Now that it dominates Wisconsin’s cable television market, Charter Communications faces its next challenge: winning customer satisfaction where, often, it’s been lacking.
Charter, with the recent acquisition of Time Warner Cable, now has about 90% of the traditional cable business in Wisconsin — a figure that’s disturbing to consumer advocates who say the lack of competition in the cable industry fuels poor customer service and high rates.
"People are kind of stuck with what they have, and I mean really stuck," said Linda Sherry, director of national priorities at Consumer Action, a San Francisco-based advocacy group.
Stamford, Conn.-based Charter, now that it owns Time Warner Cable, is moving into Milwaukee and other markets under the brand name Spectrum.
The changes aren’t noticeable yet, but they’re starting this year and will take place over the next 18 months.
"In the coming months, you will hear more from us as it relates to network, product and service improvements," Charter CEO Tom Rutledge said in a recent letter to Time Warner Cable customers.
The changes will include an all-digital network with faster internet speeds, no modem lease fee and a plethora of television channels under various bundle plans, according to Charter.
Yet critics of the Time Warner Cable acquisition say consumers will likely remain skeptical as they’ve never seen much competition in the paid television marketplace, and this won’t help on that front.
"We are not big on mergers, and we especially think that mergers in the cable industry can be a real problem for consumers because it just shrinks the available vendors down to usually one in an area," Sherry 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.
Charter says it’s attracting more customers and keeping customers longer, yet it acknowledges the industry’s critics.
"Cable companies talk about improving service a lot because there’s a lot of improving to do," said Charter spokesman Justin Venech.
The company says it’s bringing more than 10,000 outsourced customer service jobs back to the United States.
Combined, Charter and Time Warner Cable have about 90,000 employees nationwide and 3,900 in Wisconsin, including customer service centers and offices in Milwaukee, Appleton and Fond du Lac.
Charter says it plans to add about 20,000 jobs nationally as it expands into new markets and adds subscribers.
"I don’t know how many of those would be in Milwaukee, but I can tell you that we are looking at adding jobs across the company," Venech said.
Over time, the Time Warner Cable name will be replaced by Spectrum.
Some industry experts say the Time Warner and Charter duo won’t need as many employees as the separate companies had in areas such as customer service, billing and marketing.
Watch for what happens to the customer service centers in Wisconsin a year from now, said Barry Orton, a recently retired telecommunications professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
It’s unlikely that Charter will keep all of those jobs, Orton said.
Charter says it will use fewer outside contractors for home service calls. It says customer bills will be easier to decipher, and there will be fewer fees.
For now, Time Warner Cable customers can keep their television and internet services and pricing.
"If a customer likes what they are receiving today, and how they are receiving it, we aren’t going to force them into a new package," Venech said.
Charter television customers will still be required to lease the "set-top" box from the company.
Consumer advocates say the lease fees amount to a huge profit center for cable companies, at the expense of customers who have no choice in the matter.
"You will be renting that same old box for years. I remember once, when I moved to Washington, D.C., I was given a box that had cockroaches in it," Sherry said.
Time Warner Cable customers could get better television reception and more channels under the Charter digital network that’s coming their way.