Charter Communications Looks Ahead to 2021: A Q&A with EVP & CTO Stephanie Mitchko-Beale
After a year like no other, what’s in store for Charter and its customers in 2021? We checked in with Stephanie Mitchko-Beale, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, who first spoke to us about the company’s network performance last April, for an update on how Charter’s network is performing in the pandemic and what changes are in the works for the new year. Here’s what she had to say:
Charter Saw a Huge Spike in Customer Demand on its Network in 2020 as a Result of the Pandemic. How Did the Company Meet the Demand, and What Changes Were Made in Response?
As the country reacted to COVID-19, millions of our customers immediately began working, studying, virtually socializing with friends and family, and accessing health care from home, which significantly increased demand for bandwidth. We were able to quickly adapt and respond to this massive change, while continuing to deliver high-quality connectivity services. Our sales and care agents continued to provide outstanding customer service, most of our stores were allowed to stay open, and our field operations personnel continued to maintain our network and provide installations and repairs, while reducing in-home visits.
We significantly expanded our self-installation program to the point where more than 80 percent of new customers are taking advantage of self-install, up from approximately 50 percent in the fourth quarter of 2019. Nearly 450,000 students, teachers and their families have been connected through our free internet offer, which was renewed in September and remains available, and we kept approximately 700,000 customers connected when COVID hit their finances. For the 12-month period that ended Sept. 30, 2020, we grew our total internet customers by 2.3 million.
How was this possible? We were ahead of the game because we continued to invest in our network. Over the last five years we invested $40 billion in new technology and network upgrades, which have enabled us to offer gigabit connections across virtually our entire network. So while we saw a huge spike in demand for bandwidth due to COVID-19, we have been able to deliver exactly what our customers need – reliable high-speed broadband enabling their virtual and remote new lives.
In What Ways Do You See Charter’s Network Evolving into 2021 and Beyond?
A number of factors are driving growth in demand for data. This includes the growth of IP video services, such as streaming, video conferencing and gaming. Other factors include the growing number of IP devices connected to our network, as well as new and emerging products and services that are being developed, such as e-learning, telemedicine in 4K, virtual reality or holographic formats. We will continue to invest in our network to deliver more throughput and to offer new and better products and services.
This includes continuously increasing the capacity in our core hubs and augmenting our network to improve speeds for all products and services. We are allocating more network spectrum to DOCSIS 3.1 IP services, and we have the ability to offer symmetrical multi-gigabit speeds. We are also excited about recent actions by the Federal Communications Commission making new spectrum available that will quickly unleash faster, better WiFi for American consumers at a time when they need it most.
We also are investing in wireless technology, including 5G and our in-and-out-of-home WiFi, which will further enhance our products, our infrastructure and the overall customer experience. Our customers are increasingly reliant on seamless connectivity to all their devices no matter where they are, and we will be there for them.
What Can Charter Customers Expect to See for New Products and Services in 2021?
We have nearly 400 million devices connected to our network today – nearly all of which are connected via WiFi – so we take seriously our responsibility to deliver fast, reliable service, while protecting our customers’ privacy.
In fact, customer security is a key part of the strategy around our Advanced In-Home WiFi, which we are in the process of launching throughout our footprint. Advanced WiFi gives Spectrum Internet customers control over their security and privacy by letting them see every device that’s connected to their network and how it’s being used. Throughout the year we plan to make Advanced WiFi available in more markets, and we continue to expand the availability of our own Spectrum-branded WiFi Pods to enable customers to maximize network connectivity throughout their home.
We also are working to ensure Spectrum Mobile continues to provide customers with high-value wireless service with the best products and fastest speeds. We are enhancing the in-home and out-of-home WiFi experience for Spectrum Mobile so that customers who subscribe to our internet and mobile service will be able to access even faster data speeds – up to six times faster than currently available outside the home. We also continue to enhance our high-speed data product. Spectrum Internet offers 1-gigabit speeds virtually everywhere in our footprint, and following our recent doubling of starting speeds in 17 Spectrum markets impacting approximately 8 million homes, 200 Mbps is now the starting Spectrum Internet speed across nearly 75 percent of our 41-state service area.
As for our traditional pay-TV products, we will continue to focus on making it easy for our customers to get the best video available and to access their favorite programming on multiple devices and platforms of their choosing. We want to reach our customers wherever and whenever they want and with choices. Our Spectrum TV app is robust and well-used. We continue to expand the capabilities of the Spectrum TV app and are always looking at ways to make our products more easily accessible.
Finally, as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, access to high-speed broadband is critical for people to participate in the 21st Century economy. Over the last three years, we’ve increased the reach of our network to more than 2.5 million additional homes and businesses, about a third of which were in rural areas. But more needs to be done, and we are committed to expanding our broadband network and all its capabilities and doing our part to help close the digital divide.
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