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Suddenly Caps? Suddenlink Introduces Usage Measuring Tool to “Help Customers”

Phillip Dampier July 23, 2009 Internet Overcharging, Public Policy & Gov't, Suddenlink 6 Comments

greedy business man.

Suddenlink Usage FAQ:

On June 1, 2009, we notified residential Internet customers in our Clovis, New Mexico cable system of a new online tool to help them monitor their Internet usage each month and determine if they are in the typical usage range.

If they are well above the typical range, it could mean several things. For instance: a virus or “spyware” application might have infected a customer’s computer and started generating high levels of Internet traffic, or someone else might be using a customer’s Internet connection without his or her knowledge. To help guard against those issues, we are offering customers a list of steps they can consider, to help make sure their computers and Internet accounts are protected and secure.

We introduced this Internet usage summary tool in Clovis, to evaluate its usefulness, after which we will consider expanding it to all of Suddenlink’s residential Internet customers.

Longtime Stop the Cap! readers will recognize this trick only too well.  When a small cable operator spends its time, talent, and resources on “measuring tools” to help customers “determine if they are in the typical usage range,” it’s only a matter of time before that ‘experiment’ will turn into typical Internet Overcharging activity — usage caps, consumption-based pricing, overlimit fees and penalties, or service termination for those outside of that “typical usage range.”

Suddenlink, one of the nation’s smaller multiple cable system owners serving 1.3 million customers in mostly rural areas, is among the worst-rated providers in the country, based on actual customer reviews.  Its journey towards Internet Overcharging schemes will do its ratings no favor when customers find out.

Suddenlink’s approach is less brazen than earlier Internet Overcharging attempts consumers have fought back.  The company attempts to leverage the usual talking points about Internet activity into a justification for measurement tools, and cleverly tries to suggest the impetus for doing so is to protect customers who might have been hacked or have family members engaged in online activities unknown to others in the home.  But the road that measurement tools provided by a cable company pave today lead to limits and higher pricing tomorrow.

Suddenlink’s contribution to the “education campaign” consumers are being subjected to before the pickpocketing begins does bring some useful information to the table, however.  This small, mostly rural provider, turns in stunning statistics about average customer consumption:

Suddenlink Average User Consumption Statistics - Clovis, New Mexico (as on Suddenlink website 7/23/2009)

Suddenlink 'Typical Usage' Statistics - Clovis, New Mexico (Suddenlink website 7/23/2009)

Those numbers represent one of three things:

  1. Suddenlink is the first provider in a long list of providers producing honest statistics about broadband usage, not the low-ball estimates others have provided to make consumers feel guilty for exceeding them;
  2. Suddenlink’s statistics are wrong;
  3. People in Clovis download A LOT.

Just about every other major provider, and many small ones, have spent the past year telling the media and the public “the average user” consumes far less than what Suddenlink reports for Clovis, New Mexico:

  • Frontier Communications: “Today, the average residential customer on Frontier’s network uses 1.5 gigabytes of bandwidth each month.” — Ann Burr 10/10/2008
  • Time Warner Cable: “Our usage data show that about 30% of our customers use less than 1 GB per month.” — Landel Hobbs, COO 4/9/2009
  • Time Warner Cable Austin: ‘Users download between 5-6GB per month on average.’ — Scott Young, senior director of digital systems  10/2008
  • Comcast: “The average customer uses two to three gigabytes a month.” Jennifer Khoury, Comcast spokeswoman 10/29/2008
  • Sunflower Broadband: “Our average users, about 77%, use 6 gigabytes or less of bandwidth per month. Our high-end subscribers, about 2%, use 50 gigs or more.” Sunflower Broadband Website 7/23/2009
  • Bell (Canada): “Usage has increased… to more than 10GB (per average user) in 2008.” Bell Internet Usage Tutorial 7/23/2009

For the benefit of Suddenlink subscribers joining Stop the Cap! for the first time, here’s a road map for where things have traditionally gone among every other Internet provider that has introduced “measurement tools” for “your benefit” that were not beaten back by angry subscribers:

1) Establish the foundation for Internet Overcharging.

The national talking points we’ve encountered over the past year or so traditionally attempt to compare broadband service with regulated utilities such as gas, electric, or water service.  If a provider uses this analogy, and conveniently excludes comparing themselves with their closest cousin — telephone companies, you have a disingenuous provider trying to find a way to empty your wallet with an Internet Overcharging scheme.  Let’s see what Suddenlink does:

What is “Internet usage”?

Much like electric usage is measured in kilowatts, and water usage is measured in gallons, Internet usage is measured in gigabytes (GB).

Bingo.  Not a word about the phone company?  That’s because you’d ask them why they want to eliminate or limit flat rate Internet service when your telephone service is going flat rate for local and long distance and promotes “unlimited calling” for many packages, even mobile phone service.

Place your hand on your wallet at this time to make sure you still have it.

2) Establish a ‘pulled from the air’ number of gigabytes (which often conveniently later becomes your usage allowance) and then tell subscribers what they can do with that.

This technique has been used by every Internet Overcharger to help define in ridiculous terms just how much you can do with that usage allowance.  It is always framed in the context of individual applications, never a combination of them that reflects actual customer usage.  Most de-emphasize or ignore high bandwidth video applications, and stick to video clip websites.  Let’s see what Suddenlink has to say:

For reference, if someone used 25 GB, she’d be able to send or receive more than 1.5 million emails, or download more than 6,500 songs, or watch more than 150 hours of YouTube videos.

Uh oh.

Of course, no customer spends their time just sending e-mail -or- downloading 6,500 songs, -or- watching 150 hours of YouTube videos like Sam Trashes His Bike v2.0.  They are likely to do a combination of all of those things, and more (online backup, online games, downloading files, software updates, working from home, etc.)

While YouTube continues to be popular, most people given the choice of watching a seven minute clip of Sam hammering his bike and throwing it into a lake or HD video streaming of  their favorite drama or movie are not going to be hanging around Sam for long.  Sam’s seven minute anger management problem might consume 11 megabytes.  An HD movie streamed online can easily consume several gigabytes.

Suddenlink avoids mentioning how quickly customers will hit the 25GB mark watching a season of, for example, 24 on their broadband service.  That’s because their customers will have the anger management problem when they find out the answer — they’ll run out of a theoretical allowance before Jack Bauer runs out of time.

3) Tell customers such tools are actually for their benefit.

Suddenlink has chosen the light touch on their reasons for spending time and money to create usage monitoring tools.  Most providers try for an “us vs. them” propaganda campaign, suggesting some slob next door is sitting all day on their connection and downloading movies and stealing software while you are, in effect, paying for his over usage and watching your own speed slow down.  It’s the equivalent of the “welfare queen” argument — someone getting something for nothing while you subsidize it.  It’s also fiction.  Suddenlink hasn’t pulled out the “kid up the street” card so far.  Instead, it paints the usage monitoring tool as benign and beneficial to subscribers by helping them supposedly identify malware and alerting parents that their kids have docked at Pirate Bay running torrents all day and night.  Among the factors they explore:

  • Viruses and spyware applications can, without your knowledge, generate excessive Internet traffic. Install and regularly update your computer’s security software to minimize the risk of your Internet connection being used by an outside party for unauthorized purposes.
  • Install software to limit or eliminate the volume of spam you receive.
  • Check with other members of your household regarding their Internet activities. For instance, someone in your home might leave a streaming music player running while they’re away doing other things. During that time, your account is using bandwidth without anyone benefiting from it.
  • Some popular, peer-to-peer file-sharing programs (e.g., Bit Torrent, Shareaza, etc.) will upload shared files, by default, to others as fast as your connection allows. This activity is often invisible to you, but it can result in significant usage. Check your file-sharing program preferences to make sure the upstream Internet is limited accordingly.

  • Of course, the average customer who has a computer loaded down with malware, spam, and viruses is almost certainly the least knowledgeable broadband user around.  Presuming they will have the foresight to check, and more importantly, understand the implications of their usage, is ludicrous.  It’s like running tutorials for connecting digital television converter boxes up for the benefit of those people that only realized America turned off analog television after their sets went all-snow on every channel.  “Why didn’t someone tell me this was happening?”

    Suddenlink hints at the fact premium users with faster speeds are likely to consume more of their bandwidth, which is a clue as to who such monitoring tools are truly targeted to: loyal subscribers who pay more for premium speed tiers and use them:

    People who order packages with faster speeds tend to do more on the Internet than those who order packages with slower speeds. That’s why the typical ranges vary by type of package.

    When the Internet Overcharging scheme turns up, you can be sure it will have usage limits that vary by type of package as well.

    4) Tell customers it’s a “test”, “experiment”, or “study” and not what it truly is, the basic foundation to bring the inevitable Internet Overcharging scheme to your bill when the “experiment” ends.

    In most cases, United States providers introducing Overcharging schemes like to dip a toe in the water first to see if their customers bite it off with shark-like anger or simply shrug their shoulders and only get upset after the first bill with overlimit penalties and fees turns up.  By then, it’s typically too late to get rid of the scheme without massive customer defections.

    Universal Tips for Rational Living With Your Cable Company

    • Cable bills never decrease, they only increase (unless you drop or cancel services).
    • No cable company with a plan to save you more actually saves you anything — they just raise your rates down the road.
    • Their “facts”, in the absence of raw data independently reviewed, usually represents marketing propaganda, not actual reality.
    • Selling out your neighbor by buying into “us vs. them” arguments will result in a higher bill for you anyway, because moderate users represent where all the real money is.
    • Broadband costs, and the networks to deploy service, are decreasing in price, not increasing.
    • Broadband is rapidly becoming the most profitable component of cable packages at existing, flat-rate pricing.
    • Many providers are increasing rates and trying to implement overcharging schemes while also decreasing investment in their networks.

    What does Suddenlink have to say?

    Does Suddenlink plan to set a maximum usage allowance for its Internet customers, like other companies are doing? Do you plan to charge extra if a customer’s usage is too high?

    Those steps are not part of our current plan. Our only goal at this time is to help the few customers whose usage is well above (two to three times higher than) the typical range to identify the reasons for that high usage and take steps to protect and secure their computers and accounts.

    Note the word “current” and then ponder when they’ll be identifying you for a higher bill and usage allowance.

    As I told a Suddenlink employee last evening:

    “Honestly, we have never felt there was anything wrong with contacting customers who rack up an enormous amount of usage, because customers can become unknowing spam merchants or one of the kids is running peer to peer software 24/7 leaving the rest of the household wondering why their connection is so slow.

    But unless Suddenlink is prepared to be happy with the potential answer that their customers are simply using their broadband connection to take advantage of the variety of high bandwidth services that justify a subscription to “High Speed Online” service, and will guarantee customers that no usage caps or tiered pricing based on consumption is forthcoming, Suddenlink will take a place on our “bad actors” list of providers who are laying the foundation to eventually overcharge their customers for broadband service.”

    What Can I Do As a Suddenlink Subscriber to Stop This?

    Our long experience in fighting Internet Overcharging schemes suggests that customers need to get on the phones and make it clear that either the usage monitoring tool goes, or you do.  The word “cancel” is one every provider understands clearly and succinctly.  Sending in comments, engaging in debates on their terms about what is “justified” usage, and signing online petitions is a waste of time.  Calling the company and telling them you will take your business elsewhere unless such tools, experiments, and tests are permanently shelved will do the trick if enough customers get involved and actively make that call.  They need to make a public, written commitment that any such usage monitoring tools will not be followed by any company-imposed usage limit, consumption-based tier pricing, overlimit fees and penalties, or account terminations for those who exceed arbitrary limits.

    Then call your member of the House of Representatives and tell to co-sponsor HR2902 – the Broadband Internet Fairness Act, introduced by Rep. Eric Massa.  It requires justification beyond just the “word” of a provider for implementing such schemes.

    Call your two senators and tell them you are outraged by broadband providers setting the stage to limit and/or overcharge you for your Internet service.

    Contact the local media in your area and tell them you are upset about the direction Suddenlink seems to be heading, and point them to us if they would like additional input.  We have an extensive video and audio library here documenting previous battles on this issue.  If you and your friends can stage a protest in front of the local provider’s office, television news will almost always follow, bringing more attention to this important issue.

    It is critically important to push back today when such schemes are in the experimental stage, because it’s much easier for corporate officers to shelve them before they become fully invested in them, and before shareholders find out, requiring a more substantial damage control effort.

    Ultimately, it is up to individual Suddenlink customers to make the difference.  You represent revenue to them — lost revenue if you take your business elsewhere.  Let them know you’re willing to head for the exit today.

    Currently there are 6 comments on this Article:

    1. BrionS says:

      It’s curious to me how the faster the speed, the lower the average usage is as a function of speed / data ratio.

      Speed: 1Mbps
      Data: 21 GB
      Ratio: 21 GB / Mbps / month

      Speed: 8Mbps
      Data: 34 GB
      Ratio: 4.25 GB / Mbps / month

      Speed: 10Mbps
      Data: 66 GB
      Ratio: 6.6 GB / Mbps / month

      Between the three tiers you see:

      8Mbps -> 10Mbps is a 64% higher usage ratio
      1Mbps -> 10Mbps is a 318% lower usage ratio
      1Mbps -> 8Mbps is a whopping 494% lower usage ratio

      but in terms of speed : usage ratio, the best deal is clearly the 1Mbps service since your usage rate per Mbps is 21 GB.

      Must be that faster Internet is much less interesting and so usage doesn’t scale linearly.

      I personally think that there is a more or less asymptotic curve when it comes to data usage. The asymptote moves over time (upward) but with the exception of extreme outliers, most people do fall into a non-linear curve in terms of amount of data they use (on a speed / data usage plot).

      Linear increases in speed don’t appear to translate into linear data usage increase (from my own empirical data and from this Clovis data). When I changed from RR Turbo to regular (to save money and make a political point to the business about data caps) I didn’t see my data usage drop at all. My monthly usage is fairly consistent with regard to amount of data, but the time spent online actively transferring data is increased (because it takes longer).

      If cable’s big problem is time spent online actively transferring data (i.e. using bandwidth) then it would be in their best interest to increase speeds for everyone which lets them get on and offline again faster than with slower connections, though their overall data usage will remain fairly constant.

      Just my own observation and indeed it appears to be borne out by the Clovis data.

      *Note* To be clear: data caps are not a solution and should not be tolerated. My point is that data caps are ineffective since people essentially cap themselves through their own usage habits. It’s the speed that matters and increasing everyone’s speed will keep people online for shorter periods of time freeing up bandwidth more frequently for others to use. Slow connections encourage (indeed require) users to stay connected longer to get the same amount of data thus tying up that bandwidth while they download/upload.

      • Robert C says:

        Brion,

        You understand, finally someone who understands.

        Unless you are running a bootleg shop selling DVD’s or BluRay Disc at a Flea Market there is no reason to be hogging bandwidth 24/7. I myself download large files but I don’t have the resources (hard drive space) to store all that data. I myself have over a terabyte of storage and cannot download constantly on my connection due to my personal CAP of hard drive space. When I do use my 10Mbps connection I download what I need quickly thus freeing up the bandwidth in less time than if I were to have a 1Mbps connection. I could opt for the 8Mbps or 1Mbps connection and save myself some money but I’m happier getting what I need faster.

        • preventCAPS says:

          Not every bit transmitted through the internet pipe is stored on a hard drive so saying that you hard drive is X in size and you will never download more than that is not fully rational. Instances of bandwidth that is not necessarily dumped to the hard drive include:

          Streaming Media
          Web Browsing
          Social Networking
          Multi Player/Web Games
          Instant Messaging
          Email Communications

          However, I agree that usage habbits lend themselves to artificial caps which is one of the reasons that allowed ISPs to move to an unlimited model.

    2. Andy says:

      why isnot 21GB usage fair for a 1Mbit connection? If I take 1million bits per second time #seconds in a day and multiply by 30 days and divide by 8 to get bytes, I get 324GB per month? If my math is correct their 21GB is only 15% of the capacity of the service I bought. Paying for 1Mbit and only getting use for 15% puts the reason customers should revolt in simpler, more personal awareness of the trick that is being played on them.

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