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FCC Chairman Gives Green Light for More Cable Mergers; Calls and Reassures Cable Execs Some Deals Are Okay

Wheeler

Wheeler

Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler personally called the chief executives of some of America’s largest cable operators, including Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable, to reassure them that the agency does not object to future cable industry consolidation.

Wheeler said any new merger deal would be assessed on its own merits, and cable executives should not assume the agency is against future cable mergers just because it objected to the Comcast/Time Warner Cable deal.

The Wall Street Journal reports Wheeler sought to “clear the air” in response to industry hand-wringing over whether future buyouts and acquisitions could get passed the FCC. Wheeler reassured executives they were over-reading the commission’s intent.

Wheeler did suggest he would like to see more competition among cable companies, an idea that has been dead on arrival since the cable industry began colluding to agree to stay out of each other’s territories two decades ago. Although Wheeler would like to see competition increased by cable operators competing head to head for customers, it is much more likely the industry will seek further consolidation to reduce the prospect of competition, not increase it.

The larger the cable operator, the greater the economy of scale — especially for cable programming costs. A potential new entrant would likely be discouraged from entering the business, discovering it had no prospect of getting cable programming at prices comparable to what the largest cable operators pay.

Comcast Blames Victim’s Family, Not Its Alarm System, for Failure to Alert Police Their Son Was Being Tortured

comcast home

If it works properly

Comcast has blamed its customer for the failure of its home security system to detect a break in and alert police before intruders terrorized and tortured their son.

Last fall, Stop the Cap! told readers about the plight of the Rawat family, in Kirkland, Wash., who depended on home security services provided by Comcast and now wished they didn’t.

In November 2013, police say Vincent Sisounong and Blessing Gainey planned a home invasion to steal vehicles, electronics, and money from the family. To achieve their plan, the 21 and 19-year old had to defeat Comcast’s Xfinity Home security system. According to a lawsuit now being heard in a bench trial this week, the two men didn’t have to do anything because the system never worked properly.

After entering the Rawat home, the two planned to find the family’s 18-year old son Deep and “chop off one of his arms and legs with various cutting tools” as an intimidation tactic. The attack started in Deep’s bedroom. The two men dragged him to the basement, where Sisounong instructed Gainey to hack at Rawat’s leg down to the bone, and then stabbed Rawat himself. Court documents said Sisounong told detectives that he wanted the victim to “fight for his life,” and when asked if the experience was enjoyable, he said, “yeah.”

vin

Sisounong (L) and Gainey (R)

For nearly half an hour, the struggle between the two intruders and Deep continued inside the home and finally ended when the intruders walked out the door. At no time did Comcast’s security system sound. The family had to ask neighbors to call police.

Comcast quickly blamed the family for not installing and using its system properly, despite the fact its installation was planned and performed by a Comcast subcontractor.

This week, the torture victim and his parents, Leena and Manoj Rawat, argued that Comcast and its contractor Pioneer Cable Contractors, Inc. improperly installed the Xfinity Home system. A recommendation from the installer placed the system’s motion detector in the basement, where it provided no protection when the family was home. The installer allegedly told the family they did not need window sensors because the motion detector was a suitable alternative. Although window sensors are usually constantly monitored, motion detectors are not when a family is home to prevent false alarms.

“This advice runs counter to every standard in the industry,” Rawat family attorney Ken Friedman argued during his opening arguments Monday. “The system as set up was useless, or in some cases worse than useless, because it provided a false sense of security.”

Friedman is also fighting to overcome Comcast’s terms and conditions, which require customers to protect Comcast’s interests above their own at all times, even when the company is found negligent. To emphasize the point, Comcast places it in bold, extra-large capital lettering:

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

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

YOUR DUTY TO PROTECT/INDEMNIFY THE COMPANY APPLIES EVEN IN THE CASE OF THE COMPANY’S OWN NEGLIGENCE.

“If their argument is to be accepted, they could put in empty black boxes throughout the house and say, ‘That’s your system.’ And then something goes wrong, and they say, ‘We never promised you it would work,’” said Friedman.

A better option?

A better option?

The Rawat’s lawsuit alleges negligence, breach of contract and express and implied warranties, and a violation of the Washington Consumer Protection Act.

Comcast’s response is that their alarm system was never at fault.

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

Pastore claimed the family specifically ordered the alarm as it was installed, and it was working properly. The fault lied with the family because they failed to arm the system’s motion detectors by setting it to the “away” mode while they were asleep.

But if they had done as Pastore suggested, the motion sensor would have sounded the alarm if any family member moved around inside the home. The window sensors were designed to work at all times and would not sound unless a window was opened or broken.

Comcast Deletes Ogden, Ill., Local Government Website

delThe village of Ogden, Ill., no longer has an official website. Comcast deleted it without warning.

Like many of America’s smallest towns and villages, Ogden relies on web space from its Internet Service Provider to host the community government’s website.

Except, as Mayor Jack Reiner reports, Comcast no longer supports business or government websites hosted through a broadband account and it simply disappeared one day.

The village is now attempting to reconstruct the site and considering the cost of alternative providers.

Sad Tales About Executives’ Lives Disrupted By Never-to-Be GreatLand Communications Are Breaking Our Hearts

CryingTowel1The would-be CEO picked to head the illegitimate child of the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger wants your sympathy and understanding over the loss of bulging signing bonuses, pay packages, and benefits with the demise of the cable company that never was: GreatLand Connections.

While about 2.5 million customers in Minnesota, Indiana, and Kentucky braced for the arrival of their new cable company — one that lacked letterhead, much less any track record or experience — executives shared a box of tissues contemplating the wasted stress of moving their children from one exclusive private school to another in the ‘barren cultural wasteland’ of the midwest.

“The people aspect of this is just breathtaking,” said GreatLand’s never CEO Michael Willner, who has now been sidelined by Time Warner Cable twice – once when the company he used to oversee, Insight Communications, was absorbed into the Time Warner hegemony and now a second time, when the rug was pulled out of the cable company he was hired to run. “For 14 months this deal was meandering through the regulatory process, for whatever reason they just decided that after all the planning and all the money and all the people commitment and people who had moved to other cities, and planning to move for other cities for new jobs – there were even a few people who were told they wouldn’t have jobs after the close – they just decided there was no way to do the deal. It was unprecedented.”

Willner can keep on smiling.

Willner can keep on smiling.

Willner told his sad tale to Multichannel News, noting (thank goodness) there wasn’t a giant warehouse in the midwest full of GreatLand truck decals looking for a new home. In fact Willner spent the last 14 months preoccupied with filling 15-20 top senior vice president and vice president management positions, dangling lucrative pay and bonus offers to convince executives to move their elite east coast families to a state like… Kentucky. Time Warner Cable treasurer Matt Siegel, his biggest catch, had already bitten and was considering his new home options.

Meanwhile, nervous employees of the systems scheduled to be thrown overboard by Comcast forced Willner to personally stop by their offices several times over the past 14 months to reassure them they did not have anything to worry about.

“All the people going to GreatLand were Comcast people,” Willner said, claiming, “These employees loved working for Comcast. I had to convince them that life would be OK with us. It took me awhile.”

Willner did not bother reassuring affected customers.

In the end, it was all for naught.

“When they said ‘We’re done,’ we were done too,” Willner cried after the Comcast-TWC deal swirled in the bowl.

Despite the “unprecedented” disruption, Willner and his would-be executives all landed on their feet. Siegel went back to Time Warner Cable, most of the other executives stayed with Comcast and Willner himself did not have to skip a beat, instantly resuming his old job as CEO of video software company Penthera Partners.

Source: FCC Will Get Serious About Data Caps if Comcast Moves to Impose Them Nationwide

fccA well-placed source in Washington, D.C. with knowledge of the matter tells Stop the Cap! the Federal Communications Commission is prepared to take a hard look at the issue of Internet data caps and usage-based billing if a major cable operator like Comcast imposes usage allowances on its broadband customers nationwide.

Comcast introduced its usage cap market trial in Nashville, Tenn. in 2012 but gradually expanded it to include Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee; Charleston, South Carolina; and Tucson, Arizona.

“Two and a half-years is exceptionally long for a ‘market trial,’ and we expected Comcast would avoid creating an issue for regulators by drawing attention to the data cap issue during its attempted merger with Time Warner Cable,” said our source. “Now that the merger is off, there is growing expectation Comcast will make a decision about its ‘data usage plans’ soon.”

In most test markets, Comcast is limiting residential customers to 300GB of usage per month, after which an overlimit fee of $10 per 50GB applies. Despite that, Comcast’s forthcoming premium gigabit speed plans are exempt from usage caps, the company announced.

Comcast sustomers in market test cities have not been happy with the usage caps, some confronted with inaccurate usage measurement tools or “bill shock” after claiming to find surprise charges on their cable bill. One federal employee offered his own story of bill shock — $200 in overlimit fees on his April Comcast bill. The customer spent $70 a month on broadcast basic cable television and Comcast Internet service. As an almost cord-cutter, he could instead rely on one of several alternative online video providers like Netflix or Hulu, but watching video that did not come from Comcast’s cable TV package contributed to eating his monthly usage allowance and subjected him to hundreds of dollars in extra fees.

cohen“I’ve reviewed [the] account to see and can confirm the charges are valid,” responded a Comcast representative who defended the company’s usage cap trials. “Please understand that we are not here to take advantage of customers. We are here to provide a great customer service experience.  After researching [the] account, at this time no matter what level of service you obtain, the Internet usage [allowance] will remain the same.”

To date, the Federal Communications Commission has left the issue of data caps and usage-based billing on the back burner, despite a Government Accounting Office report that found little justification for usage limits or compulsory usage allowances on broadband.

In 2012, former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski defended the practice, claiming it would bring lower prices to light users, spur “innovation” and enable consumer choice. But Comcast customers have found little, if any savings from Comcast’s so-called “data usage plans.” The only savings comes from enrollment in Comcast’s Flexible Data Option, which offers a $5 discount if a customer keeps usage under 5GB a month on just one plan — Comcast’s 3Mbps $39.95/mo Economy Plus tier.

“We don’t see much innovation coming from Comcast’s usage limit trials because Internet pricing continues to rise and the plans have the side effect of discouraging customers from using competing video providers, which can consume a lot of a customer’s usage allowance,” our source adds.

You're over our arbitrary usage limit!

You are over our arbitrary usage limit!

As far as enabling consumer choice, Comcast’s own representative put the kibosh on that, unless a customer wants to pay higher Internet bills.

Net Neutrality and issues surrounding Title II have consumed much of the FCC’s attention in the residential broadband business during the first half of the Obama Administration’s second term. Usage billing and data caps are likely to become bigger issues during the second half if there is a decisive move towards compulsory usage limits and consumption billing by large operators.

“An operator the size of Comcast absolutely will draw scrutiny,” said our source. “If Comcast decides to impose its currently tested market trial plans on Comcast customers nationwide, the FCC will take a closer look. Under Title II, the agency is empowered to watch for attempts to circumvent Net Neutrality policies. Usage caps and charging additional fees to customers looking for an alternative to the cable television package will qualify, especially if Comcast continues to try to exempt itself.”

Cable industry officials have also become aware of the buzz surrounding usage caps and growing regulator concern. Some reportedly discussed the possibility of FCC intervention behind closed doors at the recent cable industry conference in Chicago. Multichannel News reported (sub. req.) cable industry executives increasingly fear federal officials will ban usage pricing for wired broadband service on competitive grounds. Online video competitors rely on large cable and phone companies to reach prospective customers, many that may think twice if usage allowances are imposed on consumer broadband accounts.

HissyFitWatch: New Hampshire Town Declares War on Comcast: “On a Scale of 1-10, Comcast is a Zero”

comcast gunThe community of Hampton Falls, N.H., was first settled in the year 1638 but many of the 2,200 residents of the New England town are settling for Comcast no more.

Selectmen of Hampton Falls called on Comcast to send a representative to their meeting after scores of locals complained about the awfulness of the local cable company.

“Comcast’s service is absolutely miserable,” said Hampton Falls vice-chairman Larry Smith. “On a scale of 1-10, I’d say it’s a zero.”

Smith shared a personal experience about his wife’s attempt to shift her business email to her residential account. Comcast repeatedly sent her to the wrong department.

“This is designed to be the worst system possible,” Smith said. “It’s a virtual monopoly. Comcast doesn’t reward or honor loyalty. If you don’t have an hour or two to devote to it, you don’t even bother picking up the phone.”

Comcast made another local resident drive back and forth to Portsmouth three times to pick up a new router because the equipment proved defective each time.

“Everyone who knows me knows that I don’t get irate, but this ticked me off,” the customer said.

hampton fallsComcast representative Jay Somers took heat throughout the meeting for missed service calls, poor equipment, poor Internet service, and lousy customer service.

His responses did not seem to satisfy residents:

  • On missed service calls, Somers said Comcast did not provide enough technicians to handle service calls in the area. He added the company tries to have someone responding within 24 hours, but that obviously was not consistently happening in Hampton Falls;
  • On Internet outages, Somers blamed customers using their own purchased modems instead of relying on Comcast’s own Internet Gateway, which costs an extra $10 per month;
  • Television and other outages were the fault of home wiring or animals allowed to chew on Comcast’s cables.

Somers promised Comcast treated every customer the same, regardless of whether they were a budget minded customer or one taking every service they have.

While in no rush to deal with customer complaints, Comcast sent a letter signed by Nick Leuci, vice president of franchising, pressuring the town to hurry renewal of Comcast’s local franchise, despite having over a year remaining on the current agreement.

Based on the number of complaints from local residents, the board decided to take that matter up at a later date.

Comcast’s “New and Improved” Customer Service: Sign Non-Disclosure Agreement or No $600 Refund!

Phillip Dampier May 7, 2015 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Video 2 Comments

comcastA Pennsylvania couple overcharged over $600 for a cable box they returned more than five years ago got nowhere repeatedly calling Comcast customer service about a refund and only got a response from the cable company when they took their story to a local Philadelphia TV station’s troubleshooter.

Comcast’s response? “We will issue an even $600 credit” -if- the Lehman family agreed to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement promising to keep the refund a secret and stay off the evening news.

“I think they are horrible to their customers,” Carol Lehman told WPVI-6’s Action News Troubleshooters in Philadelphia, Comcast’s corporate hometown. “I am not happy about it, that’s over $600.”

ndaIsolated case? Think again. Tim Hershey in Sicklerville, N.J., told WPVI he was charged for more than five years for a returned cable box himself.

The Cameron family added Comcast charged them for an extra month of service after the company said they did not turn in their cable box either.

“The problem is their customer service needs to be fixed – I mean there’s something radically wrong,” said Sienna Cameron.

All three families spent years pursuing refunds from Comcast to no avail.

“Dealing with them is like banging your head against the wall – you get nowhere,” said John Lehman.

“Over and over – every time I’d have to go through the whole thing,” said Ronald Cameron.

Comcast’s demand the Lehman family sign an agreement to keep their mouths shut before getting a refund was left in a voicemail message, promptly replayed for viewers on the evening news, leading to an embarrassed response from Comcast that new and improved customer service was on the way.

“We have apologized to our customers and these issues have since been resolved to their satisfaction,” a Comcast spokesperson told the station. “This week, Comcast announced plans to significantly improve the customer experience, and those efforts will go a long way to prevent the experiences these customers went through last year.”

WPVI’s consumer reporter remains skeptical.

“Keep your receipt,” said Nydia Han, noting the station receives more complaints about Comcast than any other company.

Promises, Promises: Comcast’s 9th Annual Commitment to Improve Customer Service is Back for 2015

The Don't Care Bears

The Don’t Care Bears

Talk is cheap but your cable bill isn’t.

For the ninth year in a row, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts this week promised a transformational improvement in Comcast’s customer service experience. Comcast has routinely been rated one of America’s worst companies, often achieving the dubious distinction of scoring number one. Customers don’t just dislike Comcast, they loathe Comcast. Its customer service and support forums are infested with angergrams from hostile customers. The Better Business Bureau has a hard time keeping up with the avalanche of complaints. The company’s reputation is worse than the IRS.

For beleaguered customer service agents, it’s right back at ‘ya.

Almost a year after Roberts made his first solemn commitment to address his company’s sordid reputation with customers back in 2006, this unsolicited letter arrived at a website critical of the company’s reputation from one of the customer service agents on the front line:

We honestly do go out of our way to make things better for you and the main thing we are taught is that [the] customer comes first.

So what if you had an installation that didn’t go well? So what if you came across a rep who [is] miserable? You’ll find that anywhere you go. Hell, you probably act the same way at work.

God forbid someone forget to leave notes in the account. No one [is] perfect, but usually we do have everything documented and we’ll still give you the benefit of the doubt. You don’t know how many times a day I deal with, “if you don’t do this or if you don’t do that” (as if what we have given you isn’t enough) “I’m going somewhere else” Well good, you know what, go and when that company does the same thing I hope you feel stupid when you come running back to [us]. You all should be ashamed of yourselves.

This time it will be different than the last nine times, I swear.

This time it will be different than the last nine times, I swear.

That example is indicative of the same problem Comcast experiences today. A customer service experience is only as good as the management’s dictated customer service policies allow. If the higher-ups insist on overbooking installation and service calls to save money, calls will be missed. If an extended outage is required before customers are entitled to a service credit, it’s the customer service representative that has to deliver the bad news. If a Comcast employee’s job or salary is dependent on numbers, numbers, numbers, and adult supervision is lacking, nobody should be surprised when Lord of the Flies-like instincts emerge. The customer is number two.

Comcast’s announcement that it will hire more than 5,500 new customer service agents over the next five years doesn’t solve the problem. Without major philosophical changes about the way Comcast does business, it only creates a larger pool of abusive customer service agents.

Comcast’s goal to always be on time for customer appointments (by the third quarter of this year) was also promised years before. A commitment to invest in technology and training to deliver excellent service in 2015 makes one wonder what Comcast was investing in before this. A commitment to simplify billing does nothing to correct Comcast’s infamously inaccurate billing. Better consistency and transparency about sneaky charges and deceptive promotions are unlikely to do much for Comcast’s reputation with customers.

Another satisfied customer

Another satisfied customer

Comcast’s improvement plan also includes the renovation of hundreds of cable stores across the country, but says nothing about sufficiently staffing them to prevent a line stretching out the door. Development of new technologies to enable people to interact with Comcast how and when they want may prove less compelling than developing new policies flexible enough to deliver solutions that satisfy those customers.

“This transformation is about shifting our mindset to be completely focused on the customer. It’s about respecting their time, being more proactive, doing what’s right, and never being satisfied with good enough,” said Neil Smit, president and CEO, Comcast Cable. “We’re on a mission and everyone is committed to making this happen.”

Which makes Comcast customers everywhere ponder what Mr. Smit and Mr. Roberts were doing the last nine years they were promising massive changes in the customer service experience. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Few Comcast customers will believe the promises broken by the same management team so many times before until they see them in action.

After all, broken promises from Comcast are like snow in Buffalo. You learn to expect it.

Top Cable Lobbyist Laments Cable’s Self-Made Bed Has Weighed Down and Damaged the Industry’s Reputation

Powell

Powell

Decades of bad service, rate increases, and abusive employees have given the cable industry a bad name and America’s top cable lobbyist, former FCC chairman-turned-president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association is sad about that.

“I hate the name […] cable,” Powell lamented Tuesday in Chicago during the opening of the NCTA-rebranded INTX 2015 show (formerly known as The Cable Show).

While years of bad service have done little to tangibly affect the industry’s fortunes in a barely competitive marketplace, Powell seemed convinced it was Comcast’s appalling reputation with customers (including regulators and politicians working in Comcast’s District of Columbia service area), that did more to derail its recent merger effort with Time Warner Cable than anything else.

intxCable’s bad reputation has come home to roost, allowing everyone to assume the worst and see a need to erect protective fences like Net Neutrality to keep cable companies from capitalizing on new fees for Internet usage.

As long as cable has a “frayed relationship” with customers, Powell said he believed the industry will lose more policy battles than it wins, and it should be aware of that.

But those in attendance later told Communications Daily (subscription required) they disagreed with Powell and believed the industry has faced down bigger threats than Net Neutrality and online video. They also disagreed with any name change that de-emphasized “cable” and complained the industry didn’t get enough credit for its role in bringing faster Internet to American homes.

Because cable operators both own the pipes and have a strong working relationship with content producers, many attendees believe cable is in an excellent position to face down competitors, because most depend on cable broadband to deliver their services.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/NCTA Michael Powell and ReCode Kara Swisher Kick off INTX 2015 5-5-15.mp4

NCTA president Michael Powell talks with ReCode’s Kara Swisher about the state of the cable industry and the Internet at the start of INTX ’15 in Chicago. (18:53)

Comcast Announces Its New Gigabit Home Gateway for Coax DOCSIS 3.1 Customers, Arriving in 2016

xfinitylogoThe Cable Show (now known as INTX) is often used by the cable industry to announce and preview new products and services, and at this year’s convention in Chicago, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts used the occasion to introduce the company’s new DOCSIS 3.1 multi-purpose Home Gateway capable of delivering gigabit speeds over its existing hybrid fiber-coax network.

Apart from Comcast’s intentions to deliver 2Gbps broadband over a new fiber to the home network the company is planning for customers in near its local fiber backbone, the new Gigabit Home Gateway was designed by Comcast engineers in Philadelphia and vendors in Silicon Valley to work on Comcast’s existing coaxial cable network.

Comcast will first need to deploy the next generation standard for delivering broadband over cable networks – DOCSIS 3.1, which can combine several “channels” devoted to broadband service to create a super high-speed online experience. Comcast has spent the past several years moving analog TV channels to digital service, freeing up bandwidth it can devote to faster Internet speeds.

Although Comcast’s 2Gbps fiber service will be a limited offering, its 1Gbps cable broadband service should be available “to virtually all Xfinity customers once the DOCSIS 3.1 networking standard is deployed nationally,” according to Tony Werner, Comcast’s chief technology officer.

In addition to supporting gigabit Internet, the new gateway will support gigabit Wi-Fi, IP video, and integrate Comcast’s existing home security and automation services.

The device will go into production this year with plans to introduce it to consumers sometime in 2016. No pricing details were available.

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