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NY PSC Clarifies Broadband Speed Requirement Merger Terms

Charter Communications is not obligated to upgrade New York internet customers to a minimum internet speed of 300 Mbps, according to a letter of clarification directed to Stop the Cap! and received today from the New York State Department of Public Service.

DPS:

In the Commission’s 2016 order, Charter was required to offer broadband internet service with speeds up to 100 Mbps to all customers served by its New York networks (including its Columbia County systems) by the end of 2018; and offer broadband internet service with speeds up to 300 Mbps to all customers served by its New York networks by the end of 2019. At the time of the Commission’s decision, although Time Warner operated some systems in New York that were already capable of offering customer speeds up to 300 Mbps, the majority of Time Warner customers in Upstate New York were limited to broadband speeds of 50 Mbps.

Charter was therefore required to upgrade its network to be able to offer broadband service at speeds up to 300 Mbps by the end of 2019 but was not required to increase its minimum service offering to 300 Mbps. Charter has reported that it has complied with this condition ahead of schedule and Department of Public Service Staff has begun the process of independently field-testing Charter’s network to verify compliance with the condition.

Stop the Cap! raised this issue with the Commission as part of the recent settlement agreement between New York State and Charter Communications, and sought an official clarification. Approximately 40% of Charter’s national footprint now receives 200 Mbps download speeds while most New Yorkers receive just 100 Mbps for the same price, putting the state at a disadvantage.

Dampier

“The Commission’s language in the original merger agreement was unclear, because Time Warner Cable had already embarked on a statewide upgrade to its so-called ‘Maxx’ service tiers, which included free speed increases, negating most of the benefits of the state’s condition requiring Charter to upgrade broadband speeds as part of its terms to approve the merger,” said Phillip Dampier, founder and president of Stop the Cap! “In fact, this merger made things worse for New Yorkers because customers would have been getting Time Warner Cable Maxx speeds as much as a year earlier than what Spectrum finally delivered across the state, and customers would have been offered a number of options for less costly internet service that Spectrum dropped.”

Shortly after the merger was approved, Charter placed a moratorium on Time Warner Cable Maxx upgrades and spent months attempting to knit Charter’s existing systems with the much larger Time Warner Cable.

Time Warner Cable Maxx speeds were well on the way throughout Upstate New York before Charter acquired the company and issued an upgrade moratorium.

“Consumers already know from their cable bills that this merger was just another bad deal for New York, and now nearly half of Spectrum’s national service area gets twice the speed Upstate New York gets for the same price, and there is no pressure on the company to deliver any additional upgrades,” Dampier added.

Stop the Cap! also urged the Commission to do all it could to make life easier for customers in the New York City area, where Charter has been trying to rid itself of union technicians that have been on strike for over two years.

“For all the talk by state officials, including the governor, it appears there is no end in sight for this strike and customers are caught in the middle,” Dampier said. “We hear frequently from New York City consumers about substandard repair work and unacceptable installations that suggest the company is not using the best available workforce to take care of customer needs. Charter is making loads of money in profits and can afford to offer a square deal to workers to end this strike and get these technicians back to work.”

New York PSC Approves Settlement Deal With Charter Communications

The New York Public Service Commission on Thursday approved its final settlement proposal with Charter Communications in a 3-1 vote, allowing Spectrum to continue as the dominant cable operator in New York State.

The Commission rejected all recommended changes from consumer groups (including Stop the Cap!), industry trade associations, and service providers, preferring its own Settlement Agreement.

In July 2018, the PSC voted to rescind approval of the 2016 Merger Order that allowed Charter to assume control of Time Warner Cable franchise areas in New York. The Commission found that Charter had violated a key merger condition requiring the cable operator to expand its service area on a timely basis to reach 145,000 rural homes and businesses that lack broadband service. The Commission found Charter was attempting to count newly constructed condos and multi-dwelling units in the New York City area towards that commitment, which the Commission claimed violated the terms of the agreement. After Charter argued it had the legal standing to define its network buildout more broadly and on its own terms, the Commission held an emergency meeting where it took the unprecedented step of voting to de-certify the merger and throw the cable company out of New York.

The Commission and Charter’s lawyers began private negotiations almost immediately after the vote, signaling the Commission was amenable to settlement talks.

The final settlement approved last week, nearly one year after the vote, narrowly focuses on Charter’s rural broadband commitment, reaffirms and expands it with a new $12 million rural broadband fund paid for by Charter. The cable company also agreed to stop counting addresses in the New York City area towards it broadband expansion commitment, and will deposit a $2,800 payment to escrow for each address where Charter misses its target construction deadline.

“We’re pleased the PSC has approved the agreement, and we look forward to continuing to serve our customers and expanding the availability of high-speed broadband in New York State,” Andrew Russell, Charter spokesman told the (Albany) Times-Union. “We thank the PSC, Chairman Rhodes, the commissioners and staff for working with us throughout this process.”

The settlement details:

  • Charter will complete the expansion of its existing network to pass 145,000 addresses entirely in Upstate New York. This expansion will not include New York City addresses, which the company had previously planned to include in an earlier buildout plan. To date, Charter has passed approximately 65,000 of the required 145,000 addresses. To comply with the settlement, the Department estimates that the company will invest more than $600 million, more than double the public benefit value estimated by the Commission in its 2016 merger approval.
  • Charter’s expansion will be completed by September 30, 2021, in accordance with a schedule providing frequent interim enforceable milestone requirements, with corresponding reporting and accountability.
  • Charter will also pay $12 million for additional broadband expansion projects at locations to be selected by the Department of Public Service and the New York State Broadband Program Office. Of the $12 million payments, $6 million will be administered by the New York State Broadband Program Office and $6 million will be paid into an escrow fund for work that will be completed by Charter at the State’s direction.

In Rochester, Stop the Cap! was disappointed to learn the PSC had rejected recommendations on improving the settlement.

“We feel all New Yorkers have paid a price for this bad merger, including skyrocketing cable bills and a yet to be determined number of rural residents that will fall through the cracks and end up serviced by no one,” said Phillip Dampier, the group’s founder and president. “We applaud the PSC requiring Charter to serve additional rural households, but every customer should get better service from Charter, including the 200 Mbps download speed that customers in many other states receive, and there must be a better solution for low-income residents that don’t qualify for Spectrum’s restrictive Internet Assist program and cannot afford $65 a month for internet access.”

Stop the Cap! today also filed a clarification request with the PSC about Charter’s internet speed commitment.

“There seems to be confusion about exactly what internet speed Spectrum should be offering its New York customers,” Dampier added. “The PSC seems to imply Charter has not yet met its obligation to increase internet speed to 300 Mbps by the end of 2019, while Charter considers the fact it offers gigabit service as evidence it has completed all of its speed obligations to New York State regulators. We want the PSC to clarify if it still expects Charter to offer 300 Mbps as a base speed to customers by the end of this year or whether the mere availability of speeds at or above 300 Mbps (which Time Warner Cable was already offering a significant part of New York a year before the Charter merger) has satisfied this merger condition.”

The Downside to Modem Fees: Customers Hold On to Legacy Owned Modems Forever

Arris/Motorola’s SB6121 SURFboard DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modem used to be considered “eXtreme,” but now most cable companies consider it obsolete.

The legacy of the hated modem rental fee is coming back to bite providers that charge $10 a month or more for a device that likely cost the company well under $100.

To opt out of the fee, a growing percentage of customers buy their own equipment, but now many of those modems are becoming functionally obsolete and customers are wary of efforts by providers to convince them to accept a newer, company-supplied modem.

With the arrival of DOCSIS 3.1 and faster speeds, the problem is only getting worse for companies like Comcast, Charter Spectrum, and Cox. With an installed base of hundreds of thousands of obsolete modems, customers frequently can no longer get the internet speed they pay for, and the equipment’s limitations can cause congestion on cable broadband networks, because older modems cannot take advantage of the exponential increase in available “channels” that help share the load on the neighborhood network.

“Some customers have cable modems that are incompatible (such as DOCSIS 2.0 and DOCSIS 3.0 4×4 modems) with the current class of service or internet speed that they’re receiving. As a result, these customers may not be experiencing the full range of available bandwidth that they’re paying for,” Comcast informs their customers. “If a device is no longer supported by Comcast or has reached its end-of-life (EOL), this essentially means that we will no longer install the device, either as a new or replacement device. In addition, we will no longer recommend that customers purchase the device, whether new or used.”

But many Comcast customers do not realize their equipment is effectively obsolete until they visit mydeviceinfo.xfinity.com and sign in to their account or enter a device make and model in the search bar on the homepage or hear directly from the company. Comcast will send online alerts to customers verified to still be using outdated equipment and occasionally send notifications through the mail. Customers can order new equipment online or swap out old equipment in a cable store. Comcast prefers its customers rent its Xfinity xFi Wireless Gateway ($13/mo) or xFi Advanced Gateway ($15/mo). As an incentive, Comcast is testing offering free unlimited data in some central U.S. markets to those choosing its more costly Advanced Gateway.

Charter Spectrum sold its merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks partly on its argument that modem fees would no longer be charged. Despite that, many former Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers still use their own modems, which has been a problem for a company that raised the standard internet speed available to residential customers from 15 Mbps to 100 Mbps (200 Mbps in some markets, mostly those also served by AT&T). Older modems often cannot achieve those speeds. Spectrum notifies affected customers in periodic campaigns, offering to replace their obsolete equipment, but many customers suspect hidden fees may be lurking in such offers and discard them.

“Some modems that were issued years ago have become outdated. If you have a modem that was issued by us and hasn’t been swapped in the last six years, it might need to be replaced,” Spectrum tells customers. “To get a replacement modem, contact us or visit a Spectrum store. Please recycle your old modem or bring it to a Spectrum store for proper disposal. If you do a modem swap with us, you’ll receive a mail return label in your package, which can be used to return your old modem.”

Cox is also in a similar predicament. It runs seasonal checks on its network to identify customers using older DOCSIS modems, often DOCSIS 3.0 4×4 modems, which can only support four download channels. When it finds customers eligible for an upgrade, it mails postcards offering a “free modem upgrade,” usually supplying a SB6183 or SB8200 modem that can arrive in 24-48 hours. But many Cox customers suspect trickery from Cox as well, or run into poorly trained customer service representatives that reject the postcards, claiming the customer is ineligible.

“DOCSIS 3.0 8×4 or higher (or a DOCSIS 3.1) devices are required for all new Cox High Speed Internet customers,” Cox tells their internet customers. “Current Cox customers should ensure they have a minimum of a DOCSIS 3.0 device in order to consistently receive optimal speeds. Additionally, Ultimate customers are required to have a minimum of a DOCSIS 3.0 device with a minimum of 16×4 or higher channel bonding to achieve package speeds.”

In fact, most modem upgrade offers from your provider are likely genuine, but customers need to pay attention to any fine print.

Customers can also purchase their own upgraded modem if they want to avoid Comcast’s Gateway fee. Cox does not charge customers for modems sent as part of a free upgrade offer, but watch for erroneous charges on your bill and report them at once if they do appear. Charter Spectrum has recently introduced a $9.99 modem activation fee, applicable to new customer-owned or company-supplied cable modems. We do not know if that fee would apply in cases of an obsolete modem upgrade. Be sure to ask, and if the answer is no, make a note of the representative’s name in case a dispute arises later on.

Take It Or Leave It Pricing: No, You May Not Have a Better Deal!

GIVE us more money and TAKE what we offer you.

Bloomberg News is reporting what many of you already know — it is getting tougher to get a better deal from your cable or phone company.

As Stop the Cap! has documented since the completion of the Time Warner Cable/Bright House/Charter Spectrum merger in 2016, companies are pulling back on promotions, taking advantage of a lack of competition and offering best pricing only to new customers.

Charter Spectrum and Cable One (soon to be Sparklight) are the most notorious for implementing “take it or leave it” pricing. In fact, one of Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge’s chief complaints about Time Warner Cable was its “Turkish Bazaar” mentality about pricing. Rutledge claimed Time Warner Cable had as many as 90,000 different promotions running at the same time, typically targeted on what other companies were theoretically providing service and how serious the representative felt you were about canceling service. Time Warner Cable had basic retention plans available for regular representatives to offer, better plans for retention specialists to pitch, and the best plans of all to customers complaining on the “executive customer service” line or after filing complaints with the Better Business Bureau. There were plans for complaining over the phone and different plans for complaining at the cable store. Rutledge was horrified, because customers were now well-trained on how to extract a better deal every year when promotions ran out.

Last month, Rutledge said he was indifferent about cash-strapped consumers that cannot afford a runaway cable TV bill on a retired/fixed income or the urban poor who can’t imagine paying $65 a month for basic broadband service. To those customers, pointing to the exit is now perfectly acceptable. In fact, companies make more profit than ever when you drop cable television service and upgrade your broadband connection to a faster speed. That is because there is up to a 90% margin on internet service — provisioned over a network paid off decades ago and designed for much less space efficient analog television. Charging you $20 more for faster internet service is nearly 100% profit and costs most companies next to nothing to offer, and Time Warner Cable executives once laughed off the financial impact of so-called “heavy users,” calling data transport costs mere “rounding errors.” 

Even with a much tougher attitude about discounting service, Charter and Comcast are still adding new broadband customers every month, usually at the expense of phone companies still peddling DSL. So if you cancel, there are probably two new customers ready to replace you, at least for now.

Cable One redefines rapacious pricing. The company specializes in markets where the incumbent phone company is likely to offer low-speed DSL, if anything at all. As a result, they have a comfortable monopoly in many areas and price their service accordingly. Cable One’s basic 200 Mbps plan, with a 600 GB data cap, costs $65 a month, not including the $10.50/mo modem fee, and $2.75 monthly internet service surcharge. To ditch the cap, you will pay another $40 a month — $118.25 total for unlimited internet.

In fact, Cable One charges so much money for internet, they even have Wall Street concerned they are overcharging!

When Joshua May tried calling Spectrum to deal with the 29% more it wanted (around $40 a month) after his promotion expired, the customer service representative told him to go pound salt.

“I expected they’d at least offer free HBO or Showtime,” May, 34, of Springfield, Ohio, told Bloomberg News. “They did nothing.”

He did something. He cut the cord. The representative could have cared less.

The product mix cable and phone companies offer has not really changed, but the era of shoving a triple play bundle of internet, TV, and phone service sure has. Charter and Comcast now treat cable television as a nice extra, not the start of a bundle offer. Broadband is the key item, and the most profitable element, of today’s cable package. Beleaguered phone service gets no respect either. Time Warner Cable used to sell its triple play bundle including a phone line for less money than their double play bundle that omitted it. Today, it’s a simple $9.99/mo extra, given as much attention as a menu offering premium movie channels.

Comcast differs from Charter by offering a plethora of options to their customers. If you don’t want to spend a lot for high speed internet, spend a little less for low speed internet. Their television packages also vary in price and channel selection, often maddeningly including a “must-have” channel in a higher-priced package. Like Spectrum, their phone line is now an afterthought.

AT&T and Verizon have their own approaches to deal with reluctant customers. Verizon FiOS customers face steep price hikes when their promotions expire, but the opportunity to score a better deal is still there, if Verizon is in the mood that quarter. Verizon remains sensitive about their subscriber numbers and growth, so when a quarter looks like it will be difficult, the promotions turn up. AT&T prefers to play a shell game with their customers. Most recently, the company has given a cold shoulder to its U-verse product, treating it like yesterday’s news and best forgotten. AT&T literally markets its own customers to abandon U-verse in favor of AT&T Fiber. Verizon and AT&T treat their DSL customers like they are doing them a favor just by offering any service. All the best deals go to their fiber customers.

AT&T Randall Stephenson is a recent convert to the “who cares about video customers” movement. Services like DirecTV Now were originally channel-rich bargains, but now they are a place for rate hikes and channel deletions. Over a half-million streaming customers have already canceled after the most recent price hikes, but Stephenson claims he does not mind, because those bargain-chasers are low-quality customers worthy of purging. AT&T’s dream customer is one who appreciates whatever AT&T gives them and does not mind a parade of rate hikes.

Comcast’s chief financial officer Mike Cavanagh said it more succinctly: seeking subscribers that “really value video and our bundle despite the increases in prices,” and has “the wallet for a fuller video experience.”

Customers who decide to take their business to a streaming competitor are already learning the industry still has the last laugh. As package prices head north of $50/month, that is not too far off from the pricing offered by cable and phone companies for base video packages. In fact, Spectrum has begun undercutting most streaming providers, offering $15-25 packages of local and/or popular cable channels with a Cloud DVR option for around $5 more a month.

White House Refuses to Turn Over Documents on AT&T-Time Warner Merger

Phillip Dampier April 16, 2019 AT&T, Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters No Comments

(Reuters) – The White House has told two U.S. House Democrats it will not turn over documents that could show whether Republican President Donald Trump sought to intervene in the regulatory review of AT&T Inc’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner Inc.

In March, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler and Representative David Cicilline, who chairs a panel overseeing antitrust issues, asked the White House and Justice Department to turn over records after The New Yorker magazine reported Trump directed then-National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn to use the Justice Department to block the deal.

The pair wrote that if accurate, Trump’s involvement would “constitute a grave abuse of power.” In February, a federal appeals court upheld a lower-court ruling rejecting a Justice Department challenge to the deal filed in November 2017.

Trump criticized the deal as a candidate in late 2016, saying it would concentrate too much media power in the hands of one owner, and later saying it would raise prices. He has also frequently attacked CNN, a Time Warner property now owned by AT&T, for what he sees as negative coverage of his campaign and administration.

In a letter dated Monday and released on Tuesday by Cicilline, White House counsel Pat Cipollone declined to release any documents, saying he would not provide “protected communications between the president and his senior advisers that are the very core of the executive branch’s confidentiality interests.”

Cipollone added that the Justice Department would be responding “in due course.”

The two Democrats responded in a joint statement that “the White House Counsel has made a blanket claim that all White House communications — regardless of whether they contain evidence of improper or even unlawful activities — are protected by a cone of secrecy,” adding they would “pursue this matter.”

Makan Delrahim, the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, said in a 2018 declaration he had never received “orders, instructions, or directions relating” to the AT&T-Time Warner deal from Trump, Justice Department officials or White House officials.

The Justice Department said in February it would not seek further appeals to block the merger.

In February 2018, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon rejected AT&T’s request to see White House communications that might shed light on whether Trump pressured the Justice Department to try to block the deal.

AT&T lawyers said last year the deal may have been singled out for enforcement, citing as evidence statements by Trump as a candidate and as president that the deal was bad for consumers and the country. AT&T declined comment on Tuesday.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Peter Cooney

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