Time Warner Cable Milwaukee with customer service

Charter has big plans for Time Warner Cable in Wisconsin

Rick Barrett thumbnailBy of the Journal Sentinel

As cable television companies try to reinvent themselves in a changing market, the planned $55 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable by Charter Communications could result in more program choices and better Internet service for Wisconsin, but the merger's critics say it could come at the expense of customer service and job losses.

Federal regulators could rule on the proposed merger of the second and third larg-est cable providers in the nation as early as this spring. If the deal is completed, Time Warner Cable customers would become Charter Communications customers, but they wouldn't have to change subscription plans.

There's about an 80% chance of the deal receiving approval, said Barry Orton, a recently retired telecommunications professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Time Warner and Charter are the two largest cable companies in Wisconsin, providing television and Internet service in the most heavily populated areas.

If the acquisition is approved, Charter says it has big plans for Time Warner customers. The company says its slowest Internet speed, of 60 megabits per second, is much faster than Time Warner's minimum speed but is comparably priced.

Also, Charter does not have a $10 monthly modem lease fee, and the company says it would offer a $14.99 per month Internet plan for low-income families and senior citizens who receive Supplemental Social Security.

As a larger company, Charter could offer expanded video services, including more high-definition television channels.

Then, Time Warner customers could get the same products and prices that Charter offers in its current service areas.

"We don't have an exact time for this, but we are committed to offering the Spectrum brand as quickly as we can in all markets, " said Charter spokesman Justin Venech.

Changes are coming as cable providers now have more Internet subscribers than TV subscribers, according to data provider SNL Kagen. As more viewers ditch TV for online video, competition for customers — from the likes of Netflix, Amazon and others, is increasing.

"There was a time when pay TV could get away with discontented users without being penalized by revenue losses from defecting customers, but those days are over, " said Claes Fornell, chairman and founder of the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a national data collecting group that's part of the University of Michigan.

Charter says if the merger is approved, Time Warner customers will not notice an immediate difference.

Time Warner Cable's brand would continue for a while, and customers wouldn't have to change their subscription plans.

"If someone likes the package they are receiving now, they can keep it, " Venech said.

How do Time Warner Cable and Charter compare in customer satisfaction ratings?

"I can't say that Charter's reputation is great in Wisconsin. But it's not terrible, and it's certainly better than the previous companies they took over, " Orton said.

In the 2015 American Customer Satisfaction Index, Charter and Time Warner Cable had comparable scores — of 57 and 58, respectively — of a possible 100 points for Internet service. Charter scored 63 for subscription television, while Time Warner Cable's score was 51.

"Although Charter shows the most improvement in the industry, it may be difficult to maintain customer satisfaction momentum as the company combines operations with other providers. ACSI data suggests that mergers usually result in lower customer satisfaction, at least in the short term, " the organization said.

"Sixty-one percent of U.S. households have just one or no high-speed Internet provider servicing their region, and the lack of customer choice contributes to weak customer satisfaction. Customers are frustrated with unreliable service, slow broadband Internet speeds, and rising subscription prices — and they resent being locked into service contracts, " ACSI noted.

"Cable companies are trying to strengthen their positions through consolidation, but the benefits to consumers of one coaxial cable company absorbing another are questionable, " said David VanAmburg, ACSI director.

Combined, Charter and Time Warner Cable have about 3, 900 employees in Wisconsin, including employees at customer service centers and offices in Milwaukee, Madison, Appleton and Fond du Lac.

Critics of the merger say one of the largest impacts could be fewer jobs as the combined companies eliminate duplication of services and operations.

Orton says Time Warner and Charter, as one company, would not need as many people in areas such as customer service, billing, marketing and management.

It's difficult to imagine that the combined companies would keep all of the customer service centers intact, Orton said.

Charter disagrees with that assessment.

The Stamford, Conn.-based company says it has added 7, 000 jobs in the last three years for total employment of about 24, 000 people.

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