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AT&T Charges Customers $40 More for Gigabit Service In Cities Where Google Doesn’t Compete

In Bexar County, Texas Public Radio found only a small number of customers qualify for AT&T GigaPower service. (Image: TPR)

In Bexar County, Texas Public Radio found only a few customers (shown in green) qualify for AT&T GigaPower service. (Image: TPR)

AT&T charges customers $40 a month/$480 a year more for its U-verse with GigaPower gigabit broadband service in cities where it does not face direct competition with Google Fiber.

AT&T has announced six new cities will eventually get gigabit speed service, including Chicago, Atlanta, Nashville, Orlando, Miami and San Antonio. Whether customers will pay $70 or $110 for the same service depends entirely on one factor: Google Fiber.

The Consumerist notes communities with forthcoming competition from the search engine giant will pay $40 less for gigabit service from AT&T than communities without Google Fiber.

In San Antonio, Nashville, and Atlanta — all forthcoming Google Fiber cities, customers will pay AT&T $70 a month. In Google Fiberless Orlando, Chicago, and Miami, customers will pay $80 for a 300Mbps tier or $110 for 1,000Mbps service.

Although AT&T is usually the first to market 1,000Mbps service in its service areas, actually qualifying to buy the service is another hurdle customers have to overcome. In San Antonio, most customers will have to wait.

In an informal survey conducted by Texas Public Radio on social media, about 60 Bexar County residents checked to see if their home addresses could connect to AT&T’s GigaPower. Only 11 could, most in far west Bexar County beyond Leon Valley. Other limited service areas south of Live Oak also qualified. Most of the rest of metro San Antonio does not qualify for GigaPower and AT&T will not say when customers can get the service.

AT&T later admitted gigabit service was available in “parts” of San Antonio, Leon Valley, Live Oak, Selma, Schertz, Cibolo, as well as portions of New Braunfels, Medina, and unincorporated Bexar County.

u-verse gigapowerThe Consumerist writes AT&T is proving the importance of robust broadband competition. Communities that have it pay less and get quicker upgrades for faster Internet speeds. Those without pay AT&T a premium or are long way down on the upgrade list.

In the northeastern United States, now a no-go for Google Fiber, broadband is often a feast or famine proposition. Those served by Verizon FiOS in New York City also have the competing options of network-upgraded Cablevision or Time Warner Cable Maxx. Those in New York not served by FiOS have a much poorer choice of Time Warner Cable (up to 50/5Mbps) or <10Mbps DSL service from Verizon, Frontier, Windstream, and other phone companies. In Northern New England, Comcast routinely outclasses DSL service from FairPoint Communications, but significant parts of Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and western Massachusetts often have no broadband options at all.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KSAT San Antonio GigaPower Internet coming to San Antonio 9-21-15.mp4

KSAT-TV in San Antonio covered AT&T’s launch of U-verse with GigaPower in San Antonio. As elsewhere, AT&T routinely invites city officials to share the good news with local residents. But it may take a year or more for the service to become available to everyone in the area. Even when it is, a snap poll conducted by KSAT found just over half of its viewers had no interest in getting gigabit service from AT&T. (1:51)

Comcast Dragged Into Upgrade for Santa Cruz After Public Broadband Initiative Announced

Before and after competition

Before and after competition

The best way to guarantee service upgrades from Comcast is to threaten to launch your own competing service provider, which is precisely what worked for the community of Santa Cruz, Calif., where Comcast suddenly found the resources to upgrade the local cable system to support speeds faster than 25Mbps.

For more than two years, customers and local governments across Santa Cruz County have been begging Comcast to upgrade the cable system that would have been state-of-the-art if it was still 1997. Customers could not exceed speeds of 25-28Mbps, but Comcast continued advertising its “Performance” tier (50Mbps), Blast! (105Mbps) and even Extreme option (150Mbps), collecting dozens of extra dollars a month from customers while their broadband speeds maxed out below 30Mbps.

The cable system is so antiquated, it could not officially support consistent service above 25Mbps, and many locals complain their speeds were slower than that.

“The most popular speed in this county is 16/2Mbps, which is the fastest one Comcast will actually give you what you paid for,” said Stop the Cap! reader Jim, who lives in Santa Cruz. “It’s so bad, people are actually envious of Charter, which services customers to the south.”

comcastOokla’s Net Speed Index rated the community of 62,000 447th fastest out of 505 California broadband-enabled cities.

Comcast’s performance was so bad, a frustrated employee began leaking internal company documents exposing the fact the cable system could not deliver speeds above 29Mbps, despite marketing and advertising campaigns selling customers more expensive, faster broadband local employees knew it could not deliver.

“We’ve been complaining to the company in Philadelphia for years, asking them to stop promising something they weren’t delivering,” a Comcast  technician told GoodTimes, a community newspaper. “But they ignored us.”

When customers complained, they were told their equipment was at fault or their cable modems needed to be replaced. In fact, the cable system’s local infrastructure needed to be upgraded, something Comcast has not done until recently.

santa cruzThis summer, the City of Santa Cruz joined forces with Cruzio, a California-based independent Internet Service Provider, to plan a new fiber to the home network within the city.

Under the terms of the partnership, the city will own the network, and Cruzio will act as the developer during engineering and construction and as the operator when the network is complete. Financing for the development of the network will be through city-backed municipal revenue bonds, repaid through the revenue from the sale of network services (and not by the taxpayers). The project will be financially self-sustaining and 100% of the profit generated will stay in the City of Santa Cruz.

Much of that money is likely to flow away from Comcast and into the community fiber provider, which will support speeds up to 1 gigabit. The announcement of impending competition inspired Comcast to upgrade its local cable infrastructure and the cable company suddenly announced service upgrades less than two months after the city announced their fiber project. In August, Comcast added 30 new channels, raised the speeds of two of its residential Xfinity Internet tiers at no additional cost to customers, and introduced four new tiers of Internet service for commercial business customers.

cruzio-logoThe Performance tier speed jumped overnight from 16/2Mbps to 75/5Mbps. Blast! speed increased from 25/4Mbps to 150/10Mbps.

For many local residents, it is too little, too late.

“Comcast can kiss me goodbye when Cruzio rolls into my neighborhood,” said Jim. “They ignored and overbilled us for years and the only time things changed is when competition was announced. Cruzio keeps their money here, Comcast sends it off to Philadelphia. If I have a problem, I know I’m going to get better service in person than dealing with Comcast’s customer service which has no idea where Santa Cruz even is.”

For Comcast customers who paid extra for Internet speeds they never received, company officials suggested they write a letter and ask for a refund, something Comcast will consider on a case-by-case basis.

“Comcast is a fundamentally deceitful company, at the leadership level,” responded local resident Charles Vaske. “They can not be trusted to stick to their word, and they certainly should not be trusted with infrastructure as vital as Internet access. A mere refund for this type of deceit is not appropriate, there should be severe penalties for such intentional crime.”

Sprint Raising the Price of Unlimited Data to $70; Existing Customers Will Still Pay $60

SprintSprint customers thinking about subscribing to an unlimited data plan may want to decide before Oct. 16, when Sprint raises the price of its cap-free plan for new customers by $10 to $70 a month.

Sprint and T-Mobile are the last remaining holdouts still offering unlimited data, and T-Mobile’s costs $80 a month. AT&T and Verizon Wireless still have a dwindling number of customers holding onto unlimited data plans discontinued a few years ago.

Current Sprint customers will be grandfathered in at their current rate, and Sprint has dropped any mention of de-prioritizing unlimited users’ data for the benefit of those on capped plans.

Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure previously warned in July he was no fan of unlimited data and would be discouraging Sprint customers from keeping their cap-free plan. A $10 price increase for new customers won’t likely convince existing customers to give up unlimited data, but further price increases in the future might.

Sprint’s problem remains its wireless network, which has often performed poorly in consumer ratings. As video streaming becomes more popular, Sprint’s network may have some of the most trouble trying to keep up, slowing speeds for everyone. Alienating a loyal customer base that has put up with Sprint’s endless promises of a better network on the way may prove unwise if those customers continue defecting to T-Mobile.

Stop the Cap!’s Formal Testimony to N.Y. PSC Opposing Charter/Time Warner Cable Merger

charter twc bhSTATE OF NEW YORK



Joint Petition of Charter Communications and Time

Warner Cable for Approval of a Transfer of Control

of Subsidiaries and Franchises, Pro Forma                                Case 15-M-0388

Reorganization, and Certain Financing Arrangements.                               


Statement of Opposition to Joint Petition and

Response to Redacted Comments of DPS Staff

Phillip M. Dampier, Director and Founder: Stop the Cap!

Rochester, New York

September 25, 2015

Stop the Cap! is a Rochester-based consumer group founded in 2008 to fight against the introduction of artificial limits on broadband usage (usage caps, consumption billing, speed throttling) and to promote better broadband speeds and service for consumers. Our group does not solicit or accept funding from lobbyists, companies, or others affiliated with the telecommunications industry. We are entirely supported by individual donors who share our views.


Our opposition to the Joint Petition is based on our belief it does not meet the “public interest”  test established in Section 222 of the New York Public Service law, and must therefore be denied.

For the sake of brevity, we wish to associate ourselves with most of the views of the DPS Staff contained in their redacted comments regarding this case, published on the DPS website on September 16, 2015. Most of our testimony will seek to expand on their findings or add additional information to the record for the Commission’s consideration.

As we stated in our remarks regarding the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, New York law obligates the applicant alone to demonstrate its proposal is in the public interest. If the Commission finds the application does not meet the public interest or provide sufficient public benefits, it should be rejected. The DPS staff has reported to you Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable have not met their burden. We agree.

The DPS staff then proposes a mitigation strategy in an effort to tip the balance in favor of the applicant. It remains our view it is not the Commission’s responsibility to help tip the balance in favor of an applicant that has failed to meet its burden.

Nevertheless, we offer the Commission our insight about Charter Communications, its proposals, and the DPS staff recommendations with the hope it will be useful to win commitments from Charter should the Commission choose to proceed with approval, enforcing modifications to deliver the public interest benefits consumers across New York tell us they actually want and need from their providers.


Phillip Dampier

Phillip Dampier

New York State, particularly across the upstate region, is not well positioned to take advantage of next generation broadband networks. Just two providers deliver telecommunications services to the majority of New York: Verizon Communications and Time Warner Cable. Although Frontier Communications and Cablevision also deliver service, their service areas are much smaller than the two dominant incumbents. The decisions Verizon and Time Warner Cable make about their investments in broadband and telephone service affect millions of New Yorkers.

Many New York residents have only one choice for Internet service that meets the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband: 25Mbps download speed and at least 3Mbps upload speed.[1] In areas where Verizon FiOS is not available, Time Warner Cable is the only significant provider consistently providing service options at or above 25Mbps. The most common alternative is DSL, which rarely meets the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband.

With this in mind, the FCC reported 53 percent of rural Americans lack access to broadband service achieving speeds of 25Mbps or better. As much as 20 percent still lack access to broadband at speeds achieving the FCC’s old benchmark of 4Mbps. Upstate New York, in particular, is a long way away from achieving the goals of 100Mbps broadband set by Gov. Cuomo, unless you have access to a cable broadband provider.

In Rochester, the majority of residents have only one choice for a provider that meets the FCC’s definition of broadband: Time Warner Cable. While Frontier Communications has made investments to improve their wireline network, only a small minority of customers qualify for DSL service that can meet the FCC’s benchmarks.

While Verizon Communications has done an admirable job delivering its fiber to the home service FiOS to portions of New York, the company has suspended expansion of the service and has not even met its service obligations in cities like New York.[2]

Even more concerning is the fact none of the significant incumbent providers serving New Yorkers have expressed any interest in providing residential gigabit speed service. Google Fiber has not announced any expansion into New York State and other significant gigabit speed providers, including AT&T, do not provide wireline service in New York.

In contrast, in states including Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee, many consumers have the option of choosing at least two gigabit service providers (Google or AT&T) as well as municipal or public broadband providers such as EPB, which serves the Chattanooga area. Time Warner Cable has focused much of its upgrade activity on these communities to remain competitive, delivering 300Mbps broadband service for the price it used to charge for 50Mbps speeds.

In western New York, the fastest broadband speed most residential customers can buy is just 50Mbps. Charter Communications proposes to increase that speed in some areas to a maximum of 100Mbps, along with their entry level 60Mbps plan. Although helpful, that offers little solace to residents and small businesses that would like the option to purchase considerably faster Internet speeds that are now becoming available in other parts of the country.

The Commission’s decision will have an enormous impact on what kinds of telecommunications services will be available to New Yorkers for years to come. Verizon has shown no interest in resuming fiber service upgrades, so most customers will continue to purchase Internet access from the incumbent cable operator to obtain the broadband speeds they require. Today that usually means Time Warner Cable. Sometime next year, that could be Charter Communications.

Time Warner Cable vs. Charter Communications

The most important question before the Commission is which cable operator is better positioned to deliver the services customers in this state want and/or need. We argue that operator is Time Warner Cable, not Charter Communications.

Since the termination of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, Time Warner Cable has responsibly invested in their infrastructure without assuming an irresponsible amount of debt.

twc maxxTime Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus reported significant progress in their first quarter 2015 report to shareholders and customers, despite the distraction of the Comcast merger[3]:

Over the past 16 months, we’ve made significant investments to improve our customers’ experience:

  • Investing more than $5.2 billion to, among other things, improve the reliability of our network and upgrade customer premise equipment – including set-top boxes and cable modems – with the latest technologies and expand its network to additional residences, commercial buildings and cell towers;
  • Launching TWC Maxx, which features greater reliability, all-digital video, advanced TV services, standard tier of Internet speeds at 50 Mbps, and higher tiers of service up to 300 Mbps. New York, Los Angeles and Austin are complete; Dallas, San Antonio and Kansas City are underway; Charlotte, Raleigh and Hawaii are slated for later this year; and San Diego is expected to be done in early 2016;
  • Introducing Enhanced DVR, a six-tuner set-top box that allows customers to record up to six shows simultaneously and store up to 150 hours of HD content;
  • Increasing the number of Cable Wi-Fi hotspots available to our customers to 400,000;
  • Rolling out our cloud-based video guide to 8 million set-top boxes to date. The guide also makes it easier to browse our On Demand library, which now sits at 30,000 free and paid titles and continues to grow;
  • Expanding our industry-leading TWC TV app – which allows customers to watch live TV and On Demand content and control and program their DVR from inside and outside the home. TWC TV is now available on Xbox One, Xbox 360, Amazon Kindle Fire HD and HDX tablets, Android and IOS phones and tablets, Fan TV, PCs, Samsung TV and Roku;

Serving customers on their schedules rather than ours. We expanded one-hour appointment windows across the company and in Q1 met that window 97 percent of the time. We continue to add nighttime and weekend appointments.



Since that report, Time Warner Cable has announced new Maxx service upgrade areas – Greensboro and Wilmington, N.C. At least 45 percent of Time Warner Cable’s national footprint will be serviced with Maxx upgrades by the end of this year, and Marcus has indicated additional cities will receive upgrades in 2016.[4]

Marcus has indicated repeatedly he intends to see Maxx service upgrades extend even further. On the January 29, 2015 quarterly results conference call with investors, Marcus indicated Maxx upgrades delivered tangible benefits to the company, including increased customer satisfaction, higher network reliability, and a stronger product line. Based on those factors, it would be logical to assume Time Warner Cable would continue its upgrade project, and indeed Marcus confirmed this in his remarks:

“Our aim is to have 75% of our footprint enabled with Maxx […] by the end of [2016], and my guess is we’re continuing to roll it out beyond that,” said Marcus[5]. “So the only question is prioritization, and obviously as we think about where to go first, competitive dynamics are a factor. So that includes Google, although it’s not explosively dictated by where Google decides to go. In fact I think we announced the Carolinas before Google did their announcement this week. So competitors are certainly relevant obviously.

At the rate Time Warner Cable has been rolling out Maxx upgrades, which were first announced on January 30, 2014[6], with 45% of its service area upgraded within 23 months, it is likely the company would complete its Maxx upgrade to all of its service areas within the next 24-30 months. The DPS staff also notes, “there is no indication that Petitioner’s plan for converting to all-digital in New York is any different from Time Warner’s existing plan.”

Charter’s upgrade proposal is, in fact, generally inferior to what Time Warner Cable is accomplishing on its own. We strongly recommend the Commission carefully consider whether Charter’s proposal is as truly compelling as they claim.

Charter Communications’ upgrade proposal is not a good deal for New York.

We agree with the DPS staff’s conclusion Time Warner Cable, on its own, would likely complete its Maxx upgrade program across upstate New York at or around the same time Charter’s proposed upgrades would be complete. Therefore, when comparing Charter’s proposal with Time Warner Cable’s existing service, we urge you to use Time Warner Cable Maxx service as the benchmark, not the existing level of service provided in upstate New York today.

chartersucksTime Warner Cable Maxx offers 50/5 Mbps speeds under its most popular Standard plan. In contrast, Charter proposes to offer 60/5Mbps service under its most-popular Spectrum plan. While Charter’s offer is superior at first glance, it comes at a cost to customers looking for more budget-priced service or those seeking faster speeds.

Charter has no plans to continue Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet service – a very important offer for low income residents and senior citizens who are unable to afford the nearly $60 regular price both companies charge for their 50 or 60Mbps tiers. Time Warner Cable offers this tier without preconditions, restricted qualifiers, contracts, or limits on what types of services can be bundled with it. Any consumer qualifies for the service and can bundle it with Time Warner Cable telephone service for an additional $10 a month, which offers a nationwide local calling area, as well as free calls to the European Union, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and several Asian nations.

The loss of a $25 plan that includes basic Internet access and a bundled, 911-capable telephone line would be devastating to low-income New Yorkers and senior citizens. During the Comcast-Time Warner Cable hearings, no topic elicited as much interest as Internet affordability. Time Warner Cable clearly offers a superior product line for these customers, including two other Internet service tiers offering stepped up Internet speeds in $10 increments. These options would be unavailable from Charter.

Charter’s proposed solution to serve low-income New Yorkers is adoption of Bright House Networks’ Connect2Compete program, which offers restricted access to $9.95/month Internet service for those who qualify.

Stop the Cap! investigated Bright House Networks’ existing offer in a report to our readers[7] in June 2015, and we urge the Commission to look much more closely at the specific conditions Bright House customers have had to endure to qualify to subscribe:

1) You must have at least one child qualified for the National School Lunch Program. They need not be enrolled now.

2) You cannot have been a Bright House broadband customer during the last three months. If you are a current customer, you must first cancel and go without Internet service for 90 days (or call the phone company and hope to get a month-to-month DSL plan in the interim.)

3) If you have an overdue bill older than 12 months, you are not eligible until you pay that bill in full.

4) Bright House does not enroll customers in discounted Internet programs year-round. From a Bright House representative:

“We do participate in this particular program, however, it is only around September that we participate in it. This is a seasonal offer that we have which can only be requested from the middle of August to the middle of September, which is when most start up with school again for the year.”

5) Bright House does not take orders for the Low-Income Internet plan over the Internet. You have to enroll by phone: (205) 591-6880.

connect2competeFamilies fall into poverty every day of the year, and poverty-stricken families move from one school district to another every day of the year. So it’s horribly unfair to tell them they’d qualify for this program if only they had fallen into poverty sometime between the middle of August and the middle of September.

It has been our experience covering service providers across all 50 states that most design these low-cost Internet access programs with revenue protection first in mind. Charter Communications is no different. As with Comcast, Connect2Compete is only available to families with school age children. Applicants face an intrusive, complicated, and time-restricted enrollment process designed to dampen and discourage enrollment.

The interest in meeting the needs of low-income customers would be laudable if not for the insistence otherwise-qualified existing customers cannot downgrade their regular price broadband plan to Connect2Compete unless they voluntarily go without Internet service for three months.

We strongly recommend Charter Communications be compelled to continue Time Warner’s $14.99 Internet plan, but at speeds no less than 25Mbps, the minimum definition of entry-level “broadband” by the FCC. We also recommend Charter be required to further discount this plan to $9.95 a month for qualified customers who meet a simple income test the Commission can define and establish. These discount programs should not just be available to families with school-age children. Everyone needs affordable Internet access, whether you are single and looking for your first job or a fixed income senior citizen.

All restrictions for existing customers or those with an outstanding balance must be prohibited and sign-ups must be accepted 365 days a year with re-qualification occurring not more than once annually.

Charter’s broadband offers for lower-income New Yorkers are not adequate, and neither are their plans for customers who need enhanced service.

Time Warner Cable Maxx delivers a more compelling offer for consumers and small businesses that need much faster Internet access. Charter’s upgrade will offer customers two choices: 60 or 100Mbps service. Time Warner Cable Maxx offers considerably more[8]:


Charter Communications has only committed to provide customers with unlimited Internet access for three years. Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus has repeatedly made it clear compulsory usage caps are off the table at Time Warner Cable – a lesson they learned after customers pushed back and forced them to shelve a usage cap experiment planned for Rochester and other cities in April 2009[9]. The company has never raised the possibility of compulsory usage limits or usage-based billing again.

“We have no intention of abandoning an unlimited product we think that something that customers value and are willing to pay for,” said Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus. “The way we’ve approached usage-based pricing is to offer it as an option for customers who prefer to pay less because they tend to use less. And we’ve made those available at 5 gigabytes per month and 30 gigabytes per month levels.[10]

Time Warner Cable again offers a better choice for New Yorkers. With many New Yorkers having no practical alternatives, imposing usage limits or forcing customers into even higher-priced usage billing plans would only make New York even less attractive for those who need high quality Internet access for education, telecommuting, or to assist in running a small business. Google Fiber, in contrast, offers 1,000Mbps service with no usage caps at all. Many other providers also have no plans to introduce usage caps.

Charter Communications has a history of capping their customers’ usage. Less than three months before announcing it would acquire Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications quietly dropped usage caps in place on its broadband plans since 2009, without explanation and the FCC now wants to know why, as they also contemplate the impact of the merger[11] [12]. In addition to the anti-consumer practice of placing customers on an unnecessary usage allowance, such usage limits may also be established for anti-competitive reasons to limit exposure to online video streaming, which competes directly with cable television. Customers who watch a lot of online video are those most likely to face service suspension or find overlimit usage fees applied to their bill.

junk3Almost all of Charter’s so-called customer-friendly commitments and policies have a very unfriendly expiration date of three years, which should be unacceptable to the Commission. There is no reason Charter cannot extend its commitments to not charge modem fees, adhere to the basic principles of Net Neutrality, and not impose usage caps or other forms of usage billing permanently. Without such a commitment, consumers could soon pay much higher prices for broadband service, and without robust competition unlikely to develop in most of New York over the next three years, there will be every incentive for Charter to further boost earnings by imposing modem fees and usage pricing on its customers.

One of those incentives is the level of debt Charter Communications will assume in this transaction. DPS staff is correct when they noted New Charter’s debt and lowered credit rating “represents the single most substantial risk of the proposed transaction.”[13]

Debt servicing costs and more expensive credit are both deterrents to investment and are likely to limit the scope of Charter’s ongoing system upgrades and maintenance. Charter is a much smaller cable operator than Time Warner Cable, and is itself still in the process of repairing and upgrading its own cable systems and those it acquired in earlier acquisition deals. Time Warner Cable, in contrast, is in a much stronger financial position to carry out its commitments associated with the Maxx upgrade program.

consumer reportsSpecifics about Charter’s commitments to expand service into unserved areas of New York were either vague and non-specific or redacted. The past history of winning expansion commitments from cable operators who rely on Return On Investment (ROI) formulas to determine which homes and businesses they will serve have met with limited success.

The pervasive problem of rural broadband availability is unlikely to be resolved substantially by this transaction without the strongest buildout requirements. But even that is unlikely to be of much help for large sections of New York outside of existing video franchise areas. Compelling Charter Communications to adopt universal service obligations within all existing Time Warner Cable franchise areas may be a good start. Under such a requirement, any consumer or business that wants cable service and lives within the geographic boundaries of an existing franchise area would receive it upon request without construction fees, surcharges, or other passed-along fees to reach that customer, regardless of their distance from the existing cable plant or ROI formula. The largest impact of this would be to extend cable service into business parks and commercial buildings, which often lack cable service, but many suburban and exurban residential customers would also benefit.

But the Commission must look carefully at Charter’s financial capacity to meet these obligations after assuming control of a company much larger than itself. No commitment is worth much if a company ultimately fails to deliver on it.

An overburdened cable operator is also unlikely to make substantial investments in improving customer service, and that makes the risk of depending on Charter Communications to improve Time Warner Cable’s already poor customer service rating doubtful. Competition is the biggest incentive to improve customer service and responsiveness, and that is unlikely to prove much of a factor for large sections of New York over the next few years. In fact, we argue customer service is likely to deteriorate for New Yorkers in the short term because of the disruptiveness of any ownership change and eventual billing system integration. Again, Charter’s proposal offers no compelling public interest benefit to New Yorkers. The fact DPS staff is proposing a performance incentive mechanism to compel service improvements illustrates absent punitive measures, Charter Communications is unlikely to offer any improvement over Time Warner Cable, and may in fact perform worse.

Consumer Reports rates both companies’ Internet Service poorly[14]:

  • Charter: 63 (Reader Score), Poor Value, Fair Reliability, Good Speed, Mediocre Phone/Online Support, Fair In-Home Support
  • Time Warner Cable: 57 (Reader Score), Poor Value, Fair Reliability, Fair Speed, Mediocre Phone/Online Support, Fair In-Home Support

Virtually nothing Charter Communications has offered as a public interest benefit meets that criteria. Its commitment to improve cable television does not offer any significant benefit to New York cable TV subscribers. Both Time Warner Cable and Charter propose to move to all-digital cable television to free up bandwidth to offer improved broadband.



While consumers clamor for smaller, less-costly cable television packages, Charter Communications’ CEO Thomas Rutledge is credited for inventing the “triple play” concept of convincing customers to package more services – broadband, television and telephone — together in return for a discount. Reuters cited his penchant for “simplified pricing,”[15] which is why Charter offers most customers only two options for broadband service and one giant television package dubbed Spectrum TV containing more than 200 channels.[16]

Unfortunately, any benefits from an all-digital television package are likely to be dismissed when customers get the bill. Currently, many Time Warner Cable customers watch analog television channels on television sets around the home without the need to rent a costly set top box. Any transition to digital television will require the rental of a set top box or purchase of a third-party device to view cable television programming. These can represent costly add-ons for an already high cable bill.

With approximately 99 percent of customers renting their set-top box directly from their pay-tv provider, the set-top box rental market may be worth more than $19.5 billion per year, with the average American household spending more than $231 per year on set-top box rental fees. These are some of the findings from Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal’s (D-Conn.) query of the top-ten pay-tv multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs).[17]

Passed by Congress in December, the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014 repealed the set-top box integration ban, which enabled consumers to access technology that allowed use of a set-top box other than one leased from their cable company. Without the integration ban, by the end of this year, cable companies will no longer be required to make their services compatible with outside set-top boxes, like TiVo for example, bought directly by consumers in the retail marketplace.

American cable subscribers spend, on average, $89.16 a year renting a single set-top box. The average set-top box rental fee for each company was used to calculate an overall set-top box rental cost average across companies: $7.43 a month, or $89.16 per year. Considering many homes rent a DVR box to make and view recordings and maintain less-capable boxes on other televisions, the total cost adds up quickly. The average household spends $231.82 a year on set-top box rental fees, according to Sens. Markey and Blumenthal.

Charter proposes to introduce a new generation of set top boxes but as far as we know, has not disclosed the monthly cost of these IP-capable boxes to subscribers. We anticipate they will cost more than the current equipment provided by Time Warner Cable, which has also been increasing the cost of its set top box rentals.

Time Warner Cable’s entry level Digital Transport Adapters, which convert digital/HD signals for older analog-only television sets, almost tripled in price over just one year. Originally introduced for $0.99 a month, the rental fee increased this year to $2.75 a month for customers in Rochester.[18]

Other points the Commission should consider in reviewing this transaction:

  1. DPA staffers claim the transaction is unlikely to alter the competitive landscape because Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable do not have overlapping service areas. While it is true Charter and Time Warner don’t compete for the same customers, it is inaccurate to suggest the transaction will not alter competition. Cable industry consolidation is underway, in part, to help larger combined operators secure better volume discounts for increasingly expensive video programming.

    AT&T’s primary motivation to acquire satellite provider DirecTV was to secure better prices for video programming, both for DirecTV customers but more importantly for its own, much smaller, U-verse TV operation.[19]

    The cost barrier for new, directly competing entrants into the cable television business is well-recognized, even by smaller independent cable television providers that are having difficulty staying profitable and maintaining investments in broadband as they lack the ability to secure similar volume discounts for themselves. The American Cable Association, representing small operators, warned the FCC “existing providers of both broadband and MVPD services and new entrants will be deterred from expanding their broadband networks or otherwise undertaking new builds” as a result of increasing programming costs.[20]

    As a result, it is unlikely a new provider will be able to develop a sustainable business model that includes cable television while paying wholesale programming costs that are dramatically higher than what combined companies like New Charter will pay.

  2. The Commission must insist that upstate New York is treated equally to the New York City market. If the deal is approved, Charter must be compelled to commit to continue Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade initiative across all of its service areas in New York State, to be completed within 30 months. Nothing less than that should be acceptable to the Commission. We agree with the DPS staff’s recommendation that Charter also be compelled to upgrade facilities to support gigabit broadband, but this should be extended to include all of its service areas in New York, not just the largest cities.

    This does not pose a significant challenge to any cable operator. With the upcoming introduction of DOCSIS 3.1 technology, cable operators even smaller than Charter will support 1Gbps broadband speeds as they drop analog television signals. Suddenlink[21], MidContinent[22], Cox[23], and Mediacom[24] already have gigabit deployment plans in the works. If Fargo, N.D. is getting gigabit broadband from MidContinent Communications in the near future, Charter should have no problem offering similar service to customers in Jamestown, Penn Yan, Watertown, Binghamton, and beyond.

  3. The Commission must establish and enforce meaningful enforcement mechanisms should Charter fail to achieve its commitments as part of this transaction. Cable consolidation has never significantly benefited consumers. Charter is not guaranteeing Time Warner Cable customers will receive a lower bill as a result of this merger. Nor is it committing to pass along the lower prices it will achieve through negotiations for video programming volume discounts. Cable rates, especially for broadband, will continue to increase. Without meaningful competition, there is no incentive to give consumers a better deal or better service.

    That is why if the Commission feels it must approve this transaction, the conditions that accompany it to achieve a true public interest benefit must be meaningful and ongoing. Any failure to deliver on those commitments must include a direct benefit to customers, not just to the state government. If fines are imposed, customers should receive a cash rebate or equivalent service credit for services not provided as part of any agreement.

Cable operators know once they secure a franchise or become the incumbent provider, no other cable company will negotiate with city officials to take over that franchise if the current provider’s application is denied during renewal. Once Charter (or any other cable company) establishes a presence, there is little or no chance a community will be able to get rid of that provider if it fails to perform. That is why any franchise transfer that comes from an acquisition or merger must be treated with the upmost seriousness. Customers will likely live with the decision the Commission makes for the next 10-20 years or more.

dpsAs Time Warner Cable customers loudly reminded the Commission in the Comcast merger proceeding, there is such a thing as a cable operator even worse than Time Warner Cable, already one of the lowest rated companies in the country. Comcast’s reputation preceded its intended entry into New York on a massive scale and the application was eventually withdrawn.

As the Commission must realize, this transaction does not just involve entertainment. Last week the Obama Administration declared broadband Internet access a “core utility.”[25]

“Broadband has steadily shifted from an optional amenity to a core utility for households, businesses and community institutions,” according to a report from the administration’s Broadband Opportunity Council. “Today, broadband is taking its place alongside water, sewer and electricity as essential infrastructure for communities.”

Unfortunately, the federal government has seen to it that this core utility is provided without the ability of local and state governments to properly deliver needed oversight. While the Public Service Commission lacks the authority to enforce consumer protections and quality of service standards for Internet access, it retains the very powerful ability to determine whether a company seeking to make a fortune selling consumers broadband service in a monopoly/duopoly market for many New Yorkers is a good or bad thing for consumers.

Our group strongly believes New York should not take a risk on Charter’s less-then-compelling offer when Time Warner Cable has demonstrated it is in a better financial position and has a proven track record of delivering on its commitments to improve service with its Maxx upgrade project. Time Warner Cable has superior options for low-income New Yorkers, has a large number of New York-based call centers providing valuable employment for our residents, offers more broadband options and faster speeds for entrepreneurs remaking themselves in the digital/information economy, and has committed to providing unlimited Internet access – a critical prerequisite for consumers choosing to drop cable television’s one-size-fits-all bloated video package and watch only the shows they want to see and pay for online.

We urge the Public Service Commission to deny Charter’s application. If it sees fit to make a different choice, we strongly recommend you demand the best possible deal for New York consumers and businesses that, as the DPS staff wrote, deserve best-in-class communications services.

  • [1] http://stopthecap.com/2015/02/03/fcc-now-defines-minimum-broadband-speed-25mbps-everything-less-now-slowband/
  • [2] http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/415-15/de-blasio-administration-releases-audit-report-verizon-s-citywide-fios-implementation
  • [3] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2015/04/twc-gains-momentum-with-best-ever-subscriber-growth-customer-enhancements/
  • [4] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2015/07/twc-maxx-expands-rollout-in-2015/
  • [5] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2864536-time-warner-cables-twc-ceo-rob-marcus-on-q4-2014-results-earnings-call-transcript?
  • [6] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2014/01/get-the-details-on-twcs-plan-to-transform-ctv-internet-experience/
  • [7] http://stopthecap.com/2015/06/25/bright-houses-mysterious-internet-discount-program-charter-wants-to-adopt-nationwide/
  • [8] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/enjoy/better-twc/internet.html
  • [9] http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=7368388
  • [10] http://stopthecap.com/2014/10/30/time-warner-cable-recommits-mandatory-usage-caps-long-company-remains-independent/
  • [11] http://stopthecap.com/2015/09/23/fcc-demands-details-about-charters-suddenly-retired-usage-caps/
  • [12] http://www.multichannel.com/news/fcc/fcc-seeks-data-dump-charter-twc-bright-house/394010
  • [13] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={C60985CC-BEE8-43A7-84E8-5A4B4D8E0F54} (p.39)
  • [14] http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/electronics-computers/computers-internet/telecom-services/internet-service-ratings/ratings-overview.htm
  • [15] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/30/us-charter-timewarnercable-rutledge-anal-idUSBREA0T01D20140130
  • [16] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/tv#/channel-lineup
  • [17] http://www.markey.senate.gov/news/press-releases/markey-blumenthal-decry-lack-of-choice-competition-in-pay-tv-video-box-marketplace
  • [18] http://stopthecap.com/2014/12/22/time-warner-cable-deck-halls-8-modem-fees-fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-2-75-dta-fee/
  • [19] http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2015/07/24/fcc-approves-ts-acquisition-directv/30626421/
  • [20] http://www.americancable.org/node/5229
  • [21] http://www.multichannel.com/news/technology/suddenlink-boots-1-gig-broadband/392087
  • [22] https://www.midco.com/PressRoom/2014/midcontinent-bringing-gigabit-internet-access-to-the-northern-plains/
  • [23] http://www.multichannel.com/news/distribution/cox-plots-docsis-31-plans/393996
  • [24] http://www.multichannel.com/news/cable-operators/mediacom-sets-residential-1-gig-rollout/393585
  • [25] http://thehill.com/policy/technology/254431-obama-administration-declares-broadband-core-utility-in-report

Interference Alert: Wireless Carrier Coalition Advocates Barging Into Your Free Wi-Fi Space

Critics question the wireless industry's claim LTE-U and Wi-Fi can co-exist peacefully.

Critics question the wireless industry’s claim LTE-U and Wi-Fi can co-exist peacefully. (Image: EVOLVE)

Consumer groups and cable operators are warning the Federal Communications Commission a plan by the nation’s largest wireless carriers to introduce premium Wi-Fi services for their mobile customers may create serious interference problems for existing Wi-Fi users.

AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are all members of EVOLVE, a group advocating for LTE-U and LAA, technologies that will depend largely on the unlicensed Wi-Fi bands to deliver wireless data to their mobile customers.

Cable operators fear the proposal will give mobile providers an unfair advantage, introducing more traffic into the already crowded Wi-Fi bands while mobile operators reserve the right to use a licensed control channel to shift their customers’ traffic back and forth between unlicensed and licensed spectrum at will. Cable industry critics of the plan claim allowing mobile operators to dump customer traffic into the Wi-Fi bands is likely to worsen interference, harming the cable operators’ investment in a growing network of Wi-Fi hotspots and in-home Wi-Fi.

Consumer groups agree with the cable industry.

The Open Technology Institute at New America, Public Knowledge, Free Press, and Common Cause have filed a joint statement with the FCC warning the agency “mobile carriers will have both the ability and strong incentives to use LTE-U and LAA to engage in anti-competitive behavior harmful to consumers,” all while making a tidy profit charging customers for the use of a service comparable to Wi-Fi, now a free alternative to the carriers’ 3G and 4G data networks.

The groups argue Wi-Fi standards were developed with unlicensed users in mind, able to co-exist peacefully with other similar Wi-Fi signals. The proposed LTE-U technology from wireless carriers is far less sensitive to neighboring signals.

“LTE-U/LAA is designed to be centrally controlled by a network anchored in a separate, exclusively licensed frequency band,” the consumer groups wrote. “3GPP, the mobile industry standards body, may ultimately design LAA in a manner that shares fairly with Wi-Fi and other unlicensed technologies; yet several studies filed by commenters demonstrate that the version of LTE-U that U.S. carriers plan to deploy by next year coexists poorly with Wi-Fi, degrading both throughput and latency (delay).”

LTEUWiFiCritics contend the wireless industry’s proposed service is not as likely to use “Listen Before Talk” effectively, a standard that checks for existing traffic before powering up on an unlicensed frequency. Consumer groups fear mobile carriers will have both the ability and a strong incentive to use LTE-U and LAA to charge consumers for the use of unlicensed spectrum and give themselves an unfair advantage by escaping the interference its own technology can cause other users.

“Carriers also have powerful incentives to use LTE-U to deter mobile market entry by ‘Wi-Fi First’ providers, such as wireline ISPs,” argue the consumer groups, also referring to independent providers like Republic Wireless that depend primarily on Wi-Fi for smartphone connectivity. “Carriers deploying LTE-U will have the apparent option to adjust their access points to introduce just enough latency to frustrate consumer use of real-time applications, such as video calling.”

Another incentive is money. For several years, wireless carriers have encouraged customers to offload their mobile data traffic to Wi-Fi. But since Wi-Fi traffic does not count against the customer’s usage allowance, it also reduces revenue opportunities. LTE-U is a variant of LTE, and carriers traditionally do count that traffic against a customer’s usage allowance. For the first time, mobile customers will accrue usage charges based on their use of unlicensed frequencies. For some, they may have no other choice.

Ellen Satterwhite, a spokesperson for WifiForward, a coalition of companies advocating for more unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi, said LTE signals never play well with traditional Wi-Fi.

“When LTE and Wi-Fi signals collide, LTE wins,” Satterwhite said.

“The wireless carriers have completely changed their tune about Wi-Fi—because they have to,” said David Callisch, vice president of corporate marketing for Ruckus Wireless, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based maker of Wi-Fi hardware, whose customers include Verizon and AT&T. “Wi-Fi for them is like a train going down the track,” Callisch told Bloomberg BNA in an interview. “You could get hit by it or you could jump on the train. They’re jumping on the train.”

“Carriers have historically hated Wi-Fi, because they can’t control it,” Callisch added. “They’ve always liked the licensed band, because they can buy it and they can control it and they can deliver a quality of service to customers over it. With Wi-Fi, you can’t do that.”

But with LTE-U they have the control they crave, able to use network management technology that prioritizes their customers over other conventional Wi-Fi users. Even better, they can charge customers for using it.

Both cable operators and consumer groups want engineers, not business executives, to carefully develop standards and rules that guarantee Wi-Fi users can co-exist with other users of unlicensed frequencies before the technology is switched on.

Clear WiMAX Ends Nov. 6: You Don’t Have to Go Home But You Can’t Stay Here

If you are among the dwindling number of customers still using Sprint’s Clearwire 4G WiMAX service, the wireless provider would like you to leave.

After about a year of successive warnings it was preparing to decommission its aging WiMAX network in favor of LTE service, nobody can accuse Sprint of not giving its customers fair warning. The top banner on the Clear.com website is now festooned with red text giving customers one last chance to move on.

clear bye bye

In brief, the last Sprint WiMAX cell tower will cease functioning Nov. 6 2015 at 12:01am EST. Sprint is repurposing many of its former WiMAX cell sites to support expanded 4G LTE service in the carrier’s perennial network makeover.

wimaxDespite this, there still remains a loyal user base for WiMAX service — many in semi-rural areas using the service until the last days for wireless home broadband. The alternative is usually very expensive mobile data service from Verizon, AT&T, Sprint or T-Mobile, or one of several resellers. But usage caps can be stingy and overlimit fees high.

We also found several businesses, including a small auto servicing chain in western New York, still occasionally relying on Clear WiMAX-powered guest Wi-Fi, apparently unaware the service is soon to disappear. Time Warner Cable is often the chosen replacement for Clear’s business customers in the northeast as the cable company aggressively markets business broadband service coupled with free customer/public Wi-Fi access for around $90 a month.

Although WiMAX is nearing extinction in the United States, it remains in service in places like Ukraine and Azerbaijan. In Calgary, Platinum Communications continues to offer WiMAX wireless broadband in rural parts of Alberta between Edmonton and Calgary and large sections of the flat, open prairie of southeastern Alberta, including the communities of Lethbridge, Brooks, and Medicine Hat.

N.Y. Public Service Commission Staff Unimpressed With Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger Proposal

ny pscStaffers at the New York State Department of Public Service have recommended the Public Service Commission reject the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable unless significant concessions are made, largely because the alleged benefits are insufficient for New York cable customers.

Although cable operators are largely deregulated under federal law, state and local governments retain control over cable franchise agreements, which permit operators to sell cable television programming. To complete its merger, Charter Communications must win approval to transfer Time Warner Cable franchise agreements to the merged entity, dubbed “New Charter.” That gives state regulators leverage to win concessions and oversight mostly eliminated after the cable industry was deregulated by the federal government.

New York law requires cable operators seeking to join forces to prove the merger is in the public interest and that ratepayers will obtain a “net positive benefit” from the merger. In plain English, Charter must share the benefits of the merger with cable customers in New York, either from lower prices, better service, or both. Charter proposes to offer those benefits in the form of improved service:

  • Additional investments in all-digital systems in Time Warner’s service areas by completing digitization within 30 months of the close of the proposed transaction. This would include faster (60 megabits per second (Mbps) minimum) broadband speed offerings;
  • Merger-specific efficiencies, which would generate savings in a number of areas including combined purchasing power, overhead, product development, engineering, and information technology;
  • Merging Charter’s New York assets, now isolated from the rest of its service territories, to create efficiencies through reduced costs, improved customer service and additional service offerings;
  • Bringing overseas Time Warner jobs back to the United States and adding in-house positions;
  • Expanding to New York, within three years of the close of the proposed transaction, Bright House Networks’ low-income broadband option (Connect2Compete) which partners with schools to provide a $9.95 low-cost Internet service, discounts on Internet-capable devices, and innovative digital literacy training;
  • Promoting the deployment of advanced voice services and enhancing competition in the voice marketplace by creating a more robust competitor;
  • Pledging not to block or throttle Internet traffic or engage in paid prioritization, whether or not the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Open Internet Order is upheld. This commitment would continue for three years, without regard to the outcome of the ongoing litigation challenging federal reclassification.

charter twc bhThe Public Service Commission staff looked at the reported annual “synergy savings” of $800 million anticipated by New Charter from streamlining operations and winning enhanced volume discounts to determine the “net positive benefit” for New York consumers from the merger. Here is the formula the PSC used:

  • New York customers represent 10.879% of New Charter’s customer base — 2.6 million of New Charter’s 23,900,000 combined Charter and Time Warner Cable customers;
  • The agency presumes customers and shareholders nationwide should each receive 50% of the $800 million in savings;
  • Knowing New York deserves roughly 11% of that $800 million, divided equally between customers and shareholders, New Charter owes New Yorkers $43.5 million in benefits annually.

Staffers at the PSC prefer to deal in hard numbers and solid commitments when determining how New Charter intends to meet its obligation to New Yorkers, and all signs indicate the cable company was less than forthcoming. In colloquial terms, New Charter’s response to the PSC’s math can be summed up, ‘Whatever, you can trust us to work out the details after the merger.’

Alleged Deal “Benefits”

New Charter’s promises to invest more capital in New York than Time Warner Cable came with no specific investment commitments, despite repeated efforts to pin New Charter down on its spending plans. Some of the details about New Charter’s spending proposals are redacted in the document, but it isn’t difficult to discern reading between the lines New Charter has no plans to continue Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program beyond commitments already made, which in New York is limited to New York City, leaving all of upstate New York off the Maxx upgrade list. PSC staffers believe if Time Warner Cable remained independent, some or all of upstate New York would receive those Maxx upgrades in the near future.

new-charter-combined-footprint-640x480New Charter claims another merger benefit is their plan to upgrade Time Warner customers with new and improved IP-capable ‘Worldbox’ equipment and DVR’s offering more recording capacity. While conceding there were some minor benefits from offering customers more capable equipment, PSC staffers were skeptical New Charter’s plan represented much of a “consumer benefit,” because the equipment is not cheap and New Charter’s plan to eliminate analog television signals will mean every customer will have to rent one of Charter’s new boxes or a near equivalent.

New Charter’s promises of faster Internet speeds and upgraded cable systems would normally be seen as a direct consumer benefit, except Time Warner Cable already committed to its own Maxx upgrade effort that often outperforms what New Charter is promising. “Digitalization and associated speed increases can only truly be considered a benefit if [New Charter] can adequately demonstrate that Time Warner would not have otherwise completed a similar transition to an all digital, faster network in a similar timeframe [roughly 30 months],” PSC staffers concluded.

New Charter’s promise to expand low-income Internet access to Time Warner Cable customers, utilizing Bright House Networks’ Connect2Compete program, comes with many of the same restrictions Comcast’s own Internet Essentials program include. That issue was hotly debated during Comcast’s attempt to acquire Time Warner Cable, and many public interest groups opposed the merger for that reason. New Charter has also made no commitments to continue Time Warner’s no-restriction/no-contract/no-prequalification affordable $14.99 Internet service. In fact, the merger may worsen the affordable Internet problem, not improve it.

New Charter’s proposed expansion of Time Warner Cable’s Wi-Fi hotspot program is vague and mostly undefined beyond a general commitment to deploy at least 300,000 new out-of-home Wi-Fi access points across its national footprint within four years. New York regulators want to know how many of those would be in New York. Using the same formula to find how many New Charter customers are located in New York, it seems reasonable that redacted sections regarding the Wi-Fi hotspot program included an inquiry if New Charter planned at least 30,000 new access points for New York. New Charter did mention that once the proposed transaction is complete, it expected to evaluate the merits of leveraging in-home routers as public Wi-Fi access points, much like Comcast is doing today. Because Time Warner Cable has no firm plans about its Wi-Fi hotspot deployment program beyond this year, PSC staffers found it difficult to determine which company had the better Wi-Fi proposal for New Yorkers.

WiFiZonelogoNew Charter’s plans for expanded business broadband were also found to be vague, making it difficult to measure how much benefit New Charter would bring commercial clients in New York.

Status Quo

Time Warner cable systems will become indirect, wholly owned subsidiaries of New Charter. New Charter states that they are not seeking authority for the transfer of customers or for any changes in rates, terms or conditions of service and New Charter will also continue to provide Lifeline Discounted Telephone Service (Lifeline).

The PSC expects that customers will keep the same digital phone number they had with Time Warner; will have the same billing account information; and, other technology will continue to work seamlessly. In other words, the transaction should be technologically transparent for consumers.

The regulator also acknowledges that, after the proposed transaction, there should be no diminution in the number of service provider options available to consumers in the video market because Charter and Time Warner do not have overlapping service areas in New York. Since the potential for direct competition no longer exists, this assertion is in no way a benefit of the proposed transaction, it simply maintains the status quo.

The Bad and the Ugly

Despite claims from both cable companies there will be no negative impact as a result of the proposed transaction, PSC staff identified a number of serious issues that are likely to result if the merger is approved without any enforceable conditions or commitments:

Charter will be among America's top junk bond issuers. (Image: Bloomberg News)

Charter will be among America’s top junk bond issuers. (Image: Bloomberg News)

New Charter intends to load itself with massive debt to pay for the merger. As a result, the combined company’s credit rating will take a significant hit. PSC staffers fear New Charter will be vulnerable if economic conditions decline, even to the point of default or bankruptcy. But before that happens, New Charter’s need to cope with its debt could result in reduced investment in system upgrades.

“If the operating environment declines for cable companies […] New Charter will have more difficulty maintaining the investments necessary to bring expanded products and provide good service quality to its customers and, thus, this represents the single most substantial risk of the proposed transaction,” the PSC staff warns. “Accordingly, the Commission should seek to mitigate this risk and ensure that New York receives net benefits that are sufficient to offset this and the other potential harms.”

After requesting Charter disclose its often hidden regular, non-promotional prices most cable customers eventually pay, the PSC discovered contrary to Charter’s claims its prices are lower than Time Warner Cable, in fact they are often higher. Time Warner Cable customers typically also receive more cable television channels for their dollar than Charter customers do. Consumers who bundled multiple services together got the best savings, but even those deals were priced comparably to what Time Warner Cable charges. In short, promises of savings are illusory.

Time Warner Cable offers $14.99 to anyone without paperwork.

Time Warner Cable offers $14.99 to anyone without paperwork. Charter does not.

Broadband customers will also lose less-expensive broadband options they receive from Time Warner Cable. New Charter will drop Time Warner’s $14.99 “Everyday Low Price” 2Mbps Internet package, along with its Basic 3Mbps ($29.99) and Standard 15Mbps ($34.99) plans. New Charter’s least expensive broadband option for all consumers will be its Spectrum Internet 60Mbps plan, which carries an initial promotional price of $39.99 a month and a regular price just under $60.

“Time Warner’s lower priced offerings represent choices for New York consumers,” PSC staff concluded. “Any loss of these services would likely result in consumers paying more to ensure they have access to the same level of high-speed Internet service and its important resources.”

Jobs: New York is at risk of losing Time Warner Cable’s five call centers employing about 1,996 staff, 61 retail/walk-in centers employing 2,674 staff, nine corporate offices employing around 1,257 staff, nine service/maintenance locations employing approximately 1,687 staff, two media offices employing 435 staff, and 11 other service related functions employing about 1,003 staff, with total employment in the state of nearly 9,052.

PSC staffers have only received a commitment New Charter will not reduce the number of “customer facing” jobs in New York, but has said nothing about where the rest of its New York employees might be heading.

“There is a real danger that New Charter will look to gain operational efficiencies by moving/consolidating customer-facing jobs and other positions to out-of-state locations, despite any claims to the contrary,” the PSC staff reports. “Out-of-state service centers would make it difficult for it to maintain its current level of customer service. Longer wait times and lack of local knowledge could lead to increased frustration and dissatisfaction on the part of New York customers, and a significant decline in the overall level of service provided.”

What New York Regulators May Demand from New Charter to Approve a Merger

The PSC wants Charter to develop gigabit broadband for New York's top-five cities.

The PSC wants Charter to develop gigabit broadband for New York’s top-five cities.

When the PSC staffers added everything up it found the proposed merger offered little benefit to New Yorkers and would not result in a net positive benefit for New York. The staff recommended the merger be denied unless specific commitments are made to sweeten the deal for New York customers.

First, New Charter should be required to develop a strategic implementation plan to build-out its all-digital network to every remaining unserved or underserved Charter and Time Warner franchise area in New York. This would mean that any resident in a town serviced by either cable company would be able to buy service even if the company does not now offer it. Currently, areas considered unprofitable to serve within a franchise area are often bypassed. This would no longer be permitted, and New Charter would have to wire any commercial building, business, school, or home.

Second, Charter’s record of performance in New York is already less than impressive. In Columbia County, Charter operates an ancient one-way video service-only cable system serving Chatham, N.Y. The PSC staff recommends Charter be required to bring that cable system up to date. More broadly, the staff recommends Charter be forced to spend more money on system upgrades and improved service than Time Warner Cable would have on its own.

Third, qualifications to subscribe to Charter’s proposed $9.95 discount Internet program should be broadened to exclude fewer customers. Its speed should also be raised to at least 10Mbps. For everyone else not qualified to subscribe to Connect2Compete, the PSC staff recommends requiring New Charter to continue offering Time Warner’s Everyday Low Price $14.99 Internet tier at an enhanced speed of 3Mbps for a minimum of five years.

Fourth, Time Warner customers in New York should be granted promotional broadband pricing without modem fees for a minimum of three years, making New Charter’s ongoing price of its 60Mbps tier $39.99 a month, not the $59.99 a month Charter typically charges after one year.

Fifth, New Charter should be required to offer broadband service at speeds up to 100Mbps throughout its New York footprint within 30 months of the close of the proposed merger. New Charter should also be compelled to install infrastructure capable of offering 1,000Mbps (1Gbps) service in New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany by 2020.

Six, New York should require New Charter to change its current merger proposal to decrease leveraged debt and present a plan to restore the company’s credit rating to a level more comparable with Time Warner Cable.

Seven, New Charter should submit to oversight of its customer service performance by New York regulators, which will monitor how New Charter treats its customers. If the company falls below acceptable service standards, the PSC will have the authority to intervene based on an agreement with New Charter.

Finally, New Charter will agree to limit any significant changes to its New York call center or other customer-facing positions for at least two years and provide 90 days notice of any significant job relocations or reductions.

FCC Demands Details About Charter’s Suddenly Retired Usage Caps

charter twc bhLess than three months before announcing it would acquire Time Warner Cable in a $55 billion deal, Charter Communications quietly dropped usage caps, in place on its broadband plans since 2009, without explanation and the FCC wants to know why.

FCC officials have sent a letter to Charter requesting a range of information about the company’s broadband services, including information about Charter’s since-dropped usage cap program. The federal agency reviewing its buyout of Time Warner Cable wants to know when Charter dropped its usage caps and why.

Charter Communications has promoted “no usage caps” as a selling point to convince regulators its purchase of Time Warner Cable is a consumer-friendly transaction. Charter has promised a cap-free Internet experience for Time Warner Cable customers for three years, but has not committed to offer unlimited broadband service beyond that date.

Two months before Time Warner Cable planned a since-dropped 2009 market test of usage caps in New York, North Carolina and Texas, Charter Communications confirmed it was introducing “monthly residential bandwidth consumption thresholds” on its broadband customers ranging from 100GB for customers with speeds of 15Mbps or slower and 250GB for customers subscribed to 15-25Mbps service.

“In order to continue providing the best possible experience for our Internet customers, later this month we will be updating our Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) to establish monthly residential bandwidth consumption thresholds,” Charter’s Eric Ketzer told DSL Reports at the time. “More than 99% of our customers will not be affected by our updated policy, as they consume far less bandwidth than the threshold allows.”

Few customers realized Charter had placed a cap on Internet usage because the cable company treated the limits as “soft caps” — guidelines they could cite if they found a customer using a very large amount of bandwidth. But customers were not charged overlimit fees and few ever heard from Charter about their usage, even if it well-exceeded their allowance.

In front of Time Warner Cable protesting Internet Overcharging in 2009.

In front of Time Warner Cable offices in Rochester, N.Y. protesting Time Warner Cable’s proposed usage caps. (April 2009)

Only a handful of companies, including national providers like AT&T (for DSL) and Comcast (in usage cap market trial areas), have followed up usage allowances with stinging overlimit fees for those exceeding them, applied to customer bills. The practice is far more common among smaller and regional cable companies like Alaska’s GCI, which earned 10 percent of its broadband revenue billing customers for excess usage.

In March of this year, Stop the Cap! reported Charter quietly dropped usage caps (or “thresholds”) from their Acceptable Use Policy, ending six years of usage capped service — less than three months before announcing it was acquiring Time Warner Cable.

Time Warner Cable’s own experience with usage caps was short-lived after Stop the Cap! and other consumer advocates and elected officials launched a protest campaign against Time Warner Cable’s plans to expand a test of usage-based billing beyond Beaumont, Tex. to Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and the cities of Austin and San Antonio in Texas.

Time Warner proposed four tiers of usage allowances: 5, 10, 20, and 40 GB priced from $29.95 to $54.90 a month. The overlimit fee was to be $1/GB. Sanford Bernstein, a Wall Street research firm, predicted an average family subscribed to Time Warner’s top 40GB usage plan would pay around $200 a month in overlimit fees if they used Netflix more than 7.25 hours a week.

Within two weeks of launching protests in the four cities where Time Warner was planning to add caps, the plan was shelved permanently. But many Time Warner Cable customers have remained wary of the company’s plans regarding usage caps. Time Warner’s retooled, optional usage capped tiers offered to customers looking for a discount have proved dismal failures since their introduction, with fewer than 1% of Time Warner customers finding usage-limited Internet access compelling.

Rationing Your Internet Experience?

Rationing Your Internet Experience?

Consumer advocates also fear usage caps could reappear under Charter as quickly as they disappeared. Stop the Cap! is suspicious of Charter’s time-limited commitment to keep customers free of usage caps for three years. We are lobbying state and federal regulators to permanently extend that commitment as a condition of approving any merger between Charter and Time Warner.

“Customers must be assured they can always choose a reasonably priced unlimited use Internet option,” said the group’s founder Phillip Dampier. “If Charter/Time Warner Cable/Bright House wants to offer optional discounts for customers volunteering to limit their personal use, we are not opposed to that. But based on Time Warner’s own record, you can count on only a few thousand customers willing to voluntarily surrender unlimited, flat rate access.”

Stop the Cap! believes there is no credible reason Internet providers should be imposing compulsory usage caps or usage billing on anyone.

“Broadband is a huge money-maker and the costs to offer it continue to drop even as provider profits rise,” said Dampier. “Rationing broadband with a usage allowance is as credible as rationing Niagara Falls or breathing.”

The FCC is also requesting documentation detailing Charter’s proposed expansion of Wi-Fi hotspots in Time Warner Cable areas and company plans to boost standard broadband speeds from 15Mbps to 60Mbps. Charter has until Oct. 13 to respond.

Patrick Drahi Predicts 25% of U.S. Homes Will Dump Cable TV; Big Broadband Rate Hikes Predicted



Altice CEO Patrick Drahi believes up to one-quarter of all cable customers will drop their video packages in the next few years and stick solely with broadband service.

If Drahi’s prediction is true, telecom analyst Craig Moffett off MoffettNathanson predicts broadband pricing will skyrocket as the cable industry tries to replace its lost video revenue.

Cable operators may be able to leverage their monopoly/duopoly status to force higher broadband prices in markets where phone companies only deliver token competition with slow speed DSL.

Moffett believes broadband pricing strategies depend heavily on local competition. In markets like New York City that can choose between Cablevision and Verizon FiOS, dramatically raising the cost of Internet access will probably drive cable customers into the arms of Verizon. But in areas served by companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable/Charter, Moffett predicts “more benign” competition from phone companies offering only DSL will give cable companies plenty of room to “grow the broadband business” by raising prices on consumers.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Does Altice Have Cost-Cutting Plans for Cablevision 9-17-15.flv

Craig Moffett, analyst at MoffettNathanson, examines the $17.7 billion purchase of Cablevision by Altice and some of the challenges Altice faces in running a U.S. cable company. He speaks on “Bloomberg Surveillance.” (3:23)

FCC Reveals 2,000+ Complaints Concluding Comcast is Still a God Awful Consumer Nightmare

comcast gunDespite endless promises better customer service is right around the corner, the Federal Communications Commission’s e-mail box is overflowing from angry consumers fed up with Comcast.

A Freedom of Information Act request by CityExplainer brought a massive document dump in response, containing more than 2,200 customer complaints received over three months (April, May and June 2015) regarding Comcast’s broadband service — about 25 a day. The complaints rolled in despite little or no publicity the FCC is open to hearing from consumers about shoddy service. The top five cities for complaints — Atlanta, Ga.; Chicago, Ill.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Houston, Tex.; and Jacksonville, Fla.

“The types of complaints CityExplainer reviewed included customer issues with Comcast Internet service availability, billing conflicts, and speeds,” the blog reports. “You’ll see senior citizens and others complaining about unrelenting billing errors, people complaining about alleged data throttling and data caps, and residents’ sad tales of dealing with technicians who come — or don’t come — to their homes to fix problems.”

Comcast complaint hotspots (Image: CityExplainer)

Comcast complaint hotspots (Image: CityExplainer)

One customer in Mobile, Ala. told the FCC he is livid about Comcast’s usage cap trial affecting his community, and accused the cable company of lying about the length and nature of the trial:

Since October 1, 2013, Comcast has been charging consumers in Mobile, Alabama additional money for every 50GB of traffic over an artificially mandated 300GB traffic limit. They have been conducting this “test market” of tiered pricing in other areas as well. (See https://customer.xfinity.com/help-and-support/internet/data-usage-Where-will-these-plans-be-launched). Complainant argues that Comcast should treat all of its customers across the nation equally. Whereas in other markets, no traffic limitation is currently being applied, Complainant and all others in the “test markets” have been charged additional money for internet traffic above and beyond an artificially set limit of 300GB, as if the data were a tangible utility such as water that were going to run out. Comcast has provided no rationale for the 300GB/month limitation other than congestion, and has provided consumers no evidence that such congestion actually exists.

While the FCC likely sees only the most persistent complainers fed up and fueled by anger to reach out to the FCC, the company’s Facebook page is a Niagara Falls of Nihilism — stories from weary customers waiting six hours for a technician that never showed, gotcha surprise fees, or “tell them anything” sales agents who promise customers the world and rarely deliver. One thing that isn’t rare at Comcast customer service is being disconnected in the middle of your call.

Cindi Satoria’s story is just today’s example:

I moved last week. A technician was at my home over 6 hours. Smoked most of the day. Rummaged through all of my closet doors and when he left, my telephone still has not worked in a week. I called customer service and waited all day Saturday for a no show appointment. Then, customer service argues that we never had an appointment. I am so fed up. I want to cancel everything. I have been with Comcast for years. The service is unbearable. I am not satisfied. I asked to file a complaint with the technical group and I was hung up on.

The FCC passes along the complaints it receives to Comcast for follow-up. In many cases, a complaint to the FCC will win the customer service credits (especially on overlimit charges), free upgrades or other complimentary services to placate the customer. Stop the Cap! readers have used the FCC complaint form for months to get extra charges for Internet overlimit fees removed from their bill and credited back. Others have been offered new equipment, a better class of service, or lower rates.

(All 2,200+ complaints are available for free download here [in spreadsheet format]; and in the original PDF format released by the FCC, available here, courtesy of CityExplainer.)

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  • Uncle Ron: Just another example of AT&T's cozy and possibly corrupt relationship with -every- PUC in the country. How can they possibly claim any rate basis...
  • Uncle Ron: Why isn't Texas included in this "settlement?" Why would a state -not- be included? Shouldn't this be exposed as well?...
  • Robmak3: Innovation: "The public should choose Verizon FiOS instead of Time Warner Cable" I find my xp with time warner (In the last year, just switched to RC...
  • Lee: http://www.ctcnet.us/CTCCostsForAnchorInstitutions.pdf Not expensive. I doubt the cost per mile has decreased since 2009 prices listed in the above...
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  • Jason Grimm: Comcast has been charging me that modem rental fee for over 5 months. I paid $200 to buy my own modem when I needed to upgrade to docsis 3. I didnt wa...
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  • Innovation: The public should choose Verizon FiOS instead of Time Warner Cable. Verizon FiOS is a lot for tomorrow and time warner is boring with price increases....
  • Tamara Shurling: Unfortunately the FCC is doing nothing, I've filed complaints twice and all they did was have Comcast contact me which did nothing. I'm not discouragi...
  • Joe V: I just got rid of AT&T DSL but not before contacting the company about their sub-par service and overage fees. I emailed you all the details Phil....

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