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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.

Stop the Cap! Files FOIL Request to Force Charter to Disclose Customer Complaint Statistics

Stop the Cap! today appealed to New York’s Freedom of Information Law Officer to force Charter Spectrum to unredact customer complaint statistics on Charter Communication’s performance in New York since its 2016 merger with Time Warner Cable.

“Charter Spectrum’s merger with Time Warner Cable was only approved in New York after the company agreed to certain conditions that would allow the merger to be considered in the public interest,” said Stop the Cap! president and founder Phillip Dampier. “An annual review and at least a 17.5% reduction in the company’s video services complaint rate was part of that deal, but Charter won’t publicly state exactly how much of a reduction the company has achieved, claiming that information is ‘confidential’ and ‘secret.'”

“But Charter had no problem sharing its damage control explanation for why it is still dealing with a lot of angry customers annoyed about the increasing cost of doing business with Spectrum as a result of withdrawing promotions, forcing customers to rent expensive equipment, and deal with pricing and package changes that deliver fewer channels for more money,” Dampier added.

An example of the redactions (for public viewing) in Charter’s Feb. 4, 2019 letter to the NY State Department of Public Service (DPS).

Stop the Cap! argues the public has a right to know how well Charter is meeting its public interest commitments, especially after the state regulator voted last summer to kick the company out of New York (a decision that has been effectively stalled as Charter and DPS staff continue ongoing private settlement discussions.)

“Keeping complaint rates secret is an incentive for Charter to not invest adequately to deliver service improvements and its claim competitors will be able to exploit that information is laughable, as many New Yorkers have no other choice for high-speed internet service. It isn’t as if other cable companies are forcing their way into the state to offer customers another choice,” Dampier argued. “Charter is almost exclusively responsible for its complaint rate, based on how it chooses to conduct business. Had the company adopted more customer-friendly packages, services, and pricing, their complaint rate would have dropped like a rock.”

The letter in full:

February 6, 2019

Records Access Officer
Department of Public Service
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, New York 12223

To Whom It May Concern:

We are requesting the release of an unredacted version of Charter’s 2018 PSC Video Complaint Data Report (three page letter dated 2/4/2019). Charter’s claim that this “sensitive” and “proprietary” information is useful to competitors is unproven and specious. Complaint rates are effectively modulated by a company’s choice of how it conducts its business, with or without the presence of an effective competitor. In this case, Charter admits its own business decisions, not competition, played a key role in the complaint rate, as shown below.

More importantly, this information was required to be submitted as part of the DPS Merger Approval Order granting Charter’s request to merge with Time Warner Cable. That merger was approved only after Charter agreed to certain obligations that would deliver sufficient pro-consumer benefits to meet the state’s requirement that the merger was in the public interest. A periodic review of Charter’s compliance is part of that process.

Charter is asking to keep such compliance information confidential, unreviewable, and unavailable to third party scrutiny. It also prevents organizations like ours, a party in the proceedings, from reviewing the data and submitting informed views to DPS commissioners and staff about the performance of Charter Communications under the Merger Approval Order.

Further, there is no demonstrable causal link shown between competitive injury and disclosure of video customer complaint rates that are the direct result of poor service experiences with Charter Communications. Charter is effectively asking the DPS to prohibit the public’s access to data that is part of a public interest test.

Allowing Charter to suppress public disclosure of raw data while leaving unredacted its damage control explanations for customer complaints also gives Charter an unfair advantage to explain away those complaints.¹

Requiring Charter to disclose customer dissatisfaction numbers is in the public interest and provides a strong incentive for Charter to provide better, more customer-responsive service to customers in New York, likely reducing the number of complaints from unhappy customers in the first place.

Therefore, we appeal to the FOIL Officer to release an unredacted version of the three-page compliance letter.

¹ “As the Commission is aware, changes—including improvements—can sometimes trigger complaints as customers adjust to new service options, promotions, and packages. Despite the increased level of activity and customer interaction related to integration and product advancement, Charter is pleased to report that both initial and escalated complaints have declined significantly compared to 2014 complaint numbers….” — 2018 PSC Video Complaint Data Submission, Charter Communications, 2/4/2019

Very truly yours,

Phillip M. Dampier
President and Founder

Streaming and Cord Cutting Take Toll on European TV Networks, License Fees

European broadcasters are frightened at the prospect of seeing viewers and crucial mandatory TV license fees erode away as an invasion of American on-demand streaming from Netflix and Amazon takes its toll on traditional television.

Netflix’s almost limitless budget for original local/in-country productions is threatening to outspend traditional European broadcasters and giving viewers a new reason to stop paying compulsory TV license fees, which do not apply to foreign-owned streaming services.

Unlike in the United States, where non-commercial public broadcaster PBS receives most of its financial support from corporate underwriting and voluntary contributions from viewers and listeners, many European countries finance their national, over-the-air public broadcasting services with a mandatory annual license fee.

In the United Kingdom, for example, a household must pay $200 a year if their home has color TV sets or $68 a year for black and white-only TV sets if they watch the BBC. These fees cover the costs of the BBC’s extensive commercial-free radio and TV service and keep it independent of the British government. That fee is a bargain compared to Denmark, Norway, and Austria where TV license fees exceed $300 US annually.

Enforcement officers using TV detector vans drive through neighborhoods looking for unlicensed TV homes by detecting signals emitting from a switched-on television. Warning letters and a visit from an enforcement officer quickly follow. But as streaming services take hold, it is becoming more difficult for licensing officers to determine if a resident is using their television to watch the BBC, which requires a license, or on-demand content from a streaming service like Netflix, which does not require a license.

It’s a growing issue in the United Kingdom, where TV license cancellations are now rising for the first time in five years, particularly as younger viewers move away from traditional linear-live TV programming. According to the Financial Times, by 2022 Netflix, Amazon, Facebook and Apple could outspend traditional UK networks by a factor of four. Independent of the BBC, Britain’s commercial ITV network is also reporting increasing viewer defections, especially among younger audiences. Traditional pay television, usually delivered by Sky satellite or Virgin’s cable system, is also experiencing dish/cord-cutting as viewers start to abandon traditional TV packages.

(Image courtesy: Financial Times)

UK networks are planning to respond to the threat by building on their current streaming successes, particularly BritBox, a joint venture of BBC Studios and ITV targeting North American audiences with on-demand British television series and original productions. BritBox has attracted a loyal following in the U.S. and Canada willing to pay around $7 a month, effortlessly raising almost half of the amount of a traditional UK TV license from North Americans without the expenses of traditional broadcasting, staffing, and collections. In the UK, a TV license grants viewers automatic access to iPlayer from the BBC, which offers live streams and short-term access to on-demand programming. Both UK broadcasters believe a service like BritBox, offering a more extensive library of older programming and full seasons of TV shows may interest UK audiences more — perhaps enough to pay another $7 a month for access, in addition to their TV license fee.

Other European broadcasters are dabbling in streaming ventures, but currently see less threat from the English-language dominant catalog of content from services like Netflix. In fact, many of those European broadcasters, particularly in Scandinavia, Germany, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium are earning extra revenue by licensing their native language content, subtitled for English language audiences, to streaming services like Netflix, MHz Choice, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.

Frontier Launches ‘Reliable Copper Internet’ Ad Campaign to Sell Slow Speed DSL

Frontier Communications is taking its lemon-of-a-legacy-copper-network and attempting to squeeze some lemonade with a new national radio advertising campaign promoting the company’s legacy DSL internet service with a $100 gift card and “free” Amazon Echo Dot.

Get Frontier Copper is Frontier’s latest promotion for customers who do not live in its fiber-to-the-home service areas. Much of Frontier’s legacy network that predates its acquisitions of former Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse customers in Indiana, the Pacific Northwest, California, Texas, Florida, and Connecticut is still dependent on copper wiring that may have been on utility poles since the Johnson Administration.

The new promotion is among the first created under the leadership of Robert Curtis, Frontier’s latest senior vice president and chief marketing officer. Curtis is abandoning Frontier’s old marketing policies that eliminated a lot of fine print, sneaky fees/surcharges, and term contracts. The two-year contract with $120 early cancellation fee is the hallmark of Curtis’ commitment to reduce Frontier’s substantial customer churn, as customers abandon Frontier for competitors. A $120 sting in a customer’s wallet may convince many not to switch providers.

Frontier’s latest surcharges are also designed to extract more revenue from customers. A $10 per month compulsory equipment rental fee and recently increased “Internet Infrastructure Surcharge” will be applied to all customers in the future. Frontier previously allowed some customers to avoid the $10 monthly equipment rental fee by buying equipment outright from Frontier for $200. That option may be going away as Frontier gets serious about collecting $14 a month in surcharges from their internet customers.

Most legacy copper customers will be pitched up to three speed tiers ranging from 1, 6, and 12 Mbps, but not all customers will qualify for 6 or 12 Mbps plans if wiring in the neighborhood cannot support those speeds. There are Frontier service areas in metro areas that cannot achieve better than 3 Mbps, and plenty more in rural areas that top out at 1-3 Mbps. Those slower speed customers may not qualify for some promotions now available.

If you try to order faster internet speed not available in your neighborhood, you will likely see this error message.

Current promotions claim to offer up to 12 Mbps internet service for $12 a month for two years when bundled with voice service and/or a choice of packages that bundle internet and DISH satellite TV for $88 a month or a triple play of internet, voice, and satellite TV for $102 a month. Customers ordering online can get a $100 prepaid Visa card. But there are plenty of price-changing fees found in the terms and conditions, including an extra $14 a month in fees for that $12 a month internet offer. Customers that cancel any service in a promotional package automatically forfeit all promotional pricing and will be a charged an early termination fee up to $120.

Frontier charges a number of hidden fees on internet service, which increases the advertised price by at least $14 a month:

  • Broadband router fee ($10/mo.) (Frontier used to allow customers to waive this fee by buying Frontier’s $200 equipment package up front.)
  • Internet Infrastructure Surcharge ($3.99/mo.) (the fee was $1.99 a month)
  • A $9.99 equipment delivery/handling fee.
  • A $9.99 broadband processing fee upon disconnection of service.
  • A $75 installation fee applies to broadband-only service, waived if a customer chooses to bundle another service with internet.

Frontier claims it offers the speeds “you need” on a “reliable” network.

But there is plenty more fine print to consider, the most important we’ve underlined below:

Visa Gift Card: Limit one VISA Reward Card per household. Customer must submit (2) paid bill statements and follow the redemption instructions to receive VISA Reward Card, subject to Frontier verification. Customer agrees to share billing information with Frontier’s fulfillment partners. Limited-time offer for new Internet residential customers. Must subscribe to a qualifying package of new High-Speed Internet. Visit internet.Frontier.com/terms.html for details. VISA Reward Card offer is provided by Internet.frontier.com and is not sponsored by Frontier.

“Free” Amazon Echo Dot: Requires a two-year agreement with $120 maximum early termination fee on new internet and qualifying voice services. Maximum $120 Frontier early termination fee associated with Amazon Echo Dot offer is in addition to DISH early termination fee described below. The Amazon Echo Dot is given away by Frontier Communications. Amazon is not a sponsor of this promotion.

$12 Internet offer: New residential Internet customers only. Must subscribe to a two-year agreement on new High-Speed Internet with maximum speed range of 6.1 Mbps to 12 Mbps download and qualifying Voice service. After 24-month promotional period, promotional discount will end and the then-current everyday monthly price will apply to Internet and voice services and equipment.

$88 Internet and DISH TV offer: Limited-time offer for new residential Internet and new TV customers. Must subscribe to a two-year agreement on new High-Speed Internet with maximum speed range of 6.1 Mbps to 12 Mbps download and new DISH® AT120 service. After 24-month promotional period, promotional discount will end and the then-current everyday monthly price will apply to Internet service and equipment. A $34.99 Frontier video setup fee applies.

Frontier’s new marketing chief is returning the company to gotcha fees, surcharges, and contracts.

$102 Internet, DISH TV and Voice offer: Limited-time offer for new TV, new Internet and new Voice customers. Must subscribe to a two-year agreement on new High-Speed Internet with maximum speed range of 6.1 Mbps to 12 Mbps download, new qualifying Voice service and new DISH® AT120 service. After 24-month promotional period, promotional discount will end and the then-current everyday monthly price will apply to Internet and voice services and equipment. A $34.99 Frontier video setup fee applies. Unlimited calling is based on normal residential, personal, noncommercial use. Calls to 411 incur an additional charge.

Important DISH Terms and Conditions. Qualification: Advertised price requires credit qualification and 24-month commitment. Upfront activation and/or receiver upgrade fees may apply based on credit qualification. Offer ends 7/10/19. Early termination fee of $20/mo. remaining applies if you cancel early. America’s Top 120 programming package, local channels, HD service fees, and Hopper Duo Smart DVR for 1 TV. Programming package upgrades ($79.99 for AT120+, $89.99 for AT200, $99.99 for AT250), monthly fees for upgraded or additional receivers ($5-$7 per additional TV, receivers with additional functionality may be $10-$15). Taxes & surcharges, add-on programming (including premium channels), DISH Protect, and transactional fees. 3 Mos. Free: After 3 mos., you will be billed $20/mo. for Showtime and DISH Movie Pack unless you call or go online to cancel. All packages, programming, features, and functionality and all prices and fees not included in price lock are subject to change without notice. After 6 mos., if selected, you will be billed $9.99/mo. for DISH Protect Silver unless you call to cancel. After 2 years, then-current everyday prices for all services apply.

All Offers: Offer not valid in select areas of CT, NC, SC, MN, IL, OH, NY. Check promotion availability for your address. Maximum service speed is not available to all locations and the maximum speed for service at your location may be lower than the maximum speed in this range. Service speed is not guaranteed and will depend on many factors. Your ability to stream may be limited by speeds available in your area. Cannot be combined with other promotional offers on the same services. Equipment, taxes, governmental surcharges, and fees including broadband router fee ($10/mo.), Internet Infrastructure Surcharge ($3.99/mo.), and other applicable charges extra, and subject to change during and after the promotional period. A $9.99 equipment delivery/handling fee applies. A $9.99 broadband processing fee upon disconnection of service applies. Service and promotion subject to availability. $75 Installation fee waived on new Frontier Double and Triple plays. Standard charges apply for jack installation, wiring and other additional services. Frontier reserves the right to withdraw this offer at any time. Other restrictions apply. Subject to Frontier’s fair use policy and terms of service.

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