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Charter Spectrum Refuses to Air Political Ad Slamming Spectrum for High Rates

Brindisi’s ad has been “censored” by Charter Spectrum.

A Democratic candidate running for Congress in central New York cannot get his 30-second ad slamming New York’s biggest cable company on Spectrum’s cable channels.

Anthony Brindisi slammed Charter Communications for “censoring” his campaign by refusing to air his latest ad which claims Spectrum has almost doubled its rates since taking over for Time Warner Cable and has broken its promises to the state. Brindisi also accused his Republican opponent — incumbent Rep. Claudia Tenney — of siding with the cable company, and “voted to give the company a $9 billion tax cut while they were raising our rates.”

The fact that Brindisi opens his ad claiming, “if you’re watching this ad on Spectrum cable, you’re getting ripped off,” may have been partly responsible for Charter’s refusal to air his ad.

“The ad did not meet our criteria,” said Maureen Huff, a spokesperson for Charter Spectrum.

Rep. Tenney

But the ad is not factually inaccurate, just hyperbolic. Many Spectrum customers complained about steep rate increases switching between their original Time Warner Cable plans and new plans offered by Spectrum. Some customers needed to upgrade to higher tier cable TV packages to keep channels they would otherwise lose and the company’s ongoing digital conversion convinced many customers they needed to rent set-top boxes for every television in their home, at a substantial cost.

Brindisi’s claim that “Claudia Tenney’s campaign is bankrolled by Spectrum,” is slightly misplaced, although Charter Communications has spent $5,000 on contributions to her campaign in 2017. In fact, Comcast is her third largest contributor, spending $12,900 on her campaign so far during the 2017-2018 election cycle. The Koch Brothers, a cable industry ally, comes in fourth.

Brindisi hoped to air his ads in the Utica and Binghamton markets through Spectrum, but will have to spend more buying time on over the air channels. He says he doesn’t like Spectrum’s stranglehold on local views aired on cable channels.

“It’s a scary precedent for them to be setting just because I’ve been a vocal critic of the company,” Brindisi told the New York Times. “I don’t think I should be precluded from informing the public about their practices here in New York State and letting people know that, at the same time they are raising your cable rates, they are a big beneficiary of the tax bill and a major supporter of my opponent.”

Watch the 30-second advertisement Charter Spectrum refused to allow on its cable channels. Anthony Brindisi is a Democratic candidate for Congress in central New York (30 seconds)

National Grid Banned Charter/Spectrum Workers from Its Poles Over Safety Questions

National Grid, the electric and gas company that owns the most utility poles of any company in upstate New York, banned Charter Communications workers from its poles for most of July after a third-party contractor working on behalf of Spectrum electrocuted himself and died.

The New York Public Service Commission went public with the utility company’s ban as part of last week’s 4-0 decision to cancel Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications’ Merger Order.

“The result of this tragic incident was the issuance of a statewide stop work order from National Grid, the largest pole owner in Charter’s territory,” the Commission wrote. “This prohibition remains in effect as Charter has persistently delayed in providing National Grid and the [PSC] responses to requested actions and information necessary to ensure safe and adequate service. As a result, Charter remains unable to install facilities anywhere in National Grid’s service territory. This incident remains under investigation as do wider safety issues associated with the company’s buildout.”

Syracuse’s Post-Standard newspaper reported the contractor, James R. Fogg, 39, of Fairfield, Maine worked for S.G. Communications, a contractor hired by Charter Communications to perform tasks it outsourced from its own technician and installer workforce.

Cattaraugus County, N.Y.

According to state police, on July 11 at about 4:36 p.m., Fogg was running Spectrum cable lines in Yorkshire, Cattaraugus County in southwestern New York when his truck’s extendable bucket or a tool Fogg was using made contact with National Grid’s electric lines, located at the highest point on the utility pole. Cable and telephone lines are placed lower on utility poles. Fogg was electrocuted by a high voltage line. Paramedics from Delevan Emergency Medical Services performed CPR before transporting him to Bertrand Chaffee Hospital in Springville, where he later died of his injuries.

One day later, National Grid issued a statewide stop-work ban on Charter Communications and its contractors. The newspaper reports National Grid wanted the cable company to explain what happened, why it happened and how the company will prevent such an accident from happening again. The PSC claims for much of July Charter failed to offer National Grid a satisfactory explanation, which effectively left company technicians forbidden to climb National Grid-owned poles statewide for three weeks.

The utility lifted its ban on Tuesday, hours after the newspaper contacted National Grid and Charter about the incident.

Charter claims it is looking forward to resuming network build-out activities in National Grid areas, but National Grid warns if another incident similar to the one on July 12 occurs, it can reinstate the ban on the cable company.

Not Without My Refund! N.Y. Assemblyman Demands Spectrum Issue Rebate Checks

Before Charter Communications is shown the door and exits New York (if Charter loses its anticipated legal action against the state), it should be required to issue refund checks to every subscriber in New York to make up for a series of broken promises.

State Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi (D-Utica) has sent a letter to Acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood and New York Public Service Commission Chairman John Rhodes demanding the cable company pay up before transitioning service to another provider.

Brindisi claims Charter’s Spectrum failed to provide promised internet upgrades, has not met its obligation to improve customer service, and is charging even higher rates than its predecessor, Time Warner Cable.

Brindisi is also concerned Charter’s required transition plan may well be redacted by the company. He wants the transition plan made public, with ample opportunity for New York residents to participate in a discussion about which cable company ultimately replaces Spectrum (again assuming the company loses its legal action).

Here is Brindisi’s letter:

Dear Ms. Underwood and Mr. Rhodes:

I am writing to you as a follow up to the order issued by the New York State Public Service Commission on July 27, 2018 to revoke the 2016 merger agreement between Charter Communications, Inc. doing business in New York as Spectrum, and Time Warner Cable, Inc.

This order is truly in the best interests of New York residents.  For two years, I have received  literally hundreds of emails, letters, and petition signatures from constituents who have endured frequent, often unexpected rate hikes, and who have watched flashy ads from Charter promising lightning-fast internet speeds, as they can barely pay bills or send emails through 1980’s-era infrastructure that has not been improved.

Brindisi

I am respectfully asking that you collaborate to work on a three-point plan that addresses concerns I continue to hear from Charter’s cable and internet customers, as well as from the employees who work for the company.  The following is my proposal for consideration by consumer and utility regulators:

Charter should provide reasonable compensation in the form of rebate checks to its customers who have received cable rate hikes significantly above the national average for cable rate increases, which was 5.8 percent from July, 2016 to July, 2017.

Customers with internet service from Charter who never received promised service upgrades should receive compensation in the form of rebate checks from the company.

Any company petitioning the PSC to pick up Charter’s internet, cable, and phone service should pledge to negotiate in good faith with unions representing workers, and should agree not to cut vitally needed pension and health care benefits for workers.

The rate increases Charter customers received shortly after Charter’s acquisition of Time-Warner’s system have been staggering.  One constituent in Utica was billed $91.92 for cable services in January, 2017—and in March, 2018, his bill was $129.26 for exactly the same service.  Another constituent from Rome told me that she paid $108 a month for cable, internet, and telephone service in May, 2016—about the time Charter took over for Time Warner.  By April, 2018, her bill was $200.  These are increases many times the national average, all under the guise of ‘expiring promotional packages’

These cable rate hikes are just as serious a problem for consumers as Charter’s failure to live up to its promises to upgrade its broadband.  Many of the consumers I have heard from are seniors on fixed incomes who depend on cable and internet for information and to communicate with family members.  They should be compensated for what clearly is blatant overcharging.

Thank you very much for all you are doing to protect New York consumers, and for your concern about this issue.  If you have any questions, please feel free to give me a call.

Sincerely,

Anthony Brindisi
Member of Assembly

(Thanks to Todd N., a regular Stop the Cap! reader, for sharing the story.)

The Consumer’s Guide to Spectrum’s Possible Demise in New York State

Moving on out?

New York’s Public Service Commission on Friday set the stage for ‘an orderly transition’ ending Spectrum’s brief life in New York, to be replaced with a ‘to be announced’ new cable operator to serve the needs of New York subscribers.

Or so the New York Public Service Commission hopes.

Although Friday’s 4-0 unanimous decision to revoke Charter’s merger deal in New York is a public relations and legal nightmare for the country’s second largest cable operator, we suspect top executives are getting a good night’s sleep tonight, not too concerned about the immediate consequences of today’s stunning vote.

Losing New York is what Wall Street would call “a materially adverse event” for any cable operator. New York City is the country’s largest media market. Billions of dollars worth of cable infrastructure, subscriber and advertising revenue, and prestige are at stake. Despite the ‘vote to revoke,’ Charter’s attorneys have signaled for weeks they intend to preserve and protect the cable company’s legal rights, and it is almost certain the PSC’s merger revocation order will meet a court-ordered injunction as soon as next week.

The courts are likely to make the final decision about whether Spectrum can stay or has to go. That aforementioned injunction will stop the clock on any ‘rash action’ and start what could be years of litigation, filled with discovery, endless hearings, stall tactics, blizzards of motions, appeals, more appeals, and then more lawsuits over whatever final exit plan is eventually filed, if one is required by the courts. A judge could also order the cable company and the state to work it out in a court-approved settlement, something the PSC seems loathe to do in its two orders published today which make it clear the regulator is done talking only to feel strung along by the cable company.

For the near term, Spectrum customers won’t notice a thing. Even if the PSC was not taken to court, Charter has 60 days to file a six month transition plan, making the earliest date to waive Spectrum goodbye is sometime in early 2019.

To help readers out, we’ve prepared a short FAQ to address any concerns:

Q. Will I lose my cable and internet service?

A. No. Regardless of what happens, the PSC has ordered a transition plan designed to provide a seamless switch between Spectrum and a future provider. For most customers, it will resemble Charter’s own transition from Time Warner Cable to Spectrum.

Q. Who will replace Spectrum?

Not again.

A. The cable industry often resembles a cartel, whose members go to great lengths to protect each other. Historically, no large cable operator will entertain requests for proposals from cities or states requesting a replacement of a cable company already providing service. In short, if a city is fed up with Comcast and wants to shop around for another provider, it is highly unlikely Charter/Spectrum, Cox, Altice/Cablevision, Mediacom, or other providers will submit a bid to replace Comcast. If they did, Comcast could theoretically retaliate in their service areas. Should the Public Service Commission itself solicit bids to replace Spectrum, it is unlikely any operator will send a proposal unless/until Charter indicates it wants to leave the state. This kind of informal protectionism has proven highly effective limiting the power of towns and cities to play companies off each other to get a better deal for their residents.

Q. If Charter loses its court challenge and has to leave, what happens then?

A. If Charter exhausts its appeals and realizes it can no longer do business in New York, it will seek a private sale or system swap with another provider. Comcast would be the most likely contender, having shown prior interest in serving New York and having contiguous cable operations in adjoining states, especially in northern New England, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Comcast could agree to trade its cable systems in states like Texas, Florida, or California in return for its New York State’s Spectrum systems, which cover cities across the state. But that is likely years away.

Q. Isn’t Comcast worse than what we have now with Spectrum?

A. Consumer satisfaction surveys suggest the answer is yes. Comcast is routinely rock bottom in customer satisfaction, customer service, pricing, and service options. Its 1 TB data cap on internet service has not yet reached many of its northeastern customers, but most observers expect it eventually will. In contrast, Charter has agreed not to impose data caps for up to seven years after its 2016 merger. But Comcast has delivered more frequent broadband speed upgrades and has more advanced set-top boxes and infrastructure.

Stop the Cap! would vociferously oppose Comcast’s entry in New York, however, just as we did a few years ago when we participated in the successful fight to stop Comcast’s merger attempt with Time Warner Cable.

Q, What other providers might be interested?

A. Altice, which does business as Cablevision or Optimum, is New York’s other big cable operator, providing service exclusively downstate. Altice had aggressive plans to become a big player in the U.S. cable business, but its acquisition dreams were halted by shareholders, concerned about the European company’s already staggering debt, run up acquiring other companies. Altice is currently scrapping Cablevision’s existing Hybrid Fiber Coax infrastructure and replacing it with direct fiber to the home service, which offers improved service. But the company charges a lot for its advanced set-top box, has bloated modem rental fees, and is notorious for vicious cost-cutting, which stalled service improvements at its mobile and cable companies in France and raised a lot of controversy among employees.

Cox could be another contender, but would have to find a few billion to acquire Spectrum’s statewide system. Wild card players include AT&T and Verizon. Verizon would face extreme regulatory challenges, however, because it is the local phone company for most residents in the state. AT&T sold its U-verse system in Connecticut to Frontier Communications and seems increasingly focused on content, not on the systems that deliver content. A hedge fund or private equity firm could also be contenders, but perhaps not considering the high cost to acquire the systems and New York’s reputation for fierce customer protection. Remember, New York insists that a cable company ownership transfer must meet public interest tests, not simply enrich hedge fund participants.

Q. What happens to Charter’s pre-existing deal conditions on rural broadband and speed increases?

A. Officially, the PSC has ordered Charter to continue abiding by the 2016 Merger Order and its deal commitments. The state will likely continue to fine Charter if it keeps missing rural broadband rollout targets until a court stops them or the company leaves. Charter will probably continue rural broadband expansion to show good faith. Charter has met its merger obligations related to speed increases, so it is not currently out of compliance. But a legal challenge offers the opportunity for a third-party judge to suspend or modify existing deal commitments, at least temporarily. It is unlikely Charter will want to invest large sums in its cable systems if it believes it will lose its case in court. The timetable for an upgrade to 200 Mbps Standard speed will likely now occur on a regional basis. The northeast division will still likely activate these speeds across multiple cities in the region sometime this summer, especially in places where it faces competitive pressure. The 300 Mbps upgrade in 2019 is more likely to be impacted by any forthcoming legal action.

Q. Is this political or about the union striking Charter? It is an election year.

A. All things are political to some degree in an election year in New York. That said, the New York Public Service Commission has the nation’s best track record of protecting consumers from bad actor telecom and energy companies. They take their responsibilities very seriously, and have shown consistent independence from the governor’s office, especially in recent years. The Commission was by far the most responsive of any state, including California, in taking our concerns about the Charter/Time Warner Cable merger seriously, and incorporated several of our suggestions into the final Merger Order. We warned the PSC cable companies have routinely reneged or slipped through deal conditions. We even predicted Charter would attempt to count new buildouts in non-rural areas and business office parks towards any commitment to expand their service areas. The PSC smartly conditioned its Merger Order by defining the goal of Charter’s broadband expansion — serving the unserved and underserved. That is why the company is not getting away with counting New York City buildouts towards this commitment.

Cynthia Nixon and Andrew Cuomo, both running for New York governor, neither fans of Charter Spectrum.

Few voters are likely to tie a PSC decision to the governor’s race, although Gov. Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly taken credit and praised the PSC for not tolerating bad behavior from Spectrum. If it was a purely political play, it would originate in the governor’s office. Gov. Cuomo’s Broadband for All program depends on achieving near-100% broadband penetration, something it may not manage if Charter fails its rural buildout commitments. That would be a PR mess. There is ample evidence that Charter’s own conduct was sufficient to trigger this kind of response, with or without an election looming.

New York is also a union-friendly state, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3 has held out for over a year in the New York City area striking to preserve important job benefits Charter wants to discontinue. New revelations from the PSC outlining Charter’s increasingly bad safety record has strengthened the union’s case that Charter would rather bring in unqualified replacement workers and put safety at risk than settling with a union that essentially built the cable system serving New York City. There is no credible evidence that the union is involved in the PSC’s decision to revoke the merger agreement, although we suspect most affected members will fully support the decision.

Q. Is the PSC being too harsh? Can’t they work it out with Charter?

A. For New York to revoke a merger and effectively boot the company out of business in the state is remarkable. Utility companies that irresponsibly lack a credible disaster plan or do not comply with industry standards to maintain tree trimming and infrastructure repairs that result in plunging parts of upstate into darkness for up to two weeks after wind storms in two consecutive years were fined, but not ordered to leave. The ongoing scandal of competing private ESCO electric companies that have almost all scandalously overcharged New Yorkers with electric bills higher than their incumbent utility have been threatened with de-certification and fines, but are still conducting business, even though much of their marketing material was misleading.

Is it too late to work it out?

That should tell you the PSC’s move today was a final straw. The two parties have negotiated and debated Spectrum’s performance lapses for nearly a year. Tension was clearly rising by the spring after the PSC uncovered evidence Charter was intentionally counting areas it knew were outside of the spirit and language of the merger order’s rural broadband deal commitments. Charter’s brazen behavior achieved a new low when it questioned the PSC’s authority to oversee the merger agreement Charter signed. At one point, it unilaterally announced it would only honor the deal commitments found in one appendix of the Merger Order, conveniently ignoring the section describing and defining the rural broadband commitment Charter agreed to. The company also continued to air what the PSC declared to be false advertising, promoting Charter’s claimed accomplishments in rural broadband expansion. Charter repeatedly ignored warnings to suspend and remove those ads. In fact, the PSC issued strongly worded warnings to Charter at least twice, specifically outlining the possibility of canceling the merger agreement and forcing Spectrum out of the state. In response, Charter began staking out its legal arguments in filings, obviously preparing for litigation.

The PSC would probably argue it is impossible to work things out with a company that repeatedly breaks its own commitments. The PSC also openly worried what message it would send to other regulated utilities if it did not react strongly to Charter’s behavior. If the company had a corporate agenda to cheat New York out of important rural broadband expansion, negotiating, fining, and sanctioning a company is unlikely to change its behavior at the top.

Stop the Cap! had earlier recommended the PSC adopt new sanctions to force Charter to comply with its commitments, and expand them to bring service to many New Yorkers who were left behind by Gov. Cuomo’s Broadband for All program, suddenly saddled with satellite internet service. A large percentage of those affected are frustratingly close to nearby Spectrum service areas and although it would cost Charter a significant sum to reach them, it would deliver a financial sting for their bad behavior while also bringing much-needed internet access to the leftovers left-behind by the governor’s broadband expansion program. Such a settlement would require the company to actually comply with their commitments, something the PSC had been unable to achieve through no fault of their own. Perhaps a judge might have better luck should a negotiated settlement come up in litigation.

Proposal for Co-Op to Replace Charter/Spectrum Emerges in New York

New York City’s cable franchise territories

A proposal to replace Charter Communications’ Spectrum cable systems in New York with a workers co-op, owned and self-managed by its workers, would offer a bundle of television, phone, and broadband service price-capped at $100 a month for residential customers.

Developed by several dozen striking Charter/Spectrum workers, the 18-page proposal, “New York City Communication July 2018 Business Plan” would, for now, address only the five boroughs of New York City and nearby Bergen, N.J. But Troy Walcott, a striking member of the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers (IBEW) Local 3, says the current proposal was written as “a proof of concept” that can be adopted across New York State.

“The best time is now,” Walcott told LaborPress, noting that if the city (or state) decided not to renew Charter Communications’ franchise agreements in the city, there will still be a few years left before it expires, giving the proposed co-op time to develop its own network or plan to overhaul what was originally Time Warner Cable’s system in places like Manhattan.

A citywide co-op would also introduce competitive service in boroughs presently serviced by Altice, formerly Cablevision. The group would have to build its own network in those areas. If New York revokes Charter’s franchise, the cable system would likely take the city and/or state to court, setting up years of litigation. Past precedent has shown that cable systems abandoning or forced from an area are exceptionally rare, and usually involve a friendly sale of the existing system to another provider. One example was Adelphia Communications Corporation, which ran the fifth largest cable company in the country until it filed bankruptcy in 2002 after investigators revealed internal executive corruption. Adelphia systems were sold to Comcast and Time Warner Cable in most areas, although the communities of Mooresville, Davidson, and Cornelius, N.C., acquired the bankrupt Adelphia system serving parts of the three communities in 2007 for $80 million, relaunching it as a community-owned cable provider with mixed results.

A workers co-op is owned and run by its workers in the public interest.

If New York does strip Charter of its Spectrum cable franchises in the state, and if that effort survives the inevitable court challenges, Charter would likely sell its systems in New York to Comcast, an obviously motivated buyer. Another possible, but less-likely buyer is Altice, which acquired Cablevision and already provides service in parts of downstate New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

Charter is facing multiple investigations in New York over its business conduct. In New York City, where its franchise agreement is set to expire July 18, 2020, the company is under fire for its creative interpretation of “located in New York City” — language in Article 17 of the franchise agreement which requires Charter to use vendors registered to do business in New York, have a long-term commercial lease in New York, and more than 50% of its workforce living in New York.

With a substantial amount of its workforce on strike in the area for the last year and a half, and the industry’s trend to shift work to third-party contractors as a cost saving measure, the IBEW has been documenting instances of Charter-badged commercial vehicles parked overnight behind a Far Rockaway florist shop or in residential neighborhoods, often with out-of-state license plates.

Charter officials deny those accusations, and claim at least 75% of its vendors and contractors are located within New York City.

When Kate Blumm, assistant commissioner of the New York City Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications (DoITT) confronted Charter officials about its possible use of out-of-state vendors, the response from Charter was less than reassuring.

“Once we started to probe, we realized that Charter was essentially making the argument that if you are a worker and you are doing work in the city, therefore, you are located in the city,” Blumm said during the March 13 episode of the “Blue Collar Buzz” podcast. “They pointed us to a Macmillan online dictionary definition of what the word ‘located’ means — and we kind of looked at ourselves and were scratching our heads — this is not the spirit and intent of this provision. This provision says that Charter has to use best efforts to use vendors located in the city.”

As a result, the DoITT has pushed its franchise agreement audit one year earlier than normal, now scheduled to begin Sept. 1. The city’s concerns about Charter’s performance have been amplified at the state level by the New York Public Service Commission, which has hammered Charter executives for months about the company’s inability to meet its obligations under the 2016 Merger Order approving the takeover of Time Warner Cable.

“Not only has the company failed to meet its obligations to build out its cable system as required, it continues to make patently false and misleading claims to consumers that it has met those obligations without in any way acknowledging the findings of the Public Service Commission to the contrary,” said PSC Chairman John B. Rhodes. “Our patience with Charter has come to an end and now we must move to take much stronger actions.”

Mayor de Blasio

Backers of the cable co-op note many of those on their business plan development team have direct experience designing, surveying, building, and maintaining the existing Spectrum cable system originally owned by Time Warner Cable.

“We know the system because we built it,” Walcott said. “The system was already crumbling and the infrastructure needed to be redone. This is something that’s going to have to get done anyway. We’re saying, instead of letting them do it, let’s start doing it and rebuilding it ourselves — the people that are actually going to build it anyway.”

Finding enough money to proceed will be the co-op’s biggest challenge. New York City officials, like Mayor Bill De Blasio, are in favor of more cable competition in spirit, but are careful not to commit themselves, or the sizable sums required if the group decides to begin building a competing system or bid to acquire the current Spectrum system. So far, the New York City Council has committed to gradually increasing financial support for the development and cultivation of worker cooperatives, starting with $1.2 million in 2015 and increasing to $2.2 million last year. A full-scale acquisition of the existing infrastructure owned by Charter in New York would likely run into the billions of dollars.

The group hopes public demand and dislike of Charter/Spectrum will force elected officials to get involved in the effort.

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