No More Made-Up Taxes, Fees & Surcharges on Our Bills.

Our New Multi-Part Series: The Real Truth-in-Billing & Services focusing on ALL SERVICES from Verizon, AT&T, CenturyLink, Comcast & Charter, et al.

  • PART 1: Phone & Cable Triple Play’s Deceptive Advertising and Charges
  • PART 2: Can’t Understand Your Bills? They’re Designed that Way — Hundreds of Truth-in-Billing, Truth-in-Advertising Violations
  • PART 3: Wireless Issues: Whamming, Digital Stalking, Unconscious Billing.
  • PART 4: Are You being Overcharged for Services You Didn’t Order?
  • PART 5: Competition and Broadband Issues and the Telco-Cable Cartel.
  • PART 6: Model Legislation and Legal Complaints: How to Stop these Practices.

This first article should be called: “How can they screw thee? Let me show you the ways.”

The mark-up above is of a basic Brooklyn NY, Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum-Charter) Triple Play bill where the advertised price was $89.97 and now it now tops $205 bucks a month, an increase of 129% from the advertised price (135%+ with late fees.) Sadly, most of the increases happened just one year after ordering the service. We’ll return to this mess in a moment.

Over the next few months New Networks Institute (NNI) and the IRREGULATORS will join with other groups in putting forward new legislation (and taking legal actions) to fix our communications bills and services — wireline, wireless, broadband, Internet, cable TV, and satellite — which are now out of control and getting worse.

But you know that.

Screw them. As we will discuss, at the core, AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink are the state-based telecommunications utilities and Comcast and Charter are franchised cable TV companies that now all work together to overcharge America. (And wireless service, even the mythical “5G”, requires a ‘wire’; the large phone companies also control most of these wires in the US.)

Moreover, Verizon et al. have figured out how to hide the fact that the wires — copper or fiber — are part of these state-based utilities and they are now in the process of erasing whatever obligations and regulations remain, with the help of the FCC.

Thus, only a few companies — AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Comcast, Charter and a few others control America’s critical communications infrastructure and access to all services, as well as who gets upgraded and who doesn’t, who has competition and who doesn’t and they even control the underlying pricing structure for all communications.

Our position is simple: There is no serious direct competition for the core services, especially high speed broadband, or for the combined “Triple Play”, and the companies have been able to take advantage of that, not to mention taking control of the state and federal regulatory agencies, like the FCC.

  • How did they get away with adding all these made-up charges — most of which are unmarked revenues to the companies?
  • How did we end up paying many of their taxes, which are levied on them but get passed-through to us?

This is like going to a restaurant and being charged for things like ‘the-waiter-needs-a-new-black-shirt’ fee or ‘the-restaurant-owner’s-mother-in-law-keeps-eating-for-free’ fee as separate line items on a check that now has 10 additional fees. If this happened, I doubt you’d return, but this has become the staple of customer overcharging for telecom services.

The next few articles will explain just how blatantly biased and deliberate this situation has become, i.e.; the handover of the entire communications sector to a few companies where the goal is more profits, faster, with little, or no regard for the laws, much less their obligations as utilities and franchise holders who get special privileges.

But there’s a punchline — we’re not going to let them get away with it. We believe that this Triple Play nightmare bill and these practices represent grand theft on a grand scale; we believe that at least $25-$50 bucks per month should be removed immediately to start, and we should continue from there.

And one other thing — We also need to blame some of the government agencies and politicians for some of these added charges, especially where the revenues that are being collected to pay for emergency services have been diverted to the general fund or some pet project.

‘Enough is Enough’ is now ‘This Is All Too Much’. For more information about what we’re doing and what you can do, click here.

The Real Truth-in-Billing

And, just to establish our creds, a group of us have been at this a very long time. In 1993 and 1994, New Networks Institute, (NNI) conducted extensive phone-based surveys, as well as collected bills nationwide to examine what customers knew about the charges on their phone bills. Our surveys found that literally 0% (3 out of 1000) consumers could answer basic questions about the charges on their bills. (And ironically, this research ended up being featured as part of the first, flat-rate long distance plan; Sprint’s $.10 a minute service featuring Candice Bergen.)

We also were one of the first to call for the removal of the Spanish American War Tax, a federal tax placed on bills in 1898 to fund the war. This was removed, finally, in 2006 and had been costing Americans about $6 billion annually.

In 1998, NNI filed in the first FCC Truth-in-Billing proceeding, and in 1999 we released a report called “The Real Truth-in-Billing”. In fact, our marked-up Verizon phone bill is one of the most famous bills in history (Click to enlarge), having been in the top searches since 2003.

And in 2003 we were on the FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee where we were blocked from presenting a report on Truth-in Billing, which was based on using Verizon bills we had collected in our ‘Send Us Your Phone Bill’ campaigns. Ironically, the meeting was on Truth-in-Billing and it was our idea. (Wouldn’t you know it; Verizon was on the Committee.) I could go on…

But, like an invasion of the walking dead, the problems won’t go away and they are just getting worse.

First, these Are Some of the Most Hated Companies in America.

We all know there are serious problems with the bills and the companies offering us communications services.

In fact, ACSI’s surveys over the last five years have made it clear that these communications companies are some of the most hated companies in America. In 2017, The ACSI Telecommunications and Information Report 2017 showed that out of 43 industry segments examined, the “ISPs” and cable TV were rated dead last. However, the rest of the communications services, including phone service and even wireless services, are all bottom feeders as far as the public is concerned.

According to the ACSI 2016 report, these very bad grades are because there is no serious choice of providers.

“ISPs… remain the lowest-performing industry in the ACSI. Though many consumers are cutting the chord to subscription TV, most of them must still rely on the same companies for the high-speed Internet access required for streaming media platforms like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime Video.”
“ISPs and subscription TV inched up in 2016, but they remain the lowest scoring industries in the ACSI.”

The FCC Is Captured.

It is also clear that having the regulatory agencies, like the FCC, deal with these issues is a waste of time. They had 20 years to fix basic problems and they are ‘captured’ and working for the companies, claiming that there is competition and it will fix everything.

And no one, I repeat no one, should ever believe anyone who claims that “5G”, the new wireless shiny tech bauble, will bring competition, lower prices or fix billing, regardless of what the FCC or phone companies — and those paid by the companies, claim.

THE PATH OF CUSTOMER PROTECTION MADE EASY

You know the problems; it’s 2018 and the situation is out of control. So here is a sample of what we’re proposing.

The Real Truth-in-Billing — a Selected Sample.

I. Get Info: Advertising and Promotion of Service includes ALL Messaging

1) All advertised prices will include all charges the customer will have to pay.

2) No more “Fine Print”, period. All items of importance shall be the same size font as the advertised price.

3) No more continual “promotional” pricing.

4) Every advertisement — print, audio or video, or information supplied in the store or on a web site or discussed with a ‘customer service representative’ must be accurate. Penalties and fines will be applied if the customer is given misleading, deceptive or inaccurate information.

Example of Deceptive Advertising and a Bait and Switch

This is a typical advertisement for the Triple Play offered by Spectrum, formerly Time Warner Cable, 2018.

According to this, for just $29.99 a month, you too can get cable TV (HD TV), or Internet-broadband, or voice calling. And, at the top of this ad, notice there is a small ‘Free DVR’; just one of the many perks.

However, these are ‘promotional’ prices, not the actual prices. And if you look very closely you will notice a bunch of ‘asterisks’ on each service, which says “for 12 months”, among other caveats.

The Fine Print

And this is the accompanying fine print on the web site. It’s just too small to read. Notice that the color of the text is gray. (This is from a screen-shot.)

Of course it’s gray. You’re not supposed to actually read this stuff. Small, gray type is a sure indication that they are about to screw you.

This is what it actually says:

“Limited time offer; subject to change; new customers only. Triple Play savings comparison based on Spectrum non-promotional pricing: savings of $200.86 in the first year based on comparison to DVR service on 1 TV, one-time professional installation fee and one-time WiFi activation fee. DVR service on 1 TV ($12.99/mo.) = $155.88/yr; one-time professional installation fee = $34.99; one-time WiFi activation fee = $9.99; Total Savings = $200.86 in the first year.
“Limited time offer; subject to change; new customers only; requires purchase of a standard Triple Play package and cannot be combined with any Single or Double Play upgrade offers. Bundle price for TV Select, Internet, and Voice is $89.97/mo. for year 1; standard rates apply after year 1. Free DVR service for 1 DVR is for year 1; standard rates apply after year 1. TV: Equipment required and is extra; channel and HD programming availability based on level of service. INTERNET: Available Internet speeds may vary by address; no additional charge for modem. VOICE: Taxes and fees included in price. Other equipment, install, taxes, fees & surcharges may apply. Services not available in all areas. Restrictions apply. Other equipment, install, taxes, fees & surcharges may apply. Services not available in all areas. Restrictions apply. Enter your address to determine availability.”

Added to this, the customer is also sent to another web location for more information. It includes these gems; there is no guarantee that using the “Security Suite” will make sure your data is secure, and there is no guarantee that you can get the advertised speeds.

§ “SPECTRUM INTERNET “Internet speeds may vary by address; small percent of customers will receive lower than advertised speeds. No data caps or capacity allowances. Spectrum Internet subscribers are required to use non harmful devices in order to use Charter’s network.
§ “SECURITY SUITE™: Charter does not guarantee data will be secure.”

(The only good thing is that at this point there are no ‘data caps’ which would limit how much of the broadband service you can use. This is going away as well, and some cable and phone companies have already started the process with the goal to have pricing be based on the wireless model — pay per gig.)

Every PART of this Is a Bait and Switch.

Thus, using the opening graphic, on this first round of examining the advertising and offers we find that basic information is missing and the fine print revealed crap that every customer encounters.

  • The advertisement and info supplies no detail of the taxes, fees and surcharges.
  • There are no “total costs” to the customer before the purchase that is easily understandable.
  • There is no discussion of what it will cost once the customer gets the service and has it after the ‘promotional’ price leaves.
  • The DVR is ‘free’ but only for 1 year.
  • The cable TV requires equipment that is not even mentioned or detailed in this advertisement.
  • How do you sell a cable TV service without the ‘set-top box’ to use the service? (Which adds $11.75 a month!)
  • A customer can not get service without paying ALL of the charges, including the made-up taxes, fees and surcharges.

And how can there be a ‘continuous’ promotional price for a decade? Worse, to really piss off customers, how is it that current customers are excluded from getting this promotional price? Instead, they get to watch the adds and scream at the TV.

II. No More Made-Up Taxes, Fees & Surcharges on Our Bills.

We are proposing:

2) On All Communications Services: All Taxes, Fees and Surcharges Shall be Immediately Removed that are not mandated by a city, state or federal government agency or that are charged directly to the end-user subscriber.

This includes the removal of all:

a) Add-on Fees;

b) Cost Recovery Fees;

c) Administration Fees;

d) Broadcast Fees;

e) Fees and taxes that are placed on the company and are passed-through to the customer. This would include everything from:

  • Universal Service Fee which is taxed on the carriers’ revenue or
  • Gross-Receipts tax fees that are placed on the carrier but passed- through.
  • Franchise Fees paid but passed through.

3) All Taxes that Are Applied Are Explained. The company must provide the actual tax, if it is done as a percentage, as well as what services it is applied to and any caveats so that the customer can replicate the calculations and get the same results.

§ The companies must provide a complete ‘model’ of the current taxes and their applications on their web site.

§ There should be a simple web/app calculator that supplies all of this information, in one place, and explains the calculations and caveats.

4) ALL other fees are either included in the advertised price or are removed. This includes the separate charges for a ‘set top box’ or the made-up “Broadcast and Sports Programming Surcharge”.

5) The companies can not use a ‘generic’ web address, such as the home page, on the bill, but must supply the specific web locations.

Then We Get to Exactly How They Nickel, Dime and Quarter Us.

Going back to the opening graphic, there are so many things wrong with the basic Spectrum Triple Play that it is hard to know where to start. But considering this is an average bill and about the same for all of the companies, they should be ashamed of themselves for ripping off the American public — through bills that no one can read or the creation of lots of fees to nickel, dime and quarter us.

Probably the most egregious is the “Broadcast TV and Sports Programming Surcharge”, which is purely made-up and should never have been allowed to be a separate, deceptive line item. On this basic Triple Play, the charge went up 413% since 2014, which was after the promotional price had dissolved.

And it’s a lot of money for an added charge — it adds $139 bucks a year (though this could go up and vary around the US). With 26 million subscribers, if Charter is charging this amount, then they are making $300 million a month extra, $3.6 billion extra a year in revenues. It should be removed immediately. Period.

I do note a bit of optimism. There are two class action suits filed against the cable companies; one is currently in ‘discovery’, while the other is in arbitration to see if any of the claims should be allowed to go to court. (More about this in future articles.)

III: It’s Time: “Customer Service” Clean Up with Penalties.

6) Customer Service Misrepresentation Now has Consequences. Because a customer can get widely varying responses from Customer Service Representatives, (caused by everything from lack of training to the data-base information being wrong or missing), all responses from the ‘designated’ customer service representative must be complete and truthful and there should be no discrepancies between the different representatives answering the question.

a. Penalty: The customer will get a month of free service for every misleading and wrong response.

7) Recording All Conversations with Auto-Generated Transcript Required. All customer service conversations will be recorded on a confidential basis to make sure that what was told to the customer was valid or to see if the customer was wrong or misunderstood — thus to determine who’s at fault.

a. Note: Under the automatic ‘enforcement’ mechanism, all responses will be ‘scored’ to see if there is a pattern of mistakes or misinformation, or that the customers have not had the proper education or that the information is ‘misunderstood’ by the majority of those calling and needs to be fixed. This actually helps the customer as well as the companies’ bottom line; less complaints means better reputations and less costs of customer service expenses.

8) Quality of Service Is Maintained or Penalties Applied. All services will be responsible for performing at the level of quality that the customer paid for, but with special attention dedicated to services that provide the connection to emergency centers — the 911 centers.

a. This means that a “phone service” (wireline, wireless, VoIP) in a region must be able to deliver emergency service without degradation of service or lack of signal strength.

IV: The Public Is in Control: The Companies Work for Us.

9) The Right for Legal Remedies, Including Class Actions. A customer shall have full rights for legal remedies in the courts, including class actions. Arbitration is no longer mandated and all contracts that make these demands will be considered null and void.

This ‘right’ is especially important as one mistake or deceptive practice or questionable charge can impact 20–50 million customers, at once, and no person will take the time or has the data collection abilities or the legal expertise to challenge very heavily funded phone or cable companies.

Simple Example: A challenge to the “Broadcast TV and Sports Programming Surcharge”, or the “Cost Recovery Fees” would require financial audits and discovery of the flows of money, something no individual could afford or have the expertise to pursue.

NOTE: This is a partial list of what we’re proposing.

Our New Multi-Part Series: The Real Truth-in-Billing & Services

Focusing on ALL SERVICES from Verizon, AT&T, CenturyLink, Comcast & Charter et al.

  • PART 1: Phone & Cable Triple Play’s Deceptive Advertising and Charges
  • PART 2: Can’t Understand Your Bills? They’re Designed that Way — Hundreds of Truth-in-Billing, Truth-in-Advertising Violations
  • PART 3: Wireless Issues: Whamming, Digital Stalking, Unconscious Billing.
  • PART 4: Are You being Overcharged for Services You Didn’t Order?
  • PART 5: Competition and Broadband Issues and the Telco-Cable Cartel.
  • PART 6: Model Legislation and Legal Complaints: How to Stop these Practices.