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Charter Spectrum Sending Scare Letters Over Google Fiber’s Demise in Louisville

Charter Communications is sending letters to consumers in some Google Fiber cities warning that the hotly anticipated fiber to the home provider is “canceling internet service in Louisville — don’t wait to be the next city.”

But no worries, Charter adds. “Spectrum is here for you.”

Spectrum is offering consumers in cities like Raleigh 400/20 Mbps internet $29.99 a month, price-locked for three years. (Image courtesy: News & Observer)

The letter includes an offer for Spectrum’s best internet deal, available only to addresses identified as already getting high-speed internet competition from at least two other providers — 400/20 Mbps internet service for $29.99 a month, price-locked for three years. In contrast, Google Fiber customers in the Triangle region of North Carolina pay $50 a month for 100 Mbps or $70 a month for 1,000 Mbps. That makes Spectrum’s offer a better deal, with for four times the download speed Google offers on its lower-priced plan.

Raleigh’s News & Observer spoke with Joe Mancini, head of sales for Google Fiber’s Triangle region. Mancini called Spectrum’s letter a “scare tactic.” Spectrum had no comment.

The letter could connect with would-be Google Fiber customers still waiting for service. Since being announced in the area in September 2006, Google Fiber’s first target was the community of Morrisville. As of today, the service is available in selected areas as far east as downtown Raleigh, and in Chapel Hill, southern and downtown Durham, and adjacent areas. But Google Fiber still has a long way to go to reach the entire region.

Google Fiber announced it was pulling out of Louisville, Ky., after a failed experiment microtrenching its fiber optic cables just a few inches underground. That proved disastrous, with cables emerging above ground as a result of incidental digging, erosion, road construction, freeze-thaw cycles, and in some cases, pets. Realizing it would have to scrap the entire project and start anew, Google instead decided to abandon the city, switching off existing customers on April 15.

Google has significantly slowed expansion of its fiber network over the last few years, and at one point signaled its future attention would focus on urban wireless mesh technology that would work like high-speed Wi-Fi. But that project seems to be dragging as well. As a result, some consumers may worry if Google is in the broadband business for the long haul. Mancini says the company is, and has continued expansion into new parts of the region earlier this year.

“I would encourage folks to disregard this obvious scare tactic. Google Fiber is here to stay,” he said in a phone interview with the newspaper. “We love it here, and we are working harder every day to bring faster internet coverage. I am knocking on doors to talk to potential customers right now, and our customer base and the network is growing every month. We served our first customers in Chapel Hill earlier this year and downtown Durham, as well.”

AT&T Fiber Buildout Could Steal Two Million Charter and Comcast Customers

As AT&T continues to build out its fiber to the home network in its landline service areas, the company estimates it could achieve 50% market penetration by 2023, triggering a growing wave of consumers dropping cable in search of a better deal.

Cowen, a research firm, issued a report to clients indicating if AT&T achieves its expansion goals, it will be a tough competitor to Comcast and Charter.

Both cable companies have pulled back on promotional and customer retention pricing in recent years, allowing customers to follow through on threats to disconnect service. AT&T Fiber is expected to be a frequent destination for those unhappy cable customers. As AT&T’s fiber network expands, it could eventually grab one million customers each from Comcast and Charter, as well as another 200,000 cancelling service with Altice’s Suddenlink.

If the estimates prove accurate, the costs to earnings will be considerable — Comcast will lose around $1.1 billion, Charter $885 million, and Altice $162 million.

AT&T claims it has expanded fiber to the home service to three million homes each of the last two years. It plans to continue expanding fiber buildouts for an additional three years, wiring up communities where a return on investment can be achieved.

To stem customer losses, the cable industry will likely have to relent on pricing and promotions in areas where AT&T Fiber already provides competitive service.

The cable industry has enjoyed a strong speed advantage over most phone companies for the last few years as nearly 100% of cable operators now offer gigabit download speed. In contrast, phone companies are offering gigabit speed in only about 25% of their footprint, with many telco service areas still stuck with low-speed DSL, often unable to achieve the FCC’s minimum broadband speed of 25 Mbps.

Charter Spectrum Falsely Denies It Offers Best Prices to Competitive Service Areas

Charter Spectrum denies it offers better deals to customers served by fiber-fast internet competitors than those stuck with the phone company’s slow speed DSL as their only alternative:

Spectrum doesn’t set rates based on one area or the other, or based on what’s available to customers in specific locations, company spokesman Michael Pedelty said.

“We don’t make decisions based on that,” he said.

But Stop the Cap! has repeatedly found that with respect to promotional pricing, offered to entice customers to switch, that is not true.

“It is easy for any customer checking Spectrum’s new customer rates to test this for themselves,” said Stop the Cap!’s Phillip Dampier. “We did (again), and confirmed your street address and the providers that compete for your business make all the difference whether you are going to get a good deal or not.”

That is important because when providers won’t budge on regular prices, your only alternative is to switch. Some customers repeatedly bounce between providers to get a better deal. The savings can be dramatic. A customer with 400 Mbps internet-only service that remains with Spectrum for three years on a good three-year promotion will save more than $3,000 over customers that are offered only a one year promotion from Spectrum because their only other choice was DSL from the phone company.

At Stop the Cap! headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., there is only one choice for broadband service — Charter Spectrum. Frontier Communications, the incumbent phone company, still only offers 3 Mbps DSL at this location, despite it being less than one mile from the Rochester city line. Spectrum does not see low-speed DSL as a competitive threat, because entering our address as a new customer brought forth this blasé offer for internet-only service, good for 12 months:

Notice this promotion is good for 12 months.

This offer is for 100 Mbps service. An upgrade to Ultra costs an extra $25 a month for 400 Mbps. Notice also, the Wi-Fi feature enabled on their router/modem equipment is $5 extra a month.

Across the street from us, the competitive situation is a little different. Neighbors have a choice of three providers — Charter Spectrum, Frontier DSL, or Greenlight’s fiber to the home network. Greenlight changes everything for Spectrum, as this new customer offer across the street illustrates:

Notice this promotion is also $44.99 a month, but is good for two years instead of one.

Notice the promotion is also for 100 Mbps, but check out the FREE upgrade to 400 Mbps, a $25 savings just because there is more serious competition. Also notice the $5 monthly Wi-Fi charge is gone.

Where Google Fiber offers service (or offered, in the case of Louisville, Ky.) in addition to high-speed internet from the phone company, Spectrum’s promotions are even better:

This deal is for $29.99 and is good for THREE years.

This promotion begins with 200 Mbps service, but offers a FREE upgrade to 400 Mbps and that pesky $5 a month Wi-Fi fee is nowhere to be found.

In short, any claim that Spectrum does not target different promotional pricing offers based on the competitive landscape on the ground is provably false. The evidence is right here.

Now let us consider how the cost of no competition will empty your wallet:

  • Non-Competitive Pricing – 400 Mbps service with Wi-Fi: $74.99/month for 12 months; $95.99/month for next 24 months ($90.99 internet, $5 Wi-Fi)
  • One Competitor Pricing – 400 Mbps service with Wi-Fi: $44.99/month for 24 months; $95.99/month for next 12 months ($90.99 internet, $5 Wi-Fi)
  • Two Competitor Pricing – 400 Mbps service with Wi-Fi: $29.99/month for 36 months

Assuming you remained a customer for 36 months, paying regular prices after two of these promotions expired, here is what you would pay in full based on the latest rate card and advertised pricing (mostly the additional $5/mo Wi-Fi fee after a promo expires):

  • Non-Competitor Pricing: $4,103.52¹
  • One Competitor Pricing: $2,231.64² which delivers a savings of $1,871.88 over three years because of presence of one serious competitor.
  • Two Competitor Pricing: $1,079.64³ which delivers a savings of $3,023.88 over three years because of the presence of Google Fiber and one other serious competitor.

¹$74.99 x 12 = $899.88; $95.99 x 24 = $3203.64
²$44.99 x 24 = $1079.76; $95.99 x 12 = $1151.88
³$29.99 x 36 = $1079.64

Bradford, N.Y. – The Poster Child of America’s Rural Broadband Crisis (Updated)

The Kozy Korner Restaurant is one of the local businesses in Bradford, N.Y.

Bradford, N.Y. is an unassuming place, not atypical of communities of under 1,000 across western and central New York. It’s too far south to benefit from the tourist traffic and affluent seasonal residences of the Finger Lakes region. It isn’t next to a major interstate, and the majority of travellers heading into the Southern Tier of New York are unlikely to know Bradford even exists. Nestled between the Sugar Hill State Forest, Coon Hollow State Forest, Goundry Hill State Forest, and the Birdseye Hollow State Forest, the largely agricultural community does offer some nearby tourist opportunities for outdoor hiking, camping, boating, and horseback riding.

Ironically, just 25 miles further south of Bradford is the headquarters of Corning, Inc., a world leader in the production of optical fiber. Both communities are in Steuben County, but are miles apart in terms of 21st century telecommunications technology.

Corning residents can choose between Verizon and Charter Spectrum. Bradford has a smattering of cable television and internet service from Haefele TV, a tiny cable company serving 5,500 customers in 22 municipalities in upstate New York — towns and villages dominant provider Charter Spectrum has shown no interest in serving. Verizon barely bothers offering DSL service, and has shown no interest in improving or expanding the service they currently offer. As a result, according to the Bradford Central School District, approximately 90% of student households in the district do not have access to broadband internet speeds that meet or exceed the FCC’s minimum standard of 25 Mbps.

“Connectivity is sporadic throughout the community,” the district told state officials.

Some residents suffer with satellite internet, which has proven to be largely a bust and source of frequent frustration. Slow speeds and frequent application disruptions leave customers with web pages that never load, videos that don’t play, and cloud-based applications far too risky to rely on. Others are sneaking by using their mobile phone’s hotspot for in-home Wi-Fi, at least until their provider throws them into the penalty corner for using too much data.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2015 Broadband for All initiative was supposed to end this problem forever. Gov. Cuomo promised that his program would offer high-speed internet access to any New Yorker that wanted it. New Yorkers want it, but still can’t get it, and now comes word the all-important third round of funding to reach some of the hardest areas of the state to serve may now on “indefinite hold,” according to Haefele TV, with no explanation. That means providers that would otherwise not expand service without the state’s financial assistance are shelving their expansion plans until the money arrives, if it ever does.

This week, the Democrat and Chronicle toured broadband-challenged Bradford. Reporter Sarah Taddeo sends word the status quo is not looking good for the people of the spread-out community. In fact, the internet challenges Bradford faces are all too familiar to long-time readers of Stop the Cap!:

  • Stalled funding: Haefele TV has shown an interest in expanding service in Bradford, and New York State awarded the company $5,150,612 to connect 1,303 homes and businesses in upstate New York. The money now appears to be on hold, according to a Haefele spokesperson.
  • Poor broadband maps: Bradford residents without service are hopelessly dependent on the broadband service maps offered voluntarily by incumbent providers. Those maps are inaccurate and typically unverified. Even worse, many Bradford residents are falling victim to the scourge of the “census block,” a granular measurement of an area showing who has service and who does not. In suburban areas, a census block is usually part of a neighborhood. In rural areas, it can encompass several streets containing random houses, businesses, and farms. Most broadband funding programs only award funds to “unserved” census blocks. If any provider delivers service to a single home or business within a census block, while ignoring potentially dozens of others, awards are typically not available because that area is deemed “served.” Bradford has several examples of “served” census blocks that are actually not well-served, as well as at least one that was skipped over altogether.
  • Politics and bureaucracy: Politicians are usually on hand to take credit for broadband expansion programs, but leave it to the bureaucrats to dole out funding. That is typically a long and arduous process, requiring a lot of documentation to process payments, which are usually provided in stages. Some providers do not believe it is worth the hassle of participating. Others do appreciate the funding, but do not appreciate the delays and paperwork. Politicians who declare the problem solved are unlikely to be back to explain what went wrong if lofty goals are ultimately unachieved.
  • Relying on for-profit providers: Some portions of Bradford will eventually get service from Haefele, while others will be officially designated as served by Hughes’ satellite internet service — one of two satellite providers that already earn low marks from local residents sharing scathing reviews from paying customers. Haefele won’t break ground without state dollars, and nothing stops Bradford residents from signing up for satellite internet today.
  • Homework Hotspots: Impacted families often have to drive to a community institution or public restaurant or shopping center that offers reliable Wi-Fi to complete homework assignments, pay bills, and manage the online responsibilities most people take for granted. Their children may be left at a permanent disadvantage not growing up in the kind of digital world kids in more populated areas do.

With funding for the area seemingly “on hold,” the Bradford’s school district stepped up and found $456,000 from the community’s share of the state’s Smart Schools bond fund, which supplied $2 billion for school districts to spend on technology products and services. Instead of buying iPads or more computers, school officials announced an initiative that would spend the money on an 18-mile fiber network strung through the community’s most student-dense neighborhoods. The school district claims “50-75% of student households will be covered” by the initial phase of the project, with plans to eventually reach everyone with a fiber-fed Wi-Fi network. The proposal has been cautious about staying within the guidelines of the bond initiative, such as limiting access exclusively to students, at least for now.

So far, the proposal has survived its first major review by state officials, but there is still plenty of time for large cable and phone companies serving the state to object, not so much because they want to punish the people of Bradford, but because they may not like a precedent established allowing school districts to spend state funds on broadband projects that could expose them to unwanted competition.

Updated 3:50pm ET: We received word from a credible source denying that the third round of broadband funding was on hold across New York, so we are striking through that section of the story. We anticipate receiving a statement for publication shortly and will update the story again when it arrives.

The Star Gazette visited Bradford, N.Y., to learn more about the broadband challenges faced by the community of nearly 800 people in southwestern New York. (1:47)

NY City Hall to Charter: Where is Our $6 Million? 10 Days to Pay or Spectrum Shouldn’t Stay

Phillip Dampier March 7, 2019 Charter Spectrum, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Spectrum workers on strike during the 2017 Labor Day parade in New York City. (Image courtesy: IBEW/Local 3)

New York City officials are giving Charter Communications 10 days to send $6 million in unpaid franchise and royalty fees or make a strong and credible case for why it shouldn’t pay, with likely litigation and the possible non-renewal of Spectrum’s contract to supply cable service on the line if the mayor isn’t satisfied.

In a letter addressed to Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio accused the company of deliberately shorting the city’s share of revenue from Spectrum’s advertising sales, calculating the city’s cut based on the lower net amount collected after expenses, instead of on gross revenue, as the contract requires. The mayor also claims Charter is withholding royalty revenue from an ancillary business Charter partly owns.

“Charter Spectrum has proven time and time again that they’re unwilling to play by the rules,” the mayor told the Daily News. “This is money that can be reinvested in our communities instead of going into Charter’s coffers as they continue to hike rates for New Yorkers. [This latest] default is another thing we’ll take into consideration when their contract expires in 2020.”

Charter’s Endless Labor Problems Upset New York Officials

Charter is already in hot water with New York officials over its treatment of workers represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3, which have been on strike since March 2017. The highly skilled technicians were incensed when they learned hard-fought benefits were being clawed back by Charter, even as the company paid its CEO a record-breaking $98 million in compensation.

Mayor de Blasio

Over 1,800 middle class workers represented by IBEW Local 3 have suffered greatly over the past two years, according to labor reports. Many have had to cash in retirement savings, some have lost their cars or homes to foreclosure, others face mounting medical bills, in addition to family pressure at home. The union argues it is one of the last bastions to protect all middle-income earners from a race to the bottom mentality that is reducing wages and benefits. When a union worker is replaced with a less-skilled contractor, the pay and benefits Charter offers are significantly lower. Those technicians, regardless of their intentions, are also often poorly trained and risk alienating customers when repairs are incomplete or fail.

Many politicians in New York City have sided with the union strikers and have deplored the seemingly endless strike. Time Warner Cable, in contrast, had reasonably good relations with its unionized workforce. Prior to the merger, the biggest cable vs. labor union friction in the city was between the Communications Workers of America and Cablevision, which began after the CWA started organizing workers in Brooklyn and the Bronx in 2012.

With the Charter dispute approaching its second anniversary, the cable company has been spending subscriber dollars on a slick effort to convince its replacement workers to team up with the cable company to vote for decertification of IBEW Local 3 with the National Labor Relations Board.

Ironically, the same company that has dragged its feet settling the dispute has sent email to replacement workers claiming the union has done a lousy and ineffective job… of wearing down Charter.

In a Jan. 31 internal email obtained by In These Times, Charter Communications regional vice president of New York City operations, John Quigley, told workers, “In my opinion, Local 3 has not earned the right to represent you. Over the past several years they have misled their members, led them out on a strike without a clear plan, mishandled almost every aspect of the strike, made it very clear what they think of employees who are working with us today, and continue to make empty threats about harming our business. We hope that you vote ‘no’ and give us a chance to continue to make Charter a great place to work together.”

Race to the Bottom for Workers, Higher Rates for You

If Charter is successful in organizing replacement workers to side with the cable company and vote in larger numbers than the strikers, the current union representation will essentially end, along with the strike, handing total victory to Charter Communications. The cable company will likely impose its own terms on workers shortly afterwards. Critics claim that should be a familiar story for Spectrum subscribers.

“The company is basically union busting in New York City, and they’ve come in, raised rates on people and set their own terms because they hold a monopoly right now and there’s really no one to stop them from doing what they’re doing,” Troy Walcott, a striking worker, told In These Times.

With ongoing controversies with Charter on both the state and local levels, the company is likely to face increased scrutiny if the cable operator applies for a franchise renewal with the city next year, assuming state regulators do not move to enforce their own July 2018 decision to effectively kick Charter Communications out of New York State.

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