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Comcast Still Lying About Its Data Caps: Woodstock, Ga. Customer Misled to Believe There Are None

comcast whoppersBefore regulators, the media, and elected officials, Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen has repeatedly told all who can hear that there are no usage caps on Comcast’s broadband service.

“There isn’t a cap anymore. We’re out of the cap business,” Cohen began saying in May 2012 after the cable company dropped its nationwide 250GB usage cap. But in several markets, mostly in the southern and western United States, Comcast snuck the caps back on residential Internet customers, only this time they claim it isn’t a usage cap at all.

“We effectively offer unlimited usage of our services because customers will have the ability to buy as much data as they want,” says the cable company these days.

But if the “usage caps” are actually gone, why is Comcast issuing executive-level memos to its customer service representatives and supervisors that repeatedly state the company does, in fact, have “data caps” in about a dozen cities across the country — part of an ongoing market trial that suggests Comcast is considering extending a new 300GB usage allowance nationwide.

Stop the Cap! reader Joe, an AT&T U-verse customer in Woodstock, Ga. — 30 miles north of downtown Atlanta — was offered a deal to switch to Comcast for 75Mbps Internet service at an attractive price. All Comcast had to do was convince Joe he would never have to deal with Comcast’s 300GB cap that is being tested in Atlanta. Joe, like many Internet customers, will not sign up with a company that imposes usage allowances on its wired broadband customers. He isn’t interested in checking a usage meter and considers broadband usage overlimit fees a deal-breaker.

So Joe called Comcast to get some straight answers. Does Comcast impose its usage cap on customers in Woodstock, which is part of Comcast’s greater Atlanta service area? Current Comcast broadband customers in Woodstock tell Stop the Cap! the company absolutely does impose a 300GB usage cap on Internet service, and some have the overlimit fees to prove it. But Comcast’s customer service representative insisted it just was not true. To back her up, not one but two Comcast supervisors also swore Woodstock is not affected by “data caps.”

Joe knew enough to record the call. Because if he did sign up for service and maintained his current usage, often in excess of 400GB a month, that “good deal” offered by Comcast would be replaced by nightmarish overlimit fees of $10 for each 50GB increment he exceeded his allowance.

Stop the Cap! reader Joe recorded his Aug. 22, 2015 conversation with Comcast — a company that really, really, really wants to convince potential customers in Georgia there are no Internet data caps on its broadband service outside of the city of Atlanta. Except there are, including in Joe’s city of Woodstock, Ga.

Comcast executives repeatedly claim Comcast doesn’t have “usage caps” on its Internet service anywhere, but you will quickly lose count adding up the number of times Comcast’s representative specifically refers to Comcast’s “data caps” and its official “data cap document.”

(This recording has been edited for brevity and clarity. Tones indicate where significant edits were made, during the time Joe was left on hold and as the representative moves towards a last ditch sales pitch. At the end of the clip, Joe shares his first impressions after he hung up with Comcast. (8:28)

You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

“What makes me laugh is the fact she is so uncertain. Obviously Comcast doesn’t properly train their employees,” Joe writes. “Comcast reps spreading bad information like this is negligent [when they tell] unsuspecting customers that there is no data cap. I honestly cannot tell if this woman was flat-out lying, or was just poorly trained.”

woodstockJoe isn’t the only one being misinformed by Comcast.

“I’ve been lied to so many times about this,” Jamil Duder wrote. “Sometimes I will get in touch with their online support just to see what they will tell me this time for my own amusement. I’ve been told everything. It has been removed, it never existed, it’s actually 600GB not 300GB, etc.”

In fact, Comcast’s enforcement of its data cap has spread well beyond the city limits of Atlanta. Despite claims from Comcast to the contrary, customers around the state report they are now limited to 300GB of usage before overlimit fees kick in.

“Absolutely unacceptable, and you wonder why they have the reputation as the worst company in America,” Joe writes.

So why would Comcast blatantly misinform customers about usage caps. The company is in an unenviable position in several of the cities where they are testing their caps. Most of Comcast’s competition in the usage cap trial markets comes from AT&T U-verse, which itself claims a 250GB usage cap — one that customers also know isn’t being enforced.

For Joe, sticking with AT&T’s slower Internet speeds in return for peace of mind his usage is not being limited is a better prospect.

comcast cartoonEric Ravenscraft suspects Comcast isn’t too happy with complaints it is getting about data caps from its customers either. He recently received a call from Comcast seeking feedback on what customers would like to see changed about the caps. But in typical Comcast fashion, getting rid of the caps does not seem to be an option. Instead, the representative claimed “obviously, the plans are outdated,” which suggests Comcast will adjust your allowance, not get rid of it.

Ravenscraft believes the most effective force to convince Comcast to ditch its caps altogether might be the Federal Communications Commission.

“If you want to do something about it, rope the FCC in. Let them know how you feel about this,” Ravenscraft writes. “Not only does this give the FCC another complaint to add to the pile, Comcast is required to respond to your complaint—by contacting you directly—within 30 days after the FCC forwards your complaint along.”

Several readers are doing exactly that every time they are charged an overlimit fee by Comcast. Within 30-60 days, Comcast has reportedly credited back the overlimit charges to complaining customers.

“I’ve filed 10 complaints with the FCC each time I get an overlimit fee on my bill, and I always get the overlimit fees credited back,” reports Stop the Cap! reader Jeff in Atlanta. “It takes about five minutes to fill out the complaint form — a minor nuisance, but now I effectively don’t have a Comcast usage cap and I am costing them more money dealing with my complaints every month than they would ever get charging me extra in the first place. Imagine if we all did that.”

“Comcast sucks but we might actually have a shot at making things better if we all do this,” Ravenscraft adds. “Most cities aren’t subject to these restrictive data cap trials, but they’ll eventually roll out nationwide if customers here don’t speak up loudly enough. We’ve got a weirdly unique opportunity to actually change how the internet works in the U.S.”

Cable Operators Told to Get Ready for a Gigabit, But Will Rationed Usage Make It Meaningless?

Phillip Dampier: A cable trade publication is lecturing its readership on better broadband the industry spent years claiming nobody wanted or needed.

Phillip Dampier: A cable trade publication is lecturing its readership on better broadband the industry spent years claiming nobody wanted or needed.

Remember the good old days when cable and phone companies told you there was no demand for faster Internet speeds when 6Mbps from the phone company was all you and your family really needed?

Those days are apparently over.

Multichannel News, the largest trade publication for cable industry executives, warns cable companies gigabit broadband speeds are right around the corner and the technological transformation that will unleash has been constrained for far too long.

Say what?

Proving our theory that those loudest about dismissing the need for faster Internet speeds are the least equipped to deliver them, the forthcoming arrival of DOCSIS 3.1 technology and decreasing costs to deploy fiber optics will allow cable providers to partially meet the gigabit speed challenge, at least on the downstream. Before DOCSIS 3.1, consumers didn’t “need those speeds.” Now companies like Comcast claim it isn’t important what consumers need today — it’s where the world is headed tomorrow.

Comcast 2013:

Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen writes that the allure of Google Fiber’s gigabit service doesn’t match the needs or capabilities of online Americans.

“For some, the discussion about the broadband Internet seems to begin and end on the issue of ‘gigabit’ access,” Cohen says, in a nod to Google Fiber. “The issue with such speed is really more about demand than supply. Our business customers can already order 10-gig connections. Most websites can’t deliver content as fast as current networks move, and most U.S. homes have routers that can’t support the speed already available to the home.” Essentially, Cohen argues that even if Comcast were to deliver web service as fast as Google Fiber’s 1,000Mbps downloads and uploads, most customers wouldn’t be able to get those speeds because they’ve got the wrong equipment at home.

Comcast 2015:

“We’ve consistently offered the most speeds to the most homes, but with the current pace of tech innovation, sometimes you need to go to where the world is headed and not focus on where it is today.”

“The next great Internet innovation is only an idea away, and we want to help customers push the boundaries of what the Internet can do and do our part to inspire developers to think about what’s possible in a multi-gigabit future.  So, next month we will introduce Gigabit Pro, a new residential Internet service that offers symmetrical, 2-Gigabits-per-second (Gbps) speeds over fiber – at least double what anyone else provides.”

Nelson (Image: Multichannel News)

Nelson (Image: Multichannel News)

Rich Nelson’s guest column in Multichannel News makes it clear American broadband is behind the times. The senior vice president of marketing, broadband & connectivity at Broadcom Corporation says the average U.S. Internet connection of 11.5Mbps “is no longer enough” to support multiple family members streaming over-the-top video content, cloud storage, sharing high-resolution images, interactive online gaming and more.

Nelson credits Google Fiber with lighting a fire under providers to reconsider broadband speeds.

“Google’s Fiber program may have been the spark to light the fuse — Gigabit services have fostered healthy competition among Internet and telecommunications providers, who are now in a position to consider not ‘if’ but ‘when and how’ to deploy Gigabit broadband in order to meet consumer’s perceived ‘need for speed’ and maintain their competitive edge,” Nelson wrote.

But the greatest bottleneck to speed advances is spending money to pay for them. Verizon FiOS was one of the most extravagant network upgrades in years among large American telecom companies and the company was savaged by Wall Street for doing it. Although AT&T got less heat because its U-verse development costs were lower, most analysts still instinctively frown when a company proposes spending billions on network upgrades.

Customer demand for faster broadband is apparent as providers boost Internet speeds.

Customer demand for faster broadband is apparent as providers boost Internet speeds.

The advent of DOCSIS 3.1 — the next generation of cable broadband technology — suggests a win-win-win for Wall Street, cable operators, and consumers. No streets will have to be torn up, no new fiber cables will have to be laid. Most providers will be able to exponentially boost Internet speeds by reallocating bandwidth formerly reserved for analog cable television channels to broadband. The more available bandwidth reserved for broadband, the faster the speeds a company can offer.

Many industry observers predict the cable line will eventually be 100% devoted to broadband, over which telephone, television and Internet access can be delivered just as Verizon does today with FiOS and AT&T manages with its U-verse service.

The benefits of gigabit speeds are not limited to faster Internet browsing however.

Nelson notes communities and municipalities are now using gigabit broadband speeds as a competitive tool selling homes and attracting new businesses to an area. According to a study from the Fiber to the Home (FTTH) Council, communities with widely available gigabit access have experienced a positive impact on economic activity — to the tune of more than $1.4 billion in GDP growth. Those bypassed or stuck in a broadband backwater are now at risk of losing digital economy jobs as businesses and entrepreneurs look elsewhere.

The gigabit broadband gap will increasingly impact the local economies of communities left behind with inadequate Internet speeds as app developers, content producers, and other innovative startups leverage gigabit broadband to market new products and services.

The Pew Research Center envisioned what the next generation of gigabit killer apps might look like. Those communities stuck on the slow lane will likely not have access to an entire generation of applications that simply will never work over DSL.

But before celebrating the fact your local cable company promises to deliver the speed the new apps will need, there is a skunk that threatens to ruin your ultra high speed future: usage-based pricing and caps.

At the same time DOCSIS 3.1 will save the cable industry billions on infrastructure upgrade costs, the price for moving data across the next generation of super high-capacity broadband networks will be lower than ever before. But cable operators are not planning to pass their savings on to you. In fact, broadband prices are rising, along with efforts to apply arbitrary usage limits or charge usage-based pricing. Both are counter-intuitive and unjustified. It would be like charging for a bag of sand in the Sahara Desert or handing a ration book to shoreline residents with coupons allowing them one glass of water each from Lake Ontario.

skunkCox plans to limit its gigabit customers to 2TB of usage a month. AT&T U-verse with GigaPower has a (currently unenforced) limit of 1TB a month, while Suddenlink thinks 550GB is more than enough for its gigabit customers. Comcast is market testing 300GB usage caps in several cities but strangely has no usage cap on its usage-gobbling gigabit plan. Why cap the customers least-equipped to run up usage into the ionosphere while giving gigabit customers a free pass? It doesn’t make much sense.

But then usage caps have never made sense or been justified on wired broadband networks and are questionable on some wireless ones as well.

Stop the Cap! began fighting against usage caps and usage pricing in the summer of 2008 when Frontier Communications proposed to limit its DSL customers to an ‘ample’ 5GB of usage per month. That’s right — 5GB. We predicted then that usage caps would become a growing problem in the United States. With a comfortable duopoly, providers could easily ration Internet access with the flimsiest of excuses to boost profits. Here is what we told the Associated Press seven years ago:

“This isn’t really an issue that’s just going to be about Frontier,” said Phillip Dampier, a Rochester-based technology writer who is campaigning to get Frontier to back off its plans. “Virtually every broadband provider has been suddenly discovering that there’s this so-called ‘bandwidth crisis’ going on in the United States.”

That year, Frontier claimed most of its 559,300 broadband subscribers consumed less than 1.5 gigabytes per month, so 5GB was generous. Frontier CEO Maggie Wilderotter trotted out the same excuses companies like Cox and Suddenlink are still using today to justify these pricing schemes: “The growth of traffic means the company has to invest millions in its network and infrastructure, threatening its profitability.”

Just one year later, Frontier spent $5.3 billion to acquire Verizon landline customers in around two dozen states, so apparently Internet usage growth did not hurt them financially after all. Frankly, usage growth never does. As we told the AP in 2008, the costs of network equipment and connecting to the wider Internet are falling. It still is.

“If they continue to make the necessary investments … there’s no reason they can’t keep up” with increasing customer traffic, we said at the time.

We are happy to report we won our battle with Frontier Communications and today the company even markets the fact their broadband service comes without usage caps. In many of Frontier’s rural service areas, they are the only Internet Service Provider available. Imagine the impact a 5GB usage cap would have had on customers trying to run a home-based business, have kids using the Internet to complete homework assignments, or rely on the Internet for video entertainment.

So why do some providers still try to ration Internet usage? To make more money of course. When the public believes the phony tales of network costs and traffic growth, the duped masses open their wallets and pay even more for what is already overpriced broadband service. Just check this chart produced by the BBC, based on data from the Organization for Economic Co‑operation and Development. Value for money is an alien concept to U.S. providers:

_70717869_countries_with_high_speed_broadband

The usual method of combating pricing excess is robust competition. With a chasm-sized gap between fat profits and the real cost of the service, competitors usually lower the price to attract more customers. But the fewer competitors, the bigger the chance the marketplace will gravitate towards comfort-level pricing and avoid rocking the boat with a ruinous price war. It is one of the first principles of capitalism — charging what the market will bear. We’ve seen how well that works in the past 100+ years. Back in 2010, we found an uncomfortable similarity between broadband prices of today with the railroad pricing schemes of the 1800s. A handful of executives and shareholders reap the rewards of monopolistic pricing and pillage not only consumers but threaten local economies as well.

special reportThe abuses were so bad, Congress finally stepped in and authorized regulators to break up the railroad monopolies and regulate abusive pricing. We may be headed in the same direction with broadband. We do not advocate regulation for the sake of regulation. Competition is a much more efficient way to check abusive business practices. But where an effective monopoly or duopoly exists, competition alone will not help. Without consumer-conscious oversight, the forthcoming gigabit broadband revolution will be stalled by speed bumps and toll booths for the benefit of a few giant telecommunications corporations. That will allow other countries to once again leap ahead of the United States and Canada, just as they have done with Internet speeds, delivering superior service at a lower price.

China now ranks first in the world in terms of the total number of fiber to the home broadband subscribers. So far, it isn’t even close to the fastest broadband country because much of China still gets access to the Internet over DSL. The Chinese government considers that unacceptable. It sees the economic opportunities of widespread fiber broadband and has targeted the scrapping of every DSL Internet connection in favor of fiber optics by the end of 2017. As a result, with more than 200 million likely fiber customers, China will become the global leader in fiber infrastructure, fiber technology, and fiber development. What country will lose the most from that transition? The United States. Today, Corning produces 40% of the world’s optical fiber.

Global optical fiber capacity amounted to 13,000 tons in 2014, mainly concentrated in the United States, Japan and China (totaling as much as 85.2% of the world’s total), of which China already ranked first with a share of 39.8%. Besides a big producer of optical fiber, China is also a large consumer, demanding 6,639 tons in 2014, 60.9% of global demand. The figure is expected to increase to 7,144 tons in 2015. Before 2010, over 70% of China’s optical fiber was imported, primarily from the United States. This year, 72.6% of China’s optical fiber will be produced by Chinese companies, which are also exporting a growing amount of fiber around the world.

John Lively, principal analyst at LightCounting Market Research, predicts China could conquer the fiber market in just a few short years and become a global broadband leader, “exporting their broadband networking expertise and technology, just like it does with its energy and transportation programs.”

Meanwhile in the United States, customers will be arguing with Comcast about the accuracy of their usage meter in light of a 300GB usage cap and Frontier’s DSL customers will still be fighting to get speeds better than the 3-6Mbps they get today.

Public Service Commission Criticized Over Its Review of Telecom Service in New York

dpsConsumer groups and New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman are expressing concern over the performance of the New York Public Service Commission in its year-long review of telecommunications services in New York.

As Stop the Cap! shared in our own letter to the PSC, we share concerns about how the PSC is managing comments from the public and accepting testimony for a review that many find opaque.

The Connect New York Coalition has exchanged its own frank letters with the Commission for several months expressing concern about how the PSC is conducting its review. A letter dated July 6 summarized a year of difficulties dealing with state regulators:

We filed a Petition a year ago. It contained complaints and requests for action by the Commission. It was ignored for several months.

We requested a meeting with the Chair. The meeting was constructive. Several promises were made including the imminent production of a “roadmap” for a study, a promise that it would be concluded by the April 1, 2015 date committed to in a side letter, a promise of “robust dialogue”, and a promise that the concerns raised in the Petition would be included in Commission actions.

We mean no disrespect when we express astonishment at the June 26 letter. It is as though the Petition, the letters, the meetings and the promises have not languished in Commission inaction for a full year. It is as though we have received a “road map” and had participated in a “robust dialogue”. It is as though the Commission in its documents and “questions” has addressed the issues and complaints contained in the Petition. It is as though the Commission produced the Study it promised in the side letter. None of these things has happened.

[…] A constructive relationship, based on civility and mutual respect, is not advanced by assertions that the Petition has been acted on as it should and as was promised. All of this is secondary to the sad realities that are faced by millions of New Yorkers whose telecommunications systems are neither socially nor economically adequate. The system, for many, operates in violation of the laws of the state.

Schneiderman

Schneiderman

“Issues of misallocation of monies, inadequate basic service requirements, disinvestment in the copper systems, failure to build out promised telecommunications systems, failure to adequately measure the deterioration of service to millions of New Yorkers and others have been ignored by the Commission in spite of promises to take them seriously,” complained the Coalition in another letter dated June 25.

Late yesterday Attorney General Schneiderman added his views, nearly identical to our own and that of the Coalition:

“While the Staff Assessment of Telecommunications Services you issued on June 23 is a step toward fulfilling the legal requirement that the PSC undertake a comprehensive examination and study of the telecommunications industry in New York, it left many questions unanswered, questions unlikely to be answered through the public statement hearing process, as that process is non-adversarial,” Schneiderman wrote. “Therefore, to fully understand the impact of deregulation on consumers and businesses, I urge you to initiate a formal proceeding in accordance with Article 1, Section 5 of the Public Service Law and 16 NYCRR Part 3. Such a proceeding, in front of an administrative judge, provides for evidence-gathering, allows for cross-examination and counter-evidence, and concludes with a final order or decision by the PSC.”

The Attorney General wants answers to a series of questions many New Yorkers have asked for several years:

  1. competitionWhether there is adequate competition for broadband service throughout the various regions of New York State, and whether there are any areas that are still essentially cable monopolies;
  2. Whether telecommunications companies are making honest representations about infrastructure build-out;
  3. Whether consumers are satisfied with the various voice service options available to New York consumers; and
  4. Whether Verizon is adequately upgrading or repairing its copper wire infrastructure, which is especially critical for New Yorkers who rely solely on landline service (in the absence of other voice options).

In our view, the answers are:

  1. No, Yes
  2. No
  3. It depends on where you live in the state, which incumbent phone company you have, if you have cable as an option, and if you have adequate cell coverage.
  4. Evidently not, based on the long record of service complaints from consumers.

Late yesterday, the PSC indicated it was responsive to the complaints, issuing a notice extending the review process and comment window:

In recognition of these requests, this is to advise that the deadline to file comments is hereby extended 60 days until October 23, 2015 in order to facilitate meaningful input, accommodate various schedules, and promote the fair, orderly and efficient conduct of this proceeding. Following the submission CASE 14-C-0370 -2- of comments, Staff will consider the need for further process, which could include further Public Statement Hearings, Technical Conferences or other steps as deemed necessary. Notices would be issued regarding any such events.

Comcast VP: Our 300GB Usage Caps are a “Business Policy,” Not an Engineering Necessity

What makes 300GB so special? It happens to represent the monthly usage allowance Comcast customers in several southern and western service areas receive after more than two years of “Data Usage Plan Trials.”

One of most asked questions posed to Comcast is why one of the nation’s largest and most profitable Internet Service Providers needs to impose usage caps at all, especially as the company has repeatedly raised broadband speeds for customers.

It took a parody Twitter account known as “Cable Cares” to get a cogent answer from Comcast’s vice president of Internet services, Jason Livingood: he doesn’t know.

caps

Livingood admitted Comcast’s “data usage plans” a/k/a “usage caps” are a “business policy” far removed from his work as a Comcast engineer helping to keep Comcast’s broadband service up and running efficiently.

comcastStop the Cap! never doubted it for a moment.

Internet Service Providers have often claimed usage caps are a matter of “fairness” — first to control congestion on their broadband networks and later as a way to pay for needed upgrades. But neither has proved true.

Starting in 2008, Comcast imposed a 250GB usage cap on its broadband service and issued warnings to customers that rampaged past it, threatening to cut their service off if they did not curtail usage. Those contacted were told their heavy use could impact broadband service for other customers who used it much less.

Internet providers told the Government Accountability Office another story entirely, admitting congestion is not a problem for cable operators or phone companies at all.

“Some wireless ISPs told us they use usage based pricing to manage congestion,” the GAO reported in June 2014. But “wireline ISPs said that congestion is not currently a problem.”

As upgrades have exponentially increased network capacity, the story told to defend usage caps changed dramatically. The new claim is that usage-based pricing and caps can “generate more revenue for ISPs to fund network capacity upgrades as data use grows,” the GAO reported.

Except as the New York Times reported last year, the United States is hardly a broadband speed leader and the quality of service “has nothing to do with technology. Instead, it is an economic policy problem — the lack of competition in the broadband industry.”

Usage caps for one and all.

Usage caps for one and all.

For now, Comcast isn’t commenting at all about the reasons for its usage cap trials. But a few years ago, Comcast VP David Cohen believed caps would be rolled out across Comcast’s entire nationwide service area anyway. 

Comcast executives have repeatedly told investors customers had accepted the usage cap trials and few have exceeded their usage allowances. But judging from Comcast’s customer support forums, the issue of usage caps and measurement rises near the top of complaints.

Comcast’s unregulated usage meter is a frequent target. What it registers is what Comcast uses to bill its customers.

“I have the ability to track my inbound and outbound data usage at my router.  Nothing in my house can talk to the Internet (the cable modem) without going through the router,” one customer wrote on Comcast’s support forum. “The traffic meter on the router is significantly less than the Xfinity Usage Meter.  As of right now, my router says my inbound/outbound usage since 7/1/2015 is 67.34GB, but the Xfinity Usage Meter says I am at 114GB.”

comcast-data-meter-513x650 (1)“At Comcast, the meter is right and the customer is wrong,” complains another customer.

“I am sick of calling customer service and being told that the Xfinity usage meter is right, but that there is absolutely no data that can be given to me to support that answer.  This is beyond ridiculous and I am beyond frustrated.  I have no options for recourse and am just supposed to accept that I am flying blind.

Flying blind can be costly. One Comcast customer opened his broadband bill to discover $260 in charges conveniently automatically removed from his checking account after Comcast claimed he used almost 2TB of usage in a month.

“My wife and I browse emails, browse the Internet with Facebook and sometimes watch Youtube,” the customer wrote. “We don’t even have Netflix or any other streaming service here at the house.”

The customer complains Comcast refuses to refund or document the 2TB of usage. As long as Comcast “verifies” a customer’s modem handled that traffic, the customer is billed without recourse.

But customers do have some recourse: complaining to the Federal Communications Commission or the Better Business Bureau.

“I have seen other posts from customers with similar issues,” a Comcast customer noted. “It seems that they get help once they threaten to go to the FCC or the BBB.”

The FCC’s online complaint form often results in substantial billing credits and charge reversals for shocking cable bills. The FCC is gradually turning its attention to the issue of usage caps, perhaps proportionate to the number of consumer complaints about the issue.

The Better Business Bureau helps put customers in touch with executive level customer service agents empowered well beyond the usual offshore customer service center employees. It appears they did exactly that 35,281 times in the last three years — 14,052 in the last year alone. Most of those complaints were evidently resolved to the customer’s satisfaction.

Verizon DSL: The Love is Gone – Rate Hikes, Availability Problems, Low Speeds

Sandra Hartman has been a Verizon DSL customer for more than 10 years. She doesn’t have much of a choice.

In her small town outside of Binghamton, N.Y., Verizon is her only option. Time Warner Cable doesn’t come close to providing service in this part of upstate New York and cell service is abominable, even with Verizon and AT&T.

“I live in an area just large enough to have given Verizon the justification to offer DSL, but 3Mbps service is about all we have ever been able to get, but it has been better than nothing,” Hartman tells Stop the Cap!

Hartman signed up for a package that included $19.99 DSL with her landline a decade ago, a price that went up $10 after the sign-up promotion ended but has remained stable for years.

“Then Verizon decided to raise the price without improving the service,” Hartman says.

In fact, the price hikes have been fast and furious lately, beginning last fall when Hartman received this notice Verizon was raising the price to $34.99 a month:

Verizon-logo

Dear Valued Verizon Customer,

We realize you have choices when it comes to choosing your Broadband provider, and would like to take this opportunity to say thank you for being a loyal customer and for choosing Verizon.

In order to continue to bring you quality service and product innovation, at times we need to raise our rates. Your monthly rate will increase by $5.00 and will be reflected on your bill within the next two months. This rate will remain in effect for one year. If you currently have any credits or discounts on your account, these will remain in effect until their original expiration date.

If you would like to review your account to see if you may qualify for additional savings or if you have any questions, please log on to verizon.com/myverizon or give us a call at 1.888.213.9932.

We value you as a customer and look forward to continuing to serve you.

Sincerely,
Your Verizon Team

“What choices?,” Hartman wondered. “We have no choice and after the rate increase, we’ve seen no improvement in the quality of the service or any evidence of Verizon’s ‘product innovation.’ It’s the same DSL service we’ve had for a decade — we’re just paying $60 more a year for the same thing.”

In Pennsylvania, Verizon is required by regulators to provide access to broadband to any customer that wants the service by the end of 2015. This map shows Verizon's service areas, 96% of which now have access to at least DSL service.

In the unusual case of Pennsylvania, Verizon is required by law to offer access to broadband to any customer that wants the service by the end of 2015. This map shows Verizon’s service areas in green, 96% of which now have access to at least DSL service. That same requirement is absent in most states.

To save money, Hartman downgraded her Verizon landline to the cheapest possible plan and switched to Voice over IP provider Ooma, which works over her DSL line. But Verizon is now back for more with another rate increase notice — this time looking for another $7 a month starting this fall, putting the price of 3Mbps DSL up to $41.99 before fees, surcharges, and taxes.

“I called Verizon and they told me rates are reviewed ‘for competitive reasons’ and reflect the cost of providing the service, which is apparently now up another $84 a year,” she said. “Verizon’s equipment, sitting in the elements on a phone pole or humming away in their phone office actually appreciates in value it seems. I wish my 10-year-old laptop was worth more today than the day I bought it, but my laptop wasn’t made by Verizon.”

Hartman complained to customer service the successive rate increases do not seem to be spent on any improvements. In fact, it seems Verizon is no longer accepting new DSL customers in her area.

“A real estate agent friend of mine told me selling homes in this town has gotten difficult because Verizon will simply not sell DSL to new customers here, claiming they have no capacity,” Hartman said. “If you can’t get DSL from Verizon, you don’t have broadband service, it’s as simple as that.”

DSL availability from Verizon is not just a problem for Hartman. Several central offices in upstate New York no longer accept new Verizon DSL customers, claiming the service is at capacity. Some customers in the Finger Lakes region keep DSL service year-round at their seasonal cottages, fearing if they suspend service for the winter they will not get it back next spring. Time Warner Cable offers service to many lakefront properties, but those who own cabins and homes away from the lakeshore usually cannot get cable service and depend on Verizon for service.

The Verizon DSL forum on DSL Reports has more examples of customers that discover their entire exchange is no longer qualified to get Verizon DSL. One such example is in Purcellville, Va., west of Washington, D.C., a quick drive to the Maryland and West Virginia borders.

“DSL suddenly has disappeared from my wire center entirely – regardless if your 10 feet from the CO or out of a remote terminal with a DSLAM,” wrote Zenit. “Even the industrial section of town which has its own fiber fed DSL equipped RT shows negative for service, and there are plenty of vacant units there.”

Similar stories were reported in communities like Pittsfield, Mass. and Netcong, N.J.

Customers have been able to push back against Verizon’s price increases, especially in competitive areas. Some customers are switched to lower cost bundled packages while others are given straight service credits that lower a customer’s bill. Customers need only ask Verizon for a better price and let them know you are shopping around for a better deal.

The Philippines: Free Market Broadband Paradise or Deregulated Duopolistic Hellhole?

special reportFans of the “hands-off” approach to broadband oversight finally have a country where they can see a deregulated free marketplace in action, where consumers theoretically pick the winners and losers and where demand governs the kinds of services consumers and businesses can get from their providers.

That country is the Philippines, which has taken the libertarian free market approach to Internet access in a dramatic leap away from the authoritarian Marcos era of the 1980s.

The Deregulation “Miracle”

Until 1995, the Philippines Long Distance Telephone Company (PLDT) maintained a 60-year plus government-sanctioned monopoly on telecommunications services. Its performance was less than compelling. Establishing landline service took up to 10 years on a lengthy waiting list. Getting a phone line was the first problem, making sure it worked consistently was another. Just over 10 years after the United States formally broke up AT&T and the Bell System, the government in Manila approved RA 7925 – the Public Telecommunications Policy Act of 1995, breaking PLDT’s monopoly and establishing a level playing ground for each of 11 regions across the country and its many islands in which private companies could compete with PLDT for customers.

philippinesTo attract investment and competition, the government declared all value-added services like Internet access deregulated and guaranteed the complete privatization of all government telecom facilities no later than 1998. It also initially limited the number of companies that could compete against PLDT in each region to two new entrants. The government felt that would be necessary to attract competitors that knew they would have to quickly invest millions, if not billions, to build telecom infrastructure in the Philippines. It would be hard to make a case for investment in a region where a half-dozen companies all engaged in a price war fighting for customers while stringing new telephone lines and building cell towers.

To prevent cherry-picking only the wealthiest areas of the country, the government declared its desire for a privately funded nationwide telecom network and used the 11 regions, combining urban and rural areas in each, to get it. Competitors were required to support at least 300,000 landlines and 400,000 cellular lines in each region. That assured new networks could not simply be built in urban areas, bypassing smaller communities. After building their networks, companies largely operated on their own in a mostly-free deregulated market, slightly overseen by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) — the Philippines equivalent of the FCC.

The early years of telecom deregulation seemed promising. PLDT, much like AT&T in the United States, kept the lion’s share of customers (67.24%) after deregulation took effect, but new competitors quickly captured one-third of the market. But with lax regulation and oversight, some of the Philippines’ most powerful families, many benefiting under years of the Marcos dictatorship, managed to gain influence in the newly competitive Philippines telecom business. In the United States, telecom competition meant a choice between Sprint, MCI, AT&T or others. In the Philippines, you dealt with one or two of nine powerful family owned conglomerates, each operating with a foreign-owned telecom partner. It would be like choosing between companies owned by the Rockefellers, the Astors, the Carnegies, or the Morgans.

pldtThe NTC remained more “hands-off” than the FCC, avoiding significant involvement in critical interconnection issues — how competing telephone companies handle calls from subscribers of a competing provider. That was last an issue in the United States in the early 1900s, where rare independent competitors to the rapidly consolidating Bell System faced a telecom giant that initially refused to handle calls from customers of other companies. American regulators eventually demanded interconnection policies that guaranteed customers could reach any other telephone customer, regardless of what company handled their service. In the Philippines, the NTC eventually mandated less-demanding access, allowing companies to charge long distance rates to reach customers of other companies. In the 1990s, it was not uncommon to find businesses maintaining at least two telephone lines with different companies to escape long distance expenses and stay accessible to all of their potential customers.

PLDT initially fought the opening of the marketplace but benefited handsomely from it once it took effect. The company got away with setting sky-high interconnection rates to connect calls from other smaller providers to its customers. It also made access to its network a minefield of bureaucracy and often required competitors to sign unfair revenue sharing agreements.

It is Cheaper to Buy Out the Competition Instead of Competing With It

competition-issues-in-philippine-telecommunications-sector-challenges-and-recommendations-3-638

(Image Courtesy: Mary Grace Mirandilla-Santos/LIRNEasia)

The investment community eventually balked at the cost of constructing competing telecommunications networks, especially after the dot.com crash in 2000, and a drumbeat for industry consolidation through mergers and acquisitions quickly grew too loud to ignore. Investors fumed over the amount of money being spent by providers to meet their service obligations in the 11 subdivided regions. Instead of building redundant or competing infrastructure, allowing competitors to merge would cut costs and enhance investor return. The NTC let the marketplace decide, as did the government, and it led to a frenzy of industry consolidation that ran far beyond what the FCC and American Justice Department would ever tolerate.

In 2011, the government backed a colossal merger that brought together the wireless networks of Pilipino Telephone Corporation, PLDT, and Smart under the PLDT brand. The three former competitors became one and controlled 66.3% of the Philippine’s wireless customers. The merger was comparable to allowing Verizon to buy out Sprint.

Additional mergers in response to the super-sized PLDT rapidly reduced the competitiveness of Philippine’s telecommunications marketplace to a duopoly. Just two companies — PLDT, Globe, and their respective house brands — dominate landline, DSL, cable, and wireless telecommunications service in the Philippines. The investment community celebrated the deal’s approval as a lucrative goldmine of future revenue gains from a less competitive market.

Philippine Broadband: Hey, It’s at Least Moderately Better Than Afghanistan

competition-issues-in-philippine-telecommunications-sector-challenges-and-recommendations-8-638

(Image courtesy: Mary Grace Mirandilla-Santos/LIRNEasia)

Broadband performance, under any measure other than financial success, has proved abysmal for Philippine consumers and businesses. The country’s broadband speeds are among the worst in the world, only beating Afghanistan in many speed tests. Look the other wayoversight led to a bribery scandal in 2007 that threatened to bring down the government. Officials exploring the development of a National Broadband Network were accused of soliciting kickbacks from Chinese equipment vendor ZTE, which would have been responsible for supplying equipment for the project. The government canceled the project as the scandal widened and some of the principals left the country or in at least one case were kidnapped.

Eight years later, broadband in the Philippines would be considered a North American nightmare. The free market approach has led to free-flowing profits and a profound lack of marketplace competition, with broadband ripoffs and broken promises rampant across the country.

Although both PLDT and Globe Telecom are spending large sums on infrastructure, much of it benefits their very profitable wireless networks and business customers. Despite the investments, residential customers are stuck with some of the world’s worst broadband speeds and performance.

An independent Quality of Service test revealed the bad news all around:

The findings of the Philippine QoSE tests were expected, but nevertheless still disappointing.

The best performing among the three ISPs delivered only 21% of actual versus advertised speed on average. This same ISP also offered at least 256kbps download speed (generally accepted definition of broadband) only 67% of the whole time it was tested, falling short of the required 80% service reliability.

The Broadband Commission defines the core concepts of broadband as an “always-on service” with high capacity “able to carry lots of data per second.” While there is no official definition of broadband locally, the Philippine Digital Strategy 2011-2016 defines broadband Internet service as 2Mbps download speed.

Finally, like the last nail in the coffin, Philippine ISPs performed the worst in terms of value for money when compared to select providers in South Asia and Southeast Asia. The highest value given by any of the three Philippine ISPs tested was a measly 22kbps per US dollar. This figure is too low when compared to similar mobile broadband ISPs that offer 173kbps per dollar in Jakarta, Indonesia and 445kbps per dollar in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

These results have huge implications on truth in advertising, consumer welfare, and the need for appropriate regulation.

My DSL Service is So Bad I Prefer 3GB Usage-Capped Slow Wireless Instead

senloren

Legarda

Home DSL broadband is so bad that customers have increasingly dropped service in favor of tightly managed wireless service. Companies report DSL customer losses over the past few years, with no end in sight.

The telecom regulator has generally just shrugged its shoulders at the situation, suggesting competition between equally poor providers will somehow resolve the problem. That view is applauded by service providers who claim the Internet is “just a value-added service” not essential to basic living needs. But consumer groups wonder why providers are allowed to make false advertising claims about the speed of their service with no repercussions. A range of position papers appealing to the government to create a meaningful minimum broadband speed have been introduced and some are being pushed by members of the Philippine Senate.

Senator Loren Legarda joined scores of other frustrated customers complaining about unreliable and expensive Internet in the country. In a 2014 hearing Legarda complained she had once again lost her DSL Internet connection in her office and her wireless connection was so slow it was unusable.

“As we speak now, there is no Internet connection in my office,” Legarda said. “I received a message this morning from my staff on my way here because I may be e-mailing, etc. And for someone whose deadline was yesterday, I always want things done fast and I’m sure many of you want that efficiency too to serve our people better.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ANC Poor Broadband Internet 5-14.flv

ANC aired this story about Sen. Legarda’s broadband problems and how Philippines’ providers oversell their networks back in 2014. (4:56)

We Oversold Our Networks So Sue Us, Except You Can’t

Providers blame the problem on oversold networks that attempt to manage too many paying customers on an inadequate network. In other words, they blame themselves with little fear any regulator will create problems for them.

Wireless service is no panacea either. Customers in the Philippines face draconian “fair use policies” on so-called “unlimited plans” that leave them throttled after 1GB of usage per day or 3GB of usage per month, whichever happens first. Providers suggest the policy is a benefit, promising them a better user experience. Besides, they suggest, even those that run into the speed throttle can still browse the Internet, albeit at as speed resembling dial-up:

Your internet speed will slow down if you use up 1GB of data for the day, or accumulate 3GB of data usage for the month.

If you hit the 1GB/day threshold, you’ll experience slower speed, but no worries because as we mentioned above, you can still surf! You’ll move up to normal speed at midnight. If you hit the 3GB/month threshold, your speed will move up to normal speed on the next calendar month (not based on bill cycle).

With a stifling usage allowance, shouldn't providers in the Philippines be offering better speeds?

With a stifling usage allowance, shouldn’t providers in the Philippines be offering better speeds?

Say Hello to the “Promo Pack” – Your Net Neutrality Nightmare Come True

Remember the scary ads from Net Neutrality proponents promising a future of Internet add-ons that would charge you to surf theme-based websites without facing network slowdowns or stingy usage caps if Net Neutrality protections were not forthcoming? In the Philippines, the nightmare came true. Mobile providers sell added cost “promo packs” that bundle extra throttle-free usage with theme-based apps. A package with Spotify runs about $6.50US a month and includes 1GB of usage. Anyone can buy a Spotify premium membership in the Philippines for around $4.37US without the add-on. But even worse are app-based promo packs that bundle free-to-download-and-use apps in the U.S. with special designated usage allowances.

Want to use Google Maps on your wireless provider? A “promo pack” including it costs around $2.17 a month and includes 300MB of usage. That money doesn’t go to Google — it stays in the pocket of the provider – Globe Networks. Twitter will set you back $4.37US a month and includes 600MB of usage, which seems odd for a short message service when contrasted with an identically-priced promo pack for Facebook, that needs the extra usage allowance more than Twitter likely would. But then they also get you for Facebook Messenger, which costs an extra $2.17US per month and comes with its own usage allowance — 300MB.

"What If" actually "Is" in the Philippines.

“What If” actually “Is” in the Philippines.

Globe-Telecom3While segmenting out popular mobile apps for special treatment, Philippine mobile providers have also taken Verizon and AT&T’s lead, pushing plans like myLIFESTYLE that bundle unlimited text and phone calls with expensive data plans.

Lifestyle Promo Packs:

Lifestyle Bundle

Price (Philippine Peso)

Consumable MBs/GBs

Description

Spotify

299

1GB

Premium membership to Spotify, with 1GB data
Work

299

1GB

Access to Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Evernote, + 10GB Globe Cloud Storage
Explore Bundle

99

300MB

Access to Agoda, Trip Advisor, Cebu Pacific, PAL
Navigation Bundle

99

300MB

Access to Waze, Grab Taxi, Google Maps, MMDA app, Accuweather
Shopping Bundle

299

1GB

Access to Zalora, Amazon, Ebay, OLX, Ayosdito
Facebook

199

600MB

Access to Facebook
Twitter

199

600MB

Access to Twitter
Viber

99

300MB

Access to Viber
FB Messenger

99

300MB

Access to FB Messenger
Chat Bundle

299

1GB

Access to Viber, Whats App, FB Messenger, Kakao Talk, Line, WeChat
Photo Bundle

299

1GB

Access to Instagram, Photogrid, Photorepost, Instasize

Extra Add-ons:

Basic Price Description
Consumable 100 Stackable Amounts of P100 denomination consumables
Unli Duo 299 Unlimited Calls to Landline/duo
Unli Txt All 299 Unlimited Texts to other networks
Unli iSMS 399 Unlimitend International SMS to one intl. number
Unli IDD 999 Unli IDD calls to one intl. number
DUO International 499 Unlimited calls to US landlines

The Philippines Should Regulate Under the American Example vs. The Philippines Should Not Regulate Under the American Example (It’s Obama’s Fault)

Lincoln_MemorialProviders in the Philippines have learned a lot from America’s telecommunications lobbyists. Their advocacy campaigns revolve around the theme that the United States has the best wireless networks in the world, developed under a largely hands-off regulatory philosophy that the Philippine government should follow.

The government and regulators largely acquiesced to that campaign until this year, when that idea came back to haunt providers. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration and the FCC began taking a more hands-on approach to telecom regulation after recognizing the marketplace is not as competitive as providers suggest. Strong Net Neutrality enforcement, limits on mergers and acquisitions and strong signals marketplace abuses would no longer be tolerated are now being pushed in Washington by the White House and the Federal Communications Commission. Providers in the Philippines no longer advocate following the American model, but it may now be too late.

obamaThe NTC is close to issuing new minimum broadband speed and performance standards and is now listening to Filipino consumers that launched Democracy.net.ph to fight usage caps in the Philippines back in 2011. The NTC may soon require providers advertise average speeds and performance, not “up to” speeds nobody actually receives. Those getting poor service would be entitled to refunds or rebates.

That could be the first step towards a more activist NTC that may have learned the lesson that listening to the broken promises of better service through deregulation has resulted in some of the worst broadband performance the world has to offer. The Philippines took the advocacy arguments of the deregulation crowd and doubled down, not only allowing providers to lie and distort in their advertising, but also permitting massive industry consolidation reducing the choice for most Filipinos to just two providers for almost all telecommunications services. The government looked the other way as corruption turned into a scandal and today it is left with two very powerful conglomerates that deliver third world Internet access while pocketing the generous proceeds.

A Better Way to Better Broadband

A deregulated, free market only works where healthy competition exists. Too few players always leads to reduced innovation, poorer service at higher prices, and a corporate fortress deterring would-be competitors that are unlikely to be able to survive in a fair, competitive fight. For the Philippines (and by extension the United States) to fully benefit from healthy competition, large conglomerates must be broken up and further mergers must be prevented above all else. Until sufficient competition can self-regulate the marketplace, strong oversight is necessary to protect consumers from the abuses that always come from monopolies and duopolies. Charging wireless customers for free apps and suggesting 3GB of usage is equal to unlimited broadband are two places to start cracking down, quickly followed by an investigation into where investment dollars are being spent and for whose benefit. It seems like customers are not reaping any rewards in return for high-priced service.

The Philippine government should also continue exploring a National Broadband Network strategy that puts the country’s broadband needs above the profit motivations of the current duopoly. Governments build roads and bridges, airports and railways. Broadband is another infrastructure project that needs to be developed in the public interest. If private companies want to be a part of that effort, that is wonderful. But they should not be dictating the terms or holding the country back from what may be the biggest scandal of all — broadband that barely performs better than what the Taliban can get these days in Helmand province.

Wall Street Analyst Tells Congress Broadband Needs to Be More Than Just “Profitable” to Spur Investment

greedUnless a broadband provider can deliver the same kind of profitability earned by U.S. cable operators, don’t expect significant private investment in broadband expansion even if the company can easily turn a profit.

That was the argument brought to a House hearing on funding broadband infrastructure expansion by Craig Moffett, a Wall Street analyst at Moffett Nathanson.

“Infrastructure deployment requires the expectation of a healthy return on capital,” Moffett told the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee in a hearing this afternoon. “That should be taken as a given, but all too often, in my experience, the issue of return on capital is either ignored or misunderstood in policy forums. It is not a matter of whether a business is or isn’t profitable, it is instead a matter of whether it is sufficiently profitable to warrant the high levels of capital investment required for the deployment of infrastructure.”

Moffett pointed to the massive profits earned by cable operators Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter and Cablevision, all of which earned returns well in excess of their cost of capital, ranging from 13-33 percent. Moffett argued Wall Street has come to expect those kinds of returns, and investors will take a hard look at companies deploying new expensive networks against those that have largely paid back much of the capital costs incurred when their networks were built decades ago.

Moffett continued to criticize the broadband expansion being undertaken by large incumbent telephone companies that he claims does not earn attractive returns for their wireline businesses, even as they have introduced new services like faster broadband and television.

“For example, a decade after first undertaking their FiOS fiber-to-the-home buildout to 18 million homes, Verizon has not yet come close to earning a return in excess of their cost of capital,” said Moffett. “In 2014 their aggregate wired telecommunications business earned a paltry 1.2% return, against a cost of capital of roughly 5%. For the non-financial types in the room, that’s the equivalent of borrowing money at 5% interest in order to earn interest of 1%. That’s a good way to go bankrupt.”

analysisMoffett was also critical of AT&T’s planned expansion of gigabit fiber broadband.

“AT&T has committed to the FCC to make fiber available to a total of 11.7 million locations in their footprint in order to make their acquisition of DirecTV more palatable to policy-makers, but it is hard to be optimistic that they will do much better this time around,” Moffett argued.

Moffett believes competition is bad for the profitable broadband business.

Moffett

Moffett

“The broader take-away here is that the returns to be had from overbuilding – that is, being the second or third broadband provider in a given market – are generally poor,” Moffett said. “Let that sink in for a moment. Stated simply, it means that market forces are unlikely to yield a competitive broadband market. Neither, by the way, does wireless appear to offer the promise of imminent competition for incumbent broadband providers. Wireless networks simply aren’t engineered for the kind of sustained throughput required for a wired-broadband-replacement service.”

As a result, investors prefer that the broadband marketplace remain a monopoly or duopoly to guarantee the kinds of healthy returns they have earned for years, especially from the cable stocks Moffett has always favored in reports to his clients. Additional competition drives prices down, reducing profits, which in turn discourages investors who have high expectations their money will make them a lot more money.

Moffett’s arguments are largely based on broadband being a for-profit private enterprise, not a public infrastructure effort. But it does explain why there is a willingness to compete in large cities where network construction costs are lower and rural communities remain relatively unserved. As with electrification 100 years ago, investor-owned utilities were willing to wire large communities while ignoring rural farms and communities. Only after electricity was deemed a necessary utility did alternative means of funding, including member-owned co-ops and community-owned utilities finish electrifying areas private capital ignored.

Moffett’s guide to better broadband is based entirely on profitability — delivering enough profits and other returns to attract investors that will look elsewhere if costs become too high. Community-owned broadband avoids this dilemma by advocating for break-even or modestly profitable networks that focus on service, not investor-attractive profits.

Several members of Congress commented Moffett’s vision of broadband was discouraging, even depressing, because it seemed to be locked in a for-profit, private sector model that had few answers to offer for communities left behind. Moffett even warned against oversight and regulation of incumbent cable and phone companies, claiming it would further drive away private investment.

But broadband customers, Moffett admitted, will still pay the price for investor expectations.

comcast cartoon“As everyone understands, the cable video business is facing unprecedented pressure,” Moffett testified. “Cord cutting has been talked about for years but is finally starting to show up in a meaningful way in the numbers. And soaring programming costs are eating away at video profit margins. From a cable operator’s perspective, the video business and the broadband business are opposite sides of the same coin. It is, after all, all one infrastructure. Pressure on the video profit pool will therefore naturally trigger a pricing response in broadband, where cable operators will have greater pricing leverage.”

Moffett said the kinds of rate hikes consumers used to pay for cable television now increasingly transferred to broadband customers is nothing nefarious. To keep investors happy, the kind of returns once earned from cable television will now have be delivered on the backs of broadband customers if Congress expects cable companies to continue upgrading and expanding their networks.

“All else being equal, that will mean that even new builds of broadband will become increasingly economically challenged and therefore will become less and less likely,” said Moffett. “Or they will simply have to sharply raise broadband prices.”

Moffett’s comments do come with some baggage, however. His clients pay for his advice and Moffett has been a long-time supporter of cable industry stocks. He has been a strong and natural advocate for a cable industry that faces only token opposition. He has browbeaten executives to start broadband usage caps and usage-based billing to further boost broadband profits, slammed telephone company competition in the cable business as financially reckless and unwarranted, and dismissed Google Fiber as a project designed to help Google’s public policy aims more than earn the search giant profits from the broadband business.

But Moffett has also been wrong in the past, particularly with respect to cord-cutting which he used to downplay as an urban legend and on the ease cable companies would be able to acquire and merge with each other.

Beyond all that, Moffett and his clients have a proverbial dog in the fight. After years of pumping cable stocks, suggestions that more competition for the cable industry is a good thing would simply be bad for business.

Windstream Tells Its DSL Customer in South Carolina to Consider Satellite Internet Instead

windstream

On the outside looking in.

Windstream’s DSL service in parts of Inman, S.C. is so bad, the company has recommended some DSL customers consider signing up for a competitor’s satellite-based Internet service instead.

In a remarkable response to a complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission by a Windstream customer, Mollie Chewning, an executive customer relations representative for Windstream, suggested no broadband upgrades were likely before 2016 and beyond a $10 monthly discount for a year, customers in Inman will just have to live with DSL speeds that are often less than 1Mbps or consider switching to satellite-delivered Internet from another company.

“Windstream acknowledges some Iman [sic], SC have been experiencing high-speed Internet issues,” Chewning wrote Sharon Bowers, the department division chief of the FCC’s Consumer Information Bureau. “This is a result of the tremendous growth in Internet usage over the past few years as well as the challenging economics of serving rural and remote areas with broadband. Unfortunately, our records indicate Mr. [redacted] service address will likely not benefit from any of our scheduled upgrades in 2015. It is possible some upgrades may be explored in 2016 could assist some customers in Inman via Connect America funding, but Windstream is still finalizing upgrade plans for next year.”

Speed test results

Speed test results

James Corley, the victim of Windstream’s poor-performing DSL, launched a blog to get Windstream moving on upgrades or entice area cable operator Charter Communications to wire his neighborhood for service.

Inman, S.C.

Inman, S.C.

“I am a resident of a small subdivision […] and for nearly a decade, we have been forced to rely on Windstream Communications’ disgraceful DSL internet and telephone services,” Corley writes. “The company’s representatives have been promising us for years that we would be upgraded to faster speeds but the promised upgrades have repeatedly failed to materialize and even though I cannot say for sure where Windstream’s priorities lie, it certainly isn’t with their customers.”

Corley is not asking for much. He’s subscribed to a basic 3Mbps service plan. Windstream does not come close to delivering even those speeds, however, with speed test results showing performance ranging usually below 1Mbps all the way down to 40kbps — less than dial-up.

“Given existing high-speed Internet issues, Mr. [redacted] will receive a $10 discount, which will appear on his account monthly through July 2016,” Chewning wrote. “If Mr. [redacted] finds this information unacceptable, he may want to explore alternate service options such as Internet via satellite.”

Corley has elected to pursue Charter Communications instead. It can offer considerably faster speeds than Windstream or satellite providers at a much lower cost. But Charter has thus far refused to wire Corley’s neighborhood for free. Charter wants at least $7,000 to extend service to the subdivision, after which it will start construction and deliver service within 45 days. Charter has no problem spending $55 billion to acquire Time Warner Cable but is unwilling to spend $7,000 to attract most, if not all 16 residents on the customer’s street.

Windstream appears to be more interested waiting for telephone ratepayers across the country to subsidize incremental improvements in its slow speed DSL service through the Connect America Fund, which has a poor record subsidizing cable operators to bring far superior broadband service to customers like those in Inman.

Until the Windstream customer and his neighbors manage to scrape together $7,000, or Charter extends service at no charge in the name of good public relations, residents of Inman (and beyond) are stuck with Windstream broadband that does not come close to broadband.windstream-fcc-response-1

Wireless Data “Traffic Explosion” is a Fraud; Network Densification Deferred

Analysys Mason logoDespite perennial claims of an unmanageable wireless data traffic tsunami threatening the future of the wireless industry, there is strong evidence wireless data traffic growth has actually flattened, increasing mostly as a result of new customers signing up for service for the first time.

Expensive wireless data plans and usage caps have left consumers more cautious about how they use wireless data, reducing the demand on wireless networks and allowing carriers to defer plans for aggressive network densification they claim is needed to keep up with demand.

Analysys Mason discovered some of the biggest victims of the myth of the traffic tidal wave are the manufacturers and dealers of small cell equipment hoping to make a killing selling solutions to the wireless traffic jam. Vendors attending the ‘Small Cell, Carrier Wi-Fi and Small Cells Backhaul World’ event will have no trouble filling the modest amount of orders they likely received this year. While there is money to made selling small cells to manage data usage in very high traffic locations including shopping and sports venues, AT&T dropped plans to deploy 40,000 small cells on its network by the end of 2015, a goal that had been a key element of its Project Velocity IP (VIP) network initiative, and no other U.S. carrier has shown as much interest in small cell technology as AT&T once did.

It turns out, Rupert Wood, principal analyst at Analysys Mason writes, most operators admit they are not experiencing much “pain” managing data growth. As a result, rapid public small-cell densification, an important indicator of heavy traffic growth, is continuously deferred.

As customers confront costly, usage-limited data plans, they are deterred from the kind of usage that might actually create widespread traffic issues for wireless carriers. Instead, carriers are primarily relying on a mix of data caps, incremental upgrades, and gradual expansion of their traditional cell tower networks to keep 4G performance stable and expand coverage areas to improve customer satisfaction. AT&T claims most of its traffic concerns were abated with the 2014 acquisition of Leap Wireless’ Cricket network, which added to AT&T’s network capacity. The Cricket network never came close to offering nationwide coverage, however.

Figure_2_webWhen pressed for specifics, many wireless carriers eventually admit they have enough spectrum to handle today’s traffic demand, but will face overburdened and insufficient capacity tomorrow. But that is not what the evidence shows.

Analysys Mason:

Nations where the use of 4G is highest are not experiencing exponential growth in mobile data traffic. In fact, they have not been doing so for some time – even in developed Asia–Pacific. In the US, the CTIA recently recorded 26% traffic growth in 2014. If this figure is correct, the average usage per US mobile data subscriber barely changed at all in 2014: the recorded number of data subscribers grew by 22%, and the expected exponential curve of data traffic has morphed into an s-curve.

In fact, with wireless pricing so high in the United States, traffic growth here is minimal in comparison to Sweden, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan. Most shift their usage to Wi-Fi as often as possible instead of chewing up their monthly data allowance.

Analysys Mason believes the forthcoming introduction of LTE-A — the more efficient next generation of 4G — will allow carriers to expand capacity on existing cell towers as quickly as future demand mounts without the need for massive numbers of new towers or small cells.

The analyst firm labels today’s cellular platform as a low-volume, high-cost network. If providers cut prices or relaxed usage caps, traffic would grow. It recommends operators should focus on increasing the supply of, and stimulating the demand for, data usage, and not simply expecting demand to come at some point in the near future. The analyst believes constructing a network of fiber-connected small cells may open the door to an exponentially higher capacity wireless network that performs better than traditional wireless data services and is robust enough to support high bandwidth applications that demand a strong level of network performance.

It would also benefit fiber to the home providers that could also market wireless backhaul service to wireless companies, helping defray the costs of constructing the fiber network and further monetizing it.

Another Reminder Wireless ISPs are Not a Good Choice if a Fiber Alternative is Possible

Rationing Your Internet Experience: Stick to e-mail and web pages.

Rationing Your Internet Experience: Stick to e-mail and web pages.

This week’s news that the alleged owner of a Wireless ISP serving parts of New England may have fled the country to avoid an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission on an unrelated digital currency matter has left about 1,000 Vermont customers of GAW Wireless with no certain future for their Internet Service Provider.

As the “Geniuses At Work” came under pressure from public accusations the company was running a scam on digital currency investors, so went the performance of GAW Wireless. In February, a two-week service outage left many customers without telephone and Internet service. This month, e-mail accounts stopped working for some and nobody appears to be answering the firm’s customer service line. Even Vermont’s Attorney General cannot find the owner.

While Wireless ISPs (WISPs) can be a good option for North America’s unserved rural communities, they are not always the best choice, especially as customers continue to gravitate towards high bandwidth applications like Netflix.

Some rural WISPs have kept up with customer demand and continue to offer good service. Others have educated customers about being a good steward of a limited resource by showing courtesy to other customers by self-limiting heavy traffic applications to off-peak hours.

But other providers have chosen usage-discouraging data caps or usage-based billing to cover up for their inadequate infrastructure investment. In Nova Scotia, Eastlink’s new 15GB monthly usage cap on rural customers is nothing short of Internet rationing, completely ignorant of the fact most customers have moved beyond the Internet applications Eastlink envisioned them using when it built its network in 2006. Nearly a decade later, it is ridiculous to suggest customers should be happy continuing to pay almost $50 a month for a 1.5Mbps connection designed for e-mail, basic web browsing, and occasional dabbling into downloads, music, and video.

Come for the view but don't stay for the broadband.

Come for the view but don’t stay for the wireless broadband.

Some angry customers suspect Eastlink is simply being greedy. We believe it is more likely Eastlink’s existing wireless network is no longer adequate for the needs of Nova Scotians (or practically anybody else in 2015). The evidence that congestion is the real problem was supplied by customers who have noticed the network’s performance has slowed over the last few years. That is a sign the network is either oversold — too many customers trying to share the same bandwidth limited resource — or has become congested because of the growth of Internet traffic generally. It might even be both.

Implementing draconian usage caps only alienates customers and suggests Eastlink wants to collect as much revenue as it can from a resource that should either be vastly upgraded or retired in favor of superior technology. We have not seen anything from Eastlink that suggests major upgrades are on the way. In fact, the only conclusion we can make from Eastlink’s public comments is they think equal access to an inadequate resource is fairer than actually upgrading it.

Eastlink claims nobody could have envisioned Internet traffic growth from the likes of Netflix. In fact, equipment manufacturers like 3Com and Cisco were issuing scare stories about Internet brownouts and future traffic exafloods since December, 1995 — the year before Eastlink planned its Nova Scotia wireless network. Smart network planners have kept up with demand, which has been made easier by technology improvements accompanying the increased traffic. A good ISP recognizes upgrades are continual and essential to keep up with customer needs. A bad ISP introduces a rationing usage cap and claims it is only trying to be fair to every customer.

Phillip "Fiber is Good for You" Dampier

Phillip “Fiber is Good for You” Dampier

Usage caps and usage-based billing have never been about “fairness.” We’ve seen all sorts of usage enforcement schemes imposed on customers since 2008 when Stop the Cap! was founded. In each instance, usage caps were only about the money. Eastlink customers will not see any rate decrease as a result of its rationing plan, giving users less value for their broadband dollar. If an Eastlink customer confines use of their high traffic applications to the overnight hours, when they would cause little or no congestion, they will still eat into their monthly usage allowance.

All the benefits of usage caps accrue to Eastlink, either by reducing traffic on its network and allowing the company to delay necessary upgrades, or by pocketing the inevitable overlimit fees, which may or may not go towards upgrades. In our experience, the case for spending capital on network upgrades has never depended on overlimit fees collected from subscribers squirreled away in a separate bank account.

This is why communities in Vermont, Nova Scotia and beyond should strongly consider investing in fiber optics for broadband delivery and consider wireless only for the least populated areas. A broadband project in rural western Massachusetts can offer a guide to resolving the ongoing problem of unserved or underserved communities ignored by commercial providers. Deprived of upgrades from Verizon and shunned by Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the residents of these towns continue to vote overwhelmingly in favor of fiber optics.

The WiredWest approach is a solid solution. The initiative secures bond authorizations from each participating town in a public vote backed by deposits of $49 per household, held in escrow to be later used to cover the first month of broadband service when the service launches. Each town must have at least a 40% buy-in from residents, providing strong evidence the project has a solid customer base, is financially viable, and can recover construction costs and pay off the bonds estimated at $100-120 million within a reasonable amount of time. The state legislature contributed an additional $40 million dedicated to last mile infrastructure — the cost to wire each home or business. (In contrast, Nova Scotia and the federal government spent $34 million subsidizing the Eastlink wireless network in 2007 that has not aged well. Fiber optics is infinitely upgradable.) By choosing fiber optics, instead of getting rationed, slow speed, or no Internet service, WiredWest towns will be able to subscribe to 25Mbps for $49 a month, 100Mbps service for $79, or 1,000Mbps for $109 a month
.

In comparison, Eastlink charges $46.95 a month for “up to” 1.5Mbps with a 15GB cap and GAW Wireless (when working) charges $39.95/mo for “up to 7Mbps.”

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