Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Business

Customers: Spectrum breaks promise it won't raise rates

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Charter Communications and its Spectrum cable brand have been telling their broadband customers in Tampa Bay for months that rates for TV, Internet and phone service won't change now that Charter owns Bright House Networks.

"As you know, we've said from the beginning that Bright House legacy customers aren't going to see any change in their service or price package," Charter spokesman Joe Durkin said just last week.

A growing number of customers have a word for that assertion: hogwash.

More than two dozen Spectrum customers have told the Tampa Bay Times that their rates are being raised significantly even as the company maintains publicly that bills will be unchanged. Most say that Spectrum is tying the rate increase to the expiration of "promotional," discounted rates they got under Bright House, something customers who were with Bright House 10 or 15 years find hard to believe.

The price hikes vary, though some customer's rates are rising close to 20 percent, according to interviews and recent billing documents examined by the Times.

"What promotional offer?" said Tampa retiree Ed Boyle, 71, a Bright House customer for more than a decade who received a Jan. 13 letter saying his bill for TV, Internet and phone was going up $10 a month. "I was a Bright House customer since forever and forever. I don't know of any promotion I ever had."

Previous coverage: Bright House customers: You now belong to Spectrum for cable TV, phone and Internet service

Durkin said Thursday that a majority of the one million Bright House customers Charter inherited when it purchased the company in May were under promotional offers.

"Bright House Networks routinely offered customers promotional pricing, sometimes year after year," said Durkin, noting Spectrum prices are competitive nationally, "Spectrum takes a different approach."

Those Bright House promotions, he said, went to both new and existing customers.

Asked if some customers might think it deceptive that the company promised prices would remain the same when tens of thousands would actually be seeing significant increases, Durkin said, "I don't know how. When a promotional offer or period is accepted, it's for a specific period. Once the promotional period ends, the price rises."

"I think it's bait and switch," said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a California-based consumer advocacy group. "But unfortunately, there's no authority in most states to slap Charter's wrists or put on the handcuffs. What we see with Charter is that they want to squeeze money out of anything they can."

Bonnie Swan, 79, of Tarpon Springs, who had been a customer of Bright House or its predecessors since 1990, said she isn't buying Spectrum's explanation and can't recall ever being told she had a promotional package under Bright House.

Her bill went from $157.55 in November to January's $182.70, a 16 percent increase. The high cost, she said, forced her to reduce her TV channel lineup to make her bill more affordable.

"It's hard to live with something that isn't just," Swan said. "They said they weren't going to change anything. Well, they have. What they did is just so blatant. I think they counted on people not paying attention to their bills."

Bob Darrow, 67, a Tarpon Springs retiree who signed up for Bright House in 2015, said his rate is going up 12 percent to $178.28. He said Frontier Communications service is unavailable where in lives, so he's stuck with Charter.

Darrow said he did not recall being offered any promotion, and Bright House did not offer customers contracts. "It's price gouging," he said.

Related coverage: Spectrum to automatically refund controversial $9.99 wifi activation fee

Customers had been watchful for problems after Charter bought Bright House in May, especially after Frontier Communication's acquisition of Verizon's TV, Internet and landline phone business earlier in 2016 led to widespread service outages.

In the weeks after the Charter deal closed, few technical problems were reported. But some of the pain may simply have been delayed because Charter did not roll out its Spectrum brand until November. Customer complaints so far appear to be focused on billing with no reports of significant outages as in Frontier's case.

One thing in common reported by numerous Spectrum and Frontier customers were great difficulties dealing with both companies customer service as they received different answers and explanations from different representatives.

Both companies said they work hard to ensure customers get accurate information.

Tampa Bay troubles for Charter come just days after New York's attorney general sued the company for failing to deliver on promised internet speed and reliability. Charter said those problems predate its acquisition of Time Warner Cable in New York.

Spectrum, like Bright House, does not offer service contracts, which is a double-edged sword. While customers can drop their service whenever they want to move to another cable company, Spectrum is under no legal obligation to freeze their rates.

Peggy Seidl, 82, of Palm Harbor, a Bright House customer for about eight years, said her bill is going from $126 to $141 and, while she can afford to pay, she is reluctant to stay with Spectrum.

"I don't want them to think they can take advantage of me like that," she said. "You just don't do that to loyal customers. So I'm looking around for a different service."

Contact William R. Levesque at [email protected] Follow @Times_Levesque.

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