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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.)

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.

FCC Intervenes to End Blackout of 129 Sinclair-Owned TV Stations on Dish Network

Phillip Dampier August 27, 2015 Consumer News, Dish Network, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Sinclair_Broadcast_Group_Logo.svgMore than five million Dish Network customers in 36 states can once again watch Sinclair-owned TV stations on the satellite service after the head of the Federal Communications Commission intervened to end the largest TV station blackout in U.S. history.

On Tuesday, Sinclair ordered its 129 stations to pull the plug on Dish subscribers after the satellite company failed to reach terms on extending its carriage agreement.

Dish accused Sinclair of “failing to negotiate in good faith” and noted the two companies had reached an agreement on a price to continue carrying the TV stations. What derailed the deal? Sinclair demanded Dish carry a new cable network focusing on high school and college sports it was planning to eventually launch. The TV station group owner also wanted to right to negotiate carriage contracts for another 23 stations Sinclair does not own, but operates under joint-sales agreements. Last March, the FCC prohibited such agreements but Sinclair believed its stations were grandfathered and not subject to the FCC’s ruling.

The large number of stations involved and the potential subscriber impact of dropping more than 100 stations all at once may have given Sinclair extra confidence to pull off a game of hardball. Dish lost 81,000 pay-TV customers in the second quarter of 2015, compared with a loss of 44,000 a year earlier. Dish is also no stranger to these kinds of disruptive disputes, having been involved in 32 of 74 major programming blackouts since 2013.

Earlier this month, Sinclair executives also told investors during an earnings call that the retransmission consent contracts with 75% of its distribution partners (cable, telephone and satellite companies) were up over the next year, giving Sinclair the chance to reset renewal rates higher to boost revenue.

Sinclair owned television stations (the numbers indicate the number of TV stations Sinclair owns and operates in a region)

Sinclair owned television stations (the numbers show the number of TV stations Sinclair owns and operates in a region.)

In a research note, BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield said Sinclair’s “greed” was likely to backfire on the company.

“Sinclair’s actions vis-à-vis Dish look to us like lighting a match in a dry brush field,” Greenfield wrote. “The government is looking for reasons to get more involved to help consumers. Sinclair may have finally given them a blatant enough excuse.”

dish logoGreenfield was right.

The dispute attracted the attention of FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler who requested “an emergency meeting” with the two companies yesterday to focus on the dispute. Wheeler had previously warned the FCC was taking a closer look at the growing number of station and network interruptions that anger paying customers. So far this year, there have been 145 station and network blackouts according to the American Television Alliance. Last year there were 107. In 2010, there were 12.

While most carriage disputes are about a disagreement over the fair value of a network’s programming, this high-profile battle already reached a settlement on that issue.

“At first blush, Sinclair’s actions sound crazy,” says Greenfield. He is convinced Sinclair has blatantly violated FCC rules by demanding to negotiate for stations it does not own. He also thinks demanding fees for a future cable network could run afoul of federal antitrust laws.

In this latest standoff, and under pressure from the FCC, Sinclair appears to have blinked first and programming was restored for Dish subscribers beginning late Wednesday, as an agreement between Sinclair and Dish was reached. The terms were not disclosed.

“On behalf of more than 5 million consumers nationwide, I am pleased Dish and Sinclair have agreed to end one of the largest blackouts in history and extend their negotiations,” Wheeler said before a final agreement was announced. “The FCC will remain vigilant. Use of the public airwaves is a public trust.”

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.

4K Ultra HD Television Arrives Via Satellite; DISH Network Adding ‘4K Joey’ Set Top Box

4kjoey

That is DISH’s CEO banging the drum beside a panoply of kangaroos. (Image courtesy: Gizmodo)

The ultra high-definition, bandwidth chewing 4K television standard has arrived and like HDTV before it, the first place most Americans will get to sample the new standard is over satellite television.

DISH Network is planning to introduce HDMI/HDCP 4K television owners to its new 4K Joey this year — a souped-up set-top box that can handle the high demands of 4K video.

DISH is using a Broadcom dual-core chipset and 7448 ARM processor that can handle the next standard in high-definition viewing.

While DISH set-top boxes will be ready for 4K, many cable and DSL broadband networks in the United States will face difficulties handling the online video demands that 4K video will place on their networks. In tests, watching an average movie required a minimum of a maxed out 10Mbps broadband connection. Live programming, particularly sports, required considerably more broadband speed to keep up. Few DSL networks will be able to sustain more than a handful of customers attempting to stream 4K video before neighborhood nodes become overwhelmed. Even the DOCSIS cable broadband standard still relies on shared bandwidth, and a few video aficionados in the neighborhood could pose significant challenges and speed slowdowns for other customers in the area.

Besides satellite, only fiber optic broadband will be ready to handle the practical requirements of streaming 4K video without significant upgrades.

dish logoDISH’s plans to stream video content over the Internet could one day also include 4K programming, but viewers are likely to run smack into usage caps and usage billing that ISPs are using to deter online video from gutting cable television revenue as well as further monetizing already highly profitable broadband.

Downloading just three 4K movies consumed 90GB and took more than a day to download, even with Comcast’s 100Mbps broadband service. In usage-capped markets, fewer than a dozen 4K movies would eat your entire monthly allowance. Each additional movie would subject Comcast customers to overlimit fees averaging around $6 per title.

Although DISH will offer a set-top box to handle 4K viewing, content producers are still waiting to see whether the public embraces the next HD standard before investing heavily in programming delivered using the new standard. DISH would only promise content from “several providers” would be forthcoming by the time the 4K Joey is released during the second quarter.

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)

A Merger Watch Has Been Issued for Your Internet Service, Cable-TV Provider

Phillip Dampier May 14, 2014 AT&T, Comcast/Xfinity, Competition, Consumer News, DirecTV, Dish Network, T-Mobile, Time Warner Cable, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on A Merger Watch Has Been Issued for Your Internet Service, Cable-TV Provider

moneywedThe announced merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable is expected to have far-reaching implications for other companies in the video and broadband business, with expectations 2014 could be one of the busiest years in a decade for telecom industry mergers and buyouts.

AT&T + DirecTV = Less Video Competition

Bloomberg News reports an announcement from AT&T that it intends to acquire DirecTV for as much as $50 billion could be forthcoming before Memorial Day. Such a merger would drop one satellite television competitor in AT&T landline service areas and promote nationwide bundling of AT&T wireless service with satellite television.

Historically low-interest rates would help AT&T finance such a deal and would turn DirecTV into a division of AT&T, easing concerns the satellite company has been at a disadvantage because it lacks a broadband and phone package.

“While the Comcast/TWC deal was the trigger, the backdrop of a slow macro economy, new competitors, shifts in technology and consumer habits all come together and force the need for more scale,” Todd Lowenstein, a fund manager at Highmark Capital Management Inc. in Los Angeles told Bloomberg.

Satellite television companies remain technologically disadvantaged to withstand the growing influence of online video and their subscriber numbers have peaked.

If AT&T buys DirecTV, the wireless giant could theoretically bundle its service with DirecTV’s video product, and in some areas of the country its U-verse high-speed broadband to the home, to compete with cable, said Amy Yong, an analyst at Macquarie Group in New York, in a note to clients.

Sprint + T-Mobile = Less Wireless Competition

Dish + T-Mobile = A Draw

mergerIn a less likely deal Sprint is still trying to pursue T-Mobile USA for a potential merger and if regulators reject that idea, Charles Ergen’s Dish Network is said to be interested.

To prepare Washington for another telecommunications deal, SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son’s lobbying firm, Carmen Group, has again been meeting with elected officials and regulators to argue the merits of a merger with T-Mobile, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Dish, which failed to buy Sprint last year, would be interested in acquiring T-Mobile if regulators block Sprint’s efforts, Ergen said. That hinges on whether SoftBank Corp. fails to win regulatory approval for its plan to buy T-Mobile, which is controlled by Deutsche Telekom AG, Ergen said last week. The Japanese wireless company owns 80 percent of Sprint.

All three deals carry a combined value of $170 billion in equity and debt and would impact 80 million Americans.

Suitors hope regulators will be in the mood to approve merger deals as they contemplate enlarging Comcast through its purchase of Time Warner Cable.

Even if all the deals don’t pass muster, Wall Street banks will still rake in millions in fees advising players on how to structure the deals. Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan would join executives winning considerable sums for reducing the number of competitors providing telecommunications services in the U.S.

Whether customers would benefit is a question open to much debate.

Staking the Heart of the Power-Sucking Vampire Cable Box

vampire-power-1-10964134Two years after energy conservation groups revealed many television set-top boxes use almost as much electricity as a typical refrigerator, a voluntary agreement has been reached to cut the energy use of the devices 10-45 percent by 2017.

The Department of Energy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, the Consumer Electronics Association, and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association agreed to new energy efficiency standards for cable boxes expected to save more than $1 billion in electricity annually, once the new equipment is widely deployed in American homes. That represents enough energy to power 700,000 homes and cut five million tons of CO2 emissions each year.

“These energy efficiency standards reflect a collaborative approach among the Energy Department, the pay-TV industry and energy efficiency groups – building on more than three decades of common-sense efficiency standards that are saving American families and businesses hundreds of billions of dollars,” said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “The set-top box efficiency standards will save families money by saving energy, while delivering high quality appliances for consumers that keep pace with technological innovation.”

DVR boxes are the biggest culprits. American DVRs typically use up to 50W regardless of whether someone is watching the TV or not. Most contain hard drives that are either powered on continuously or are shifted into an idle state that does more to protect the life of the drive than cut a consumer’s energy bill. A combination of a DVR and an extra HD set-top box together consume more electricity than an ENERGY STAR-qualified refrigerator-freezer, even when using the remote control to switch the boxes off.

NRDC Set-Top Boxes  Other Appliances-thumb-500x548-3135

Manufacturers were never pressed to produce more energy-efficient equipment by the cable and satellite television industry. Current generation boxes often require lengthy start-up cycles to configure channel lineups, load channel listings, receive authorization data and update software. As a result, any overnight power-down would inconvenience customers the following morning — waiting up to five or more minutes to begin watching television as equipment was switched back on. As a compromise, many cable operators instruct their DVR boxes to power down internal hard drives when not recording or playing back programming, minimizing subscriber inconvenience, but also the possible power savings.

In Europe, many set-top boxes are configured with three levels of power consumption — 22.5W while in use, 13.2W while in standby, and 0.65W when in “Deep Sleep” mode. More data is stored in non-volatile memory within the box, meaning channel data, program listings, and authorization information need not be re-downloaded each time the box is powered on, resulting in much faster recovery from power-saving modes.

The new agreement, which runs through 2017, covers all types of set-top boxes from pay-TV providers, including cable, satellite and telephone companies. The agreement also requires the pay-TV industry to publicly report model-specific set-top box energy use and requires an annual audit of service providers by an independent auditor to make sure boxes are performing at the efficiency levels specified in the agreement. The Energy Department also retains its authority to test set-top boxes under the ENERGY STAR verification program, which provides another verification tool to measure the efficiency of set-top boxes.

Comcast, DirecTV, DISH Network, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, Verizon, Cox Communications, Charter Communications, Cablevision, Bright House Networks and CenturyLink will begin deploying new energy-efficient equipment during service calls. Some customers may be able to eventually swap equipment earlier, depending on the company.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WCCO Minneapolis Check Your Cable Box 6-27-11.mp4

WCCO in Minneapolis reported in 2011 cable operators like Comcast may make subscribers wait 30 minutes or more for set-top box features to become fully available for use after plugging the box in. (1:50)

Intrigue at Chapter 11 LightSquared: Dish’s Charlie Ergen vs. Harbinger’s Phil Falcone

Phillip Dampier October 8, 2013 Competition, Dish Network, HissyFitWatch, LightSquared, Public Policy & Gov't, Video, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Intrigue at Chapter 11 LightSquared: Dish’s Charlie Ergen vs. Harbinger’s Phil Falcone

Failure, Squared

LightSquared, the ill-fated venture to bring nationwide 4G wireless broadband to the masses may be all but gone and forgotten in bankruptcy reorganization proceedings, but the wireless spectrum it controls and the drama surrounding it is not.

A battle between billionaires and the hedge funds they support has broken out over who will ultimately control the failed venture — a hedge fund manager deep in LightSquared debt or the richest man in Colorado that often finds a way to get his way.

Harbinger Capital Partners’ Phil Falcone

Falcone

Falcone

Phil Falcone earned his first fortune trading junk bonds in the 1980s. In 2001, he launched Harbinger Capital Partners and by 2007, Falcone and his investors were well-positioned for a blizzard of cash betting against sub-prime mortgages just before the housing collapse and credit crisis that followed. Falcone took home $1.7 billion in compensation that year while an epidemic of foreclosures and upside down mortgages was just getting started.

In late 2008, when the economy was in free-fall, Falcone suspended or limited withdrawals from his largest funds, upsetting investors who couldn’t get their money out. But Falcone reportedly gave special treatment to certain large investors (sources say Goldman Sachs is among them) who were able to clear out their exposed accounts before the losses piled up.

By 2009, Falcone was again making money — so much he vastly underestimated his federal and state tax bills. What’s a cash-strapped billionaire to do? Quietly loan himself $113.2 million from one of his investment funds at a favorable interest rate and keep it a secret from investors for five months. When they eventually found out, they were understandably disturbed. Falcone had barred those same investors from cashing out of the fund he borrowed from.

The Securities and Exchange Commission was not happy either and filed charges against Falcone.

“Today’s charges read like the final exam in a graduate school course in how to operate a hedge fund unlawfully,” Robert Khuzami, director of the S.E.C.’s division of enforcement, said in a statement. “Clients and market participants alike were victimized as Falcone unscrupulously used fund assets to pay his personal taxes, manipulated the market for certain bonds, favored some clients at the expense of others, and violated trading rules intended to prohibit manipulative short sales.”

Despite the publicity generated by the SEC, investors who appreciated Falcone’s ability to earn them money allowed them turn a blind eye to the ethics questions and pour money into Falcone’s latest venture — a wireless network known as LightSquared.

LightSquared was preparing to launch a unique nationwide 4G LTE mobile broadband network powered by satellites and ground-based cell towers, selling wholesale access to third-party wireless companies able to market the service under their own brand. Falcone’s funds poured nearly $3 billion dollars into the venture while getting a waiver from the government to operate high-powered transmitters on the “L” band — 1525-1559 MHz. LightSquared’s plans alarmed the next door neighbors — GPS satellites facing interference issues that would hurt the accuracy of precise location information provided to millions of tracking devices on the “L1” band — 1559 to 1610 MHz.

Initial testing showed that significant interference from the prototype ground-based transmitters would occur and potentially could cripple aviation and public safety GPS users. The FCC eventually withdrew permission for LightSquared to run its network as planned, a potential death-blow to the venture.

Creditors grew anxious wondering how LightSquared would be in a position to repay its loans when it was unable to launch its wireless network.

In May 2012, creditors forced the issue and LightSquared filed for bankruptcy protection, listing assets of $4.48 billion and debts of $2.29 billion. Falcone claimed the bankruptcy filing would give the company more time to overcome the FCC’s objections to its network operations plan. Falcone estimated it would take two years to secure a resolution. Analysts familiar with the FCC suggested Falcone might die of old age before the agency gave way.

Falcone’s subsequent efforts to win back control of the venture have been made more difficult because one man has been quietly buying up large amounts of LightSquared’s debt with designs on the venture’s spectrum.

Dish Networks’ Charles Ergen

dish logoWith LightSquared’s debt trading at around 50 cents on the dollar, Charlie Ergen went shopping.

Ergen has been involved in the satellite business for decades. Today, he controls and runs Dish Network, a satellite television provider that has seen the back of high customer growth. Dish and DirecTV are both locked out of the “triple play” business most cable and phone companies offer customers. Neither company can offer broadband or telephone service without partnering with another provider. As cord-cutting continues to take hold, customers willing to pay for increasingly expensive television packages are in decline. That likely explains Ergen’s interest in acquiring wireless spectrum — to build Dish into a broadband, television, and telephone service provider.

In May, Dish publicly bid $2.2 billion for certain spectrum assets from LightSquared. But for more than a year earlier, Ergen was quietly buying up LightSquared’s debt through holding companies and hedge funds.

Ergen created an opaque investment entity named “SP Special Opportunites, LLC” a/k/a “Sound Point” to buy LightSquared debt. Separately, Ergen asked Stephen Ketchum, a former investment banker with close ties to Ergen, to buy over $1 billion in LightSquared debt securities through Ketchum’s hedge fund. From April 2012 until May 2013, Sound Point allegedly spent $1,013,082,326.30 to purchase secured debt for Ergen’s personal benefit and without the knowledge of Dish or its board of directors. Secured debt held by creditors is paid first in a bankruptcy proceeding, and Ergen quietly because LightSquared’s largest single secured creditor.

That puts Charlie Ergen in a major ethical dilemma.

The more Dish offers to pay for LightSquared, the more money Ergen will be paid to cover the shares of LightSquared’s secure debt. Ergen has a controlling interest in Dish, which means he can order Dish to overpay for LightSquared, personally pocketing the proceeds.

Bloomberg’s Matt Levine explains the shady deal:

“An executive going around and buying up an asset for cheap, then convincing his company to buy all of that asset for a higher price – doesn’t come up a lot because it’s so obviously shady,” Levine wrote. “If you’re supposed to be devoting your time and energy to finding opportunities for your company, it looks pretty bad to steal those opportunities for yourself.”

Falcone was outraged when he learned of Ergen’s stealthy acquisitions.

Ergen

Ergen

In July, Harbinger accused Ergen of “fraudulently” becoming a creditor to block efforts by LightSquared to reorganize and emerge intact from bankruptcy. Instead, Harbinger accused Ergen of seeking to acquire the company’s assets “on the cheap.” Harbinger also points to provisions in a LightSquared debt agreement that forbids certain competitors from buying the company’s debt.

Also upset are several major Dish Network shareholders who are not pleased Ergen’s private deal could make him a lot of money while costing shareholders plenty should Dish overpay for LightSquard’s assets or worse, end up with everything but the spectrum Dish covets.

At least five lawsuits have been filed since August, accusing Ergen and other board members of casting their fiduciary duties to the wind and wasting money along the way. They are also upset Ergen and his connections purchased $1 billion in LightSquared debt at a substantial discount and will likely be repaid the full face value of those debts with Dish Network’s money. That means nearly $300 million in personal profits for Ergen.

The latest shareholder lawsuit was filed by the Louisiana Municipal Police Employees’ Retirement System. It along with the suit filed by the City of Daytona Beach Police Officers’ and Firefighters’ Retirement System claim Ergen’s near-total control of Dish’s board of directors makes it impossible for the board to meet its obligation of representing shareholder interests first.

“Ergen’s control over the company and the board is highlighted by the numerous transactions he has caused Dish to enter into with members of his family,” the lawsuit states.

Ergen and Dish’s efforts to insulate themselves from charges of conflict of interest didn’t fly with many investors.

One lawsuit noted Tom Ortolf, one of the directors on the supposedly independent committee reviewing Dish’s bid, has a daughter that works at Dish; the other, George Brokaw, chose Mr. Ergen’s wife, Cantey Ergen—a Dish director named in the shareholder suit—to be the godmother of his son.

The discomfort level at Dish reached high enough to prompt one board member, Gary Howard, to suddenly resign in early September. Howard was also on the committee formed to vet the LightSquared deal because of the potential conflict of interest on Ergen’s part.

Before Falcone could claim the high road at Ergen’s expense, this week New York’s top financial regulator banned Falcone from managing Fidelity & Guaranty Life Insurance Company of New York for seven years. Harbinger Group bought Fidelity & Guaranty, the U.S. life and annuity unit of London-based Old Mutual Plc, for $350 million in 2011.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg LightSquared 9-5-13.flv

Bloomberg News discusses the high drama between LightSquared and Dish Network. (4 minutes)

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