanted access. In the early days, cable franchises were typically exclusive and cable companies maintained the upper hand in negotiations with apartment owners and property owners. Since the service was in demand, many property owners were told to sign whatever “Right Of Entry” Agreement (ROE) was put in front of them. Most contained clauses that guaranteed that cable company would get exclusive access to the property for as long as it was given a franchise to operate within that community. In other words, basically forever.

This turned out very handy when competitors started showing up. First on the scene were satellite television providers, which had a rough time dealing with landlords who loathed tenants installing satellite dishes that “ruined the aesthetics” of the property. Many rental agreements still restrict satellite television dishes in ways that make their use untenable. But things got much more serious when Verizon and AT&T got into the cable business. Initially, both companies found extending FiOS and U-verse to some rental and gated communities was blocked by the exclusive agreements held by cable operators. By 2007, the FCC finally acted to forbid exclusive service contracts, but the cable industry and property developers have played cat and mouse games with the FCC’s loopholes ever since.

Property Developers, Management Companies, Landlords, and Homeowner Associations With Their Hands Out

att connectedWith the FCC’s 2007 declaration that exclusive contracts between cable companies and property owners were “null and void,” the power of the cable industry to negotiate on their terms was markedly diminished. Although many property owners applauded their new-found freedom to tell the local cable company to take a hike if they did not offer better service to their tenants, many others saw dollar signs in their eyes. With leverage now in the hands of the property owner, if the local cable company wanted to stay, in many cases it had to pay. Only the most brazen property owners kicked uncooperative cable companies off their properties, putting tenants at a serious inconvenience. Instead, many found life more peaceful and lucrative to stick with the existing cable company, signing a new contract for “bulk billing” tenants. On the surface, it seemed like a good deal. Property owners advertised that cable TV was included in the rent (and they paid a deeply discounted price per tenant) and the cable operator had a guaranteed number of customers, whether they wanted the service or not.

Bulk billing also proved a very effective deterrent for would-be competitors, who had to overcome the challenge of marketing their service while the tenant was already paying for another as part of their rent. As a result, telco TV competitors often stayed away from properties with bulk billing arrangements.

As broadband has become more prominent and threatens to become more important than the cable TV package, the cable industry has refined its weapons of non-competition. While they cannot force competitors off properties, they can make life very expensive for them. The latest generation of ROE agreements often grant access rights to the building’s telecommunications conduit, cabling, and equipment exclusively to the cable operator.

fiosIf Google Fiber, AT&T U-verse or Verizon FiOS sought to offer service on one of these properties, they would have to overcome the investment insanity of wiring each building with its own infrastructure, including duplicate cables, in separate conduits and spaces not already designated for the exclusive use of the cable company. Verizon in New York City has faced numerous obstacles wiring some buildings, including gaining access to the building itself. Intransigent on site employees, bureaucratic and unresponsive property management companies, and developers have all made life difficult for Verizon’s fiber upgrade.

AT&T often takes the approach “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” and offers its own bulk billing incentives, along with occasional commitments for fiber upgrades. Google Fiber can afford to skip places where it isn’t wanted, although with recent revelations that landlords can raise the rent by up to 11% with the arrival of Google Fiber alone, it may hurt to alienate that fiber to the home provider.

Kickbacks for New Developments = Windfall

Kickbacks for existing properties are lucrative, but nothing compared to the lucrative windfall new property developments can achieve with the right deal.

In 2013, one property developer in Maryland went all out for an exclusive deal with a provider that was going to get de facto exclusivity by using a convoluted series of entities and agreements designed to insulate the company from competition and a challenge from the FCC. A court later ruled the provider used an “elaborate game of regulatory subterfuge” using various corporate entities to escape potential competition.

Some lawyers devote a substantial amount of their practice to the issue of bulk contracts and ROE agreements. Carl Kandutsch serves clients nationwide, many trying to extricate themselves from bad deals of the past. In many cases, an attorney may be needed to find a way out of contracts that don’t meet FCC rules. Other communities sometimes have to buy out an existing contract. Many have to sit and suffer the consequences for years. One residential community found itself trapped with a service provider that was quietly protected by an “airtight contract” negotiated not with the property management company or the homeowner association, but the development’s original builder. The provider delivered lousy service and the community spent six years trying to get rid of the offending firm with no result until they hired an attorney. Although happy to be rid of the bad provider, the homeowner association ended up illustrating how pervasive this problem is after it signed a similar contract with another provider also handing out kickbacks.

Comcast pays up to 10% of a renter's cable bill to the landlord.

Comcast pays up to 10% of a renter’s cable bill to the landlord. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Comcast is more creative than most. It calls its handouts: “Marketing Support Compensation.” The property owner gets an increasing reward for every tenant signed up for Comcast service. Once around two-thirds of tenants are subscribed, the owner gets up to a 10% take of each bill, plus a one time payment of up to $130 per tenant.

Because Comcast’s reputation often precedes it, customers reluctant to sign up without considering other providers will find that tougher to do because Comcast bans other providers from marketing their services to tenants with the support or cooperation of the landlord. In other words, no door hangers, free coffee, brochures in the lobby, or any other on-site promotions. In case a property owner forgets, Comcast sends reminders in the mail:

Comcast likes to remind landlords it has an exclusive. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Comcast likes to remind landlords it has an exclusive. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Susan Crawford calls it “astounding, enormous, decentralized payola” and claims it affects millions of renters.

Crawford

Crawford

“These shenanigans will only stop when cities and national leaders require that every building have neutral fiber/wireless facilities that make it easy for residents to switch services when they want to,” Crawford wrote. “We’ve got to take landlords out of the equation — all they’re doing is looking for payments and deals (understandably: they’re addicted to the revenue stream they’ve been getting), and the giant telecom providers in our country are more than happy to pay up. The market is stuck. Residents have little idea these deals are happening. The current way of doing business is great for landlords and ISPs but destructive in every other way.”

One real world example of how this deters competition comes from Webpass (recently acquired by Google), which offers gigabit Ethernet speeds in select MDUs in San Francisco, San Diego, Miami, Chicago, and Boston. The service comes with a low price, but that doesn’t get the company in the door, according to its president, Charles Barr.

Barr has been refused entry by multiple building owners who have agreements with Comcast, AT&T, or others.

“Tenants want us, but we can’t get in,” Barr said.

Crawford argues the FCC has once again been outmaneuvered by ISPs and their attorneys.

“Sure, a landlord can’t enter into an exclusive agreement granting just one ISP the right to provide Internet access service to an MDU, but a landlord can refuse to sign agreements with anyone other than Big Company X, in exchange for payments labeled in any one of a zillion ways,” added Crawford. “Exclusivity by any other name still feels just as abusive.”

This isn’t a new problem. Stop the Cap! first reported on these kinds of bulk buying arrangements back in 2010, all made possible by the FCC’s regulatory loopholes. Six years later, the problem appears to be getting worse.

AT&T’s King of Lobbyists Endorses Hillary Clinton for President

Cicconi

Cicconi

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in almost 62 years, and the deregulation measure supported with ecstasy by many in the telecom industry was signed into law by none other than President Bill Clinton, opening the door to a massive wave of industry deregulation and multi-billion dollar media consolidation.

It therefore comes as no surprise — to some at least — that AT&T’s top lobbyist Jim Cicconi, perhaps rivaled only by Comcast’s David Cohen in power and influence, has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. The Wall Street Journal reported Cicconi has joined several other Republican corporate executives signing up for Team Hillary this election cycle.

Cicconi is voting Democratic this year, despite supporting every Republican presidential candidate since President Gerald Ford’s run against Jimmy Carter in 1976. This year is different, he claims.

hillary 2016“I think it’s vital to put our country’s well being ahead of party,” he said in a statement provided by the Clinton campaign. “Hillary Clinton is experienced, qualified, and will make a fine president. The alternative, I fear, would set our nation on a very dark path.”

Comcast’s David Cohen is also well-known for leaning to the left, and has been considered a friend of the Obamas since they took office in 2009. Cohen hosted 120 people in his home for a dinner in 2011 on behalf of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. It was an expensive dinner — each guest contributed at least $10,000.

The alternative, Donald Trump, represents what corporate America and Wall Street hates above all else – unpredictability and uncertainty.

Telecom issues have not made a big splash this year in either campaign, and regardless of who wins, their appointments to regulatory agencies like the FCC can have a major impact on consumer broadband initiatives and public policy. A Clinton administration could result in appointments of “centrist” Democrats that Bill favored during his two terms in office. Many of those former regulators are now lobbyists for the telecom industry. Or Hillary could move closer to Obama’s surprisingly tough pro-consumer policies on broadband issues and keep Thomas Wheeler at the helm of the FCC for a few more years.

attverizonCicconi would be pleased to see someone like former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford, Jr., take a seat at the FCC under a future Clinton Administration instead. Ford has served as an honorary co-chairman of Broadband for America, an industry-sponsored astroturf operation, for most of Obama’s two terms in office. He remains a close friend of both Bill and Hillary and is never far from the public eye, turning up regularly on MSNBC.

Broadband for America supports deregulation, opposes Net Neutrality, and essentially shills for its corporate sponsors. Rep. Ford would likely oppose Net Neutrality and continue support for near-total deregulation.

Verizon has also shown itself to be a Friend of Hillary. Three Verizon vice presidents each donated $2,700 to Hillary for America. They were joined by a senior vice president and another vice president, who gave an additional $1,000, according to Salon. A former Hillary Clinton operative who now lobbies for Verizon donated $2,700 as well, along with another Verizon lobbyist who pitched in $1,000.

While Bernie Sanders joined striking Verizon workers on the picket line, the Clinton campaign was cashing checks worth tens of thousands of dollars from Verizon executives and lobbyists. In May 2013, the telecom company paid Hillary a $225,000 honorarium in return for a speech (the text has not been disclosed) to Verizon executives.

The Clinton Foundation also benefited from Verizon contributions ranging from $100,000-250,000.

Some of America’s Largest Telecom Companies Are Overbilling You

bill errorAs part of its investigation of cable and satellite television companies, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found large discrepancies in how five of America’s largest cable and satellite companies—Charter Communications, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, and Dish—identify and correct overcharges caused by company billing errors.

The subcommittee released its report to coincide with today’s hearings on customer service and billing practices in the cable and satellite television industry. The Senate subcommittee focused its attention primarily on billing errors associated with rented set-top boxes and receivers, not programming packages or add-on services. The bipartisan report found satellite TV company Dish was probably the least prone to billing errors associated with satellite equipment and Time Warner Cable was the worst at identifying equipment billing discrepancies. Even when it did find instances of overbilling, the company refused to give customers automatic full refunds as a matter of “efficiency.”

That “efficiency” is expected to be very profitable for Time Warner Cable, which is likely to collect $1,919,844 from overbilling this year alone. Time Warner Cable estimates that, in 2015, it overbilled 40,193 Ohio customers a total of $430,393 and 4,232 Missouri customers a total of $44,152. Time Warner Cable also told the subcommittee that, during the first five months of 2016, it overbilled customers in Ohio for 11,049 pieces of equipment, totaling $108,221.

Charter Communications only did marginally better, mostly because it is a much smaller cable company. Charter estimates that it has overcharged approximately 5,897 Missouri customers a total of $494,000. Charter, along with Time Warner Cable, made no effort to trace equipment overcharges to their origin unless customers specifically asked them to and did not provide notice or refunds to customers.

Let’s review how the five companies compare:

Time Warner Cable

time-warner-cable-sucksTime Warner Cable is notorious for its “no refunds unless asked” policy, which often leaves customers uncompensated for service outages and other problems. That policy also extends to equipment-related billing errors. During the 6.5 year time period covered by the subcommittee investigation, Time Warner Cable never automatically refunded or credited customer for equipment overcharges discovered by the company. Instead, Time Warner’s “Revenue Assurance” team quietly identified and corrected billing errors without any notification or explanation to customers, which may explain why your Time Warner Cable bill can change even when you are locked in with a promotion.

The subcommittee discovered Time Warner Cable still relies on two entirely different billing systems. One, “Integrated Communications Operations Management System”, otherwise known as ICOMS, is especially troublesome to navigate at Time Warner because the company does not use standardized coding across the entire company. Placing an order for Internet service in the Northeast Division of Time Warner Cable is completely different from ordering the same product in a city like Kansas City or the west coast. Employees have complained about ICOMS for years, noting it can take up to 30 separate codes entered correctly in the system to add just one product, like High-Speed Internet. A simple data entry error can mess up an order and generate a billing error (or a lost order or service request that is never processed). But Time Warner Cable also relies on a different platform developed by CSG to manage some of its billing. Some of Time Warner Cable’s acquisitions, like Insight Communications, have operated under the Time Warner Cable brand for several years, but still use some of the billing platforms that were in place before Time Warner took over.

The subcommittee found strong evidence ICOMS is a big problem for Time Warner Cable. Attempts to audit the platform often crash, as it did in May of this year, preventing Time Warner Cable from identifying billing issues. At best, the company only aims for an 80% correction rate using its auditing tools.

One audit uncovered 18,000 customers in the Carolinas, Midwest, and Northeast that were being overbilled for modem and CableCARD equipment. Although Time Warner Cable was going to remove the erroneous charges going forward, it had no plans to automatically refund customers it identified as overcharged unless customers somehow realized that themselves and called in to request retroactive credit.

icoms error

Time Warner Cable erroneously billed one of its own employees for three Internet accounts.

Time Warner Cable once erroneously billed one of its own employees for three Internet accounts.

The subcommittee found if an audit showed that a customer had not been billed for equipment or services that the customer had received, the company treats those inconsistencies as undercharges and adds the charge to the customer’s bill going forward. Time Warner Cable does not attempt to retroactively charge the customer for previous months where that customer was undercharged.

If the audit shows that a customer has been billed for equipment or services that he or she does not have, the story is more complicated. In some cases, customers agree to pay for equipment they do not actually have so that they can receive a cheaper package price—for example, a consumer who wants only Internet service might decide the cheapest option is a promotional package including both Internet and cable television. By participating in the promotion, the customer agrees to pay a monthly rental fee for a set-top box but may instruct the company not to provide a set-top box. In such a case, the customer’s billing records will show a charge for a set-top box, but the customer’s equipment records will show that he or she does not physically have a set-top box. In April 2016, for example, Time Warner Cable identified 49,132 pieces of equipment associated with overcharges; of those 37,653 (approximately 77 percent) were not “correctable” overcharges because they were associated with accounts participating in promotional offers.

Time Warner Cable does not attempt to trace billing errors to their origin. Instead, it only provides a partial credit for the month during which the error was discovered. The company will not notify you of the error or for how long it has been on your bill. Unless you call and demand full credit for the overbilling, you will not receive it.

The cable company defends its policy on the ground that it is “efficient.” Going through months of customer bills to identify overcharges would be costly and time consuming, the company argues. The company also claims that the customer is best positioned to notice an overcharge and bring it to Time Warner Cable’s attention.

After reviewing policies at several different companies, the subcommittee cast doubt on Time Warner’s assertions, noting other companies had no problems returning overbilled amounts to customers without a request to do so.

Charter Communications

Unfortunately for customers, not included on the list of companies willing and able to automatically refund overbilling is Charter Communications, which recently acquired Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

therealcharterbundleThe subcommittee called Charter’s process of identifying and correct overbilling “substandard.”

According to Charter, prior to August 2015, the company did not run any systematic audits to reconcile its billing records with equipment records. Charter’s failure to perform regular audits means that overcharged customers could not receive a prospective correction of their bill unless they noticed the problem themselves and contacted Charter. Beginning in August 2015, however, Charter began taking steps to identify equipment overcharges now on its system. Charter will complete that process in June 2016.

Charter recently upgraded some of its systems to make sure that when an employee adds or deletes services and/or equipment, an update to the customer’s billing record occurs automatically. Charter has 21 employees working for its Billing Quality Assurance department. The employees randomly sample bills to check their accuracy and when Charter changes its bill format or presentation, the team is supposed to review the bills to make certain any billing changes do not introduce mass errors. The subcommittee found these auditing methods were unlikely to discover common “one-off” errors, such as when customers are overbilled for equipment or programming on their specific account.

Charter’s alternate methods of identifying discrepancies quickly become more convoluted and less useful after that.

For example, beginning in August 2015, Charter undertook what it called a “controller reconciliation,” in which the company began to reconcile its billing records with equipment data from its 35 “controllers” throughout the country. These “controllers” are designed to manage box authorizations and “from the office” service connection and disconnection so that a truck roll is unnecessary. These systems can also be useful in identifying unauthorized equipment installed at locations where they were never registered or if the box was authorized for channels a customer was not paying to receive. A controller reconciliation allowed Charter to identify anomalies like in Missouri, where almost 6,000 customers were being billed for set-top boxes they were not using.

The subcommittee was unhappy neither Time Warner Cable or Charter seem willing to use “brute manpower to identify how long a customer has been overcharged and automatically grant a refund or credit,” as well as do more to minimize equipment and programming mismatches with billing records.

Comcast has bigger problems than overbilling.

Comcast has bigger problems than overbilling.

Comcast

Comcast relies on a very similar auditing process in use at Time Warner Cable to identify billing discrepancies, except once Comcast finds one it identifies how long a customer was overcharged, notifies the customer and automatically credits the customer’s account. Starting late last year, Comcast began running audits weekly to improve billing accuracy. Comcast claims just a 0.3% error rate.

Comcast has more than 60 employees nationwide on the east and west coasts examining billing issues and, when needed, individually investigates each case to identify applicable refunds.

DirecTV

DirecTV doesn’t do regular audits, instead relying on a program called SAS Enterprise Miner to search for billing errors before bills are generated. It can also use the same tools to identify and correct past billing errors. The satellite provider goes as far back as necessary to correct past mistakes, and pointed to instances where credits of thousands of dollars were issued to affected customers. DirecTV’s Revenue Assurance department can also reach out and communicate with employees at all levels of the company to investigate billing issues and prevent future ones. What will change as a result of AT&T’s ownership of the company isn’t known.

Dish Network

dishDish was cited by the subcommittee report as having the billing system least likely to generate billing errors. Dish links its equipment and billing systems together, which means any change on one system automatically updates the other.

According to Dish, it is impossible to add or remove equipment without altering the customer’s billing records. Dish provides each customer with one free “receiver”—Dish’s term for the equivalent of a set-top box—and charges $7.00 to $15.00 per month for each additional receiver a customer has. That is the only equipment charge. Dish’s system will only send a television signal to receivers that have been “activated,” which happens as part of the installation process. Once a receiver has been activated, the customer’s billing information is automatically updated to reflect that addition. That system ensures that no receiver is added to a customer’s account unless it has been activated.

Dish customers return their receivers by mail. Dish provides a packaging label so that it can track the receiver once it has been mailed. When the receiver returns to the Dish warehouse, an employee scans the barcode on the receiver, which removes the receiver from the customer’s provisioning records and, in turn, from the customer’s bill.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Senate Cable Billing Practices 6-23-16.mp4

Hearing: Customer Service and Billing Practices in the Cable and Satellite Television Industry

Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, June 23, 2016 10:00AM ET

(Video starts at 19:55) (2:18:54)

Dish Complains About FCC’s 125% Regulatory Rate Hike; Independent Cable Says It Isn’t High Enough

cable ratesThe Federal Communications Commission is getting an earful from satellite provider Dish Network, upset with the agency’s proposal to boost regulatory fees covering direct broadcast satellite services by 125% this year.

If the FCC adopts its new fee structure, Dish will pay 24 cents per subscriber (up from 12¢) per year to cover the cost of full-time employees at the FCC who spend their days monitoring and regulating satellite television providers. Satellite companies will also pay a one-time fee of 3¢ per subscriber in 2016 to cover the FCC’s downsizing expenses.

The regulator has successfully found a way to cover some of its expenses by charging the companies it oversees “user fees.” In 2015, the FCC collected nearly $340 million in regulatory fees. This year, the FCC wants more, seeking to impose a temporary “facility reduction cost” surcharge that will cover the expenses of moving employees to new, smaller offices, or downsizing the current ones to save money. The FCC says that will cost an extra $44 million. Taxpayers won’t pay those expenses, but pay television customers ultimately will when providers pass both of those fees on.

Dish says the rate hike is unjustified because of its size and scope, and runs contrary to the FCC’s goal of minimizing consumer bill shock. The satellite provider also wants the FCC to explain how it can justify more than doubling user fees while downsizing.

If the FCC doesn’t answer, the American Cable Association, representing small independent cable operators, is willing to share their views on the matter. The ACA complains the FCC isn’t charging DirecTV and Dish enough, noting they are still getting preferential treatment over cable and IPTV providers that are being asked to pay $1 per subscriber this year.

“There is absolutely no basis for keeping the proposed DBS fee levels over 75% below those proposed for other entities in the Cable/IPTV category,” wrote ACA president Matt Polka in comments to the FCC. “DBS providers should be paying the same Media Bureau regulatory fee.”

att directvPolka pointed to AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV as an example of how disproportionate fees cost small independent cable companies much more on a per-subscriber basis than telecom giant AT&T has to pay for almost 20 million DirecTV satellite customers.

“AT&T, now the nation’s largest [pay TV company], operates two types of services – its U-verse IPTV service and its DirecTV DBS service,” noted Polka. “Yet, AT&T will be assessed starkly lower regulatory fees for its approximately 20 million DirecTV subscribers than it will pay for its approximately 6 million IPTV subscribers, even though all of these services make absolutely comparable use of Media Bureau […]  resources and AT&T’s advocacy […] is on behalf of all its [pay TV] subscribers.”

Polka wants fee parity – charging the same user fees for all providers, regardless of the technology they use.

“Doing so will avoid the competitive distortions the current fee structure creates by having cable operators and IPTV providers, most of whom are far smaller than the DBS providers, cross-subsidize the fee burden of their primary and direct competitors in the marketplace,” Polka argued.

Whatever fee structure is ultimately approved by the FCC, customers can be certain providers will pad those fees when passing them on to customers. For more than a decade, some providers have used regulatory fee increases amounting to spare change as an excuse to pass on new “regulatory surcharges” that are many times more than what those providers actually pass on to the government.

“It’s a price increase,” bluntly notes Mark Cooper from the Consumer Federation of America back in 2004.

This spring, The Consumerist broke down a typical AT&T U-verse bill loaded in junk fees and surcharges. (The RED numbers [1, 4-10, 13-14, 17-20, 22] are AT&T-originating fees; BLUE numbers [2-3, 11-12, 15-16, 21, 23-25] are government fees)

This spring, The Consumerist broke down a typical AT&T U-verse bill loaded in junk fees and surcharges. (The RED numbers [1, 4-10, 13-14, 17-20, 22] are AT&T-originated fees, fake surcharges/bill padding, or fees that represent the cost of doing business; BLUE numbers [2-3, 11-12, 15-16, 21, 23-25] are real government fees passed on to local, state, and federal taxing authorities.)

Stop the Cap! to N.Y. Public Service Commission: Time Warner Cable Stalls Upgrades

stc

June 16, 2016

Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess
Secretary, Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223-1350

Dear Ms. Burgess,

Today, we confirmed that Charter Communications has ordered an indefinite suspension of the Time Warner Cable Maxx broadband upgrade program pending a review that seems to carry no specific timeline for completion.[1]

We are deeply concerned about the implications of this decision, particularly as Time Warner Cable has been performing broadband upgrades this spring and summer in the Hudson Valley[2] and Syracuse/Central New York[3] regions that deliver important speed upgrades to customers in New York State. We have good information that Rochester was the next city scheduled for these upgrades, followed by Buffalo. These upgrades would have provided customers with up to 300Mbps broadband service as soon as late this year across a significant section of upstate New York, with the western New York/Buffalo region upgraded in 2017.

It is clear the only reason these upgrades have been suspended relates to the recent ownership change of Time Warner Cable, approved by the N.Y. Public Service Commission.

As you know, Stop the Cap! argued our concerns about approving the merger transaction between Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable, in part because Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program offered more compelling broadband upgrades, at a lower price, and introduced faster than Charter’s own offer.[4]

The alarming development of an indefinite nationwide suspension of the Maxx upgrade program has profound implications on large sections of upstate New York waiting for urgently needed broadband speed upgrades. The announcement also suggests large sections of New York will be waiting much longer to reach speed parity with cities, mostly downstate, that already enjoy up to 300Mbps service on an upgraded, less trouble-prone network.

Once again, New Yorkers are being divided into those with reasonably fast speeds, and those without. Should Charter adopt the slowest possible upgrade schedule permitted by the Commission, several upstate cities will be waiting until the end of 2018 – almost two years, to receive 100Mbps broadband.[5] I’d remind the Commission other major cable companies are offering residential customers speeds up to 2Gbps today[6], and many already offer tiers that well exceed Charter’s promised maximum speed.

Charter’s corporate decisions also impact New Yorkers more profoundly than other states because of the absence of significant competition. Outside of limited deployments of Verizon FiOS, DSL continues to predominate from New York telephone companies, including Verizon, Frontier, TDS, Windstream, and others. In most cases, these speeds do not come close to achieving the minimum 25Mbps speed that the FCC defines as “broadband.”

In states to our west, AT&T is already offering gigabit Internet service to residential customers, and Google Fiber (which has bypassed the entire northeastern U.S. for fiber deployment) continues its own expansion.

We urge the Commission to obtain definitive information about the current Maxx upgrade delay, the reasons for it, the timetable to resume upgrades (if ever), and an assurance that Charter Communications will resume a comparably rapid Maxx-equivalent upgrade for New Yorkers that Time Warner Cable was well on its way to complete within the next two years. We also hope the Commission will share its findings with the general public.

Yours very truly,

 

Phillip M. Dampier
Director

[1] Text of a company memo obtained by Stop the Cap! originally sent to Time Warner Cable’s engineering/customer support team: “The Maxx Internet Speed Increase Program is currently undergoing review by our leadership team. As a result, all speed increases and customer communications were placed on a temporary hold beginning Thursday, May 26. Once the updated launch schedule is determined, updated hub schedules will be posted to KEY and area management will be notified. Customers will continue to receive notification when the new speeds are available in their hubs.” (http://stopthecap.com/2016/06/16/charter-indefinitely-suspends-time-warner-cable-maxx-upgrades-pending-review/)

[2] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/about-us/press/twc-increases-internet-speed-hudson-valley.html

[3] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/about-us/press/twc-to-transform-tv-internet-experience-central-northern-ny.html

[4] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={FCB40F67-B91F-4F65-8CCD-66D8C22AF6B1}

[5] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={DEE1823A-AADD-48D4-94BD-B96BAC096DAA}

[6] http://www.xfinity.com/multi-gig-offers.html

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