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Suddenlink Hiking Rates: Internet Up $3.50, Surcharges Now Exceed $13/Month

Suddenlink customers around the country are finding accessing the internet has suddenly gotten more expensive. For many service areas, the cable operator raised its rates in December for television and broadband service, with some of the biggest hikes coming from sneaky surcharges.

In many states, the most popular basic bundle already costs $90 a month. The biggest increases have come from “surcharges” which are never a part of Suddenlink’s advertised promotions, surprising many customers on their first bill.

In Arizona, the Broadcast TV surcharge has gone up another $1.61 a month, making customers pay $8.39 a month for a handful of local channels. A separate sports programming surcharge of $5.15 also applies. Suddenlink is also part of the club of cable operators charging customers $10 a month to rent a cable modem. For good measure, the cable operator also wants another dollar a month for its DVR and $3.50 more for broadband. Assorted other fees and surcharges tack on another $4.50 a month.

Suddenlink has already notified some regulators more price hikes are coming in the next several months.

But a Suddenlink spokesperson said there is more good news than bad.

“We provide Suddenlink customers with superior products and services at a great value, continually introducing faster internet speeds and with plans to roll out an enhanced video experience in the coming months,” Janet Meahan, spokeswoman for Suddenlink, told the Daily Miner in Kingman, Ariz. “Our pricing remains extremely competitive in the face of rapidly rising programming costs.”

Mehan also told the newspaper that Suddenlink introduced 1 gigabit internet service in Kingman in October, and provided “complimentary” speed upgrades for residential customers at no extra charge.

“They also had their artificial internet rate hike when they implemented data ‘allowances’ (caps),” retorted Ryan, a Suddenlink customer. “Their upgrades are anything but complimentary.”

Readers report they’ve had success calling Suddenlink and threatening to cancel service over the rate increases. Some report they’ve successfully negotiated their rates down to a level just a dollar or two higher than what they paid two years ago. Customers can also buy their way out of Suddenlink’s data caps by upgrading their service.

New subscribers and existing customers who elect to get an upgrade will automatically be enrolled in an unlimited plan at no extra charge the first year, pay an added $5 a month after 12 months, and an added $10 a month after 24 months. Customers currently subscribing to Suddenlink’s fastest local services may choose to retain their existing usage-based plans or upgrade to an unlimited plan.

Charter Still Losing Time Warner Cable Customers With Hard Line on Retention Deals

charter-twc-bhAt least 54,000 Time Warner Cable customers downgraded or canceled their cable TV service in the last three months as Charter Communications continues to take a harder line on offering or renewing customer retention discounts for customers unhappy with their bill.

Time Warner Cable customers are “mispriced” with discounts and deals that lower the cost of service but face bill shock when the promotion ends, according to Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge.

“Third quarter customer results were more inconsistent with good performance at Legacy Charter and Bright House, but higher churn and downgrades in the Time Warner Cable markets, as we expected, given the way Time Warner Cable had marketed promotional pricing,” said Rutledge. “Until our Spectrum pricing and packaging is launched across the newly acquired service areas, we continue to expect higher levels of churn and downgrades where Time Warner Cable was the operator.”

“Over the next few quarters, our operating results will reflect reversing certain product and packaging strategies, in particular at TWC, in which in our view are not sustainable, given high promotional roll-offs and annual rate increases, high customer equipment fees, including modem fees, all coupled with complex and stacked offers,” added Charter’s chief financial officer Christopher Winfrey.

Traditionally, Time Warner Cable has dealt with price sensitive customers rolling off special pricing promotions by gradually resetting rates higher or, when necessary, by renewing the promotion for another year in an effort not to lose the customer. That will stop under Charter’s ownership, according to Mr. Rutledge. As a result, Charter Communications is seeing significant customer losses at Time Warner Cable when customer service representatives won’t budge on pricing.

Rutledge is seeking more discipline in product pricing so Charter does not have to extend cut-rate retention promotions to customers. As part of the Charter Spectrum rebrand, the cable company introduces new cable, broadband, and phone plans while allowing Time Warner Cable’s legacy plans to stay in effect until a customer elects to switch. While Texas and California Time Warner Cable customers have already been introduced to Spectrum plans, much of the rest of the country is still being offered plans only from Time Warner Cable or Bright House.

Rutledge

Rutledge

Customers are most likely to cancel service as their promotion expires. The resulting price hike can be a considerable shock as rates quickly reset to Bright House or Time Warner’s “regular price.”

Charter wants an incentive to get customers to forfeit their Time Warner or Bright House plan and switch to a new Spectrum plan as they are introduced. By making the grandfathered plans as unattractive as possible, the alternative Spectrum plans appear to be a better deal. Unfortunately, until Spectrum-branded plans arrive nationwide, many customers are stuck in limbo rolling off a promotion, are unable to renew it, and forced to wait for new Spectrum plans to be introduced.

Rutledge announced last week that the next markets to be introduced to Spectrum this month are in New York City and Florida, the latter former Bright House territory. Rutledge predicted half of Time Warner Cable customers will be offered Spectrum plans by the end of this year. But some Time Warner Cable customers may have to wait until next spring before Spectrum rebranding is complete.

Time Warner Cable Maxx is Still Dead, Earning Charter $36 Million in Reduced CapEx

Charter also reported significant financial benefits from prematurely terminating the Time Warner Cable Maxx upgrade effort. Time Warner’s upgrades would have given customers free speed upgrades up to 300Mbps. But Charter pulled the plug on the upgrade project just after completing its acquisition, and has no plans to restart it.

“Cost to service customers declined by about 2% despite overall customer growth of 5.1%, which reflects lower service transactions at Legacy Charter, the lack of all-digital activity at TWC this quarter versus last year’s third quarter, and some benefit from less physical disconnects in all-digital markets,” reported Winfrey. “Capital expenditures totaled $1.75 billion, including $109 million of transition spend. Excluding transition CapEx, our third quarter CapEx was down by $36 million year-over-year, about 2%, driven by all-digital spending at TWC, primarily on [equipment], which did not recur in the third quarter of this year.”

Winfrey

Winfrey

Charter expects to increase CapEx next spring, as the company continues its less ambitious transition to all-digital cable service, which includes broadband speeds topping out at 100Mbps, three times less than what Time Warner Cable was implementing.

Charter is Less Enthusiastic About Digital Phone Service

Time Warner Cable maintained a healthy market share for its digital phone service by bundling it at a promotional price of $10 a month, a rate that remained relatively stable for customers sticking with a triple play package bundle. Time Warner Cable also enhanced its phone service by adding the European Union nations, Mexico, and several popular Asian calling destinations as part of the local calling area, making those calls free of charge.

Charter’s own plan is less feature-rich and customers have to buy an add-on plan to cover international long distance, making the product considerably less attractive to customers. Some customers also find the cost of the phone service has increased under Spectrum, a problem acknowledged by Winfrey, who noted Time Warner Cable’s low-price voice offer in prior year quarters had been discontinued, resulting in higher voice downgrades and relationship churn.

Charter’s Plans for Legacy Charter Customers and Newly-Adopted Time Warner Cable and Bright House Customers

charter spectrum logoRutledge made clear that despite any product changes or rebranding, the long term goal of Charter Communications is to see revenue grow. Whether that will come from gradual repricing of cable products and services to a higher rate or from improved products and services that attract new upgrade business is not yet certain. But Rutledge outlined key areas Charter expects to focus on in the next few years:

  • Charter will complete the all-digital transition at Time Warner Cable and Bright House over the next two years, but it will resemble the kind of service legacy Charter customers get today, not TWC Maxx;
  • Over the next five years or so, with relatively small infrastructure investments, Charter plans to implement DOCSIS 3.1 which will be able to deliver symmetrical multi-gigabit speeds to all 50 million homes and businesses in their service area;
  • Charter plans to aggressively market and grow its services for commercial customers, targeting businesses large and small, at prices that more closely resemble residential service pricing, instead of the price premium Time Warner Cable has traditionally charged its commercial customers;
  • Charter is activating its MVNO agreement with Verizon, which will allow Charter to create and market its own wireless/cellular service using Verizon’s nationwide network. The company is also exploring using millimeter-wave (5G) service to offer better broadband coverage in large commercial spaces like malls and rural properties currently not wired for cable service. Expect the company to create its own wireless/cellular bundle first, because it will rely entirely on Verizon’s network, keeping Charter’s costs low.

Charter’s New Hard Line on Promotions for Time Warner Cable/Bright House Will Drive Customers to the Exit

charter-twc-bhCharter Communications is taking a hard line against extending promotional pricing for Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers and Wall Street predicts a major exodus of customers as a result.

UBS analyst John Hodulik predicts Charter’s new ‘Just Say No to Discounts’-attitude will result in customers saying ‘Cancel’ and he estimates a massive loss of at least 75,000 Time Warner Cable television customers in the third quarter as a result, with many more to follow.

Charter Communications’ executives have ordered a hard line against giving existing customers discounts and perpetually renewing promotional pricing, a practice Time Warner Cable has continued since the days of the Great Recession to keep customers happy.

Time Warner Cable and to a lesser extent Bright House have learned antagonized, price-sensitive customers were increasingly serious about cutting cable’s TV cord for good when the cost becomes too high to justify. Time Warner Cable dealt with this problem by giving complaining customers better deals, often repeatedly. That mitigated the problem of customer loss, allowed the company to retain and grow cable television customers and even helped minimize the practice of promotion shopping common in competitive service areas.

For years, Time Warner and Bright House customers learned they could enroll in a year-long promotion with the cable operator and then switch to a year-long new customer promotion from AT&T U-verse or Verizon FiOS and then jump back to the cable company with a new promotion. In many cases, they even got a gift card worth up to $300 for their trouble. Charter Communications thinks their new “pro-consumer policies” of not charging rapacious equipment fees and sticking to “simplified” prices will delight customers enough to keep their loyalty. Good luck.

Licensed to print money

Licensed to print money

Wall Street doesn’t believe Charter’s reputation or their ‘New Deal’ for TWC and BH customers will be perceived as making things better, especially for cable television and its cost. As customers roll off promotions at Time Warner Cable, the bill shock of watching rates rise up to $65 a month will speak for itself. The higher the price hike, the more likely it will provoke a family discussion about dropping cable television service for good.

In Los Angeles and Texas, where Charter premiered its new “simplified pricing” for Time Warner Cable customers, the response has been underwhelming, with many customers deriding it as “simply a price hike.”

David Lazarus, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, characterized the transition from TWC to Charter this way: “Meet the new cable company. Same as the old cable company.”

Culver City resident Jack Cohen provides good evidence of what happens when customers get their first bill from Charter, and it is higher than expected. Cohen received his first bill for $162, $22 more than his last Time Warner Cable bill of $140 a month, because his promotion with TWC expired. As a result, he canceled cable television after Charter wouldn’t budge on pricing. Cohen said “cancel” and never looked back. He now pays the new cable company $40 less than he gave Time Warner Cable, because he now only subscribes to broadband and phone service. Charter’s ‘simplified pricing’ cost the cable company more than the $22 extra they were originally seeking.

Lazarus learned when his own TWC promotional package expires in December, Charter had a great Christmas present waiting… for themselves. Lazarus’ $65 promotion will rise to $120 a month — almost double what he used to pay. But Charter also offered Lazarus a better deal he can refuse, a new Charter-Spectrum package of the same services for the low, low price of $85 a month — still a 30% rate hike.

In Texas, customers coming off promotions are learning first hand how Charter intends to motivate customers to abandon the Time Warner Cable packages Charter promised they could keep — by making them as unaffordable as possible and offering slightly less expensive Charter/Spectrum packages as an alternative.

“But it’s still $45 more than what I was paying Time Warner Cable for the same damn thing,” complained Ty Rogers to a Charter retention specialist, after his Time Warner Cable shot up once Charter took over. He is waiting for Google Fiber to arrive and then plans to cancel everything with Charter.

Charter’s billing practices also are dubbed the weirdest in the cable industry by The Consumerist, because Charter loves to hide taxes, surcharges, and fees by rolling them into other charges on the bill and cannot be accurately accounted for:

Charter breaks out federal, state, or local taxes and fees for some services (TV) but not for others (voice). Also, depending where you live and when you signed up for services, the taxes, fees, and surcharges that do appear may be listed under different sections of the bill or not at all.

While their procedure does result in many fewer line items for consumers, it does produce more confusing bills overall, and make it harder to compare against other providers in a truly apples-to-apples kind of way.

‘No, no, no,’ counters Charter/Spectrum to FierceCable.

“Our internet packages are competitively priced, but we offer faster starting speeds and don’t charge an additional modem lease fee on top of the cost of service (that is an additional $10 at legacy TWC),” Charter spokesman Justin Venech said. “That pricing is better and more attractive to customers. Our video packages are simpler and more robust. For example, our Spectrum Silver package includes over 175 channels plus premium channels HBO, Showtime and Cinemax while a comparable TWC package would have charged extra for premiums.  We don’t add on additional fees and taxes to our voice product that our competitors do, and our equipment pricing for video set-top boxes are much lower with Spectrum than our competitors or legacy TWC or BHN.  Our new Spectrum pricing is $4.99 for a receiver vs over $11 at legacy TWC.”

“That assumes, like every cable company always does, that we want HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax, don’t already own our own cable modem, and are not dancing in the streets over an even bigger television package filled with crap we don’t want,” said Rogers. “Charter also takes away Time Warner’s excellent long distance phone service, which let me call almost all of Europe without any toll charges or an extra cost calling package. I paid Time Warner $10 a month and could talk to someone in France all night long if I wanted. With Charter, it’s more for less.”

Rogers’ promotion included his DVR in the promotion, so comparing Charter’s $4.99 vs. TWC’s $11 for a DVR made no difference to him either.

“You can argue all day about the ‘value’ you are offering, but you can’t argue your way out of a bill that is $45 higher than last month,” Rogers complained.

Overall, the latest spate of cable mergers and AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV has been bad news for consumers, who face fewer competitive prospects and a new, harder line on promotional pricing. AT&T customers are discovering AT&T is more motivated to get U-verse TV customers to switch to DirecTV and less interested in providing discounts. The cable competition knows that, making fighting for a better deal much tougher if Charter’s only competitor in an area is AT&T. Cable operators also understand there is a built-in reluctance to switch to satellite by a significant percentage of their customers.

Charter’s pre-existing customers not a part of the TWC/BH merger are not too happy with Charter’s Spectrum offers either. At least 152,000 video customers said goodbye for good to the cable operator’s television packages.

Hodulik predicts there are more where that came from as the rest of the country gradually discovers what Charter has in store for them.

Pondering the Future of AT&T’s Dead-Brand Walking U-verse, DirecTV, and Data Caps

att directvWith the advent of AT&T/DirecTV Now, AT&T’s new over-the-top streaming TV service launching later this year, AT&T is preparing to bury the U-verse brand.

Earlier this year, AT&T customers noticed a profound shift in the company’s marketing priorities. The phone company began steering potential customers to AT&T’s latest acquisition, satellite television provider DirecTV, instead of U-verse. There is an obvious reason for this – DirecTV has 20.45 million customers as of the second quarter of 2016 compared to 4.87 million customers for AT&T U-verse TV. Volume discounts make all the difference for pay television companies and AT&T hopes to capitalize on DirecTV’s lower programming costs.

AT&T’s buyout of DirecTV confused many Wall Street analysts, some who believe the days of satellite television are past their peak. Satellite providers lack the ability to bundle services, although some phone companies partner with the satellite company to pitch phone, broadband, and satellite TV to their customers. But consider for a moment what would happen if DirecTV introduced satellite television without the need for a satellite dish.

Phillip Dampier: The "U" in U-verse doesn't stand for "unlimited."

Phillip Dampier: The “U” in U-verse doesn’t stand for “unlimited.”

AT&T’s DirecTV Now will rely on the internet to deliver television channels instead of a satellite. AT&T is currently negotiating with most of the programmer conglomerates that own popular cable channels to allow them to be carried “over-the-top” through broadband connections. If successful, DirecTV Now could become a nationwide powerhouse alternative to traditional cable TV.

AT&T is clearly considering a potential future where DirecTV could dispense with satellites and rely on broadband instead. The company quietly began zero rating DirecTV streaming in September for AT&T Mobility customers, which means watching that programming will not count against your data plan. For current U-verse customers, broadband speeds have always been constrained by the need to reserve large amounts of bandwidth to manage television viewing. Although AT&T has been boosting speeds in selected areas, a more fundamental speed boost could be achieved if AT&T dropped U-verse television and turned the service into a simple broadband pipe that relied on DirecTV Now to manage television service for customers.

AT&T seems well on the way, adding this notice to customer bills:

“To make it simpler for our customers U-verse High Speed Internet and U-verse Voice services have new names: AT&T Internet and AT&T Phone. AT&T Internet product names will now align with our Internet speed tiers. Our voice plan names will remain the same.”

An earlier internal company memo suggested AT&T would eventually transition all of its TV products into “AT&T Entertainment” after completing a transition to its “next generation TV platform.” Increasingly, that platform seems to be an internet-powered streaming solution and not U-verse or DirecTV satellite. That transition should begin in January.

Top secret.

Gone by end of 2016.

It would represent a formidable change, but one that makes sense for AT&T’s investors. The transition to IP networks means providers will offer one giant broadband pipe, across which television, phone and internet access will travel. The bigger that pipe becomes, the more services customers are likely to use — and that means growing data usage. Having a lot of fiber infrastructure also lays the foundation for expansion of AT&T’s wireless network — particularly towards 5G service, which is expected to rely on small cell technology to offer faster speeds to a more localized area — fast enough to serve as a home broadband replacement. Powering that network will require plenty of fiber optics to provide backhaul access to those small cells.

Last week, AT&T announced it launched a trial 100Mbps service using point-to-point millimeter-wave spectrum to offer broadband to subscribers in multiple apartment complexes around the Minneapolis area. If the initial trial is successful, AT&T will boost speeds to include 500Mbps service to those same complexes. AT&T has chosen to provide the service outside of its usual service area — Minneapolis is served by CenturyLink. AT&T acquired a nationwide license to offer service in the 70-80GHz band back in 2009, and an AT&T spokesperson claimed the wireless signal can reach up to two miles. The company is also experimenting with new broadband over power lines technology that could offer service in rural areas.

cheapJust like its wireless service, AT&T stands to make money not just selling access to broadband and entertainment, but also by metering customer usage to monetize all aspects of how customers communicate. Getting customers used to the idea of having their consumption measured and billed could gradually eliminate the expectation of flat rate service, at which point customers can be manipulated to spend even more to access the same services that cost providers an all-time low to deliver. Even zero rating helps drive a belief the provider is doing the customer a favor waiving data charges for certain content, delivering a value perception made possible by that provider first overcharging for data and then giving the customer “a break.”

As of mid-September, streaming media analyst Dan Rayburn noted Akamai — a major internet backbone transit provider — was selling content delivery contracts at $0.002 per gigabyte delivered, the lowest price Rayburn has ever seen. Other bids Rayburn has reviewed recently topped out at 0.5 cents per gigabyte. According to industry expert Dave Burstein, that suggests large ISPs like AT&T are paying something less than a penny per gigabyte for internet traffic.

“If you use 139GB a month, that costs your provider something like $1/month,” Burstein wrote, noting doubling backbone transit costs gives a rough estimate of the cost to the carrier, which also has to carry the bits to your local exchange. In this context, telecom services like broadband and phone service should be decreasing in cost, not increasing. But the opposite is true. Large providers with usage caps expect to be compensated many times greater than that, charging $10 for 50GB in overlimit fees while their true cost is well under 50 cents. Customers buying a cell phone are often fitted with a data plan that represents an unprecedented markup. The extent of price increases customers can expect can be previewed by looking at the cost of phone service over the last 20 years. The average, often flat rate telephone bill in 1995 was $19.98 a month. In 2014, it was $73 a month. In 2015, it was $90 a month. Those dramatically rising prices in the last few years are mostly as a result of the increased cost of data plans providers charge to clean up on customers’ growing data usage.

Both Comcast and AT&T are dedicated to a campaign of getting customers to forget about flat rate, unlimited service at a reasonable cost. Even as both companies raise usage caps, they continue to raise prices as well, even as their costs to provide the service continue to drop. Both companies hope to eventually create the kind of profitable windfall with wired services that wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon Wireless have enjoyed for years since they abandoned unlimited flat rate plans. Without significant new competition, the effective duopoly most Americans have for telecommunications services offers the opportunity to create a new, more costly (and false) paradigm for telecom services, based on three completely false claims:

  • data costs are expensive,
  • usage must be monetized, and
  • without a bigger return on investment, investors will not finance the next generation of telecom upgrades.

But as the evidence clearly shows, profits from selling high-speed internet access are only growing, even as costs are falling. Much of the drag on profits come from increasing costs related to licensing television content. Voice over IP telephone service is almost an afterthought for most cable and phone companies, often thrown in for $10-20 a month.

AT&T’s transition puts all the attention and its quest for fatter profits on its broadband service. That’s a bad deal for AT&T customers no matter what the company calls its “next generation” network.

Altice Speeds Up Cablevision While Suddenlink Stays Capped

atice-cablevisionAltice USA today unveiled faster broadband service for Cablevision customers in the Tri-State Area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. You can now subscribe to faster service plans topping out at 300Mbps for residential customers and 350Mbps for commercial accounts.

Altice was required to boost internet speeds in New York State as part of winning approval for the buyout of Cablevision from the state’s Department of Public Service (formerly the Public Service Commission). But customers in New Jersey and Connecticut will also benefit.

New Internet Services
(bundling TV and phone service can reduce these prices and customers may need to call 1-888-298-9771 to change service if grandfathered on older plans):

Optimum Online (25/5Mbps) $59.95
Additional Modem(s) $49.95 each
Optimum 60 add $4.95
Optimum 100 add $10.00
Optimum 200 add $20.00
Optimum 300 add $55.00

Prior to the upgrade, the fastest speed most customers could get from Cablevision was 101Mbps. Based on pricing, the best value for money is the 200Mbps plan if you are looking for faster service. A $55 charge monthly charge for 300Mbps is $35 more than the logical rate step between lower speed tiers. Standalone customers would effectively pay $114.95 a month for 300Mbps vs. $79.95 for 200Mbps.

Altice has achieved the internet speed requirement imposed by New York regulators more than a year ahead of schedule. The same cannot be said for Charter Communications, which has canceled Time Warner Cable Maxx upgrades that were already underway in former Time Warner service areas. Customers may have to wait until 2019 in New York (later elsewhere) for Charter to upgrade all of its service areas to support 300Mbps. Altice’s other owned-and-operated cable operator – Suddenlink Communications, is also still laboring to boost broadband speeds and has left usage caps and usage billing in place for its customers in mostly smaller cities across the United States.

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  • JayS: Channels, before they were removed from Tv and used to start the cellular telephone networks, went up to 83. Due to technology limitations, UHF (...
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  • Phillip Dampier: The retention staff in Syracuse actually stopped handling those types of calls in early 2016 and referred everyone to the national customer retention ...
  • T Nelson: I am a Twc customer in the Rochester, NY area. In November my special promotion program ran out. In the past I had dealt with a retention specialist...
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