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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.

Comcast Will Offer DOCSIS 3.1 Gigabit Service Nationwide Within Two Years

Comcast-LogoComcast plans to upgrade its cable broadband facilities nationwide to support gigabit broadband using DOCSIS 3.1 technology within two years, according to a company official.

DOCSIS 3.1 will allow existing hybrid fiber-coax infrastructure to support broadband service speeds up to 10Gbps, but most consumers would find the equipment costs to support speeds that fast on a home network prohibitive. Commercial customers might not.

“We’re testing it this year,” Robert Howald, Comcast’s vice president of network architecture, told FierceCable. “Our intent is to scale it through our footprint through 2016. We want to get it across the footprint very quickly. We’re shooting for two years.”

Comcast is also claiming to move forward with its 2Gbps fiber to the home service in select areas located close to existing fiber infrastructure, but first promised the service would be available to customers in early summer. To date, Stop the Cap! cannot find any customer actually subscribed to the service.

Customers will be able to lease DOCSIS 3.1 equipment from Comcast starting in early 2016. As more customers get the equipment, Comcast will likely realign its broadband offerings to further boost speeds.

 

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.

Stop the Cap!’s Open Letter to N.Y. Public Service Commission: No Rush to Judgment

letterhead

August 19, 2015

Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess
Secretary, Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223-1350

Case Number: 14-C-0370

Dear Ms. Burgess,

After years of allowing the telecommunications industry in New York to operate with little or no oversight, the need for an extensive and comprehensive review of the impact of New York’s regulatory policies has never been greater.

Let us remind the Commission of the status quo:

  • As Verizon winds down its FiOS initiative, other states are getting cutting-edge services like Google Fiber, AT&T U-verse with GigaPower, CenturyLink Prism, and other gigabit-speed broadband service competition. In contrast, the largest telecommunications companies in New York have stalled offering better service to New Yorkers.
  • Time Warner Cable has left all of upstate New York with no better than 50/5Mbps broadband – a top speed that has not risen in at least five years.
  • Frontier Communications has announced fiber upgrades in service areas it is acquiring while its largest New York service area – Rochester, languishes with copper-based ADSL service that often delivers no better than 3-6Mbps, well below the FCC’s minimum 25Mbps definition of broadband.
  • Verizon Communications, the state’s largest telephone company, is accused of reneging on its FiOS commitments in New York City and has left upstate New York cities with nothing better than DSL service, giving Time Warner Cable a monopoly on 25+Mbps broadband in most areas. It has also talked openly of selling off its rural landline network or scrapping it altogether, potentially forcing customers to an inferior wireless landline replacement it calls Voice Link.

As the Commission is also well aware, there are a number of recent high-profile issues relating to telecommunications matters that have a direct impact on consumers and businesses in this state – some that are currently before the Commission for review. Largest among them is another acquisition involving Time Warner Cable, this time from Charter Communications. That single issue alone will impact the majority of broadband consumers in New York because Time Warner Cable is the state’s dominant Internet Service Provider for high speed Internet services, especially upstate.

These issues are of monumental importance to the comprehensive examination and study of the telecommunications industry in New York promised by Chairwoman Audrey Zibelman. The Charter-Time Warner Cable merger alone has the potential of affecting millions of New York residents for years to come.

Although this study was first announced to Speaker Sheldon Silver, the Honorable Jeffrey Klein, and the Honorable Dean Skelos in a letter on March 28, 2014, followed up by a notification that Chairwoman Zibelman intended to commence the study within 45 days of her letter of May 13, 2014, the first public notice seeking comments from stakeholders and consumers was issued more than a year later on June 23, 2015 (less than two months ago), with comments due by August 24, 2015.

With respect, providing a 60-day comment window in the middle of summer along with a handful of public hearings scattered across the state with as little as three weeks’ advance notice is wholly inadequate for a broad study of this importance. The Commission’s ambitious schedule to contemplate the state of telecommunications across all of New York State will likely be shorter than the review of the 2014-2015 Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger transaction which started May 15, 2014 and ended April 30, 2015.

We have heard from New York residents upset about how the Commission is handling its review. One complained to us the Commission had more than a year to prepare for its study while giving New York residents short notice to attend poorly advertised public hearings in a distant city, and two months at most to share their feelings with the Commission in writing. One woman described having to find a hearing that was, at best, 60 miles away and located at a city hall unfamiliar to those not local to the area, where suitable parking was inconvenient and difficult as she attempted a lengthy walk to the hearing location at the age of 69.

Several of our members also complained there are more suitable public-friendly venues beyond paid parking downtown city administration buildings or deserted campuses in the middle of summer break. Many asked why the Commission does not seem to have a social media presence or sponsor live video streaming of hearings where residents can participate by phone or online and avoid inconvenient travel to a distant city. Perhaps the Commission could be enlightened to see how New York’s telecommunications companies actually perform during such a hearing.

While we think it is very useful for the Commission to have direct input from the public, we are uncertain about how the Commission intends to manage those comments. We were disappointed to find no public outline of what the Commission intended to include in its evaluation of a topic as broad as “the state of telecommunications in New York.”

Too often, providers downplay service complaints from consumers as “anecdotal evidence” or “isolated incidents.” But if the Commission sought specific input on a topic such as the availability of FiOS in Manhattan, consumers can provide useful input on the exact location(s) where service was requested but not provided.

If the Commission received information from an incumbent provider claiming it was providing broadband service to low income residents, consumers could share on-point experiences as to whether those claims were true, true with conditions the Commission might not be aware of (paperwork requirements, onerous terms, etc.) or false.

If the Commission sought input on rural broadband, providers might point to a broadband availability map that suggests there is robust competition and customer choice. But the Commission could learn from residents asked to share their direct experiences that the map was inaccurate or outdated, including providers that only service commercial customers, or those that cannot provide service that qualifies as “broadband” by the Federal Communications Commission.

A full and open investigation is essential to finding the truth about telecommunications in New York. The Commission needs to understand whether problems are unique to one customer in one part of the state or common among a million people statewide. We urge the Commission to rethink its current approach.

New Yorkers deserve public fact-finding hearings inviting input on the specific issues the Commission is exploring. New Yorkers need longer comment windows, more notice of public hearings, and a generous extension of the current deadline(s) to allow comments to be received for at least 60 additional days.

Most critically, we need hearings bringing the public and stakeholders together to offer sometimes-adversarial testimony to build a factual, evidence-based record on which the Commission can credibly defend its oversight of the telecommunications services that are a critical part of every New Yorker’s life.

The Commission’s policies going forward may have a profound effect on making sure an elderly couple in the Adirondacks can keep a functioning landline, if affordable Internet will be available to an economically-distressed single working mother in the Bronx, or if upstate New York can compete in the new digital economy with gigabit fiber broadband to support small businesses like those run by former employees of downsized companies like Eastman Kodak and Xerox in Rochester.

Yours very truly,

Phillip M. Dampier
Director

Global Broadband Prices Drop 9%, But Not for North Americans

The cost of residential broadband service around the world dropped an average of 9%, but not in the United States and Canada where providers are effectively raising prices while justifying the added cost with occasional speed boosts.

Point Topic, which tracks residential and business broadband pricing found prices are affected the most when competition increases and incumbent providers are forced to respond with lower prices and/or better service.

Residential-broadband-tariffs-and-speeds-by-region-in-Q1-2015-source-Point-Topic

Point Topic’s chart shows North Americans pay a significant price for service, but receive some of the worst broadband performance in return when compared against better value for money providers in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region. (Chart: Point Topic)

By far the poorest value broadband tracked by Point Topic is traditional DSL from the telephone companies. Speeds have barely budged in many areas while prices wildly fluctuate depending on whether fiber or cable broadband providers are competing for the same customers. The research firm found DSL to be the worst choice for consumers — combing the lowest speeds and the highest per megabit cost among wired providers.

The price of residential DSL is also going up — it was just under $10 per Mbps in the second quarter, an increase from nearly $9 per Mbps the phone companies charged late last year.

DSL is a dreadful value. (Chart: Point Topic)

DSL is a dreadful value. (Chart: Point Topic)

Cable operators facing fiber competition have been forced to improve speeds but are still managing to raise prices. Globally, the average price of cable and fiber broadband based on speed alone is $1 per Mbps, down from $3 per Mbps in the second quarter of 2010. But North Americans are paying more for the service through annual rate increases and ancillary modem rental fees.

The reason North Americans are paying more for broadband service is because providers are attempting to make up for lost television revenue.

The New York Post noted most broadband bills are now up to between $50 and $70 a month for standalone service.

James Dolan, CEO of Cablevision, explained how broadband pricing has evolved in the cable industry.

“We’re going to see a re-stratification of the cable business .… One thing we see is significant uses of data, increasing exponentially,” Dolan told investors late last year. “We think that’s where the growth is going to come from.”

Dan Cryan, research director for digital at IHS, told the newspaper that revenue from U.S. broadband providers in 2014 topped $49 billion, up from $42.1 billion in 2012.

Cable companies collected an average of $4.75 per month more from broadband customers in 2014 over what they paid in 2012.

“Broadband is strategically more important than the number of subscribers indicates because it has the potential to be higher margin,” Cryan said.

Residential-trends-over-time

(Chart: Point Topic)

AT&T Social Engineers Its Data Plans to Push You Towards a Family Mobile Share Plan

att changesAT&T is obviously a supporter of bringing its wireless customers closer together… in family plans, that is.

The wireless carrier has adjusted its wireless data plans once again, this time in response to recent changes at Verizon and to better compete against T-Mobile — the carriers AT&T’s plans now most closely resemble.

Pricing wireless data has become a marketing art. Push people into too-small data plans and they will get stung with bill shock. Give them ample data at a high price and customers feel justified trying to use every last bit of it to get their money’s worth. So what is AT&T up to?

Light User/Budget Customers Squeezed

att_logoIf you keep your phone turned off except during special occasions, road trips, and landline service outages, AT&T has a plan for you. Actually, Verizon thought up most of these plans first — AT&T is now matching them as a consequence of the “competitive” market.

AT&T’s $20 a month entry-level data plan offers a paltry 300MB of data, an amount so low it is likely to be consumed quickly just updating apps, reading web pages, and checking email. Although intended for light users, it is likely to expose customers to a nasty overlimit fee identical to the cost of the 300MB plan itself ($20 per 300MB). With embedded video advertising, bloated web pages, and growing-size apps that require regular upgrades, this kind of allowance is no longer tenable.

AT&T’s old 1GB and 3GB plans are also gone. Heads you may lose, tails AT&T usually wins. Customers on 1GB plans will now be herded into a 2GB plan that delivers twice the amount of data, for $5 more per month ($60 a year). That is a good value as far as wireless pricing is concerned, but only if you need twice the data. Customers with 3GB plans lose one-third of their allowance but get a $10 price break… unless they go over their limit and expose themselves to AT&T’s dastardly $15/GB overlimit fee. Then the savings evaporate.

The 2GB usage plan seems designed to keep you worried. Will you come perilously close to the overlimit fee again this month after watching those videos on the train? What about the 15 app updates that chewed through 300MB last week? With the average 4G iPhone customer in the United States using 1.8GB of mobile data each month during the summer of 2014, 2GB+ average usage is likely this year. Avoiding the overlimit fee will involve a costly leap into a more generous 5GB plan at a higher cost.

The New Normal: The 5GB Individual Plan/15GB Family Plan

family share

It won’t be hard for AT&T to sell most customers on either a 5GB data plan if they have an individual account or a 15GB shared data plan for families.

The 5GB plan is $20 less than the 6GB plan it replaces. It’s presumably AT&T’s idea of a “sweet spot” for customers with a single line choosing between a $30 2GB plan that might not include enough data or a much more expensive 15GB plan — the next step up AT&T’s data plan range.

A close look at AT&T’s price chart shows the plan options and prices are designed to encourage individual line customers to migrate into a family plan. Here’s how AT&T does it:

Two AT&T customers with individual plans now pay $75 each for unlimited talk and text and 5GB of data. That adds up to $150 a month. But watch what happens when those customers take their vows as AT&T family plan customers. First, they each get a $10 break on the Plan Access charge ($15/mo each instead of $25). Second, there is more justification to spend $100 on a data plan that offers a more generous 15GB of data. Let’s look at the math:

Monthly Plans (now) Monthly Plans (old) Data (now) Data (old) Plan Access charge
$20 $20 300MB 300MB $25
$30 $25/$40 2GB 1GB/3GB $25
$50 $70 5GB 6GB $25
$100 $100 15GB 10GB $15
$140 $150 20GB 20GB $15

Individual Plan (2 Lines)

2 x $25 Plan Access charge
2 x $50 5GB data plan

$150/month

Family Plan with 2 Lines

2 x $15 Plan Access charge
1 x $100 15GB data plan

$130/month — a $20 savings

Family plan customers pay $20 less and get an extra 5GB of mobile data. Customers choosing a data plan of 15GB or more also receive free unlimited calling and texting in Canada and Mexico.

Customers can be forgiven if they fall into the value trap – saving yourself into poverty. While AT&T’s recent price changes offer significant savings for certain customers, it is instructive to remember not so long ago AT&T charged $30 a month for unlimited mobile data, making the prospect of spending $100 for 15GB sanity-questionable. But that was then and this is now.

AT&T expects it will increase the amount of money it collects from each customer with the advent of these new plans, with the hope customers won’t remember back to the days where data usage was not monetized like a commodity.

Patrick “The Slasher” Drahi Maneuvers for Blitz Buyout of American Cable Companies

Drahi

Drahi

After failing in a surprise bid to acquire Time Warner Cable out from under Charter Communications, European cable magnate Patrick Drahi has spent much of this summer quietly working to make sure that never happens again.

The French press is buzzing over Drahi’s decision to move his corporate headquarters from the business friendly Grand Duchy of Luxembourg — nestled between Belgium, France, and Germany — north to the Netherlands. The move is mostly on paper — attorneys drafted the agreement that effectively transferred Altice SA to Drahi’s Dutch subsidiary Altice NV and shareholders approved.

Why move the company from one of Europe’s most business-friendly countries to Holland, a country with a long history of corporate oversight? It wasn’t for the stroopwafels.

The Netherlands is rare among most European countries because it allows corporations to set up “dual-class share structures.” That means nothing to 99% of Dutch citizens and the majority of our readers, but it means a lot if you are a billionaire running a hungry multi-national corporation using other people’s money to gain control of companies on your acquisition list.

Altice1With the move, Drahi can embark on a breathtaking acquisition spree without diluting the control he has over his growing cable empire. Going forward, Altice will apply different voting rights to various classes of stock offered to investors. Drahi now holds 58.5% of Altice stock. But his shares are special because they grant him 92% of the voting power. Other shareholders will find they are not entitled to an equal say in how the public company is run.

Altice admitted to regulators they designed the new share structure to give Mr. Drahi greater flexibility for financing and corporate transactions without threatening his control of the company. Altice called that “a value-enhancing strategy without diluting voting control.” This means Drahi can offer generous amounts of Altice stock to help fund future takeover deals without worrying that will reduce his control over the company.

If Drahi were to recklessly launch a spending spree of epic proportions to the consternation of shareholders, there will be little recourse and almost no chance of a shareholder revolt. But just to make sure, Drahi gets to pick six of Altice’s eight board members. He also won an agreement with board members who also hold shares in Altice granting him absolute and automatic support of all his proposals for 30 years. On top of that, he is entitled to “negative control” over the board, which means in any vote, he is allowed to cast a number of votes equal to all other board members.

vampireWith generous grants of authority like these passing muster, it’s no wonder executives of corporations around the world are urging consideration to move the corporate headquarters to the land of tulips and windmills. Fiat Chrysler already did, at the behest of Italy’s Agnelli family, which controls the Italian-American car company with a tight grip. Mylan, a producer of generic pharmaceutical drugs, managed to fend off Israeli rival Teva Pharmaceuticals, using Holland’s tolerance of executive-friendly poison pill maneuvers to keep unfriendly takeover artists away.

Now that the move to an Amsterdam post office box is complete, Drahi is in the process of rearming his war chest for another assault on the American mainland. The French newspaper l’Humanité warns it is more conniving from the “telecom vampire” that sucked the blood out of competitive cable in France. The newspaper cited deregulation and privatization to be great for billionaires like Drahi, but a bad deal for consumers.

Since the 1990s, telecom executives in Europe and North America have promised regulators a lot in return for deregulation and self-oversight. Allowing companies a free rein would stimulate competition and private investment to finance and construct next generation networks, they claimed.

But l’Humanité uncovered another motivation for telecom magnates like Drahi: to get filthy rich. The newspaper quotes one well-known anecdote about why Drahi got into the cable business — because after studying Forbes articles ranking the fortunes of the 1%, Drahi set his sights on the industry where there were the most billionaires – telecommunications.

moneyKeeping that newly privatized and deregulated wealth requires ruthlessness for others but protection for your allies and yourself. Drahi followed the teachings of American cable magnate John Malone (who is Charter Communications’ biggest shareholder today) and began a debt-fueled buying spree of independent cable systems, quickly followed by ruthless cost-cutting at the acquired companies, earning him the nickname “The Slasher,” among others less charitable. His critics say he has a lot of nerve, because in many instances Drahi billed the companies he acquired for consulting and management fees. BFM Business reports Drahi has only one bottom line when making up his mind: how much generated cash will come from the decision.

The real money would start rolling in at the height of the dot.com boom. Regulators accepted a bid by Drahi and two of his allies to create the fourth French telecom operator — a wireless venture known as Fortel. The three men promised to invest more than $3 billion building the network, an amount called “not credible” by some regulators and a number of industry leaders. But since the frequencies went to those who promised the most investment, Fortel won. Drahi was named president of the company.

Just before the dot.com bubble burst and Fortel seemed to be wavering, Drahi sold many of his interests to UPC, a European cable conglomerate owned by his mentor John Malone. In early 2001, the wireless project was scrapped and Fortel itself was sold for scrap, never to build the promised network. But by then, Drahi was working at UPC with Malone on a massive cable industry acquisition and consolidation strategy. During his career at UPC, Drahi was in charge of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire French cable operators including: RCF, Time Warner Cable France, Rhone Cable Vision, and Videopole InterComm.

UPC declared bankruptcy in 2002.

UPC declared bankruptcy in 2002.

Malone’s company quickly became overextended and very deep in debt when they suddenly stopped paying creditors in the fall of 2002. But before that happened, Drahi once again had the good fortune to cash out of UPC before the roof collapsed, selling his own Médiaréseaux cable system to Malone’s company at full value just before UPC went bankrupt. The bankruptcy that followed didn’t hurt Malone much and Drahi not at all.

Unwilling to rescue UPC’s faltering operations before bankruptcy, Malone waited until after the cable company went Chapter 11, when 65% of its debt was erased in court proceedings in return for a $99.8 million fresh infusion of cash from UGC/Liberty Media — another Malone-controlled venture that suddenly emerged with a checkbook. That bought Malone’s Liberty Media a 65.5% stake in the rescued company. Vendors, smaller debtors, and other shareholders fared far worse. Most received little, if any of the money owed them, and the remaining shareholders were given just 2% ownership of the company after it emerged from bankruptcy.

Drahi re-emerged on the French business scene after squirreling away his UPC cable proceeds in his new venture Altice, originally launched in Luxembourg, listed on the Amsterdam stock exchange, and controlled by another holding company owned by Drahi housed in the British tax haven of the Channel Islands. Drahi himself was, for a time, a Swiss resident domiciled in Canton Zermatt, another tax haven with tax thresholds that favor the super-wealthy. Drahi now qualifies.

Within four years of Altice’s existence, the company has acquired 99% of France’s cable systems. Drahi has since looked abroad to consummate more deals.

When an Israeli cable system became available to buy, Drahi suddenly became a citizen of Israel and rented an apartment in the country, mostly to meet Israel’s citizenship requirements to acquire the HOT cable system. After the sale was complete, HOT raised its rates, most recently by 20 percent.

Le Echos, a French newspaper, has watched Drahi plow his way through French telecommunications for several years and summed up Drahi’s acquisition strategy in three words: It’s never enough.

The newspaper suspects Drahi will continue using the same techniques he has used in France for the last 20 years to create an empire in the United States. He will take on massive amounts of debt and use Wall Street and French investment banks to pay for most of his acquisitions, combined with generous shares in Altice stock for shareholders and top corporate executives. With Altice’s relocation complete, Drahi can make generous offers his targets cannot refuse, even when they are privately owned.

To start an American cable empire, Drahi will have to acquire smaller cable operators to build leverage for potential takeovers of larger operators later. His ability to throw massive sums of money on the table makes it very likely his next targets will be Cox Communications and Cablevision — both controlled by families that have held on in the cable business despite years of tentative acquisition offers or sales explorations. Both Cox and Cablevision offer access to larger U.S. cities. Other likely targets, including Mediacom, Cable One, and Midcontinent Communications, don’t. He can digest those companies later.

On June 24, Drahi told his fellow dinner guests at the Polytechnique Foundation, “For me, telecom is like pinball,” Drahi said. “As long as there are balls, I will play.”

Conservatives Call for Cord Cutting to Starve “Left Wing” Networks Out of Business

Phillip Dampier August 12, 2015 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 4 Comments
Time to cut the cord and starve left-wing media.

Nolte: Time to cut the cord and starve left-wing media.

The only solution to stop the “largest swindle big business ever played on the American people” is to cut cable television’s cord and stop paying for channels you do not want or need.

That advice comes from the conservative Breitbart News Service, among the first to make cable television bundling a political issue:

Meanwhile, for around $100 a month pay TV is not only pummeling you with about 20 minutes of ads an hour, but forcing you to pay for a ton of networks you hate. Moreover, many of these networks get a chunk of your cable bill. Even if you don’t watch left-wing CNN and MSNBC, if they are on your package, chances are a part of your bill is going directly to both.

If you want to put CNN, MSNBC, MTV, and all these other low-rated, left-wing networks out of business, not watching them makes absolutely no difference.

You have to cut the cord.

Nearly half of CNN’s revenue comes from this immoral revenue stream. CNN is taking your money to attack you all day every day.

And that is the great con the gigantic left-wing multinationals have pulled off for decades. Something like 100 million homes keep hundreds of networks profitable by forcing those customers into overpriced cable packages. Maybe 15 cable networks could survive solely on ad revenue generated by actual eyeballs. The rest would go poof, and good riddance.

scissorsAuthor John Nolte, editor-at-large for the news service, blames big cable bills on the “Hollywood rich” who he writes just keep getting richer. He thinks a better solution is to sign up with Netflix or Amazon and say goodbye to cable television.

Breitbart News, Nolte writes, “has been way ahead of the curve” predicting the demise of the one-size-fits-all cable television bundle that customers can hardly afford “while Obama’s economy falters and an influx of illegal aliens keep wages depressed.” Nothing stops the rate increases until consumers cancel the service, Nolte believes.

Reader reaction to the piece quickly identifies one shortcoming for conservatives: the loss of Fox News Channel. But many comments expressed the view Fox News has gone “Republican In Name Only” and isn’t worth paying for either. Many conservatives taking anti-corporate political views prefer alternative media like Breitbart News Service and Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze, which ironically has tried to land cable carriage agreements for years with only limited success.

Fiber Infinitely Upgradeable: Verizon Successfully Tests 10Gbps NG-PON2 Technology on FiOS

Phillip Dampier August 12, 2015 Broadband Speed, Competition, Verizon No Comments

verizonfiosVerizon is ready to push speeds beyond 1Gbps on its fiber to the home network FiOS, after successfully testing the next generation of signaling technology capable of delivering at least 10Gbps to customers.

Next Generation-Passive Optical Network (NG-PON2) technology allows providers to improve signaling speed and performance on existing fiber infrastructure already on the poles or in the ground. Verizon successfully tested an optical line terminal to transmit four wavelengths, each capable of speeds up to 10/2.5Gbps. Future versions should achieve symmetrical speeds of 10/10Gbps, according to Verizon. Eventually, FiOS customers may be able to subscribe to speeds up to 80Gbps.

gpon-optical-lan-overview-november-5-2014-8-638

The test demonstrated Verizon can successfully upgrade to newer generation technology and stay backwards-compatible with existing GPON customers without having to scale a utility pole or dig up any sidewalks. Existing fiber strands can manage all types of light signaling, meaning upgrades will typically occur in the office, not in the field, reducing the costs of upgrades.

Verizon isn’t even sure what to do with the extra speed yet.

“Upgrades on the FTTP network will begin when commercial equipment is available to support business services such as switched Ethernet services,” Verizon said in a press release. “The technology upgrade can also be used to support multi-gigabit-speed Internet access services for FiOS customers as the marketplace demands such services and as the technology matures.

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