Minnesota Sues Comcast

Lori Swanson, the Attorney General of Minnesota sued Comcast on December 21 seeking refunds to all customers who were harmed by the company’s alleged violation of the state’s Prevention of Consumer Fraud Act and Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The complaint details the sort of practices that we’ve come to expect from most of the big cable companies – and hopefully this serves as a warning to smaller ISPs that might be following similar practices. It’s an interesting read.

The most significant dollar complaint is that Comcast has defrauded customers about the true nature of two fees – the ‘Regional Sports Network Fee’ and the ‘Broadcast TV’ fee. These two fees now total $18.25 per month. These fees are both a part of every cable package and are not optional to customers, but Comcast does not mention them when advertising the cable products. Further, Comcast customer service has repeatedly told the public that these fees are mandated by the government and are some a tax that is not set by Comcast.

Comcast only started charging separately for these two fees in 2014, but the size of these line items has skyrocketed on bills. In recent years the company has put a lot of the annual rate increases into these fees, allowing the company to continue to advertise low prices. The Regional Sports fee passes along the cost of Fox Sports North, and perhaps other regional sports. The Broadcast TV fee includes the amounts that Comcast pays local affiliate stations for ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC.

Interestingly, Comcast was previously sued over this same issue and settled the case without a verdict. As part of that suit the company promised to fix the problems, but they continued into 2017. In a pleading that is sure to displease company employees, Comcast threw its customer service reps under the bus and blame the issue on them. Comcast argues that breaking out these fees makes it easier for customers to know what they are paying for – but there are numerous examples cited in the complaint where new customers were surprised at the size of the first bill they receive from the company.

The complaint also says that the company often misrepresents the fees for equipment rental such as cable settop boxes, digital adapters and broadband modems. The complaint says that for some packages these fees add 30% to the cost of the product and are not fully disclosed to customers.

The complaint also says that Comcast routinely adds unwanted fees to customer bills. Customers that are visited by Comcast field technicians, who visit a business office or who buy from a Comcast door-to-door salesperson are often surprised to see additional products added to their bill. The complaint blames this on the practice of paying commissions to employees for sales.

The complaint notes that Comcast is well aware of these issues. The company settled an FCC complaint about the same issues in 2016 and late last year made refunds to more than 20,000 customers in Massachusetts over these same issues.

It’s not hard to verify some of the issue. If you go to the Comcast website you’ll find that it’s almost impossible to find the real cost of their cable and broadband products. The company constantly advertises low-priced specials that don’t mention the extra programming fees or the equipment fees.

This is a cautionary tale for smaller ISPs that compete with Comcast or other large cable companies. It’s always tempting to advertise cheap special prices in response to big cable company advertising. I know many smaller cable providers that have also separated out the sports and broadcast fees and who are not always fully forthcoming about equipment charges and other fees. It’s hard to watch customers leave who are lured by falsely advertised low prices – but most small ISPs have elected to deal with customers fairly as a way to differentiate themselves from the big companies.

Tackling Hidden Fees

The topic of hidden fees on telecom bills was in the news recently when AT&T tripled their administrative charge on cellular bills – a change that nets then $800 million annually in new bottom line. Consumer Reports recently launched a campaign they are calling “What’s The Fee?” that is identifying and tackling hidden fees from big corporations like ISPs, airlines and banks. Their advocacy branch, Consumers Union launched a web site to identify hidden fees and started a petition drive to notify the big companies that many of their customers are unhappy with these fees. Consumers Union says they get more complaints on the issue for Comcast compared to any other corporation.

I’ve written in the past about the hidden fees that ISPs put onto their bills. I think they use these fees for a number of reasons:

  • The hidden fees disguise the true price of their products. The big cable companies widely advertise the price of cable that doesn’t include the fees without telling the public that the fees can’t be avoided. They night advertise a $69 cable package that might actually cost over $90.
  • The big cable companies have increased the rates for the hidden fees at a much faster pace than the increases in the ‘basic’ published rates for cable TV. This disguises rate increases by holding down the published rates for cable TV.
  • The hidden fees put pressure on competitors. Any competitor to the big ISPs that wants to publish true rates is at a disadvantage when customers compare their true rate to the deceptive basic rates of the cable companies that don’t include the hidden fees. My clients wrestle with this issue all of the time – should they be honest with customers and look to be more expensive or should they follow the same practice of mimicking the hidden fee structure so that their pricing is more easily compared?

What are the hidden fees? Let’s look at Comcast:

  • Broadcast TV Fees. This fee supposedly covers the cost of the retransmission fees paid to the over-the-air networks like ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC. Comcast charged $1.50 for this fee in 2015 and it’s now up to $7.75. Comcast doesn’t mention on bills that they own NBC. Comcast already charges all customers a substantial fee for basic TV that far exceed the cost of buying this programming.
  • Regional Sports Fee. This fee is now up to $6.75 per month in many markets (varies somewhat around the country). This fee supposedly compensates for the various regional sports networks. What Comcast fails to mention is that they now own the majority of regional sports networks, including a big pile they are getting due to the AT&T / Time Warner merger. This fee was $1 in 2015.
  • Settop Box and Cable Modems. While these are not hidden fees, these charges are supposedly set to recover the cost of the hardware. But in recent years Comcast has jacked up these fees significantly, to the point that I would consider a big portion of these to also be hidden fees. The charge for a cable modem is now $11. The company charges $9.95 for the first settop box and $7.75 for additional ones. Just a few years ago these fees were around $5. In both cases it’s likely that the settop box and cable modem costs Comcast $100 or less.
  • HD Fee. Comcast no longer charges separately for this, but I still see this on the bills from some of the other cable companies. This fee was established years ago when HD was a new technology, but today practically every channel is HD.

The Comcast fees have gotten so large that they could add $25 per month to the advertised price of a cable / broadband package. There is an open class-action lawsuit against Comcast that is seeking damages for customers who were charged these fees when they purchased advertised products that didn’t mention the fees.

What is most perplexing is that regulators have been quiet on the topic, even though just about everything to do with these fees is deceptive. Comcast swears that it provide full disclosure about these fees and that customers are not deceived, but one has to read some truly fine print on their web site when ordering a cable product to understand that these fees will be added to the advertised price.

Raising Cable Rates

comcast-truck-cmcsa-cmcsk_largeIt’s that time of the year when the large cable companies all raise their rates. In a time with increasing programming costs every cable provider needs to raise rates annually. I know that a lot of small cable providers are loath to raise rates, but if you have to do it then it’s worthwhile to look first at what the big companies are doing. Following is a summary of the rate increases that have been announced so far this year:

Comcast as usual looks to have one of the largest rate increases. They announced an overall increase of 4%, but the details seem to show something larger. The company is raising the rate on double-play packages by $3 to $4 per month. They are also raising the ‘broadcast TV fee’ from $3 to $5. This is a fee that really ought to be included in cable rates which they have broken out as a separate charge to supposedly cover the cost of paying for local network retransmission fees. That makes their overall increases to be between $5 and $6, which is hard to reconcile with the 4% increase statement. But perhaps some of the increase is being counted as broadband increases. It’s really hard to know how these big companies think about the components of their bundles, and all that really matters to customers is how much their bill goes up.

Comcast did cut the cost of HBO from $21.95 to $15 to match the price for HBO’s direct online product. This is an interesting cut that some other large companies are matching. Perhaps this was one of HBO’s reasons for putting their network directly online. You would think that lower prices at the cable companies ought to increase HBO customers.

Time Warner Cable looks to also have a sizable rate increase. They raised the prices of cable packages between $2 and $4 per month. They also increased their broadcast TV fee by $1. Time Warner has broken out a sports programming fee as a separate billing item – something that also ought to be included in the cable prices – and raised this rate by $2.25 per month, up to $5. There are also small increases on settop boxes.

Cablevision says their average increase will be $3 per customer. That includes a $0.85 increase in the settop box rental fee. Their sports surcharge is going up $1 to $5.98.

AT&T is increasing the cost of all bundles by $2 per month. Several Spanish packages are going up between $3 and $4. The company increased its ‘broadcast surcharge’ by $1. While not TV, the company is increasing its voice product that includes 250 long-distance minutes by $2 to $27. I haven’t seen an increase in voice prices for a while. I also find it interesting that the company with the largest voice network is charging more for a package with 250 long distance minutes than most companies charge for unlimited LD.

DirecTV increased rates across the board. Their lowest tiers are increasing by $2 per month. Their ‘Choice’ and ‘Xtra’ bundles will go up by $4 and their largest package will increase by $8. They are also increasing the broadcast TV fee by $0.50, up to $6.50.

Dish Networks is increasing rates significantly. Most packages including ‘America’s Top 120’, ‘America’s Top 120 Plus’, ‘America’s top 200’ and ‘America’s Top 250’ are going up by $5 per month. This will be a relief to rural systems that compete against them. Their smallest package is going up $2 per month while their ‘Everything’ package is going up $8 to $140 per month.

Charter hasn’t announced any rate increases and may not do so until the expected merger with Time Warner Cable.

Verizon also hasn’t announced increases yet for its FiOS TV products, although increases are expected.

Deceptive Billing Practices

shockIn case you haven’t looked close at your cable bill lately, there are likely a number of mysterious charges on it that look to be for something other than cable TV service. There was a day not too many years ago when a cable bill was simple. The bill would list the cable package you purchased as well as some sort of local franchise tax. There also might have been some line-item purchases if you bought pay-per-view movies or watched wrestling or other pay-per-view events.

But cable bills have gotten a lot more complicated because cable companies have been slyly introducing new charges on their bills in an effort to disguise the actual price of their basic cable packages. Here are a few of the charges I have heard about or seen on recent cable bills:

  • Broadcast TV Fee. This is a new fee where cable companies are putting some of the increases that they are having to pay for access to the broadcast networks of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. You can sympathize some with the cable operators on this fee since a decade ago cable companies got to carry these networks for free. But the network owners finally woke up to the fact that they could charge retransmission fees and since then the rates for carrying these networks has grown to roughly $2 per network, per customer, per month. But still, these fees ought to be part of basic cable, which is the smallest package that includes the core channels and that must be then carried with every other cable package.
  • Sports Programming Fees. It’s debatable whether sports programming or local retransmission fees have grown the most over the last decade. Certainly there was a day when there was only ESPN and a handful of other minor sports channels. But now cable systems are packed full of sports channels and each of them raises rates significantly every year to pass on the fees they pay to sports leagues to carry their content. The problem with starting a new fee to cover some of the increases in sports programming is that it clearly foists the cost of sports programming on everybody, when surveys show that a majority of customers are not very interested in sports outside of maybe the NFL.
  • Public Access Fee. In many cities the cable companies are required to carry channels that cover local government meetings and other local events. Other than having to reserve a slot on the cable system there is normally not much actual cost associated with these channels. So it’s incredibly cynical for a cable company to invent a fee to charge people to watch a channel that the cable company has agreed to carry, and for which they have very little cost.
  • Regulatory Recovery Fee. This one has me scratching my head since most cable companies are lightly regulated and pay very few taxes other than franchise fees, which they already put directly onto people’s bills. This fee seems to be pure deception to make people think they are paying taxes, when instead this is a fee that the cable company pockets.

Additionally, cable companies have recently really jacked up the cost of both settop boxes and cable modems. Interestingly, the actual cost of settop box cost at $80 – $100 has dropped over the last decade and continues to drop. It’s the same with cable modems. It’s hard to justify paying a monthly fee of up to $9 for a cable modem box that probably costs $80. Customers can theoretically opt out of both of these charges, but the large cable companies make it really hard to do so.

The idea of misnamed fees has been around for a while and started with telephone service. Starting back in 1984 the FCC allowed the telcos to migrate some of the charges that they used to bill to long distance companies for using the local loop to homes to a fee directly assessed on customers. Since then, telcos have had a separate fee called a Subscriber Line Charge, or an Access Fee, or sometimes an FCC Fee on their bills. But this was never a tax, as most customers assume, and the telco simply pockets this money as part of local rates. When the cable companies got into the voice business they largely copied this same fee, even though they never had to make the same shift of access revenues that created the charge. The FCC ought to do away with this fee entirely and require it be added to local rates where it belongs.

I think perhaps one of the reasons that the cable companies are so against Title II regulation is that these kinds of billing practices then come under FCC scrutiny. It’s hard to think of these various fees as anything other than outright deception and fraud. The companies that charge them are trying to be able to say in advertising that their rates are competitive, when in fact, by the time you add on the various ‘fees’, the actual cost for their products are much higher than what they advertise. I’m also surprised that the FTC has not gone after these fees since they are clearly intended to deceive the general public about what they are buying.

You might sympathize with the cable companies a little in that they have been bombarded year after year with huge increases in the cost of programming. But my sympathy for them evaporates once I look at the facts. When their programming costs go up each year they always raise their rates considerably more than the increased cost of programming and they use rate increases to increase their profit margin. Additionally, for the largest cable companies, part of those rate increases are for programming they own, such as the local sports networks.

We all know that the cost of cable is going to drive a lot of households to find a cheaper alternative, and when that happens the cable companies have to shoulder a lot of the blame. People might not understand the line items on their bill, but they know that the size of the check they write each year gets a lot bigger, and that is all that really matters.