Tag Archives: charter

CPUC fast tracks nine broadband infrastructure grants in southern California

by Steve Blum • , , , ,
Mobile home park

Broadband infrastructure subsidies from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) were approved on a fast track basis earlier this month for nine projects submitted by Charter Communications. The letter informing Charter of its good fortune is dated on 3 November 2020, but wasn’t released by the California Public Utilities Commission until yesterday.

Combined with the tentative approval of six projects announced on Friday, that means that $32 million has been earmarked for 15 CASF grant applications submitted this year, leaving 39 projects totalling $364 million to chase the $163 million that I roughly estimate is remaining in the fund.

Charter’s approved grants total $8.7 million for 1,833 homes in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. All will be hybrid fiber-coax systems – no full fiber to the home builds are proposed. The company submitted 16 CASF grant applications in May, so seven are still pending. Assuming no further surprises, Charter’s seven remaining grant applications and the 32 others won’t be acted on until well into next year.

The approval of Charter’s nine projects is a welcome a milestone in the CASF program. It’s the first time that the “ministerial” approval process for CASF broadband infrastructure grant was used. It’s a fast track for projects that meet particular specs

The Commission delegates to Communications Division Staff the authority to approve applications, including the determination of funding, that meet the following criteria:

  • Applicant meets the program eligibility requirements.
  • The application is not challenged, or Staff has determined the project area is unserved.
  • The grant does not exceed $10,000,000.
  • The project is California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) exempt.
  • There must be no competing applications for the same project area.
  • Cost per household for projects building wireline connections are $9,300 per household or less.

Charter’s special rate for low income households doesn’t meet the CPUC’s standard of $15 per month. According to the approval letter, Charter offers low income customers 30 Mbps download/4 Mbps upload speeds for $18 a month. That’s true as far as it goes, but there’s a gotcha that isn’t mentioned: WiFi capability costs another $5 a month. Which means that Charter’s low income plan costs $23 a month if it’s going to be useful for the vast majority of users. Most people don’t have ethernet routers or WiFi bridges of their own.

Small payoffs from big cable, telcos buy support from non profits and politicians in Sacramento and D.C.

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Need a beer

Petty cash can be as effective in buying political support as megabuck payments to elected officials and political parties. The latest example is unfolding in Washington, D.C., where Charter Communications is asking the Federal Communications Commission for permission to 1. enforce data caps on its customers and 2. start charging video competitors for access to those customers two years before the expiration of conditions imposed when it acquired Time Warner cable systems.

It’s the same story with assembly bill 570, which would lock Californians into slow broadband for a generation while shovelling taxpayer money to Frontier Communications and cable companies for minimal upgrades. Non profits are being actively recruited to sign on as supporters.

Some of the pay offs are in the tens of thousands of dollars range, but even a couple hundred bucks is enough to buy a letter of support. Whenever AT&T or companies – Charter and Comcast, particularly – want something from California lawmakers, they supplement their direct payments with testimony from a parade of non-profit organisations that have no discernible expertise or engagement with telecommunications policy.

As well told in an article in Ars Technica by Jon Brodkin, non profit organisations and politicians take Charter’s money and return the favor by arguing Charter’s case for early release from its FCC obligations…

Alongside the angry users of Spectrum Internet service are a number of politicians and charities urging the FCC to grant the petition. Charter has donated to these nonprofits and politicians, and it has apparently made a big outreach effort to get their public support for the petition. Many of the letters to the FCC echo Charter’s argument that it shouldn’t be treated differently from other Internet providers that don’t face such conditions—even though Charter willingly agreed to them in order to secure approval for a merger that made it the second-largest ISP in the United States after Comcast. The letters from nonprofits and politicians ignore the negative impact data caps would have on broadband customers.

The letters continue a years-long trend in which ISPs have been donating to charities and receiving their support in lobbying campaigns to complete mergers and eliminate consumer-protection regulations.

Reply comments on Charter’s FCC petition are due next Thursday. AB 570 comes up for a hearing the California senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee on Monday. A competing broadband bill, senate bill 1130, which would raise California’s minimum broadband standard to symmetrical 25 Mbps speeds, is also queued up for a hearing on Monday, in the assembly’s communications and conveyances committee.

I assisted the City of Gonzales with its efforts at the CPUC during the Time Warner Cable acquisition review, and its negotiations with Charter. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Charter, Comcast two months free offers are cash bonanzas, not charity

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Printing money us treasury image

The covid–19 emergency is turning into a windfall for broadband companies, particularly Comcast and Charter Communications. As lockdowns came into effect in mid-March, people turned to broadband to stay connected, and for many that meant subscribing to service for the first time. It also meant running the gauntlet of high pressure sales pitches that steered many away from low cost standalone Internet deals and into expensive video packages that start billing immediately.

In its first quarter financial report, Comcast said it gained 509,000 new broadband subscribers between January and March, including 32,000 who signed up for the $10 per month standalone Internet service that the company offers to low income households, and that currently carries a first two months free promotion. The remaining 477,000 landed in market rate packages with payment due. It was the biggest quarterly broadband subscriber gain that Comcast booked in the past 12 years.

Charter had a more expansive first two months free promotion, applying it to all of its Internet packages for households with students. It did even better than Comcast, picking up 580,000 net new broadband subscribers. Of those, 120,000 came in during the promotion period and opted for the free introductory offer. Charter’s aggressive up selling paid off, according to the Seeking Alpha transcript of CEO Tom Rutledge’s first quarter earnings call with financial analysts…

Interestingly, and uniquely, about 50% of the customers who participated in the offer in March chose to order additional products with immediate billing. The vast majority of these customers are taking our flagship Internet product at 200 megabits per second or 100 megabits per second, and a small minority subscribe to our low-income offer or our ultra and 1 gigabit premium offerings.

Although both companies try to score political points by spinning their covid–19 offers as acts of good corporate citizenship, when they speak to Wall Street, they tell the truth: trolling free and/or discounted broadband service past low income households and then shamelessly up selling them is good business.

Cable, satellite TV companies build business plans on fear and ignorance

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The future, if you want to call it that, of traditional, linear subscription television services will depend on customers who don’t understand, and consequently fear, online video services. Martin Peers, a reporter for The Information, looked at his mother-in-law’s Comcast bill and discovered a stack of add on fees and increasing monthly rates for services that can be had for less money via over-the-top video platforms.

The reason she’s writing unnecessarily high checks each month? “She’s nervous of changing what she’s got”, Peers writes, and that fear is at the base of the profit-maximising strategies adopted by Comcast, Charter Communications, DirecTv and DISH…

[Comcast chief financial officer Michael] Cavanagh acknowledged that recent price rises imposed by Comcast will drive an increased rate of subscriber losses this year. Comcast’s average customer bill rose 3.6% this year, a little more than last year…

Comcast is not alone in focusing more on customers willing to pony up for cable and letting others in search of budget solutions cancel. DirecTV’s owner, AT&T, has had fewer price promotions for the satellite TV service as it focuses on high-value customers. Charter, the third biggest cable service, has a similar philosophy. Comcast, Charter, DirecTV and Dish lost a combined 5.1 million subscribers in 2019, 71% higher than the losses of 2018.

It’s a classic case of haves and have nots. Consumers who feel comfortable navigating the online world can take advantage of competitive video pricing. Those who don’t share that awareness – a group that disproportionately includes low income and elderly people – get soaked for high monthly subscription fees that include a raft of services they don’t need or use.

That strategy is the driving motivation behind the scorched earth tactics cable companies use to defend their grasp on low income communities. Maintaining effective monopolies isn’t just about blocking competitive broadband providers. It’s also about keeping vulnerable customers fenced in.

CPUC asks ISPs to give Californians a break, but all it can do is ask

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Please sir

Broadband service is too expensive for many families, but it’s a necessity nonetheless, according to a letter sent on Friday to Californian Internet service providers by California Public Utilities Commission president Marybel Batjer. Saying “not every household could or can continue to afford $50 a month for a quality, high-speed Internet connection”, Batjer asked ISPs to…

  • Provide service sufficient for all family members to work and learn from home: Subscription in the range of $0–15 a month, offering a minimum of 25 Mbps, and eliminate or waive data caps and overage charges.
  • Provide expansive program eligibility: Eligibility must be as broad as possible…
  • Make signing up easy: Allow customers to immediately sign-up for the plan online or over the phone before requiring eligibility verification. Eligibility can be verified at a later date.
  • Remove barriers: Eliminate any requirement that customers have no unpaid balances. Supply new customers with a low or no cost modem and Wi-Fi router either to own or lease.

It’s just a request. The CPUC has near zero authority over broadband service providers, even when they want something from the commission. And it can’t offer much in the way of incentives. Batjer pointed to the federal lifeline program that offers a $9.25 a month subsidy for fixed broadband service, with lots of strings attached, and she also held out hope that the CPUC’s lifeline program might also support broadband service. Some day.

Batjer wants ISPs to do two things: offer low income households 25 Mbps service for $15 or less a month with no data caps, and make it easy to sign up. The table below shows how poorly California’s major ISPs stack up against the $15/25 Mbps/no cap ask.

Suddenlink nails all three criteria, but charges $20 for installation. Comcast and Cox get price and speed right, but impose a standard 1TB cap that’s only waived for the moment. Charter meets the no cap and speed marks, but charges $23 per month (yeah, it’s $18 without WiFi but it’s also pretty useless without WiFi for most). AT&T makes it on price, but fails on speed and data caps, although it’s also waiving caps temporarily. Frontier offers unlimited data but its speed is limited by its decaying networks and for that it charges $20 a month.

Signing up is the real problem, though. Even if you can reach a customer service rep who will admit to knowing about a low income discount program – not a good bet – you will be subjected to arcane documentation demands and credit barriers on the one hand, and vicious up sell attempts on the other. Frontier, for example, has a plan with a $20 introductory rate that ties customers into a long term contract with an escalating price and Frontier’s notorious extra fees. Its reps have been known to stonewall affordable rate enquiries while offering the bait and switch rate as salvation. Customers of other ISPs have similar stories to tell.

ISP Plan name Monthly rate and terms
AT&T Access from AT&T $10, 10 Mbps max, 150 GB or 1TB cap depending on technology, WiFi included, for qualifying low income households. Until 30 April 2020, first 2 months are free. 855–220–5211.
Charter Spectrum Internet Assist $22.99 ($5 less with no WiFi), 30 Mbps, no cap, for qualifying low income households. During the corona virus emergency, the first 60 days is free for all plans in areas where schools are closed. 844–579–3743.
Comcast Internet Essentials $9.95, 25 Mbps, 1TB cap, WiFi included, for qualifying low income households. Until 13 May 2020 the first 60 days is free. 855–846–8376
.
Cox Connect2Compete $9.95, 25 Mbps, 1TB cap, WiFi included, for qualifying low income households with a K-12 student. If signed up by 15 May 2020, service is free until 15 July 2020. 800–234–3993.
Frontier Fundamental Internet $19.99, speed depends on available technology, no cap, for qualifying low income households. No free service is available, $9.99 charge to disconnect, deposit may be required. 877–578–8367.
Suddenlink Altice Advantage Internet $14.95, 30 Mbps, no cap, WiFi implied but not explicitly included, for qualifying low income households. During the corona virus emergency, service is free until 30 June 2020 but installation is $20. 888–633–0030.

Cable companies promote free Internet access for locked down Californians, telcos not so much

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Home alone

Update, 19 March 2020: AT&T announced today that the first two months of its Internet package for low income homes – Access from AT&T – is free to new subscribers.

The four major cable companies in California are offering free Internet access for a limited amount of time to low income households during the corona virus emergency, but not the two big telcos.

Charter, Comcast, Cox and Suddenlink seem to have figured out that what amounts to a one or two month promotional offer is a good way to attract new subscribers. Charter’s offer applies to any of their Internet access packages, while the others are limited to their low income-only plans. Unless a customer jumps through the hoops to disconnect, they’ll be billed for ongoing service after the free period ends.

AT&T and Frontier have discounted packages for qualifying low income households, but no free offer. A summary of the offers and contact information is below.

All six companies have also signed on to the Federal Communications Commission’s “Keep Americans Connected” pledge, which calls for them to open up their WiFi hotspots to everyone, not disconnect customers who don’t pay and waive late frees.

Local independent Internet service providers are stepping up too. In Santa Cruz County, Cruzio is offering free service for three months to customers who qualify for its low income service, which otherwise costs $14.95 per month.

A major difference between cable and telephone companies is the availability of video service. Cable companies can – and typically do – try to up sell people who enquire about discounted Internet service into pricey video bundles. That’ll be a particularly attractive pitch to people who are stuck in their homes for the duration. Frontier and AT&T have some video service available, but only in limited parts of their service territory.

ISP Plan name Details
AT&T Access from AT&T $10 per month for qualifying low income households.
Charter Spectrum Internet Assist $17.99 per month ($22.99 with WiFi capability) for qualifying low income households. During the corona virus emergency, the first 60 days is free for all plans in areas where schools are closed.
Comcast Internet Essentials $9.95 per month for qualifying low income households. Until April 30,2020 the first 60 days is free.
Cox Connect2Compete $9.95 per month, During the corona virus emergency, the first 30 days is free.
Frontier Fundamental Internet $19.99 per month for qualifying low income households. No free service is available
Suddenlink Altice Advantage Internet $14.95 per month for qualifying low income households. During the corona virus emergency, the first 60 days is free.
Website Phone
AT&T 855–220–5211
Charter 844–579–3743
Comcast 855–846–8376
Cox 800–234–3993
Frontier 877–578–8367
Suddenlink 888–633–0030

CPUC slaps down Charter’s bid to monopolise low income housing, says owner has “right to choose”

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

John wayne slap

Northern Valley Catholic Social Service (NVCSS) builds, owns and operates more than a dozen public housing communities in the northern Sacramento Valley. It applied for a public housing broadband facilities grant from the California Advanced Services Fund for a new project in Redding, which prompted strident objections from Charter Communications.

Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission approved the grant and told Charter that it can’t block broadband subsidies for low income residents just because it happens in the neighborhood…

In its application, NVCSS stated that the Woodlands II project is a planned low-income housing development (new construction) and not wired for broadband internet. Since then, the housing development has been under construction and to date, the framing of the development is complete. As such, the building is under construction and not wired for broadband internet and therefore no housing units in the project are being offered broadband internet service. Consequently…the project is an unserved housing development…

Accepting Charter’s interpretation that the statute and guidelines require a physically existing “housing unit” for a development to be eligible for [Broadband Public Housing Account (BPHA)] funding, would contradict the statutory intent and overall goal of the program. Indeed, the purpose of the BPHA is to close the digital gap in public housing communities and to address a critical need to connect residents of publicly subsidized properties to high-speed internet…The funds in the BPHA help further this goal by approving projects which are beneficial to low-income residents who would otherwise be without broadband…

Whether Charter “can or will serve” does not mean that it does, in fact, serve the development…

A property owner has the right to choose the entity it wants to install facilities for the broadband network on its property while the building is under construction. NVCSS is not required to use Charter’s services just because Charter is serving the building on the adjacent property. Here, NVCSS has chosen to install the facilities itself.

The vote to approve the $36,000 grant was unanimous, and passed without any comment from commissioners.

Charter continues fight against broadband upgrades in low income California communities

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Monopolising low income communities and soaking residents for expensive television and broadband service packages seems to be a key element in Charter Communications business strategy, and it’s continuing its fight against broadband subsidies that might break that stranglehold.

Even in places where it has twice challenged broadband grants, and twice lost.

Charter wants to block two broadband infrastructure projects – one in Santa Cruz County and one in Kern County – approved by the California Public Utilities Commission for subsidies from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) last year. It’s also trying to stop a similar grant for broadband facilities in a public housing community in Shasta County.

To qualify for a CASF infrastructure subsidy, an applicant has to show that a proposed location lacks broadband service at (achingly slow) 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds. Last year, Cruzio applied for a grant to build fiber to the premise infrastructure in several mobile home communities in the Soquel/Capitola area of Santa Cruz County. Frontier Communications proposed a DSL upgrade project for mobile home residents in the Kern County town of Taft.

Charter, who likewise applied for and received CASF grants to extend broadband service to mobile home communities in Ventura and Riverside counties, challenged Cruzio and Frontier, but was only partially successful. When those projects were presented to commissioners for a vote, Charter tried to re-litigate its opposition, but again failed in the attempt.

So it filed appeals – applications for rehearing – against the Cruzio and Frontier projects, along with a similar protest of a $36,000 grant for WiFi in a Redding public housing community that it had also unsuccessfully challenged.

At a minimum, Charter’s appeals will delay all three projects, at least for some weeks. Longer term, its scorched earth tactics at the CPUC will, as I wrote last year, have a baleful effect on the CASF program, which is already hamstrung as a result of cable and telco lobbying in Sacramento. That’s a win for Charter and its fellow monopoly-model broadband players, and a big loss for low income and rural Californians.

The Central Coast Broadband Consortium assisted Cruzio with its Equal Access Santa Cruz grant application, and I was a part of that effort. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Streaming video hurts cable, but it’s killing AT&T

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Elmer fudd

The traditional, linear subscription TV business is in a nose dive. In the fourth quarter of 2019, AT&T shed 945,000 subscribers, mostly from DirecTv but also from its legacy Uverse service and its new AT&T TV platform. Add in the 219,000 subscribers who dumped its AT&T TV Now streaming service, and more than million customers walked away from AT&T’s video products.

Comcast and Charter lost TV subscribers, too. But for both companies, they each lost fewer subs over the 12 months of 2019 than AT&T lost in the last three. And both gained broadband subscribers and market share, as consumers move to higher speed service that better meets their needs than slow, DSL-based offerings from AT&T and Frontier Communications.

Like the need to watch streaming video.

Google figured out how to solve the linear TV problem. They’re not going to offer the service any more…

Google Fiber will no longer offer a linear TV product to new customers. For our current TV customers, we know you have come to rely on Google Fiber TV and we will continue to provide you with traditional TV service. And we’ll be happy to help everyone explore other options to get their favorite programming the way TV is watched now — over the Internet, with the virtually unlimited choice and control online viewing provides.

AT&T is pinning its hopes on the new HBO Max streaming service it plans to launch in May, for $15 per month. It’s beginning to look like a product that will make or break the company. With AT&T’s spending on video assets, like Time Warner, climbing and its video revenue in a nose dive, it’s betting its future on its ability to produce the same kind of instant success that Disney had with its new streaming service launch last year.

Another $13 million approved by CPUC for California broadband infrastructure subsidies

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Frontier Communications won’t be able to double dip on California and federal broadband subsidies, and Charter Communications won’t have to follow rules that tie price commitments to infrastructure subsidies. Yesterday, the California Public Utilities Commission made those decisions as it approved California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) grants totalling $12.7 million for five projects, two by Frontier and three by Charter.

Add in the six CASF grants approved two weeks ago and one approved in September, and you get a 2019 CASF subsidy total of $25.5 million.

Frontier is getting $11.3 million to upgrade DSL-based service for 381 homes in Lassen, Modoc and Kern counties, and to build a middle mile link from Alturas, in Modoc County, to Standish, in Lassen County. As with its past CASF grants, Frontier is only promising to deliver slow broadband service at 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds.

In May, Frontier applied for $13.5 million for the two projects. The CPUC chopped out $2.2 million because the Federal Communications Commission is already paying Frontier, through the Connect America Fund program (CAF II), to serve some of the homes included in its original CASF proposal. According to the resolution approving the Lassen/Mono project…

Frontier accepted $473,487.74 in CAF II grant funding to provide broadband access to 187 unserved households in the project area. This represents a $2,532.02 per household subsidy provided by the CAF II program and any remaining costs to connect CAF II households should be paid with Frontier’s own private capital, as Frontier has stated in its comments to this resolution. Based on the last-mile funding determination, Frontier is responsible to fund $936,239.91 of the $1,409,727.65 project costs to build to CAF II locations.

A similar calculation was made for the Kern County project.

Charter, on the other hand, got almost everything it wanted. The three projects approved yesterday are in Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. The $1.4 million award is only $49,000 less than requested and, crucially, the CPUC waived service price guarantees and installation fee waivers that normally come along with CASF subsidies. The dubious rationale was that 1. Charter’s billing system isn’t set up to handle exceptions for such small areas – a total of 279 homes are involved – and 2. it was nice of Charter to even ask for the money. It’s the first time that a major cable company participated in the CASF program, which is reckoned to be a significant milestone.

Both companies have two to three years to finish construction. Charter’s projects are minor extension to existing hybrid fiber-coax systems and can be done quickly. Frontier’s Kern County build isn’t much more complicated, but it’s Modoc/Lassen project is complex. The real question is whether it’ll be able to survive as a company with its current capital and ownership structure intact.

CASF broadband infrastructure grant resolutions approved 19 December 2019:
Charter Communications – Highland Orchid Drive, Country Squire Mobile Estates , Silver Wheel
Frontier Communications – Northeast Project: Phase1
Frontier Communications – Taft Cluster