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T-Mobile Increases True Unlimited to 50GB a Month Before Speed Throttling

T-Mobile today announced it was boosting the amount of data its “unlimited data” customers can use before they are subject to speed throttling from 32GB to 50GB, effective Sept. 20, 2017.

“Meanwhile, Verizon and AT&T sit at a meager 22GB, meaning Un-carrier customers can use more than 2x the data before prioritization kicks in,” wrote Neville Ray, T-Mobile’s chief technology officer. “Now, 50GB of data usage means a T-Mobile customer is basically the top 1% of data users, and to put it in context, you could stream a full two hours of Netflix every single day – that’s 30 SD movies – and never even reach that point! You’d still have roughly 8GB to go.”

Like other wireless companies, “unlimited data” does not actually mean “unlimited.” Providers allot a certain allowance of truly unlimited data which, once exceeded, subjects the customer to speed-reducing “throttles” until the next bill cycle begins. T-Mobile claims it only throttles customers when a customer exceeds their “prioritization” allowance — 50GB as of tomorrow — and the cell tower they are using is currently experiencing congestion.

“When T-Mobile customers who use the most data hit these prioritization points during the month, they get in line behind other customers who have used less data and may experience reduced speeds,” Ray wrote. “But this impacts them only very rarely, like when there is a big line, and it resets every month. If you have a lot of congestion in your network (I’m looking at you, Verizon & AT&T), these lines can be long and deprioritized customers can be waiting a long time.”

No wireless company will provide data on which cell towers are likely to experience the most congestion, how many customers are speed throttled, or what speeds customers will get for how long before the throttle usually drops. But it is definitely harder to hit 50GB than 22 or 32GB, which means fewer customers are likely to find their wireless data connections throttled.

There has been no response yet from T-Mobile’s competitors — AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon.

Verizon Wireless Pushes Customer to Upgrade Data Plan Before Closing His Account

Danny, who lives in eastern Hancock County, Me., was more than a little confused by his September Verizon Wireless bill.

“You haven’t had an overage yet, but you recently cut it close,” warned the wireless company. Verizon’s definition of “cutting it close” was using 7.3GB of data in June, 7GB in July, and 7.4GB in August. His data plan includes an allowance of 12GB a month, and he only used just over half of that. Despite that, Verizon Wireless recommended he “get on the right plan.” For Danny, who already spends nearly $250 a month with Verizon, that would mean an upgrade to “Beyond Unlimited,” which offers “unlimited” 4G LTE data (subject to throttling once you head north of 22GB of usage a month) and 15GB of hotspot usage. The added cost? Another $52.99 a month, taking Danny’s bill to $300 a month.

A $300 cell phone bill might be a subject of a story all on its own, but what really got Danny’s attention was a billing notice (and letter mailed separately to his home), telling him his family was being kicked off Verizon Wireless and his account would be closed Oct. 17. The reason? He was “using a significant amount of data while roaming off the Verizon Wireless network:”

The same company inviting him to spend $52 more on an unlimited data plan has now dis-invited him as a customer because it didn’t like how and where he used the existing data plan that came with his account.

“I checked all of my data usage for the past 12 months,” Danny tells Stop the Cap! “Data usage was anywhere from 3.5GB (for three lines), up to 8.5GB.  We have rollover data as part of our plan (previous month of unused data rolls over to the next month). One month we used 16GB (that was the month that we drove to Texas and back), but still never went over the data we had available.”

Danny’s family uses their phones primarily in eastern Hancock County, a well-recognized trouble spot for cell phone dead zones until Wireless Partners, an independent cell tower owner/operator, partnered with Verizon Wireless to construct new cell towers using spectrum acquired by Verizon. Many of the cell sites were specifically designed to reach Downeast Maine, home to a number of small communities — some drawing tourists in the summer and others not. Wireless Partners’ new towers concentrated improved coverage along the Route 1 corridor between Ellsworth and Calais, and the Route 9 corridor known to the locals as the Airline — from Calais to Aurora, communities mostly east of Bangor on roads that take visitors to communities like Bar Harbor, right on the coast, or all the way to the New Brunswick border.

Downeast Maine

In this part of Maine, customers have to choose their cellular provider carefully because no company offers solid coverage in every community in the region. Those living in more tourist-focused communities or cities on the coast or one of the offshore islands often select U.S. Cellular, a regional carrier that has accepted millions of federal dollars from the Universal Service Fund to expand service. U.S. Cellular has added towers in communities like Bangor, Lewiston-Auburn, Ellsworth and the Presque Isle-Houlton area. But in many smaller towns, U.S. Cellular reception often disappears. The other two providers — Verizon Wireless and AT&T — focus most of their attention on cities like Portland, Augusta and Bangor, and along I-95 and in popular tourist areas on the coast.

“Unlike in many other states, if you choose the wrong carrier in Maine, you get absolutely no reception at home and perhaps one bar, if you are lucky, while on the road going to work or doing errands,” said Mike Fastler, a lifelong resident. “More than anywhere else I know, people here talk to their neighbors about what cell company works for them, and in a lot of towns almost everyone relies on the same company because it is the only one that delivers good reception.”

Fastler says in large parts of Downeast Maine east of I-95, Verizon Wireless has recently been the most solid, primarily because its network has been supplemented with towers built by Wireless Partners, which has prioritized improving cell reception around the inland areas of Washington and Hancock counties. The customers most likely of being booted by Verizon Wireless are customers that live and/or work in these two counties.

Customers like Danny have no idea Verizon considers them roaming abusers because when using cell towers run by Wireless Partners, Verizon devices show reception as part of Verizon’s home LTE network. No roaming indicators appear at all. But Verizon must still pay Wireless Partners when their customers use the third-party company’s cell towers. Verizon’s interpretation of its customer agreement allows it to terminate customers found roaming excessively. The question is, is 7GB of usage on a cell tower network built to augment Verizon Wireless’ coverage area be defined as “excessive.”

Verizon thinks so, telling Ars Technica:

“These customers live outside of areas where Verizon operates our own network,” Verizon said. “Many of the affected consumer lines use a substantial amount of data while roaming on other providers’ networks and the roaming costs generated by these lines exceed what these consumers pay us each month.”

But Danny and many other affected readers tell us their usage is well below 10GB a month. Some customers received termination notices and use an average of only 3GB a month and live near a Wireless Partners tower.

“It seems highly unlikely Verizon Wireless is incurring costs that are exceeding customers’ bills,” adds Fastler, who is also scheduled to be canceled on Oct. 17. “I used 1.5GB in August and never came close to hitting 5GB on our account over the last two years and I am being shut off.”

Fastler tried to sign up as a new Verizon Wireless customer with his wife to escape the account closure, but Verizon Wireless’ crackdown is complete and the company has at least temporarily stopped accepting new customers in areas where its third-party cell tower operators provide service.

“Give them your zip code and if it is in an affected area the system kicks the order out and won’t accept it,” reports Fastler.

Jason Sulham, a spokesperson for Wireless Partners confirms Verizon’s order lockdown on Maine Public Radio in response to questions about just how many customers are being removed from Verizon’s network.

“Verizon is restricting any new customers in those areas, so when you talk about what that final number is, what they have indicated is a final number of current customers who have received a termination letter. However, that doesn’t take into account the number of people who are in that area that can’t even sign up as new customers for the service, which is certainly not what was part of the original intent of building this network,” Sulham says.

The crackdown on rural coverage will make life exceptionally difficult for affected customers. Maine is America’s most rural state, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, with more than 61% of the population living in communities of less than 2,500. Many of those communities are spread far apart, making cell towers difficult to place to reach the largest number of customers. Some communities have access to just one tower. Others are only partly serviced, requiring users to go outside, run up nearby hills, or take a short drive to get a single bar of reception. That is why Verizon’s news has hit this part of Maine so hard.

For many locals, Wireless Partners solved a problem Verizon itself wouldn’t solve, and stronger cell coverage came as a result. Now Verizon threatens to recreate the original problem, and by limiting access to its partner networks, it could throw those companies’ business plans into the air and make them financially untenable.

Verizon Wireless Brings Big Changes to “Unlimited” Data Plans; Throttled Video for All

All Verizon Wireless customers, regardless of their data plan, will begin seeing throttled video on their phones, tablets, and tethered devices starting today, Aug. 23.

The change coincides with the introduction of two new “unlimited” data plans that come with an unprecedented number of tricks and traps in the fine print.

Existing customers can keep their current plan, but will still experience throttled online video speeds to at or below 10Mbps that will make it impossible to view 4K streamed video. On smartphones, the top permitted video resolution will be substantially lower than that.

Verizon claims the new throttled video plans will deliver better service for all of their wireless customers.

“We’re doing this to ensure all customers have a great experience on our network since there is no visible difference in quality on a smartphone or tablet when video is shown at higher resolutions,” a Verizon spokesperson claimed. That refers to video resolution above 720p for phones and 1080p on tablets and laptops.

More likely, Verizon engineers observed video traffic spiking as a result of its unlimited data plan reintroduced in February. Independent speed measurement services detected significant speed and performance hits on Verizon’s wireless network as customers got the most they could out of an unlimited plan that started at $80 a line. Even with Verizon’s soft cap of 22GB before customers were subject to throttled performance was not enough to manage traffic loads, so Verizon has decided to specifically target online video.

Verizon’s “Cadillac” network is straining to keep up.

Although many streaming services offer customers an option to reduce video resolution to cut back on data usage, customers often ignore the option, particularly if enrolled in “unlimited” data plans. Starting today, Verizon’s network management speed throttle tells streaming services a customer’s connection is limited and cannot sustain the speeds needed for the highest resolution video. The video player reduces video playback resolution on its own as a result. In turn, this can dramatically lighten the traffic load on Verizon’s network.

Verizon’s new plans seem designed for the “light touch” era the current administration’s FCC advocates for telecom regulation, and the carrier’s new plans will give blatant priority for some customers over others, relegating lower paying users into the slow lane while premium plan customers can race on by.

Verizon’s new unlimited data plans for the Net Neutrality-free future are here, scoff critics.

“‘Unlimited’ = ‘Limited’ and ‘Beyond Unlimited’ = ‘Slightly less limited’,” wrote one customer on Verizon’s customer forum.

Verizon put its best face on its new unlimited plans.

“These plans give you the best unlimited choices, but you also get what only Verizon can give you: the best network, the best rewards program, the best way to manage your plan with the My Verizon app and the best selection of phones and devices,” the company said in a press release.

“If this isn’t a sign that Verizon’s network is crumbling from offering unlimited, I don’t know what is!” countered John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile USA.

Here are the new unlimited plans from Verizon Wireless, effective immediately:

Go Unlimited – $75 (1 line), $65 per line (2 lines), $50 per line (3 lines), $40 per line (4+ lines) – Paperless billing and autopay required (or add $5 per month)

Verizon’s new base unlimited plan automatically throttles your speed when a cell site reports as congested. This plan puts your data usage at a lower priority over other customers and you can experience throttled speeds at any time, regardless of usage. Video streaming is limited to 480p on smartphones and 720p on all other devices. You also get unlimited mobile hotspot, but speeds are permanently locked at a maximum of 600kbps. Unlimited talk and text with no restrictions is included

Beyond Unlimited – $85 (1 line), $80 per line (2 lines), $60 per line (3 lines), $50 per line (4+ lines) – Paperless billing and autopay required (or add $5 per month)

This plan more closely resembles the current unlimited data plan, but costs considerably more. You get unlimited 4G LTE data, but are subject to a speed throttle in congested service areas once exceeding 22GB of usage per month. Video streaming is limited to 720p on smartphones and 1080p on all other devices. No 4K video on any device is allowed. Unlimited mobile hotspot data really means up to 15GB of usage at LTE speed before you are throttled. Unlimited talk/texting included in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Customers on 2017 Unlimited and Legacy Unlimited Data Plans:

You will be able to keep your current unlimited plans. For those who enrolled in Verizon’s 2017 unlimited plan starting in February, video speed throttles now apply: 720p on smartphones, 1080p on all other devices. You will get a free upgrade to 15GB of mobile hotspot usage, up from 10GB.

For customers on Verizon’s original unlimited plan discontinued several years ago, nothing changes except the introduction of video speed throttles: 720p on smartphones, 1080p on all other devices.

Cox Introducing $50 Option to Waive Data Caps: The ‘Freedom from Extortion Plan’

As Cox Communications continues to expand its arbitrary data cap program on its broadband customers, the company has announced a ‘cap relief’ option for customers willing to pay $50 more for the same service they enjoyed last year without a data cap.

Company insiders tell DSL Reports Cox will introduce a new $50 option to avoid the data caps and overlimit fees the company began imposing in 2015 starting in its Cleveland, Ohio service area.

On Wednesday, Cox is expected to introduce two add-on options to help avoid the bill shock likely if customers exceed 1TB of usage per month and face the $10 overlimit fee for each 50GB of data consumed:

  • $30 a month for 500GB of extra data;
  • $50 a month to avoid data caps altogether and get back unlimited service.

Cox customers in Cleveland were unimpressed with Cox’s data caps when they were introduced in 2015.

These fees are in addition to whatever Cox customers currently pay for broadband service.

“An overwhelming majority of data is consumed by a very small percentage of internet users,” a memo to employees documenting the changes reads. “The new choices are great options for the small percentage of heavy users who routinely use 1TB+ per month and prefer a flat monthly rate, rather than purchasing additional data blocks. In Cox markets with usage-based billing, the less than two percent of customers who exceed the amount of data included in their plan still have the option of paying $10 for each additional 50GB of data when they need it.”

Such claims raise the same questions Stop the Cap! has always asked since we began fighting data caps in 2008:

If data caps only impact <2% of customers, why impose them at all?

Is the actual revenue earned from overlimit fees worth the expense of introducing usage measurement tools, billing system changes, and the cost of customer dissatisfaction at the prospect of an unexpectedly high bill?

What technical reasons did Cox choose 1TB as its arbitrary usage allowance other than the fact Comcast and other operators chose this level first?

Time Warner Cable executives privately admitted in internal company documents obtained by the New York Attorney General’s office that internet traffic costs represent little more than “a rounding error” in expenses for cable companies. But for most consumers, $30-50 to buy a bigger data allowance is hardly that.

In short, the “solution” Cox has decided on this week comes in response to a problem the company itself created — imposing arbitrary, unwanted data caps and overlimit fees on a product that is already intensely profitable at the prices Cox has charged for years. This internet overcharging scheme is just another way to gouge captive customers that will likely have only one alternative — the phone company and its various flavors of DSL or a U-verse product that cannot compete on speed unless you are lucky enough to live in a fiber-to-the-home service area.

Telcos Intentionally Cut Rural Broadband Investments Hoping for Taxpayer Subsidies

AT&T: Using taxpayer and ratepayer dollars to subsidize 4G LTE upgrades for its customers.

With taxpayer subsidies on the horizon, phone companies cut back investing their own money on rural broadband expansion hoping taxpayers would cover funding themselves.

That is the conclusion of Dave Burstein, a long-standing and well-respected industry observer and publisher of Net Policy News. Burstein is concerned the unintentional consequence of Obama and Trump Administration rural broadband funding programs has been fewer homes connected than what some carriers would have managed on their own without government subsidies.

“Since 2009, carrier investment in broadband in rural areas has gone down drastically,” Burstein wrote.

As a result, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced plans to spend $4.53 billion from a public-financed Mobility Fund over the next decade to advance 4G LTE service, primarily in rural areas that would not be served in the absence of government support. Burstein suspects much of that money could end up being unnecessarily wasted.

“Under current plans, most of the money is likely to go where telcos would build [4G] without a subsidy, [or will be used to] buy obsolete technology, or give the telcos two or three times what the job should cost,” Burstein wrote. “Any spending on wireless except where towers or backhaul is unavailable should be assumed wasteful until proven otherwise.  Realistic costs need to be developed and subsidies allocated on that basis.”

AT&T’s rural fixed wireless expansion program, funded substantially by U.S. taxpayers and ratepayers, is a case in point. AT&T is receiving almost $428 million a year in public funds to extend wireless access to 1.1 million customers in 18 states, the FCC says. Much of that investment is claimed to be spent retrofitting and upgrading existing cell towers to support 4G LTE service. But AT&T claims 98% of its customers already have access to 4G LTE service — more than any other carrier in the country, so AT&T is actually spending the money to bolster its existing 4G LTE network, something more likely to benefit its cell customers, not a few thousand fixed wireless customers.

(Source: AT&T)

“An AT&T exec in California said communities didn’t need to worry about the impact of the CAF-funded project, since it was almost all going to be on existing towers,” Burstein wrote, allaying fears among members of the public that money would be spent on lots of new cell towers. “I don’t know what loophole AT&T is using to get the money, but it’s a pretty safe guess they would have upgraded most of them without the government paying. 4G service now reaches all but 3-5 million of the 110-126 million U.S. households. Probably half [of the less than five million] targeted would soon be served without a subsidy – if the telcos knew no subsidy was likely. Before spending a penny on subsidies, the FCC needs to do a thorough assessment of what would be built without government money.”

Burstein

Wireless executives were delighted when the U.S. government in 2009 committed to spending $7 billion in taxpayer funds on broadband stimulus funding as part of a full-scale economic stimulus program to combat the Great Recession.

“Both George Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 had promised to bring affordable broadband to all Americans,” Burstein noted. “The clamor to reach these last few million was so loud, telcos became confident the government would pay for it if they just stopped their own investment. They aren’t stupid and refused to spend their own money. Before 2009 and the expected huge stimulus program, most telcos expanded their networks each year, based on available capital funds.”

Burstein believes some phone companies became better experts at milking government money to pay for needed network upgrades than frugally spending public funds on rural broadband expansion. As a result, after eight years and massive spending, Burstein notes fewer than two million of the “unserved” six million homes were reached by wireline or wireless broadband service when the funding ran out.

Under Chairman Pai’s latest round of rural broadband funding, Burstein believes much of this new money is also at risk of being wasted.

“[Pai] needs to dig into the details of what he’s proposing,” Burstein wrote. “Nearly all cells with decent backhaul will be upgraded to 4G; Verizon and AT&T have already reached 98% of homes. Government money should go to building towers and backhaul where that’s missing, not filling in network holes the carriers would likely cover.”

Rural advocacy groups have been frustrated for years watching rural telephone companies deliver piecemeal upgrades and service expansion, often to only a few hundred customers at any one time. When they learn how much was spent to extend broadband service to a relatively few number of customers, they are confused because companies often spend much less when they budget and pay for projects on their own without government subsidies.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York.

Burstein is currently suspicious about the $200 million approved in subsidy funding to extend rural broadband in parts of upstate New York. Burstein notes Pai is factually wrong about his claim that the hundreds of millions set aside for New York would be spent on “unserved areas of rural New York.”

“Most of that money will not go to unserved areas,” Burstein reports. “Some grants are going to politically connected groups. I’ve read the rules and the approved proposals. The amounts look excessive based on the limited public details.”

Telephone companies have become skilled negotiators when it comes to wiring their rural service areas. Most want more money than the government has previously been willing to offer to help them meet their Return On Investment expectations. Burstein noted that under normal circumstances, a government program offering a 25% subsidy to extend rural broadband into areas considered unprofitable to serve would be enough in most cases to get approval from rural phone companies like CenturyLink and Frontier Communications. But many phone companies, including AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest (now a part of CenturyLink) did not even file applications to participate in early funding rounds. Qwest’s lack of interest was especially problematic, because the former Baby Bell served the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions where some of the worst broadband accessibility problems persisted.

Burstein claims Jonathan Adelstein, then Rural Utilities Administrator, had to double his subsidy offer to get Qwest’s attention with a 50% subsidy.

Rural backhaul connectivity is often provided by fiber optic cabling.

“Qwest refused, demanding 75%,” Burstein noted. “That was probably twice the amount necessary and Adelstein rightly refused. They knew the government had few ways to reach those unserved without paying whatever the telcos demanded. A few years later, Qwest is part of Centurylink. Many of those lines are now upgrading under [public] Connect America Funds with what amounts to a greater than 100% subsidy.”

Net Neutrality appeared to have no impact on telephone company investment decisions, even in rural areas. The investment cuts followed a trend that began even before President Barack Obama took office. Wireless carriers slash investments in rural areas when management is confident the government is motivated to step in and offer taxpayer dollars to expand rural broadband service. When those funds do become available, a significant percentage of the money isn’t spent on constructing new infrastructure to extend the reach of wired and wireless networks into unserved rural areas. Instead, it pays for expanding existing infrastructure that may coincidentally reach some rural customers, but is still primarily used by existing cellular customers.

“In many extreme rural areas, only the local telco has the ability to deliver broadband at a reasonable cost,” noted Burstein. “You need to have affordable backhaul and a local staff for repairs. Because the ‘unserved’ are in very small clusters, often less than 100 homes, it’s usually impractical for a new entrant to bring in a backhaul connection.”

Instead, AT&T is attempting to fill some of the gaps with fixed wireless service from existing cell towers. While good news for customers without access to cable or DSL broadband but do have adequate cellular coverage to subscribe to AT&T’s Fixed Wireless service, that is not much help for those in deeply rural areas where AT&T isn’t investing in additional cell towers to extend coverage. In effect, AT&T enjoys a win-win for itself — adding taxpayer-funded capacity to their existing 4G LTE networks at the same time it markets data-cap free access to its bandwidth-heavy online video services like DirecTV Now. That frees up capital and reduces costs for AT&T’s investors. But it also alienates AT&T’s competitors that recognize the additional network capacity available to AT&T also allows it to offer steep discounts on its DirecTV Now service exclusively for its own wireless customers.

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