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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.

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

Conservative Business Group Sues to Toss Pro-Consumer Time Warner/Charter Merger Conditions

A corporate-funded business advocacy group backed by the telecom industry and the Koch Brothers is pursuing a lawsuit asking the D.C. Court of Appeals to toss pro-consumer deal conditions imposed by the Federal Communications Commission in return for granting its 2016 approval of the acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks by Charter Communications.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute filed an initial petition with the FCC asking the agency to rescind its own deal conditions shortly after the merger was completed. CEI argued the agency imposed “harmful merger conditions on Charter that had nothing to do with the merger itself,” and that the FCC did not have the authority to put corporate merger deal conditions in place.

CEI specifically targeted its objections to the FCC’s seven-year ban on Charter Spectrum data caps and consumption billing, arguing the ban raised broadband pricing for all Spectrum customers and prevented the cable company from offering discounts to low usage customers. It also claimed that Charter had to increase pricing for all customers because the FCC required Spectrum to raise broadband speeds, introduce a discounted internet program for low-income customers, and expand service to at least two million new households not presently served by Spectrum.

The FCC ultimately rejected CEI’s petition in 2018, claiming the group had no standing to challenge the merger transaction or deal conditions. The group called the FCC’s decision wrong, claiming consumers will “have to foot the bill for an overreaching federal agency” and that “the FCC has no authority to micromanage the internet at the public’s expense.”

This week, it filed an opening brief appealing the FCC’s decision to the D.C. Court of Appeals, which oversees the legality of the FCC’s regulatory decisions.

The 101-page filing maintains the FCC overreached by imposing any deal conditions on the 2016 multi-billion dollar merger deal, especially those that might require the merged company to spend money to improve service to customers. CEI argued such conditions were “arbitrary and capricious” and had no place as part of approving a business merger transaction.

The group submitted evidence from four individuals who attested to their belief that the deal conditions “probably contributed” to price increases after customers abandoned their legacy Bright House and Time Warner Cable plans in favor of Spectrum plans and pricing. The customers reported rate hikes ranging from $4 a month to $20 a month “for the same services,” but did not attach copies of their bills allowing a court to ascertain whether those rate increases involved cable television or broadband service or both.

No evidence was provided to prove CEI’s assertion that rate increases were directly tied to merger conditions other than a declaration from Robert W. Crandall, an economist and nonresident senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Crandall argued any deal conditions requiring a cable company to spend money to expand, improve, or discount services would likely impact subscriber rates.

No disclosure was made regarding any fees paid to Crandall to conduct research on behalf of CEI. The Technology Policy Institute is financially backed almost entirely by the Koch Brothers and corporate interests including AT&T, Charter Communications, Comcast, and Verizon.

CEI’s legal brief depends on assertions made by then-minority Republican members of the FCC, notably then-Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, who objected to the FCC’s merger conditions. CEI ignored the views of the then-Democratic majority on the Commission, who voted to approve the merger with deal conditions. Then Chairman Thomas Wheeler and Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel were not mentioned anywhere in CEI’s brief. Today the Commission has a Republican majority, with Pai now serving as chairman.

The FCC in 2016 (from left to right): Commissioners Ajit Pai, Mignon Clyburn, Chairman Tom Wheeler, and Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Michael O’Rielly

CEI’s argument follows a similar pattern to arguments made against net neutrality — namely, the FCC has no authority to regulate broadband services or the pricing and policies of the companies providing it. Charter Communications has occasionally argued the same point with the New York State Public Service Commission, which imposed deal conditions of its own in return for approval of the merger.

Charter has consistently reserved the right to object to deal conditions requiring it to build out service to rural areas, as well as any deal conditions that go beyond the authority of state regulators to oversee broadband service. In Charter’s view, state regulators have no such authority. In the state’s view, the PSC has the right to consider a myriad of factors because its regulatory mandate  requires approving or rejecting a merger based on the public interest. Its 2016 merger order found the transaction was not in the public interest unless the parties agreed to certain deal conditions, which closely resembled those required by the FCC. When Charter allegedly failed to meet the conditions it agreed to, the New York regulator could not directly compel Charter Spectrum into compliance, but it could and did decertify the merger itself.

Should the D.C. Court of Appeals find in favor of CEI, the deal conditions imposed by the FCC would be revoked, although Charter could continue to honor those conditions voluntarily. Separate legal cases would have to be brought in state courts to invalidate deal conditions imposed by state regulators.

Congressman-Elect Brindisi Calls on Regulators To Put Their Foot Down on Spectrum

Brindisi

Congressman-elect Anthony Brindisi has a message for the New York State Public Service Commission: stop giving Charter Spectrum extensions.

“Today, I am asking the Public Service Commission to make Feb. 11 the absolute final deadline for Charter Spectrum to present its plan to give customers the service they deserve or it is time to show them the exit door here in New York State,” Brindisi said at a press event. ““No one’s losing their cable. They’re not just going to turn the switch off and leave. The would have to bring in another provider. I would actually like to see a few providers so people can have some choices in their internet and cable providers. Competition, I believe, is a good thing.”

Brindisi is reacting to repeated extensions of the PSC’s order requiring Charter Spectrum to file an orderly exit plan with state regulators so that an alternate cable provider can be found. Private negotiations between the PSC staff and Charter officials have resulted in several deadline extensions, the latest granted until after the new year. Observers expect Charter and the PSC will settle the case, with the cable company agreeing to pay a fine and fulfilling its commitments in return for the Commission rescinding its July order canceling Charter’s merger with Time Warner Cable.

Brindisi, a Democrat from the Utica area, made Charter Spectrum a prominent campaign issue, and even ran ads against the cable company that Spectrum initially refused to air.

Brindisi says he would be okay with Spectrum remaining in the state as long as it meets its agreements, but he is not very optimistic that will happen.

“Number one — they committed that they were going to expand their service into underserved areas,” Brindisi said. “Number two — they weren’t going to raise rates and they have not complied or lived up to their agreement so I think action has to be taken.”

WUTR in Utica reports Congressman-elect Anthony Brindisi’s patience is wearing thin on Charter Spectrum. (0:48)

Charter Spectrum CEO Says Company Using Tax Breaks to Buy Back Its Own Stock

Rutledge

Charter Communications is using the benefits of the Republican-promoted tax cut to buy back its own stock, because the only other option under consideration was using the money to buy up other cable operators.

“From a [mergers and acquisitions] perspective, I think cable is a great business. If there were assets for sale that we could do more of, we would do that,” said Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge at this week’s UBS Global Media & Communications Conference. “We’ve been buying a lot of our own stock back. Why? Because we think the cable business is a great business and we haven’t been able to buy other cable assets.”

Charter is not using the company’s lower tax rate to benefit Spectrum customers with lower bills or more extravagant upgrades. Instead, it is accelerating efforts to please shareholders and executives with efforts to boost its share price — something key to top executives’ performance bonuses.

With digital and broadband upgrades nearly complete in areas formerly served by Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks — the cable companies Charter acquired in 2016 — Rutledge told investors he can initiate additional upgrades without spending huge sums on infrastructure buildouts.

Gigabit speed is now available in most markets, and the company has doubled its lowest internet download speeds in areas where it faces significant competition from AT&T from 100 to 200 Mbps, boosting sales of Spectrum broadband service, according to Rutledge.

Today, about 60% of Spectrum customers are offered 100 Mbps, while the other 40% — mostly in AT&T service areas — are getting 200 Mbps.

Rutledge told investors he does not see much threat from Verizon FiOS or its newly launched 5G offerings, and has no immediate plans to upgrade service in Verizon service areas because neither offering seems that compelling.

“I saw that Verizon had some passings that they could do 800 Mbps in,” Rutledge said. “We have 51 million passings that we can do 1 gigabit in and we can go to 10 gigabits relatively inexpensively and I think we will because I think the world will go to 10 gigabits.”

Analysts are uncertain whether Rutledge’s comments are naïve or brave.

“We see 5G fixed wireless broadband [like that offered by Verizon] as the largest existential threat to broadband providers, by far,” wrote analysts at Cowen. Until now, most broadband competition for cable operators came from phone companies pitching DSL. Verizon retrenched on its FiOS offering several years ago. But AT&T has been more aggressive upgrading urban areas to fiber service, which has forced Charter to respond with higher speeds and better promotions.

Rutledge does not see Verizon’s 5G being a significant competitive threat for several years, and suspects Wall Street may once again punish Verizon for spending money on a wireless network less capable than what the cable industry offers today. Shareholders may also dislike watching Verizon distracted by the home broadband market when portable wireless revenues are much more important to the company.

Verizon officials claim about half of those signing up for its 5G service plan were not current Verizon customers. But the company would not say whether their new fixed wireless customers were coming largely from cable or DSL disconnects, which would prove marketplace disruption.

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