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Time Warner Cable PlayStation Network Users Can Avoid Future Problems With a DNS Change

Phillip Dampier August 19, 2014 Consumer News, Time Warner Cable No Comments

sony-entertainment-networkLate last week, hundreds of thousands of PlayStation Network users subscribed to Time Warner Cable broadband found their game play interrupted by an “outage” that turned out to be a misconfigured domain name service (DNS) update. Whether Sony was responsible for sending bad data or Time Warner Cable had problems properly integrating the changes, gamers were out of luck for hours Friday until a corrected update could be distributed.

The service outage affected customers relying on Time Warner Cable’s own DNS servers. Customers that dropped Time Warner Cable and their DNS provider were back in business almost immediately.

Broadband customers need not rely on the domain name service offered by your provider. Both Google and OpenDNS offer more robust alternatives, and you can make the switch in seconds.

PlayStation Network users: change your PS3 or PS4 Internet connection setting to manual, changing only the DNS server information.

Everyone else: Check your router manual for the address of the configuration menu.

Choose any two out of these four DNS addresses for your primary and secondary entries:

  • Google: 8.8.8.8 and/or 8.8.4.4
  • OpenDNS: 208.67.222.222 and/or 208.67.220.220

 

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Approving Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger Opens the Door for Massive Cable Consolidation

Liberty Global logo 2012Although Charter Communications did not succeed in its bid to assume control of Time Warner Cable, it isn’t crying about its loss to Comcast either.

Greg Maffei, president and CEO of Liberty Media Corp., which has very close ties to John Malone, former cable magnate, says if the merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable is approved, it will start a race to merge the rest of the cable industry into just a handful of cable operators serving almost the entire country.

Comcast’s argument is that since it does not compete with Time Warner Cable, there are no antitrust or anti-competitive reasons why it should not be allowed to buy Time Warner Cable. If state and federal regulators believe that, nothing precludes a company like Charter (Liberty has an ownership interest in the cable company) snapping up every other cable operator in the country. In fact, Charter has signaled consolidation is precisely its intention, alerting investors it intends to play a very aggressive role in mergers and acquisitions once it sees what regulators feel about the Comcast-Time Warner deal.

Likely targets for Charter include:

  • Atlantic Broadband
  • CableONE
  • Cablevision
  • Mediacom
  • Midcontinent Communications

Cox remains privately held and Bright House Networks is tied up in contractual obligations with Time Warner Cable.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Maffei Charter Is Logical Acquirer of Cable Assets 8-6-14.flv

Greg Maffei, president and chief executive officer of Liberty Media Corp., talks about the outlook for Charter Communications Inc. and the cable industry. Speaking with Betty Liu on Bloomberg Television’s “In the Loop,” Maffei also discusses the decision by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox Inc. to withdraw its $75 billion takeover bid for Time Warner Inc. (5:40)

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Cloudy Days for Bright House Networks Ahead? Comcast-Time Warner Merger Complicates Volume Discounts

(Original image: Musée McCord Museum - Re-envisioned by Stop the Cap!)

(Original image: Musée McCord Museum) — (Re-envisioned by Stop the Cap!)

Bright House Networks customers could face much higher cable television bills and a decline in technology upgrades thanks to a merger deal between two companies that should theoretically have no impact on them.

Bright House Networks has been an odd duck among cable companies since it was created from cobbled-together systems originally owned by Vision Cable, Cable Vision, TelePrompTer, Group W, Paragon and others. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Time Warner effectively ran the cable systems still owned by the Newhouse family. After the AOL-Time Warner merger, Advance/Newhouse decided to take back control of the management and operations of its cable systems, relaunching them under the Bright House Networks brand.

While the Newhouse family continues to assert its ownership and control of Bright House, it is highly dependent on Time Warner Cable to handle cable programming negotiations and broadband technology. That is why Bright House customers were sold “Road Runner” broadband service for many years – a brand familiar to any Time Warner customer. To this day, programming blackouts that affect Time Warner cable TV viewers usually also impact those subscribing to Bright House. Time Warner Cable also retains a minority ownership interest in Bright House.

Although the company is well-known in Indianapolis, Birmingham, suburban Detroit and Bakersfield, its presence is most recognized in central Florida, where it serves customers in Orlando, Daytona Beach, Lakeland, Tampa Bay, and many points in-between.

Despite the fact Bright House serves more than two million customers and is the sixth largest cable company in the country, it is small potatoes to major programmers like Comcast-NBCUniversal, Viacom, Disney, and others. All the best discounts go to satellite television providers and giant cable operators like Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Smaller operators pay substantially more.

That is where the merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable comes in.

brighthouse1The federal government is likely to count Bright House’s 2.2 million customers as part of the Time Warner Cable family, at least as far as control of cable programming pricing is concerned. Despite Comcast’s voluntary commitment to keep its national share of the cable TV business under 30 percent with the merger of Time Warner, Comcast hasn’t taken seriously counting  the customers of the uninvited cousin – Bright House.

Logistically and legally, Comcast would assume control of Time Warner Cable’s interest in Bright House if the merger is approved by state and federal regulators. That may be too much for regulators to swallow.

Because Bright House is insignificant to Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s marriage plans, Comcast could end up terminating the arrangement, which even Bright House acknowledged would put it “at risk of losing the material benefits such agreements provide, include possibly raising costs for its customers and hampering its ability to compete effectively—a result that would certainly not be in the public interest.”

The Newhouse family has evidently seen the writing on the wall, hiring Wall Street investment bank UBS to advise whether it makes sense to sell. If Bright House does decide to hang out a “for sale” sign, Time Warner Cable has the right to bid first. But by that time, if things go according to plan, it might be Comcast ultimately swallowing up yet another large cable system.

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NYS Assembly Leader Joe Morelle Plagiarizes Comcast Testimony in Letter to Regulators

New York State Assembly Leader Joe Morelle (D-Rochester) plagiarized large sections of a Comcast press release and the Congressional testimony of Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen in a letter sent to the New York Public Service Commission endorsing the cable company’s bid to merge with Time Warner Cable.

Morelle evidently ignored or was unaware of his constituents’ overwhelming opposition to the merger deal and seemed unfazed about Comcast’s long record of dreadful customer service, constant rate increases, and the company’s plan to reimplement usage limits on consumer broadband accounts. Morelle simply cut and pasted Comcast’s own words in his letter about the merger, as we illustrate below:

 

morelleN.Y. State Assembly Leader Joe Morelle: “The combination of Comcast and Time Warner Cable will create a world-class communications, media and technology company to help meet the increasing consumer demand for advanced digital services on multiple devices in homes, workplaces and on-the-go.”

cohenDavid Cohen, executive vice-president, Comcast: “The combination of Comcast and TWC will create a world-class communications, media, and technology company to help meet the insatiable consumer demand for advanced digital services on multiple devices in homes, workplaces, and on-the-go.”

 

morelleJoe Morelle: “Comcast has a proven record of investing in new technologies, facilities and customer support to provide the best in broadband Internet access, video and digital voice services.”

cohenDavid Cohen: “Comcast has a proven record of investing in new technologies, facilities, and customer support to provide the best in broadband Internet access, video, and digital voice services.”

 

morelleJoe Morelle: “Similarly, TWC has made significant strides in offering a diverse array of video, broadband, and voice services to its customers.”

cohenDavid Cohen: “Similarly, TWC has made significant strides in offering a diverse array of video, broadband, and voice services to its customers.”

 

morelleJoe Morelle: “Combining the two companies’ complementary strengths will accelerate the deployment of next-generation broadband Internet, video and voice services across the new company’s footprint.”

cohenDavid Cohen: “Combining the two companies’ complementary strengths will accelerate the deployment of next-generation broadband Internet, video, and voice services across the new company’s footprint.”

 

morelleJoe Morelle: “Residential customers will benefit from technological innovations including a superior video experience, higher broadband speeds and the fastest in-home Wi-Fi, while also generating significant cost savings and other efficiencies.”

comcastComcast Press Release: “Through this merger, more American consumers will benefit from technological innovations, including a superior video experience, higher broadband speeds, and the fastest in-home Wi-Fi. The transaction also will generate significant cost savings and other efficiencies.”

 

morelleJoe Morelle: “In just two-and-a-half years, over 350,000 families, representing approximately 1.4 million low-income consumers, have been connected to the Internet thanks to this program. This proposed merger would extend this vital program to many more low-income households in New York by providing access to it in certain areas of the state currently only served by Time Warner.

cohenDavid Cohen: “In just two and a half years, over 300,000 families, representing some 1.2 million low-income consumers, have been connected to the transformative power of the Internet thanks to this program. The transaction will extend this vital program to millions more Americans in the areas currently served by TWC.”

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Bright House, Time Warner Cable, and Mediacom Customers Get Expanded TV Everywhere

NBC_Universal.svgThree cable operators have announced additions to their TV Everywhere services that let cable television subscribers stream certain cable networks from home computers and portable wireless devices.

Time Warner and Bright House are inching towards making their apps more useful with new deals that will allow viewing outside of the home. Unsurprisingly, Time Warner has managed to sign a deal with their potential new owner — Comcast/NBCUniversal –  that includes anywhere-viewing of live and on demand content from NBCUniversal’s suite of cable networks including USA Network, Syfy, Telemundo, Bravo, Oxygen, CNBC, MSNBC, mun2, NBC Sports Network, and Golf Channel, as well as local NBC and Telemundo-owned broadcast stations.

Since Time Warner Cable handles cable programming negotiations for Bright House Networks, both customers will receive the enhanced service.

Within the next few days, customers will have access to the NBC Sports Live Extra and Golf Live Extra services via apps on iOS and Android devices, as well as online. Access to the remaining broadcast and cable networks will become available to Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers starting in September, and continuing on an ongoing basis. Customers must verify their subscription to begin watching.

nfl channelUnfortunately, there are only a handful of NBC-owned and operated broadcast stations across both companies’ service areas. In most cases, local affiliate stations are owned and operated by other corporate entities and will not be included in this deal.

Mediacom Communications has expanded its own TV Everywhere package, adding NFL Network and NFL RedZone this week, along with mobile access to FX, FXX, FX Movies, National Geographic and National Geographic Wild.

Mediacom now offers 40 channels for out-of-home viewing and plans to add FOX Sports Go and other popular sports networks by September.

TV Everywhere allows Mediacom customers to always be connected to live entertainment and information,” said Mediacom senior vice president Ed Pardini. “Adding new channels to this service extends the value of a video subscription by giving customers more options to view their favorite programs when and where they want, whether that’s the big screen in living rooms or with the convenience of a mobile device.”

Mediacom customers looking for NFL Network and NFL RedZone on smartphones and tablets must download the free NFL Mobile App by going to the web site. Mediacom is now listed as a participating provider. Customers should log in with their Mediacom email address and username.

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Wining and Dining the FCC: Comcast Sponsors Honors Dinner for Commissioner During Merger Review

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn

Comcast will pay $110,000 to sponsor a major dinner honoring FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn at the same time the regulator is considering whether to approve the cable company’s application to acquire Time Warner Cable.

In a barely noticed Senate lobbying disclosure released last month, Time Warner Cable admitted it was also spending $22,000 of its subscribers’ money on the same meal.

The money gets Comcast a top-level commitment as a “presenting sponsor” at the Walter Kaitz Foundation dinner next month, which features Clyburn receiving a “diversity advocate” award. Comcast will be prominently recognized with marquee recognition, get premier seating for 40 of its guests, and inclusion in a variety of ads and “E-News Blasts.”

Some good government groups hope Clyburn can arrange for a last-minute scheduling conflict to avoid the obvious conflict of interest of a cable operator honoring a commissioner who could decide the fate of its multibillion dollar merger deal.

“I think that the timing is curious,” said Carrie Levine, research director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which noted the corporate sponsorships in a blog post Monday. “They’re honoring an FCC commissioner at the exact same time they’re trying to get approval for a merger. And that doesn’t look so good.”

CREW found TWC listed as a “benefactor” on the event’s supporters’ page and the cost of a “benefactor” level table package at the dinner is $22,000. Comcast, meanwhile, is listed on the foundation’s web site as a “presenting sponsor” for the dinner, which costs $110,000.

Comcast is working minority groups hard for letters and votes supporting its merger with Time Warner Cable, notes CREW:

TWC and Comcast’s contributions in honor of Commissioner Clyburn were made at a time when the two companies are aggressively working the levers of power to get their merger approved. As CREW has noted, using honorary contributions to lawmakers and regulators’ favored charities to curry favor is one of the more under the radar moves in Comcast’s merger playbook—a playbook that also emphasizes lobbying, campaign contributions, and winning support from third-party groups, especially those representing minorities.

Regulators must approve the deal, and Congress has been scrutinizing it. Several lawmakers have voiced reservations in hearings about the merger’s potential impact, and this month, more than 50 House members sent Comcast and TWC a letter saying they should commit to carrying independent Latino-focused channels as a condition of the merger. In May, CREW found that between 2011 and 2013, Comcast had spent heavily to honor the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), whose members could be important supporters of the merger. Comcast also gave big to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), honoring, among others, Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), who is a member of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Intellectual Property and the Internet and supported the Comcast/NBC Universal Merger approval in 2011. TWC made fewer honorary contributions than Comcast during the same period, but also contributed $100,000 in honor of the CHC.

A review of the two companies’ 2014 mid-year lobbying contribution reports reveals money is still flowing to these key groups, and there has been a significant uptick in giving to the CHC. In the first six months of 2014, Comcast contributed $273,454 in honor of the CHC, more than the company contributed in any individual year between 2011 and 2013. Comcast also reported giving $125,000 in honor of the CBC and $50,000 to the APAICS in honor of Rep. Chu and Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA).

TWC increased its giving to other Latino advocacy groups as well. On February 18, 2014, the company contributed $25,000 to the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in honor of several members of Congress and Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, an increase from its $20,000 contribution to LULAC in 2013. In addition, on March 5, 2014, Time Warner Cable contributed $25,000 to the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) in honor of the “Gang of Eight” senators who passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in June 2013. TWC previously contributed a total of $45,000 between 2011 and 2012 to NCLR.

Stop the Cap! will continue to expose the names of elected officials and non-profit and civil rights groups that have thrown their support behind Comcast, which in turn delivers contributions, free exposure, and in some cases future employment with the cable operator.

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Syracuse Wants More Choices Than Comcast and Verizon: Considers Building Publicly-Owned FTTH Alternative

Downtown Syracuse (Image: Post-Standard)

Downtown Syracuse (Image: Post-Standard)

The city of Syracuse is facing an unpleasant broadband reality: the current cable company is about to be bought out by Comcast (which has usage caps in store for broadband customers) and the phone company has thrown in the towel on further expanding FiOS — fiber to the home broadband.

Mayor Stephanie Miner isn’t willing to let the city get trapped by a lack of broadband options from Comcast and Verizon, so she’s developing a plan to build a publicly owned alternative.

“I’m putting together a plan that we can do it ourselves, as a community,” Miner told the Post-Standard

If approved, Syracuse would join Chattanooga, Lafayette, La.,  Wilson and Salisbury, N.C., and several other cities providing local citizens with broadband speeds up to 1,000/1,000Mbps.

“Would we have to do that in phases? What would that look like? How would we pay for it? What would the model be? Those are all things that we are currently looking at, ” Miner noted.

Many of those questions have already been worked out by the best clearinghouse Stop the Cap! knows for excellent community broadband project development: the team at the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

The Community Broadband Networks Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, works with communities across the United States to create the policies needed to make sure telecommunications networks serve the community rather than a community serving the network. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a non-profit organization that started in Washington D.C. in 1974.

ILSR’s Mission:

The Institute’s mission is to provide innovative strategies, working models and timely information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development. To this end, ILSR works with citizens, activists, policymakers and entrepreneurs to design systems, policies and enterprises that meet local or regional needs; to maximize human, material, natural and financial resources; and to ensure that the benefits of these systems and resources accrue to all local citizens.

No community should attempt to build a community broadband network without first consulting with ILSR. They are particularly effective at helping combat the misinformation campaigns that often arise when an incumbent duopoly discovers they are about to get serious competition for the first time.

If your community wants something better than the local cable and phone company, have your local official(s) E-mail or call Christopher Mitchell at ILSR: 612-276-3456 x209

With entrenched providers unwilling to meet the needs of communities for affordable fast Internet, more American communities are providing the service themselves, much as they take care of local roads, bridges, and other public infrastructure. Comcast’s toll information superhighway may work wonders for shareholders, but it leaves most customers cold. Syracuse, like most upstate New York cities, has also watched Verizon flee from investments in FiOS expansion beyond a handful of wealthy suburbs. Verizon has diverted much of its investment away from wired networks in favor of wireless, a much more profitable business.

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Rochester City Councilman Adam McFadden’s Love for Comcast (and the $50k)

McFadden

McFadden

Rochester city councilman Adam McFadden wrote a gushing letter in support of the merger deal between Comcast and Time Warner Cable published today on the N.Y. Public Service Commission website that doesn’t come close to fully disclosing the financial ties between Comcast and a lobbying group he presides over, funded in part by Comcast.

I write to you today from one of our state’s and the country’s oldest centers for enterprise and industry, Rochester. I am proud to represent my lifelong home as City Councilman for the South District. The proposed transaction between Time Warner Cable and Comcast has attracted a lot of attention here in New York, and deserves to be fully considered. I write to you today to urge your approval of the transaction so that Rochester residents, and New Yorkers across the state, can be empowered by Comcast’s innovative and dedicated service.

My area is currently served by Time Warner Cable, but would receive Comcast coverage following the approval of the transaction. I am lucky to represent my community not just locally, but on the national stage. Through my experience with the National League of Cities, and as the vice president of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, I’ve heard about Comcast’s track record of serving the public good in communities like mine.

We don’t doubt for a moment McFadden has “heard” about Comcast. McFadden is listed as president of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials’ Board of Directors, a group whose website is emblazoned with Comcast’s logo as a generous “capstone partner” of the NBC-LEO and National League of Cities. Capstone partners must give an “annual investment” of at least $50,000. In fact, Comcast isn’t just a passive member of the group McFadden helps to run. Ron Orlando, senior director of Comcast’s lobbying/government affairs department sits on the group’s “Corporate Partners Leadership Council Roster.”

“The Council shares the perspectives of the corporate and not-for-profit sectors and makes recommendations for activities that promote the exchange of ideas between corporate and city leaders,” claims the website.

That is a nice way of saying corporate sponsors can use the group as a front to insert its corporate agenda into the public dialogue, while avoiding disclosure it is, in fact, pulling the strings. Capstone members get plenty of face time with the group… in private, through “exclusive access to the voluntary leadership and targeted member groups at NLC conferences and special VIP events.

But our favorite is allowing corporate members access to discounted mailing lists maintained by the NLC that left companies directly target elected and career officials in all cities with a population greater than 10,000 to spread their talking points.

McFadden’s constituents might be wondering whether he represents their interests or Comcast when he pens a letter to New York regulators urging them to allow an unpopular merger between two colossal cable companies. McFadden didn’t write his letter under the name(s) of the two groups that have direct financial ties to Comcast. He wrote it in his role as a city councilman.

We consider it highly unethical that McFadden did not disclose the strong direct financial ties between Comcast and the organizations he represents and has not exactly trumpeted his full-throated support for the cable merger deal among his constituents, who probably like Time Warner Cable and Comcast a lot less than he does. But then, $50,000 a year can bring a lot of goodwill if your group is getting the check.

[Update 1:30pm 8/12: We are told Mr. McFadden has denied knowledge of the $50k and claims he wrote the letter because he "hates Time Warner Cable." Nice try. Follow the links and get back to us about how we could find this information in about 10 minutes and you couldn't. If you hated Time Warner, you will despise Comcast... but then there is that $50,000 annually to think about.... - PMD"]

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Another Comcast Customer Service Catastrophe: $182 in Surprise Charges for a Service Call

The Don't Care Bears

The Don’t Care Bears

While regulators contemplate forcing 11 million Time Warner Cable customers to endure the hell on earth that is Comcast customer service, another horror story emerged this week from a California man who faced $181.94 more on his cable bill than he expected, all because of a service call to check on an Internet service problem that turned out to be Comcast’s fault.

While Time Warner Cable customers usually get an American customer call center to handle these problems, Comcast relies on English-challenged, underpaid offshore customer care dens staffed by “screen readers” that refuse to go off-script to handle the problems of Comcast customers like Tim Davis.

Before digging into the specifics of Davis’ $182 debacle, The Consumerist noted a critical admission from the Comcast call center agent – a word to the wise about getting your complaints about Comcast’s billing errors and inaccurate charges addressed: If you don’t record all of your calls with Comcast customer service to keep a complete audible record of their promises and commitments, you have absolutely no recourse to get invalid charges and other billing mistakes removed from your bill.

“[...]Since I advised my manager that there is a recording and you were misinformed, then she’s the one who can approve that $82,” said Comcast’s customer service representative.

Seemingly flabbergasted, Davis asks to confirm, “You’re telling me that if I didn’t have a recording of that call, you wouldn’t have been able to do it?”

“Yes, that is correct,” answers the rep, confirming that the only way to get Comcast to erase a bogus charge from your account is to have recorded evidence that you were promised in advance that the call would be free.

Davis decided to turn his Comcast nightmare into a NSFW YouTube video.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Comcast Doesnt Do Service Credits Without a Recording Saying Otherwise 8-11-14.mp4

‘You want a service credit? Who the heck do you think you’re talking to. This is Vasee – Employee 5#$ at Comcast’s English-challenged offshore customer call center. We don’t do service credits. Oh wait, you have a recording?’ (Only Comcast would put $$$-signs in the ID numbers of their employees.) (Warning: Strong Language) (13:56)

Although initially promised there would be no charge for the service call because it was an “outside issue,” when Davis’ monthly Comcast bill arrived, there were several mystery charges totaling $181.94 for service call work that Davis said was never done.

fail

The charges represent a “failed video self-install kit,” a “failed Internet self-install kit,” and a wireless network set up charge for work Davis claims was neither sought or provided. Comcast automatically credited back the Wi-Fi setup fee and a portion of the other charges, still leaving Davis with $82 in fees to argue about for a “free service call.”

The representative insisted that Comcast charges $50 for every service call for any reason. That will be unpleasant news to Time Warner Cable customers who pay no fees for service calls that address technical issues that are not the fault of customers.

The Consumerist details the rest of the painful experience:

After being put on hold for an hour, Davis hung up and tried again, this time reaching a supposed “supervisor,” who points out that the $49.95 WiFi setup charge is offset by a $49.95 “service discount,” so that’s free… even though it shouldn’t have been charged to begin with.

She also says there is a $49.99 discount on the supposed “Failed Self Install,” meaning Davis is being charged $50 for the nonexistent failed install, plus the remaining $32 for the failed self-install kit charge. A total of $82 that is still being disputed at this point.

She then offers to give him “BLAST+” Internet service for 12 months free of charge instead of simply taking off the remainder of the questionable charges. This semi-upgrade only has a retail value of $60, meaning he’d still be on the hook for $22 for a call that he’d been told would be free.

Davis, understandably, doesn’t want a cheap Internet service upgrade spread out over 12 months. He wants and asks to have the full $82 refunded.

The rep balks, saying she can’t issue him the credit because it is a “valid charge.”

“Every time we send out a technician there’s a $50 charge for that,” she explains.

“Well, I have a call recorded where the agent tells me in no uncertain terms that there will be no charge,” counters Davis. “You can not bill me for something that I did not authorize. You can not tell me that it’s free, then bill me anyway and then tell me that you can not un-bill me or credit me for the bill.”

“I apologize for that, but there’s no way that I can credit the account,” says the rep, desperately trying to jump back on to her script. “We value you as a customer, that’s why I am trying to check what I can give you.”

As soon as Davis produced the recording that indicated there would be no charge, a senior supervisor quickly approved a credit — several calls and hours later.

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Stop the Cap!’s Letter to N.Y. Public Service Commission on Comcast/TWC Merger Deal

psctest

August 6, 2014

Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess
Secretary, Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223-1350

Dear Ms. Burgess,

The country is watching New York to learn if our state regulators believe a merger between two unpopular cable operators is in the best interest of New York residents.

For the first time in a long time, the Public Service Commission has been empowered to provide much needed oversight over two companies that have enjoyed both deregulation and a near-monopoly across the region, particularly for High Speed Internet service at speeds above 10Mbps.

New Yorkers, like the rest of the country, consistently rank both Comcast and Time Warner Cable as some of the worst companies around.[1] The PSC has the power to facilitate franchise transfers that would effectively combine the two into one giant monolithic cable company dominating the northeastern U.S., or it can reject the proposed assignment of franchises to Comcast, letting both companies know “in the public interest” means something in New York State.

Section 222 of the New York Public Service law[2] provides the PSC with the authority to reject the application for a transfer of a franchise, any transfer of control of a franchise or certificate of confirmation, or of facilities constituting a significant part of any cable television system unless, and I paraphrase, the transfer is in the public interest.

The Commission is on record partly articulating its standard for determining the public interest. In 2013, the Commission stated several principles it considered in the matter of the acquisition of Central Hudson Gas and Electric by Fortis, Inc., to determine if the transaction would provide customers positive net benefits.[3] The Petitioners in that case were held to a standard requiring them to demonstrate the expected intrinsic benefits of the transaction exceeded its detriments and risks.

However, there are considerable differences between energy utilities and the largely deregulated marketplace for multichannel video distributors and broadband providers. While legacy telephone regulations still provide for significant oversight of this vital service, cable operators have won the right to set their own rates, service policies, and broad service areas.

Although many of us believe broadband has become an essential utility service, federal regulators do not, especially after telephone and cable companies have successfully lobbied on the federal level to weaken or eliminate regulation and oversight of television and broadband service with arguments they do business in a fiercely competitive marketplace.[4]

Regulators cannot compel cable operators to provide service in communities where they have chosen not to seek a franchise agreement, and broadband expansion programs in rural, unserved areas have largely only been successful when communities elect to construct their own broadband networks or federal funds (tax dollars and subsidies funded by ratepayers) defray the expense of last-mile networks.  While it is enticing to seek a voluntary agreement from the applicant to expand its rural service area, the public interest benefit to the relatively small number of New Yorkers getting broadband for the first time must be weighed against the interests of millions of existing subscribers in New York who are likely to see further rate increases, usage-limited broadband service, and worse service from Comcast.

New Yorkers will remain captive in most areas to choosing between one telephone and one cable company for packages of phone, television, and Internet access.[5] Promises of competition have never materialized for vast numbers of state residents, particularly those upstate who have been left behind after Verizon ceased its FiOS fiber to the home expansion project.

Unless Comcast was compelled to wire the entire state, any proposal seeking a voluntary agreement to expand Comcast’s service area in New York is likely to be insufficient to solve the pervasive problem of rural broadband availability. It would also saddle millions of New Yorkers with a company unwelcomed by consumers, with no alternative choice.

As you will see in our filing, Comcast has often promised improvements it planned to offer anyway, but held back to offer as a “concession” to regulators.

The result of past deals is one monopolistic cable operator is replaced by another, and as the American Consumer Satisfaction Index reported, bigger is not better for consumers.[6]

The nation’s two largest cable operators, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, now seek further “value creation” for their already very profitable businesses by merging.[7]

News reports indicate further consolidation is likely in the telecommunications marketplace, largely in response to this merger proposal. Soon after Comcast made its announcement, AT&T announced its desire to acquire DirecTV,[8] and Charter Communications’ efforts to bolster its size are likely to be realized acquiring Time Warner Cable customers cast off as part of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable transaction.[9]

How does this benefit New Yorkers? In our attached statement, we go far beyond the testimony offered by Comcast’s representative at the public information meeting we attended in Buffalo. It is vital for any merger review to include a careful analysis of exactly what Comcast is proposing to offer New York. But it is even more important to consider the costs of these improvements. As you will see, many of the promised upgrades come at a steep price – set top box platforms that require a $99 installation fee, the prospect faster broadband speeds will be tempered by broadband usage limits and usage penalties largely unfamiliar to New Yorkers, and other technology upgrades that are accompanied by subscriber inconvenience and added costs.

Comcast’s promised commitments for customers must also be carefully weighed against what it promised shareholders. While Comcast claims it will spend millions to upgrade acquired Time Warner Cable systems (many already being upgraded by Time Warner Cable itself), the merger announcement includes unprecedented bonus and golden parachute packages for the outgoing executives at Time Warner Cable, including a $78 million bonus for Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus, announced less than 60 days after taking the helm.[10] Comcast’s biggest investment of all will be on behalf of its shareholders, who will benefit from an estimated $17 billion share repurchase plan.[11]

The PSC should be aware that previous efforts to mitigate the bad behavior of cable companies have nearly always failed to protect consumers.

Professor John E. Kwoka, Jr., in his study, “Does Merger Control Work? A Retrospective on U.S. Enforcement Actions and Merger Outcomes,[12]” found past attempts at behavioral remedies spectacularly failed to protect against rapacious rate increases after  mergers are approved.[13]

In short, it is our contention that this merger proposal offers few, if any benefits to New York residents and is not in the public interest even if modestly modified by regulators.

The implications of this transaction are enormous and will directly impact the lives of most New Yorkers, particularly for broadband, now deemed by the industry (and consumers) its most important product.[14]

We have attached a more detailed analysis of our objections to this proposal and we urge the New York Public Service Commission to recognize this transaction does not come close to meeting the public interest test and must therefore be rejected.

 

Yours very truly,

 

Phillip M. Dampier

[1]http://arstechnica.com/business/2014/05/comcast-time-warner-cable-still-have-the-angriest-customers-survey-finds/
[2]http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/nycode/PBS/11/222
[3]http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={A55ECCE9-C3B2-4076-A934-4F65AA7E79D1}
[4]http://www.mi-natoa.org/pdfs/The_Ten_Disappointments_of_Cable.pdf
[5]http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/we-need-real-competition-not-a-cable-internet-monopoly
[6]http://www.theacsi.org/component/content/article/30-commentary-category/179-acsi-quarterly-commentaries-q1-2008
[7]http://corporate.comcast.com/images/Transaction-Fact-Sheet-2-13-14.pdf
[8]http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/05/13/att-directv-deal-analysis/9044491/
[9]http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/28/us-charter-communi-comcast-idUSBREA3R0N620140428
[10]http://money.cnn.com/2014/03/21/news/companies/time-warner-cable-golden-parachute/
[11]http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2014/02/comcast_agrees_to_purchase_of.html
[12]John E. Kwoka, Jr., “Does Merger Control Work? A Retrospective on U.S. Enforcement Actions and
Merger Outcomes,” 78 Antitrust L.J 619 (2013)
[13]7 John E. Kwoka, Jr. and Diana L. Moss, “Behavioral Merger Remedies: Evaluation and Implications for
Antitrust Enforcement,” at 22, available at
http://antitrustinstitute.org/sites/default/files/AAI_wp_behavioral%20remedies_final.pdf
[14]http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303657404576359671078105148
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