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Time Warner Cable’s Hullabaloo About Nothing: Its ‘Top Secret’ Rural Expansion Plan is a Yawn

Phillip "I Want My Money Back" Dampier

Phillip “I Want My Money Back” Dampier

For months, Time Warner Cable has deployed its legal team to prevent public interest groups from gaining access to the company’s exhibit of rural broadband buildout plans it had for New York, sent confidentially to the Public Service Commission as part of its proposal to merge with Comcast.

“This information would be difficult and costly for a competitor to compile, such that disclosure would significantly harm Time Warner Cable’s competitive advantage,” Time Warner Cable’s lawyers complained to regulators handling the case. “To allow competitors to have access to this information before Time Warner Cable has had a chance to market customers for which it speculatively built the line would not only negate any competitive advantage, it would allow its competitors to reap the benefits of Time Warner Cable’s investment, causing substantial competitive and financial injury to Time Warner Cable.”

“The compilation of information on all the Time Warner Cable New York deployments, distances, and passings into one document would be of enormous value to a competitor,” the lawyers added. “This information could not be developed independently by competitors, and any estimates developed through publicly available data or data from third-party sources, if possible at all, would be expensive and burdensome to assemble, and less accurate than the data provided in Exhibit 46. […] Therefore, disclosure of the compilation of information on the New York Rural Builds would cause substantial competitive injury to Time Warner Cable, and should be granted exception from disclosure.”

One might expect the mighty Exhibit 46 to contain all of Time Warner’s deepest secrets — secrets that if made public would hand the “competition” the keys to the cable kingdom.

Despite the haughty demands that such information was not to be shared with the public, Stop the Cap! secured our copy of the “top-secret” Exhibit 46 (and here is a copy for you as well).

After reviewing it, it quickly became clear the only thing Time Warner Cable intended to keep secret is how little expansion (and money) the company is devoting to rural New York. The nine-page spreadsheet shows Time Warner spent $5.3 million of New York’s money to expand service to, at most, 5,320 homes or businesses that had no access to cable before. The largest beneficiary of this expansion was the rural (and more affluent than its neighbors) town of Grafton, in Rensselaer County, where 1,152 homes now have access to Time Warner Cable if they want it. An additional 875 homes in Carlisle, Schoharie County now have access as well. Despite dire warnings from Time Warner, “competitors” are hardly rushing to the scene to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the cable company, which is the only provider of broadband service for many of these residents.

As for the rest of upstate New York, Exhibit 46 offers about as much relevance to “competitors” as it does to the rural residents still being bypassed by the cable company. Most of the entries show Time Warner’s expansion projects reached fewer than 10 homes in any particular area. In a large number of those instances, the expansion ended up serving just one additional home or business.

Some examples:

  • Town of Clarence, Erie County – 4 homes or businesses
  • Town of Henrietta, Monroe County – 1
  • Town of East Bloomfield, Ontario County – 22
  • Town of Paris, Oneida County – 1
  • Town of Manheim, Herkimer County – 1
  • Town of Kirkwood, Broome County – 7
  • Town of Tupper Lake, Franklin – 116
  • Town of Gouverneur, St. Lawrence County – 29
  • Town of Brookfield, Madison County – 139
  • Town of Jefferson, Schoharie County – 3
  • Town of Big Flats, Chemung County – (either 2 or 4 – the entry is duplicated)
  • Town of Pompey, Onondaga County – 1

Of the 5,320 homes or businesses now provided access to Time Warner service, 4,104 were subsidized up to 75 percent by the State of New York. Just 1,216 locations were apparently reached exclusively at Time Warner Cable’s own expense.

New Yorkers paid most of the bill because Time Warner Cable couldn’t find $5.3 million in their company coffers to bring broadband to rural residents. But Time Warner Cable could find $80 million to cover the golden parachute compensation package available to just one employee – CEO Robert Marcus, if the company is successfully sold to Comcast for around $45 billion.

Priorities.

No wonder Time Warner Cable’s attorneys fought so hard to keep the “expansion” effort a secret.

House and Senate Hold Hearings on GOP Fake Net Neutrality Alternative Supported by Telecom Lobby

Phillip Dampier January 21, 2015 Astroturf, Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't 3 Comments
Thune

Thune

The House and Senate today held back-to-back hearings on the issue of adopting a Republican alternative to the president’s idea of Net Neutrality.

After the president directly addressed his support of strong Net Neutrality protections, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler indicated he intended to act on the issue next month. Now many Republican legislators have changed their original view that Net Neutrality was “a solution in search of a problem” into a high priority agenda item demanding immediate attention, hoping to cut off Wheeler’s regulatory solution with new legislation.

That came in the form of a proposed new bill to define the principles of Net Neutrality from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

“By turning the FCC away from a heavy-handed and messy approach to regulating the Internet, this draft protects both consumers who rely on Internet services and innovators who create jobs,” Thune wrote in a statement.

Both hearings were stacked against reclassification of broadband under Title II to assure strong Net Neutrality principles, including three witnesses formerly with the FCC that have moved into industry advocacy jobs.

(Image courtesy: Steve Rhodes)

(Image courtesy: Steve Rhodes)

Former FCC chairman Michael Powell is today America’s top cable lobbyist. Meredith Baker quickly left the FCC in 2011 after voting in favor of the Comcast-NBC merger deal, taking a lucrative position at Comcast before moving on to become the country’s top wireless industry lobbyist. Robert McDowell left the FCC in 2013 to take a job at the same law firm hired by Comcast to successfully challenge the FCC’s authority to fine the cable company over its past speed throttling practices. Today, McDowell’s employer also represents the interests of AT&T and Verizon.

Other witnesses testifying included Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee from the Multicultural, Media, Telecom & Internet Council, which claims to be a civil rights organization but in fact receives the bulk of its funding from corporate interests, including large telecom companies. It often advocates for the corporate agendas of its sponsors, including opposition to Title II reclassification and past support for the failed AT&T-T Mobile merger deal.

Tom Simmons, senior vice president of public policy for small cable operator Midcontinent Communications also appeared, opposing strong Net Neutrality policies. Simmons said that once the company explained Title II reclassification and how it would increase customers’ cable bills, support for Net Neutrality diminished.

Just two witnesses testified on behalf of consumer interests. Gene Kimmelman, president of Public Knowledge strongly advocated for Title II reclassification of broadband and Paul Misener, vice president of Global Public Policy for Amazon.com strongly opposed Internet fast lanes and other traffic manipulation practices.

The New York Times today reported that the Republicans may have an increasingly uphill fight with some of their own traditional supporters to push through legislation Internet activists claim is riddled with company-friendly loopholes.

“The libertarian conservative base is pretty astute at recognizing crony capitalism and understand how campaign finance and corporate influence affects policy,” said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, a Net Neutrality advocacy group. “And this is a pretty transparent moment for all that.”

Channeling Pinnochio, NCTA Cable Lobby Launches “The Infinite Internet” (They Want to Usage Cap)

pinnocThe National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the nation’s largest cable lobbying group, has outdone itself with a brand new fact-challenged video truth-seekers will quickly discover is little more than industry propaganda.

“For nearly 20 years, cable has been building Internet networks that are empowering everyone from innovators and entrepreneurs to kids in the garage,” says the NCTA in its introduction of its new video “The Infinite Internet.” “The Internet propels business, education, entertainment – whatever we want. It’s a platform of possibilities and the fast growing technology in history. Cable is proud of the part we’ve played in advancing America’s future and we’ll continue to make it faster and more accessible.”

Except many NCTA member companies want to introduce usage caps and consumption billing that limit those possibilities on an already absurdly profitable service. The same broadband duopoly of cable and phone companies also holds America’s broadband rankings back, and has demonstrated its real priority is to charge more money for less service.

We’ve reviewed the video and found credibility problems with almost every claim:

Claim: “America’s ISPs have invested trillions of dollars and laid 400,000 miles of fiber optics.”

Our finding: FIB Even industry mouthpieces like the Progressive Policy Institute and NCTA members themselves have a problem with “trillions.” The chief executives of AT&T, Bright House Networks, Cablevision, CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Frontier, Suddenlink, Time Warner Cable, 15 other companies, and industry groups such as the National Cable & Telecommunications Association itself, the Telecommunications Industry Association, and the CTIA Wireless Association claimed in the spring of 2014 that the entire telecommunications industry (not cable alone) spent a combined $1.2 trillion on communications infrastructure. A considerable percentage of that investment was to build out cellular networks, first for mobile phone calls and only later for wireless data. The cable industry spent far less than $1 trillion on its own infrastructure and at the time of its most rapid growth, it was intended primarily to deliver cable television, not broadband.

Stop the Cap! also found the NCTA cheating in its claims of increasing investment in broadband. The trade group was citing cumulative spending, not actual year-to-year spending. A careful review shows broadband investments are generally flat or in decline and are nowhere near comparable to the investments the industry made in the late 1990s.

Although it may be true the cable industry has deployed 400,000 miles of fiber optics, the overwhelming majority of cable customers cannot directly access any of it. Virtually all the cable industry’s fiber is deployed between the company’s headquarters and individual communities where it is connected to the same coaxial cable platform that has been around since the 1960s. Most of the rest is laid for commercial purposes, notably providing backhaul connectivity for cell towers. Time Warner Cable alone deployed fiber to its 10,000th cell tower back in 2013. It’s a lucrative business, earning that cable company more than $61 million a quarter.

BroadbandNow found no cable company appearing on the list of top fiber broadband providers. In fact, as of 2012 only 23% of Americans have access to fiber broadband ranking the United States 14th among western countries in fiber optic penetration according to the OECD.

Claim: “High speed connections reach nearly every home with blazing fast speeds that power our lives.”

Our finding: HIGHLY MISLEADING The NCTA fails to define its terms here. What exactly constitutes a “high-speed connection.” The FCC currently defines broadband as providing speeds of 4Mbps or better. Is that “blazing fast?” The FCC is currently considering redefining broadband to mean speeds of at least 25Mbps, well below many cable company entry-level broadband tiers. The NCTA also likes to claim that 99% of households have access to high-speed Internet, but they include wireless technology at any speed in those figures. If you can get one bar from AT&T’s 3G wireless Internet network, you’ve got high-speed broadband in their eyes.

In fact, when it comes to stingy coverage areas, cable is notoriously not available outside of the biggest cities and suburbs, as the government’s own National Broadband Map depicts:

Map showing cable companies offering at least DOCSIS 3.0 cable broadband service.

Map showing cable companies offering at least DOCSIS 3.0 cable broadband service.

Claim: “ISP’s want access for everyone.”

Our finding: TRUE, WITH MISSING FINE PRINT What company would not want to offer its products and services to everyone. The real question is whether they plan on doing that or simply wishing they had. The cable industry has no intention of implementing sweeping changes to the Return On Investment (ROI) formula that determines whether your home gets access to cable or not. Some companies like Time Warner Cable and Frontier Communications are expanding their cable and DSL networks, but only when the government steps in with broadband deployment grant funding.

Assuming service is available, the next hurdle is cost. BBC News reported in 2013 home broadband in the U.S. costs far more than elsewhere. At high speeds, it costs nearly three times as much as in the UK and France, and more than five times as much as in South Korea. Today it costs even more when you count the growing number of providers charging modem rental fees as high as $10 a month and often cap usage or force customers into usage-based billing schemes.

Claim: “With over 300,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots, the Internet of Things is emerging.”

Cox Cable sells their customers on accessing over 300,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, with a prominent asterisk.

Cox Cable sells their customers on accessing over 300,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, with a prominent asterisk. Access is only available for free if you are a current cable broadband customer.

Our finding: MISLEADING The NCTA is referring to collaboration between Bright House Networks, Cox Communications, Optimum, Time Warner Cable and XFINITY that allow each other’s high-speed Internet customers to use to each company’s Wi-Fi hotspots. They key word is “customers.” The hotspots may be technically reachable by the public, but unless you are a current cable broadband subscriber, using them typically requires the purchase of a daily use pass.

Claim: “Cable will continue to invest, building this platform of possibilities, if we preserve the freedom that created the Internet.”

Our finding: EMPTY CLAIMS The NCTA’s commitment that the cable industry will continue to invest is fulfilled if one cable operator spends just $1 on their network infrastructure. Notice the NCTA does not commit its members to stopping the ongoing decline in broadband investment, much less move to increase it. It also has no explanation for the annual rate increases and new fees and surcharges customers are paying, as the gap between broadband pricing abroad and at home grows even larger. 

“Preserve the freedom” is code language for maintaining the deregulation that the industry has used to its advantage to raise prices in a broadband market most Americans will find is either a monopoly or duopoly. Although the NCTA implies it, the cable industry did not create the Internet. It was a government project (gasp!) initially developed through contracts with the Department of Defense and soon broadened to include educational institutions. The first significant commercial ISPs emerged only in the late 1980s. Cable industry broadband finally showed up around a decade after that. The industry’s claims are akin to boasting Lewis and Clark discovered Kansas City… in 1966.

If the cable industry gets some oversight of its broadband service and enforced protection of Net Neutrality, does that mean investment will flee? First, providers are already spending a lower percentage of capital on broadband expansion in the current deregulatory environment. Second, as broadband becomes the cable industry’s top earner, it provides an endless supply of revenue without the headaches of negotiating programming contracts, dealing with cable television network rate increases, and the growing phenomenon of cord-cutting. In other words, without significant new competition, it remains a license to print money.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/NCTA The Infinite Internet 1-20-15.mp4

The NCTA is trying to make hay with its new video, “The Infinite Internet” which purports to share how Big Cable’s vision of the Internet is making new things possible. They don’t mention many of their member companies want to place a usage cap on that innovation, even as they continue to raise prices way out of proportion of the cost of delivering the service. It’s classic cable industry propaganda. (1:08)

Cuomo Administration Promises $1 Billion for Rural Broadband Expansion Across Upstate New York

ny agendaNew York will see at least $1 billion in investments to expand and improve rural broadband in upstate New York to bring Internet access to every home in the state by 2019, if the state legislature approves the budget for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New-New York Broadband Program.

New York Lieutenant Gov. Kathy Hochul traveled to the North Country to unveil the spending plan in the broadband-challenged Adirondack region.

“Governor Cuomo’s program will be the largest universal broadband deployment in the nation,  investing up to one billion dollars in both public and private resources to connect every New Yorker to high-speed Internet,” Hochul told the audience. “With a state investment of $500 million in capital funds from bank settlements the program will incentivize the private sector to expand high-speed broadband access to under-served New Yorkers. The plan will elevate broadband speeds in under-served areas to previously unheard levels including a minimum speed of 100Mbps, more than ten times the federal definition of broadband.”

New York’s newest broadband initiative comes courtesy of an unexpected windfall of more than $5 billion in legal settlements with crooked banks and mortgage companies that defrauded state residents and helped trigger the Great Recession.

At least $500 million of the settlement fund would be set aside for broadband expansion, with providers required to match any funds received from the state. Time Warner Cable is likely to be awarded a significant percentage of the money, used to expand cable infrastructure into sparsely populated areas that have never met the company’s Return On Investment requirements.

The Cuomo Administration expects little opposition to the plan, because the bulk of the broadband money would be spent in Republican-controlled rural districts and won’t come from taxpayers’ pockets.

Hochul

Hochul

Republican assemblyman Dan Stec’s 114th district is a case in point. Hamilton County has little or no access to broadband service and Stec’s constituents in nearby Essex, Saratoga, Washington and Warren counties have spotty coverage. He’s thrilled the state will likely spend money on broadband in his district.

“There are towns in my district that don’t have good access to the Internet,” Stec said. “Moms and dads will drive their son or daughter and park in the parking lot of the public library or park in the parking lot of Town Hall to access a broadband wireless connection. That’s crazy.  It’s nice to see the governor making the infrastructure investment that needs to be made in the North Country and frankly in all of upstate.”

Although speaking in the Adirondacks, the former congresswoman turned lieutenant governor said there are plenty of areas in western New York that also desperately need broadband access. Regional economic development committees will be responsible for identifying the most broadband-challenged areas where funding should be prioritized.

“I had [served] seven counties including Wyoming, Livingston, Ontario, Niagara, and Genesee,” Hochul said, referring to parts of the 26th Congressional District between the cities of Buffalo and Rochester she lost in the 2012 election. “The Southern Tier has challenges as well. We have a map that shows the areas which do not have the access and so we know where to have a laser focus on increasing that availability. We know New York City is in good shape. The urban areas are in good shape. So this is very much a rural initiative.”

Despite the unlikely case for any significant broadband funding headed downstate, the governor is attempting to carefully balance his overall spending initiatives between upstate and New York City, the latter now demanding a larger share of the settlement money for downstate. To avoid a budget battle between the two regional factions, Gov. Cuomo intends to bundle his spending programs together in a package presented to the state legislature as part of today’s State of the State address.

New York's Broadband Availability Map

New York’s latest Broadband Availability Map, excluding well-covered downstate regions – Areas in white have no broadband access.

“He’s going to present them as part of a package: the New York State Opportunity for All program,” said Hochul. “This is one of the most significant announcements he’s going to make because it’s going to affect the lives of so many millions of people in our state. In this day and age the fastest road to opportunity is the information highway. Probably the comparable analogy would be the interstate highway system back in the 1950’s. That was able to connect communities and enhance commerce. It was transformative. It was essential in its day. That’s the opportunity that lies before us.”

Ironically, the state-funded initiative is likely to deliver faster broadband to rural New York than their more urban neighbors receive. Under the program, grant recipients will have to pledge to deliver at least 100Mbps speeds to customers, except in the most rural areas where the minimum speed requirement will be set at 25Mbps, with upgrades to come later. Most urban residents receive between 3-10Mbps DSL from Verizon or Frontier Communications and 10-15Mbps from Time Warner Cable, the largest cable company in the state. Verizon FiOS delivers even faster broadband to customers in New York City and Long Island, and selected suburbs in Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany.

Providers will be encouraged to use state-owned institutional fiber networks, including one laid along the length of the New York State Thruway, and other government infrastructure wherever possible. That is likely to mean fiber broadband will constitute a major part of the initiative. That pleased the Fiber to the Home Council, which advocates for fiber to the home broadband service.

“The [council] commends Governor Andrew Cuomo on an ambitious plan to hit 100 Mbps in every New York home by Jan. 1, 2019,” read a statement from the Council. “This $500 Million investment into the NYS Broadband Program Office will make high-speed Internet affordable in underserved communities by incentivizing private investment, something the FTTH Council strongly supports.”

The state’s chief digital officer Rachel Haot claimed New York is doing more than any other state to invest in high-speed broadband.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/2015 Opportunity Agenda NY Statewide Broadband Access for Every New Yorker 1-16-15.mp4

Upstate New York officials discuss the broadband problems in rural New York and how they spent years trying to get attention in a state where government is often focused primarily on the interests of New York City. Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul announces a $1 billion statewide broadband improvement program. (44:42)

Mesa County, Col. to Charter Cable: Really, Another Outage? Charter to County: Quit Whining So Much

Phillip Dampier January 19, 2015 Charter, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

pushpollCharter Cable customers in Mesa County, Col., experiencing the latest service outage from the cable company were told to “quit whining” and “check your attitude” when they called Charter’s customer service line to ask when the problems would be fixed.

“If Mesa County didn’t whine so much, maybe something would be done,” one Charter representative told a customer in Grand Junction.

“Talking to [Charter] is like trying to put socks on an octopus,” said Dillard Jenkins.

Stop the Cap! reader June Jones found that to be true when she complained to Charter about not being able to reach 911 on her Charter phone during the recent outage.

“I was unhappy after the representative literally told me ‘that’s not our problem, get a cell phone like everyone else’,” Jones said. “I was so shocked being talked to that way I didn’t know what to say. I am 76 years old and in all my life I have never heard a company use that tone with me. The next thing I heard was, ‘is there anything else? I didn’t think so’ and she just hung up.”

Alex Danders waited on hold 35 minutes to speak to a representative about the Charter Internet outage at his business. He later wish he hadn’t.

“All I wanted to know is if they knew when it was going to be fixed and the guy told me ‘to check my attitude’ and later told me to ‘go screw yourself’ and disconnected me,” said Rodriguez.

Charlotte Conboy is a Charter customer who has had trouble with Charter for the last six months. Her two home-based businesses have suffered from no Internet access during frequent outages.

“If […] their company [had] issues [affecting their offices], they would have it fixed right away” said Conboy. “They say that’s beside the point and I get hung up on.”

charter downA county official calling to find out when repairs would be completed was told, “we have excellent service and do not appreciate your complaint for one incident of interruption of service.”

The latest outage took out Internet service for schools across Mesa County for several hours two days in a row. Teachers scrambled to change their lesson plans to work around the outages.

“I’ll tell you the last couple of weeks the last three weeks or so I’ve been out talking to people, they’re furious, people are upset I mean this is our primary communications,” commissioner Scott McInnis told KKCO. “In exchange for using the right of way we expect them to deliver a service that the reasonable person would say ‘hey the quality of this service is good’ and we expect that [they will] deliver that.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KKCO Grand Junction County Commissioners get involved with Charter issues 1-15-15.flv

KKCO in Grand Junction reports that hundreds of area residents are outraged about ongoing problems with Charter Cable and the rude responses they get when they call Charter’s customer service line. (3:23)

The ongoing problems with Charter Cable and the company’s surly responses to customers prompted a stern letter from the Mesa County Board of Commissioners to Charter Communication’s senior manager of Government Relations. They plan to meet with senior Charter officials today to discuss the matter.

Dear Mr. Rasmussen;

Today we have received multiple complaints from businesses and residents of Mesa County regarding interruption of Charter’s Cable Service. Currently, District 51 Schools are without service and we have been informed that service has been down for several hours.

Please note that this is unacceptable for Charter subscribers who feel that they can go to no one for resolution. When calling the customer service line they are told multiple ‘reasons’ for the outage, including responses such as ‘we have excellent service and do not appreciate your complaint for one incident of interruption of service,’ and ‘If Mesa County didn’t whine so much, maybe something would be done.’

Timely resolution of this issue would be prudent. We are requesting immediate and prompt dispatch of a response team to fix the system post haste; as well as a heightened awareness of the frustration Mesa County subscribers are having with your Customer Service Department. Good faith compliance is implied with the franchise agreement. We have also been informed by the City of Grand Junction that they have also heard from frustrated citizens regarding this issue.

Sincerely,
Mesa County Board of Commissioners
Rose Pugliese, Chair
John Justman
Scott McInnis

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KKCO Grand Junction School district loses phones and internet again 1-16-15.flv

The entire Mesa County school district lost Internet access for a second day after another Charter Cable outage. KKCO reports parents and staff are concerned. (3:08)

 Thanks to reader June Jones for tipping us about this story.

Charlotte, N.C. Better Business Bureau Names Its Top Offender for 2014: Time Warner Cable

Phillip Dampier January 15, 2015 Consumer News, Time Warner Cable 2 Comments

twc logoTime Warner Cable was named by the Better Business Bureau’s its biggest overall offender in the Charlotte region, generating 187 complaints last year, according to the group’s annual year-end report, noted by the Charlotte Observer.

The cable company did not generate enough complaints to put cable and satellite provider complaints in the top complaint categories, however. Broadband providers in the region came in third in complaints, behind new car dealers and collection agencies. Auto repair shops and used car dealers did better, coming in fourth and fifth, respectively.

Time Warner Cable could not be reached for comment, but complaints registered with the BBB against the cable company almost always were resolved to the customer’s satisfaction. Most companies forward BBB complaints to “executive level” customer service supervisors that are empowered to do almost whatever it takes to settle a complaint. In Charlotte, 91 percent of complaints were quickly resolved once registered with the organization.

 

FCC Introduces New Consumer Complaint Center; Will Forward Your Sad Story… Back to the Cable Company

Phillip Dampier January 6, 2015 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment
Lily Tomlin as Ernestine the telephone operator.

Lily Tomlin as Ernestine the telephone operator.

The Federal Communications Commission has mildly beefed up its largely toothless cable complaint hotline with a brand new consumer online complaint center that guarantees to forward submitted angergrams back to your telephone or cable company within one business day.

As Congress largely deregulated cable and competing local telephone exchange carriers and put them out of reach of most federal and state oversight, the FCC has largely been left acting as a concierge – managing and forwarding consumer complaints received on its 1-888-CALL-FCC hotline. Now it has an online complaint center to keep the toll-free number company.

The new FCC website is a one-stop place to file complaints about cable, phone, and other telecom companies and has been simplified to make it easier to understand – a welcome change from the nearly impenetrable Electronic Comment Filing System that dates back to the Clinton Administration.

But in reality, there isn’t much the FCC can actually do to enforce any action in your favor. So if your complaint deals with any of these issues, it is technically outside of the FCC’s jurisdiction:

  • Burial of telephone or cable wires
  • No dial tone to local phone service
  • Stand-alone satellite TV billing, rates and programming
  • Installation of non-bundled service
  • Stand-alone cable TV service, rates and programming (not including basic tier)
  • Internet services, rates, and billing

Despite the limitations, most cable and telephone companies assign executive-level customer service agents and supervisors to manage complaints forwarded from state or federal regulators that could give them headaches later on. That will get you a more empowered representative that can make things happen that “Miss Raisin” in the provider’s Philippines-based call center cannot.

The FCC also gets to track and monitor both the complaints received from consumers and the response from your provider. That can help the FCC identify hot-button issues that need more attention and uncover bad actors that might need special scrutiny, especially if those companies later seek approval for their merger deal or have other business before the FCC.

So far, the largest number of complaints received are about relentless telemarketing robocalls. Since telemarketers have discovered the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call Registry and accompanying enforcement is more “bark” than actual “bite,” an increasing number are ignoring the law with little or no consequences.

The FCC’s disclaimer on such matters does not exactly leave providers quaking in their boots:

We do not resolve individual complaints on these issues. However, the collective data we receive helps us keep a pulse on what consumers are experiencing, may lead to investigations and serves as a deterrent to the companies we regulate.

Time Warner Cable: Deck the Halls with $8 Modem Fees, Fa La La La La, La La La La ($2.75 DTA Fee, Too!)

Phillip Dampier December 22, 2014 Consumer News, Time Warner Cable 6 Comments

grinch3It’s a Merry Christmas from Time Warner Cable, with rate increases for one and all!

The cable company that usually waits for the holiday season to end before sending out annual “rate adjustment” notices got an early start this year with some dramatic price changes for many customers, with further rate hikes likely to follow later in 2015.

Taking a lead from Comcast, Time Warner Cable is hiking its broadband modem lease fee from $6 a month to $8 a month in January. That equals $96 a year for a modem that not too long ago used to be included at no extra charge as part of your broadband subscription. A typical customer with a Motorola SB6141 DOCSIS 3 cable modem can buy a brand new unit for nearly $20 less than what Time Warner will collect from customers each year for refurbished or used equipment… forever.

In 2013, Time Warner Cable’s Rob Marcus admitted the company does not charge modem rental fees to defray the cost of the equipment, but as a hidden rate increase designed to generate more revenue.

“The modem fee is a rate increase by all accounts, it takes a different form than usual […] it’s very much a part of the overall revenue generation program,” Marcus told an audience of investment banks.

Customers that lost analog channels after Time Warner Cable began converting part of its lineup to digital-only service were offered free Digital Adapters to continue receiving digital cable channels on older analog sets. Customers were expecting a promised $0.99 monthly lease fee for the devices starting January 1, 2015. Instead customers will now pay $2.75 a month for each DTA device, estimated to cost cable companies less than $50 each three years ago.

But the charges don’t end there.

  • timewarner twcThe Broadcast TV Surcharge for cable television subscribers will increase from $2.25 to $2.75 a month;
  • A new “Sports Programming Surcharge” of $2.75 a month now applies to all cable television customers, whether they watch sports channels or not;
  • That on-screen program guide does not come for free. The primary outlet “discounted guide” surcharge is rising from $2.77 to $3.27 a month;
  • HBO will increase from $14.99 to $16.99 a month; the Movie Pass package of Encore movie channels and certain other networks is rising $2 a month, from $5.99 to $7.99.

Part of the sales pitch Time Warner makes to justify rate increases is that broadband speeds have increased up to 100Mbps. Except they haven’t in many Time Warner Cable markets, which remain locked in with maximum speeds of 50/5Mbps for the indefinite future.

Thanks to Stop the Cap! reader Joseph for sharing Time Warner’s letter with us.

Comcast on a Store Building Spree; Could Become as Ubiquitous as Verizon Wireless Outlets

Phillip Dampier November 24, 2014 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News 2 Comments

xfinity-store-cottman-600xx4608-3072-0-192Although it is unlikely to rival Starbucks, Comcast has launched a significant number of store openings in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey to handle customer support, bill payments, and equipment exchanges.

Last week the cable company held a special reception to open its 4,000-square foot Xfinity Store in the Roosevelt Mall in northeastern Philadelphia.

The small format stores will resemble the kinds of small stores wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon run to handle customer issues and put the latest equipment on display.

Comcast now operates more than 500 stores nationwide and in October announced it would accept walk in equipment returns at any of the 4,400 UPS Stores. Customers will be able to return unwrapped/unboxed equipment at no charge just by dropping it off.

Comcast has been notorious for its understaffed customer care centers that often force customers to stand in long lines, sometimes extending out the door.

The Trauma Trinity: Comcast, Time Warner, Charter Now America’s Most-Hated Companies

ygbix_logoAmericans would rather deal with unwanted telemarketing calls, fight their insurance company, or pay top dollar for oil and gas because almost anything is better than dealing with the cable company, if it happens to be named Comcast, Time Warner Cable, or Charter.

As state and federal regulators contemplate allowing these three companies to co-mingle, Americans have bottom-rated them like never before in the most recent YouGov BrandIndex survey of consumer satisfaction.

Any number below 60 results in the failing grade of “F” and shame for all concerned. The three cable operators managed a grade of just 13.2, nearly twice worse than the next lowest scoring industry – wireless providers. The cable sector once again achieved the lowest scores among 43 rated industries and has sunk to a level reserved for a war criminal popularity contest.

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YouGov BrandIndex

Although Time Warner Cable’s scores were called “crap” by one consumer advocate reviewing the data, Comcast performed much worse, plummeting to new lows after customers related to the gone-viral recording of Ryan Block’s customer service call from hell. Block spent more than 20 minutes arguing with a cocky and insufferable customer service representative who repeatedly resisted Block’s efforts to cancel his service. It hit a familiar nerve with Comcast customers and the company took a major hit, according to Lance Fraenkel, head of client services for BrandIndex.

cable guy“That to me stands out as a major event over the last few months that has damaged the brand and category perception,” Fraenkel told The Huffington Post.

The proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, although well received by non-profit groups and politicians receiving Comcast contribution checks, is a dead on arrival proposition for average consumers. This allowed Charter, which typically rates about as popular as burnt popcorn, to achieve a new high in its perennially dismal consumer satisfaction score. It can take its “barely neutral” rating to the bank.

But it isn’t bad for everyone. Verizon FiOS in particular achieved top grades for service, with AT&T U-verse also doing better than the cable competition.

“If you have a couple brands in negative territory and the category average is still firmly positive, then you know that there are brands that perform well in the sector,” Fraenkel added.

Comcast and Time Warner Cable both acknowledged their lousy ratings, both promising to continue spending millions improving the customer service experience. Comcast has promised that annually since 2007 and its ratings continue to decline. Many blame offshore call centers and intransigent operators unwilling to depart from a script that emphasizes giving credits and refunds only as a last resort. Most complaining customers are offered temporary discounts on service upgrades, which eventually expire and result in an even higher bill.

Charter couldn’t be bothered responding to a call for a comment. When the alternative is DSL from Frontier, CenturyLink or Windstream, why should they?

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