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Charter Spectrum Refuses to Air Political Ad Slamming Spectrum for High Rates

Brindisi’s ad has been “censored” by Charter Spectrum.

A Democratic candidate running for Congress in central New York cannot get his 30-second ad slamming New York’s biggest cable company on Spectrum’s cable channels.

Anthony Brindisi slammed Charter Communications for “censoring” his campaign by refusing to air his latest ad which claims Spectrum has almost doubled its rates since taking over for Time Warner Cable and has broken its promises to the state. Brindisi also accused his Republican opponent — incumbent Rep. Claudia Tenney — of siding with the cable company, and “voted to give the company a $9 billion tax cut while they were raising our rates.”

The fact that Brindisi opens his ad claiming, “if you’re watching this ad on Spectrum cable, you’re getting ripped off,” may have been partly responsible for Charter’s refusal to air his ad.

“The ad did not meet our criteria,” said Maureen Huff, a spokesperson for Charter Spectrum.

Rep. Tenney

But the ad is not factually inaccurate, just hyperbolic. Many Spectrum customers complained about steep rate increases switching between their original Time Warner Cable plans and new plans offered by Spectrum. Some customers needed to upgrade to higher tier cable TV packages to keep channels they would otherwise lose and the company’s ongoing digital conversion convinced many customers they needed to rent set-top boxes for every television in their home, at a substantial cost.

Brindisi’s claim that “Claudia Tenney’s campaign is bankrolled by Spectrum,” is slightly misplaced, although Charter Communications has spent $5,000 on contributions to her campaign in 2017. In fact, Comcast is her third largest contributor, spending $12,900 on her campaign so far during the 2017-2018 election cycle. The Koch Brothers, a cable industry ally, comes in fourth.

Brindisi hoped to air his ads in the Utica and Binghamton markets through Spectrum, but will have to spend more buying time on over the air channels. He says he doesn’t like Spectrum’s stranglehold on local views aired on cable channels.

“It’s a scary precedent for them to be setting just because I’ve been a vocal critic of the company,” Brindisi told the New York Times. “I don’t think I should be precluded from informing the public about their practices here in New York State and letting people know that, at the same time they are raising your cable rates, they are a big beneficiary of the tax bill and a major supporter of my opponent.”

Watch the 30-second advertisement Charter Spectrum refused to allow on its cable channels. Anthony Brindisi is a Democratic candidate for Congress in central New York (30 seconds)

Frontier’s Latest Salvation Plan Doesn’t Include Significant Broadband Upgrades

While celebrating its success at cutting $350 million in expenses, Frontier’s newest plan to keep the company from drifting towards bankruptcy is a $500 million increase in revenue (and hopefully profits) with a series of “revenue enhancements” and cost cutting.

Significant broadband upgrades in legacy DSL service areas are not on the table, as Frontier continues to spend most of its capital on matching Connect America Funds (CAF) and state grants to expand broadband into unserved and underserved rural areas.

“Approximately 80% of our capital program continues to focus on revenue generating and productivity enhancing projects,” said R. Perley McBride, Frontier’s outgoing chief financial officer. “The focus of our capital spending remains consistent. We continue to focus on our CAF builds, using both wired and wireless technologies.”

Frontier has been criticized by some for spending too much on its network and acquisitions and not enough on shareholder return. The company suspended its dividend in February, and the share price has remained below $6 a share since July. After announcing its latest quarterly results and a new $500 million EBITDA initiative on July 31, the average share price posted only modest gains of around $0.25 a share.

Frontier’s business remains troubled, with looming debt repayments in its future. The date to remember is Sept. 15, 2022 — the day Frontier needs to repay $2 billion in unsecured bonds to maintain its credibility in the credit markets. If it fails to pay, the company could find future financing difficult, which is often what triggers a trip to bankruptcy court.

The year 2022 is also very important to Californians. Frontier disclosed it planned to expand rural broadband service to 847,000 unserved/underserved rural residents by the end of 2022, with specific commitments in the next few years to upgrade 77,402 locations, in part with CAF funding, increase broadband speed for 250,000 households, and deploy newly available service to 100,000 homes.

Frontier’s own deployment goals in California — goals the company may not be honoring. (Image courtesy of: Steve Blum’s blog)

According to the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF), Frontier has no intention of meeting its rural broadband commitments. In effect, similar to Charter Communications, it merely made the commitments to win approval of its acquisition of Verizon’s wireline and FiOS business in California.

A day of reckoning for the company’s alleged failure to meet its obligations is likely forthcoming. Steve Blum’s blog notes Frontier isn’t saying much:

In its formal response to CETF’s allegations, Frontier never actually says that it kept to that timetable. All it says is that “Frontier sent a letter to the Communication Division dated March 8, 2018 on its commitments that includes a confidential attachment reflecting completed locations through December 31, 2017”. It sent a letter, but doesn’t say what’s in the letter or even claim that the letter documents fulfillment of its obligations.

CETF told California regulators a disturbing story about Frontier’s failure to perform and other allegations in its filing with the California Public Utilities Commission, alleging Frontier is reneging on the deal it made with the state and various stakeholders in return for getting its acquisition approved. The group also accused Frontier of failing to deliver on its affordable broadband offering, because the company made signing up difficult and bundled extra fees and surcharges onto the bill.

“Frontier launched its existing affordable broadband offer in late August 2016 and to date only 9,173 adoptions have been achieved, a mere 4.5% of the 200,000 household adoption goal,” the CETF wrote. “Due to the initial Frontier eligibility requirement that Frontier customers be a telephone landline Lifeline subscriber and the total bundled cost, the affordable broadband offer has only attracted 7,452 low-income subscribers, which is 190,827 households short of the agreed-upon goal.”

Frontier has a employer turnover problem in California, evident from this filing by the CETF. (Courtesy: CETF)

The CETF said Frontier was “shirking” and should face the maximum fine of $50,000 a day retroactive to July 1, 2016 for failure to comply with its obligations. As of the end of July, 2018 that fine would amount to over $39 million.

To comply with existing obligations to California, Frontier could have to spend in excess of $1 billion in the next two years. But Frontier has told investors it planned to spend no more than $1.15 billion on capex in fiscal year 2018 across its entire national service area. This could explain why Frontier may be stalling on upgrades in California.

Also raining on Frontier’s parade is the muted reaction to Frontier’s latest money-raising scheme. Shareholders appear lukewarm, with some openly skeptical that Frontier can deliver what it promises.

The plan’s success depends on:

  • Frontier’s ability to raise rates and find other “revenue enhancements” of $150-200 million. Rate increases drive customers to competitors, reducing revenue.
  • Vague “operational improvements” are expected to bring $150-200 million.
  • Customer care and support savings are anticipated to generate $125-175 million in EBITDA benefit.

Outgoing CFO McBride relies heavily on opaque corporate-speak like this, with few specifics:

“In addition to the dedicated resources, we are utilizing a new approach that will significantly accelerate the benefits of both revenue and expense initiatives. This new approach involves utilization of external expertise to significantly reduce the time to successfully realize our objectives. This will allow us to execute more initiatives in parallel while still managing day to day requirements of the business.”

In short, this suggests Frontier will outsource a lot of initiatives they used to manage in-house. The company also plans to start limiting truck rolls to customer homes if the company determines the problem is likely elsewhere in their network. It also claims it is cutting customer hold times at their call centers, which are still frequently outsourced.

What Frontier has made clear, again, is their determination to keep a cap on spending, which means much of the money Frontier will spend each year will go towards network maintenance, not service upgrades. Therefore, customers can expect incremental upgrades, usually when a construction project requires Frontier to replace existing copper wire infrastructure with fiber optics or at a building site for a new housing development. Most customers in existing neighborhoods served by legacy copper wiring on the poles since the 1960s will continue to be serviced by those lines until they are torn down in a storm or stolen. Frontier has consistently shown no interest in wholesale network upgrades in its legacy service areas.

National Grid Banned Charter/Spectrum Workers from Its Poles Over Safety Questions

National Grid, the electric and gas company that owns the most utility poles of any company in upstate New York, banned Charter Communications workers from its poles for most of July after a third-party contractor working on behalf of Spectrum electrocuted himself and died.

The New York Public Service Commission went public with the utility company’s ban as part of last week’s 4-0 decision to cancel Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications’ Merger Order.

“The result of this tragic incident was the issuance of a statewide stop work order from National Grid, the largest pole owner in Charter’s territory,” the Commission wrote. “This prohibition remains in effect as Charter has persistently delayed in providing National Grid and the [PSC] responses to requested actions and information necessary to ensure safe and adequate service. As a result, Charter remains unable to install facilities anywhere in National Grid’s service territory. This incident remains under investigation as do wider safety issues associated with the company’s buildout.”

Syracuse’s Post-Standard newspaper reported the contractor, James R. Fogg, 39, of Fairfield, Maine worked for S.G. Communications, a contractor hired by Charter Communications to perform tasks it outsourced from its own technician and installer workforce.

Cattaraugus County, N.Y.

According to state police, on July 11 at about 4:36 p.m., Fogg was running Spectrum cable lines in Yorkshire, Cattaraugus County in southwestern New York when his truck’s extendable bucket or a tool Fogg was using made contact with National Grid’s electric lines, located at the highest point on the utility pole. Cable and telephone lines are placed lower on utility poles. Fogg was electrocuted by a high voltage line. Paramedics from Delevan Emergency Medical Services performed CPR before transporting him to Bertrand Chaffee Hospital in Springville, where he later died of his injuries.

One day later, National Grid issued a statewide stop-work ban on Charter Communications and its contractors. The newspaper reports National Grid wanted the cable company to explain what happened, why it happened and how the company will prevent such an accident from happening again. The PSC claims for much of July Charter failed to offer National Grid a satisfactory explanation, which effectively left company technicians forbidden to climb National Grid-owned poles statewide for three weeks.

The utility lifted its ban on Tuesday, hours after the newspaper contacted National Grid and Charter about the incident.

Charter claims it is looking forward to resuming network build-out activities in National Grid areas, but National Grid warns if another incident similar to the one on July 12 occurs, it can reinstate the ban on the cable company.

Not Without My Refund! N.Y. Assemblyman Demands Spectrum Issue Rebate Checks

Before Charter Communications is shown the door and exits New York (if Charter loses its anticipated legal action against the state), it should be required to issue refund checks to every subscriber in New York to make up for a series of broken promises.

State Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi (D-Utica) has sent a letter to Acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood and New York Public Service Commission Chairman John Rhodes demanding the cable company pay up before transitioning service to another provider.

Brindisi claims Charter’s Spectrum failed to provide promised internet upgrades, has not met its obligation to improve customer service, and is charging even higher rates than its predecessor, Time Warner Cable.

Brindisi is also concerned Charter’s required transition plan may well be redacted by the company. He wants the transition plan made public, with ample opportunity for New York residents to participate in a discussion about which cable company ultimately replaces Spectrum (again assuming the company loses its legal action).

Here is Brindisi’s letter:

Dear Ms. Underwood and Mr. Rhodes:

I am writing to you as a follow up to the order issued by the New York State Public Service Commission on July 27, 2018 to revoke the 2016 merger agreement between Charter Communications, Inc. doing business in New York as Spectrum, and Time Warner Cable, Inc.

This order is truly in the best interests of New York residents.  For two years, I have received  literally hundreds of emails, letters, and petition signatures from constituents who have endured frequent, often unexpected rate hikes, and who have watched flashy ads from Charter promising lightning-fast internet speeds, as they can barely pay bills or send emails through 1980’s-era infrastructure that has not been improved.

Brindisi

I am respectfully asking that you collaborate to work on a three-point plan that addresses concerns I continue to hear from Charter’s cable and internet customers, as well as from the employees who work for the company.  The following is my proposal for consideration by consumer and utility regulators:

Charter should provide reasonable compensation in the form of rebate checks to its customers who have received cable rate hikes significantly above the national average for cable rate increases, which was 5.8 percent from July, 2016 to July, 2017.

Customers with internet service from Charter who never received promised service upgrades should receive compensation in the form of rebate checks from the company.

Any company petitioning the PSC to pick up Charter’s internet, cable, and phone service should pledge to negotiate in good faith with unions representing workers, and should agree not to cut vitally needed pension and health care benefits for workers.

The rate increases Charter customers received shortly after Charter’s acquisition of Time-Warner’s system have been staggering.  One constituent in Utica was billed $91.92 for cable services in January, 2017—and in March, 2018, his bill was $129.26 for exactly the same service.  Another constituent from Rome told me that she paid $108 a month for cable, internet, and telephone service in May, 2016—about the time Charter took over for Time Warner.  By April, 2018, her bill was $200.  These are increases many times the national average, all under the guise of ‘expiring promotional packages’

These cable rate hikes are just as serious a problem for consumers as Charter’s failure to live up to its promises to upgrade its broadband.  Many of the consumers I have heard from are seniors on fixed incomes who depend on cable and internet for information and to communicate with family members.  They should be compensated for what clearly is blatant overcharging.

Thank you very much for all you are doing to protect New York consumers, and for your concern about this issue.  If you have any questions, please feel free to give me a call.

Sincerely,

Anthony Brindisi
Member of Assembly

(Thanks to Todd N., a regular Stop the Cap! reader, for sharing the story.)

beGONE Sports: Comcast Boots beIN Sports from Lineup in Contract Renewal Dispute

Comcast has dropped sports network beIN Sports off the lineup after its contract with the cable company expired July 31.

Customers who tune to the channel will find a series of rotating on-screen messages explaining the network was switched off because the renewal price was too high:

Have you heard about a disagreement between beIn Sports and Comcast?

Every month Comcast has to pay networks to bring their programming to you. That’s right, we pay the network. Not the other way around.

Now beIN sports is asking for a major increase in fees for the channel you already have, which could have a big impact on your bill.

beIN Sports won’t allow Comcast to carry its channels until this is resolved.

beIN Media Group, a spinoff of Al Jazeera Media Network, owns the network and has already filed a complaint against Comcast for violation of the deal conditions imposed by the FCC after approving the merger of Comcast and NBCUniversal. The complaint alleges Comcast is giving preferential treatment to its own sports networks, a violation of program carriage rules. That complaint remains pending.

“We are deeply disappointed that despite our best efforts over the last year to resolve the situation, millions of Comcast XFINITY subscribers have lost access to the content they love. We are happy to extend existing terms while we continue to negotiate, but unfortunately Comcast would rather continue to charge the same while taking away valuable and loved content from customers,” said Antonio Briceño, beIN Sports’ deputy managing director for the U.S. and Canada. “The truth is, we face a disheartening trend of media consolidation, where the big get bigger and innovative brands like ours that serve diverse audiences get pushed-out. This is almost always to the detriment of consumers who end up paying the price. We hope it stops now.”

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  • EJ: Josh you are correct as of right now. Without unlimited and/or very high (1TB) caps 4g/5g is nothing more then competition for satellite internet. We ...
  • Dylan: Got that right!...
  • Gayle Conversion: My name is Gayle Anne Wehner-Foglesong.To McAdams! Watch your mouth! You do not blame anyone but yourself. I know everything and I want my money now! ...
  • Michael sherwood: Spectrum charged me an overdue amount and I haven't even been with them for a month...
  • Josh: He’s not wrong, for once. The cell phone stuff keeps blathering s out speeds and how great it is, then can’t actuslly provide unlimited service or an...
  • Dylan: Yeah, Spectrum definitely needs this. I know here in New York, we have National Grid as our electric and gas provider and they definitely tell you abo...
  • FRED HALL: I wish Spectrum had this (and it was accurate). Whenever there's an outage, their tech support is either too stupid or too lazy to let the customer r...
  • Bob61571: TDS Telecom is a sub of Telephone & Data Systems(TDS). US Cellular is also a sub of TDS. TDS Telecom owns a number of smaller small town/rural t...
  • D H: If you want to really feature someone serious for the Governorship. I would suggest Larry Sharpe instead who is actually doing a grassroots campaign....
  • David: Well, I dropped them for earthlink DSL which is slower and buggier but I don't regret it since I don't accept getting pushed around. If earthlink keep...
  • baboonie: I glad that pai did what he did and this go stopped. That would of been to much power in sinclairs hands, But everybody knows the only reason pai did ...
  • David: In order to have those 'revenue enhancers' opportunities.. they would have to have more customers. Which are not coming to Frontiers services. The bi...

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