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Non-Profit Group Attacks Charter-TWC Deal Critics, Forgets to Mention It Takes TWC Money

Phillip Dampier

Phillip Dampier

More than a dozen industry-supported non-profit groups turned out in force at last evening’s public hearing in Los Angeles run by the California Public Utilities Commission to ask the regulator to approve the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable.

But one deal supporter also used the occasion to attack consumer advocacy groups lined up to oppose the deal, without apparently mentioning the fact her group Smart Education counts Time Warner Cable as a major sponsor of the organization.

Liberty Naud told the audience the merger would help California improve its math and science scores and help educate the next generation of entertainment industry employees.

“Last year, the United States was ranked 27th in math, and 28th in science among 34 developed countries,” said Naud, whose group serves the Coachella Valley. “By 2018, we are going to be short 3 million science, technology, engineering and math jobs. How many of our at-risk youth could fill those spots if they had the access that they needed?”

The Los Angeles Times reports Naud took a jab at the consumer advocacy groups and a representative of the Writers Guild of America, West, who opposed the deal.

“Who brings those stories you write to life? Who does the editing and creates the equipment that makes it possible to film those ideas?” Naud said. “Technologists, engineers and sound scientists.  We don’t just need this merger, it is a necessity.”

Stop the Cap! believes you don’t need a math degree to calculate conflict-of-interest. It has been our experience that what often motivates non-profit groups to appear at an obscure hearing in support of a multi-billion dollar cable merger is money. Those financial relationships should always be disclosed at public hearings and in media reports to give the public important context.

It will also come as no surprise we believe Naud’s argument in nonsensical. Should this merger not be approved, Charter and Time Warner Cable will continue to offer service in their respective areas. Charter is proposing new Internet programs for the income-challenged and Time Warner Cable already offers a $14.99 Internet plan open to anyone. Both cable companies set their own policies about rural access, pricing, and discounts to at-risk communities. A merger is not necessary to provoke change.

California Public Hearing on Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger is Tonight; Stop the Cap! Will Be There

cpucCalifornians will have their chance to speak out about the proposed merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable at a public hearing in Los Angeles tonight before an administrative law judge working for the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

California will be the last major state capable of killing the transaction should the CPUC reject the merger on the grounds of it not being in the public interest. New York regulators approved the merger, but only with a lengthy list of conditions designed to improve service for New York residents.

Stop the Cap! will be represented at the hearing tonight by Matt Friedman, who will help us improve our vigilance of cable and phone companies serving the west coast. Friedman has done an incredible job exposing the sham of usage caps and compulsory usage-based pricing in his written testimony, which will be published here after being filed with the CPUC. As with most CPUC public hearings, we expect speakers will only be given a few minutes at most to state their views on the merger. As we did in New York, Stop the Cap! will oppose it on the grounds it is not in the public interest.

charter twcWe remain suspicious about Charter’s commitment to not impose usage caps or usage pricing for only three years. Most consumers will not see much of a change in the broadband marketplace over the next few years. Charter can afford to wait 36 short months before potentially slapping on usage caps/billing — after winning additional regulatory approval to buy out even more companies. While the CEO of Time Warner Cable will walk away with over $100 million in golden parachute benefits if he successfully sells Time Warner Cable, we anticipate most customers will win a higher bill.

Friedman will share our ongoing concerns that Charter’s offer is less impressive than Time Warner Cable’s own Maxx upgrade initiative, which will deliver 300Mbps service for the price Time Warner Cable customers currently pay for 50Mbps. Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 budget Internet service is also on Charter’s chopping block, to be replaced with an entry-level tier offering 60Mbps for about $60 a month — four times more expensive. In short, the only honest reason to allow this deal to succeed is if we want to further enrich Time Warner Cable executives and shareholders while customers take all the risks of higher bills, worse service, and usage caps starting in 2019, with few if any other options.

Also planning to attend are Common Cause, Free Press, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which all argue allowing this deal to succeed sets up America for a national virtual duopoly between Comcast and Charter, with just two companies controlling the majority of broadband connections in the United States.

The CPUC could reject the merger outright or approve it, usually with conditions. While we remain opposed to the merger, should the CPUC ultimately make a different decision, we are advocating:

  • A ban on compulsory usage caps or usage pricing. An affordable, unlimited option broadband tier should always be available, at prices comparable to what consumers pay today for Internet service.
  • Charter should be forced to commit to upgrading its entire service area in California to an equal level of service offered by Time Warner Cable Maxx.
  • Charter should be required to keep Time Warner Cable’s affordable, no-contract/no-requirement $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet plan and boost its speed.
  • Most-favored state status for California, automatically giving California consumers the benefits won from conditions imposed by regulators in other states.
  • …and other consumer-targeted service improvements.

If you are in Los Angeles and want to attend or possibly share your own views with the CPUC, the hearing is open to the public:

Location: Junipero Serra State Office Building – Auditorium (Carmel Room)  — 320 West 4th Street, Los Angeles
Time: The meeting starts at 6:00pm

N.Y. Approves Charter-Time Warner Merger; Stop the Cap!’s Impact on Deal Conditions

charter twc bhConditions recommended by Stop the Cap! to protect New York consumers after a merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable are expected to cost the two cable companies almost one billion dollars and will guarantee statewide adoption of Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade, guaranteeing all customers receive speed upgrades ranging from 60-300Mbps.

On Friday, the N.Y. Public Service Commission announced its conditional approval of the merger transaction, but only if Charter agrees to a series of wide-ranging conditions to guarantee that New York customers receive tangible benefits as a result of the merger:

The Commission agrees that in order for the proposed merger to be in the public interest, the Petitioners must agree to make concrete and enforceable commitments to modernize their cable system and services, expand access, address the digital divide and improve customer service. To this end, we find that with the acceptance by the Petitioners of the enforceable conditions, as discussed in the body of this Order and Appendix A, the proposed merger is in the public interest. These conditions are designed to help ensure a near ubiquitous world-class communications network that meets the needs of all New Yorkers. Absent acceptance of these conditions, the public interest standard cannot be met, and the petition for transaction approval is denied.

Stop the Cap! was quoted and footnoted extensively in the PSC order. We provided the PSC with insight beyond the public relations machine of Charter and Time Warner Cable. We exposed the fact Charter’s promised service improvements were actually more modest than what Time Warner Cable has undertaken on its own through its Maxx upgrade program. We educated regulators about the inadequacy of Charter’s initial commitment to offer low-cost Internet access for low-income families. We questioned the consumer benefits of certain upgrades that could actually increase costs for consumers because of additional equipment fees. We alerted the PSC that Charter would discontinue Time Warner’s affordable $14.99 Internet offer. We strongly recommended the PSC consider making rural broadband expansion a part of this transaction. We also sought additional protections from any future compulsory usage caps or usage-based billing.

special reportAlthough Stop the Cap! was opposed to the transaction from the outset, doubting it was in the public interest, we recognized the chances for approval were greater than the Comcast-TWC merger that was eventually withdrawn. Therefore, we made it a priority to outline multiple conditions we felt should be imposed on Charter if the deal was to be approved.

Our constituency is ordinary consumers and ratepayers. Too often these kinds of mergers are approved with token conditions that only benefit minority or special interests, favored non-profit or government entities, or those with vested business interests (programmers, equipment manufacturers, etc.) It was important to us that any approval bring something beyond free Internet service for schools or community centers, agreements to continue carrying certain cable networks, or a temporary discount or low value coupon that ends up in the mailboxes of customers a year or two from now.

We know what Time Warner Cable customers in New York want: better service, faster speeds, no data caps, no gotcha fees, affordable Internet options, and job protection.

It appears New York regulators understand that as well and intend to force Charter to offer customers a better deal.

Despite publicly saying little about the merger, just a few hours after the PSC’s decision, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office issued a press release taking credit for the merger conditions and unveiling the “tenth signature proposal of his 2016 agenda: dramatically expanding and improving access to high-speed Internet in communities statewide.” Once again, the governor will try to entice providers like Time Warner Cable, Frontier Communications, and Verizon to expand rural broadband in New York using public dollars.

Although lacking a catchy title, the “New New York Broadband Program” includes a $500 million solicitation for private sector partners to subsidize rural broadband expansion with state dollars. The key goals of the 2016 program include:

  • stcAccess to broadband at speeds of at least 100Mbps; 25Mbps in the most remote areas of the State.
  • Public-private partnerships with a required 50 percent match in private sector investment targeted across the program.
  • Priority for projects that improve broadband Internet access in unserved areas, libraries and educational opportunity centers.
  • Applications will be chosen through a “reverse-auction” process, which will award funding to bidders seeking the lowest State investment.
  • Auctions to be held within each Regional Economic Development Council region to ensure statewide allocations of funding.

Much of the funding from earlier years ended up going to Time Warner Cable for modest expansion of its cable service, especially in eastern upstate New York. Likely applicants in 2016 include Time Warner Cable, Frontier Communications, community-owned/co-op broadband providers and rural wireless ISPs. Verizon and Cablevision are unlikely to apply.

Despite the governor’s efforts, most New York homes and businesses will be more affected by the Charter-Time Warner Cable merger, if it wins federal approval.

Gov. Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo

The Public Service Commission took its role very seriously, issuing a 93-page decision that took recommendations from consumer groups including Stop the Cap! very seriously. It did not share the industry’s belief that telecommunications providers in New York are heavily competitive.

“Time Warner serves close to 50% of New York State and we have a legitimate interest in ensuring that, when a company of this size provides customers with a service so affected by the public interest, as is communications, that real benefits accrue to consumers as a result of a given transaction,” the PSC wrote.

The PSC had an easier time sorting through comments about this merger, which generated considerably less interest than Comcast’s failed attempt to buy Time Warner.

“Generally, comments supporting the proposed transaction assert that, among other things, the merger will create jobs and provide better products at more affordable rates,” the PSC concluded in its ruling. “Those opposing the transaction state that the merger will inevitably lead to higher rates and potential data caps on broadband services in the future.”

The PSC took a very skeptical approach to Charter’s promised benefits, often finding them vague, questionable, or likely to have occurred with or without Charter’s involvement.

new-yorkFor example, the PSC questioned Charter’s promised network investments and upgrades:

Petitioners, however, decline to specify where in the national footprint of Charter, TWC and BHN these investments will be made or to identify the decisional factors to be used to channel these capital resources to specific areas or customers. There is no analysis to indicate that a reasonable proportion of these investments will be to systems in New York or for the benefit of New York customers. Similarly, there is no proposal by the Petitioners to describe the specific commitments that are being made or the specific enforcement mechanisms that would be used in the event the Petitioners’ implementation fell short of their commitments. Further, in order for these investments to be characterized as part of a net public benefit, Staff concludes, and we agree, that Petitioners would have to establish that these investments would not have been made in the absence of the proposed merger.

In the absence of a demonstration that there is “a tangible commitment to make new investments or invest beyond Time Warner’s current capital investment budgets,” it is difficult to characterize these capital expenditures as a certain benefit to New York customers or a satisfaction of the public interest under the New York statutes.

One of Stop the Cap!’s core arguments in our comments to the PSC was that Charter’s upgrade commitments were not particularly meaningful because Time Warner Cable was gradually upgrading its own systems to a level of service superior to what Charter plans to offer. The PSC clearly understood this and our warning that Charter’s commitments lacked specificity:

Public Benefit Assessment Staff and several commenters suggest that the proposed merger, as described in the Joint Petition and Petitioners’ Reply Comments, does not have sufficient net benefits to warrant a finding that the transaction is in the public interest. We concur. Many of the asserted benefits from the proposed transaction are events triggered by actions taken independently from the merger, and others are likely to be undertaken by TWC in any event, should the merger not be approved. Further, many asserted benefits are only described on a national scale and there is no way to determine if the investments or expenditures will occur in New York. Similarly, many of the projected benefits are described in terms that are too indefinite to permit us to assume that the benefits will occur as described to make a meaningful contribution to the transaction’s net benefits.

Time Warner Cable Maxx speed improvements.

Time Warner Cable Maxx speed improvements.

As a result, the PSC has looked more closely at Time Warner Cable’s Maxx program to be the benchmark for New York, not Charter’s proposed upgrades. They have adopted our recommendation that every Time Warner Cable customer in New York get the same kind of service upgrade residents in New York City enjoy today.

Another argument made by Stop the Cap! dealt with affordable Internet access. Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Price Internet ($14.99/mo for 2Mbps) is not fast, but it is affordable and free of the kind of revenue-protecting pre-conditions usually placed on Internet access for the poor. Time Warner’s plan is available to every customer at any time with no restrictions or contracts. In contrast, Charter’s originally proposed affordable Internet program required participants have school-age children, enroll only in the late summer, not have current cable broadband service (or be willing to forego it for 60 days), and not have any prior balance. As with Comcast, pre-conditions like this limit participation. The PSC agreed and now customers will be able to keep their more affordable Internet plans without jumping through artificial hoops launched by Charter.

The days of rural New Yorkers being quoted $20,000 to install Time Warner Cable service are also going to be a thing of the past. In addition to a commitment to pay for line extensions reaching 145,000 unserved or underserved customers, Charter is now required to work with New York’s Broadband 4 All program to receive supplementary funding, as available, to complete service extensions to eventually reach every customer that lives within a franchise area and wants cable service.

There are several other benefits outlined below that make this a better (although not great) deal, at least for New Yorkers. If any other state regulator manages to get an even better deal for that state’s residents, New Yorkers will automatically benefit because of a “most favored state clause” in the PSC’s order, which requires Charter to share those benefits with New York residents.

ny pscAll in all, the New York State Public Service Commission has lived up to its reputation as a consumer-protective body that is responsive to the needs of the public. This is in great contrast to many other states where regulators seem themselves as a business facilitator (and occasionally come directly from the businesses being regulated). In these states, the merger won approval with few, in any, preconditions.

We were delighted to have been extensively quoted and footnoted in the PSC’s order, having proven our case the Charter-Time Warner deal didn’t offer very much for New York. But we’re not happy the PSC punted on data caps. While recognizing they are a concern, the PSC seemed satisfied a three-year guarantee of no data caps was adequate. We disagree. As an increasing number of Comcast customers can attest, data caps are anti-competitive, anti-consumer, and unnecessary. Whatever benefits faster speeds can deliver can be easily curtailed by a data cap. So can online video competition. With much of upstate New York totally dependent on a single provider – Time Warner or Charter – for broadband speeds above 10Mbps, there is plenty of room for mischief that would otherwise be controlled by competitive forces. The PSC saw fit to avoid using its power of approval to get creative on keeping flat rate Internet affordable and available. That is a mistake we predict will be back to haunt us in the future.

Here are the specific conditions, most advocated by Stop the Cap!, that Charter Communications must agree to as a condition of the deal’s approval in New York:

Rural Broadband Access [$355 Million Value]

In addition to the goals accomplished by Gov. Cuomo’s New New York Broadband Program, Charter must agree to unilaterally build-out its network to reach an additional 145,000 “unserved” and “underserved” homes and businesses within four years. This will be an easy target for Charter to reach because the PSC defines “underserved” as any home with less than 100Mbps service. That represents much of upstate New York bypassed by TWC Maxx, so a speed upgrade in just one upstate city will achieve this requirement.

However, the PSC also included a second condition. Subject to the final terms and conditions of the Broadband 4 All Program being comparable to the Connect New York Program, Charter will be required to bid for Broadband 4 All Program funding to offer line extensions to any remaining unserved and underserved home across its entire New York service territory, which means every New Yorker within a cable franchise service area that wants service will be able to get it without being quoted tens of thousands of dollars for construction costs.

This will finally help would-be customers like Stop the Cap! reader Jesse Walser in Jamesville who has tried to get wired broadband in his home for over a decade. Verizon won’t upgrade its network and Time Warner Cable quoted him between $5,900 and $26,000 for installation of a line extension to reach his home.

All Digital Cable System Upgrade

Charter must convert their existing New York systems to an all-digital network (including upgrading the Columbia County Charter cable system to enable broadband communications) capable of delivering faster broadband speeds.

In Columbia County, residents are currently better served by smaller local providers. Both Germantown Telephone and Mid-Hudson Cable offer high-speed access throughout their territories. Berkshire Telephone has almost 100% DSL coverage, and Taconic Telephone has expanded DSL service to much of their huge service territory. Frontier Communications offers some DSL in southern Columbia County. The biggest problem providers are Verizon, which has no plans for DSL service in the area, and Charter Cable, which still runs a basic cable television-only system in the county.

In New York, Charter now provides cable television and other communication services to a relatively small number of customers, from two cable system clusters in and around Plattsburgh (14,000 customers) and Columbia County (2,500 customers). Plattsburgh gets television, phone and broadband service from Charter, but Columbia County is still served by a now-ancient, cable television only system.

Network Modernization and Speed Increases [$305 Million Value]

Charter must convert all of its systems in New York to all-digital within 30 months of the closing of the merger transaction. Charter is also required to offer broadband speeds up to 100Mbps to all customers by the end 2018 and match TWC Maxx speeds of 300Mbps by the end of 2019.

Charter’s all digital upgrade in upstate New York will facilitate faster broadband service, but it will also mean a set-top box or other similar device for every cable connected television in the home.

Broadband Affordability [$250 Million Value]

Despite Charter’s simplified menu of options (two broadband speed tiers and one video package), the PSC has required Charter to allow customers to keep their current plans, at least for the next several years:

  • Charter is required to maintain and advance its commitment to an affordable standalone Internet offering through the continuation of the Time Warner Everyday Low Price $14.99
    service throughout the Time Warner New York territory for up to two years and allow existing customers to keep the service for three years.
  • Charter is required to offer its 60Mbps standalone broadband product throughout New York at uniform national pricing. [$125 million value]
  • Charter is required to allow existing Time Warner customers to retain, without material changes that have the intent to discourage, the standalone and bundled broadband services they subscribe to at the close of the transaction for three years from the date of the closing.
  • Charter is required to provide a low-income broadband offering to eligible customers throughout its New York footprint. The PSC-ordered plan will offer 30Mbps for $14.99 a month to any household eligible for the National School Lunch Program and senior citizens 65 years and older eligible for the federal Supplemental Security Income program. No credit check shall be required and conditions requiring current broadband customers to wait 60 days to qualify and cover any past due bills have been deleted.

Customer Service [$55 Million Value]

Within two years after the close of the proposed transaction, Charter shall invest a minimum of $50 million in service improvement programs.

Charter is required to show a 35% reduction in Time Warner Cable’s 2014 cable PSC Complaint Rate by the end of 2020, with a 17.5% reduction due by the end of 2018. If they don’t achieve that, Charter must invest an additional $2.5 million in its service for each failure.

Job Protection

For the next four years, Charter cannot cut the number of customer facing jobs in New York.

Charter’s Discriminatory Internet Discount Program Unveiled for Time Warner/Bright House Customers

charter twc bhWhile planning to quietly drop Time Warner Cable’s budget-minded, unrestricted $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet package after it acquires the company, Charter Communications is celebrating a “new and improved” low-income Internet offer that will likely discriminate against current customers while protecting company profits.

Charter Communications announced this month it would start offering qualified low-income families and seniors 30/4Mbps broadband service for $14.99 a month within six months of closing its acquisition deal with Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable. Charter claims its newest program will offer the highest broadband speed of any similar low-income discount Internet plan, and will include discounts for cable television and phone service as well.

“Recognizing the central role broadband plays in our daily lives and the economic challenges faced by many Americans today, we look forward to launching this offering that will provide more consumers a superior broadband service,” said Tom Rutledge, president and CEO of Charter Communications. “Our industry-leading low-cost broadband service is just one of the many benefits these transactions will bring to our customers. We look forward to providing this superior broadband service to underserved families and seniors throughout Charter’s footprint.”

Time Warner Cable offers $14.99 to anyone without paperwork. Charter isn't.

Time Warner Cable offers $14.99 to anyone without paperwork. Charter isn’t.

But Charter’s discount Internet offer will replace Time Warner’s current $14.99 discount Internet program, available to any customer without pre-conditions or term contracts. Charter’s proposal to regulators states the company plans to replace multiple tiers of broadband service offered by Time Warner and Bright House with just two options — 60 and 100Mbps tiers that will eventually cost customers at least $60 a month — four times the cost of Time Warner’s budget-minded alternative.

Unlike Time Warner’s Everyday Low Price Internet, customers will have to qualify for the discounted program, which will discriminate against current customers, individuals and families without school age children, and senior citizens that do not receive additional assistance from the government.

fine-printAmong the most onerous restrictions, Charter plans to protects itself from revenue cannibalization by prohibiting existing broadband customers from paying less by signing up for Charter’s new discounted plan. Customers will have to voluntarily drop Bright House/Charter/Time Warner Cable Internet service for at least 60 days before they can apply for Charter’s new low-cost option.

Other requirements limit participation only to families with students participating in the National School Lunch Program or seniors age 65 or older who also receive Supplemental Security Income program benefits. In all cases, participating customers must pay off all current and any past charges still owed to Bright House, Charter, and/or Time Warner Cable before they can enroll.

Charter included in a press release announcing the program a list of organizations it claims prove “widespread support for Charter’s low-cost broadband service.” Charter did not mention most of the groups quoted have a long history supporting the telecom industry, mostly after cashing generous contribution checks from the cable and phone companies involved:

National Urban League: A notorious friend of big cable and phone companies, the Urban League is a regular supporter of telecom mergers and opposes Net Neutrality. The Urban League has compiled a poor record among civil rights groups that routinely favors corporate contributors over the need of their constituencies. Its president, Marc Morial, has attracted the attention of the Center for Public Integrity, which published an exposé about the group and its leadership in 2014.

Sharpton

Sharpton

National Action Network, an organization founded and run by Reverend Al Sharpton: Sharpton’s group no longer discloses its corporate donor list, but large telecom companies often have the support of NAN on everything from mergers and acquisitions to blocking consumer protection regulation. An entertainment company executive in California called Sharpton corporate America’s “least expensive negro” for his willingness to advocate for big cable and phone companies in return for relatively small donations to his organization. National Action Network Inc. is on Charity Navigator’s Watchlist.

League of United Latin American Citizens: Time Warner Cable is an existing Corporate Alliance member of LULAC, a group that routinely supports large telecom company mergers and acquisitions and often advocates on their behalf while accepting corporate contributions.

Connected Nation: A group Public Knowledge says is sponsored by telephone and cable companies and represents their interests.

Digital Divide Partners LLC: Two guys from the Bronx running a website with spelling and grammar issues. The site doesn’t seem to have been updated since May 2015 and only then to post a generic thank you letter from the Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

NOBEL Women: In addition to the company’s sponsorship of group functions, Bright House’s corporate vice president for government and industry affairs – Marva Johnson, was a featured participant at the group’s 2014 annual conference.

Rainbow PUSH Coalition: Jesse Jackson’s group has come under fire for favoring the corporate agendas of its donor base. Rainbow/PUSH has a long record supporting corporate telecom mergers, including SBC and Ameritech back in 1999, AT&T and Tele-Communications, Inc. in 1999, AT&T and BellSouth back in 2006, Comcast and NBCUniversal in 2011, among many, many others. The coalition, supposedly representing the interests of average Americans, has also filed comments with regulators opposing a-la-carte cable TV pricing (pay only for the channels you want) and railing against Net Neutrality.

The Peaceful War Against Comcast’s Data Caps: Don’t Like ‘Em? Get Off Your Butt

Licensed to print money

Licensed to print money

In 2008, Stop the Cap! was launched because the telephone company that serves our hometown of Rochester, N.Y., decided on a whim that it was appropriate to introduce a usage allowance of 5GB per month for their DSL customers. Frontier Communications CEO-at-the-time Maggie Wilderotter defended the idea with the usual claim that the included allowance was more than enough for the majority of Frontier customers. DSL customers already have to endure a lot of issues with Internet service and data caps should certainly not be one of them.

Stop the Cap! drew media attention and focus on the issue of data capping, organized customers for a coordinated pushback, and sufficiently hassled Frontier enough to get them to make the right decision for their customers by quietly rescinding the “allowances.”

As it would turn out, Frontier’s correct decision to suspend usage caps would prove an asset to them less than one year later when Time Warner Cable made it known it would trial its own usage caps in Austin and San Antonio, Tex., Greensboro, N.C., and yes… Rochester, N.Y. starting in the summer of 2009.

Time Warner Cable was slightly more generous with its arbitrary allowance — 40GB of usage for $55 a month. Customers already paying a lot for Internet access would now also have an arbitrary usage allowance and overlimit penalty fees with no service improvements in sight. Frontier’s decision the year before to rescind data caps played to their advantage and the company quickly launched advertising in Rochester attacking Time Warner Cable for its data caps, inviting customers to switch to cap-free Internet with Frontier.

Data caps are here!

Data caps are here!

Time Warner Cable’s experiment lasted less than two weeks and was permanently shelved, never to return. Four years later, Comcast began its own usage cap trial that not only continues to this day, but has expanded to cover more than 1,000 zip codes. Capped service areas typically live with a 300GB usage allowance with an overlimit fee of $10 per 50GB.

Yesterday at the investor-oriented UBS Global Media and Communications Brokers Conference, Comcast chief financial officer Mike Cavanagh assured Wall Street and shareholders Comcast’s desire to boost revenue from monetizing broadband usage remained an “important contributor” to the company’ goal of “demonstrat[ing] value and derive value from that pricing.”

Cavanagh said the company is using the line ‘heavy users should pay more’ to justify its caps.

“It’s been an experiment that we are using that the key data point behind it is kind of intuitive – ‘10% of our client base uses 50% of capacity.'”

While not ready to announce Comcast’s cap plan would be introduced nationwide, Cavanagh assured investors the experiments will continue as Comcast makes sure that over time it is “compensated for the investments that today’s marketplace requires us to make.”

The difference that makes it possible for Comcast to carry its usage cap experiments forward while Time Warner Cable had to quickly end theirs comes down to one thing: organized customer pushback. Time Warner Cable got heat from relentless, organized opposition in the four cities where caps mattered the most to consumers. Comcast, for the most part, is getting about as much heat as it usually does from customers. It’s time to turn the heat up.

protest

In fighting this battle for the last seven years, I can share with readers what works to force change and what doesn’t:

In 2009, Time Warner Cable faced protesters opposed to usage limits at this rally in front of the company's headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable faced protesters opposed to usage limits at this rally in front of the company’s headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.

Generally Useless

  • Complaining about usage caps in the comment sections of websites;
  • Signing online petitions;

Impotent But Potentially Useful in Large Numbers

  • Calling the provider to complain about usage caps;
  • Complaining about usage caps to a provider’s social media team (Facebook, Twitter, etc.);
  • Writing complaints on a company’s open support forum;

Useful, But Unlikely to Bring Immediate Results

  • Writing a letter or making a call complaining to elected officials about usage caps;
  • Advocating for more competition, especially from public/municipal broadband;
  • Filing formal complaints with the FCC and Better Business Bureau;
  • Complaining to state telecom regulators and your state Attorney General (they have no direct authority but can attract political attention);
  • Canceling or downgrading service, blaming usage caps for your decision.

Gasoline on a Lit Fire

  • Organizing a protest in front of the local cable office, with local media given at least a day’s notice and invited to attend;
  • Contacting local newsrooms and asking them to write or air stories about usage caps, offering yourself as an interview subject;
  • Sending local press clippings or links to media coverage to your member of Congress and two senators. Suggest another media-friendly event and invite the elected official to attend and speak, which in turn generates even more media interest.
In 2009, Time Warner Cable planned to implement mandatory usage pricing starting in Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and San Antonio and Austin, Tex.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable planned to implement mandatory usage pricing starting in Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and San Antonio and Austin, Tex.

In the battle with Time Warner Cable, we did all the above, but especially the latter, which quickly spun the story out of control of company officials sent to distribute propaganda about usage cap “fairness” and “generous” allowances. We were so relentless, we managed to get under the skin of at least one company spokesperson caught on camera being testy in an on-air interview, which backfired on the company and angered customers even more.

In the case of Comcast, very few of these techniques have been used in the fight against their endless data cap experiment. Customers seem satisfied writing angry comments and signing online petitions. Some have filed complaints with the FCC which are useful measures of hot button issues on which the FCC may act in the last year of the Obama Administration. But there is no detectable organized opposition on the ground to Comcast’s data caps. That may explain why Comcast’s CEO has repeatedly told investors your reactions to Comcast’s caps have been “neutral to slightly positive.” Many Wall Street analysts obviously believe that, because some are advocating the time is right to raise broadband prices even higher. After all, if your reaction to data caps was muted, raising the price another $5 a month probably won’t cost you as a customer either.

It would be very different if these analysts saw regular news reports of small groups of angry customers protesting in front of Comcast offices in different areas of the country. That would likely trigger questions about whether broadband pricing has gotten out of hand. Coverage like that often attracts politicians, who cannot lose opposing a cable company. Once Congress gets interested, the fear regulation might be coming next is usually enough to get companies to pull back and reconsider.

comcast sucksIf you are living with a Comcast data cap and want to see it gone, you can do something about it. Consider organizing your own local movement by tapping fellow angry customers and recruiting local activist groups to the cause. In Rochester, there was no shortage of angry college students and groups ready to protest. Google local progressive political groups, technology clubs, and technology-dependent organizations in your immediate area. Some are likely to be a good resource for building effective public protests, sign-making, and other TV-friendly protest techniques. Contact town governments, the mayor’s office of your city, technology-oriented newspaper columnists, radio talk show/computer support show hosts, etc., to build a mailing list for coordinated announcements about your efforts. Many local officials also oppose data caps.

If a local news reporter has covered tech or consumer issues in the past, many station websites now offer direct e-mail options to reach that reporter. If you give them a good TV-friendly story to cover, they will be back for more coverage as your local protest grows. We helped coordinate and share news about efforts against Time Warner in the cities that were subject to experiments, which also gave us advance notice of their talking points and an ability to offer a consistent response. Several stations carried multiple stories about the cap issue, supported by calls to TV newsrooms to thank them for their coverage and to encourage more.

We realize Comcast’s responsiveness to customers is so atrocious it approaches criminal, but Comcast does respond to Wall Street and shareholders who do not want the company under threat of fact-finding hearings, FCC regulatory action, or Congressional attention. They also don’t want any talk of municipal broadband alternatives. Sidewalk protests in front of the local cable office on the 6 o’clock news is a nightmare.

In the end, Time Warner Cable didn’t want the hassle and got the message — customers despise data caps and want nothing to do with them. Time Warner hasn’t tried compulsory usage caps again. If you want Comcast to get the same message, those living inside Comcast service areas (especially customers) need to lead the charge in their respective communities. We remain willing to help.

The Stage Is Set to Kill Telco ADSL: Cable Operators Prepare for DOCSIS 3.1 Competitive Assault

docsis 30 31

Next year’s upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1 will support cable broadband speeds up to one gigabit shortly after introduction.

Telephone companies relying on traditional ADSL service to power their broadband offering will likely face a renewed competitive assault in 2016 that will further reduce their already-challenged market share in areas where cable companies compete.

Cable operators are hungry for profitable broadband customers and the best place to find new prospects is at the phone company, where DSL is still a common technology to deliver Internet access. But while cable Internet speeds have risen, significant DSL speed hikes have proven more modest in the residential market.

In 2016, the cable industry intends to poach some of the remaining price-sensitive holdouts still clinging to DSL with revised broadband offers promising more speed for the dollar.

Cable broadband has already proven itself a runaway success when matched against telephone company DSL service. Over the last year, Strategy Analytics found Comcast and Time Warner Cable alone signed up a combined 71 percent of the three million new broadband customers in the U.S.

“Cable operators continue to increase market share in U.S. broadband,” said Jason Blackwell, a director at Strategy Analytics. “Over the past twelve months, Comcast has accounted for 42 percent of new subscribers among the operators that we track.  Fiber growth is still strong, but the telco operators haven’t been able to shake off the losses of DSL subscribers.  In 2016, we expect to see a real battle in broadband, as cable operators begin to roll out DOCSIS 3.1 for even higher speed offers, placing additional pressure on telcos.”

That battle will come in the form of upgraded economy broadband plans, many arriving shortly after providers upgrade to the DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband platform. Currently those plans offer speeds ranging from 2-6Mbps. Starting next year, customers can expect economy plan prices to stay generally comparable to DSL, with promises of faster and more consistent speeds. A source tells Stop the Cap! at least two significant cable operators are considering 10Mbps to be an appropriate entry-level broadband speed for 2016, in keeping with FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler’s dislike of Internet speeds below 10Mbps.

slowJust a few years earlier, most providers wouldn’t think of offering discounted 10Mbps service, fearing it would cannibalize revenue as customers downgraded to get lower priced service. Increasing demands on bandwidth from online video and multiple in-home users have gradually raised consumer expectations, and their need for speed.

Unfortunately for many phone companies that have neglected significant investment in their aging wireline networks, the costs to keep up with cable will become unmanageable unless investors are willing to tolerate significant growth in capital expenses to pay for network upgrades. Frontier Communications still claims most of their customers are satisfied with 6Mbps DSL, neglecting to mention many of those customers live in areas where cable competition (or faster service from Frontier) is not available.

Where competition does exist, it’s especially bad news for phone companies that still rely on DSL. Earlier this year, Frontier’s former CEO Maggie Wilderotter admitted Frontier’s share of the residential broadband market had dropped to less than 25% in 26 of the 27 states where it provides service. In Connecticut, the one state where Frontier was doing better, its acquired AT&T U-verse system has enabled the phone company to deliver broadband speeds up to 100Mbps. But even those speeds do not satisfy state officials who are seeking proposals from providers to build a gigabit fiber network in a public-private partnership.

DSL speed upgrades have been spotty and more modest.

DSL speed upgrades have been spotty and more modest.

Frontier’s recent experiments with fiber to the home service in a small part of Durham, N.C., and the unintentional revelation of a gigabit broadband inquiry page on Frontier’s website suggests the company may be exploring at least a limited rollout of gigabit fiber service in the state. But company officials have also repeatedly stressed in quarterly results conference calls there were no significant plans to embark on a major spending program to deliver major upgrades across their service areas.

Some phone companies may have little choice except to offer upgrades where cable operators are continuing to rob them of customers. In the northeast, where Frontier has a substantial presence, cable operators including Charter, Comcast and Time Warner Cable are committing to additional speed upgrades. Time Warner Cable’s current standard speed of 15Mbps will rise to 50-60Mbps in 2016, up to ten times faster than Frontier’s most popular “up to” 6Mbps DSL plan.

Most of the broadband customer gains won by Comcast and Time Warner Cable come as a result of DSL disconnects. AT&T said goodbye to 106,000 customers during the third quarter. Verizon managed to pick up 2,000 new subscribers overall, almost all signing up for FiOS fiber to the home service. No cable operator lost broadband market share, reported analyst firm Evercore. Leichtman Research offered additional insight, finding AT&T and Verizon were successful adding 305,000 U-verse and FiOS broadband customers, while losing 432,000 DSL customers during the same quarter.

The message to phone companies couldn’t be clearer: upgrade your networks or else.

Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House Merger Likely Stalled Until Next June

charter twc bhAny final approval of Charter Communication’s planned acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks will likely not come before next summer, as regulators in California decide to take a closer look at the blockbuster merger deal that would make Charter the second largest cable company in the country.

An administrative law judge is contemplating the merger’s impact on California, and a decision is unlikely to come before May 2016, with a final vote of the California Public Utilities Commission tentatively scheduled for June 16th. The judge agreed with consumer groups that the deal warrants evidentiary hearings — a sign the deal deserves additional scrutiny.

New York State’s Public Service Commission is also still reviewing the transaction, although it is expected to render a decision within the next few months. On the federal level, the FCC has also not held back, recently requesting answers to a number of questions regarding John Malone’s involvement in the future of “New Charter.” Malone remains Charter’s biggest single shareholder and could wield considerable control over New Charter’s operations. Considering Malone’s long history of antagonizing customers and engaging in what lawmakers called anti-competitive behavior during his realm at Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), regulators may not want to see history repeat itself.

What was originally anticipated by industry observers to be an ‘easy approval,’ is now looking more like Comcast’s failed bid for Time Warner Cable, as regulators seem to be in no hurry to give Charter’s deal a green light.

If regulators do ultimately approve the deal, it is likely to come with a number of conditions designed to at least temporarily protect consumers and competitors. Stop the Cap! argued in filings with state and federal regulators Charter’s proposal was uncompelling and consumers were unlikely to benefit from the deal. Time Warner Cable’s ongoing Maxx upgrade program delivers faster Internet speeds and better service than Charter’s more modest proposal offering upgrades up to 100Mbps. Time Warner Cable Maxx offers customers up to 300Mbps broadband for the price the company now charges for 50Mbps.

John Malone’s Involvement in Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger Deal Under Scrutiny

Malone

Malone

The cable magnate Sen. Albert Gore, Jr., (D-Tenn.) once called the Darth Vader of the cable industry is under enhanced scrutiny by federal regulators reviewing the Charter Communications-Time Warner Cable merger deal.

Dr. John Malone holds a 26 percent ownership in Charter, making him the largest shareholder by far, seconded by Warren Buffett, who holds less than an eight percent stake in the cable operator.

Many cable subscribers over 40 have done business before with a Malone-held cable firm, most likely Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), which operated from the 1970s until Malone sold it to AT&T in 1999 for close to $60 billion. In turn, AT&T sold the majority of its cable holdings to Comcast just a few years later.

Malone’s reputation for hiking rates and controlling the programming running on his cable systems is legendary. At one point, TCI held an ownership interest in most major cable networks carried on its cable systems. Cable networks that failed to secure carriage agreements with TCI were at a substantial disadvantage because TCI at its height was the nation’s largest cable provider.

charter twc bhSince Malone sold TCI, the multi-billionaire has built a significant cable empire in Europe and is today the largest private landowner in the United States. In the U.S., he is best known as the current owner of SiriusXM satellite radio. The two satellite companies merged with an agreement not to raise rates for a few years. As soon as that agreement expired, Malone’s combined Sirius/XM operation began a series of rate hikes and maintain a satellite radio monopoly in the U.S.

Malone’s other media interests include ownership stakes in Viacom Inc., Time Warner (Entertainment) Inc., concert-promoter Live Nation Entertainment Inc., and bookseller Barnes & Noble Inc. He also maintains significant ownership interests in Discovery Networks and Starz. Many of these companies negotiate directly with Charter and its competitors.

With ownership stakes in important programming, Malone could influence the sale of programming on more favorable terms to Charter with discounts unavailable to other cable companies and competitors including AT&T, Verizon, and satellite TV providers.

The FCC is particularly concerned whether Malone can exert influence over programmers that could result in anticompetitive activity, particularly in the emerging world of online video competition. In a lengthy 20-page questionnaire, the FCC wants specifics about Malone’s involvement in Charter, all the way down to requesting copies of board meeting minutes:

Describe in detail John Malone’s ownership, control (whether de jure, de facto or negative), or management of Charter, Time Warner Cable, DIRECTV, Liberty Media, Liberty Broadband, Liberty Interactive, Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico, Liberty Global, Liberty Ventures Group, Discovery Communications, Starz, New Charter and any other MVPDs and programmers not listed herein for which he owns an interest. For each entity in which John Malone manages, controls, or has an ownership interest, please describe: (1) the nature and extent of the ownership interest and all board representation, management rights, voting rights, veto rights, or veto power; and (ii) all effects that the proposed Transaction, if consummated, would have on the interests described in response to (i).

Wall Street: Broadband is Underpriced – Slap On Caps and Usage Billing to Kill Cord-Cutting

more moneyBroadband prices in the United States are far too low and it is long past time to “significantly” boost prices and introduce usage caps/consumption-based billing to put an end to the threat of online video competition once and for all.

Those are the views of Jonathan Chaplin, a research analyst for New Street Research LLP, and he made sure to share them with Robert Marcus, CEO of Time Warner Cable on a morning conference call with investors.

“Our analysis suggests that broadband as a product is underpriced,” Chaplin told Marcus, and it is hardly the first time he has beat the drum for higher Internet pricing.

In June, Chaplin wrote a note to investors that pulled no punches about what usage billing is really all about.

new street research“Our work suggests that cable companies have room to take up broadband pricing significantly and we believe regulators should not oppose the re-pricing (it is good for competition & investment),” Chaplin wrote. “The companies will undoubtedly have to take pay-TV pricing down to help ‘fund’ the price increase for broadband, but this is a good thing for the business. Post re-pricing, [online video] competition would cease to be a threat and the companies would grow revenue and free cash flow at a far faster rate than they would otherwise.”

Chaplin pestered Marcus this morning about why Time Warner Cable has remained steadfast in keeping compulsory usage caps or usage-based pricing away from their broadband customers.

Marcus

Marcus

“As part of the merger conditions, you made a concession to not moving towards usage-based pricing for a number of years,” Chaplin asked. “I’m wondering if that’s something that you felt the FCC required, or that came up during the course of the Comcast, Time Warner Cable discussions and why you needed to offer that up as a condition.”

Ironically, it was Marcus who schooled Chaplin on the realities of a marketplace where cap-free competitors like Google, Verizon, and AT&T U-verse (their stated cap is not enforced) exist and are more than capable of stealing Time Warner Cable customers if the cable company gets too greedy. Time Warner’s best chance of earning more broadband revenue is to sell faster service, Marcus noted.

“I can’t give you an outlook on where broadband pricing is going, except to say we’re going to continue to deliver more and more utility to customers,” Marcus said. “Generally speaking, where customers get more value out of your products, they’re willing to pay more. But what we actually charge is going to be a function of what the marketplace dictates. It’s a very competitive market out there and we’re going to have to continue to price our products in a way that allows us to acquire and retain them.”

Chaplin’s remarks tying usage pricing to curtailing online video competition are no surprise to consumer advocates, who believe usage-based billing is an obvious weapon cable and phone companies can use to protect their cable-TV revenue. Sling’s CEO considers usage pricing a serious threat to the viability of alternative video providers like Sling TV.

Charter & Time Warner Cable Try Internet-Only TV Service to Combat Cord-Cutting, Cord-Nevers

Phillip Dampier October 26, 2015 Charter, Consumer News, Online Video, Time Warner Cable 2 Comments

charter spectrum logoCharter Communications and Time Warner Cable believe they can win the war against cord-cutting by offering broadband-only customers a less expensive video package with a free Roku 3.

Charter Communications has been quietly testing a subscription service called Spectrum TV Stream that’s aimed at broadband-only customers, starting at $12.99* per month and includes a free Roku 3 streaming player.  Customers can start with a package of around 15-20 local/over the air, home shopping, religion, and weather channels, along with the option of adding Showtime or HBO for an extra $12.99 a month. Several extra cable channels, including: ABC Family, ESPN, Food Network, Hallmark, HGTV, LMN, Nat GEO, AMC, Discovery, History, FX, History 2, TBS and TLC are also available as an option for an extra $7 a month.

Because it’s Charter, there are some gotchas, as indicated by our *asterisk. The most disappointing is Charter’s insistence on applying its usual $5-8/month Broadcast TV Surcharge fee (it varies by market) to the streaming service. Other taxes, fees and surcharges also apply, which means most will pay at least $20 a month for a service Charter is advertising for $12.99. The Charter-supplied Roku 3 ($99 value, which includes a remote and headphones) is required to use the service and comes pre-activated. Customers can also access the service through Charter’s phone/device app, but out of home viewing does not function for some networks for contractual reasons.

Because the service is so new, Charter’s sales representatives have offered inconsistent information about the service. One current Charter customer was charged a $29.99 service change fee to transition to Spectrum TV Stream while several others were told they could not drop existing cable TV service and sign up for streaming without first canceling and disconnecting all Charter services for at least 30 days. To be fair, some representatives offered to open a new account in the name of another household member to avoid the 30 day waiting period and another used the opportunity to offer the customer a retention discount to encourage him not to change his service.

Gotcha with that $30 change fee.

Gotcha with that $30 change of service fee, which may turn out to be a billing mistake. Also notice the out-the-door price of Spectrum TV Stream is higher than advertised.

Based on these experiences, it seems likely Charter is using revenue protection measures to discourage current cable television customers from switching to a less-costly plan.

You need Charter's Internet service to subscribe.

You need Charter’s Internet service to subscribe.

Charter’s flyer about the service has been sent to cord-cutters, cord-nevers, and broadband-only customers with satellite TV subscriptions. But since a copy landed in our hands, we’re sharing the details with everyone.

To ask if the service is available in your area or to subscribe, customers need to call a special toll-free number: 1-844-560-5730. You will need Charter broadband service to qualify for the streaming TV service. The Roku 3 device is shipped to arrive within one week, and requires a customer signature or waiver on file for FedEx delivery. Although Charter claims the offer of the free Roku 3 expires Nov. 15, 2015, it is likely to be extended. Customers signing up will be considered qualified cable TV subscribers, allowing authenticated access to on-demand content from cable programmer websites, including premium services like HBO Go (if you subscribe). Up to 15 devices can be registered for viewing, five in simultaneous use. There is a 30-day money back guarantee and customers can cancel and keep the Roku 3 with no further obligations to Charter.

Quality and performance was rated fair by beta testers already signed up. The service works over Charter’s broadband network, which may be another reason the company dropped usage caps several months ago. Regular viewing will run up your usage numbers, but not as much as high-definition streams from Netflix or Amazon.

Charter’s Spectrum TV Stream apparently uses MPEG-2 compression and video quality is reportedly not comparable to traditional satellite TV or cable. Some claim it performs about equal to Netflix’s lowest resolution stream setting. Others complain it can take 3-4 seconds to change channels and streaming quality can dynamically change based on Charter’s broadband performance. Cable customers will also likely miss functionality they get with a DVR to pause, rewind, and start-over television programs — features all absent from Charter’s streaming service.

But even those disappointed with the service are welcoming the consolation prize of an effectively free Roku 3, which Charter allows you to keep with cancellation just for trialing the service.

TWC-TV-New-LogoTime Warner Cable is reportedly planning to launch its own streaming television package today for its broadband-only customers, starting with those in New York City. Usually reliable sources tell Engadget Time Warner Cable will launch a beta test of a new version of its TWC TV service. As with Charter, Time Warner Cable will supply a free Roku 3 tied to the customer’s Time Warner Cable broadband account.

Time Warner will offer its “Starter TV” package as a broadband add-on for $10 a month. That package offers viewers (in NYC): WABC, WCBS, C-SPAN, C-SPAN 2, C-SPAN 3, WWOR, WPXN, WLNY, WMBC, UniMas, WRNN, RISE, WYNJ, Educational Access, EVINE Live, WNYW, Galavision, Government Access, HSN, Music Choice, WNBC, WNET/WLIW, Public Access, QVC, SHOP NBC, TBN, TBS, Telemundo, TWC News, Univision, WGN America, WPIX, and several international/special interest channels.

Showtime and Starz will also be available in an optional package priced at $20 a month. If you want all of Time Warner’s channels and those premiums, they are bundled together for an extra $50 a month. We are not certain if the $50 bundle covered Time Warner’s “Standard” or “Preferred” TV lineup as of press time.

In essence, the package will look a lot like what current Time Warner Cable customers can access over the company’s TWC TV app. The difference is this is the first time Time Warner will sell IPTV service to consumers who now avoid cable television. These streaming-only customers will also never have to lease a cable set top box.

in homeAs with Charter’s service, Time Warner Cable customers will have to give up DVR services like pause, fast-forwarding, rewind, and start-over. The service offers no recording capability either, and maintains the same contractual restrictions that limit the number of channels you can watch on devices outside of the home.

Customers can stream video on up to four registered devices, including the Xbox One/Xbox 360, Android, iOS, Fan TV, Kindle Fire and Samsung’s Smart TVs.

It’s our contention these IPTV services are the likely future of cable television. It’s inevitable cable operators will eventually use their fiber/coax networks to deliver one platform — broadband, on which it will sell Internet access, television, and phone service. This could mean the eventual end of the set top box, replaced with inexpensive devices like a Roku. DVR’s can be replaced with cloud-based DVR-like services to manage time shifting and similar conveniences. That would be welcomed by many cable subscribers who detest the current generation of power hungry devices and their monthly rental costs, especially as cable systems continue to move to all-digital service, necessitating a box on every connected television in the home.

The current TWC TV app offers both good and bad to users. The alphabetic channel lineup is a welcome change from trying to find a channel by its number. The app is also ready-made for out of the home viewing, at least when programmers allow Time Warner the ability to offer that option. But TWC TV has also suffered from regular buffering glitches, service or channel outages, video quality degradation at peak usage times, and in our experience runs up to a minute behind live television.

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