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Internal Company Documents Suggest Time Warner Cable Intentionally Deceived Customers

A stack of revealing company documents obtained by the New York State Attorney General’s office suggest top executives at Time Warner Cable were aware the company was intentionally misleading customers and the Federal Communications Commission with broadband performance promises the company knew it could not keep.

Portions of the documents were made part of the public record as part of a lawsuit filed today by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman against Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable (now a subsidiary of Charter). The suit alleges that Time Warner Cable systematically and intentionally underdelivered on its commitments to improve broadband service and oversold its network in New York, causing widespread speed slowdowns and performance issues.

The 87-page complaint reveals Time Warner Cable woefully underinvested in its network, leaving customers with poor internet speeds and obsolete cable modems the company leased to customers for up to $10 a month. But a careful review of other statements from company executives also undermines the cable industry’s arguments for data caps, paid interconnection agreements with content providers, the lack of need for Net Neutrality, and the overuse of marketingspeak that allows cable operators to promise speeds they know they cannot deliver.

This two-part Stop the Cap! report analyzes the lawsuit and its offer of proof and will take you beyond the headlines of the legal action against Charter Spectrum/Time Warner Cable and explore some of the cable company’s confidential emails, memos, and meetings.

The documents reveal a lot of ordinarily highly confidential data points about how many subscribers share a Time Warner Cable internet connection, how many deficient and obsolete cable modems are still in the hands of customers, and how the pervasive need to avoid investing in network upgrades caused executives to repeatedly reject spending requests while approving rate increases.

Typical complaints from Spectrum-TWC customers sent to N.Y. Attorney General’s office.

How Spectrum-Time Warner Cable Brings You Broadband Service

N.Y. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman

Time Warner Cable was one of New York’s most important communications companies. At least 2.5 million New York households — one out of three — get internet access from what is now known as Charter Spectrum. Every broadband customer belongs to a “service group” made up of a number of your neighbors who share the same internet bandwidth. In February 2016, the average Spectrum-TWC service group in New York had about 340 subscribers. The range varied widely in practice, from as few as 32 customers to as many as 621 subscribers belonging to the same group. The fewer the number of customers, the less chance they will encounter a traffic-related slowdown caused by using the internet at the same time. For those congested service groups that do, broadband speeds begin to drop, sometimes precipitously.

The amount of total collective speed available to each service group depends on how much bandwidth the cable operator sets aside for broadband. For the last several years, Time Warner Cable typically reserved eight channels of about 38Mbps each for every neighborhood service group. That is equivalent to about 304Mbps — about the maximum speed one Time Warner Cable Maxx customer can get today. If four customers with 50/5Mbps service decided to “max out” their connection each evening, the remaining 336 customers in the service group would get to collectively share about 104Mbps. If six customers did that, the remaining 334 customers would be left with sharing 4Mbps.

Cable operators have always bet customers won’t be online all at the same time. But as internet usage, particularly online video, has grown, customers are increasingly spending primetime hours of 7-11pm streaming high bandwidth video instead of sitting in front of the television. If a large number of customers in a service group purchasing 15/1Mbps service from Time Warner Cable happened to be viewing HD video at the same time, the speed in that neighborhood could drop to as low as 1Mbps, a far cry from what customers were paying to receive.

Time Warner Cable customers that used to experience nightly slowdowns were told “your node is congested” to explain why speeds were dropping. The engineers that developed the cable broadband standard we know today as DOCSIS, envisioned that upgrades or “node splits” would be periodically required to deal with customer growth and increased traffic. Newer DOCSIS standards also give providers the option of enlarging the amount of shared bandwidth by adding additional channels. In the past, Time Warner Cable performed node splits, dividing up congested neighborhoods into multiple service groups. But with the advent of DOCSIS 3 and 3.1, Time Warner Cable also began expanding the number of channels devoted to broadband, enlarging the amount of shared bandwidth available to customers. Unfortunately for customers, Time Warner Cable was among the slowest of the nation’s cable operators to adopt this strategy.

Delivering Slow Speeds for High Prices

As a result of Time Warner Cable’s lack of investment, the company had to manage its bandwidth limitations in other ways. The documents from the recent lawsuit helped adds to our knowledge of how the company tried and often failed to manage the problem:

  1. It avoided regularly increasing internet speeds for its customers. Time Warner Cable customers in most cities were limited to a maximum of 50/5Mbps until the Maxx upgrade program began. Other cable operators were selling speeds several times faster, but Time Warner risked a handful of internet enthusiasts utilizing faster available speeds to consume the bandwidth available to the neighborhood service group. Slower speeds mean fewer upgrades.
  2. It advertised speeds and performance company engineers and executives admit in confidential documents they could not consistently deliver (or deliver at all in some instances).
  3. It continued to rely on outdated and obsolete cable modems that severely limit subscribers’ speed, regardless of what level of service the customer subscribed to.
  4. It avoided network investments for budgetary reasons, even when severely congested neighborhoods exceeded 80-90% usage of all available bandwidth, causing noticeable performance problems for customers.

The lawsuit alleges Time Warner Cable consistently sold internet speed tiers that did not or could not deliver the advertised speeds to consumers. The lawsuit points to three reasons why customers don’t get the speeds they paid for:

Deficient Equipment: Spectrum-TWC leased older-generation, single-channel modems despite knowing that such modems were, in its own words, not “capable of supporting the service levels paid for.” Over the same period, Spectrum-TWC also leased older generation wireless routers to subscribers despite knowing that these routers would prevent them from ever experiencing close to the promised speeds over wireless connections.

Congested Network: Spectrum-TWC failed to allocate sufficient bandwidth to subscribers by reducing the size of its service groups or increasing the number of channels for its service groups. These network improvements would have enabled subscribers to achieve the fast Internet speeds that they paid for. Results from three independent Internet speed measurements confirmed that Spectrum-TWC consistently failed to deliver the promised speeds to subscribers on its high-speed plans.

Limitations of Wireless: Spectrum-TWC misled subscribers by assuring them that they could achieve the same Internet speeds through wireless connections as with wired connections despite knowing that accessing the Internet using wireless routers would sharply reduce the Internet speeds a subscriber would experience

A key goal for Time Warner Cable executives was to push consumers into broadband upgrades that increased the average revenue they receive from each of their customers. A 2013 internal company presentation called broadband upselling a “strategic pillar” to “capture premium pricing.” If customers endured pushy sales pitches, it may have been because the company tied customer service representative compensation to increasing monthly revenue received from subscribers. If the representative sold you more, they earned more.

Although it sounded good on the surface, internal company documents also show there was pushback from company employees who feared aggressive sales pitches would only further alienate customers.

“Our customers NEED to be put into the proper packages so that we are conducting business with integrity,” wrote one employee in a presumably anonymous employee survey. “It seems as if this is a hustlers job trying to out hustle everyone else trying to make the most money WE can and not doing the right thing . . . By operating like this, customers laugh at our integrity as a company.”

Time Warner Cable Accused of Supplying Obsolete Cable Modems at Prices Up to $10 a Month

Your speed: as slow as 20Mbps

Assuming a customer did upgrade their internet speed, the Attorney General alleges at least 900,000 of those customers were given older generation single-channel DOCSIS 1 and DOCSIS 2 cable modems the company knew were incapable of delivering the speed the customer signed up for. Even worse, the company began charging monthly fees up to $10 a month for equipment the rest of the cable industry deemed obsolete.

A February 2015 email written by the former head of corporate strategy suggests senior corporate management knew they were selling broadband plans to customers that would never perform as advertised.

“The effective speeds we are delivering customers in a 20Mbps tier when they have a DOCSIS 2 modem is meaningfully below 20Mbps,” the email read.

The following month a company engineer sent email explaining the company’s network utilization targets would result in customers using older single-channel modems receiving speeds below 10Mbps during peak utilization times, even if they paid for 50Mbps or faster service available in some markets. The engineer recommended only allowing customers subscribed to internet speeds below 10Mbps to have a single channel modem if absolutely necessary.

A year later, Time Warner Cable executives admitted to the Office of the Attorney General of New York that customers with internet speeds of 20Mbps or higher needed a DOCSIS 3 modem. But during that same month, the cable company leased DOCSIS 2 modems to over 185,000 customers on plans of 20Mbps or higher, for $10 a month. Even worse, almost 800,000 New Yorkers subscribed to 20Mbps or higher speed plans with a deficient modem for three months or longer. And still worse, despite a company directive issued in June 2012 to remove DOCSIS 1 modems from its network, over 100,000 New Yorkers were still leasing a first generation and long obsolete cable modem for three months or longer, again for the same $10 a month. The Attorney General alleges the company knew these subscribers would not get the internet speeds their plans promised and continued to supply deficient equipment for years anyway.

Rate Hikes Yes, Spending Money on Urgent Equipment Upgrades No

DOCSIS 2 modems are largely obsolete, but not at Time Warner Cable.

As customers endured near-annual rate hikes on broadband service, Spectrum-Time Warner Cable refused to launch a plan to recall and replace obsolete cable modems because it was beyond the company’s “capital ability.”

This finding came in response to a confidential June 2013 presentation that included a startling admission: 75% of the cable modems connected to customers with Time Warner Cable’s Turbo (20Mbps) internet plan were non compliant. “DOCSIS 2 modems are still being deployed due to budget constraints,” the presentation stated. An alternate plan suggested postcards be sent to affected customers offering to replace their modems if they returned them because of the speed problems those customers experienced. That plan didn’t get far either.

The Attorney General calls the company’s decision a “self-serving” financial move when it rejected its own engineers’ recommendations to swap modems.

In 2013, company officials did begin prioritizing replacing the modems of a select group of their customers — those volunteering for the FCC’s ongoing Sam Knows broadband speed test program, designed to verify ISP performance. Realizing Time Warner’s speed rankings would be in jeopardy if panelists were still using DOCSIS 2 modems, it made a deal with the FCC to have the agency temporarily exclude slower speed results obtained from customers with DOCSIS 2 modems until they were replaced. Customer Service Representatives were instructed to treat all FCC panelists with “VIP treatment” and provide them with the “best in class devices.” (Full disclosure: Stop the Cap! is a broadband customer of Spectrum-Time Warner Cable and serves as a FCC/Sam Knows panelist.) Spectrum-TWC promised after those customers were upgraded, all others with older equipment would receive replacements as well, a commitment the Attorney General claims the cable company broke.

Even after Time Warner Cable launched its Maxx upgrade program, offering speeds up to 300Mbps, the cable company was still dealing with a sizable number of customers still using DOCSIS 2 modems that could not deliver anything beyond 20Mbps. In 2014, the company promised it would supply new modems to all subscribers with older equipment at no charge. An experimental “Ship to All” plan would have automatically sent the equipment to every affected customer. Management rejected the program as too expensive and replaced it with a “Raise Your Hand” plan that required customers to self-identify obsolete equipment, contact customer service and wait through long hold times or go to the inconvenience of visiting a Time Warner Cable store. In the notice to subscribers, Time Warner never disclosed the most important reason they needed a new modem — without it they would receive one-tenth or less of the speeds they paid to receive. Customers who failed to return their DOCSIS 2 modems in good condition were also penalized with an unreturned/damaged equipment fee, even though the equipment is now deemed obsolete across the industry.

Company officials admitted internally that “Raise Your Hand” was a plan destined to fail, with large numbers of customers not bothering to take the bureaucratic steps needed to exchange modems. Customers in upstate New York received no notification at all. It was a financial win for the company, which collected $10 lease payments on obsolete equipment it did not have to spend any money to replace. The company celebrated the savings, noting in a January 2015 internal presentation “[c]hanging the Maxx [Ship to All] approach to a Raise Your Hand approach (65% of subscribers take an active swap, with passive swaps for the balance) helped us reduce our capital budget by $45 [Million].” Later in 2015, the company internally reported the savings were even greater than expected — only 25% of customers responded to the offer to replace their modems.

New York’s Secret 20Mbps Speed Cap

For reasons unknown, Time Warner Cable also quietly began secretly locking down obsolete DOCSIS 2 cable modems with a speed cap of 20Mbps while not informing customers or customer service that the account should not have or be sold a higher speed plan. Nevertheless, Spectrum-TWC continued to charge customers with DOCSIS 2 modems as much as $70 a month for 100Mbps internet access that would never exceed 20Mbps.

Wi-Fi Woes

Time Warner Cable Maxx speeds don’t always do well on Wi-Fi.

Spectrum-TWC’s former vice president of customer equipment observed in an October 16, 2014 internal email to senior colleagues that “we do not offer a [device] today that is capable of the peak Maxx speed of 300Mbps via wireless. Generally a customer connecting via wireless will receive less than 100 Mbps,” using the 802.11n wireless routers that Spectrum-TWC leased to subscribers.

This fact of life affected 4 out of every 5 Time Warner Cable Maxx customers subscribed to 200 and 300Mbps plans who leased a Wi-Fi equipped cable modem from Spectrum-TWC. As of February 2016, that meant over 250,000 New York customers were paying for premium internet speeds they would never get over the supplied 802.11n wireless router. Customers were never informed. But company executives were, and as a result, the executive told his colleagues that “we are going to experience a mismatch between what we sell the customer and what they actually measure on their laptop/tablet/etc.”

A separate Spectrum-TWC technical document discussing wireless connectivity, dated January 2015, concluded that “[i]n a real world scenario, most [802.11n] adapters will produce speeds of 50-100Mbps.”

In fact, a Spectrum-TWC internal presentation, dated June 12, 2014, recommended that the company deploy devices with newer generation 802.11ac wireless routers to all subscribers on speed tiers of 200Mbps or higher because such routers came closer to delivering the promised speed. Spectrum-TWC rejected that recommendation, again for financial reasons.

Coming up tomorrow… advertising faster speeds or broken promises, company executives tell the truth about bandwidth costs, how to grossly manipulate the FCC’s speed tests, throttling your favorite websites for bigger profits, and hassling online game fans.

MegaMerger: Verizon Approaches Charter Communications About Buyout; Regulators Concerned

Verizon Communications has opened preliminary talks with officials close to Charter Communications about a possible merger of the two companies, concerning regulators worried the massive combined telecommunications company would have a near-monopoly on residential broadband service in New York and western Massachusetts.

The Wall Street Journal reports Verizon is working with advisers to study the potential transaction, and warned there is no guarantee a formal deal will materialize. A merger of Verizon and Charter would combine more than 114 million Verizon Wireless customers, 16 million landline customers, and over 6 million broadband customers with Verizon DSL or FiOS with Charter’s 21 million television, phone and broadband customers. The deal could fetch a price of more than $80 billion, no small amount for Verizon, already $100 billion in debt. An acquisition by Verizon would be a remarkable development for a cable company that became America’s second largest only eight months ago with the acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

Preliminary Talks

The newspaper reported Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam has talked with Liberty Broadband CEO Greg Maffei. Liberty has a 25% voting stake in Charter Communications, and Maffei is a close ally of John Malone, Charter’s largest single shareholder. McAdam’s back channel discussions have likely been designed to test Charter’s potential interest in a deal. For Malone and the former owners of Bright House Networks who control another 7% of Charter’s shares, making money appears to be their primary motivation and neither would likely to stand in the way of a deal.

McAdam

The newspaper was less certain about Charter’s CEO Thomas Rutledge. Rutledge is approaching his fifth anniversary as president and CEO of Charter Communications, now greatly enlarged with the combination of Time Warner Cable and Bright House. He spent the last 34 years in lesser roles at Cablevision, Time Warner Cable, and its predecessor American Television and Communications (ATC). Rutledge is reportedly interested in continuing his leadership role at Charter as it seeks to grow even larger, something unlikely to happen if Verizon acquires the cable company and rebrands it as Verizon under their own management. However, Rutledge’s personal interests will likely be secondary to the potential shareholder and executive windfall likely to come from any deal.

A Verizon/Charter Merger Would Establish a Broadband Monopoly in New York and Western Massachusetts

Verizon and Charter are the only significant direct competitors in residential broadband and landline telephone service in western Massachusetts and most of New York State, except a portion of New York City, Long Island and Westchester County (served by Altice’s Cablevision) and Rochester (served by Frontier Communications). A source at the New York Department of Public Service told Stop the Cap! this morning New York regulators would have a tough time approving a merger of this size and scope unless Verizon divested its landline and FiOS network in the state or Charter sold its cable properties in New York. A Verizon divestiture would likely attract Frontier Communications as a buyer, while a Charter sale of New York assets would probably bring bids from companies like Comcast or Altice.

“We would be very concerned about how this would impact broadband service competition and to lesser degree wireline service for New York,” the source, not authorized to speak to the media, told us this morning. “Gov. Cuomo has an ambitious agenda for broadband deployment in rural New York and this deal could also be a problem for the governor’s office. Verizon is perfectly aware of the regulatory challenges such a deal would face in Albany.”

Verizon’s Heavy Dependence on Wireless Was a Mistake

Verizon is under significant pressure to act after Wall Street punished the company for a poor fourth-quarter earnings report that illustrated the days of easy money in the wireless business seem to be over. Verizon suffered the third quarter in a row of sales declines after six years of continuous growth. Analysts point to increasing competition from T-Mobile and Sprint as the single biggest factor for Verizon’s struggles. As Verizon Wireless remained slow to cut prices and remained militant about not giving new and current customers access to unlimited data plans, customers have cut back on services or switched to other providers. Revenue dropped 4.9% in the last quarter and a growing number of Verizon’s most valuable postpaid customers are now leaving — mostly for T-Mobile and Sprint. Wireless churn reached a higher-than-expected 1.1% in the last three months.

Verizon Wireless is also having trouble attracting new customers. Analysts expected Verizon would add 726,000 customers during the last quarter, but only managed to attract 591,000. Wall Street punished Verizon’s latest financial results with a 4.4% slash in the stock price, Verizon’s worst day in more than five years.

Several Wall Street analysts have urged Verizon to diversify its business to reduce its dependency on wireless. In the last three years, Verizon has invested most of its attention and resources on bolstering its wireless network. In 2014, AT&T decided to spread its risk around with significant investments in its U-verse wireline broadband network, an acquisition of satellite-TV provider DirecTV, and its bid to buy content company Time Warner, Inc. In contrast, in 2014 Verizon spent $130 billion buying out its partner’s share of Verizon Wireless. That made UK-based Vodafone cash-rich and left Verizon mired in debt.

So far, Verizon’s diversification efforts have relied on acquiring affordable companies whose best days are long past, including AOL and Yahoo. An effort to entertain Millennials with video clips and other content over its go90 mobile app has largely been a flop, and investments in telematics and machine-to-machine wireless communications are years away from paying off, if they ever do.

Verizon May Want Charter’s Extensive Fiber Backhaul Network

Verizon executives have shown little interest in acquiring assets that rely primarily on linear/live television, which is why the company never moved to counter AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV with an offer for its satellite competitor Dish Networks.

Verizon is very interested in fiber optics — ironic for a company that largely abandoned expanding its FiOS fiber to the home service seven years ago.

Verizon will need a lot of fiber assets to power the 5G wireless networks the company is interested in deploying. This will require a massive network of fiber-connected “small cells” that will deliver wireless services at speeds faster than today’s 4G networks. These small cells will be capable of serving individual neighborhoods or planned communities and could theoretically rely on Charter’s fiber backbone to deliver service. Without access to Charter’s network, Verizon would have to undertake to build out its own fiber network throughout its service areas.

Regulatory Climate Warms for Big Business Mergers

Although President Donald Trump has voiced his opposition to AT&T’s merger with Time Warner, Inc., his appointments to manage the day-to-day affairs of government are strident believers in deregulation and are unlikely to stand in the way of merger deals. The most likely opposition to a Verizon-Charter deal would come from state telecommunications regulators in New York and Massachusetts. On the federal level, significant opposition may be unlikely. Among the Trump appointees that would likely review a Verizon-Charter merger:

  • Joshua Wright is the leading contender to head the Justice Department’s antitrust division. He’s a conservative law professor who believes regulator reviews of corporate mergers should be hands-off to a degree that has failed to withstand court scrutiny. Wright’s approach during his term as a commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission was so business-friendly, some joked his middle name should be “Laissez-Faire.” He believes mergers rarely have a bad impact on competition and prices and in fact offer consumer benefits. Courts have blocked mergers he supported and judges have criticized his standards of proof that “had no support in the law.”
  • Sen. Jeff Sessions is Trump’s nominee for Attorney General. While Sessions claimed he had no problem blocking anti-competitive mergers and acquisitions, Wall Street believes the Trump Administration will not stand in the way of a frenzy of mergers. Evercore ISI’s Terry Haines made it clear what is likely to come from a Sessions-led Justice Department: “Sessions’ likely nomination and confirmation by the Senate, in which he has served since 1997, is a market positive for merger and acquisition activity. Sessions as attorney general would shift immediately from the current mostly ‘red light’ Obama antitrust/competition policy and move towards one that would be friendlier to M&A activity.”
  • The Federal Communications Commission would also scrutinize the deal, but under the chairmanship of Ajit Pai and a Republican majority, any significant opposition to the deal seems unlikely. Pai has never opposed any major telecommunications merger deal on principle, although he has fought with former chairman Thomas Wheeler over the terms and conditions the FCC sought to impose in return for the agency’s approval.

Time Warner Cable Transition to Charter Brings Bill Shock, $200 Upgrade Fee

Higher bills, confusing and conflicting services and pricing, and badly trained customer service representatives are just a few of the problems afflicting customers transitioning from Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable to service plans being gradually introduced around the country by Charter Communications/Spectrum. Stop the Cap! has collected more than 50 reports from customers experiencing problems, bill shock, lost access to Wi-Fi hotspots, and “bait and switch” promotions promised by one representative only to be reneged on later when the first bill arrives.

The $58/Month Charter Spectrum Rate Hike

Park La Brea resident Lydia Plona is one of dozens of customers in California that have complained to the Los Angeles Times about their soaring cable bills after Charter/Spectrum replaced Time Warner Cable in Southern California. It was among the first regions in the country to say goodbye to Time Warner Cable and hello to Charter and their Spectrum-branded service plans. Unfortunately, Charter has already worn out its welcome with customers like Plona. When Charter was done with her, the $96 Time Warner Cable bill she used to pay was replaced with a new $154 bill from Spectrum — a $58 rate hike per month, which amounts to almost $700 more a year.

Much of the Midwest just completed its transition away from Time Warner Cable and Bright House to Spectrum and confusing pricing and plans and expensive upgrade fees are troubling customers from Wisconsin to Ohio.

Want More than 60Mbps? Pay $199 Upgrade Fee

Micah Lane, a former Time Warner Cable customer in Columbus, Ohio faced a major dilemma — should he switch from his current Time Warner Cable broadband plan to Spectrum? He originally assumed the answer would be yes, believing he could upgrade from a 50/5Mbps Time Warner Cable plan to a 100Mbps Spectrum plan for around $30 more than he had paid Time Warner. He discovered an upgrade was ready and waiting, but would cost him a one-time $199 upgrade fee.

“I was told repeatedly when a Time Warner Cable customer moves to Spectrum, they are automatically assigned a base plan of 60Mbps,” Lane told us. “Any speed above that in a non-Time Warner Cable Maxx market is considered an upgrade subject to the $200 upgrade fee. My parents would not be happy with that on their bill.”

Stop the Cap! has communicated with a dozen Spectrum converts, and heard from at least 40 others about problems experienced with their plan transitions. The most common complaints reference a hard-to-avoid $200 broadband upgrade fee, charged even when moving from a 100Mbps Time Warner Cable plan to a 100Mbps Spectrum plan, and promised bundled package offers that ended up costing much more when the first bill arrived.

Charter’s standard broadband plan offers 60Mbps service.

“You better be ready for the fight of your life because I had to threaten to escalate my complaint to the Better Business Bureau and the FCC to get that $200 fee off my bill,” said Stop the Cap! reader Roger. “Nobody ever told me about the fee but it was applied to my online statement hours after I changed plans and of course there is no way to go back to Time Warner’s plans once you make the change.”

Charter/Spectrum has become increasingly intransigent about that $200 fee, which the company claims is necessary to verify your home connection is suitable for faster internet speeds. But some representatives have also blamed the fee on the need to recoup expenses from network upgrades, even when many of those upgrades were performed by Time Warner Cable before the company was sold.

“There is really massive confusion at Charter and the information you get is totally inconsistent from one operator to the next,” said Paul Friedrich in Cincinnati. He rents an apartment with a roommate and after being told the $200 upgrade fee was non-negotiable, he told Charter to stuff it. “We can get the same or better service without the upgrade fee from Cincinnati Bell so bye bye Spectrum. When we threatened them with canceled service, however, the fee magically disappeared!”

The “savings” Charter promised to bring Time Warner Cable customers have not exactly materialized in Ohio, either.

“I just called TWC/Spectrum to see if I could get upgraded internet,” wrote DSL Reports reader cmiz87 in Grove City. “I’m currently on the old 50/5Mbps plan. To upgrade to the 100/10Mbps plan would cost $104.99/month PLUS a $199.99 “activation” fee, even though I have my own modem. That is just for internet only.”

Especially aggravating to many Time Warner Cable customers in non-Maxx service areas is the special treatment Maxx customers received when their areas were converted to Charter Spectrum. Customers with at least 200Mbps service were initially transitioned from their Time Warner Cable Maxx service plans to Charter Spectrum’s 300Mbps plan without any upgrade fee. For those areas where the clock ran out waiting for Maxx upgrades when Charter completed its deal to acquire Time Warner Cable, it’s ‘pay $200 or no upgrade for you.’

“Customers in northern Kentucky [were already getting] 300Mbps service as a free upgrade for the last six months,” noted DSL Reports reader dougm0. “Last year Time Warner Cable was going door-to-door in my neighborhood in Cincinnati [telling us] you will get 300Mbps service free in a couple of months. Just two weeks ago I chatted with a rep that said I would still get a 300Mbps upgrade automatically when launched.”

Now Charter/Spectrum is charging what he calls “this bogus $200 fee.”

“My wife and I are planning our exit from Charter and going back to Cincy Bell,” he reports. “Free install and same speed for less.”

Business Class for 300Mbps

In Reno and other cities, some Charter customers are moving to Business Class service to get 300Mbps service, which is not yet available in most former Time Warner Cable areas. But it will not be cheap. New customers can sign up with a promotion for as little as $159/month, but after two years that price jumps to $279.

Residential Pricing Confusion

Charter’s residential pricing seemed simple enough when it was announced. But in practice, readers report it is all over the map. In Wisconsin, one customer in Franklin signed up for 300Mbps service for $110 per month and agreed to pay the $200 upgrade fee. But in Green Bay, Spectrum is charging $110 a month for 100Mbps — half the speed — along with the $200 upgrade fee. That was a dealbreaker. In Kenosha, one customer moving from a Time Warner Cable internet plan to Charter Spectrum’s basic 60Mbps plan found two unpleasant surprises on his bill:

01/19/2017 Change Of Service Fee $52.74
01/19/2017 Spectrum WiFi Activation $10.54

Adding even more confusion were prices quoted to another customer in West Wauwatosa:

  • Ultra: 300/20Mbps, $105/mo, $199.99 upgrade fee
  • Regular: 60/5Mbps, $68.63/mo, no upgrade fee

Confusion for Some Legacy Time Warner Cable Customers As Well

A surprise last upgrade for Time Warner Cable customers in Rochester, N.Y.

In markets that still have not transitioned to Charter Spectrum, there is confusion to be found there as well. Upstate New York will see an introduction to Spectrum service plans in February-March, but a few Time Warner Cable upgrades have been quietly introduced in the meantime. Rochester, N.Y., which never made it officially to the Maxx city upgrade list, now has 100Mbps broadband as an option, but representatives denied it for at least a week when customers called to upgrade.

The new speed option was supposed to only be offered to customers qualified to get it, as upgrades were gradually completed around the area, but a website issue marketed the upgrade to everyone, including to some customers as far away as Buffalo.

For those successfully signing up with what is likely to be their last Time Warner Cable plan, many are hoping the investment will help them avoid the $200 upgrade fee when Spectrum’s 100Mbps plan becomes available in the next month or two. But some former Time Warner Cable customers in other cities already transitioned and two Charter representatives we queried about this scenario say they will be out of luck.

Customers start with a 60Mbps standard internet plan from Charter in non-Maxx areas. If a customer chooses a higher speed plan, even if they had 100Mbps from Time Warner Cable before, the $200 upgrade fee still applies. Both representatives claimed the fee was mandatory.

But some of our readers report success in getting that fee off their bills or it was never charged. Speaking to a supervisor or making a service change with an executive level customer service representative can make a big difference avoiding that fee. Customers who establish contact with a Charter representative as a result of a Better Business Bureau or FCC complaint were able to get the fee consistently waived. Results were more mixed when talking to Charter Spectrum’s regular sales department, even when asking for a supervisor to intervene. It may be a case of finding a representative with the authority to waive the fee.

“Even the representative agreed with us it was unfair to charge us $200 for moving from 100Mbps with Time Warner Cable to 100Mbps with Charter Spectrum,” another Stop the Cap! reader in Texas told us. “But they couldn’t do anything about it. When we threatened to cancel, a retention representative finally intervened and got the fee off the bill, only to have it return a month later. We filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and that finally worked to get the fee removed. But my neighbor couldn’t get anyone to budge on that fee.”

Wi-Fi Woes in Florida

Bright House Networks customers are also experiencing transition troubles. Residential customers reportedly lost any static IP addresses they signed up for when they converted to a Charter Spectrum residential plan. Static IP addresses are still available for Spectrum commercial plans. More troubling for many is the loss of access to Bright House Network’s secure Wi-Fi network.

Customers in central Florida who switched from a Bright House plan to a Charter Spectrum plan lost access to “BHN Secure,” “Bright House Networks,” and secured “CableWiFi” hotspots formerly administered by Bright House. Customers used to access those secure networks using their My Services Bright House username and password. But after transitioning to a Charter Spectrum plan, those credentials no longer work. Customers can still use their Bright House Road Runner e-mail address and password to get access to the very insecure open “CableWiFi” hotspot option, but those doing so should exercise extreme caution using it for any confidential communications, banking, or other sensitive online activities.

Charter’s Bad Advice: Change Your Wi-Fi Password to Your Favorite Sports Team!

Techcrunch noticed some very bad advice coming from Charter’s social media team on Twitter, recommending their 31,700 Twitter followers change their Wi-Fi passwords in support of their favorite sports teams.

Change your WiFi password and show guests where your loyalty lies! #ThatsMyTeampic.twitter.com/7kg04D7GN9

— Spectrum (@GetSpectrum) January 23, 2017

The original tweet has been deleted, no doubt after someone realized the dangerous security lapse it introduced to Wi-Fi hackers who could probably guess the favorite teams of the locals.

The FrankenBundle: Fewer Options, Less Confusion, Higher Prices Later

In Indianapolis, former Bright House Networks customers are being told having fewer options is a good thing.

WRTV-TV talked with Charter spokesman Mike Pedalty, who called his former employer’s packages a “Frankenbundle:”

“We kept adding things and confusing customers, where they didn’t understand what we were adding on and how it was packaged,” Pedalty told the TV station. Now he says most customers will choose from three basic TV packages and ‘best of all you won’t have to fight for a promo rate every year, when your current package expires.’

That’s because Charter has no intention of negotiating a better deal for you as prices gradually increase.

Back in Los Angeles, Plona understands what merger benefits she is really getting from the deregulatory atmosphere that permitted Charter to buy Time Warner Cable.

“When you let these companies do as they please, all they do is raise our rates,” Plona said. “It seems like prices go up every time you deregulate.”

Big Red Verizon Really Wants to Own a Cable Company – Charter or Comcast Will Do Nicely

Shhh… Don’t tell anyone except the newspapers, trade journals, everyone else….

Well-placed sources inside Verizon are leaking like a sieve to the media about the phone giant’s ambition to own and operate a large cable company.

In what may be a trial balloon to test the waters with the incoming Trump Administration, at least two “well-placed sources” have told the New York Post Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam is seriously contemplating countering AT&T’s buy of DirecTV and its attempted acquisition of content company Time Warner, Inc., with the buyout of a major national cable operator.

Verizon’s primary interest, according to multiple sources, is expanding available content to fill its current and future wireless platforms, especially 5G. Acquiring a cable operator would make content deals easier and more affordable because of volume discounting. It would also allow Verizon to directly sell cable products and services without investing in further FiOS expansion.

The CEO told friends at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas that he “wants to buy into cable.”

The most likely targets would have to be large cable operators with a national footprint, and a source told the tabloid two companies qualified: Charter or Comcast.

“Altice is too small,” the source speculated. That would also count out other medium-sized companies like Cox and Mediacom, because they have too limited a service area to be of much use to Verizon.

No final decision has been made, the newspaper notes, adding no talks are underway between Verizon and any cable company at present. Should Mr. Trump repeat the earlier objections to the AT&T-Time Warner, Inc., merger he made last October, any marriage of Verizon with a cable operator would be unlikely. Trump cited unchecked media consolidation as his primary reason for opposing AT&T’s latest acquisition deal, but he has not repeated those objections recently. Last week Trump met with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson in New York.

McAdam originally planned to use Verizon’s acquisition of Yahoo! as a way to broaden the phone company’s content library, but that yet-to-be-finished deal has been in turbulence since media reports exposed major security breaches of Yahoo’s e-mail and portal sites.

A deal with Charter is more likely than a buyout of Comcast because Charter’s most significant shareholder – John Malone, has no allegiance to keeping Charter Communications independent. Charter also lacks the kind of complications that an acquisition of Comcast could bring – notably Comcast’s ownership of NBC and its dozen owned-and-operated TV stations.

Malone has a long history of dispassionately buying and selling large telecom assets, including the cable company Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) he helped build from a handful of cable systems into what used to be the nation’s largest cable operator. In 1999, TCI was sold and rebranded as AT&T Broadband and Internet Services. Three years later, most of those cable systems were again sold to their present owner Comcast.

Verizon may argue it has already divested significant amounts of its FiOS service to Frontier Communications in the Pacific Northwest, Indiana, Texas, California, and Florida, limiting antitrust concerns. But state regulators, particularly in New York, are likely to raise serious objections if Verizon, already the dominant telephone company in New York (except Rochester) attempts to acquire Charter, the only significant cable operator in upstate New York and Manhattan. That would leave the vast majority of New York with a classic telecom monopoly, with only one provider for landline and broadband service.

Siren Song: Altice USA CEO Asks Workers to Trust Him Despite Ruthless Cost-Cutting Reputation

Goei

The CEO of Altice USA took time away from his luxurious homes in Switzerland and New York this week to sit down with concerned middle and working-class Cablevision employees at a meeting held at an unassuming company garage in the Bronx.

Dexter Goei has worries of an organized workforce on his mind. A recording of the meeting provided to Stop the Cap!, showed Goei spent most of his time trying to convince employees they could trust him to protect their future employment at the cable operator.

Since Altice acquired Cablevision in the U.S., the French media have criticized the ‘naiveté of American regulators’ that largely accepted the promises and commitments of the rapidly growing international cable and wireless company at the same time Altice was regularly accused of reneging on the promises it made to regulators in Europe, especially in France. The company has been fined at least twice for breaking those commitments.

Altice’s entrance into the United States began with the acquisitions of Suddenlink, a relatively small cable company serving forgotten small cities in states like Texas and West Virginia and the should-have-been-acquired-by-Comcast-or-Time-Warner-Cable-years-ago oddity Cablevision, which made money for its founding family the Dolans for decades, selling cable mostly in suburban downstate New York.

In America, those acquiring a rival operator are usually asked to show how a deal is “in the public interest” while also submitting to a review to ensure the transaction does not irreparably harm competition. For Suddenlink customers, almost anything Altice could do would be an improvement for a cable company run by a guy who admitted on national television that the days of big investments by cable companies in service improvements were over. It was time to reap the profits, to paraphrase then-CEO Jerry Kent. And so they did, coming up with innovative usage caps and overlimit penalties for customers who dared to use the cable company’s internet service to circumvent a costly cable television package.

Cablevision, in contrast, was usually better regarded than the cable giants that surrounded it. Although technologically aggressive, Comcast canceled most of the goodwill earned for its service improvements by treating customers like patrons of an S&M club. Time Warner Cable was also loathed for its “last to do anything” upgrades, disengaged customer service, and reliable rate hikes, but at least they learned from earlier customer service mishaps and generally relied on a policy of being nicer to customers that threatened to leave.

Cablevision innovated on ways to keep customer loyalty after Verizon FiOS arrived to compete in large sections of its service area. The company spent millions on a major Wi-Fi network for the benefit of its commuting customers, launched broadband speed upgrades earlier than most, and after one embarrassing episode with the FCC showing their speed claims were not met by reality, they have usually overachieved ever since.

Drahi

In 2016, almost everything except Comcast changed. Time Warner Cable was successfully sold to Charter Communications and a self-styled ‘Baron of the Stock Exchange‘ — Patrick Drahi, managed to invade the United States and successfully acquire the two cable operators, despite admitting he would gut spending and wring hundreds of millions in savings out of the transactions for the benefit of his investors.

Mr. Drahi’s penchant for ruthless cost-cutting isn’t new, and he’s been dubbed “The Slasher” in Europe since decimating the budget at his French wireless and broadband company SFR-Numericable. French unions hate him, and not just those representing workers at his telecom businesses. Since the Altice Media Group took control of several major print publications in France, independent photographers have complained Altice slowed payments to a crawl, leading to an open letter to the French government from several press photography agencies demanding action. To date, Altice owes more than a half million dollars in outstanding licensing payments.

Critics contend this is nothing new for Altice, often denounced for not paying vendors (or paying them only after they agree to provide discounts) or alienating employees with radical cost cutting and cutbacks. Customers don’t like what they see either, with more than a million dropping SFR for other providers.

But that was not a story Goei was prepared to share with Cablevision workers in the Bronx.

Instead, Mr. Goei told employees he turned his back on a lucrative career on Wall Street after the great financial meltdown of 2008 and saw more potential running cable companies in Europe and the United States. Goei told the workers Altice’s business plan is to acquire cable and telecom companies and reinvest the profits in improved customer service and better technology for customers. Actual customers of Altice’s cable companies in Europe are still waiting for those improvements.

The French loathe SFR-Numericable, giving it one out of five stars in reviews.

SFR-Numericable, which Goei claimed this week won acclaim from French regulators for being the most reliable in the country, gets scathing reviews criticizing the company for its very frequent service outages, tricky marketing, and incoherent customer service. “Legalized banditry,” claimed one customer. Another described the offshore customer care center as “the Moroccan nightmare,” with more than a few call center workers demonstrating less-than-capable comprehension of French. Service outages are rampant and represent the single biggest reason customers have canceled service.

Goei complained that acquisitions and upgrades have been complicated in Europe by former managers grabbing their golden parachutes and abandoning the acquired companies (without mentioning Altice’s well-known reputation for draconian salary cuts and downsizing) and slowdowns from underperforming suppliers (despite the fact some vendors in France complained their invoices went unpaid for weeks or months, leading to complaints to government regulators).

Forthcoming upgrades are one of the reasons Goei was in the Bronx to sell employees on the merits of Altice Technical Services (ATS), a spinoff entity expected to eventually manage all of Altice’s technical infrastructure and the technicians that will care for it.

“We don’t want to contract out,” explained Goei, who aspires to manage Altice’s forthcoming upgrades effectively in-house through ATS instead of going to outside contractors. To manage this, Goei needs to convince Altice USA’s technical employees to leave Altice and join ATS.

Will ATS protect workers and customers or simply help Altice rid itself of regulator-imposed conditions for its acquisitions?

Goei’s statements seemed to suggest that most will need to make that transition if they want to remain a part of Altice for more than five years, hinting ATS will increasingly manage more and more of Altice’s technical needs, eventually making Altice USA employees potentially redundant.

Goei also hinted ATS might perform work for more than just Altice, which underlined concerns for union organizers that ATS is being established as an independent contracting entity that would not be subject to any regulatory job protection conditions that came with the approval of Altice’s acquisition of Cablevision.

Altice’s plans to rip out and replace coaxial cable with an all-fiber network will likely provide work for the next 7-10 years, notwithstanding the ambitious five-year timeline Altice gave for the fiber upgrade. But employees peppered Goei with questions about job security, benefits like vacation pay, and exactly who will be running ATS and what their opportunities for advancement are.

The transition to ATS might effectively be in name only, because Goei claimed ATS will have full access to employees’ files and work history with Altice and Cablevision, and if managers make the transition to ATS, employees could report to the same manager or supervisor they did under Altice.

“We’re not bringing in some Mexican guy” to run things Goei said to nervous laughter and raised eyebrows from the almost all-minority audience.

Goei’s question and answer session is unlikely to assuage concerns ATS could evolve into little more than Altice’s version of an independent subcontractor with enhanced loyalty to Altice USA. Despite assurances Altice is not looking for excuses to radically trim its workforce, Altice’s history shows job cuts are an integral part of what the French business press calls “The Drahi Method.”

At France’s SFR, Drahi made clear he is looking to cut at least 5,000 paid positions, reducing the workforce from 14,700 to 9,000, starting in July. Observers suspect Altice’s reliance on ATS to act as an umbrella technical department for all of Altice’s North American acquisitions guarantees workforce reductions, if only to eliminate redundancy. Altice has already shown a willingness to lay off employees at its Cablevision and Suddenlink call centers.

But there is one area where Altice is willing to spend.

Le Temps reports Drahi is opening the checkbook to beef up its Geneva executive headquarters in Switzerland, increasing the workforce tenfold and centralizing business operations for the Altice empire. The office is packed with ex-Wall Street bankers and businessmen with a reputation for ruthlessness. Goei’s office is in the building, as is the company’s director — Michel Combes. Combes was notoriously hired away from Alcatel right after demonstrating a talent for swinging the job cutting ax. They are joined by Burkhard Koep, a former Morgan Stanley investment banker in charge of mergers and acquisitions.

The top shelf executives have moved themselves and their families from London, New York, Paris, Tel Aviv and Lisbon to the posh neighborhoods around suburban Geneva, where homes are more likely to be called estates.

The Geneva office conducts business through heavy reliance on videoconferencing and racking up frequent flier miles traveling abroad. Often absent is Drahi himself, who prefers to conduct business from his Zermatt-based luxury cottages. As much as executives spend their time pondering the next acquisition, Le Temps reports they also spend their weekends trying to renegotiate the company’s enormous debt load by seeking refinancing at lower interest rates.

“They play a bank against each other by saying: we will refinance to 6% the debt you loaned us at 7%,” reported the news outlet.

But Altice’s Geneva headquarters did not come for free. Drahi recently introduced a new franchise fee obligating each cable or telecom unit to pay 2-3% of their revenue to Mr. Drahi’s Switzerland office. In the first year that is expected to raise at least $550 million dollars. While popular with Swiss tax authorities, the substantial royalty payments are expected to reduce available cash for upgrades and debt service. Nobody is sure where the money will ultimately end up.

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