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Charter/Spectrum Sweetens Deal for New Customers With $500 Contract Buyout Offer

Phillip Dampier September 21, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Competition, Consumer News 1 Comment

Even as millions of Spectrum subscribers began paying higher rates for programming and equipment this month, Charter Communications has sweetened the deal for its new customers by offering free DVR service with their triple play bundle of TV Select, internet, and voice service for $89.97/mo during the first year. The cable company will also reimburse customers up to $500 to cover any early termination/contract buyout fees for canceling their satellite or telephone company video package.

Charter’s “Strategic Accounts” department is handling the promotion, and it will benefit customers where there is significant competition between Spectrum and AT&T and Verizon or satellite providers like DirecTV and Dish Networks. Spectrum does not cover early termination fees from cell phone companies, and you must have subscribed to a “comparable level of service,” which disqualifies competitors like Hulu, Netflix, DirecTV Now, and Amazon.

Like the rebates Time Warner Cable used to offer customers, there is a specific process to submit documentation to qualify for this rebate, and skipping a step means… no rebate and no recourse. In addition to this FAQ, Stop the Cap! has this advice:

  1. You must install and keep current a qualified Spectrum triple play package from the time you submit the rebate request until the day you receive a check.
  2. You cannot have had Spectrum Video service within the last 30 days, something we’ll explain below.
  3. Your account must not be past due.
  4. You must submit a copy of your provider’s final bill showing itemized early termination fees actually billed to your account. Bank/credit card statements showing charges are not eligible.
  5. You must complete the “Charter Contract Buyout Form” in full and submit it by e-mail or by mail to: Spectrum, 7800 Crescent Exec. Dr., Charlotte, NC 28217, ATTN: Strategic Accounts Dept. with your documentation. Try to make sure the names on both accounts match.
  6. Your rebate request must be received by Charter within 60 days of installation of a Charter triple play package or within two weeks of the date listed on the competing provider’s final bill, whichever is later.
  7. Charter will only reimburse you for the actual amount of the early termination fee, up to a maximum of $500. Cash the check within six months or lose it.

Charter insists customers who have had Spectrum Video service within the last 30 days cannot qualify for this rebate. This is an effort to close a loophole where an existing Spectrum customer cancels their regularly-priced cable service, switches to a competitor for a few weeks, and then promptly switches back to a Spectrum package at the new customer price, which also leaves Charter on the hook for paying the early termination fee charged by the other company. To avoid this, a customer would have to cancel Spectrum service, switch to a competitor for at least 31 days, and then switch back to Spectrum. That is likely to be a hassle for most people.

Customers who have participated in these rebate schemes in the past also warn that companies can reject a rebate if you do not have a “comparable” level of service with a competitor. In other words, if you signed up for a $20 basic video package and then head to Spectrum for a $90 triple play package, the company may not consider that “comparable.” “Comparable” can mean the dollar amount of the video package you have with a competitor or the combination of a satellite package with one provider and a broadband package with another. You can contact Charter directly and check if your existing package(s) qualify. If the representative says yes, write down the name of the person and keep it handy in case your rebate request is later rejected.

Charter says you won’t have long to wait for a rebate rejection or a check.

“When you submit your information to the Contract Buyout Team, your information goes through a verification process, which can take up to 5-7 business days. After approval, your check will arrive within 10 business days,” the company reports.

Other factors to consider:

  • Cable TV equipment is required and costs extra ($5.99/mo per HD box or DVR for new customers).
  • You will receive Spectrum’s base internet package, which is 60Mbps or 100Mbps in former TWC Maxx service areas. A $199 upgrade fee applies for faster speed.
  • Installation fees apply. You can avoid them with a self-install kit which can be mailed or picked up at a Spectrum retail store at no extra charge.
  • Fees and surcharges apply. The most important is the Broadcast TV Fee, which usually adds around $7.50 a month to your TV bill.
  • Rates reset to Charter’s regular price at the end of one year. There is no contract, so you can cancel anytime.

DirecTV Now Up to 155 Local Channels; Showtime Available for $8/mo

Phillip Dampier September 20, 2017 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, DirecTV, Online Video No Comments

AT&T’s DirecTV Now is aggressively pursuing agreements to include local network stations in its online streaming platform.

This week, the company announced it added CBS and CW stations in more than 75 markets reaching over 70% of U.S. households, and now carries 155 local stations on its lineup. As part of that agreement, DirecTV Now also now offers customers the option of adding Showtime at what AT&T calls the cheapest price available from any streaming service — $8 a month. Access to the Showtime Anytime app isn’t ready yet, but will be “in the coming weeks,” claims AT&T.

Subscribers to the “Go Big” package will soon find CBS Sports Network added to their lineup. Those with at least the “Just Right” package will see Pop added as well. On Demand programming from CBS and The CW will begin in October.

Here’s the current lineup of TV markets and stations available on DirecTV Now as of late September:

T-Mobile Increases True Unlimited to 50GB a Month Before Speed Throttling

T-Mobile today announced it was boosting the amount of data its “unlimited data” customers can use before they are subject to speed throttling from 32GB to 50GB, effective Sept. 20, 2017.

“Meanwhile, Verizon and AT&T sit at a meager 22GB, meaning Un-carrier customers can use more than 2x the data before prioritization kicks in,” wrote Neville Ray, T-Mobile’s chief technology officer. “Now, 50GB of data usage means a T-Mobile customer is basically the top 1% of data users, and to put it in context, you could stream a full two hours of Netflix every single day – that’s 30 SD movies – and never even reach that point! You’d still have roughly 8GB to go.”

Like other wireless companies, “unlimited data” does not actually mean “unlimited.” Providers allot a certain allowance of truly unlimited data which, once exceeded, subjects the customer to speed-reducing “throttles” until the next bill cycle begins. T-Mobile claims it only throttles customers when a customer exceeds their “prioritization” allowance — 50GB as of tomorrow — and the cell tower they are using is currently experiencing congestion.

“When T-Mobile customers who use the most data hit these prioritization points during the month, they get in line behind other customers who have used less data and may experience reduced speeds,” Ray wrote. “But this impacts them only very rarely, like when there is a big line, and it resets every month. If you have a lot of congestion in your network (I’m looking at you, Verizon & AT&T), these lines can be long and deprioritized customers can be waiting a long time.”

No wireless company will provide data on which cell towers are likely to experience the most congestion, how many customers are speed throttled, or what speeds customers will get for how long before the throttle usually drops. But it is definitely harder to hit 50GB than 22 or 32GB, which means fewer customers are likely to find their wireless data connections throttled.

There has been no response yet from T-Mobile’s competitors — AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon.

Verizon Wireless Pushes Customer to Upgrade Data Plan Before Closing His Account

Danny, who lives in eastern Hancock County, Me., was more than a little confused by his September Verizon Wireless bill.

“You haven’t had an overage yet, but you recently cut it close,” warned the wireless company. Verizon’s definition of “cutting it close” was using 7.3GB of data in June, 7GB in July, and 7.4GB in August. His data plan includes an allowance of 12GB a month, and he only used just over half of that. Despite that, Verizon Wireless recommended he “get on the right plan.” For Danny, who already spends nearly $250 a month with Verizon, that would mean an upgrade to “Beyond Unlimited,” which offers “unlimited” 4G LTE data (subject to throttling once you head north of 22GB of usage a month) and 15GB of hotspot usage. The added cost? Another $52.99 a month, taking Danny’s bill to $300 a month.

A $300 cell phone bill might be a subject of a story all on its own, but what really got Danny’s attention was a billing notice (and letter mailed separately to his home), telling him his family was being kicked off Verizon Wireless and his account would be closed Oct. 17. The reason? He was “using a significant amount of data while roaming off the Verizon Wireless network:”

The same company inviting him to spend $52 more on an unlimited data plan has now dis-invited him as a customer because it didn’t like how and where he used the existing data plan that came with his account.

“I checked all of my data usage for the past 12 months,” Danny tells Stop the Cap! “Data usage was anywhere from 3.5GB (for three lines), up to 8.5GB.  We have rollover data as part of our plan (previous month of unused data rolls over to the next month). One month we used 16GB (that was the month that we drove to Texas and back), but still never went over the data we had available.”

Danny’s family uses their phones primarily in eastern Hancock County, a well-recognized trouble spot for cell phone dead zones until Wireless Partners, an independent cell tower owner/operator, partnered with Verizon Wireless to construct new cell towers using spectrum acquired by Verizon. Many of the cell sites were specifically designed to reach Downeast Maine, home to a number of small communities — some drawing tourists in the summer and others not. Wireless Partners’ new towers concentrated improved coverage along the Route 1 corridor between Ellsworth and Calais, and the Route 9 corridor known to the locals as the Airline — from Calais to Aurora, communities mostly east of Bangor on roads that take visitors to communities like Bar Harbor, right on the coast, or all the way to the New Brunswick border.

Downeast Maine

In this part of Maine, customers have to choose their cellular provider carefully because no company offers solid coverage in every community in the region. Those living in more tourist-focused communities or cities on the coast or one of the offshore islands often select U.S. Cellular, a regional carrier that has accepted millions of federal dollars from the Universal Service Fund to expand service. U.S. Cellular has added towers in communities like Bangor, Lewiston-Auburn, Ellsworth and the Presque Isle-Houlton area. But in many smaller towns, U.S. Cellular reception often disappears. The other two providers — Verizon Wireless and AT&T — focus most of their attention on cities like Portland, Augusta and Bangor, and along I-95 and in popular tourist areas on the coast.

“Unlike in many other states, if you choose the wrong carrier in Maine, you get absolutely no reception at home and perhaps one bar, if you are lucky, while on the road going to work or doing errands,” said Mike Fastler, a lifelong resident. “More than anywhere else I know, people here talk to their neighbors about what cell company works for them, and in a lot of towns almost everyone relies on the same company because it is the only one that delivers good reception.”

Fastler says in large parts of Downeast Maine east of I-95, Verizon Wireless has recently been the most solid, primarily because its network has been supplemented with towers built by Wireless Partners, which has prioritized improving cell reception around the inland areas of Washington and Hancock counties. The customers most likely of being booted by Verizon Wireless are customers that live and/or work in these two counties.

Customers like Danny have no idea Verizon considers them roaming abusers because when using cell towers run by Wireless Partners, Verizon devices show reception as part of Verizon’s home LTE network. No roaming indicators appear at all. But Verizon must still pay Wireless Partners when their customers use the third-party company’s cell towers. Verizon’s interpretation of its customer agreement allows it to terminate customers found roaming excessively. The question is, is 7GB of usage on a cell tower network built to augment Verizon Wireless’ coverage area be defined as “excessive.”

Verizon thinks so, telling Ars Technica:

“These customers live outside of areas where Verizon operates our own network,” Verizon said. “Many of the affected consumer lines use a substantial amount of data while roaming on other providers’ networks and the roaming costs generated by these lines exceed what these consumers pay us each month.”

But Danny and many other affected readers tell us their usage is well below 10GB a month. Some customers received termination notices and use an average of only 3GB a month and live near a Wireless Partners tower.

“It seems highly unlikely Verizon Wireless is incurring costs that are exceeding customers’ bills,” adds Fastler, who is also scheduled to be canceled on Oct. 17. “I used 1.5GB in August and never came close to hitting 5GB on our account over the last two years and I am being shut off.”

Fastler tried to sign up as a new Verizon Wireless customer with his wife to escape the account closure, but Verizon Wireless’ crackdown is complete and the company has at least temporarily stopped accepting new customers in areas where its third-party cell tower operators provide service.

“Give them your zip code and if it is in an affected area the system kicks the order out and won’t accept it,” reports Fastler.

Jason Sulham, a spokesperson for Wireless Partners confirms Verizon’s order lockdown on Maine Public Radio in response to questions about just how many customers are being removed from Verizon’s network.

“Verizon is restricting any new customers in those areas, so when you talk about what that final number is, what they have indicated is a final number of current customers who have received a termination letter. However, that doesn’t take into account the number of people who are in that area that can’t even sign up as new customers for the service, which is certainly not what was part of the original intent of building this network,” Sulham says.

The crackdown on rural coverage will make life exceptionally difficult for affected customers. Maine is America’s most rural state, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, with more than 61% of the population living in communities of less than 2,500. Many of those communities are spread far apart, making cell towers difficult to place to reach the largest number of customers. Some communities have access to just one tower. Others are only partly serviced, requiring users to go outside, run up nearby hills, or take a short drive to get a single bar of reception. That is why Verizon’s news has hit this part of Maine so hard.

For many locals, Wireless Partners solved a problem Verizon itself wouldn’t solve, and stronger cell coverage came as a result. Now Verizon threatens to recreate the original problem, and by limiting access to its partner networks, it could throw those companies’ business plans into the air and make them financially untenable.

Verizon Wireless’ Great Rural Purge: Tens of Thousands Losing Cell Service

Herding rural customers off Verizon Wireless.

Nearly 20,000 rural Verizon Wireless customers in states like Maine, Michigan, North Dakota, and Montana are being notified their cell service is being terminated because they spend too much time roaming outside of a Verizon Wireless coverage area.

Verizon Wireless won’t say exactly how many customers it recently sent letters to advising them that because they have used “a significant amount of data while roaming off the Verizon Wireless network,” their service will be terminated Oct. 17.

“We’re providing advance notice to these customers so they have plenty of time to port their wireless number to another company before their Verizon Wireless service ends,” Verizon spokesperson Laura Meritt stated. “We regularly review accounts with data use that primarily takes place outside of the Verizon network.”

Verizon denies reports as many as 19,000 customers are losing service as a result of the purge, but their representatives are routinely quoting that number to customers and officials calling Verizon to complain.

Customers have no recourse and if they don’t port their number to another service provider by the termination date, their number will be disconnected and lost for good. The only good news? Verizon wants to disconnect customers so badly, they are willing to forgive the remaining owed balances for any devices financed through Verizon.

Maine

In Winter Harbor, many Verizon Wireless customers reportedly received the same letter, including the town’s police chief Danny Mitchell, who is concerned about the impact Verizon’s decision will have on local public safety.

“From a public safety standpoint, a lot of our 911 calls come in via mobile phone. And when you have less towers or less service to ping off from, then your area of location, instead of getting more specific in the location, is gonna get wider,” Mitchell told WLBZ-TV in Bangor.

Maine’s Public Advocate is concerned as well, and noted this is what happens when unfettered deregulation of telecommunications services give providers the right to terminate any customer for any reason.

“The Office of the Public Advocate is concerned about the well-being of all Maine residents,” the agency wrote. “This loss of wireless communication underscores the importance of our landline network to ensure that individuals can contact public safety officials in the event of an emergency.  Verizon’s actions raise new concerns that areas once deemed a competitive marketplace for telecommunications will once again be served only by their landline provider.  This possibility should be considered as the de-regulation of landline telephone continues throughout the state.”

Public Advocate Barry Hobbins thinks it all comes down to money.

“Because it’s not cost-effective for them, now they’re going to pull the plug — and basically pull the plug on 2,000 customers — then that becomes an issue,” he says.

The decision to terminate an estimated 2,000 customers in rural Maine alone is especially stinging to residents, public safety officials, and community leaders because they bent over backwards to get Verizon Wireless to expand its coverage area in the state.

In 2015, communities in Washington and eastern Hancock counties joined forces to make life easier for Verizon in return for expansion of cell service in the region, quickly approving more than a dozen new cell towers adjacent to well-traveled Routes 1 and 9.

Mitchell said residents are more than a little annoyed that Verizon is kicking them off after all that they’ve done for the company.

In 2015, the Finance Authority of Maine (FAME) insured, at the public’s expense, a $3.4 million loan for Wireless Partners, LLC of Portland to enhance Verizon’s 4G LTE network with up to 32 new cell towers for those counties.

FAME Board Chair Raymond Nowak said at the time, “It is our hope that the planned communication improvements by Wireless Partners will support business expansion, emergency services, and the tourism industry in Maine. Such partnerships are a key part of FAME’s strategy to support infrastructure that enables the success of other businesses.”

“We are pleased to be partnering with FAME and Mechanics Savings Bank on this important project,” added Bob Parsloe, president and CEO of Wireless Partners, LLC. “This project will make it possible for people who live, work and recreate in Downeast Maine to have reliable 4G LTE broadband and voice cellular service that allows them to be connected like the rest of the world.”

Not anymore.

“[People are] going to come out their door every day, look at a cellphone tower and say, ‘Hey, I can’t connect to that because Verizon won’t let me,’” Mitchell said.

Letter from Verizon Wireless terminating service for “excessive roaming.”

In fact, Verizon Wireless customers who don’t live in the area, along with customers of other wireless companies who happen to be roaming while traveling, will be able to use those cell towers while former local Verizon Wireless customers cannot.

Law enforcement and public safety officials feel a little bait-and-switched by the decision.

Sheriff Curtis

Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis says his department is still trying to wrap their heads around what Verizon Wireless is doing. But he seems confident it could adversely affect the department’s ability to stay in touch with law enforcement officials and respond quickly to calls. The decision could, in his view, set back the county several years.

“It’s kind of difficult sitting in this seat as far as being the sheriff here,” he says. “I’m in contact with the commissioners. I’m hoping that they’re going to be stepping up to the plate here, assisting us in this too — filing their complaints. We’re going to need all the help we can get here.”

With a chorus of complaints across rural Maine, officials at Wireless Partners have launched their own damage control effort to point the finger of blame at Verizon Wireless, and claim they had no idea the wireless company was pulling the plug on so many customers.

“Access to 4G LTE is an essential 21st century infrastructure need and it is the mission of Wireless Partners to meet that need in rural, underserved areas of Maine and New Hampshire,” said Wireless Partners CEO Bob Parsloe. “To that end, Wireless Partners built, owns, operates, and is expanding a Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network in Downeast Maine. Along with our network users, we were blindsided to learn that Verizon Wireless mailed subscription cancellation notices to their customers on this network. Wireless Partners was not given advance warning that Verizon Wireless was planning to restrict new customers nor terminate existing customers. We were only made aware of this development from concerned Verizon Wireless customers who were in receipt of the cancellation notification.”

Parsloe did hint at what is motivating Verizon to drop its own customers.

“Verizon Wireless did ask Wireless Partners to assist them in reducing the contractually agreed costs of using our networks,” Parsloe added. “Wireless Partners promptly informed Verizon that it was ready to address their concerns. At no point during this dialogue, which continues in earnest, did Verizon Wireless indicate to us their intent to restrict new customers and cancel current customers.”

Maine’s Public Advocate believes Verizon’s resumption of its unlimited data plan is probably costing the company more than it anticipated in roaming data charges levied by third party cooperating providers like Wireless Partners. In rural areas, private companies and independent providers often lease their networks to larger cellular companies like Verizon to enhance rural coverage and avoid exposing customers to punitive roaming charges. As far as customers are aware, they are using Verizon’s home network and there are no indications on their devices they are roaming.

Hobbins adds Verizon is doing this “all over the country” and residents in Maine — with large expanses of rural areas, are just among the first to react. But it annoys him that Verizon is implying in its letters that customers are doing something wrong. In fact, he says, they were simply using the service plan that Verizon sold them.

“It appears that Verizon induced these companies to build out in the rural areas around the country and then significantly promoted it by saying that they’re covering the rural areas when it fact now after putting those ads out, they’re now not covering the rural areas — in fact, they’re cutting it back,” Hobbins said.

Michigan

Tuscola County, Mich.

In mid-Michigan, customers are also getting termination letters from Verizon Wireless. In Tuscola County, Frank Rouse says he routinely spends $275 a month on four lines with Verizon Wireless and has been a customer for years. But Verizon is kicking him to the curb.

“I was pretty livid. I called customer service and I wasn’t real pleasant with them,” Rouse said, claiming he was furious when he opened the letter. “Why not do something proactive and maybe put up a tower in the area or something to keep the customers and draw in new customers.”

Mid-Michigan residents already have just a few choices for cell service, and now there is one fewer.

For Jamie Hay, it isn’t all bad news. He will lose his Verizon Wireless account but scored more than $3,600 in free phones and tablets he acquired for his family of six just two weeks before getting the letter.

“I made one payment and now I get to keep everything for free because Verizon is closing my account, voiding my payment plans and reporting all devices as now effectively paid in full,” Hay tells Stop the Cap! “Thanks to every other Verizon Wireless customer for covering my fabulous new phones and iPad!”

WNEM-TV in Michigan reports some customers are furious about being terminated by Verizon Wireless, and the company isn’t saying much. (1:32)

North Dakota

SRT Communications’ coverage map in North Dakota.

At least several hundred customers were notified across North Dakota that their Verizon Wireless service would also be terminated on Oct. 17. For many, once Verizon is no longer an option, cell service is no longer an option. Customers tell Stop the Cap! northern parts of the state are already reeling from North Dakota-based SRT Communications’ decision to exit the wireless business after 20 years. The company said it can no longer compete against larger companies like AT&T and Verizon and lack the resources to continue upgrades.

Customers are being encouraged to switch to Verizon Wireless, and Verizon has bought SRT’s spectrum and promised to improve coverage as part of the deal. But now some customers have been told they will not be able to keep their SRT service or Verizon Wireless much longer.

Montana
“Dropped like a bad habit,” as he put it, Kyle Wasson is among an unknown number of Verizon Wireless customers in Montana losing their Verizon service on Oct. 17.

Wasson, who was nearing a decade as a Verizon Wireless customer, is now no longer wanted, according to the letter he received: “We will no longer offer service for the numbers listed above since your primary place of use is outside the Verizon Wireless network” and “we discovered you are using a significant amount of data while roaming off the Verizon Wireless network.”

Northern Montana

Wasson had switched to Verizon’s unlimited data plan which he suspects might have had something to do with Verizon’s decision. Wasson doesn’t have many options in the town of Loring, 15 miles south of the Canadian border.

Neither does Brandi Horn in Harlem or Sue Hagen of Scobey — also told their Verizon service was being terminated next month.

“There is no better service in rural Montana than Verizon,” Horn said. “It’s going to be hard finding an affordable and high-coverage service now.”

LTE in Rural America (LRA) Program Implicated in Disconnections

Observers suspect the crackdown on rural roaming is primarily affecting customers served by the 21 partners Verizon has enrolled in its (LRA) program.

Under the program, LRA members lease Verizon’s 700MHz Upper C Block spectrum. Partners have access to Verizon’s network vendors and discounts and can sell the same equipment Verizon offers its customers in their stores. But the 21 companies are responsible for financing and building their own networks and can sell service independent of Verizon. In return, Verizon customers can “roam” on those networks as if they were still within Verizon’s home network. Verizon’s partners gain access to resources to build out their own LTE 4G networks and have a certain amount of effectively guaranteed traffic from Verizon customers in their service areas.

Verizon has leased out LTE spectrum covering 225,000 square miles in 169 rural counties in 15 different states. The company said more than 1,000 LTE cell sites have been built and switched on through the program, covering 2.7 million people.

But Verizon does not have the capacity to throttle or deprioritize traffic on third-party networks, meaning customers enrolled in an unlimited data plan can use as much data as they want on partner networks. There is a strong likelihood Verizon has to compensate those providers at premium rates for network traffic generated by their customers.

That means customers are at the highest risk of being disconnected if they are on an unlimited data plan and use their Verizon devices in areas served by these providers — all participants in the LRA program:

Bluegrass Cellular; Cross Telephone; Pioneer Cellular; Cellcom; Thumb Cellular; Strata Networks; S and R Communications; Carolina West; Custer Telephone Cooperative; KPU Telecommunications; Chariton Valley Communication Corporation; Appalachian Wireless; Northwest Missouri Cellular; Chat Mobility; Matanuska Telephone Association; Wireless Partners; Triangle Communications; Nemont; Mid-Rivers Communications and Copper Valley Telecom.

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