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Some of America’s Largest Telecom Companies Are Overbilling You

bill errorAs part of its investigation of cable and satellite television companies, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found large discrepancies in how five of America’s largest cable and satellite companies—Charter Communications, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, and Dish—identify and correct overcharges caused by company billing errors.

The subcommittee released its report to coincide with today’s hearings on customer service and billing practices in the cable and satellite television industry. The Senate subcommittee focused its attention primarily on billing errors associated with rented set-top boxes and receivers, not programming packages or add-on services. The bipartisan report found satellite TV company Dish was probably the least prone to billing errors associated with satellite equipment and Time Warner Cable was the worst at identifying equipment billing discrepancies. Even when it did find instances of overbilling, the company refused to give customers automatic full refunds as a matter of “efficiency.”

That “efficiency” is expected to be very profitable for Time Warner Cable, which is likely to collect $1,919,844 from overbilling this year alone. Time Warner Cable estimates that, in 2015, it overbilled 40,193 Ohio customers a total of $430,393 and 4,232 Missouri customers a total of $44,152. Time Warner Cable also told the subcommittee that, during the first five months of 2016, it overbilled customers in Ohio for 11,049 pieces of equipment, totaling $108,221.

Charter Communications only did marginally better, mostly because it is a much smaller cable company. Charter estimates that it has overcharged approximately 5,897 Missouri customers a total of $494,000. Charter, along with Time Warner Cable, made no effort to trace equipment overcharges to their origin unless customers specifically asked them to and did not provide notice or refunds to customers.

Let’s review how the five companies compare:

Time Warner Cable

time-warner-cable-sucksTime Warner Cable is notorious for its “no refunds unless asked” policy, which often leaves customers uncompensated for service outages and other problems. That policy also extends to equipment-related billing errors. During the 6.5 year time period covered by the subcommittee investigation, Time Warner Cable never automatically refunded or credited customer for equipment overcharges discovered by the company. Instead, Time Warner’s “Revenue Assurance” team quietly identified and corrected billing errors without any notification or explanation to customers, which may explain why your Time Warner Cable bill can change even when you are locked in with a promotion.

The subcommittee discovered Time Warner Cable still relies on two entirely different billing systems. One, “Integrated Communications Operations Management System”, otherwise known as ICOMS, is especially troublesome to navigate at Time Warner because the company does not use standardized coding across the entire company. Placing an order for Internet service in the Northeast Division of Time Warner Cable is completely different from ordering the same product in a city like Kansas City or the west coast. Employees have complained about ICOMS for years, noting it can take up to 30 separate codes entered correctly in the system to add just one product, like High-Speed Internet. A simple data entry error can mess up an order and generate a billing error (or a lost order or service request that is never processed). But Time Warner Cable also relies on a different platform developed by CSG to manage some of its billing. Some of Time Warner Cable’s acquisitions, like Insight Communications, have operated under the Time Warner Cable brand for several years, but still use some of the billing platforms that were in place before Time Warner took over.

The subcommittee found strong evidence ICOMS is a big problem for Time Warner Cable. Attempts to audit the platform often crash, as it did in May of this year, preventing Time Warner Cable from identifying billing issues. At best, the company only aims for an 80% correction rate using its auditing tools.

One audit uncovered 18,000 customers in the Carolinas, Midwest, and Northeast that were being overbilled for modem and CableCARD equipment. Although Time Warner Cable was going to remove the erroneous charges going forward, it had no plans to automatically refund customers it identified as overcharged unless customers somehow realized that themselves and called in to request retroactive credit.

icoms error

Time Warner Cable erroneously billed one of its own employees for three Internet accounts.

Time Warner Cable once erroneously billed one of its own employees for three Internet accounts.

The subcommittee found if an audit showed that a customer had not been billed for equipment or services that the customer had received, the company treats those inconsistencies as undercharges and adds the charge to the customer’s bill going forward. Time Warner Cable does not attempt to retroactively charge the customer for previous months where that customer was undercharged.

If the audit shows that a customer has been billed for equipment or services that he or she does not have, the story is more complicated. In some cases, customers agree to pay for equipment they do not actually have so that they can receive a cheaper package price—for example, a consumer who wants only Internet service might decide the cheapest option is a promotional package including both Internet and cable television. By participating in the promotion, the customer agrees to pay a monthly rental fee for a set-top box but may instruct the company not to provide a set-top box. In such a case, the customer’s billing records will show a charge for a set-top box, but the customer’s equipment records will show that he or she does not physically have a set-top box. In April 2016, for example, Time Warner Cable identified 49,132 pieces of equipment associated with overcharges; of those 37,653 (approximately 77 percent) were not “correctable” overcharges because they were associated with accounts participating in promotional offers.

Time Warner Cable does not attempt to trace billing errors to their origin. Instead, it only provides a partial credit for the month during which the error was discovered. The company will not notify you of the error or for how long it has been on your bill. Unless you call and demand full credit for the overbilling, you will not receive it.

The cable company defends its policy on the ground that it is “efficient.” Going through months of customer bills to identify overcharges would be costly and time consuming, the company argues. The company also claims that the customer is best positioned to notice an overcharge and bring it to Time Warner Cable’s attention.

After reviewing policies at several different companies, the subcommittee cast doubt on Time Warner’s assertions, noting other companies had no problems returning overbilled amounts to customers without a request to do so.

Charter Communications

Unfortunately for customers, not included on the list of companies willing and able to automatically refund overbilling is Charter Communications, which recently acquired Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

therealcharterbundleThe subcommittee called Charter’s process of identifying and correct overbilling “substandard.”

According to Charter, prior to August 2015, the company did not run any systematic audits to reconcile its billing records with equipment records. Charter’s failure to perform regular audits means that overcharged customers could not receive a prospective correction of their bill unless they noticed the problem themselves and contacted Charter. Beginning in August 2015, however, Charter began taking steps to identify equipment overcharges now on its system. Charter will complete that process in June 2016.

Charter recently upgraded some of its systems to make sure that when an employee adds or deletes services and/or equipment, an update to the customer’s billing record occurs automatically. Charter has 21 employees working for its Billing Quality Assurance department. The employees randomly sample bills to check their accuracy and when Charter changes its bill format or presentation, the team is supposed to review the bills to make certain any billing changes do not introduce mass errors. The subcommittee found these auditing methods were unlikely to discover common “one-off” errors, such as when customers are overbilled for equipment or programming on their specific account.

Charter’s alternate methods of identifying discrepancies quickly become more convoluted and less useful after that.

For example, beginning in August 2015, Charter undertook what it called a “controller reconciliation,” in which the company began to reconcile its billing records with equipment data from its 35 “controllers” throughout the country. These “controllers” are designed to manage box authorizations and “from the office” service connection and disconnection so that a truck roll is unnecessary. These systems can also be useful in identifying unauthorized equipment installed at locations where they were never registered or if the box was authorized for channels a customer was not paying to receive. A controller reconciliation allowed Charter to identify anomalies like in Missouri, where almost 6,000 customers were being billed for set-top boxes they were not using.

The subcommittee was unhappy neither Time Warner Cable or Charter seem willing to use “brute manpower to identify how long a customer has been overcharged and automatically grant a refund or credit,” as well as do more to minimize equipment and programming mismatches with billing records.

Comcast has bigger problems than overbilling.

Comcast has bigger problems than overbilling.

Comcast

Comcast relies on a very similar auditing process in use at Time Warner Cable to identify billing discrepancies, except once Comcast finds one it identifies how long a customer was overcharged, notifies the customer and automatically credits the customer’s account. Starting late last year, Comcast began running audits weekly to improve billing accuracy. Comcast claims just a 0.3% error rate.

Comcast has more than 60 employees nationwide on the east and west coasts examining billing issues and, when needed, individually investigates each case to identify applicable refunds.

DirecTV

DirecTV doesn’t do regular audits, instead relying on a program called SAS Enterprise Miner to search for billing errors before bills are generated. It can also use the same tools to identify and correct past billing errors. The satellite provider goes as far back as necessary to correct past mistakes, and pointed to instances where credits of thousands of dollars were issued to affected customers. DirecTV’s Revenue Assurance department can also reach out and communicate with employees at all levels of the company to investigate billing issues and prevent future ones. What will change as a result of AT&T’s ownership of the company isn’t known.

Dish Network

dishDish was cited by the subcommittee report as having the billing system least likely to generate billing errors. Dish links its equipment and billing systems together, which means any change on one system automatically updates the other.

According to Dish, it is impossible to add or remove equipment without altering the customer’s billing records. Dish provides each customer with one free “receiver”—Dish’s term for the equivalent of a set-top box—and charges $7.00 to $15.00 per month for each additional receiver a customer has. That is the only equipment charge. Dish’s system will only send a television signal to receivers that have been “activated,” which happens as part of the installation process. Once a receiver has been activated, the customer’s billing information is automatically updated to reflect that addition. That system ensures that no receiver is added to a customer’s account unless it has been activated.

Dish customers return their receivers by mail. Dish provides a packaging label so that it can track the receiver once it has been mailed. When the receiver returns to the Dish warehouse, an employee scans the barcode on the receiver, which removes the receiver from the customer’s provisioning records and, in turn, from the customer’s bill.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Senate Cable Billing Practices 6-23-16.mp4

Hearing: Customer Service and Billing Practices in the Cable and Satellite Television Industry

Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, June 23, 2016 10:00AM ET

(Video starts at 19:55) (2:18:54)

Dish Complains About FCC’s 125% Regulatory Rate Hike; Independent Cable Says It Isn’t High Enough

cable ratesThe Federal Communications Commission is getting an earful from satellite provider Dish Network, upset with the agency’s proposal to boost regulatory fees covering direct broadcast satellite services by 125% this year.

If the FCC adopts its new fee structure, Dish will pay 24 cents per subscriber (up from 12¢) per year to cover the cost of full-time employees at the FCC who spend their days monitoring and regulating satellite television providers. Satellite companies will also pay a one-time fee of 3¢ per subscriber in 2016 to cover the FCC’s downsizing expenses.

The regulator has successfully found a way to cover some of its expenses by charging the companies it oversees “user fees.” In 2015, the FCC collected nearly $340 million in regulatory fees. This year, the FCC wants more, seeking to impose a temporary “facility reduction cost” surcharge that will cover the expenses of moving employees to new, smaller offices, or downsizing the current ones to save money. The FCC says that will cost an extra $44 million. Taxpayers won’t pay those expenses, but pay television customers ultimately will when providers pass both of those fees on.

Dish says the rate hike is unjustified because of its size and scope, and runs contrary to the FCC’s goal of minimizing consumer bill shock. The satellite provider also wants the FCC to explain how it can justify more than doubling user fees while downsizing.

If the FCC doesn’t answer, the American Cable Association, representing small independent cable operators, is willing to share their views on the matter. The ACA complains the FCC isn’t charging DirecTV and Dish enough, noting they are still getting preferential treatment over cable and IPTV providers that are being asked to pay $1 per subscriber this year.

“There is absolutely no basis for keeping the proposed DBS fee levels over 75% below those proposed for other entities in the Cable/IPTV category,” wrote ACA president Matt Polka in comments to the FCC. “DBS providers should be paying the same Media Bureau regulatory fee.”

att directvPolka pointed to AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV as an example of how disproportionate fees cost small independent cable companies much more on a per-subscriber basis than telecom giant AT&T has to pay for almost 20 million DirecTV satellite customers.

“AT&T, now the nation’s largest [pay TV company], operates two types of services – its U-verse IPTV service and its DirecTV DBS service,” noted Polka. “Yet, AT&T will be assessed starkly lower regulatory fees for its approximately 20 million DirecTV subscribers than it will pay for its approximately 6 million IPTV subscribers, even though all of these services make absolutely comparable use of Media Bureau […]  resources and AT&T’s advocacy […] is on behalf of all its [pay TV] subscribers.”

Polka wants fee parity – charging the same user fees for all providers, regardless of the technology they use.

“Doing so will avoid the competitive distortions the current fee structure creates by having cable operators and IPTV providers, most of whom are far smaller than the DBS providers, cross-subsidize the fee burden of their primary and direct competitors in the marketplace,” Polka argued.

Whatever fee structure is ultimately approved by the FCC, customers can be certain providers will pad those fees when passing them on to customers. For more than a decade, some providers have used regulatory fee increases amounting to spare change as an excuse to pass on new “regulatory surcharges” that are many times more than what those providers actually pass on to the government.

“It’s a price increase,” bluntly notes Mark Cooper from the Consumer Federation of America back in 2004.

This spring, The Consumerist broke down a typical AT&T U-verse bill loaded in junk fees and surcharges. (The RED numbers [1, 4-10, 13-14, 17-20, 22] are AT&T-originating fees; BLUE numbers [2-3, 11-12, 15-16, 21, 23-25] are government fees)

This spring, The Consumerist broke down a typical AT&T U-verse bill loaded in junk fees and surcharges. (The RED numbers [1, 4-10, 13-14, 17-20, 22] are AT&T-originated fees, fake surcharges/bill padding, or fees that represent the cost of doing business; BLUE numbers [2-3, 11-12, 15-16, 21, 23-25] are real government fees passed on to local, state, and federal taxing authorities.)

DirecTV Suffering Nationwide Rolling Channel Blackout

Phillip Dampier March 8, 2016 Consumer News, DirecTV No Comments

Life with DirecTV hasn’t gotten much better with AT&T running the show. The satellite provider this afternoon reported a nationwide service outage that customers are describing as a “rolling channel blackout.”

DirecTV confirmed the outage this afternoon on Twitter:

“I have rolling channel outages, started with HGTV and TLC, now all my children’s channels are out plus many more, since around 1:30pm ET,” said Carrie Pierce of Stafford, Va.

Some customers report some channels are gradually being restored.

“Most channels back up in LA,” writes Orcutt Guy. “Thanks AT&T for breaking DirecTV just like your phone service. We can now see what you have brought to a once great service… not much.”

AT&T Gets Stingy With DirecTV Promotions for Existing Customers; $100+ for TV-Only Service

directvDirecTV under AT&T’s ownership is turning out to be no bargain for customers finding it increasingly tough getting a promotional rate package with the satellite provider.

Fred Johnson has been a DirecTV customer in rural Iowa for almost six years and has had to call DirecTV every time his on-contract promotion nears an end. Off-contract customers generally do not receive the best promotions and DirecTV’s regular prices can make the average cable company blush.

“It is not unusual for DirecTV customers to get quoted rates of $80 a month for satellite television and then receive a bill for over $100 once the surcharges, rental fees, taxes, and other hidden fees are added to your bill,” Johnson tells Stop the Cap! “There are months when the bill can go up even higher with no explanation, and even the customer service department cannot explain all the mysterious charges.”

At the end of the usual two-year contract, it has become customary for many long time DirecTV customers to call and threaten to cancel if they cannot get a renewed promotional rate, and for years DirecTV had been happy to oblige.

In 2015, AT&T bought the satellite provider and is in the process of integrating it as part of the AT&T family of services, next to U-verse, AT&T Mobility, and traditional landline service. That is the year the discounts seemed to evaporate for customers like Johnson and Evelyn Wiedmer, who subscribes to DirecTV for the family’s recreational vehicle.

Recreational vehicle owners are among the most loyal to satellite television.

Recreational vehicle owners are among the most loyal to satellite television.

“We were just told our bill was going to increase $45 a month starting in February and there is little we can do about it,” Wiedmer tells us. “The call center lady mentioned that the new owner of DirecTV is going in a different direction with promotions and we no longer qualify for any specials, unless we also want to get an AT&T cell phone.”

Wiedmer and her husband are retired and travel the country in their RV and do not have room in the budget to pay AT&T an extra $540 a year for the same package of channels they used to get for about $65 a month.

“They apparently do not want us to be customers anymore because DISH Networks will sell us a comparable package for about $60 a month, which is much less than the $105 DirecTV is charging us starting next month,” Wiedmer writes. “It looks like DirecTV won’t be competing with AT&T U-verse and the cable company anymore at their prices.”

Critics charge that is exactly the point. Adam Levine-Weinberg called the AT&T-DirecTV merger “one more step towards oligopoly,” warning approval of the merger would remove a serious competitor for tens of millions of customers also served by AT&T U-verse.

“That means there [were] tens of millions of people who [had] a choice between AT&T and DirecTV (as well as the local cable company and satellite TV rival DISH Networks,” said Levine-Weinberg. “The merger [reduced] many consumers’ pay-TV options from four to three, giving the remaining companies more pricing power.”

AT&T is flexing that pricing power by pulling back on promotions and discounts. In addition to curtailing retention plans and promotions for existing customers, AT&T also announced rate increases for DirecTV that take effect tomorrow:

The monthly pre-tax price of DirecTV’s “Select” and “Entertainment” programming tiers will go up by $2, to $51.99 and $61.99, respectively. The “Choice” and “Xtra” bundles will increase $4 to $74.99 and $81.99, respectively; the “Ultimate” pack will go up $5 a month to $91.99; and the “Premier” bundle will grow by $8 to $144.99. That is well over $150 a month after taxes and fees are added, just to watch television. AT&T is also applying a 50 cent increase to a fee DirecTV charges for… selling television service. The so-called “TV Fee” will now cost $7.00 a month.

(Courtesy: zidanetribal17)

(Courtesy: zidanetribal17)

“You used to switch to satellite to save money, but now cable companies offer returning customers lower prices than what DirecTV will offer,” notes Johnson. “It’s almost like they want to drive customers away. It worked. Our neighbors are now collecting money to convince Mediacom to extend their cable down our rural street and after these price increases we finally have enough willing to contribute to switch to cable television and remove the satellite dishes from our rooftops.”

Wiedmer has also canceled her DirecTV service this week, switching to DISH Networks.

“Would you sign another two-year contract agreeing to pay $540 more a year for two years with nothing in return for the extra money?” Wiedmer asks. “AT&T and DirecTV can take a hike.”

AT&T Leveraging Its DirecTV Acquisition to Cut Customer Promotions, Raise Prices

yay attWith one less significant competitor in the marketplace, AT&T feels safe cutting back customer promotions to raise prices and profitability, even if it means losing customers.

AT&T’s original argument for acquiring DirecTV was to negotiate cost savings from cable programmers by qualifying for greater volume discounts available from combining 5.7 million U-verse TV customers with DirecTV’s roughly 20.3 million U.S. subscribers. But AT&T has now made it clear it is keeping those savings for itself.

“We have our target to get to $2.5 billion or more in savings,” said John J. Stephens, AT&T’s chief financial officer, in a conference call with investors. “We already are realizing some of that in our content and supplier relationships. We really like our momentum here, and we are confident we can continue to expand margins and cut costs, even with pressure from our international operations.”

At the same time AT&T is enjoying billions in savings, in recognition of the fact its customers now have fewer competitors with whom they can do business, the time is right to cut back on money-saving promotional plans, effectively raising prices for customers.

“Because of our focus on profitability, we really got away from promotional pricing, and those customers who were cost-sensitive just had a propensity to churn,” Stephens said, referring to an industry term that means customers canceled service either because it got too expensive or they found a better deal elsewhere.

Stephens

Stephens

Stephens told investors its new pricing strategy, as expected, brought reductions in the number of U-verse video subscribers during the latest quarter. The company is also pushing more customers towards DirecTV and away from U-verse because programming costs are lower on the satellite platform. The new focus on profits means fewer customers are choosing AT&T and many existing DSL customers are resisting efforts to force them on to the U-verse platform.

“Net adds dropped with fewer promotions and shifting our focus to the lower content cost DirecTV platform,” Stephens admitted. “We added 192,000 IP broadband customers in the quarter, as migrations from our DSL base continued to slow. U-verse video losses also put some pressure on broadband numbers due to our high attachment rates.”

Stephens noted the customer growth declines occurred at the same time pressure on AT&T’s costs are dropping significantly. In October, the company signed an agreement with Viacom for its cable programming networks Stephens says represents “best-in-industry pricing,” made possible from the enhanced volume discounts AT&T now receives.

DirecTV will also allow AT&T to curtail additional U-verse expansion into its more rural service areas.

att directv“They don’t have television in these areas, or I should say we didn’t have a video offering,” Stephens said of AT&T’s rural customer base, mostly still dependent on DSL. With its ownership of a satellite TV provider, there is less urgency to expand rural U-verse. “These were generally out of the U-verse footprint, but now we do. And now we’ll be able to provide them with a video offering through DirecTV, and we’re very pleased with that. So we are hopeful that now this nationwide video service will help us in improving our overall broadband positioning.”

AT&T’s deal with the government to win approval of its merger with DirecTV committed the company to expand high-speed fiber optic broadband to at least 12.5 million customer locations and offer discounts to low-income customers. AT&T’s interpretation of the agreement means it will expand broadband service mostly in urban areas while continuing to allow its rural DSL broadband networks to lose customers.

“Over the last few years, the real trend has been a migration from DSL to IP broadband [eg. U-verse],” Stephens said. “And that’s been something that we’ve encouraged ourselves, and we’re beginning to complete that process or near completion where the DSL customers we have left is a much lower percentage than [those with U-verse] broadband capabilities from us.”

att cricket“I’m going to tell you, I think on the consumer side we’re down into the two million range on total DSL customers,” Stephens said. “[…] I would suggest to you it has changed dramatically over the course of four or five years, where it used to be 90% plus of our broadband base and now it’s a much lower percentage. So we’ve gone through that migration not completely, but almost completely.”

AT&T’s commitment to aid low-income customers is not clear, as customers report AT&T less willing to offer or extend money-saving promotions. On the wireless side of AT&T’s business, the company is increasingly pushing price-sensitive customers out of its network.

“Our focus is to provide the best customer experience while increasing profitability and not just chase customer counts,” Stephens said. “Our third quarter results drive that point home. We had our highest ever wireless service [profit] margins at 49.4%.”

In particular, AT&T is sacrificing its low-revenue feature phone customers by cutting back on handset choices and trying to shift certain prepaid customers to the less venerable Cricket brand. AT&T acquired Cricket from Leap Wireless in the spring of 2014. It completed a nationwide shutdown of Cricket’s competitive CDMA wireless network this fall and has pushed Cricket’s current customer base onto AT&T’s GSM network, often at a higher cost to customers.

Stephens reported AT&T Cricket customers now pay nearly $10 more a month than departing AT&T customers that maintained postpaid feature phones until the end of their two-year contracts.

“On the churn, first and foremost, yes, the feature phone churn is hitting us and having an impact on us, and those are decisions we made not to chase those customers,” Stephens informed investors. “[We] can’t make the math work not only on the pricing for those customers but the impact throughout our base.”

Stephens claimed profits are now AT&T’s number one priority.

“We’re going to be focused on profitable growth, not just chasing customer counts or specific targets,” Stephens said. “We’re going to really be focused on just getting the most profits out of the business.”

TV Station Eclipse: 150+ Stations Could Be Blacked Out Thursday for U-verse, Dish, DirecTV Customers

Phillip Dampier September 29, 2015 AT&T, Consumer News, DirecTV, Dish Network No Comments

Disputes over money may leave AT&T U-verse, Dish, and DirecTV customers staring at black screens on Thursday as three major station groups collectively representing more than 150 local over the air stations threaten to drop them if their respective carriage renewal deals are not signed.

  • AT&T U-verse customers would lose access to 42 Tribune Media stations in markets like Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, Washington, and New Orleans.
  • Media General’s 71 stations would be removed from DirecTV in cities like San Francisco, Buffalo, Austin, and Columbus, Ohio.
  • Tegna (formerly Gannett) is ready to pull the plug on its 51 stations on Dish Network in cities like Washington, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Buffalo, New Orleans, and Seattle.

wgn

Weary customers are now enduring dire warnings their favorite local stations are about to be removed, with suggestions greedy providers won’t pay a fair price for their programming. Providers counter the station owners often demand double the rate providers paid under the old contract. Providers then pass those price increases along to the same customers that also get upset when stations and networks are blocked during hardball negotiating sessions.

Customers are fed up watching different disputes play out several times a year, often resulting in the loss of programming they paid to receive.

“It’s bad enough that we are losing channels but the bill never goes down either,” noted Dish customer Allen Gayla Shaw on the satellite provider’s Facebook page.

“I’m tired of providers holding viewers hostage for your egos,” echoed Sandi Montgomery Cockroft.

Approval of AT&T-DirecTV Merger Expected Next Week

The headquarters building of U.S. satellite TV operator DirecTV is seen in Los Angeles, California May 18, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

The headquarters building of U.S. satellite TV operator DirecTV is seen in Los Angeles, California May 18, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – AT&T Inc’s proposed $48.5 billion acquisition of DirecTV is expected to get U.S. regulatory approval as soon as next week, according to people familiar with the matter, a decision that will combine the country’s No. 2 wireless carrier with the largest satellite-TV provider.

The Department of Justice, which assesses whether deals violate antitrust law, has completed its review of the merger and is waiting on the Federal Communications Commission to wrap up its own, according to three people familiar with the matter.

The FCC, which reviews if deals are in public interest, is poised to approve the deal with conditions as early as next week, according to three other people familiar with the matter.

All the sources asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak with the media. An AT&T spokeswoman and FCC spokesman declined comment. Justice Department representatives were not immediately available for comment.

AT&T’s merger with DirecTV, announced in May 2014, would create the country’s largest pay-TV company, giving DirecTV a broadband product and AT&T new avenues of growth beyond the maturing and increasingly competitive wireless service.

The deal has been expected to pass regulatory muster in contrast with the rival mega-merger between cable and Internet providers Comcast and Time Warner Cable, which was rejected in April largely over the combined companies’ reach into the broadband market.

The FCC and AT&T have been in negotiations over conditions for the merger for several weeks, the people said, adding that none of the conditions are controversial enough to break the deal.

Those conditions are expected to include assurances that both middle-class and low-income Americans have access to affordable high-speed Internet, including an offering of broadband subscriptions as a standalone service without a TV bundle, according to two of the people.

AT&T has earlier committed to expand access to broadband service in rural areas and to offer standalone Internet service at speeds of at least 6 Megabits per second to ensure consumers can access rival video services online, such as Netflix.

FCC officials are also considering ways to ensure that the conditions are properly enforced in the future, possibly through a third-party monitor, according to the two sources.

The FCC is also weighing how to ensure the merged companies abide by the so-called net neutrality rules, which regulate how Internet service providers manage traffic on their networks.

AT&T has promised to abide by net neutrality principles such as no-blocking of traffic, but is challenging in court the FCC’s newest net neutrality regulations that have expanded the agency’s authority over various deals between Internet providers and content companies.

FCC reviewers are weighing what net neutrality-related conditions to apply to the merger and how to address the possibility that the court throws out the latest rules, the two sources said.

Reported by: Alina Selyukh and Diane Bartz

Cable Companies Demand Satellite Providers Pay Up; Customer Bills Expected to Rise

directvTwo cable industry trade associations have asked the Federal Communications Commission to start collecting more fees from satellite television operators to cover the FCC’s regulatory expenses — a move satellite providers argue will cause consumers to suffer bill shock from increased prices.

The American Cable Association and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association have filed comments with the FCC asking the commission to impose the same regulatory fees on satellite subscribers that cable companies are likely to pay in 2015 — 95 cents a year per subscriber.

The FCC has proposed initially charging satellite operators $0.12 this year per customer, or about one cent a month. The two cable lobbying groups want that 12 cent fee doubled to 24 cents and then raised an additional 24 cents each year until it reaches parity with what cable companies pay.

dish logo“The FCC is off to a good start by declaring that Dish and DirecTV should pay regulatory fees to support the work of the agency’s Media Bureau for the first time and proposing setting the initial per subscriber fee at one cent per month in 2015,” said Matthew Polka, president and CEO of the ACA. “But given the FCC proposes that cable operators pay nearly 8 cents per month, per customer, it must do more, including requiring these two multibillion dollar companies with national reach to shoulder more of the fee burden next year that is now disproportionately borne by smaller, locally based cable operators.”

The satellite industry has filed their own comments with the FCC objecting to any significant fee increases, claiming it will cause consumers to experience bill shock and that satellite companies pose less of a regulatory burden on the FCC in comparison to cable operators.

The ACA counters that even if the satellite companies were required to pay the full 95 cents this year — the same rate small independent cable operators pay — it would add a trivial $0.08 a month to customer bills — less than a 0.4% increase on the lowest priced introductory offer sold by satellite providers.

fccThe ACA reminded the FCC it did not seem too concerned about rate shock when it imposed a 99 cent fee on IPTV providers like AT&T U-verse in 2014 without a phase-in.

DirecTV and Dish argue the FCC has jurisdiction over cable’s television, phone and Internet packages — a more complex assortment of services. Satellite providers currently only sell television service, so charging the same fee cable companies pay would be disproportionate and unfair, both claim.

Despite the sudden introduction of the IPTV fee last year, AT&T managed to use the opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade.

AT&T added a “Regulatory Video Cost Recovery Charge” on customers’ bills after the FCC assessed a 99 cent fee on IPTV services like U-verse in 2014. But AT&T charged nearly three times more than what it actually owed. U-verse customers were billed $0.24 a month/$2.88 in 2014 for “regulatory fee cost recovery.” But AT&T only paid the FCC $0.99 for each of its 5.7 million customers. It kept the remaining $1.89 for itself, amounting to $10,773,000 in excess profit.

This year the FCC expects to collect $0.95 from each U-verse subscriber, a four cent decline.

AT&T’s Acquisition of DirecTV Will Likely Be Approved With a Number of Conditions

att directvWhile consumer groups were busy fighting the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, AT&T’s $49 billion purchase of DirecTV has largely flown under the radar, with no comparable organized consumer opposition to the deal. But that does not mean the FCC will approve it as-is.

Negotiations with federal regulators and an exchange of regulatory filings and comments between AT&T, the FCC, and deal critics have apparently forced AT&T to agree to several concessions to make regulators amenable to approving the transaction.

The Washington Post reports that chief among those concessions is AT&T’s willingness to voluntarily abide by certain Net Neutrality rules regardless of any court challenges, including banning the slowing or blocking of websites and agreeing not to accept payments from website operators to speed up their content. AT&T has not said how long it intends to keep that commitment.

Deal opponents are also seeking other concessions from AT&T:

No paid interconnection deals: AT&T must route incoming content to customers without any fees charged to the companies originating the traffic. This became a hot button issue when Netflix felt it was forced to pay Comcast a fee to assure its streamed video content would reach Comcast customers without buffering or other errors. AT&T is expected to fiercely oppose this condition and says it should have the right to make private deals with content delivery firms.

AT&T must offer standalone broadband: With AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV, more than ever it will have an incentive to sell customers a television bundle with Internet service. Regulators want AT&T to assure broadband-only service remains readily available. AT&T has offered 6Mbps DSL for $34.95 a month as its standalone option. Content delivery firms like Cogent want AT&T to offer 25Mbps service in all of AT&T’s markets for $29.95 a month for at least seven years. The FCC recently defined 25Mbps the minimum speed to qualify as broadband.

No end runs around Net Neutrality with data caps and exemptions: AT&T wants the right to exempt its preferred partners from its usage caps and claims that is beneficial to consumers. But cap opponents claim that is simply another way to collect money from content companies for preferential treatment — an end run around Net Neutrality rules. Opponents of these cap exemptions, known as “zero-rating” claim all content should be treated the same. AT&T could resolve this by removing data caps from its DSL and U-verse services altogether.

J.D. Power & Associates Tie Vote! Hemorrhagic Fever vs. Comcast vs. Time Warner Cable

Phillip Dampier October 13, 2014 AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast/Xfinity, Cox, DirecTV, Dish Network, Editorial & Site News, Frontier, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, WOW! Comments Off on J.D. Power & Associates Tie Vote! Hemorrhagic Fever vs. Comcast vs. Time Warner Cable

jd powerLove can be a fickle thing.

Take Comcast’s affair with J.D. Power & Associates, for example. In Comcast’s filings with regulators, it is very proud that J.D. Power cited Comcast for the most improvement of any cable operator scored by the survey firm. Comcast touted the fact it had managed to increase its TV satisfaction score by a whopping 92 points and Internet satisfaction was up a respectable 77 points. (Comcast didn’t mention the fact J.D. Power rates companies on a 1,000 point scale or that it took the cable company four years to eke out those improvements.)

Last month, J.D. Power issued its latest ranking of telecommunications companies and… well, the love is gone.

If customer alienation was an Olympic event, J.D. Power awarded tie gold medals to both Comcast and Time Warner Cable for their Kafkaesque race to the bottom.

The survey of customer satisfaction largely found only dissatisfaction everywhere in the country J.D. Power looked. While Comcast likes to cite its “customer-oopsies-gone-viral” blunders as “isolated incidents,” J.D. Power finds them epidemic nationwide.

skunkThe highest rating across television and broadband categories achieved by either cable company was ‘Meh.’ J.D. Power diplomatically scored both cable companies on a scale that started with “among the best” as simply “the rest.” Customers in the west were the most charitable, those in the south and eastern U.S. indicated they were worked to their last nerve.

“The ability to provide a high-quality experience with all wireline services is paramount as performance and reliability is the most critical driver of overall satisfaction,” said Kirk Parsons, senior director of telecommunications, in a statement.

Having competition available from a high-scoring provider also demonstrates what is possible when a company actually tries to care about customer service. In the same regions Comcast fared about as popular as hemorrhagic fever, WOW! Cable and Verizon FiOS easily took top honors. Even AT&T U-verse scored far higher than either cable company, primarily because AT&T offers very aggressive promotional packages that include a lot for a comparatively low price.

Other cable and smaller phone companies didn’t do particularly well either. Frontier and CenturyLink both earned dismal scores and Charter Cable only managed modest improvement. The two satellite television companies did fine in customer satisfaction for television service, but it was the two biggest phone companies that managed the best scores for Internet service. Among cable operators, only independents like WOW! (and to a lesser extent Cox) did well in the survey.

If J.D. Power is the arbiter of good service Comcast seems to claim it to be, the ratings company just sent a very clear message that when it comes to merging Comcast and Time Warner Cable, anything multiplied by zero is still zero.

J.D. Power ranking (Image courtesy: Reviewed.com)

J.D. Power ranking (Image courtesy: Reviewed.com)

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