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AT&T Launching 100+ Channel Cable-TV Streaming Alternative: DirecTV Now ($35/Mo)

att directvAT&T will launch its anticipated DirecTV Now all-streaming cable television alternative next month at an unprecedented price of $35 a month for more than 100 channels, viewable for free without counting against your AT&T smartphone or tablet usage allowance.

Targeting cord-cutters, the new service will not require a satellite dish or expensive equipment — just a reasonably fast internet connection.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson used the announcement at a Wall Street Journal-sponsored event to claim the new service was an example of how AT&T won’t increase prices as a result of its proposed merger with Time Warner, Inc.

“That’s not a medium for raising prices,” Stephenson said, referring to AT&T’s new service. “Anybody who characterizes this as a means to raise prices is ignoring the basic premise of what we’re trying to do here.”

AT&T and Time Warner’s respective CEOs appeared together at the event as part of a week-long press blitz to promote their $85.4 billion merger deal, which is getting considerable blowback from politicians, consumer groups, and Wall Street.

Stephenson and Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes claim they are re-inventing the cable television business model and forcing innovation.

“If there was ever an environment that was begging for innovation, it was this environment,” Stephenson said. Bewkes added: “We would say and we’ve been saying it since 1995, every channel in the country should look like HBO or Netflix—there’s no reason we can’t.”

AT&T defends its $35 price point, which is half the price many cable companies charge for cable television, claiming it can afford to charge those prices by doing away with service calls, equipment, satellites, and infrastructure that traditional cable operators have to cover. DirecTV Now will rely on smartphone and desktop apps, and presumably third-party set-top boxes like Roku and Apple TV to provide its lineup.

AT&T hasn’t announced an official channel list for the service, but AT&T has been in serious negotiations with most of the major content conglomerates, so the lineup is likely to cover all the major cable networks, presumably local stations, and include an on-demand library. Customers may not get some of the secondary cable networks most cable systems bury on three or four digit channel numbers in Channel Siberia, but few viewers are expected to miss channels that attract fewer than 50,000 viewers nationwide.

Stephenson promised that future programming cost increases would be offset by developing “new ad models” that will cover most of the price increases.

One impediment to AT&T and Time Warner’s grand plan is the pervasive issue of data caps and usage-based billing, which could prove a lethal deterrent to customers ditching traditional cable TV in favor of online alternatives. AT&T itself imposes data caps on its DSL service, and has an unenforced cap on U-verse. Comcast continues to charge overlimit fees for customers exceeding 1TB of usage per month and smaller cable operators often include even smaller usage allowances.

Customers are highly skeptical of DirecTV Now because AT&T is involved. David Hill shared his prediction:

Undoubtedly you will get a $35 rate… for 6 months.  Then because you have been a good, paying customer, they will raise it to $75 a month.  But of course, new customers, can still get the $35 deal plus a $400 Amazon gift card.

When you call customer support (if you can actually get through to a living person) and ask for the same $35 rate the new guys get, why you will be told that you cannot get that rate because, well, you already ARE a customer.  So eat dirt.

Then when you work your way via the endless menu items to cancel the service about 2 weeks later and for years after you will be flooded with endless postcards and letters BEGGING you to come back.  You were a GREAT customer and WE want YOU BACK.  Right now!

Is this a stupid marketing policy or not?  In my MBA classes we were somehow mislead into believing exiting customers were your top A, number one priority.  Yet these internet companies cannot be bothered with keeping you.  Jerks, plain and simple.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said the company’s deal with Time Warner will result in a new TV service that will offer more than 100 premium channels for $35 per month. He sat down with Time Warner’s Jeff Bewkes and WSJ’s Rebecca Blumenstein at the WSJDLive conference in Laguna Beach, Calif. (5:05)

Charter’s New Hard Line on Promotions for Time Warner Cable/Bright House Will Drive Customers to the Exit

charter-twc-bhCharter Communications is taking a hard line against extending promotional pricing for Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers and Wall Street predicts a major exodus of customers as a result.

UBS analyst John Hodulik predicts Charter’s new ‘Just Say No to Discounts’-attitude will result in customers saying ‘Cancel’ and he estimates a massive loss of at least 75,000 Time Warner Cable television customers in the third quarter as a result, with many more to follow.

Charter Communications’ executives have ordered a hard line against giving existing customers discounts and perpetually renewing promotional pricing, a practice Time Warner Cable has continued since the days of the Great Recession to keep customers happy.

Time Warner Cable and to a lesser extent Bright House have learned antagonized, price-sensitive customers were increasingly serious about cutting cable’s TV cord for good when the cost becomes too high to justify. Time Warner Cable dealt with this problem by giving complaining customers better deals, often repeatedly. That mitigated the problem of customer loss, allowed the company to retain and grow cable television customers and even helped minimize the practice of promotion shopping common in competitive service areas.

For years, Time Warner and Bright House customers learned they could enroll in a year-long promotion with the cable operator and then switch to a year-long new customer promotion from AT&T U-verse or Verizon FiOS and then jump back to the cable company with a new promotion. In many cases, they even got a gift card worth up to $300 for their trouble. Charter Communications thinks their new “pro-consumer policies” of not charging rapacious equipment fees and sticking to “simplified” prices will delight customers enough to keep their loyalty. Good luck.

Licensed to print money

Licensed to print money

Wall Street doesn’t believe Charter’s reputation or their ‘New Deal’ for TWC and BH customers will be perceived as making things better, especially for cable television and its cost. As customers roll off promotions at Time Warner Cable, the bill shock of watching rates rise up to $65 a month will speak for itself. The higher the price hike, the more likely it will provoke a family discussion about dropping cable television service for good.

In Los Angeles and Texas, where Charter premiered its new “simplified pricing” for Time Warner Cable customers, the response has been underwhelming, with many customers deriding it as “simply a price hike.”

David Lazarus, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, characterized the transition from TWC to Charter this way: “Meet the new cable company. Same as the old cable company.”

Culver City resident Jack Cohen provides good evidence of what happens when customers get their first bill from Charter, and it is higher than expected. Cohen received his first bill for $162, $22 more than his last Time Warner Cable bill of $140 a month, because his promotion with TWC expired. As a result, he canceled cable television after Charter wouldn’t budge on pricing. Cohen said “cancel” and never looked back. He now pays the new cable company $40 less than he gave Time Warner Cable, because he now only subscribes to broadband and phone service. Charter’s ‘simplified pricing’ cost the cable company more than the $22 extra they were originally seeking.

Lazarus learned when his own TWC promotional package expires in December, Charter had a great Christmas present waiting… for themselves. Lazarus’ $65 promotion will rise to $120 a month — almost double what he used to pay. But Charter also offered Lazarus a better deal he can refuse, a new Charter-Spectrum package of the same services for the low, low price of $85 a month — still a 30% rate hike.

In Texas, customers coming off promotions are learning first hand how Charter intends to motivate customers to abandon the Time Warner Cable packages Charter promised they could keep — by making them as unaffordable as possible and offering slightly less expensive Charter/Spectrum packages as an alternative.

“But it’s still $45 more than what I was paying Time Warner Cable for the same damn thing,” complained Ty Rogers to a Charter retention specialist, after his Time Warner Cable shot up once Charter took over. He is waiting for Google Fiber to arrive and then plans to cancel everything with Charter.

Charter’s billing practices also are dubbed the weirdest in the cable industry by The Consumerist, because Charter loves to hide taxes, surcharges, and fees by rolling them into other charges on the bill and cannot be accurately accounted for:

Charter breaks out federal, state, or local taxes and fees for some services (TV) but not for others (voice). Also, depending where you live and when you signed up for services, the taxes, fees, and surcharges that do appear may be listed under different sections of the bill or not at all.

While their procedure does result in many fewer line items for consumers, it does produce more confusing bills overall, and make it harder to compare against other providers in a truly apples-to-apples kind of way.

‘No, no, no,’ counters Charter/Spectrum to FierceCable.

“Our internet packages are competitively priced, but we offer faster starting speeds and don’t charge an additional modem lease fee on top of the cost of service (that is an additional $10 at legacy TWC),” Charter spokesman Justin Venech said. “That pricing is better and more attractive to customers. Our video packages are simpler and more robust. For example, our Spectrum Silver package includes over 175 channels plus premium channels HBO, Showtime and Cinemax while a comparable TWC package would have charged extra for premiums.  We don’t add on additional fees and taxes to our voice product that our competitors do, and our equipment pricing for video set-top boxes are much lower with Spectrum than our competitors or legacy TWC or BHN.  Our new Spectrum pricing is $4.99 for a receiver vs over $11 at legacy TWC.”

“That assumes, like every cable company always does, that we want HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax, don’t already own our own cable modem, and are not dancing in the streets over an even bigger television package filled with crap we don’t want,” said Rogers. “Charter also takes away Time Warner’s excellent long distance phone service, which let me call almost all of Europe without any toll charges or an extra cost calling package. I paid Time Warner $10 a month and could talk to someone in France all night long if I wanted. With Charter, it’s more for less.”

Rogers’ promotion included his DVR in the promotion, so comparing Charter’s $4.99 vs. TWC’s $11 for a DVR made no difference to him either.

“You can argue all day about the ‘value’ you are offering, but you can’t argue your way out of a bill that is $45 higher than last month,” Rogers complained.

Overall, the latest spate of cable mergers and AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV has been bad news for consumers, who face fewer competitive prospects and a new, harder line on promotional pricing. AT&T customers are discovering AT&T is more motivated to get U-verse TV customers to switch to DirecTV and less interested in providing discounts. The cable competition knows that, making fighting for a better deal much tougher if Charter’s only competitor in an area is AT&T. Cable operators also understand there is a built-in reluctance to switch to satellite by a significant percentage of their customers.

Charter’s pre-existing customers not a part of the TWC/BH merger are not too happy with Charter’s Spectrum offers either. At least 152,000 video customers said goodbye for good to the cable operator’s television packages.

Hodulik predicts there are more where that came from as the rest of the country gradually discovers what Charter has in store for them.

CableLabs Working on Symmetrical DOCSIS 3.1; Equal Upload/Download Speeds Coming

Phillip Dampier September 21, 2016 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News 1 Comment

1000mbpsThe cable industry’s broadband Achilles’ heel has always been upstream speeds that are set much lower than download speeds. But the days of asymmetric cable broadband may soon be a thing of the past if CableLabs successfully defines a new Full Duplex extension for DOCSIS 3.1 — bringing symmetrical broadband speeds to cable companies across the country.

CableLabs sees the potential of eventually offering multi-gigabit broadband over today’s existing hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) cable systems. Marketing 1,000/1,000Mbps internet access could keep cable operators competitive with fiber to the home services that already offer symmetrical internet speeds.

The cable industry-supported research group is collaborating with vendors, according to Belal Hamzeh, vice president of wireless for CableLabs, in a blog post.

“The ecosystem support for the Full Duplex DOCSIS 3.1 technology has been staggering, with many vendors collaborating and contributing to the development of the technology,” Hamzeh wrote. “A recent example is Cisco’s contribution of a new silicon reference design of a digital echo canceler that maximizes the use of HFC capacity to provide a scalable multi-gigabit return path.”

The Full Duplex DOCSIS 3.1 project transitioned from the innovation phase to the R&D phase in June. A working group will continue to meet on a regular basis to finalize the specification, which will allow vendors to begin producing modems that support the new standard.

Cable Industry Declares War on Set-Top Box Compromise They Lobbied For

The cable industry prepares for war over a watered-down set-top box reform proposal many companies initially supported.

The cable industry prepares for war over a watered-down set-top box reform proposal many companies initially supported.

You can’t please cable companies any of the time.

After months of an intense lobbying effort to kill Federal Communications Commission Chairman Thomas Wheeler’s set-top box reform proposal that would have created an open standard allowing manufacturers to compete for your box needs, the cable industry has declared war on the watered-down compromise released last week that many cable operators lobbied for as a suitable alternative.

“While we appreciate that Chairman Wheeler has abandoned his discredited proposal to break apart cable and satellite services, his latest tortured approach is equally flawed,” said Comcast’s vice president of government communications Sena Fitzmaurice in a statement. “He claims that his new proposal builds on the marketplace success of apps, but in reality, it would stop the apps revolution dead in its tracks by imposing an overly complicated government licensing regime and heavy-handed regulation in a fast-moving technological space. The Chairman’s new proposal also violates the Communications Act and exceeds the FCC’s authority.”

That’s a veiled threat Comcast may take the FCC to court if they proceed with the watered down reform policy now advocated by Chairman Wheeler.

Charter Communications, newly enlarged with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in its family, also issued a statement claiming the FCC will ruin everything:

cable-box“Enabling consumers to use apps instead of set-top boxes may be a valid goal, but the marketplace is already delivering on the goal without overreaching government intervention. The FCC’s mandate threatens to bog down with regulations and bureaucracy the entire TV app market that consumers are increasingly looking to for innovation, choice and competition.”

Sensing blood in the regulatory waters, the pile on from Congress and programmers that depend on their relationships with large cable operators was inevitable and quick:

The top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said Monday that he is doubtful.

Pallone

Pallone

“While I commend Chairman Wheeler for working to solve this difficult issue, I’m concerned that this latest proposal will not work, particularly when it comes to licensing,” Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.) said in a statement. “Ultimately, I’m skeptical that the revised plan will benefit consumers.”

Apple’s Arrogance Meets Big Cable, Hollywood’s Intransigence

Apple TV

Apple TV

Apple’s ability to successfully force its way into the pay television business with a cord-cutter’s streaming TV solution has been left languishing since 2009, thanks to some of America’s largest cable and entertainment companies who think Apple is arrogant and out of touch.

The Wall Street Journal today published a story showing how Apple’s plans to challenge the cable TV industry much the same way it revolutionized digital music has rubbed the big and powerful the wrong way. Apple’s desire to launch a cheaper streaming video service with a slimmed down TV lineup and robust on-demand options has flopped, because executives have no interest in bending to Apple’s way of thinking.

In 2009, Apple decided it wanted in on the streaming pay-TV business. At the same time Time Warner Cable began experimenting with data caps, Apple was approaching local stations and broadcast networks and offering them premium payments — higher than what the cable industry itself paid — for Apple’s choice of stations and cable networks. The deal meant Apple would alone be free to pick only the channels it wanted to carry, a major departure from the industry practice of contract renewals that bundled popular networks with spinoff and lesser-known channels cable operators didn’t want to carry. Apple’s hard-charging negotiator, Eddy Cue, seemed to believe that if Apple was at the negotiating table, that alone would be enough to get a deal done. It wasn’t.

Two years later, Time Warner Cable approached Apple seeking to launch a joint TV venture that could compete nationwide with satellite and phone company competitors. The talks were at the highest levels at both companies, involving Time Warner Cable’s then-CEO Glenn Britt, Cue, and Apple CEO Tim Cook. Cook also approached Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast, promising him the service would only be sold through cable operators — good news for Comcast but bad news for open competition.

market share streamingThis time, Apple sought money from the cable companies, not the other way around. Cable operators were told they would need to pay $10 a month per subscriber to Apple, with no guarantee that fee would not increase in the future. Just as concerning was Apple’s insistence that subscriber authentication would require customers to use their Apple IDs, a departure from the cable industry’s push to adopt TV Everywhere, where customers could unlock streaming video from any cable network simply by logging in with the username and password they set up with their pay TV provider. Apple was also characteristically secretive about their user interface and left cable industry executives flummoxed when they asked Apple to sketch out what the service would look like on a napkin. An Apple official would only respond that their interface would be great and “better than anything you’ve ever had.” The fact Apple refused to answer the question did not go unnoticed.

Nor did Cue’s unconventional way of negotiating with some of the most powerful entertainment executives in the country. When Jeff Bewkes, CEO of Time Warner (Entertainment) agreed to meet with Cue about Apple licensing Time Warner’s critical networks — which include HBO, CNN, and TNT — Apple’s negotiator showed up 10 minutes late. While Time Warner’s negotiators were smartly dressed in business attire, Cue turned up wearing jeans, a Hawaiian shirt, and sneakers with no socks. It went downhill from there, because Apple insisted on valuable on-demand rights to full seasons of hit shows and permission to let viewers store their favorite recordings on a massive cloud-based DVR that included features like automatic recordings of hit shows and advanced ad-skipping technology.

Crickets.

More than a few programmers used to having their way with cable operators were shocked by Apple’s ‘arrogance’ and unconventional way of doing business. The newspaper reports one former Time Warner Cable executive watched with amusement as stone-faced programmers were unimpressed with Apple’s demands.

Jon Lovitz offers a visual hint what Mr. Cue must have looked like meeting with high-powered execs at Time Warner (Entertainment)

Jon Lovitz offers a visual hint what Mr. Cue must have looked like meeting with high-powered execs at Time Warner (Entertainment)

“[They] kept looking at the Apple guys like: ‘Do you have any idea how this industry works?'” said the former executive.

Apple responded ‘doing new things requires changes that often are unsettling.’

A year later the negotiations were on life support, as Apple struggled with the arrival of 2015 with no slimmed down streaming TV package to offer Apple TV owners.

Apple’s demands flew in the face of decades of cable industry business practices, which give channel owners virtual guarantees of rate hikes with each contract renewal, the right to force their spinoff networks on the cable lineup in return for a comfortable renewal process, and the cable industry’s right to an assurance everyone was getting the same kind of deal (except volume discounts). Any deviation from this would result in panic on Wall Street, as investors’ dependence on perpetually improving quarterly financial results based on revenue boosts from new or higher fees would come crashing down if a company like Apple got a better deal.

One industry insider suggested once a company like Apple got a deal on sweetheart terms, every other distributor would demand the same deal (and many have contract provisions that require it). Apple may have assumed that because it managed to get the recording industry to agree to its iTunes digital music distribution deal 15 years earlier, so the cable industry would go. Except the road to cut-throat deals for entertainment programming is littered with dead-end business plans that had to be quickly modified when the discounts ended.

Netflix and Starz both learned expensive lessons when early discounts on licensing deals ended after Hollywood saw how much money those companies made from streaming. When licensing contracts expired, entertainment companies sought massive increases in licensing fees to “fairly share” the proceeds. Netflix ended up walking away from several studios, seriously impacting their online streaming catalog. Eventually, Netflix decided if they cannot beat the studios, they should join them, creating original programming to attract and keep subscribers.

Cue in real life

Cue in real life

After almost a decade spent trying to get into the online cable business, Apple now seems more likely to follow Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, and devote time and money on developing its own original programming. Instead of trying to license and bundle network programming, Apple TV today supports independent apps created by various networks. Viewers still get to watch their favorite shows, Apple does not have to pay for streaming rights, and there is a joint effort to create and support a single login so viewers can get access to content without constantly re-entering usernames and passwords.

Apple’s original shows include “Planet of the Apps,” a reality series, a miniseries being developed by Dr. Dre, and a spinoff of CBS’ “Carpool Karaoke.” The shows serve a dual purpose — entertaining viewers and helping push sales in Apple’s App Store and streaming music service.

Also under consideration are big budget, critically acclaimed original shows and series that could generate positive buzz for Apple TV, like “House of Cards” has done for Netflix.

Developing programming keeps negotiators like Apple’s Mr. Cue from having to challenge a very profitable pay television industry on their terms and spares Apple from creating a cable package of linear TV channels subscribers increasingly don’t care about. Viewers want on-demand access to the shows they want to see and don’t care that much about who supplies them and how.

So in the end, the intransigence of Big Cable and Hollywood studios that are now worried about cord-cutting may have done Apple an enormous favor, sparing them from being entangled in a business that buys and sells channels to fill a bloated and expensive cable television lineup more and more consumers are now deciding they can do without.

Updated: Link to WSJ story corrected.

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