State to Spectrum: No merger for you

GHENT–Its white vans and bucket trucks are still whizzing up and down highways and side streets here. The banner and wilted party balloons still mark the entrance to the Spectrum internet service provider’s “pop-up store” on Route 66 in Chatham. But last week the state Public Service Commission revoked its approval of a merger between Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable, which had generated much of this activity.

Two years ago the PSC said Charter Communications, the parent company of Spectrum, could merge with Time Warner Cable. But the merger was granted because of promises Charter’s made to expand high speed internet access to underserved rural areas of the state. Late last week the PSC said Charter/Spectrum had not only failed to meet the targets for providing access to high speed service, it charged they had lied about their progress and used “unsafe practices.”

As a result the merger is no longer valid and Charter/Spectrum has 60 days to come up with a plan to sell all the Time Warner customers and equipment that came with the merger to a some other company or companies.

It’s not yet clear what that will mean for the people in Columbia County who have signed up for or already have the Spectrum internet or cable TV. The PSC says it will “order Charter to plan for an orderly transition to a successor provider(s) to serve its New York State customers.”

The New York Times reported last week that Charter plans to appeal the decision, a process that could leave the matter unresolved for some time. The company has also alluded to the upcoming state election as a factor in the PSC’s decision.

Kinderhook was one of the local communities that was served by Time Warner.

Governor Cuomo said last week that the PSC was talking with two or more companies interested in taking over the Time Warner franchises. The sale would happen only if the PSC decision is upheld in court.

The merger with Time Warner Cable made charter the second largest cable TV company in the country. But PSC Chair John B. Rhodes said in a release, “Charter’s non-compliance and brazenly disrespectful behavior toward New York State and its customers necessitates the actions taken today seeking court-ordered penalties for its failures, and revoking the Charter merger approval.”

The conflict over Charter’s performance has been brewing for over a year. The PSC recently fined Charter/Spectrum $2 million for not running high speed internet service past enough homes in rural areas. The PSC staff also found that many of the homes it did claim as having service available were actually in New York City and other large metropolitan areas around the state.

Charter has been marketing is Spectrum internet, cable TV and phone service in Columbia County for two years before it was available.

Ghent Councilwoman Patti Matheny, a leading advocate for local broadband access in Columbia County and a founder of the group Connect Columbia, said she and other local activists were stunned by the PSC’s decision to rescind the merger approval. She also said she and others had experienced problems dealing with the company.

“We have been very disappointed in customer service” from Charter/Spectrum, she said this week.

Ms. Matheny had a recommendation for company, saying, “They need an upper management change. You have to start at the top.”

To contact Parry Teasdale email

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