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Suddenlink: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Digital Conversion, Usage Meters, & More

Suddenlink, one of America’s smaller cable operators, has been undergoing a transformation as it tries to meet expectations of today’s cable subscribers and match whatever phone company competition comes their way.  While some of the upgrades are customer-friendly, others pose ominous signs for the future — particularly with respect to Internet Overcharging broadband customers.

Let’s explore:

The Good — New Broadband Speeds, New DVR, New Investments

Suddenlink cuts the ribbon on its new store in El Dorado. (Courtesy: Suddenlink FYI)

In parts of Suddenlink’s service area, particularly in Texas, the company is moving most of its cable service to a digital platform.  This transition is designed to open up additional space for more HD channels, keep up with broadband demands, and open the door for additional on-demand programming.

In Nacogdoches, Suddenlink announced it was adopting an all-digital TV lineup.  Starting this week, the company is offering subscribers free digital adapters — also known as “DigitaLinks,” to enable continued viewing on analog television sets that do not have a set top box or digital tuning capability.  Every subscriber purchasing more than the broadcast basic package (that only includes local stations and a handful of cable networks) will either need a digital tuner-ready television, a set top box, or a DigitaLink device to continue watching.

What is good about this transition is that Suddenlink is not charging customers a monthly fee for the adapters, either now or in the future.  That contrasts with other cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable that have handed customers a set top box or a digital adapter they will begin charging for after a year or two.

Suddenlink expects to invest nearly $120 million this year in Texas, and by the end of the year will have invested nearly a half-billion dollars in the state since 2006.

Texas is extremely important to Suddenlink.  The third largest cable company in Texas serves about 450,000 households and approximately 27,000 business customers in Amarillo, Lubbock, Abilene, Bryan-College Station, Midland, San Angelo, Georgetown, Tyler, Victoria, Conroe, Kingwood and Nacogdoches.

Suddenlink's New TiVo DVR

The company has also lit new fiber connections to handle data communications, primarily for business customers, and is upgrading its broadband service to fully support DOCSIS 3, which will deliver faster speeds and less congested service.

Customers in the state are also among the first to get access to a new and improved DVR box built on a TiVo software platform.  Suddenlink’s “Premiere DVR” service ($17/mo) is now available in Midland, Floydada, Plainview, Amarillo, Canyon, and Tulia.

The Bad — “Suddenlink Residential Internet Service is for Entertainment” Purposes Only

The Humboldt County, Calif. Journal's "Seven-o-heaven" comic strip commented on Suddenlink's problems. (Click the image to see the entire strip.)

Do you take your broadband service seriously, or is it simply another entertainment option in your home?  If you answered the latter, this story may not be so surprising.

In Humboldt County, Calif., broadband users started noticing their favorite web pages stopped updating on a regular basis.  At one point, a blogger in McKinleyville noticed he couldn’t manage to post comments on his own website.  But things got much worse when several web pages started reaching customers with other users’ names (and occasionally e-mail addresses) already filled in on login screens and comment forms.

It seems Suddenlink started to cache web content in the far northern coastal county of California, meaning the first customer to visit a particular website triggered Suddenlink’s local servers to store a copy of the page, so that future customers headed to the same website received the locally-stored copy, not the actual live page.

But the caching software went haywire.

Web visitors began to receive mobile versions of web sites even though they were using home computers at the time.  Some were asked if they wanted to download a copy of a web page instead of viewing it.  And many others discovered websites were customized for earlier visitors.

While the caching problem was irritating, the privacy breaches Suddenlink enabled were disturbing, as was the initial total lack of response from Suddenlink officials when the problem first started in late January.

The Journal finally reached a representative who provided this explanation:

Suddenlink Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications Pete Abel knew that a cache system had recently been installed in Humboldt County, but was unaware of the particular problems reported by users. After speaking with the Journal and other Suddenlink employees, though, he released a statement explaining what appeared to have happened.

According to the release, the cache system was installed in Humboldt County on Thursday, Jan. 27 — the very day that users began experiencing problems — and was intended as an interim solution to relatively low Internet speeds in Humboldt County. The system, it said, was able to cache only unsecure websites — those which, unlike almost all reputable banking or commerce systems — do not encrypt communications. But the company eventually discovered the problems that its customers had been reporting and, having fruitlessly worked with its vendor to find a solution, turned the system off on Monday.

“The good news is that secure Web site pages will not have been cached,” Abel said in a follow-up call to the Journal. “And I have been assured 100 ways from Sunday that never would have happened.”

Andrew Jones, who runs a blog with his Suddenlink broadband account, tried to opt out of the web caching and received an interesting response, in writing, from a Suddenlink representative.  He was told he could not opt out of cached web pages with a residential account because, “the residential service is for entertainment only.

Jones was told he would have to upgrade to a business account to escape the cache.

“If a small local radio station intermittently went off air for multiple days, the radio host would be apologizing and explaining the situation,” Jones wrote the Journal. “If a large utility company experienced sporadic power outages, people could hear a recording on a toll-free number to learn the cause and about ongoing repairs. What does an Internet provider do when web access becomes spotty and begins serving customers old copies of web pages? The company gets back to you in a couple days and suggests you pay more if you don’t like its recently degraded services.”

The Ugly — Suddenlink’s New Usage Meter Suggests 43GB is An Appropriate Amount of Usage for Standard Internet, 87GB is Plenty for Their $60 Premium Package

Although Suddenlink has not formally adopted an Internet Overcharging scheme of usage caps or metered billing, the company is sending automated e-mail messages to customers who exceed what they call “typical monthly usage for customers in your package.”  The e-mail tells customers they may be infected with a virus or someone else could be using your connection without your permission.  Boo!  For the uninitiated, this kind of message can bring fear that their computer has been invaded, either with malicious malware or the neighbor next door.

Customers have also received letters in the mail from the company telling them to check out their new “usage meter.”  Several have been sharing how much they’ve racked up in usage during the month on Broadband Reports.  One customer managed 243GB while another looking at the company’s super premium 107/5Mbps package managed a whopping 786GB.

Although the wording of the message has strenuously avoided telling customers they are wrong for this amount of usage, the implication is clear to many: they are counting your gigabytes and identifying the outliers.  One customer called it Suddenlink’s “You’re actually using your connection, and we really wish you wouldn’t”-message.

“No one with an ounce of sense would pay for a 20/3Mbps connection and only use 78 GB in a month. Let’s hope they’re just making cute suggestions, not easing us into a cap, because that just won’t fly,” wrote one West Virginia customer.

Another in Georgetown, Texas did the math and made it clear 43GB better not turn out to be a cap because it means customers can barely use the service they are paying for.

“It’s way too low. I got 10Mbps [service] because of price/value and not because I use less than 43GB,” he writes. “[Even] if I downloaded at 1.25MB/s for 30 days straight (1.25 * 2592000 seconds) I could [still] grab 3.164TB.”

Clyde (Courtesy: KUSH Radio/Donna Judd)

Meanwhile, some controversy over the quality of Suddenlink’s service during the upgrade process had some residents in Cushing, Okla., up in arms at a recent city meeting.  Lorene Clyde complained Suddenlink’s “new and improved” service is worse than ever.

“I’m tired of paying for a service I’m not getting,” Clyde said.  “And the Suddenlink commercials – they are like rubbing salt in a wound.”

KUSH-AM reporters were on hand to cover the event, noting Clyde was not the only one complaining.  The radio station noted that “the buzz around town echoes her sentiments – from the ‘mildly irritated’ to the ‘downright mad’ – citizens have been complaining.  Not only have they been complaining to Suddenlink – as difficult as that may be (the call center is in Tyler, Texas) – but to city leaders.”

What Clyde and others may not have realized is that Suddenlink officials were in attendance and were able to apologize for the problems, but a growing consensus among consumers and city leaders is that a broad-based refund for the poor service was warranted.

Commissioner Joe Manning said while he appreciated the promise to figure out the problem, it wasn’t good enough to just apologize and promise – that subscribers’ bills should be adjusted to reflect the poor service.

Commissioners Carey Seigle and Tommy Johnson agreed with Manning.  Seigle pointed out it would be “good P.R.” to give some sort of rebate across the board to subscribers while Johnson complained that the original “upgrade” was only going to take a few weeks and now 8 months later – things are not better, but worse, noted the radio station.

Suddenlink officials on hand said they did not have that kind of authority, but continued to promise things are going to get better.  “I pledge to you,” one said, “We will find it [the problem] and fix it.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KJTV Lubbock Borrowing Wi-Fi 2-7-11.flv

KJTV-TV in Lubbock, Texas talked with Suddenlink about the growing trend of neighbors “borrowing” neighbors’ unsecured Wi-Fi networks.  Other than the accidental recommendation that consumers should “invest in Internet spyware” to keep your computer safe, the report does a fair job of shining a light on a practice that could have financial consequences if the provider implements an Internet Overcharging scheme.  (2 minutes)

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Currently there are 6 comments on this Article:

  1. me says:

    Sounds like someone didnt read up on how to configure their data cache. Or perhaps read up on it too much.

    Typically websites are free to deliver whatever they like and put whatever time to live on it. Most ‘mark’ their variable content with a ? in the url. Other sites also can change content depending on your location. For example Google will change depending on which region of the world you are in. Some sites will remember where you came from (by IP) and then just load your content again.

    On a local level I can do things like set TTL to be at least a day and selectively ignore ‘dont cache’ dynamic content. Do that at an ISP level you do that and people will get weird results. It works ok for me as I might only goto a site once or twice in a day. I also understand i will get weird results sometimes. Do this transparently though and you will tick people off. As they just see weird things and other peoples information. You see other peoples information you think ‘could others be seeing my information’?

    Now even *if* I cache everything I still end up with about a 50-70% hit rate. Turn on the filters so the dynamic content doesnt get cached and suddenly you are in the 5-35% hit rate levels.

    Caching can be good. However you need to know what you are getting into.

    They should do a kill board of ‘top sites’ people goto and try to properly cache those sites. Bet its youtube, hulu, and netflix. And youtube does not make it easy to cache due to the way they load balance things.

    • beverly says:

      I live in Onalaska ,Tx and Suddenlink has been my provider since Feb 2010. I use my service at night and have found that at least one to two times a week they do some kind of maintenance. Tonight it lasted 5 hours. I am currently looking for another provider.

  2. Jason says:

    I have the “fast” residential suddenlink internet service here in Humboldt County. Yesterday it took me 12 minutes to receive an email sent from Florida to my “gmail.com” address, the same email got to my “me.com” address in 10 seconds. This smells rotten. EVERY single day (and even more often at night) my internet connection will randomly drop and reset for 20 minutes at a time. Also, with accelerated broadband one would think I could watch Hulu or Netflix with ease right? Ha! Even when the videos play continuously they repeatedly change quality due to bandwidth fluctuations. These turkeys have their thumbs on the hose for those sites too. We are truly hostage. Nowhere in the relentless suddenlink media blitz have I ever heard them alert potential customers that they will reserve the right to give you downgraded service for whatever reason and without explanation (or acknowledgment) while continuing to charge you more money than it would be worth if it actually worked as advertised,

    Don’t worry, I already canceled their garbage cable service after my show was interrupted more than once by a blank screen. And I’m talking Sunday Night, Family Guy, 9:07pm, and all of a sudden, just, blank, nothin’. Flip to the channel guide and we are…updating?…changing the date?? speaking turkish? Do what?? Isn’t knowing what show should go where one of the most basic things a television content provider should be able to do? Ha! Not when you’re the only game in town, sucker. But the best part was the super loud commercials. They can’t even synch the them, so every other break includes a few seconds of a national advertisement or the end of another infuriating and occasionally bizarre suddenlink commercial.

    FAIL.

    • Crystal says:

      Perhaps you have computer issues, and in case you didn’t know Suddenlink nor any other cable company controls channel volume so complain to the the networks who supply them.

  3. John Hill says:

    This cap is clearly and simply Suddenlinks’ way of getting around the new Internet law.

    They despise the fact people can pay $20 a month for on demand and unlimited TV through Netflix and/or Hulu. While they charge $100 a month for cable channels with nothing on to watch.

    Plain and simple, Suddenlink is punishing those consumers who use their competetors for cable. The cap is just their way of getting back since the new law doesn’t allow them to block or fitler Internet traffic.

    One can’t even work from home or backup their PC with an online backup service without exceeding their vastly limited cap.

    Please join me in filing a compalint to the FCC, the BBB, and your local Congress Representative.

    • Van VanDyke says:

      If you need any help with a complaint from NC I’ll be more than happy to give you all the facts you could possibly use on their rotten service. High Speed (HA!) internet service here is worse than their cable service, if possible. They have no competition, rates increase at least once a year, and whenever you call about a hgih speed internet problem, before the words even come out of your mouth their service techs are telling you it is your computer at fault. Evidently suddenlink never, ever makes mistakes. Some of the morons that they have working as “tech” reps are the absolute worst in the world. Some of them are so ignorant they are actually funny. Not all of them of course. I have spoken to a few in my many calls to them that were actually very knowledgable and very polite and professional in their contacts. But most, they are idiots. And management is even worse, if you can ever get to one of them through their layers of insulation. Management at this place hides out from the public. I know that they have to be ashamed to be associated with this name because of the poor service.
      That’s enough…I get carried away each time I start talking about these people. Why can’t they have some competition in our area. And they really rip us off on cable box rental, especially when it comes to DVR. And they say that we cannot use our own box because its’ not in lines with their “policy”. My God………..What thieves…………







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