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Consumer Alert: Spectrum Double-Charging Some Customers in Western N.Y.

Phillip Dampier August 28, 2018 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Video 2 Comments

Spectrum customers in western New York are reporting overdraft charges and missing funds from their checking accounts that trace back to double-charging by Charter Communications for cable service.

WIVB-TV Buffalo reports Olean resident Michelle La Voie was stunned when an unauthorized debit showed up in her credit union checking account, which appeared to be a double-bill from Spectrum.

The second charge, a duplicate of the $161 payment she made manually, appeared as a “pending charge” on her electronic statement — a charge she did not authorize and a hold on her checking account funds her credit union could not release unless Charter canceled the transaction.

When La Voie called Spectrum’s billing department, she was told it was a computer glitch.

“They informed me that it was a known issue, that payments that had been made on the 19th and the 20th [of August] there was a computer glitch, and there were people being double-charged,” La Voie told WIVB News.

The “glitch” is in fact an “authorization hold” — one that we are experiencing with our August Spectrum bill payment here at Stop the Cap! 

If a customer pays using a debit or credit card, a vendor like Spectrum can place a temporary “hold” on funds. Often, this hold is the full amount of the transaction, which will temporarily make those funds unavailable for withdrawal until either the company and your bank or credit card “settles” the transaction and transfers the funds, or the hold expires, usually after 5-8 days.

In this case, Spectrum or its credit card processor failed to clear the hold after the transaction was settled, meaning affected customers have twice the amount of their cable bill unavailable in their account until the pending charge expires in about a week.

Customers can check to see if this glitch is affecting their account by logging on and looking for something like this:

Pending Charges

Aug 19 2018  TWC * TIME WARNER CABLE   $151.40

Activity Since Last Statement

Aug 28 2018  TWC * TIME WARNER CABLE  $151.40

The presence of both the “pending charge” and the “settled” charge found under current account activity is unusual, because the pending charge should have been canceled at the same time funds were transferred to pay Charter Communications (d/b/a Time Warner Cable). Instead, $151.40 was withdrawn and sent to Charter while an additional $151.40 is remains unavailable for withdrawal because of the authorization hold not being removed. By September 1st, that pending charge will likely expire. But until then, Spectrum has effectively kept $151.40 of your money hostage.

This can become a problem for customers who keep a low balance in their checking account and expect those funds to be immediately available to pay bills or make a cash withdrawal. Because of the extended hold, customers could unintentionally overdraw their checking account, leading to overdraft fees or an automatic draw from a line of credit, if one is attached to your checking account. La Voie had enough money in her account to avoid an overdraft, but she was concerned about those who don’t.

“I asked are you planning to tell customers this so that they can make sure that they are not overdrawn, or having payments declined?  They said no, we don’t have any plans to notify customers,” La Voie said.

In fact, one of her co-workers did incur overdraft fees because of this problem. Her credit union removed the overdraft fees as a courtesy, but not all banks are likely to be that understanding.

Customers can protect themselves by considering using autopay with a credit card, where authorization holds only affect your available credit line, not money in your checking account. For most credit card transactions, the temporary hold has no material impact, and few even notice the hold. But authorization holds can temporarily put a credit card into an overlimit condition if a customer keeps their card nearly “maxed out,” and exceeding your credit limit will damage your credit score and risk your good standing with the credit card issuer.

WIVB in Buffalo reports some customers in western New York are being “double-billed” for Spectrum cable service. (2:06)

N.Y. Gives Charter 2 Weeks to Come to Terms or Face Revocation of Charter-TWC Merger

The New York Public Service Commission has notified Charter Communications it won’t be the victim of an offer that promises one thing and delivers something less, giving the company 14 days to fully accept the terms of its Time Warner Cable/Charter merger approval or face the possibility of having the merger canceled, potentially throwing Charter’s business plans into chaos.

In a move any aggrieved cable customer would appreciate, Charter’s lawyers gave the PSC a deal that looked good on the surface, only to be eroded away in the fine print. In a May 2018 response to the Commission’s “show cause” order, threatening to severely fine the cable company for breaking its commitments to New York State, the cable company effectively responded it wasn’t their fault if the Commission missed the fact the company did not actually agree to everything the state thought it did, and was in full compliance of what it unilaterally agreed to do.

The hubris of the state’s largest cable operator did not go down well in Albany, to say the least. But first some background:

Charter is coming under fire in New York State for failing to meet its obligations to extend service in a timely way to 145,000 New York homes and businesses not part of Spectrum’s service area and also lack access to broadband service. Today the Commission, in a separate action, fined Charter $2 million, to be drawn from a line of credit previously set aside by the cable company, for failing to meet its original broadband buildout targets and failing to remedy its past poor performance.

Charter’s lawyers last month protested their innocence, claiming the company was not out of compliance with its agreement — in fact it was ahead of schedule.

Both things cannot be true, so who is being honest and who is trading in “alternative facts?”

To find out, one has to turn back the clock to 2016. On January 19, Charter’s attorneys sent an acceptance letter to the Commission in response to the regulator’s offer to approve the acquisition of Time Warner Cable if Charter agreed to a series of pro-consumer benefits designed to allow New York customers to share in the lucrative deal.

Charter agreed to dramatically increase Standard internet speeds for its New York customers, first to 100 Mbps by the end of 2018 and again to 300 Mbps by the end of 2019. Charter met its first commitment ahead of schedule and is on track to again increase speeds for New York residents before the end of next year.

The company also agreed to temporarily retain Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet program. Although that option has since expired for new customers, existing customers can keep the package until at least next year. But regulators note Charter has frequently made it difficult for New York customers to sign up for the program. Stop the Cap! has documented multiple instances of customers being told the plan was unavailable, or representatives have confused it with Spectrum Internet Assist, a similar budget-priced internet package for those that meet certain income and benefits qualifications.

But Charter’s agreement to expand its service to unserved areas of New York is where most of the current conflict arises. Stop the Cap! strongly recommended in our testimony to the PSC that rural broadband expansion be a part of a series of deal commitments that should be imposed on Charter if the Commission saw fit to approve the merger. The Commission agreed with our recommendation. That allows us to speak authoritatively that the Commission, in concert with the New York State government, framed that expansion commitment as an adjunct to the state’s Broadband 4 All program, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s rural broadband expansion effort.

Charter would serve an integral role in the effort by extending service to homes and businesses just outside of its current service area. That would save the state millions in costs trying to subsidize other providers to expand into these typically unprofitable areas of the state. The design and intention of the expansion program was clear from the outset, and the Commission specifically requested Charter provide detailed lists of planned expansion areas, so the state could avoid duplicating its efforts and re-target funding to other areas of the state. The goal was to achieve near-universal broadband availability in every corner of New York.

The Commission’s 2016 letter to Charter seemed clear enough:

The conditions adopted in this Order and listed in Appendix A shall be binding and enforceable by the Commission upon unconditional acceptance by New Charter within seven (7) business days of the issuance of this Order. If the Petitioners’ unconditional acceptance is not received within seven (7) business days of the issuance of this Order, the Petitioners will have failed to satisfy their burden under the Public Service Law as described herein, and this Order shall constitute a denial of the Joint Petition.

But in Charter’s response on January 19, 2016, their lawyers got too cute by half (emphasis ours):

In accordance with the Commission’s Order Granting Joint Petition by Time Warner Cable Inc. (“Time Warner Cable”) and Charter Communications, Inc. (“Charter”) dated January 8, 2016, Charter hereby accepts the Order Conditions for Approval contained in Appendix A, subject to applicable law and without waiver of any legal rights.

On May 9, 2018 the state discovered what that language discrepancy meant. Charter’s lawyers responded to the state’s charges that the company was not complying with the terms of the merger approval agreement with a classic “gotcha” letter, claiming Charter’s agreement provided only a “qualified” acceptance of language contained exclusively in Appendix A, and its obligations started and stopped there.

That is a distinction worth millions of dollars. Appendix A basically summarizes Charter’s commitment to expand to 145,000 new passings in New York, but does not explain the expansion program or its purpose. If only Appendix A did apply, it would allow Charter to count any new cable hookup, whether in a rural hamlet or more likely in a condo in Manhattan as a “new passing,” bringing it one customer closer to meeting its expansion commitment. Charter could count new wealthy gated communities, apartment buildings, offices, and converted lofts, despite the fact it would almost certainly wire those customers for service with or without its agreement with the state government. More importantly, Charter would successfully avoid spending tens of thousands of dollars to extend the cable line down a road just to reach one or two rural customers.

Charter’s lawyers seem to think that their clever loophole will win the company significant savings and avoid fines — too bad, so sad if the state’s lawyers failed to appreciate what Charter was actually willing to agree to in 2016 and what the state accepted by default by not catching the discrepancy sooner.

“Contrary to [Charter’s] assertions, however, the Approval Order accorded Charter only two explicit choices: (1) to accept unconditionally the commitments set forth in the body of the Approval Order and Appendix A; or (2) have the Joint Petition rejected, subject to Charter’s right to judicial review,” the Commission rebutted.

In short, the state is calling Charter’s possible bluff. If it truly intends not to agree to the original terms of the agreement, the state has the right to toss out the merger agreement, in part or in full, canceling the merger. Of course, Charter can always take the matter to court and hope it can find a judge that will accept Charter’s ‘partial agreement’ argument.

To say the PSC was displeased with Charter’s novel legal maneuver would be an understatement. In today’s ruling, the PSC severely admonished Charter for its bad behavior:

Charter was not free to pick and choose the conditions it would accept or the portions of the Approval Order with which it would comply, nor was Charter free to accept only some of the conditions in the Approval Order and Appendix A yet still obtain Commission approval of the merger transaction. Charter is likewise not free to rewrite the Commission’s conditions.

In effect, Charter is ripping off the people of New York, and the state’s regulators are having none of it.

“The Commission is troubled by Charter’s position that the Commission’s Approval Order means something other than what it actually states,” the PSC wrote. “Given that many of the obligations in that Order are continuing and will need to be fulfilled in the future, the Commission believes it is critical that Charter acknowledge the obligations it agreed to undertake in exchange for the benefits it received by the Commission’s conditional approval. Anything short of an unconditional full acceptance of the Approval Order and Appendix A would deprive New York state of its fair share of the incremental benefits.”

It is likely we will know where this is headed by mid-July, because the PSC has given Charter 14 days to recommit itself to the PSC’s original merger terms, not just those in infamous Appendix A. It signaled it will no longer debate the matter, either, telling Charter “the Commission will not countenance that conduct” and wants action:

Charter is directed to cure its defective acceptance and file with the Secretary to the Commission a new letter indicating its full unconditional acceptance of the Approval Order and Appendix A thereof within 14 days.

Should Charter, however, fail to provide a new letter indicating full unconditional acceptance, the Commission may pursue other remedies at its disposal, including but not necessarily limited to the following.

First, beginning proceedings pursuant to PSL §216 to rescind, modify or amend the Approval Order, specifically, the Commission’s approval of the transfer of the Time Warner’s cable franchises and associated facilities, networks, works and systems to Charter, in whole or in part.

Second, initiate an enforcement action pursuant to PSL §26 for failing to comply with the Approval Order’s Ordering Clause 1 including an action in Supreme Court to adjudicate the dispute and/or declare the Commission’s conditional approval null and void for lack of an unconditional acceptance.

And, third, initiate a penalty action for being out of compliance with the Approval Order’s unconditional acceptance requirement under PSL §25.

It’s a teachable moment for regulators, one that cable customers have come to learn over decades of bad experiences. It’s never a good idea to trust a cable company.

Spectrum Ditching Usage Measurement Meter Tool in July; Usage Caps Not in the Cards

Charter Communications is abandoning any pretense of data caps on its internet service by decommissioning its internet usage measurement tool for residential subscribers effective this July.

Company officials began notifying customers in billing statements that the usage measurement tool will be dropped effective next month. Charter Communications markets Spectrum internet service as free of any data caps, and a usage measurement system only confused customers about whether their internet usage was truly unlimited.

Originally introduced by Time Warner Cable in late 2009 and gradually made available to customers nationwide, the usage measurement tool reported monthly data usage for customers as part of Time Warner Cable’s original 2008 market test of data caps in Beaumont, Tex.

Customers were offered a Lite Tier with a 5 GB monthly cap or 40 GB of usage for the company’s Turbo Tier. Overlimit fees were $1/GB.

The company attempted to expand its data cap trial in the spring of 2009 to customers in Austin and San Antonio, Tex., Rochester, N.Y., and the Triad region of North Carolina. A major backlash, organized in part by Stop the Cap!, resulted in those market trials being abandoned within two weeks of being announced.

Time Warner Cable never attempted to impose compulsory data caps again after its disastrous 2009 trial and Charter Communications quietly abandoned its own frequently unenforced usage caps in 2015, shortly before bidding to acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

By ditching the usage measurement tool, Spectrum will retire the last remaining elements of Time Warner Cable’s legacy of dabbling with usage caps and further monetizing internet usage.

Charter is also forbidden from imposing data caps for up to seven years as a result of deal conditions imposed by regulators in return for approval of its merger with TWC and BH.

Spectrum Launches Gigabit Upgrades Across Upstate New York, Dozens of Other Cities

Charter Communications today launched gigabit broadband upgrades across dozens of U.S. cities, including almost all of upstate New York (excluding Buffalo) and large parts of Texas, Ohio, California, and Virginia.

With the latest upgrades, customers in these cities are also getting speed bumps for Spectrum’s Internet Ultra package, which will now offer speeds of 400/20 Mbps. Customers can visit Spectrum.com to review their local speed options. Upgrades to the Ultra tier usually carry no service charges, but moving to gigabit speed will come at a cost — a mandatory $199 installation fee, with a service call required.

Some customers may need to swap out or replace their existing cable modems to take full advantage of 400+ Mbps speeds. A list of modems authorized for use on Spectrum’s network along with the speeds they support can be found here.

In other cities where Charter has already launched gigabit service, customers with Standard 100 Mbps internet plans also received a free upgrade to 200/10 Mbps, but readers report that speed upgrade has not yet taken place in areas launching gigabit service today:

  • Arizona: Yuma
  • California: Los Angeles, Palm Springs, San Diego, El Centro
  • Kentucky: Louisville, Bowling Green, and Paducah
  • Massachusetts: Boston (Suburbs)
  • Nebraska: Lincoln, Omaha
  • New York: Binghamton, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Elmira/Corning, Utica, and Watertown
  • North Carolina: Greensboro, Wilmington, and Greenville
  • Ohio: Dayton, Cincinnati, Youngstown, Lima
  • Pennsylvania: Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh
  • Tennessee: Tri-Cities, Chattanooga, and Knoxville
  • Texas: Dallas/Fort Worth, Waco, El Paso, Beaumont/Port Arthur, and Wichita Falls
  • Virginia: Roanoke/Lynchburg, Norfolk (Suburbs) and Tri-Cities
  • Wisconsin: Milwaukee, Green Bay/Appleton

For most customers, here is Spectrum’s current broadband pricing (new customer promotions may offer significantly lower rates and bundled pricing may differ):

  • $64.99 Spectrum Internet Standard 100/10 Mbps (will eventually be upgraded to 200/10 Mbps)
  • $54.99 Spectrum Internet Standard 100/10 Mbps with Spectrum TV (will eventually be upgraded to 200/10 Mbps)
  • $89.99 Spectrum Internet Ultra (400/20 Mbps)
  • $79.99 Spectrum Internet Ultra (400/20 Mbps)
  • $124.99 Spectrum Internet Gig (940/35 Mbps)
  • $114.99 Spectrum Internet Gig (940/35 Mbps) with Spectrum TV

N.Y. Attorney General Overcomes Charter’s Legal Objections to Slow Internet Lawsuit

Phillip Dampier February 20, 2018 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 6 Comments

Charter Communications will have to face a courtroom to answer accusations the cable company intentionally sold internet service at speeds it knew it could not provide to its customers in New York.

New York State Supreme Court Justice O. Peter Sherwood rejected a motion by the cable company to dismiss New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s 2017 lawsuit accusing Time Warner Cable (now owned by Charter) of systematically shortchanging as many as 640,000 New York internet customers by falsely advertising internet speeds it knew it could not deliver, often with at least 900,000 outdated company-provided cable modems incapable of supporting the higher speeds the company promoted.

“Today’s decision by the New York Supreme Court marks a major victory for New York consumers — rejecting every single argument made by Charter-Spectrum in its attempts to block our lawsuit,” said Schneiderman. “This decision ensures that our office can continue to hold Charter-Spectrum to account for its failure to deliver the reliable internet speeds it promised consumers, ripping you off by promising internet speeds it simply could not deliver.”

Charter’s Defense: Spectrum’s Ad Claims for Fast Internet Service are: “Prototypical instances of non-actionable puffery.”

Charter’s lawyers attempted a variety of legal strategies to get Schneiderman’s lawsuit tossed, including undermining the cable company’s own marketing efforts. Lawyers argued the court should ignore Charter’s claims it sold a “blazing fast, super-reliable connection” that could “stream Netflix and Hulu movies and shows effortlessly” as nothing more than “prototypical instances of non-actionable puffery.”

Scheniderman’s office claimed it was much more than that.

N.Y. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman

“Spectrum-TWC failed to maintain enough network capacity in the form of interconnection ports to deliver this promised content to its subscribers without slowdowns, interruptions, and data loss,” stated Schneiderman. “It effectively ‘throttled’ access to Netflix and other content providers by allowing the ports through which its network interconnects with data coming from those providers to degrade, causing slowdowns. Spectrum-TWC then extracted payments from those content providers as a condition for upgrading the ports As a result, Spectrum-TWC’s subscribers could not reliably access the content they were promised, and instead were subjected to the buffering, slowdowns and other interruptions in service that they had been assured they would not encounter.”

Charter also claimed it was not legally responsible for meeting its own advertised speeds because the company only sold speeds “up to” a level, without guaranteeing customers would get the speeds it advertised.

Even if a judge found Charter lacking in its legal defense, lawyers for the company more broadly argued that under FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s net neutrality order, state courts and regulators had no power to regulate or oversee broadband providers because “regulation of broadband internet access service should be governed principally by a uniform set of federal regulations, rather than by a patchwork of separate state and local requirements,” according to Charter’s attorney Christopher Clark.

Justice Sherwood uniformly rejected all of Charter’s arguments to dismiss the case:

  • Improper state venue for the lawsuit: “Spectrum-TWC fails to identify any provision [of law] that preempts state anti-fraud or consumer-protection claims, or reflects any intention by Congress to make federal law the exclusive source of law protecting consumers from broadband providers’ deceptive conduct.”
  • False advertising: “This court finds that, contrary to defendants’ contentions, the FCC’s goal of promoting competition through [the Internet Transparency Rule], the FCC stated that the rule was intended to ensure consumers had the “right to accurate information, so [they] can choose, monitor, and receive the broadband internet services they have been promised. New York’s Executive Law and Consumer Protection Act […] require that [providers] refrain from fraud, deception, and false advertising when communicating with New York consumers.
  • Netflix/YouTube slowdowns: The issue of interconnection agreements between content providers and Spectrum-TWC are matters for the court to consider because it is not an attempt to regulate those agreements. “Rather, the complaint simply alleges that Spectrum-TWC misled subscribers by claiming that specific online content would be swiftly accessible through its network, while it was simultaneously deliberately allowing that service to degrade […] and failing to upgrade its network’s capacity to meet demand for this content.”
  • “Up to” speeds: Spectrum-TWC claimed that advertising speeds “up to” a certain level was not misleading because consumers understood this to mean the maximum speed, not average speed. In Spectrum’s argument, it claimed “reasonable consumers understand this is not a promise of ‘minimum’ performance, but rather ‘maximum’ performance.” But the judge disagreed. “Defendant’s theory is contrary to New York law regarding ‘up to’ claims” when those speeds are “functionally unattainable as a result of the defendants’ knowing conduct.”

Schneiderman’s office is seeking civil fines and restitution from Spectrum-TWC for customers in New York.

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