Some people can’t get FCC subsidy because “Street” isn’t the same as “St.”

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Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | acilo)

Some broadband users who qualify for the government’s new $50-per-month subsidies haven’t been able to obtain the discounts because of technical problems in the Federal Communications Commission’s rollout of the program.

The problems stem from the FCC’s National Verifier and how the broadband providers’ systems interact with the FCC database, as detailed in an article published by Protocol today. Small mismatches between entries in databases—such as having an address recorded as Elm St. in an ISP’s system and Elm Street in the FCC’s—can cause people’s applications to be rejected.

ISPs may be partly to blame as some collected information in the wrong format despite having received training on how to use the system from the FCC. In hindsight, though, the FCC could have allowed ISPs to use the program without requiring such strict data matching. The Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) was rolled out quickly relative to other government programs because of the pressing need to get subsidies to consumers, and the FCC hasn’t been able to fully stamp out this problem in the month since the program began.

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Charter charges more money for slower Internet on streets with no competition

A Charter Spectrum service truck on a snowy street.

Enlarge / A Charter Spectrum service truck in McKinney, Texas, on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. (credit: Getty Images | Bloomberg)

It’s no surprise that cable companies charge lower prices for broadband when they face competition from fiber-to-the-home services. But an article yesterday by Stop the Cap provides a good example of how dramatically promotional prices for Charter’s Spectrum Internet service can vary from one street to the next.

In this example, Charter charges $20 more per month for slower speeds on the street where it faces no serious competition. When customers in two areas purchase the same speeds, the customer on the street without competition could have to pay $40 more per month and would have their promotional rates expire after only one year instead of two.

Stop the Cap said it examined promotional offers to new customers in the metro Rochester, New York, market, “where Spectrum faces token competition from Frontier’s slow speed DSL service” and more robust competition in limited areas from Greenlight Networks’ fiber service. Greenlight fiber is available in 23 percent of Rochester, while Charter cable is available to homes throughout the city, according to BroadbandNow. Greenlight prices start at $50 per month for 500Mbps.

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Verizon forces users onto pricier plans to get $50-per-month gov’t subsidy

Illustration with a Verizon logo on a smartphone screen and a stock market graphic in the background.

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Verizon and other Internet service providers are preventing some low-income customers from getting new $50-per-month government subsidies unless they switch to different plans that are sometimes more expensive.

Over 825 ISPs nationwide are selling plans eligible for the new subsidies that the US government made available to people who have low incomes or who lost income during the pandemic. Verizon stands out among big ISPs in its use of the subsidy to “upsell” customers to pricier plans, according to a story yesterday by Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler.

“Soon after the EBB [Emergency broadband Benefit program] launched, I started hearing from Washington Post readers about their frustrations signing up with certain ISPs,” he wrote. “Verizon elicited the most ire from readers.”

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Striking Charter workers build ISP where “profits are returned to users”

An antenna on a rooftop in the Bronx, with a view of the city during daytime.

Enlarge / Rooftop antenna at Immaculate Conception School in the Bronx. (credit: People’s Choice Communications)

Charter Communications employees who have been on strike since 2017 are building an Internet service provider in New York City called “People’s Choice.”

“People’s Choice Communications is an employee-owned social enterprise launched by members of IBEW Local #3 to bridge the digital divide and help our neighbors get connected to the Internet during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the ISP’s website says. “We are the workers who built a large part of New York City’s Internet infrastructure in the first place. We built out [Charter] Spectrum’s cable system, until in 2017, the company pushed us out on strike by taking away our healthcare, retirement, and other benefits. It’s now the longest strike in US history.”

So far, People’s Choice says it has completed rooftop antenna installations at two schools in the Bronx and installed “hardline connections to wireless access points connecting 121 units” at housing for survivors of domestic violence who have disabilities.

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Charter must pay $19 million for tricking customers into switching ISPs

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Enlarge / Pinocchio. (credit: Getty Images | malerapaso)

A judge has ordered Charter Communications to pay $19.2 million to Windstream for lying to customers in order to trick them into switching from Windstream to Charter’s Spectrum Internet service. Charter also faces a $5,279 penalty for shutting off service to hundreds of Windstream’s resale customers.

When Windstream filed for bankruptcy in early 2019, Charter began a “literally false and intentionally misleading advertising campaign intended to create the impression, using mailings designed to seem as if they were coming from the Debtors [Windstream], that the Debtors were going out of business,” said an order issued Thursday by Judge Robert Drain of US Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.

Charter’s goal with the mailings “was to induce the Debtors’ customers to terminate their contracts and switch to Charter by sending them literally false and intentionally misleading information about the Debtors’ bankruptcy cases and financial wherewithal,” the ruling said. Charter premised its ad campaign “on false assertions regarding the Debtors’ bankruptcy cases,” the ruling said.

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Big ISPs pause donations to 147 Republicans who tried to reverse Biden’s win

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Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon say they have suspended political donations to the 147 Republican members of Congress who voted against certifying Electoral College results, but the companies left the door open for resuming campaign contributions to those lawmakers in the future.

“We will be suspending contributions in 2021 to any member of Congress who voted in favor of objecting to the election results,” a Verizon spokesperson said, according to Light Reading. We asked Verizon if the suspension of donations will last throughout 2021 and will update this article if we get a response.

“The peaceful transition of power is a foundation of America’s democracy,” Comcast said in a statement yesterday. After “the appalling violence” at the US Capitol last week, “our focus needs to be on working together for the good of the entire nation. Consistent with this view, we will suspend all of our political contributions to those elected officials who voted against certification of the Electoral College votes, which will give us the opportunity to review our political giving policies and practices.”

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SpaceX won “rural” FCC funding in surprising places, like major airports

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The Federal Communications Commission last week awarded $9.2 billion to 180 broadband providers, saying the money will bring Internet access to 5.2 million “unserved” homes and businesses in rural areas across the United States. But consumer advocates say they’ve found major problems in the FCC’s funding choices, such as sending money to wealthy urban areas that are adjacent to high-speed networks. SpaceX is among the biggest beneficiaries of the funding decisions that have drawn criticism.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is “subsidiz[ing] broadband for the rich,” according to the title of an analysis last week by Derek Turner, research director at advocacy group Free Press. Turner has a strong track record analyzing FCC broadband data, and last year found major errors in Pai’s broadband-deployment claims.

Pai’s priority seems to be “closing the golf-course and parking-lot digital divide,” Turner wrote. The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund—despite its name—is devoting a significant portion of its money to urban and suburban areas, he wrote. While there are broadband shortages in urban areas, Turner argues that some of the FCC money is going to urban areas that existing cable or fiber ISPs could serve with just minor extensions of their existing networks.

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SpaceX gets $886 million from FCC to subsidize Starlink in 35 states

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Enlarge / Starlink satellite dish and equipment in the Idaho panhandle’s Coeur d’Alene National Forest. (credit: Wandering-coder)

SpaceX has been awarded $885.51 million by the Federal Communications Commission to provide Starlink broadband to 642,925 rural homes and businesses in 35 states. The satellite provider was one of the biggest winners in the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction, the results of which were released today. Funding is distributed over 10 years, so SpaceX’s haul will amount to a little over $88.5 million per year.

Charter Communications, the second-largest US cable company after Comcast, did even better. Charter is set to receive $1.22 billion over 10 years to bring service to 1.06 million homes and businesses in 24 states.

FCC funding can be used in different ways depending on the type of broadband service. Cable companies like Charter and other wireline providers generally use the money to expand their networks into new areas that don’t already have broadband. But with Starlink, SpaceX could theoretically provide service to all of rural America once it has launched enough satellites, even without FCC funding.

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The tech antitrust problem no one is talking about

After years of building political pressure for antitrust scrutiny of major tech companies, this month Congress and the US government delivered. The House Antitrust Subcommittee released a report accusing Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook of monopolistic behavior. The Department of Justice filed a complaint against Google alleging the company prevents consumers from sampling other search engines.

The new fervor for tech antitrust has so far overlooked an equally obvious target: US broadband providers. “If you want to talk about a history of using gatekeeper power to harm competitors, there are few better examples,” says Gigi Sohn, a fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy.

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SpaceX seeks FCC broadband funds, must prove it can deliver sub-100ms latency

A SpaceX Starlink user terminal, also known as a satellite dish, seen against a city's skyline.

Enlarge / A SpaceX Starlink user terminal/satellite dish. (credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX, Charter, Verizon, CenturyLink, Frontier, Cox, and about 500 other companies are seeking government funding to provide broadband in rural areas. The Federal Communications Commission yesterday released a list of applicants for the first phase of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which is set to pay up to $16 billion to Internet service providers over 10 years.

SpaceX would be the first low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite provider to get FCC rural-broadband funding. The RDOF and predecessor programs generally fund expansion of wired or terrestrial wireless services by paying ISPs to expand their networks into rural areas where they would not otherwise have built.

As a satellite provider, SpaceX won’t need to install wires or wireless towers in any particular area. But traditional satellite providers have obtained FCC funding before despite already offering service throughout the United States. For example, the FCC’s Connect America Fund last year awarded $87.1 million to satellite operator Viasat on condition that it provide service in specific parts of 17 states at lower prices and with higher data caps “than it typically provides in areas where it is not receiving Connect America Fund support.”

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FCC asks for more public input on whether to let Charter impose data caps

Illustration of $100-dollar bills being sucked into a broadband network.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Aurich Lawson)

The Federal Communications Commission is taking another round of public comments on Charter’s petition seeking permission to impose data caps on broadband users and charge network-interconnection fees to online-video providers, following a court ruling that may complicate the FCC’s decision.

The deadline for comments on Charter’s petition passed on August 6. But in a public notice issued today, the FCC said it is opening an additional comment period that will last until September 2, giving people time to weigh in on the impact of the court ruling.

“To ensure that the [Wireline Competition] Bureau has a full record upon which to evaluate the effects of the conditions, we initiate this additional comment period,” the FCC notice said, while also inviting commenters to “address the effect” of the new court ruling on the FCC’s consideration of Charter’s petition. As before, comments can be submitted on the docket by clicking “New Filing” or “Express.” There are more than 1,500 filings, mostly from consumers who object to data caps.

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Charter can charge online video sites for network connections, court rules

A Charter Spectrum service van used by a cable technician.

Enlarge / A Charter Spectrum van in West Lake Hills, Texas, in April 2019. (credit: Tony Webster / Flickr)

Charter can charge Netflix and other online video streaming services for network interconnection despite a merger condition prohibiting the practice, a federal appeals court ruled today.

The ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturns two merger conditions that the Obama administration imposed on Charter when it bought Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in 2016. The FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai did not defend the merits of the merger conditions in court, paving the way for today’s ruling. The case was decided in a 2-1 vote by a panel of three DC Circuit judges.

The lawsuit against the FCC seeking to overturn Charter merger conditions was filed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a free-market think tank, and four Charter users who claim they were harmed by the conditions. The FCC unsuccessfully challenged the suing parties’ standing to sue, and it did not mount a legal defense of the conditions themselves.

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Charter tries to convince FCC that broadband customers want data caps

Illustration of a water hose with Internet data trickling out of it, represented by 1s and 0s.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

Charter Communications has claimed to the Federal Communications Commission that broadband users enjoy having Internet plans with data caps, in a filing arguing that Charter should be allowed to impose caps on its Spectrum Internet service starting next year.

Charter isn’t currently allowed to impose data caps because of conditions the FCC placed on its 2016 purchase of Time Warner Cable. The data-cap condition is scheduled to expire on May 18, 2023, but Charter in June petitioned the FCC to let the condition expire two years early, in May 2021.

With consumer-advocacy groups and Internet users opposing the petition, Charter filed a response with the FCC last week, saying that plans with data caps are “popular.”

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Charter’s donations to charities and lawmakers may help it impose data caps

A Charter Spectrum service van used by a cable technician.

Enlarge / A Charter Spectrum van in West Lake Hills, Texas, in April 2019. (credit: Tony Webster / Flickr)

Nonprofits and local politicians are lining up to support a Charter Communications petition that would let the ISP impose data caps on broadband users and seek interconnection payments from large online-video providers.

Charter filed the petition with the Federal Communications Commission last month, asking the FCC to eliminate merger conditions applied to its 2016 purchase of Time Warner Cable two years early. If Charter’s petition is granted, the company would be able to impose data caps on its Spectrum broadband service and charge network-interconnection fees to video providers after May 18, 2021, instead of in May 2023 as scheduled.

With the FCC seeking public comment, the docket is overwhelmingly filled with consumers urging the commission to oppose Charter’s request for permission to limit consumers’ data usage and charge data-overage fees. “In this age of Internet communication, data caps are an unscrupulous way to gouge money from clients, many of whom do not have alternative Internet sources. This is unacceptable,” one person wrote in a sentiment echoed by hundreds of other Internet users who wrote to the FCC in the past few weeks.

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Charter’s hidden “Broadcast TV” fee now adds $197 a year to cable bills

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(credit: Getty Images | DonNichols)

Charter Communications is raising the “Broadcast TV” fee it imposes on cable plans from $13.50 to $16.45 a month starting in August, Stop the Cap reported.

Charter says the Broadcast TV fee covers the amount it pays broadcast television stations (e.g. affiliates of CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox) for the right to carry their channels. But for consumers, it is essentially a hidden fee because Charter’s advertised TV prices don’t include it.

Charter has raised the fee repeatedly—it stood at $9.95 in early 2019 before a series of price increases. At $16.45 a month, the fee will cost customers an additional $197.40 per year. Charter sells TV, broadband, and phone service under its Spectrum brand name and is the second largest cable company in the US after Comcast.

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FCC helps Charter avoid broadband competition

A Charter Spectrum service van used by a cable technician.

Enlarge / A Charter Spectrum van in West Lake Hills, Texas in April 2019. (credit: Tony Webster )

The Federal Communications Commission is helping Charter avoid broadband competition in New York State with a decision that will block government funding for other ISPs in locations where Charter is required to build.

The FCC plans to award ISPs up to $16 billion over 10 years from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) in a reverse auction scheduled to begin in October. The FCC said in an announcement yesterday that it “granted Charter Communications’ waiver request to exclude 2,127 census blocks in New York from the eligible areas list because the company will deploy broadband in those locations pursuant to a settlement reached with the State of New York.”

Separately, the FCC denied a Frontier Communications request to exclude nearly 17,000 census blocks in parts of 29 states from the auction.

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Charter seeks FCC OK to impose data caps and charge fees to video services

An illustration of $100 bills being sucked into an Internet connection.

Data cap cash. (credit: Aurich Lawson | Getty Images)

Charter Communications has asked federal regulators for permission to impose data caps on broadband users and to seek interconnection payments from large online video providers, starting next year.

Charter, unlike other ISPs, isn’t allowed to impose data caps and faces limits on charges for interconnection payments because of conditions applied to its 2016 purchase of Time Warner Cable. The conditions were imposed by the Federal Communications Commission for seven years and are scheduled to elapse in May 2023. Last week, Charter submitted a petition asking the FCC to let the conditions run out on May 18, 2021 instead. The FCC is seeking public comment on the petition.

Charter, which offers Internet, TV, and phone service under the Spectrum brand name, has frequently pointed to its lack of data caps as an example of a customer-friendly policy. When it sought FCC permission for the merger, it told the FCC that it provides service “without any data caps, usage-based pricing, or modem fees” and that it “has been involved in no notable disputes over traffic management and has long practiced network neutrality.”

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Charter tells court that its no-refund policy helps prevent price increases

A Charter Spectrum service vehicle.

Enlarge / A Charter Spectrum vehicle. (credit: Charter)

Charter is suing Maine to block a new state law that requires prorated refunds when cable customers cancel service mid-month, claiming that the requirement is a form of rate regulation and is preempted by federal law. The preemption question will be at the heart of the case, but Charter also told the court that its no-refund policy prevents its prices from rising even more than they usually do.

“Charter’s decision not to provide a partial-month rebate for cancelling subscribers reflects the fact that Charter’s service is sold on a monthly basis,” the company, which operates Spectrum TV service, said in its complaint against the state government. “It also reduces administrative costs and thus ultimately reduces the upward pressure on rates for Charter’s continuing subscribers.”

Charter further said that its policy minimizes price increases “for continuing subscribers by reducing costs associated with implementing pro-rata rebates for mid-month cancellations.” Charter said that subscribers who cancel in the middle of a monthly billing period can continue to receive the service until the end of the month.

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Charter has 230 infected employees after resisting work-at-home requests

A Charter Spectrum service vehicle.

Enlarge / A Charter Spectrum vehicle. (credit: Charter)

More than 230 Charter employees have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least two have died, The New York Times reported today.

New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office has opened an inquiry into Charter’s labor practices and management of employees during the pandemic, a spokesperson for James confirmed to Ars today.

Charter has faced numerous complaints from employees about the company’s refusal to let them work from home during the pandemic. The cable company partially backed away from its strict rules on March 20, saying it would let up to 40 percent of call-center employees do remote work. But Charter’s slow reaction to the pandemic—while the similarly situated Comcast moved aggressively to get employees into work-at-home situations—may have contributed to the spread of coronavirus in the company.

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Charter still hates broadband competition, asks FCC to help prevent it

A Charter Spectrum service vehicle.

Enlarge / A Charter Spectrum vehicle. (credit: Charter)

Charter Communications is asking the Federal Communications Commission to block government funding for ISPs that want to build networks in parts of New York where Charter is required to offer broadband.

An FCC rule for Phase 1 of the commission’s $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) bans funding in census blocks where at least one ISP has been awarded money from any federal or state broadband-subsidy program “to provide 25/3Mbps or better service,” and it also bans funding in areas that already have home-Internet access at those speeds. But that rule would not prevent ISPs from getting funding to serve parts of New York where Charter is required by the state government to offer service but in which it hasn’t yet finished construction.

Charter on Friday thus petitioned the FCC for a rules waiver that would ban funding in 2,400 census blocks “in which Charter has unfunded but nonetheless binding state obligations to deploy at least 25/3 Mbps broadband service.” Charter, which sells broadband and other cable services under its Spectrum brand name, said it is deploying speeds of at least 300Mbps downstream and 10Mbps upstream, far above the FCC’s 25/3Mbps standard.

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Verizon refuses to give DSL users its low-income deals during pandemic

A Verizon FiOS truck on a street in New York City.

Enlarge / A Verizon FiOS truck in Manhattan on September 15, 2017. (credit: Getty Images | Smith Collection | Gado)

Verizon is one of numerous home-Internet providers offering temporarily free service to low-income households during the pandemic. But a big restriction on Verizon’s offer makes it impossible for many people to get the deal.

The Verizon problem is one of several that’s been pointed out by advocates for poor people at the nonprofit National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA). Charter, CenturyLink, and Frontier have also been labeled disappointments even as Comcast earned praise. The NDIA is maintaining a list of pandemic-related telecom offers. A similar group called EveryoneOn offers a search tool to find low-income offers by ZIP code.

Verizon on March 23 said it would provide two months of free home-Internet and phone service for current low-income subscribers in the Lifeline program and $20 monthly discounts for new low-income subscribers. The $20 discount lowers the starting price for 200Mbps Internet to $19.99 a month. But the broadband offers are available only on Verizon’s fiber-to-the-home FiOS service and not in DSL areas where Verizon never upgraded homes from copper to fiber.

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Charter gives techs $25 gift cards instead of hazard pay during pandemic

A Charter Spectrum service vehicle.

Enlarge / A Charter Spectrum vehicle. (credit: Charter)

Charter Communications is giving its cable technicians $25 restaurant gift cards instead of hazard pay for going into customer homes during the coronavirus pandemic, BuzzFeed reported yesterday. The gift cards are a “token of our appreciation,” an internal email from management on Monday said, BuzzFeed reported. Of course, many restaurants are closed during the pandemic, so restaurant gift cards aren’t the most useful perk Charter management could have chosen.

“These gift cards never expire, so if you choose a restaurant that is currently not open, the card will remain valid for future use… Please take some time out of your busy day to enjoy a meal and recharge,” the email read.

Several Charter employees did not appreciate the minimal gesture. “It’s really insensitive, it shows they don’t care,” one New York City-based technician told BuzzFeed. “You think a gift card is supposed to make us feel better?”

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Charter grudgingly lets up to 40% of call-center employees work from home

A Charter Spectrum service vehicle.

Enlarge / A Charter Spectrum vehicle. (credit: Charter)

Charter has partially backed away from its strict rules against working from home during the coronavirus pandemic and will let up to 40 percent of call-center employees do remote work.

Charter Executive VP Cliff Hagan sent a memo to employees today, explaining that employees will have to meet certain conditions before being allowed to work at home:

A balance of “In Center” and “Remote Work” will be maintained. We’ll begin offering remote work opportunities to those who are at higher-risk from a health standpoint, and then open the option to additional employees who are tenured, taking into account performance, the home infrastructure to support remote work, and agreement to the terms and conditions of a remote work assignment. During this time, we anticipate up to 40 percent of call center employees could be working remotely. These actions will further our ability to create greater physical separation and reduce the overall on-site staffing levels in our call centers.

The memo was shared with Ars by Charter employees. A Charter spokesperson told Ars that the memo was sent “to our Customer Operations organization, which includes our customer service call centers and related activity, but not the whole company.” The Charter spokesperson did not tell us how many call-center workers it has or how many non-call-center workers will be allowed to work remotely.

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Charter employees beg for work-from-home rights during pandemic

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Enlarge (credit: Thomas Trutschel | Getty Images)

Charter employees are angry at the cable company for refusing requests to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic and have been reaching out to Ars this week to complain about their employer.

One Charter employee who works in a 24-hour call center in a suburb of Orlando, Florida, said the facility has anywhere between 400 and 700 employees working in one large room at any given time. The call center has 1,200 agents in total, the employee told us yesterday. Instead of letting call-center agents work from home, Charter is advising employees to work at every other desk, leaving a buffer of one empty desk between employees. But there isn’t enough space or enough desks to do that, the employee said.

“This is the rough part: we sit at a different desk every day,” the employee said. “We don’t have our own desks. It’s an absolute nightmare breeding ground for germs on a normal basis.” The employee shared this graphic from an email that was sent to the call-center workers:

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Comcast, Charter expand broadband domination as cable hits 67% market share

An illustration of Earth, with circuits covering North America and an Ethernet cable being plugged into the planet.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Henrik5000)

Led by Comcast and Charter, the cable industry increased its dominance of US home Internet in 2019, finishing the year with a 67-percent market share.

Leichtman Research Group’s latest broadband-market review found that the top eight cable companies combined to add 3.14 million broadband subscribers in 2019, reaching a total of 67.98 million. Comcast and Charter accounted for most of the total subscribers and most of the gains: Comcast added 1.41 million subscribers in the year to reach 28.63 million, and Charter added 1.41 million to reach 26.66 million. Cox, the third biggest cable company in the Leichtman review, added 110,000 subscribers to hit 5.17 million. The net additions for each company were slightly higher than in 2018.

The top eight traditional phone companies, which offer a mix of copper and fiber services, lost a combined 619,605 subscribers to reach a low of 33.24 million in 2019. The top four telcos—AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, and Frontier—all lost subscribers.

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