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Gouging Legacy Time Warner Cable Customers: Set-Top Boxes $11.75/month

Phillip Dampier July 25, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News 1 Comment

Charter Communications customers with Spectrum and Time Warner Cable packages in several parts of Ohio are being notified analog cable television is about to be switched off in favor of all digital, fully encrypted cable service starting in August, and that switch will cost some subscribers plenty.

More than two million customers across the state are getting robocalls from Charter warning all cable-connected television sets must have a digital receiver attached by the time the switch takes place or they will lose television service.

“They only mention digital receivers, which is what Spectrum calls their basic set-top box,” said Charles Pierson, a Charter customer in Columbus who is still hanging on to his old Time Warner Cable package. “The recording doesn’t promote alternatives like a CableCARD, Roku or a digital adapter, which can cost considerably less than what Charter charges its legacy Time Warner customers for cable equipment.”

Pierson notes that because he has not abandoned his Time Warner Cable package, he faces a huge rate increase if he puts digital receivers on his three spare television sets that do not have boxes attached to them.

“Charter really wants to gouge you off of your current plan and make you switch to a Spectrum plan, so they have told us that Time Warner Cable plan customers like us will pay $11.75 a month for each set-top box while Spectrum customers can qualify for free equipment for up to five years or, at worst, pay $4.99 a month. That means we have to pay more than double the price for exactly the same equipment.”

For many customers, “free” equipment will not be an option. Charter usually only provides that promotion to customers who have never had a set-top box before or are on a qualified public assistance program. Charter’s customer service representatives are trained to urge Time Warner Cable legacy plan customers to walk away from them, offering the fact Spectrum plans charge lower prices for cable equipment. If that does not work, legacy customers like Pierson are told the price for each box is nearly $12 a month if they insist on keeping their current TWC plan.

Although written communications about the digital conversion from Charter mention the availability of poorly understood CableCARD technology as an alternative, only a tiny percentage of customers choose this option. Charter’s own support pages don’t help with “clarifying” information like this:

CableCARD customers subscribing to any service package in which Spectrum equipment is included in the package price may receive a discounted price, reduced by an amount equal to/greater than the fee for such equipment not leased from us. We lease CableCARDs for $2.00 per month per CableCARD for use in customer-owned retail CableCARD-ready devices. Our leased receivers also include either a CableCARD or integrated security inside the device. Our lease rate for cable boxes with CableCARD includes a $2.00 imputed charge for the included CableCARD.

Considering the fact CableCARD technology used by Spectrum does not support on-demand features, the majority of customers follow Charter’s recommended upgrade path to digital receivers or cancel service when they learn how much their bill is going up. Many will wait up to two hours in long lines at cable stores to manage either.

Charter customers facing a forthcoming digital conversion can skip the line in many areas and order digital receivers online from Charter to be delivered by mail. Visit spectrum.com/digitalnow or call 844-278-3408 to verify if you qualify. Delivery takes 3 to 5 days, with no delivery charge.

Customers can also bypass Charter’s equipment by placing Roku devices on spare televisions. The majority of Charter’s television lineup can be found in the Spectrum TV app in the Roku channel/app store.

Lexington City Council, Public Ready to Roast “Spawn of Satan” Spectrum Over the Coals

Finally, a cable company that can bring everyone together, regardless of gender, age, color, or socio-economic status. Rich or poor, urban or suburban, everybody in Lexington, Ky. agrees on one thing: they hate Charter Spectrum.

Tom Eblen from the Lexington Herald Leader savaged the cable company that has alienated so many locals, the city council is looking for a bigger venue to hold their first ever performance evaluation of a telecommunications company. There are doubts the meeting, scheduled for Aug. 24 at the new senior center in Idle Hour Park (seating for 800+), is big enough to accommodate a crowd bearing pitchforks and lit torches.

Lexington chief administrative officer Sally Hamilton tried to keep things sober at the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council work session held last week.

“We have been receiving numerous complaints,” Hamilton said.

Locals have accused Spectrum of being the “spawn of Satan” and are shocked and surprised by how much they miss Time Warner Cable, something few thought could be possible.

Since the “shameful ones” took over, customers are furious about channels that disappear without notice, failing equipment, and enormous lines at the remaining cable stores still open to accept equipment exchanges. Since Charter Communications took control of Time Warner Cable, internet speeds are reportedly dropping while bills are skyrocketing.

As Eblen notes, “It’s like the old days of Ma Bell, which comedian Lily Tomlin, as Ernestine the telephone operator, famously satirized in the 1970s: ‘We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company.'”

The best word to describe local customers’ feelings for their new cable company: contempt.

Some city officials are getting close to agreeing after learning Spectrum is abruptly and unilaterally moving the community’s local public access channels to TV Siberia, where almost no customer is likely to find them:

  • GTV3, used to broadcast city government meetings, is leaving Channel 3 and moving to Channel 185.
  • Fayette County Public Schools will lose Channel 13 and find themselves on Channel 197.
  • The University of Kentucky’s Channel 16 is relocating to Channel 184.

City officials spent money branding and promoting GTV3, which apparently will soon be GTV185, where only the most dedicated channel surfer will likely find it. The city claims Spectrum is thumbing its nose at its franchise agreement. Charter executives know well cities are practically powerless to intervene or have any significant say about how cable companies operate within their borders. Deregulation gives the city very few options to keep Spectrum in line. Officials also admit there is no chance another cable operator will agree to provide service in the area, effectively trapping the community with Charter indefinitely.

All the city can do about the channel repositioning is ask for money from Charter to help pay for rebranding the channel. Lexington officials are requesting $20,000, as per the terms of the franchise agreement. Charter hasn’t sent the check.

“That performance evaluation will allow the public to air their differences,” Hamilton said. “We do not have a lot of rights under the franchise agreement, but we can demand respect.”

It doesn’t seem likely Charter will be a hurry to provide it.

Charter Forced to Set Aside $13 Million for Failing to Meet Merger Commitments to New York State

The New York State Department of Public Service today announced it had reached a potential settlement with Charter Communications after the company failed to meet its rural broadband expansion obligation outlined in last year’s approval of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable.

“The [Public Service] Commission conditioned its approval of the merger on Charter’s agreement to undertake several types of investments and other activities,” said Department interim CEO Gregg C. Sayre. “While Charter is delivering on many of them, it failed to expand the reach of its network to un-served and under-served communities and commercial customers in the time allotted.”

While Charter’s merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks won rubber-stamp approval in almost every state where it operates, New York regulators required the merger to directly benefit the state’s consumers. The company must upgrade customers to 100Mbps service by the end of 2018 and offer at least 300Mbps statewide by the end of 2019. But it must also expand its cable network to reach 145,000 unserved and underserved homes and businesses within the next four years. The merger approval agreement set a schedule to begin network expansion as quickly as possible.

Charter failed to achieve its obligations, only reaching 15,164 of the 36,250 customers it was required to reach one year after the merger deal was approved.

As a result, regulators have penalized Charter, requiring it to pay an extra $1 million in grants for computer equipment and internet access targeting low-income New York residents and set aside $12 million in escrow as a security pledge to meet all of its network expansion commitments going forward. The company now agrees it will complete its build out obligation in six increments of 21,646 customers through May 18, 2020. Charter will forfeit a portion of the $12 million each time it misses a deadline. The amount lost will depend on the percentage of the target missed and whether the company demonstrates it has completed necessary tasks to expand service. If the company manages to meet its deadlines going forward, it has the right to earn back some or all of its security pledge.

Charter has also agreed to develop a communications plan within 60 days of the settlement’s execution to inform New Yorkers whether they are part of the build-out plan.

The settlement offer will issued for public comment, and will require final Commission approval to take effect.

Lexington, Ky.: “What Abuse Will Be Heaped On Us Next by Charter/Spectrum”

Lexington, Ky. officials are mad as hell about some of the sales and customer service tactics heaped on the local citizenry courtesy of Charter Communications, better loathed as “Spectrum.”

In a letter released yesterday, Lexington’s chief administrative officer Sally Hamilton told the cable company her office mail is running hot and a lot of it is from local residents furious about Charter’s business practices and pricing.

The city now wants Charter officials to turn over company records detailing customer complaints and attend a public hearing to discuss the cable company’s performance since taking over for Time Warner Cable.

Lexington officials are also unhappy that Charter recently laid off 56 customer service employees in its local office.

“The city is left wondering what abuse will be heaped upon it next by Charter-Spectrum,” the letter said. “Because of the public urgency regarding Charter’s actions regarding its Spectrum service, we insist on a swift response to this letter,” Hamilton added.

The Herald-Leader obtained copies of earlier correspondence between the city and the cable company detailing its response to accusations of “shoddy customer service.”

Local residents are unhappy that Charter has dramatically raised rates, shows an unwillingness to negotiate over its pricing, and has removed a number of channels from Spectrum’s basic cable lineup.

The cable company has also been accused of aggressive sales techniques, including using door-to-door agents to browbeat mentally and developmentally impaired people into signing up for cable service, even though they are legally not able to sign contracts. The city is demanding to know how many times that has happened.

Charter is also accused of preventing customers from talking to supervisors, lowering advertised broadband speeds, and no longer accepting returned cable equipment through the mail.

Charter’s June 5 letter assured the city that “quality customer service is of the utmost importance to Charter,” and claimed the company was in the process of spending $3.1 million on local improvements, including 860 new outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots, and low-cost internet access for the poor.

Charter’s “Spectrum Internet Assist” is Cable-Style “Charity” With Tricks and Traps

Warren (center) pictured with representatives of Charter Communications and PowerMyLearning (Photo courtesy of: PowerMyLearning)

The incumbent mayor of Rochester, N.Y., currently up for re-election, has decided to take indirect credit for a low-cost internet program loaded with tricks and traps from a cable company that is worsening the affordable internet problem in the United States.

Mayor Lovely Warren made the head-slapping mistake of teaming up with Charter Communications, already on track to being even more universally despised by its customers than its immediate predecessor Time Warner Cable. Casting political instincts to the wind, Warren decided to team up with an unpopular cable company that is gouging its regular customers while offering a token “low-cost” internet program designed to protect Charter’s internet profits more than offering low-income customers a break.

WHAM-TV:

New low-cost, high-speed broadband Internet service is being launched in Rochester, Mayor Lovely Warren announced Thursday.

PowerMyLearning and Charter Communications announced Spectrum Internet Assist (SIA) would offer the service to eligible low-income household customers in Rochester.

Broadband speeds of 30/4 Mbps are being offered for $14.99 per month by SIA, according to Mayor Warren.

“Lowering the cost barrier to Internet access for families is essential if we are to close the digital divide and help them rise out of poverty,” said Mayor Warren. “Internet access is increasingly essential for students to do homework, for jobs seekers to research and apply for jobs, pay bills and remain connected with society.”

We agree with the mayor that lowering the cost barrier is critical to making essential internet service available to every resident. Unfortunately, Charter Communications is making the problem worse, not better. Charter’s idea of charity doesn’t seem so magnanimous when you read the fine print.

Charter’s solution for affordable internet: Charge most customers more while a select few jump through hoops for a discount.

First, Spectrum Internet Assist is highly discriminatory and only available to families with school age children that qualify for the National School Lunch Program. Don’t have kids? Tough luck. When they leave school, no more affordable internet for you!

Second, if you are a senior citizen on a fixed income, you probably already have 20+ years under your belt dealing with relentless rate increases from the local cable company. Unless you are 65 or over and receive SSI benefits, you’ll keep on paying those rate increases because the only thing Charter has on offer for you is a bigger bill.

Third, and the most egregious insult of all to the most vulnerable members of our society is Charter’s cynical fear its fat internet profits will be cannibalized if they simply lowered the bills of customers that would otherwise qualify for this program. Spectrum Internet Assist is for new customers only (and if you are still on a Time Warner Cable plan, you aren’t a new customer).

Charter refuses to relent on its policy requiring current customers to disconnect internet service for a month before they can qualify for Charter’s “charity.” The company is worried it will lose money from customers downgrading to Spectrum Internet Assist who will pay a lot less for internet access. To prevent that, Charter makes the process of enrolling as difficult and inconvenient as possible. Imagine if RG&E or National Grid demanded poor residents go without heat for 30 days before qualifying for heating assistance or if your elderly grandparents had to disconnect telephone service for a month before qualifying for Lifeline.

While obsessing about whether its poorest customers are taking ‘unfair’ advantage of a money-saving deal, Charter has no problem splurging on fat bonuses and compensation packages for its top executives. In fact, the highest paid CEO in the United States in 2016 was Thomas Rutledge, top dog at Charter Communications, rewarded with a splendid $98.5 million compensation package for finding new ways to charge consumers even more for cable service. Charter can certainly afford to lighten up on its customers. Instead, it seeks to live up to the cable industry’s usual reputation of a modern-day reboot of Oliver Twist, this time starring Rutledge as Fagin. Since Warren wholeheartedly endorses Charter’s paltry efforts for the poor, perhaps residents can call her up and ask why they should be forced off the internet for a month just to qualify for Charter’s “charity.” Or maybe not, considering the fact she had nothing to do with Spectrum Internet Assist beyond having her picture taken at a press event.

As is too often the case, uninformed politicians are quick to take credit for programs they don’t understand and are nowhere to be found when the real problem-solving and hard work needs to be done. How can we say that? Because we were a registered and very involved party in the New York Public Service Commission’s review of the Charter-Time Warner Cable merger deal. Mayor Warren wasn’t. We fought for pro-consumer benefits if such a deal was to be approved. Mayor Warren didn’t. We understood from long experience the cynicism that separates the cable industry’s lofty words from its fine print. She doesn’t.

Spectrum Internet Assist does very little to resolve the problem of internet affordability. The program is a close cousin of Comcast’s much-criticized Internet Essentials program, which has similar eligibility requirements and has proven cumbersome to sign up for and leaves too many eligible families behind because of its onerous signup requirements. In 2016, Comcast itself admitted that since 2011 it has only enrolled 750,000 low-income households in its discounted internet program, although more than 2.6 million families were eligible to sign-up but never did.

Charter makes internet affordability worse.

Our research shows that Charter’s token efforts for the few are more than canceled out by the rate increases and reduced options made available to the rest of its customers.

Time Warner Cable used to offer lower-cost internet plans.

Time Warner Cable used to sell six different internet plans ranging from $14.99 to $64.99 for new customers (and practically anyone who ever complained about their cable bill) or $14.99 to $109.99 if you were in the tiny minority of customers who didn’t either bundle service or ask for a promotion. Charter Communications argues it is “better” for consumers to simplify Time Warner’s “complicated” plans and pricing with a one-size-fits-all alternative — 60Mbps for what sells today for $64.99 a month (they raised the price $5 a month back in February). But at least you won’t pay that modem rental fee (if you didn’t bother to avoid it by buying your own cable modem that would have paid for itself long ago.)

So which company makes internet affordability a bigger problem — Time Warner Cable, which sold less expensive internet service at prices of $14.99, $29.99, and $34.99, or Charter Communications which advertises only one internet plan on its website for much of western New York – 60Mbps for $64.99 ($44.99 if you are new to Charter and not a previous Time Warner Cable customer that still has cable service). Spectrum’s plan is more than four times more expensive than Time Warner Cable’s previously well-advertised $14.99 plan.

Regular TWC broadband-only pricing in 2016.

No organization worked harder than Stop the Cap! to keep Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet tier as a condition of the merger. While not fast, it is affordable and available to every customer, not just the small percentage that will eventually manage to qualify for Spectrum Internet Assist. Fortunately, New York’s Public Service Commission agreed with us and insisted that option remain available in New York State for the next several years. But Charter has subsequently made that plan almost invisible, removing all mention of it from its website, telling some customers it was not available, and leaving a distinct impression they don’t want customers to sign up.

Charter’s one-size-fits all plan got more expensive in February.

The reason is simple. Revenue cannibalization. Thomas Rutledge has repeatedly stressed to Wall Street investors he intended to end the “Turkish bazaar” of Time Warner Cable’s former cavalcade of plans and promotions. When a customer called Time Warner to complain about their bill, there was always room for negotiation and a better deal. Customers calling Charter looking for a break are hitting a brick wall with “take it or leave it” pricing, and tens of thousands of customers are “leaving it” and Charter behind. In this area, we don’t have that luxury because the alternative is usually Frontier Communications’ dreadful DSL service, which almost never meets the FCC’s definition of broadband — at least 25Mbps.

To give you an idea of just how rapacious Charter’s broadband pricing is, consider local upstart competitor Greenlight, which offers fiber to the home service to a very small number of neighborhoods predominately on the east side of the Genesee River. It charges a no-nonsense $50 a month for 100Mbps internet — $15 less than what Charter charges for 60Mbps. If you want gigabit speed, Greenlight will sell you 1,000Mbps for $100 a month, which is $5 less than Charter’s unadvertised 100Mbps offer ($104.95/mo with a mandatory $199 setup fee). Ten times the speed for less. No wonder their Facebook page is filled with people begging them to expand.

Rochester, like other cities in the upstate region, continues to fall behind with inadequate and costly internet service, insufficient competition, and no sign of gigabit speeds arriving anytime soon, unless you are lucky enough to live in a Greenlight service area. Those kinds of 21st century internet speeds are years away if we continue to depend on the local cable and phone company.

Phillip Dampier: We can afford to do without Charter’s “charity.”

In the local mayor’s race, one candidate seems to understand this problem and has a credible solution that fixes it. Rachel Barnhart has a long history of advocating for a citywide public fiber broadband network that would wire every home in the city for an estimated $70 million. The costs would be shared by city residents, the Rochester City School District, and at least one private vendor that would likely be responsible for administering day-to-day operations.

“About forty percent of homes in the city – 35,000 households —  don’t have high-speed internet via cable or DSL,” Barnhart said. “Some of those households can only access the internet via smartphones. The Rochester City School District has estimated half of its students don’t have broadband at home.”

City taxpayers have already paid for a underutilized institutional dark fiber network. Barnhart proposes putting that network to work for the community, selling competitively priced gigabit service for residential and business customers that would effectively subsidize free, slower-speed service for the less-fortunate. Is it expensive? Perhaps. But is it out of line when one considers in one local suburb this year, taxpayers will spend $1 million dollars on a single traffic light and minor road widening project to better manage traffic. Considering how many communities need digital highway traffic improvements, this kind of investment is hardly audacious and isn’t just about giving people fast internet. Managing the local digital economy with the right infrastructure is essential in a community that has seen the loss of tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs and has been economically challenged for years. The alternative is what we have now — watching a mayor impotently smile at a manufactured press event declaring victory while the near-cable monopoly local residents have for broadband service throws *-laden scraps at the public and calls it a day.

Rochester, and other communities that are enduring a cable company that is rapidly turning out to be worse than Time Warner Cable, cannot afford Charter’s “generosity.”

Politicians would do well to remember the sage advice we’ve given consumers since 2008. When a cable company claims they have a better deal for you, watch your wallet. For Mayor Warren, she will have to learn the same lesson we taught city councilman Adam McFadden and Assemblyman Joe Morelle. With friends like Charter/Spectrum or Comcast, you don’t need any enemies.

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