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Comcast Introduces Gigabit DOCSIS 3.1 Broadband in 7 New Cities: $70-109.99/Month

Comcast may be undercutting its own fiber broadband aspirations by introducing a cheaper way for customers to get gigabit broadband service over their existing Comcast cable connection.

Customers in seven new areas, including most of Colorado, Oregon, southwest Washington State, and the cities of Houston, Kansas City, San Francisco and Seattle now have access to Comcast’s DOCSIS 3.1-powered gigabit downloads. (Upload speeds are limited to a much less impressive 35Mbps.)

Comcast announced the new communities as part of their gradual rollout of DOCSIS 3.1 — the standard that powers cable broadband — across their national footprint. These communities join Utah, Detroit, Tennessee, Chicago, Atlanta, and Miami where Comcast has already introduced the new speeds.

It is Comcast’s latest foray into gigabit speed broadband, and it is decidedly focused on the cities outside of the northeast (except Boston) where Comcast has not faced significant competition from Google Fiber or AT&T Fiber, both delivering gigabit speed internet access. Verizon FiOS, predominately in the northeast, only recently introduced gigabit speed options for its residential customers. Comcast continues to be among the most aggressive cable operators willing to boost broadband speeds for its customers, in direct contrast to Charter Communications, the second largest cable operator in the country that is predominately focused on selling 60-100Mbps internet packages to its customers.

Comcast sells multiple broadband speed tiers to its customers.

Comcast’s efforts may undercut its own fiber-on-demand project, which wires fiber to the home service for some Comcast customers seeking up to 2Gbps service. That plan comes with a steep installation fee and term commitment, making it a harder sell for customers. Comcast’s DOCSIS-powered gigabit will retail for $159.95 a month, but Comcast is offering pricing promotions ranging from $70-109.99 a month with a one-year term commitment in several cities. The more competition, the lower the price.

In Kansas City, where Google Fiber premiered and AT&T is wiring its own gigabit fiber, Comcast charges $70 a month, price-locked for two years with a one-year contract. Customers who don’t want a contract will pay dearly for that option — $160 a month, which is more than double the promotional price.

In Houston, where AT&T has not exactly blanketed the city with gigabit fiber service and Comcast has been the dominant cable operator for decades, gigabit speed will cost you $109.99 — almost $40 more a month because of the relative lack of competition. Customers who bundle other Comcast services will get a price break however. Upgrading to gigabit service will cost those customers an additional $50 to $70 a month, depending on their current package.

“Additional prices and promotions may be tested in the future,” the company said in a news release.

Comcast does not expect many customers will want to make the jump to gigabit speeds and a higher broadband bill. Rich Jennings, senior vice president of Comcast’s Western/Mountain region, told the Colorado Springs Gazette that gigabit service was a “niche product for people who want that kind of speed.”

Comcast does suspect a number of signups will be from broadband-only customers who don’t subscribe to cable television.

Mike Spaulding, Comcast’s vice president of engineering, thinks the service will appeal most to those who rely entirely on a broadband connection for entertainment and communications.

“There’s not a lot of need for gigabit service for one customer to do one thing,” Spaulding told the Denver Post. “But what it does is enable an even better experience as more devices in the home are streaming, whether it’s video or gaming or whatever they are doing in the home. Most of our customers subscribe to the 100Mbps package today. Less than 10 percent of our customers are in the 200-250Mbps. We’ll see where one gig takes us.”

One place a gig may take customers is perilously close to Comcast’s notorious 1TB usage cap, which is currently enforced in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Western Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina, Utah, Southwest Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin, even for this premium-priced internet tier. Customers exceeding it will automatically pay a $10 overlimit fee for each 50GB of excess usage, up to a maximum of $200 a month. An unlimited ‘insurance plan’ is also available for $50 a month, which removes the 1TB cap.

Customers will have to use a new modem if they upgrade to gigabit service, either renting one from Comcast for around $10 a month or buying a compatible DOCSIS 3.1 modem. Two of the most recommended: the Arris Surfboard SB8200 ($189) or the Netgear CM1000 ($171.99) (prices subject to change).

Quit Calling Over Here: California Man Sues Charter for Years of Wrong Numbers

pushpollA Los Angeles man has reached the boiling point after two years of telemarketing calls from Charter Communications that turn out to be the result of a wrong number.

William L. McCarthy filed a complaint on Aug. 12 with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California alleging Charter Communications of California LLC has harassed him with telemarketing calls intended for someone else.

McCarthy’s complaint states Charter has calling his phone number to talk to Monique Smith, someone McCarthy doesn’t know. Despite requesting at least 12 times that Charter remove his phone number from their telemarketing lists, the calls just kept on coming with the help of an automatic dialer, in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

McCarthy wants a jury trial, seeks statutory damages, legal fees, and whatever other relief the court finds reasonable.

Charter has an expansive history of aggravating customers with relentless telemarketing calls:

charter spectrum logo2013: “I have never been more harassed by spam telemarketing/calling in my life than from Charter Communications and they already have my business! It’s unbelievable to me how many times they call per week (average of 8 times), never leaving a message, and they only call to “promote an upgrade of my services” every time. They continue to call even after I have asked them multiple times to stop calling me and that I don’t want to upgrade, period. They literally take telemarketing spam to a whole new level. All seven of their numbers that they have tried calling me on (including “unknown”/blocked numbers), I have saved to my phone as “Charter Spam” so I know it’s them calling me and don’t pick up. Only problem is, if you don’t pick up with one number, they’ll continue to call you but from their other 100 numbers.”

From a blog: “As a Charter customer, it’s very annoying to be constantly bombarded by telemarketing calls. Charter is relentless. No matter how much you ask them not to call you, they will continue and the reps are very aggressive. They are exempt from the National Do Not Call Registry because there is a business/customer relationship. At one point, I was contacted 16 times within two weeks from their 909-259-XXXX number. They do change the number that appears on the caller ID. Sometimes I have gotten the 404 area code.”

2014: “I don’t even have their services yet and I have received 19 calls in 5 days. NINETEEN! And, those are only the ones I haven’t answered!”

In late 2015, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster filed a lawsuit in federal court against Charter Communications for violating federal and state telemarketing and No-Call laws. Unwanted telemarketing calls and harassing treatment by telemarketers annually rank highest on the list of complaints received by the Attorney General’s Office. 

His office alone received 350 No-Call complaints about harassing practices by Charter’s telemarketers. Many consumers complained about daily calls from Charter, and some consumers received up to three calls a day. The calls were an attempt to sell Charter’s cable, internet and phone services.

Wurl Network’s New IP-Streaming Cable TV Networks Blur Net Neutrality/Usage Caps

wurlVideo programmers that want to avoid the problem of usage allowances that can deter internet video streaming have a new way to make an end run around Net Neutrality, distributing their content “cap-free” through “virtual cable channels” that are distributed over broadband, but appear like traditional cable TV channels on a set-top box.

This morning, Fierce Cable noted Wurl’s IP-based streaming cable television network platform was here, offering cable operators new cable channels that are actually delivered over the customer’s internet connection. The Alt Channel, Streaming News Network, The Sports Feed and Popcornflix will appear on set-top boxes and onscreen guides like traditional linear cable channels, starting in August. Wurl claims at least 51, mostly small and independent cable operators, have already signed up for the service, which could quickly expand to 10-12 channels in the future. But Multichannel News has confirmed only one partner so far — Fidelity Communications, a small cable operator serving parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.

What makes these channels very different from the other networks on the lineup is that they are delivered over the customer’s internet connection directly into a cable set-top box, and will generally be exempt from any usage allowances or caps providers impose on broadband usage. Wurl acts as a distributor, obtaining content from “popular online studios” that “until now has only been available on computers and mobile devices.” Wurl’s partners can get their content exposed on traditional cable TV to a potentially greater audience, who can watch while not worrying about using up their monthly internet usage allowance.

wurl_channels_brackets_large

The first series of bracketed channels are Wurl-TV broadband based channels, while the second are traditional linear cable networks delivered by RF or QAM. Both integrate seamlessly into the cable set-top box’s on-screen program guide.

Wurl’s unicast approach relies on its own content delivery network to provide one internet stream for each set-top box accessing its programming, which also allows for support of on-demand programming. But every cable customer watching a Wurl channel is effectively streaming video over their internet connection. Cable operators usually blame internet video for consuming most of their available internet bandwidth, necessitating the “need” for usage allowances/caps or usage based billing to manage and pay for bandwidth “fairly.” netneutralityYet Wurl’s networks consume just as much bandwidth as traditional online video. But because Wurl is partnering with cable operators, that content is not subject to the usage caps Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Video customers have to contend with.

Wurl claims its approach is so cable-operator friendly, “there’s no reason to say no,” said Sean Doherty, Wurl’s CEO and co-founder.

Cable operators are offered Wurl channels for free, with no affiliate fees or upfront costs, and no significant technology costs since the channels are distributed direct to the set-top box over broadband, not RF or QAM. A video player is embedded into the virtual cable channel, which allows viewers to pause, rewind, and fast forward programming.

In the future, cable systems are expected to gradually transition to IP-delivery of all of their video content, turning the cable TV line in your home into one giant broadband connection, across which television, internet access, and phone service are delivered.

But cable operators are still making distinctions between services that are gradually becoming different in name only. If a customer watches a Wurl channel over the internet on their desktop, that would count against their usage allowance. But if they watch over a cable-TV set-top box, it won’t, despite the fact the journey the channel takes to reach the viewer is exactly the same. That gives certain content providers an advantage others lack, representing a classic end run around Net Neutrality.

To be fair, that is not a distinction Wurl has made in any of its marketing material, but the fact preferred content can be managed this way is just one more reason the FCC should ban usage caps and usage-based billing on consumer internet accounts. Wurl’s own marketing material tells operators the cost and impact of its video streaming on the cable operator’s existing infrastructure is next to zero… because Wurl’s content comes across broadband platforms already so robust, they can easily accommodate the potential of thousands of viewers all watching Wurl channels without any issues. That reality undermines the cable industry’s own questionable arguments about the need for data caps or usage billing.

Digital Sub-Channels, Cost-Cutting Cause Havoc for Adjacent Market Cable-TV Carriage

wbngTime Warner Cable subscribers in Otsego County, N.Y. have been able to watch WBNG-TV, the CBS affiliate in Binghamton, since there has been a cable company called Time Warner Cable. But as of yesterday, that is no longer the case. In Baxter County, Ark.,  Suddenlink customers suddenly lost KARK (NBC) and KTHV (CBS), two stations from Little Rock, after the cable company decided it would henceforth only carry KYTV (NBC) and KOLR (CBS) instead. Part of the problem for subscribers is those two stations are located in Springfield, Missouri, a different state.

Time Warner Cable wasted no time yanking WBNG off the lineup of their Oneonta and Cooperstown cable systems. WBNG received a letter informing them of the decision on June 16. Two weeks later, the channel was replaced with WKTV from Utica, which is a secondary affiliate of CBS (WKTV has been an NBC affiliate for decades, but through the use of digital subchannels, WKTV has managed to lock down affiliations with CBS, NBC, CW, and Me-TV). Time Warner argues Otsego County is in the Utica television market, such as it is, so there is no reason to spend more to put Binghamton stations on the lineup as well.

Oneonta, N.Y. is located between Binghamton and Utica.

Oneonta, N.Y. is located between Binghamton and Utica.

karkAnother cable company with cost-cutting fever is Altice-owned Suddenlink, which stopped carrying the two Little Rock-based broadcast stations in northern Arkansas on June 7, leaving KATV (ABC) as the only central Arkansas-based news outlet on the cable provider’s Mountain Home-area system.

The decision to drop the two Little Rock channels was made at the corporate level, local employees told The Baxter Bulletin, and the Mountain Home office had no input in that decision and were not allowed to talk about it.

The mayor of Mountain Home sure is, however.

“We’ve had a lot of people calling in, coming by the office,” Mayor Joe Dillard told the newspaper. “Several have been in a couple times. I do not understand why we got two of our main channels in the state taken away.”

An authorized Suddenlink spokesperson finally admitted it was about the money.

“In recent years, local broadcast station owners have begun asking for increasingly larger amounts of money in exchange for allowing us to renew contracts to carry their stations,” said Gene Regan, senior director of corporate communications for Suddenlink. “To help keep down the costs of providing services to our customers, we have made the decision to drop out-of-market stations that duplicate network affiliations with other existing in-market stations.”

That policy has been gradually implemented in a growing number of Suddenlink-served communities, which are often exurban or rural towns located between two larger metropolitan areas. These are the areas most likely to receive multiple network affiliates from different nearby cities.

mountain homeSuddenlink has standing orders from Altice to look for savings wherever possible, but none of those savings are returned to subscribers. The loss of the stations has not reduced anyone’s cable bill and Suddenlink recently moved TBS and INSP — a Christian cable network — to a more costly Expanded Basic tier. In place of the two networks dropped from the Basic package are home shopping networks that actually make Suddenlink money – Evine Live and Jewelry TV.

“I’m disappointed,” Anna Hudson of Bull Shoals told the newspaper. “I have friends in Little Rock, in Batesville. I like to know what’s going on in Arkansas, not in Missouri. It doesn’t help when the Legislature is in session, that will not be covered by the Springfield stations.”

Some of America’s Largest Telecom Companies Are Overbilling You

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

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

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

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

Let’s review how the five companies compare:

Time Warner Cable

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

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

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

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

icoms error

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charter Communications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comcast has bigger problems than overbilling.

Comcast has bigger problems than overbilling.

Comcast

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

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

DirecTV

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

Dish Network

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

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

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

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

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

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

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