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Charter to N.Y. – We Creatively Reinterpreted Merger Terms and You Can’t Do Anything About It

Charter Communications late Wednesday filed a remarkable 66-page circumlocutory rebuttal refuting charges from New York State Public Service Commission Chairman John Rhodes that the cable company was in breach of its agreement to expand rural broadband as part of the state’s approval of the Charter-Time Warner Cable merger.

At issue is one paragraph in the Merger Order approving the transaction that included rural broadband expansion as a required public benefit (emphasis ours):

In order to ensure the expansion of service to customers in less densely populated and/or line extension areas within the combined company’s footprint, the Commission will require New Charter to extend its network to pass, within its statewide service territory, an additional 145,000 “unserved” … and “underserved” … residential housing units and/or businesses within four years of the close of the transaction.

Charter has repeatedly failed to meet that requirement, despite an agreement with the state to divide it up into a series of six month benchmarks — each representing 20,000 homes and businesses. Charter has been given until 2020 to complete the required new passings. Despite those agreements, the state now accuses Charter of trying to cheat by claiming unqualified addresses as part of its expansion commitment. Among them, Charter claimed more than 12,000 homes and businesses in the New York City metropolitan area, the densest and most wired city in the state, as part of its expansion to the unserved and underserved. As a result, the New York Public Service Commission disqualified those urban addresses, demanded Charter show cause why it wasn’t in breach of its agreement, and regulators are seeking a $1 million fine and the possible revocation of Charter’s cable franchise in New York City.

Charter’s lengthy defense explaining why it has failed to meet its targets and counts allegedly unqualified addresses in its rural broadband expansion effort relies on unilaterally reinterpreting the original agreement the cable company signed with the state and assigning blame to others for delays in rolling out service improvements faster. It is also accusing the state of what Charter appears to be doing itself — changing the terms of the Merger Order almost two years after it was signed.

Much of Charter’s response comes with considerable eyebrow-raising hubris, telling the Commission New York should be pleased with Charter’s compliance with the Merger Order thus far, noting the only thing enforcing it is Charter’s goodwill. The company’s lawyers even label one section of their rebuttal: “The Expansion Condition Derives Its Legal Force, if any, from Charter’s Agreement to it.” That is a lawyer’s way of telling the state regulator it should be grateful Charter is doing anything at all after its merger deal was approved:

The Commission does not have the authority to compel broadband providers to offer service to particular customers at particular speeds or at particular locations, or to establish any other obligations in a cable television and telecommunications service merger related to the provision of broadband services. Indeed, it has been established for years that Internet access services are interstate, and accordingly subject to exclusive federal jurisdiction. The FCC has made abundantly clear that states may not impose “any so-called ‘economic’ or ‘public utility-type’ regulation[]” on broadband services and that federal law flatly preempts such requirements. Requiring a provider to expand the geographical range in which it offers broadband services and to offer it at specific speeds—as the Expansion Condition does—is a quintessential public utility obligation that could never lawfully be imposed by a state, as such a requirement would blatantly violate federal law.

Well, shuck my corn. New Yorkers should send Charter a bouquet and thank you card for delivering the public interest benefits it was ordered to provide in return for the right to make billions in revenue from tens of millions of New York customers.

Rural broadband challenges

One might think that with Charter’s confident declaration that it is no longer legally answerable to the deal conditions reflecting broadband speed, upgrades, rates, and rural service once the Merger Order was approved, Charter’s attorneys could call it a day and conclude their case. Instead, the legal team issued 65 more pages of legal theories and unilateral interpretations and declarations that conjure every available argument, even some that contradict each other. For example, Charter’s legal team insists on a plain language interpretation of the agreement in some places and a very strict legal interpretation in others that basically boils down to, ‘if it isn’t exactly specified in the contract, it’s not a part of the contract.’ Charter insists on using “industry accepted” practices that are not specified in the Merger Order that the Commission has not agreed to, while criticizing the Commission for interpreting its rural broadband expansion effort as applying to “rural” customers only, which Charter says it never agreed to.

Because no one should have to wade through Charter’s kitchen sink defense, we have broken down the most relevant excuses defenses explaining, for example, why Charter should be able to count a converted loft in a busy Queens neighborhood as “underserved” and multi-million dollar condos on Kent Avenue in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) as “unserved” no longer, thanks to Spectrum’s rural broadband expansion commitment. We will also share Charter’s creative interpretation of the Merger Order itself and the house of cards it constructs around it, and why Charter believes it is manifestly unfair to conduct independent surprise compliance audits without notifying Charter of those audits well in advance. Then we will share Charter’s theory about why it feels suddenly picked on by state regulators.

The Debate Over Unserved vs. Rural Broadband Expansions

The majority of Charter’s rebuttal is devoted to an all-out defense of the company’s decision to include service expansions in less costly to serve urban and suburban areas, including more than 12,000 New York City addresses. It probably needs to, because the company is facing a $1 million fine for allegedly not complying (again) with its agreed-on schedule to expand service to 145,000 unserved/underserved New Yorkers.

That Charter would attempt to count as many new passings towards its broadband expansion commitment as possible was hardly unexpected. Stop the Cap! warned the Public Service Commission and the Federal Communications Commission in its recommended deal conditions and follow-up remarks that great care must be taken when describing or defining new broadband rollout commitments. In prior mergers, regulators who did not precisely specify the nature of those expansions offered providers an easy loophole to count new passings a company would construct in the normal course of business. If a state did not specify the expansion program should exclusively target customers bypassed by cable service because they are unprofitable to serve, companies cherry-picked the low hanging fruit of new housing developments, new apartment buildings and businesses or manufacturing parks to fulfill its obligations. The reason is simple: those urban and suburban buildouts are much cheaper than wiring low density rural areas — the places broadband forgot.

Charter Communications readily agreed to the terms offered by the state to approve the merger transaction, which not only included specific conditions to deliver pro-consumer deal benefits to New York customers, but also an exhaustive explanation defining and discussing the issues the agreement was written to address. On the important issue of rural broadband expansion, the Public Service Commission was quite clear:

Too many regions of the State continue to suffer from out-dated or non-existent cable service. By requiring the Petitioners (and by extension New Charter) to build-out their network to pass an additional 145,000 “unserved” (download speeds of 0-24.9 Megabits per second (Mbps)) and “underserved” (download speeds of 25-99.9 Mbps) residential housing units and/or businesses within four years of the closing of the transaction – with annual milestones and exclusive of any available State grant monies from the Broadband 4 All Program – we will be well on our way to ensuring that all New Yorkers, regardless of location, have access to essential broadband offerings.

Also:

The Commission must also consider that, in today’s market, many New Yorkers lack adequate access to communication choices and that the public interest is not well served if we approve this merger without addressing that deficit.

The Commission also recognizes that many residential and business customers in rural areas of the State lack access to such services at speeds or levels that provide real value from the competitive communications market. Therefore, just as in the case of affordability, the public interest inquiry necessarily requires an assessment on how the transaction will harm or benefit the State’s interest in rural and business customer broadband expansion.

The Petitioners must also show how the transaction will facilitate increased access to their network for rural New Yorkers and business customers who today do not have the full value of a competitive market.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York.

A full read of the Merger Order shows the PSC repeatedly sought deal conditions to ameliorate the state’s pervasive rural broadband availability problem. It said nothing about wiring up neighborhood revitalization projects in the middle of the Bronx — a dense urban area that Charter would seek to reach with or without this merger agreement. To emphasize that point even further, the Commission defined pro-consumer deal benefits/merger conditions that would deliver services Charter was unlikely to provide otherwise, helping to fulfill the Cuomo Administration’s public policy objective of ubiquitous broadband:

Any assessment of the benefits should also be reduced to the extent the actions producing those benefits could or would have occurred even in the absence of the proposed transaction.

Also:

The determination and evaluation of public benefit must be undertaken in the context of existing public policy objectives and the realities of the telecommunications and cable television marketplaces.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Broadband for All program is well-known, especially by Charter and Time Warner Cable, which are both participants. The terms and objectives were clear and obvious, and required Charter to coordinate its expansion plans with the N.Y. Broadband Program Office to guarantee that state and federal tax dollars would not be spent duplicating Charter’s efforts to reach those rural residents and businesses. The reality of the telecommunications marketplace is clear: companies will not expand to deliver rural broadband service in areas that fail Return On Investment (ROI) tests without a government subsidy or a merger deal-related mandate. Consumers understand this when they call to request service and are quoted tens of thousands of dollars in installation costs to extend service in rural areas.

For the purpose of the Merger Order, the PSC carefully defined the kind of “line extension” the rural broadband expansion requirement was designed to target:

Under 16 NYCRR §895.5, a line extension area is defined, in part, as areas beyond the franchisees primary service area and may require a CIAC [a line extension fee paid by the prospective subscriber] before service is provided.

In its approval order, the PSC also references this critical point that would foreshadow how the Commission would look upon Charter’s attempt to count New York City expansion projects towards its 145,000 new passings commitment (emphasis ours):

If the build-out opportunities in New York State are primarily building down to density levels already specified in franchise agreements, then it is the franchise terms, not the merger, that would require those line extensions. 

If that wasn’t enough to discourage Charter from attempting that counting trick, the PSC also included on-point language in the Merger Order’s “Appendix A” — a bullet point short form list of requirements the company had to agree to follow, regarding the nature of the locations Charter was directed to deliver expanded or new service (underlining ours):

New Charter is required to extend its network to pass, within their statewide service territory, an additional 145,000 “unserved” (download speeds of 0-24.9 Mbps) and “underserved” (download speeds of 25-99.9 Mbps) residential housing units and/or businesses within four years of the close of the transaction, exclusive of any available State grant monies pursuant to the Broadband 4 All Program or other applicable State grant programs. If at any time during this four-year period, New Charter is able to demonstrate that there are fewer than 145,000 premises unserved and underserved as defined above, New Charter may petition the Commission for relief of any of the remaining obligation under this condition.

What makes this section important is that the PSC specifically mentions the Broadband for All grant program, which is designed to award state money to rural broadband projects. Unsurprisingly, there were no grant applicants seeking money to fund broadband expansion to million dollar condo owners in New York City or a converted manufacturing plant turned into modern apartments on Niagara Street in downtown Buffalo — both counted as new unserved passings by Charter.

Despite the exhaustive evidence to the contrary, the principal argument made by Charter’s lawyers is there is no specific prohibition against counting urban “new passings” (expansions) towards the 145,000 unserved/underserved residential housing units or businesses called for in the Merger Order. Charter’s defense attempts to bait and switch the PSC, first by working with state officials to exhaustively identify an adequate number of rural areas where broadband service is desperately needed, then suddenly counting wealthy condo owners in Brooklyn, new housing developments in Albany, and various business parks Charter was likely to wire for service anyway as evidence Charter was meeting its expansion targets.

See if you can follow their logic, especially the sentence we underlined at the end:

The text of the Merger Order is unambiguous: expanding coverage to low density areas is a reason explaining why the Commission adopted the Expansion Condition, not an element of the Expansion Condition. The requirement is to extend Charter’s network to pass an additional 145,000 homes and businesses within Charter’s “statewide service territory.” Id. The Commission’s statement that it is adopting the condition “in order to ensure the expansion of service to customers in less densely populated and/or line extension areas” is prefatory language explaining its reasoning. Id. (emphasis added). And as an explanation of the Commission’s reasoning for adopting the Expansion Condition, this makes perfect sense: densely populated areas are more likely to be served already, and thus contain fewer locations that would be candidates for further network expansion. But nothing in the Merger Order requires that every additional address to which Charter extends its network must be in “less densely populated and/or line extension areas” or precludes Charter from reporting addresses that are not.

Even if the Merger Order could somehow be construed, as the Expansion Show Cause Order does, as limiting the Expansion Condition exclusively to “less densely populated and/or line extension areas” (which it cannot), the Merger Order’s Appendix A, which sets forth the actual text of the Expansion Condition, contains no such requirement, requiring only that the “residential housing units and/or businesses” be “unserved” or “underserved,” not that they also be located in low-density areas. See Merger Order, App’x A, § I.B.1. Accordingly, even though there is no conflict as between the body of the Merger Order and Appendix A, Appendix A would control in the event of any such conflict. It is Appendix A that Charter explicitly accepted, and it is Appendix A that contains the specific text of the requirements with which Charter is ordered to comply.

Now hold on a moment. For the first time we’ve seen, Charter has declared it only explicitly accepted an appendix in the Merger Order, therefore the company seems to argue it can ignore everything else in the Order. This passage found just before Appendix A begins may explain why (emphasis ours):

[…] We conclude that with the conditions we are adopting (set forth here and in Appendix A), the merger will bring approximately $435 million in incremental net benefits (plus other unquantified benefits) to TWC and Charter customers and result in approximately $655 million in network modernization investment commitments. With the acceptance by the Petitioners of these enforceable and concrete incremental benefits, we conclude, as a whole, that the proposed transaction would meet the positive benefit test for New Yorkers and should be approved.

Charter counted The Crescendo, a former manufacturing facility turned into upscale apartments and lofts located in downtown Buffalo, as “newly passed” as part of the rural broadband expansion conditions required in the order granting the merger of Charter and Time Warner Cable. (Image courtesy: Buffalo Rising)

In what Charter’s lawyers must believe to be a clever move, the company expects its unilateral declaration to be recognized by the Commission, despite the fact the Commission clearly stated in the same Merger Order the merger’s approval required Charter’s consent of both the Order and the Appendix. The company’s lawyers clearly understand what the Commission wrote because they separately have raised a fuss in an accompanying declaration, claiming the Order’s language compelling rural broadband expansion could have derailed the merger in New York.

Ignore the Parts You Don’t Like

Adam Falk, Charter’s senior vice president of state government affairs signed a declaration submitted with Charter’s response to the PSC alleging the PSC’s then-General Counsel gave Charter the impression the Commission’s interpretation of “unserved” and “underserved” meant simple availability of broadband service at speeds of at least 25 Mbps for unserved and below 100 Mbps for underserved:

“After the Commission released the Merger Order, Charter evaluated whether it would accept its conditions or pursue some other response, such as seeking judicial review of the conditions or declining to accept the conditions and seeking to restructure its transaction with Time Warner Cable in a manner that would not require the Commission’s approval,” wrote Falk. “In Charter’s evaluation of whether to accept the Merger Order’s conditions, it was of significant importance to Charter that the Expansion Condition set forth in Appendix A of the Merger Order had been drafted in a manner that gave Charter some flexibility as to how it would be able to meet the condition.”

Falk added, “Had Appendix A contained [a] geographical limitation on the Expansion Condition, the presence of such a limitation would have been a material factor in Charter’s evaluation of whether to accept the Merger Order’s conditions. Before Charter formally accepted the conditions in Appendix A, a Charter consultant, acting at my direction, made an inquiry to Department Staff (specifically the Department’s and Commission’s then-General Counsel) regarding the presence within the body of the Merger Order of language referencing low-density areas, given the absence in Appendix A of any geographical limitation [….]

Where are these witnesses?

Falk claims the consultant and a member of Charter’s outside counsel were pointed by the PSC’s General Counsel to a reassuring legal precedent that signaled the Commission was allegedly prepared to accept only Appendix A was controlling, and Charter could effectively ignore everything else in the order granting the merger’s approval.

This would appear to be a surprising series of events, especially considering the PSC’s recent aggressive “show cause” order threatening Charter with fines and franchise revocation for not complying with its original interpretation of the Merger Order, which is miles apart from Falk’s claims of a mysterious ex-General Counsel and an unnamed consultant. Charter’s legal team relies on hearsay representations from unnamed people. The declaration itself raises a number of questions:

  • Where are these people now?
  • What do they say?
  • Why would a multi-billion dollar corporation rely on verbal assurances alone with respect to what Mr. Falk claims to be a material matter serious enough to potentially derail the merger in New York State?
  • If the ex-Counsel’s advice was given as Mr. Falk represents, why would the PSC suddenly pursue a very different interpretation of the Merger Order (the one it has consistently sought to enforce since the merger approval was written), and does that ex-Counsel have ultimate authority over how the merger agreement should be interpreted? We suspect not.

Disqualified Addresses

We know you are exhausted by now, so just a few more important points to consider (there were many more, but we suspect nobody would bother to read them all).

This newly constructed Brooklyn loft, worth more than $6 million, is now wired for cable service and counted among the “newly passed” addresses Charter wants credit for as part of its merger commitments. Does anyone believe the new owners would ever have a problem getting cable service?

Charter reacted with strong disappointment over the state’s decision to invalidate thousands of the company’s submitted addresses as evidence it was meeting its unserved/underserved merger-related commitments. The company’s lawyers used some novel arguments to rebut the state’s contention Charter was fudging the numbers:

  • Charter introduced its own concept of “well understood” metrics it claims are used by the broadband industry to define when a household or business is “passed” by a provider’s network. But there is no evidence of a meeting of the minds on this point, and Charter unilaterally declares it is the appropriate standard to follow, while also conceding the PSC did not specifically agree to those metrics.
  • Charter relies on Verizon-like logic to explain away its inability to meet its own buildout requirements. In New York City, regulators have rolled their eyes at the excuses Verizon gives to explain why it is years behind on its commitment to provide FiOS city-wide. Like Verizon, Charter seems to claim the mere presence of a wire down a street that is “capable” of furnishing service (whether the company actually ever does or not) is adequate enough to prove that street to be “served” if it can be installed in 7-14 days and without ‘unreasonable’ expense. Shouldn’t the definition of served include a real customer that can actually order and receive service?
  • Charter argued with what it claims is the state’s contention that all of New York City already has access to 100 Mbps broadband service, and as a result those locations cannot be counted as unserved/underserved broadband expansion. It hopes people will ignore the more relevant and appropriate question — whether existing franchise agreements signed by Charter and Verizon compel both companies to offer 100 Mbps service on request in those areas (while also raising uncomfortable questions about why those companies are failing to meet their existing obligations). If this is the case, those areas would have been serviced because of the city’s franchise agreements, not as a result of the merger agreement.
  • The Commission’s undercover on-site audits of many of the claimed upstate passings were rejected because of ‘misunderstandings’ about the state of Charter’s network in many of those areas. Charter’s lawyers criticized the PSC for not giving the company advance notice of the unannounced independent audit so that those ‘misunderstandings’ could have been clarified before the cable company was embarrassed by accusations it was cheating.
  • New York’s PSC has no legal authority to exclude New York City addresses from the broadband expansion program, at least according to Charter’s lawyers.

A review of the list of recently excluded addresses reveal many are in urban or suburban areas where new apartment complexes, condos, planned communities or commercial buildings have been built or renovated. Virtually all of them are within existing franchise areas and also seem well within Charter’s ROI requirements. Charter will effectively diminish the rural broadband expansion deal condition if allowed to fill up spaces with non-rural properties that effectively cut the extra deal benefits the PSC required Charter to share with New Yorkers to win approval of its merger.

One last point. Charter seems to be quite proud of their “Robust Quality Assurance Process,” to avoid duplicating existing service addresses or claim new passings in areas where other providers already offer 100 Mbps service. Yet the company concedes itself it has repeatedly withdrawn ineligible addresses when the state notifies them their ‘robust process’ has failed Charter once again. Part of that process relies on the FCC’s provider-volunteered broadband availability reports — the same ones that will suggest virtually every American has 3-6 competing broadband providers — mostly those that don’t actually exist as viable options for various reasons. Charter seems to recognize this, and claims its ‘quality assurance’ process relies on confirming what services are actually available in those neighborhoods. The lawyers do not include statistics about how many people actually open their doors or stay on the line with a cable company representative who wants to talk about their broadband options long enough to actually obtain that data.

The Unions Are Behind It

Just in case every other argument offered by Charter’s lawyers fails, there are always conspiracy theories to try. Charter hints that the unions and a labor dispute (actually a strike that has lasted more than 400 days) are responsible for the PSC’s sudden interest in holding Charter’s feet to the fire. With no evidence to offer, Charter warns the state not to bring pressure on the company to resolve its labor disputes:

The Commission is well aware that Charter is currently engaged in a labor dispute in New York City that has been the subject of considerable political attention and attracted significant interest from New York State and City officials, as well as from the Commission itself. In the course of that labor dispute, representatives of the striking employees have repeatedly threatened that New York State government entities will take adverse, unrelated regulatory actions against Charter if the labor dispute is not resolved to the union’s satisfaction—implying that the union believes it has the ability to influence the actions of certain public officials and may try to use that influence. […] In the months since Charter’s labor dispute reached an impasse, Charter has become the target of numerous proposed adverse regulatory actions, including the Expansion Show Cause Order, the NYC Franchise Order, an order initiating a “management and operations audit” of one of Charter’s telephone affiliates that referenced and was predicated specifically upon Charter’s labor dispute, and two orders proposing to publicly reveal confidential network and service information that Charter had been reporting to the Commission for years without objection or incident. The sudden focus of these enforcement efforts on Charter, the procedural irregularities of the Commissions orders, and the lack of any serious evidentiary foundation for the charges could lead reasonable observers to question whether they are animated by additional purposes unrelated to the Commission’s legitimate oversight responsibility, especially in light of public statements by public officials. Any effort by the Commission to initiate proceedings to pressure Charter to resolve its labor disputes would violate both state law and federal labor law. Charter is committed to demonstrating its compliance with the Expansion Condition within the four corners of the Merger Order itself, but reserves all rights with respect to these efforts.

Charter Spectrum strikers in the New York City area have been out for more than a year. (Image courtesy: Brooklyn Daily Eagle)

Yes, it could be all that, or perhaps state officials are exasperated that a multi-billion dollar company might not be living up to its commitments and now could be playing fast and loose with a vitally important rural broadband expansion initiative.

This is but a taste of the temerity of Charter’s attorneys. We could have mentioned the parts where they blame the weather for service expansion problems, why once the deal is done the state really has almost no power to compel the company to meet its obligations, why the PSC was unfair not giving Charter several months advance notice of invalidated addresses so it could correct deficiencies somehow missed by the company’s fabulous Robust Quality Assurance Process, why the company seems to treat the PSC’s estimate that it will cost an average of $2,000 to wire rural unserved homes as a requirement — one that can only be successfully achieved by counterbalancing cheap installations in New York City against costly projects to wire a dairy farm in Cohocton, and finally why it is really “complicated” to wire multi-dwelling units in New York City but that remains preferable to dealing with angry farmers in upstate New York stuck with no broadband service at all.

Charter has an easy way to avoid all of this unpleasantness. Charter must fulfill the terms of the Merger Order it agreed to, and must be penalized and sanctioned for its prior failures. We’ve already recommended sanctions that would assign any fines collected by the Commission to be spent on additional broadband expansion to reduce the number of rural residents being stuck with satellite internet service instead of a wired provider. That will make a real difference in the lives of more than 70,000 New Yorkers stuck with a non-broadband solution.

Strong Evidence T-Mobile/Sprint Merger Will Cause Prices to Rise, Innovation to Sink

Despite rosy predictions from Sprint and T-Mobile executives that the two companies joining forces will result in plentiful competition, lower prices, and more advanced service, the results of prior mergers in the wireless industry over the last 20 years delivered increasing prices, reduced innovation, and a lower customer service experience instead.

Few markets show the stark results of consolidation more than the telecom industry. Monopoly cable rates, barely competitive wireless domination by AT&T and Verizon — both with a long history of adjusting wireless rates and plans to closely match one another (usually to the detriment of the consumer), and politicians and regulators that acquiesce to the wishes of the telecom industry have been around even before Stop the Cap! got started in 2008.

When a market disruptor begins to challenge predictable and stable marketplaces, Wall Street and investors quickly get uncomfortable. So do company executives, whose compensation packages are often dependent on their ability to keep the company’s stock price rising. That is why T-Mobile USA’s “Uncarrier” campaign, which directly challenged long-established wireless industry practices, created considerable irritation for other wireless companies, especially AT&T and Verizon.

The two wireless industry giants initially ignored T-Mobile, suggesting CEO John Legere’s noisy and confrontational PR campaign had no material impact on AT&T and Verizon’s subscriber base and revenue. Ironically, Legere was named CEO one year after AT&T’s 2011 failed attempt to further consolidate the wireless industry with its acquisition of T-Mobile. A very generous deal breakup fee and accompanying wireless spectrum provided by AT&T after the deal collapsed gave T-Mobile some room to navigate and transform the company’s position — long the nation’s fourth largest national wireless carrier behind Sprint. It is now in third place, poaching customers from the other three, and has repeatedly forced other carriers to change their plans and pricing in response.

T-Mobile’s “Uncarrier” promotion.

T-Mobile invested in its network and delivered upgrades, but the real inroads for subscriber growth were made by throwing out the typical wireless carrier business plan. T-Mobile brought back unlimited data and made it a key feature of their wireless plans starting in 2016, a feature AT&T and Verizon had successfully banished, ended the traditional two-year contract, scrapped junk fees and surcharges that customers hated, and ran regular specials that dramatically cut family plan rates. If you lived in an area with solid T-Mobile coverage, the scrappy carrier quickly became a viable option among those contemplating ditching Verizon or AT&T. T-Mobile also benefited enormously from disaffected Sprint subscribers that spent years riding out frequent promises of an in improved network experience that frankly never matched the hype in many areas. Price conscious customers that could not afford a plan with AT&T or Verizon moved even more readily to T-Mobile’s network.

In contrast, AT&T and Verizon have spent the last 20 years consolidating the wireless industry by acquiring regional carriers that had a reputation for good service at a fair price, with the promise that the acquisition by a richer and larger competitor would accelerate network upgrades and improve service. But customers of long-gone or diminished carriers like Alltel, Leap Wireless’ Cricket, MetroPCS, and Centennial Wireless (there are others) that either no longer exist or remain alive only as a brand name on a larger company’s network, noticed higher bills and eliminated coveted features that helped them manage their data and voice plans and costs.

In Europe, recent industry consolidation in some countries has reduced major carriers from four to three, similar to what T-Mobile and Sprint would do in the United States. Pal Zarandy at Rewheel compared consolidated markets in Germany and Austria and discovered gigabyte data pricing where consumers had three options almost doubled in price in Germany and Austria. Austria was 30% less expensive than a control group of six neutral countries when it had three competitors. Today, with two, it is 74% more expensive than its European counterparts. In Germany, prices went from 60% more expensive to nearly triple the rates charged by control group countries.

The merger of Sprint and T-Mobile will dramatically reduce competition in several ways:

  1. It will end the pervasive price war for lower-income consumers on postpaid plans. Sprint and T-Mobile directly compete with each other to secure customers that skip AT&T and Verizon Wireless because of their more expensive plans and accompanying higher-standard credit check.
  2. Each of the four current national carriers have had to respond to aggressive price promotions for hardware (Sprint, T-Mobile), plans (T-Mobile, Sprint), and loyalty-building rewards (T-Mobile Tuesday). With a merger, those promotions can be scaled back.
  3. AT&T and Verizon have been forced to reintroduce unlimited data plans as a direct result of competition from Sprint and T-Mobile. Incidentally, Sprint and T-Mobile’s unlimited data features are different. T-Mobile offers zero rating of lower-resolution videos from selected websites while Sprint offers unlimited access to HD video. In fact, Sprint’s unlimited plan marketing campaign casts T-Mobile’s version in a negative light and was designed to beat T-Mobile’s plan to attract new customers.
  4. Since Sprint and T-Mobile are market disruptors, merging them means no new aggressive campaigns to out-disrupt each other to the consumer’s benefit. Instead, they will target the conservative plans of AT&T and Verizon, which requires less innovative marketing and less significant price cuts.

Sprint’s marketing points to differences between its plans and those from T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T.

In 2015, the OECD released a definitive study demonstrating the impact of consolidating telecom mergers among top industrialized countries, including the United States. The results were indisputable. If you reduce the number of national carriers to fewer than four, prices rise, service deteriorates — along with innovation and investment, and consumers are harmed. In Canada, where three national carriers dominate, the former Conservative government made finding a fourth national wireless competitor a national policy priority. While Americans gripe about their cell phone bills, many Canadians are envious because they often pay more and live with more restricted, less innovative plans.

This February, market research firm PwC published its own findings, “Commoditization in the wireless telecom industry,” showing that North America remained the most “comfortable” region in the world for wireless carriers looking for big revenue and profits, but that was starting to change because of disruptive marketplace changes by companies like T-Mobile and Sprint.

“In this zone, there is a greater than 50 percent spread in market share and ARPU between highest and lowest market players indicating that commoditization is far off,” PwC notes. For wireless carriers, “commoditization” is bad news. It means the amount of money a carrier can charge for its services is highly constrained because multiple competitors are ready to undercut another carrier’s prices or engage in all-out vicious price wars. In these areas, commoditization also means consumers treat each competitor as a viable player for their business.

In France, four national providers —  OrangeSFRBouygues Telecom and Free, have been in a price war for years, keeping France’s wireless prices shockingly low in comparison to North America. The price war in the United States is just beginning. PwC notes as the U.S. market becomes saturated — meaning everyone who wants a cellphone already has one — companies will have to compete more on price and service. T-Mobile and Sprint have been the most aggressive, and the effect is “meaningful competition.” In Canada, where three national carriers exist, competition is constrained by the domination of three large national companies and some regional players. Instead of cutting prices and expanding plan features, many Canadian providers are now trying to bundle their cable, phone, and wireless customers into a single package to “protect [market] share and increase stickiness.” In other words, Canadian wireless carriers are designing plans to hold the line on pricing while keeping customers loyal at the same time.

While average revenue per customer is now around $30 a month in North America, it is less than half that amount in virtually every other region in the world. PwC shows the direct impact of competition starting around 2014, when T-Mobile and Sprint got particularly aggressive about pricing. Wireless carrier ARPU was no longer a nearly flat line from 2009-2013. Now it is dropping faster than every other region in the world as AT&T and Verizon have to change their pricing to respond to competition pressures.

Sprint and T-Mobile’s CEOs launch their PR blitz. (Image: Cheddar)

While reports are likely to surface arguing the alleged pro-consumer benefits of the Sprint/T-Mobile merger, it will be critical to determine who or what entities funded that research. We expect a full-scale PR campaign to sell this merger, using industry-funded astroturf groups, industry-sponsored research, and industry-connected analysis and cheerleading.

In 2011, the Justice Department definitively crushed the proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. It cited strong and convincing evidence that removing a competitor from the wireless market will lead to consumer harm from reduced competition and higher prices. If one substitutes Sprint for AT&T, the evidence still shows Sprint’s own aggressive marketing and promotions (and its competitors’ willingness to match or beat them) will be missing from a marketplace where Sprint no longer exists. That cannot and should not be allowed to happen.

Data-Capping Comcast Forecasts “Tremendous Amount of Consumption” Growth in Broadband Usage

Usage caps for one and all.

Comcast, which insists on placing a 1 TB (1,000 GB) usage cap on most (but not all) of its broadband customers, is predicting explosive growth in broadband usage as customers connect more devices to their internet connections.

“[If] you look at in terms of just overall consumption, just at a high level, you look at the top 10% of our customers, just how much they use, they are using 20 or more connected devices,” said Comcast Cable president and CEO David N. Watson on a company conference call. “And it’s a tremendous amount of consumption that we have. And I think that’s where the market is going. There is going to be more consumption, more connected devices.”

Comcast’s growth forecasts suggest the company schedules regular network upgrades, although it has only adjusted usage allowances three times in the last decade:

  • Comcast introduced a 250 GB usage cap in 2008 that carried no overlimit penalty but persistent violators lost their Comcast broadband service.
  • Comcast raised the cap 300 GB in 2013 and implemented an overlimit fee.
  • Comcast raised the cap to 1 TB in 2016 and began promoting its Unlimited Data Option as an insurance policy against bill shock from overlimit fees.

“It is important to know that more than 99 percent of our customers do not use a terabyte of data and are not likely to be impacted by this plan, so they can continue to stream, surf, and download without worry,” claims Comcast on its website. As of December, 2017, “Xfinity Internet customers’ median monthly data usage was 131 GB per month during the past six months.”

Such claims should make customers wonder why Comcast needs a usage allowance of any kind if these claims are true. A 2016 study suggests Comcast may have more heavy users than it is willing to admit. The research firm iGR found average broadband usage that year was already at 190 GB and rising. There is no third-party verification of providers’ usage statistics or usage measurement tools, but there are public statements from Comcast officials that suggest the company faces a predictable upgrade cycle to deal with rising usage.

“We increase the capacity every 18 to 24 months,” confirmed Watson.

Upgrading is also a crucial part of Comcast’s ability to charge premium prices for its internet service.

“Not all broadband networks are created equal,” Watson said. “If you are providing a better solution in broadband, your pricing can reflect that.”

For Comcast customers using a terabyte or more in a month, after two courtesy months of penalty fees being waived, Comcast will recommend signing up for its Unlimited Data Option, which costs $50 a month. If you do not enroll and exceed your allowance a third time, the company will bill you overlimit fees: $10 for each additional block of 50 GB of usage. The maximum overlimit penalty in any single month is a whopping $200.

Critics of Comcast’s data caps point out that Charter — the nation’s second largest cable operator, has no usage caps at all. Optimum (Altice) also does not impose data caps. Those that do often copy Comcast’s data allowances and overlimit fees exactly — all to deal with so-called “data hogs” that the companies themselves claim represent fewer than 1% of subscribers.

A Washington Post Columnist Channels Cable Industry Drivel About Cord-Cutting

Phillip Dampier April 18, 2018 Editorial & Site News, Online Video 2 Comments

The editorial and opinion page of The Washington Post has always been an uneven experience, especially when it comes to their views on the telecommunications business.

For years, the Post’s editorial page has been suspiciously cable-friendly. It favored Comcast’s failed 2014 acquisition of Time Warner Cable — a thought so horrible, readers were likely to spit out their morning coffee after seeing it. At first, one might have attributed the editorial board’s friendliness to the fact its corporate parent at the time also owned Cable One, a cable operator serving small and medium cities in places Comcast, Charter, and Cox forgot. But Cable One is now long gone — spun off as an independent entity. So perhaps laziness explains why reporters and columnists are frequently suckered by well-worn talking points from a cable industry on the defensive — celebrating every article proclaiming the impact of cord-cutting is muted, at best.

This morning’s shallow column by “right-leaning blogger” Megan McArdle, “You think you hate your cable bundle. You’re wrong,” is an excellent case in point. It’s a combination of cable industry folderol and misunderstanding of the economics of today’s cable business.

McArdle argues that recent subscriber growth by Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services should mean we can get rid of the hated cable television bundle. Only we don’t she says, because we “actually love bundles.”

Her argument runs into trouble almost immediately when attempting to conflate a-la-carte economics of the television business with the likely impact of that type of pricing on hotels, airlines, and restaurants:

When you book a hotel, you expect “complimentary” mattresses, sheets and towels, rather than renting each individually. When you go to a restaurant, you don’t pay extra to enjoy the use of a plate. And you get very testy indeed upon discovering that your bargain airline charges you to choose a seat or bring luggage.

Bundling, it turns out, is valuable. You aren’t willing to give up complimentary shampoo and towel service when you’re traveling, because that turns every shower into a financial decision. The hotel, meanwhile, would need more staff to field requests for trivia, raising the price of the room. Much better for everyone to sell you a bundle that we call a “hotel room” but that really includes a bunch of ancillary products you might like to use during your stay.

In 2014, the Washington Post editorial page endorsed the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger that eventually fell apart.

Value is in the eye of the beholder, and hundreds of thousands of cable customers are doing what was once unthinkable for the cable industry (and Ms. McArdle) — they are cutting the cord to their cable television package for good. That is a fact many cable executives are now willing to acknowledge. It is why CEO’s complain about the inflation rate of cable programming costs and the fact subscribers are no longer amenable to annual budget-busting rate hikes for cable television. Some cable companies now attempt to hide those growing costs in fine print surcharges for broadcast TV stations and sports programming. Others are offering new slimmed-down cable package options for customers no longer willing to pay for dozens of channels they will never watch. It’s a story we’ve covered for nine years, but one Ms. McArdle obviously missed.

Her analogies about an a-la-carte world for hotels and airlines isn’t a good one because nobody staying in a motel or flying complains about getting too much from either. As with all things, there is a general consensus about what one can expect staying in a Holiday Inn or flying Delta. You can find outliers like the seedy motel with hourly rates that charges for clean sheets or the airline that is now contemplating new seating arrangements that cram people even tighter into an almost-standing position. But when you signed up for cable television, you did not expect or ask for hundreds of channels — many added not because subscribers valued them but because of corporate contract decisions or launch bonuses. But you didn’t have much of a choice with “take it or leave it” lineups. McArdle’s argument falls into the industry’s favorite talking point of all — the value proposition. ‘Yes, your cable bill is now headed for $200 a month, but look at all the value we give you by bundling dozens of networks you’ve never heard of with a phone line you don’t want and an internet connection that we now target for our annual rate hikes.’

Bundled pricing is designed to trap you into their business model, and any attempt to claim we “love” those pricing plans is extremely misguided.

Take Spectrum’s misleading promotion for a year of their triple play bundle, marketed as: TV+Internet+Voice with a price of $29.99/mo each. Not a bad deal. One can take internet service and television, for example, and expect to pay just under $60 a month for both. That’s a fine price. But then you missed the fine print. It actually says “from $29,99/mo each for 12 months when bundled.” To actually get those services for $29.99 a month each you have to take all three. If you just want the aforementioned bundle of television and internet service, the promotional price for that is $59.99 a month for television, plus $29.99 a month for internet — which adds up to one cent more than Spectrum’s triple play promotion, which also includes a phone line.

Do subscribers “love the bundle” or traditionally take it because it is the only package on offer from the cable company that makes economic sense, given the options?

McArdle continues:

Bundling is especially valuable in businesses where fixed costs account for a disproportionate share of the total price. Once you’ve gone to the monstrous expense of building and staffing a hotel, providing extra amenities generates little additional cost while adding a great deal of value for the customer. And the same is true of cable. Much of the expense comes from laying and maintaining a wire to your house; adding another channel is relatively cheap.

Right now, cable companies sell you phone, Internet service and entertainment products, all of which share one wire, one maintenance operation and one customer service staff. Without those other services, the Internet division would have to cover all that overhead. So if you pay less for the entertainment, you’re probably going to have to pay more for connectivity.

The sunk costs of cable company infrastructure have been largely paid off for years. Today’s cable systems were largely designed and last significantly overhauled in the 1990s and early 2000s to make room for more television channels. Every service contemplated for sale by the cable industry, including broadband, was designed to work over a hybrid fiber-coax network design that has been in place for 20 years. Move analog television channels to digital, and one opens up room for more broadband. Need more bandwidth for broadband? Order a node split to further divide pools of users.

The cable industry itself rejects McArdle’s argument for the one-size-fits-all cable bundle. It is why companies have started to introduce slimmed down cable packages and sell new packages of over the top streaming cable TV channels to their broadband-only customers. The costs to deliver and support the broadband services cable companies now love to offer have been declining for years, even as rates increase. Ms. McArdle is obviously also unaware of the industry’s push to launch more self-service options for customers to cut down support calls and dramatically reduce the number of truck rolls to customer homes. She may also not realize the impetus to raise prices comes not out of necessity, but from Wall Street and investors’ revenue expectations.

As cable television programming prices increase, the profit margin on cable television goes further into decline. But the cable industry makes up the difference by raising broadband prices. That is one segment of its business that remains very strong. Losing video subscribers is not the disaster Ms. McArdle suggests it could be. In fact Moody’s recently noted that with broadband profit margins about three times more than for video, the economic loss from a departing video customer can be neutralized by growing broadband subscribers at a fraction of the video unit’s loss. The ratings agency estimates that a ratio of about two broadband subscribers added for every video customer loss should offset revenue losses, while a ratio of 0.67 times that takes care of profit declines as well. That is based on current prices. Therefore, as cable companies add broadband customers, they easily offset the financial impact of video customers departing with no actual need to raise rates.

McArdle finally falls into the trap of using today’s linear TV paradigm as the basis of her argument that if all cable television channels were sold a-la-carte, they would cost astronomically more than they do as part of a bundle. But if that were true, the slimmed down competitive offerings of DirecTV Now, Sling TV, and others would be substantially more expensive than they actually are. For many customers, the out-the-door price is what matters, even if they are paying more for each of the channels they are interested in watching. A $35 DirecTV Now bill is still a lot less than an $80 cable TV bill, which often does not include surcharges and equipment fees.

Wall Street analyst Richard Greenfield of BTIG Research is so skeptical of the future of today’s bloated bundles, he has a Twitter tag: #goodluckbundle that expresses his view that bundled, linear, live television itself is decreasing in importance as viewers turn to on-demand streaming services. Subscriber satisfaction with Netflix and Hulu is much higher than almost any cable company.

One of Stop the Cap!’s readers understands subscribing to a lot of streaming services can also cost a lot, but customer satisfaction matters even more:

“It still adds up when you subscribe to a lot of services, but my satisfaction has never been higher because I am getting services with a lot of things I want to watch instead of hundreds of channels I don’t,” said Jack Codon. “When you flip through the channels and run into Sanford & SonLaw and Order, home shopping, and terrible reality show trash, you just get angry because I was paying for all of it. Now I pay Netflix and they spend the money on making more shows I will probably want to watch, as opposed to reruns I don’t.”

McArdle is correct about one thing — we should expect streaming and internet prices to increase, but not because of what she wrote. The real reason for broadband rate hikes is the lack of competition, which allows companies to implement “because we can” rate increases. Netflix itself hinted it may also increase prices incrementally down the road, but not with the intention of rewarding executives and shareholders with fat bonuses and dividend payouts. Netflix wants to pour all it can into additional content development to give customers even more reason to watch Netflix and little, if anything else.

Sinclair Broadcasting Preparing Support for Marsha Blackburn’s (R-AT&T) Tenn. Senate Race

Blackburn

One of the telecom industry’s most notorious favorites – Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-AT&T), is running for departing Sen. Bob Corker’s seat in the U.S. Senate, and she will enjoy extra support from Sinclair-owned television stations across the state of Tennessee, sometimes whether those stations want to support her candidacy or not.

Blackburn has a long history supporting the corporate agendas of AT&T and Comcast, pushing for deregulation, blocks on community-owned broadband networks, and opposition to net neutrality. She is the telecom industry’s most reliable member of Congress, willing to introduce new legislation custom-written by industry lobbyists. The Tennessee Tribune noted that Blackburn’s lackluster performance in Congress as little more than an “errand boy” was foreshadowed by Blackburn herself in each of her political races:

During political events when Blackburn first ran for Congress, she said she wanted the job so she could support George W. Bush’s agenda. Later it was to fight Barrack Obama. Now, as Blackburn spokesperson Andrea Bozek told the Associated Press, “We want to ensure President Trump has a reliable vote in the U.S. Senate.”

The AP’s Feb. 14 story confirms the congressman’s consistent posture displayed in person and other ways. She’s spoken of the “leadership” she’s followed. Blackburn’s also behaved like loyal party members by holding private, invited-guests-only sessions, usually for fundraising. In recent months, she excluded the press from a program on telecommunications.

Blackburn has boldly said she’s doing what the people tell her they want. Now, she wants to be a U.S. senator.

Polls in Tennessee show Blackburn trailing against moderate Democrat Phil Bredesen, a former Tennessee governor. That has her corporate allies worried, particularly in the telecommunications and broadcasting business.

Baltimore-area based Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns or runs more than 200 television stations around the United States, has been under fire for quietly inserting conservative and pro-Trump stories into the local newscasts of the stations it programs, without disclosing those stories have a deliberate spin defending the Trump Administration or various conservative causes favored by Sinclair Broadcasting’s executives. In March, Deadspin produced a video showing uncomfortable local newscasters across the country forced to read a scripted Sinclair promotion attacking the media for “fake news” — a corporate campaign that quickly won praise from President Donald Trump and scorn by media watchdog groups and many viewers.

Sinclair is the only station owner in the country that requires its stations to insert pre-produced news stories and commentaries it calls “must-runs” that do not always tell viewers in full disclosure  those segments and news stories were produced by Sinclair’s corporate owners from studios in Maryland. This fall, Sinclair plans to ramp up coverage of the 2018 mid-term elections with recently hired reporters, one who formerly worked for the Russian government-owned RT propaganda outlet, to produce political stories that will be required to air by Sinclair’s local stations nationwide. In fact, Sinclair has hundreds of job listings on help-wanted websites.

Among Sinclair’s top priorities for the fall is getting Rep. Blackburn installed in the U.S. Senate. No elected official has received greater support from Sinclair’s PAC than Blackburn. According to Poyntor, Blackburn has already received $4,500 from Sinclair this year. She is the current chair of the House Communications and Technology subcommittee, which oversees the FCC, the same agency headed by Chairman Ajit Pai that has bent over backwards for Sinclair and its efforts to acquire additional stations, including some of the biggest outlets in the country currently owned by Tribune Broadcasting. Pai is now under investigation by the FCC’s inspector general for possible collusion with Sinclair.

The New York Times’ investigation into the close relationship between Sinclair and Pai has been strengthened with evidence Pai and his staff members have frequently met and corresponded with Sinclair executives several times, usually coinciding with agenda items at the telecommunications regulator that have an impact on Sinclair’s business. The meetings, including one with Sinclair’s executive chairman just days before Pai was appointed to head the FCC by President Trump, have raised eyebrows among some members of Congress, but not Rep. Blackburn.

Sinclair’s top lobbyist, a former FCC official, also communicated frequently with former agency colleagues and pushed for the relaxation of media ownership rules, the Times reported. Pai’s talking points about relaxing media ownership rules were suspiciously nearly identical to the language the lobbyist provided the agency promoting the rules change that will allow Sinclair to grow even larger.

Sinclair’s executives need Blackburn’s support to keep Congress in check as the company grows its station count well above long-standing federal station ownership caps that Pai has systematically sought to relax. Putting her in the U.S. Senate could be critical to protect Sinclair, especially if Republicans lose control of the U.S. House of Representatives in this year’s mid-term elections.

In January, Sinclair mailed letters to its station’s managers urging they quietly participate in Sinclair’s PAC, asking each to contribute up to $5,000. Sinclair will spend that money supporting candidates like Blackburn. A copy of the letter was obtained by FTVLive.

You are receiving this letter because you are eligible to participate in the Sinclair Political Action Committee (PAC), our fund that supports candidates for Congress who can influence the future of broadcasting. The Federal Election Commission strictly defines who may participate, and not everyone in the company meets these qualifications, so please do not forward this letter to anyone.

[…] Since the change in administration last year, we now have an FCC chairman who appreciates the important role of local broadcasting enough to launch a number of politically unpopular deregulatory initiatives necessary to ensure the future of our industry. In response, there have been Congressional efforts to counter those actions, such as a legislative proposal to eliminate the UHF discount, which will prevent any broadcaster from meaningful growth in the future. […] We need allies in Congress who understand the role of local television  and who are willing to defend it in today’s ever-changing landscape.

Corporate contributions to federal candidates are prohibited by law, but our PAC is a legally acceptable way for eligible Sinclair employees to make our collective voice heard in the electoral process.

In addition to direct financial support, Sinclair is expected to produce additional news stories and commentaries it will force-air on its stations that echo the themes and views of the candidates the company supports. Sinclair owns five stations in Nashville and Chattanooga and will own a sixth in Memphis if the FCC approves Sinclair’s acquisition of Tribune-owned television stations.

Sinclair’s Tennessee stations are already loaded with Sinclair’s editorials and slanted news coverage pieces that are required to air as part of the stations’ local newscasts. But some stations also air extra weekly news shows that swing to the right, including one hosted by conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who bought television stations through his entity Howard Stirk Holdings, using Sinclair’s money and contracts with Sinclair to run “his” stations.

WTVC (NewsChannel 9) and WFLI (The CW) in Chattanooga

WZTV (Fox 17), WUXP (My30), and WNAB (CW58) in Nashville

  • Sinclair-owned WZTV (Fox 17) also regularly airs at least some of Sinclair’s “must-run” content, including nationally produced news packages, fearmongering “Terrorism Alert Desk” updates, and the weekly show Full Measure.
  • Sinclair-owned WUXP (My30) shares a main studio address with Fox 17 and re-airs at least some of Fox 17’s local news programming.
  • Nashville Broadcasting-owned WNAB (The CW58) “receives certain services from an affiliation of Sinclair Broadcast Group” and also shares a main studio address with Fox 17 and My30. It does not appear to regularly air news programming.

Coming soon: WREG (News Channel 3) in Memphis

  • WREG (News Channel 3) in Memphis is currently owned by Tribune Media but will soon be owned by Sinclair if the company’s pending acquisition of up to 42 Tribune stations is approved.

(programming details courtesy of Media Matters)

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