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N.Y. Gives Charter 2 Weeks to Come to Terms or Face Revocation of Charter-TWC Merger

The New York Public Service Commission has notified Charter Communications it won’t be the victim of an offer that promises one thing and delivers something less, giving the company 14 days to fully accept the terms of its Time Warner Cable/Charter merger approval or face the possibility of having the merger canceled, potentially throwing Charter’s business plans into chaos.

In a move any aggrieved cable customer would appreciate, Charter’s lawyers gave the PSC a deal that looked good on the surface, only to be eroded away in the fine print. In a May 2018 response to the Commission’s “show cause” order, threatening to severely fine the cable company for breaking its commitments to New York State, the cable company effectively responded it wasn’t their fault if the Commission missed the fact the company did not actually agree to everything the state thought it did, and was in full compliance of what it unilaterally agreed to do.

The hubris of the state’s largest cable operator did not go down well in Albany, to say the least. But first some background:

Charter is coming under fire in New York State for failing to meet its obligations to extend service in a timely way to 145,000 New York homes and businesses not part of Spectrum’s service area and also lack access to broadband service. Today the Commission, in a separate action, fined Charter $2 million, to be drawn from a line of credit previously set aside by the cable company, for failing to meet its original broadband buildout targets and failing to remedy its past poor performance.

Charter’s lawyers last month protested their innocence, claiming the company was not out of compliance with its agreement — in fact it was ahead of schedule.

Both things cannot be true, so who is being honest and who is trading in “alternative facts?”

To find out, one has to turn back the clock to 2016. On January 19, Charter’s attorneys sent an acceptance letter to the Commission in response to the regulator’s offer to approve the acquisition of Time Warner Cable if Charter agreed to a series of pro-consumer benefits designed to allow New York customers to share in the lucrative deal.

Charter agreed to dramatically increase Standard internet speeds for its New York customers, first to 100 Mbps by the end of 2018 and again to 300 Mbps by the end of 2019. Charter met its first commitment ahead of schedule and is on track to again increase speeds for New York residents before the end of next year.

The company also agreed to temporarily retain Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet program. Although that option has since expired for new customers, existing customers can keep the package until at least next year. But regulators note Charter has frequently made it difficult for New York customers to sign up for the program. Stop the Cap! has documented multiple instances of customers being told the plan was unavailable, or representatives have confused it with Spectrum Internet Assist, a similar budget-priced internet package for those that meet certain income and benefits qualifications.

But Charter’s agreement to expand its service to unserved areas of New York is where most of the current conflict arises. Stop the Cap! strongly recommended in our testimony to the PSC that rural broadband expansion be a part of a series of deal commitments that should be imposed on Charter if the Commission saw fit to approve the merger. The Commission agreed with our recommendation. That allows us to speak authoritatively that the Commission, in concert with the New York State government, framed that expansion commitment as an adjunct to the state’s Broadband 4 All program, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s rural broadband expansion effort.

Charter would serve an integral role in the effort by extending service to homes and businesses just outside of its current service area. That would save the state millions in costs trying to subsidize other providers to expand into these typically unprofitable areas of the state. The design and intention of the expansion program was clear from the outset, and the Commission specifically requested Charter provide detailed lists of planned expansion areas, so the state could avoid duplicating its efforts and re-target funding to other areas of the state. The goal was to achieve near-universal broadband availability in every corner of New York.

The Commission’s 2016 letter to Charter seemed clear enough:

The conditions adopted in this Order and listed in Appendix A shall be binding and enforceable by the Commission upon unconditional acceptance by New Charter within seven (7) business days of the issuance of this Order. If the Petitioners’ unconditional acceptance is not received within seven (7) business days of the issuance of this Order, the Petitioners will have failed to satisfy their burden under the Public Service Law as described herein, and this Order shall constitute a denial of the Joint Petition.

But in Charter’s response on January 19, 2016, their lawyers got too cute by half (emphasis ours):

In accordance with the Commission’s Order Granting Joint Petition by Time Warner Cable Inc. (“Time Warner Cable”) and Charter Communications, Inc. (“Charter”) dated January 8, 2016, Charter hereby accepts the Order Conditions for Approval contained in Appendix A, subject to applicable law and without waiver of any legal rights.

On May 9, 2018 the state discovered what that language discrepancy meant. Charter’s lawyers responded to the state’s charges that the company was not complying with the terms of the merger approval agreement with a classic “gotcha” letter, claiming Charter’s agreement provided only a “qualified” acceptance of language contained exclusively in Appendix A, and its obligations started and stopped there.

That is a distinction worth millions of dollars. Appendix A basically summarizes Charter’s commitment to expand to 145,000 new passings in New York, but does not explain the expansion program or its purpose. If only Appendix A did apply, it would allow Charter to count any new cable hookup, whether in a rural hamlet or more likely in a condo in Manhattan as a “new passing,” bringing it one customer closer to meeting its expansion commitment. Charter could count new wealthy gated communities, apartment buildings, offices, and converted lofts, despite the fact it would almost certainly wire those customers for service with or without its agreement with the state government. More importantly, Charter would successfully avoid spending tens of thousands of dollars to extend the cable line down a road just to reach one or two rural customers.

Charter’s lawyers seem to think that their clever loophole will win the company significant savings and avoid fines — too bad, so sad if the state’s lawyers failed to appreciate what Charter was actually willing to agree to in 2016 and what the state accepted by default by not catching the discrepancy sooner.

“Contrary to [Charter’s] assertions, however, the Approval Order accorded Charter only two explicit choices: (1) to accept unconditionally the commitments set forth in the body of the Approval Order and Appendix A; or (2) have the Joint Petition rejected, subject to Charter’s right to judicial review,” the Commission rebutted.

In short, the state is calling Charter’s possible bluff. If it truly intends not to agree to the original terms of the agreement, the state has the right to toss out the merger agreement, in part or in full, canceling the merger. Of course, Charter can always take the matter to court and hope it can find a judge that will accept Charter’s ‘partial agreement’ argument.

To say the PSC was displeased with Charter’s novel legal maneuver would be an understatement. In today’s ruling, the PSC severely admonished Charter for its bad behavior:

Charter was not free to pick and choose the conditions it would accept or the portions of the Approval Order with which it would comply, nor was Charter free to accept only some of the conditions in the Approval Order and Appendix A yet still obtain Commission approval of the merger transaction. Charter is likewise not free to rewrite the Commission’s conditions.

In effect, Charter is ripping off the people of New York, and the state’s regulators are having none of it.

“The Commission is troubled by Charter’s position that the Commission’s Approval Order means something other than what it actually states,” the PSC wrote. “Given that many of the obligations in that Order are continuing and will need to be fulfilled in the future, the Commission believes it is critical that Charter acknowledge the obligations it agreed to undertake in exchange for the benefits it received by the Commission’s conditional approval. Anything short of an unconditional full acceptance of the Approval Order and Appendix A would deprive New York state of its fair share of the incremental benefits.”

It is likely we will know where this is headed by mid-July, because the PSC has given Charter 14 days to recommit itself to the PSC’s original merger terms, not just those in infamous Appendix A. It signaled it will no longer debate the matter, either, telling Charter “the Commission will not countenance that conduct” and wants action:

Charter is directed to cure its defective acceptance and file with the Secretary to the Commission a new letter indicating its full unconditional acceptance of the Approval Order and Appendix A thereof within 14 days.

Should Charter, however, fail to provide a new letter indicating full unconditional acceptance, the Commission may pursue other remedies at its disposal, including but not necessarily limited to the following.

First, beginning proceedings pursuant to PSL §216 to rescind, modify or amend the Approval Order, specifically, the Commission’s approval of the transfer of the Time Warner’s cable franchises and associated facilities, networks, works and systems to Charter, in whole or in part.

Second, initiate an enforcement action pursuant to PSL §26 for failing to comply with the Approval Order’s Ordering Clause 1 including an action in Supreme Court to adjudicate the dispute and/or declare the Commission’s conditional approval null and void for lack of an unconditional acceptance.

And, third, initiate a penalty action for being out of compliance with the Approval Order’s unconditional acceptance requirement under PSL §25.

It’s a teachable moment for regulators, one that cable customers have come to learn over decades of bad experiences. It’s never a good idea to trust a cable company.

Spectrum Ditching Usage Measurement Meter Tool in July; Usage Caps Not in the Cards

Charter Communications is abandoning any pretense of data caps on its internet service by decommissioning its internet usage measurement tool for residential subscribers effective this July.

Company officials began notifying customers in billing statements that the usage measurement tool will be dropped effective next month. Charter Communications markets Spectrum internet service as free of any data caps, and a usage measurement system only confused customers about whether their internet usage was truly unlimited.

Originally introduced by Time Warner Cable in late 2009 and gradually made available to customers nationwide, the usage measurement tool reported monthly data usage for customers as part of Time Warner Cable’s original 2008 market test of data caps in Beaumont, Tex.

Customers were offered a Lite Tier with a 5 GB monthly cap or 40 GB of usage for the company’s Turbo Tier. Overlimit fees were $1/GB.

The company attempted to expand its data cap trial in the spring of 2009 to customers in Austin and San Antonio, Tex., Rochester, N.Y., and the Triad region of North Carolina. A major backlash, organized in part by Stop the Cap!, resulted in those market trials being abandoned within two weeks of being announced.

Time Warner Cable never attempted to impose compulsory data caps again after its disastrous 2009 trial and Charter Communications quietly abandoned its own frequently unenforced usage caps in 2015, shortly before bidding to acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

By ditching the usage measurement tool, Spectrum will retire the last remaining elements of Time Warner Cable’s legacy of dabbling with usage caps and further monetizing internet usage.

Charter is also forbidden from imposing data caps for up to seven years as a result of deal conditions imposed by regulators in return for approval of its merger with TWC and BH.

Spectrum Launches Gigabit Upgrades Across Upstate New York, Dozens of Other Cities

Charter Communications today launched gigabit broadband upgrades across dozens of U.S. cities, including almost all of upstate New York (excluding Buffalo) and large parts of Texas, Ohio, California, and Virginia.

With the latest upgrades, customers in these cities are also getting speed bumps for Spectrum’s Internet Ultra package, which will now offer speeds of 400/20 Mbps. Customers can visit Spectrum.com to review their local speed options. Upgrades to the Ultra tier usually carry no service charges, but moving to gigabit speed will come at a cost — a mandatory $199 installation fee, with a service call required.

Some customers may need to swap out or replace their existing cable modems to take full advantage of 400+ Mbps speeds. A list of modems authorized for use on Spectrum’s network along with the speeds they support can be found here.

In other cities where Charter has already launched gigabit service, customers with Standard 100 Mbps internet plans also received a free upgrade to 200/10 Mbps, but readers report that speed upgrade has not yet taken place in areas launching gigabit service today:

  • Arizona: Yuma
  • California: Los Angeles, Palm Springs, San Diego, El Centro
  • Kentucky: Louisville, Bowling Green, and Paducah
  • Massachusetts: Boston (Suburbs)
  • Nebraska: Lincoln, Omaha
  • New York: Binghamton, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Elmira/Corning, Utica, and Watertown
  • North Carolina: Greensboro, Wilmington, and Greenville
  • Ohio: Dayton, Cincinnati, Youngstown, Lima
  • Pennsylvania: Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh
  • Tennessee: Tri-Cities, Chattanooga, and Knoxville
  • Texas: Dallas/Fort Worth, Waco, El Paso, Beaumont/Port Arthur, and Wichita Falls
  • Virginia: Roanoke/Lynchburg, Norfolk (Suburbs) and Tri-Cities
  • Wisconsin: Milwaukee, Green Bay/Appleton

For most customers, here is Spectrum’s current broadband pricing (new customer promotions may offer significantly lower rates and bundled pricing may differ):

  • $64.99 Spectrum Internet Standard 100/10 Mbps (will eventually be upgraded to 200/10 Mbps)
  • $54.99 Spectrum Internet Standard 100/10 Mbps with Spectrum TV (will eventually be upgraded to 200/10 Mbps)
  • $89.99 Spectrum Internet Ultra (400/20 Mbps)
  • $79.99 Spectrum Internet Ultra (400/20 Mbps)
  • $124.99 Spectrum Internet Gig (940/35 Mbps)
  • $114.99 Spectrum Internet Gig (940/35 Mbps) with Spectrum TV

N.Y. Attorney General Overcomes Charter’s Legal Objections to Slow Internet Lawsuit

Phillip Dampier February 20, 2018 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 6 Comments

Charter Communications will have to face a courtroom to answer accusations the cable company intentionally sold internet service at speeds it knew it could not provide to its customers in New York.

New York State Supreme Court Justice O. Peter Sherwood rejected a motion by the cable company to dismiss New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s 2017 lawsuit accusing Time Warner Cable (now owned by Charter) of systematically shortchanging as many as 640,000 New York internet customers by falsely advertising internet speeds it knew it could not deliver, often with at least 900,000 outdated company-provided cable modems incapable of supporting the higher speeds the company promoted.

“Today’s decision by the New York Supreme Court marks a major victory for New York consumers — rejecting every single argument made by Charter-Spectrum in its attempts to block our lawsuit,” said Schneiderman. “This decision ensures that our office can continue to hold Charter-Spectrum to account for its failure to deliver the reliable internet speeds it promised consumers, ripping you off by promising internet speeds it simply could not deliver.”

Charter’s Defense: Spectrum’s Ad Claims for Fast Internet Service are: “Prototypical instances of non-actionable puffery.”

Charter’s lawyers attempted a variety of legal strategies to get Schneiderman’s lawsuit tossed, including undermining the cable company’s own marketing efforts. Lawyers argued the court should ignore Charter’s claims it sold a “blazing fast, super-reliable connection” that could “stream Netflix and Hulu movies and shows effortlessly” as nothing more than “prototypical instances of non-actionable puffery.”

Scheniderman’s office claimed it was much more than that.

N.Y. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman

“Spectrum-TWC failed to maintain enough network capacity in the form of interconnection ports to deliver this promised content to its subscribers without slowdowns, interruptions, and data loss,” stated Schneiderman. “It effectively ‘throttled’ access to Netflix and other content providers by allowing the ports through which its network interconnects with data coming from those providers to degrade, causing slowdowns. Spectrum-TWC then extracted payments from those content providers as a condition for upgrading the ports As a result, Spectrum-TWC’s subscribers could not reliably access the content they were promised, and instead were subjected to the buffering, slowdowns and other interruptions in service that they had been assured they would not encounter.”

Charter also claimed it was not legally responsible for meeting its own advertised speeds because the company only sold speeds “up to” a level, without guaranteeing customers would get the speeds it advertised.

Even if a judge found Charter lacking in its legal defense, lawyers for the company more broadly argued that under FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s net neutrality order, state courts and regulators had no power to regulate or oversee broadband providers because “regulation of broadband internet access service should be governed principally by a uniform set of federal regulations, rather than by a patchwork of separate state and local requirements,” according to Charter’s attorney Christopher Clark.

Justice Sherwood uniformly rejected all of Charter’s arguments to dismiss the case:

  • Improper state venue for the lawsuit: “Spectrum-TWC fails to identify any provision [of law] that preempts state anti-fraud or consumer-protection claims, or reflects any intention by Congress to make federal law the exclusive source of law protecting consumers from broadband providers’ deceptive conduct.”
  • False advertising: “This court finds that, contrary to defendants’ contentions, the FCC’s goal of promoting competition through [the Internet Transparency Rule], the FCC stated that the rule was intended to ensure consumers had the “right to accurate information, so [they] can choose, monitor, and receive the broadband internet services they have been promised. New York’s Executive Law and Consumer Protection Act […] require that [providers] refrain from fraud, deception, and false advertising when communicating with New York consumers.
  • Netflix/YouTube slowdowns: The issue of interconnection agreements between content providers and Spectrum-TWC are matters for the court to consider because it is not an attempt to regulate those agreements. “Rather, the complaint simply alleges that Spectrum-TWC misled subscribers by claiming that specific online content would be swiftly accessible through its network, while it was simultaneously deliberately allowing that service to degrade […] and failing to upgrade its network’s capacity to meet demand for this content.”
  • “Up to” speeds: Spectrum-TWC claimed that advertising speeds “up to” a certain level was not misleading because consumers understood this to mean the maximum speed, not average speed. In Spectrum’s argument, it claimed “reasonable consumers understand this is not a promise of ‘minimum’ performance, but rather ‘maximum’ performance.” But the judge disagreed. “Defendant’s theory is contrary to New York law regarding ‘up to’ claims” when those speeds are “functionally unattainable as a result of the defendants’ knowing conduct.”

Schneiderman’s office is seeking civil fines and restitution from Spectrum-TWC for customers in New York.

Charter/Spectrum: We’ll Offer Gigabit Speed Nationwide by the End of 2018

Spectrum markets where gigabit speed is already available.

Charter Communications is accelerating the deployment of the next generation cable broadband standard DOCSIS 3.1 so that it can offer almost every customer gigabit download speed by the end of this year.

“We plan to be 1 Gbps everywhere and marketing 1 Gbps everywhere this year, which is [also includes] taking up a significant portion of our business to minimum speeds of 200 Mbps at the same price we were charging for 60 Mbps a year ago,” said Thomas Rutledge, CEO of Charter Communications, on a Feb. 2 investor conference call. “And we plan to do that as quickly as we can, but because of the all-digital rollout and some of the other operational issues we have, we haven’t fully planned out [200 Mbps speed for] the whole country yet.”

Charter’s biggest challenge is expected to be swapping legacy modems inadequate for the task of delivering 200 Mbps and higher speeds to residential customers. Many Charter customers are still using modems originally provided by Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, generally considered adequate for supporting top speeds only between 50-100 Mbps. But Charter is planning to offer faster internet speeds to position itself as a viable broadband competitor in markets where fiber competitors have poached subscribers and the future threat of 5G speeds up to 1 Gbps are on the horizon. That could require a substantial modem exchange program, especially in cities that were never upgraded to Time Warner Cable Maxx before Charter acquired Time Warner Cable.

Charter’s migration for Time Warner Cable/Bright House customers continues, while Charter Legacy markets stall

In 2017, Charter intentionally focused most of its time and money integrating its acquired Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers into Charter’s billing, provisioning, service, and retention systems. This came, Rutledge admitted, at the expense of long-time Charter customers who saw new product launches and upgrades delayed because of the ongoing integration effort.

It will take until 2019 to fully integrate all of Charter’s customers onto a single platform that will no longer distinguish if a customer was a long-standing Charter customer or a former TWC or BH subscriber.

Customers willing to abandon their legacy Time Warner Cable or Bright House plans in favor of a Spectrum plan are also dragging their feet. As of the end of 2017, 51% of TWC and Bright House customers were still sticking with their original plan, refusing to switch to Spectrum pricing and packaging. As customers face Spectrum’s new plans, some are canceling service. Time Warner Cable residential video customers dropped by 2.5% over 2017. Charter Legacy customers dropped by 1%, while legacy Bright House customers declined by 0.5%.

Legacy Charter areas saw subscribers running out of patience. The company lost 10,000 video customers in the last quarter versus a gain of 20,000 customers a year ago. Company officials blame the complications associated with absorbing millions of acquired customers for the results.

“In 2016 and 2017, we delayed a number of new product launches through the integration, particularly at legacy Charter within our fundamental structured operating model and business rules now in place, we will more aggressively launch new products nationwide,” said Rutledge.

Charter is also spending a considerable amount of its financial resources buying back its stock. During the fourth quarter, Charter accelerated its buyback program repurchasing 13.5 million shares in Charter Holdings stock totaling $4.7 billion at an average price of $347 per share. For all of 2017, Charter bought back $13.2 billion worth of its own stock.

Digital television conversions drag on…

Charter did not restart its digital television conversion program until June of 2017, and 30% of Time Warner Cable and 50% of Bright House Networks customers are still watching analog cable television as a result. Company officials promise digital conversion will be completed nationwide by the end of this year, the first step the company will take to make dramatic broadband speed increases possible.

“Our video products in those markets will improve,” Rutledge said. “Internet speeds will increase further and all-digital will drive more efficient operations in the field including electronic disconnects, self-installation and a reduction of unauthorized connections.”

Among the most significant improvements is the introduction of the Worldbox set-top box, which will be available nationwide by the end of 2018, but generally only to new video customers. The new box runs faster and is less expensive than the traditional set-top box, and better integrates on-demand and streaming video services.

Worldbox will also highlight Spectrum’s new Spectrum Guide, an improved on-screen program guide and content portal. The new guide will also include support for third-party streaming services like Netflix.

Charter has also begun to deploy an improved Wi-Fi router known as Wave 2, which claims to offer faster speeds and better signals throughout a customer’s home. Availability is reportedly spotty, but improving.

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  • Paul Houle: I can believe in AT&T's plan, but not Comcast. For better or worse, AT&T is going "all in" on video and is unlike other major providers in ...
  • Phillip Dampier: Yes, that battle with Northwest Broadcasting, which also involved stations in Idaho-Wyoming and California, was the nastiest in recent history, with s...
  • Doug Stoffa: Digital takes up way less space than old analog feeds - agreed. In a given 6 MHz block, the cable company can send down 1 NTSC analog station, 2-4 HD...
  • Phillip Dampier: Digital video TV channels occupy next to nothing as far as bandwidth goes. Just look at the huge number of premium international channels loading up o...
  • Doug Stoffa: It's a bit more complicated than that. Television stations (and the networks that provide them programming) have increased their retransmission fees ...
  • Alex sandro: Most of the companies offer their services with contracts but Spectrum cable company offer contract free offers for initial year which is a very good ...
  • John: I live in of the effected counties, believe it or not our village is twenty three miles from WSKG Tower, approxiamately eighty miles from Syracuse, WS...
  • Wilhelm: I'm in the Finger Lakes where Spectrum removed WROC-8 last Fall, but we still get other Rochester channels, WHAM-13, WHEC-10 and WXXI-21. I have to wo...
  • dhkjsalhf: "Another classic case of businesses being much smarter than governments." I don't know whether this was sarcastic or not, but I feel it's a sentiment...
  • New Yorker: It makes no sense. I wonder sometimes if raising the limits on how much money rich people giving to candidates could make it more expensive to buy of...
  • New Yorker: Will New York go through with the threat? As an upstater I have seen infrastructure projects drag on in cost and time (eg. 1.5 yrs to repair a tiny b...
  • Matthew H Mosher: Another classic case of businesses being much smarter than governments....

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