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Spectrum Customers Get Bill Shocked Again as Set-Top Box and Rate Promotions End

Phillip Dampier May 17, 2018 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Video 1 Comment

Some Spectrum customers are getting nasty surprises in their latest cable bills.

For some customers, it has been one year or more since Spectrum introduced new plans and pricing for former Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable customers and one year since the company implemented all-digital cable television upgrades that require customers to place equipment on every television wired for cable in the home.

Many customers received “free” equipment as part of the digital upgrades, but may have forgotten that promotion only lasted one year. That is also the length of Spectrum’s various ‘new customer’ and ‘retention’ promotions. When the year is up, your bill goes up — sometimes dramatically.

In Cleveland, Ohio some customers are finding bills increasing $18-30 a month or more, sometimes increasing more than once as rate promotions and free set-top equipment deals end at different times in the year.

It is not unusual to find customers paying $180-225 or more a month for Spectrum’s “triple play” package of television, phone, and internet service, after promotions end. A significant percentage of customers still holding legacy Time Warner Cable and Bright House plans are finding those packages increasing in price as well. In comparison, new customers with a triple play package generally pay between $100-120 a month, depending on equipment.

Some of the rate changes Spectrum imposed over the last 12 months include:

  • Equipment rate increases (usually around $1.00 a month per box)
  • New “Secure Connection Fee”: $1.00/mo per box – Spectrum claims this fee covers “those measures Spectrum employs to manage and secure the connection between Spectrum’s system and the Spectrum receiver and other devices Subscriber uses to access Spectrum’s services.”
  • Broadcast TV Surcharge rate increases
  • Internet service rate increases

Although Spectrum has reportedly become more amenable to offering retention deals to customers threatening to leave, the best deals are still for new customers. Some have dropped Spectrum service and signed up again under the name of another household member to secure a better deal. Others will have to wait 30 days after ending service before one is qualified for a new customer deal once again.

WKYC in Cleveland reports some Spectrum customers are upset about sudden bill changes. (2:34)

A Washington Post Columnist Channels Cable Industry Drivel About Cord-Cutting

Phillip Dampier April 18, 2018 Editorial & Site News, Online Video 2 Comments

The editorial and opinion page of The Washington Post has always been an uneven experience, especially when it comes to their views on the telecommunications business.

For years, the Post’s editorial page has been suspiciously cable-friendly. It favored Comcast’s failed 2014 acquisition of Time Warner Cable — a thought so horrible, readers were likely to spit out their morning coffee after seeing it. At first, one might have attributed the editorial board’s friendliness to the fact its corporate parent at the time also owned Cable One, a cable operator serving small and medium cities in places Comcast, Charter, and Cox forgot. But Cable One is now long gone — spun off as an independent entity. So perhaps laziness explains why reporters and columnists are frequently suckered by well-worn talking points from a cable industry on the defensive — celebrating every article proclaiming the impact of cord-cutting is muted, at best.

This morning’s shallow column by “right-leaning blogger” Megan McArdle, “You think you hate your cable bundle. You’re wrong,” is an excellent case in point. It’s a combination of cable industry folderol and misunderstanding of the economics of today’s cable business.

McArdle argues that recent subscriber growth by Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services should mean we can get rid of the hated cable television bundle. Only we don’t she says, because we “actually love bundles.”

Her argument runs into trouble almost immediately when attempting to conflate a-la-carte economics of the television business with the likely impact of that type of pricing on hotels, airlines, and restaurants:

When you book a hotel, you expect “complimentary” mattresses, sheets and towels, rather than renting each individually. When you go to a restaurant, you don’t pay extra to enjoy the use of a plate. And you get very testy indeed upon discovering that your bargain airline charges you to choose a seat or bring luggage.

Bundling, it turns out, is valuable. You aren’t willing to give up complimentary shampoo and towel service when you’re traveling, because that turns every shower into a financial decision. The hotel, meanwhile, would need more staff to field requests for trivia, raising the price of the room. Much better for everyone to sell you a bundle that we call a “hotel room” but that really includes a bunch of ancillary products you might like to use during your stay.

In 2014, the Washington Post editorial page endorsed the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger that eventually fell apart.

Value is in the eye of the beholder, and hundreds of thousands of cable customers are doing what was once unthinkable for the cable industry (and Ms. McArdle) — they are cutting the cord to their cable television package for good. That is a fact many cable executives are now willing to acknowledge. It is why CEO’s complain about the inflation rate of cable programming costs and the fact subscribers are no longer amenable to annual budget-busting rate hikes for cable television. Some cable companies now attempt to hide those growing costs in fine print surcharges for broadcast TV stations and sports programming. Others are offering new slimmed-down cable package options for customers no longer willing to pay for dozens of channels they will never watch. It’s a story we’ve covered for nine years, but one Ms. McArdle obviously missed.

Her analogies about an a-la-carte world for hotels and airlines isn’t a good one because nobody staying in a motel or flying complains about getting too much from either. As with all things, there is a general consensus about what one can expect staying in a Holiday Inn or flying Delta. You can find outliers like the seedy motel with hourly rates that charges for clean sheets or the airline that is now contemplating new seating arrangements that cram people even tighter into an almost-standing position. But when you signed up for cable television, you did not expect or ask for hundreds of channels — many added not because subscribers valued them but because of corporate contract decisions or launch bonuses. But you didn’t have much of a choice with “take it or leave it” lineups. McArdle’s argument falls into the industry’s favorite talking point of all — the value proposition. ‘Yes, your cable bill is now headed for $200 a month, but look at all the value we give you by bundling dozens of networks you’ve never heard of with a phone line you don’t want and an internet connection that we now target for our annual rate hikes.’

Bundled pricing is designed to trap you into their business model, and any attempt to claim we “love” those pricing plans is extremely misguided.

Take Spectrum’s misleading promotion for a year of their triple play bundle, marketed as: TV+Internet+Voice with a price of $29.99/mo each. Not a bad deal. One can take internet service and television, for example, and expect to pay just under $60 a month for both. That’s a fine price. But then you missed the fine print. It actually says “from $29,99/mo each for 12 months when bundled.” To actually get those services for $29.99 a month each you have to take all three. If you just want the aforementioned bundle of television and internet service, the promotional price for that is $59.99 a month for television, plus $29.99 a month for internet — which adds up to one cent more than Spectrum’s triple play promotion, which also includes a phone line.

Do subscribers “love the bundle” or traditionally take it because it is the only package on offer from the cable company that makes economic sense, given the options?

McArdle continues:

Bundling is especially valuable in businesses where fixed costs account for a disproportionate share of the total price. Once you’ve gone to the monstrous expense of building and staffing a hotel, providing extra amenities generates little additional cost while adding a great deal of value for the customer. And the same is true of cable. Much of the expense comes from laying and maintaining a wire to your house; adding another channel is relatively cheap.

Right now, cable companies sell you phone, Internet service and entertainment products, all of which share one wire, one maintenance operation and one customer service staff. Without those other services, the Internet division would have to cover all that overhead. So if you pay less for the entertainment, you’re probably going to have to pay more for connectivity.

The sunk costs of cable company infrastructure have been largely paid off for years. Today’s cable systems were largely designed and last significantly overhauled in the 1990s and early 2000s to make room for more television channels. Every service contemplated for sale by the cable industry, including broadband, was designed to work over a hybrid fiber-coax network design that has been in place for 20 years. Move analog television channels to digital, and one opens up room for more broadband. Need more bandwidth for broadband? Order a node split to further divide pools of users.

The cable industry itself rejects McArdle’s argument for the one-size-fits-all cable bundle. It is why companies have started to introduce slimmed down cable packages and sell new packages of over the top streaming cable TV channels to their broadband-only customers. The costs to deliver and support the broadband services cable companies now love to offer have been declining for years, even as rates increase. Ms. McArdle is obviously also unaware of the industry’s push to launch more self-service options for customers to cut down support calls and dramatically reduce the number of truck rolls to customer homes. She may also not realize the impetus to raise prices comes not out of necessity, but from Wall Street and investors’ revenue expectations.

As cable television programming prices increase, the profit margin on cable television goes further into decline. But the cable industry makes up the difference by raising broadband prices. That is one segment of its business that remains very strong. Losing video subscribers is not the disaster Ms. McArdle suggests it could be. In fact Moody’s recently noted that with broadband profit margins about three times more than for video, the economic loss from a departing video customer can be neutralized by growing broadband subscribers at a fraction of the video unit’s loss. The ratings agency estimates that a ratio of about two broadband subscribers added for every video customer loss should offset revenue losses, while a ratio of 0.67 times that takes care of profit declines as well. That is based on current prices. Therefore, as cable companies add broadband customers, they easily offset the financial impact of video customers departing with no actual need to raise rates.

McArdle finally falls into the trap of using today’s linear TV paradigm as the basis of her argument that if all cable television channels were sold a-la-carte, they would cost astronomically more than they do as part of a bundle. But if that were true, the slimmed down competitive offerings of DirecTV Now, Sling TV, and others would be substantially more expensive than they actually are. For many customers, the out-the-door price is what matters, even if they are paying more for each of the channels they are interested in watching. A $35 DirecTV Now bill is still a lot less than an $80 cable TV bill, which often does not include surcharges and equipment fees.

Wall Street analyst Richard Greenfield of BTIG Research is so skeptical of the future of today’s bloated bundles, he has a Twitter tag: #goodluckbundle that expresses his view that bundled, linear, live television itself is decreasing in importance as viewers turn to on-demand streaming services. Subscriber satisfaction with Netflix and Hulu is much higher than almost any cable company.

One of Stop the Cap!’s readers understands subscribing to a lot of streaming services can also cost a lot, but customer satisfaction matters even more:

“It still adds up when you subscribe to a lot of services, but my satisfaction has never been higher because I am getting services with a lot of things I want to watch instead of hundreds of channels I don’t,” said Jack Codon. “When you flip through the channels and run into Sanford & SonLaw and Order, home shopping, and terrible reality show trash, you just get angry because I was paying for all of it. Now I pay Netflix and they spend the money on making more shows I will probably want to watch, as opposed to reruns I don’t.”

McArdle is correct about one thing — we should expect streaming and internet prices to increase, but not because of what she wrote. The real reason for broadband rate hikes is the lack of competition, which allows companies to implement “because we can” rate increases. Netflix itself hinted it may also increase prices incrementally down the road, but not with the intention of rewarding executives and shareholders with fat bonuses and dividend payouts. Netflix wants to pour all it can into additional content development to give customers even more reason to watch Netflix and little, if anything else.

Renting? You May Lose “Free” Spectrum Cable TV Over Contract Disputes

Phillip Dampier March 28, 2018 Charter Spectrum, Competition, Consumer News, Video No Comments

No TV for you until you sign here.

Charter Communications is asking owners of apartment complexes, nursing homes, independent living/assisted care residences, and hotel and motel owners to sign new agreements allowing Spectrum to lock owners into a 10-year contract that includes a provision allowing retroactive rate increases and a requirement to turn over personal information on every resident to the cable company.

A number of apartment complexes bundle “free cable TV” into the lease as a selling point for renters. Others pay a discounted rate that is part of a resident’s monthly rent payment or service fee. These agreements are part of the murky world of “bulk service contracts” for cable service, and disputes between a property owner and Spectrum can cause the loss of cable service for every resident without warning.

Most of the disputes involve apartment complexes, assisted-living facilities, and hotels/motels formerly served by Time Warner Cable. Most are still under relatively short-term contracts with Time Warner Cable, which was acquired in 2016 by Charter Communications. Good Shepherd Fairview Nursing Home in Binghamton, N.Y. and Good Shepherd Communities, a senior living center in Endwell, N.Y., are good examples.

Mike Keenan has been involved in long-term senior care for 30 years, and over that time he has negotiated hundreds of contracts. But as WICZ in Binghamton reports, nothing prepared him for dealing with Spectrum and Charter Communications.

Good Shepherd Village is a senior living center in Endwell, N.Y.

Charter is using its ongoing digital conversion program as a tool to force “bulk contract” holders to sign new agreements with Charter Communications, often replacing still-valid contracts with Time Warner Cable. Many are not happy about the new terms Charter is offering, particularly one that locks them in with Spectrum service for the next decade and another that allows the cable company to raise rates retroactively.

Those unwilling to sign new contracts have been threatened with service being shut off, usually as digital conversion and TV signal encryption reaches their area, which requires new equipment to keep watching. Those complex owners that still refuse to sign are required to share each tenant’s personal details and address with the cable company.

“Spectrum had taken the position that even though we had a contract in force until December 2018 that we needed to sign a new contract immediately,” said Keenan, president and CEO of Good Shepherd Communities. “If not, they threatened that we would lose service at our Good Shepherd Fairview in Binghamton location and our Good Shepherd Villages at our Endwell location.”

Charter was true to its word. Efforts to negotiate obtaining digital adapters or set-top boxes under the old Time Warner Cable contract failed and with no warning, all 161 nursing home residents at Good Shepherd Fairview lost their cable television on Feb. 27. Two weeks later, 264 residents at Good Shepherd Village — the senior living center — also lost their television and internet service.

The loss was devastating to residents, especially at the nursing home.

“Many of the residents are frail, some of them may be bedridden and their TV means everything to them,” Keenan said.

Keenan’s contract with Time Warner Cable was still valid, and its terms made it clear as long as Good Shepherd kept their payments current, they were owed service that Charter ultimately took away from hundreds of residents.

Apartment complex owners around the country are reviewing new contracts from Charter Communications and many are dropping “free cable TV” after decades of offering the service as an amenity included in the rent. Many who are ending their contracts believe a growing number of tenants neither need or want traditional cable service.

The deal-breaker for many is Charter’s insistence on offering a bulk discount only if the entire building signs up for service, which means owners will have to pay out-of-pocket for Spectrum service in vacant units or in apartments where the tenant has service with another provider.

WICZ in Binghamton, N.Y. reports Charter Communications used nursing home residents as pawns to force the hand of a nursing home manager to sign a new Spectrum contract, even though the current one with Time Warner Cable has not expired. (3:11)

Keenan

“Let’s say you’re paying for Spectrum” – the brand name for Charter’s service – “for 100 percent of the units,” attorney Tara Snow, a partner at Novitt, Sahr & Snow, told Habitat. “You may have 90 or 95 percent of the apartments signing up, but you always have some units that don’t.”

That leaves someone on the hook, either tenants or the property owner, to pay for cable service that nobody is watching. Under Time Warner Cable just a few years ago, the cable company would pay a co-op, condo association, or apartment owner an upfront cash bonus and ongoing “revenue-share fees” for getting a majority of residents — but not all — to sign up for service. It also allowed the company to market holdouts door to door.

No such luck with Charter, which wants to be paid for every unit no matter who is at home. For property owners staying loyal to Spectrum, some are absorbing the extra costs while others pass them on to tenants as part of their rent or monthly maintenance/service surcharges. A few are trying cost sharing arrangements that divide up the total bill equally among all tenants. But as younger renters move in and increasingly show no interest in cable television, the dwindling number who have cable are paying more and more to cover those that don’t.

“People are cord-cutting,” says Brian Scally, vice president of Garthchester Realty, a management firm. “Most people who still want cable want to select their own cable/internet/telephone provider.”

Of the 64 properties he manages, Scally told Habitat fewer than a dozen have signed up for a bulk rate, and those deals were signed years ago.

“I haven’t brought anybody new to bulk rate,” he says.

The other deal breaker for many is Spectrum’s 10-year contract, which locks owners in with a cable company a lot of tenants despise.

As a result, a growing number of apartment complexes and condos are terminating their bulk cable contracts as they expire, and have no intention of renewing under Charter’s draconian terms. Affected tenants are informed the “free” cable television they were receiving is ending and they should make individual arrangements with Spectrum to maintain service going forward.

Hotel and motel owners are also finding fault with Charter Communications, and some are taking their disputes to the Federal Communications Commission.

Yvonne Peach, who owns the Historic Coronado Motor Hotel in Yuma, Ariz., says dealing with Charter has been a nightmare since the merger.

After Charter converted commercial Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers to Spectrum plans and pricing, she lost service to all of her motel rooms for more than a week.

Historic Coronado Motor Hotel – Yuma, Ariz. (Image courtesy of owner)

“When they did the change over we didn’t have any cable TV in the hotel for 12 days,” Peach told KYMA-TV.

Spectrum advised her best solution would be to install leased set-top boxes in the hotel’s 126 rooms, a solution she claims caused even more problems. It seems Spectrum’s equipment doesn’t appreciate Yuma’s southwest Arizona heat, and the boxes regularly fail when air conditioning is switched off in unoccupied rooms.

“We’ve had over 100 of them replaced probably in the last I don’t how many months,” she said. “It’s a box that if the room isn’t rented every night it becomes deactivated.”

Those paying to stay in the motel are not happy to reach their rooms and find the television isn’t working either.

“We’ve lost thousands of dollars with people that would move out because of no TV in their room,” Peach said. “It comes and it will say dial an 800 number or something. But you know the guest. They are paying a certain amount for the room and they’re not going to call.”

KYMA-TV in Yuma, Ariz. reports Charter told this hotel owner her cable boxes were not working because they are not being kept air-conditioned. (2:29)

Spectrum ignores her complaints, she claims, transferring her from call center to call center in search of a solution. She finally took her complaint to the FCC, something she does not think should be required after paying the company $1,600 a month for cable television.

In response, Spectrum blamed the lack of air conditioning for its box failures, in addition to the “relocation of the digital adapters by hotel staff, which are dedicated to a particular room on the account.”

In other words, if you move equipment between hotel rooms, Spectrum claims that equipment will deauthorize. Spectrum effectively wants motel guests placed in rooms where their cable equipment is still functioning, preferably where air conditioning is left running.

“If you’ve been driving all day and you get in your pajamas and you’re ready for bed and you’re watching TV and the TV doesn’t work, do you want to move to another room without complaining? No, nobody does,” said Peach.

In upstate New York, heat isn’t a significant problem, but having a bulk account representative in Rochester, 2.5 hours away by car from Binghamton is. The representative did not understand Binghamton and Endwell are two different communities about seven miles apart.

“This whole thing could have been avoided,” Keenan said. He called the New York Public Service Commission to complain and within a day multiple Spectrum trucks arrived loaded with set-top boxes — one per residence, potentially finally resolving the dispute, but not the bad feelings that emerged as a result.

“Time Warner Cable was saying ‘we need our customers,’” Keenan said. “The experience I have had with Spectrum is Spectrum is saying ‘you need me.’”

WICZ-TV follows up the next day with this report explaining why it is important to stay wary of cable companies offering long contracts. (1:09)

YouTube TV Gets Turner Networks and More Sports Channels… and a $5 Price Hike

Phillip Dampier February 14, 2018 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video, YouTube TV No Comments

YouTube TV is adding seven new basic cable networks owned by Time Warner/Turner Broadcasting to its lineup along with NBA TV and the MLB Network.

The new TW/Turner Network channels — TNT, TBS, CNN, truTV, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Turner Classic Movies, along with more sports programming, will also mean a $5 a month rate hike for the streaming service, effective March 13.

Existing YouTube TV customers and those signing up before the rate increase takes effect will be spared the price increase, paying $35 a month for the service instead of the $40 rate charged new customers next month.

YouTube TV has focused much of its attention in the last year on getting local broadcast stations on its lineup, and now has a complete assortment of NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX affiliates in dozens of TV markets. One of the reasons cord-cutters are reluctant to cancel their cable subscription is the loss of local stations, but YouTube TV has managed to overcome that roadblock for many subscribers.

The service has spent much of its annual budget on sports channels, which are usually the most costly basic cable networks. The addition of Time Warner, Inc./Turner Broadcasting cable networks came as a result of subscriber demand. Time Warner, fighting the Department of Justice over its proposed acquisition by AT&T, will likely use the new agreement as additional evidence the company is not withholding popular cable programming from AT&T’s competitors.

YouTube TV offers a 7-day free trial, after which subscribers are charged $35 a month. If interested in the service, now is the time to subscribe before it costs $60 more a year.

Cablevision, Suddenlink Will Bail Out Altice’s Struggling European Business

Phillip Dampier January 11, 2018 Altice NV, Cablevision, Competition, Consumer News, Suddenlink No Comments

Altice’s American cable companies will help bail out the parent company’s struggling French operations.

Cablevision and Suddenlink are coming to the rescue of their parent company Altice in a deal that will transfer $1.5 billion from the two American cable operators to help bail out its struggling European operation, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Founding shareholder Patrick Drahi is splitting his U.S. cable operations away from Altice NV, spinning them off into a new publicly traded company known as Altice USA. But Drahi has also ordered the new U.S. company to pay a one time $1.5 billion dividend, most of which will end up in the bank account of Altice NV to help the parent company reduce its leveraged debts that have been largely responsible for its falling stock price.

While Cablevision and Suddenlink customers can look forward to additional rate increases, shareholders of Altice USA are being enticed to invest with sweeteners including an unexpected dividend payout and a sudden decision by Drahi to forego his usual management fee charged to companies he acquires to acquaint them with the “Altice Way” of doing business. That fee can amount to an initial $30 million payment plus an ongoing percentage (usually 2-3%) of a Drahi-acquired company’s future revenue.

Altice USA believes it can afford the bailout thanks to President Donald Trump’s tax cuts. In addition to using $2 billion of anticipated savings to pay for share buybacks, Altice USA hopes to quickly recoup an additional $1.5 billion from reduced taxes and revenue increases it will earn from customer rate hikes and new broadband customers.

Altice NV, soon to be renamed Altice Europe, was a veritable disaster financially — called the “worst large-cap performer in Europe” in 2017. At the center of Altice’s European operations remains the dismally performing SFR-Numericable, the French wireless and cable company. After Drahi acquired the company, he slashed costs and investments and threatened to lay off one-third of its workforce. Service deteriorated and customers canceled in droves. Investors starting selling their Altice shares around Halloween of 2017, after watching Mr. Drahi pile on unprecedented debt and become convinced Drahi’s highly leveraged company could not succeed.

The Wall Street Journal cautioned potential investors in Altice USA that the new venture will gladly take your money, but give shareholders almost no say in how it will be governed. Drahi has engineered his continued dominance of the new entity with control of at least 51% of voting rights.

Wall Street analysts are largely positive about the deal, noting Altice USA won’t be attached to Altice’s European money troubles and the company will have the ability to extract revenue from its customers with ongoing rate increases.

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