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DirecTV Now Preps Huge Rate Increase: Most Will Pay $10 More a Month

Phillip Dampier March 11, 2019 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, DirecTV, Online Video 9 Comments

AT&T’s merger with Time Warner (Entertainment) is now complete, and despite repeated promises to antitrust regulators AT&T would not use consolidation as an excuse to raise rates, the company is reportedly doing exactly that on its DirecTV Now online streaming service.

According to a report by Cord Cutters News, most current subscribers will be formally notified this week their rates are going up $10 a month and new customers will be offered only two choices for DirecTV Now packages going forward — a slimmed down Plus package of 40 channels and HBO for $50 a month and a slightly larger Max package with 50 channels bundled with HBO and Cinemax for $70 a month. Both represent fewer channels for more money.

News about big changes for AT&T’s streaming services were first announced by AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson in late 2018, telling investors he planned to wring more profit out of DirecTV Now by raising rates and slimming down the number of channels in the remaining packages.

Current customers can keep their current packages indefinitely, but they will pay more starting in April. The $10 rate increase comes on the heels of a $5 rate increase in the summer of 2018, and AT&T has made it clear more price hikes are forthcoming as needed.

AT&T also told Cord Cutters News that DirecTV’s satellite service will soon debut on its own streaming platform, but it won’t come discounted or cheap:

  • 65 channel DirecTV package: $93/month
  • 85 channel DirecTV package: $110/month
  • 105 channel DirecTV package: $124/month
  • 125 channel DirecTV package: $135/month

AT&T hopes its simplified menu of offerings for DirecTV Now will prove attractive to subscribers, in part because both packages bundle either AT&T-owned HBO or HBO and Cinemax. But subscribers are also likely to notice the dramatically smaller package of cable channels, now missing AMC, Viacom and Discovery-owned networks. They are also likely to be confused by the forthcoming introduction of DirecTV satellite streaming packages, which will be marketed separately from DirecTV Now. AT&T plans to eventually mothball its satellite fleet and move DirecTV entirely to an internet streaming platform, but will take several years before switching off the last satellite.

AT&T’s DirecTV Now will slim its packages down substantially as early as tomorrow, while raising prices.

An informal FAQ:

Q. When will AT&T make these changes?

A. AT&T is expected to email current customers on or about March 12, 2019 to inform them of the $10 rate hike. At the same time, AT&T is likely to stop signing up new customers for its current DirecTV Now packages and begin offering DirecTV Now Plus or DirecTV Now Max instead. Current customers can expect to see their first bill with the new rates in April.

Q. Will current customers be grandfathered?

A. AT&T plans to tell current customers they can keep their current packages as long as they do not make changes to their account (or cancel), but effective April 12, 2019, rates will increase $10 a month for those subscribed to: Live a Little, Just Right, Go Big, and Gotta Have It.

Q. If I subscribe today to the older packages, can I avoid some of the price increases and channel changes?

A. Yes and no. If AT&T’s schedule holds, today is the last day you will be able to signup for DirecTV Now’s old packages, and you will need to make a payment today and skip the free 7-day trial to lock in these packages or you could face choosing only between Plus and Max after your trial ends. You will pay existing rates for March, but the $10 rate increase will impact you starting in April.

Q. What about the prices for premium channels?

A. If the rumors are true, and we stress these are only rumors at this point, current DirecTV Now customers that already subscribe to premium networks like HBO or Cinemax prior to March 12, will be able to avoid planned rate increases on premium networks that are also supposed to be announced as early as tomorrow. If you sign up today and subscribe to HBO and/or Cinemax, you will pay $5 a month for each going forward. Showtime and/or Starz are also available for $8 a month each going forward. The rumor claims that starting tomorrow, HBO will triple in price to $15 each, with Cinemax, Showtime and Starz supposedly increasing to $11 a month each. These new prices would only apply to grandfathered customers on older packages that want to add a premium network on or after March 12 to their existing package. AT&T would use this new pricing to incentivize customers to abandon their old package in favor of Plus or Max, which bundles HBO and HBO and Cinemax into the base package price. So if you are thinking about subscribing to a premium network and want to keep your old package, you should subscribe today and lock in the current lower price.

Q. What happens to pricing for add-on international channels?

A. If you subscribe to international channels (Vietnamese – $20/mo, Brazilian Portuguese – $25/mo, or Korean – $30/mo) before March 12, your rates stay the same. If you add these channels on or after March 12, you will likely pay more to do so. If you are considering these channels, you may save a lot in the long run subscribing today for at least a month to lock it current prices. If the rate increase does not happen, you can drop the add-on after a month.

Q. What are the biggest differences between the old and new packages?

A. You are getting fewer channels for more money from the new Plus and Max package tiers. DirecTV Now is stripping out popular cable networks from AMC, Discovery-Scripps, and Viacom from the new packages, but bundles HBO in the new Plus package and both HBO and Cinemax in the new Max package. An unofficial new channel lineup of both new packages can be found here.

Q. Why are they raising rates like this?

A. AT&T shareholders have been increasingly critical about the company’s 2015 acquisition of DirecTV. Executives sold Wall Street on the acquisition on the theory that acquiring the country’s largest cable TV programming distributor with 21+ million customers would deliver AT&T’s much smaller U-verse TV (with 4-5 million customers) dramatically better volume discounts on cable TV programming. More importantly, it would help AT&T become a powerhouse in video entertainment and cut through the red tape of getting that programming on AT&T’s mobile products. If you are a cable network’s biggest customer, it helps in negotiations seeking streaming and platform distribution rights.

Stephenson

After the merger, AT&T began de-emphasizing its U-verse brand and even started selling DirecTV satellite service to video-only AT&T customers. DirecTV Now was AT&T’s response to cord-cutting, and its promotional pricing and strong package of channels was customer and regulator friendly. At the same time AT&T was seeking to win regulator approval of its acquisition of Time Warner (Entertainment), it did not hurt to argue AT&T’s prior acquisitions had not hurt the marketplace, and may have even enhanced it, pointing to the DirecTV Now offering in the cord-cutting marketplace.

But Wall Street analysts have often argued AT&T is losing money on DirectTV Now, because the wholesale programming costs plus the distribution and marketing expenses likely exceed the prices AT&T charges. Some analysts are even questioning the wisdom of acquiring DirecTV in the first place, especially as the era of cord-cutting has taken a particularly harsh toll on DirecTV’s satellite subscriber numbers. Just a few weeks after the Justice Department abandoned further court action to block the merger of AT&T and Time Warner, Stephenson followed through on his commitment to shareholders by preparing to prune back DirecTV Now’s packages and dramatically increases prices at the same time.

“We’re talking $50 to $60,” Stephenson told investors last December. “We’ve learned this product, we think we know this market really, really well. We built a two-million subscriber base. But we were asking this DirecTV Now product to do too much work. So we’re thinning out the content and getting the price point right; getting it to where it’s profitable.”

Stephenson fully expects DirecTV Now will soon shed a large percentage of ‘low value’ customers that subscribed only because they locked in a low price or promotion, telling investors he prefers to deal with high-value customers that appreciate AT&T’s brand and quality, and won’t cancel over price increases. He does not want to deal with customers that chase promotions.

AT&T is also using the changes to reset its video portfolio of products, and the audiences each will target. Those most sensitive to price will be marketed ultra-skinny bundles like AT&T Watch, which can also be used to try and get customers to switch to AT&T wireless. Middle ground customers partially sensitive to price, but want a channel lineup that better reflects what they actually watch will be pushed towards DirecTV Now, which will be marketed as cheaper than cable and a good option for cord-cutters. DirecTV’s forthcoming satellite streaming service will be the new home for customers that gravitated towards DirecTV Now’s higher end bundles. Marketing will focus on customers that want an alternative to cable television, but won’t sacrifice their favorite cable channels just to get a lower bill. These customers will be willing to pay a higher price to have a less-jarring transition from the traditional huge cable TV package to DirecTV’s alternative.

Q. What does AT&T risk doing this?

A. Hundreds of thousands of DirecTV Now subscribers are likely to cancel service as a result of this rate increase, which will leave DirecTV Now at a higher price than many of its competitors. AT&T’s loss will likely deliver a sudden spike of new customer signups for YouTube TV and Hulu Live TV, which are the closest equivalents. Other services like Philo, Vue, and even Sling TV are also likely to grab new customers, albeit in smaller numbers.

AT&T’s biggest threat may turn out to be cable operators — especially Charter Spectrum, which has launched its own response to cable TV cord cutting. Its slimmed down and pick-your-own-channels packages could be more attractive than other streaming services, and bundle all local channels.

More specifics about those options are ‘below the fold’:

… Continue Reading

N.Y. Congressman Introduces Bill Forcing Cable Companies to Reveal Real Internet Speeds, Pricing

Brindisi, as he appeared in an ad slamming Charter Spectrum in the summer of 2018.

Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.) today introduced a bill in Congress to force cable operators fined by a state telecommunications regulator to publicly reveal the actual performance of their internet services, subscriber counts, and a complete price listing including all fees and surcharges.

The Transparency for Cable Consumers Act comes in response to New York’s experiences with Charter Communications, which was fined for failing to meet its commitments under a 2016 merger agreement allowing Charter to acquire Time Warner Cable. Brindisi made the cable company’s performance a core issue in his 2018 campaign, brazenly buying commercial time on Spectrum cable systems for 30-second ads slamming the cable company.

“I’ve heard from thousands of Upstate New Yorkers who are sick and tired of dealing with frequent rate hikes, poor customer service, and failed promises,” said Brindisi. “This is more than just an inconvenience. For families on fixed incomes, an unexpected rate hike could wreck their budget. And for people in rural communities, crawling internet speeds can take away their connection to jobs, health care, information, and important online services. When a company enters into an agreement, it should be required to hold up its part of the bargain.  We can’t keep giving these companies a free pass. If we don’t hold them accountable, nothing will change.”

Brindisi has bristled over the New York State Public Service Commission’s decision to repeatedly extend the deadline given to Charter to file an orderly exit plan winding down its cable operations in the state. The most recent extension was approved on Wednesday, now giving Charter Communications until April 5, 2019 to appeal the Commission’s decision and until May 9, 2019 to file its six-month exit plan.

Brindisi complains Spectrum is being allowed to linger even as consumers continue to contact his office with complaints about frequent rate hikes, slow internet speeds, and poor customer service. His December 2018 letter to the PSC asking the Commission to stop giving Charter additional time extensions has gone unanswered, according to Brindisi.

Brindisi’s bill attempts to walk a fine line around the federal government’s wholesale deregulation of the cable industry. Various deregulation measures stripped federal, state, and local officials of most of their powers to oversee the internet and Voice over IP telephone service. Cable television remains subject to some local oversight and regulation, but not in all areas. Many states also have so-called “state franchise” laws in place, which gives blanket authority for cable operators to offer cable television in the state without seeking a separate agreement with each community.

The Transparency for Cable Consumers Act, would require a cable or internet company to disclose information about its operations if it is fined by a state regulator:

  • The number of cable and broadband internet customers in each county;
  • The average cable bill and broadband internet bill amounts in each county;
  • A full accounting of all fees charged customers in each county; and
  • The average broadband internet speeds delivered in each county.

Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.) appeared on the House floor this afternoon to introduce the Transparency for Cable Consumers Act. (1:18)

Frontier: Losing Customers While Raising Prices; Company Loses $643 Million in 2018

Phillip Dampier February 28, 2019 Competition, Consumer News, Frontier 1 Comment

In the last three months of 2018, Frontier Communications reported it said goodbye to 67,000 broadband customers, lost $643 million in revenue year-over-year, and had to write down the value of its assets and business by $241 million, as the company struggles with a deteriorating copper wire network in many states where it operates.

But Wall Street was pleased the company’s latest quarterly results were not worse, and helped lift Frontier’s stock from $2.42 to $2.96 this afternoon, still down considerably from the $125 a share price the company commanded just four years ago.

Frontier’s fourth quarter 2018 financial results arrived the same week Windstream, another independent telephone company, declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. Life is rough for the nation’s legacy telephone companies, especially those that have continued to depend on copper wire infrastructure that, in some cases, was attached to poles during the Johnson or Nixon Administrations.

Frontier Communications CEO Dan McCarthy is the telephone company’s version of Sears’ former CEO Edward Lampert. Perpetually optimistic, McCarthy has been embarked on a long-term ‘transformation’ strategy at Frontier, to wring additional profit out of the business that provides service to customers in 29 states. Much of that effort has been focused on cost-cutting measures, including layoffs of 1,560 workers last year, a sale of wireless towers, and various plans to make business operations more efficient, delivering mixed results.

McCarthy

Frontier’s efforts to improve customer service have been hampered by the quality and pricing of its services, which can bring complaints from customers, many who eventually depart. Frontier’s overall health continues to decline, financially gaining mostly through rate increases and new hidden fees and surcharges. In fact, much of Frontier’s latest revenue improvements come almost entirely from charging customers more for the same service.

McCarthy calls it ‘cost recovery’ and ‘steady-state pricing.’

“One of the things that we’ve been focused on really for the better part of two years is …. taking advantage of pricing opportunities [and] recovering content costs — really dealing with customers moving from promotional pricing to steady-state pricing, and then offering different opportunities for customers both from a speed and package perspective,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “The quarter really was about us targeting customers very selectively and really trying to improve customer lifetime value.”

By “selectively,” McCarthy means being willing to let promotion-seeking customers go and being less amenable to customers trying to negotiate for a lower bill. The result, so far, is 103,000 service disconnects over the past three months and 379,000 fewer customers over the past year. A good number of those customers were subscribed to Frontier FiOS fiber to the home service, but still left for a cable company or competing fiber provider, often because Frontier kept raising their bill.

Comcast Moving Away from Customer Retention Discounts for Cable TV

Phillip Dampier February 11, 2019 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News No Comments

Despite the growing impact of cord-cutting, Comcast is following companies like Charter Spectrum by cutting back customer retention discounts that savvy subscribers negotiate to keep their cable bill reasonable. Despite losing more than 344,000 cable television customers in 2018, almost twice as many as it lost in 2017, Comcast has lost interest in cutting prices to keep customers.

Traditionally, customers using the word “cancel” with a customer service representative would quickly be offered deeply discounted service if they agreed to stay. Customers willing to stand their ground in tough negotiations with the cable company could win promotional pricing indefinitely, often saving several hundred dollars a year without losing channels or services. In 2016, after Charter Communications completed its merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge vowed to impose “pricing discipline” on Time Warner Cable’s “Turkish bazaar of promotional deals” after Charter took control of the company.

Rutledge called out the ‘madness’ of offering customers fire sale prices on internet and television service at a MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit in May 2017.

“Time Warner wanted to make a video number, and there were data packages that cost less if you took video than if you didn’t,” Rutledge said. “And a lot of those were churning out. And a lot of them were basic-only. So on the margin, at the end – in the last year, I think they were selling 40% of their connects as basic-only. [TWC had] 90,000 different promotional offers, many of them deeply discounted and piled on top of each other.”

Rutledge said Time Warner Cable represented the worst of an industry practice that gave unprecedented power to customers to get what they wanted, at least for awhile.

“You’d call in, bargain … And so there’s a lot of that out there. And they’re also exploding packages. Meaning, at the end of the term, they go back to full price,” Rutledge complained.

Rutledge called an end to negotiations by offering customers the opportunity of keeping their current package, but gradually raising it to a price that was often higher than Spectrum’s own non-negotiable packages and pricing. Regardless of what package a customer chose, it was a win for Charter because regular pricing ensured the company was making money either way.

Comcast has apparently been won over by Rutledge’s message to the industry and is now gradually moving in a similar direction.

Strauss

Matt Strauss, executive vice president of XFINITY Services, told Business Insider Comcast will now attempt to keep and win back its cord-cutting customers not by discounting prices, but by creating much smaller cable TV packages with fewer channels — a practice known as slimming down packages into “skinny bundles.” Comcast also plans to stop pushing customers into its “best value” triple-play packages of television, phone, and internet services, understanding many customers have no interest in some of those services.

“Our strategy is very focused on segmentation and getting more sophisticated in putting together the right video offering for the right customer at the right time in their life,” Strauss said, not by offering deep discounts on bloated packages (including a landline or hundreds of unwanted TV channels) that would reduce profitability.

Charter is already offering an ultra-slim, a-la-carte local TV package combining Music Choice with the customer’s pick of 10 national cable channels for $21.99 a month. The package is targeted to those with internet-only service and is accessed through a Roku set-top box. DVR service is available, if a customer was willing to pay a steep DVR service and box rental fee.

Comcast’s new strategy will market internet packages that include the added-cost option of a super-slim TV package of local channels and a handful of cable networks.

Strauss disagrees with some industry pundits who have suggested cable companies are planning to abandon selling cable television altogether in favor of internet-only service.

“We continue to be very bullish on video, but you’re just going to see us be more focused on how we go to market with video,” Strauss said.

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

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