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Please Stand By… Charter and I Have a Disagreement

A typical crowd at a Charter/Spectrum store still displaying Time Warner Cable signage. (Image: Sherry T.)

Your patience is appreciated as I spent the last two days more offline than online, courtesy of “problems” with Charter Communications and their confusion factory.

The good news: The local employees I have dealt with have been both polite and professional and are trying to be helpful, and I’ve always recognized this as true with both Time Warner Cable and now Charter.

The bad news: Corporate policies, the merger, and confusion over glacially slow integration of Charter and TWC’s separate billing and provisioning systems can leave customers caught in the middle. Also, despite the well-intentioned assistance provided by the offshore call center workers (Sandheep, Moanwalla, and someone I think was named Sunshine), their abilities to navigate Charter’s own service and provisioning systems properly left plenty to be desired. Much of their efforts had to be redone from the beginning stateside.

Phillip Dampier’s Charter/Time Warner Cable Account — Born 2004, Died 2017.

We will be back with regular articles tomorrow, assuming our internet service is functioning properly, and look for a write-up of my experiences navigating around Charter’s new policies towards their adopted TWC and Bright House customers.

To be sure, I was not alone having problems with Charter. I have never seen such crowds at Charter Cable Stores, where 20 people were ahead of me in line at one location, almost 30 at another. Nearly half brought their equipment back with new, higher bill in hand. They had enough after their bill increased $20-80(!) dollars, all thanks to Charter’s “pro-consumer merger benefits.”

Yes, a higher bill and a package of fewer channels.

It was stunning to think Charter had lost several hundred thousand TWC customers in just three months, but not after what I witnessed yesterday. It is entirely believable they will be losing a lot more, all thanks to higher prices and intransigence on giving loyal customers the kind of deals new customers get.

Charter/Spectrum: Same s***, different name.

D.C. Media Ignores Rural Broadband Dilemma While Taking Cheap Shots at Hillary Clinton

Any opportunity to paint Hillary Clinton as an out-of-touch politician rarely escapes the Beltway crowd and some of the media that covers it. Unfortunately, rural America’s broadband problems also get dismissed in the process.

After a 35-minute Hillary Clinton interview with Christiane Amanpour, one takeaway line about how the former presidential candidate felt about rural job creation was seized on by the folks inside-the-D.C. Beltway and used to mock and belittle her:

“If you don’t have access to high-speed, affordable broadband, which large parts of America do not, [large employers will overlook your town]. If you drive around in some of the places that beat the heck out of me, you cannot get cell coverage for miles. And so, even in towns — so, the president was in Harrisburg. I was in Harrisburg during the campaign, and I met with people afterward. One of the things they said to me is that there are places in central Pennsylvania where we don’t have access to affordable high-speed internet.”

As any reader of Stop the Cap! knows, those are very legitimate points. The video embedded below has several more. Available robust internet access at affordable prices attracts employers. Just ask the city of Chattanooga, Tenn.

Anyone who has traveled mountainous central Pennsylvania knows exactly what Mrs. Clinton is talking about. These communities are served by Frontier Communications and Verizon, and the best either company will offer, if you’re lucky, is basic DSL service. There are significant parts of Pennsylvania with no cable provider, and with terrain that often resembles West Virginia — another difficult-to-serve state — wireless is not so great either.

Long term rural Pennsylvanians decried the day the last analog cellular network was switched off. They routinely outperformed the digital network that replaced it in fringe reception zones. Many residents have to use indoor cell tower extenders provided by companies like Verizon Wireless and AT&T to get stable cellular reception, and many rural towns are either a total wireless dead zone or are filled with dead spots where reception evaporates.

Competition from Sprint and T-Mobile don’t mean much in rural Pennsylvania, because neither offer any reception in significant sections of the state, and AT&T and Verizon Wireless can be only nominally better in some areas.

Areas where at least 25Mbps broadband is available in Pennsylvania (Blue – Cable, Brown – Fiber) (Map courtesy of Pennsylvania Department of Community Economic Development)

So like much of the Appalachians, rural broadband is a very big problem in central Pennsylvania. Candidate Clinton proposed spending billions to augment rural broadband service, presumably by offering matching funds and grants to rural telephone companies. Although saddling rural areas with indefinite DSL service is not an ideal solution, it offers more than the Trump Administration’s apparent willingness to coddle incumbent providers with more deregulation and less oversight.

But the D.C. chattering class ignored the entire question of rural broadband problems in America and according to the Washington Post, selectively edited Mrs. Clinton’s statement into a whiny complaint she couldn’t get enough bars on her cell phone while campaigning in areas across the state where she ultimately lost:

Elliot is a reporter for Time magazine. If he can take her quote out of context on Twitter, is that a routine practice in Time magazine as well?

Zach Wolf manages @CNNPolitics for the cable news channel. That does not inspire confidence in CNN.

Clinton Soffer is a regional National Republican Senatorial Committee director, so his shot is at least politically predictable, but easy enough to identify as partisan.

Of course, nobody is talking about the real issue, which isn’t whether Hillary Clinton is a limousine liberal or not. It’s the bipartisan problem of downright lousy or non-existent rural broadband, a problem that incumbent providers won’t do much about unless the government arm-twists them into expansion when companies launch another merger or acquisition that needs government approval, or better yet for them, if taxpayer or ratepayer dollars help foot the bill.

At the same time this kerfuffle was going on, a private company selling VPN services decided to embark on a questionable survey asking whether Americans think broadband is a “human right” or simply a nice thing to have if you can get it.

Results of survey conducted by AnchorFree, which sells VPN services to consumers.

In April, AnchorFree surveyed an audience of over 2,000 consumers, ages 18+ about online privacy. This survey was completed online and was completely anonymous — two points that rendered it largely useless for actual opinion measurement. Online surveys are notoriously unreliable because they are heavily weighted toward those that found the survey on a website most Americans would not likely have visited, and AnchorFree offers no reliable evidence of an appropriate measurement of different demographic groups to get a properly mixed sample of opinions. In this case, we predict about 80-90% of respondents were young, male, and paranoid enough about online security to warrant shopping around for a VPN provider. But the survey does at least highlight the real issue of “not my problem” thinking that impacts on rural broadband public policy.

AnchorFree’s study asked these 2,000 visitors to its website whether they felt the internet was a “human right” or a privilege. That question was more weighted than a circus elephant, because it suggests Americans were entitled to a broadband account, presumably paid for by the government. Only one out of three respondents agreed it was “a human right.” The survey mentioned the language came from a United Nations declaration, without linking to it, which is another surefire way to get about the half the country riled up enough over the UN to stampede in the other direction.

Nobody responsible for the survey explained the premise for the UN declaration, which was first to declare broadband an extension of freedom of expression, so long as it was affordable, available, and uncensored.

It is easy to demagogue Lifeline phone service and affordable broadband as a type of welfare, as Drudge Report did in 2015.

“The Special Rapporteur underscores the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression,” according to the report’s summary, “but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole.”

It did not say broadband should be free of charge, but at least it should be available. That means just as electricity and telephone service are available today to every American that wants either or both, so should broadband.

The very thought of someone effectively paying for someone else’s broadband service went down about as well as increasing welfare benefits with survey respondents. Some people also love to make decisions on behalf of others, which is why the survey also revealed a lot of broadband selfishness. Among those who told AnchorFree broadband was only a privilege, 64% exempted themselves, declaring it was essential to them, while only 18% said it might be essential for others. How nice.

This is why it can be easy to demagogue broadband expansion programs as an unnecessary luxury. AnchorFree’s study isn’t very useful or credible on its own because the questions asked and the responses given appear in context with AnchorFree’s own agenda of peddling its products and services. Its methodology is suspect, but the results are not completely surprising.

How the rural broadband problem is framed in language can make a significant difference in how the problem is tackled. If the survey asked if Americans were in favor of guaranteed universal access to quality broadband service, the results would likely have been more favorable. Hillary Clinton’s campaign had not pledged this and her broadband platform was based primarily on spending more money to cajole phone companies to expand their networks, perhaps alluding this alone might solve the problem. It won’t for at least the last 1-2% of unserved America, because those last users will be hellishly expensive to reach. But Mrs. Clinton, and rural America, deserved something more than cheap shots about cell phone reception as part of the media’s narrative she was out of touch with rural voters. On the issue of broadband, she put her finger precisely on the problem after just visiting the area. The locals have to live with it and there are no signs this will change anytime soon.

In an interview with Christiane Amanpour at a Women for Women International event, Hillary Clinton spoke about creating jobs and the importance of access to high-speed affordable broadband in rural towns. (Women for Women International) (1:12)

Here is Who Paid the Sock Puppets Trotting Out Anti-Net Neutrality Opinion Pieces

Sock Puppets: Ostensibly “independent” people quietly on the payroll of Big Telecom companies and advocating their positions.

A mass of guest editorials and opinion pieces appearing in the D.C. press praising FCC chairman Ajit Pai and his intention to get rid of Net Neutrality fail to disclose the millions of dollars the authors’ host organizations have received from the telecommunications industry.

Pai smugly announced in an April 26 speech that he wants to roll back Net Neutrality rules brought into effect under President Obama in 2015. Those rules guarantee that ISPs cannot discriminate against any online application or service or interfere with traffic for competitive reasons. Pai and other opponents of an open internet have called Net Neutrality ‘a solution in search of a problem.’ But since announcing an intention to mothball the rules, the telecom industry’s sock puppets have frantically penned opinion pieces that suggest the rules were a disaster that held back innovation and investment — a claim countered by the record of ISP investment since the rules took effect and statements from many Silicon Valley innovators that support the Net Neutrality rules now under threat.

Media Matters did extensive research on the individuals and groups behind the letters, and it will come to no surprise to Stop the Cap! readers that just about every piece originated from or on behalf of a group that received financial support from the same cable and phone companies that want Net Neutrality dead and buried:

(Searches were conducted via The Center for Public Integrity’s Nonprofit Network tool of available IRS filings.)

  • Thomas M. Lenard, a senior fellow and president emeritus at the Technology Policy Institute, wrote an April 28 opinion piece for The Hill which praised Pai and defended ISPs against concerns over content blocking. Lenard’s group states that its supporters include AT&T, Charter, Comcast, and NCTA. The group received $1 million from NCTA from 2011-2014 and $22,500 from CTIA in 2011 and 2013.
  • Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI) President Tom Giovanetti wrote an April 27 opinion piece for The Hill praising Pai for “eliminating harmful regulation” and commending his “commitment to undo the two-year-old mistake of regulating the internet under the old Title II.” IPI received $135,000 between 2010 and 2014 (the most recent years available) from MyWireless.org (now ACTwireless), a project of CTIA, and $110,000 from NCTA from 2011-2014.
  • Digital Liberty Executive Director Katie McAuliffe wrote an April 27 piece for The Daily Caller praising Pai’s Net Neutrality remarks. Digital Liberty is a project of Americans for Tax Reform, which received $200,000 from NCTA from 2011-2014 and $115,000 from MyWireless.org from 2010-2014.
  • Doug Brake, a senior telecommunications policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), wrote an April 27 opinion piece for The Hill praising Pai for “moving in the right direction” with his Net Neutrality plans. The ITIF has received $220,000 from NCTA from 2010 to 2014 and $235,000 from CTIA from 2010 to 2014.
  • Brandon Arnold, the executive vice president at the National Taxpayers Union, wrote an April 26 Washington Examiner piece that criticized existing Net Neutrality rules as having “stymied innovation and reduced the deployment of new broadband services.” The National Taxpayers Union received $200,000 from CTIA from 2010-2014.
  • Jonathon Paul Hauenschild, director of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Task Force on Communications & Technology, wrote an April 28 piece for The Hill attacking the Obama administration’s Net Neutrality rules. ALEC has close ties to the telecom industry (among many other corporate interests) and received $85,000 from CTIA from 2010-2014 and $41,000 from NCTA in 2010 and 2011.

Media Matters previously documented that media outlets have promoted the anti-Net Neutrality Free State Foundation without noting it has received heavily financial backing from the telecommunications industry.

Multimedia Content Temporarily Unavailable on Stop the Cap!

Phillip Dampier April 27, 2017 Editorial & Site News No Comments

Due to conditions beyond our control, our audio and video content is temporarily offline. We hope to have these features restored sometime next week with some improved performance. We appreciate your patience and understanding.

Charter’s Channel Roulette: Keeping Your Favorite Channels May Require an Upgrade

Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers are now getting a taste of the frustration that original Charter Communications customers have experienced for years in dealing with the company’s complicated TV packages.

Sheila Topmiller in northern Kentucky wasn’t the only former Time Warner Cable customer to see her bill spike after Charter took over and rolled out its new Spectrum TV packages. Her bill increased from $152 to $180 a month — a $28 rate increase. Her triple-play TV lineup had to change, along with her bill.

One of the highlighted points Charter executives told Wall Street and investors regarding its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks was that Charter’s “simplified pricing” and crackdown on promotions would result in higher average revenue from customers over time. The reasons are simple: fewer value-priced broadband options, illusory TV channel “choice” in packages designed to compel customer upgrades, higher phone pricing, and no more deals for complaining customers.

TV packages are supposed to offer customers at least the illusion of choice, giving options to cut down a TV package in return for a lower bill. But cable operators like Charter Communications are savvy enough to know what channels are considered “must-have” by customers, and can move networks from one tier to another with little notice. This can force subscribers to upgrade to get back channels stripped from their current package. Now Time Warner Cable customers shifting to Spectrum packages are discovering six popular Viacom-owned channels Nickelodeon, MTV, VH-1, Spike, BET, and Comedy Central are only included in the most expensive tier.

Pay-per-laugh

Just a year ago, these six networks were commonly found as part of Charter’s cheapest “Select” TV tier. But new customers found them transitioned first to the Silver tier, and finally to Charter’s most expensive “Gold” package. Existing Charter customers may not have noticed because the networks were often grandfathered into their current package, but ex-Time Warner Cable customers like Topmiller did. She has kids, and Nickelodeon is considered a “must-have” network in her home.

“You have to subscribe all the way to the highest plan to get Nickelodeon,” she complained.

This isn’t the first time channels have been shifted from one package to another, and Charter is not the only cable operator following this practice. In 2012, Comcast got a lot of heat for moving the popular commercial-free Turner Classic Movies from its Digital Starter package to its much more expensive Digital Preferred tier. Customers that wanted TCM back had to pay an extra $22 a month for the upgrade.

Time Warner Cable had its own tiers, but incentivized most customers through bundles and promotions to take its Preferred TV package that bundled Starter, Standard and Variety Pass options together. Time Warner Cable also didn’t bundle premium movie channels into TV packages the way Charter does. Charter’s Silver package, as well as adding basic networks, also bundles HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime. Upgrading to Gold to win back those six Viacom basic networks also gets you the aforementioned premium movie channels plus Starz, TMC, Starz/Encore, Epix, and NFL RedZone. For many customers, Gold is aptly named because it results in a considerably higher bill unless a customer already subscribed to most or all of the available premium networks through Time Warner Cable or Bright House Networks in the past.

To boost revenue, a cable operator need only shift popular cable networks into higher-priced tiers and watch customers follow.

Charter Communications may sell you a Silver or Gold package to restore your old lineup, but there is a better way to get channels back without spending money on premium movie channels you may not want.

Spectrum quietly offers two “digi-pack” options to customers who balk at paying for HBO and other premium networks:

  • Digi-pack 1 ($12) gives you access to all Silver-level basic cable networks, but no premium movie channels;
  • Digi-pack 2 ($12) gives you access to all Gold-level basic cable networks, but no premium movie channels.

But Charter representatives still claim its TV package “simplification” and new pricing is good for customers.

“It’s actually less money when you factor in there is no modem fee. No data caps, no contract to sign, no modem fees,” said Charter (and former Time Warner Cable) spokesman Mike Pedelty. He doesn’t mention customers could buy their own modems and avoid Time Warner Cable’s modem fees, and Charter’s predecessor also had no data caps or contracts to sign.

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  • Jonathan: Emily H. There absolutely has been data caps for a long time now. They do not list the data caps on your bill. The data cap for your service can be fo...
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