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Playing Hide-and-Seek With Access Fees

“Shop Around” is one of the most common — and vital — options consumers have when in search of a lower price or better deal. Even here at Consumer Reports, the organization I lead, we often recommend it to shoppers. But today, when it comes to cable TV and internet, millions of consumers don’t really have that choice.

Marta Tellado, Consumer Reports

Marta Tellado, Consumer Reports

Charter Communications has started increasing the base price for its broadband internet services and increasing fees for all of its Spectrum cable customers. Those fees are the add-on charges generally buried in the fine print at the bottom of your bill. Charter’s fee increases include:

• The broadcast TV surcharge will go up $1, from $8.85 to $9.95 a month.
• Spectrum Receivers (aka your cable box) will go from up $0.51, from $6.99 to $7.50 a month.
• The digital adapter price will go up $1, from $4.99 to $5.99 a month.

A $2.51 per month increase might seem small at first glance — but as ticky-tack fees pile up, they can quickly turn into budget-busters. Combined with price increases, Charter customers now face shelling out nearly $100 more per year. And, let’s not overlook that as the nation’s second largest cable and broadband provider, Charter’s Spectrum service (and paying those fees) is the only choice for 38 million Americans, according to a recent report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

A Universal Trend

The growth of the “fee economy” isn’t unique to cable — we see it from travel fees to ticket fees and beyond — but Big Cable has certainly embraced these add-on charges with open arms. Cable fees are on the rise, with customers paying as much as 50% more each year.

Related: TRUE Fees Act Update

What’s almost more disappointing is how hard the cable industry works at disguising fees, making it difficult for consumers to know the total price they’ll pay and what, exactly, they’re paying for. In confirming these price increases, Charter executives said there would be no changes to cable and voice package prices, which is really just a technicality. Fees that aren’t optional listed on a bill as separate from the package pricing still means more money out of our pockets. It’s disingenuous at best for Charter to claim that prices aren’t increasing.

Consumer frustration has also reached lawmakers in Washington. The TRUE Fees Act, introduced by Representative Anna Eshoo, would fix this problem by requiring service providers to advertise the total price of a service, including all fees, and by providing protections for consumers who have been wrongfully charged.

Consumer Reports supports this bill, with Charter’s latest move serving as a perfect example of why it’s so necessary. Since cable fees hit all consumers, no matter what side of the aisle they sit on, we’re hopeful that this simple, straightforward, and effective legislation will get high ratings with members of Congress.

Marta Tellado is president and CEO of Consumer Reports.