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Charter Settlement Talks With New York Officials Proving Fruitful; Spectrum Likely Staying

Charter Communications’ ongoing settlement talks with the New York Public Service Commission are “productive” and will likely result in a final settlement agreement allowing Spectrum to continue operating in New York.

Today, the Public Service Commission formally approved a third extension for Charter, allowing the cable company to hold off filing an orderly exit plan and an appeal of the order revoking approval of Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable in New York State. Department of Public Service (DPS) staff recommended one last 45-day extension to allow settlement discussions to continue and conclude.

“These discussions have been productive and should continue. However, DPS Staff believes that the Commission should direct that any request granted in response to Charter’s most recent filing be final in form and that any additional time allowed must either result in a settlement agreement being presented to the Commission or the cessation of settlement talks and a resumption of the processes outlined in the Revocation and Compliance Orders, unless good cause is shown by both parties,” wrote John J. Sipos, acting general counsel for the Public Service Commission. “This will ensure that progress is made or that in the event a settlement is not reached, that there is certainty as to the expectations on the parties going forward.”

DPS staff identified nine principles guiding discussions towards a final settlement:

  1. All addresses that are counted toward Charter’s obligations must further the Commission’s statements that service be provided to those in less densely populated areas (i.e., Upstate N.Y.).
  2. Addresses counted toward Charter’s obligations must not have had network previously passing the address or high speed broadband service available from a competitor. As the Commission has previously noted, New York City is one of the most wired cities in America, with much of the City served by multiple providers. Thus, the focus of the buildout should be in Upstate N.Y.
  3. Overlap between Charter’s proposed buildout Upstate and those areas awarded by the Broadband Program Office should be minimized or eliminated to the maximum extent practicable.
  4. The goal of DPS Staff and New York State is to ensure that the maximum number of New York State residents have wireline cable and broadband networks available to them.
  5. Charter’s violations of the January 8, 2016 order and September 2017 Settlement Agreement must be addressed.
  6. Going forward, the scope of changes allowed to be made to the buildout plan should be limited in order to provide certainty to New Yorkers as to when Charter’s network will pass their homes and businesses.
  7. Safety is of paramount importance to New York State and that, regardless of any targets agreed to, all work must be done safely.
  8. Company representations regarding the buildout and compliance with PSC orders must be truthful.
  9. The buildout schedule must establish concrete and enforceable consequences should Charter fail to meet its obligations.

Because the ongoing discussions have been conducted in private, without input from interested third parties (including Stop the Cap!) and the public, the revelation of the “nine principles” are the first indication the public has that the Commission’s staff has limited the scope of its negotiations to the rural broadband buildout obligation contained in the original merger approval order. This also coincides with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s high-profile commitment to expand broadband availability to every New York resident, one of the achievements the governor cites in his re-election campaign. Charter’s participation is essential to the program achieving its objectives, because rural broadband funding has been diverted to addresses not identified as targets for Charter’s rural broadband buildout.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York.

Charter ran into trouble with the Commission because it failed to initially meet its buildout targets for 2017 and progress further faltered in 2018. The Commission argues Charter attempted to mask the problem by counting new passings in urban areas towards its broadband expansion commitment, including many addresses in the New York City area. When Charter balked at the Commission’s broad disqualification of Charter’s progress reports, many that included locations outside the intended goal of the rural expansion effort, the PSC hastily met in July and revoked approval of the original merger agreement, directly threatening Charter’s ability to provide Spectrum service in the state.

A vocal group of consumers among the 78,000 rural New Yorkers without access to cable, DSL, fiber, or wireless broadband are also calling out the governor and the Broadband Program Office (BPO) for bait and switch rural broadband. They accuse the governor of promising to get broadband service to every New York home or business that wants it, but quietly capitulating on that commitment by assigning tens of thousands of rural New Yorkers satellite internet service from HughesNet, widely criticized for not consistently meeting broadband speed standards and offering heavily usage capped service at very high prices.

Because the DPS has set a goal to minimize overlap of Charter’s planned expansion areas with addresses designated for BPO-funded HughesNet service, the Commission will indefinitely prevent satellite customers from getting other practical internet options, because many of these locations are high-cost service areas. Stop the Cap! urged the Commission to consider requiring Charter to further expand its rural broadband commitment as a penalty for earlier transgressions, specifically targeting as many satellite-designated addresses as practical, even if HughesNet has already received BPO funding to serve those locations.

Dampier

“The commitment should be to protect the interests of the public, not the assigned provider,” said Phillip Dampier, director and founder of Stop the Cap! “The Commission’s goal to maximize the number of New York addresses where wireline cable and broadband networks are available is laudable. But this goal is immediately abandoned in areas designated for satellite service. Satellite internet access has rarely, if ever, been considered by broadband regulators to be a suitable replacement for wired internet access. Satellite internet access has proven again and again to be a frustrating and inadequate broadband solution.”

“We are talking about a very small percentage of places where overlapped funding may occur, potentially giving these rural New Yorkers two options for internet access instead of one,” Dampier added. “There is no conflict with the public interest if it means these customers have the option of a much faster, unlimited internet access plan — something HughesNet does not and will not offer in the foreseeable future.”

Stop the Cap! argues without a better option for residents stuck with satellite, the governor has broken his promise and commitment to these left-behind New Yorkers.

“In many cases, these addresses are literally just down the road from the nearest Spectrum customer,” Dampier noted. “Niagara County, for example, is hardly in the middle of the Adirondacks and is heavily wired by Spectrum/Time Warner Cable already. Is it too much to ask to push them to do more?”

John B. Rhodes, chairman of the New York Public Service Commission, signed an order granting the extension, but acknowledged the lack of broadband service in counties where Spectrum offers service to some residents but not others is a point of contention.

“Many Upstate New Yorkers living in Charter’s franchise areas are understandably frustrated by the lack of modern communications infrastructure,” Rhodes wrote. “The Compliance and Revocation Orders [revoking the merger] were designed to deal with very serious issues presented by Charter’s conduct related to the company’s network expansion. As such, the processes envisioned therein must continue in the absence of an agreement.”

Fuming Spectrum Customers in Queens Spend an Hour on Hold to Report Multi-Day Outages

Ralph Romano is still on hold with Charter Spectrum, waiting to report an outage that began late Sunday evening in his apartment in the Jamaica, Queens neighborhood.

“You sit on hold for an hour and then the call disconnects, which is exactly the kind of treatment you know you are going to get from this shabby operation,” an angry Romano tells Stop the Cap! “I am 72 years old and ran my own business for 46 years. If I treated my customers the way this cable company does, I would have been out of business in 4-6 months. I don’t know how they did it but Spectrum is even worse than Time Warner Cable.”

Romano is one of dozens of customers reportedly experiencing a multi-day outage in Queens. For some, the outage takes out phone, internet and television service but for others, internet service is the worst affected.

Romano’s neighbor gave up on wasting her cell phone minutes on hold to report the outage. She took a taxi to the Spectrum Store in Elmhurst and then waited over 90 minutes before someone called on her.

NYC rats are not to be trifled with. This one is taking a slice home on the subway.

“I just wanted to report the outage, not turn in equipment or pay a bill, but the door greeter could care less,” Sandra e-mailed us. “They want your name and then they can’t be bothered. I watched people come in after me get called up to pay their bill, sometimes with a sack of change spilled out on the table that took 15 minutes to count. It was infuriating. When they finally called me, I was helped by Mr. ‘I Don’t Care’ who wanted my account information, then said my cable box appeared to be fine. He never tested the internet modem, which is where the problem was. When I told him the whole building was out, he said he couldn’t take reports about other people and they would have to come down themselves to report the trouble. He gave me a $5 credit for service we still don’t have back. Useless.”

“We have a lot of elderly people in this building so they are not going to run down to Spectrum and wait for hours to report a problem that could be discussed over the phone,” Romano said.

Like several other buildings in Queens, there are no immediate alternatives. Although Verizon claims FiOS is available to the building where Romano lives, the only neighbor who ordered it waited two months for engineering work and then had his order summarily canceled without explanation. The building owner warned FiOS is not available because Verizon was unwilling to place its incoming cables in the appropriate conduit, which is rat-resistant.

“The rats around here eat anything, especially cables,” Romano said. “Everyone seems to know that except Verizon.”

Over in Kew Gardens, intermittent internet access from Spectrum is often a fact of life.

Espinal

“When it rains, the internet is gone,” says Ana López. “You might get 15 minutes worth of use, but then the cable modem light starts blinking and the service is just gone. We have called them at least 10 times, and the riff-raff they send out here couldn’t find their rear end with their hands. Since the strike, the people who knew what they were doing must be on the picket lines because the guys taking their place are scary stupid. One suddenly decided to replace some inside wiring, but he ended up ripping the cable out of the wall by mistake and tore up the plaster. One thing they did make sure to do was laugh when they cut the old Verizon (FiOS) cable the old tenants must have used and then let it fall inside the wall. The other guy accidentally dropped one of his tools into my aquarium.”

López has repeatedly told them the problem has to be outside because it does not rain inside her home, but the latest contractor she dealt with confided he doesn’t climb poles unless absolutely necessary because “he is afraid of heights. ¡Dios mío! I am not lying to you.”

Unsurprisingly, the technicians did not fix the problem. As the problems in Queens mount, Rafael Espinal, chairman of the Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing in the New York City Council, has set up his own website to take complaints about Charter Spectrum across the city. “FixMyCableNow.com” does not appear to forward complaints on to Spectrum, but angry and dissatisfied customers can get more responsive service for unresolved problems by filing an online complaint with the N.Y. Attorney General’s office.

J.D. Power Survey Rates Charter Spectrum and Frontier Among Worst in Satisfaction

Charter Spectrum and Frontier Communications are among America’s most-hated telecom companies, especially east of the Mississippi River, according to the latest J.D. Power 2018 Residential Satisfaction Study that measures customer satisfaction scores across four geographic regions of the country.

Among the best for internet access, AT&T/DirecTV took top honors in their wireline service areas in the south, north-central, and parts of the western United States where gigabit fiber upgrades have dramatically improved service over older DSL and U-verse internet products. In the east, Verizon’s FiOS network was by far the best rated ISP.

“It is clear wireline companies are putting the customer experience first, and it is paying off,” said Ian Greenblatt, Technology, Media & Telecom Practice Lead at J.D. Power. “Finding ways to make call centers more efficient and clarifying billing statements and contracts are just a few relatively easy things companies can be doing to improve the customer experience. Additionally, methods in which companies are communicating service and product updates have been evolving with the technology itself and has proven to be a valuable approach to high customer satisfaction.”

Also scoring above average for internet service:

  • West: Cable One, Cox Communications, Spectrum, Comcast/XFINITY
  • South: Comcast/XFINITY

In the eastern and north-central regions, Spectrum scored second worst for internet access, only avoiding last place because Frontier Communications, which relies primarily on DSL service in these areas of the country, did worse.

In the south, Suddenlink scored poorly, but not as bad as regional phone companies Frontier, CenturyLink, and bottom-rated Windstream, which all offer DSL service.

In the west, customers especially loathed CenturyLink, Mediacom — Consumer Reports’ perennial favorite for worst cable operator, and dead last Frontier.

Comcast appears to have improved its customer satisfaction scores slightly when compared against almost 20 years of earlier satisfaction studies performed annually by J.D. Power. In contrast, Frontier continues its decline in customer satisfaction, predominately in areas where it still only offers DSL service. Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks appears to have done few favors for consumers, who dislike Charter Spectrum just as much, if not more than its predecessors.

The ratings are based on responses from 27,765 customers that returned surveys evaluating cable/satellite/telco TV, internet access and landline telephone providers. Customers were asked to rank each provider on network performance and reliability, cost of service, billing, communication, and customer service.

New York’s Rural Broadband Program Betrays Tens of Thousands of Rural Residents

For 76,783 homes and businesses in upstate New York, the future of internet access will be a satellite dish and as little as a 20 GB data allowance per month, courtesy of the New York State Broadband Program Office’s decision to partner with HughesNet, a satellite internet provider, instead of finding a provider willing to extend wired internet access to every New Yorker.

HughesNet Satellite “Fraudband”

For town supervisors and village mayors up and down the state, relying on HughesNet is nothing short of breaking Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s promise to bring broadband service to every New York resident.

Lewis town supervisor James Monty called HughesNet and other satellite internet providers “a dead end.”

“HughesNet is not broadband,” Monty said. “I just think it’s a gross waste of public funds to use something that isn’t going to work.”

Rural residents strongly agree, if only because many of them have directly experienced the pain and frustration of satellite internet in the past.

Bethel resident Susan Harte has two words to describe the kind of service HughesNet has provided since it launched its first satellite: “it stinks.”

She isn’t pleased the governor is walking away from rural New Yorkers.

“Definitely broken promises there,” Harte says.

In the North Country, Willsboro town supervisor Shaun Gillilland believes the issue is personal between the governor and his constituents.

“The state made a promise and you’re all here expecting them to carry through on that promise, and I think what we’re finding is that that promise is falling very short,” Gillilland said.

Further west, some residents in Niagara County, near Niagara Falls, are preparing to abandon their homes and move out of state to find internet service and a state government less beholden to corporate interests.

One resident of Middleport tells Stop the Cap! “I’m in a state of disbelief that we are going to actually pull the kids from school and move. We don’t have anymore years to wait. We need internet.”

This particular resident has called out state and elected officials for months on social media to draw attention to the reality rural New Yorkers are going to be stuck with awful internet access for years, while Gov. Cuomo takes credit for a program he will claim is a success story.

A 20 GB Data Cap

HughesNet plans for New York customers at designated addresses for New York’s rural broadband program top out with a 20 GB data cap.

HughesNet appears to be ready to take $15,620,785 from New York and $13,720,697 in private and federal funds and leave residents with internet service even worse than they offer many of their regular customers.

“I’ve already been told by an insider [the only significant benefit New York is getting] is $200 off installation,” the Middleport resident tells us. “The service is exactly the same as ordinary HughesNet except NY Broadband Program Office recipients will have a 20 GB data cap instead of the 50 GB data cap offered elsewhere.”

Susan Potter, who lacks internet access to her home near Watertown, thinks there is a scam afoot.

“Why is New York giving HughesNet $15 million dollars for internet service that any New York resident could order themselves today?” she asked Stop the Cap! “Where is the money going and how exactly will it benefit New York residents? Except for a much smaller and completely inadequate data cap, I cannot find a single thing HughesNet is doing for New York except taking the government’s money for substandard internet access and giving us a break on a satellite dish that can already be discounted from promotions.”

HughesNet’s own website tells an interesting story. Residents who enter an address designated to receive satellite internet by New York are offered just two plans — 10 GB and 20 GB per month (with a 24-month term commitment). Outside of those areas, HughesNet offers up to four plans — 10, 20, 30 and 50 GB allowances per month (with the same two-year term commitment). HughesNet promises “up to 25 Mbps” but disclaims any responsibility if it fails to meet that speed.

“NYBPO officials cannot seem to understand that the technology has limitations and that they can’t offer unlimited data,” the Middleport resident and Stop the Cap! reader added.

Few Albany residents working for the state government have to contend with no internet options, and wired internet plans in New York remain uncapped with no data allowances, which may mean some public officials have yet to grasp the implications of a 20GB data cap, less than what wireless phone companies offer state residents with unlimited data plans. The average home broadband user now consumes an average of 190 GB of data per month, which means HughesNet’s offer is for strictly rationed internet access.

HughesNet plans in parts of North Carolina offer up to 50GB of access.

Back in Lewis, Michael Hopmeier, president of Unconventional Concepts, which provides engineering consultancy services, told the Adirondack Daily Enterprise he openly fears New York’s broadband future has been left in the hands of unqualified bureaucrats running the state’s broadband office:

“I found as an engineer and a person with a background in communications and testing evaluation, that the information that they were providing was completely unrefined,” Hopmeier said. “We were getting broad, vague numbers like ‘99 percent coverage.’”

He said he compiled a list of questions: 99 percent coverage of what? What exactly did they mean by “broadband?” Why were the contracts issued to the companies that they were? Then he and the supervisors filed a Freedom of Information Law request to the state for answers.

“The gist of the responses we received was either no answer, ‘We won’t answer that,’ or the answers made very little sense,” Hopmeier said.

With tens of millions of state taxpayer dollars on the table, Hopmeier worries the state is going to waste a huge amount of money on an unworkable solution for rural New Yorkers.

“My concerns boil down to: one, ‘How are they measuring what they are doing? Two, is there an audit going on? Is there an attempt to review and determine whether those standards and goals are actually being met? And then three, what actions will actually be taken to correct any problems if we can find them,” Hopmeier said.

He has experience using HughesNet himself, and as a result of what he calls “totally technically unacceptable” internet service, he is now sending work out of state to Virginia and Florida, where broadband service is better.

Two hours north of New York City, it is not difficult to find a broadband desert. Steve Israel, writing for the Times Herald-Record, notes Sullivan County communities like Bethel, Callicoon and Delaware, along with Ulster County towns like Marbletown and Rochester are going to be stuck with fixed wireless at 2 Mbps, HughesNet at 15 Mbps (assuming it isn’t congested that day) or for a precious few — Charter Spectrum, which is rebuilding its rural cable systems to support faster internet speeds. For others, DSL from Verizon claims to offer up to 15 Mbps, but few admit to getting service anywhere close to that speed. All of these rosy speed predictions come from the state, but residents on the ground know better.

“Thousands of folks will be left without the high-speed internet Cuomo promised,” Israel wrote.

Frontier’s Internet Nightmares – “They Talk a Lot and Don’t Accomplish Much”

HughesNet isn’t the only provider attracting crowds armed with pitchforks and torches. Frontier Communications, which was recently awarded $9.7 million to extend DSL service to 2,735 more rural customers in the Finger Lakes, Southern Tier and North Country, attracts scorn from its existing customers.

“There is a special place in hell reserved for Frontier’s despicable DSL service,” scowled Lillian Weber.

“Disgustingly inadequate,” fumed Wilmington resident Bob Rose, who has been at war with Frontier for months about slow or intermittent service.

“It’s like not having internet access at all — dial-up used to be faster,” added John Schneider, another unsatisfied customer.

Weber holds the record among her neighbors for the longest delay for a Frontier repair crew to show up — eight weeks, resulting from three “missed” appointments.

“They rarely bother to show up and once claimed they were here but nobody answered the door, despite the fact we spent all day on the porch staring at the driveway,” Weber. “They are even bad at lying.”

Last winter, Wilmington residents found several examples of neglected Frontier lines under pressure from overgrown tree limbs and branches. (Image courtesy: The Sun)

Rose is never sure if Frontier’s repair crews will turn up at his home either when his internet service fails, which is often.

“If I’m lucky, we have an internet connection 60 percent of the time,” Rose told The Sun. “We’ve been frustrated as hell over here, a lot of calls. We might have 1 in 10 days where we have internet all day.”

Frontier says Rose lives in a troubled, “high volume area.” Rose says his entire neighborhood has three or four homes. He now never leaves home without his Wi-Fi hotspot, because it is often the only way to stay connected.

Rose can point to at least one visible problem he saw last winter around his neighborhood. Frontier is simply not taking care of its network.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “Tree limbs, heavy with snow, laying right on the cable. They need to trim those trees.”

Local government officials also hear often about Frontier. Essex County Board of Supervisors chairman Randy Preston is one of them.

“Every other week, I get a complaint about Frontier,” he said. He has personally filed a complaint with the state’s attorney general and is sending a call-out to all Frontier customers dissatisfied with their internet service to do the same. He does not believe Frontier deserves a penny of state money, and the company should return what it has already received.

Essex County Board of Supervisors chairman Randy Prestonon Frontier: “They talk a lot and don’t accomplish much.”

“As far as I’m concerned, they haven’t met their commitment,” Preston told The Sun. “The grants should be pulled from them, and they should be fined. They aren’t living up to their commitment, and I don’t think that should be allowed.”

After years of dealing with Frontier, Preston has a saying about the phone company: “They talk a lot and don’t accomplish much.”

The requirements of the current round of broadband funding require participants to offer customers 100 Mbps of service, something a Frontier spokesperson confirmed.

“In general, the program requires projects to have speed capability of 100 Mbps. The Frontier projects will satisfy this requirement of the program,” the spokesperson said.

That will likely require the phone company to bring fiber to the home service to the 2,735 customers to be served. Current customers will believe it when they see it. It is also clear that existing customers will not be so lucky. When asked directly if Frontier will upgrade to fiber-fast internet speeds elsewhere in New York, Frontier Communications manager Andy Malinoski kept his answer to The Sun vague.

“Frontier is constantly investing in, expanding and improving our network as we continue to improve our customer experience in New York and across the United States,” Malinoski said. “The NY Broadband Program is one tactic we are implementing in certain communities to achieve those goals.”

The NY Public Service Commission urges New Yorkers with Frontier DSL problems to complain directly to them.

“If it were to receive a consumer complaint, PSC staff would work to resolve the issue, including bringing in other agencies if necessary,” said James Denn, a spokesman. “Going forward, all upstate New Yorkers will see dramatic improvements in service quality and availability as a result of Gov. Cuomo’s nation-leading investment program. As part of this effort, PSC staff will work closely with the NYBPO to ensure that companies receiving awards, including Frontier, provide good customer service.”

“That’s a hoot,” responded Weber. “They should spend a week with us and after that, if they are smart, they will throw Frontier out of New York right behind Charter.”

Comcast & Spectrum Open Up Free Wi-Fi Service in Georgia and the Carolinas

Hurricane Florence

Comcast and Charter Communications are providing free and open access to more than 12,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in Georgia and the Carolinas as Hurricane Florence begins impacting the three states.

“In response to Hurricane Florence, we have opened up more than 5,100 Spectrum Wi-Fi hotspots in North and South Carolina. These hotspots are open to all users until further notice in coastal communities like Wilmington, N.C., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., as well as inland to the Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Fayetteville and Greensboro areas,” Charter said in a statement.

To connect your device, look for the “SpectrumWiFi” network under your device’s WiFi settings in Charter service areas, “xfinitywifi” in Comcast country.

“It’s critical that impacted residents are able to communicate during challenging weather events such as Hurricane Florence,” said Doug Guthrie, regional senior vice president for Comcast.

As a result, Comcast is opening up almost 7,000 hotspots in Augusta and Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C. Both cable companies are welcoming subscribers and non-subscribers alike.

Hurricane Florence, although currently downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane, remains a vast hurricane with a large wind field of hurricane force winds, and will likely pummel the region until Saturday. Combined with intense rainfall and catastrophic storm surges, devastation is likely along coastal regions of all three states. Duke Energy, which serves North and South Carolina, anticipates extended outages for at least three million customers during Hurricane Florence.

As of 5 p.m. ET Thursday, the center of Florence was 100 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, N.C. and 155 miles east of Myrtle Beach, S.C. The hurricane has slowed to just 5 mph.

Other states likely to be impacted by flooding rains, storm surge, and winds are Maryland and Virginia.

Actual landfall of Florence is not expected until at least Friday afternoon, according to Neil Jacobs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Cable outages are often a result of power outages. If electricity goes out in an area, cable services will go as well, and remain unavailable until power is restored. If cable infrastructure is also damaged, service won’t return when electricity does and outages should be reported to the cable company. Traditional landline service is powered independent of the electric grid. Report any service outages to the telephone company.

If infrastructure is severely damaged, it could take several weeks to restore electric, phone, and cable service after a major hurricane.

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