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Australia’s National Broadband Network Looking for Scapegoats Over Maddening Slowdowns

Australia’s speed-challenged NBN is looking for scapegoats and finds video game players an easy target.

In 2009, Australia’s Labor Party proposed scrapping the country’s copper wire networks and replacing virtually all of it with a state-of-the-art, public fiber to the home service in cities from Perth to the west to Brisbane in the east, with the sparsely populated north and central portions of the country served by satellite-based or wireless internet.

It was a revolutionary transformation of the country’s challenged broadband networks, which had been heavily usage capped and speed throttled for years, and for large sections of the country stuck using Telstra’s DSL service, terribly slow.

The National Broadband Network concept was immediately attacked by the political opposition as too expensive and unnecessary. Conservative demagogues in the media and in Parliament dismissed the concept as a Cadillac network delivering unnecessarily fast 100 Mbps connections to 90% of Australians that would, in reality, mostly benefit internet addicts while leaving older taxpayers to foot the estimated $43AUS billion dollar bill for the network.

The leaders of the center-right Liberal Party of Australia promised in 2010 to “demolish” the NBN if elected, claiming the network was too costly and would take too long to build. As network construction got underway, the organized attacks on the NBN intensified, and it was a significant issue in the 2013 election that defeated the Labor government and put the conservative government of Tony Abbott into power. Almost immediately, most of the governing board of the NBN was asked to resign and in a series of cost-saving maneuvers, the government canceled plans for a nationwide fiber-to-the-home network. In its place, Abbott and his colleagues promoted a cheaper fiber to the neighborhood network similar to AT&T’s U-verse. Fiber would be run to neighborhood cabinets, where it would connect with the country’s existing copper wire telephone service to each customer’s home.

Abbott

Unfortunately, the revised NBN implemented by the Abbott government appears to be delivering a network that is already increasingly obsolete. Long gone is the goal for ubiquitous 100 Mbps. For Senator Mitch Fifield, who also happens to be the minister for communications in the Liberal government, 25 Mbps is all the speed Australians will ever need.

“Given the choice, Australians have shown that 100 Mbps speeds are not as important to them as keeping monthly internet bills affordable, when the services they are using typically don’t require those speeds,” Fifield wrote in an opinion piece in response to an American journalist complaining about how slow Australian broadband was while reporting from the country.

The standard of “fast enough” for Senator Fifield also seems to be the minimum speed at which Netflix performs well, an important distinction for the growing number of Australians watching streaming television shows and movies.

Unfortunately for Fifield, network speeds are declining as Australians use the NBN as it was intended. While perhaps adequate for a network designed and built for 2010 internet users, data usage has grown considerably over the last eight years, and the government’s effort to keep the network’s costs down are coming back to haunt all involved. Several design changes have erased much of the savings the Abbott government envisioned would come from dumping a straight fiber network in favor of cheaper alternatives.

Right now, depending on one’s address, urban Australians will get one of four different fiber flavors the revised NBN depends on to deliver service:

  • Fiber to the Home (FTTH): the most capable network that delivers a fiber connection straight into your home.
  • Fiber to the Neighborhood (FTTN): a less capable network using fiber into neighborhoods which connects with your existing copper wire phone line to deliver service to your home.
  • Fiber to the Basement (FTTB): Fiber is installed in multi-dwelling units like apartments or condos, which connects to the building’s existing copper wire or ethernet network to your unit.
  • Fiber to the Distribution Point (FTTDP): Fiber is strung all the way to your front or back yard, where it connects with the existing copper wire drop line into your home.

In suburban and rural areas, the NBN is depending on tremendously over-hyped satellite internet access or fixed wireless internet. Customers were told wireless speeds from either technology would be comparable to some flavors of fiber, which turned out to be true assuming only one or two users were connected at a time. Instead, speeds dramatically drop in the evenings and on weekends when customers attempt to share the neighborhood’s wireless internet connection.

Instead of improving the wireless network, or scrapping it in favor of a wired/fiber alternative, the government has set on so-called “heavy users” and blamed them for effectively sabotaging the network.

Morrow

NBN CEO Bill Morrow recently appeared before a parliamentary committee to discuss reported problems with how the NBN was being rolled out in regional Australia. Morrow blamed increasing data usage for the wireless network’s difficulties, singling out slacker video game addicts for most of the trouble, and was considering implementing speed throttles on “extreme users” during peak usage periods.

Stephen Jones, Labor’s spokesperson for regional communications, questioned Morrow on what exactly an “extreme user” was.

“It’s gamers predominantly, on fixed wireless,” said Morrow. “While people are gaming it is a high bandwidth requirement that is a steady streaming process,” he said.

Morrow suggested a “fair-use policy” of speed throttles might be effective at stopping the gamers from allegedly hogging the network.

“I said there were super-users out there consuming terabytes of data and the question is should we actually groom those down? It’s a consideration,” he said. “This is where you can do things, to where you can traffic shape – where you say, ‘no, no, no, we can only offer you service when you’re not impacting somebody else’.”

The NBN itself has regularly dismissed claims that online gamers are data hogs. In an article written by the NBN itself, it stressed gameplay was not a significant stress on broadband networks.

“Believe it or not, some of the biggest online games use very little data while you’re playing compared to streaming HD video or even high-fidelity audio,” the article stated. “Where streaming 4K video can use as much as 7 gigabytes per hour and high-quality audio streaming gets up to around 125 megabytes per hour, (but usually sits at around half that) certain online games use as little as 10MB per hour.”

The article admits a very small percentage of games are exceptions, capable of chewing through up to 1 GB per hour, but that is still seven times less than a typical 4K streaming video.

In fact, the NBN’s own data acknowledged in March 2017 that high-definition streaming video was solely responsible for the biggest spike in demand. NBN data showed the average household connected to the NBN used 32% more data than the year before. When Netflix Australia premiered in March 2015, overall usage grew 22% in the first month.

So why did Morrow scapegoat gamers for network slowdowns? It’s politically palatable.

“They always have someone to blame for why the NBN doesn’t deliver, they have every excuse except the one that really matters, which is the flawed technology,” said the former CEO of Internet Australia Laurie Patton. “In this case for some reason shooting from the hip [Bill Morrow] had a go at gamers and gamers are not the problem.”

As long as Australia continues to embrace a network platform that is not adequate robust to cope with increasing demands from users, slow speeds and internet traffic jams will only increase over time. In retrospect, the decision to scrap the original fiber to the home network to save money appears to be penny wise, pound foolish.

Comcast Dumps Congestion Management System It Says Was Unused for a Year

Image courtesy: cobalt123Comcast has quietly dropped its internet congestion management system, designed to slow down its heaviest users, claiming it has gone unused for more than a year and was no longer needed.

Originally spotted by readers of DSL Reports, the announcement referenced the system that replaced Comcast’s speed throttle that intentionally degraded peer-to-peer network traffic after Comcast claimed it was unfairly impacting its other customers:

As reflected in a June 11, 2018 update to our XFINITY Internet Broadband Disclosures, the congestion management system that was initially deployed in 2008 has been deactivated. As our network technologies and usage of the network continue to evolve, we reserve the right to implement a new congestion management system if necessary in the performance of reasonable network management and in order to maintain a good broadband Internet access service experience for our customers, and will provide updates here as well as other locations if a new system is implemented.

Comcast’s “protocol-agnostic” network management technology, designed by Sandvine and introduced in 2008, measured customer traffic and singled out heavy users for speed reductions when Comcast’s network was saturated with traffic. Customers were unaware if they were deemed heavy users or if their traffic was targeted for temporary speed reductions. Comcast relied on the technology, along with the introduction of a 250 GB nationwide data cap, to control network traffic and stall the need for expensive node-split upgrades.

Comcast claims the introduction of DOCSIS 3.0 (starting in late 2008) and DOCSIS 3.1 (2017) gradually eliminated the need to maintain the congestion management system, because channel bonding vastly expanded available internet bandwidth. What remains in place in most Comcast service areas is Comcast’s controversial 1 TB usage cap. The company initially claimed its data caps were part of a network traffic management strategy, but more recently the company claims it collects more from heavy users to compensate for its broadband investments.

Data-Capping Comcast Forecasts “Tremendous Amount of Consumption” Growth in Broadband Usage

Usage caps for one and all.

Comcast, which insists on placing a 1 TB (1,000 GB) usage cap on most (but not all) of its broadband customers, is predicting explosive growth in broadband usage as customers connect more devices to their internet connections.

“[If] you look at in terms of just overall consumption, just at a high level, you look at the top 10% of our customers, just how much they use, they are using 20 or more connected devices,” said Comcast Cable president and CEO David N. Watson on a company conference call. “And it’s a tremendous amount of consumption that we have. And I think that’s where the market is going. There is going to be more consumption, more connected devices.”

Comcast’s growth forecasts suggest the company schedules regular network upgrades, although it has only adjusted usage allowances three times in the last decade:

  • Comcast introduced a 250 GB usage cap in 2008 that carried no overlimit penalty but persistent violators lost their Comcast broadband service.
  • Comcast raised the cap 300 GB in 2013 and implemented an overlimit fee.
  • Comcast raised the cap to 1 TB in 2016 and began promoting its Unlimited Data Option as an insurance policy against bill shock from overlimit fees.

“It is important to know that more than 99 percent of our customers do not use a terabyte of data and are not likely to be impacted by this plan, so they can continue to stream, surf, and download without worry,” claims Comcast on its website. As of December, 2017, “Xfinity Internet customers’ median monthly data usage was 131 GB per month during the past six months.”

Such claims should make customers wonder why Comcast needs a usage allowance of any kind if these claims are true. A 2016 study suggests Comcast may have more heavy users than it is willing to admit. The research firm iGR found average broadband usage that year was already at 190 GB and rising. There is no third-party verification of providers’ usage statistics or usage measurement tools, but there are public statements from Comcast officials that suggest the company faces a predictable upgrade cycle to deal with rising usage.

“We increase the capacity every 18 to 24 months,” confirmed Watson.

Upgrading is also a crucial part of Comcast’s ability to charge premium prices for its internet service.

“Not all broadband networks are created equal,” Watson said. “If you are providing a better solution in broadband, your pricing can reflect that.”

For Comcast customers using a terabyte or more in a month, after two courtesy months of penalty fees being waived, Comcast will recommend signing up for its Unlimited Data Option, which costs $50 a month. If you do not enroll and exceed your allowance a third time, the company will bill you overlimit fees: $10 for each additional block of 50 GB of usage. The maximum overlimit penalty in any single month is a whopping $200.

Critics of Comcast’s data caps point out that Charter — the nation’s second largest cable operator, has no usage caps at all. Optimum (Altice) also does not impose data caps. Those that do often copy Comcast’s data allowances and overlimit fees exactly — all to deal with so-called “data hogs” that the companies themselves claim represent fewer than 1% of subscribers.

42% of Frontier’s Customers in Nevada are “Very Dissatisfied” With Their DSL Service

Bad results for Frontier DSL in Nevada. (Source: Elko Residential Broadband Survey)

Bad results for Frontier DSL in Nevada. (Source: Elko Residential Broadband Survey)

Only six Frontier Communications customers surveyed in Elko, Nev. gave the phone company an “A” for its DSL service, while 42% flunked Frontier for what they considered unacceptable internet service.

The Elko Broadband Action Team has surveyed residential and business customers about broadband performance and found widespread dissatisfaction with Frontier Communications over slow connections and service interruptions.

“I’m pretty disappointed in them,” said Elko councilman John Patrick Rice.

Businesses and residential customers were in close agreement with each other rating Frontier’s service, with nearly 87% complaining they endure buffering delays or slowdowns, especially when watching streaming video. When browsing web pages, nearly three-quarters of surveyed customers still found service lacking.

Among the complaints (Res)-Residential (Bus)-Business:

  • Service interruptions: 74.43% (Res)/79.69% (Bus)
  • Too slow/not receiving advertised speed: 72.16% (Res)/65.75% (Bus)
  • Price: 63.64% (Res)/37.5% (Bus)
  • Customer Service: 38.07% (Res)/45.31% (Bus)

The Nevada Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection received a steady stream of complaints about Frontier’s DSL service in the state over the past year.

Answering the survey question, “would you be interested in faster download and upload speeds at prices that are somewhat comparable to what you are paying now?” 97.87 percent of residential respondents said yes.

Frontier representatives responded to the survey results at a March 27 Elko City Council meeting.

“Frontier did recognize it could improve upstream and downstream flow and educated the council and the public on some of the issues,” Elko assistant city manager Scott Wilkinson said.

Javier Mendoza, director of public relations for Frontier’s West region, explained much of the area Frontier services in Nevada is very rural, so customers are “located many miles from the core Frontier network facilities used to provide broadband service, which makes it technologically and economically challenging to provide faster internet speeds. However, Frontier is continually evaluating and working to improve its network and has and will continue to undertake various initiatives at a customer and community level to enhance its internet services.”

Mendoza said Frontier was currently testing fixed wireless internet service to serve rural areas, but had few details about the service or when it might be available.

Frontier also noted internet traffic was up 25% in the Elko area, primarily as a result of video streaming, social media, and cloud services.

But Councilmen Reece Keener complained Frontier was underinvesting in its network, meaning the company is not well-equipped to deal with increases in demand, something Mendoza denied.

“Several areas of the network providing internet service to Elko have been and continue to be upgraded, providing enhanced service reliability, and ultimately will enable new and upgraded services,” Mendoza said.

It can’t come soon enough for students of Great Basin College, where those taking online courses using Frontier DSL have problems uploading their assignments, claimed Rice, who taught online classes at the college.

“We can get the classes out to the students, but the challenge is for students to get assignments back to the college,” Rice said in a phone interview with the Elko Daily Free Press.

Frontier also claimed improved service performance so far in 2018, up from the fourth quarter of 2017. The company claimed 98.3% of service orders met performance goals, up from 94.37% and  commitments met scored at 92 percent, up from 89.98 percent. Trouble tickets declined from 1,712 to 1,244 across Nevada, the company also claimed.

FCC Looks to Press More Spectrum Into Service for 5G Wireless

The Federal Communications Commission is pushing hard to free up additional spectrum in some unlikely extremely high frequency ranges — some at 95 GHz or higher, for the next generation of wireless services.

Just a year ago in 2017, the FCC wrapped up its latest spectrum auction for the higher end of the UHF TV band, to be repurposed for mobile service use. But now the agency is seeking to find and reassign underused spectrum in much higher frequency bands that could be used for services like 5G wireless, machine-to-machine communications, intelligent road and vehicle networks, and other uses yet to be invented or envisioned.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel made it clear that smart spectrum allocation was critical for next generation wireless services.

“The point is the list is long — and we are looking at midband and millimeter wave to power the 5G future,” Rosenworcel said. “The propagation challenges are real, but so is the potential for capacity with network densification. Of course, what we need to do next is get these airwaves to market and unconditionally hold an auction this year.”

The FCC is contemplating auctions covering these frequencies in 2018:

3.5 GHz

Widely expected to draw the most interest, the Citizens Broadband Radio Service band was originally intended primarily for unlicensed users, but the wireless industry has lobbied heavily to get much of this spectrum reassigned for traditional long-term licensed use. Although very high frequency, the 3550-3700 MHz “innovation band” will have plenty of wide range of frequencies open for wireless data and mobile services. The wireless industry wants to deploy LTE service on this band, but they will likely compete with cable operators that are seeking their own stake of frequencies to launch their own wireless services.

This band will likely support last mile wireless connections at gigabit speed, fixed wireless broadband, and even in-home Wi-Fi that is significantly better than what you have now.

Because the band is so attractive, several different users are competing over who will be portioned what spectrum. The cable and phone companies want more for themselves, but other users, including consumers, want to reserve enough spectrum for unlicensed applications. The concern is deep pocketed companies may crowd out innovators and start-ups.

3.7 to 4.2 GHz

Some consumers may have accessed services on these frequencies without ever realizing it. This is the home of the “C-Band,” recognizable to any home satellite dishowner of the 1980s and 1990s. This range of frequencies is set aside for line-of-sight, very low powered satellite television — the kind that used to require a 10-12 foot wide satellite dish in the backyard to receive. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wants to open the band up to be shared with 5G wireless broadband, which has caused considerable controversy among satellite users who fear devastating interference.

There are proposals and counter proposals from the satellite industry and wireless companies over how to manage sharing this band. Most are coalescing around the idea of sequestering 100 MHz of spectrum at the low-end of the band and using 3700-3800 MHz for high-speed wireless broadband. Some want satellite operators to clear out of this section of frequencies voluntarily, others propose compensation similar to what was given to television stations to relocate their channel positions. Google is pushing for a plan that would offer mobile 5G service in large urban areas and 25 Mbps – 1 Gbps fixed wireless broadband in rural and residential areas.

But satellite companies and many satellite users are fearful of the impact of interference. Because satellite signals use very low power transponders on the satellite, ground based wireless broadband interference could wipe out satellite reception.

Tom Taggart, who owns several radio stations in West Virginia, says sharing spectrum was tried before and did not work well.

“This band, years ago, was shared with AT&T and other telcos for point-to-point long-distance links. Fixed, licensed paths that could be plotted and protected against for satellite installations,” Taggart told Radio World. “Our studios are 1,500 feet from an old MCI tower, at one time we had a metal screen behind our satellite dish to protect against ‘back-scatter’ from a path aimed away from us. Still, we had to convince MCI to shut down one channel so we could pick up a program from Premiere [a radio network distributing programming on satellite].”

Some industry plans propose registering C-Band satellite dishes, at a cost of $600-$1,600 per site, which would allegedly protect them from interference by requiring wireless broadband services to steer clear of the area.

“But I am not even sure what kind of broadband services are proposed,” Taggart said. “One might assume these would be omnidirectional sites, like a typical cell site. Even with some clever computer-engineered directional patterns, reflections off hillsides, billboards, buildings would be enough to overwhelm the tiny satellite signal. However, other articles described these services as ‘mobile.’ Even if my dish is registered, how can I resolve interference problems from a mobile device?”

The debate rages on because the frequencies involved, next to the even more popular CBRS band, are highly coveted.

4.9 GHz

After the events of 9/11 in 2001, the FCC has prioritized public safety communications, in hopes of improving the interoperability of different first responders’ portable radios. At that time, fire agencies could not easily talk to police, ambulance crews, or in some cases other fire crews arriving from different departments miles away.

Many agencies contemplating use of this band discovered equipment that supported 4.9 GHz was hard to find and extremely expensive. Most public safety agencies seeking grants or other funding to improve their communications equipment opted to transition to digital P25 networks that operate on much lower frequencies and use equipment that is now widely available and, in comparison, much cheaper. Many agencies are conservative about using new technology as well, concerned a communications failure could cost the life of a fire or police responder. As a result, of the 90,000 organizations certified for licenses in this band, only 3,174 have been granted. That represents a take rate of just 3.5%. The band, as one might expect, is effectively dead in most areas, underutilized in others.

“As the demand for wireless services continues to grow, it is imperative that the FCC takes steps to ensure underutilized spectrum bands are used efficiently,” said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. “This is as true for spectrum allocated to public safety as it is for the bands used to support commercial wireless broadband services.”

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly is convinced wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon could use the frequencies more efficiently.

“It has been 16 years since the 4.9 GHz band was allocated to the public safety community, and it is still woefully underutilized,” said O’Rielly. “That is not sustainable in an environment in which every megahertz of spectrum, especially below 6 GHz, needs to be fully scrutinized and maximized in quick order. While the Commission’s original allocation was more than likely well-intentioned, it is way past time to take a fresh look at this 50 megahertz of spectrum.”

Although higher than 3.5 GHz, engineers believe there is a very credible case to be made to use the available spectrum for 5G fixed wireless services, delivering broadband at speeds up to 1 GHz from a small cell located nearby. It would have to be. At these frequencies, virtually anything blocking the line-of-sight between the antenna and the user will block the signal as well. With almost no constituency defending the 4.9 GHz turf, it is expected it will be repurposed for wireless broadband in areas where it isn’t in use for public safety communications.

24/28 GHz

Although the 28 GHz band has many licensed users already, the 24 GHz band does not, and the wireless industry is interested in grabbing vast swaths of spectrum in this band for 5G home broadband. Known as “millimeter wave spectrum,” these two bands are expected to be a big part of the 5G fixed wireless services being planned by some carriers. Verizon acquired Straight Path late in 2017, which had collected a large number of licenses for this frequency range. Today, Verizon holds almost 30% of all currently licensed millimeter wave spectrum, an untenable situation if you are AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint. T-Mobile has been the most aggressive seeking more spectrum to compete with Verizon in this frequency range, and has purchased almost 1,150 MHz covering Ohio for use with a 5G project the company is working on.

39 GHz

FiberTower, now owned by AT&T

This band might as well be called “the controversial band” because AT&T made moves on these frequencies even before the FCC got around to discussing an auction for this band, likely also to be used for 5G fixed wireless. FiberTower originally held hundreds of licenses for wireless spectrum for several years, but did little with them, leading to suggestions the company was either hoarding the spectrum to resell to someone else or was incapable of deploying a network that used the frequencies. The company declared bankruptcy in 2012, eventually emerging in the spring of 2014 just in time to watch the FCC uphold the decision of its Telecommunications Bureau to cancel 689 of FiberTower’s licenses for failure to use them.

In February 2018, AT&T completed its acquisition of FiberTower for $207 million. According to AllNet Insights & Analytics, AT&T acquired more than 475 of FiberTower’s 39 GHz spectrum licenses, raising eyebrows among shareholders who lost their investments in FiberTower after it declared bankruptcy. Hundreds of the spectrum licenses that came with the AT&T deal were given a value of $0.00, allowing AT&T a sweetheart deal and shareholders hoping to recover more money from the bankruptcy liquidation extremely upset. In fact, had FiberTower remained in bankruptcy, it would eventually have surrendered all of its licenses, which would then be put up for auction by the FCC and would likely command much higher value among bidders. Verizon effectively paid triple the price for what AT&T got for a song in the FiberTower acquisition. Even more remarkable, the FCC approved the acquisition by AT&T despite the obvious fire sale price, and has ignored the consequences of what could come from an AT&T/Verizon duopoly across large swaths of 5G frequencies.

Eshoo

That brought a rebuke from Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) who accused both Verizon and AT&T of flipping public property for private gain.

“The FCC’s policies unambiguously required Straight Path and FiberTower to forfeit their unbuilt spectrum licenses,” Eshoo wrote. “But rather than auction the reclaimed spectrum and promote timely deployment, the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau reached ‘resolutions’ with Straight Path and FiberTower than allowed them to profit handsomely from their wrongdoing. Following the ‘resolution,’ Straight Path sold its assets to Verizon for nearly $3.1 billion, and FiberTower is estimated to have sold its assets to AT&T for roughly $2 billion.”

In reality, AT&T acquired FiberTower for $207 million — a fraction of the amount of the estimated value of the spectrum Eshoo used in her estimate.

“The Bureau’s decisions also further concentrated critical input resources in the hands of the two dominant wireless incumbents,” Eshoo continued. “The purchasers of the public assets that Straight Path and FiberTower once held, Verizon and AT&T, already control a disproportionate amount of other critical spectrum available for immediate deployment. Up until recently, the industry had an imbalance in favor of these companies in low-band spectrum that lasted for decades. The FCC now risks going down the same wrong path with high-band spectrum should the Commission continue down this course. Allowing Straight Path and FiberTower to ‘flip’ public assets for private gain does nothing for taxpayers, but does much to further entrench the dominant incumbents’ longstanding spectrum advantage over their rivals.”

95+ GHz

The FCC has not regulated frequencies above 95 GHz, but as technology advances, there is growing interest in utilizing spectrum that many believed would be essentially unusable for communications services. Right now, most frequencies in this range are used by environmental satellites and radio astronomy. At these frequencies, signals would be absorbed by the skin and attenuated significantly by things like high humidity’s haze or fog. Still, there are proposals under consideration to open up a small portion of spectrum for unlicensed home users for things like indoor wireless routers.

The key policy priority here will be to protect existing users from any hint of interference. But with vast amounts of unused frequencies in this range, it shouldn’t be difficult to keep competing users apart.

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