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Analysis: Charter Communications Will Acquire Time Warner Cable/Bright House – What It Means for You

charter twc bhAs expected, Charter Communications formally announced its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in a deal worth, including debt, $78.7 billion.

The deal brings Dr. John Malone, a cable magnate during the 80s and 90s, back into the top echelon of cable providers. Malone orchestrated today’s deal as part of his plan to dramatically consolidate the American cable industry. Malone’s Liberty Broadband Corp. assisted in pushing the deal across the finish line with an extra $5 billion (supplied by three hedge funds) in Charter stock purchases.

The companies expect to win regulator approval and close the deal by the end of 2015.

“No one has ever had a better sense of the multichannel world than John [Malone],” Leo Hindery, a veteran cable-industry executive, told the Wall Street Journal. “Obviously he sees in Charter and Time Warner Cable a way to perpetuate a legacy that is unrivaled.”

But the man who may have made today’s deal ultimately possible was FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. Last week, he personally called cable executives at Charter and Time Warner Cable to reassure them the FCC was not against all cable mergers just because it rejected one involving Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

But Wheeler warned he would only approve deals that were in the public interest.

“In applying the public interest test, an absence of harm is not sufficient,” Mr. Wheeler said.

Consumer groups are wary.

“The cable platform is quickly becoming America’s local monopoly broadband infrastructure,” said Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner. “Charter will have a tough time making a credible argument that consolidating local monopoly power on a nationwide basis will benefit consumers. Indeed, the issue of the cable industry’s power to harm online video competition, which is what ultimately sank Comcast’s consolidation plans, are very much at play in this deal.”

“Ultimately, this merger is yet another example of the poor incentives Wall Street’s quarterly-result mentality creates,” Turner added. “Charter would rather take on an enormous amount of debt to pay a premium for Time Warner Cable than build fiber infrastructure, improve service for its existing customers or bring competition into new communities.”

new charter

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Inside the Charter Plan to Buy Time Warner Cable 5-26-15.flv

A panel of Wall Street analysts discusses the chances for Charter’s plan to buy Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Some analysts continue to frame regulator approval over video programming costs, while others argue broadband is the key issue the FCC and Justice Department will consider when reviewing the merger. From Bloomberg TV. (5:36)

A heavily indebted Charter Communications will not own the combined entity free and clear. At the close of the deal, Time Warner Cable shareholders will own up to 44% of the new company, Liberty Broadband up to 20%, Advance/Newhouse (Bright House) up to 14%. Charter itself will own just 22%, but will be able to leverage voting control over the entity with the help of Malone’s Liberty, which will get almost 25% of the voting power. That will give Charter just enough of a combined edge to control the destiny of “New Charter.”

As with the aborted deal with Comcast, lucrative golden parachutes are expected for Time Warner’s top executives who will be departing if the deal wins approval. In their place will be Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge and a board compromised of 13 directors (including Rutledge himself). Seven directors will be appointed by independent directors serving on Charter’s board, two designated by Advance/Newhouse and three from Liberty Broadband, again giving Rutledge and Malone effective control.

Current Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers will see major changes if Charter follows through on its commitment to bring Charter’s way of doing business to both operators.

No More Analog Television

all digitalCharter told investors at today’s merger announcement it will accelerate the removal of all analog television signals on TWC and Bright House cable TV lineups to free capacity for faster Internet products, more HD channels, and “other advanced products.”

Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus told investors earlier this month TWC was already well-positioned with excess spectrum from moving lesser-watched analog channels to digital service and using “Switched Digital Video,” a technology that conserves bandwidth by only sending certain cable channels into neighborhoods where customers are actively watching them. This allowed Time Warner Cable customers to avoid renting a cable box for lesser-watched, cable-connected televisions in the home.

Charter’s plan requires a cable box on every connected television, at an added cost. The standard lease rate for the digital decoder box is $6.99 per month, and those customers on the lowest basic tier will likely receive at least two devices for up to two years for free, or five years for customers on Medicaid. Customers who subscribe to higher tiers of service or premium channels may receive only one device for free for one year before the monthly lease rate applies. For a home with an average of three connected televisions, this will eventually cost an extra $21 a month. DVR boxes cost considerably more.

No More Modem Lease Fee, But Only Two Choices for Internet Service

The good news is Charter does not apply any modem lease fees and there is a good chance if you already purchased your own modem, Charter will continue to let you use it. The bad news is that if you were used to sticking with a lower-speed broadband tier to save money, those days are likely coming to an end. Charter’s “simplified” menu of broadband options cuts Time Warner’s six choices and Bright House’s five options to just two:

  • 60/4Mbps for Spectrum Internet ($59.99)
  • 100/5Mbps for Internet Ultra ($109.99)

Charter_Spectrum_Mobile_Internet-finalThis is likely to be a red flag for regulators concerned about broadband affordability. Although it is likely Charter may offer concessions by grandfathering existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers under their current plans, Charter has nothing comparable to Time Warner’s “Everyday Low Price Internet” for $14.99 a month or a 6Mbps Basic broadband alternative far less expensive than Charter’s entry-level Internet tier. Bright House customers are not likely to experience something similar. The entry-level 15Mbps broadband-only plan is $65 a month without a promotion, according to Bright House.

Charter is rumored to be testing speed boosts for those two tiers for deployment in areas where they face fiber competitors. The first phase would raise Spectrum speeds to 100/25Mbps and Ultra to 300/50Mbps with plans to further increase speeds when DOCSIS 3.1 arrives — likely to 300/50Mbps for Spectrum and 500/300 for Ultra, at least where Google Fiber, U-verse with GigaPower, and Verizon FiOS offers competition.

Recently, Charter has followed Time Warner Cable’s marketing script and is actively promoting the fact the company has no data caps on broadband service, but Charter had a history of loosely enforced “soft caps” for several years in the recent past, so we’re not convinced data caps are gone for good at Charter.

Pricing & Service

billCharter enjoys a higher rate of revenue per customer than either Time Warner or Bright House, which is a sign customers are paying more. It is likely Charter’s reduced menu of choices is responsible for this. Although customers do get a better advertised level of service, they are paying a higher price for it, with no downgrade options. Ancillary equipment rental fees for television set-top boxes are also a likely culprit.

Charter also tells investors its merger with Time Warner and Bright House will bring “manageable promotional rate step-ups and rate discipline” to both companies. That means Charter will likely be less generous offering promotions to new and existing customers. Like Time Warner and Bright House, Charter will gradually raise rates on customers coming off a promotion until they eventually reset a customer’s rates to the regular price. But while Time Warner, in particular, was receptive to putting complaining customers back on aggressively priced promotions after an old promotion ended, Charter is not.

Charter customers tell us the company’s customer service department is notoriously inconsistent and promotional rates and offers can vary wildly. For some, Charter only got aggressive on price after they turned in their cable equipment and closed their accounts.

As far as service is concerned, CEO Thomas Rutledge has managed significant improvements while at Charter. What used to rival Mediacom in Consumer Reports’ annual ranking of the worst cable companies in America is now ranked number nine (Bright House took fourth place, Time Warner Cable: 12th).

But the presence of Malone in this deal, even peripherally, is a major concern. Malone-run cable companies are notorious for massive rate increases and poor customer service. Sen. Al Gore routinely called his leadership style of Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), since sold to Comcast, the Darth Vader of a cable Cosa Nostra and Sen. Daniel Inouye from Hawaii once remarked in a Senate oversight hearing that Malone’s executives were a “bunch of thugs.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Charter CEO Comfortable With Price Paid for Time Warner 5-26-15.flv

Watch Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge stumble his way through an answer to a simple question: What are the public benefits of your merger with Time Warner Cable that the deal with Comcast didn’t offer? Did you like his answer? (5:28)

Charter Communications Starts Advertising Blitz: Its Internet Service Has “No Data Caps,” AT&T U-verse Does

No data caps.

No data caps.

Charter Communications is now heavily advertising the fact its Internet service “has no data caps,” in an attempt to leverage customers away from AT&T DSL (150GB cap) and AT&T U-verse (250GB cap).

Charter quietly shelved its softly enforced usage caps several months ago and is now using its cap-free experience as a marketing tool to convince customers to switch from AT&T and other phone company broadband options that often include usage limits.

“They used it with me to convince me to drop U-verse for Charter,” writes Stop the Cap! reader Jennifer in Tennessee. “I hate usage caps.”

Charter is also using its cap-free broadband as a key argument in favor of its merger deal with Time Warner Cable and Bright House (which have no usage caps either).

“Charter’s slowest speed tier (60Mbps downstream) is considerably faster and less expensive than TWC’s comparable tiers, with no data caps or usage based pricing,” Charter argued in its merger presentation this morning.

AT&T has unevenly enforced usage caps on its DSL and U-verse services. A standard overlimit fee of $10 for each 50GB applies, but only in some markets.

Stop the Cap! Declares War on Cox’s Usage Cap Ripoff in Cleveland; It’s About the Money, Not Fairness

Stopping the money party from getting started, if we can help it.

Stopping Cox’s money party from getting started, if we can help it.

Stop the Cap! today formally declares war on Cox’s usage cap experiment in Cleveland, Ohio and will coordinate several protest actions to educate consumers about the true nature of usage-based billing and how they can effectively fight back against these types of Internet Overcharging schemes.

Time Warner Cable quickly learned it was deeply mistaken telling customers that a 40GB monthly usage allowance was more than 95% of customers would ever need when introducing a similar concept April 1, 2009 in test markets including Rochester, N.Y., Austin and San Antonio, Tex., and Greensboro, N.C. The company repeatedly suggested only about five percent of customers would ever exceed that cap.

Six years later, it is likely 95% of customers would be paying a higher broadband bill to cover applicable overlimit fees or be forced to upgrade to a more expensive plan to avoid them. Before Time Warner realized the errors of its way, it claimed with a straight face it was acceptable to charge customers $150 a month for the same unlimited broadband experience that used to cost $50.

Cox’s talking points for customers and the media frames usage caps as a fairness enforcement tool. It is a tired argument and lacks merit because nobody ever pays less for usage-capped broadband service. At best, you pay at least the same and risk new overlimit charges for exceeding an arbitrary usage allowance created out of thin air. At worst, you are forced by cost issues to downgrade service to a cheaper plan that comes with an even lower allowance and an even bigger risk of facing overlimit fees.

Industry trade journal Multichannel News, which covers the cable industry for the cable industry does not frame usage caps in the context of fairness. It’s all about the money.

“If you’re a cable operator, you might want to strike [with new usage caps] while the iron is hot,” said MoffettNathanson principal and senior analyst Craig Moffett, a Wall Street analyst and major proponent of investing in cable industry stocks.

Multichannel News warned operators they “must tread carefully in how they deliver the usage-based message.” Instead of getting away with punitive caps, Time Warner Cable had to “rethink” its definition of fairness, keeping prices the same for heavy users of bandwidth but offering discounts to customers whose usage was lighter. No money party for them.

So how did Cox frame its message in the pages of an industry trade journal to fellow members of the cable industry? Was it about fairness or collecting more of your money. You decide:

Customers will be notified of their data usage and any potential overages beginning in mid- June but won’t have to pay for overages until the October billing cycle, a Cox spokesman said. That gives customers the chance either to alter their usage or step up to a more data-intensive plan.   The additional charges serve as a temporary step-up plan for certain consumers, the spokesman said — they can keep their current level of service and pay the additional fee during months when usage spikes, like when their kids come home from college.

cox say noThe Government Accounting Office, charged with studying the issue of data caps, found plenty to be concerned about. Consumers rightfully expressed fears about price increases and confusion over data consumption issues. In short, customers hate the kind of usage-based pricing proposed by Cox. It’s a rate hike wrapped in uncertainty and an important tool to discourage consumers from cutting their cable television package.

It’s also nakedly anti-competitive because Cox has conveniently exempted its television, home phone, and home security products from its usage cap. Subscribe to Cox home phone service? The cap does not apply. Use Ooma or Vonage? The cap does apply so talk fast. If a customer wants to use Cox’s Home Security service to monitor their home while away, they won’t eat away their usage cap. If they use ADT to do the same, Cox steals a portion of your usage allowance. Watch a favorite television show on Cox cable television and your usage allowance is unaffected. Watch it on Netflix and look out, another chunk is gone.

While Cox starts rationing your Internet usage, it isn’t lowering your price. A truly fair usage plan would offer customers a discount if they voluntarily agreed to limit their usage. But nothing about Cox’s rationing plan is fair. It’s compulsory, so customers looking for a worry-free unlimited plan are out of luck. It’s punitive, punishing customers for using a broadband connection they already paid good money to buy. It’s arbitrary — nobody asked customers what they wanted. It doesn’t even make sense. But it will make a lot of dollars for Cox.

Cox claims it only wants usage caps to help customers choose the “right plan.”

The right plan for Cox.

To escape Cox’s $10 overlimit fees, a customer will have to pay at least $10 more to buy a higher allowance plan — turning a service that costs less to offer than ever into an ever-more expensive necessity, with few competitive alternatives. Will Cox ever recommend customers downgrade to a cheaper plan? We don’t think so. Customers could easily pay $78-100+ for broadband service that used to cost $52-66.

Back in 2009, the same arguments against usage caps applied as they do today. Industry expert Dave Burstein made it clear usage caps were about one thing:

“Anybody who thinks that’s not an attempt to raise prices and keep competitive video off the network — I have a bridge to sell them, and it goes to Brooklyn,” Burstein said.

AT&T Introduces U-verse GigaPower Gigabit Service in Nashville, If You Can Find It

In Search Of... AT&T U-verse with GigaPower

In Search Of… AT&T U-verse with GigaPower

AT&T’s gigabit broadband project has appeared in the greater Nashville area, but Stop the Cap! volunteers in the country music capital report you have a better chance getting struck by lightning than finding the service available to your home or business.

AT&T officially unveiled the upgrade in “parts of Clarksville, Lebanon, Murfreesboro, Nashville, Smyrna and surrounding communities located throughout the metro area,” but quickly warned with three asterisks the service was “not available in all areas.”

“That is the understatement of the year,” said Nashville resident Chris Jensen who can’t wait to ditch Comcast for 15 years of bad service and billing errors. “Unless you live in an upscale apartment complex, a new housing development, Walmart or have a country album on the charts you are probably going to be stuck with traditional U-verse speeds from AT&T.”

Jensen is part of Stop the Cap!’s In Search Of… AT&T GigaPower, our new project using volunteers to pelt AT&T’s qualification tool with addresses (and follow-up phone calls) looking for AT&T’s elusive gigabit speeds in the cities where the service has been introduced.

“Forget it Nashville, it’s another AT&T fiber to the press release and payback to the very friendly state politicians that rubber stamp AT&T’s agenda,” said Jensen.

Despite GigaPower’s rarity, AT&T is the first company to bring gigabit speeds to the Nashville residential market.

AT&T Tennessee president Joelle Phillips is surrounded by her political friends from around the state. (Photo: The Tennessean)

AT&T Tennessee president Joelle Phillips is surrounded by AT&T’s political friends from around the state. (Photo: The Tennessean)

Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T Tennessee, used a news release to share the company’s spotlight with a number of local and state politicians identified as supporters of AT&T’s public policy advocacy effort, which includes deregulating AT&T’s business in the state and attempting to keep restrictions on the books to block competing public broadband network expansion in Tennessee.

“We were able to deploy network enhancements fast – in less than a year since we announced our U-verse with AT&T GigaPower plans for Nashville,” said Phillips. “Smart, pro-investment policies, championed at the state level by Governor Haslam and legislative leaders like Speaker Harwell and Lt. Governor Ramsey – as well as streamlined local permitting processes that Mayor Dean and our Metro Council members have embraced – were key in speeding our work.”

Nonsense, says Jensen.

“Tennessee is about as friendly a state AT&T can find — our legislature allows AT&T to basically write its own pieces of legislation, yet the fastest way to get gigabit speeds is to move to Chattanooga where EPB is providing the service without asking to gut consumer protection laws or wait for AT&T to get around to bringing faster service to your home,” said Jensen.

Critics contend AT&T maintains ties with state and local politicians that are too close for comfort, potentially hurting consumers in Tennessee.

uverse gigapowerAccording to the National Institute of Money in Politics, telecommunications industry interests wrote at least $643,000 in campaign contribution checks to Tennessee politicians during the two-year 2014 election cycle. AT&T alone put $211,000 into the pockets of legislators. The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance reports AT&T contributed $20,000 during the last election cycle to Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s leadership political action committee, RAAMPAC. AT&T President Joelle Phillips personally gave another $2,000.

House Speaker Beth Harwell benefited from at least $17,000 in AT&T money over the last two years. AT&T spends another $1.3 million on as many as 13 full time lobbyists that devote all of their attention to Tennessee.

Gov. Bill Haslam doesn’t really need AT&T’s money. He is now worth an estimated $2 billion, making him the richest elected official in the country, according to an analysis by Forbes.

In return for this largesse, AT&T is routinely praised by all three state officials, which is returned when AT&T sends out press releases gushing over Tennessee’s ‘AT&T-Friendly’ deregulation policies.

AT&T will charge a range of prices for U-verse GigaPower service in Nashville, which all include AT&T’s right-to-spy on your browsing behavior. If you want to opt out of AT&T’s “Internet Preferences” customer monitoring program, add $29 a month to these prices:

  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps starting at $120 a month, or speeds at 100Mbps as low as $90 a month, with one-year contract required;
  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier + TV: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps and qualifying TV service starting at $150 a month, or speeds at 100Mbps and qualifying TV service as low as $120 a month, with a one year contract;
  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier + TV + Voice: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps with qualifying TV service and Unlimited U-verse Voice starting at $180 a month, or speeds at 100Mbps with qualifying TV service and Unlimited U-verse Voice as low as $150 a month, with a two-year term commitment.

AT&T imposes a 1TB monthly usage cap on its gigabit broadband service. Overlimit fees of $10 per 50GB will apply to customers exceeding that usage allowance.

Cable Stock Fluffer Craig Moffett Encourages Cable Operators to Add Usage Caps Before Title II Takes Effect

"More Caps" Moffett

“More Caps” Moffett

If you are a cable executive looking to further gouge customers captive to your “only game in town” broadband speeds, now is the time to slap around customers with usage caps and overlimit fees, because your company may no longer be able to do that after June 12, when the FCC’s new Title II regulations officially take effect.

“If you’re a cable operator, you might want to strike while the iron is hot,” said MoffettNathanson principal and senior analyst Craig Moffett, who has shared his love for all-things-cable with investors for years.

Moffett regularly asks cable industry executives about when they plan to introduce usage limits or usage-based billing for customers who often have no other choice for 25Mbps service, the lowest speed that now qualifies as broadband.

But tricking customers into accepting industry arguments about “fair pricing” must be handled carefully, because making a mistake with customers could cost your executives their summer bonuses if the pocket-picking policies cause a revolt.

Multichannel News reminds its cable industry readers Time Warner Cable failed to start their usage cap experiment in 2009 due to a “furor” by customers (often led by us). Instead of filling their coffers with the proceeds of overlimit fees, “the cable giant [was forced] to rethink its pricing strategy, keeping prices the same for heavy users of bandwidth but offering discounts to customers whose usage was lighter.”

Image: schvdenfreude

Image: schvdenfreude

Unable to get its definition of “fairness” across to customers, Time Warner Cable never had to look back, raking in greater and greater unlimited broadband profits quarter after quarter, even as their costs to deliver service continued to drop.

Faced with the prospect of a newly empowered FCC to keep cable industry abuses in check, Multichannel News tells cable executives the money party may be over before it begins if they wait too long:

Title II regulations, which reclassify broadband as a common- carrier service, are about to take effect June 12, and the Federal Communications Commission has said it would look closely at any usage-based pricing plans to determine if they discriminate against online video providers. That could force some Internet service providers to move to implement their version of usage-based pricing before the deadline.

To “soften the blow,” the trade journal reported Cox significantly increased usage caps and are setting the overlimit fee at $10 for each 50GB of excessive usage, much lower than wireless plan overlimit fees. Multichannel News suggests this will help customers “get accustomed to overage charges.”

But Cox customers in the Cleveland area may be able to turn the table on Cox.

“Let them get accustomed to the fact I am dumping them for WOW! the moment I receive official notification about the caps,” said Stop the Cap! reader Dave, who has a choice between Cox, AT&T, and WOW! — a competing cable operator without usage caps. “AT&T isn’t enforcing its cap around here either, so I am definitely canceling my service and have two other choices. People have to be willing to send a clear message usage caps are an absolute deal-breaker.”

Although usage caps are not affected by Net Neutrality regulations, the fact the cable industry faces added regulator scrutiny under Title II allows the FCC to put an end to practices it considers to be anti-competitive. Introducing usage caps for customers trying to find an alternative to Cox’s cable television package by watching online video instead may qualify.

Cox Cracking Down on Internet Customers With Hard Usage Caps and Overlimit Fees: Let the Gouging Begin!

cox say noCox Communications will begin testing overlimit fees this summer starting in its Cleveland, Ohio service area with plans to introduce hard usage allowances and excess usage violation charges nationwide if customers tolerate the market test in Cleveland.

DSL Reports learned that Cox will formally notify customers beginning May 19 it has increased broadband usage allowances and will introduce an overlimit fee of $10 for each 50GB allotment a customer exceeds their limit starting this fall.

Cox’s marketing machine is attempting to justify its usage based pricing scheme with a pre-written script to appease anticipated customer complaints:

A draft customer support script obtained exclusively by DSLReports states that this lead-in period will “give customers the opportunity to familiarize themselves with their typical data usage and take action, such as secure their WiFi network or change service plans, if they exceed their limit.”

The script also notes that customers will be notified via e-mail and a browser popup when they’ve reached 85% and 100% of their monthly data allotments. Cox services like Cox TV Connect, Cox Digital Telephone and Cox Home Security will not count toward the usage cap, a Cox insider claims.

To make the idea of potential bill shock more palatable to their customer base, Cox generously increased usage allowances last week:

  • Starter: 150 GB/month
  • Essential 250 GB/month
  • Preferred 350 GB/month (the most popular plan)
  • Premier 700 GB/month
  • Ultimate 2 TB/month

Exceed those limits and the company will slap penalty fees on your bill as a matter of “fairness.” Customers will get a preview of any specific overlimit fees they would incur starting in June, but the company will not begin to actually charge them until October.

price-gouging-cake“Data usage plans promote fairness by asking the high-capacity Internet users to pay a greater share of network costs,” argues Cox. “Some critics of data usage plans push a flat fee pricing model, meaning that users would pay a flat fee whether they simply use the Internet to surf the web and check email or if they are a ‘super user’ and consume copious amounts of bandwidth. Data usage plans are a far more fair approach, giving consumers a choice based on their personal needs rather than forcing all customers to absorb the network costs incurred by the 5% of customers who exceed their allowance.”

Stop the Cap! would point out we’ve heard those same talking points since 2009 and they were not credible then and are even less so today.

First, we’d note Cox is attacking the business plans of some of the most successful broadband providers in the United States. Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, Google, and a myriad of other phone and cable operators not only deliver on their commitment to offer unlimited use Internet, they actually market it as a good reason to buy Internet access from them.

Cox’s concerns for fairness might be a bit less hypocritical had Cox not sold customers unlimited use plans for years. Were they being unfair to their customers then, now, or both?

Second, the company’s claimed noble intentions for keeping the cost of broadband down might be more believable if it didn’t charge its base customers a whopping $34.99 a month for “up to 5Mbps” Internet that it now wants to limit. Five years ago it charged customers just $21.99 a month for that service. By 2015, it had raised the price more than 59%.

In comparison, Time Warner Cable charges less than half that for unlimited “$14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet” – a tier that has not increased in price since its introduction. Time Warner has also offered its light users an optional plan to win a discount if they keep their usage down. As a reflection of customer interest in plans that place limits (even optional) on broadband service, out of some 11 million Time Warner Cable customers, only a few thousand have shown any interest in plans that introduce a usage allowance component.

coxThird, Cox’s excuses are very similar to those given by Time Warner Cable when it tried (and failed spectacularly) to impose usage allowances on its broadband customers in 2009. Time Warner officials promised it would represent greater fairness and would help pay for network improvements, while only a small percentage of customers would face higher charges. In fact, none of those claims were true. Customers seeking to keep unlimited access faced a tripling of the cost of broadband, Time Warner Cable only committed to network improvements in their most-populous service areas (which were excluded from the usage cap market trials and had significant competition), and at the usage caps Time Warner proposed in 2009 – 5, 10, 20, and 40GB, more than half of today’s Time Warner customers would be subject to overlimit fees. At the time, Time Warner claimed their proposed usage allowances were generous and fewer than 5% of customers would exceed them. That is eerily familiar to the “5% of customers” Cox refers to today.

The real money is to be made selling broadband, already amazingly profitable.

The real money is to be made selling broadband, already amazingly profitable.

Cox’s need for strict usage allowances comes at a time when other Internet Service Providers in competitive markets are either abandoning or not strictly enforcing them. Alienating customers has proven bad for business, and there is still plenty of money to be made selling unlimited access. Both broadband and telephone service is declining in cost for the operator to offer, particularly when examining bandwidth expenses.

Cox Communications is a privately held company and does not disclose specific financial data to the public, but similarly sized Charter Communications is publicly held and revealed in 2014 it had revenue of $9.1 billion and Adjusted EBITDA of $3.2 billion – each rising 8.2% on a pro forma basis, year over year. In plain English, broadband is already a real moneymaker for the cable industry, with revenue boosts recorded across the board. In comparison, cable television expenses have taken a toll on the profitability of offering television service. Charter is making so much money on broadband it dropped its usage caps recently.

Because the cable industry relies almost exclusively on existing hybrid fiber-coax networks to deliver products and services, the capital costs of providing Internet access have continued to drop for years. The industry’s decision to invest in and adopt DOCSIS 3 was considered a “no brainer” because it did not need major upgrades to network infrastructure and could recoup its cost by allowing companies to market higher-profit, higher-speed tiers.

In contrast, new entrants like Google Fiber are constructing new all-fiber network infrastructure at an enormous cost, but remain comfortable marketing broadband service with no usage allowances. So do many community-owned providers, including EPB in Chattanooga, GreenLight and Fibrant in North Carolina, among many dozens of others. Even Comcast has committed to not imposing usage caps for its premium 2Gbps fiber service, on which residential customers will be capable of racking up enormous amounts of usage.

In short, Cox’s usage cap regime is completely unjustifiable under current marketplace conditions and represents little more than an effort to raise prices and block online video competition, which Cox customers may decide will eat too much into their usage allowance.

Time Warner Cable goes out of its way to advertise "No Data Caps."

Time Warner Cable goes out of its way to advertise “No Data Caps.”

There are a number of questions Cox customers should ask:

  1. Why did nobody ask us whether we thought usage allowances and overlimit fees were fair?
  2. Why not offer optional discounts for low-usage customers and see how many actually enroll in such a program?
  3. Why has Cox removed the option of an unlimited use tier for customers that want unlimited service?
  4. Why won’t Cox commit to a price freeze on its broadband service if usage caps are really about controlling costs?
  5. How is it fair to offer a more generous allowance to a customer sold a higher speed tier that can easily chew through more data than customers on lower speed tiers?
  6. Why do low-speed customers get a smaller usage allowance when they cannot effectively use the highest bandwidth web applications?
  7. Why can’t customers roll unused portions of their usage allowance over to future months?
  8. How many customers, if any, actually asked for this type of pricing?
  9. Why can Google, Time Warner and other operators provide unlimited access for the same or less than Cox charges and your company can’t?

Source: FCC Will Get Serious About Data Caps if Comcast Moves to Impose Them Nationwide

fccA well-placed source in Washington, D.C. with knowledge of the matter tells Stop the Cap! the Federal Communications Commission is prepared to take a hard look at the issue of Internet data caps and usage-based billing if a major cable operator like Comcast imposes usage allowances on its broadband customers nationwide.

Comcast introduced its usage cap market trial in Nashville, Tenn. in 2012 but gradually expanded it to include Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee; Charleston, South Carolina; and Tucson, Arizona.

“Two and a half-years is exceptionally long for a ‘market trial,’ and we expected Comcast would avoid creating an issue for regulators by drawing attention to the data cap issue during its attempted merger with Time Warner Cable,” said our source. “Now that the merger is off, there is growing expectation Comcast will make a decision about its ‘data usage plans’ soon.”

In most test markets, Comcast is limiting residential customers to 300GB of usage per month, after which an overlimit fee of $10 per 50GB applies. Despite that, Comcast’s forthcoming premium gigabit speed plans are exempt from usage caps, the company announced.

Comcast sustomers in market test cities have not been happy with the usage caps, some confronted with inaccurate usage measurement tools or “bill shock” after claiming to find surprise charges on their cable bill. One federal employee offered his own story of bill shock — $200 in overlimit fees on his April Comcast bill. The customer spent $70 a month on broadcast basic cable television and Comcast Internet service. As an almost cord-cutter, he could instead rely on one of several alternative online video providers like Netflix or Hulu, but watching video that did not come from Comcast’s cable TV package contributed to eating his monthly usage allowance and subjected him to hundreds of dollars in extra fees.

cohen“I’ve reviewed [the] account to see and can confirm the charges are valid,” responded a Comcast representative who defended the company’s usage cap trials. “Please understand that we are not here to take advantage of customers. We are here to provide a great customer service experience.  After researching [the] account, at this time no matter what level of service you obtain, the Internet usage [allowance] will remain the same.”

To date, the Federal Communications Commission has left the issue of data caps and usage-based billing on the back burner, despite a Government Accounting Office report that found little justification for usage limits or compulsory usage allowances on broadband.

In 2012, former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski defended the practice, claiming it would bring lower prices to light users, spur “innovation” and enable consumer choice. But Comcast customers have found little, if any savings from Comcast’s so-called “data usage plans.” The only savings comes from enrollment in Comcast’s Flexible Data Option, which offers a $5 discount if a customer keeps usage under 5GB a month on just one plan — Comcast’s 3Mbps $39.95/mo Economy Plus tier.

“We don’t see much innovation coming from Comcast’s usage limit trials because Internet pricing continues to rise and the plans have the side effect of discouraging customers from using competing video providers, which can consume a lot of a customer’s usage allowance,” our source adds.

You're over our arbitrary usage limit!

You are over our arbitrary usage limit!

As far as enabling consumer choice, Comcast’s own representative put the kibosh on that, unless a customer wants to pay higher Internet bills.

Net Neutrality and issues surrounding Title II have consumed much of the FCC’s attention in the residential broadband business during the first half of the Obama Administration’s second term. Usage billing and data caps are likely to become bigger issues during the second half if there is a decisive move towards compulsory usage limits and consumption billing by large operators.

“An operator the size of Comcast absolutely will draw scrutiny,” said our source. “If Comcast decides to impose its currently tested market trial plans on Comcast customers nationwide, the FCC will take a closer look. Under Title II, the agency is empowered to watch for attempts to circumvent Net Neutrality policies. Usage caps and charging additional fees to customers looking for an alternative to the cable television package will qualify, especially if Comcast continues to try to exempt itself.”

Cable industry officials have also become aware of the buzz surrounding usage caps and growing regulator concern. Some reportedly discussed the possibility of FCC intervention behind closed doors at the recent cable industry conference in Chicago. Multichannel News reported (sub. req.) cable industry executives increasingly fear federal officials will ban usage pricing for wired broadband service on competitive grounds. Online video competitors rely on large cable and phone companies to reach prospective customers, many that may think twice if usage allowances are imposed on consumer broadband accounts.

Western Mass. Voters Stampede for Fiber Optic Broadband in Communities Big Telecom Ignored

WiredWestLogoFeb2015Bypassed in favor of richer opportunities to the east, western Massachusetts residents are empowering their communities to deliver 21st century broadband the big cable and phone companies have neglected to offer.

One of the largest public co-op broadband networks ever attempted is racking up huge wins so far in referendums being held in 32 towns across the region. The vote is needed to secure financing for construction of the last mile of the network in each community, delivering fiber optic service to individual homes and businesses.

Last summer the Massachusetts legislature passed the IT Bond Bill, which included $50 million to support critical last mile network construction efforts in unserved parts of the Commonwealth. But the rest of the money has to come from residents of each unserved community. A two-thirds vote is needed in each town to finance these construction expenses and at least 40% of residents must pre-register for service and pay a refundable deposit of $49, which will be applied to their first month’s bill. So far, more than 4,000 households have done exactly that, showing good faith in a project that won’t begin delivering service for an estimated 2-3 years.

As votes take place across the region, the response has been remarkable, with the warrant article passing overwhelmingly. In one town, it was even unanimous.

The excitement in western Massachusetts rivals a Google Fiber announcement. Reports indicate broadband-supporting crowds well exceeded the capacity of meeting rooms. In Cummington, the overflow left people in the hallways. In Plainfield, they gave up on their designated meeting room and moved everyone to the church across the street. In Shutesbury, even the gym and overflow areas weren’t enough. Some residents ended up on the preschool playground looking for an open spot. Nine communities for better broadband, zero opposed, with many more to go.

In small communities, signing up 40% of residents in advance can be a challenge. In Washington, it was achieved only hours before the approval meeting. In Middlefield, an additional 100 households are needed as that community is only at 14% of their signup goal. Montgomery needs 85 more backers as they sit at 39% of goal, and in Peru — 111 at 33% to goal.

For broadband in western Massachusetts, the vote is nothing less than a referendum on moving forward or getting left behind indefinitely.

ww-2015-1

Wired West’s co-op of communities in western Massachusetts.

But as is the case with every public broadband project we know, there are detractors who don’t like any form of government running anything. Others are frightened because of inflated scare stories about a project’s cost, often spread by interest groups funded by the same big cable and phone companies that are not now providing adequate service and don’t want the competition. Some others mean well, but are underinformed about the realities of delivering broadband in rural communities, always believing a better answer lies elsewhere and is just around the corner. Unfortunately, it always seems to be just out of reach.

Hussain Hamdan of Hawley, has launched a one-man war on public broadband, actively seeking signatures on a petition to pull his community of 347 out of the project, claiming it is too costly. Hamdan argues wireless broadband is a more suitable solution for the town. His petition, signed by at least 36 residents, wants no part of the WiredWest initiative, but he’d go further. Hamdan proposes to outlaw municipal utility services altogether, forbid selectmen or other town boards from appropriating a single penny for any WiredWest project, prohibit spending on postage for any mailings discussing public broadband, and even making sure town officials attending a function on municipal broadband are not reimbursed for their mileage expenses. Coincidentally, another Hamdan petition seeks the right to recall elected officials, ensuring any ousted politician cannot be re-elected to office for at least three years. (Hamdan denies his recall election proposal targets any town official specifically.)

Despite all this, Hamdan claims he is for bringing high-speed Internet access to town, just not through WiredWest. Unfortunately for the 300+ other residents of Hawley that did not sign the petition, Hamdan’s enthusiasm for alternative service has not been matched by a single interested provider seeking to fill Hawley’s broadband chasm.

Because Mr. Hamdan didn’t do his homework, we have, and here are the “alternatives” Hawley residents can actually consider:

Convincing Time Warner Cable to Come to Town

cable3Assuming Time Warner Cable was somehow persuaded to offer service, as they already do in parts of western Massachusetts, they will expect considerable compensation to extend their cable network to a community that fails to meet their Return on Investment requirements. It will be an uphill battle. Next door in upstate New York, Time Warner Cable needed $5.3 million in taxpayer incentives just to expand service to, at most, 5,320 homes or businesses around the state that were already close to existing Time Warner service areas, but had no access to cable before. Conclusion: Time Warner Cable already serves the areas they feel comfortable serving.

Mark Williams, who lives in Lee – Berkshire County, wanted Time Warner Cable service at his home. Lee has franchised Time Warner Cable to provide service throughout the community, so Williams didn’t think twice about ordering service. When the company arrived, it found his driveway was 100 feet too long.

Time Warner has a formula that determines who will pay to install necessary infrastructure. If a certain number of properties are located within a specific radius, they cover the costs. If a community isn’t presently served, if residents live too far apart, or have an unusual property, Time Warner expects the town or resident to cover part of their costs. In Williams’ case, $12,000 was initially quoted to wire his home back in 2010. Because Time Warner had already committed to provide service in the area, the bad publicity that resulted from that installation fee forced Time Warner to back down. But in unserved communities, the costs spiral even higher. Residents on the fringe of a cable coverage area are routinely quoted, $15,000, $20,000, even $35,000 just to get a cable line extended to a single home from a nearby street. We’re not sure how far away Hawley is from the nearest Time Warner Cable service area, but it is a safe bet the company would need enormous taxpayer-funded incentives from local residents to extend universal cable service in the community.

If both Time Warner and WiredWest were providing service side-by-side in Hawley today, residents would pay Time Warner Cable $911/yr for 20Mbps Turbo Internet broadband, including the $8/mo modem lease fee or $588/yr to WiredWest for 25Mbps broadband. WiredWest would save residents $323 a year — and help pay off its infrastructure costs while keeping the money in the community.

Assuming Time Warner Cable is never going to be an option, which we think is likely, the wireless alternatives suggested by Hamdan largely do not exist at this time, are unfeasible, or no longer meet the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband.

White Space Broadband: Can It Work in Western Mass.?

First, let’s consider “white space” broadband – high-speed wireless Internet access delivered over unused TV channels. At the moment, this service is still in the experimental stages in most areas, but as Stop the Cap! previously reported, it has promise for rural communities. Unfortunately, despite Hawley’s small size and rural location, the current database of available free channels to offer white space Internet access in the area is discouraging, based on the address of the community’s town office on Pudding Hollow Drive. There are just six open channels because of an abundance of TV signals in Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York that get precedence. Of these six, there are just four optimal choices – UHF channels 14-17. In our previous story highlighting Thurman, N.Y.’s white space project, there are 17 open channels in that area, none on VHF or reserved for radio astronomy. Feel free to use the database to see how many open channels are available in your local area.

Not much room at the Inn.

Not much room at the inn. White space broadband will be a challenge in signal-dense northeastern states.

But the news may be even worse. The FCC is currently preparing to “repack” the UHF dial around the country by consolidating existing stations on a smaller number of channels. The freed up bandwidth will be auctioned off to cell phone companies to boost their networks. This month, we learned the wireless industry’s largest lobbying group is pushing hard to force other users to vacate “their” spectrum the moment they begin testing on those frequencies. Interference concerns and the dense number of TV signals already operating in the northeastern U.S. means it is very likely communities like Hawley will have even less opportunity to explore white space broadband as an option.

What About Wireless ISPs?

Second, there are traditional Wireless ISPs (WISPs) which do a reasonably good job reaching very sparsely populated areas, as long as customers are willing to sacrifice speed and pay higher costs.

BlazeWIFI advertises service in the rural community of Warwick, Mass (zip code: 01378). But it is anything but a bargain. The least expensive plan is $99.99 a month and that offers the dismally slow speed of 1.5Mbps for downloading and only 512kbps for uploading. It also includes a data cap of 25GB a month. That is slowband and a last resort. It’s more expensive, it’s slower, and it is usage-capped.

Some WISPs offer faster service, but few are equipped to handle the FCC’s definition of 25Mbps as the minimum speed to qualify as broadband. In short, this technology may eventually be replaced by white space broadband where speeds and capacity are higher, as long as suitable unused channel space exists.

wireless neverlandWhat About Wireless Home Internet Plans from AT&T, Verizon Wireless?

Third, there are wireless broadband solutions from the cell phone providers. Only Hawley residents can decide for themselves whether AT&T and Verizon Wireless deliver robust reception inside the community. If they do, both companies offer wireless home Internet service.

The base charge for AT&T’s plan is $20 for unlimited nationwide phone calling + $60/mo for a 10GB Wireless Home Internet Plan. There is a 2-yr contract and a $150 early termination fee. Since the average household now uses between 15-50GB of Internet service per month (lower end for retired couples, 35GB median usage for AT&T DSL customers, but even more for young or large families), you have to upgrade the plan right from the start. A more suitable 20GB plan is $90/month. A 30GB plan runs $120 a month. The overlimit fee is $10/GB if you run over your plan’s limit. You will also be billed “taxes & federal & state universal service charges, Reg. Cost Recovery Charge (up to $1.25), gross receipts surcharge, Admin. Fee & other gov’t assessments which are not gov’t req’d charges.” Verizon’s plan is similar.

You must have robust cell coverage for this service to work and be ready for speeds of 5-20Mbps, getting slower as more customers join a cell tower. The lowest rate available runs about $90 a month after taxes and fees are calculated and you need to switch it off when you approach 10GB of usage to avoid additional fees.

What is the Best Option?

No broadband? No sale.

No broadband? No sale.

As we have seen across the United States, communities offered the possibility of fiber optic Internet are embracing it, some even begging for the technology. There is simply no better future-proof, high-capacity broadband technology available. But installing it has been costly – a fact every provider has dealt with. Most rural providers treat fiber optic technology as an investment in the future because it has very low maintenance costs, is infinitely upgradable, and can offer a foundation on which current and future high-bandwidth online projects can expand.

The fact is, western Massachusetts has been left behind by Comcast and Time Warner Cable, as well as Verizon. Nobody in the private sector is coming to the rescue. Verizon has stopped expanding its FiOS fiber network and all signs point to its growing interest in exiting the landline and wired broadband business altogether in favor of its higher profit Verizon Wireless. Cable operators strictly adhere to a Return on Investment formula and will not expand service areas without major taxpayer support.

In communities in more conservative states like Tennessee and North Carolina, the obvious choice was for local governments and municipal power companies to provide the service other providers won’t. Despite the industry funded scare stories, projects like EPB Fiber in Chattanooga and GreenLight in Wilson, N.C., are doing just fine and attract new businesses and jobs into both regions. They offer far superior service to what the local cable and phone company offer in those areas.

It is unfortunate rural residents have to effectively pay more to get a service urban areas already have, but to go without would be disastrous for school-age children, local entrepreneurs, agribusiness workers, and tele-medicine.

Mr. Hamdan argues Hawley cannot afford WiredWest. But if one looks deeper at the alternatives, it becomes clear Hawley can’t afford not to be a part of a service that is likely to be ubiquitous across the region. Even those not interested in the Internet can ask any realtor how important Internet access is to a homebuyer that considers inadequate broadband a deal-breaker. That could cost much more than the $350/yr Mr. Hamdan theoretically suggests WiredWest will cost Hawley.

Mr. Hamdan offers no real answers for his community about alternatives that are available, affordable, and capable of providing the kind of service WiredWest is proposing. Voters should carefully consider the economic impact of leaving their community in a broadband backwater as the rest of the region advances towards fiber optic broadband. That is the cost that is too high to pay.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Wired West Western Mass broadband woes 1-15.mp4

Wired West project coordinators didn’t have to go far to hear broadband horror stories in western Massachusetts, which has some of the worst Internet access in the world. (17:51)

American Broadband Ripoff: Compare Your Prices With Eight Competing Providers in Bratislava, Slovakia

bratislvaThe largest telecom companies in the United States, their trade associations, and Ajit Pai, one of two Republican commissioners serving at the Federal Communications Commission routinely claim America has the best broadband in the world. From the perspective of providers running to their respective banks to deposit your monthly payment, they might be right. But on virtually every other metric, the United States has some of the most expensive broadband in the world at speeds that would be a gouging embarrassment in other countries.

Slovakia – A Long, Tough History, But Better Broadband than the United States

Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, has existed since the year 907. From the 10th century until just after the end of World War 1, the city (then commonly known by its German name of Pressburg) was part of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian empire. After the “War to End All Wars,” ethnic Czechs and Slovaks jointly formed a democratic Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 which existed peacefully until the Germans arrived in 1938 and renamed part of Czechoslovakia… Germany.

Unfortunately for the Czechs and Slovaks, life didn’t get much easier after the end of World War II. As Stalin sought to create a buffer zone between Germany (and western Europe) and the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, along with most of Eastern Europe, faded behind the Iron Curtain into the Soviet sphere of influence.

The city center of Bratislava

The city center of Bratislava

After decades of deterioration under autocratic rule, the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution of 1989 restored multi-party democracy and Communism was was on its way to being fully extirpated across Europe.

By the time the June 1992 election results were announced, it was clear the country’s constituent Czechs and Slovaks had irreconcilable differences and were headed to national divorce court. On one side, the Czech-oriented Civic Democratic Party, headed by Václav Klaus. On the other, Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, whose aims were obvious based on its party name alone. With the writing on the wall, Klaus and Mečiar managed to work out an agreement on how to divide the country and on Jan. 1, 1993 the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic were born.

Since the separation, Slovakia has prospered, and is now recognized to have a high-income advanced economy with one of the fastest growth rates in both the European Union and the OECD. It joined the EU in 2004 and adopted the Euro as its currency in 2009. Slovakia had to bring its economy up to date after fifty years of Communism. The country had a functioning telecommunications infrastructure, albeit one highly dependent on dilapidated equipment produced in the German Democratic Republic (the former East Germany) and the Soviet Union.

After the Slovak Republic was born, Slovenské Telekomunikácie maintained a monopoly on Slovak telephone lines and telex circuits under the close watch of the Ministry of Transport, Posts and Telecommunications. It took until the year 2000 for economic reforms to allow for the privatization of telecommunications. As was the case in many other central and eastern European countries, Germany’s Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile) won a majority ownership in the company, which is today still known as Slovak Telecom.

The Slovak Broadband Marketplace Today

Slovak-TelekomThe Slovak government insisted that telecommunications networks in the country be competitive and it maintains oversight to make sure monopolies do not develop. It rejected claims that total deregulation and competition alone would spur investment. Slovakia welcomes outside investment, but also makes certain monopoly pricing power cannot develop. As a result, most residents of Bratislava have a choice of up to eight different broadband providers — a mix of cable, telephone, wireless, and satellite providers that all fiercely compete in the consumer and business markets.

Many providers are foreign-owned entities. UPC, Slovakia’s cable operator, is owned by John Malone’s Liberty Global. Slovak Telecom is owned by Germany’s T-Mobile/Deutsche Telekom. Tooway is a French company.

300Prices are considerably lower than what American providers charge, although speeds remain somewhat lower than broadband services in Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic States. At one address on Kláštorská, a street of modest single family homes (some in disrepair), these companies were ready to install service:

  • RadioLAN offers 18/1.5Mbps unlimited wireless service for $21.85 a month;
  • UPC offers 300/20Mbps unlimited cable broadband for $30.63 a month;
  • Slovanet offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 240GB usage cap for $18.56 a month;
  • Swan offers 10.2Mbps/512kbps unlimited DSL for $24.70 a month;
  • Slovak Telecom offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 240GB usage cap for $21.96 a month;
  • Benestra offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 4GB per day usage cap for $24.24 a month;
  • Satro offers 9Mbps/768kbps unlimited wireless service for $29.32 a month;
  • Tooway offers 22/6Mbps satellite Internet with a 25GB usage cap for $54.79 a month.

In other parts of the country, two providers are installing competing fiber broadband services. Slovak Telecom is slowly discarding its old copper wire infrastructure in favor of fiber optics, and is already providing 300Mbps service to some residents to better compete with UPC Cable. Some areas can get straight fiber service, others get VDSL, an advanced form of DSL offering higher speeds than traditional DSL. Orange, a provider not available in the immediate area of our sampled home, has already installed its own fiber service to over 100,000 fiber customers and is growing.

In comparison, Comcast sells 105Mbps service in Nashville, Tenn. for $114.95/mo (not including modem fee) with a 300GB monthly usage cap. That is one-third the speed of UPC Cable at nearly four times the cost… if you stay within your allowance. Prices only get higher after that.

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