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New Yorkers: The PSC Wants Your Views on the Charter Spectrum Settlement

Back in April, Charter Communications and staffers from the New York Department of Public Service (Public Service Commission) reached a tentative settlement to resolve a dispute over whether Charter violated the terms of the 2016 Merger Order granting approval of the acquisition of Time Warner Cable.

Most of the contention came over Charter’s ability to meet the timeline for expanding cable service to an additional 145,000 unserved address in New York State and whether the company counted ineligible addresses towards their target.

Under the terms of the settlement, which still requires approval by the Commission, Charter agrees to:

  1. Continue to invest in network expansion to bring high speed broadband to 145,000 unserved addresses in New York outside of the New York City metropolitan area.
  2. Complete expansion no later than September 30, 2021, under a schedule that will be closely monitored by state regulators to ensure compliance.
  3. Agree, over and above the original merger conditions, to spend an additional $12 million for broadband expansion projects to be selected by the PSC and the New York State Broadband Program Office (including some addresses previously assigned HughesNet satellite broadband.)

The PSC now wants to receive comments from interested parties about the proposed settlement. If the agreement is approved, Charter Spectrum will remain in New York as the state’s largest cable operator.

How to Comment:

Make sure to reference: “Case 15-M-0388 – Settlement Agreement” in your written comments.

Website

Comments may be entered directly into the case file by clicking here. Then click on the “Post Comments” button at the top of the page and input your comments using the form provided.

E-Mail

Send comments to: Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary, at [email protected]

Mail

Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess
Secretary
Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223-1350

All comments must be received by July 8, 2019.

Verizon’s Leaky Power Blamed for Damaging Copper Water Pipes, Costing Homeowners Thousands

Some residents in eastern Queens, N.Y. have paid tens of thousands of dollars to replace copper water pipes, some damaged beyond repair just three months after being installed, after mysterious stray electric current traced back to Verizon caused the pipes to prematurely deteriorate.

In April, without admitting liability, Verizon reached out to homeowners on 188th Street in the Fresh Meadows area, offering to reimburse costs incurred dealing with leaking, corroded copper water pipes.

The problems began nearly four years ago, affecting residents of Jamaica Estates, Rosedale, Flushing, and other nearby neighborhoods. An epidemic of water leaks originating in copper pipes that connect homes to the municipal water supply resulted in waterlogged front lawns and small rivers of water running down streets with no rain in sight. Copper water pipes rated for 60 years of service began failing after as little as three months. Inspection found premature corrosion and leaks.

Joe Concannon on 188th Street in Queens demonstrates how quickly water lines in the neighborhood deteriorate as a result of corrosion. (2:00)

What caused the pipes to deteriorate so rapidly, forcing some homeowners to replace their feed lines four times over the course of a few years? An investigation conducted by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which is responsible for supplying water service in the area, discovered the culprit was stray direct current electricity traveling underground. When DC voltage reaches copper pipes, electrolytic corrosion begins. True electrolysis is rare and had not been seen in most cities for decades, primarily because of the retirement of high amperage DC current-fed trolley cars our grandparents and great-grandparents once rode.

This copper pipe survived five months underground before deteriorating with a substantial corrosion hole. (Image courtesy: Joe Concannon)

As some homeowners continued to face thousands in repair bills, a classic game of finger-pointing ensued over where the excess leaking voltage was coming from. Con Ed was a natural suspect, except for the fact it supplies alternating current (AC) voltage, which was not responsible for the corrosion problem. Con Ed blamed Verizon, claiming the source of the stray electricity was coming from Verizon equipment on a pole in Rosedale. Verizon called Con Ed’s investigation flawed because that particular pole carried fiber optic FiOS cables. Besides, it was highly unlikely leaking voltage traced to a single overhead pole could cause the kind of damage being found in Queens.

In 2017, the DEP commissioned Corr-Tech, an independent consultant, to find the source of the stray voltage, and verify if city infrastructure was responsible. In a 2018 report, the consultant stated that the leaks were not caused by city infrastructure but rather by a private utility, namely Verizon.

Corr-Tech found that although Verizon had commissioned FiOS fiber optic service in Queens years earlier, its older network remained in service. Verizon’s copper infrastructure is powered by DC voltage and if allowed to fall into disrepair, could leak DC voltage from buried phone cables. In this part of Queens, Verizon used lead-sheathed communications cable in terracotta ducts in the immediate vicinity of the deteriorated copper piping. Terracotta is the same material used to make clay flower pots, and is relatively fragile and subject to cracking and breaking.

After the 2018 report was issued, Verizon announced some results of its own investigation, concluding “when homeowners disconnect traditional copper telephone wires, by either going to FiOS or removing phone service altogether, Verizon continues to emit a current through those lines.”

But Verizon did not accept direct responsibility, and for the rest of 2018 into 2019, copper pipe failures persisted. At least 32 private water service lines along the east side of 188th Street and between 73rd Avenue and the Grand Central Parkway have failed since 2017.

“We’re not talking about one or two or five or ten, were talking about dozens,” said City Councilmember Barry Grodenchik. “Let me do the math for you, one person having a broken water main into their house is bad luck on one block, two of them is a coincidence, 32 in such a short stretch of 188th Street is a statistical impossibility unless there is an intervening force.”

In January, fed up residents were joined by members of the City Council and New York Assembly at a press conference calling on Verizon and the DEP to resolve the situation and reimburse homeowners. Assemblyman David Weprin proposed a bill in the New York State legislature that would put the onus on DEP to replace damaged water pipes at their expense, and then chase Verizon for reimbursement.

“The homeowners should not be responsible,” Weprin said in January. “I will be introducing a bill tomorrow in Albany, hopefully with the support of my Assembly member colleagues, to not require the homeowners to lay out the money. DEP is in a better position to layout the money, in the thousands of dollars, and then go after the third-party, in this case Verizon, rather than the homeowners.”

Because Verizon may ultimately be found financially liable, the company is now disconnecting line voltage from unused landlines, but despite reducing stray DC current, it remains present underground. Verizon will likely have to decommission its copper landline network or replace it to fully eliminate the excess voltage. In the meantime, Verizon recently sent letters to all affected homeowners stating it hired Sedgwick Claim Management Services “to evaluate claims for reimbursement for monetary expenses incurred as a direct result of the leak of your corroded copper water pipes.”

In return for signing a release of all claims against Verizon for damage, the phone company says it will begin reimbursing valid claim holders. Some neighborhood activists have little trust in Verizon or its motives, and questioned whether that signed release would prevent future claims from being processed. Verizon denied that would be the case and said it would continue to reimburse impacted homeowners in the future. Many would prefer not having to cover the costly repairs out-of-pocket and then wait for reimbursement. Some have proposed a fund paid for by utility companies to cover replacement costs directly.

A few lawmakers wonder if Verizon’s deteriorating underground infrastructure could be a ticking time bomb waiting to go off in other neighborhoods and in other states.

“Homeowners have been affected, and yet again we’ve seen a huge corporation just shirk their responsibility for doing the right thing by each and every homeowner,” said Assemblywoman Nily Rozic. “It is incumbent upon the city it’s incumbent on the state the Public Service Commission, to make Verizon step up and really deliver for homeowners.”

WABC-TV’s consumer reporter visited Queens to report on the sudden deterioration of copper water pipes in the neighborhood in July, 2018. Impacted homeowners endured flooded basements and thousands of dollars in unreimbursed expenses. (2:54)

Stop the Cap! Analysis: Charter Spectrum and New York State Reach Tentative Deal

Charter Communications and the New York Department of Public Service announced a tentative settlement Friday that would allow Spectrum to continue providing cable TV, phone, and internet service in New York in return for a renewed commitment from the cable company to meet its 145,000 new passings rural broadband buildout agreement, commit to an expansion of that rural buildout, and in lieu of fines, pay $12 million in funds deposited in two escrow accounts to be used to help defray the costs of further broadband service extensions apart from Charter’s original commitments.

“Today the New York Department of Public Service jointly filed a proposed agreement with Charter Communications to resolve disputes over the network expansion conditions imposed by the Public Service Commission,” said Department of Public Service CEO John B. Rhodes in a statement issued Friday. “This proposed agreement will now be issued for a 60-day public comment period and remains subject to review and final action by the Public Service Commission.”

The agreement reinforces the state’s desire that Charter’s broadband expansion commitment be met by expanding service to homes and businesses in areas unlikely to get cable service otherwise, namely areas in Upstate New York. The state originally objected when Charter tried to count new passings in the highly populated New York City area as part of its expansion commitment. The new agreement requires the 145,000 homes and businesses newly passed be entirely Upstate, and completed no later than Sept. 30, 2021.

Only 64,827 new passings have been recognized by both parties as “completed” as of December, 2018

The proposed settlement gives insight into just how badly Charter failed to meet its original broadband expansion commitments, noting “Charter shall be deemed successfully to have completed 64,827 passings qualifying towards the Total Passings requirements of the Settlement Agreement and the 2019 Settlement Order, as of December 16, 2018.”

Charter’s record of failure on its rural expansion commitment is stark.

The original 2016 Merger Order required Charter to expand service to:

  • 36,250 premises by May 18, 2017
  • 72,500 by May 18, 2018
  • 108,750 by May 18, 2019
  • 145,000 by May 18, 2020

Charter did not even come close. Department Interim CEO Gregg C. Sayre said in 2017 that as of May 18 of that year, Charter had only extended its network to pass 15,164 of the 36,250 premises it was required to pass in just the first year after the merger.

In June 2017, New York fined Charter and required a $13 million ($12 million refundable to Charter if it complied) deposit be placed in escrow in an effort to get the company to comply with its buildout commitments. But Charter also failed to meet its commitments under that settlement as well:

  • 36,771 premises by Feb. 16, 2017
  • 58,417 by June 18, 2018
  • 80,063 by Dec. 16, 2018
  • 101,708 by May 18, 2019
  • 123,354 by Nov. 16, 2019
  • 145,000 by May 18, 2020

With just shy of 65,000 premises recognized as completed as of December, 2018 — almost three years after the merger — Charter was 15,236 premises short, based on the December 16, 2018 deadline. Within a few weeks from today, the company should have completed its 101,708th new passing. That seems extremely unlikely to actually happen.

Charter itself claimed in July, 2018, “Spectrum has extended the reach of our advanced broadband network to more than 86,000 New York homes and businesses since our merger agreement with the PSC.” That number is also suspect.

The company did not say if the expansion numbers it reported met the terms of the 2016 Merger Order, but Charter obviously thought those should be counted as legitimate new passings for the purpose of meeting its merger obligations. New York regulators clearly thought many of those expansions did not, and were infuriated when Charter began airing advertisements promoting its rural expansion in New York with what the state believed to be inflated numbers.

The Settlement

A review of the proposed legal settlement shows the Commission accepted many of the recommendations made by Stop the Cap! regarding the terms of any deal that would rescind last summer’s order revoking approval for the merger of Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications in New York State. We recommended the settlement focus on requiring an even greater expansion of rural broadband than originally envisioned, particularly in areas the state designated for HughesNet satellite internet access. We also recommended that any monetary fines be directed to further expansion of rural broadband, instead of being sent on to Albany to be added to the state’s general fund.

We noted that although Charter flagrantly violated the terms of the 2016 Merger Order, successfully removing the company from New York would likely result in years of litigation, and the likely entry of Comcast, which in our view is anti-consumer, and a much worse choice in terms of pricing and the quality of customer service. Comcast also imposes data caps in many of its service areas, a concept which Stop the Cap! obviously fiercely opposes. In our view, given a choice between Charter and Comcast, which would be the highly likely outcome, New York consumers would benefit (slightly) by keeping Spectrum service.

The terms

Reach 145,000 unserved/underserved New Yorkers with at least 100 Mbps internet access

  • Charter is recommitted to expand rural internet service to 145,000 New Yorkers qualified as unserved (download speeds less than 25 Mbps available) or underserved (download speeds of 25-99.9 Mbps) entirely within Upstate New York.

Schoharie, NY

To ensure Charter does not simply choose “low-hanging fruit” to wire, such as new housing starts or urban business parks, the agreement limits Charter expansions to no more than 9,500 addresses in the urban and suburban areas adjacent to Albany, Buffalo, Mt. Vernon, Rochester, Schenectady, and Syracuse.

Additionally, Charter is restricted from expanding service to no more than 9,400 addresses that are scheduled to get (or already have) access to another wired provider because of a grant from the New NY Broadband Program.

But Charter is allowed to expand service to reach not more than 30,000 customers stuck on New York’s list of addresses designated to get HughesNet satellite internet. Stop the Cap! strongly recommended the Commission do all it can to require or encourage Charter to reach as many satellite-designated New Yorkers as economically feasible. The proposed agreement takes our recommendation into account, but we will urge the Commission to strike the 30,000 cap and allow Charter to reach as many of these disadvantaged customers as possible, and have it count towards their broadband expansion commitment. Those addresses designated to receive satellite service are the least likely to be reached by any commercial provider because of the costs to reach them, and they are too scattered across the state to make a public broadband alternative feasible.

Charter gets to include some ‘already-in-progress new passings’ towards its 145,000 new passings commitment: 5,993 passings located within Upstate Cities Charter would likely have serviced anyway; 4,388 wired overlap passings (where an existing telco or cable provider already offers service), and 9,397 addresses where wireless or satellite service was the only option.

A new “milestones” schedule is included for new buildouts, which partly explains why so many rural New Yorkers expecting to receive service by now are complaining about delays:

  • 76,521 new premises by Sept. 30, 2019
  • 87,934 by Jan. 31, 2020
  • 99,347 by May 31, 2020
  • 110,760 by Sept. 30, 2020
  • 122,173 by Jan. 31, 2021
  • 133,586 by May 31, 2021
  • 145,000 by Sept. 30, 2021

If Charter again fails to stay on schedule, it must pay $2,800 for each designated-as-missed passing address into an escrow fund. If it chooses not to appeal that decision, or loses an appeal, those funds will be added to an Incremental Build Commitment fund described below.

Rural Broadband Expansion Fund #1 ($6 million) — Incremental Build Commitment

The first rural broadband expansion fund will contain $6 million dollars that Charter will pay into escrow and will be dedicated to defray Charter’s costs of constructing additional broadband passings above and beyond the 145,000 noted above. Charter itself or the state can designate the unserved addresses either want serviced, and Charter will be permitted to withdraw funds to pay for materials, construction, labor, licensing, and any permits required for these incremental expansion efforts. This money will be reserved for Charter to use for its own projects.

Rural Broadband Expansion Fund #2 ($6 million) — Incremental Broadband Fund

Although New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised broadband service for any New Yorker that wants it, his New NY Broadband Program left more than 80,000 New York homes and businesses behind because the program relied on private companies to bid to serve each unserved/underserved New York address. In especially rural areas, no company ultimately bid to reach those addresses because the subsidy funding offered by the state was too little to make the expansion investment worthwhile. In the end, those addresses were designated to be served by HughesNet, a satellite internet service provider. But HughesNet cannot guarantee its internet speeds, has draconian usage caps, and is very expensive. Customer satisfaction scores are also generally poor. For most, a wired internet solution is far preferable. To get one, New York would need to launch a new round of broadband funding, with a more generous subsidy to make construction costs to reach those unserved customers financially worthwhile.

The second $6 million rural expansion fund is more or less exactly that — an additional source of funds to try to reach those missed by earlier funding rounds. Most of the money in this fund would be awarded after a bidding process starting on or after Sept. 30, 2021. Any provider capable of offering customers at least 100 Mbps service will be qualified to participate in the first round of bidding to receive a portion of this money. The areas under consideration would be in existing Charter franchise areas or outside of a Charter-franchised area if both Charter and New York’s Broadband Program Office (BPO) agree. In most cases, for reasons of simplicity, we expect most this money will end up financing expansion projects just outside of Charter’s existing service area. So if you happened to live within a mile or two of an existing Charter customer, this money could be used by Charter to extend its network in your direction. Charter also enjoys the right of first refusal, an important advantage for the cable company. Charter could agree to service a designated address before it becomes open to a competitive bidding process.

The terms are generous to providers, who only have to agree to pay 20% of their own money to submit a cost-sharing bid. The fund would cover the remaining 80%, which would be particularly useful where the cost to extend a fiber connection to a rural neighborhood or development would run into the tens of thousands of dollars. The downside is that $6 million will not go very far in these high cost areas, where a single project could easily exhaust $50,000-100,000 just to reach a handful of homes and businesses. Assuming there are any funds left, the BPO will entertain bids in later rounds from wireless providers delivering at least 25 Mbps service, assuming no wired provider submits a bid. But it is just as likely the funds will be long gone before that happens. The state needs to choose the wording of its terms carefully. Charter could easily apply for funds to buildout new housing tracts or large development projects and business parks the company would have reached anyway. We recommend restricting these funds exclusively to projects that would otherwise fail a bidder’s own Return On Investment formula.

Stop the Cap! intends to be a participant in the comment round and we will share with readers our formal comments as they are submitted.

JPMorgan Pushing for Charter-Altice Merger to Bring Ruthless Cost-Cutting to Spectrum

JPMorgan “still believes in the potential of an eventual merger of Charter Communications with Altice USA, despite a cool-down in tie-up talk,” according to a short piece in Seeking Alpha.

The Wall Street bank favored a Charter merger with Altice, which owns Cablevision and Suddenlink, because Altice has proven its ability to ruthlessly cut costs out of the cable business, potentially bringing $2.7 billion in synergy savings from layoffs, outsourcing, and killing off employee perks.

JPMorgan analyst Philip Cusack believes the biggest merger prize would be a combination of Cablevision’s footprint in downstate New York, Connecticut and New Jersey with Charter-Spectrum, which serves almost all of New York State and already has a presence in Manhattan and other boroughs in New York City. Cusack also argues Cablevision’s Optimum business would be well served by a familiar executive. Rutledge was Cablevision’s chief operating officer before moving to Charter.

Two years ago, Altice considered acquiring Time Warner Cable, before investors forced Altice to pull back on further acquisitions that would result in even more debt for the European telecom company.

Among the likely challenges would be antitrust and regulatory roadblocks, particularly if Charter is the lead company. Charter is still in hot water with New York’s Public Service Commission and its own merger with Time Warner Cable was decertified by the regulator last summer. It could be a long leap from antagonizing New York’s telecom regulator and the attorney general to winning a green light for yet another cable merger.

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)

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