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Senate Approves Resolution 52-47 to Nullify Net Neutrality Rollback

Phillip Dampier May 16, 2018 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

The Senate approved a resolution on a largely party line vote Wednesday that sends a symbolic message to the FCC it erred when it voted to repeal net neutrality.

The final vote pitted all 49 Democrats against all but three Senate Republicans to condemn the FCC’s decision to rollback the rules, scheduled to take effect in June. The three Republicans that joined the Democrats in favor of preserving net neutrality were Susan Collins from Maine, Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, and John Kennedy from Louisiana — the latter two a surprise.

“Today is a monumental day,” said Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) during debate over the resolution. “Today we show the American people who sides with them, and who sides with the powerful special interests and corporate donors who are thriving under this administration.”

The measure faces a much tougher fight in the Republican-dominated House, where it may have trouble even coming up for a vote.

Using the Congressional Review Act, a law that permits Congress to revisit — and reject — decisions by federal agencies within 60 “session days” of their approval, Democrats drew a clear line in favor of net neutrality, which may become an issue in the midterm elections if the Republican-controlled House refuses to bring the measure up for a vote. If the measure passes the House, it will require the signature of President Trump to take effect. That may be unlikely, considering the president once claimed net neutrality was a plot by the Obama Administration to gain control of the internet.

Kennedy explained his vote in favor of net neutrality as an issue of trust.

“You either trust your cable company or you don’t,” Kennedy explained. “If you trust your cable company, you won’t like my vote. Under the 2017 order, a cable company can censor, throttle, or employ fast lanes so long as it discloses. The response from the other side of that is, well, just switch cable companies. But 22% of Louisianans and 19% of all Americans have access to only one internet service provider that can provide the minimum FCC mandated speed. So what are they going to do?”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai reiterated his belief net neutrality protections were not needed and would deter investment by cable and telephone companies in their networks, a claim hotly disputed by consumer groups that point to evidence investment rose even after net neutrality took effect.

The issue of keeping the internet free and open remains bipartisan, with wide percentages of Republicans and Democrats in favor of net neutrality. That may put Senate Republicans who voted against the measure and are up for re-election on the hot seat this fall.

NPR:

This issue doesn’t cut along clean party lines, said Steven Kull, who runs the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland and has studied public attitudes on net neutrality. The program’s research has found that majorities of Americans support government-mandated net neutrality protections.

“People are on the Internet a lot and it’s a big part of their daily experience and the prospect that it will be changed in some fundamental way is disturbing to quite a lot of them,” Kull said.

Fear is a great motivator for voters. Senate Democrats believe their resolution that put every Democrat on record in support of net neutrality — and most Republicans on record against it — can turn what was once considered a wonk issue, into a wedge issue this November. “People underestimate the passion of Internet voters, at their peril. They are mad, and they want to know what they can do, and this vote will make things crystal clear,” he said.

Spectrum Satisfaction Ratings Dive on “Take It Or Leave It Pricing” Post Time Warner Cable

Phillip Dampier April 23, 2018 Charter Spectrum, Competition, Consumer News 2 Comments

Charter Communications’ takeover of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks has not proved popular, according to a new survey from Temkin Group.

The cable operator received rock bottom scores among customers frustrated about how Charter handles its acquired customers, especially those facing a transition to Spectrum plans and pricing. Customers have filled the company’s own forums with complaints about rate increases for newly required equipment or cable television plan changes that force customers to upgrade to win back channels deleted from their long-standing Time Warner Cable or Bright House lineups.

Customer dissatisfaction about the changes was picked up in Temkin Group’s 2018 Temkin Experience Ratings, U.S., published in March.

Just 35% of Charter/Spectrum customers were emotionally satisfied after interacting with Spectrum, the third worst performing company among the 318 surveyed across 20 different industries. Spectrum saw a ratings drop of 8.2% from 2017-2018, the worst performance decline among all TV and internet service providers,  according to Temkin’s survey.

Spectrum also scored just 57% on the “effort” metric, which measures how difficult it was to interact with the company to resolve a problem. Only 51% reported satisfaction with the ability of Spectrum to resolve their concern or problem, putting Spectrum on Temkin’s “Bottom 50 Organizations” — 312th best performer out of 318 companies. (Comcast, Cox, and Altice-Optimum actually performed slightly worse.)

Temken explains the root cause for perennially poor ratings of cable and phone companies: they often have a monopoly.

“There are some industries that have habitually poor customer experience,” Temken explains. “In many of the cases, these problem stems from some form of monopolistic power. TV service providers and internet service providers have carved out regions and have limited competition.”

This marks the eighth year Temkin has published its Temkin Experience Ratings, generated from compiling the results of a survey of 10,000 U.S. consumers about their recent interactions with 318 significant U.S. companies. Temkin measures three dimensions of a customer’s experience:

  • Success: To what degree were customers able to accomplish what they wanted to do after a recent interaction with a company.
  • Effort: How easy was it to interact with the company.
  • Emotion: How did the customer feel about those interactions.

The TV/internet service category has stood out in recent years for consistently delivering rock bottom ratings — the worst of Temkin’s surveyed industries. Only health insurance companies come close to the dismal ratings phone and cable companies deliver year after year.

Much of the decline in Spectrum’s rating is attributed to an increase in the negative emotions customers experienced after interacting with the company. In the last year, the company has adopted a much firmer position on pricing and packages that customers criticize as “take it or leave it pricing.” Spectrum also recently scaled up digital television conversion in many legacy Time Warner Cable markets, with many customers paying for new set-top boxes to continue receiving cable television service on all televisions in the home. The company has also frustrated early and enthusiastic adopters of broadband speed upgrades with compulsory upgrade fees as high as $199.

Based on Temkin’s four customer experience core competencies, it seems like Charter is mired at the first stage of what Temkin calls ‘Customer Experience Maturity’:

Stage One — Ignore: Organization does not focus on customer experience management and does not view customer experience as a core part of its value proposition.

The best performers in Temken’s annual study were supermarkets, which took five of the top 11 spots. The top-rated company in the 2018 study was Wegmans, a privately held supermarket chain operating in the northeastern U.S. Other top scorers included H-E-B, Publix, Aldi, Wawa, Citizens Bank, USAA, Subway, and Ace Hardware.

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 1 Comment

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.

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  • Paul Houle: I can believe in AT&T's plan, but not Comcast. For better or worse, AT&T is going "all in" on video and is unlike other major providers in ...
  • Phillip Dampier: Yes, that battle with Northwest Broadcasting, which also involved stations in Idaho-Wyoming and California, was the nastiest in recent history, with s...
  • Doug Stoffa: Digital takes up way less space than old analog feeds - agreed. In a given 6 MHz block, the cable company can send down 1 NTSC analog station, 2-4 HD...
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  • John: I live in of the effected counties, believe it or not our village is twenty three miles from WSKG Tower, approxiamately eighty miles from Syracuse, WS...
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