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Call to Action! Tell the FCC “No” to Charter Spectrum on Data Caps!

Charter Communications has petitioned the FCC for permission to impose DATA CAPS on customers at least two years before the FCC’s prohibition on caps — a key condition imposed on the cable company in return for approval of its 2016 merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks — is scheduled to expire.

In 2016, the FCC told Spectrum its merger was NOT in the public interest without requiring some changes and conditions that would benefit you as a Spectrum customer. Because the FCC recognized that competition was uncommon in the cable industry, it knew there would be a temptation after a merger to slap data caps on internet customers for no good reason, other than the fact the company could. In fact, data caps have long been discussed as a deterrent to keep customers from dropping cable TV subscriptions in favor of streaming video. Why? Because if you stream TV programming from Netflix, Hulu, YouTube TV, Sling, and others, that data usage would quickly eat up any data allowances Spectrum would include with its data cap. Most companies with data caps make sure you pay dearly if you go over your allowance. The de facto standard overlimit fee is $10 for each 50 GB of usage, up to a maximum ranging between $100-200 a month! That kind of bill shock would likely push you back to cable TV.

The FCC hoped that a seven-year ban on Spectrum imposing data caps would give competition a chance to develop, and not just with streaming video. In fact, the FCC argued newly arriving cable operators, fiber to the home providers, and 5G services could probably create so much competition, data caps would likely disappear. Unfortunately, consumers have seen little competition emerge in the last four years. In fact, many still have only one choice — a cable monopoly — for internet service that meets the FCC’s minimum speed (25 Mbps) to qualify as broadband. DSL from the phone company rarely provides the speed available from your local cable operator. Fiber to the home competition is growing in some areas, but many homes still lack access. Although there has been much hype in the media about 5G, robust and fast wireless home internet will only be available in a fraction of homes for years to come.

Despite this reality, Charter is asking the FCC to let the ban on data caps expire two years early, which means they could slap data caps on customers just like you by next spring. Charter argues there are lots of streaming services now competing for your business, so there is no evidence Spectrum is hurting the marketplace for streaming television. Therefore, there is no need to protect consumers from data caps.

We argue several points in response:

Since this graphic was created, Time Warner was sold to AT&T and CBS and Viacom have merged.

Most large streaming video providers are owned by giant satellite, cable and telephone companies (Comcast’s Peacock, AT&T’s TV/TV Now and HBO Max, Dish Network’s Sling TV), giant TV conglomerates (ABC-Disney’s Hulu/Disney +, CBS-Viacom’s All Access), or tech companies (Apple TV, YouTube TV). Netflix has raised prices for its service, in part because it has been pushed to pay cable companies like Comcast “interconnection fees” to guarantee Comcast customers will get suitable service. Most streaming services not affiliated with telecom companies have opposed data caps all along, understanding they can be anticompetitive and hurt subscriber numbers.

What competition? Charter Spectrum customers likely still have the same competitive options they had in 2016, if any, which is not enough. Imposing data caps on home broadband service illustrates that lack of competition in action. Comcast has avoided imposing data caps on its customers in the more competitive northeast and mid-Atlantic regions, where it faces Verizon’s FiOS service, which does not have data caps.

Charter asked for and was granted approval of a merger consumers did not need or want. Charter voluntarily agreed to the FCC’s conditions to close the deal. A deal is a deal, but Charter now wants to walk away. The company is spending thousands on its attorneys to free itself from the FCC’s data cap ban while claiming they have no plans to implement data caps. Do you honestly believe them?

Consumers hate data caps. In fact, just having data caps on internet service can undermine a provider’s marketing and ad campaigns and make signing up new customers difficult. Companies with data caps lose more customers than those that don’t because customers switch if a new cap-free competitor comes to town. Just dealing with implementing complicated usage meters and upset customers complaining about their accuracy costs more than any revenue companies earn from overlimit fees. Remarkably, those are not just the views of Stop the Cap! Charter itself told the FCC those were just some reasons there was a strong business case against implementing data caps. Now it is asking the FCC for permission to impose data caps despite all that!

Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart has teamed up with Stop the Cap! to fight Charter’s request to allow it to data cap customers.

Data caps do not protect broadband networks from congestion, and they are not about equitably sharing internet capacity. The ongoing pandemic just proved that big cable and phone companies have existing broadband networks more than capable of handling a large spike in network traffic. Reasonable, cost-effective upgrades will continue that success story for years to come with no need for arbitrary data caps. Make no mistake. Data caps are just another way telecom companies can monetize your usage to increase their already fat profits.

What can you do?

Until July 22, 2020, you can send a comment directly to the FCC urging them NOT to allow Charter’s request to sunset merger deal conditions early. Monroe County (N.Y.) legislator Rachel Barnhart and Stop the Cap! have teamed up to push this message through to Spectrum customers everywhere. We need to put the FCC on notice it must leave well enough alone and allow the deal conditions to remain in place. We also want to send a clear message to executives at Charter that customers do not want data caps… ever. It’s a message Stop the Cap! successfully delivered in 2009 to the top leadership of Time Warner Cable, and they listened. It’s now time to send another message to the folks at Charter. We sincerely hope they will listen too.

Here is a sample letter, which we urge you to adjust to reflect your own views and circumstances before submitting:

To Whom It May Concern:

Please reject Charter’s request to sunset the deal conditions it agreed to as part of its merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

A deal is a deal, and Charter agreed not to impose data caps on its customers for at least seven years. It now wants that prohibition lifted two years early, arguing competition has flourished over the last four years. In fact, little has changed for us. Competition has not flourished. We still do not have choices for broadband service and although there are more streaming video providers, most are owned by large cable, satellite, and phone companies or giant media conglomerates. Data caps will make me reconsider using these services because I cannot afford an even higher internet bill.

Competition is supposed to bring pricing down in a healthy marketplace. But my bill is only going up. What kind of company would ask for permission to slap usage limits on customers in the middle of a pandemic, after telling everyone their networks were more than robust enough to handle increased stay-at-home usage? The answer is a company that faces little competition and has no fear a competitor will use this request against them. Internet affordability is already an enormous problem, and data caps just make internet service even more expensive. We already pay among the highest prices in the world for service.

My family did not ask for this merger, and the FCC in 2016 determined it was not in the public interest to approve it without imposing a handful of conditions to allow consumers to benefit from the transaction. The FCC should insist Charter be true to its word and not impose data caps. Charter told the FCC in 2016 it had an “aversion to data caps, stating that instead of enforcing usage limits it chooses to market the absence of data caps as a competitive advantage” and that “there is a strong business case for not implementing caps” and that caps “undermined” its marketing messaging. Was Charter being honest with the FCC in 2016? Their current request for permission to lift data caps seems to ignore the positions Charter itself took with the FCC just a few years ago.

We urge you to deny Charter’s petition, which will allow Charter to continue making plenty of money from the sale of unlimited internet access and continue honoring its advertising commitments to sell internet service “with no data caps” as it does now.

To submit your comments on this issue:

First, click this link to be taken to the FCC website.

Second, click the link on the left sidebar marked “+Express” as circled below:


Third, fill out the form as completely as possible, and leave your comments in the “brief comments” box at the bottom.

You can also mail your written comments:

Mail TWO COPIES of your written comments, which should open with the greeting “Dear Secretary Dortch,” and close with your signature to this address:

Ms. Marlene H. Dortch
Office of the Secretary
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street SW
Washington, DC 20554

Telecom Industry Lobbyist Gets Friendly Reception on C-SPAN

The cable industry’s public affairs network — C-SPAN, gave a friendly reception to a top telecom industry lobbyist over the weekend, responding to soft ball questions about rural broadband and telecommunications public policy debates.

Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom appeared on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators” to answer questions about broadband service in the era of COVID-19. USTelecom’s members, primarily telephone companies, have been strong proponents for government funding of rural broadband expansion, are opposed to telecom industry regulation and net neutrality policies, and argues that the more oversight and regulation the industry deals with, the less investment Wall Street will direct towards broadband networks.

Spalter was asked about how American broadband networks handled the work/learn-from-home requirements during the coronavirus pandemic. Spalter said networks handled the increased traffic well, but noted many rural Americans still lack access to high-speed internet. Some Democrats have proposed regulating broadband service as a utility to deal with issues of access and affordability, an idea that Spalter rejects.

“To wrap it in the red tape of regulatory strictures, the overhang of bureaucracy that would be required if we were to make it a utility, would take us backward,” Spalter said, adding he prefers “light touch” regulation. But Spalter had no objection to spending taxpayer dollars to pay for-profit telephone companies to expand broadband service in high-cost rural areas. Spalter called estimates that it would cost $100 billion to bring high speed internet service to all Americans “adequate.”

Jonathan Spalter, USTelecom’s president and CEO, talked about the coronavirus’s impact on telecommunications, regulatory issues, and solving the problems of rural internet access. (28:52)

ATSC 3.0 (Or Why You Need a New TV Set If You Watch Over-the-Air TV) is Coming Sooner Than You Think

America’s next over the air broadcast TV standard is arriving this year and you will need to purchase a new television capable of receiving it or rely on a converter add-on box that is currently almost impossible to purchase to receive ATSC 3.0 broadcasts on your existing television sets.

ATSC 3.0 (dubbed “NextGen TV” by the marketing people), will be available to watch in over 60 cities this year, reaching up to 70% of all U.S. television households. The benefits of the new television standard include significantly improved pictures, better reception (especially in fringe areas away from the transmitter), a dramatically larger number of available “sub-channels” available to offer ancillary services like Me-TV, Grit, Retro TV, and dozens of others, and customized, targeted advertising based on your viewing habits.

A handful of stations are already up and running with NextGen TV, with many more signing on during the second half of 2020. Here is a complete list of cities where NextGen TV broadcasts will start this year:

Already on the air — These cities have NextGen TV stations already on the air:

Boise, Idaho
Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas
Las Vegas
Nashville, Tenn.
Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne, Fla.
Phoenix
Pittsburgh
Portland, Ore.
Salt Lake City
Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Currently testing or preparing to launch in:

East Lansing, Mich.
Los Angeles

Planning to launch during the second half of 2020 in:

Albany-Schenectady-Troy, N.Y.
Albuquerque-Santa Fe, N.M.
Atlanta
Austin, Tex.
Baltimore
Boston
Buffalo, N.Y.
Burlington, Vt.-Plattsburgh, N.Y.
Charleston-Huntington, W.V.
Charleston, S.C.
Charlotte, N.C.
Chattanooga, Tenn.
Chicago
Cincinnati
Cleveland-Akron, Ohio
Columbus, Ohio
Davenport, Iowa-Rock Island-Moline, Ill.
Denver
Detroit
Flint-Saginaw-Bay City, Mich.
Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo, Mich.
Greenville-Spartanburg-Anderson, S.C.
Asheville, N.C.
Hartford-New Haven, Conn.
Houston
Indianapolis
Kansas City, Kan.-Mo.
Little Rock-Pine Bluff, Ark.
Memphis, Tenn.
Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Milwaukee
Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.
Mobile, Ala.-Pensacola, Fla.
New York
Norfolk-Portsmouth-Newport News, Va.
Oklahoma City
Omaha, Neb.
Providence, R.I.-New Bedford, Mass.
Raleigh-Durham, N.C.
Rochester, N.Y.
Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto, Calif.
San Antonio
San Diego
San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, Calif.
Seattle-Tacoma, Wash.
Springfield, Mo.
St. Louis
Syracuse, N.Y.
Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota, Fla.
Washington, D.C.
West Palm Beach-Ft. Pierce, Fla.

Internet Providers Get Ready To Cut Off Past Due Customers Unless They Agree to Payment Plans

Internet providers are preparing to cut off late-paying and non-paying customers as early as June 30, as the Federal Communications Commission’s “Keep America Connected” pledge expires next week.

In March, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai invited providers to agree to waive late fees and put off disconnections and usage overlimit charges for several months as a result of the sudden economic shutdown due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. As the pledge expires, Pai is asking providers not to immediately disconnect customers who are past due, if they agree to enroll in payment plans to pay off accrued balances. But Pai ultimately stood on the side of the nation’s multi-billion dollar phone and cable companies as he expressed his understanding why some customers will be cut off anyway and turned over to collection agencies as early as next week.

“Broadband and telephone companies, especially small ones, cannot continue to provide service without being paid for an indefinite period of time; no business in any sector of our economy could,” Pai said in a statement.

Some customers have accumulated past due balances of over $1,000 in the past four months, when one combines wireless, cable-TV, internet, and landline charges. As a result, some large providers recognize the need for long-term repayment plans if they hope to preserve customer relationships. With unemployment over 13%, even their most loyal customers may find it difficult to keep up on bills that often exceed $100 a month, and are often much more.

Those customers that lose service for non-payment may forfeit future participation in low-cost internet programs for those on public assistance, and cannot restart service without coming to terms on past due balances. That could leave desperate customers at risk of losing access to job-seeking information, education, and news about the ongoing pandemic.

Some providers are gradually announcing new programs designed to keep service on, but only if customers contact providers and agree to commit to a repayment contract.

AT&T: The company disclosed 156,000 customers are currently enrolled in Keep America Connected-related programs. AT&T expects full payment of past due charges as early as June 30, or up to 90 days after the first past-due notice was issued, whichever is later. Customers can also keep service turned on by contacting AT&T and setting up an alternate payment arrangement.

Charter/Spectrum: The company has announced it will forgive a portion of past due balances and not require full repayment, if the customer or his/her job was directly impacted by the coronavirus. Spectrum’s offer of 60 days of free internet service introduced in March was accepted by at least 400,000 customers. But for most, the offer has since expired. Spectrum has worked to convert those at the end of the free offer into paid customers, but won’t disclose how much success they have had.

Comcast: Customers enrolled in the Xfinity Assistance Program are being given the option of repaying past due amounts in up to 12 equal monthly installments. After a repayment arrangement is made, some customers are persuaded to downgrade service to more affordable plans until past due amounts are repaid. Comcast’s offer of 60 days of free internet service has ended for most customers that enrolled shortly after it was introduced. Comcast has not announced a date when its 1,000 GB usage cap is scheduled to return in most service areas.

T-Mobile: For many, service will terminate if an account is well past due. Customers who want to keep their service must call T-Mobile to make payment arrangements, but T-Mobile did not disclose any formal repayment plans or payment forgiveness. It is imperative that customers call and discuss past due accounts before service is switched off.

Verizon: Verizon will continue service for “hundreds of thousands of customers” that enrolled in the Keep America Connected pledge program, as long as they agree to make regular payments as part of a special repayment plan that will be introduced for these customers in July. Customers will be billed a portion of their past due amounts along with current service charges until repayment has been made in full.

Of the country’s largest providers, only Charter/Spectrum has agreed to forgive some past due balances outright. Others will expect to be repaid and are likely to suspend service quickly if repayment plans also fall past due.

Charter Spectrum Asks FCC for Freedom to Usage Cap Its Internet Customers

Charter Communications is petitioning the Federal Communications Commission for permission to usage cap its internet customers two years before the FCC’s ban on the company imposing data caps runs out.

Charter, which does business as Spectrum, is seeking an early exit from some FCC-imposed deal conditions Charter agreed to as part of an approval of its 2016 merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Out of concern that Charter’s merger could harm emerging online video streaming competition, the FCC required the company to not charge fees to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu to carry video traffic to its customers and not impose data caps and usage based billing schemes that would limit online video consumption for seven years.

“New Charter’s increased broadband footprint and desire to protect its video profits will increase incentives to impose data caps and usage-based prices in order to make watching online video more expensive, and in particular more expensive than subscribing to a traditional pay-TV bundle,” the FCC concluded in its 2016 order approving the merger, with conditions. “For seven years, we prohibit New Charter from imposing data caps or charging usage-based pricing for its residential broadband service. This condition ensures that New Charter will continue Charter’s past pricing practices and protects subscribers from paying fees designed to make online video consumption more expensive leading subscribers to stick with a traditional pay-TV bundle.”

Charter last week argued that with cord-cutting at an all-time high and video streaming alternative cable and video packages flourishing, there is no reason to continue the seven-year ban on data caps, noting that many other large providers including AT&T, Cox, Altice, and Comcast are free to impose data caps of their own.

“They are able to do so because, unlike Charter, they are not subject to a condition that artificially and unilaterally restricts the packages available to their customers,” Charter argues in its filing. “The online video distribution marketplace is almost unrecognizable compared to what existed in 2016. […] Consumers have never had more online video choices.”

Charter said a sunset of the prohibition of data caps was now overdue.

“As data usage skyrockets, the [ban on data caps and usage-based billing] artificially hamstrings Charter’s ability to allocate the costs of maintaining its network in a way that is efficient and fair for all of its customers—above-average, average, and light users alike,” the company argued. “Charter should be afforded the same flexibility as other broadband providers to respond to developments in the market. In short, tremendous changes in the marketplace have rendered the [ban on data caps and usage-based billing] no longer necessary, and thus ending it in 2021 would be in the public interest.”

The FCC’s 2016 order approving the merger between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks, with a 7-year prohibition on data caps, was not unanimous. Separate statements from Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly were highly critical of most of the deal conditions the then-Democratic majority favored. Four years later, Pai now presides as chairman over a Republican-majority FCC that could take a favorable view of Charter’s request to end deal conditions early.

In 2016, Pai’s spokesperson complained about the imposition of deal conditions in the Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House merger, telling The Hill, “The FCC’s merger review process is badly broken. [Then FCC] Chairman Wheeler’s order isn’t about competition, competition, competition; it’s about regulation, regulation, regulation. It’s about imposing conditions that have nothing to do with the merits of this transaction. It’s about the government micromanaging the internet economy.”

Charter’s June 2020 filing focuses almost exclusively on streaming video competition to argue there is no longer any need to ban the company from imposing data caps. The FCC in 2016 concluded that data caps were a powerful anti-competitive weapon that could be used to keep streaming video competition from harming cable television packages. Charter argues that consumers now have many choices for streaming video, including cable-TV alternatives, which proves they have not engaged in anti-competitive behavior.

But Charter ignored the FCC’s other chief concern about data caps and usage billing (UBP): the lack of choice of broadband competitors.

“[…] Subscribers will continue to have no (or limited) alternative cable or fiber […] options when faced with data caps and UBP designed to deter online video consumption,” the FCC concluded.

The FCC hoped that by 2023, consumers would have more options for home broadband service, likely driving usage caps out of the marketplace.

“Seven years may also provide the high-speed […] provider market sufficient time to develop further with additional investments in fiber from established wireline […] providers, Wireless 5G technology, use of smartgrid fiber for broadband, additional overbuilding, and other potential competitors to traditional wired […] providers,” the FCC wrote. “It is our expectation that these developments will foster competition in the market to make the anticompetitive use of data caps less tenable in the future.”

Unfortunately, broadband competition remains fleeting in many parts of the United States, where only one provider offers broadband service that meets the FCC’s standard of 25 Mbps for downloads.

Ironically, Charter executives were against imposing data caps on their customers when the company was seeking approval to acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

FCC:

“Charter in particular emphasizes its aversion to data caps, stating that instead of enforcing usage limits it chooses to market the absence of data caps as a competitive advantage. Charter also argues there is a strong business case for not implementing caps. Specifically, Charter explains that it terminated its enforcement of the usage limits trial in the AUP in January 2012 because the benefits to customers of continuing the trial (minimizing bandwidth consumption to preserve a positive Internet experience) would not exceed the program’s costs. Charter also states that caps create marketing challenges because they complicate consumer purchasing decisions. Furthermore, Charter argues that data caps increase churn among subscribers. Finally, Charter states that it plans to distinguish itself from its competitors based largely on the quality and speed of its broadband offerings and that data caps undermine that marketing message.”

But the FCC remained unconvinced by Charter’s statements. In a review of confidential internal company documents, the FCC found multiple instances where Time Warner Cable had not completely abandoned the idea of data caps, despite multiple high-profile consumer backlashes against the idea.

“We also note that despite Time Warner Cable’s relative lack of success in implementing usage-based billing, its internal documents leave no doubt that it is also incentivized to use data caps to protect its [cable TV] business,” the FCC concluded.

Four years later, Charter is among many cable operators reporting staggering losses of video customers that have chosen to “cut the cord” on cable television and have switched to a streaming competitor. If an incentive to data cap customers to protect video revenue was there in 2016, it stands to be much stronger today in 2020.

The FCC is now seeking public comment on Charter’s proposal until July 22, 2020. Stop the Cap! plans to file extensive comments on the matter and will shortly publish a guide for readers offering sample letters that can be sent to the FCC on this issue.

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