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Corruption? Massachusetts Giving Preferential Treatment, Taxpayer Dollars to Charter/Spectrum

The head of a state-funded group with direct ties to the Massachusetts governor’s office told local officials in New Marlborough that the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) “believes in cable companies” and is favoring one — Charter Communications, with an exclusive offer to invest millions in taxpayer dollars to entice Charter to bring its Spectrum cable service to town, while telling would-be competitors the money is only available to Charter Communications.

MBI was created in 2008, originally tasked with investing $50 million in state funds to help resolve the digital divide between eastern and western Massachusetts. MBI also manages the publicly owned, middle mile fiber optic network that towns in western Massachusetts are depending on as part of their plans to connect local residents to the internet.

In 2015, MBI suddenly yanked support for WiredWest, the region’s most robust and credible player in connecting residential homes and businesses. The group had spent several years organizing and educating some two dozen largely rural communities, and was well on its way to constructing a public broadband network for the towns that agreed to sign on to the project. Since 2015, a series of political disputes, bureaucracy, and confusion has stalled broadband expansion.

Peter Larkin, MBI’s board chairman, has been roundly criticized in many western Massachusetts communities for continuing MBI’s slow and cumbersome bureaucracy, frequent policy shifts, and most recently playing favorites with cable companies. Ignoring his own organization’s systemic failures and bureaucratic roadblocks, Larkin has recently leveraged community frustration with the slow pace of progress as an excuse to hand two of the nation’s largest cable operators public taxpayer dollars to complete a project MBI was directly responsible for stalling.

Larkin

Under the latest proposal, outlined last Friday, Charter Communications would receive $3.1 million to expand Spectrum cable service to at least 96% of the community of New Marlborough. Originally, the town was responsible for $1.44 million in cost sharing with the state, a substantial sum for a community with a population just over 1,500 residents. Larkin last week offered to split the cost to the town, with the town’s share reduced to $720,000 — payable directly to Charter.

“The state is willing to cut the gap in half to make this project go,” Larkin said.

But that deal appears to be good only if the town selects Charter Communications. Over the last year, MBI has been allocating public taxpayer dollars towards private cable and phone companies, especially Comcast and Charter, to get the companies to agree to expand their cable systems in areas both have ignored for decades. WiredWest’s proposal made towns partners in the project. Larkin’s offer suggests taxpayers should pay up to 50% of the expansion costs, while Charter keeps 100% of the revenue and profits.

In the past, MBI’s financial carrots have been enough to get the two cable companies to expand using state matching funds alone, but as the town’s Broadband Committee Chairman Richard Long told the Berkshire Eagle after the meeting, he thinks this is the first time an unserved town in central or western Massachusetts will have to contribute local taxpayer funds as well just to get service from a cable company.

Larkin’s hard sell for Charter raised eyebrows among some in the town, especially after Larkin offered to use state funds to also finance their $720,000 portion of the deal over as much as a decade. Larkin claimed he wanted to get the project done and wanted to be helpful.

“The state may spend moneys or engage in other activities that benefit or incentivize private businesses in order to promote such [economic] development and it may authorize or partner with its cities and towns to do likewise,” Larkin recently wrote in a letter to towns offering to help them get negotiations going with the cable companies.

Town resident Dave Travis called Larkin’s offer something else.

“Call me a whistleblower, concerned citizen, activist for fairness, justice and democracy, but for Massachusetts Broadband Institute to show such blatant preferential treatment [to Charter] when there are qualified, experienced local options feels like corruption, and it needs some serious daylight,” Travis wrote.

WiredWest’s Tim Newman exposed just how far Larkin was willing to go to bat for Charter.

“Is the generosity you’re presenting to our town on behalf of Charter the same generosity if the town were to build its own network?” he asked Larkin.

“We do believe in the cable companies … we think it’s a value worth leaning in a little bit harder for,” he said, suggesting Charter has the financial ability to complete the project.

“So, the short answer is ‘no’ — the $720,000 would not be available?” Newman pressed.

“No,” Larkin answered.

Renting? You May Lose “Free” Spectrum Cable TV Over Contract Disputes

Phillip Dampier March 28, 2018 Charter Spectrum, Competition, Consumer News, Video No Comments

No TV for you until you sign here.

Charter Communications is asking owners of apartment complexes, nursing homes, independent living/assisted care residences, and hotel and motel owners to sign new agreements allowing Spectrum to lock owners into a 10-year contract that includes a provision allowing retroactive rate increases and a requirement to turn over personal information on every resident to the cable company.

A number of apartment complexes bundle “free cable TV” into the lease as a selling point for renters. Others pay a discounted rate that is part of a resident’s monthly rent payment or service fee. These agreements are part of the murky world of “bulk service contracts” for cable service, and disputes between a property owner and Spectrum can cause the loss of cable service for every resident without warning.

Most of the disputes involve apartment complexes, assisted-living facilities, and hotels/motels formerly served by Time Warner Cable. Most are still under relatively short-term contracts with Time Warner Cable, which was acquired in 2016 by Charter Communications. Good Shepherd Fairview Nursing Home in Binghamton, N.Y. and Good Shepherd Communities, a senior living center in Endwell, N.Y., are good examples.

Mike Keenan has been involved in long-term senior care for 30 years, and over that time he has negotiated hundreds of contracts. But as WICZ in Binghamton reports, nothing prepared him for dealing with Spectrum and Charter Communications.

Good Shepherd Village is a senior living center in Endwell, N.Y.

Charter is using its ongoing digital conversion program as a tool to force “bulk contract” holders to sign new agreements with Charter Communications, often replacing still-valid contracts with Time Warner Cable. Many are not happy about the new terms Charter is offering, particularly one that locks them in with Spectrum service for the next decade and another that allows the cable company to raise rates retroactively.

Those unwilling to sign new contracts have been threatened with service being shut off, usually as digital conversion and TV signal encryption reaches their area, which requires new equipment to keep watching. Those complex owners that still refuse to sign are required to share each tenant’s personal details and address with the cable company.

“Spectrum had taken the position that even though we had a contract in force until December 2018 that we needed to sign a new contract immediately,” said Keenan, president and CEO of Good Shepherd Communities. “If not, they threatened that we would lose service at our Good Shepherd Fairview in Binghamton location and our Good Shepherd Villages at our Endwell location.”

Charter was true to its word. Efforts to negotiate obtaining digital adapters or set-top boxes under the old Time Warner Cable contract failed and with no warning, all 161 nursing home residents at Good Shepherd Fairview lost their cable television on Feb. 27. Two weeks later, 264 residents at Good Shepherd Village — the senior living center — also lost their television and internet service.

The loss was devastating to residents, especially at the nursing home.

“Many of the residents are frail, some of them may be bedridden and their TV means everything to them,” Keenan said.

Keenan’s contract with Time Warner Cable was still valid, and its terms made it clear as long as Good Shepherd kept their payments current, they were owed service that Charter ultimately took away from hundreds of residents.

Apartment complex owners around the country are reviewing new contracts from Charter Communications and many are dropping “free cable TV” after decades of offering the service as an amenity included in the rent. Many who are ending their contracts believe a growing number of tenants neither need or want traditional cable service.

The deal-breaker for many is Charter’s insistence on offering a bulk discount only if the entire building signs up for service, which means owners will have to pay out-of-pocket for Spectrum service in vacant units or in apartments where the tenant has service with another provider.

WICZ in Binghamton, N.Y. reports Charter Communications used nursing home residents as pawns to force the hand of a nursing home manager to sign a new Spectrum contract, even though the current one with Time Warner Cable has not expired. (3:11)

Keenan

“Let’s say you’re paying for Spectrum” – the brand name for Charter’s service – “for 100 percent of the units,” attorney Tara Snow, a partner at Novitt, Sahr & Snow, told Habitat. “You may have 90 or 95 percent of the apartments signing up, but you always have some units that don’t.”

That leaves someone on the hook, either tenants or the property owner, to pay for cable service that nobody is watching. Under Time Warner Cable just a few years ago, the cable company would pay a co-op, condo association, or apartment owner an upfront cash bonus and ongoing “revenue-share fees” for getting a majority of residents — but not all — to sign up for service. It also allowed the company to market holdouts door to door.

No such luck with Charter, which wants to be paid for every unit no matter who is at home. For property owners staying loyal to Spectrum, some are absorbing the extra costs while others pass them on to tenants as part of their rent or monthly maintenance/service surcharges. A few are trying cost sharing arrangements that divide up the total bill equally among all tenants. But as younger renters move in and increasingly show no interest in cable television, the dwindling number who have cable are paying more and more to cover those that don’t.

“People are cord-cutting,” says Brian Scally, vice president of Garthchester Realty, a management firm. “Most people who still want cable want to select their own cable/internet/telephone provider.”

Of the 64 properties he manages, Scally told Habitat fewer than a dozen have signed up for a bulk rate, and those deals were signed years ago.

“I haven’t brought anybody new to bulk rate,” he says.

The other deal breaker for many is Spectrum’s 10-year contract, which locks owners in with a cable company a lot of tenants despise.

As a result, a growing number of apartment complexes and condos are terminating their bulk cable contracts as they expire, and have no intention of renewing under Charter’s draconian terms. Affected tenants are informed the “free” cable television they were receiving is ending and they should make individual arrangements with Spectrum to maintain service going forward.

Hotel and motel owners are also finding fault with Charter Communications, and some are taking their disputes to the Federal Communications Commission.

Yvonne Peach, who owns the Historic Coronado Motor Hotel in Yuma, Ariz., says dealing with Charter has been a nightmare since the merger.

After Charter converted commercial Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers to Spectrum plans and pricing, she lost service to all of her motel rooms for more than a week.

Historic Coronado Motor Hotel – Yuma, Ariz. (Image courtesy of owner)

“When they did the change over we didn’t have any cable TV in the hotel for 12 days,” Peach told KYMA-TV.

Spectrum advised her best solution would be to install leased set-top boxes in the hotel’s 126 rooms, a solution she claims caused even more problems. It seems Spectrum’s equipment doesn’t appreciate Yuma’s southwest Arizona heat, and the boxes regularly fail when air conditioning is switched off in unoccupied rooms.

“We’ve had over 100 of them replaced probably in the last I don’t how many months,” she said. “It’s a box that if the room isn’t rented every night it becomes deactivated.”

Those paying to stay in the motel are not happy to reach their rooms and find the television isn’t working either.

“We’ve lost thousands of dollars with people that would move out because of no TV in their room,” Peach said. “It comes and it will say dial an 800 number or something. But you know the guest. They are paying a certain amount for the room and they’re not going to call.”

KYMA-TV in Yuma, Ariz. reports Charter told this hotel owner her cable boxes were not working because they are not being kept air-conditioned. (2:29)

Spectrum ignores her complaints, she claims, transferring her from call center to call center in search of a solution. She finally took her complaint to the FCC, something she does not think should be required after paying the company $1,600 a month for cable television.

In response, Spectrum blamed the lack of air conditioning for its box failures, in addition to the “relocation of the digital adapters by hotel staff, which are dedicated to a particular room on the account.”

In other words, if you move equipment between hotel rooms, Spectrum claims that equipment will deauthorize. Spectrum effectively wants motel guests placed in rooms where their cable equipment is still functioning, preferably where air conditioning is left running.

“If you’ve been driving all day and you get in your pajamas and you’re ready for bed and you’re watching TV and the TV doesn’t work, do you want to move to another room without complaining? No, nobody does,” said Peach.

In upstate New York, heat isn’t a significant problem, but having a bulk account representative in Rochester, 2.5 hours away by car from Binghamton is. The representative did not understand Binghamton and Endwell are two different communities about seven miles apart.

“This whole thing could have been avoided,” Keenan said. He called the New York Public Service Commission to complain and within a day multiple Spectrum trucks arrived loaded with set-top boxes — one per residence, potentially finally resolving the dispute, but not the bad feelings that emerged as a result.

“Time Warner Cable was saying ‘we need our customers,’” Keenan said. “The experience I have had with Spectrum is Spectrum is saying ‘you need me.’”

WICZ-TV follows up the next day with this report explaining why it is important to stay wary of cable companies offering long contracts. (1:09)

U.S. Broadband Growth Slowing – 2.1 Million New Connections in 2017 (2.7 Million in 2016)

Phillip Dampier March 13, 2018 Consumer News No Comments

Broadband growth is slowing in the United States as internet service providers have an increasingly hard time finding new subscribers who do not already have internet service in their homes and businesses.

In 2017, telecom companies attracted 2.1 million new customers, in contrast to 2.7 million in 2016.

Leichtman Research Group reports that among 14 ISPs which control 95% of the U.S. market, cable companies are about the only ones still growing, mostly at the expense of their phone company competitors. Cable companies now provide access for 61.2 million customers, representing almost two-thirds of the market. Phone companies continue to lose market share but still have 33.9 million internet customers.

Some statistics:

Cable Companies

  • Charter Communications was the marketplace leader in broadband net additions, picking up 1.3 million new internet access customers in 2017. Spectrum is the second largest broadband provider in the country, with 23.9 million customers.
  • Comcast retained its position as the country’s largest provider, picking up an additional 1.2 million internet access customers in 2017. It now serves 25.9 million broadband customers.
  • Altice, which operates as Cablevision/Optimum and Suddenlink, saw particularly weak growth in 2017, adding only 83,700 customers.
  • Mediacom added 47,000 new internet customers to its roster of 1.2 million current customers and WOW picked up 11,100 new broadband subscribers last year.

Phone Companies

  • Only AT&T added net new customers in 2017, picking up 114,000 new subscribers to add to its 15,719,000 current internet customers.
  • Verizon lost 79,000 customers and is down to just short of seven million subscribers.
  • CenturyLink lost 283,000 customers and is now down to 5,662,000 customers.
  • Frontier dropped 333,000 customers from its roster of 3.9 million current internet customers.
  • Windstream ended 2017 with 44,500 fewer internet customers, retaining just over one million subscribers.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) Introduces Companion Bill for FAKE Net Neutrality

Sen. Kennedy (R-La.)

Senator John Kennedy (R-La.) today introduced a companion bill that broadly copies an industry-favoring, fake net neutrality protection bill introduced last year in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).

The Open Internet Preservation Act is essentially the Senate version of Blackburn’s House bill, bringing along all the major flaws and industry favoritism one expects from Blackburn, a notorious defender of large telephone and cable companies and a favorite target for their campaign contributions.

Blackburn was naturally delighted.

“Sen. Kennedy brings leadership and focus to this discussion of preserving a free and open internet,” Blackburn said in a statement. ” I appreciate his work and his attention to this issue.  Title II 1930s era regulation was a heavy-handed approach that would stifle innovation and investment. This legislation will go a long way toward achieving the goal of protecting consumers.”

Kennedy made sweeping claims about the power of his bill to protect consumers — power not actually in his bill.

“Some cable companies and content providers aren’t going to be happy with this bill because it prohibits them from blocking and throttling web content,” Kennedy said in a statement. “They won’t be able to micromanage your web surfing or punish you for downloading 50 movies each month. This bill strikes a compromise that benefits the consumer.”

Except it won’t. We expect no cable company will oppose a measure that is based largely on the recommendations from the cable industry itself. Nothing in the bill would prohibit Comcast, AT&T, or other companies from “punishing” you for downloading 50 movies each month with a much higher bill as a result of exceeding your data cap and facing punitive overlimit fees.

Read Stop the Cap!’s detailed analysis of Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s net neutrality bill.

Even Kennedy admits his bill isn’t perfect, and considering it is based on a bill introduced by Rep. Blackburn that we analyzed last year, Kennedy is being modest.

“If the Democrats are serious about this issue and finding a permanent solution, then they should come to the table and work with me and Rep. Blackburn on these bills,” said Kennedy. “Does this bill resolve every issue in the net neutrality debate? No, it doesn’t. It’s not a silver bullet. But it’s a good start.”

It’s actually a very bad start, in our view. The industry would like to declare the net neutrality issue ‘settled’ with the passage of a bill it effectively wrote itself.

We urge readers to vehemently oppose both measures, which represent net neutrality in name-only. The best way to find a permanent solution for preserving real net neutrality will come at the next election, when voters can replace lawmakers that represent the interests of big telecom companies over those of their constituents. Allowing either fake net neutrality measure to proceed will make it exponentially more difficult to raise the issue in the future.

Jangling Shiny Keys of Distraction: Pai Claims Twitter, Edge Providers are the Real Threat to Open Internet

Pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has gone all out to defend internet service providers and his plan to jettison Net Neutrality, claiming companies like Twitter and other “edge providers” that offer a platform to a diversity of voices are a much bigger threat to an open internet than companies like AT&T and Comcast.

Speaking at the Future of Internet Freedom conference in Washington, Pai faced down the torrent of criticism that has been expressed about his plans to roll back Title II enforcement of ISPs and Net Neutrality rules that protect internet content from discriminatory behavior. In remarks to the audience, Pai used partisan framing to criticize companies like Twitter that he claims have targeted bans on conservative users who violate its terms and conditions and removes tweets for political reasons.

“Now look, I love Twitter, and I use it all the time,” Pai said. “But let’s not kid ourselves; when it comes to an open internet, Twitter is part of the problem. The company has a viewpoint and uses that viewpoint to discriminate. As just one of many examples, two months ago, Twitter blocked Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) from advertising her Senate campaign launch video because it featured a pro-life message. Before that, during the so-called Day of Action [to preserve Net Neutrality], Twitter warned users that a link to a statement by one company on the topic of internet regulation ‘may be unsafe.’  And to say the least, the company appears to have a double standard when it comes to suspending or de-verifying conservative users’ accounts as opposed to those of liberal users.  This conduct is many things, but it isn’t fighting for an open internet.”

Pai also used additional examples of “edge provider” censorship that he claims targets conservatives far more often than liberals:

  • Apple’s app store bars apps from cigar aficionados as promoting tobacco use
  • YouTube “restricts videos from the likes of conservative commentator Dennis Prager on subjects he considers ‘important to understanding American values.'”
  • Mysterious algorithms target content to specific users but without transparency and disclosure
  • Edge providers champion their own free speech while supporting online censorship at the behest of foreign governments for business reasons.

But Pai’s own statements lacked transparency:

  1. Twitter blocked, then rescinded its block, on one sponsored Tweet from Blackburn that claimed in the ad she ‘stopped the sale of baby body parts.’ Twitter declared the ad was inflammatory and violated Twitter’s advertising standards. Other media fact-checkers were less polite, calling her claim false advertising. “No investigation ever found proof of actual tissue sales. The only criminal charges stemming from the videos were filed against antiabortion activist David Daleiden and another activist in California for violations of privacy. Yet to this day, ‘baby body parts’ remain a rallying cry in conservative and antiabortion circles,” according to a Washington Post story. Twitter’s advertising standards differ from its general code of user conduct.
  2. Apple’s app store does indeed block apps promoting products deemed harmful to users. There is no financial incentive to block these apps, however. The specific language: “Apps that encourage consumption of tobacco products, illegal drugs, or excessive amounts of alcohol are not permitted on the App Store. Apps that encourage minors to consume any of these substances will be rejected. Facilitating the sale of marijuana, tobacco, or controlled substances (except for licensed pharmacies) isn’t allowed.”
  3. Pai suggests YouTube is unfairly restricting Mr. Prager’s videos, but in fact it is only placing advisories on some of his more inflammatory content warning the video may not be suitable for some audiences. YouTube also demonetized certain videos, making them ineligible for pre-roll advertisements, primarily because advertisers do not want to be associated with inflammatory content. But no videos have been censored, blocked, or removed. Anyone can view them by acknowledging the content advisory. Members of the LGBTQ community have also been upset with YouTube for similar actions, so there is scant evidence YouTube’s motives are political and target conservatives.
  4. Pai’s ‘mysterious algorithms’ have existed across the internet for years, including Verizon’s “super cookie” and AT&T that extracted more money from customers to switch off its monitoring and tracking software following customers’ internet usage. Pai was highly instrumental in blocking internet privacy regulations that would have forced the kind of disclosure of practices he suddenly objects to now.
  5. Pai’s claims about American companies caving in to foreign governments’ censorship policies seem to echo his similar 2015 claim that Net Neutrality also helps authoritarian regimes, as long as one interprets Net Neutrality as a “government takeover” of the internet. “If in the United States we adopt regulations that assert more government control over how the internet operates… it becomes a lot more difficult for us to go on the international stage and tell governments: ‘Look, we want you to keep your hands off the internet. Even if the ideas aren’t completely identical, you can appreciate the optical difficult[y] in trying to make that case,” Pai said. But that argument distorts like a fun house mirror. Pai’s declaration that Net Neutrality is a bad thing is based on his premise it would hand the keys to information control to the government to act as gatekeeper. He prefers trusting private companies to be more reliable and safer gatekeepers than the FCC or the Trump Administration. But that argument puts Pai at war with himself, considering his attacks on edge providers — private companies — for bias and censorship. Incidentally and ironically, he raised many of his 2015 objections on RT — the external television service of Russian State Television.

Pai reserved much of his remarks to attack Hollywood celebrities that occasionally inelegantly promote Net Neutrality with inexact language Pai loves to exploit. Among his targets were Mark Ruffalo, who played Hulk, Cher, and George “Sulu” Takei.

Takei

Pai called out Mr. Takei for his suggestion eliminating Net Neutrality would allow internet companies to further monetize the internet by selling additional packages of services to access certain internet content.

“The complaint by Mr. Takei and others doesn’t hold water. They’re arguing that if the plan is adopted, Internet Service Providers would suddenly start doing something that Net Neutrality rules already allow them to do. But the reason that Internet service providers aren’t offering such packages now, and likely won’t offer such packages in the future, is that American consumers by and large don’t want them.”

But of course that didn’t prevent ISPs like Comcast and AT&T to impose data caps on their customers with scant evidence of their necessity and with purely arbitrary allowances. From this regime of data caps, Wall Street analysts push providers to further monetize internet usage to raise revenue to return to shareholders. What customers want has not had much impact on Comcast’s business decisions, as the record on data caps illustrates. The threat of regulation like Net Neutrality enforcement has cooled enthusiasm for these pricing schemes, however, until recently. In April, after Mr. Pai introduced his Net Neutrality repeal plan, Comcast quietly repealed its self-ban on paid prioritization — internet fast lanes.

In a barely competitive marketplace, what customers want may not count for much if they have few, if any alternatives.

Chip Pickering, CEO of INCOMPAS, which includes as member major Silicon Valley edge providers, called Pai’s speech a diversion from the real issues.

“Chairman Pai’s attack on Twitter is like a boxer losing a fight and taking wild and erratic swings,” Pickering said. “Preventing hate speech and bullying behavior online is not the same thing as allowing cable companies to block, throttle and extort money from consumers and the websites they love. Twitter is an amazing platform for left, right and center. Donald Trump might not be President without it, and Chairman Pai’s plan to kill Net Neutrality will put Comcast and AT&T in charge of his Twitter account.”

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