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Wisc. Senator Wants Paid Internet Fast Lanes; FCC Chairman Wants Focus on Investment

Johnson

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is in favor of banishing Net Neutrality and allowing service providers to sell paid broadband fast lanes, claiming some uses of the internet are more important than others.

Speaking alongside FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on a live interview with WTMJ Radio in Milwaukee with no guests in opposition, Johnson claimed unless cable and telephone companies are given additional economic incentives to risk capital, broadband service improvements will be slow in coming.

Johnson added ISPs should be allowed to adopt paid prioritization.

“You might need a fast lane within that pipeline so that [medical] diagnoses can be transmitted instantaneously [and] not [be] held up by maybe a movie streaming,” Johnson said.

“I want everyone to have what I call digital opportunity, and to do that you need to have a regulatory framework that gives all of these companies — satellite, wireless, fiber — a strong incentive to invest,” added Pai.

“As a businessperson, you need the economic incentive to risk your capital and the minute you have government regulation it reduces the certainty in terms of what you can get from return on investment, you are going to invest less,” argued Johnson. “We’re seeing that right now because of what [former FCC] Chairman Wheeler did.”

Pai

Pai argued that outdated FCC rules were also responsible for reducing broadband investment, particularly rules that require phone companies to continue maintaining their existing wireline network to provide universal access to telephone service.

Pai characterized Net Neutrality as government control of the internet.

“Do you want the government deciding how the internet is run?” Pai said, noting he favors “light touch” regulation where private companies manage their own businesses with targeted enforcement action by the FCC. “In 2015, on a party line vote, the FCC went the other way and put the government, rather than the private sector, at the center of how the internet operates.”

By getting rid of the Obama Administration’s Net Neutrality policies, Pai believes that will return the U.S. to an era of where cable and phone companies invest in their networks and expand rural broadband.

“As Chairman Pai said, Net Neutrality is a slogan,” added Johnson. “What you really want is an expansion of high-speed broadband. In order to do that, you have to create the incentives for those smaller ISPs to invest and if they don’t really control their own fiber — if the government tells them exactly how they are going to use their investment — there is less incentive for them to invest so we’ll have less high-speed broadband.”

“Consumers will be worse off because of this term Net Neutrality,” Johnson said.

“We at the FCC need to be focused on investment in infrastructure,” Pai said, not Net Neutrality.

Does Charter Charge $5 to Talk to a Human Rep? Only When You Want to Pay Them

Phillip Dampier May 25, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Video 2 Comments

Eleanor Lloyd of Chili, N.Y., was stunned when she was told there was a $5 fee to talk to a Charter/Spectrum customer service representative over the phone.

“So I said, ‘I’d like to talk to a representative.’ ‘Well that’ll cost you, just to let you know we charge $5 to talk to a representative’ and I just was — ‘what?'” Lloyd, who is 86, said at her kitchen table speaking with News10NBC in Rochester, N.Y. on Wednesday.

Lloyd had a billing question for the cable company that took over for Time Warner Cable in western New York this spring. But Charter’s automated call attendant informed her that the cable company now charges to speak to a live person about billing issues.

That news stirred WHEC-TV to do a significant story about the issue on last evening’s 6pm local news. It fits a narrative that greedy cable companies are out for as many bucks as they can successfully remove from their customers’ wallets.

The station reported Lloyd could have her billing questions resolved online for free, which is a problem for her because she does not own a computer. But at least Charter only charges the $5 fee once a month, so future calls during that month will be answered for free.

Lloyd (Image: WHEC)

Unfortunately, the station’s report about this issue isn’t precise enough to be completely accurate.

Charter/Spectrum does charge a $5 fee, but only if a customer chooses not to use Charter’s automated pay-by-phone system to make a payment on their account. The same automated attendant that directs callers to the proper department when they call the cable operator is also fully capable of taking a payment over the phone. The confusion is apparently over whether that fee also applies to customers with billing questions, and we can tell readers it does not.

Charter, which introduced the bill payment fee back in October 2016 has never imposed a fee for a customer calling in to discuss a billing problem or concern. The $5 fee is disclosed in the company’s terms and conditions and it only applies if a customer refuses to use the automated attendant to make a payment on their account. If a subscriber specifically requests a live operator take their payment information, the fee applies. Agents may also be able to waive it on a case-by-case basis, something an automated call attendant isn’t capable of doing.

Therefore, if you have a billing issue, it is actually very easy to avoid the $5 fee:

  • If you are calling to discuss your bill, request credit, or ask a question about the bill, there is no fee.
  • If you want to make a payment on your account online, there is no charge for that service.
  • If you want to make a payment by phone, the automated attendant is capable of taking your payment details over the phone and complete a payment request at no charge.
  • If you want to make a payment by phone and don’t want to use the automated call attendant, a $5 fee will generally apply. Ask if they will waive it if you have problems with the automated attendant.

WHEC-TV in Rochester reports a local customer was asked to pay a $5 fee to make payment arrangements over the phone with Charter Communications. (2:39)

Viacom, Booted Off Some Basic TV Tiers, Plans Own $10-20 Non-Sports TV Package

Viacom, which owns cable networks including Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, MTV, BET, and TV Land, will launch a cheap non-sports bundle of entertainment cable networks viewable online for $10-20 a month this year.

Viacom has lost basic cable viewers at an accelerating rate as cable operators drop their networks or repackage them in more expensive basic tiers as Viacom raises wholesale rates cable companies pay to carry the channels.

Viacom CEO Bob Bakish talked about the new service this morning at the J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference in Boston. Bakish said most of the current “skinny cable TV” bundles were priced at around $40 a month, which is too expensive to attract “cord-never millennials” that frequently don’t subscribe to cable television.

“The transformational opportunity is to bring in a new entry segment at a much lower price point,” Bakish said. The cable industry needs “a path to bring in someone who wants high-quality entertainment” but has no interest in expensive sports networks.

That is why Bakish wants to create a cheap entertainment-oriented bundle of networks that omits sports-related channels. But Bakish has also repeatedly stressed he has no intention of giving consumers a comprehensive online alternative to traditional cable TV, telling investors Viacom is “not creating inexpensive opportunities to serve as an alternative.”

Bloomberg News reported Viacom was talking to Discovery and AMC Networks about participating in the new service. The only complication may be a backlash from sports programmers like Walt Disney’s ESPN and 21st Century Fox, Inc., which have contracts requiring providers to include the sports networks in their most popular bundles. Some contracts even limit how many customers are permitted to sign up for a sports-free TV package, according to Michael Nathanson, an analyst at MoffettNathanson LLC.

“It’s meant to dissuade distributors from doing something like this,” Nathanson told Bloomberg. “The issue is how many subscribers they can have before the legal questions appear.”

Bakish may also be trying to remind cable and satellite companies that Viacom can always go direct-to-consumers if operators banish Viacom’s networks off the cable dial or move them to a more expensive tier, although there is no guarantee the new service will bundle all of Viacom’s networks.

Viacom has seen its relationships with cable and satellite providers deteriorate over the last few years under prior management. Some smaller cable companies including Cable One dropped Viacom channels from their cable systems over cost issues in 2014, and many more subscribers have seen Viacom networks temporarily dropped as a result of contract renewal disputes. Bakish has made repairing relations with cable and satellite customers a priority since taking over as CEO in December, but he still has a way to go.

Recently, Charter Communications moved Viacom networks out of its Select basic cable TV package and moved them to its most expensive Gold package for new customers. With only a minority of customers signed up for Gold service, Viacom networks could eventually lose millions of viewers as Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers adopt Spectrum packages in the next few years. If those customers do not subscribe to Gold or refuse to pay extra for a “digipak” of Gold’s basic channels without the premium networks, they will lose access to Viacom channels when they change TV plans.

That issue also concerns Wall Street analysts who believe it could eventually erode Viacom’s viewer base. Bakish made certain to tell investors Viacom was not surrendering to Charter’s “re-tiering.”

“We firmly don’t believe they have the rights to do that,” Bakish said. “We’ve been in discussions with them. We’ve got to get that resolved.”

If it is resolved, those networks may again be available to Select TV customers.

Viacom, AMC, and Discovery are partnering up to offer a $10-20 entertainment-only package on streaming basic cable networks for consumers, as this Bloomberg News story reports. (2:58)

John Oliver’s Newest Net Neutrality Plea Crashed the FCC’s Website

John Oliver returns to defend Net Neutrality, and provide a simpler way for ordinary Americans to share their views with the FCC.

John Oliver is back.

As Donald Trump’s FCC chairman Ajit Pai lays the groundwork for an all-out repeat of Net Neutrality, Oliver spent 20 minutes of his HBO show “Last Week Tonight” this past weekend pleading for Americans to come out and protect a free and open internet, just as he did three years earlier.

“It seems that the Trump-era will basically Ctrl-Z everything that happened on Obama’s watch,” Oliver said. “I genuinely would not be surprised if one night Trump went on TV just to tell us he personally killed every turkey Obama ever pardoned.”

“Every internet group needs to come together like you successfully did three years ago,” Oliver told his audience. “Gamers, YouTube celebrities, Instagram models, Tom from MySpace — if you’re still alive. We need all of you. You cannot say you are too busy when 540,000 of you commented on Beyonce’s pregnancy announcement.”

To help ordinary Americans navigate the FCC’s arcane electronic comments filing system, Oliver launched GoFCCYourself.com, a website dedicated to getting comments about Net Neutrality registered with the FCC.

His viewers responded, and promptly crashed the FCC’s website with an overwhelming amount of traffic. The same thing happened in 2014 when Oliver’s public plea helped produce millions of comments in favor of Net Neutrality. As of this afternoon, the FCC website is still slower than usual and the likely deluge of comments will keep FCC staffers busy for weeks to come.

Oliver took direct aim at Pai, noting the former Verizon lawyer said he would take a weed whacker to telecom regulations and has already threatened that Net Neutrality’s “days are numbered.”

“‘Days are numbered’ and ‘take a weed whacker’ are serial-killer talk,” Oliver said.

Oliver lampooned Pai over his repeated tweets quoting lines from the 1998 film The Big Lebowski and his oversized Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup coffee mug.

“Ajit Pai is the kind of guy who has a fun, oversized novelty mug and he is really proud of it,” Oliver said.

But despite the fun-loving façade, Pai’s claims that Net Neutrality regulations were burdensome and unnecessary are not a game to internet content providers and startups that fear large telecommunications companies could rig the marketplace against them. Pai complained at a gathering held April 26 at the Newseum, sponsored in part by FreedomWorks — a group with direct ties to the Koch Brothers, that “special interests” were pushing Net Neutrality and causing a reduction in private broadband investment.

Oliver responded that Title II enforcement was essential for Net Neutrality policies to have any teeth. Pai’s desire to return to an earlier Title I enforcement mechanism for Net Neutrality was overturned by the D.C. Court of Appeals, ruling the FCC could not enforce Net Neutrality policies under Title I, and suggested Title II enforcement instead.

Last week, that same D.C. Court of Appeals elected not to review and let stand a three-judge panel’s decision that the FCC was within its rights to reclassify ISPs under Title II, a clear victory for open internet proponents.

“[That] decision is a win for consumers,” said Lisa Hayes, general counsel for the Center For Democracy and Technology. “The court agreed that Title II classification is sound, and that the FCC has authority to regulate the marketplace. Net neutrality is essential to a vibrant internet ecosystem, and CDT will continue to defend the open internet in the days and years to come.”

“The D.C. Circuit has once again confirmed that the FCC’s Open Internet rules are lawful and supported by the evidence,” said Public Knowledge senior counsel John Bergmayer. “Now, the primary threat to these important consumer protections is FCC Chairman Pai’s determination to roll them back, and to hand more power to monopolistic internet access providers.”

ISPs like Verizon are also on record stating Net Neutrality had and will continue to have no bearing on internet investment, which directly contradicts Pai’s repeated claims.

“Maybe the best way to gauge Title II’s impact is to listen to what cable companies told their own investors, to who they are legally obligated to tell the truth,” Oliver said, playing a recording of a 2014 Verizon earnings conference call quoting former chief financial officer Fran Shammo who told investors that Net Neutrality “does not influence the way we invest.”

John Oliver takes on FCC chairman Ajit Pai in Net Neutrality II from his HBO series “Last Week Tonight.” (19:32)

Charter Sending Techs to Customer Homes (Late) With No ID and No Idea

We’ve heard from several Los Angeles-area readers that Charter/Spectrum has dispatched third-party contractors to customer homes on service calls in plain clothing with no identification of any kind verifying who they are, and in several cases the “technicians” could not explain why they were there.

“This truck pulled up to my door and a man rang my bell to say he was from Spectrum and was there to replace a cable box,” said Stop the Cap! reader Wanda. “We had no idea who he was, he wasn’t in a cable company uniform, and he could not show me any identification showing who he was. We later learned he was some sort of contractor hired by Spectrum to handle service calls, but we did not let him in. I used to have Comcast back in Chicago and one of their technicians raped and murdered someone so I don’t open the door until I’m comfortable, and I wasn’t.”

One thing that hasn’t changed after Charter took over from Time Warner Cable for customer Todd Collins: his Charter technician arrived two hours late, also without a uniform, a truck with a Spectrum logo, or an ID badge. At least Collins knew why Charter was there — to install cable service in the new addition on his home.

“It was amazing to watch because it was a comedy of errors from start to finish,” Collins explained. “He brought the wrong paperwork, didn’t know what he was there to do, and had to make four phone calls to find someone at Charter to help. Two additional cable trucks eventually stopped by, so at least we knew we were dealing with Charter, and between the three technicians the work was grudgingly completed. We still don’t know how much Charter intends to charge us for this service and they admit they don’t know either.”

Charter also continues to attract complaints from customers about inconsistent information about its pricing and packages. One exasperated customer took to YouTube to declare Charter/Spectrum “thieves” for charging their notorious $199 upgrade charge when customers want broadband faster than the base 60 or 100Mbps package. In the video, the customer was originally quoted $100 to install and upgrade to 300Mbps Ultra service (Los Angeles was a Time Warner Cable Maxx city) which increased to $200 just a few weeks later. For that, the customer was told a technician would take up to two hours and install new lines and equipment. When the technician finally arrived (late), he spent about 15 minutes unwrapping and plugging in a replacement cable modem/router combo, and then left.

“I feel like I was just robbed $200,” the video blogger said.

“Our Ultra Internet unfortunately is $199,” a Charter representative said. “That’s just the installation charge. [The] activation fee is part of overall Ultra pricing and it covers higher network costs.”

Requests to reverse the fee, considering the 15-minutes spent plugging in a cable modem the customer could have accomplished himself were rejected. But because the cable technician was late, the customer got a one-time $20 service credit.

Stop the Cap! readers have had more success getting back the unnecessary and unconscionable $199 upgrade fee (or whatever else Charter calls it this week) by filing a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission.

An exasperated Spectrum customer in Los Angeles documents his displeasure with Charter’s prices, packages, and uniform-less technician. (7:32)

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  • Josh: Ugh. If I used Comcast for TV I'd be using it with my TiVo...never with their box. And I always figured the "Xfinity" thing was just to trick people...
  • Josh: LOL! Sounds like basically "we're a huge corporation, so you should do this for us for free". At least hopefully they'll pay now... Of course this ...
  • FredH: Like cable company CEOs need to be told to raise prices by some a-hole Wall Street analyst....
  • Roger W: Go ahead. Raise it to $90. I dare you. I guarantee you it will be the last day I subscribe to cable service. That'll be your loss....
  • FredH: Charter/Spectrum is rapidly catching Comcast in the "race to the bottom"....
  • Phillip Dampier: Yeah, because Charter is hurting so much it cannot afford to extend service itself so it wants welfare to do it. Keep in mind most techs have no clue...
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  • Matthew H Mosher: I spoke with a Time Warner/Spectrum tech today, a very nice guy by the way. (Some background - I am the only house on my road without cable) I had s...
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