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Spectrum Customers Get Bill Shocked Again as Set-Top Box and Rate Promotions End

Phillip Dampier May 17, 2018 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Video 1 Comment

Some Spectrum customers are getting nasty surprises in their latest cable bills.

For some customers, it has been one year or more since Spectrum introduced new plans and pricing for former Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable customers and one year since the company implemented all-digital cable television upgrades that require customers to place equipment on every television wired for cable in the home.

Many customers received “free” equipment as part of the digital upgrades, but may have forgotten that promotion only lasted one year. That is also the length of Spectrum’s various ‘new customer’ and ‘retention’ promotions. When the year is up, your bill goes up — sometimes dramatically.

In Cleveland, Ohio some customers are finding bills increasing $18-30 a month or more, sometimes increasing more than once as rate promotions and free set-top equipment deals end at different times in the year.

It is not unusual to find customers paying $180-225 or more a month for Spectrum’s “triple play” package of television, phone, and internet service, after promotions end. A significant percentage of customers still holding legacy Time Warner Cable and Bright House plans are finding those packages increasing in price as well. In comparison, new customers with a triple play package generally pay between $100-120 a month, depending on equipment.

Some of the rate changes Spectrum imposed over the last 12 months include:

  • Equipment rate increases (usually around $1.00 a month per box)
  • New “Secure Connection Fee”: $1.00/mo per box – Spectrum claims this fee covers “those measures Spectrum employs to manage and secure the connection between Spectrum’s system and the Spectrum receiver and other devices Subscriber uses to access Spectrum’s services.”
  • Broadcast TV Surcharge rate increases
  • Internet service rate increases

Although Spectrum has reportedly become more amenable to offering retention deals to customers threatening to leave, the best deals are still for new customers. Some have dropped Spectrum service and signed up again under the name of another household member to secure a better deal. Others will have to wait 30 days after ending service before one is qualified for a new customer deal once again.

WKYC in Cleveland reports some Spectrum customers are upset about sudden bill changes. (2:34)

San Jose Leverages Light Pole Small Cell Deal With AT&T; $1M for Low Income Internet Access

Small cell antenna

San Jose, Calif., officials announced Monday they have reached a tentative deal with AT&T to permit small cell technology on up to 750 city-owned light poles that could pave the way for future 5G wireless rollouts.

Mayor Sam Liccardo, a former member (and critic) of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Council, told residents he would leverage light pole agreements with wireless companies in return for money that can be spent addressing San Jose’s digital divide, starting with affordable internet access for the poor.

The non exclusive 15-year agreement will allow AT&T to bolster its FirstNet first responder network and offer leased access to light poles for $1,500 per pole per year. AT&T plans to initially place around 170 small cell antennas on light poles beginning later this year that can provide enhanced wireless data speeds and improved cell coverage in the city. The first deployment will not include 5G antennas. The deal still faces approval by San Jose’s city council at a May 1 meeting.

The deal is a victory for Mayor Liccardo, who opposed a wireless industry-written bill that was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown late in 2017. That bill would have capped pole attachment lease fees at $250 a year, hampering the mayor’s Smart City Vision initiative introduced two years earlier, with a goal of providing affordable internet access for local residents. Had the wireless industry’s bill become law, the city government would have had to find funds for the mayor’s initiative elsewhere.

Liccardo predicted the deal with AT&T will generate up to $5 million in lease fees, with a $1 million advance from AT&T the city intends to use to launch its low income digital initiatives. Few specifics about the mayor’s affordable internet access program were available at press time.

San Jose’s approach is considerably different from that of the states of Texas and Tennessee — both passing new state laws limiting pole attachment lease fees and reducing local control over small cell placement. Mayor Liccardo wants AT&T to share part of its anticipated new revenue from small cell technology to help poorer residents get access to the internet, while Texas and Tennessee hope that deregulation and limited fees and bureaucracy will strengthen the business case for more rapid expansion of small cell networks in both states.

KGO-TV in San Francisco reports on San Jose’s recent agreement with AT&T to deploy small cells on city-owned light poles. (1:47)

The Great 5G Giveaway: Cities and States Race to Let Big Wireless Deploy 5G on the Cheap

In 2017, negotiations between the city of McAllen, Tex. and wireless companies over the cost of placing new wireless infrastructure neared agreement at $1,500 per network node, an amount not out of line with the kind of infrastructure fees being charged in other cities where utilities want to place their equipment in the public rights-of-way. But just before contracts were ready to sign, the wireless companies broke off negotiations with city officials and began lobbying for a new Texas state law that would set the terms and conditions for placing telecommunications infrastructure statewide regardless of the wishes of individual Texas towns and cities.

SB 1004 was the kind of bill companies like AT&T love. Drafted from talking points supplied by the telecom industry and introduced by a friendly legislator — Republican State Sen. Kelly Hancock, (dubbed “THE WORST” by Texas Monthly magazine) — AT&T and Hancock partnered up to push the legislation through the state legislature, with the help of more than 100 lobbyists working with a budget of $7.8 million, according to a Texas Monitor analysis.

AT&T counts Texas as its corporate home, and company spends lavishly to have its way. It has been the largest lobbying force in the state by far for at least two decades, with 108 registered lobbyists. In second place is TXU Energy Retail, which registered just 29 lobbyists. AT&T offers politicians in the states where it provides local phone service a continuous fountain of campaign contributions. Since 2007, AT&T has spent more than $2.2 million on Texas politicians alone. AT&T donated to 175 of the 181 members of the Texas House and Senate, and its legislative achievements are impressive, winning passage of 14 of the 28 bills the company supported or wrote. Hancock counts AT&T among his top corporate donors, along with the former Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

SB 1004 will cost Texas communities a substantial amount of local control over wireless infrastructure, along with millions of dollars in pole attachment and oversight fees. Hancock, who has no background in telecommunications, arbitrarily set fee caps on wireless facilities at $20 a year for locating equipment on an existing pole and $250 a year if a company attaches equipment on something else. To observers, it isn’t just a bargain for the wireless industry, it could also means some towns and cities could be forced to spend public tax dollars to manage and monitor wireless company infrastructure should something goes awry.

McAllen is among 31 cities in Texas fighting to overturn AT&T’s state law. The city is upset because SB 1004 strips its authority to manage public rights-of-way. By bending over backwards to the wireless industry, companies can put 5G small cells and other equipment just about anywhere with little recourse. In fact, the Texas law mandates companies use pre-existing street signs, traffic garages, and street/traffic lighting as antenna locations wherever possible, which is good news for AT&T but could cause visual pollution and potential safety issues for residents. With below-market attachment fees topping out at just $250, four major national wireless companies can sprout antennas all over town, whether they create eyesores or not.

Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, called that an “unconstitutionally low amount of money.”

“It’s mandatory that when private companies want to make a profit using public land that they pay a reasonable rental fee for it,” Sandlin told the Texas Monitor. “Just like if AT&T wanted to run these facilities through our backyard, we wouldn’t let them do it for free.”

Sandlin adds the wireless industry wants to be given special privileges under the guise of expanding internet access in return for getting cheap access to public rights-of-way, but they don’t want to be regulated like a public utility.

If the new law stands, it is estimated that Texas cities will lose up to $800 million a year in revenue from fees — money that will probably be made up by increasing taxes or other fees.

In Tennessee, the state has gone all out to hurry the passage of a similar law in hopes of convincing wireless companies to make the state one of the first targets for 5G expansion.

Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), believes clearing a path for rapid 5G deployment will attract billions of dollars of new investment in the state.

“It’s going to transform the world as we currently know it. We’re expecting speeds anywhere from 30 to 50 percent faster as far as connectivity is concerned,” Ketron told his colleagues in the Tennessee legislature. “It opens up that bandwidth for all the data, everything that we’re doing from texting to telemedicine to even autonomous vehicles.”

House Bill 2279 and its companion SB 2504 are written almost word for word on the recommendations of AT&T and other wireless lobbyists. Like a Christmas tree decorated with ornaments, all of AT&T’s legislative priorities can be found in both bills, and not by accident. The phone company’s lobbyists have worked hand in hand with other internet providers, lawmakers, and local governments and co-ops to push the bill for rapid passage. After four months, it is nearing the governor’s signature.

The handful of critics, mostly Democrats, have been reduced to offering concern about the bill’s impact on local self-governance. Sen. Lee Harris (D-Shelby County) told colleagues, “I’m inclined to support this bill, but it does give me pause that we would intervene in these negotiations and set a price,” referring to the bill’s capped application fee of $100 per small cell installation, with a $35 annual renewal fee.

Ketron has frequently defended the bill’s cap on fees, which most observers claim are substantially lower than what wireless companies expected to pay, by claiming he wanted to prevent cities and towns from “cashing in on poles because that would be passed on to all the users through their rate fees, and I know my bill is already high enough.”

Sen. Ketron moving HB 2279 forward in the Tennessee legislature on April 11, 2018.

The potential revenue hit to municipalities would normally be enough to rally opposition, but because of AT&T’s lobbying efforts, most cities and counties in Tennessee have remained neutral on the bill, signaling a virtual guarantee it will become law. The company has worked hard to try to reassure communities the new law will be revenue neutral and be sensitive to the aesthetic needs of local communities. The bill promises that in the event a small cell damages or brings down a pole, the owner of the equipment will be responsible to fix the damage or provide an identical replacement light or pole at the company’s expense.

But based on stories from other communities that have gotten small cell technology for existing 4G LTE networks, problems remain. The biggest issue for residents is visual clutter on poles in their front yards. Some companies also install “lawn refrigerator” cabinets that house backup batteries or other equipment to keep small cells operational in the event of a power outage. Residents frequently complain about these unsightly metal boxes that can appear overnight in the public right-of-way, sometimes right in front of their home, with no warning.

Some town engineers also question the safety of some installations, particularly if multiple carriers seek to place equipment on the same poles. Some have expressed concern about what impact the extra equipment might have in a vehicle collision that brings a pole down onto another vehicle. There are also broader implications once a town surrenders authority over its public rights-of-way to state officials.

Ketron’s personal knowledge of 5G technology and his credibility to deliver on the promises and claims he has made to his colleagues is also open to question. During a brief floor session to consider House Bill 2279, Ketron frequently became tongue-twisted explaining the merits of 5G networks, their functionality, and what benefits they will offer rural Tennessee consumers.

In rambling introductory remarks, Ketron claimed, “the connectivity speed through that bandwidth what 5G brings us […] all are going to be communicating through all that bandwidth of that data.” He also promised a colleague in rural Tennessee that 5G service had a real potential to solve the state’s rural broadband problems, despite the fact the technology would be very costly to deploy in rural areas because of required fiber backhaul and the limited range of each small cell.

The Tennessee Electric Cooperative believes 5G deployment will likely stop with the suburbs, unlikely to expand into rural areas because of its limited range.

“Because of this, we don’t anticipate it will ever see widespread use outside of densely populated areas,” Trent Scott, spokesman for the organization told the Memphis Daily News. “The economics of deploying current 5G technology in sparsely populated areas are going to be a challenge.”

But the idea of AT&T and other wireless companies spending billions on new wireless infrastructure in Tennessee attracts political support for the short-term jobs for installers. The future of 5G technology and its use with Tennessee’s smart grid and intelligent transportation projects of the future may explain why the bill has attracted 40 co-sponsors.

But on the local level in communities like McAllen, there is also recognition wireless companies stand to earn tens of billions from the next generation of wireless technology, and they will be able to earn that revenue at a relatively cheap cost if communities surrender their ability to leverage their publicly owned assets like rights of way. McAllen officials hoped to negotiate a new network of public hotspots to help bring internet access to those who cannot afford traditional internet subscriptions. If AT&T agreed, the city was willing to steeply discount their fees. But no companies showed any interest in the idea. With enthusiastic state legislators willing to introduce legislation tailor-made for those companies, they didn’t have to.

The Tennessee legislature debated passage of the state’s 5G-related legislation for just 15 minutes before passing it 32-1. But did members truly understand it? (14:44)

Former Head of Ajit Pai’s Broadband Group Arrested by FBI on Fraud Charges

Phillip Dampier April 16, 2018 Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband, Video No Comments

Pierce (Image courtesy of: KTUU-TV)

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s choice to lead his newly created Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) was arrested last week by the FBI and charged with a multimillion-dollar investment fraud scheme.

Elizabeth Pierce, former CEO of Quintillion and ex-chair of the BDAC from its start until September, 2017 surrendered to authorities in New York City. Pierce was charged with wire fraud for allegedly tricking investors into putting more than $250 million into an Alaskan fiber optic project based on guaranteed revenue contracts prosecutors claimed Pierce forged herself to reassure investors Quintillion would benefit from telecom traffic revenue the fiber network never had.

To realize her plan to build a fiber optic system that would service Alaska and connect it to the lower 48 states, Pierce convinced two investment companies that she had secured signed contracts that would supposedly generate hundreds of millions of dollars in guaranteed future revenue from the system,” said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman. “Those sales agreements were worthless because the customers had not signed them. Pierce had forged counterparty signatures on contract after contract.”

To raise adequate funds to support Quintillion’s ambitious fiber optic network buildout, Pierce frequently appealed to outside investors. Several wanted evidence the fiber network would attract enough business from telecom companies to justify an investment. Pierce was accused of faking contracts with Alaska’s telecommunications companies from 2015 until 2017 to provide reassurance companies were committed to spend at least $24 million in traffic charges the first year the network began operation.

Pierce’s alleged scheme fell apart when Quintillion began invoicing clients based on the fake contracts. At least one protested, claiming it did not use Quintillion’s network. A subsequent internal investigation allegedly founds dozens of phony contracts kept in Pierce’s Google Drive account, with at least 78 moved to the service’s trash bin 48 hours before investigators began searching Pierce’s computer. Prosecutors were able to recover the deleted documents with a search warrant presented to Google.

Pierce may have attracted FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s attention after publicly complaining the permitting process in Alaska took longer than building fiber cables from scratch and shipping them from Europe. Out of more than 380 applicants, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai picked Pierce in 2017 to head his new broadband advisory committee, tasked with eliminating or streamlining regulations and making life easier for broadband providers to persuade them to expand broadband rollouts.

“The Commission was fortunate to have an excellent and deep pool of applicants to serve on the BDAC,” Chairman Pai noted on the occasion of introducing the BDAC and Pierce to the public. Critics argue Pai’s BDAC has been stacked with industry, industry-funded or industry-friendly committee members that are influencing most of the public policy recommendations issued in the group’s final recommendations. At least two city officials resigned over concerns their views were not being taken seriously.

Pierce resigned from Quintillion in August 2017 and from the BDAC a month later for  “personal reasons.”

KTUU-TV in Anchorage reports Quintillion’s ex-CEO was charged with wire fraud. Nevertheless, the Alaskan fiber project is trying to carry on. (3:11)

Charter Sues El Centro, Calif. for Interfering With Its Blackout of Local TV Stations in Contract Dispute

Charter Communications is taking the city of El Centro, Calif., to federal court for interfering in a dispute between Spectrum and a local TV station owner that has resulted in two stations being blacked out on the local cable system for nearly three months.

Northwest Broadcasting, Inc., has been in a contract extension dispute with Charter Communications over multiple stations, including its two El Centro-area affiliates KYMA (NBC) and KWST (CBS). Charter accuses Northwest of gouging, claiming “Northwest demanded an 80 percent increase in carriage fees, more than double the rate Charter pays any other broadcaster anywhere else in the entire country.”

On March 7, 2018, the City of El Centro got involved and cited the cable operator, alleging Charter violated five provisions of Article X of the City Code, and began fining the cable company $100 a day for each violation, assessed each day the dispute continues.

El Centro accuses Charter of:

  • Discriminating against subscribers based on specific protected classes;
  • Failure to notify the city and subscribers 30 days in advance of any changes to cable service or rates;
  • Failure to establish a time frame to respond to service interruptions;
  • Failure to refund customers for service interruptions exceeding a stated period;
  • Failure to notify the city and subscribers 30 days in advance of any changes to the cable television channel lineup.

El Centro Mayor Sheryl Viegas Walker: “I’m taking it to the streets. I’m so fed up with [Spectrum’s] disregard for this community,” KYMA in El Centro reports. (3:02)

Northwest Broadcasting CEO Brian W. Brady strongly disputes Charter’s claims, dismissing them as “lies,” particularly surrounding the removal of two El Centro stations from Charter’s lineup after the cable company claimed Northwest refused permission to continue carrying the stations while renewal talks continued.

“Charter accepted the first two extensions which were offered to them, however, they refused the third extension and took our stations off with 10 minutes notice,” Brady said.

Charter’s lawsuit argues El Centro officials have no right to intervene in the dispute, force Spectrum to put the stations back on the lineup, or require Charter to issue refunds to customers for channels that are no longer available to them.

“Northwest’s pulling its authorization for Charter to carry its broadcast signals is not a ‘service interruption’ within the meaning of the City Code provisions in question,” Charter argued in its lawsuit. “Even if it were, while El Centro demands that Charter ‘cure’ its alleged violations, the only means for Charter to do so is to finalize a retransmission agreement with Northwest. The City’s citations are thus intended to pressure Charter to accept Northwest’s unreasonable terms by imposing fines and intentionally damaging Charter’s reputation and harming its goodwill and relationships with its existing and prospective customers.”

Charter argued giving refunds to customers over the lost channels was “contrary to Charter’s terms of service, and in so doing improperly interfere [sic] with Charter’s contractual relationship with its customers.”

Charter is relying heavily on California’s statewide video franchise law — the 2006 Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act (DIVCA), heavily pushed by telecom lobbyists a decade ago, which stripped most local authority over cable systems and transferred it to the state government. Charter is using DIVCA’s light touch regulations to support its assertion El Centro officials cannot interfere in programming disputes and that their actions during the dispute have only made things worse.

“The effect of the City’s actions has been to harden Northwest’s negotiating position and make a deal on reasonable terms even more difficult,” the complaint says.

“I have never seen a corporate entity act with such disregard for our community,” said El Centro Mayor Sheryl Viegas Walker. “We have a contract with them that spells out certain steps that they’re required to take if those kinds of changes are going to be made. They didn’t do that. We wake up one morning and we’re suddenly without two major channels.”

“Rather than negotiating in good faith like all other parties would do and what the law requires, Charter has taken a ‘take it or leave it’ approach,” added Brady. “In an effort this week to get this back on track, Northwest submitted a new proposal to Spectrum. Spectrum’s representative communicated that they really wanted to get this resolved, but would not counter Northwest’s proposal and would not respond at all in writing. Odd behavior for a company that claims to be negotiating in good faith. It appears that Charter would rather bully a small municipality than to engage in a good faith negotiation.”

It appears other small cities are joining Brady’s cause, complaining to the Federal Communications Commission that Charter was unfairly profiting from station blackouts. In Crescent City, Calif., city officials accused Charter of charging a Broadcast TV surcharge of $7.50-8.85/month, but didn’t change or adjust rates after the Northwest Broadcasting blackout began.

“Despite the fact the fee is itemized and justified as a pass-through, Charter did not eliminate or reduce that fee, even though it was no longer incurring costs associated with carriage of … at least two network affiliates,” Crescent City officials told the FCC.

The two California cities have also been joined by officials in Yuma, Ariz. and Jackson, Wyo., where Charter has removed Northwest Broadcasting stations as well.

“We have learned that it is no different for numerous municipalities which have been forced to sue Charter to collect the fees that are contractually owed to them,” Brady said. “Most disputes are settled because Charter uses their army of lawyers to outspend the municipalities forcing the municipality to settle on Charter’s terms, regardless of their contractual obligations. It’s no different for their customers who have told us that Charter recently raised the broadcast surcharge fee in spite of the fact that the programs they want to watch are unavailable because Charter removed the programming. Many have asked for refunds only to be told no. What is the customer to do, sue Charter?”

Northwest Broadcasting Owned and/or Operated Television Stations

City of license / Market Station Channel
TV (RF)
Owned since Affiliation
Yuma, Arizona – El Centro, California KYMA-DT 11 (11) 2014 NBC
KSWT 13 (13) 2014 CBS
Estrella TV (DT3)
Eureka, California KJRW 17 (17) 2016 CBS
Pocatello – Idaho Falls, Idaho KPVI-DT 6 (23) 2016 NBC
Decades (DT2)
Movies! (DT3)
Greenville – Greenwood, Mississippi WABG-TV 6 (32) 2016 ABC
Fox (DT2)
WFXW 15 (15) 2016 Silent/Unused
WNBD-LD 33 (33) 2016 NBC
WXVT-LD 17 (17) 2017 CBS
Binghamton, New York WICZ-TV 40 (8) 1997 Fox
WBPN-LP 10 (40.2) 2000 MyNetworkTV
Syracuse, New York WSYT 68 (19) 2013 Fox
Cozi TV (DT2)
WNYS-TV 43 (44) 2013 MyNetworkTV
GetTV (DT2)
Medford, Oregon KMVU-DT 26 (26) 1995 Fox
MeTV (DT2)
KMCW-LD 14 2013 Sonlife
KFBI-LD 48 (48) 2013 MyNetworkTV
Telemundo (DT2)
Spokane, Washington KAYU-TV 28 (28) 1995 Fox
Antenna TV (DT2)
Tri-Cities – Yakima, Washington KFFX-TV 11 (11) 1999 Fox
Telemundo (DT2)
KCYU-LD
(Semi-satellite of KFFX-TV)
41 (41) 1995 Fox
Telemundo (DT2)

KPVI-TV in Pocatello, Ida. was widely seen in parts of Wyoming over Charter Communications until the station was blacked out in a contract dispute. Now viewers want to see Charter fined. (1:11)

Charter officials claim there was insufficient time to notify subscribers about the loss of Northwest Broadcasting stations from the TV lineup, but Jackson, Wyo., officials noted Charter bought a new domain name reflecting the contract dispute at least two weeks before stations like KPVI were blacked out. (1:02)

Jackson city officials question a Charter representative about refunds for customers paying surcharges for broadcast TV stations no longer on Charter’s lineup. (0:57)

How to File a Petition on this Issue with the Federal Communications Commission:

This petition allows for public comment until April 16, but the FCC requires some special steps for individuals wishing to file comment. Below is a list of the requirements to file a public comment with the FCC regarding Charter Communications:

  • Members of the public who wish to comment should do so on or before April 16, 2018.
  • Filing should be submitted to the FCC via the electronic comment filing system (ECFS).
    • That system is accessible at https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/filings.
    • A member of the public should type his or her comments and save them.
    • At the top of the ECFS page, select standard filing and in the “proceedings” box, type 18-91 (the proceeding is MB Docket No. 18-91).
    • Fill out the remainder of the boxes with information that is required (some information is optional).
    • At the end of the form, there is a box where saved comments can be uploaded.
  • Comments that contain statements of fact (for example, “Here is what happened to me”) should be supported by an affidavit.
  • “Comments or oppositions shall be served on the petitioner and on all persons listed in petitioner’s certificate of service…” The petitioners here are the Cities, and the certificate of service is at the end of the communities’ filing, which can be downloaded from https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/filing/1032236683943.

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