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VIDEO: How Big Telecom Isolates Rural America

From the producers of Dividing Lines:

Across the country, state legislatures have created barriers to community involvement in expanding internet access.

In Tennessee, lobbyists from AT&T, Charter, and Comcast spread huge campaign contributions around the state legislature. AT&T’s influence is felt in the governor’s own broadband expansion legislation, which was tailor-written to allow the phone company to collect huge taxpayer subsidies to expand inferior DSL into rural parts of Tennessee.

Meanwhile, some local communities seeking to build state-of-the-art fiber to the home networks capable of delivering 10 gigabit service found that doing so would be illegal under state law.

Think about that for a moment.

A multi-billion dollar telecom company is allowed to expand its slow speed DSL network with taxpayer-funded grants while your local community is forbidden to bring fiber optic service to your home even if your community votes to support such a project. Exactly who is the governor and state legislature working for when it comes to resolving Tennessee’s rural broadband nightmare?

In part two of this series, watch State Senator Janice Bowling describe how much influence AT&T has over the Tennessee state legislature. (5:31)

AT&T and Verizon Reneging on Free Phone Deals; Customers Worn Out by Broken Promises

Phillip Dampier November 12, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, Verizon, Video, Wireless Broadband No Comments

Wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon Wireless have reneged on promotions offering customers free phones and “buy one, get one free” deals that leave customers on the hook for hundreds of dollars in equipment charges.

With the holiday shopping season about to begin, phone promotions will be heavily advertised. But those deals may be too good to be true, according to consumer protection groups.

The Better Business Bureau said the problems customers are reporting are serious, and growing. Since the beginning of this year, BBB president (Southern Piedmont) Tom Bartholomy said the group has received almost 6,800 complaints about wireless provider advertising, sales, and promotional practices.

“We’re talking hundreds of complaints about a similar type of situation,” Bartholomy told WSOC-TV. “[It] points to an underlying cause, an underlying concern, with those types of promotions.”

WSOC’s consumer reporter has been inundated with complaints from his North Carolina viewers about broken promises:

Rachel Seighman lives in Monroe. She said, “(I) wanted to try to get a cheaper plan for my family. So, I tried AT&T out.”  She said she got her bill and “it was going to be about $60 higher per month than they said.” So, she called AT&T.  “I was told that the price they quoted me at was not correct,” she said.

Cynthia Emrich lives in Stanfield. She took advantage of an AT&T “buy one, get one free” offer for a Samsung phone. But, she said AT&T charged her for both phones.  “So I call them and they said it would straighten itself out, and it never did,” she told Action 9.  She said she called the company every month for 2 1/2 years. “It was frustrating every month.”

Denise Reid lives in Fort Mill. She said she went with a Verizon “buy one, get one free” deal for an iPhone, but that the company charged her full price.  “They could not give me a reason as to why,” she said.  “No reason as to why.”

Joseph Mayberry lives in Hickory. He told Action 9 a similar story. All four customers said they tried to resolve things on their own but couldn’t. “I would call someone.  I would go through the long story of what happened.  I would get to the supervisor level.  I’ve got emails saying I would be credited back and a phone call would follow.  Never got the phone call,” Mayberry said.

Many customers are tripped up by the fine print in promotional offers that frequently contain complicated conditions and opaque language. Some insist company representatives assured them that the promotion was valid only to find out later they were misled. In fact many promotions contain strict provisions that, if not followed precisely, invalidate the promotion.

Here are some common tricks and fine print traps you may encounter getting your “free” phone:

  1. Many “Buy 1, Get 1” promotions require the customer to activate and maintain a new line of service to qualify for a free phone, which can cost nearly $50 a month for a plan, including additional surcharges and taxes. Customers that fail to follow through on this condition or quickly terminate the extra line after moving the device to a different line on their account were often charged full price for both phones.
  2. Some promotions require customers to sign up for a “device payment agreement” to qualify for the free phone. That is actually a contract to pay off a device with monthly installment payments at 0% interest billed to your mobile account. The free device promotion is often tied to the payment agreement. If a customer buys the first phone and pays for it upfront there is no payment agreement, and no free phone. Some promotions require customers to maintain a device payment agreement for up to 30 months. If a customer violates any terms of the promotion, such as paying the phone off early or selling it, the company might bill you for the “free” phone.
  3. Some companies take months to begin crediting your account for the monthly installments that will appear on your bill. Customers will eventually see a monthly device payment charge and a corresponding credit in the same amount for your “free” phone. But until bill credits start to appear in 60-90 days, you are responsible for the installment charges.
  4. “Free” phone promotions often conflict with other service plans and features. Customers that have signed up to receive a new phone every two years may have to turn in their “free” phone and walk away from several delayed reimbursement credits before getting they can obtain their next new device.

Many customers underestimate the true cost of complying with the terms necessary to get that “free” phone. That realization usually comes too late to return it, leaving customers with several hundred dollars in equipment fees — a costly mistake that could ruin any holiday.

It is important to carefully study the terms and conditions of all wireless device promotions. The written contract is valid, promises from overeager salespeople are not. Be wary when you see “device payment agreement” or “activate and maintain a new line of service,” or “promo credit applied to account over 24 mos w/in 1-2 billing cycles; promo credit ends when balance paid or line terminated/transferred.” If you do, it could mean you will need to set up an installment payment plan for that “free” phone, keep it on your account as a new line of service for at least two years, and avoid paying it off in advance or attempt to move the phone to a different account or provider.

If negotiating with your provider has failed to resolve a conflict over the promotion, taking your case to the media over the terms of a possibly deceptive promotion can be effective in getting what you thought you were promised. When these customers contacted WSOC-TV and the station took the complaints back to AT&T and Verizon, the company quickly gave all four customers their free phones.

“Nobody would listen to me until [WSOC] actually reached out to them. And then within two hours, I got a phone call from AT&T,” Emrich told the station.  “If it wasn’t for Action 9, I would have never got that refund.”

AT&T claimed in a statement it honors all of its deals. Verizon tried to refer complaints about its promotions to the wireless industry lobbying group — CTIA. That group does not understand why Verizon did that and claims it isn’t familiar with cell phone promotions. Neither are most consumers.

WSOC-TV consumer reporter Jason Stoogenke investigates cell phone promotions that sound too good to be true. (3:36)

Verizon pulled out of a promo for a free iPhone for this North Carolina customer. Nobody knows why. (1:16)

Verizon messed up a promotion offering two phones for the price of one and left this customer out in the cold, telling him he needed to pay full price for both phones. (1:14)

VIDEO: Dividing Lines – Dialed Back to Dial-Up in Rural America

From the producers of Dividing Lines:

The online world is no longer a distinct world. It is an extension of our social, economic, and political lives. Internet access, however, is still a luxury good. Millions of Americans have been priced out of, or entirely excluded from, the reach of modern internet networks. Maria Smith, an affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and Harvard Law School, created Dividing Lines to highlight these stark divides, uncover the complex web of political and economic forces behind them, and challenge audiences to imagine a future in which quality internet access is as ubiquitous as electricity.

This is the first part of a series being deployed by organizations and community leaders across the country, from San Francisco to Nashville to Washington, D.C., in an effort to educate stakeholders and catalyze policymaking that elevates the interests of the people over the interests of a handful of corporations.

The fight for rural broadband in Tennessee pits a publicly owned electric utility against Comcast and AT&T and their allies in the state legislature. (5:25)

Say Hello to America’s Least-Taxed Corporation: Charter/Spectrum’s 2017 U.S. Tax Rate Was -883.95%

Phillip Dampier November 8, 2018 Charter Spectrum, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

(Source: Wallethub)

When Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge met with President Donald Trump in early 2017, he probably did not realize just how much the Trump Administration was prepared to reward America’s second largest cable company.

After collecting a $98 million dollar compensation package for himself by successfully pulling off acquisitions of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, Rutledge today presides over America’s least taxed corporation. In fact, the American people owe Charter a significant ‘refund’ after the company achieved a negative overall U.S. tax rate of -883.95%.

WalletHub analyzed annual reports for the S&P 100 — the largest and most established companies on the stock market — in order to determine the federal, state and international tax rates they paid in 2017.

Charter’s tax accountants took full advantage of the Trump Administration’s permanent corporate tax cuts, which lowered corporate tax rates from 35% to 21%. But Republicans who supported the corporate tax cuts left intact most of the generous corporate deductions, offsets, and other credits that ensured few of America’s top corporations ever paid anything close to 35%. As a result, the lowered tax rate combined with what critics call “corporate welfare and giveaways” allow a growing number of companies to not pay a penny in taxes. In fact, many will be in the enviable position of avoiding taxes and still getting an effective ‘refund’ worth billions.

Companies that are required to regularly invest in their businesses and buy equipment, hardware, and other tangibles as part of the cost of doing business are often the most generously rewarded. Tax deductions originally intended to inspire corporate spending during tougher economic times are great news for companies that have significant capital investments. Most of these companies planned on making those investments with or without a tax break, but all are welcome to the idea of using those investments to reduce their effective tax rate to zero. Charter’s acquisitions of Time Warner Cable and Bright House came with the understanding both systems needed substantial upgrades — spending Charter is using to offset taxes not just this year, but several years in the future.

The next least-taxed company was Kraft Heinz, which was taxed at -98.7%. Other big winners are AT&T (-98.36%), Comcast (-55.59%), and Verizon (-51.36%). AT&T and Verizon are frequent winners of an effective tax rate of 0.00% because of the substantial deductions available to both as a result of continually upgrading their highly profitable cellular networks.

Source: WalletHub

Net Neutrality… Violated: Nearly Every U.S. Wireless Operator is Throttling You

Phillip Dampier November 8, 2018 Issues 2 Comments

Nearly every wireless provider in the United States is intentionally slowing down your data service, detrimentally affecting smartphone apps and video streaming.

That is the conclusion of researchers at Northeastern University, University of Massachusetts — Amherst and Stony Brook University, studying the results of more than 100,000 Wehe app users that have run 719,417 tests in 135 countries verifying net neutrality compliance, before and after the open internet rules were repealed in the U.S. earlier this year.

The raw data collected from the app is used as part of a validated, peer-reviewed method of determining which ISPs are throttling their customers’ connections and what services are being targeted.

Nearly Every Mobile Provider Is Throttling Your Speed, Even on “Unlimited” Plans

The researchers concluded that nearly every wireless provider is throttling at least one streaming video service, some reducing speeds the most for customers on budget priced plans while higher value customers are throttled less. No ISP consistently throttled all online video, setting up an unfair playing field for companies that benefit from not being throttled against those that are. Few customers noticed much difference in the performance of streaming video  after the repeal of net neutrality in the U.S., largely because the wireless companies involved — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and others — were already quietly throttling video.

“Our data shows that all of the U.S. Cellular ISPs that throttled after June 11th were already throttling prior to this date,” the researchers wrote. “In short, it appears that U.S. Cellular ISPs were ignoring the [former FCC Chairman Thomas] Wheeler FCC rules pertaining to ‘no throttling’ while those rules were still in effect.”

Summary of Detected Throttling

For each ISP, the researchers included tests only where a user’s set of tests indicated differentiation (speed throttling of specific apps or services) for at least one app and did not detect differentiation for at least one other app. This helps to filter out many false positives. As a result, the number of tests in this table is substantially lower than the total number of tests Wehe users ran. The researchers sorted the Cellular ISPs based on the number of tests from users of each ISP. If they did not detect differentiation, researchers used the entry “Not detected.” The researchers claim that offers enough evidence that throttling is not happening. In some cases researchers do not have enough tests to confirm whether there is throttling, indicated by “No data.” 

The table has two column groups for the results: before the new FCC rules took effect on June 11th, and after. If behavior changed from after June 11th, it is highlighted in bold

SP App Before Jun 11th After Jun 11th
Throttling rate (s) # tests # users* Throttling rate # tests # users*
Verizon (cellular) Youtube 1.9 Mbps
4.0 Mbps
10630 2859 1.9 Mbps
3.9 Mbps
2441 702
Netflix 1.9 Mbps
3.8 Mbps
8540 2609 1.9 Mbps
3.9 Mbps
2395 754
Amazon 1.9 Mbps
3.9 Mbps
5819 1949 1.9 Mbps
3.9 Mbps
1267 440
ATT (cellular) Youtube 1.4 Mbps 9142 2466 1.4 Mbps 1708 571
Netflix 1.4 Mbps 4538 1540 1.5 Mbps 1316 498
NBCSports 1.5 Mbps 3368 1326 1.5 Mbps 589 238
TMobile (cellular) Youtube 1.4 Mbps 3562 962 1.4 Mbps 1185 373
Netflix 1.4 Mbps 1813 637 1.4 Mbps 1074 387
Amazon 1.4 Mbps 1422 477 1.4 Mbps 1422 318
NBCSports 1.4 Mbps 1588 626 1.4 Mbps 579 231
Sprint (cellular) Skype 0.5 Mbps
1.4 Mbps
533 210 1.4 Mbps 132 46
Youtube 2.1 Mbps 224 56 2.0 Mbps 39 12
Netflix 1.9 Mbps
8.8 Mbps
277 100 2.0 Mbps
8.9 Mbps
40 15
Amazon 2.1 Mbps 116 45 2.1 Mbps 24 8
cricket (cellular) Youtube 1.2 Mbps 296 59 1.3 Mbps 58 14
Amazon 1.2 Mbps 79 22 1.2 Mbps 16 4
MetroPCS (cellular) Youtube 1.5 Mbps 302 85 1.5 Mbps 72 20
Amazon 1.4 Mbps 211 74 1.4 Mbps 45 16
Netflix 1.4 Mbps 190 71 1.3 Mbps 60 20
NBCSports 1.5 Mbps 152 67 1.5 Mbps 39 16
BoostMobile (cellular) Youtube 2.0 Mbps 80 12 2.1 Mbps 10 1
Netflix 1.9 Mbps 52 8 2.0 Mbps 14 4
Amazon 2.1 Mbps 55 8 2.1 Mbps 6 1
Skype 0.5 Mbps 32 10 0.5 Mbps 9 4
TFW (cellular) Youtube 1.2 Mbps
3.9 Mbps
39 4 1.3 Mbps 10 2
Amazon 1.3 Mbps 19 2 1.2 Mbps 3 1
Netflix 3.9 Mbps 8 3 Not detected 5 2
ViaSatInc (WiFi) Youtube 0.8 Mbps 35 7 No data No data No data
Netflix 1.0 Mbps 19 5 No data No data No data
Amazon 0.9 Mbps 15 5 No data No data No data
Spotify 1.1 Mbps 16 5 No data No data No data
Vimeo 1.2 Mbps 8 4 No data No data No data
NBCSports 1.2 Mbps 7 3 No data No data No data
HughesNetworkSystems (WiFi) Youtube 0.4 Mbps 24 2 No data No data No data
Netflix 0.7 Mbps 16 2 No data No data No data
CSpire (cellular) Youtube 0.9 Mbps 19 2 No data No data No data
GCI (cellular) Youtube 0.9 Mbps
2.2 Mbps
18 4 2.0 Mbps 4 1
Netflix 2.0 Mbps 13 4 2.1 Mbps 4 1
NBCSports 2.2 Mbps 7 3 1.2 Mbps 5 1
Amazon 2.2 Mbps 4 2 2.0 Mbps 4 1
Vimeo 0.9 Mbps 3 0 2.2 Mbps 4 1
SIMPLEMOBILE (cellular) Youtube 1.4 Mbps 14 5 No data No data No data
Amazon 1.5 Mbps 9 3 No data No data No data
NBCSports 1.4 Mbps 6 2 No data No data No data
Netflix 1.4 Mbps 9 3 No data No data No data
XfinityMobile (cellular) Youtube 3.9 Mbps 8 3 1.9 Mbps 34 7
Netflix 3.9 Mbps 12 4 2.0 Mbps 28 7
Amazon Not detected 61 3 1.9 Mbps 15 7
NextlinkBroadband (WiFi) Youtube 4.5 Mbps 10 3 3.2 Mbps 3 1
Vimeo 5.1 Mbps 6 1 No data No data No data
Amazon 1.2 Mbps
4.1 Mbps
5 1 No data No data No data
Netflix 4.1 Mbps 4 1 Not detected 1 1
FamilyMobile (cellular) Youtube 1.4 Mbps 13 5 Not detected 9 1
Amazon 1.4 Mbps 9 4 No data No data No data
Netflix 1.4 Mbps 8 4 1.3 Mbps 4 2
NBCSports 1.4 Mbps 6 3 No data No data No data
Cellcom (cellular) Youtube 3.9 Mbps 9 4 No data No data No data
Netflix 3.2 Mbps 5 2 No data No data No data
Amazon 3.9 Mbps 7 3 No data No data No data
iWireless (cellular) NBCSports 2.8 Mbps 8 2 No data No data No data
Youtube 2.9 Mbps 6 2 No data No data No data
Amazon 2.8 Mbps 7 2 No data No data No data
Spotify 2.9 Mbps 8 3 No data No data No data
Netflix 2.8 Mbps 6 2 No data No data No data

Sprint’s Skype Throttle

The researchers found that video was not the only service impacted by speed throttles. Sprint (and its subsidiary, prepaid provider Boost), for example, is actively throttling Skype.

“This is interesting because Skype’s telephony service directly competes with the telephony service provided by Sprint,” the researchers wrote. But curiously, the throttle almost entirely impacts Android phone users, while iOS devices have less than a 4% chance of being speed throttled. But isolating the exact trigger for throttling remains elusive, the researchers claim.

“While we have strong evidence of Skype throttling from our users’ tests, we could not reproduce this throttling with a data plan that we purchased from Sprint earlier this year,” the researchers admit. “This is likely because it affects only certain subscription plans, but not the one that we purchased.”

When asked to comment, Sprint said: “Sprint does not single out Skype or any individual content provider in this way.” The test results indicate otherwise, suggest the researchers.

T-Mobile’s “Boosting” Throttle Can Mess Up Streaming Video

Some providers, like T-Mobile, attempt to sell their throttled speeds as pro-consumer. In return for reduced definition video, customers are free to watch more online content over their portable devices without it counting against a data cap. But T-Mobile’s video throttle is unique among providers as it initially allows a short burst of regular speed to buffer the first few seconds of a streamed video before quickly throttling video playback speed. Many video players do not expect to see initial robust speeds quickly and severely throttled. Consumers report video playback is often interrupted, sometimes several times, as the player gradually adapts to the low-speed, throttled connection. Consumers receive lower quality video as a consequence.

T-Mobile Plays Favorites

Through extensive testing, research found throttling begins after a certain number of bytes have been transferred, and it is not based strictly on time; below is a list of the detected byte limits for the “boosted” (i.e., unthrottled video streaming) period.

The impact of T-Mobile’s “boosting” speed throttle. Initial speeds of streaming video reach 25 Mbps before being throttled to a consistent 1.5 Mbps.

App Boosting bytes
Netflix 7 MB
NBCSports 7 MB
Amazon Prime Video 6 MB
YouTube Throttling, but no boosting
Vimeo No throttling or boosting

More concerning to the researchers is their finding that video apps are treated differently by T-Mobile.

“T-Mobile throttles YouTube without giving it a boosting period, while T-Mobile does not throttle Vimeo at all,” the researchers report. “Such behavior highlights the risks of content-based filtering: there is fundamentally no way to treat all video services the same (because not all video services can be identified), and any additional content-specific policies — such as boosting — can lead to unfair advantages for some providers, and poor network performance for others.”

The team of researchers had just one conclusion after reviewing the available data.

“Net neutrality violations are rampant, and have been since we launched Wehe,” the researchers report. “Further, the implementation of such throttling practices creates an unlevel playing field for video streaming providers while also imposing engineering challenges related to efficiently handling a variety of throttling rates and other behavior like boosting. Last, we find that video streaming is not the only type of application affected, as there is evidence of Skype throttling in our data. Taken together, our findings indicate that the openness and fairness properties that led to the Internet’s success are at risk in the U.S.”

The team “strongly encourages” policymakers to rely on fact-based data to make informed decisions about internet regulations, implying that provider-supplied data about net neutrality policies may not reveal the full impact of speed throttles and other traffic favoritism that is common where net neutrality protections do not exist.

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  • Justin Trella: I guess as long as the service is stable you’ll most likely not deflect. I quick call every year or so usually gets your rates back down. If you are l...
  • Justin Trella: I imagine the reason being is it’s a technically no credit check. It’s based solely on the fact you were approved for regular services which are no cr...
  • Ian L: I live in what has to be one of the last MDUs in Austin wired for copper by AT&T rather than fiber. Until June, 50/10 was the highest available sp...
  • Ian L: I wouldn't go so far as to say "no need". FTTH has lower latency and effectively zero jitter, and cable systems today are just now catching up to the ...
  • Lee: One of two possibilities exist. The person you talked to was not correct that would happen, or they are correct and that would happen. It appears they...
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  • dean: obamas rules were never enforced anyway just like illegal immigration laws. it was a fake law...
  • nick: Well, wireless carriers were never included under the net neutrality rules that were rolled back. So net neutrality technically isn't and wasn't ever...
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