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Charter’s New Hard Line on Promotions for Time Warner Cable/Bright House Will Drive Customers to the Exit

charter-twc-bhCharter Communications is taking a hard line against extending promotional pricing for Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers and Wall Street predicts a major exodus of customers as a result.

UBS analyst John Hodulik predicts Charter’s new ‘Just Say No to Discounts’-attitude will result in customers saying ‘Cancel’ and he estimates a massive loss of at least 75,000 Time Warner Cable television customers in the third quarter as a result, with many more to follow.

Charter Communications’ executives have ordered a hard line against giving existing customers discounts and perpetually renewing promotional pricing, a practice Time Warner Cable has continued since the days of the Great Recession to keep customers happy.

Time Warner Cable and to a lesser extent Bright House have learned antagonized, price-sensitive customers were increasingly serious about cutting cable’s TV cord for good when the cost becomes too high to justify. Time Warner Cable dealt with this problem by giving complaining customers better deals, often repeatedly. That mitigated the problem of customer loss, allowed the company to retain and grow cable television customers and even helped minimize the practice of promotion shopping common in competitive service areas.

For years, Time Warner and Bright House customers learned they could enroll in a year-long promotion with the cable operator and then switch to a year-long new customer promotion from AT&T U-verse or Verizon FiOS and then jump back to the cable company with a new promotion. In many cases, they even got a gift card worth up to $300 for their trouble. Charter Communications thinks their new “pro-consumer policies” of not charging rapacious equipment fees and sticking to “simplified” prices will delight customers enough to keep their loyalty. Good luck.

Licensed to print money

Licensed to print money

Wall Street doesn’t believe Charter’s reputation or their ‘New Deal’ for TWC and BH customers will be perceived as making things better, especially for cable television and its cost. As customers roll off promotions at Time Warner Cable, the bill shock of watching rates rise up to $65 a month will speak for itself. The higher the price hike, the more likely it will provoke a family discussion about dropping cable television service for good.

In Los Angeles and Texas, where Charter premiered its new “simplified pricing” for Time Warner Cable customers, the response has been underwhelming, with many customers deriding it as “simply a price hike.”

David Lazarus, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, characterized the transition from TWC to Charter this way: “Meet the new cable company. Same as the old cable company.”

Culver City resident Jack Cohen provides good evidence of what happens when customers get their first bill from Charter, and it is higher than expected. Cohen received his first bill for $162, $22 more than his last Time Warner Cable bill of $140 a month, because his promotion with TWC expired. As a result, he canceled cable television after Charter wouldn’t budge on pricing. Cohen said “cancel” and never looked back. He now pays the new cable company $40 less than he gave Time Warner Cable, because he now only subscribes to broadband and phone service. Charter’s ‘simplified pricing’ cost the cable company more than the $22 extra they were originally seeking.

Lazarus learned when his own TWC promotional package expires in December, Charter had a great Christmas present waiting… for themselves. Lazarus’ $65 promotion will rise to $120 a month — almost double what he used to pay. But Charter also offered Lazarus a better deal he can refuse, a new Charter-Spectrum package of the same services for the low, low price of $85 a month — still a 30% rate hike.

In Texas, customers coming off promotions are learning first hand how Charter intends to motivate customers to abandon the Time Warner Cable packages Charter promised they could keep — by making them as unaffordable as possible and offering slightly less expensive Charter/Spectrum packages as an alternative.

“But it’s still $45 more than what I was paying Time Warner Cable for the same damn thing,” complained Ty Rogers to a Charter retention specialist, after his Time Warner Cable shot up once Charter took over. He is waiting for Google Fiber to arrive and then plans to cancel everything with Charter.

Charter’s billing practices also are dubbed the weirdest in the cable industry by The Consumerist, because Charter loves to hide taxes, surcharges, and fees by rolling them into other charges on the bill and cannot be accurately accounted for:

Charter breaks out federal, state, or local taxes and fees for some services (TV) but not for others (voice). Also, depending where you live and when you signed up for services, the taxes, fees, and surcharges that do appear may be listed under different sections of the bill or not at all.

While their procedure does result in many fewer line items for consumers, it does produce more confusing bills overall, and make it harder to compare against other providers in a truly apples-to-apples kind of way.

‘No, no, no,’ counters Charter/Spectrum to FierceCable.

“Our internet packages are competitively priced, but we offer faster starting speeds and don’t charge an additional modem lease fee on top of the cost of service (that is an additional $10 at legacy TWC),” Charter spokesman Justin Venech said. “That pricing is better and more attractive to customers. Our video packages are simpler and more robust. For example, our Spectrum Silver package includes over 175 channels plus premium channels HBO, Showtime and Cinemax while a comparable TWC package would have charged extra for premiums.  We don’t add on additional fees and taxes to our voice product that our competitors do, and our equipment pricing for video set-top boxes are much lower with Spectrum than our competitors or legacy TWC or BHN.  Our new Spectrum pricing is $4.99 for a receiver vs over $11 at legacy TWC.”

“That assumes, like every cable company always does, that we want HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax, don’t already own our own cable modem, and are not dancing in the streets over an even bigger television package filled with crap we don’t want,” said Rogers. “Charter also takes away Time Warner’s excellent long distance phone service, which let me call almost all of Europe without any toll charges or an extra cost calling package. I paid Time Warner $10 a month and could talk to someone in France all night long if I wanted. With Charter, it’s more for less.”

Rogers’ promotion included his DVR in the promotion, so comparing Charter’s $4.99 vs. TWC’s $11 for a DVR made no difference to him either.

“You can argue all day about the ‘value’ you are offering, but you can’t argue your way out of a bill that is $45 higher than last month,” Rogers complained.

Overall, the latest spate of cable mergers and AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV has been bad news for consumers, who face fewer competitive prospects and a new, harder line on promotional pricing. AT&T customers are discovering AT&T is more motivated to get U-verse TV customers to switch to DirecTV and less interested in providing discounts. The cable competition knows that, making fighting for a better deal much tougher if Charter’s only competitor in an area is AT&T. Cable operators also understand there is a built-in reluctance to switch to satellite by a significant percentage of their customers.

Charter’s pre-existing customers not a part of the TWC/BH merger are not too happy with Charter’s Spectrum offers either. At least 152,000 video customers said goodbye for good to the cable operator’s television packages.

Hodulik predicts there are more where that came from as the rest of the country gradually discovers what Charter has in store for them.

Three More Frustrated Frontier Employees Speak Out: Our Customers Deserve Better

lilyFrustration at Frontier Communications doesn’t stop with customers. Employees are also speaking out about the company’s inability to manage their growing acquisitions and offer good service to customers. Others are confused about major company priorities and initiatives that suddenly get dropped, and customer service representatives feel like they are cheating customers selling them products and services that are better in name only.

Three employees this month provided unsolicited letters asking Stop the Cap! to publicize the problems at Frontier because their managers are not listening and they want corporate management to step in and make necessary changes.

“Sally” (we have chosen pseudonyms to protect the authors’ identities) is a customer service representative at a major Frontier call center in Florida. She is saddened by the company’s “Wells Fargo” culture — pushing customers to buy products and services they don’t need just to make their sales numbers.

“Frontier has been pushing us hard to sell customers on our Frontier Secure suite of products, which adds anything from $5 to $25 to your bill and is supposed to protect you from identity theft, damaged devices, viruses, and provide technical support for your electronics,” Sally tells Stop the Cap! “Unfortunately, it sounds much better than it actually is because there are so many exclusions and restrictions. I’ve heard complaints from customers who bought into the program thinking it would protect their home computer, but then after a lightning strike did its damage, it turns out Frontier doesn’t cover “home-made” computers which means anything other than a computer you buy in a store and never upgrade.”

Sally recounts stories about her managers pushing Frontier Secure at every opportunity, because the profits that come from providing services many customers will never use are astounding.

Frontier has a plain jane blog.

Frontier has a plain jane blog.

“They even push us to sell virus protection on tablets and smartphones like the iPhone, which is generally ridiculous,” Sally wrote. “What is horrifying to me is that the people most likely to say yes to our sales pitches are our elderly customers who have simple landlines and we’re not even sure they have a computer to protect. But they like the identity protection, which is supposed to monitor your credit and cancel your credit cards if your identity is stolen. What we don’t tell you is you can do most of that yourself for free and if you call a bank to report identify theft, they can notify every bank to either put a hold on your credit or reissue new cards. It costs nothing.”

Sally says Frontier’s “Premium Technical Support” often relies on employees Googling for instruction manuals and then reading them back to customers. That service starts at $12.99 a month.

“Instead of selling people better internet access or more reliable phone service, we’ve gone into gimmicks and it’s embarrassing,” reports Sally.

“Jim” is a former Verizon senior technician who is now working for Frontier Communications in Texas. He says he spends several hours a day navigating confusion between Verizon’s long-standing processes for managing network issues and his new supervisors who are dealing with Frontier’s completely different corporate culture.

frontier new logo“If you ever wondered why it takes so long to get something done with Frontier, I can tell you — it’s the bureaucracy and a culture clash between the two companies,” writes Jim. “Working for Verizon’s wireline division was already stressful over the years because they were not investing very much in wired services and we’d learn to manage that by hoarding things and trying to keep issues as local as possible, but Frontier is a giant headache. When a customer needs something from us, often we cannot give the customer a good estimate of when he or she will get what they need because we don’t know ourselves. But we are told to ‘be optimistic’ or ‘be vague’ which is why there are a lot of broken deadlines or disappointments. They never tell us to lie, but we cannot level with customers either because many will bolt to Time Warner Cable or Charter if we told them the God honest truth. We have business and residential customers promised certain broadband performance by sales that we cannot give them because they are not FiOS-enabled. If you were promised 75Mbps and got 6Mbps, you’d start shopping around, too.”

Jim writes the cutover between Verizon and Frontier would have gone much smoother if the company culture of “not in my job description” was not so pervasive.

Who cares if the fine print is in English.

Who cares if the fine print is in English.

“Frontier was given old data from Verizon because we haven’t spent serious money on certifying the accuracy of our databases in years and nobody bothered to verify it before acting on it, and that is why a lot of customers lost their service,” writes Jim. “Verizon is at fault here too because when you work at a giant company like this you learn the company culture is to know your job responsibilities and don’t exceed them. Frontier people seem to be more flexible to a point, but they are also real good at avoiding getting caught holding the bag when something goes wrong, so important tasks or ongoing problems can be neglected because nobody wants to get the blame or feel like they are exposed when management shows up wondering why things aren’t working right.”

“It can be a career and promotion death sentence to be someone willing to stick their neck out and solve problems if your manager or their manager doesn’t like what you’ve done, actually helped create the problem you are trying to solve, or if you are perceived as ‘too negative.'”

Paul, a Frontier Communications employee in the mid-Atlantic region, echoes Jim’s concerns that managers don’t really appreciate hearing criticism. Paul is one of the many workers tasked with keeping Frontier’s website and e-commerce functions up and running. A former Verizon worker, Paul has been shocked by the ineptness of management that has resulted in some serious embarrassments at Frontier.

Frontier’s website is unique among significantly sized telecom companies because one cannot actually place an online order for service or even provide accurate speed and pricing information because the company gave up on trying to make sure those features were reliable. Paul reports managers were warned about the functionality problems but refused to listen.

“[They tell] employees to take ownership of issues, yet when we try to do that very thing we are overruled and our opinions are discounted at every turn,” writes Paul. “Prior to the very first rollout of [Frontier’s redesigned] website I informed [management] that the site had severe performance issues, but was told […] I needed to keep my opinions to myself and the vice president decided to launch the site anyway.”

As a result, Frontier’s website crashed and remained offline and/or disabled for a week, reports Paul.

Another satisfied customer in Texas?

Another satisfied customer in Texas?

Out of the blue “priorities” also suddenly arise that require workers to scramble, with less than excellent results. One day, managers told the software team there was an urgent need to launch Spanish language functionality for the website. But because of the rush, employees not well-versed in the language produced a Spanish-language website that has been derided by customers for its frequent use of “Spanglish” and lack of professionalism.

“They pushed Spanish language very hard and told us that it HAD to be in production before the April 1st cutover with Verizon because of the high frequency of Verizon customers that were used to this feature,” writes Paul. “Once we put it out there, every time there is an issue with Spanish on our site they tell us that it’s only one percent of traffic so they aren’t all the that concerned with it. Then when there is an issue with it they ask us why we didn’t test it. But they refused to give us the needed time to test it because they just wanted to push it out the door and move on to the next project.”

Paul also echoes what Sally in Florida is concerned about — a lack of integrity in Frontier’s marketing department.

“I have never worked for a more unethical company and I used to work for Verizon so that is saying something,” writes Paul. “[Frontier charges] customers for ‘Digital Phone Service,’ but it’s really just copper facilities. They call it “Digital” because it is working out of a digital switch. They change verbiage to make something sound better than what it really is. They say we have a 100% U.S.-based company but then hire IT folks overseas to do some of the work. They spend more money on sponsoring football teams than they do upgrading equipment and infrastructure.”

Time Warner Cable’s Dirty Little Secret: Cable TV Copy Protection

Time Warner's Enhanced DVR works fine, but those avoiding TWC equipment run into DRM problems.

Time Warner’s Enhanced DVR works fine, but those avoiding TWC equipment run into DRM problems.

If you’re accustomed to using Time Warner Cable’s DVR box, you probably don’t realize how heavy-handed Time Warner Cable can be with copy protection, but as set-top box alternatives proliferate, more customers are encountering the frustration of digital rights restrictions.

For several years, customers using alternatives to Time Warner’s set-top boxes or who wanted to store their DVR recordings on another hard drive quickly discovered the cable operator heavily enforces copy protection mechanisms designed to thwart digital archival copies of programs recorded from cable television.

Copy Control Information (CCI) is an invisible flag sent in digital television signals that is designed to give control to copyright owners over how their shows can be duplicated. Since at least 2007, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers have been frustrated if they use their own DVR or devices like TiVo. When customers attempt to copy their recorded shows to other devices or playback units in their home, the CCI flag often stops the copy cold.

ZatzNotFunny has covered this issue for years, noting Time Warner Cable, Bright House, and Cox have been particularly unfriendly to third-party set-top boxes like TiVo.

Among cable operators, the most common flags are Copy Freely and Copy Once. Many cable operators set their basic cable network CCI flags to “copy freely,” while premium pay movie channels like HBO are set to “copy once” — primarily to allow time-shifting devices like a DVR to record the show. Once your DVR has a copy of a show with a restricted flag, it cannot be copied again.

Digital Rights Management policies are part of the nation’s struggle between Hollywood-inspired copy protection and the public’s right to make and store recordings of programming for their own personal use. Some telecom companies like Verizon and Comcast have come down more in favor of consumers, while Time Warner Cable and Bright House (which have traditionally shared engineering practices and programming contracts for at least a decade) are far more responsive to Hollywood. The result for subscribers with $200 cable bills is endless frustration, especially if they choose not to use the pricey set-top boxes and DVRs supplied by the TWC or Bright House.

CableCARD and TiVo users, as well as those relying on Extenders for Windows Media Center like the Xbox 360 are often stymied by CCI flags, especially when a consumer tries to watch a show in one room and finish it in another using Multi-Room Viewing features.

ZatzNotFunny rates TWC, Bright House and Cox as unfriendly to alternative set top boxes like TiVo. (Image: ZatzNotFunny)

ZatzNotFunny rates TWC, Bright House and Cox as unfriendly to alternative set-top boxes like TiVo. (Image: ZatzNotFunny)

Wikipedia supplies insight into the available CCI options cable operators can choose to use for cable television channels:

  • 0x00 – Copy freely – Content is not copy protected.
  • 0x01 – Copy No More – A copy of the content has already occurred and no more copies are permitted.†
  • 0x02 – Copy Once – One recording can be made, but it cannot be copied to another device.†
  • 0x03 – Copy Never – the content can be recorded and viewed for 90 minutes after transmission, and is not transferable.†
  • 0x04 – Content is Copy Once for digital output, but would have Macrovision 7 Day Unlimited restriction applied on the analog outputs. This affects content viewed either on an HDTV with component cabling or on a standard definition TV. It also affects content saved to VCR or DVD when the recorder is connected to an analog output on the DVR.†
  • 0x07 – Content is Copy Never for digital content (deleted after 90 minutes) and Macrovision 7 day/24 hour for content recorded from analog channels. Content cannot be transferred via TiVoToGo transfers or MRV, and cannot be saved to VCR or DVD.†

† – Any live stream with a CCI flag set higher than 0x00 is to be encrypted or protected in a way that only trusted platforms that will obey the flag (Such as Microsoft’s PlayReady system used in Windows Media center) can access it.

A Time Warner Cable customer known as MachineShedFred noticed this problem first hand and wrote about it in a complaint to Time Warner Cable back in March, and Stop the Cap! reader Chris N. pointed us to this ongoing issue:

The only software that allows me to use the CableCARD hardware that you officially support and distribute is Windows Media Center, which Microsoft is no longer developing, and is no longer distributing.  All other DVR software available for every platform will not work, as they cannot decrypt the video stream due to the abuse of the CCI flag.

No other cable company in the US abuses the CCI flag in this manner, and every other cable subscriber in the US that isn’t on Time Warner has a wide choice of solutions for enjoying their service better than we can as your subscribers.  Why are you restricting the choices of your subscribers for no reason?  It’s clearly not contractual from the media networks, as they would have pushed for the same stipulations with at least one of your competitors.  Yet, anyone outside of TWC’s monopoly can use any other software they want.

When even Comcast allows their subscribers more subscriber-friendly choices, you know you’re doing it wrong.  Please revisit this ridiculous policy and cease the overuse of the CopyOnce CCI flag that unduly burdens your subscribers by forcing them to replace perfectly good hardware, or replace YOU.

word-saladSome believed this problem could eventually resolve itself with Charter Communications’ buyout of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Would Charter bring their own policies to affected TWC/BH customers, or will Charter customers soon have to contend with the CCI CopyOnce flag loved by Time Warner Cable as well.

An official complaint to the FCC brought a cryptic non-answer answer from William Wesselman, Time Warner Cable’s regulatory compliance counsel. Wesselman implied the liberal use of the CCI  CopyOnce flag was the result of restrictions in contracts with major programmers, which seems unlikely because other cable operators — larger and smaller — have successfully navigated around this issue. Wesselman’s answer implies as Time Warner Cable and Bright House are brought into the Charter hegemony, “the policies of the two companies will ultimately become the same.”

Of course, he never defines which policy Charter, TWC and BH customers across the country will eventually get by sometime in 2017.

Mr. Wesselman’s full response:

At this time, TWC and Charter continue to integrate their two systems into one. Both TWC and Charter, like other distributors of multichannel video programming, negotiate the distribution rights for the content it carries independently with individual rights holders. These bilateral commercial negotiations take into consideration many different factors, include the content protection and digital rights management requirements of the rights holder; applicable law, license and regulations; and the interests of subscribers. Each of these commercial negotiations, and the terms of the agreements that result, are unique to the specific distributor and programmer involved. As the integration of the two companies continues, Mr. X will notice that the policies of the two companies will ultimately become the same based on our agreements.


Pondering the Future of AT&T’s Dead-Brand Walking U-verse, DirecTV, and Data Caps

att directvWith the advent of AT&T/DirecTV Now, AT&T’s new over-the-top streaming TV service launching later this year, AT&T is preparing to bury the U-verse brand.

Earlier this year, AT&T customers noticed a profound shift in the company’s marketing priorities. The phone company began steering potential customers to AT&T’s latest acquisition, satellite television provider DirecTV, instead of U-verse. There is an obvious reason for this – DirecTV has 20.45 million customers as of the second quarter of 2016 compared to 4.87 million customers for AT&T U-verse TV. Volume discounts make all the difference for pay television companies and AT&T hopes to capitalize on DirecTV’s lower programming costs.

AT&T’s buyout of DirecTV confused many Wall Street analysts, some who believe the days of satellite television are past their peak. Satellite providers lack the ability to bundle services, although some phone companies partner with the satellite company to pitch phone, broadband, and satellite TV to their customers. But consider for a moment what would happen if DirecTV introduced satellite television without the need for a satellite dish.

Phillip Dampier: The "U" in U-verse doesn't stand for "unlimited."

Phillip Dampier: The “U” in U-verse doesn’t stand for “unlimited.”

AT&T’s DirecTV Now will rely on the internet to deliver television channels instead of a satellite. AT&T is currently negotiating with most of the programmer conglomerates that own popular cable channels to allow them to be carried “over-the-top” through broadband connections. If successful, DirecTV Now could become a nationwide powerhouse alternative to traditional cable TV.

AT&T is clearly considering a potential future where DirecTV could dispense with satellites and rely on broadband instead. The company quietly began zero rating DirecTV streaming in September for AT&T Mobility customers, which means watching that programming will not count against your data plan. For current U-verse customers, broadband speeds have always been constrained by the need to reserve large amounts of bandwidth to manage television viewing. Although AT&T has been boosting speeds in selected areas, a more fundamental speed boost could be achieved if AT&T dropped U-verse television and turned the service into a simple broadband pipe that relied on DirecTV Now to manage television service for customers.

AT&T seems well on the way, adding this notice to customer bills:

“To make it simpler for our customers U-verse High Speed Internet and U-verse Voice services have new names: AT&T Internet and AT&T Phone. AT&T Internet product names will now align with our Internet speed tiers. Our voice plan names will remain the same.”

An earlier internal company memo suggested AT&T would eventually transition all of its TV products into “AT&T Entertainment” after completing a transition to its “next generation TV platform.” Increasingly, that platform seems to be an internet-powered streaming solution and not U-verse or DirecTV satellite. That transition should begin in January.

Top secret.

Gone by end of 2016.

It would represent a formidable change, but one that makes sense for AT&T’s investors. The transition to IP networks means providers will offer one giant broadband pipe, across which television, phone and internet access will travel. The bigger that pipe becomes, the more services customers are likely to use — and that means growing data usage. Having a lot of fiber infrastructure also lays the foundation for expansion of AT&T’s wireless network — particularly towards 5G service, which is expected to rely on small cell technology to offer faster speeds to a more localized area — fast enough to serve as a home broadband replacement. Powering that network will require plenty of fiber optics to provide backhaul access to those small cells.

Last week, AT&T announced it launched a trial 100Mbps service using point-to-point millimeter-wave spectrum to offer broadband to subscribers in multiple apartment complexes around the Minneapolis area. If the initial trial is successful, AT&T will boost speeds to include 500Mbps service to those same complexes. AT&T has chosen to provide the service outside of its usual service area — Minneapolis is served by CenturyLink. AT&T acquired a nationwide license to offer service in the 70-80GHz band back in 2009, and an AT&T spokesperson claimed the wireless signal can reach up to two miles. The company is also experimenting with new broadband over power lines technology that could offer service in rural areas.

cheapJust like its wireless service, AT&T stands to make money not just selling access to broadband and entertainment, but also by metering customer usage to monetize all aspects of how customers communicate. Getting customers used to the idea of having their consumption measured and billed could gradually eliminate the expectation of flat rate service, at which point customers can be manipulated to spend even more to access the same services that cost providers an all-time low to deliver. Even zero rating helps drive a belief the provider is doing the customer a favor waiving data charges for certain content, delivering a value perception made possible by that provider first overcharging for data and then giving the customer “a break.”

As of mid-September, streaming media analyst Dan Rayburn noted Akamai — a major internet backbone transit provider — was selling content delivery contracts at $0.002 per gigabyte delivered, the lowest price Rayburn has ever seen. Other bids Rayburn has reviewed recently topped out at 0.5 cents per gigabyte. According to industry expert Dave Burstein, that suggests large ISPs like AT&T are paying something less than a penny per gigabyte for internet traffic.

“If you use 139GB a month, that costs your provider something like $1/month,” Burstein wrote, noting doubling backbone transit costs gives a rough estimate of the cost to the carrier, which also has to carry the bits to your local exchange. In this context, telecom services like broadband and phone service should be decreasing in cost, not increasing. But the opposite is true. Large providers with usage caps expect to be compensated many times greater than that, charging $10 for 50GB in overlimit fees while their true cost is well under 50 cents. Customers buying a cell phone are often fitted with a data plan that represents an unprecedented markup. The extent of price increases customers can expect can be previewed by looking at the cost of phone service over the last 20 years. The average, often flat rate telephone bill in 1995 was $19.98 a month. In 2014, it was $73 a month. In 2015, it was $90 a month. Those dramatically rising prices in the last few years are mostly as a result of the increased cost of data plans providers charge to clean up on customers’ growing data usage.

Both Comcast and AT&T are dedicated to a campaign of getting customers to forget about flat rate, unlimited service at a reasonable cost. Even as both companies raise usage caps, they continue to raise prices as well, even as their costs to provide the service continue to drop. Both companies hope to eventually create the kind of profitable windfall with wired services that wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon Wireless have enjoyed for years since they abandoned unlimited flat rate plans. Without significant new competition, the effective duopoly most Americans have for telecommunications services offers the opportunity to create a new, more costly (and false) paradigm for telecom services, based on three completely false claims:

  • data costs are expensive,
  • usage must be monetized, and
  • without a bigger return on investment, investors will not finance the next generation of telecom upgrades.

But as the evidence clearly shows, profits from selling high-speed internet access are only growing, even as costs are falling. Much of the drag on profits come from increasing costs related to licensing television content. Voice over IP telephone service is almost an afterthought for most cable and phone companies, often thrown in for $10-20 a month.

AT&T’s transition puts all the attention and its quest for fatter profits on its broadband service. That’s a bad deal for AT&T customers no matter what the company calls its “next generation” network.

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.”


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.

Programmer Conglomerates Preparing to Ax Smaller Cable TV Networks


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.

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.

Comcast Getting Into the Wireless Mobile Business; Relies on Wi-Fi, Verizon Wireless

(Image courtesy: FCC.com)

(Image courtesy: FCC.com)

Comcast is getting into the wireless mobile business.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts made the surprise announcement at this morning’s Goldman Sachs Communacopia investor conference, telling attendees Comcast will offer service beginning in mid-2017.

Roberts added the service will depend heavily on Comcast’s installed base of 15 million Wi-Fi hotspots, mostly from cable modem/gateways already installed in customer homes. When away from a hotspot, Comcast’s cellular service will depend on Verizon Wireless.

The deal with Verizon Wireless was expected, because Comcast has maintained an agreement with Verizon since 2011 that allows both companies to sell each other’s services to consumers. The agreement allows Comcast to obtain service from Verizon Wireless at fixed wholesale prices.

That means Comcast can introduce its wireless service without having to build wireless infrastructure like cell towers.

“We believe there will be a big payback with reduced churn, more [customer] stickiness and better satisfaction,” Roberts said.

Comcast will continue the cable industry’s tradition of not directly competing with other cable operators and will not accept customers outside of an existing Comcast service area. Comcast will likely offer the service in a bundle with other services. This will result in a quad-play package for Comcast, bundling cable TV, internet, phone, and cellular service.

Roberts did not talk about pricing.

Walmart Educating Consumers on How to “Cut the Cord”

Phillip Dampier September 14, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 3 Comments

walmartWalmart is recommending customers consider cutting off cable television for good with a step-by-step guide advocating an end to high-priced bills for hundreds of channels you’ll never watch:

When you sign up for cable, you are sold on the possibly hundreds of channels you will have access to, but how many do you actually watch? Most people find that they have, at most, a couple dozen channels that carry all of their favorite shows, while the rest are just filler. Unfortunately, whether you watch them or not, you’re still paying for all of those extra channels. Part of the tremendous savings (an average of $80 a month) in cutting the cord is moving to services that offer a smaller set of channels representing only what you want to watch. Not only do you just have the channels that you actually want, but streaming services are far more convenient, since they’re geared towards on-demand delivery of content. You watch what you want when you want. Most are month-to-month, meaning you can switch it up anytime rather than being stuck in a long-term contract.

The guide gives Walmart the obvious opportunity of selling customers on new televisions and equipment to enhance their streaming experience, and they don’t forget to mention how to hook up an antenna they just happen to sell to get local stations back on your cable-less television.

Walmart also uses its “cord-cutting” guide to upsell customers on VUDU, an often-forgotten pay-per-view streaming service Walmart just happens to own.

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