THE CABLE TV and internet company that has recently oozed its way into parts of Columbia County should change its name from Spectrum to “Suspect-rum.” Lying to the government regulators seems to be part of its business model.
Spectrum is re-branding of Charter Communications, an outfit that offered crummy cable TV service to parts of northern and eastern Columbia County for many years. Now the crummy service has a new name and the company, whatever you want to call it, is still failing to live up to its promise to deliver high speed internet service to underserved areas like ours.
Charter has grown over the last few decades by gobbling up other cable and internet companies to become one of the largest cable and internet service providers in the country. One of Charter’s most recent trophies is Time-Warner Cable. But approval for that deal came in exchange for a promise from Charter that the company would provide high speed internet connections to this and other counties where carrier pigeons are faster and more reliable than the web access they have now.
That was two years ago. If you believe what Charter/Spectrum told both consumers and regulators, we’re all on the doorstep of internet heaven right now and they’re just waiting to hook us up. Good luck with that.
If this sounds like the complaint of a grumpy customer, consider instead the words of John B. Rhodes, chief executive officer of the state Department of Public Service, the state agency that worked out the deal with Charter/Spectrum at the direction of the state public Service Commission (PSC). Mr. Rhodes issued a press release this week under the heading “Department of Public Service Condemns Spectrum for False Advertising.” It gets better from there.
“Not only has the company failed to meet its obligations to build out its cable system as required, it is now making patently false and misleading claims to consumers that it has met those obligations without in any way acknowledging the findings of the Public Service Commission to the contrary,” Mr. Rhodes wrote.
In other words, the company is treating the agency that regulates it as if it doesn’t care what the PSC says or does. And in a way, the company is right. In March the state PSC fined Charter/Spectrum $2 million, the latest in a series of what sound like hefty fines. But face it, a couple of million dollars is chump change for a company that made over $9??????? billion last year.
So how could the public let Charter/Spectrum know that New York is serious about enforcing the agreement that will bring high speed internet access to even the most sparsely populated communities? The obvious solutions all have flaws, starting with filing criminal fraud complaints against top executives of the companies. Imagine the traffic jams on the runway if all these truth-challenged corporate titans decided to flee the state and jumped on their corporate jets all at once.
It could happen if you believe Mr. Rhodes, who wrote, “Spectrum has ignored the State’s interests and knowingly continued to advertise and publish knowingly false claims….” But a legion of corporate lawyers would undoubtedly drag out the trials until the internet will have long since become obsolete.
Another option would be to seek a new bidder to provide rural service. But it’s not clear anyone would want that task. Charter took it on only as a way to hoodwink the state into approving its takeover of Time-Warner Cable. The reason sparsely populated areas are not already wired is because they aren’t profitable, unlike dense suburban and urban neighborhoods. Wiring the boondocks means big costs and puny profits.
The prospects aren’t all bleak. This is an election year and the candidates for governor, state attorney general and Congress all are likely to be receptive to calls for greater oversight of Charter/Spectrum. They might even be forced to propose creative responses to the company’s chronic bad behavior.
What if, for example, voters demanded to know how candidates would compel compliance with PSC requirements. Or what if government scrutiny inspired quirky alternatives like wind- and solar-powered access at affordable rates and joint ventures with wireless providers. What about funding from the companies for internet co-ops and money from Charter to subsidize future improvements?
Candidates won’t come up with new ideas on their own. Consumers have to speak out. We don’t have to accept crummy service but it won’t improve unless we demand that public officials hold companies like Charter accountable.