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Charter Shareholders Love Spectrum’s 20% Broadcast TV Fee Increase; Second Rate Hike in 4 Months

Phillip Dampier February 14, 2019 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 2 Comments

Although Spectrum Cable customers will face higher cable TV bills starting next month, the company’s shareholders are delighted, boosting Charter’s stock price more than $50 a share on the news.

Spectrum’s latest increase (the second in four months) of its Broadcast TV Surcharge will set a uniform national fee of $11.99 a month for all of its cable television customers.

In 2018, customers paid an average of $8.75 a month in local TV surcharges. But last November, Charter raised the surcharge to $9.95 a month. Now, just a few months into 2019, Spectrum wants another $2 a month — a 20% increase — to watch local television signals that are available for free to those with an antenna. That’s a steep increase for what began as a $2 surcharge for some customers starting in 2015.

Charter’s investors reacted positively to the latest rate hike, jumping the stock price from $289.91 a share to $340.95 — a $51.04 boost after the fee increase was first reported by the Los Angeles Times.

The new surcharge will be reflected on customer bills beginning as early as Feb. 21.

Charter blamed broadcasters for the “rapidly rising cost” of including local TV stations on the cable lineup. In a letter to some state telecommunications regulators, the cable operator claimed it would be inefficient to not raise prices.

Charter’s share price shot up on the news it was increasing its Broadcast TV Surcharge by 20% just four months after the last increase.

“Containing costs and efficiently managing our operations are critical to providing customers with the best value possible,” wrote Melinda Kinney, Charter’s senior director of government affairs for Charter’s Northeast Division. “Like every business, Charter faces rising costs that require occasional price adjustments.”

But many customers, especially those in marginal reception areas, are loudly complaining that Charter is raising its Broadcast TV Fee even as it drops regional over the air stations from its cable lineup. In 2017, Spectrum customers in western Massachusetts reported a gradual exodus of local TV stations from their lineup, starting with WWLP, the NBC affiliate in Springfield with strong local news coverage of the western half of the state. Today, Spectrum only provides western Massachusetts with a single NBC station — WNYT in Albany, N.Y., which keeps viewers up to date with the latest political machinations of the New York State legislature.

Next to go was Boston’s ABC affiliate, WCVB — airing the strongest coverage of local and state news of any ABC affiliate in the state. In its place, viewers now receive WTEN, the ABC station in Albany, which is covering Sen. Jim Tedisco’s support for splitting New York into two separate states — a ‘crucial’ issue for subscribers living in the Berkshires and beyond.

Other states facing “out of market” channel losses include Connecticut, California, Nevada, and Nebraska. Many of the affected stations were dropped as Charter upgraded its cable systems to all-digital television, perhaps counting on subscriber confusion amidst other changes to the cable system.

Barrett on Charter: “Greed”

The loss of local stations while rapidly increasing the surcharge for those stations has some people calling foul.

Massachusetts State Rep. John Barrett III (D-North Adams) called it “greed.” Charter mandates the Broadcast TV Fee be paid by all video customers, including those on “price locked” promotions. By breaking the fee out of the cost of the cable television package, Charter Spectrum gets to advertise packages to new and returning customers at a low cost, only to deliver bill shock when customers discover the surcharge, along with equipment and franchise fees, that collectively increases their total monthly bill.

As the second largest cable company in the country, Charter is estimated to be collecting an extra $211 million annually from its first increase in November 2018 and $391 million annually from the latest increase now taking effect. Together, that amounts to $602 million annually in new revenue starting in March. Charter will not disclose exactly how much of this money is paid to each local television station.

Charter also has a habit of boosting its set-top box equipment fees about $1 a month per box each year — an increase we are likely to see later this year, and the company already slightly increased prices for internet service late last year.

Charter executives told shareholders on its most recent quarterly results conference call that the company’s revenue increased 4.9% in 2018 to $43.6 billion. Combining that extra revenue with a $1.9 billion cut in upgrades for 2019 will allow the company to focus on additional share buybacks, increased payouts to Charter shareholders, and debt reduction.

Kagan: Cable Company Wireless Is Designed to Trap You in a Bundle, Not Compete in Wireless Business

Comcast and Charter Communications have no real interest in competing head-to-head in wireless with AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint. Instead, the two cable companies hope to trap you in a bundled package of services too inconvenient to cancel.

Jeff Kagan, a longstanding telecommunications analyst specializing in the cable industry, believes Comcast, Charter, and other cable operators entering the wireless business have no intention of being a serious competitor to the country’s four largest mobile companies.

“The goal of XFINITY Mobile [from Comcast] is to offer their customers another service and to create a sticky bundle,” Kagan said. “It’s not to lead the wireless wars. It’s not to increase their market share for traditional reasons. It is simply to create a sticky bundle to stabilize and grow their customer base.”

Kagan

XFINITY Mobile and Spectrum Mobile (from Charter), both require customers to be signed up for their respective internet services. If a customer cancels internet service, they will lose their mobile service. That could prove to be a major hassle for wireless customers, because they will have to properly port out their existing phone number(s) to another provider before dropping broadband.

Kagan believes cable operators will use mobile service to further strengthen their bundle by tying discounts to the number of services each customer takes through the cable company.

“Customers who use one service find it easy to switch away to a competitor,” Kagan said. “However, when they use multiple services and get a discount for the bundle, they become sticky and generally stay put. And the more services a customer uses, the larger the discount, the stickier they get and the less likely they are to wander.”

That is also likely to be true with Altice, which operates Optimum (Cablevision) and SuddenLink and has partnered with Sprint to offer cell service.

Sprint and T-Mobile, which are planning to merge, have repeatedly argued cable operators will be aggressive new players in the mobile business, giving the potentially combined carrier fierce new competitors. But Kagan doubts that will prove true.

“The problem is, the sticky bundle is not a low-cost solution,” Kagan offered. “With that said, the higher cost to the cable television companies is less than that of losing their customer base. So, the cost makes sense as simply a cost of doing business.”

The challenge cable operators face is that none plan to own and operate their own traditional cellular network. Comcast and Charter have partnered with Verizon Wireless to resell access to its 4G LTE network and Altice will rely on Sprint. Leasing access on an ongoing basis is likely to be more expensive that relying on your own network, but beyond offering Wi-Fi calling and experimental access to future 5G-type services in the emerging CBRS band, cable operators will remain almost completely dependent on their wireless provider partners, limiting their effective ability to compete.

Kagan believes the goals of the two industries are different. Wireless operators are trying to monetize their networks through usage, while cable operators are trying to find new services that will keep customers loyal and are willing to ignore monetizing their wireless side businesses to achieve that goal.

Democratic Lawmaker in Maine Ditches Her Seat to Accept Lucrative Lobbyist Job At Charter

Phillip Dampier February 13, 2019 Charter Spectrum, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

DeChant

Maine taxpayers will cover the costs of a special election to fill a state legislative seat just four months after the November 2018 election, allowing the current officeholder to accept a lucrative position as a top regional lobbyist at Charter Communications.

Rep. Jennifer DeChant (D-Bath) vacated her seat representing House District 52, one she has held since 2012. In November 2018, she won re-election for her fourth term with 70 percent of the vote.

“I remain deeply grateful for the support of the people of Bath who made this experience one to treasure,” DeChant said in a statement. “While I remain committed to public service, right now it is time to focus on this transition.”

That transition will take her through the revolving door from Maine’s state legislature to Charter’s manager of government affairs and community relations for the northeast region, based in Portland. DeChant’s new job will involve lobbying lawmakers on behalf of the cable operator, which is Maine’s largest. DeChant said she made the decision based on what was best for her family.

“This new role makes it impossible to continue to fulfill my responsibilities as State Representative of HD52,” DeChant said. “Since I cannot continue to serve what would be my last term due to term limits, I must resign my seat effective Feb. 1, 2019.”

Maine, like other Northern New England states, suffers from ongoing rural broadband challenges. Consolidated Communications, formerly FairPoint, provides DSL in many smaller communities, with the rest of the region split between Comcast and Charter Spectrum for cable service in larger towns and cities.

Charter Communications Slashing Investments in Its Cable Systems by $1.9 Billion in 2019

Spending less, charging more in 2019.

Despite repeated claims from some in Washington that eliminating net neutrality would stimulate U.S. telecommunications companies to invest more in their networks, Charter Communications has announced a dramatic $1.9 billion cut in capital expenditures (CapEx) spending on its Spectrum cable systems for 2019.

Charter posted 2018 revenue of $43.6 billion (up 4.9 percent over 2017), with especially healthy returns for its internet service, which grew 7.1%. Charter earned $11.2 billion in revenue, up 5.9% in the fourth quarter of 2018 alone, partly from rate increases, reduced costs, and additional broadband customers.

Republican FCC commissioners have repeatedly argued that deregulating the internet by sweeping away net neutrality would stimulate companies to invest more in their networks. But it now appears the reverse is true. In 2017, Charter spent $8.7 billion on network investments; in 2018 the company spent $9.1 billion. But this year, with net neutrality no longer the law of the land, the cable company is planning to dramatically cut investments in 2019 to just $7 billion. The combined company, which now includes Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Bright House Networks (BH), has never spent this little on capital expenditures. The 2016 merger between Charter and TWC and BH forced a 189.4% spike in spending after the deal was completed, as Charter began a cable system overhaul and upgrade.

Charter is expecting it can distribute more of its revenue to shareholders, share buybacks, and debt payments as a result of the completion of its all-digital conversion project, which eliminated analog television signals from cable systems to make more room for revenue-enhancing internet service. The company also gets to lease more set-top boxes to customers seeking to view digital television signals on older analog TV sets.

Charter also reports it has successfully completed its DOCSIS 3.1 internet upgrade to more than 99% of its cable systems, allowing the introduction of premium-priced gigabit internet speed.

Charter executives signaled investors earlier this month Charter expects to post greater revenue and profits as a result of the spending reductions, but these new-found gains will have no effect on the company’s ongoing plans to continue mildly aggressive rate increases in 2019.

Charter has not disclosed how much it plans to spend on its new mobile business in 2019. The company is marketing its mobile phone service more aggressively this year as it prepares to accept customers bringing existing phones to its cellular service, powered by Charter’s in-home and in-business Wi-Fi and Verizon Wireless’ 4G LTE network.

Big Telecom and Utilities Schmoozing New Republican Lawmakers and Governor in Ohio

Phillip Dampier February 7, 2019 AT&T, Charter Spectrum, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

Gov. Mike DeWine and his wife, Francis.

Ohio’s incoming Republican state officeholders are being showered in gifts, cash, food and drink to celebrate their 2018 election victories and get their start of the 2019 legislative term off ‘in the right direction’, all courtesy of Ohio’s biggest telecommunications and for-profit utility companies.

It’s the perfect opportunity for powerful state lobbyists to introduce themselves and get their feet in the doors of the incoming Republican officeholders that dominate the governor’s office and state legislature. At least $1.7 million in gifts and cash were directed to incoming Gov. Mike DeWine and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted alone.

Some familiar companies donated the maximum $10,000 apiece to the DeWine-Husted Transition Fund, a special set-aside account to cover inauguration activities and allow incoming politicians to count stacks of $100 bills. AT&T and Charter Communications — the dominant phone and cable companies in Ohio — each maxed out their contributions just before DeWine announced a new industry-friendly appointment to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) and prepares the 2019 budget for the Consumers’ Counsel, an underfunded state office that represents the interests of Ohio consumers dealing with problem utilities, phone, and cable companies.

DeWine did not disappoint his corporate benefactors, this week announcing the appointment of Samuel Randazzo, a retired lawyer with a 40 year history of representing the interests of utility companies, as the newest commissioner at PUCO.

“We are disappointed in this choice, as Mr. Randazzo has a lengthy career fighting against renewable energy and energy efficiency in Ohio,” Heather Taylor-Miesle, president of the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund, said in a release. “This move is out-of-step with the rest of the Midwest, where governors are committing to the future of energy, instead of the past.”

Randazzo has a long record of opposing utility mandates or regulations that interfere with the industry’s ability to generate profits, and is expected to be one of the friendliest regulators for utility companies in recent Ohio memory. Where did DeWine get Randazzo’s name? Scott Elisar, an attorney in Randazzo’s former law firm, was also a member of the nominating council that presented the list of four candidates for DeWine to consider for the PUCO position.

Consumer groups are also concerned that DeWine will soon appoint another member of the Commission after current PUCO Chairman Asim Haque leaves on March 1 to pursue a new job opportunity.

Randazzo

“We recommend that [his] seat be filled with a bona fide representative of residential consumers, especially considering that the current PUCO commissioners include two former utility representatives,” a statement from the Office of the Ohio Consumers Counsel said this week.

Other newly elected officials are also getting a taste of the action, with donor contributions limited to $2,500 each. Considering the number of special interests writing checks this year, several members of DeWine’s administration are also enjoying considerable free cash, despite the contributions limit: Attorney General David Yost of Columbus, $33,500; state Auditor Keith Faber of Celina, $29,000; Secretary of State Frank LaRose of Hudson, $30,500; and state Treasurer Robert Sprague of Findlay, $15,000.

An early test of what corporate influence can buy from Ohio legislators suggests it does not cost very much to participate in “pay for play” politics. FirstEnergy Solutions, Ohio’s bankrupt utility that reported “massive financial problems” last spring, still managed to scrape together $172,000 in campaign contributions for Ohio House candidates — mostly Republican, and another $565,000 for the Republican Governors Association during the 2018 election.

FirstEnergy spent much of last year lobbying the legislature to stick ratepayers with a $30 annual rate increase to bail out some of its unprofitable power generation facilities. It failed, along with a more comprehensive proposed corporate bailout package worth $2.5 billion. FirstEnergy became one of DeWine’s biggest supporters in his race for governor. DeWine, in turn, has signaled his support for the FirstEnergy bailout rejected last year. That could explain why DeWine received five times more money in contributions from the utility than his Democratic opponent.

On the first day of Ohio’s new 2019 legislative session, by sheer coincidence, the General Assembly announced a new standing committee on power generation, which will have the authority to approve a new bailout package for the troubled utility. FirstEnergy also announced it was abandoning some of its more costly energy producing facilities. Decommissioning costs will likely be financed by new surcharges on Ohio residential and business customer utility bills.

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