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Sprint and T-Mobile Rekindle Merger Talks (Again)

The Wall Street Journal today reported Sprint has rekindled merger talks with Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile USA, the third time such merger discussions have taken place in the last four years.

The newest round of preliminary discussions begin five months after earlier negotiations collapsed over the issue of which merger partner would ultimately control the combined company.

Analysts are uncertain if the latest round of talks will amount to anything, especially after watching the Trump Administration’s Justice Department aggressively fight the merger of AT&T and Time Warner, Inc., on antitrust grounds.

If Sprint and T-Mobile combine, it would create three large national carriers competing with each other and an assortment of smaller regional wireless carriers, possibly leading to price increases for consumers who have benefited from the last few years of aggressive sales and promotions launched by market disruptor T-Mobile USA and, to a lesser extent, Sprint.

A Sprint/T-Mobile combination would have nearly 100 million customers, making it America’s second largest wireless company just ahead of AT&T, which had 93 million U.S. subscribers at the end of 2017. Verizon Wireless would continue to be the nation’s largest wireless company with 116 million customers.

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)

Charter Raises Earthlink’s Legacy Grandfathered Broadband Rates

Phillip Dampier March 27, 2018 Charter Spectrum, Earthlink 10 Comments

Charter Communications is raising rates for its dwindling number of Earthlink customers still subscribed to Earthlink’s legacy internet plans in an effort to avoid Spectrum’s entry-level $65 internet service.

Charter has started to notify customers grandfathered on an Earthlink plan that they are going to be gradually stepping rates up, starting with a $5 increase. Stop the Cap! reader Christopher Rzatkiewicz shared a copy of the bad news on his recent Spectrum bill.

Charter Communications terminated its agreement allowing Earthlink to sell its service over its cable broadband network after completing its merger deal with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. That left an undetermined number of Earthlink customers paying $41.95 a month for Standard Earthlink 15/1 Mbps service, considerably cheaper than Time Warner Cable’s identical, $59.99 15/1 Mbps plan.

This last loophole allowed some customers to avoid switching to Spectrum’s more costly $65 entry-level 100/10 Mbps plan (200 Mbps in select areas). But now Spectrum is gradually taking away Earthlink’s price advantage. The new rate is $46.95 a month, and is likely to continue increasing in similar increments at least twice a year, until its price reaches about $60.

To help convince customers still holding on to older service plans to switch to Spectrum plans and pricing, Charter will continue raising rates on older legacy plans from Time Warner Cable, Bright House, and Earthlink to remove any price advantages those plans may have originally had. That will allow Charter to eventually claim its plans are always cheaper and better.

Charter Communications/Spectrum Standard Broadband Plans

  • $46.95 Earthlink Standard¹ (15/1 Mbps)
  • $59.99 Time Warner Cable Standard² (15/1 Mbps)
  • $44.99 Spectrum Standard New Customer 1-Year Promotion³ (100/10 Mbps⁴)
  • $65 Spectrum Standard for Existing Customers (100/10 Mbps⁴)

¹ Earthlink service is no longer available to Charter/Spectrum customers. If you cancel your grandfathered Earthlink plan, you cannot return to this plan in the future.
² Time Warner Cable internet service is grandfathered and no longer available to new customers. If you switch to a Spectrum plan, you cannot return to a Time Warner Cable plan.
³ To qualify as a new customer, either cancel service in your name and enroll as a new customer under another household member’s name or cancel existing service and wait 30 days to re-qualify as a new customer.
⁴ This plan offers 200 Mbps download speed in select areas.

Charter Communications Facing $1 Million Fine and NYC Franchise Revocation

The Chair of the New York State Public Service Commission announced today that the Commission is seeking a possible revocation of Charter Communication’s franchise to serve New York City and a $1 million fine payable to New York State for failing to meet its network buildout obligations agreed to as part of its 2016 merger with Time Warner Cable.

“It is critically important that regulated companies strictly adhere to the state’s rules and regulations,” said Commission chair John B. Rhodes. “If a regulated entity like Charter’s cable business decides to violate or ignore the rules, we will take swift action and hold them accountable to the full extent of the law.”

The most serious potential consequence is the revocation of Charter’s franchise agreement with New York City, which would force the cable operator out of the most important media market in the country. The Commission has opened an official proceeding to investigate whether Charter has tried to achieve its network expansion targets by using addresses in New York City where the company was allegedly already offering service or should have been.

Is Charter Meeting its Buildout Obligations in New York?

One of the key requirements Charter had to meet in New York in return for approval of its buyout of Time Warner Cable was an expansion of its cable footprint to at least 145,000 additional New York homes or businesses over a four-year buildout period. These “passings” — where service would be available for the first time, had to be in areas where the company was not already compelled to offer service through its existing franchise agreements. This requirement was designed to overcome the cable company’s traditional objections to servicing a location because of inadequate Return On Investment. A detailed audit performed by the Commission discovered more than 14,000 ineligible passings included by Charter in its December milestone report. Once these addresses were disqualified, Charter fall short of its obligation by more than 8,000 passings. As a result, this triggers an automatic $1 million fine, payable each time Charter fails to meet its agreed-upon buildout milestones.

New York City officials were concerned that Charter’s most recent milestone report asserted the cable company expanded service to 12,467 addresses in New York City, despite an existing franchise agreement with the city that included requirements that would guarantee those addresses either already had or should have had cable service available. If those allegations are proven true, Charter attempted to meet its buildout obligations by fudging the numbers.

“Metropolitan NYC is one of the most-wired cities in America and the world, and essentially, 100% of the NYC areas are served by one or more 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) wireline providers
such as Verizon FiOS, Cablevision, RCN, and Charter itself,” the Commission wrote.

The PSC’s staff conducted detailed reviews of 490 of those addresses claimed by Charter as having cable service available for the first time. None of them were found to be valid for inclusion in Charter’s service expansion reports, either because they were already serviced by Charter’s network or received service from a competing provider offering at least 100 Mbps service, or both.

In two instances, the staff found Charter was claiming new service expansion in buildings clearly already covered by the city’s existing franchise agreement.

“In a more egregious example, Charter also listed the Reuters Building as countable toward the December 2017 target in Charter’s January 2018 filing, which has a listed address of 3 Times Square,” the PSC wrote. “Staff could not find any photos of the building prior to 2014 beside aerial views, but construction was completed in 2001, well before the effective date of the current franchise agreements.”

In either case, Charter may be stuck between a rock and a hard place. If the company argues it did, in fact, provision cable service only recently, Charter probably materially breached its franchise agreement with the city, providing immediate grounds to begin franchise revocation proceedings under PSL §227.11. If Charter argues instead it was in compliance with its franchise agreement and did in fact already offer cable service to those addresses, Charter would be subject to an investigation about why it misled the regulator by claiming those locations as “new passings” when they were not.

Franchise Fee Dispute

A second controversy involves the amounts of franchise fee payments payable to New York City. City officials claim those payments have declined year-over-year since Charter completed its merger with Time Warner Cable.

Rhodes

A decline in franchise fee payments could be the result of cord-cutting, which has taken its toll on cable TV subscriptions at almost every cable company in the country. The fewer cable TV subscribers, the more likely revenue declines are going to occur, which in turn cuts franchise fee payments.

Charter Communications’ business model is also a departure from its predecessor, Time Warner Cable. In addition to ending many pricing promotions, Charter also stopped marketing stripped down, budget-conscious television packages. Many customers also faced dramatic rate increases as a result of Charter’s new bundled TV packages, which in some cases required customers to pay substantially more to keep all the channels included in their original Time Warner Cable package. As a result, many customers changed providers. Others decided to “cut the cord” and drop television service altogether while retaining broadband. The franchise fee does not apply to internet or phone service — just television.

Still, the PSC wants to audit Charter’s books to verify the company’s accounting has not departed from Time Warner Cable’s interpretation of the franchise fee agreement and unfairly undercut the city.

Charter has been given 21 days to respond with clear and convincing evidence it is not in violation of its franchise agreement with New York City or its merger obligations with New York State. If the Commission does not receive satisfactory evidence by the deadline, it is likely to begin hearings on whether Charter has committed material breaches of its agreements serious enough to warrant fines and/or franchise revocation.

Charter May Be Violating NYC Franchise Agreement by Using Out of Area Contractors

Phillip Dampier February 26, 2018 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Spectrum workers on strike march in the 2017 Labor Day parade in New York City. (Image courtesy: IBEW/Local 3)

Charter Communications’ list of addresses of some of its “locally based contractors” turned out to be self-storage locations, leading to accusations the company could potentially be in default of its franchise agreement with New York City.

Charter agreed to use city-based contractors wherever possible to maintain and upgrade its expansive cable system in the Big Apple. But an audit by the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications found only seven of 26 vendors Charter uses are in the city, despite claims by Charter that 77% of its vendors are NYC-based.

On its own, the violation might seem minor, except for the fact Charter Communications has left 1,800 of its best-trained workers in New York and New Jersey out on strike for 11 months, the longest unresolved labor action of 2017.

Workers’ demands, presented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3, have been largely ignored by Charter, in part because the company can find replacement workers outside of the area.

Charter’s denial of the accusation it was in violation of its agreement to use local labor included an attempt to broaden the definition of “located,” followed by an effort to change the subject to what the company alleges are more than 100 acts of vandalism committed by striking workers or those sympathizing with them.

“We continue to meet our franchise obligations, and our response to their findings is included in the report,” a Charter spokesman told the New York Daily News over the weekend.

Although union resources supporting the striking workers have been tested to their limits, the union and most of its members persevere. But it remains a difficult struggle, with some members on the verge of losing their apartments, and many more now relying on food banks and public assistance.

The dispute began after the former Time Warner Cable employees were transitioned to Charter Communications. Charter announced it wanted to pull out of the union’s pension and healthcare plans and replace them with a company-sponsored healthcare offer and a 401(k) retirement plan.

“They basically said that until we agree that they don’t have to contribute to our pension and health plan, they won’t talk about anything else,” Chris Erikson, business manager of Local 3, told the Daily News last fall. “That’s a gun to our head, they said ‘Take it or leave it.’ And our membership understands the value of what’s at stake here, and they decided to leave it.”

Efforts by large corporations to abandon employee care and retirement plans administered by the unions themselves is part of a broader national attack to make unions irrelevant, argue union defenders. The replacement plans offered by Charter are greatly reduced from what Local 3 fought for and won from Time Warner Cable.

“The practical side of the medical plan that the members have is: my son had a kidney transplant and I got the bill from Columbia Presbyterian hospital and it was $96,000. My share of that was 200 bucks. If I was in Charter’s medical plan I’d probably have to take a loan to pay the hospital bill – that’s with coverage,” Erikson told The Guardian.

Charter can certainly afford to cover its workers’ needs. The company’s CEO was the highest paid in the country in 2016, earning $98 million. The impact of the Trump tax cuts also delivered soaring profits for Charter Communications as a whole.

Profits for the fourth quarter of 2017 hit $9.6 billion, compared with $454 million during the same period in 2016. Profits for the year reached $9.9 billion, compared with $3.5 billion in 2016. Charter earned $41.6 billion in revenue in 2017.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio thinks the strike has gone on for too long.

“It’s been almost a year that Local 3 workers have been on strike. It’s far past time for management to come to the table with a fair deal,” he said.

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