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Charter Watch: Goodbye TWC’s $10 Modem Rental Fee, Hello Spectrum’s $5 Wi-Fi Fee

Former Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers in Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin were glad to see the end of modem rental fees, something promoted as a tangible deal benefit of the merger by new owner Charter Communications. But many of those same customers are now upset to discover that up to $10 modem rental fee has been replaced with a $5 monthly fee for “Wi-Fi service.”

LuAnn Summers, a Bright House customer in Tampa, wrote Stop the Cap! in February to complain her new bill from Charter/Spectrum included a $9.99 activation fee and $5 a month for something called “Wi-Fi Service.” The same fees have since appeared on bills for some customers recently switching away from their old Time Warner Cable service plans to new Spectrum pricing and plans.

Rich D’Angelo in Wisconsin recently took Charter up on its offer to switch away from his legacy TWC plan when his promotion expired in January.

“I was able to get a big speed boost and bundle it with Spectrum’s Silver TV package, which includes two of the premium movie channels I was paying TWC $15 each for every month, and my bill was only supposed to go up $10,” D’Angelo tells Stop the Cap! “Instead, it went up $25 and I feel lied to.”

Wi-Fi sticker shock.

D’Angelo retired his old owned Motorola SB6121 modem in favor of a new network gateway supplied free of charge by Charter because his new package didn’t work with his old modem.

“My 6121 modem was a real workhorse and I bought it right after Time Warner started charging modem fees, but it cannot support Spectrum’s fastest speeds in Wisconsin and I didn’t feel like buying a new modem when Spectrum gives them to customers for free,” D’Angelo explained. “This was the device they handed me and I was not offered any other option.”

Champagne Johnson in Columbus, Ohio also took advantage of Spectrum’s new pricing plans thinking she could save her family money and get better internet speeds from the cable operator that advertises it’s a “new day” for Time Warner Cable subscribers.

“New day but the same old lies and deceit,” Johnson writes Stop the Cap! “Do these cable companies only hire thieves? I was told the cable modem was included, but now I am suddenly getting charged for Wi-Fi, which is crazy. I called Spectrum up and they told me there is a charge if I use their modem for my Wi-Fi. I told them I don’t need their Wi-Fi because I have my own router that works fine and they told me it was included inside their modem and I had to pay for something I won’t use.”

Charter assumes if you use Wi-Fi, you want their Wi-Fi Service

We contacted Charter to learn more about this new charge and what customers can do about it.

It turns out the Wi-Fi charge and activation fee applies when you use a network gateway device provided by the cable company. We learned the reason so many customers are finding this charge on their bill comes as a result of slightly deceptive sales practices when customers choose a Spectrum internet service plan.

“Do you use Wi-Fi at home?” a Charter representative asked us when we inquired about pricing for a new Spectrum service plan to replace our existing Time Warner Cable plan. When we answered yes, the representative said they would send our “free equipment” and noted we would no longer pay a modem rental charge (despite the fact we had owned our own modem at Stop the Cap! HQ for years). “You can either pick it up in a cable store or we can ship it direct to you in a self-install kit.” That equipment was a “network gateway,” which bundles a cable modem and router into a single device.

Our readers confirm that Charter representatives did not ask them if they have an existing in-home router, which probably already provides Wi-Fi access in the home. Nor do they disclose that accepting a network gateway, which was also interchangeably referred to as “a modem” means they are agreeing to pay a $9.99 activation fee and $5/mo ongoing fee for “Wi-Fi service.”

We called three times this afternoon as were given identical information, and no disclosure of any Wi-Fi fees.

On the fourth call, we specifically asked about Wi-Fi fees and the representative told us they did not know the answer and left us on hold for 10 minutes before finally disclosing that Charter does charge both fees. When we asked how to avoid them, we were first told we could not waive the fee if we used Wi-Fi in the home, but a supervisor later clarified that it only applied to their gateway and we could specifically request a “basic modem” or have Wi-Fi disabled on a network gateway, and neither charge would apply.

“How are we supposed to know and understand that in advance?” Johnson asked us.

“Considering more than 90% of Time Warner Cable customers were paying $10 a month for a modem without ever realizing or understanding they could buy their own and avoid that charge, how many Spectrum customers are proficient enough to tell Spectrum they want their network gateway set to bridge mode or want a traditional cable modem without router functionality? It’s clear Charter is going to make $5 a month from a whole lot of customers, and it should be disclosed up front. It even got me and I am a network engineer.”

Summers learned about the controversy of the Wi-Fi charge after googling the fee and discovered a Tampa Bay Times story about the fee.

Spectrum spokesman Joe Durkin told the newspaper the fee should not apply to customers Charter inherited from Bright House who already had internet service. He said Spectrum is reviewing cases the Times has brought to its attention to see if the charges were appropriate.

But that isn’t always the case for customers placing orders on Charter’s website or contacting customer service by phone. In both cases, Charter implied if you want to use Wi-Fi at home, you owe them an extra $5 a month:

Charter’s website suggests that you have to pay $5 a month if you intend to use Wi-Fi at home.

Getting the charges off your bill

Luckily, Charter is readily agreeing to customer requests to remove the charge(s) from customer bills and will supply equipment with Wi-Fi disabled (or not present when using a traditional cable modem). You may need to exchange equipment, however. If either charge appears on your bill, call and complain. While we no longer recommend customers invest in their own cable modems as long as Charter is providing them without a rental fee, we do suggest customers buy their own router and avoid ongoing fees for Wi-Fi service.

Also be aware that if you are still on a legacy Time Warner Cable internet plan, Charter will keep collecting that $10 monthly modem fee until you abandon your Time Warner plan for a Spectrum internet plan. You can still avoid the rental fee by buying your own modem. Charter’s list of supported modems is here.

Corporate/Koch Brother-Linked Group Asks FCC to Repeal Charter/Spectrum’s Data Cap Prohibition

A conservative group funded by corporate interests and the Koch Brothers has asked FCC chairman Ajit Pai to answer its petition and move expeditiously to cancel the prohibition of data caps/usage-based pricing as a condition for FCC approval of Charter Communications’ acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

A number of pro-consumer deal conditions were included as part of the merger transaction’s approval, and won the support of a majority of FCC commissioners under the leadership of former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, appointed by President Barack Obama.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) is hopeful that with Wheeler out of office and a new Republican majority at the FCC under the Trump Administration means the FCC will end requirements that Charter offer unlimited data plans, discounted internet access for low-income consumers, and start allowing Charter to charge fees to Netflix and other content providers to connect to its broadband customers. CEI has every reason to be hopeful, pointing out Chairman Pai is a fan of data caps on residential broadband service, opposes Net Neutrality, and recently effectively killed a Lifeline program that would have extended inexpensive internet access to the poor.

CEI:

As then-Commissioner Pai wrote in 2016, this condition is neither “fair” nor “progressive.” Instead, he called this “the paradigmatic case of the 99% subsidizing the 1%,” as it encourages Charter to raise prices on all consumers in response to costs stemming from the activities of a “bandwidth-hungry few.” Other problematic conditions include the ban on Charter charging “edge providers” a price for interconnection and the requirement that the company operate a “low-income broadband program” for customers who meet certain criteria.

The group is optimistic Pai will oversee the unwinding of Charter’s deal conditions largely pushed by former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, after Pai recently led the charge to revoke another condition required of Charter in return for merger approval – a commitment to expand its cable network to pass at least one million new homes that already receive broadband service from another provider.

Pai also opposed the low-income internet program, calling it “rate regulation.” The CEI claimed the requirement will “undermine Charter’s ability to price its services in an economically rational manner.”

“Hopefully, the FCC’s new leadership will seize this opportunity to take a stand against harmful merger conditions that have nothing to do with the transaction at hand—by granting CEI’s petition,” the group wrote on its blog.

Earthlink Kills New Customer Promotion for Existing Charter/Spectrum Customers

Nine years after Earthlink began promoting its $29.99 six-month offer for alternative broadband service for Time Warner Cable customers, the completion of Charter Communication’s takeover of Time Warner Cable has eliminated a clever way for customers to get broadband rate relief.

For almost a decade, savvy broadband-only Time Warner Cable customers have been able to bounce between new customer promotions at Time Warner Cable and Earthlink. When a year-long promotion with Time Warner Cable ended, a customer could switch seamlessly to Earthlink for six months and pay just $29.99 a month — charged to their Time Warner Cable bill. When the Earthlink promotion ended, customers were entitled to enroll as a new Time Warner Cable broadband customer and pay a lower rate for up to one year. After that, back to Earthlink.

No more.

Charter Communications closed that loophole this month and now prohibits existing Charter/Spectrum customers from getting promotional rates from Earthlink.

Once Charter customers end a broadband-only new customer promotion, currently $44.95 a month for one year, the rate jumps to $64.99… and stays there indefinitely.

The new restrictions appear in fine print on Earthlink’s website:

Charter Communications eliminated lower-cost broadband options for its customers, but claims its single remaining advertised offer (60Mbps in non-Maxx areas, 100Mbps in former TWC Maxx cities) offers a greater value because it is faster than Time Warner Cable’s Standard Internet 15Mbps plan and ends Time Warner’s practice of charging a $10 modem rental fee.

But it also costs more than earlier promotions at Earthlink ($29.99) and Time Warner Cable ($34.95).

Charter has junked Earthlink’s former promotion for Time Warner Cable customers.

“My broadband bill is now double what it used to be because I cannot switch to a broadband promotion with Charter as my Earthlink promotion ends this month,” reports Jim Deneck, a former Time Warner Cable customer in South Carolina. “I was paying $30 a month and now Spectrum wants to charge me $65 a month. The modem fee savings is irrelevant to me because I bought my modem years ago.”

Charter/Spectrum customers hoping for a better promotion from Earthlink are now also out of luck.

“After Spectrum pricing took effect in my area, my bill went up $30 a month,” writes Stop the Cap! reader Gennifer in Maine. “I was hoping to switch back to Earthlink but after placing an order with Earthlink, a representative from Charter/Spectrum called me and denied my request. It’s false competition. Since when is it okay to sign up with one company and then get a call from another telling me I am not allowed to take my business elsewhere. It’s monopoly abuse!”

Earthlink is entirely dependent on Charter Communications allowing them to resell service over Charter’s cable lines. Earthlink has been cautious not to outcompete either Charter or its predecessor Time Warner Cable, and charges roughly the same rates as a customer would get direct from either cable operator. The only benefit of the arrangement for customers was the ability to bounce between new customer promotions to pay the new customer rate indefinitely, but Charter has made sure that practice stops.

Gennifer did manage to ultimately outwit Charter, but at the cost of time and inconvenience.

“I called Spectrum and canceled my service and we signed up as a new customer under my husband’s name,” Gennifer writes. “Unfortunately, Charter won’t process an order at an address with existing service so you have to cancel and turn in equipment first and then place an order under a different name to qualify for a promotion. They really don’t want to give their customers a break or a discount. I wish we had other options.”

Wall Street Panic Attack: Verizon’s Unlimited Plan Will Destroy Profits, Network Reliability

Verizon Wireless’ new unlimited data plan threatens to destroy everything, fear Wall Street analysts in an open panic attack over the prospects of value destruction and network reliability damage.

“An unlimited offer is dangerous,” Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics LLC, told Bloomberg News. “If they sign up a lot of people, it will congest the network, and they run the risk of people saying ‘the network sucks’.”

The return of unlimited data at Verizon (with a protective right to throttle customer speeds after they consume 22GB of data during the month) seems to have triggered anxiety on Wall Street because Verizon was the most adamant about never offering unlimited plans again after dropping them in July, 2011. Part of that fear may have come from Verizon’s own former chief financial officer Fran Shammo who warned investors last fall:

“The majority of people don’t need unlimited plans. But the people who use unlimited plans can be abusive, they can really wreak havoc to your network. And at the end of the day, I continue to say you cannot make money in an unlimited video world. You just can’t do it because you need to generate the cash flow to keep up with your demand.”

What also concerns Wall Street is the increasing evidence an all-out price war provoked by T-Mobile and Sprint will threaten to close some doors on network monetization. Charging customers for data consumption has a growth prospect that would have guaranteed increasing average revenue per customer indefinitely. But unlimited plans mean consumers pay one flat price for data no matter how much they consume. Consumers love it. Wall Street analysts generally don’t.

Other analysts are concerned that Verizon, deemed the Cadillac Network because of its premium price and reputation, also happens to have the least amount of deployed wireless spectrum of all the four national carriers. As the nation’s largest carrier with 114 million users, a big spike in data consumption could affect Verizon’s network performance, some speculate.

Unlimited data plans promote usage and total wireless traffic is expected to grow between 70-80% annually, up from 50-60% under today’s tiered data plans, according to wireless analyst Chetan Sharma.

In response Verizon has rushed out executives to reassure Wall Street and investors Verizon’s network was built to take it.

“Our goal is to always offer a better performance, and I see a path to that,” Mike Haberman, Verizon’s vice president of network support, said in an interview with Bloomberg:

“Spectrum is only one element of a network,” he added. “How you put the network together is far more important.” In advance of its decision to start selling an unlimited data package, Verizon was busy with upgrades. The company just boosted network capacity by 50 percent with new systems that take separate radio frequencies and combine them into one large pathway, Haberman said. The company has also been adding more cell sites and transmitters in cities and connecting those sites with high-capacity fiber-optic lines.

CNBC reported Verizon’s new unlimited data plan is a “sign of weakness” for Verizon, which is facing challenges to its core wireless business. (4:30)

New York Awards $212 Million to 26 Telecom Companies for Rural Broadband Expansion

New York State taxpayers will contribute $212 million to expand broadband to reach 89,514 homes and institutions in mostly in rural upstate communities that either lack internet access or have to endure very slow speed DSL service from the phone company. All recipients have agreed, as a condition of receiving the money, not to impose data caps on their customers.

This week, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced the latest winning projects that will receive grants from a second round of funding from the New NY Broadband Program, part of the governor’s effort to achieve 100% broadband penetration in the Empire State.

Gov. Cuomo

Twenty six cable and phone companies, mostly for-profit businesses, will share awards ranging from $226,184 for Cable Communications of Willsboro to reach 558 homes in the Essex County communities of Willsboro and Essex, on the border of Lake Champlain and the state of Vermont to $47,770,970 for Armstrong Telecommunications to reach 16,545 homes in Allegany, Cattaraugus, Erie, Livingston, Steuben, and Wyoming counties in the Finger Lakes Region and Southern Tier.

“Broadband is today what electricity was nearly a century ago – essential to creating economic opportunity, driving innovation and an absolute necessity for our way of life,” Governor Cuomo said. “These awards will provide homes and businesses with access to the high-speed internet required to participate and succeed in the modern economy, and are a major step toward broadband for all in New York.”

Grant recipients provided $56,253,037 in private matching funds, with New York taxpayers picking up the remaining 75% of the total expansion cost — about $2,366 per home or business.

A separate agreement with the New York State Public Service Commission obligates Charter Communications (formerly Time Warner Cable) to embark on its own company-funded expansion program to expand service to approximately 145,000 unserved and underserved premises. Charter has identified Columbia, Erie, Jefferson, Onondaga, Oswego, and Sullivan as “Year One Priority Counties” where most upgrades will be taking place in 2017, including expansion to reach 100Mbps speeds during the first six months of this year.

The winning providers had to guarantee they would upgrade speeds to at least 100Mbps except in the “most remote areas” where 25Mbps is acceptable. Although the state targeted 50% private sector co-investment, providers ultimately came closer to the absolute minimum of 20% in matching funds. They must also guarantee that broadband service will be available to customers for no more than $60 a month to qualify for the grant. Cable Communications of Willsboro, for example, now offers 8/1Mbps for $59.95 a month. Presumably it will have to boost speeds as part of its grant award.

The grant program was also designed to favor applicants offering fiber-to-the-home or hybrid fiber/cable (HFC) technology currently favored by cable operators. DSL and fixed wireless applicants had to give evidence the governor’s need for speed would be delivered using those technologies. All applicants must also agree not to impose data caps of any kind for New York residents.

New York is a rare exception to rural broadband expansion in states that mostly rely on politicians begging and pleading with providers to expand their service areas. At best, this has delivered modest results without access to supplemental funding to achieve Return On Investment requirements private companies demand.

As New York progresses through multiple rounds of bidding, each new round becomes more challenging because of the increasing expense to reach each remaining unwired rural home, business, and farm. In the current round, the costs to wire a single home are at least four times more than what Verizon spent to extend its FiOS service to a new home or business in downstate New York.

To meet 100% penetration, some properties will require a $20,000 or more investment to extend service. Gov. Cuomo has decided that broadband should be treated as a necessary utility, not a convenience. In effect, New York wants universal service standards to be applied to broadband, regardless of cost.

All projects must be finished by the end of 2018. The Broadband Program Office is currently finalizing a Request for Proposals for the Program’s upcoming Round III, which will launch within 30 days. This round will seek to complete the goal of bringing high-speed internet access to New York’s remaining unserved and underserved communities. Round III will be paid for by the $170 million in Connect America Funds Verizon forfeit because of their lack of interest in expanding rural broadband service. New York officials successfully petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to reallocate those funds to the state to disburse to reach the remaining rural areas still without suitable internet access.

Phase 2 Awardees

Awardee Projects Census Blocks Total Units State Grant Total Private Match Total Project Cost
TOTALS
54
10,378
89,514
$211,798,593
$56,253,037
$268,051,631
Altice 1 25 346 $867,281 $216,821 $1,084,102
Armstrong Telecommunications 4 1,678 16,545 $47,770,970 $12,472,577 $60,243,547
Cable Communications of Willsboro 1 11 558 $226,184 $56,546 $282,730
Castle Cable TV Television, Inc. 1 14 129 $632,559 $158,140 $790,699
Champlain Telephone Company 1 58 334 $1,362,901 $340,726 $1,703,627
Chazy and Westport Telephone Corporation 2 222 530 $2,821,185 $705,297 $3,526,482
Citizens of Hammond 1 40 382 $1,395,688 $348,923 $1,744,611
Delhi Telephone Company 1 284 818 $3,392,373 $848,094 $4,240,467
DFT Local Service Corporation 1 212 973 $4,274,536 $1,068,634 $5,343,170
DTC Cable Inc. 1 413 1,524 $4,432,209 $1,899,518 $6,331,727
Empire Telephone Corporation 3 277 1,692 $3,236,891 $809,226 $4,046,117
Fairpoint 3 2,015 10,321 $36,668,472 $9,301,930 $45,970,402
Frontier Communications 11 1,189 12,003 $29,901,354 $7,475,354 $37,376,708
Gtel Teleconnections 2 442 2,450 $5,259,217 $1,314,806 $6,574,023
Haefele TV Inc. 2 386 3,407 $5,022,332 $1,255,751 $6,278,083
Mid-Hudson Data Corp. 1 449 18,771 $849,818 $212,455 $1,062,273
Middleburgh Telephone Company (MIDTEL) 1 228 1,599 $6,831,856 $1,707,964 $8,539,820
Mohawk Networks, LLC 1 754 3,623 $6,391,157 $1,597,792 $7,988,949
MTC Cable 4 183 2,982 $6,529,775 $2,391,035 $8,920,810
New Visions Communications 1 266 3,906 $11,310,921 $2,827,731 $14,138,652
Newport Telephone Company 1 255 1,919 $9,348,940 $2,337,237 $11,686,177
Oneida County Rural Telephone 1 210 588 $3,285,885 $821,474 $4,107,359
Otsego Electric Cooperative 2 122 714 $3,935,949 $1,145,065 $5,081,014
Pattersonville Telephone Company 1 93 170 $1,188,748 $297,187 $1,485,936
Slic Network Solutions 2 121 891 $3,746,744 $937,871 $4,684,615
TDS Telecom 4 431 2,339 $11,114,648 $3,704,883 $14,819,531

Interested in Learning If Broadband is Expanding in Your Area? A complete list of community expansion projects follows:

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