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Consumer Action Alert: Charter/Spectrum Customers Should Opt Out of Mandated Arbitration

Charter Communications/Spectrum customers (including former Bright House and Time Warner Cable customers) need to take a moment to protect their right to collect damages from future class action cases likely to be filed over the company’s alleged failure to deliver advertised broadband speeds and in the case of Time Warner Cable, the alleged provision of obsolete cable modems for which the cable operator charged customers $10/month.

Charter customers are finding this fine print notice on their cable bills designed to strip away their right to collect potentially substantial settlements that could eventually exceed $100 because of inadequate service:

The terms and conditions applicable to your services contain a binding arbitration provision, which includes a waiver of class actions and provisions for opting out of arbitration and affects your rights with respect to all services.

Customers can protect their rights by sending this short letter to Charter’s general counsel within the next 30 days, which will opt you out of company-friendly mandated arbitration and allow you to participate in future class action cases and settlements. The letter will have no impact on your service or any promotional offers you receive.

March 17, 2017

VP and Associate General Counsel, Litigation
Charter Communications
12405 Powerscourt Dr.
St. Louis, MO 63131

Re: Arbitration Opt-Out

To Whom It May Concern,

As per your subscriber notice, this letter serves as my notice to you that I wish to opt out of Charter Communication’s arbitration provisions and do not want to be bound by that condition. I do not wish to resolve disputes with Charter through arbitration.

I would appreciate receiving confirmation you have received this letter and have accepted this notification.

Subscriber Name (as shown on bill): 
Subscriber Address:
City/St/Zip Code:
My Account Number (as shown on bill): 

Yours very truly,

//Signature
Printed Name

Charter Freezing Out Chiller Network; Thrown Off Cable Lineups April 25

Charter Communications is continuing to trim back its cable-TV lineup, this time with the elimination of Chiller, Comcast/NBC’s horror network.

TVpredictions, first to report the channel drop, reports the blow is a big one for the niche network, which will lose 17.2 million more of its 34 million home potential audience, after Dish Networks dropped the network for its 13.7 million subscribers in February. April 25 will be the last day for Chiller on Charter/Spectrum’s lineup nationwide.

When large cable operators drop a network of Chiller’s size and relative obscurity, it is usually not a good sign for the future of that channel. Esquire Network announced its imminent sign-off as a linear TV channel just a month after AT&T and DirecTV unilaterally dropped it. Already gone from the Charter lineup is Cloo, and more channel trimming is anticipated.

Chiller has been on the cable dial since 2006 airing movies and various original series covering the horror and sci-fi genres. Its future as a linear network is questionable, considering it has lost more than half of its potential audience. But NBC Universal claimed in a statement Chiller would continue as-is, with no plans to shutter the channel.

FCC’s Ajit Pai on Mission to Sabotage Charter-Bright House-Time Warner Cable Deal Conditions

Pai

As a result of the multibillion dollar cable merger between Charter Communications, Bright House Networks, and Time Warner Cable, the three companies involved freely admitted: your cable bill was unlikely to decrease, you won’t have any new competitive options, there was no guarantee your service would improve, or that you would get faster broadband service than what Time Warner Cable Maxx was already delivering to about half its customer base.

While shareholders and Wall Street bankers made substantial gains, top Time Warner Cable executives walked away with multimillion dollar golden parachute packages, and Charter took control of what is now the country’s supersized, second most powerful cable operator, regulators also required the dealmakers share at least a tiny portion of the spoils with customers.

Then President Donald Trump’s FCC chairman — Ajit Pai — took leadership of the telecom regulator. Now all bets are off.

Pai is reconsidering the settled deal conditions imposed by the FCC under the last administration, and wants to give Charter Communications a free pass to let them out of their commitment to compete. Last week, Pai circulated a petition among his fellow commissioners to roll back the commitment Charter acknowledged to expand its service area to at least one million new homes that already get broadband service from another cable or telephone company.

Former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler sought the competition requirement to prove that cable operators can successfully run their businesses in direct competition with each other, potentially inspiring other cable companies to face off with incumbent operators outside of their own territories. A paradigm shift worked for Google, which inspired ISPs to boost speeds in light of its gigabit Google Fiber service, which reset customer expectations.

The FCC order approving the merger deal was hardly onerous, requiring Charter to compete head-to-head for customers in places the company can choose itself. Lawmakers eliminated exclusive cable franchise agreements years ago, but established major cable operators like Charter have gone out of their way to avoid competing in areas that already receive cable service. While Wheeler may have hoped some of that competition would be directed against fellow cable companies, Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge quickly made clear to investors and the FCC Charter would continue to avoid direct cable competition, instead promising to expand service into non-cable areas that already get DSL service from the phone company or no broadband at all.

“When I talked to the FCC, I said I can’t overbuild another cable company, because then I could never buy it, because you always block those,” Rutledge said. “It’s really about overbuilding telephone companies.”

Charter’s CEO believes most phone companies are not competing on the same level as cable operators and are unwilling to make the necessary investments to upgrade their aging wired infrastructure to offer faster internet speeds. That makes competing with telephone companies like Windstream, Frontier, and Verizon’s DSL-only service areas a much better proposition than trying to compete head-to-head with Comcast, Cox, or Cablevision.

Rutledge’s clear views about Charter’s expansion plans apparently never made it to the American Cable Association, a cable industry lobbying group that defends the interests of independent and smaller cable operators. Despite Rutledge’s public statements, the ACA and its members are afraid Charter could expand on their turf anyway, potentially forcing small cable operators to compete with the same level of service Charter offers. The horror.

The ACA’s arguments found a sympathetic audience in Mr. Pai and now he wants to let Charter off the hook, at the expense of competition and better service for consumers.

Under the proposal circulated by Pai, Charter would still be required to expand its cable broadband service by at least one million new homes, but those homes would no longer have to be in areas outside of Charter’s existing service footprint. In practical terms, this would mean Charter would focus on wiring areas not far from where it provides service today — ‘DSL or nothing’-country. Charter would also be able to fritter away the number of expansions required by counting newly constructed neighborhood developments it would have likely wired anyway, as well as upgrading its remaining shoddy legacy cable systems — some still incapable of offering broadband or phone service.

The ACA’s talking points prefer to emphasize the David vs. Goliath scenario of a big bully of a cable company like Charter being forced to compete (and likely obliterate) existing small cable operators:

“The overbuild condition imposed by the FCC on Charter is stunningly bad and inexplicable government policy,” said ACA president and CEO Matthew Polka, in a statement. “On the one hand, the FCC found that Charter will be too big and therefore it imposed a series of conditions to ensure it does not exercise any additional market power. At the same time, the FCC, out of the blue, is forcing Charter to get even bigger.”

The real goal here is to minimize direct competition at all costs. The FCC’s deal conditions already included the need for more rural broadband expansion. Wheeler’s second goal was to introduce a new model — cable company competing against cable company — fighting for new customers by offering consumers better service and pricing. The existence of such competition would belie the industry’s claim that cable overbuilds and head-to-head competition is uneconomical. Wildly profitable, perhaps not, but certainly possible. Historically, the traditional way cable operators dealt with the few instances of direct cable competition was to buy them out to put them out of business. Rutledge was certainly thinking along those lines when he complained that the FCC’s order to compete did not include permission to eventually devour its competitor, effectively making competition go away.

Had Charter chosen to compete with cable companies not afraid to spend money to upgrade service above and beyond the anemic broadband speeds Charter offers, it would likely find few takers for its maximum 300Mbps broadband service that comes with a $200 install fee.

“Why would we go where we could get killed?” Rutledge admitted.

Industry claims that the cable business is already fiercely competitive are also countered by Rutledge’s own statements making clear direct competition with brethren cable companies on the cusp of speed-boosting DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades was bad for business. Instead, he would focus on competing with inferior phone companies, which he characterized as mired in debt, still skeptical about the financial wisdom of fiber optic upgrades, and the only competitor where dismal 3-10Mbps DSL service presented a ripe opportunity to steal customers away.

Clyburn – A likely “no” vote.

Charter’s merger approval and its conditions are a sealed deal that was acceptable to Charter and its shareholders and at least offered small token treats to ordinary consumers. Mr. Pai’s willingness to reopen and undo those commitments is just one reason we’ve referred to his regulatory philosophy as irresponsible, nakedly anti-consumer, and anti-competitive. Mr. Pai’s willingness to embrace things as they are comes at the same time most consumers are paying the highest broadband bills ever while also facing an epidemic of usage caps, usage billing, and increasing service and equipment fees. Mr. Pai’s other actions, including ending an effort to introduce competition into the set-top box market, curtailing customer privacy, ending inquiries on usage caps/zero rating, threatening to eliminate Net Neutrality, and reducing the FCC’s already anemic focus on consumer protection makes it clear Mr. Pai is a company man, on a mission to defend the interests of Big Telecom companies and their lobbyists (that also have a history of hiring friendly regulators for high-paying positions once their government job ends.)

That conclusion seems apt considering what Mr. Pai said about Chairman Wheeler’s vision of improving broadband: “one more step down the path of micromanaging where, when, and how ISPs deploy infrastructure.” Missing from his statement are consumers who have spent the last 20 years watching ISPs govern themselves while waiting… waiting… waiting for broadband service that never comes.

Mr. Pai’s proposal needs just one additional vote to win passage. That extra vote is unlikely until President Trump appoints another Republican commissioner. Pai’s proposal isn’t likely to win support from the sole remaining Democrat commissioner still at the FCC — Mignon Clyburn.

Charter CEO Admits You May Be Sharing Your Internet Connection With 499 Neighbors

The average Charter/Spectrum customer shares their internet connection with up to 499 of their neighbors, according to an admission made today by Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge.

“Our average node size is around 500 homes,” Rutledge told investors on a morning conference call.

According to a lawsuit filed by the New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, from about 2012, Spectrum-TWC’s network across New York typically provided about 304Mbps (8 x 38Mbps channels) of bandwidth to be shared among all the subscribers in a service group. In some areas, this would mean that 300 customers in a node would have around 1Mbps of bandwidth to use if all 300 subscribers used the internet at the same time. Time Warner Cable had begun expanding bandwidth on DOCSIS nodes to 16 channels at the time Charter Communications acquired the company, giving customers shared bandwidth of about 608Mbps.

Remarkably, Rutledge’s admission suggests some Charter customers may be serviced by DOCSIS nodes even more populated than the ones in New York State that regularly failed to deliver advertised internet speeds and prompted the Attorney General to file a lawsuit against Charter.

New York’s lawsuit claimed as of February 2016, the average Time Warner Cable customer in the state shared their connection with about 340 other customers. Information obtained from Time Warner Cable found some nodes with as few as 32 subscribers while the most overcongested had as many as 621 subscribers.

Rutledge’s comments this morning suggest Charter/Spectrum customers may be sharing their connection with up to 499 of their neighbors, making them more likely to experience congestion potentially worse than experienced with Time Warner Cable. Standard internet service from Charter is also much faster than Time Warner Cable’s corresponding Standard plan — 60Mbps vs. 15Mbps, which has the potential to lead to even worse slowdowns if customers use their internet connections at the same time.

Rutledge defended the average node size by claiming Charter has a lot of fiber in its network.

“And we have the ability to take that fiber deeper,” Rutledge said. “We have the ability incrementally to take the network to a passive network and to do that at reasonably efficient capital cost through time and to do that in very targeted ways where we need the capacity. So we’re very comfortable with the extensibility of our network and the ability to put high capacity anywhere in our network.”

Rutledge said node expansions take place through a “market demand driven sort of process.”

“There are bunch of ways you can manage capacity on our network,” Rutledge explained. “We can do what are called virtual node splits. If you clear analog spectrum and go all-digital, [that can create] excess capacity in your network, and [if] you have demand to put more capacity in a node, there [are] two ways of doing it. One way is to physically split a node into a smaller node, which requires the placing of an electronic device in the field, and maybe the extension of some fiber. It depends on how the architecture of that is structured, but it’s relatively inexpensive on a grand scale capital perspective, but a lot more expensive than a digital or virtual node split. And you can do those if you have channel capacity by just recreating additional DOCSIS paths to create a virtual node essentially. And so we manage our network for the future based on the actual load on the network as opposed to some theoretical issue.”

Charter Spectrum Raising Broadband Prices $5; $64.99/Mo for Entry-Level 60Mbps Plan

Customers in Florida and Texas received this notice with his latest cable bill. (Image courtesy: Nucleartx)

The “consumer benefits” of Charter Communications’ acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks just keep on coming as the company has begun hiking the cost of its broadband plans by $5 a month:

Important Billing Update: At Spectrum, we continue to enhance our services, offer more of the best entertainment choices and deliver the best value. We are committed to offering you products and services we are sure you will enjoy.

Effective with your next billing statement, pricing will be adjusted for:

  • Internet Service from $59.99 to $64.99.

If you are currently on a discounted rate, you will not realize an increase until the end of your promotional period.

The rate increase means Charter/Spectrum’s nationally available, entry-level broadband plan will now cost customers $64.99 a month. The company is also hiking rates on its Ultra tier (300Mbps in former Time Warner Cable Maxx markets, 100Mbps in most other markets) by $5 to $104.99.

Customers signed up to Spectrum’s base 60Mbps internet plan may be able to threaten their way to a lower price by contacting customer service and informing them you plan to switch to Earthlink, which is offering lower-speed plans as low as $29.99 a month for six months. Charter Spectrum has given many complaining customers a 12-month retention plan priced at $39.99 or $44.95 a month for 60Mbps.

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