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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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Required: It's hard to believe people who just need entry level internet access are willing to pay $65/mo for that, alone. No wonder so many customers are fleei...
  • FredH: I keep hearing that (about trying to eliminate the 7 year no-data-cap requirement) and wonder how it's even possible. I hope the NYS AG will get invo...
  • John: It might be a problem with a person with disablities tries to pay and they charge them....
  • John: Well, time for everyone to start paying them by snail mail, then....
  • Mike D.: And for those who are planning to "cut the cord" after a promotion expires, be aware that Charter is lobbying the new administration and FCC chairman ...
  • Dylan: Huh, that's interesting regarding that Spectrum only saves 3/10 of its customers. Maybe there is something going on. And regarding my own promotion -...
  • Phillip Dampier: You were not on a promotion before which is why you got one this time. One year from now when your bill spikes and you call and complain, they will te...
  • Dylan: It's not that hard to get new customer pricing from Spectrum. I used to be a TWC customer paying $65/mo for 50 Mbps down internet. Once Spectrum came...
  • NM: Phillip, You may be interested in today's online story in Syracuse.com about what Spectrum's customers in CNY think about the merged company: http://...
  • Jim J: Dial tone is dial tone....
  • Julia: Even in life after TWC, if customer complaints remain the same or if a customer service rep claimed to have fixed a problem, but really didn't, you ca...
  • DPNY: As soon as Spectrum took over, my bill went up (a couple of dollars, but still)! I pay almost $250 a month as it is now for the package! I can think...

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