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Your CenturyLink Internet Access Blocked Until You Acknowledge Their Ad

(Image courtesy of: Rick Snapp)

CenturyLink customers in Utah were rudely interrupted earlier this month by an ad for CenturyLink’s pricey security and content filtering software that left their internet access disabled until they acknowledged reading the ad.

Dear Utah Customer,

Your internet security and experience is important to us at CenturyLink.

The Utah Department of Commerce, Division of Consumer Protection requires CenturyLink to inform you of filtering software available to you. This software can be used to block material that may be deemed harmful to minors.

CenturyLink’s @Ease product is available here and provides the availability of such software.

As a result of the forced ad, all internet activity stopped working until a customer opened a browser session to first discover the notification, then clear it by hitting the “OK” button at the bottom of the screen. This irritated customers who use the internet for more than just web browsing.

One customer told Ars Technica he was watching his Fire TV when streaming suddenly stopped. After failed attempts at troubleshooting, the customer checked his web browser and discovered the notification message. After clicking “OK,” his service resumed.

A CenturyLink spokesperson told KSL News, “As a result of the new law, all CenturyLink high-speed internet customers in Utah must acknowledge a pop-up notice, which provides information about the availability of filtering software, in order to access the internet.”

In fact, according to a detailed report by Ars Technica, CenturyLink falsely claimed that the forced advertisement was required by Utah state law, when in fact the company would be in full compliance simply by notifying such software was available “in a conspicuous manner.”

CenturyLink chose to turn the Utah law to their profitable advantage by exclusively promoting its own product — @Ease, a costly ISP-branded version of Norton Security. CenturyLink recommended customers choose its Advanced package, which costs $14.95 a month. But parental filtering and content blocking tools are not even mentioned on the product comparison page, leaving customers flummoxed about which option to choose.

In effect, CenturyLink captured an audience and held their internet connection hostage — an advantage most advertisers can only dream about. CenturyLink countered that only residential customers had their usage restricted, and that because of the gravity of the situation, extraordinary notification methods were required.

But as Ars points out, no other ISP in the state went to this extreme level (and used it as an opportunity to make more money with self-interested software pitches).

Bill sponsor Sen. Todd Weiler (R), said ISPs were in compliance simply by putting a notice on a monthly bill or sending an e-mail message to customers about the software. Weiler added that ISPs had all of 2018 to comply and most had already done so. AT&T, for example, included the required notice in a monthly bill statement. CenturyLink waited until the last few weeks of the year, and used it as an opportunity to upsell customers to expensive security solutions most do not need.

With the demise of net neutrality, ISPs that were forbidden to block or throttle content for financial gain are now doing so, with a motivation to make even more money from their customers.

Spectrum News Outlets Silent About Charter Spectrum Settlement

Phillip Dampier December 19, 2018 Charter Spectrum, Editorial & Site News 1 Comment

It was the leading story on local newscasts up and down New York State — Charter Spectrum, accused of failing to provide the internet speed and reliability it promised agreed to pay $174.2 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the New York Attorney General’s office.

It was a story hard to miss. “Breaking News” tweets were sent from multiple television and newspaper newsrooms from Buffalo to Albany. Local newscasts in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton and Albany all included extensive coverage, while stations in Elmira and New York City mentioned it in passing. Newspapers gave the story the same treatment a winter storm might normally get. All gave the story of Spectrum’s settlement prominent coverage on their websites.

All except one.

Spectrum News — multiple 24/7 news channels serving Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, and the venerable NY1 from New York City, had absolutely nothing to say about the story on its many websites. In fact, Spectrum News did not cover the New York Public Service Commission’s decision to expel its parent company from the state either (a matter still under negotiation by the PSC and Charter Communications).

At Spectrum News, no news about the owner is apparently better than reporting bad news, so coverage is generally missing when it comes to reporting on the state’s largest cable company.

WHAM in Rochester, like many stations around the state, opened its newscast with news of the Spectrum settlement.

It did not used to be this way. In Rochester, Greater Rochester Cablevision began covering local news in 1990, with a firm firewall between the reporters at “WGRC” and company executives. That firewall remained in place through multiple rebrandings including GRC9News and R News, operated by Time Warner Cable, which bought the local cable company in 1995.

In 2009, R News fairly covered the controversy of Time Warner Cable trialing data caps in Rochester (a plan that was quickly shelved after subscriber blowback). But beginning in the 2010s, cracks in the firewall were rumored and reporters began avoiding stories painting their parent company in a bad light. By the time the news channel was rebranded YNN Rochester in the summer of 2009, reports about the cable company were brief at best. As the channel became Spectrum News Rochester in 2016, reporting on the cable company and its competitors was almost entirely gone altogether.

In April 2018, Rochester businessman and philanthropist Tom Golisano acquired Greenlight Networks, a fiber to the home provider competing directly with Charter Spectrum. It was breaking news and extensively covered in the local media, except by Spectrum News, which otherwise regularly covers Golisano’s activities.

The apparent lack of a firewall and a potential written or unwritten/understood policy interfering with coverage of legitimate news is a serious blow to Spectrum News’ credibility. There is no legitimate reason we can find for Spectrum News to “miss” stories about its parent company, and in some instances reporters merely need to cross the building to interview local executives.

In Rochester, where the Gannett news empire was born in 1923, there is a long history of protecting journalistic credibility. When the Gannett Company published two daily local newspapers, the morning Democrat & Chronicle and the afternoon Times-Union fiercely competed with each other, with a strict firewall in place between the two newspapers. Reporters joked the only place they could interact was in a neutral zone where the newswire teletype machines once operated. There was never any question that a story about the Gannett Company would be fair and free of interference from the newspapers’ owners.

Spectrum News needs to adopt a similar policy and cover news that is worth covering, with no interference from company executives. Otherwise, it is little more than a token gesture to paying subscribers, who will always suspect corporate interference is alive and well at the news outlet.

Customers deserve better.

FCC Proposes Another Grand Giveaway of Public Rights-of-Way to Cable Operators

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed a new policy allowing cable companies to deduct the fair market value of their obligations to serve the public interest from franchise fee payments to towns and cities.

The proposal, MB Docket No. 05-311 — Cable Franchise Fee Deduction, will turn cable franchise laws upside down in virtually every state, reducing local government revenue and threatening public, educational, and government (PEG) access channels, access to cable in schools and other educational institutions, and undermining local control over the placement of wireless cell equipment and other infrastructure that some cable operators propose to install.

Critics of the proposal claim it would continue a concerted effort to shift oversight and regulatory controls away from local communities and states to a federal government that currently has a policy of favoring the interests of telecommunications companies over the interests of community leaders and the public.

Concord, Calif. Mayor Edi Birsan warned the FCC that if it adopts its proposal, it would strip his city, along with others, of its ability to manage where cable companies place cellular equipment and at what price.

Birsan

“Local governments may lose their authority to manage a cable company’s deployment of non-cable facilities, such as ‘small cells,’ Birsan wrote in a letter to the FCC. “This preemption would threaten to extend to fees for use of the rights of way, meaning:

  • Cable companies can use local rights of way for any purpose, regardless of the terms of the franchise, and avoid having to pay fair compensation to the local government for the use of publicly funded assets in the rights of way.
  • Cable companies could potentially install “small wireless facilities” with little to no public input, without having to meet any aesthetic or equipment size requirements aimed to mitigate blight and preserve community character.
  • Cable companies would gain a significant advantage against their competitors, including telecommunications providers even though the FCC has just adopted an order lowering their deployment standards, resulting in a race-to-the-bottom deployment strategy for both cable and telecommunications companies.”

Officials in King County, Wash., which includes the city of Seattle, were critical and suspicious of the FCC’s argument that the burdens of providing benefits to communities as defined in franchise agreements are slowing down the deployment of broadband services, a claim Tanya Hannah, chief information officer of the Department of Information Technology and Christina R. Jaramillo, manager of the Office of Cable Communications found had little merit and no evidence to back it.

Hannah

“It is not obvious that if a cable operator’s profit increases by one dollar that the operator will invest an additional dollar in broadband infrastructure deployment,” they wrote in a joint letter to the FCC. “Many cable companies are functional monopolies. Because the data transfer speed of fiber-line cable systems significantly exceeds the speed of wireless systems, cable broadband is the preferred broadband service if the prices for other broadband services are comparable.”

The two officials made it clear that since the FCC was proposing to impose these changes retroactively on town and cities around the country, the result would be detrimental to local government finances.

“If the FCC were to allow the value of the proposed franchise fee offset activities that were done in the past to be deducted from current or future franchise fee payments, the results to local  governments would be debilitating,” the officials wrote. “It could essentially end all monetary fee payments to King County by Comcast and WAVE Broadband for a number of years. This is not a feasible option. It is not realistic and it is not fair.”

The Alabama League of Municipalities told the FCC the issue was about basic state sovereignty, and Alabama does not want the federal government to run its affairs.

“Section 220 of the Alabama Constitution of 1901 provides that no person, firm, association, or corporation shall be authorized or permitted to use the streets, avenues, alleys, or public places of any city, town, or village for the construction or operation of any public utility or private enterprise without first obtaining the consent of the proper authorities of such city, town, or village,” the League wrote. “The Supreme Court of Alabama has labeled this grant of authority as ‘an essential and sovereign power in local authorities […] in the nature of a bill of rights [that] recognize certain fixed constitutional rights which shall not be invaded.'”

Under the FCC’s proposal, Alabama’s Constitution would be violated by allowing cable operators near carte-blanche access to public rights-of-way without fair compensation or permission, the League argued.

For a lot of communities, any reduction in franchise fee payments will lead to a corresponding decrease in funding for PEG television services.

“Our town’s ability to invest and support its public access television unit and the telecommunications curriculum in our schools is directly linked to the funding received from Charter Communications as part of the franchise fee (“cable tax”) agreement,” noted Robert J. Oliveira, chairperson of the Westport, Mass. Cable Advisory Board. “Any reduction in these funds would mandate a corresponding reduction in programming levels and information access to the community and curriculum support to our students.”

Public comments are due to the FCC by the end of today — Wednesday, Nov. 14. Consumers can share their opinions by visiting the docket on the FCC’s website, and then selecting + Express on the left hand side of the page, which will open an online comment form. Municipalities can file formal submissions using the + New Filing link.

Broadband Industry Pushing for Industry Version of Net Neutrality

A group largely funded by the telecommunications industry is among the latest to call on Congress to pass net neutrality legislation, just as long as the cable and phone companies that have fiercely opposed net neutrality as we know it get the chance to effectively write the law defining their vision of a free and open internet.

Broadband for America (BfA) has long pretended to represent the interests of consumers. It has tried to steer clear of partisan politics by representing itself as a bipartisan organization, claiming that since its formation in 2009, the Broadband for America coalition “has included members ranging from consumer groups, to content and application providers, to the companies that build and maintain the internet. Together these organizations represent the hundreds of millions of Americans who are literally connected through broadband.”

In this spirit, BfA has given top priority to adopting a new, bipartisan, federal net neutrality law that would eliminate the regulatory uncertainty changing administrations have introduced through agencies like the FCC.

The telecom industry shuddered under the Obama Administration’s FCC with Thomas Wheeler as chairman. Wheeler pushed for bright line net neutrality rules that cut off the industry’s ability to toy with paid fast lanes on the internet, potentially costing telecom companies billions in future revenue opportunities. Wheeler backed his regulatory authority by using Title II regulations that have withstood corporate court challenges since the 1930s, and made clear that authority also extended to blocking or banning future creative monetization schemes that unfairly favored some internet traffic at the expense of other traffic.

The incoming Trump Administration discarded almost every regulatory policy introduced by Wheeler through its appointed FCC chairman, Ajit Pai. With Republicans in firm control at the FCC, in the White House, and in Congress, the broadband industry and its political allies feel safe to draft and pass a new federal law that will give companies regulatory certainty. One proposal could potentially permanently remove the FCC’s future ability to flexibly manage changing broadband industry practices.

BfA’s “pro net neutrality” campaign directly targets consumers through its website while also pretending to represent their interests. It is a classic D.C. astroturfing operation — fooling unwitting consumers into pushing for policies against their best interests. BfA claims it supports “policies that align with the core principles of an open internet: no blocking, no throttling, no discrimination and most importantly, ensuring all consumers have access to internet. Further, despite state efforts, only Congress maintains the power to regulate the internet.”

Broadband for America’s campaign to block this legislative maneuver actually helps net neutrality opponents.

Since no phone or cable company in the country is seeking to block, throttle, or discriminate against certain websites, passing a law that prohibits this is not controversial. But BfA does not mention other, more threatening practices ISPs have toyed with in recent years that would be banned by robust net neutrality rules. At the top of the list is “paid fast lanes,” allowing preferred content partners to get preferential treatment on sometimes clogged internet pipes. As past controversies between Netflix and Google over interconnection agreements illustrate, if an internet provider refuses to continually upgrade traffic pipelines, all traffic can suffer. With paid prioritization, some traffic will suffer even more because of preferential treatment given to sponsored traffic. The industry does not call this throttling, and some ISPs have blamed content providers for the problem, suggesting Netflix and YouTube traffic unfairly takes a toll on their networks.

BfA also objects to state efforts to bring back net neutrality, claiming such regulatory powers only belong in the hands of the federal government (especially the current one). It is no coincidence BfA’s beliefs and policies mirror their benefactors. While claiming to represent the interests of consumers, BfA is almost entirely funded by: AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter, CTIA – The Wireless Association, Comcast, Cox, NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), and USTelecom-The Broadband Association. The only major American telecom company not on this list is Verizon, but their interests are represented by USTelecom, an industry-funded lobbying group that backs America’s top telephone companies.

Broadband for America shares a list of some of its members — all a part of the cable, wireless, and telephone industry.

Under the guise of the midterm elections, BfA issued a new call for federal legislation enforcing the telecom industry’s definition of net neutrality, and not just on telecom companies. BfA also wants regulation of “edge providers,” a wonky term that means any website, web service, web application, online content hosting or online content delivery service that customers access over the internet. In reality, the only edge providers the industry is concerned with are Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook — companies that often directly compete against telecom company-backed content ventures and lucrative online advertising. Ironically, many Republicans that have strongly argued for deregulation have supported imposing new laws and regulatory oversight on some of these companies — notably Google and Facebook. Amazon joined the list as a result of President Trump’s ongoing feud with Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO and owner of the Washington Post.

Backing the BfA’s lobbying push for a new net neutrality law are results from a suspect BfA-commissioned (and paid for) study by a polling firm that claims “87 percent of voters ‘react positively to arguments for a new legislative approach that sets one clear set of rules to protect consumer privacy that applies to all internet companies, websites, devices and applications.’” A full copy of the study, the exact questions asked during polling, and more information about the sampling process was not available to review. Instead, the conclusions were posted as an opinion piece by Inside Sources, a website that provides D.C. strategy, public relations, and lobbying firms with a free home to publish OpEds on behalf of their clients. Newspapers are allowed to reprint Inside Sources wire service content for free, sometimes without full disclosure of the financial arrangements behind the studies or author(s) involved.

The BfA campaign for a federal net neutrality law is not in isolation. The telecom industry has been on an all-out push for a new net neutrality law since Ajit Pai led the campaign to repeal the FCC rules. The industry’s campaign for pseudo-net neutrality has even won over some in the media like the editorial board of the Washington Post, that published its own OpEd in early October calling Wheeler’s use of Title II authority a regulatory overreach. The Post also has no patience for lawsuits being filed by telecom companies and the Justice Department against the state of California after passing its own statewide net neutrality law. The industry pushback in court is part of the Post’s argument for a new national law to ‘end confusion’:

The fight over net neutrality today can be reduced to a single sentence: Everyone is suing everyone else. Congress should step in.

The Justice Department said Sunday it will take California to court over its law requiring Internet service providers to treat all traffic equally. Those ISPs were already primed to sue states on their own. And California is one of more than 20 states suing the Federal Communications Commission over its repeal of the Obama administration’s rules. “We’re not out to protect the robber barons. We want to protect the people,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) told us.

The FCC abdicated its responsibility on net neutrality when it repealed the old rules with no adequate replacement. Now, without setting forth its own rules, the federal government is seeking to block states from creating their own. That may be frustrating to Americans who want an Internet where providers do not dictate what information reaches them and how fast. But a nationwide framework governing net neutrality would be preferable to a patchwork of state regulations establishing local regimes for systems that transcend borders. And creating that framework is up to Congress.

But not all are confused. California resident Bob Jacobson defended his state’s interests in a rebuttal to the Post’s editorial:

Absurd reasoning emanating from the nation’s capital of corruption, Washington, DC. California has always led the nation — including the Federal government — in the sensible, productive regulation and consequent growth of its telecom and information economy, now the world’s largest. The Moore Universal Telecom Services Act, passed in reaction to the breakup of the old AT&T, is still the nation’s only comprehensive, progressive telecom policy, its success reflected in California’s robust technological and social infrastructure. Rather than supersede California’s policies, our national and other state legislature’s and regulatory agencies should learn from and adapt them to better serve equally all the American people. (And get rid of that mockery known as the Trump FCC.)

Wall Street’s Latest Great Idea: Providers Should Charge More for 5G, But Only After You Are Hooked

“You’re giving it away… you are giving it all away!” — An unknown Wall Street analyst tossing and turning in the night.

America is simply not paying enough for wireless service. Thanks to dastardly competition introduced by T-Mobile and Sprint (potentially to be snuffed out in due course if their merger gets approved), wireless pricing is no longer a license to print money. Forced to offer one-size-fits-all affordable $40-50 unlimited plans, the prospects to grow Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) have never been worse because you can’t charge people for more service on an “unlimited plan” without admitting that plan is not exactly “unlimited.”

Wall Street analysts, already upset at the thought of carriers spending more than $100 billion on 5G network upgrades, are in a real tizzy about how companies are going to quickly recoup that investment. No matter that some wireless companies have profit margins in the 50% range and customers have paid providers for a service they were assured would keep up with the times and network demand. If there is to be a 5G revolution in the United States, some insist it must not come at the cost of reliable profits — so the industry must find a way to stick consumers with the bill.

It is not common for industry analysts to go public brainstorming higher prices and more customer gouging. After all, North Americans already pay some of the highest cell phone bills in the world, only mitigated (for now) by scrappy T-Mobile and Sprint. Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, was willing to go public in the pages of Fierce Wireless, arguing “operators should be considering charging a premium price for what will hopefully be a premium service.” That is likely music to the ears of AT&T and Verizon, both frustrated their pricing power in the market has been reduced by credible competition from a significantly improved T-Mobile.

Lowenstein fears the prospects of a “race-to-the-bottom 5G price war” which could arrive if America’s wireless companies offer a credible home internet replacement that lets consumers tell the local phone or cable company to ‘take a hike.’ Since wireless operators will bundle significant discounts for those who subscribe to both home and mobile plans, telecommunications services may actually cost less than what Wall Street was banking on.

Something must be done. Lowenstein:

In mobile, there’s been premium pricing for premium phones. And Verizon Wireless, for a few years when it had a clear network lead, was sort of able to charge a higher price for its service (but not a premium price). But today, there isn’t really premium pricing for premium services. That should change when 5G really kicks into gear.

So how do you extract more cash from consumers’ wallets? Create artificial tiers that have no relationship to the actual cost of the network, but could potentially get people to willingly pay a lot more for something they will initially get for a simple, flat price:

One simple way would be a flat premium price, similar to the “tiers” of Netflix for a higher number of devices or 4K/Ultra HD.  So, perhaps $10 per line for 5G, or $25 for a family plan. Another approach would be more akin to broadband, where there are pricing tiers for different levels of service performance. So if the base 4G LTE plan is $50 per month today, for an average 100 Mbps service, 5G packages could be sold in gradations of $10 for higher speeds (i.e. $60 for 300 Mbps, $70 for 500, $80 for 1 Gbps, and so on). An interesting angle on this is that some of the higher-end 4G LTE services such as Gigabit LTE (and beyond) could get incorporated into this, so it becomes less of a 4G vs. 5G discussion and more of a tier of service discussion.

I would also like to see some flexibility with regard to how one can purchase 5G capabilities. For example, a user might only need those premium 5G features occasionally, and might only be prepared to pay that higher price when the service is being used. Here, we can borrow from the Wi-Fi model, where operators offer a “day pack” for 5G, or for a certain city, location, or 5G-centic app or experience. 5G is going to be hot-spotty for awhile anyway, so why not use a Wi-Fi type model for pricing?

Even better, now with net neutrality in the ash heap of history, courtesy of the Republican-dominated FCC, providers can extract even more of your money by artificially messing with wireless traffic!

Lowenstein sees a brand new world of “app-centric pricing” where wireless carriers can charge even more to assure a fast lane for those entertainment, gaming, and virtual reality apps of the future, designed to take full advantage of 5G. Early tests have shown millimeter wave 5G networks can deliver extremely low latency traffic to customers from day one. That kills the market for selling premium, low-latency add-ons for demanding apps before companies can even start counting the money. So assuming providers are willing to purposely impede network performance, there just could be a market selling sub-100ms assured latency for an extra fee.

The potential of a Money Party only 5G can deliver is coming, but time is short to get the foundation laid for surprise toll lanes and “premium traffic” enhancements made possible without net neutrality. But first, the wireless industry has to get consumers hooked on 5G at a tantalizingly reasonable price. Charge too much, too soon and consumers may decide 4G LTE is good enough for them. That is why Lowenstein recommends operators not get carried away when 5G first launches.

“We don’t want to be setting ourselves up for a WiMAX-like disappointment,” Lowenstein writes. “The next 12-18 months are largely going to be ‘5G Experimentation’ mode, with limited markets, coverage, and devices. Heck, it’s likely to be two years before there’s a 5G iPhone in the United States, where iOS still commands nearly half the market.”

The disappointment will eventually be all yours, dear readers, if Lowenstein’s recommendations are adopted — when “certain milestones” trigger “rate adjustment” letters some day in the future.

Lowenstein sees four signs to start the pillaging, and we’ve paraphrased them:

  • Coverage: Wait until 30-40% of a city is covered with 5G, then jack up the price. As long as customers get something akin to 5G one-third of the time, they’ll moan about why their 5G footprint is so limited, but they will keep paying more for the scraps of coverage they get.
  • Markets: Price the service differently in each market depending on how stingy customers are likely to be at different price points. Then hike those prices to a new “nationwide” standard plan when 5G is available in the top 20-30 cities in the country. Since there may not be much competition, customers can take it or leave it.
  • Performance: AT&T and Verizon’s gotta gouge, but it’s hard to do it with a straight face if your 5G service is barely faster than 4G LTE. Lowenstein recommends waiting until speeds are reliably north of 100 Mbps, then you can let rip with those diamond-priced plans.
  • Devices: It’s hard to extract another $50-100 a month from family plan accounts if there are an inadequate number of devices that support 5G. While your kids “languish” with 4G LTE smartphones and dad enjoys his 5G experience, mom may shut it all down when the bill comes. Wait until everyone in the family can get a 5G phone before delivering some good old-fashioned bill shock, just like companies did in the golden days of uncompetitive wireless.

These ideas can only be adopted if a lack of competition assures all players nobody is going to call them out for pickpocketing customers. Ajit Pai’s FCC won’t interfere, and is even subsidizing some of the operators’ costs with taxpayer dollars and slanted deregulation to let companies construct next generation 5G networks as cheaply as possible (claiming it is important to beat China, where 5G service will cost much less). Should actual competition remain in the wireless market, all the dreams of rate-hikes-because-we-can will never come true, as long as one carrier decides they can grow their business by charging reasonable prices at their competitors’ expense.

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