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Updated: Arrest Made But Charges Dropped; Vandals Cut Charter’s Fiber Cables in Queens Again

A second fiber cut in two weeks left 30,000 Queens residents with no cable service for hours. (Image: CBS New York)

A second major cable outage in two weeks left 30,000 Queens customers of Charter Communications without phone, TV and internet service Tuesday, after vandals severed the company’s fiber optic cables.

A Long Island man was arrested Wednesday night at his Long Island home for allegedly causing the first outage, which wiped out service in the same area for almost 16 hours on June 26.

The NYPD issued a press release stating Michael Tolve (48) of Wantagh, N.Y. was charged with criminal mischief and is alleged to have cut fiber cables and removed a digital memory card from a nearby surveillance camera to avoid being detected. He was later identified from other surveillance camera footage.

Charter Communications claims Tolve is a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 3, one of the unions that has been involved in a strike against Charter for several months. He worked as a fiber technician for both Charter Communications and its predecessor Time Warner Cable for 14 years. The cable company puts the damage estimate for the first cable cut in June at $67,000. Charter claims it has experienced 106 malicious cable cuts in its New York-area network since unionized cable technicians went on strike on March 28. The company has filed police reports on all of them.

“It’s disappointing that one of our employees would unlawfully sabotage the infrastructure we all work so hard to maintain and inconvenience our customers in this way,” Charter spokesman John Bonomo said in an email. “We intend to support the prosecution of these crimes to the fullest extent of the law, as they put our customers’ well-being in jeopardy, cause local businesses to suffer, and are a general inconvenience for all.”

Both fiber cuts strategically affected the largest possible number of customers with the least amount of effort. Charter officials said they detected the fiber cuts and dispatched repair crews immediately, but restoring service was “a gradual process” that took several hours.

Update (7/17): The Queens district attorney’s office has declined to press charges against Tolve, and all charges against him have been dropped pending an additional investigation.

 

Tennessee Electric Co-Op Threatens to Rip Comcast’s Wires Off Its Poles Next Week

If Comcast doesn’t send a check for $176,000 to cover the last three years of pole attachment fees owed to the Southwest Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation (STEMC), the electric co-op is prepared to rip Comcast’s lines right off its poles.

Comcast, under a license agreement with the utility, pays a small fee to the utility to place its infrastructure on its utility poles. Comcast has not paid since June 2014, and if the cable giant doesn’t send a check by June 28, STEMC will remove Comcast’s attachments from their poles, knocking out cable service for thousands of customers.

“We’ve been going back and forth with them for going on three years now trying to get payment out of them,” said STEMC chief financial officer Scott Sims.

A notice on STEMC’s website explains Comcast’s foot-dragging isn’t fair to the cooperative:

We regret that some customers may lose their Comcast service.  However, the full cost and maintenance of these utility poles are borne by all members of STEMC, and we cannot allow STEMC members to subsidize Comcast’s services.  We are hopeful that Comcast will make payment prior to the deadline and avoid the need to remove their cable attachments.

Many residents are taking the side of the utility, pointing out Comcast would have shut off their cable service long before Comcast’s three years of non-payment.

A Comcast representative told WREG-TV that STEMC started billing Comcast double what they used to, claiming to have discovered previously unbilled pole attachments. Comcast wanted evidence of these attachments from STEMC, despite the fact they were capable of counting their own cable subscribers in the area, and refused to make a payment until this information was provided. Comcast claims it finally got evidence this month.

“Since receiving that information, we have completed our own audit and are taking the appropriate next steps to arrange for payment in the correct amount,” Comcast said in a released statement. “We look forward to working with STEMC to resolve this issue quickly and ensure that our mutual customers’ services are not disrupted.”

Cord-Nevers Still Not Interested, Even With “Skinny Bundles”

Phillip Dampier June 14, 2017 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 4 Comments

Consumers who refuse to pay for cable television today still won’t pay for it tomorrow, even if they are offered a slimmed-down “skinny bundle” of cable networks for less money.

Sanford Bernstein media analyst Todd Juenger continued a series of focus groups with consumers to find if alternatives to cable television are attractive to consumers. The under-40 sample mixed cord-cutters and current cable and satellite customers and presented them with a range of recently available options from Sling, DirecTVNow and YouTube TV and asked if they would subscribe.

Once again, Juenger discovered the group most likely to subscribe to a cable-TV alternative already had pay television and often paid for the top-tier of service. So far, many of those customers are sampling different services but have not taken the last step of dropping their existing cable television package.

Multichannel News reports most won’t disconnect because of the lack of DVR service from most cable-TV alternatives. Until robust cloud-based DVR service is widely available and not hobbled by a lack of fast-forwarding functionality, new streaming services like DirecTVNow probably will never replace cable television.

Cable-nevers — mostly younger consumers that have never paid for cable television, still don’t seem to be willing to pay for online alternatives either. Most cited the fact they watched individual shows, not channels, and most “skinny bundles” invariably lacked certain networks with the programming they wanted to watch. Many would prefer to subscribe to television shows, not networks.

Cable TV pricing, widely slammed by many customers as too high, didn’t seem to matter as much to those participating in the series of focus groups. When asked what cable networks they would be willing to pay $5 a month each to watch, ESPN was rated on top, followed by Food Network, FX, HGTV, Logo, NBCSN, Syfy and VH1 — many carrying niche shows and original content not available elsewhere. If all eight networks were bundled together, that would cost $40, considerably more than the per channel price of much larger packages.

While older cable subscribers tend to watch programming from the same 6-10 cable networks, younger viewers seek out specific shows, and may not be able to identify what cable networks air them. They also watch on-demand more than older viewers.

Does Charter Charge $5 to Talk to a Human Rep? Only When You Want to Pay Them

Phillip Dampier May 25, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Video 2 Comments

Eleanor Lloyd of Chili, N.Y., was stunned when she was told there was a $5 fee to talk to a Charter/Spectrum customer service representative over the phone.

“So I said, ‘I’d like to talk to a representative.’ ‘Well that’ll cost you, just to let you know we charge $5 to talk to a representative’ and I just was — ‘what?'” Lloyd, who is 86, said at her kitchen table speaking with News10NBC in Rochester, N.Y. on Wednesday.

Lloyd had a billing question for the cable company that took over for Time Warner Cable in western New York this spring. But Charter’s automated call attendant informed her that the cable company now charges to speak to a live person about billing issues.

That news stirred WHEC-TV to do a significant story about the issue on last evening’s 6pm local news. It fits a narrative that greedy cable companies are out for as many bucks as they can successfully remove from their customers’ wallets.

The station reported Lloyd could have her billing questions resolved online for free, which is a problem for her because she does not own a computer. But at least Charter only charges the $5 fee once a month, so future calls during that month will be answered for free.

Lloyd (Image: WHEC)

Unfortunately, the station’s report about this issue isn’t precise enough to be completely accurate.

Charter/Spectrum does charge a $5 fee, but only if a customer chooses not to use Charter’s automated pay-by-phone system to make a payment on their account. The same automated attendant that directs callers to the proper department when they call the cable operator is also fully capable of taking a payment over the phone. The confusion is apparently over whether that fee also applies to customers with billing questions, and we can tell readers it does not.

Charter, which introduced the bill payment fee back in October 2016 has never imposed a fee for a customer calling in to discuss a billing problem or concern. The $5 fee is disclosed in the company’s terms and conditions and it only applies if a customer refuses to use the automated attendant to make a payment on their account. If a subscriber specifically requests a live operator take their payment information, the fee applies. Agents may also be able to waive it on a case-by-case basis, something an automated call attendant isn’t capable of doing.

Therefore, if you have a billing issue, it is actually very easy to avoid the $5 fee:

  • If you are calling to discuss your bill, request credit, or ask a question about the bill, there is no fee.
  • If you want to make a payment on your account online, there is no charge for that service.
  • If you want to make a payment by phone, the automated attendant is capable of taking your payment details over the phone and complete a payment request at no charge.
  • If you want to make a payment by phone and don’t want to use the automated call attendant, a $5 fee will generally apply. Ask if they will waive it if you have problems with the automated attendant.

WHEC-TV in Rochester reports a local customer was asked to pay a $5 fee to make payment arrangements over the phone with Charter Communications. (2:39)

Help Wanted: Charter Seeks “Door Collectors” to Hound Past Due Customers at Home

Phillip Dampier May 18, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News 1 Comment

Charter Communications customers that fall past-due on their cable bills can expect a personal visit from a contractor looking for payment or your cable equipment if you refuse to pay and get disconnected.

Spectrum’s designated “door collector” in several states is Makotek, which claimed in a Craigslist ad recruiting new workers that it “is contracted by Spectrum to handle non-pay work orders for their entire New York footprint. We are now hiring for our office in all areas in Central N.Y.”

While its recruiting and training videos emphasize its workers should be polite and professional, the firm prominently displays a shark in its logo.

“Door collectors” are usually sent by cable operators after service is disconnected from the office for non-payment. Their mission is to collect past-due payments anyway possible, even if it takes a post-dated check. A training video emphasizes the psychology employed by door collectors to get paid or retrieve the company’s equipment from customers who won’t or can’t bring their account current.

Employees are advised to park their truck near a utility pole to send an impression permanent service disconnection is imminent. They are also advised to repeatedly return to a customer’s home to find someone authorized to cut them a check or make a credit card payment. The training video details how to respond to the myriad of excuses customers can give for not paying, and what to do when a customer becomes irate. At all times, employees are told to stay focused on one thing: payment in full.

Makotek is not the only door collector employed by the cable industry. Boxco manages door collections for Comcast and its help wanted ad suggests the caliber of candidates it apparently attracts:

REQUIREMENTS- If you have worked Comcast, you know the drill. ** Excellent Verbal Communication skills – SPANISH SPEAKING is a plus! **Weekdays til 9pm and Saturday work hours ** NO FELONY or Aggravated Misdemeanor Conviction in past 10 Years ** Pass yearly or on demand Drug Screen ** YOU WILL NOT ENTER ANY HOME WITHOUT AN ADULT PRESENT ** Clean Cut Appearance with friendly attitude. ** Presentable Car or Late Model Truck/Van in good running condition ** Active Cell Phone-(with Text Messaging)

Here is how Makotek trains its workers to rescue past-due cable accounts. Take away message: They have already heard every excuse. (18:03)

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