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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

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.

AT&T: “2019 is the Money Year” – Company Plans Big Rate Hikes, Makes It Tough to Disconnect

Phillip Dampier January 29, 2019 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, DirecTV, Online Video 5 Comments

AT&T shareholders are frustrated. They are not getting the dividend payouts and shareholder value they expected after AT&T put itself $170 billion in debt last year — the highest debt load of any non-financial American corporation.

As AT&T has bet big in recent years on video-related acquisitions, including DirecTV and Time Warner (Entertainment), investors are skeptical AT&T can properly monetize its video business. Many have sold shares after criticizing company executives over the company’s strategy and high debt, driving AT&T’s market capitalization down to around $225 billion, comparable with considerably smaller Verizon Communications.

But no worries, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, has reassured. AT&T expects those investments to yield results this year, helped by forthcoming broad price hikes for AT&T’s consumer services.

“2019 candidly is the money year,” Stephenson said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “This is a year when we get everything rationalized.”

According to AT&T, customers are irrationally paying too little for AT&T’s video-related services, which include DirecTV (~19 million customers) and DirecTV Now — the two-year old streaming service that has attracted nearly two million subscribers.

Stephenson

Although DirecTV has recently been extremely aggressive about offering deep discounts to convince satellite customers to stay, AT&T plans to pull back on those discounts as two million DirecTV customers see their two-year contracts end this year. Instead of granting renewed discounts for signing another contract, AT&T plans to deliver significant rate increases.

“As those customers come due, we’ll get closer to market pricing,” AT&T’s John Donovan told investors at a November investor conference. “We’ll be respectful of our customers, but [prices] will move up.”

That may prove a difficult sell for DirecTV satellite customers, who have recently been abandoning the satellite platform in favor of cheaper streaming TV alternatives. Even with package discounts, DirecTV is the pay television industry’s most expensive provider, collecting an average of $120.36 a month for its TV packages. In contrast, Dish Networks gets an average of $103.99, Charter Spectrum earns $91.14 and Comcast, $84.50.

DirecTV defections, largely over price, have been growing at an accelerated rate, with 1.4 million customers turning their back on the satellite provider over the last two years. Analysts expect AT&T will report 300,000 more lost subscribers in the last three months alone. At that rate, AT&T will lose at least $1 billion in operating profits in 2019 from its declining satellite TV unit alone.

(Image courtesy: WSJ)

DirecTV Now customers, who already absorbed a $5 rate hike last summer, and will face even more rate increases and channel reductions in 2019. Stephenson expects DirecTV Now’s price point to be in the $50-60 range, which means many customers will likely face an average of $10 in rate hikes this year. For AT&T, that would deliver “the right price” and gets the service “to where it is profitable,” according to Stephenson.

But customers are likely to balk if AT&T reduces channel lineups at the same time it raises prices. AT&T has already faced substantial DirecTV Now customer defections after last summer’s rate increase, and the company has also reduced new customer sign-ups by cutting back on new subscriber promotions, which often included a free set-top streaming device. Waiting to pick up exiled streaming and satellite customers are AT&T’s competitors, especially Google. YouTube TV has proved to be a DirecTV Now killer, now charging $40 a month for 60+ channels. It also comes with an unlimited cloud DVR feature and a complete lineup of local channels across most of the country. YouTube TV is reportedly still growing, attracting more than one million customers so far. AT&T executives claim the service is popular only because Google is suspected of subsidizing what they believe to be an unprofitable venture by around $9 a month.

Investors are also unhappy about customers slimming down their TV packages, because average revenue per customer is cut in the process, sometimes dramatically. Wall Street was accustomed to video packages bringing in at least $100 a month. In many cases, that revenue is cut in half after a customer switches to a streaming provider. AT&T hopes investor pressure on those new ventures and ongoing wholesale programming rate increases will both conspire to bring back familiar annual rate hikes for streaming services as well. Programming cost inflation almost feeds itself. As programmers set new wholesale rate records for their networks, other programmers believe there is now room to raise their wholesale rates as well.

Programming costs are not just important for consumers, either. Wholesale programming rate inflation was one of the reasons AT&T spent $49 billion to acquire DirecTV. Volume discounts for DirecTV meant the satellite provider was paying an estimated $20 a month less on programming than AT&T’s own U-verse unit, which had a much smaller customer base. AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner, which owns several popular cable networks, was also a hedge against programming rate increases because AT&T would effectively pay any increases to itself.

(Image courtesy: WSJ)

The Journal reports AT&T executives were unprepared for the speed cord-cutting has taken hold. Most most under-30 have abandoned the concept of paying for live, linear cable television at any price, preferring a combination of on-demand streaming from Netflix, Hulu, and other video streaming services with an over the air antenna to watch local stations for free. Older Americans are gradually following suit.

According to the Journal, AT&T’s latest tactic to slow down customer departures is to make cancellation as difficult as possible:

“There’s no way that we could make the numbers we were told to make,” said Altrina Grant, former manager of a Chicago-area AT&T call center. She said some agents would promise to call back a customer about a request to drop service rather than immediately disconnecting, which would count against their compensation. Irate customers would later call another employee to ask why their request wasn’t honored, she said.

“These reps were getting thousands of dollars because they knew how to manipulate the system,” Ms. Grant said.

Cyrus Evans, a former call-center manager in Waco, Texas, said employees’ pay could swing between $50,000 and $80,000 a year depending on their performance, which was often influenced by how many disconnection requests they could deflect. Mr. Evans said employees often got angry calls from customers who had been promised their service would end, only to receive a bill the next month. He said the incentive structure rewarded bad behavior.

Former AT&T workers said the company launched a new audit team in 2017 to crack down on support staffers making promises they couldn’t keep. Ms. Grant said this initiative led the company to fire some workers but several customer-care executives are still in their jobs.

AT&T disputes these allegations, claiming false promises to customers violate AT&T’s Code of Business Conduct and are “extremely rare.”

Hulu Announces Pricing Changes: Basic Hulu Drops to $5.99, Cord-Cutting Package Sees $5 Rate Hike

Phillip Dampier January 23, 2019 Competition, Consumer News, Hulu, Online Video 1 Comment

Just days after Netflix announced its largest rate hike in the history of the streaming service, Hulu is following with its own announcement of “new pricing options” that will cost some customers less and others more.

“Over the past year, Hulu has added thousands of exclusive TV episodes and movies, launched nearly a dozen additional popular live TV channels – including The CW, Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet and ABC News – and upgraded the technology platforms to support more devices and provide superior quality to our viewers,” Hulu announced on its Hulu Updates website. “With more than 85,000 episodes of on-demand television — more than any other U.S. streaming service — as well as thousands of movies and more than 60 popular live television channels, Hulu makes it easy for TV fans to get the most complete television experience. Today, we’re announcing updates to our pricing options (that will go into effect next month) to allow current and new subscribers to choose the best Hulu experience for them.”

New Rates

  • Hulu Basic (with commercials) drops $2 per month from $7.99 to $5.99.
  • Hulu (No Ads) remains $11.99 a month.
  • Hulu + Live TV, the entry-level cord-cutters package with more than 60 live channels and access to Hulu on-demand content with commercials increases $5 per month to $44.99.
  • Hulu (No Ads) + Live TV is also increasing $5 a month to $50.99 and features more than 60 live channels and Hulu’s on demand content with no commercials.

Hulu Basic had often been offered at $5.99 a month during special promotions, and the new lower price could attract more long-term subscribers. The increase in price for live television service comes as the result of increasing programming expenses and a desire to increase revenue. Hulu’s competitors have also been raising prices on packages featuring live networks and local channels.

Hulu’s new pricing will take effect on Feb. 26. Existing customers will see the price changes reflected in billing cycles beginning on or after Feb. 26.

Netflix Announces Biggest Price Hike Ever: Most Will Pay $12.99 a Month

Phillip Dampier January 15, 2019 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

Like cable companies, streaming services are not immune to raising rates, and the country’s biggest and most popular streaming service — Netflix — this morning announced its largest rate hike ever.

Most Netflix subscribers will see their monthly rate increase by $2 a month.

Netflix’s rate card effective January 15, 2019 (for new subscribers).

The rate hike will raise at least $100 million a month in revenue and will apply first to new subscribers, and will gradually apply to all 58 million current U.S. subscribers over the next three months, as well as those in Latin America where subscriptions are paid in U.S. dollars (except in Mexico and Brazil, where rates remain unchanged). Rates for the 78 million Netflix subscribers outside of the U.S. are not expected to change immediately, partly due to ongoing promotional spending and marketing efforts to boost subscriber numbers overseas.

Wall Street had been increasingly pessimistic about Netflix’s revenue and profit projections because of ongoing increases in spending to finance an avalanche of original Netflix productions. The company’s stock price dropped by 21 percent, from a peak of $423.21 last June to $332.94 just before the market opened this morning. Netflix’s chief content officer told the media last spring about 85% of the company’s estimated $8 billion in content spending for 2018 was for original TV shows, movies, and other productions. By summer, Netflix had $12 billion in debt before borrowing another $2 billion in October. But that debt never changed Netflix’s plans to premiere 1,000 new movies and TV series in 2018, with an even larger number of productions scheduled for 2019.

Netflix has been pushed towards producing its own content as movie studios and studio-owned television production companies raise contract renewal prices on Netflix or end those contracts altogether, bringing content back to those studios as they prepare to launch paid streaming services of their own. WarnerMedia, Disney, and NBCUniversal are all planning launches over the next 24 months, while other existing services like CBS All Access and Hulu continue to beef up their own viewing menus, often with shows that were formerly found on Netflix.

Netflix is also depending on a growing international audience for its offerings, and has expanded original productions in many languages to find that global audience. Netflix usually benefits from much lower production costs for shows filmed overseas, and English language subscribers have surprisingly embraced dubbed and/or subtitled content at levels beyond Netflix’s expectations. Back in North America, the massive increase in demand for original content by Netflix and its competitors has made it possible for production companies, directors, writers, and talent to command dramatically higher salaries, raising Netflix’s expenses.

Investors cheered today’s price increase, causing its stock price to rise at least 6% in early trading. Wall Street believes Netflix is now nearly immune to cancellations over its price, which is still below the monthly retail price of HBO. But this morning’s announcement does represent the largest rate increase ever for the 12-year old streaming service.

Netflix will also use some of the additional revenue from the rate hike to pay down its substantial debt. Few expect any backlash reminiscent of Netflix’s 2011 decision to raise prices and unbundle its DVD-rental-by-mail service from video streaming, which resulted in a 60 percent rate increase for customers seeking both streaming and mail rental options. Netflix lost 600,000 subscribers after that announcement, initially making the company more cautious about future rate increases.

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