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French Press: U.S. Consumers Ripe for Fleecing By Cable Magnates Like Altice’s Patrick Drahi

The French press continues to report, with some bewilderment, that U.S. consumers are being fleeced by the country’s biggest telecom companies while politicians do nothing to regulate a duopoly market or force more competition to stop the pick-pocketing. The Francophone press is responding to reports that cable baron Patrick Drahi is vacuuming up profits from his American subsidiary Altice USA — which owns Cablevision and Suddenlink — and is likely to get much bigger in 2017, all thanks to the U.S. regulatory landscape.

“Americans live under a corrupt politician-sanctioned broadband monopoly in many places, and this assures telecoms operators in the United States can earn astounding profit margins impossible in European markets,” notes Giga France.

Le Figaro reported this month Altice’s directors had an easy job figuring out where much of the global conglomerate’s future profits would come from: the United States.

“Given the structure of the telecom market, [Altice’s] margin for growth in France is low, whereas in the United States it is considerable,” the newspaper reported. The reason is a persistent lack of competition, made possible by politicians that accepted the recommendations of lobbyists and corporate special interest think tanks on how to structure the broadband market.

Drahi

In the United States, providers have won near-absolute control of their networks and need not share access with competitors. Large telecom companies argued that requiring shared access to their infrastructure would threaten investment and stall broadband network deployment. Ironically, some even argued it would lead to reduced competition. But the reverse turned out to be true and the United States has fallen far behind in competition and network quality, while more traditionally regulated markets in Europe now enjoy low prices, faster internet speeds, and a larger number of competitors vying for consumers’ business.

Wall Street indirectly conspires to keep the status quo by discouraging the entry of new fixed line providers, claiming it will destroy shareholder value and consume billions of investor dollars constructing competing networks that will be unlikely to attract enough subscribers fast enough to give shareholders a timely return on their investment.

With a provider-friendly Trump Administration in power, and more importantly the installation of Ajit Pai, a notorious telecoms-friendly regulator as chairman of the FCC, Altice’s directors consider 2017 to be one of the most inviting years for expansion in the United States.

Le Figaro reports there is plenty of opportunity for Altice’s empire to become more dominant in North America. In France, its SFR unit now holds a 25% share in the fixed line market, but that number is unlikely to grow much considering ongoing price wars that come from fierce competition in France. In the U.S., Altice only holds barely 3% of the market, and Drahi has made no secret he would like to become at least the second-largest provider in the United States.

Les Echos suggested Altice is quietly preparing a full-scale ambush on the U.S. market starting with a much-anticipated IPO expected this year. Wall Street doesn’t welcome Altice entering the U.S. cable business as a market disruptor. Instead, investment banks are willing to loan huge sums to Altice for the purpose of acquiring telecom companies, maintaining the existing duopoly of one cable and one phone company for the majority of Americans.

“In the past, every time he introduced a publicly traded asset, Drahi proceeded with acquisitions: Numericable, in 2013, SFR the following year; and by 2015 Cablevision and Suddenlink in the U.S.A.,” reports Les Echos.

In France, up to four providers compete head to head for fixed line telecom customers. In other parts of Europe, telecom networks are often forced open to competitors. Neither is the case in the States, and consumers are paying very high telecom bills as a result.

Les Echos notes the U.S. cable business is so lucrative, “never before has a French company made such an important investment in the country of Uncle Sam.”

Suddenlink and Cablevision: Consistent source for fat revenue growth for Altice.

Drahi told investors more than a year ago he wanted to eventually generate 50% of Altice’s business overseas, primarily in the profitable U.S.

Altice has so far only bought up smaller cable operators, but observers expect Drahi will aim for much larger targets, including the possibility of buying out a wireless provider or even targeting Comcast, AT&T, or Charter. Les Echos quotes Vincent Maulay, an analyst at Oddo who notes that Drahi may be able to collect future assets inexpensively if Verizon decides to move on an acquisition of Charter. Regulators will likely force the combined company to shed cable assets in New York State where Verizon and Charter currently compete. That would allow Drahi’s Cablevision to pick up divested service areas, perhaps even in Manhattan.

Altice’s Cost Cutting Truth: 2.5+ Million Customers Fled for the Hills

Phillip Dampier January 24, 2017 Altice NV, Cablevision, Consumer News, Suddenlink No Comments

In 2016, just one company was responsible for more than half of all consumer complaints aimed at telecommunications companies in France. That provider was Altice-owned SFR/Numericable.

Last year alone, the number of complaints against Patrick Drahi’s telecom conglomerate jumped 120%, with consumers upset about the company’s landline, wireless, cable TV and broadband services, according to data from the French Association of Telecom Users (AFUTT) and noted by Capital.

The biggest spike in complaints targeted the company’s wired broadband services, where complaints rose 166% (in contrast, mobile complaints were up a milder 72% over the year before).

AFUTT records out of more than 5,000 complaints received last year, 73% of all contract complaints, 68% of customer service complaints and 66% of complaints about bait and switch promotions regarded Mr. Drahi’s operations in France.

Patrick Drahi’s business philosophy, backed by billions in Wall Street bank loans used to acquire companies and then slash budgets to the bone, proved to be terrible for his customers in 2016. Cablevision and Suddenlink subscribers can only hope those mistakes won’t be repeated here.

In just over two years after taking over one of France’s largest cell phone and cable operators — SFR/Numericable, more than 2.5 million customers have fled, fed up with Drahi’s initial lack of interest spending money on network upgrades and service improvements. It didn’t help that the prior owner — the conglomerate Vivendi — didn’t invest enough either, leaving the French cell phone company with headline-grabbing service outages, indifferent customer service, and a fear of employee suicides from threatened cutbacks and layoffs.

Even investors and the banks financing Drahi’s worldwide conquest of cable and telecom companies were concerned enough to apply pressure to stem customer losses that continued at a record pace for more than six months. The damage to SFR’s reputation has been so great, the wireless company has experienced two very bad years even with $2.3 billion in emergency spending to keep customers happy with service improvements while trying to win others back.

Paulin

Michel Paulin, in charge of SFR, told employees in an internal memo obtained by Les Echos things are still bad at the company.

“We have to face it: our customers are still not satisfied and far too many are still leaving for other operators,” Paulin wrote. “This year we will have to regain the confidence of our customers, but we will also have to return to growth in fixed and mobile broadband.”

That growth is still expected to come at the expense of jobs. By the summer of 2019, Drahi will have presided over the slashing of more than one-third of the SFR/Numericable workforce, amounting to at least 5,000 French workers. Many of Altice’s most recent investments are in content agreements to bolster programming for subscribers. SFR launched five sports channels, two news and information channels, and has spent heartily to acquire sports rights and programming agreements with American networks including NBCUniversal and Discovery.

Altice is also dramatically increasing spending on its news channel i24 News, which will soon be on the lineups of Cablevision and Suddenlink cable television customers. The news channel broadcasts multiple feeds in French, English, and Arabic and will supply viewers with international and Middle Eastern news, particularly focused on Arab countries where Al Jazeera delivers fierce competition.

Suddenlink Hiking Rates: Internet Up $3.50, Surcharges Now Exceed $13/Month

Suddenlink customers around the country are finding accessing the internet has suddenly gotten more expensive. For many service areas, the cable operator raised its rates in December for television and broadband service, with some of the biggest hikes coming from sneaky surcharges.

In many states, the most popular basic bundle already costs $90 a month. The biggest increases have come from “surcharges” which are never a part of Suddenlink’s advertised promotions, surprising many customers on their first bill.

In Arizona, the Broadcast TV surcharge has gone up another $1.61 a month, making customers pay $8.39 a month for a handful of local channels. A separate sports programming surcharge of $5.15 also applies. Suddenlink is also part of the club of cable operators charging customers $10 a month to rent a cable modem. For good measure, the cable operator also wants another dollar a month for its DVR and $3.50 more for broadband. Assorted other fees and surcharges tack on another $4.50 a month.

Suddenlink has already notified some regulators more price hikes are coming in the next several months.

But a Suddenlink spokesperson said there is more good news than bad.

“We provide Suddenlink customers with superior products and services at a great value, continually introducing faster internet speeds and with plans to roll out an enhanced video experience in the coming months,” Janet Meahan, spokeswoman for Suddenlink, told the Daily Miner in Kingman, Ariz. “Our pricing remains extremely competitive in the face of rapidly rising programming costs.”

Mehan also told the newspaper that Suddenlink introduced 1 gigabit internet service in Kingman in October, and provided “complimentary” speed upgrades for residential customers at no extra charge.

“They also had their artificial internet rate hike when they implemented data ‘allowances’ (caps),” retorted Ryan, a Suddenlink customer. “Their upgrades are anything but complimentary.”

Readers report they’ve had success calling Suddenlink and threatening to cancel service over the rate increases. Some report they’ve successfully negotiated their rates down to a level just a dollar or two higher than what they paid two years ago. Customers can also buy their way out of Suddenlink’s data caps by upgrading their service.

New subscribers and existing customers who elect to get an upgrade will automatically be enrolled in an unlimited plan at no extra charge the first year, pay an added $5 a month after 12 months, and an added $10 a month after 24 months. Customers currently subscribing to Suddenlink’s fastest local services may choose to retain their existing usage-based plans or upgrade to an unlimited plan.

Siren Song: Altice USA CEO Asks Workers to Trust Him Despite Ruthless Cost-Cutting Reputation

Goei

The CEO of Altice USA took time away from his luxurious homes in Switzerland and New York this week to sit down with concerned middle and working-class Cablevision employees at a meeting held at an unassuming company garage in the Bronx.

Dexter Goei has worries of an organized workforce on his mind. A recording of the meeting provided to Stop the Cap!, showed Goei spent most of his time trying to convince employees they could trust him to protect their future employment at the cable operator.

Since Altice acquired Cablevision in the U.S., the French media have criticized the ‘naiveté of American regulators’ that largely accepted the promises and commitments of the rapidly growing international cable and wireless company at the same time Altice was regularly accused of reneging on the promises it made to regulators in Europe, especially in France. The company has been fined at least twice for breaking those commitments.

Altice’s entrance into the United States began with the acquisitions of Suddenlink, a relatively small cable company serving forgotten small cities in states like Texas and West Virginia and the should-have-been-acquired-by-Comcast-or-Time-Warner-Cable-years-ago oddity Cablevision, which made money for its founding family the Dolans for decades, selling cable mostly in suburban downstate New York.

In America, those acquiring a rival operator are usually asked to show how a deal is “in the public interest” while also submitting to a review to ensure the transaction does not irreparably harm competition. For Suddenlink customers, almost anything Altice could do would be an improvement for a cable company run by a guy who admitted on national television that the days of big investments by cable companies in service improvements were over. It was time to reap the profits, to paraphrase then-CEO Jerry Kent. And so they did, coming up with innovative usage caps and overlimit penalties for customers who dared to use the cable company’s internet service to circumvent a costly cable television package.

Cablevision, in contrast, was usually better regarded than the cable giants that surrounded it. Although technologically aggressive, Comcast canceled most of the goodwill earned for its service improvements by treating customers like patrons of an S&M club. Time Warner Cable was also loathed for its “last to do anything” upgrades, disengaged customer service, and reliable rate hikes, but at least they learned from earlier customer service mishaps and generally relied on a policy of being nicer to customers that threatened to leave.

Cablevision innovated on ways to keep customer loyalty after Verizon FiOS arrived to compete in large sections of its service area. The company spent millions on a major Wi-Fi network for the benefit of its commuting customers, launched broadband speed upgrades earlier than most, and after one embarrassing episode with the FCC showing their speed claims were not met by reality, they have usually overachieved ever since.

Drahi

In 2016, almost everything except Comcast changed. Time Warner Cable was successfully sold to Charter Communications and a self-styled ‘Baron of the Stock Exchange‘ — Patrick Drahi, managed to invade the United States and successfully acquire the two cable operators, despite admitting he would gut spending and wring hundreds of millions in savings out of the transactions for the benefit of his investors.

Mr. Drahi’s penchant for ruthless cost-cutting isn’t new, and he’s been dubbed “The Slasher” in Europe since decimating the budget at his French wireless and broadband company SFR-Numericable. French unions hate him, and not just those representing workers at his telecom businesses. Since the Altice Media Group took control of several major print publications in France, independent photographers have complained Altice slowed payments to a crawl, leading to an open letter to the French government from several press photography agencies demanding action. To date, Altice owes more than a half million dollars in outstanding licensing payments.

Critics contend this is nothing new for Altice, often denounced for not paying vendors (or paying them only after they agree to provide discounts) or alienating employees with radical cost cutting and cutbacks. Customers don’t like what they see either, with more than a million dropping SFR for other providers.

But that was not a story Goei was prepared to share with Cablevision workers in the Bronx.

Instead, Mr. Goei told employees he turned his back on a lucrative career on Wall Street after the great financial meltdown of 2008 and saw more potential running cable companies in Europe and the United States. Goei told the workers Altice’s business plan is to acquire cable and telecom companies and reinvest the profits in improved customer service and better technology for customers. Actual customers of Altice’s cable companies in Europe are still waiting for those improvements.

The French loathe SFR-Numericable, giving it one out of five stars in reviews.

SFR-Numericable, which Goei claimed this week won acclaim from French regulators for being the most reliable in the country, gets scathing reviews criticizing the company for its very frequent service outages, tricky marketing, and incoherent customer service. “Legalized banditry,” claimed one customer. Another described the offshore customer care center as “the Moroccan nightmare,” with more than a few call center workers demonstrating less-than-capable comprehension of French. Service outages are rampant and represent the single biggest reason customers have canceled service.

Goei complained that acquisitions and upgrades have been complicated in Europe by former managers grabbing their golden parachutes and abandoning the acquired companies (without mentioning Altice’s well-known reputation for draconian salary cuts and downsizing) and slowdowns from underperforming suppliers (despite the fact some vendors in France complained their invoices went unpaid for weeks or months, leading to complaints to government regulators).

Forthcoming upgrades are one of the reasons Goei was in the Bronx to sell employees on the merits of Altice Technical Services (ATS), a spinoff entity expected to eventually manage all of Altice’s technical infrastructure and the technicians that will care for it.

“We don’t want to contract out,” explained Goei, who aspires to manage Altice’s forthcoming upgrades effectively in-house through ATS instead of going to outside contractors. To manage this, Goei needs to convince Altice USA’s technical employees to leave Altice and join ATS.

Will ATS protect workers and customers or simply help Altice rid itself of regulator-imposed conditions for its acquisitions?

Goei’s statements seemed to suggest that most will need to make that transition if they want to remain a part of Altice for more than five years, hinting ATS will increasingly manage more and more of Altice’s technical needs, eventually making Altice USA employees potentially redundant.

Goei also hinted ATS might perform work for more than just Altice, which underlined concerns for union organizers that ATS is being established as an independent contracting entity that would not be subject to any regulatory job protection conditions that came with the approval of Altice’s acquisition of Cablevision.

Altice’s plans to rip out and replace coaxial cable with an all-fiber network will likely provide work for the next 7-10 years, notwithstanding the ambitious five-year timeline Altice gave for the fiber upgrade. But employees peppered Goei with questions about job security, benefits like vacation pay, and exactly who will be running ATS and what their opportunities for advancement are.

The transition to ATS might effectively be in name only, because Goei claimed ATS will have full access to employees’ files and work history with Altice and Cablevision, and if managers make the transition to ATS, employees could report to the same manager or supervisor they did under Altice.

“We’re not bringing in some Mexican guy” to run things Goei said to nervous laughter and raised eyebrows from the almost all-minority audience.

Goei’s question and answer session is unlikely to assuage concerns ATS could evolve into little more than Altice’s version of an independent subcontractor with enhanced loyalty to Altice USA. Despite assurances Altice is not looking for excuses to radically trim its workforce, Altice’s history shows job cuts are an integral part of what the French business press calls “The Drahi Method.”

At France’s SFR, Drahi made clear he is looking to cut at least 5,000 paid positions, reducing the workforce from 14,700 to 9,000, starting in July. Observers suspect Altice’s reliance on ATS to act as an umbrella technical department for all of Altice’s North American acquisitions guarantees workforce reductions, if only to eliminate redundancy. Altice has already shown a willingness to lay off employees at its Cablevision and Suddenlink call centers.

But there is one area where Altice is willing to spend.

Le Temps reports Drahi is opening the checkbook to beef up its Geneva executive headquarters in Switzerland, increasing the workforce tenfold and centralizing business operations for the Altice empire. The office is packed with ex-Wall Street bankers and businessmen with a reputation for ruthlessness. Goei’s office is in the building, as is the company’s director — Michel Combes. Combes was notoriously hired away from Alcatel right after demonstrating a talent for swinging the job cutting ax. They are joined by Burkhard Koep, a former Morgan Stanley investment banker in charge of mergers and acquisitions.

The top shelf executives have moved themselves and their families from London, New York, Paris, Tel Aviv and Lisbon to the posh neighborhoods around suburban Geneva, where homes are more likely to be called estates.

The Geneva office conducts business through heavy reliance on videoconferencing and racking up frequent flier miles traveling abroad. Often absent is Drahi himself, who prefers to conduct business from his Zermatt-based luxury cottages. As much as executives spend their time pondering the next acquisition, Le Temps reports they also spend their weekends trying to renegotiate the company’s enormous debt load by seeking refinancing at lower interest rates.

“They play a bank against each other by saying: we will refinance to 6% the debt you loaned us at 7%,” reported the news outlet.

But Altice’s Geneva headquarters did not come for free. Drahi recently introduced a new franchise fee obligating each cable or telecom unit to pay 2-3% of their revenue to Mr. Drahi’s Switzerland office. In the first year that is expected to raise at least $550 million dollars. While popular with Swiss tax authorities, the substantial royalty payments are expected to reduce available cash for upgrades and debt service. Nobody is sure where the money will ultimately end up.

Altice’s Cablevision Scrapping Hybrid Fiber-Coax for New Fiber to the Home Service

Altice, the new owner of Cablevision, is not following the rest of the U.S. cable industry by rolling out the next generation of cable broadband — DOCSIS 3.1 — and will instead scrap coaxial cable entirely in favor of a new, all-fiber network.

The cable industry has depended on some form of coaxial cable to offer its service since about 1950, when the first mom and pop operators set up shop offering community antenna television service in areas that could not easily receive over the air TV stations. Most American cable systems today still use the coaxial cable installed in millions of homes starting in the 1970s, supplemented by outdoor coaxial cable that is often 10-20 years old, supported by a more recent fiber backbone network that improves system reliability and maintenance.

Cable systems were originally designed to deliver analog cable television signals, but over the years bandwidth has been set aside to offer ancillary services like video game products, home security and alarm monitoring, digital radio/music, telephone, and broadband. Because of the billions of dollars invested in existing cable networks, the idea of scrapping existing wiring in favor of fiber optics has been largely rejected by the industry as too costly. As broadband service increasingly becomes cable’s most important service, network engineers have instead worked to realign bandwidth to support faster internet speeds, most commonly by upgrading to more efficient cable broadband transmission standards and by removing space hogs like analog television channels from the lineup.

Regardless of what the cable industry does to increase the efficiency of its hybrid coaxial-fiber networks (known as ‘HFC’), they will never achieve the capacity and robustness of all-fiber networks, which may be why Altice is seeking to stop investing in old technology in favor of something new and better.

Altice’s management is legendary in its zeal to cut costs, so an expensive deployment of fiber to the home service to 8.3 million Cablevision/Optimum and Suddenlink customers would seem contrary to the company’s promise to wring out about $900 million in cost savings for the benefit of shareholders after acquiring Cablevision. DOCSIS 3.1 is clearly a cheaper alternative than rewiring millions of homes for all-fiber service. Last summer, Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries estimated that Liberty Global’s costs to deploy the cheaper DOCSIS 3.1 option in Europe would bring gigabit speeds to customers for about $21 per home — a fraction of the cost of tearing out coaxial cable and replacing it with fiber, estimated to cost about $500 a customer.

But Altice wants to future-proof its network with fiber technology that can support profitable next-generation services that may need speed in excess of a gigabit. Dexter Goei, Altice USA’s chairman and CEO, told Multichannel News Altice was not interested in undertaking incremental upgrades every few years trying to keep up with the internet speed demands of its customers:

Goei

Going with a DOCSIS 3.1 game plan “felt to us as one step forward but not a step forward enough relative to what we see as the future of continued connectivity and higher bandwidth usage,” Dexter Goei, Altice USA’s chairman and CEO, said in an interview, noting that the operator has reached an “inflection point” as it sees a disproportionate number of gross broadband subscriber additions taking higher and higher Internet speed tiers.

“We’re big believers in this trend continuing, and we really are moving toward a 10-gig world,” Goei said. “And to sit around and do this in multiple steps doesn’t make any sense [so we decided] to skip over DOCSIS 3.1 and get straight to the point.”

The cable industry may also be exaggerating the cost of fiber upgrades, especially when they cite the financial challenges experienced by Verizon (FiOS) and AT&T (U-verse) as both built out their respective fiber and fiber-copper networks from the ground up. Cablevision and Suddenlink will not have to build fiber networks from end to end because a significant part of their networks already include a substantial amount of fiber optics. Altice would simply extend the amount of fiber in its network to reach each customer.

Fiber to the home upgrades for Cablevision and Suddenlink customers.

Wall Street remains concerned about where the money to build the project, dubbed “Generation Gigaspeed,” is coming from. The Communications Workers of America is also afraid the money will come, in part, from significant downsizing and salary cuts.

Earlier this week, Altice announced it was spinning off its engineering and technical workers to a new independent entity — Altice Technical Services (ATS). When the spinoff is complete, it will employ as many as 4,500 of Altice’s current workforce of 17,000 employees nationwide, and will eventually manage Cablevision and Suddenlink service calls, outdoor network plant design, construction and maintenance, and house all of Altice’s employees servicing commercial accounts.

Although details remain murky, the union is concerned Altice could be engineering an end run around the New York Public Service Commission’s order approving the buyout of Cablevision if Altice did not lay off any New York workers for the next four years.

“We’re very concerned,” CWA District 1 assistant to the vice president Robert Master said. “But we haven’t fully unpacked it yet. We don’t know what they have in mind.”

CWA District 1 organizer Tim Dubnau was more blunt, telling Multichannel News: “We definitely smell a rat.”

Assuming ATS is configured as an independent entity, it will not be required to adhere to the NY PSC order prohibiting reductions of Cablevision’s customer-facing workforce in New York State, which theoretically could allow Altice to dramatically downsize.

Outside of New York, Altice’s cost cutting has followed a long established pattern company executives have followed in Europe for years, where Altice also offers service. In France, battles over toiletries and office supplies resulted in workers bringing their own toilet tissue to work. Downsizing, despite regulatory orders prohibiting layoffs, went ahead in France as company officials thumbed their noses at regulators. In the United States, a familiar pattern is emerging, charges Altice’s critics. Almost 600 call center workers were terminated in November in Connecticut, and other cutbacks have taken place in North Carolina and other states.

Late last week, the NY Post reported Cablevision employees are now complaining about an increasingly miserable office life as they endure penny-penching from their bosses. In New York, top management reportedly ordered the removal of many office printers to reduce the expense of replacement ink cartridges. Office cleaning expenses have also been reportedly slashed by increasing the length of time between cleanings. Even the cost of an ice machine for a break room has come under intense scrutiny, as cost management specialists demand better deals and less costly equipment. Much of the removed equipment provides one last service to Altice – a tax write-off after being removed from service and donated to charities.

Employees report unprecedented intensity of cost cutting and lengthy scrutiny of almost every expense. Some claim to have resorted to buying certain equipment and supplies out of pocket just to avoid drawing management scrutiny. Employee morale is reportedly low — especially at Cablevision, where reduced pay packages predominate under Altice ownership. Management has told employees to hold out for a planned IPO, which could allow them to reap some of the benefits of a Wall Street-fueled cash-raising exercise likely to be put to work buying up other cable operators in 2017.

The pain of cost-cutting isn’t exactly reaching the top level executive suites, however. Despite a very public dispensing of Cablevision’s lush Dolan family corporate jet immediately after Altice took ownership of Cablevision, a replacement nearly identical to the original was quietly been put into service for the benefit of Altice’s management, according to the newspaper.

Assuming Altice can raise the money to pay for its fiber upgrade, it is expected to be completed within five years for all Cablevision and most, but not all Suddenlink customers.

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