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Rumored: Spectrum Plans to Raise Rates; Broadcast TV Fee: $16.45/mo

Phillip Dampier July 2, 2020 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News No Comments

Several Spectrum employees have contacted Stop the Cap! to let us know a rate increase is planned for Spectrum services that will raise rates for cable television customers beginning as early as next month.

The rate increase is expected to gradually be introduced starting in August, but we are not aware of any specific schedule, nor have we been able to confirm the increase directly with Charter Communications. If our information is accurate, this specific rate increase will not apply to internet-only customers.

The Broadcast TV Fee surcharge will increase $2.95/month to an unprecedented $16.45/month. Spectrum claims this fee covers the retransmission costs local broadcasters charge the cable company to carry their channels on the cable system. Spectrum breaks this fee out of the monthly cost of cable TV and places it as a separate line item on your bill. This also conveniently allows the company to pass through rate increases even if you are on a price-locked promotional pricing package typically offered to new customers. If you do not subscribe to traditional cable television but have signed up for one of Spectrum’s streaming TV packages like TV Choice, the Broadcast TV Fee will also increase $2.95/month, raising that surcharge to $8.95/month.

Spectrum also plans to increase the cost of its cable TV packages. Spectrum’s most popular TV Select package is expected to increase $1.50/month to $73.99/month. Customers on a promotional pricing plan will not see this rate increase until their promotional pricing expires. Customers bundling multiple products should expect discounts to reduce that cost a bit.

In comparison, streaming TV providers like YouTube TV have also been increasing rates this summer, but should still be cheaper than cable television because of the various surcharges and equipment fees cable operators charge.

Internet Providers Get Ready To Cut Off Past Due Customers Unless They Agree to Payment Plans

Internet providers are preparing to cut off late-paying and non-paying customers as early as June 30, as the Federal Communications Commission’s “Keep America Connected” pledge expires next week.

In March, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai invited providers to agree to waive late fees and put off disconnections and usage overlimit charges for several months as a result of the sudden economic shutdown due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. As the pledge expires, Pai is asking providers not to immediately disconnect customers who are past due, if they agree to enroll in payment plans to pay off accrued balances. But Pai ultimately stood on the side of the nation’s multi-billion dollar phone and cable companies as he expressed his understanding why some customers will be cut off anyway and turned over to collection agencies as early as next week.

“Broadband and telephone companies, especially small ones, cannot continue to provide service without being paid for an indefinite period of time; no business in any sector of our economy could,” Pai said in a statement.

Some customers have accumulated past due balances of over $1,000 in the past four months, when one combines wireless, cable-TV, internet, and landline charges. As a result, some large providers recognize the need for long-term repayment plans if they hope to preserve customer relationships. With unemployment over 13%, even their most loyal customers may find it difficult to keep up on bills that often exceed $100 a month, and are often much more.

Those customers that lose service for non-payment may forfeit future participation in low-cost internet programs for those on public assistance, and cannot restart service without coming to terms on past due balances. That could leave desperate customers at risk of losing access to job-seeking information, education, and news about the ongoing pandemic.

Some providers are gradually announcing new programs designed to keep service on, but only if customers contact providers and agree to commit to a repayment contract.

AT&T: The company disclosed 156,000 customers are currently enrolled in Keep America Connected-related programs. AT&T expects full payment of past due charges as early as June 30, or up to 90 days after the first past-due notice was issued, whichever is later. Customers can also keep service turned on by contacting AT&T and setting up an alternate payment arrangement.

Charter/Spectrum: The company has announced it will forgive a portion of past due balances and not require full repayment, if the customer or his/her job was directly impacted by the coronavirus. Spectrum’s offer of 60 days of free internet service introduced in March was accepted by at least 400,000 customers. But for most, the offer has since expired. Spectrum has worked to convert those at the end of the free offer into paid customers, but won’t disclose how much success they have had.

Comcast: Customers enrolled in the Xfinity Assistance Program are being given the option of repaying past due amounts in up to 12 equal monthly installments. After a repayment arrangement is made, some customers are persuaded to downgrade service to more affordable plans until past due amounts are repaid. Comcast’s offer of 60 days of free internet service has ended for most customers that enrolled shortly after it was introduced. Comcast has not announced a date when its 1,000 GB usage cap is scheduled to return in most service areas.

T-Mobile: For many, service will terminate if an account is well past due. Customers who want to keep their service must call T-Mobile to make payment arrangements, but T-Mobile did not disclose any formal repayment plans or payment forgiveness. It is imperative that customers call and discuss past due accounts before service is switched off.

Verizon: Verizon will continue service for “hundreds of thousands of customers” that enrolled in the Keep America Connected pledge program, as long as they agree to make regular payments as part of a special repayment plan that will be introduced for these customers in July. Customers will be billed a portion of their past due amounts along with current service charges until repayment has been made in full.

Of the country’s largest providers, only Charter/Spectrum has agreed to forgive some past due balances outright. Others will expect to be repaid and are likely to suspend service quickly if repayment plans also fall past due.

Charter Spectrum Asks FCC for Freedom to Usage Cap Its Internet Customers

Charter Communications is petitioning the Federal Communications Commission for permission to usage cap its internet customers two years before the FCC’s ban on the company imposing data caps runs out.

Charter, which does business as Spectrum, is seeking an early exit from some FCC-imposed deal conditions Charter agreed to as part of an approval of its 2016 merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Out of concern that Charter’s merger could harm emerging online video streaming competition, the FCC required the company to not charge fees to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu to carry video traffic to its customers and not impose data caps and usage based billing schemes that would limit online video consumption for seven years.

“New Charter’s increased broadband footprint and desire to protect its video profits will increase incentives to impose data caps and usage-based prices in order to make watching online video more expensive, and in particular more expensive than subscribing to a traditional pay-TV bundle,” the FCC concluded in its 2016 order approving the merger, with conditions. “For seven years, we prohibit New Charter from imposing data caps or charging usage-based pricing for its residential broadband service. This condition ensures that New Charter will continue Charter’s past pricing practices and protects subscribers from paying fees designed to make online video consumption more expensive leading subscribers to stick with a traditional pay-TV bundle.”

Charter last week argued that with cord-cutting at an all-time high and video streaming alternative cable and video packages flourishing, there is no reason to continue the seven-year ban on data caps, noting that many other large providers including AT&T, Cox, Altice, and Comcast are free to impose data caps of their own.

“They are able to do so because, unlike Charter, they are not subject to a condition that artificially and unilaterally restricts the packages available to their customers,” Charter argues in its filing. “The online video distribution marketplace is almost unrecognizable compared to what existed in 2016. […] Consumers have never had more online video choices.”

Charter said a sunset of the prohibition of data caps was now overdue.

“As data usage skyrockets, the [ban on data caps and usage-based billing] artificially hamstrings Charter’s ability to allocate the costs of maintaining its network in a way that is efficient and fair for all of its customers—above-average, average, and light users alike,” the company argued. “Charter should be afforded the same flexibility as other broadband providers to respond to developments in the market. In short, tremendous changes in the marketplace have rendered the [ban on data caps and usage-based billing] no longer necessary, and thus ending it in 2021 would be in the public interest.”

The FCC’s 2016 order approving the merger between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks, with a 7-year prohibition on data caps, was not unanimous. Separate statements from Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly were highly critical of most of the deal conditions the then-Democratic majority favored. Four years later, Pai now presides as chairman over a Republican-majority FCC that could take a favorable view of Charter’s request to end deal conditions early.

In 2016, Pai’s spokesperson complained about the imposition of deal conditions in the Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House merger, telling The Hill, “The FCC’s merger review process is badly broken. [Then FCC] Chairman Wheeler’s order isn’t about competition, competition, competition; it’s about regulation, regulation, regulation. It’s about imposing conditions that have nothing to do with the merits of this transaction. It’s about the government micromanaging the internet economy.”

Charter’s June 2020 filing focuses almost exclusively on streaming video competition to argue there is no longer any need to ban the company from imposing data caps. The FCC in 2016 concluded that data caps were a powerful anti-competitive weapon that could be used to keep streaming video competition from harming cable television packages. Charter argues that consumers now have many choices for streaming video, including cable-TV alternatives, which proves they have not engaged in anti-competitive behavior.

But Charter ignored the FCC’s other chief concern about data caps and usage billing (UBP): the lack of choice of broadband competitors.

“[…] Subscribers will continue to have no (or limited) alternative cable or fiber […] options when faced with data caps and UBP designed to deter online video consumption,” the FCC concluded.

The FCC hoped that by 2023, consumers would have more options for home broadband service, likely driving usage caps out of the marketplace.

“Seven years may also provide the high-speed […] provider market sufficient time to develop further with additional investments in fiber from established wireline […] providers, Wireless 5G technology, use of smartgrid fiber for broadband, additional overbuilding, and other potential competitors to traditional wired […] providers,” the FCC wrote. “It is our expectation that these developments will foster competition in the market to make the anticompetitive use of data caps less tenable in the future.”

Unfortunately, broadband competition remains fleeting in many parts of the United States, where only one provider offers broadband service that meets the FCC’s standard of 25 Mbps for downloads.

Ironically, Charter executives were against imposing data caps on their customers when the company was seeking approval to acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

FCC:

“Charter in particular emphasizes its aversion to data caps, stating that instead of enforcing usage limits it chooses to market the absence of data caps as a competitive advantage. Charter also argues there is a strong business case for not implementing caps. Specifically, Charter explains that it terminated its enforcement of the usage limits trial in the AUP in January 2012 because the benefits to customers of continuing the trial (minimizing bandwidth consumption to preserve a positive Internet experience) would not exceed the program’s costs. Charter also states that caps create marketing challenges because they complicate consumer purchasing decisions. Furthermore, Charter argues that data caps increase churn among subscribers. Finally, Charter states that it plans to distinguish itself from its competitors based largely on the quality and speed of its broadband offerings and that data caps undermine that marketing message.”

But the FCC remained unconvinced by Charter’s statements. In a review of confidential internal company documents, the FCC found multiple instances where Time Warner Cable had not completely abandoned the idea of data caps, despite multiple high-profile consumer backlashes against the idea.

“We also note that despite Time Warner Cable’s relative lack of success in implementing usage-based billing, its internal documents leave no doubt that it is also incentivized to use data caps to protect its [cable TV] business,” the FCC concluded.

Four years later, Charter is among many cable operators reporting staggering losses of video customers that have chosen to “cut the cord” on cable television and have switched to a streaming competitor. If an incentive to data cap customers to protect video revenue was there in 2016, it stands to be much stronger today in 2020.

The FCC is now seeking public comment on Charter’s proposal until July 22, 2020. Stop the Cap! plans to file extensive comments on the matter and will shortly publish a guide for readers offering sample letters that can be sent to the FCC on this issue.

Cable Companies See Large Gains in Mobile Customers During COVID-19 Pandemic

With record-breaking unemployment and an economy in tatters, consumers are abandoning high-priced mobile plans and switching to lower priced cable operator mobile plans.

Comcast, Charter/Spectrum, and Altice USA saw dramatic customer gains of 547,000 new customers in the first quarter of 2020, primarily at the expense of AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint, according to Wall Street analyst firm MoffettNathanson. The four largest wireless carriers saw a collective 1.3% drop in subscribers, which counts as the worst performance the traditional wireless sector has seen since 2014. But their loss was the cable industry’s gain, with three cable operators achieving a 130% increase in new mobile customers during the first quarter of the year. The three cable companies now have a combined 3.7 million wireless customers.

Comcast and Charter contract with Verizon Wireless for 4G LTE and 5G service, while Altice USA provides its mobile customers with access to Sprint’s network. The cable operators keep costs down by favoring Wi-Fi connections wherever possible.

Two factors are driving the growth of cable industry mobile plans:

  1. Price: Altice USA sells its mobile service at just $20/mo per line. Comcast and Charter both sell unlimited data, talk and text plans for $45 a month per line and a “By the Gig” plan option that includes 1 GB of data bundled with unlimited calls and texting for a flat $14/per gig at Charter and $15/1 GB or $30/3 GB or $60/10 GB at Comcast. With unemployment numbers high and consumers worried about the future of the job market, economizing expenses matters.
  2. Network: Comcast and Charter both rely on Verizon Wireless, recognized as one of the strongest wireless performers in terms of coverage and signal quality. Customers can switch to a cheaper cable company mobile plan without sacrificing network coverage.

MoffettNathanson’s Craig Moffett noted that the COVID-19 pandemic closed most wireless retail stores, and there was a wide belief that wireless industry sales would be anemic at best during the spring as people stayed home. Instead, the cable industry heavily marketed its wireless plans and expanded the number of pre-owned devices qualified for “Bring Your Own Device” switching, allowing customers to swap SIM cards instead of being forced to buy new devices.

“Given the levels of economic hardship that have accompanied the lockdowns, one can reasonably imagine that these kinds of hyper-aggressive pricing plans won’t have much trouble breaking through to capture market share,” Moffett said in a research note.

Moffett predicts the second quarter will show an even greater number of customers dropping traditional mobile plans in favor of plans provided by their local cable company. Some customers report saving over $100 a month by switching.

One potential downside: customers must subscribe to other products sold by their cable provider to get the best price on wireless service. Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile applies a $20 per line monthly charge if the customer does not maintain at least one of the following: Xfinity TV, Internet or Voice service. Spectrum customers that cancel internet service with the cable company will pay an additional $20 monthly charge per line, have Spectrum Wi-Fi speeds limited to 5 Mbps, and are not allowed to add any additional mobile lines.

Spectrum Upgrades Standard Speed Plan to 200/10 Mbps in Central Florida and South Texas

Spectrum internet customers in parts of Central Florida and South Texas are getting twice the download speed they used to receive thanks to a series of quiet service upgrades still in progress.

Customers in parts of suburban Orlando, including Seminole County, first noticed the speed upgrade in April in towns like Lake Mary. Parts of Kissimmee saw a service upgrade earlier this month. Some neighborhoods in Orlando also began reporting speed upgrades as of mid-May. Some parts of Pasco County, north of Tampa, also received a 200 Mbps upgrade, particularly in planned communities.

Charter Communications is gradually upgrading capacity in the area, formerly served by Bright House Networks. Spectrum traditionally does not announce speed upgrades until an entire service area is complete, which will likely happen in parts of Florida and Texas by early this summer.

In South Texas, San Benito is one of the communities between Brownsville and McAllen seeing Spectrum’s usual download speed doubled from 100 to 200 Mbps.

The speed upgrades come without any additional charges and usually appear automatically. Spectrum has been slowly upgrading its national service footprint to offer the new, higher-speed 200 Mbps Standard service tier. For more than two years, customers in many AT&T landline areas in the midwest and south have had 200/10 Mbps service, designed to help keep the cable company competitive with AT&T’s fiber offering. But service remains stubbornly fixed at 100/10 Mbps in just under half of Spectrum’s service area, particularly in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, and West regions.

Stop the Cap! expects Spectrum to upgrade all of its service areas to provide 200/10 Mbps service. It remains uncertain exactly when that will happen, however.

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