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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 3 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)

Charter Blames Departing Time Warner Cable Customers for Customer Losses

Phillip Dampier May 2, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Competition, Consumer News 5 Comments

Buh, bye Charter!

Despite happy talk from Charter Communications about a “new day” with Spectrum packages and pricing, some former Time Warner Cable customers are voting with their feet and canceling service when their promotional pricing packages end and rates have nowhere to go but up.

More than 100,000 video customers left Charter during the first quarter of 2017, the majority former TWC customers facing repricing and package changes as their bundle pricing and promotions expired. At that point, rates spike dramatically and customers have to choose a Spectrum package many don’t like or leave.

With only 17% of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers nationwide having switched to Spectrum plans and pricing, Charter has a long way to go and a lot of customers to lose because of the company’s unwillingness to negotiate.

“As we’ve implemented consistent retention policies nationwide, we’re managing through higher churn at TWC in the short term,” noted Charter’s chief financial officer Christopher Winfrey. “As we migrate and replace the legacy base through a disciplined approach, legacy TWC churn will improve.”

In plain English, Charter has dramatically curtailed promotional customer retention offers and has refused to negotiate with customers that have been on promotional packages for years. Hardest hit are Time Warner Cable customers, and Charter is willing to let them walk instead of extending lower prices.

“The TWC churn, somebody was given a $10 unlimited video basic package, where can you move them?” asked Winfrey. “And they have an exploding offer. It was promotional offer. Where can you move them that’s a satisfactory place relative to what they were given before.”

This Dexter, Mich. Charter customer delivers a “thumbs-down” to the company’s “terrible service.”

CEO Thomas Rutledge has been harshly critical of Time Warner Cable’s penchant to reach for promotional pricing to keep customers happy. He has instituted “discipline” to get customers away from the idea they can get a lower cable bill just by asking. Rutledge understands most of his customers don’t have a great alternative and are effectively captive to limited competitive options. For Rutledge, by taking away discounted options, customers can be retrained to accept higher prices as a fact of life.

So far, many former Time Warner Cable customers are not willing to be led to a higher bill and as their legacy promotions expire, families are having conversations about dropping service(s) as a result of price and Charter’s intransigence about lowering it.

First quarter results show the first, and widely expected victim of Charter’s “repricing” is Time Warner Cable’s home phone product, which has been offered in bundles for $9.99 a month over at least the last four years. Charter discontinued Time Warner Cable’s popular international calling feature which offered free calling to the European Union, parts of Latin America and Asia. It also raised the promotional price to $19.99 a month, and now limits free long distance calling to the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marianas.

As customers transition to Spectrum plans, they are leaving their voice lines largely behind as a result. During the first quarter of 2017, Charter only picked up 37,000 new Spectrum phone customers signing up for a Spectrum package versus 213,000 last year. Price was the only factor mentioned for the decline.

Decisions about cord-cutting are also being made at many former Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks homes when Spectrum’s new cable television offer is presented to customers. Cindy Sims of Apopka, Fla., summed it up this way: “They are raising prices and doing nothing different.”

Customers with limited budgets or fixed incomes are being priced out of Spectrum.

Sims is former Bright House Networks customer who saw her bill jump from $150 to $175 a month after Charter Communications took over. Since she is a “new customer” of Charter Communications, she hoped to get an introductory offer from the company but Charter no longer considers its acquired customers “new customers,” so she was forced into Spectrum’s regular pricing, which is higher than what she paid before. She is not alone. Charter executives admit customer cancellation/retention call center contacts from former Time Warner Cable customers are 50-60% higher than those of legacy Charter customers that have been with the company for several years.

The last straw for many is the fact customers often find they have to upgrade to the most expensive TV package to keep the channels they had before.

“They are kicking the old customers in the butt,” she added, noting that some Charter representatives handling customers threatening to leave have gotten downright nasty and rude on the phone.

Given no good alternative, some customers decide the time is right to cut cable-TV for good, and TWC’s video net loss was 129,000 worse than last year. The company claims over 90% of the losses were from budget-priced, limited-basic TV disconnects. Charter prefers to sell customers large bundles of channels for considerably more, while Time Warner Cable offered local channels and a small selection of cable networks for as little as $10 a month to certain internet-only customers.

The customer losses are expected to continue for up to a year as the other 83% of customers still on a legacy Time Warner Cable or Bright House Networks package see their prices jump as promotions end. For now, Charter won’t force customers to move to a Spectrum package, but by refusing to negotiate lower prices for legacy packages, the rate increases that happen after regular rates return are enough to push many customers to make a decision to switch or cancel service.

How much of a rate jump? Consider one Time Warner Cable triple-play package with Whole House DVR service, phone and 50/5Mbps internet access reset from $129 a month to $180 after the year-long promotion expired. A comparable package from Spectrum is still $30-40 higher than what Time Warner Cable used to charge.

The impact of the transition to Charter’s Spectrum plans and pricing is also dragging down growth of its internet service. Customers signed up for less expensive and slower tiers with Time Warner Cable are being priced out of the market by Charter’s single-advertised offer – 60 or 100Mbps for approximately $65 a month ($45 for new customers), depending on the area. Higher speed tiers are available if customers call in, if only to give them the bad news a $199 upgrade fee typically also applies.

As a result, residential internet growth among customers signing up for a Spectrum plan was 428,000 during the quarter versus 520,000 last year.

Despite the concerning numbers, Rutledge declared victory and claimed Charter would continue full-speed ahead.

“As we near the first anniversary of the close of our transformative transactions in May of last year, the execution of our integration and operating plan remains on track,” Rutledge said in a statement. “We have now launched our Spectrum pricing and packaging to nearly all of the homes we pass in our new footprint. We are already seeing the benefits of our customer-focused strategy in those markets, including greater connect volumes and the sales of higher quality products, all of which will lead to higher customer satisfaction, lower churn, and faster customer and financial growth in future quarters.”

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  • Josh: Ugh. If I used Comcast for TV I'd be using it with my TiVo...never with their box. And I always figured the "Xfinity" thing was just to trick people...
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  • FredH: Like cable company CEOs need to be told to raise prices by some a-hole Wall Street analyst....
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