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Lexington, Ky. Proposes Giving Charter 30 Days to Resolve Problems or Face Fines

Phillip Dampier October 12, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

Charter Communications will have 30 days to fix alleged problems affecting Lexington, Ky.’s cable subscribers or the company could face fines of $500 a day for each violation.

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council voted to put the resolution on its agenda for tonight’s meeting, and it is expected to pass.

The city is exasperated over Spectrum’s failure to allow customers to speak to supervisors, not allowing customers to return cable equipment by mail, and for charging customers for services they did not order.

“Because of the volume of complaints we have received, we have decided to go forward with this next step,” General Services Commissioner Geoff Reed told the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The complaints began pouring into city offices shortly after Charter Communications’ Spectrum replaced Time Warner Cable.

Because of federal deregulation, local authorities have little say over cable company rates or services and no say at all over internet service. But the city can hold the cable company accountable to its video service franchise agreement. If Charter fails to correct the alleged deficiencies, the county council can order an administrative hearing and fine the company up to $500 a day per violation.

Lexington, Ky. Residents Vent Frustration With Charter Spectrum

Nearly 200 people turned out for a packed public meeting in Lexington, Ky. to complain about Charter Communications and its Spectrum cable television service.

“Welcome, Spectrum, to the lion’s den,” said Mayor Jim Gray, introducing company representatives. The complaints began right away.

“The biggest slap in the face is that no matter what we pay,” one woman said, “no matter what we set up for autopay, every single month – no purchases, no changes on our end, our bill is never consistent and always growing.”

Prices and poor customer service were the top complaints at a meeting that filled a large room at a local senior center, organized by Lexington city officials.

The problems began after Charter Communications bought Time Warner Cable. As customers’ Time Warner Cable promotions expired, prices skyrocketed. Charter representatives are trained to convert customers to Spectrum-branded packages, which many customers argue costs more.

“There’s always going to be some pains when you change from one company to the next,” Mike Pedelty, a Charter spokesperson, told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer. “There’s different ways Time Warner Cable did things than the way Charter does things. We understand that, we appreciate that. We try to do our best to communicate to our customers, we try to make sure that we let them know their options.”

Customers do not necessarily like those options.

“Spectrum has increased my bill twice while I’m still on the package,” complained customer Loney Burns. When she tried to cut back on her package to save money, Burns was told, “if you want to take them off, we will increase your bill.”

City employee Roger Damon pointed out that most Time Warner Cable customers avoided paying the regular prices Charter uses as a benchmark to claim Spectrum’s packages and pricing costs less. By negotiating with Time Warner Cable, customers could easily obtain a new promotional offer when an old one ran out. After Charter took over, the company stopped giving back-to-back promotions. As a result, a growing number of customers are forced into regular priced Spectrum packages, exactly as Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge intended.

“It’s not a very competitive business, and that’s one of the reasons that we have these challenges with customer service today,” Gray told the crowd. “We have had very, very poor technical service, very poor customer service and price increases with no notice. No one should have to scrub their monthly bills for hidden fees.”

The city’s only recourse is to fine Charter or revoke its franchise. But with the cable industry being largely deregulated, local officials have little bite to deliver after a bark. Fines can be appealed in court and there are no significant examples in recent history where a community revoked a cable franchise and found another company willing to enter another operator’s traditional service area.

WKYT-TV in Lexington covered last week’s public meeting on Charter Communications’ service in Kentucky. (1:21)

YouTube TV Reaches 50% of U.S. With Addition of 14 New Markets

Phillip Dampier August 17, 2017 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video, YouTube TV 3 Comments

YouTube TV, an online streaming alternative to cable television, now reaches 50% of U.S. residents after the company introduced local TV service in 14 new markets.

The latest additions allow customers to view most local ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC stations as part of their subscription. But YouTube TV has not yet signed agreements with all of those station owners, so some cities will continue to have only on-demand access to FOX network shows for the time being.

The newest cities added:

  • Florida: Jacksonville (inc. Brunswick, Ga.), Tampa-St. Petersburg, Sarasota, West Palm Beach-Ft. Pierce
  • Kentucky: Louisville
  • Maryland: Baltimore
  • Massachusetts: Boston
  • Nevada: Las Vegas
  • Ohio: Columbus, Cincinnati
  • Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh
  • Tennessee: Memphis, Nashville
  • Texas: San Antonio
  • Washington: Seattle, Tacoma

The service costs $35 a month and includes a feature-limited DVR, which in certain cases does not allow customers to fast-forward past commercials. The service also recently added two new channels to its lineup: Tennis Channel, and for Boston-area residents only: NESN, a regional sports network.

An additional 17 markets are expected to be online before the end of summer:

  • Alabama: Birmingham
  • California: San Diego
  • Connecticut: Hartford, New Haven
  • Colorado: Denver
  • Indiana: Indianapolis
  • Michigan: Battle Creek, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo
  • Missouri: Kansas City, St. Louis
  • North Carolina: Triad Region (Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem), Raleigh-Durham
  • Ohio: Akron, Cleveland
  • Oklahoma: Oklahoma City
  • Pennsylvania: Harrisburg, Lancaster, Lebanon, York
  • Texas: Austin
  • Utah: Salt Lake City
  • Virginia: Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth
  • Wisconsin: Milwaukee

Stop the Cap!’s Net Neutrality Comments to FCC

July 17, 2017

Marlene H. Dortch, Secretary
Federal Communications Commission
Office of the Secretary
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554

Dear Ms. Dortch,

Stop the Cap! is writing to express our opposition to any modification now under consideration of the 2015 Open Internet Order.

Since 2008, our all-volunteer consumer organization has been fighting against data caps, usage-based billing and for Net Neutrality and better broadband service for consumers and businesses in urban and rural areas across the country.

Providing internet access has become a bigger success story for the providers that earn billions selling the service than it has been for many consumers enduring substandard service at skyrocketing prices.

It is unfortunate that while some have praised Clinton era deregulatory principles governing broadband, they may have forgotten those policies were also supposed to promote true broadband competition, something sorely lacking for many consumers.

As a recent Deloitte study[1] revealed, “only 38 percent of homes have a choice of two providers offering speeds of at least 25Mbps. In rural communities, only 61 percent of people have access to 25Mbps wireline broadband, and when they do, they can pay as much as a 3x premium over suburban customers.”

In upstate New York, most residents have just one significant provider capable of meeting the FCC’s 25Mbps broadband standard – Charter Communications. In the absence of competition, many customers are complaining their cable bills are rising.[2]

Now providers are lobbying to weaken, repeal, or effectively undermine the 2015 Open Internet Order, and we oppose that.

We have heard criticisms that the 2015 Order’s reliance on Title II means it is automatically outdated because it depends on enforcement powers developed in the 1930s for telephone service. Notwithstanding the fact many principles of modern law are based on an even older document – the Bill of Rights, the courts have already informed the FCC that the alternative mechanisms of enforcement authority that some seem motivated to return to are inadequate.

In a 2-1 decision in 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit ruled:

“Given that the Commission has chosen to classify broadband providers in a manner that exempts them from treatment as common carriers, the Communications Act expressly prohibits the Commission from nonetheless regulating them as such. Because the Commission has failed to establish that the anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules do not impose per se common carrier obligations, we vacate those portions of the Open Internet Order.”[3]

In fact, the only important element of the pre-2015 Open Internet rules that survived that court challenge was a disclosure requirement that insisted providers tell subscribers when their internet service is being throttled or selected websites are intentionally discriminated against.

Unfortunately, mandatory disclosure alone does not incent providers to cease those practices in large sections of the country where consumers have no suitable alternative providers to choose from.

Reclassifying broadband companies as telecommunications services did not and has not required the FCC to engage in rate regulation or other heavy-handed oversight. It did send a clear message to companies about what boundaries were appropriate, and we’ve avoided paid prioritization and other anti-consumer practices that were clearly under consideration at some of the nation’s top internet service providers.

In fact, the evidence the 2015 Open Internet Order is working can be found where providers are attempting to circumvent its objectives. One way still permitted to prioritize or favor selected traffic is zero rating it so use of preferred partner websites does not count against your data allowance.[4] Other providers intentionally throttle some video traffic, offering not to include that traffic in your data allowance or cap.[5] Still others are placing general data caps or allowances on their internet services, while exempting their own content from those caps.[6]

Our organization is especially sensitive to these issues because our members are already paying high internet bills with no evidence of any rate reductions for usage-capped internet service. In fact, many customers pay essentially the same price whether their provider caps their connection or not. It seems unlikely consumers will be the winners in any change of Open Internet policies. Claims that usage caps or paid prioritization policies benefit consumers with lower prices or better service are illusory. One thing is real: the impact of throttled or degraded video content which can be a major deterrent for consumers contemplating disconnecting cable television and relying on cheaper internet-delivered video instead.

Arguments that broadband investment has somehow been harmed as a result of the 2015 Order are suspect, if only because much of this research is done at the behest of the telecom industry who helped underwrite the expense of that research. Remarkably, similar claims have not been made by executives of the companies involved in their reports to investors. Those companies, mostly publicly-traded, have a legal obligation to report materially adverse events to their shareholders, yet there is no evidence the 2015 Order has created a significant or harmful drag on investment.

In a barely regulated broadband duopoly, where no new significant competition is likely to emerge in the next five years (and beyond), FCC oversight and enforcement is often the only thing protecting consumers from the abuses inherent in that non-competitive market. Preserving the existing Open Internet rules without modification is entirely appropriate and warranted, and has not created any significant burdens on providers that continue to make substantial profits selling broadband service to consumers.

Transferring authority to an overburdened Federal Trade Commission, not well versed on telecom issues and with a proven record of taking a substantial amount of time before issuing rulings on its cases, would be completely inappropriate and anti-consumer.

Therefore, Stop the Cap!, on behalf of our members, urges the FCC to retain the 2015 Open Internet Order as-is, leaving intact the Title II enforcement foundation.

Respectfully yours,

Phillip M. Dampier
Founder and Director

Footnotes:

[1] https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/consulting/articles/communications-infrastructure-upgrade-deep-fiber-imperative.html#1

[2] “Thousands of Time Warner Cable Video Customers Flee Spectrum’s Higher Prices.” (http://bit.ly/2tjHJ8f); “Lexington’s Anger at Spectrum Cable Keeps Rising. What Can We Do?” (http://www.kentucky.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/tom-eblen/article160754069.html)

[3] http://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/3AF8B4D938CDEEA685257C6000532062/$file/11-1355-1474943.pdf

[4] https://cdn3.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/7575775/Letter_to_R._Quinn_12.1.16.0.pdf

[5] https://www.t-mobile.com/offer/binge-on-streaming-video.html

[6] http://www.chicagotribune.com/bluesky/technology/ct-data-cap-policies-20151214-story.html

Lexington City Council, Public Ready to Roast “Spawn of Satan” Spectrum Over the Coals

Finally, a cable company that can bring everyone together, regardless of gender, age, color, or socio-economic status. Rich or poor, urban or suburban, everybody in Lexington, Ky. agrees on one thing: they hate Charter Spectrum.

Tom Eblen from the Lexington Herald Leader savaged the cable company that has alienated so many locals, the city council is looking for a bigger venue to hold their first ever performance evaluation of a telecommunications company. There are doubts the meeting, scheduled for Aug. 24 at the new senior center in Idle Hour Park (seating for 800+), is big enough to accommodate a crowd bearing pitchforks and lit torches.

Lexington chief administrative officer Sally Hamilton tried to keep things sober at the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council work session held last week.

“We have been receiving numerous complaints,” Hamilton said.

Locals have accused Spectrum of being the “spawn of Satan” and are shocked and surprised by how much they miss Time Warner Cable, something few thought could be possible.

Since the “shameful ones” took over, customers are furious about channels that disappear without notice, failing equipment, and enormous lines at the remaining cable stores still open to accept equipment exchanges. Since Charter Communications took control of Time Warner Cable, internet speeds are reportedly dropping while bills are skyrocketing.

As Eblen notes, “It’s like the old days of Ma Bell, which comedian Lily Tomlin, as Ernestine the telephone operator, famously satirized in the 1970s: ‘We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company.'”

The best word to describe local customers’ feelings for their new cable company: contempt.

Some city officials are getting close to agreeing after learning Spectrum is abruptly and unilaterally moving the community’s local public access channels to TV Siberia, where almost no customer is likely to find them:

  • GTV3, used to broadcast city government meetings, is leaving Channel 3 and moving to Channel 185.
  • Fayette County Public Schools will lose Channel 13 and find themselves on Channel 197.
  • The University of Kentucky’s Channel 16 is relocating to Channel 184.

City officials spent money branding and promoting GTV3, which apparently will soon be GTV185, where only the most dedicated channel surfer will likely find it. The city claims Spectrum is thumbing its nose at its franchise agreement. Charter executives know well cities are practically powerless to intervene or have any significant say about how cable companies operate within their borders. Deregulation gives the city very few options to keep Spectrum in line. Officials also admit there is no chance another cable operator will agree to provide service in the area, effectively trapping the community with Charter indefinitely.

All the city can do about the channel repositioning is ask for money from Charter to help pay for rebranding the channel. Lexington officials are requesting $20,000, as per the terms of the franchise agreement. Charter hasn’t sent the check.

“That performance evaluation will allow the public to air their differences,” Hamilton said. “We do not have a lot of rights under the franchise agreement, but we can demand respect.”

It doesn’t seem likely Charter will be a hurry to provide it.

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