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Comcast Screw Up Forces Washington Man to Sell His New Home; Quoted Him $60,000 Installation Fee

MasterMap_Oct2012A Washington state man who just moved into his new home is now being forced to consider selling it to somebody else because Comcast repeatedly misled him about its ability to provide service.

Seth told his extensive story to The Consumerist, which detailed his repeated attempts to get Comcast broadband service after multiple missed or unfinished service appointments. More importantly, Seth is representative of many Americans who have been told broadband is a fiercely competitive industry, yet they cannot sign up for service at a reasonable price from any provider.

For Seth, having reliable broadband service is not just a convenience — it is essential if he wants to stay employed. Before even considering making an offer on his new home in Kitsap County, Seth did his homework verifying Comcast provided service in the neighborhood. Comcast repeatedly assured him it did, and one sales rep confirmed a former resident at the same address had Comcast service. Seth was satisfied, bought the home and called to get Comcast service installed. But when a Comcast crew arrived Jan. 31, they quickly discovered there was no cable line strung to Seth’s property. That isn’t typically a deal-breaker and the techs completed a “drop bury request” that would normally result in the arrival of a Comcast cable burial crew to bring service from a nearby utility pole. Not this time.

Comcast determined the same home that its own sales rep promised used to have Comcast service was now suddenly too far away from Comcast’s infrastructure. If it decided to offer Seth service, the company quoted an installation fee approaching $60,000.

Seth consulted the FCC’s Broadband Map which depicted Kitsap County a veritable paradise of competition, with at least 10 providers fighting for his business. But Seth quickly realized the FCC’s map was misleading and inaccurate.

comcast whoppersFour of his options were wireless carriers that don’t provide a strong signal to his home or charge obscenely high prices for usage capped Internet access. ViaSat was on the list promising up to 25Mbps, but ViaSat satellite customers can testify the actual speeds received are much slower, and do not reliably support the VPN access Seth required.

Neither Comcast or CenturyLink offer broadband service to Seth, despite the fact both told the FCC they did for the purpose of its map. StarTouch uses microwave signals to reach its customers, but not in Seth’s part of Kitsap County. It seems someone put up a large building in between StarTouch’s transmission facilities and Seth’s home, blocking the service for a significant part of the county.

XO Communications does provide reliable T1 service to businesses at speeds from 1.544Mbps – 6Mbps. The biggest downside is its cost — $600 a month. Finally, Seth’s only other alternative is a gigabit fiber network run by the Kitsap Public Utility District. But cable companies like Comcast effectively lobbied to guarantee those types of networks would never be a competitor by pushing for laws that forbid retail service to individual homes or businesses. In Washington, the law only allows the utility district to sell wholesale access to its network to companies like… Comcast.

In the end, Comcast decided it wasn’t interested in serving Seth even if he found the $60,000 to cover the installation fee. CenturyLink shrugged its shoulders over why it isn’t offering DSL in Seth’s neighborhood. Seth is preparing to put his home back on the market. It’s a perfect choice for Luddites everywhere.

The moral of the story?

  • Comcast is not always forthcoming and honest when signing up customers and led Seth through two months of missed appointments and misinformation;
  • The accuracy of the FCC’s broadband availability map is questionable.

California Delays Consideration of Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger, Charter Realignment Until May

comcastbuy_400_241Californians get a reprieve from the menacing Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger with an announcement from the California Public Utilities Commission it is putting further consideration of the merger deal on hold until later this spring.

Consumer groups loudly protested the PUC for holding its single public hearing on the merger in San Francisco, which has been served almost exclusively by Comcast for years. Most of the impact of the merger will be felt in Los Angeles, where Time Warner Cable provides service to around 1.8 million customers. The deal also involves Charter Communications customers in the region, who will also end up as Comcast customers if the deal is approved.

The PUC eventually agreed to hold a meeting in Los Angeles, but then scheduled it for Good Friday. Now it has changed the date for the four-hour public input session to April 14, one day before tax returns are due. No specific information about the time of the meeting could be located on the CPUC website, but we do know it will be held in the auditorium of the Public Utilities Commission’s building at 320 West 4th St. in downtown Los Angeles.

That the CPUC seems to be heading towards approving the deal does not come as much of a surprise. The CPUC has been surprisingly friendly to the communications companies it regulates, in the past approving questionable statewide video franchise reforms on behalf of AT&T and generally permitting most of the merger and consolidation transactions that arrive at the commission for review.

An advising administrative law judge attached a long list of recommended temporary conditions that should be included in any approval, covering everything from lobbying about municipal broadband to discount Internet service for the poor. Although Comcast claims it is willing to accept many of the short-term conditions, it also signaled objections to some of the most significant requirements, a potential sign Comcast might exercise its legal options in the future to be rid of the deal’s most onerous conditions.

Independent consumer groups not financially aligned with the cable industry are almost universally opposed to the merger as are many Californians.

Comcast Charging Some Customers Modem Gateway Rental Fees for Customer-Owned Equipment

comcastAfter a year-end customer audit, some Comcast customers report they are now being notified by the cable company they were not charged modem rental fees in error even though they previously purchased their own equipment.

“Late last year, I received a form letter from them notifying me that they had noticed that I wasn’t being billed for the modem they claimed they were renting to me,” wrote a Reddit contributor. “An hour-long phone call with four representatives later, the $8 charge was removed. However, it seems that since they increased the modem rental fee to $10 per month, they’ve brought my modem back into their flock.”

He isn’t alone.

Another customer found Comcast still billing him for a modem he returned to Comcast three months earlier.

“I’m now on my third month where I had to call, get a refund, and get a promise it won’t happen again,” wrote another Comcast customer.

The customer service representative argued the charges were valid, despite the fact the customer went to extraordinary lengths to document the return of the equipment to avoid being charged for it. Instead of claiming the customer never returned the modem, Comcast registered the customer’s newly-purchased modem as Comcast property.

“It shows that modem is with the customer,” said the confused Comcast representative.

“They are that s****y of a company, I saw this coming from a mile away,” said the customer, who recorded the return of Comcast’s modem in a video he made at the local XFINITY store. Despite that effort, he was unprepared for the possibility Comcast would unilaterally adopt his new equipment and claim it as their own.

Watching your Comcast bill like a hawk for unauthorized charges can also get confusing when Comcast keeps changing the name of the fee.

Customers with their own modems should find no charge for modems, gateways, or routers on their bill.

Customers with their own modems should find no charge for modems, gateways, or routers on their bill.

“I had to make three calls, each one more and more frustrating,” another customer complained. “The first was to remove the equipment fee, the equipment fee then morphed into a modem fee [… and the] final call was when the modem fee evolved into a router fee.”

One Comcast customer complained on the company’s own support forum he was charged modem fees for over a year for a modem he purchased himself.

“I have gone through customer service both on the phone and through chat,” complained the customer. “The charge will come off for a month and then get put back on my bill. I even went through Comcast Corporate Escalation and it was removed in October 2014. I went back through my bills and noticed that the charge went back on the very next bill and I have been charged ever since.”

To add insult to injury, Comcast now also bills a “change of service fee” to remove the erroneous charge, only to have it return the following month.

Because Comcast billing errors are so common, still another customer shared some tips on how to prove Comcast customer-owned equipment does not belong to the cable company.

“My advice if you are thinking about buying your own modem is to make sure you file all receipts,” said the customer. “I went through this same runaround with Comcast last year and luckily I still had both the sales receipt from Amazon as well as the Comcast document stating I had turned in my rented modem. It still took a few phone calls and a week or so for them to straighten it out. Pretty ridiculous.”

New York Public Service Commission Delays Decision on Comcast-Time Warner Merger for the 7th Time

ny pscNew York regulators have once again kicked the can down the road, delaying a final decision on the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger for the seventh time.

Pursuant to a request from Department of Public Service staff in the above-referenced matter, Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc. agree to extend the time for action by the Public Service Commission on the Joint Petition, with a final order issued no later than Monday, April 20, 2015.

There is no clear sign why the Public Service Commission has further delayed its final decision, but the merger remains mired in controversy on both the state and federal level. The FCC recently stopped the clock on further consideration of the merger as legal wrangling continues over who gets to see copies of cable programming contracts with Comcast.

A draft report from California regulators recommended approval of the merger in February, but only after dozens of conditions were recommended to protect the public and competition. Final consideration of the merger request may come next week at a general meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission.

 

California Public Utilities Commission Predictably Issues Tentative Approval of Comcast-TWC Merger

cpucWe grant the application of Comcast Corporation (Comcast), Time Warner Cable Inc. (Time Warner), Time Warner Cable Information Services (California), LLC (TWCIS) and Bright House Networks Information Services (California), LLC (Bright House) for approval of the transfer of control of TWCIS and Bright House to Comcast. In addition, we grant the application of Comcast, TWCIS and Charter Fiberlink CA-CCO, LLC (Charter Fiberlink) to transfer a limited number of business customers and associated regulated assets of Charter Fiberlink. — Proposed Decision of California Administrative Law Judge Karl J. Bemesderfer

In a decision widely expected by observers for almost a year, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is poised to conditionally approve the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable with dozens of pages of conditions to appease state politicians, concerned commissioners, and interest groups seeking to protect Californians from the competitive impact of what will easily become the state’s largest cable provider, serving 84% of households.

Administrative Law Judge Karl J. Bemesderfer issued his lengthy “proposed decision” in February, acknowledging the deal’s opponents have proved their contention the merger is not in the interests of Californian consumers, but then recommends approving it anyway:

In more concrete terms, the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner reduces the possibilities for content providers to reach the California broadband market. While the FCC’s pending reworked Net Neutrality rules may mitigate some of this effect, the sheer dominance of Comcast’s post-merger position causes us concern.

Parties have made a convincing showing of the anti-competitive consequences that Comcast’s post-merger market power may have on the deployment of broadband in California, and of anti-competitive harms that would occur in California if the merger is consummated. We are also persuaded by evidence of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program’s weak performance in closing the digital divide in California and fulfilling universal service goals, and thus do not view it as a mitigating factor without additional conditions.

While the protesters and intervenors vigorously assert that we should deny the applications outright, they also urge us, in the alternative, to impose conditions ameliorating the potential harms should we decide that such conditions are within our powers and sufficient to render the resulting transaction not adverse to the public interest.

While we are troubled by the protesters’ and intervenors’ many examples of potential harms that may flow from the merger, we believe that those harms may be mitigated by the imposition of conditions on our approval consistent with our powers under state and federal law.

comcast twcBemesderfer proposes a lengthy list of conditions the cable giant must meet for at least five years after merging, including offering discounted Internet service programs, improve customer service, provide free backup batteries for Comcast phone service, and promise it will stop lobbying against community broadband projects.

But the judge said nothing about Comcast’s runaway rate increases likely in a de facto monopoly environment, its own vice president’s prediction that all Comcast broadband customers will be enrolled in a usage-based billing scheme within five years, and lacks specificity explaining the enforcement measures the CPUC will take against Comcast if it fails to meet the commission’s conditions.

The five-member commission could take up Bemesderfer’s recommendations as early as the end of this month, but is more likely to postpone consideration until later this spring. The commission can adopt, change, or discard Bemesderfer’s recommendations.

Accusations that the CPUC has grown too cozy with the companies it regulates only grew louder after consumer groups complained Bemesderfer bent over backwards trying to get Comcast’s merger deal closer to the concept of “the public interest.” For them, it isn’t nearly close enough.

“To read the recent 100-plus-page decision from the CPUC, you wouldn’t think this proposed merger is good for anyone,” writes Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of Media Alliance, which opposes the deal. “The regulator approved the merger with more than two dozen conditions to mitigate the bad impacts on Californians.”

Rosenberg hints the CPUC is ill-equipped to effectively watch over a multi-billion dollar telecom giant like Comcast. By proposing an ambitious set of requirements the CPUC cannot possibly enforce or defend in court with its current limited budget. Taxpayers may have to dig deep to cover legal bills likely to pile up in Sacramento if Comcast decides to rid itself of CPUC meddling in the courts. Comcast has already announced strenuous objections to at least 20 of the 25 conditions Bemesderfer recommends imposing.

Image courtesy: cobalt123

Comcast to California: Hey, slow down a moment. We don’t like your pre-conditions.

Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin chronicles Comcast’s objections in a convenient clickable format:

The table of contents of Comcast’s 46-page report gives a sense of just how much the cable company disagrees with California’s proposed conditions. Here are the main bullet points as written in Comcast’s argument; we’ve added hyperlinks and additional text in italics to further explain the requirements and Comcast’s objections:

The proposed decision improperly expands the scope of the proceeding beyond the commission’s jurisdiction and authority.

  • The proposed decision would impose sweeping common carrier utility type regulation on the merged entity’s broadband and VoIP services in derogation of federal and state law.
  • Other conditions in the proposed decision exceed the commission’s authority or are otherwise unlawful. [According to Comcast, these conditions include requirements related to Lifeline phone service, diversity, website design standards, backup batteries, video programming, non-interference with competing voice services, buildout requirements, opposition to municipal broadband projects, and privacy complaints.]

The proposed decision adopts intervenors’ [merger opponents] flawed analyses and claims regarding market share and competition.

  • The transaction will not increase market power or reduce consumer choice.
  • The FCC’s new definition of “advanced telecommunications capability” has no relevance to this proceeding. [The Federal Communications Commission recently said that Internet service must provide at least 25Mbps download speeds and 3Mbps upload to qualify as broadband or “advanced telecommunications capability.” That decision increased Comcast’s “broadband” market share to 56 percent nationwide.]
  • Concerns regarding future overbuilding are baseless and unsupported by the record. [The question here is whether Comcast and Time Warner Cable would ever compete against each other directly if they cannot merge.]
  • The transaction presents no risk to edge providers [companies that deliver content and applications over the Internet], the highly competitive internet backbone, or consumers’ access to broadband content.

Other factual findings in the proposed decision are invalid and do not support the suggested conditions.

  • TWC is not a “policy competitor” to Comcast. [The California judge’s proposal said TWC is a “policy competitor” to Comcast because it has different positions and business models. “For example, Time Warner has applied to the Commission to offer Lifeline as a tariffed service, while Comcast has not,” the judge wrote.]
  • Mandatory diversity measures are unnecessary. [Comcast says California’s requirements amount to mandatory race-based quotas that violate state law and the US Constitution.]
  • Concerns regarding Comcast’s battery backup program and other network safety issues are based on inaccurate assertions.
  • The transaction will not harm wholesale offerings.
  • Internet Essentials is successful by any objective metric and the program’s extension to TWC and Charter areas will provide substantial public interest benefits. [Internet Essentials is a low-cost Internet service for the poor that Comcast was required to create in exchange for approval of its 2011 acquisition of NBCUniversal. California wants Comcast to expand program eligibility further than Comcast is willing to. Comcast objects to a requirement to double download speeds from 5Mbps to 10Mbps. California also wants Comcast to achieve a 45 percent adoption rate among eligible consumers, which Comcast says is an unrealistic goal.]
  • The proposed decision imposes unlawful rate and performance regulations based on inaccurate assumptions about TWC services and is in all events unjustified. [California wants Comcast to offer standalone broadband service for five years at prices not exceeding those charged by Time Warner Cable.]
  • The proposed decision adopts incorrect data regarding Comcast’s quality of service and network safety and reliability.
  • The “benchmark” competition theory adopted in the proposed decision is refuted by the record evidence. [California proposes an annual report requirement because the merger would eliminate the commission’s ability to compare reliability, customer service, prices, and service offerings of Comcast and TWC.]
  • Other suggested conditions are unauthorized and unnecessary. [This section further covers a requirement to not interfere with voice services. Comcast says “it is unnecessary because Comcast does not interfere with voice services or degrade customers’ ability to complete calls.” This section also addresses a website accessibility requirement, which Comcast says is unnecessary because the company “already offers a comprehensive and user-friendly website that benchmarks to best practices for website accessibility.”]

Rosenberg argues a merger like Comcast and Time Warner Cable should have been easy to reject just on the basis of its size and scope.

“Economists use a scale called the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index to measure the level of concentration in a market,” Rosenberg said. “Anything with an HHI increase of more than 200 points is likely to enhance market power. The HHI increase for the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable is a 4,927-point increase in the fixed broadband market.”

In plain English, “California customers have nowhere to run,” Rosenberg writes. “If they had a choice, many of Comcast’s customers wouldn’t be their customers. If the merger with Time Warner goes through, that choice is about to get a whole lot worse.”

Instead of accommodating a merger proposal that seems clearly the opposite of the public interest, Rosenberg suggest an easier alternative.

“If something takes two dozen onerous conditions to prevent significant damage, then maybe the public is better off without it,” Rosenberg writes. “On March 26, the commission will vote on the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. A million conditions can’t make this a good enough deal. There comes a time to just say no.”

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