This past weekend, I spent more than an hour on the phone with Spectrum, my internet and cable provider, because my bill was increasing every month without my knowledge for seemingly no reason at all.
I eventually resolved the situation — finding out about a bunch of hidden charges in the process — and even got a discount on my service. But that was only after I insisted on talking to a manager and agreeing to accept slower internet service.
My situation is not unique. The problems I ran into — a lack of transparency about billing practices and a lack of communication about service changes — illustrate just how awful it can be do deal with internet service providers (ISPs) in America. Monthly bills can feel arbitrary, and customers are often left with few choices other than cancelling their service. And even that’s not much of a solution, since most Americans have few choices when it comes to internet providers.
I’ve been a Time Warner Cable customer for as long as I’ve lived in New York City. When it comes to competition, we actually have a decent situation here. In terms of the big providers, customers can choose among Optimum, Verizon Fios, and Spectrum (formerly Charter, which renamed its service after purchasing Time Warner Cable last year).
Though I regularly check offers from the competition, Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum) has consistently been cheaper and generally more reliable. Plus, you don’t have to sign a contract, as you do with the others. You can cancel at any time, although that’s often easier said than done.
When my fiancée and I moved apartments last year, we had Time Warner Cable install our cable TV and internet service the day we moved in. For 200Mbps download speeds and a limited cable package, TWC told us we’d pay $US120 for the first year of service. After that, the price would increase, although TWC didn’t say by how much. This billing practice — giving customers a flat rate for a year before increasing the price — is typical among internet service providers, and we were totally fine with it.
After our first year of service ended, we saw our bill increase by $US10, to $US130 a month. We considered switching ISPs, but Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable) was still our cheapest option for both cable and internet. And since we had expected the bill change after the first year, we were OK with a $US10 increase.
But the following month — April — our bill unexpectedly jumped another $US13 to $US143. And then this month, it increased again, this time by $US2, to $US145.
My fiancée and I called Spectrum the night we got our latest bill. A representative told us what we were paying was “still low” for what we have and said we should expect further price increases.
The rep could not give us a specific timeline for how many months it would take before our bill would stop increasing. But when it was all said and done, our monthly rate would end up being $US173 per month, she told us.
We were given no prior notice about these price increases, whether by email, billing statement, or otherwise. Although we agreed to a price increase after the first year of service when we signed up with Time Warner Cable, we didn’t agree on having our bill jump every single month.
We pressed the Spectrum rep on why our bill was seeing seemingly random increases every month and why the company kept raising the price of our service, instead of just raising it once after the first-year discount expired. The Spectrum rep responded by saying the company felt the gradual increases are “easier on customers.”
But it didn’t feel easier to us. We were concerned that our bill was increasing at an unpredictable rate for seemingly no reason — we hadn’t changed our service — and we wanted to know why. So I asked to speak to a manager.
We were quickly transferred to Spectrum’s retention center, where we spoke to a woman named Esmy. After listening to our concerns, Esmy explained that when we signed up for service, Time Warner Cable made our first year’s bills cheaper by applying a bunch of individual discounts. Those discounts were now expiring one by one, which was causing the fluctuating price increases each month.
It was good to have that explanation, but it was baffling. As I explained to Esmy, we had received no information about these particular discounts. Our statements didn’t say what discounts we were receiving, how they were applied, or when they expired.
After a long discussion, Esmy eventually offered us a deal. We’d get a lower monthly rate than we paid in our first year, but we’d have to accept slower internet service. Instead of 200Mbps speeds, we’d get 100Mbps, since Spectrum no longer offers a 200Mbps plan.
We decided to take the offer, because the the price was less expensive than what we’d pay one of Spectrum’s rivals.
But the price we were paying was less important to me than what we had to go through to find out why our bill kept going up. We would have never known what was going on if we hadn’t called Spectrum and then insisted on talking to a manager when the customer service rep couldn’t answer our questions. It’s ridiculous that we had to go that far just to get an explanation for what we were being charged.
And that’s not the only example of Spectrum’s arbitrary and opaque billing practices. Another comes into play when customers decide to upgrade their internet service, say from 50Mbps to 300Mbps. After making the upgrade, Spectrum will not only charge them a higher rate for the speedier service, but will also apply a one-time $US199 fee. When I asked a Spectrum representative about it, the rep couldn’t explain the reason behind the fee or why it’s so hefty. The rep did confirm, though, that it’s not due to any technical change needed for the faster service or the need to install new hardware. It’s just the way it is.
Those kind of arbitrary fees as well as the lack of transparency and predictability that Spectrum has exhibited is bad for customers. Because many subscribers pay their bills through auto-pay, they expect them to be a certain amount each month. When bills suddenly change, it can cause confusion, frustration and undue stress. The lack of a clear explanation for such changes feels unfair and could open the door for predatory practices.
The bottom line is that Spectrum needs to be more transparent. It — and its rivals, which can be just as bad — needs to communicate bills, fees, discounts, and changes to customers’ accounts clearly and well in advance of when it sends out its monthly statements.
Two years ago, Time Warner Cable ranked dead last in customer satisfaction in a a survey of 300 companies. Although it’s merged with another company and switched names since then, it doesn’t seem like its customer service or the overall experience it offers have gotten any better.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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