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Why Satellite Fraudband Still Sucks: Low Caps, Throttled Speeds, Almost-Useless Service

exedeDespite claims satellite broadband has improved, our readers respectfully disagree:

“Most people don’t know what data caps really are until they’ve had satellite based Internet service where the bandwidth is shared,” Scott S. reminds Stop the Cap! He’s a subscriber of Exede, a satellite broadband provider powered by the ViaSat satellite platform serving about 687,000 residential customers nationwide.

Online life can be a lot worse when you are stuck with satellite-based Internet access:

  • “I am only allowed to have 10GB per month total for everything and have a 12/3Mbps service. Anything over that and they either cap your flow or give you substantially lower bandwidth speed.
  • “You can’t go online with more than three devices (including your phones).
  • “You can forget Netflix or watching any shows online.
  • “You can forget playing ANY video games online.
  • “You can forget taking any college courses online without service interruptions (which I am).”

“And they still charge you as much as other ISPs do (at least $60/month) that provide no data caps and a MUCH faster speed,” Scott writes.

Exede offers most customers plans with 10, 18, or 30GB of usage per month. About one-third of the country, typically the most rural regions in the western U.S., can now choose faster plans at speeds nearing 25Mbps because those spot beams are underutilized. But most subscribers get considerably poorer service because about two-thirds of ViaSat’s residential satellite access beams are full. Despite that, Viasat still managed to find capacity to power in-flight Wi-Fi on JetBlue, Virgin America and some United Airlines aircraft.

Customers who have never had DSL or cable broadband tolerate the slow speeds and low caps better than those that move from an area served by a wired provider. Many of those customers call satellite broadband speed marketing claims “fraudulent” and complain low usage caps make it difficult to impossible to use the Internet to use multimedia content.

 

CWA, New York City to Altice: ‘Thanks, But No Thanks’ on Cablevision Buyout

altice debtThe Communications Workers of America has told the New York Public Service Commission it should reject Altice’s proposal to buy Cablevision for more than $17 billion, claiming it’s a bad deal for customers and employees alike.

Citing Altice’s massive debt and the company’s documented history of cutting expenses and investment, Dennis Trainor, vice president for the CWA-District One, said approving the deal would load Cablevision down in debt, making any significant investments in Cablevision’s future doubtful.

“This is a bad deal for Cablevision customers and employees,” Trainor said. “Altice overpaid for Cablevision, and is financing that overpayment by loading Cablevision with debt. That will inevitably lead to worse service for customers.”

The CWA also heavily criticized Altice and Cablevision for stalling sharing documentation with the labor union as ordered by a New York Administrative Law Judge. It filed initial comments opposing the transaction with the PSC under protest.

Optimum-Branding-Spot-New-Logo“As late as the morning of Feb. 5, [the Joint Applicants] have continued their grudging and incomplete disgorgement of relevant and probative material to which CWA is entitled,” the CWA wrote. “CWA now possesses documents and data which are contradictory and require reconciliation.”

The CWA considers the deal good for Altice and Cablevision’s owners and investors, but a raw one for customers.

“For example, Cablevision’s top five executives will have almost $160 million in ‘golden parachute’ compensation available to them under certain circumstances if the transaction is approved, of which almost $100 million will become automatically triggered and payable upon consummation of the merger,” the CWA stated. “In sum, after the transaction closes, Cablevision will be the same company, with the same plant and equipment, but with substantially more debt and relatively little cash on hand,” the CWA concluded.

The CWA also cited Stop the Cap!’s own reporting of the consequences of increasing debt and reduced investment at SFR, an Altice-owned telecommunications provider in France:

“We refer the Commission to publicly available reports of a collapse of service quality for customers of SFR, one of France’s largest telecom service providers, owned by Altice. This has caused a doubling of complaints from wired customers between 2014 and 2015 and a corresponding increase in complaints about wireless service of 50%. Altice had two responses: First, it blamed the company it purchased SFR from ‘we pay the price of underinvestment from the previous [owner]’. Second, it disputes whether the level of complaint is unacceptable ‘For now, we are not very good, but we are not bad.'”

cwa_logoNew York City’s Office of the Public Advocate is no fan either. In its filing, the OPA also cited Altice’s enormous debt load, which has increased dramatically over the last four years.

“[Altice CEO Patrick] Drahi has already driven away customers and alienated employees in France since his acquisition [of SFR],” writes the OPA. “In SFR’s case, Altice eliminated costs to boost SFR’s profit margins. Among Altice’s practices with SFR were: efforts to stall payments for suppliers, initiating salary and job cuts, and a reduction in spending on meaningful service upgrades.”

The OPA also cites reporting by Stop the Cap! documenting how SFR performed after being acquired by Altice.

Leticia James, Public Advocate for the City of New York

Leticia James, Public Advocate for the City of New York

“We know, for example, SFR was forced to completely stop paying suppliers in order to force a renegotiation for cheaper supplies,” writes the OPA. “The French government appointed a mediator to resolve the issues. Moreover, these business practices failed to effectuate Altice’s goals. Just four months ago, Altice reported ‘worse-than-expected’ third quarter results for SFR that drove the company’s shares down 10 percent. In fact, SFR lost one million customers in just one year. Investors correctly attribute customer losses to Altice’s aggressive cost-trimming. As one expert explains, ‘the savings came first immediately and now the churn (or customer defection) goes up.’ Another analyst describes Altice’s ‘dangerous’ actions as not only cutting out the fat, but also the meat and the bones.”

The PSC staff reviewing the transaction also expressed concern that Altice’s willingness to keep data caps at its other acquisition Suddenlink may result in similar data caps being implemented on Cablevision customers after the merger.

Especially notable to the PSC staff was the fact that under Suddenlink’s 1000/50Mbps data-capped plan, “if the connection is utilized at its rated speeds […] a customer could reach the data cap in less than two hours.”

“If Altice were to import Suddenlink’s pricing into Cablevision service territory and impose data caps on its existing plans, some customers would be forced to upgrade not for the increased speed, but for larger data caps,” the PSC staff wrote. “For example, customers on Cablevision’s low-end 5Mbps plan, if limited to a 250GB monthly cap, would technically be able to hit their cap after just five days of constant use. More practically, they would be limited to approximately 83 hours (a little less than three hours a day) of video streaming, if the connection were not used for anything else.”

“Simply put, the introduction of Suddenlink-type data caps in Cablevision’s New York service territory post-transaction would limit the ability of New York consumers to utilize their broadband connections at their own discretion, as they currently enjoy with Cablevision service today, and would lessen the ability of over-the-top voice and video providers to compete with Cablevision’s bundled services,” the PSC staff concluded. “The imposition of Suddenlink-type data caps would be a significant detriment to New York consumers, and should not be allowed as a condition of the transaction.”

Midco to Trial Gigabit Broadband in Fargo and Sioux Falls in 2016

Phillip Dampier February 9, 2016 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, Midco 1 Comment

midcoSome Midco customers in Fargo, N.D. will be able to buy gigabit broadband from the cable operator in a field trial scheduled to start in March.

Midco (formerly Midcontinent Communications) is moving forward on plans to offer gigabit speeds to all 330,000 of its customers in more than 300 communities in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Wisconsin by the end of 2017. Launching field trials is the first step for the cable operator to get experience delivering 1,000Mbps service using the newest cable broadband standard – DOCSIS 3.1.

“Speed matters to our customers, and we have made it a priority to reshape our network to deliver the fastest, most reliable Internet service possible,” Jon Pederson, chief technology officer of Midco said in a statement. “Cisco shares our vision for a fully scalable, efficient network that will take us into the future and manage the bandwidth demands of our increasingly connected lives.”

“Midco has been full speed ahead with its plans to deliver a DOCSIS 3.1-ready network,” added Kelly Ahuja from Cisco. “Through our collaboration, Midco customers will be among the first in the country to enjoy the fastest Internet connection available, unleashing a host of new experiences that can help make their lives better.”

Although Cisco will power the gigabit platform, the company has yet to announce what DOCSIS 3.1 modem(s) it intends to supply customers.

After Midco gets initial results from its trial in Fargo, it will roll out a pilot program for gigabit service to customers in Sioux Falls, S.D. before the end of this year.

No pricing details have been announced.

Net Neutrality/No Zero Rating Enforced in India: Telecom Regulator Hands Setback to Facebook

TRAI Chairman R.S. Sharma

TRAI Chairman R.S. Sharma

A plan by Facebook to deliver free limited Internet access to India’s poor and rural communities was delivered a blow this morning after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) declared the plan would violate Net Neutrality and banned it.

TRAI’s ruling focused on the fact the proposed plan would only allow customers to access Facebook and other partnered websites the social network elected to let users access over its free service. The regulator declared no service provider in India will be allowed to offer or charge discriminatory rates for data services based on content.

The regulator relied heavily on the ISP License Agreement in its ruling, which requires subscribers to have “unrestricted access to all the content available on Internet except for such content which is restricted by the Licensor/designated authority under Law.” TRAI went further in its Net Neutrality declaration than regulators in the U.S. and parts of Europe, proclaiming price-based differentiation “would make certain content more attractive to consumers resulting in altering online behavior.” Under those terms, India has effectively banned the practice of “zero rating,” which exempts certain so-called “preferred content” from metering charges or counting against a customer’s usage allowance.

free basics“This is a big win for Indian consumers and Net Neutrality,” said Independent MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar. “This is a very powerful and positive first step taken by TRAI. The days of telcos controlling regulations and regulatory policy is over and it is consumers to the fore.”

Facebook’s Internet.org and its companion free mobile web service, now dubbed Free Basics, offers stripped-down web services without airtime or usage charges, targeting basic so-called “feature phones” that were common in the U.S. before smartphones. Facebook has targeted the free service on about three dozen developing countries including the Philippines, Malawi, Bangladesh, Thailand and Mongolia. India would have been Facebook’s largest market for Free Basics, until the telecom regulator effectively banned it.

In India, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s frequent entries into the debate, including a passive-aggressive OpEd widely panned in India, was seen by many as arrogant and counter-productive. Facebook’s ongoing campaign to enlist users’ active support of the project for the benefit of India’s telecom regulator created a row with the Office of the Prime Minister, that dismissed Facebook’s public relations defense of Free Basics “a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll.

A misleading astroturf campaign only infuriated the government more after Facebook users (including some in the U.S.) were greeted with an invitation in their timelines to support “digital equality,” sponsored by Facebook. Regulators were flooded with form letters, only later to be informed many were misled to believe it indicated their support for Net Neutrality.

Facebook users across India (and some in the U.S.) were invited to defend "digital equality," which critics define as "opposing Net Neutrality".

Facebook users across India (and some in the U.S.) were invited by Facebook to defend “digital equality,” which critics define as “opposing Net Neutrality.”

“Facebook went overboard with its propaganda [and] convinced ‘the powers that be’ that it cannot be trusted with mature stewardship of our information society,” said Sunil Abraham, of the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore.

Initially, Internet.org included Facebook and a handpicked assortment of content partners, including the BBC, that were allowed on the free service. Net Neutrality proponents accused Facebook of creating a walled garden for itself and its preferred partners, disadvantaging startups and other companies not allowed on the service.

Unlike in the United States where Net Neutrality was a cause largely fought by netizens, websites, and consumer groups, major media organizations in India helped coordinate the push for Net Neutrality. The Times of India and its language websites like Navbharat Times, Maharashtra Times, Ei Samay and Nav Gujarat Samay appealed to other broadcasters and publishers to remove themselves from Internet.org. NDTV, a major multi-lingual broadcaster running multiple 24-hour news channels, often promoted Net Neutrality on the air and encouraged Indians to support it.

Like in the United States, Indians faced a telecom regulator more accustomed to dealing with government officials and telecom companies. TRAI was quickly swamped with over one million comments in support of Net Neutrality, so many that invitations for future comments were moved to another government website that made it harder for consumers to address regulators. The unexpected level of support for Net Neutrality also led Facebook to change its Internet.org service and relaunch Free Basics as “an open platform.”

But websites included in the service still cannot contain data intensive product experiences, such as streaming video, high-resolution images and GIFs, videos, client or browser side caching or file and audio transfer services.

“Facebook defines the technical guidelines for Free Basics, and reserves the right to change them,” adds the SavetheInternet.in coalition. “They reserve the right to reject applicants, who are forced to comply with Facebook’s terms. In contrast they support ‘permissionless innovation’ in the US.”

In India, the argument has boiled down to whether the country would prefer a usage-limited open Internet platform for the poor or an unlimited experience for a handful of websites. TRAI prefers enforcing rules guaranteeing users can visit any website they want, even if the free service used comes with a usage cap.

It’s a major blow for Facebook and the telecom operators that were some of the service’s biggest defenders.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/NDTV Net Neutrality India 2-8-16.mp4

Net Neutrality is now law in India, where the telecom regulator exceeded the United States by completely banning zero rated services, which allow users to avoid usage charges for certain applications or websites. (2:03)

Activists of Indian Youth Congress and National Students Union of India shout anti-government slogans during a protest in support of net neutrality in New Delhi on April 16, 2015. India's largest e-commerce portal Flipkart on April 14 scrapped plans to offer free access to its app after getting caught up in a growing row over net neutrality, with the criticism of Flipkart feeding into a broader debate on whether Internet service providers should be allowed to favour one online service over another for commercial or other reasons -- a concept known as "net neutrality". AFP PHOTO / MONEY SHARMA (Photo credit should read MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)

Activists of Indian Youth Congress and National Students Union of India shout anti-government slogans during a protest in support of Net Neutrality in New Delhi on April 16, 2015. (Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)

”COAI had approached the regulator with the reasons to allow price differentiation as the move would have taken us closer to connecting the one billion unconnected citizens of India,” said Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI). “By opting to turn away from this opportunity, TRAI has ignored all the benefits of price differentiation that we had submitted as a part of the industry’s response to its consulting paper, including improving economic efficiency, increase in broadband penetration, reduction in customer costs and provision of essential services among other things.”

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said: “Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, non-exclusive and free platform. While disappointed with the outcome, we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the Internet and the opportunities it brings.”

TRAI rejected industry claims that differential pricing will enable operators to bring innovative packages to the market.

India has 300 million mobile users but there are still nearly one billion Indians without Internet access. India is an important market for Facebook, with 130 million active Facebook users — second to only the United States.

Allowing Facebook to gain a foothold in rural India using zero rating was compared with British colonialism by Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the founder of PayTM — an Indian mobile payment system. He called Free Basics a trojan horse — “poor Internet for poor people” and referred to it as the colonial-era East India Company of the 21st century.

“India, Do u buy into this baby Internet?” Mr Sharma tweeted in December. “The East India company came with similar ‘charity’ to Indians a few years back!”

“Given that a majority of the [Indian] population are yet to be connected to the Internet, allowing service providers to define the nature of access would be equivalent of letting [operators] shape the users’ Internet experience,” TRAI said in its release.

Telecom operators should be able to adapt to a market that bans zero rating, analysts believe.

“Telecom service providers may not be happy with this notification,” Amresh Nanden, research director at Gartner, told NDTV News. “However, they still have the ability and freedom to create different kind of Internet access packages; as long as content is not a parameter to provide or bar access to anyone. Such practices have already started elsewhere with products such as bandwidth on demand, bandwidth calendaring etc. to create premium products.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/AIB Save The Internet 1 4-2015.mp4

All India Bakchod produced several humorous mostly English language videos teaching Indians about Net Neutrality and why it’s important. It’s a familiar case for North Americans dealing with our own telecom operators. (9:07)

YouTube Preview Image

An update from All India Backchod last summer alerted India to an astroturf campaign underway at Facebook and telecom operators to mislead Net Neutrality supporters. (8:02)

Stop the Cap! Files for Party Status in California’s Charter-TWC Merger Proceeding

stopthecap-logoStop the Cap! has filed a motion before California’s Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to request party status in the Charter-Time Warner Cable merger proceeding, better positioning ourselves to influence the outcome.

As other consumer groups in California continue to formally oppose the merger, we are also filing to ask regulators to consider our request to impose conditions on the deal should the CPUC decide to approve it anyway. As we promised after the New York Public Service Commission approved the deal with significant conditions, we are once again taking a hard look at Charter’s three-year commitment not to impose data caps or usage pricing — a term we find completely inadequate.

cpucIt remains our belief three years is far too short a commitment, and it is unlikely consumers will find plentiful alternatives for broadband service should Charter impose caps in 2019 anymore than they can today. As a reminder to consumers and regulators, deal conditions imposed by regulators on the 2011 merger of Comcast and NBC-Universal have already begun to expire, with relatively little change in competition in the marketplace.

Our late filing for party status comes partly in response to inadequate public notice from Charter Communications and new information and suggestions that came as a result of the New York State PSC proceeding that would be directly informative and beneficial for California residents.

In states where public utility regulators have approved the transaction with ‘most-favored state’ provisions, any benefits we can win for consumers in California will also apply in New York and other states as well.

As always, we are extremely grateful to our newest member of the Stop the Cap! team, Matthew Friedman, who has dramatically strengthened our ability to monitor the marketplace on the west coast to broaden our consumer protection efforts.

We remain an all-volunteer organization, so if you’d like to join our team, use the Contact Us button at the top of the page and send a message. We’d love to have more volunteers helping identify and write about pressing broadband issues throughout the U.S. and Canada, and we’re happy to help with the editing.

The full text of our motion appears below:

BEFORE THE PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA
MOTION OF STOP THE CAP! FOR PARTY STATUS

I. Introduction
Pursuant to Rule 1.4 of the California Public Utilities Commission’s (“CPUC” or the “Commission”) Rules of Practice and Procedure, Stop the Cap! respectfully requests to be granted party status in the above captioned proceeding.

II. Background and Interest in this Proceeding
Stop the Cap! is a consumer group founded in 2008 to fight against the introduction of artificial limits on broadband usage (such as data caps, usage based pricing, and speed throttling) and to promote better broadband speeds and service for consumers. Our group does not accept funding from lobbyists, companies, or any individual affiliated with the telecommunications industry. We return all corporate donations.

Stop the Cap! understands that this is a relatively late file for party status. While Stop the Cap! is generally opposed to this transaction, we feel that the Intervenors are strongly making the case that the Commission should deny the application, and we would refrain from contributing in that regard. However, should the Commission approve this transaction, Stop the Cap! has a deep and detailed knowledge of data caps and usage based pricing (DC/UBP) from our past 8 years of work on this very specific issue. This information and experience would definitely aid the Commission’s process of tailoring effective mitigation conditions, and our input would be complementary to the existing Intervenors’. Based on our direct experience at the recent Los Angeles PPH, we now understand that an issue as complicated as DC/UBP can’t be effectively dealt with by us as an informal commenter. We have no lawyers guiding us through this process —we are merely a group of individual consumers who have banded together to address a common concern. We therefore respectfully request that the Commission forgive our late filing, and note that we would still be able to take part in full in the discussion of relevant conditions, should this transaction reach that stage.

As a party, Stop the Cap! would aim to protect and promote the public interest of our members and other Californians on the issue of DC/UBP. We have attached the discussion we submitted at the Los Angeles PPH to this filing. It details how the issue of DC/UBP affects numerous other concerns in this proceeding, and presents significant and numerous harms to consumers, especially to low income ones. The submission lays out how DC/UBP can increase prices, foster anti-competitive behavior, circumvent net neutrality, hinder innovation and investment, slow broadband deployment, threaten network security, remove educational opportunities, and can even completely erase any “lifeline” broadband condition this Commission may design. The document also explains why the CPUC’s approval of this transaction would make DC/UBP much more likely to be imposed on existing Time Warner Cable subscribers. It details TWC’s repeated and public pledge to “NEVER” impose DC/UBP on its customers. It discusses why the Commission should be particularly suspect of New Charter when it comes to DC/UBP. Finally, it shows that Charter’s opening testimony actually supports a mitigation condition that sunsets based on a competition test, as opposed to an arbitrarily short three years. This is the kind of information we can present to aid in the Commission’s decision making process.

III. Notice
Service of notices, orders, and other correspondence in this proceeding should be directed to Stop the Cap! [extraneous information deleted]

IV. Conclusion
Stop the Cap!’s participation in this proceeding will not prejudice any party and will not delay the schedule or broaden the scope of the issues in the proceeding. For the reasons stated above, Stop the Cap! respectfully requests that the CPUC grant this motion for party status filing.

Dated: February 2, 2016
Respectfully submitted,

/s/ Matthew Friedman
Matthew Friedman
Stop the Cap!

FCC Chairman Tells Crowd He’s “Not Done Enough” to Bring More Cable Competition

Phillip Dampier February 3, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments
Wheeler

Wheeler

FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler confessed he “has not done enough” to bring consumers more competition to Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter, and other cable operators.

Appearing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Wheeler said Comcast’s effort to buy Time Warner Cable in 2015 would not bring additional competition to the marketplace. The FCC remained pessimistic about the deal, stalling for months until a request for approval was eventually withdrawn by Comcast.

Wheeler has been especially sensitive about deals that could impact broadband services — wireless or wired — since becoming chairman of the FCC during President Obama’s second term in office. The FCC has proven itself less concerned with cable television matters, having approved a merger of AT&T and DirecTV while it still contemplates the merger of Charter Communications with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

Wheeler also spent time speaking about his latest initiative, breaking up the virtual monopoly on set-top boxes. Wheeler has proposed ending that monopoly by creating a new open standard platform for set-top equipment, allowing various manufacturers to develop boxes for retail sale to consumers.

Time Warner, Inc. Wants to Remove Current TV Episodes from Hulu to Stop Cord-Cutting

Phillip Dampier February 3, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 5 Comments

Great_Wall_ Courtesy: Jakub Halun How dare you use Hulu to watch current episodes of your favorite TV shows?

Time Warner (Entertainment) CEO Jeff Bewkes is on a mission to put a stop to that because he believes it encourages cord-cutting. Time Warner, Inc. (no relation to Time Warner Cable) is in negotiations to acquire part-ownership of the popular streaming service. On the top of Time Warner’s agenda is getting rid of offering on-demand access to full seasons of current television shows, whether they exist on Hulu, Amazon, or Netflix. If Time Warner successfully acquires up to a 25% stake in Hulu, they have the potential to make that dream come true.

Bewkes is convinced the only way to stop consumers from dropping pay television subscriptions is to put current television shows behind an industry-enforced paywall. Only those with authenticated cable or satellite television subscriptions would be allowed to watch streaming video. Everyone else will have to get out the rabbit-ear antennas and watch over-the-air television or simply go without access for at least a year after the shows air.

huluTM_355Some on Wall Street think Time Warner’s argument has merit, noting streaming services’ growing libraries of popular television shows and movies makes consumers more likely to consider dropping bloated cable and satellite packages.

“If everybody in the industry is worried about Netflix driving cord-cutting, shouldn’t they be just as worried about Hulu?” Nomura Securities analyst Anthony DiClemente said to the Wall Street Journal, noting that Hulu offers many shows a day after they air.

Others worry implementing Time Warner’s agenda would cause an exodus of customers dropping their subscriptions, devaluing Hulu along the way. A few also believe dedicated viewers will simply resume pirating coveted shows.

The pay television industry has grown increasingly alarmed by research showing cord-cutters and cord-nevers will continue to grow as long as popular shows are easily available online. That is one reason Time Warner has no intention of putting full, current seasons of shows from its networks, including TNT and TBS, on any independent streaming service. Bewkes told analysts last fall the company is now considering holding back their shows to offer longer windows for its own on-demand platforms before selling to cord cutter hangouts like Netflix and Hulu.

The new restrictions would not affect customers already buying cable or satellite TV packages, who will be allowed access after logging in to their provider’s authentication website.

Subscribers Furious Over Drahi-Ordered Cost Cuts at Altice/SFR; 2-Week Service Outages

THE FRENCH SLASHER: Patrick Drahi's cost-cutting methods have caused an uproar in France, leading to nearly two million customers to flee his companies for other providers.

THE FRENCH SLASHER: Patrick Drahi’s cost-cutting methods have caused an uproar in France, leading nearly two million customers to flee his telecom companies for other providers.

Even as Patrick Drahi’s Altice promises state regulators expensive upgrades and better service for Cablevision subscribers in return for permission to buy the cable operator, complaints from Altice customers in France are now achieving an unprecedented high, with French media reports implicating Drahi’s demands for severe cost cutting in disastrous consequences for customers that face service outages that can last weeks.

SFR, one of France’s largest telecom service providers, has been the subject of ongoing media attention across France as customers continue to complain about promised network improvements that have ground to a halt, deteriorating infrastructure and service outages, poor customer service, and what French telecom experts claim is a clear case of cost-cutting being given precedence over good service.

Rarely has a company executive charged with putting a company’s case to the media and the public had a more difficult time explaining away the thousands of complaints that media outlets receive when they ask readers and viewers to comment about Altice-owned companies.

Salvatore Tuttolomondo, a regional director of relations for SFR, could only muster, “For now, we are not very good, but we are not bad,” in defense.

The French Association of Telecom Users (AFUTT) reports complaints about what is now one of the worst-performing telecom providers in France have exploded. SFR has seen a doubling of complaints from its wired customers between 2014 and 2015 and complaints about wireless service are also up by 50%.

“Even Free.fr and MVNOs do better,” says Denis Leboeuf, from the AFUTT.

For many French consumers, Altice teaches the lesson of bewaring promises of vast service improvements from an executive with a well-known demand to cut costs to the bone.

Capital reports the reason for SFR’s troubles is easy to identify.

sfr-abonne-s_small

Subscriber Numbers Falling…

“To restore margins, the operator has sacrificed the quality of its network and its customer service,” the magazine reports.

Capital lays out an indictment of Drahi’s way of doing business, one that has occasionally left his customers in peril when they were unable to summon emergency assistance over failing telephone lines or ruined one town’s tourist season when service problems made it difficult to impossible for visitors to register for events and arrange bookings.

It was never supposed to happen this way. On April 7, 2014, a triumphant Patrick Drahi announced his company Altice trumped rivals like Bouygues Telecom to acquire SFR from French conglomerate Vivendi for about $17 billion dollars. The first thing Mr. Drahi promised was to invest heavily in SFR to improve network quality and cut unnecessary costs. Those promises are now familiar to Cablevision subscribers as regulators in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey contemplate approving the sale of the cable company to Altice.

Much of France is still waiting for those promised upgrades. SFR’s DSL equipment is ‘downright lousy,’ delivering dead last performance among French telecom operators. SFR wireless data is no prize either, with customers howling complaints about slow to unresponsive service. Even texting over SFR’s network is dreadful, reports La Voix du Nord: “Carrier pigeons are faster,” it reported. Widespread complaints of texting failures lasting hours are legion. Customers know when service is restored when the dozens of unanswered texts they didn’t receive during the business day suddenly arrive in the middle of the night.

...While complaints are rising.

…While complaints are rising.

One nurse discovered her best bet is to go and stand near her toilet, where cell reception is just good enough to roam on a cell network operating across the border in Belgium. Other customers have to go outside to find a signal, because many of SFR’s cell towers are often affected by service interruptions which can last weeks.

Several French cities were the unlucky recipients of SFR service outages in December. Parts of Pas-de-Calais had the displeasure of being “cut off from the world” by a complete service outage lasting 15 days. French businesses sent employees to coffee shops and other venues during the business day with their cell phones to find a wireless signal to conduct business for more than two weeks.

La Voix du Nord confirmed one subscriber’s account that The Grand Wireless Failure of 2015 in Desvres came as a result of an antenna that fell into disrepair. The problem was identified in the first week of December, but an employee-engineer brusquely admitted “maintenance [to restore service] will not take place before Wednesday, Dec. 16” — at least two weeks later. Whether the repair could be completed quickly or not made no difference. Cost controls at SFR controlled the calendar.

French telecom watchdog ARCEP has learned to take Altice’s promises and commitments with a grain of salt. It suggested the “gap between promises and reality” had grown into a chasm over SFR’s appallingly awful 3G service. Altice replied it was “undertaking a major renovation program of its mobile network that is not without impact on service quality, but it is an investment for the next 15 years.”

Waiting on hold

Waiting on hold

More than a few customers wonder if that means it will take 15 years to get reasonable service. More than 1.6 million so far have decided not to wait and find out.

Laurence joined the exodus of customers canceling service this month. Many customers leave angry, such as the parade of residents from the “digital eco-district” of Issy-les-Moulineaux who are “exasperated by repeated failures” of SFR’s wired broadband and television service equipment. Of the 40 days Laurence was a customer, he lacked Internet service for 17 of them.

Altice officials call the horror stories anecdotal and note they have millions of happy customers. But La Voix du Nord isn’t so certain that is true either. (They are also an SFR customer suffering service problems.) Since Drahi took over as the new owner, the newspaper surveyed its readers starting in March 2015 for their thoughts about Altice-owned SFR. In less than 24 hours, their Facebook page melted down with 3,760 mostly critical responses. Orange, the cell phone company the French usually love to hate, skated by with ten times fewer complaints than SFR. Altice officials promised things were about to get much better in response.

Slightly.

Heading for the exit

Heading for the exit

Last fall, the newspaper repeated the survey and 2,700 comments and replies arrived, again overwhelmingly negative. More than 100 customers were so angry, they wanted to share details of their service tragedies in private messages. The reader service representative eventually had to ask people to stop, saying she had at least 100 more unread in her inbox.

Customers were promised upgrades before. Thomas Detrain of Nœux-les-Mines received word he should expect one disruption lasting three weeks back in November 2014. Since that time, the outages keep on coming and SFR has offered him one time compensation of approximately $44 on one bill amounting to about $52. SFR now expects to be paid in full, whether the service is working or not.

Charlotte Dabrowski of Bourbourg has had her problems with service quality, too. But at least she has some service. “What makes me the most pissed off is that I was told: ‘You’re lucky, you are on the right side of our antenna.’ Was this supposed to be funny?”

Tuttolomondo

Tuttolomondo: You can’t trust our customers.

SFR has resolved to either downplay its legendary bad press or blame someone else for all the troubles.

Tuttolomondo attempts the former, dismissing the thousands of Facebook complaints the newspaper had received.

“You have how many comments from dissatisfied customers, 2,000?,” Tuttolomondo asked. “We have about 500,000 customers in the region, so this is less than 0.5%.”

When asked if SFR would automatically compensate customers for its significant service outages, Tuttolomondo implied his customers would take advantage of him if he tried.

“It’s case by case,” said Tuttolomondo. “I’m not going to promise a general compensation, otherwise even customers who do not have to worry will ask me for money. But our customer service is really alert. You think it makes me happy to have unhappy customers? We’ll never get 100% satisfied.”

Tuttolomondo also seemed exasperated with his own customers, implying the company’s poorly rated 4G service “sometimes comes from incompatible phones” owned by customers who didn’t know better.

SFR's customer service call center... in Tunisia.

SFR’s customer service call center… in Tunisia.

Tuttolomondo’s line matches that of SFR’s customer service representatives, now relocated to call centers sprinkled across the exotic North African desert lands of the Maghreb, where workers with passable French language skills are willing to work cheap. But not cheap enough. Recently Drahi has been looking for an even better deal from subcontractors in Portugal, Mauritius and Madagascar. Customers lament it will probably be difficult to get a call center employee living with a few hours of electricity a day and no telephone service at home to comprehend why SFR’s fiber to the home service is not meeting its broadband speed objectives.

Drahi yes-man Jerome Yomtov, the Deputy Secretary General of SFR, decided it would be more productive to blame someone else for everything — Vivendi, the former owner, in particular.

“For our 3G and 4G networks, we pay the price of under-investment from the previous [owner],” explains Yomtov. He added the sale disrupted upgrades for two years. SFR had reduced its investments by 10% after it knew it was going to be put up for sale. But Capital reports after Drahi arrived, investments froze almost completely, which caused ever-increasing delays for network repairs and upgrades to keep up with traffic demands, not to mention commissioning new cell sites to improve coverage.

The reason for the delay was a Drahi-inspired Lord of the Flies-style bidding war among vendors and subcontractors.

It was either this...

Altice Cost Cutters: It was either this…

“The new management has replaced our usual subcontractor bidding process with that used by Numericable [another Drahi-owned company],” a network technician tells Capital. The result was endlessly repeated bidding rounds as subcontractors tried to undercut each other to win Drahi’s business. The technician reports Drahi allowed the bidding to run up to four months, resulting in one of the last rounds to scrape together a bid offering savings of just 5,000 Euros (just over $5,000) over a previous round.

“Drahi wanted to see how far they would be willing to come down,” the technician said. “The standoff would have [eventually] enabled SFR to save 10-15% of its infrastructure costs.” In the end, the priority given to cost-savings (at the cost of deteriorating service) caused a stagnancy of upgrades lasting almost nine months, claimed one project manager.

ARCEP revealed that SFR now has France’s smallest high-speed 4G network, with only 39% of the population covered. SFR officially claims 65% coverage, but that difference comes largely from coverage rented from competing Bouygues Telecom. Over the first 11 months of 2015, Altice’s subsidiary has managed to launch only 962 new antennas, three times less than the notoriously cheap Free.fr.

More stories of Altice’s so-called “Cost-Killing Madmen” — the company’s bean counters sent in after Drahi closes on a deal — have also since emerged. Employees tell the French press their cost-cutting schemes are bizarre and ruthless. Employees in one office were suddenly given orders to discard the office’s plants strategically placed to help improve the working environment.

“They told us it’s that or the toilet paper,” sighed the employee. Many thought the cost-cutters were joking at first, until they remained stone-faced during the nervous laughter shared by employees.

...or this

…or this

At the headquarters of La Plaine Saint-Denis, visitors may notice things are looking a little worse for wear in the office. That may be because the carpet is no longer cleaned weekly. The bean counters think once every two weeks is enough. But the toughest conditions are now probably experienced by the janitorial staff, who have been ordered to clean and maintain 46 office restrooms and given only three hours each work cycle to complete the task. At least 700 workers in Lyon were denied doctor visits for several days when the cost-cutters decided medical expenses were too high. It took the Works Council a few angry moments with company executives to rescind that budget cut.

Despite the plight of the workers, Drahi has some headaches of his own. He is hard at work conquering the most exclusive neighborhood in Geneva, Switzerland. Drahi, who boasts about his cost cutting and his ability to pay minimal wages, has splurged on two enormous villas in the commune of Cologny. His deputies and financial partners are not far away, having spent small fortunes on expensive housing in Vésenaz and Prangins. Now one of Drahi’s protegés, Jean-Luc Berrebi, member of the board and chief financial officer at Altice-owned Israeli telecom company HOT, has strategically moved himself right next door to Drahi, spending nearly $28 million dollars to buy Drahi’s second villa just 100 meters away. At the same time Drahi was closing on that deal, ordinary Israelis are shelling out considerably more for service from HOT, after the company announced sweeping rate hikes.

Exempt from cost-cutting, one of two of Drahi's villa in Switzerland, recently sold to a protege for about $28 million. Drahi still lives next door.

Exempt from cost-cutting: One of two Drahi villas in Switzerland, recently sold to a protegé for about $28 million. Drahi still lives next door.

Investors initially seemed pleased to learn cost cutting and reduced investment helped SFR increase its margin 18% since the beginning of 2015, which has allowed the company to deliver some impressive results to shareholders, at least in the short-term. But that good news was tempered by the veritable stampede of customers fleeing SFR for better service from other providers. Many in the French media now question whether Drahi has not just damaged SFR’s service, but also permanently tainted the image of its brand.

Executives at Orange can sigh some relief watching the chaos unfold at SFR and Numericable. Customers that swore off Orange with protestations of “never again,” are now increasingly calling the perennial bad boy of wireless “the lesser evil.”

Seven States Face End to Their Internet-Related Taxes by 2020

Phillip Dampier February 2, 2016 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

itfaSeven states that adopted Internet access taxes prior to 1998 and have continued them grandfathered under the Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA) may be required to phase them out by June 2020, leaving no states allowed to tax online access.

Congress is considering an extension of the ITFA this week because if they don’t, it is scheduled to expire on Friday. The law prohibits state and local jurisdictions from imposing telecommunications taxes on Internet services, which come predominately from charging state/local sales tax on Internet access.

Internet-related taxes are still collected by many jurisdictions in Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin because those states successfully won exemptions from the law. All were collecting sales and other taxes before the bill’s passage in 1998.

“This week, long-time proponents of making ITFA permanent attached a permanent extension to an unrelated measure covering federal customs and border protection,” wrote Michael Mazerov, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “The legislation also would repeal the grandfather clause [allowing those seven states to continue taxes] in 2020. Repeal would deprive these seven states of several hundred million dollars in annual revenue. ”

Most consumers in these states find the tax on their phone, cable, and wireless bills either from sales tax or a telecommunications tax on their Internet access or data plan.

Congress can either extend the provisions of the ITFA or let it expire without action later this week.

Comcast Announces Atlanta and Nashville as Launch Cities for DOCSIS 3.1 Service

Comcast-LogoComcast customers in Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago, Detroit, and Miami will be the first to get Comcast’s new DOCSIS 3.1 modems and faster Internet plans likely to accompany the introduction of the latest cable broadband standard.

Multichannel News reports after field trials in Pennsylvania, Northern California and Atlanta, Comcast is ready to deploy the newest cable modem standard for residential and business class customers to deliver gigabit broadband services delivered over the company’s traditional hybrid fiber-coaxial cable network.

The company expects to begin distributing new modems to customers early this year, starting in Atlanta and Nashville. Comcast is still finalizing pricing on its fastest gigabit-range plans, but the cost is expected to be less than Comcast’s Gigabit Pro offering, which is delivered over fiber-to-the-home service. The cable company now charges Gigabit Pro customers $299.95 a month for the gigabit fiber service with a two-year contract. It is likely Comcast will have to price its cable gigabit offering under $100 a month to compete effectively with Google Fiber and AT&T’s U-verse with GigaPower. Google and AT&T are readying gigabit networks in both of Comcast’s first launch markets.

Comcast exempts Gigabit Pro customers from its growing field trial of data caps, but the company had nothing to say about whether its DOCSIS 3.1-powered plans will receive similar treatment. If not, customers can expect a 300GB monthly allowance.

During the second half of this year, Comcast will expand DOCSIS 3.1 to Chicago, Detroit and Miami. Beyond that, Comcast would not say when the rest of its customers across the country would be upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1 service.

Customers who own their own modems and do not plan to upgrade to a faster plan can continue to use that equipment. Customers looking to upgrade will have to lease a modem from Comcast or buy an authorized DOCSIS 3.1 capable modem, which is expected to cost 30-50% more than traditional DOCSIS 3.0 equipment.

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