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Comcast Extends $9.95 Internet Essentials to Low-Income Veterans

Comcast announced this week it is expanding its $9.95 discount internet access program Internet Essentials to qualified low-income veterans.

“Veterans have stood up for our country, and for our way of life, and we believe it’s time for all of us to stand up for those veterans,” said David L. Cohen, Comcast’s senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer, speaking at a news conference Monday at a veterans housing complex under construction in Philadelphia. Cohen claimed the program’s expansion “will enable us to reach about a million low-income veterans.”

Comcast’s Internet Essentials

  • $9.95/month
  • 15/2 Mbps service
  • No activation fees and no equipment rental fees
  • Option to purchase laptop/computer for $149.99 + tax
  • Access to free internet training online, in print and in person
  • A free Comcast Wireless Gateway, delivering in-home Wi-Fi at no additional cost

Comcast requires all applicants, including veterans, to pre-qualify for the service with an application and agree to submit re-qualification paperwork annually. The cable company has carefully shielded its program from cannibalizing existing internet revenue by excluding almost everyone who currently subscribes to Comcast internet service or has a pre-existing past due balance. Applicants have to certify they have not had Comcast internet service for at least 90 days before submitting an application (not applicable to customers in the city of Philadelphia), must prove their low-income status by sending proof they are enrolled in one of several federal assistance programs, and prove their veteran status.

Qualified Assistance Programs

  • Medicaid
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
  • National School Lunch Program’s Free Lunch Program
  • Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled and Children (EAEDC)
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps or SNAP)
  • Federal Public House Assistance
  • Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance
  • Tribally-Administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TTANF)
  • Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR)
  • Head Start

In the seven years of its existence, Comcast has only managed to enroll six million people in the program, a fraction of those that would otherwise qualify who live in Comcast service areas. Most critics blame Comcast’s onerous qualification requirements for the relatively low enrollment.

Bryan Mercer, executive director of West Philadelphia’s Media Mobilizing Project, told The Inquirer Internet Essentials offers “speeds that don’t even meet the FCC definition of broadband” and a “series of restrictions” that disqualify those who already manage to scrape enough money together to buy Comcast internet access without the benefit of the Internet Essentials discount program. Mercer says the restrictions that insist customers go without Comcast internet for at least three months and never have an outstanding bill are particularly hard for many low-income people to meet.

“That is a real roadblock to someone trying to keep their utilities affordable and their families online,” Mercer told the newspaper.

About 70 percent of low-income veterans presently lack internet access. In Philadelphia, the nation’s poorest large city, the contrast between super-wealthy Comcast and the thousands of poverty-level residents is striking. Because of its large low-income population, only about 75% of Philadelphia’s residents have internet access. Detroit, which has seen major depopulation and is no longer deemed a “large city,” is even worse, with only 60.9% of city residents signed up for internet.

Nearly half of all adults with an income below $30,000 don’t have home broadband service or a traditional computer, a 2017 Pew Research study found.

Comcast has been testing expansion of its Internet Essentials program, which originally only targeted families with school-age children, with new qualifying groups to boost subscriber numbers:

  • Low-Income Seniors: (SSI, Medicaid, and other low-income program participation required). Only available in: Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Fresno County, Calif., Hartford County, Conn., Houston, Miami-Dade County, Fla., Palm Beach County, Fla., Philadelphia, San Francisco, Santa Clara County, Calif., and Seattle.
  • Housing Assistance: Everywhere Comcast is available. Enrollees have to prove they receive qualifying housing assistance.
  • Internet Essentials Philadelphia: Only available in Philadelphia, this program offers less pre-qualification restrictions, but maintains proof of low-income requirements to enroll.
  • Community College: Available only to those enrolled in a participating two-year community college in Illinois or Colorado, and receive a Pell Grant.

Comcast was required to offer and finance Internet Essentials as a deal condition for approval of is 2011 acquisition of NBCUniversal. Although that deal commitment expired in 2014, Comcast has voluntarily extended it since then, but reserves the right to change or discontinue the program at any time.

Altice Dismisses Wireless Broadband as Inadequate, “There is No Substitute” for Wired

Goei

While Wall Street and the tech media seems excited about the prospect of 5G and other fixed wireless home broadband services, Altice, which owns Cablevision and Suddenlink, dismissed wireless broadband as inadequate to meet rapidly growing broadband usage.

“In terms of usage patterns, our customers are taking an average download speed of 162 Mbps as of the second quarter of 2018, which is up 74% year-over-year,” Dexter Goei, CEO of Altice USA told investors on a recent conference call. “[Our customers now use] over 220 GB of data per month, which is up 20% year-over-year, with 10 in-home connected devices, on average. If you take the top 10% of our highest data consuming customers as a leading indicator, they are using, on average, almost 1 terabyte of data per month with 26 in-home connected devices. To support these usage patterns, which are mainly driven by video streaming and the proliferation of new over-the-top [streaming] services, it requires a high quality fixed network like ours. There is no substitute.”

Goei argued America’s wireless carriers are not positioned to offer a credible, serious home broadband alternative.

“For example, so-called unlimited data plans from the U.S. mobile operators start capping or significantly throttling customers at 20 GB of usage per month,” Goei said. “Over 60% of our customers are now using over 100 GB of data per month right now, which the mobile operators do not and will not have the capacity to match on a scaled basis unless they overbuild with a new dense fiber network.”

Altice just so happens to be building a dense fiber network, scrapping Cablevision’s remaining coaxial cable in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut in favor of a fiber-to-the-home network that will eventually reach all of its customers.

New Hampshire’s Attorney General Resolves Comcast and Consolidated Communications Complaints Quickly

Frustrated New Englanders that can’t get anywhere dealing with Comcast or Consolidated Communications’ customer service are getting fast fixes in New Hampshire by taking their complaints to the Consumer Protection and Antitrust Division of the attorney general’s office.

Jim Boffetti, in charge of that division, says his office receives 4,000 written complaints and 7,000 calls a year about consumer issues, a not insubstantial number from residents upset with their local cable and phone company.

New Hampshire is dominated by Comcast for cable service and Consolidated Communications for telephone service. Boffetti told The Laconia Daily Sun the two companies are familiar to staffers, responsible for more than 250 complaints for the phone company since Consolidated took over for FairPoint last year and 561 “racked up by Comcast” since 2009. Boffetti’s theory of how these companies handle consumer complaints is partly based on wearing customers down.

“The hassle factor is enormous,” he said. “It’s just the way these people do business.”

Boffetti doesn’t believe the number of complaints is unusual either, “considering the business that they’re in.”

Boffetti

Although the New Hampshire regulator cannot usually intervene to set prices, change conduct, or force resolutions, most telecommunications companies fear riling up state or federal regulators. Those government officials can potentially return “the favor” of years of arrogance and condescension when a company needs state or federal approval of a merger or permitting issue.

Only a small percentage of consumers realize they can file complaints with private groups like the Better Business Bureau, state officials like an attorney general or telecommunications/utility regulator, and federal agencies like the FCC. In every case, companies assign their best representatives to handle those complaints in an effort to protect their reputation.

When consumers file complaints with the New Hampshire attorney general’s office, the office forwards them to a designated person or department at the provider. Comcast and Consolidated assign senior level customer service departments to specifically handle these types of complaints. The representatives are given wide latitude to settle problems quickly and quietly — often refunding large sums of money, extending generous service credits, resolving ongoing service problems, or waiving service fees that ordinary customer service representatives insist cannot be done. Most of the time, complaints are settled in the customer’s favor.

“Usually it all gets worked out,” Boffetti said. “They’re pretty responsive to the complaints. They make an attempt to resolve it.”

When Karen Jacobs was offered a better deal by Consolidated Communications, she jumped at the opportunity to get cheaper and faster internet access for her home in Moultonborough. What originally cost her $104 a month was supposed to be $74 after she was sold an improved bundled service package. On the installation date, nobody from Consolidated showed up. Instead, she was told her order ‘was stuck’ in the system. To get it ‘unstuck,’ Jacobs would ‘have to pay a $300 one-time fee,’ something never mentioned by the original representative.

Complaints against Comcast are usually resolved in the customer’s favor, as this report from the New Hampshire attorney general’s office shows.

Jacobs asked the representative to waive the fee because it was never mentioned. The representative refused, and even lectured Jacobs about how little Consolidated was regulated by the state government and could do as it pleased.

“He didn’t care,” she said of one particular representative. “It was like, ‘Too bad.’”

Despite claims the $300 fee was “company policy,” it was news to Jacobs.

“That was never, ever, ever, ever discussed anywhere in the conversation,” she said. “It’s lousy.”

Jacobs had not yet filed a formal complaint, taking her story to the media instead. But similar complaints of hidden/surprise installation and activation fees are very common, and once forwarded by a regulator, are usually resolved by either waiving or refunding the charges.

Customers are gratified they get to keep their money, but remain annoyed at companies who “forget” to disclose important terms and conditions like fees as they try to seal the deal.

Customers can Google their own state’s attorney general and by searching for consumer complaints, can usually file their own complaint online in just a few minutes. In New Hampshire, residents can file a complaint on the website or mail it.

New England residents can also reach out directly to Comcast or Consolidated’s special consumer complaints departments directly by mail:

COMCAST – NEW ENGLAND
Executive Customer Care and Communications
Post Office Box 6505
Chelmsford, MA 01824-0905

CONSOLIDATED COMMUNICATIONS OF NEW HAMPSHIRE, VERMONT, AND MAINE
State Regulatory Matters
800 Hinesburg Road
South Burlington, VT 05403

Comcast provides cable service throughout northern New England and Massachusetts. Consolidated Communications provides landline service predominately in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine.

The New Hampshire attorney general’s consumer protection hotline is 1-888-468-4454 or (603) 271-3641, weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. You can also contact them by email at: [email protected]

Comcast’s Cool New Outage Maps

Phillip Dampier August 14, 2018 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News 2 Comments

Comcast has introduced an upgraded Outage Center showing nearby service outages on a map and offering customers near-real time updates on repairs.

The new outage maps depict the specific areas impacted, usually by zip code or service node, along with what services are involved, whether the outage is part of scheduled maintenance or unplanned, how many customers are affected, and an estimated time when repairs will be completed.

 

Comcast’s new service outage map, in this case showing outages in northeastern New Jersey. (Image courtesy of: telcodad)

The cable company is using technology similar to what many electric utilities use to pinpoint and report on outages automatically. Detailed outage information both appeases customers and cuts down on the number of duplicate calls reporting outages Comcast already knows about. Comcast’s engineers can also self-report planned maintenance to give customers an immediate notification that work is underway. Just minutes after completing the work, a technician can report service as restored. The more customers that report an outage, the more red alert symbols appear on the map.

Comcast customers note the outage map is not exact in accuracy, but is a major improvement over Comcast’s original outage website, which offered only vague information.

Unlike most electric utilities, Comcast is still keeping access to the complete roster of service outages under wraps. The outage map only offers limited zoom-out, limiting one’s ability to check for outages in other areas.

TDS Wins 54% Market Share After Upgrading Customers to Fiber Service

Phone companies can beat their cable competitors, but only if they invest in fiber upgrades that can deliver as-advertised broadband service and speed.

TDS Telecom, an independent phone company based in Chicago, has reported good results from the $60 million in fiber upgrades it has committed to complete in 2018.

TDS has been overbuilding beyond its existing telephone service areas to deliver broadband, phone, and television service to communities evaluated as:

  • Having a good demographic mix of upper middle class residents;
  • Experiencing population growth;
  • Underserved by incumbent phone/cable companies;
  • Offers good population density where homes and business are close enough to each other to warrant the expense of wiring each for fiber service.

TDS chief financial officer Vicki Villacrez made her case with investors to think positively about investments in fiber, reporting one TDS market garnered a 54% market share in broadband and took 33% of the market share for video after fiber service arrived.

TDS, unlike many other independent phone companies, is not avoiding investments in delivering faster broadband speed to customers. TDS typically reinvests 75% of its revenue in network upgrades and returns the other 25% to shareholders. Outside of its landline service areas, TDS has also acquired cable companies to provide service to customers, offering gigabit speeds in many areas.

In rural areas, the company is combining federal Connect America Funds with its own money to deploy bonded DSL service in areas too unprofitable to serve with fiber. This typically delivers faster internet service than rural broadband rollouts from other phone companies like Windstream and Frontier.

TDS is often the third provider in its overbuilt markets, a fact that is usually not well-received by investors because it can constrain market share and potential profits. TDS chooses its overbuild markets where incumbents have chronically underinvested in their networks, and the result is “pent-up demand” by customers, according to Villacrez. TDS’ market share is typically higher in their markets than other overbuilders.

Villacrez routinely tells investors the company’s success largely depends on fiber upgrades. About 24 percent of TDS Telecom’s local landline service area now has fiber to the home service, and the company is aggressively cutting the number of customers still served by slow traditional ADSL service.

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