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A Note to Non-Profits/Civil Rights Groups Supporting the Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

penIf your non-profit or civil rights group has or is thinking of writing a glowing letter in favor of the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, Stop the Cap! is delighted to announce our new Alert Your Donor Base service. Each time we discover a letter submitted to a state or federal regulator announcing your enthusiastic support for the Worst Company in America marrying the second worst, we’ll be sharing that exciting news, along with any contributions we discover Comcast has sent your way, to your members and supporters.

We were surprised to learn that so many non-profit and civil rights groups don’t seem to publicize their sudden fascination with Comcast’s growth agenda. Perhaps it is an oversight. But that’s no problem. We’ll make sure the news lands on your Facebook page, Twitter feed, and your local media outlets. You have nothing to be ashamed about, right?

If donors decide that Comcast has evidently given your group so much support you feel somehow obligated to divert your attention away from your core mission to write a Hallmark Card in favor of $45 billion corporate merger deals, that’s important news for them to know. Perhaps donors will decide it is safe to direct their contributions to the groups that are dedicated to helping real people, not multibillion dollar cable companies.

It’s the least we could do.

Here’s a sample:

Dear Carlisle Hope Station:

For the benefit of your donors, we’d like to share your exciting news that the Carlisle Hope Station of Carlisle, Pa. took valuable time out of its day to send a letter of support for Comcast’s $45 billion merger deal with Time Warner Cable. This merger will have no impact on your group or its constituency because Comcast is already your local cable company. You decided it was best for New Yorkers to also enjoy cable service from the 2014 winner of the Worst Company in America award.

We pondered why your charitable group would spend time, money, and resources on a letter writing campaign for multi-billion dollar corporation. Then we discovered Comcast is a Platinum Donor, contributing more than $10,000 in in-kind/real contributions to your organization. Since Comcast has so generously donated to your effort, perhaps there are other local needy organizations that could do with some donations — ones that don’t have time to write letters to out-of-state regulators about cable company mergers.

Yours very truly,

Stop the Cap!

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Comcast/Time Warner Claim Their Rates, Walk-In Locations, and Merger Plans Are Off Limits to the Public

topsecretComcast and Time Warner Cable want New York State regulators to believe disclosing the locations of their customer care centers, revealing the prices they are charging, and describing exactly what Comcast will do to Time Warner Cable employees and customers post-merger are all protected trade secrets that cannot be disclosed to the general public.

New York Administrative Law Judge David L. Prestemon found scant evidence to support many of the claims made by the two cable companies to keep even publicly available information confidential, despite an argument that disclosure of the “trade secrets” would cause substantial competitive injury. His ruling came in response to a detailed Freedom of Information Law request from New York’s Utility Project which, like Stop the Cap!, is having major problems attempting to find any public interest benefits for the merger of the two cable companies.

The information Comcast and Time Warner Cable want to keep off-limits is vast, including the prices the companies charge for service, their licensed franchise areas, the locations of their call centers and walk-in customer care locations, and what exactly Time Warner Cable is doing with New York taxpayer money as part of the state’s rural broadband expansion program:

“In general, the redacted trade secret information and the Exhibits identified below include, without limitation, information and details concerning (i) the current operations and future business plans of the Companies, (ii) strategic information concerning their products and services, (iii) strategic investment plans, (iv) customer and service location information, and (v) performance data. This highly sensitive information has not been publicly disclosed and is not expected to be known by others. Moreover, given the highly competitive nature of the industries in which Comcast and Time Warner Cable compete, disclosure of these trade secrets would cause substantial injury to the Companies’ competitive positions– particularly since the Companies do not possess reciprocal information about their competitors.”

That’s laughable, declares the Public Utility Law Project.

Norlander (Photo: Dan Barton)

Norlander (Photo: Dan Barton)

“The ‘competition’ for TV, broadband, and phone business in New York generally boils down to a duopoly (phone company or cable ) or at best oligopoly (maybe phone and cable companies plus Dish or wireless), in which  providers are probably able to deduce who has the other customers and likely know, due to interconnection and traffic activity, what their ‘rivals’ are doing,” said Gerald Norlander, who is aggressively fighting the merger on behalf of the Public Utility Project.

Stop the Cap! wholeheartedly agrees and told regulators at the Public Service Commission’s informational meeting held last month in Buffalo that Comcast’s promised merger benefits are uniformly vague and lack specifics. Now we understand why. The public does not have a right to know what Comcast’s plans are.

“When it comes to divulging their actual performance and actual intentions regarding matters affecting the public interest, such as Internet service to schools, extension of rural broadband, service quality performance, jobs in the state, universal service, and so forth, well, that is all a ‘trade secret’ justified by nonexistent competition,” said Norlander. “Thus, the situation remains the same, there is insufficient available evidence to conclude that the putative incremental benefits of the merger outweigh its risks.”

Here is a list of what Comcast and Time Warner Cable believe is none of your business. Judge Prestemon’s rulings, announced this morning, follow. He obviously disagrees. But his decisions can be appealed by either company:

  • nyup“Details of Time Warner Cable’s current broadband deployment plans in New York. In particular, the information contains the specific details about such plans, including the franchise area, county, total miles of deployment, number of premises passed and the completion or planned completion date. Such information is kept confidential by Time Warner Cable” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information regarding the Companies’ promotional rates for service in various locations within their respective footprints – as well as competitive intelligence concerning competitor offerings. This compilation and competitive analysis are not publicly available.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “specific details of Time Warner Cable’s current build-out plans to rural areas of New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans in this area. The information also contains anticipated financial expenditures for Time Warner Cable’s build-out plans. Such information has not been publicly disclosed.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the New York schools and libraries served by Time Warner Cable, as well as information concerning Comcast’s future business plans to serve such entities. This information is kept confidential by Time Warner Cable and has not been disclosed to the public.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the number of Comcast’s “Internet Essentials” customers in New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans for the “Internet Essentials” program.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “the Companies’ detailed customer and service quality data.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the Companies’ current operations and staffing levels in New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans concerning post-merger operations and employee levels.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • Comcast-Logo“information setting forth the number of subscribers to Time Warner Cable’s “Everyday Low Price” broadband service.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • Comcast’s handling of customer requests for an unlisted service, and how Comcast handles customer inquiries related to this subject matter.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “Comcast’s future business plans with respect to particular subject matters.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information and performance statistics relating to the Companies’ call centers in New York and the Northeast.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Time Warner Cable’s operations as they relate to projects funded by federal or state [energy efficiency or distributed energy resource] programs.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Comcast’s operations and future business plans relating to avoidance of truck rolls and vehicle fleets.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information relating to the number of Wi-Fi hotspots that Time Warner Cable has deployed in New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans in this area.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Comcast’s handling of cyber-security issues associated with its Xfinity Home service.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the Companies’ operations and customers in relation to cellular backhaul service.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Time Warner Cable’s projects funded by NYSERDA” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “projects developed in conjunction with New York State” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
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New York City Comptroller Unimpressed With Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

one mbps

“Hey look, is that the Verizon FiOS truck?”

New York City comptroller Scott Stringer is lukewarm at best about the idea of Comcast taking over for Time Warner Cable. In a letter to the New York Public Service Commission released today, Stringer says the deal needs major changes before it comes close to serving the public interest.

“As New York City residents know all too well, our city is stuck in an Internet stone age, at least when compared to other municipalities across the country and around the world,” Stringer wrote. “According to a study by the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, New Yorkers not only endure slower Internet service than similar cities in other parts of the world, but they also pay higher prices for that substandard service. Tokyo residents enjoy speeds that are eight times faster than New York City’s, for a lower price. And Hong Kong residents enjoy speeds that are 20 times faster, for the equivalent price.”

Stringer should visit upstate New York some time. While the Big Apple is moving to a Verizon FiOS and Time Warner Cable Maxx or Cablevision/Optimum future, upstate New York is, in comparison, Raquel Welch-prehistoric, especially if your only choice is Verizon “No, We Won’t Expand DSL to Your House,” or Frontier “3.1Mbps is Plenty” Communications. If New York City’s speeds are slow, upstate New York speeds are glacial.

“The latest data from the FCC shows that, as of June 30, 2013, over 40 percent of connections in New York State are below 3Mbps,” Springer added.

Come for the Finger Lakes, but don’t stay for the broadband.

Should the merger be approved, Comcast would be obligated to comply with the existing franchise agreement between Time Warner Cable and the City of New York. However, in order for the proposed merger to truly be in the public interest, Comcast must have a more detailed plan to address these ongoing challenges and to further close the digital divide that leaves so many low-income New Yorkers cut off from the information superhighway. To date, Comcast’s efforts to close the digital divide have focused on its “Internet Essentials” program, which was launched in 2012.iii The program offers a 5 megabit/second connection for $9.95/month (plus tax) to families matching all of the following criteria:

• Located within an area where Comcast offers Internet service
• Have at least one child eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program
• Have not subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days
• Does not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment

While the aim of the program is laudatory, its slow speed, limited eligibility, and inadequate outreach have kept high-quality connectivity beyond the reach of millions of low-income Americans. Not only are the eligibility rules for Internet Essentials far too narrow, but the company has done a poor job of signing up those who do meet the criteria. In fact, only 300,000 (12 percent) of eligible households nationwide have actually signed up since the program was launched in 2011.

It is critical that the PSC not only press Comcast to significantly expand the reach of Internet Essentials, but also that it engage in appropriate oversight to ensure that the company is meeting its commitments to low-income residents of the Empire State.

Phillip "Comcast isn't the answer to the problem, it's the problem itself" Dampier

Phillip “Comcast isn’t the answer, it’s the problem” Dampier

In fact, the best way New York can protect its low-income residents is to keep Comcast out of the state. Time Warner Cable offers everyday $14.99 Internet access to anyone who wants it as long as they want it. No complicated pre-qualification conditions, annoying forms, or gotcha terms and conditions.

When a representative from the PSC asked a Comcast representative if the company would keep Time Warner’s discount Internet offer, a non-answer answer was the response. That usually means the answer is no.

“We have seen how telecommunications companies will promise to expand access as a condition of a merger, only to shirk their commitments once the merger has been approved,” Springer complained. “For instance, as part of its 2006 purchase of BellSouth, AT&T told Congress that it would work to provide customers ‘greater access and more choices for broadband, no matter where they live or work.’ However, later reports found that the FCC relied on the companies themselves to report their own merger compliance and did not conduct independent audits to verify their claims.”

Big Telecom promises are like getting commitments from a cheating spouse. Never trust… do verify or throw them out. Comcast still has not met all the conditions it promised to meet after its recent merger with NBCUniversal, according to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).

Stringer also blasted Comcast for its Net Neutrality roughhousing:

While the FCC has not declared internet providers to be “common carriers”, state law has effectively done so within the Empire State. Under 16 NYCRR Part 605, a common carrier is defined as “a corporation that holds itself out to provide service to the public for hire to provide conduit services including voice, data, or video by electrical, electronic, electromagnetic or photonic means.”

Importantly, the law requires these carriers to “provide publicly offered conduit services on demand to any similarly situated user on substantially similar terms, subject to the availability of facilities and capacity.”

In recent months, Comcast has shown that it is willing to sacrifice net neutrality in order to squeeze additional payment out of content providers, such as Netflix. As shown in the chart below, Netflix download speeds on the Comcast network deteriorated rapidly prior to an agreement whereby Netflix now pays Comcast for preferential access.

speed changes

concast careConsumers have a legitimate fear that if access to fiber-optic networks is eventually for sale to the highest bidder, then not only will it stifle the entrepreneurial energy unleashed by the democratizing forces of the Internet, but will also potentially lead to higher prices for consumers in accessing content. Under that scenario, consumers are hit twice—first by paying for Internet access to their home and second by paying for certain content providers’ preferred access.

Internet neutrality has been a core principle of the web since its founding and the PSC must examine whether Comcast’s recent deal with Netflix is a sign that the company is eroding this principle in a manner that conflicts with the public interest.

Stringer may not realize Comcast also has an end run around Net Neutrality in the form of usage caps that will deter customers from accessing competitors’ content if it could put them over their monthly usage allowance and subject to penalty rates. Comcast could voluntarily agree to Net Neutrality and still win by slapping usage limits on all of their broadband customers. Either causes great harm for competitors like Netflix.

“I urge the Commission to hold Comcast to that burden and to ensure that the merger is in the best interest of the approximately 2.6 million Time Warner Cable subscribers in New York State and many more for whom quality, affordable Internet access remains unavailable,” Stringer writes. “And I urge Comcast to view this as an opportunity to do the right thing by introducing itself to the New York market as a company that values equitable access and understands that its product—the fourth utility of the modern age—must be available to all New Yorkers.”

If Comcast’s existing enormous customer base has already voted them the Worst Company in America, it is unlikely Comcast will turn on a dime for the benefit of New York.

The best way to ensure quality, affordable Internet access in New York is to keep Comcast out of New York.

No cable company has ever resolved the rural broadband problem. Their for-profit business model depends on a Return on Investment formula that prohibits expanding service into unprofitable service areas.

These rural service problems remain pervasive in Comcast areas as well, and always have since the company took over for AT&T Cable in the early 2000s. Little has changed over the last dozen years and little will change in the next dozen if we depend entirely on companies like Comcast to handle the rural broadband problem.

A more thoughtful solution is encouraging the development of community co-ops and similar broadband enterprises that need not answer to shareholders and strict ROI formulas.

In the meantime, for the good of all New York, let’s keep Comcast south (and north) of the border, thank you very much.

 

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Leaked Memo: Despite Apology, Painful Comcast Retention Call Was Right on Script

Phillip Dampier July 22, 2014 Comcast/Xfinity, Competition, Consumer News 1 Comment

comcast highwayDespite near-automatic apologies from Comcast over an 18-minute customer retention call that seemed to never end, an internal memo written by a major Comcast executive and leaked to several consumer sites, including Stop the Cap!, admits the ruthless length the representative went to avoid disconnecting service was exactly the way Comcast intended it, but next time maybe 18 minutes was a little too long (underlining ours):

A Message From Dave Watson,
July 21, 2014

You probably know that there has been a fair amount of media attention about a recording of a phone call between one of our Customer Account Executives (CAEs) and a Comcast customer. The call went viral on social media and generated news headlines. We have apologized to the customer privately and publicly on Comcast Voices, making it clear that we are embarrassed by the tone of the call and the lack of sensitivity to the customer’s desire to discontinue service.

I’d like to give you my thoughts on the situation.

First, let me say that while I regret that this incident occurred, the experience that this customer had is not representative of the good work that our employees are doing. We have tens of thousands of incredibly talented and passionate people interacting with our customers every day, who are respectful, courteous and resourceful.

That said, it was painful to listen to this call, and I am not surprised that we have been criticized for it. Respecting our customers is fundamental, and we fell short in this instance. I know these Retention calls are tough, and I have tremendous admiration for our Retention professionals, who make it easy for customers to choose to stay with Comcast. We have a Retention queue because we believe in our products, and because we offer a great value when customers have the right facts to choose the package that works best for them. If a customer is not fully aware of what the product offers, we ask the Retention agent to educate the customer and work with them to find the right solution.

The agent on this call did a lot of what we trained him and paid him — and thousands of other Retention agents — to do. He tried to save a customer, and that’s important, but the act of saving a customer must always be handled with the utmost respect. This situation has caused us to reexamine how we do some things to make sure that each and every one of us — from leadership to the front line — understands the balance between selling and listening. And that a great sales organization always listens to the customer, first and foremost.

When the company has moments like these, we use them as an opportunity to get better, and that’s what we’re going to do. We will review our training programs, we will refresh our manager on coaching for quality, and we will take a look at our incentives to ensure we are rewarding employees for the right behaviors. We can, and will, do better.

Thank you for your support, and many thanks to the thousands of exceptional employees all around the country who work so hard to deliver a great customer experience every day. I am confident that together we will continue to improve the experience, one customer at a time.

Dave Watson
Chief Operating Officer, Comcast Cable

Comcast retains one of the lowest customer service ratings of any company in America.

 

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Comcast: When Your “Customer Service” Center Needs Bulletproof Glass, You Are Doing Something Wrong

comcast bullet proof

“Comcast: When Your “Customer Service” Center Needs Bulletproof Glass, You Are Doing Something Wrong”

Inner city KFC? Nope. It’s a Comcast “Customer Care” center. Dane Jasper tweeted this photo out this afternoon, but it’s hardly an isolated case. Last fall, we reported on Comcast’s ‘Don’t Care Customer Center’ in Philadelphia — Comcast’s home. This “misery incarnate” has made certain it keeps customers away from Comcast employees who communicate through a system that resembles a high security bank.

Philebrity describes it far better than we ever could:

“There is a place, way down yonder in the minor key of Delaware Avenue, where even the most resistant Philadelphia lifer can agree that, yes, this area is so stupid that it’s actually okay to call it Columbus Avenue. This is where the United Artists Metaphor-For-The-Failing-Film-Industry Sadplex is, and this is also where the Comcast Get-Out-Of-TV-Jail Center is.

If you have ever had to return your cable boxes or pay your shut-off cable bill in cash because there’s a big pay-per-view wrestling event you need to see that night, you know this place. We know you know. And we know you feel hot shame for ever even knowing what this place is, or standing in its soul-sucking lines on the other side of the bulletproof glass, and we know that you don’t want anyone to know you’ve been there. So we’ll talk about it for you. To know the Comcast Get-Out-Of-TV-Jail Center is to know failure up close, to be on intimate speaking terms with failure, and to know that the conversation with failure is always mostly in the bitter parlance of popular t-shirts from the 1980s: Life’s a bitch and then you die. Sh*t happens.

The line moves slow. The person you meet at the end of the line may be polite and helpful, or they may very clearly be wanting, with their eyes and hair and soul and teeth, for you to die. None of it matters, because the feel is always the same: Governmental. Soviet. If you are in this line, you are on TV welfare, a cog in the entertainment-industrial complex, part of a system that neither wants nor needs you, but is not legally allowed to kill you yet. This is the emergency room of modern malaise.

And for as much lip service as has been paid to the corporate person known as Comcast around here in recent years — that they’re a massive job provider and will only grow, that they could have gone anywhere but they chose Philly, that they may actually help finally plug the brain drain — when many of us here in Philly think about Comcast, this is what we think of. Not the gleaming tower, nor the endless fun of Xfinity, but this place. This sad awful place. Because this is the place that says, “This is really what we think of you. We know you are worthless. Look at you, with your cardboard box of outdated remotes and modems, and your folded up twenties, hauling our sad sh*t back to us like a doting animal with a dead rodent between its teeth. Just look at you. You’re disgusting. You must really, really, really love watching f**king TV. Thank you and have a nice day.”

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New York Public Service Commission Announces Delay in Comcast/TWC Merger Consideration

comcast twcAs more than 2,300 New Yorkers express fierce opposition to the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the New York Public Service Commission has announced a delay in the review of the proposal until October.

The PSC now expects to consider the matter at a meeting to be held October 2. The PSC is also extending the period for the public to comment on the proposed merger.

Your comments are now due no later than Aug. 8, with reply comments from various parties due no later than Aug. 25.

Your input is vital, so please take a few moments to send an e-mail to the PSC with your views.

Here’s an example of one of the letters we are seeing:

Via e-mail: [email protected]
Honorable Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary
New York State Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223

Re: 14-M-0183 – Joint Petition of Time Warner Cable and Comcast for Approval of a Holding Company Level Transfer of Control

Dear Secretary Burgess:

As a resident of this state, who is a customer of Time Warner Cable, I am writing to express my staunch opposition to the above-referenced joint petition. This application should be denied outright, simply put, because the merger of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, and Time Warner Cable, the nation’s second largest company, would be contrary to the interest of consumers in the State of New York, as well as antitrust laws.

Though executives of both applicants are adamant that this proposed merger would benefit consumers and enhance competition, the ominous, far-reaching implications that will undoubtedly follow render these claims, among others, implausible. That is, if this merger were to take place, a virtual monopoly would be created, giving Comcast unprecedented control over cable and broadband internet networks at the expense of not only consumers, who would receive nothing but fewer choices at higher prices, but also rival businesses, whose viability would certainly be stifled. The proposed merger would likewise pose a threat to net neutrality.

Given the abysmal record of Comcast, which includes being fined for failing to comply with the terms and conditions of its previous and similarly controversial merger with NBC Universal, as well as its political clout, it is clear that the approval of this joint petition would both be inconsistent with the mission of this Commission, as as well as the interest of consumers in this state. It should, accordingly, be denied in its entirety.

Respectfully submitted,
Patrick A. Berry
Volunteer, Common Cause New York

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I Love You Comcast! An Amazing 180 for Former Antitrust Attorney David Balto

Phillip "I got whiplash just watching" Dampier

Phillip “I got whiplash just watching” Dampier

A former policy director at the Federal Trade Commission and antitrust attorney at the U.S. Justice Department has managed an impressive 180 in just a few short months regarding the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

In February, David Balto told TheDeal the proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable “is a bad deal for consumers.” Today, Mr. Balto’s panoply of guest editorials, media appearances and columns — suddenly in favor of the merger — are turning up in the New York Times, the Orlando Sentinel, Marketplace, WNYC Radio, and elsewhere.

Balto’s arguments are based on “research” which, in toto, appears to have been limited to thumbing through Comcast’s press releases and merger presentation. That was enough:

First, this deal should create benefits for Time Warner customers, who will gain a significantly faster Internet and more advanced television service.

Second, competition is increasing in both the pay-TV and broadband businesses. Ninety-eight percent of viewers have a choice of three or more multichannel services, plus growing options online. Yahoo just announced a new video service, joining Netflix, Amazon and YouTube. In the last five years, cable has lost about seven million customers, satellite has gained nearly two million, and the telecommunications companies have gained six million.

Third, Comcast’s post-merger share of broadband falls closer to 20 percent when including LTE wireless and satellite providers. Over all, 97 percent of households have at least two competing fixed broadband providers — three or more if mobile wireless is included.

We used to wonder why government officials and regulators were so easily fooled by the corporate government relations people sent into their offices armed with press releases, talking points, cupcakes, and empty promises. We understand everyone isn’t a Big Telecom expert, but too often regulators’ reflexive acceptance of whatever companies bring to their table threatens to win them rube-status. We’d like to think Mr. Balto isn’t Comcast’s sucker, and we certainly hope there are no unspoken incentives on the table in return for his recent, very sudden conversion to celebrate all-things Comcast. Maybe he’s simply uninformed.

Balto

Balto

Although our regular readers — nearly all consumers and customers — are well-equipped to debunk Mr. Balto’s arguments, for the benefit of visitors, here is our own research.

First, Comcast’s Internet service is not faster than Time Warner Cable. Mr. Balto needs to spend some time away from Comcast’s merger info-pack and do some real research. He’ll find Time Warner Cable embarked on a massive upgrade program called TWC Maxx that is more than tripling broadband speeds for customers at no extra charge. Those speeds are faster than what Comcast offers the average residential customer, and come much cheaper as well. Oh, and TWC has no compulsory usage limits and overlimit penalties. Comcast’s David Cohen predicts every Comcast customer will face both within five years.

Second, that “advanced TV platform” Balto raves about requires a $99 installation fee… for an X1 set-top box. It also means equipment must be attached to every television in the house, because Comcast encrypts everything. At a time when customers want to pay for fewer channels, Comcast wants to shovel even more unwanted programming and boxes at customers. Older Americans who want their Turner Classic Movies have another nasty surprise. They will need to buy Comcast’s super deluxe cable TV package to get that network, at a cost exceeding $80 a month just for television. Ask Time Warner customers what they want, and they’ll tell you they’d prefer old and decrepit over an even higher cable TV bill Comcast has already committed to deliver.

Has competition truly increased? Not in the eyes of most Americans who at best face a duopoly and annual rate hikes well in excess of inflation. Even worse, for most consumers there is only one choice for 21st century High Speed Internet service – the cable company. Mr. Balto conveniently ignores the fact cable’s primary competitor is still DSL which is simply not available at speeds of 30+Mbps for most consumers. In some areas, like suburban Rochester, N.Y., the best the local phone company can deliver some neighborhoods like ours is 3.1Mbps. That isn’t competition. Verizon and AT&T have both stopped expanding DSL. Verizon has ended FiOS expansion and AT&T’s U-verse still maxes out at around 24Mbps for most customers. AT&T’s promised fiber upgrades have proven to be more illusory than reality, available primarily in a handful of multi-dwelling units and new housing developments. In rural areas, both major phone companies are petitioning to do away with landline service and DSL altogether.

Raise your hands if you want Comcast’s “benefits.” In New York, out of 2,300 comments before the PSC, we can’t find a single one clamoring for Comcast’s takeover. The public has spoken.

Cable "competition" in Minneapolis

Cable “competition” in Minneapolis. Charter and Comcast have also teamed up to trade cable territories as part of the Time Warner Cable merger package deal.

Satellite television’s days of providing the cable industry with robust competition have long since peaked. AT&T is seeking to further reduce that competition by purchasing DirecTV, not because it believes in satellite television, but because it wants the benefits of DirecTV’s lucrative volume discounts.

Any antitrust attorney worth his salt should be well aware of what kind of impact volume discounting can have on restraining and discouraging competition. Comcast’s deal for Time Warner will let it acquire programming at a substantial discount (one they have already said won’t be passed on to customers) so significant that any would-be competitors would be in immediate financial peril trying to compete on price.

Frontier Communications learned that lesson when it acquired a handful of Verizon FiOS franchises in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest. After losing Verizon’s volume discounts, Frontier was so alarmed by the wholesale renewal rates it received, it let loose its telemarketing force to convince customers fiber was no good for television and they should instead switch to a satellite provider they partnered with. It’s telling when a company is willing to forfeit revenue in favor of a third party marketing agreement with an outside company.

So what does this mean for a potential start-up looking to get into the business? Since programming is now a commodity, most customers buy on price. The best triple-play deals will go to the biggest national players with volume discounts – all cable operators that have long agreed never to compete directly with each other.

In the Orlando Sentinel, Mr. Balto seemed almost relieved when he concluded Comcast and Time Warner don’t compete head-to-head, somehow easing any antitrust concerns. It is precisely that fact why this deal must never be approved. Comcast has been free to compete anywhere Time Warner provides service, but has never done so. Letting Comcast, which has even worse approval ratings than Time Warner, become the only choice for cable broadband is hardly in the public interest and does nothing for competition. Instead, it only further consolidates the marketplace into a handful of giant companies that can raise prices and cap usage without restraint.

If Mr. Balto truly believes AT&T and Verizon will ride to the rescue with robust wireless broadband competition, his credibility is in peril. Those two companies, among others, are completely incapable of meeting the growing broadband demands (20-50GB) of the home user. With punishing high prices and staggeringly low usage caps, providers are both controlling demand and profiting handsomely from rationing service at the same time. Why change that?

No 3G/4G network under current ordinary traffic loads can honestly deliver a better online experience than DSL, and customers who attempt to replace their home broadband connection in favor of wireless will likely receive a punishing bill for the attempt at the end of the month. The only players who want to count mobile broadband as a serious competitor in the home broadband market are the cable and phone companies desperately looking for a defense against charges they have a broadband monopoly or are part of a comfortable duopoly.

One last point, while Mr. Balto seems impressed that Comcast would continue to voluntarily abide by the Net Neutrality policies he personally opposes, he conveniently omits the fact Comcast was the country’s biggest violator of Net Neutrality when it speed limited peer-to-peer traffic, successfully sued the government over Net Neutrality after it was fined by the FCC for the aforementioned violation, and only agreed to temporarily observe Net Neutrality as part of its colossal merger deal with NBCUniversal. It’s akin to a mugger promising to never commit another crime after being caught red-handed stealing. A commitment like that might be good enough for Mr. Balto, but it isn’t for us.

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Not Only Was Comcast’s Customer Retentions Guy Annoying, He Was Also Factually Wrong

astound-broadband-logoNearly two million people have listened to the Comcast customer service call from hell since it went viral earlier this week.

Comcast quickly decided it was best to apologize:

We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and Ms. Belmont and are contacting them to personally apologize. The way in which our representative communicated with them is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives. We are investigating this situation and will take quick action. While the overwhelming majority of our employees work very hard to do the right thing every day, we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with the utmost respect.

csrSetting aside all that, we decided to investigate why Mr. Block was willing to subject himself to 18 minutes of phone hell to cancel his service.

At one point, we learn he is switching to Astound, a provider of cable TV, broadband internet, and telephone services on the West Coast, serving over 325,000 residential and business customers within communities in the San Francisco Bay area. Astound is an overbuilder, which means it is one of those rare instances where Comcast faces head to head competition with a company that can deliver more than DSL.

Although Comcast’s rep swore Comcast had the fastest Internet speeds (it doesn’t) and can deliver maximum savings (also wrong), it turns out Astound offers both cheaper and faster Internet service. We’d probably switch too, although we wish Astound would dump its 1TB monthly usage cap. How many customers even come close to that isn’t known, but it is likely under 1%, which makes us wonder why they bother with a cap at all?

We collected pricing information from both Astound and Comcast’s websites and here is what we found:

Stop the Cap! will include this incident in our formal filings with the FCC and New York State Public Service Commission in opposition to the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast. Comcast customers tell us Mr. Block’s experiences, although extreme, are not uncommon when dealing with Comcast’s customer retention department.

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Friday is the Deadline for Net Neutrality Comments With the FCC; Here’s How to Get Yours Submitted

netneutralityFriday is the last day to submit your views on Net Neutrality with the Federal Communications Commission. Although there may be some future opportunities to comment, it’s important to make your voice heard with the FCC today. Almost 650,000 Americans have done so to date, and we need to see this number rise even higher to combat the influence and power of Big Telecom companies looking to turn the Internet into a corporate toll booth.

If you recall, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is promoting a scheme where big ISPs like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast can divide up the Internet and introduce toll lanes allowing preferred paid traffic to travel on the Internet at faster speeds, usually at the expense of unpaid traffic that will get relegated to an Internet slow lane. It’s pay to play, and customers of these ISPs are already getting a preview of the new corporate road map for the net. Netflix viewers on ISPs that don’t have a paid agreement to handle video traffic suffer from rebuffering and lower quality video. But ISPs collecting tolls from Netflix don’t subject their customers to a degraded online video experience. Of course, before ISPs realized they could make money selling fast lanes, Netflix worked fine on virtually all of these providers.

Wheeler’s proposal would extend the two-tiered Internet to other websites and service providers, allowing big telecom companies to hand-pick winners and losers and discriminate in favor of their own Internet traffic. Comcast does that today with online video on certain game consoles. If that video comes from Comcast, it doesn’t count against any usage caps. If it doesn’t, it could get rough sticking to Comcast’s arbitrary usage allowance.

The FCC is in way over its head, unaware of the creative ways ISPs can find loopholes large enough to drive through any well-intentioned consumer protections. There is only once certain way to keep ISPs honest — reclassify them as what they should have been all along – a telecommunications service subject to common carrier rules. That would guarantee ISPs could not meddle with your Internet service for financial gain, could not artificially slow down “non-preferred” traffic to make room for paid traffic, and would guarantee that Internet applications of the future will succeed or fail on their merits, not on how much money they are willing to spend.

Since the FCC website is jammed today, we recommend e-mailing the Commission by this Friday at: [email protected]

Our friends at Free Press have published some sample comments they are getting, which may help you formulate yours. Here is ours as well:

Dear Chairman Wheeler,

Although we believe your intentions are good, your proposed Net Neutrality rules simply do not afford enough protection to preserve a free and open Internet. Troubling signs are already clear as providers test how much they can get away with meddling with Internet traffic. The wireless experience is replete with examples of selective speed throttling, usage caps, and traffic discrimination that allows some content to escape the usage meter and throttle while competitors cannot.

The Internet is a transformative experience for many Americans because for the first time in a long time, entrepreneurs can build online businesses that are judged on their merit, not on how much money they have to spend to achieve and maintain prominence. Anything that allows an ISP to collect additional funds for a “preferred” traffic lane will come at the detriment of others who have to share the same broadband pipe. This is especially evident in the wireless world, which escaped even the light touch regulatory framework of your predecessor. Providers promptly began creating new schemes to further monetize growing data traffic, bandwidth shortage or not. Almost none of these changes really benefit customers — they are simply new revenue-making schemes.

A foreshadowing of what is likely to happen under your proposal is also apparent with Comcast and Netflix. For several years subscribers had no trouble accessing online video. But when the issue of traffic compensation was reintroduced by Internet Service Providers, the upgrades to manage natural Internet growth largely stopped and the Netflix viewing experience on these ISPs deteriorated. Verizon, AT&T and Comcast all argue that a paid traffic deal would adequately compensate them to enhance the viewing experience customers already pay good money to receive with or without a paid peering arrangement with Netflix.

Money drives these debates. If an ISP properly managed their broadband infrastructure, there would be no incentive for any company to contract for a better online experience on a so-called “fast lane” because existing service would perform more than adequately. When a company cuts back on those upgrades, a market for paid prioritization appears. Customers will ultimately pay the price, primarily to ISPs that already enjoy an enormous margin selling broadband service at inflated prices.

A rising tide floats all boats, so your focus should not be as short-sighted as allowing ISPs to divide up the limited broadband highway. The FCC should instead focus on setting the conditions to hasten new competition and force existing providers to upgrade and maintain their networks for the benefit of all subscribers and content producers. The FCC must also move swiftly to cancel state bans on community broadband networks, eliminate regulations that deter broadband start-ups, and maintain enough oversight to guarantee a level playing field on which all can compete.

There is only one way to effectively accomplish all that. Reclassify broadband service the way it should have been classified all along: as a telecommunications service subject to common carrier regulations. Canada has been very successful requiring ISPs to open their last mile networks to competitors, which have allowed people to avoid compulsory usage caps. Customers have a choice of multiple providers from their local phone or cable company, giving rise to much-needed competition.

With strong Net Neutrality, consumers can reach the websites they want without interference. Ignore nonsense suggesting Net Neutrality is a government takeover or censors the Internet — two provably false assertions. In fact, Net Neutrality is the opposite.

I urge you to move with all speed towards reclassification, if only to prevent the inevitable legal challenges to any future policies built on the shakier ground of the current framework, which has not held up well under court scrutiny. I hope the voices of more than a half-million Americans contacting you on this issue will be more than enough to overcome industry objections. We are not asking for 1950s-style telephone regulations. We just want a legally affirmed platform that allows the Internet of today to continue being successful tomorrow.

Yours very truly,

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Canceling Comcast Is Like a Bad Breakup – Listen and Cringe As Comcast Desperately Begs You to Stay

Comcast-LogoDo you remember that high school love that killed you when they decided it was time to move on? You begged, you pleaded for them to change their mind to no avail. Nothing you said made any difference.

Some people never get over that teenage tragedy… and then they go to work for Comcast’s customer retention department indefatigably browbeating departing customers in a misguided effort to salvage damaged relationships with the cable company.

Stop the Cap! reader Bryan shares with us several minutes of the Block family’s life they’ll never get back. After 10 minutes on the phone repeatedly requesting to cancel Comcast service, Block and his wife decided to record the ongoing absurdity to share with the world. The result is eight more minutes of cringing embarrassment as an increasingly exasperated retention representative repeatedly demands to know why they want to leave.

never leaveIt all sounds like eavesdropping on your roommate’s breakup with their boyfriend. Or leaving a cult. This guy just can’t understand what the heck you were thinking when you decided Comcast was no longer right for you. Block was in no mood to explain himself, but for the benefit of others, we’d love to arm you with a few reasons to explain why you don’t want anything more to do with Comcast:

“Being that we are the number one provider of Internet and TV service in the entire country, why is that you are not wanting to have the number one rated Internet service available,” the retention rep demanded to know.

Our answer: Because you want to cap our broadband experience, you charge outrageous prices for renting a cable modem, and your speed claims mean nothing if we don’t actually get those speeds because of yet another outage or service problem.

“So you’re not interested in the fastest Internet in the country,” Comcast’s rep asks.

Our answers: Sure I am, which is why I am switching to the fiber competitor that delivers those speeds -0r- Not if you are putting a usage cap on me. Who wants a Ferrari they are told can’t be driven beyond the block?

“You don’t want something that works? …So why don’t you want something that’s good service and something that works,” asks Comcast’s rep.

Our answer: Do you actually subscribe to Comcast yourself? You guys didn’t win Worst Company in America honors for nothing.

“I’m really ashamed to see you go to something that can’t give you what we can,” argues the rep.

Our answer: That’s right. My long ongoing nightmare of bad service, high prices, and usage capped Internet is finally over. See ya.

If you really want Comcast to convince you to stay, tell them you want a permanent waiver in writing from any usage limits and/or overlimit fees. Demand aggressive discounts that deliver real savings, and never take their first offer. If they can waste 18 minutes of Ryan Block’s time, you can be just as ruthless when demanding a better deal for yourself.

As Ryan indicates, this retention representative is the perfect example of how Comcast won its reputation as one of most hated companies in America.

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