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Altice Dismisses Wireless Broadband as Inadequate, “There is No Substitute” for Wired

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While Wall Street and the tech media seems excited about the prospect of 5G and other fixed wireless home broadband services, Altice, which owns Cablevision and Suddenlink, dismissed wireless broadband as inadequate to meet rapidly growing broadband usage.

“In terms of usage patterns, our customers are taking an average download speed of 162 Mbps as of the second quarter of 2018, which is up 74% year-over-year,” Dexter Goei, CEO of Altice USA told investors on a recent conference call. “[Our customers now use] over 220 GB of data per month, which is up 20% year-over-year, with 10 in-home connected devices, on average. If you take the top 10% of our highest data consuming customers as a leading indicator, they are using, on average, almost 1 terabyte of data per month with 26 in-home connected devices. To support these usage patterns, which are mainly driven by video streaming and the proliferation of new over-the-top [streaming] services, it requires a high quality fixed network like ours. There is no substitute.”

Goei argued America’s wireless carriers are not positioned to offer a credible, serious home broadband alternative.

“For example, so-called unlimited data plans from the U.S. mobile operators start capping or significantly throttling customers at 20 GB of usage per month,” Goei said. “Over 60% of our customers are now using over 100 GB of data per month right now, which the mobile operators do not and will not have the capacity to match on a scaled basis unless they overbuild with a new dense fiber network.”

Altice just so happens to be building a dense fiber network, scrapping Cablevision’s remaining coaxial cable in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut in favor of a fiber-to-the-home network that will eventually reach all of its customers.

Altice-Cablevision Advertises $99 Promotion, But It Really Cost This Customer $160+

Cable and satellite companies are notorious for baiting customers with cheap offers for internet, phone, and television service and then shocking them when the first much-higher-than-expected bill arrives, but Altice’s Optimum/Cablevision takes the bait and switch promotion to a whole new level.

Jim C. (who didn’t want to reveal his last name) is a Cablevision customer of over ten years who recently saw a rare promotion targeting existing customers offering 200 Mbps internet and “Core” television service for $99/month. That was nearly $40 less than what he was paying for service, and was his chance to slim down his TV package and get a speed upgrade as well.

“I called the number to ask about the promotion because I know how these companies work,” Jim told Stop the Cap! “You always have to get them to read off the fine print because many fees and surcharges get buried there.”

Jim was right. An impatient Optimum representative was willing to admit “there are some extra fees,” and sighed as Jim asked for details. By the time Jim was finished writing them down, he needed a second sheet of paper.

“This should be illegal — it is clearly ‘bait and switch’ designed to lure you at one price and then stick you with so many fees it turns out to be not much of a deal at all,” Jim shared. “In fact, it turned out to be more expensive than what I am paying right now!”

For the benefit of customers seeing similar promotions, here is a breakdown of just some of the extra fees not included in the $99 price:

Promotion: $99 Optimum Core Double Play Upgrade (Core TV + 200 Mbps internet) for existing customers
Term: 2-year agreement, with penalties for ending contract early

Gotchas:

  • Promotion for HBO and Showtime expires after 12 months; customers pay a regular price of $14.95 for HBO and $11.95 for Showtime during months 13-24. If you want access to on-demand titles, add $4.95/mo for each premium network.
  • Cloud DVR promotion ends after 12 months; next 12 months you owe them the regular price, which is a whopping $17.95 a month.
  • Service, equipment rates and random fees are subject to tax in some areas, up to 5.3%.
  • FCC “User Fee” of $0.08/month and fees for public, educational, and government local access channels cost up to $1.35/month.
  • Mandatory sports surcharge is $7.97/month.
  • Mandatory Broadcast TV surcharge is $4.99/month

Equipment Fees:

  • Modem rental is $10 a month.
  • Altice One cable boxes needed for TV service carry a $20/month fee. “Mini boxes” are available for $10/month per TV.

That $99 promotion actually costs the average customer with two boxes at least $163.39 a month during the first twelve months, not including taxes, and assuming the customer owns their modem and has one Altice One and one Mini set-top box. During the second year, that “$99 offer” will cost customers in excess of $218 a month, assuming one keeps both premium networks and wants on-demand access as well.

“This is completely dishonest and outrageous,” said Jim. “You absolutely must pay very close attention to the fine print in these offers, because they can get very expensive, very fast.”

Some Optimum Customers Getting Free 400 Mbps Upgrades

Some Altice-Optimum customers in New York and New Jersey are enjoying a free speed upgrade to 400 Mbps, double the speed of the 200 Mbps they used to get.

Max Sharfstein reports his speeds suddenly increased late last week after his modem rebooted. Other customers report similar speed upgrades.

“I was on a promotion for 200 Mbps service but now I am getting 400 Mbps performance, based on speedtest results,” Sharfstein told Stop the Cap! “It’s quite a boost from the 100 Mbps I was originally paying for before Altice started giving out promotional credits to hold onto customers.”

Sharfstein’s bill shows his 200 Mbps tier has been replaced with the 400 Mbps tier, without any action on his part. His current promotion ends in September.

“I’m not sure what I will have then,” Sharfstein admits.

The Optimum website shows the cable operator selling 20, 100, 200, and 400 Mbps tiers. Customers can check with Optimum customer service to see if they qualify for any free speed upgrades.

With a recent rate hike now taking effect, most customers will pay $64.95 for 100 Mbps service starting in June. The company runs free or discounted speed upgrade promotions from time to time, mostly as a customer retention tool and a way to better compete against Verizon FiOS.

If customers balk about the price, Optimum also sells a basic 20 Mbps tier for around $29.99 a month with a $10 modem rental fee (waived if you bring your own modem.) Existing customers report getting downgraded to this tier can be difficult, with representatives claiming it is not available, despite the fact it is as of now. New customers should have no trouble signing up for the $29.99 plan, however.

If you are an Optimum customer, let us know if you see a speed upgrade in your area in the comments.

Altice Raising Rates Across the Board for Optimum/Cablevision Customers

Altice, which operates Cablevision’s Optimum brand cable service in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, has informed regulators of a broad-based “rate event” that will take effect on June 1, 2018. Unless a customer is currently enrolled in a price-locked promotion, these new rates generally affect all customers, except as noted.

Altice told Connecticut regulators the rate changes “reflect the rising cost of programming and our significant investment in the customer experience. Optimum pricing is competitive when compared with other providers, and the Company continues to offer a wide array of products to meet all consumer needs and budgets.”

Altice has told Wall Street a different story, noting it is prioritizing a reduction of the company’s massive debts that came from aggressive acquisitions of other cable systems. Altice also told investors in February Altice USA will distribute a special cash dividend to shareholders of $1.5 billion to celebrate Altice USA’s split from its Netherlands-based parent company Altice NV. The company also told shareholders it was happy with its latest profitable results, showing Altice’s residential business growing to just over 80% of total revenue, up 2.9% in 2017 and 1.8% in the fourth quarter of 2017. Business services is growing in mid single digits.

Altice also plans to continue increasing marketing on its advanced all-in-one-box solution — Altice One, which costs $25 a month.

Changes effective June 1, 2018:

Set-Top Box: For customers who elect to receive a traditional set-top box from Optimum, the monthly rate will increase from $10.00 to $11.00. Does not apply to existing commercial customers.

CableCARD: For customers who request a CableCARD from Optimum, the monthly rate will increase from $2.00 to $2.50.

Sports Surcharge: To partially cover the continually increasing costs that programmers charge Altice to carry sports, the Sports Surcharge will increase from $6.97 to $7.97, for customers subscribing to the Optimum Core or higher tiers. (Broadcast Basic & Economy customers are not charged the Sports Surcharge.)

Broadcast TV Surcharge: New residential Broadcast Basic and above customers currently pay a $3.99 monthly “Broadcast TV Surcharge” to partially offset the high costs that broadcasters charge. This fee will increase to $4.99 a month and will also be applied to existing Broadcast Basic residential customers and new commercial customers.

Broadcast Basic Tier: New residential customers currently pay $19.99 per month for Broadcast Basic. To align basic tier rates, this same rate will apply to existing residential Broadcast Basic customers currently paying a monthly rate over $13.95. As an accommodation to existing Basic Tier customers currently paying $13.95/month, the new monthly Basic rate will be $14.95.

Sports and Entertainment Package: This a la carte subscription will increase from $8.95 to $10.00.

Residential Service Protection Plan: In addition to the free 24/7 technical support that Optimum offers all customers, the optional Service Protection plan covers any fees assessed for service visits. To align our rates, existing customers who currently pay $4.99/month will pay the same $6.99 fee currently applicable to new customers.

Restoration Fee: Optimum customers who do not pay their bill within 30 days of the due date, despite multiple reminder notices, are currently subject to a $4.99 per service fee to restore their service. Effective June 1, the minimum service restoration fee will be $10.00 for single and double product customers and $15.00 for triple product customers.

Installation Fee: Starting June 1, the prices paid by customers for standard and premium installations will increase from $69.00 to $99.00 and $99.00 to $129.00, respectively. Customers are being notified 30 days in advance for each of these changes through bill messages or inserts. In addition, rate information will be available on our website at www.optimum.net.

Altice USA: 90% of Our New Customers Want Broadband Speeds 100+ Mbps

Cablevision customers get very attractive promotions in the highly competitive northeastern United States, while Suddenlink customers in more rural areas pay more.

The majority of Cablevision and Suddenlink broadband customers want speeds of 100 Mbps or greater from the Altice-owned cable operators, and average monthly data usage by those customers is now reaching 200 GB per month.

Those statistics were part of a quarterly financial results presentation by Altice USA executives about how the company is doing in the United States.

Altice’s cable holdings include Cablevision, serving a generally affluent customer base in and around the New York City area where Verizon FiOS is its biggest competitor, and Suddenlink, which serves in less competitive markets where local economies are often challenged and phone company DSL still has a significant presence.

Regardless of whether customers receive broadband from Cablevision or Suddenlink, Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei made it clear consumers want faster internet service and are consuming exponentially more data than ever before.

Goei said Altice will continue to increase internet speeds over its existing hybrid fiber-coax network (HFC) even as it builds out its fiber to the home replacement network in some areas. At least 95% of Cablevision customers can now subscribe to 400 Mbps broadband on the company’s legacy HFC network. Around 72% of Suddenlink customers can get similar speeds today. Gigabit speed is available to 29% of Altice USA customers.

Goei said 90% of new Cablevision and Suddenlink customers now choose internet plans featuring 100 Mbps or faster broadband. The average data use of those customers “is now reaching about 200 GB” per month, Goei reported. For customers on HFC systems, Goei said the maximum speed Altice’s implementation of DOCSIS 3 can support is around 600 Mbps, depending on how many customers are sharing the connection. As customers transition to fiber service in the northeast, faster speeds are planned. In fact, Goei wants Cablevision to offer speeds even faster than Verizon FiOS, its chief competitor.

“In terms of the speed capabilities, we’ll have the ability to do higher speeds than the competition,” Goei said.

Altice USA’s fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) deployment is “well underway” in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, with plans to connect several hundred thousand customers to the new network starting later this year. Goei told investors Altice was accelerating the rollout this year with the hope of further reducing network and customer operation costs related to servicing the older coaxial network.

Cablevision and Suddenlink will gradually be rebranded as Altice, and the company has begun familiarizing customers with the new brand name in various ways, including the rollout of its new deluxe set-top box, called Altice One.

“This is our new entertainment platform with an all in one box, including TV, internet, Wi-Fi, integrated apps such as Netflix and a voice activated remote control,” said Goei. “The service includes an improved Wi-Fi experience […] as many TV boxes double up as Wi-Fi repeaters around the home. This is a key part of our strategy of enhancing the customer experience and we’ll have the capacity for ongoing upgrades and the addition of new apps as they become available.”

But that new platform comes at a cost. Currently, Cablevision customers can pay as much as $10 for each set-top box and $5 for a cable modem. Altice One is regularly priced at $25 a month — $10 more for a customer that has one television set-top box and cable modem. That makes Altice’s box among the most costly in the cable industry. The company is trying to hide the cost of its box by bundling it into promotions targeting price sensitive new customers.

In fact, the cost of service is increasingly becoming a factor, especially for Suddenlink customers. Over the last two years, Altice has been “harmonizing” Suddenlink’s rate plans, which used to be set based on the technical capabilities and performance of each cable system. Goei said Suddenlink comprised “five or six different customer bases” — each served by cable systems with different capabilities and rate plans. In the last two years, Suddenlink customers have been introduced to new rate plans, and some are paying considerably higher rates than before, especially for equipment and surcharges.

“All of that activity was probably more than we ever wanted to or anticipated as harmonizing all the different variables is not that easy,” Goei said. “And so we made a very concerted effort to not implement a usual or industry like price increase at the end of 2017, given all the various changes that happened over both customer bases as we harmonized them.” But Goei added the reprieve from rate hikes won’t last forever, promising a “rate event” strategy sometime this year, different from rate changes in past years.

Altice is emphasizing the progress it is making boosting internet speeds at its Cablevision and Suddenlink cable systems.

What Suddenlink and Cablevision charge for service is very dependent on what the competition is offering in Altice’s various markets. Goei paradoxically noted that some of the most attractive rates go to customers living in the most affluent areas of the New York Tri-State Area because of intense competition from Verizon FiOS. Prices have remained so low historically that, in Goei’s view, “it makes it very difficult for third parties to come into these markets” and compete with attractive offers that can match Cablevision. That also explains why Cablevision customers do not deal with data caps while Suddenlink customers often do.

Goei

Conversely, in Suddenlink service areas where less capable competitors exist, prices can be higher and service is considered less affordable. As a result, financial analysts have noted Suddenlink’s broadband growth has been anemic since Altice bought the company, presumably because would-be customers cannot afford the service or have chosen a more economic package sold by the phone company, even if it less capable.

Goei promised Altice would be more “nimble” in the future about targeting pricing in different service areas, taking current conditions on the ground into account when setting rates.

In more general terms, Altice is dealing with the same challenges most cable operators are facing these days. Cord-cutting continues to result in reduced numbers of video subscribers. The company also recently endured a multi-week programming dispute with Starz that cost the company video subscribers in the Cablevision service area. The dispute eventually ended with a new multi-year affiliation agreement that allows Altice systems to carry Starz and Starz Encore networks, on-demand services, and online access for several years.

But Altice clearly sees broadband as its key product going forward, which is why the company is upgrading its Cablevision and Suddenlink systems to support faster internet speeds.

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