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CBS’ Idea of Choice: $5.99/Mo for CBS Library and Live Local CBS Station Streaming

broken bankThink you are already paying too much for cable television? If you thought Comcast charges too much, consider what CBS thinks is fair to charge for an on-demand library of CBS shows and a single live stream of your local CBS station – $5.99 a month.

Retransmission consent disputes are all about the money. As your local provider fights with a local station or cable network over their latest demand for more money, channels get dropped, providers get blamed and the content owners get richer when networks are restored.

One of the richest of all is CBS, which has told investors it plans to empty $2 billion from the pockets of American cable customers by the year 2020, up from $500 million in 2013. Not only will CBS demand new programming fees from its affiliates, it is also cajoling stations to demand not less than $1.75 a month from every cable subscriber for access to the local CBS over the air station.

Each time a retransmission consent contract comes up for renewal, cable operators know as certain as the sun will rise from the east that programmers will demand a healthy rate increase for the next contract period. That is why many cable companies now look to broadband for much of their future profits, because the TV business is getting very expensive when everyone has their hand out looking for more.

Some cable companies want an end to being stuck in the middle of these disputes and are supporting a plan to compel programmers like CBS, ESPN, TNT, HBO, and all the rest to publish a retail rate for their channel or network and let consumers decide whether it is worth the asking price.

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A proposal introduced last year called “Local Choice” would start the process with local television stations, which have demanded ever-higher carriage fees over the last 10 years, especially for network-affiliated stations.

Under the concept, customers would be given a choice of local stations by their provider. Theoretically, a customer could subscribe to CBS and ABC and tell NBC (and its local affiliate) to take a hike if they demanded too much. Another might be happy just paying for FOX and grab the rabbit ears for anything else they wanted to watch over the air for free.

Rockefeller

Rockefeller

No local station or network would voluntarily say goodbye to the golden goose that lays compulsory retransmission consent fees programmers currently collect from every cable subscriber, so last summer Congress proposed to mandate the concept in a clause of the Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act (STAVRA).

Then Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) and Ranking Member John Thune (R-S.D.) beat the bipartisan drum loudly for change. But lobbyists also had drums. Rockefeller and Thune began wavering almost immediately.

“During the last month, Chairman Rockefeller and Ranking Member Thune have successfully begun a discussion on Local Choice, which would empower TV viewers, maintain our policy of broadcast localism, and ensure TV stations get fairly compensated for the retransmission of their signals,” read a joint statement issued last September. “Because it is a big and bold idea, Local Choice deserves more discussion and a full consideration by policymakers, and the committee may not have time to include it as part of STAVRA. Rockefeller and Thune are focused on passing STAVRA next week, and continuing to work with their colleagues on Local Choice.”

After the sudden insertion of Local Choice into a satellite television bill, an orange glow filled the night sky at 1771 N Street in Washington. It was Gordon Brown’s hair on fire. Brown is president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the very powerful lobby representing television stations and networks. But that night, he sounded exactly like a cable guy.

“NAB opposes this proposal because it eliminates the basic [cable] tier upon which millions rely for access to lifeline information,” Brown responded in a statement. “It proposes a broadcast a-la-carte scheme that will lead to higher prices and less program diversity. Furthermore, STAVRA appears to confer unfettered and unprecedented authority for government intervention into private marketplace negotiations.”

8679-2_NAB_logos_csThe cable industry has fought its own battle against a-la-carte on exactly the same ground Brown was now occupying.

Rockefeller later claimed he was only poking the Broadcast TV Bear to provoke a response, and he got one. The idea of Local Choice was stripped out of the bill by the fall. Rockefeller was reduced to saving face.

“What we wanted to do was introduce those ideas,” Rockefeller later told The Hill. “We made it sound like it was the focus of the bill, and K Street just went crazy, which is always good. But we knew that we’d have to take it out.”

Yes they did, after the NAB and their allies launched a major PR campaign against Local Choice, attracting over 130,000 comments against the plan.

Polka

Polka

But Rockefeller knew the idea was not going away.

“As people get a taste of being able to say ‘I only watch 10 channels so I should only pay for 10 channels,’ they’re going to love that. It’s going to spread like wildfire,” Rockefeller said.

Fast forward to this spring and it was back to business as usual. Retransmission consent disputes yanked several networks and stations off cable systems, providers mailed their annual rate increase notices, and the cable industry’s popularity and reputation with customers now rivaled ISIS.

Much of the collateral damage (apart from the collective emptying of your wallet) continues to be felt by America’s smallest cable operators that cannot negotiate for what passes as fair and reasonable programming rates from networks like ESPN and CBS. They cannot qualify for volume discounts that are so compelling, it drove AT&T (U-verse TV) into the arms of DirecTV just to get enough subscribers to knock a few more cents off the monthly price of regional sports channels. Only the biggest players in the game have the power and get the savings.

Matthew Polka, president of the American Cable Association (ACA), the other cable trade association representing the interests of small, often family owned cable systems, may not have the most power but he could have the strongest argument against the status quo. While the National Association of Broadcasters spent tens of thousands of dollars arguing today’s retransmission consent system works just fine, some of America’s smaller TV stations apparently didn’t read the NAB’s talking points.

GotchaThe “TV Station Group,” an informal collective of small market TV stations seeking a renewal of their carriage contract with DirecTV has been stonewalled by DirecTV for months. Last week, the station owners filed a complaint with the FCC asking them to stop or block AT&T’s merger with DirecTV until the satellite provider agreed to negotiate in good faith. It was clear from their filing DirecTV’s idea of negotiation is to send ‘take it or leave it’ nastygrams to the TV stations, serving markets like Spokane, Wash., and Yuma, Ariz. The only thing clear from the back and forth is that DirecTV has no doubt it can squash the stations like little bugs:

[W]e will not fall victim to your silly and obvious tactics to try to audit our retrans deals so you can see them all. We did not ask you to send to us your supposed rates, and your unilateral decision to do so doesn’t give you the right to see our other deals. But trust [us], no other station group – especially small groups such as Northwest – are paid by DIRECTV nearly what you have proposed, let alone what your sheet says.

A few weeks later, in response to another request from the broadcasters, DirecTV scolded them like a misbehaving teenager:

To repeat yet again, DIRECTV is not going to get pulled into your transparent trap to define what is ‘market’ by seeing our other deals. That is a precedent we will not set, including for NW. Please do not ask again.

“Judging from the TV stations’ complaint, it is evident that the retransmission consent market is broken and not working for these broadcasters any better than for cable operators,” Polka wrote in a press release issued today. “The time has come for these TV stations and others that have also filed good faith complaints to step out from NAB’s long shadow and join ACA in supporting efforts to update the rules and equip them with a strong referee that can help protect consumers and competition when negotiations break down.”

Polka continues to advocate letting customers decide whether they want to pay for local stations and cable networks. He argues CBS is already doing that today with its All Access program for broadband customers. In 94 markets, serving 64% of U.S. households, consumers can voluntarily subscribe to a live stream of their local CBS station and access a large 6,500 title on-demand library of CBS content for $5.99 a month.

cbs all accessNobody besides CBS knows how many have agreed to pay for All Access, but executives have told investors they are pleased with how the program is working. Still, Marc DeBevoise, executive vice president and general manager of CBS Digital Media at CBS Interactive knows he walks a very fine line promoting a product that could eventually undermine CBS’s current commitment to today’s retransmission consent system. DeBevoise told The Drum it does not market or intend to offer All Access as an alternative to the current cable model.

“At a high level, our strategy in launching CBS All Access was two-fold. First, to delivery our best fans access to the most CBS content we could on any device at any time – really delivering a service for our ‘superfans,'” DeBevoise said. “Additionally this service enables us to reach ‘cord-nevers’ that want to watch CBS content but don’t have a traditional cable package –a significant audience, with industry estimates ranging from 6.5 to 16 million households.”

But at $5.99 a month, that price may prove too steep for many casual viewers looking only for a show or two. Many viewers now rely on ad-supported Hulu, a project of the major American broadcast networks except CBS. Most Hulu customers watch their favorite network shows for free. The future possibility of paying $6 for each of four major American broadcast networks will likely be seen as out of line, especially by more casual viewers.

But for Polka and ACA member cable systems, the idea that customers will direct their All Access price shock wrath out on CBS, not the cable company, may be worth it.

Comcast Tells Customers Gigabit Pro Service Will Likely Arrive “Sometime in July”

Phillip Dampier June 10, 2015 Broadband Speed, Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News No Comments
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Comcast initially announced its 2Gbps broadband service would be available in May.

Three Comcast customers have told Stop the Cap! the cable company has informed them their wait to sign up for 2Gbps service will be a bit longer than planned.

“First it was May, then June, and now I’m being told ‘sometime in July,’ at least for Comcast’s central division, and even then they were not sure,” reports our reader Bruce Nuñez in Atlanta. That same answer was also received by Tom Davis who contacted Comcast this morning about the service.

“They still won’t release any information about anticipated installation costs, although the representative was fairly certain there would be a charge, and they won’t tell anyone the monthly price either,” said Davis. “The representative did tell me it was safer to assume the service will premiere in July and not hold out for June.”

A third potential customer in Miami was also given a vague availability date of “sometime in July” after being told there was no longer a scheduled launch date in June because Comcast wanted to simultaneously launch the service in several cities at once, and there were unspecified delays.

Comcast had previously announced the service would launch sometime in May. While not ready to actually provide the service, Comcast has been busy promoting markets where Gigabit Pro will eventually be available:

(Image: DSL Reports)

(Image: DSL Reports)

  • California: Chico, Fresno, Marysville/Yuba City, Merced, Modesto, Monterey, Sacramento, Salinas, San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Barbara County, Stockton, Visalia
  • Colorado: Colorado Springs, Denver, Fort Collins, Longmont, Loveland
  • Florida: Jacksonville, Miami
  • Georgia: Atlanta
  • Illinois: Chicago
  • Indiana: Northwest Indiana suburbs near Chicago
  • Minnesota: Minneapolis, St. Paul
  • Oregon: Portland
  • Tennessee: Chattanooga, Knoxville
  • Texas: Houston
  • Utah: Salt Lake City
  • Washington: Everett, Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma

Customers will have to live within one-third of a mile of existing Comcast fiber infrastructure to qualify for the service.

Initially leaked price information seemed to indicate Comcast was planning to sell the service for $300 a month. At that price, Comcast will likely limit customer demand. Comcast’s Metro Internet service, offering 505Mbps, has been priced at around $400 a month. But to sign up, one must agree to pay a $250 installation and $250 activation fee. The service also is provided on contract, with a very steep $1,000 early termination fee.

John Malone Gets Puerto Rico Cable Monopoly: Liberty Global Takes Over Choice Cable

choice-300x169John Malone’s Liberty Global has bought out Puerto Rico’s second biggest cable television operator — Choice Cable TV — and will convert its customers to Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico.

Liberty joined Searchlight Capital Partners to close the $272.5 million purchase, which will make Liberty Puerto Rico’s largest cable company, passing more than one million homes and serving about 750,000 customers.

Liberty put $267.5 million of the purchase on its credit card, using debt borrowing from another Malone-controlled entity — Liberty Cablevision — to fund most of the deal. Liberty Global contributed just $10.2 million in equity and its partner Searchlight kicked in $6.8 million in equity.

The deal gives Malone’s company a total cable monopoly on the island. Choice Cable was the last standing cable operator not owned by Liberty, and served customers in western, southern, and central Puerto Rico. Choice itself consolidated several independent cable operators, including Cable TV Northwest (Aguadilla), Dom’s Cable TV (San Germán), Cablevision Mayaguez and TelePonce Cable TV. Now it has been consolidated itself.

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Choice Cable used to offer service in these Puerto Rican communities. Most of the rest of the island is served by Liberty Cablevision, which will now have a total cable monopoly across the unincorporated U.S. territory.

According to Liberty Global, the combined cable company will be expected to generate at least $390 million in annual revenue. If it doesn’t, rate increases could be on the way. Channel changes have already been introduced.

Liberty Puerto Rico added 18 new channels to the Choice Cable lineup at no extra cost. The Choice Pak package includes the new channels: AMC, AXS TV, beIN in Spanish and English, Cablevision, Disney Jr., Fox Sports 1, FX, Lifetime Real Women and PBS Kids. The Top Choice package will include: Crime & Investigation, DIY, Esquire, Fox Sports 2, History in Spanish, IFC, Military History and NBA TV.

But several other channels will be dropped: MTV, VH1 and Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, Spike, TV Land and Palladia HD. These Viacom-owned channels were discontinued last year by Liberty in a dispute over programming fees.

Liberty intends to offer up to 120/4Mbps Internet speeds, over 100 HD channels (352 channels total), and a “better balance of English and Spanish language networks” to current Choice customers.

Hometown Newspaper of Charter Communications Warns Time Warner Deal Not in the Public Interest

Editor’s Note: This editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reprinted in its entirety. It comes from a newspaper that has covered Charter Communications since its inception. The Post-Dispatch reporters are also some of Charter’s subscribers — the cable company serves all of metropolitan St. Louis. Charter has never been received particularly well in St. Louis and in other cities where it provides generally mediocre service. Communities across Missouri that have endured poor cable and broadband service have recently taken a serious look at doing something about this by building their own public broadband networks as an alternative. But big money telecom interests, especially AT&T, have found it considerably less expensive to lobby to ban these networks from ever getting off the ground than spending the money to upgrade networks to compete.

charter twc bhOn May 15, the last day of this year’s session of the Missouri Legislature, House Bill 437 finally was assigned to a committee, where it promptly died. Given the power of the American Legislative Exchange Council, it may well be back next year.

HB 437, sponsored by Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, was full of gobbledygook about “municipal competitive services,” but its effect would have been to condemn Missourians to ever-higher prices for broadband Internet service. Cities would have been forbidden from establishing their own broadband services to compete with private operators, thus holding down prices.

ALEC, which wines and dines state lawmakers and then gets them to pass pro-business “model legislation” in their states, had succeeded in getting restrictions on public Internet providers in 20 states. But in February, the Federal Communications Commission struck down North Carolina’s ALEC-inspired law, so the future of other such laws is uncertain.

About 22 percent of Missourians are still regarded as “underserved,” having no reliable access to broadband service of at least 25 megabits per second — what’s needed to stream video without lags. About 1 in 6 Missourians have only one wired access provider to choose from. More than 400,000 Missourians have no wired broadband at all.

Missouri is ranked 38th “most connected” in the nation by the federal-state Broadband Now initiative. In the 21st century, this is like being underserved by railroads in the 19th century or power lines in the early 20th. In parts of rural Missouri, it’s hard to do business, which helps explain why HB 437 died in committee.

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

The basic question is whether companies that invest in high-speed Internet infrastructure should be able to charge whatever they can get away with, or whether broadband service should be treated as a public utility. If it’s the latter, as the FCC determined in February, then government must make sure it’s affordable.

Which brings us to Charter Communications proposed $56 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable and its $10.4 billion acquisition of Bright House Networks. Both deals were announced May 26; both will need approval from the FCC and the Justice Department’s antitrust regulators.

In St. Louis, we have a love-hate relationship with Charter, a homegrown company built atop what was once Cencom Cable. It has dominated the cable TV market here almost as long as there’s been a cable market.

Charter customers endured years of poor service, its bankruptcy, its legal challenges, its ownership and management changes. Just when it got itself together, in 2012, the headquarters was moved from Des Peres to Stamford, Conn., though it retains a significant presence here.

Today our little Charter is a big fish; the Time Warner and Bright House deals would make it the nation’s second-largest cable company, with 24 million customers, behind only Philadelphia-based Comcast, with 27 million.

But cable TV no longer drives cable TV. Internet-based video services, like YouTube and Netflix, have revolutionized the way people, particularly younger people, watch TV. When cable companies first started connecting customers to the Internet through the same cables that delivered TV programming, it was regarded as a nice add-on business. Now broadband delivery is seen as a far bigger part of the future than providing TV programs.

missouriIndeed, when Comcast tried to acquire Time Warner last year, the dominance (nearly 60 percent of the market) that the combined company would have had over broadband service caused federal regulators to look askance. Comcast abandoned its bid in April.

By contrast, a Charter-Time Warner-Bright House combination (it will do business as Spectrum) will control 30 percent of the broadband market. Charter Spectrum will have 20 million broadband subscribers, compared with 22 million for Comcast.

So what can customers expect? Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge has promised “faster Internet speeds, state-of-the-art video experiences and fully featured voice products, at highly competitive prices.”

This begs the question, competitive with whom? Comcast? Mom-and-pop operations that can’t afford the infrastructure? Municipal service providers who are being ALEC’d out of business?

Neither Charter nor Time Warner has particularly good customer service ratings (though to be fair, Charter is miles ahead of where it used to be, at least in St. Louis). Still, Charter will take on lots of debt to finance the deal, much of it in high-yield junk bonds. The broadband business provides leverage. As analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson told the Wall Street Journal: “Broadband pricing is almost an insurance policy for cable operators, in that if all else fails, you’ve always got the option to raise broadband rates.”

America wouldn’t let a private operator own 30 percent of its roads and highways. It wouldn’t allow two of them to control half the electricity. If broadband Internet service is a public utility, it must be regulated strictly.

The lesson is old as the hills: The free-marketeers who talk most passionately about competition are generally in the business of trying to eliminate it. Charter and Time Warner are both members of ALEC.

The Charter-Time Warner deal clearly is not in the public interest. The upside for shareholders is huge. The upside for Charter executives is even bigger. But it’s hard to see how Charter’s customers would see much benefit at all.

Judge Rules for Comcast in Alarm System Case; Contract Makes It Nearly Impossible to Challenge Company

xfinity-homeComcast’s sweeping disclaimers of responsibility for failures or confusion over its home security system made it next to impossible for a Washington state judge to find the cable company or its contractor liable for an alleged system failure that allowed two men to break into a Kirkland home undetected and torture the family’s teenage son.

Washington Superior Court Judge William Downing sympathized with the Rawat family over the intuitiveness of XFINITY’s Home Security system that required the family to arm it by selecting “away” mode before going to sleep, in turn activating motion detectors that would have alerted the family to the break-in.

“In the world of made-up words like XFINITY and meaningless slogans like ‘The Future of Awesome,’ this is not startling,” the judge said. “It is Microsoft that has trained us to shut down our computers by going to the ‘Start’ menu. More to the point, it is equally counterintuitive to believe that an indoor motion detector would be armed when a system was being set for a family and pets intending to stay inside the house.”

Comcast's security contract lets the company walk away from responsibility for virtually everything.

Comcast’s security contract lets the company walk away from responsibility for virtually everything.

Despite that, the Rawat family attorney had a high hurdle to overcome – Comcast’s contract with its customers that disavowed responsibility for almost any and all failures of the system and goes as far as to require victims to protect Comcast if a matter reaches the courts.

kirkland“Comcast complied with the terms of its written contract and did not breach any of its contractual duties,” the judge said. “No claims can lie for breaches of any expressed or implied warranties that were effectively disclaimed in the written contract.”

The judge added the plaintiffs may have exposed imperfections in Comcast’s installer training, the information conveyed on its lighted home security system control panels, and the nomenclature used to designate different system modes. But none of those acts overcame Comcast’s contractual disclaimers and failed to reach the legal definition of negligence.

Comcast’s attorneys argued the undetected break-in was the fault of the Rawat family because they failed to use the XFINITY Home Security system properly. To activate protection, the family had to arm the system in “away” mode before going to sleep, despite the fact the system’s motion detectors could trigger a false alarm if anyone moved inside of the home.

downing

Downing

Ultimately, the judge found Comcast’s argument compelling.

“The malicious attack by the two criminals was motivated by pure evil and warrants every last second of punishment that they receive,” the Comcast attorney said. “However, what happened to Deep Rawat is not the result of anything that Comcast or Pioneer [the contractor] did or did not do.”

In short, the family should hold Blessing Gainey and Vincent Sisounong, who pled guilty to the attack last year, responsible, not Comcast or its contractor.

While acknowledging the severity of the plaintiffs’ son’s injuries and the emotional impact of the crime, the judge could not find Comcast responsible under the terms of the contract the family willingly signed.

But the case may offer some insight for other Comcast customers who either have or are evaluating an XFINITY Home Security system. A careful review of the contract Comcast makes customers sign may prove important as a customer considers their options for home security and personal protection.

Comcast System Audit in Tallahassee Takes Away Dozens of Channels It Will Restore for a Price

Phillip Dampier June 2, 2015 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News No Comments

comcast sucksA system audit by Comcast has created a firestorm across Florida’s Panhandle after customers lost dozens of channels while Comcast used it as an opportunity to sell customers more expensive television packages.

The cable company has been installing new technology that will help it verify customers are not getting channels or services they are not entitled to receive. After auditing subscribers in the Tallahassee area, many long-time Comcast customers found their TV lineup dramatically reduced, often with no warning.

“We found customers had access to channels not included with their service level,” Comcast spokeswoman Mindy Kramer told the Tallahassee Democrat. “Meaning, they were getting some channels that they had not subscribed to in their specific package.”

Comcast used the audit to upsell customers to a pricier package to get those missing channels back, annoying customers.

“During a recent system audit, it was discovered that you may be receiving channels that are not part of the video service to which you currently subscribe,” a Comcast letter said. It then gave an example of a channel the person had been receiving in error and suggested the customer upgrade if they wanted to continue receiving the same service.

“We apologize for any inconvenience this change may cause,” the letter said. “We appreciate your business and thank you for being a loyal Comcast customer.”

comcast flaNumerous Tallahassee customers contacted the newspaper and local media outlets to complain they lost dozens of channels without notice, many they had received for years. More recent subscribers also discovered their packages were suddenly much smaller.

Among seniors, the loss of Turner Classic Movies brought the most complaints. Customers who had received the network erroneously as part of a Digital Starter TV package ($43.45-68.95/mo) were told they must upgrade to Digital Premiere service to get that single channel back. That represents a rate increase of $22.94-47.54 a month, depending on the area. Digital Premiere costs $90.99-$131.99/mo., according to Comcast’s website.

Ron Crolla ended up paying a promotional rate increase of about $20 a month to restore his 85-year-old father’s Comcast service in a Tallahassee assisted living facility. Crolla said Comcast dropped about half of his father’s TV channels and did the same for many others in the same facility.

“The TV is his primary form of entertainment; he can’t drive, he can’t walk much,” Crolla told the newspaper. “It just seems all underhanded,” he said. “It just seemed like a crappy thing to do.”

Others thought about the same, judging from the newspaper’s Facebook page, overwhelmed with so many complaints about Comcast, a reporter covered the angry responses in another story:

tallahassee-democratMan, do people hate Comcast.

I can say that because that’s what many people told me this week, after a story ran in this newspaper about Comcast stripping cable customers of channels they weren’t paying for.

Dozens of emails and hundreds of Facebook and online comments came in hot. Most people shared their stories in gritty detail, breaking down their channel line-ups, what they paid and when. Some even passed on the name of the customer service representative they were dealing with, others just spun into a tirade.

People freely tossed out words like “furious,” “worst,” “sucks,” “hate” and others not fit for print. Something was triggered. People were pouring their hearts out in emails. It was personal. They were feeding off each other, finding solace in having a common enemy.

For many, it wasn’t about justifying the fairness of getting the extra channels for free, it was about Comcast’s method of ferreting out customers and dropping the channels with what many claim was no warning.

“If they wrote me a letter and told me I was getting extra channels for free, I probably wouldn’t even realize it because Comcast’s packages and lineups are so confusing,” said Tallahassee resident and Stop the Cap! reader Neil. “The classy way to handle it would be Comcast admitting it was entirely at fault and offering a special deal to keep the channels on at their wholesale cost for 6-12 months. I don’t want them to have to pay for something I am getting for free, but they decided to profit from their mistake at the customer’s expense. That is why Comcast is so despised around here. It is always an angle with them to get more money. If I make a mistake, I own up to it. If they make a mistake, they want to bill me for it.”

First Time Warner Cable Executive Departs After Announced Charter Deal: CFO Artie Minson Leaves Today

Phillip Dampier June 1, 2015 Issues No Comments

exitAfter serving just two years as the chief financial officer of Time Warner Cable, Arthur Minson today left the cable company to become president and chief operating officer of WeWork, a shared office space provider.

Time Warner Cable isn’t announcing a permanent replacement. Instead, William F. Osbourn, Jr., who now serves as senior vice president-controller and chief accounting officer, and Matthew Siegel, who currently serves as senior vice president and treasurer, will serve as acting co-CFOs.

Last year Minson made $13 million, after receiving an effective 137% raise over 2013. He reportedly has $1,826,915 in awarded Time Warner Cable stock and option awards worth $1,767,619. If Comcast had successfully purchased Time Warner Cable, Minson would have walked away with a $27 million golden parachute. Charter has not yet disclosed what it intends to pay Time Warner Cable executives in exit bonuses.

Charter Customers Warn: Don’t Be Suckered By Their Promises of Better Service – “Charter Blows”

Phillip Dampier May 27, 2015 Broadband Speed, Charter, Competition, Consumer News 6 Comments

charter sucks“I thought I was watching Comedy Central,” said Ralph Wilson, a longtime Charter customer in suburban Los Angeles. He was actually watching a Bloomberg News interview with the CEO of Charter Communications regarding yesterday’s formal merger announcement. “What cable company was Thomas Rutledge talking about when he said Charter would bring better service to Time Warner and Bright House? Charter blows.”

Wilson is just one of several unimpressed Charter customers responding to the news their cable company is about to grow more than four times larger with the acquisition of the larger Time Warner Cable and the smaller Bright House Networks.

“They promise you 60Mbps and you are lucky to see 40Mbps unless it is raining,” said Aaron Peters, a Charter customer in Texas. “Then you are lucky if you get anything. You sure won’t get anyone on their support line.”

“I’d rather have my fingernails pulled out than have to deal with Charter,” writes Betty, a 74-year old Stop the Cap! reader in Wyoming. “I’ve had cable out sometimes for five days and when the last time it was out, the slobs that showed up to fix it were shabbily dressed and one had his zipper down. It’s disgraceful.”

“Maybe it will go from F-minus to an F,” Terence Allen of Atlanta told the New York Times. Allen, among others, recited a litany of service problems familiar to many Charter customers around the country: Screen freeze and pixelation, unresponsive remote controls, uneven broadband speeds, slurring and skipping over dialogue, and problems getting a real person on the phone.

For Time Warner Cable customers in particular, it is unlikely that prayers for better service from a new owner are going to be answered.

“‘Not quite as bad’ may be about as good as they can get with this deal,” reflected the Times.

“Charter is not going to revolutionize Time Warner’s service quality, because Charter’s service quality is not that much better,” said Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America.

Pay for 60Mbps, get 40ish instead.

Pay for 60Mbps, get 40ish instead.

One of the key arguments in favor of the merger is that long-suffering Time Warner Cable customers will finally get faster Internet speeds. Time Warner Cable Maxx upgrades, now likely to be shelved by Charter, were already outperforming several of Charter’s own speed commitments. Charter’s theme pushing faster speeds for one and all might appeal to the broad masses of Time Warner Cable customers yet to be upgraded.

“Except what Charter advertises is often not what they actually deliver,” complains Wilson. “They tell you it’s 60Mbps, but here in LA it is often closer to 40Mbps and when you complain, they claim they don’t guarantee speeds.”

Allen in Atlanta also signed up for faster speeds from Charter, but never got them.

“Their high end doesn’t seem to be very high-end,” Allen said.

He also called Charter to complain but never got to speak a customer service agent. Instead, an automated attendant instructed him to unplug his modem to reset it, to no avail.

“Getting a human on Charter’s customer service line to help you with a problem is a laugh,” said Sue Turner, a Charter customer in Montana. “They keep telling us Charter is better than the last three owners of our cable system because their repair service calls are way down. Well of course if you cannot actually reach anyone to schedule a service call, that works too.”

technical-difficulties2Turner has seen three cable companies come and go in her part of Montana since April 2002. Comcast sold many of its cable systems in the sparsely populated states of the Rockies to Bresnan Communications that year. Cablevision acquired Bresnan in 2010 and rebranded her cable system Optimum West. Just three years later, Cablevision sold all of its interests outside of the northeastern U.S. to Charter Communications, which runs things today.

“Badly,” Turner said. “The biggest problem is the weather which always affects our television and Internet service. Charter has been here six times in two years to try to fix things, but the only realistic way to get service is to go down to the cable office and demand they do something. You don’t get help on the phone.”

“I would say my impression overall of Charter is that they talk very well about their services and their breadth and depth, but quite honestly they don’t deliver very well,” Mr. Allen told the newspaper. “One of the things they push quite a bit is the bundle — telephone, Internet and cable. I would never even consider getting the telephone because their cable and Internet can be so dodgy.”

The Better Business Bureau in St. Louis, which tracks complaints about Charter, found at least 5,183 unsatisfied customers over the last three years willing to escalate matters to them. Most are about problems with Charter service, which would seem to show there is a problem.

Nonsense, counters Alex Dudley, one of Charter’s senior spokesmen.

“Charter takes our customer service very seriously,” Dudley said. “There are millions of Charter customers who are satisfied with our products.”

Shaneice Johnson in Connecticut isn’t one of them.

“Oh my God I thought Frontier was awful when they took over AT&T here,” she tells Stop the Cap! “But then when we switched to Charter my modem has dropped weekly and all I get is attitude from customer service about how they know how the Internet is supposed to be run and it must be my fault. Years of good service with AT&T with no problems but now it must be my fault because their service is off up and down the street? I don’t think so. We need to get some competition in here.”

On that point, many would agree.

“If Charter had Google Fiber here chasing them, I guarantee they would clean up their act, but when their only competition is AT&T DSL, they just don’t care,” said Wilson.

Comcast Raising Rates July 1st; Higher Cable TV Surcharges, $3 More for Double-Play Broadband/TV Package

Phillip Dampier May 26, 2015 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News 5 Comments

comcastJust in time for the summer fireworks, Comcast’s own rate explosion may be arriving in your mailbox. The cable company is boosting rates on cable television and broadband service in several regions, including higher Broadcast TV surcharges and, for some, the introduction of a new compulsory sports programming fee. Comcast customers shared their rate increase letter with Broadband Reports.

The original notification letter was littered with grammatical and spelling errors and obviously was never proofread. Maybe they are using the extra money to hire someone to help out with that. We’ve translated the text into the English language:

At Comcast, we are committed to constantly improving your entertainment and communications experience, and we continue to invest in making your services even better. Due to increases we incur in programming and other business costs, we periodically need to adjust our prices as we make these and other investments.

Starting on July 1, 2015, the prices of select XFINITY TV and Internet services and equipment will change. We’ve included the changes in this notice. Among these price changes, we have itemized a Regional Sports fee for customers receiving Digital Starter service tiers and above to offset the rising costs of distributing regional sports networks.

In the Atlanta area, a sample of rate changes include: a Limited Basic rate hike between $1-3 a month, a Standard Cable increase of $1 a month, a $2 hike in HD DVR Service (was $8, soon to be $10), a $1 Regional Sports fee, a $1.75 a month increase in the Broadcast TV Fee (this varies widely in different Comcast markets), and a $3 increase in the cost of Blast! With XFINITY TV or Voice Service (was $67.95, now $70.95). The modem rental fee remains unchanged at $10/mo.

Rates are unaffected for customers on term contracts or promotions until those plans expire. It will also not affect customers who have previously received a notification of a rate hike during 2015.

Patrick Drahi’s Altice Buys Suddenlink in Surprise $9.1 Billion Deal That Is Likely Bad News for Customers, Employees

Drahi (center) surrounded by executives.

Drahi (center) surrounded by executives.

The billionaire owner of France’s largest cable operator has acquired St. Louis-based Suddenlink in a surprise $9.1 billion deal, and it is likely only the first move for the Altice Group in the U.S. cable business. But it may not be a welcome one for customers, employees, and suppliers of America’s seventh largest cable company about to be introduced to the notorious “Drahi Method” of conducting business that French newspaper La Parisien calls “brutal.”

The acquisition of Suddenlink represents a modest first step for a company that hopes to divide its business half in Europe and half in the United States. Incorporated in Luxembourg for tax-savings purposes, most of Altice’s interests in the cable business are in France and its overseas territories. Numericable is Altice’s cable brand in Luxembourg, France, and parts of Portugal and recently acquired SFR is Altice’s fiber broadband and mobile brand in French-speaking Europe.

suddenlink logoMoroccan-born billionaire businessman Patrick Drahi sees investing in cable as a great opportunity to build needed cash flow from America’s pervasive broadband duopoly. Altice is heavily in debt, financing a whirlwind of acquisitions including Israeli cable and mobile providers, Portugal’s largest telecom company, a mobile carrier in the Dominican Republic, in addition to SFR, France’s second largest wireless company, all mostly paid for with debt and junk bonds. That’s a long way from Drahi’s early days in cable, when he sold service door to door for his small regional Internet and cable-TV company in France’s Alsace region.

Suddenlink's national service area

Suddenlink’s national service area

His mentor is Dr. John Malone, America’s former cable magnate, who followed a similar pattern of buying up cable companies across the United States in the 1970s and 80s to create Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), then America’s largest cable company (it was later sold to Comcast). Drahi shares Malone’s philosophy for cash flow-generating acquisitions: “Always start with cable.” He has plenty of opportunities in the United States, which unlike Europe is largely a cable broadband duopoly in big cities and a monopoly everywhere else. While Drahi confronts revenue erosion from European telecom price wars among phone, broadband, and television companies, he has plenty of room to raise the rates on captive customers on the other side of the Atlantic.

The average Suddenlink customer lives in a small to medium-sized city in West Virginia, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana or Arizona. Suddenlink is well-positioned to sell its 1.5 million customers broadband service, because the alternative is usually low-speed DSL from companies like Frontier, Windstream, CenturyLink or AT&T. Drahi will sell all the services Suddenlink traditionally has, but customers can expect to pay a higher price.

Drahi has decided to focus on his high-end customers and has stopped competing to win customer volume based on price. The customers that pay the most for service also get the best customer service. If lower-end customers feel ignored and decide to leave, that is increasingly an accepted fact of life by Altice management. As a result, Numericable-SFR continues to lose mobile and market share in Francophone markets because customers have found better deals elsewhere. But the company is still keeping its best customers well-pampered and they have stayed, so far.

Life will be anything but pampered for Suddenlink employees and suppliers, who will soon be targeted for Drahi’s traditional culling of the herd and vicious cost cutting. European capitalists look in awe at “the Drahi Method,” a program of ruthless cost controls, job cuts, and threats visited on every acquired company. The French press is buzzing about Drahi’s latest acquisition in the United States, and wonder if Drahi’s slash and burn management style was better suited to America’s greed era of the 1980s and not the Obama’s ‘we are better than that’ era of the 2010s. But they know the story of how Drahi takes over is always the same.

Suppliers complain Drahi's companies don't pay their bills.

Suppliers complain Drahi’s companies don’t pay their bills.

After each acquisition is complete, Altice flies in a small team of executives who live to slash costs. It’s what Le Echos calls “helicopter management.” Many middle and upper management at the acquired companies are terminated instantly, replaced with relocated Drahi loyalists. Salary freezes are imposed on those remaining and are indefinite. Job cuts in customer service are frequently next and are sometimes severe. In fact, the company’s relationship with its employees is so bad, the French trade union CFDT has taken several actions against Altice-owned SFR-Numericable over pay freezes and terminations they call unjust for a company collecting a profit margin of more than 25%, even during a price war.

But the worst is reserved for the suppliers that provide everything from coaxial cable to paper for the office printer.

“Suppliers are fifth wheel,” complained one French company that considered itself extorted to hand over a 40% discount just to get their past due invoices paid. One told Le Monde the best a supplier can hope for from an Altice-run company is to barely survive. Many more die than live.

Sometimes, the hardball tactics against suppliers and vendors seem to backfire on the company. Les Echos shares the embarrassing story of the major SFR-owned mobile store that had a big problem. This past January, the demonstration display where customers can sample the latest tablets and smartphones was curiously empty, except for a few employees milling around a coffee machine placed there to take up some of the empty space. Where were the phones and tablets to show off to make the sale? The distributor who supplies SFR had not been paid. No payment, no phones.

Drahi's company even stiffed Cisco, which sent this warning note suspending shipments pending payment.

Drahi’s company even stiffed Cisco, which sent this warning note suspending shipments pending payment.

 

Just a few months before announcing his deal to acquire Suddenlink, a large group of French suppliers went to French authorities to seek a broad-based mediation to stop Drahi’s promises of payment in return for future discounts.

Les Echos reports Drahi spared no one from the cut.

“Cleaning companies, network equipment manufacturers, call centers, manufacturers of smartphones, TV, everybody goes,” it reported. Drahi’s managers even dared to challenge the local power company, Dalkia, threatening to cancel their energy services contract unless the company was granted an immediate 80 percent discount. Le Figaro reported the company ignored the contracts it had already signed with the energy company.

An empty bag: No phones at the SFR store.

An empty bag: No phones at the SFR store.

“It’s vicious,” one supplier told Les Echo. “For them, everything can be renegotiated, even contracts already signed and running.”

An IT company also accused Drahi’s company of refusing to pay for past work unless it received a 30% discount. The firm said no and threatened to sue. It is now facing bankruptcy because its business overwhelmingly depends on Numericable and SFR.

The cuts can also seem petty.

Last December, office workers in Saint-Denis found themselves without paper for the office printers. Numericable SFR management had not bothered to pay its office suppliers and they cut the company off. This year, employees report they often have to bring their own toilet paper to work as the company has stopped stocking employee restrooms, apparently part of another cost-cutting measure.

The problem of unpaid invoices has grown so bad the cable operator is increasingly responsible for suppliers clogging the only Commercial Court in Paris with cases large and small, including those from Pace – the company that provides set-top boxes for Drahi’s cable companies, M6 – a television channel not paid for its programming, STS – a major software company, Orange – a major telecom operator, and even the workers who solicit customers to buy cable service going door to door, who say they have not been paid either. In fact, Numericable-SFR has been hauled into court with stunning regularity, losing almost every case, and forced to pay costs, including court fees and interest. The company has already been convicted 12 times for unpaid bills and in several other cases, it only agreed to settle minutes before a trial began.

Altice’s willingness to put itself deeply in debt just to make more acquisitions was enough for Moody’s to throw a caution flag in February, warning investors the company was under review for a credit downgrade.

Altice1“Today’s rating action is prompted by significant uncertainties about the funding of the envisaged €1.95 billion share repurchase program and its impact on Numericable-SFR’s liquidity, leverage and operational flexibility. Moody’s views the potential transaction as aggressive given that the company closed the large acquisition of SFR only recently and is still in the early stage of integrating the acquired asset,” the ratings agency said.

One might forgive Drahi’s desire to economize, considering his recent acquisition of SFR left Altice in debt for more than $12 billion and owing $55 million in interest payments a month. But Drahi continues his acquisitions unabated by those economic realities.

Another problem is Drahi’s crackdown on who is authorized to pay suppliers and other vendors. Under SFR’s old owner, about fifty employees were authorized to sign checks over €100,000 across all of France. Today, any check over €10,000 must be signed by at least one of just three employees. Silicon reports the crackdown became even more severe last winter.

“Since December, any investment must be approved by the investment committee,” a source told Silicon. “All projects are blocked, all expenses must be justified, even 50 Euros. It is set to ‘stop and go’.

The inherent delays and austerity measures eventually also reach customers, according to ex-employees who say getting a replacement box or new cable strung can be a major problem when suppliers stop shipping and the company stops buying. It can also annoy customers that discover calling customer service no longer means talking to an employee in France. Drahi found call centers in Tunisia and Morocco that would do the same work for a fraction of the price.

Drahi said his Suddenlink acquisition is only the start. He has reportedly also shown an interest in acquiring Time Warner Cable, and shares of Cablevision stock were also increasing this afternoon suspecting that company could also be a target.

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  • sandiegohdtv: In another part of my town, Cox offers this program as well. However, they offer it all year round and I believe you can register for it online....
  • sandiegohdtv: Made a huge error. It was 15 mbps to 60 mbps. Sorry, for that as I thought the filing meant that, but I did check it over again. I found out when it w...
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