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VIDEO: How Big Telecom Isolates Rural America

From the producers of Dividing Lines:

Across the country, state legislatures have created barriers to community involvement in expanding internet access.

In Tennessee, lobbyists from AT&T, Charter, and Comcast spread huge campaign contributions around the state legislature. AT&T’s influence is felt in the governor’s own broadband expansion legislation, which was tailor-written to allow the phone company to collect huge taxpayer subsidies to expand inferior DSL into rural parts of Tennessee.

Meanwhile, some local communities seeking to build state-of-the-art fiber to the home networks capable of delivering 10 gigabit service found that doing so would be illegal under state law.

Think about that for a moment.

A multi-billion dollar telecom company is allowed to expand its slow speed DSL network with taxpayer-funded grants while your local community is forbidden to bring fiber optic service to your home even if your community votes to support such a project. Exactly who is the governor and state legislature working for when it comes to resolving Tennessee’s rural broadband nightmare?

In part two of this series, watch State Senator Janice Bowling describe how much influence AT&T has over the Tennessee state legislature. (5:31)

AT&T and Verizon Reneging on Free Phone Deals; Customers Worn Out by Broken Promises

Phillip Dampier November 12, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, Verizon, Video, Wireless Broadband No Comments

Wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon Wireless have reneged on promotions offering customers free phones and “buy one, get one free” deals that leave customers on the hook for hundreds of dollars in equipment charges.

With the holiday shopping season about to begin, phone promotions will be heavily advertised. But those deals may be too good to be true, according to consumer protection groups.

The Better Business Bureau said the problems customers are reporting are serious, and growing. Since the beginning of this year, BBB president (Southern Piedmont) Tom Bartholomy said the group has received almost 6,800 complaints about wireless provider advertising, sales, and promotional practices.

“We’re talking hundreds of complaints about a similar type of situation,” Bartholomy told WSOC-TV. “[It] points to an underlying cause, an underlying concern, with those types of promotions.”

WSOC’s consumer reporter has been inundated with complaints from his North Carolina viewers about broken promises:

Rachel Seighman lives in Monroe. She said, “(I) wanted to try to get a cheaper plan for my family. So, I tried AT&T out.”  She said she got her bill and “it was going to be about $60 higher per month than they said.” So, she called AT&T.  “I was told that the price they quoted me at was not correct,” she said.

Cynthia Emrich lives in Stanfield. She took advantage of an AT&T “buy one, get one free” offer for a Samsung phone. But, she said AT&T charged her for both phones.  “So I call them and they said it would straighten itself out, and it never did,” she told Action 9.  She said she called the company every month for 2 1/2 years. “It was frustrating every month.”

Denise Reid lives in Fort Mill. She said she went with a Verizon “buy one, get one free” deal for an iPhone, but that the company charged her full price.  “They could not give me a reason as to why,” she said.  “No reason as to why.”

Joseph Mayberry lives in Hickory. He told Action 9 a similar story. All four customers said they tried to resolve things on their own but couldn’t. “I would call someone.  I would go through the long story of what happened.  I would get to the supervisor level.  I’ve got emails saying I would be credited back and a phone call would follow.  Never got the phone call,” Mayberry said.

Many customers are tripped up by the fine print in promotional offers that frequently contain complicated conditions and opaque language. Some insist company representatives assured them that the promotion was valid only to find out later they were misled. In fact many promotions contain strict provisions that, if not followed precisely, invalidate the promotion.

Here are some common tricks and fine print traps you may encounter getting your “free” phone:

  1. Many “Buy 1, Get 1” promotions require the customer to activate and maintain a new line of service to qualify for a free phone, which can cost nearly $50 a month for a plan, including additional surcharges and taxes. Customers that fail to follow through on this condition or quickly terminate the extra line after moving the device to a different line on their account were often charged full price for both phones.
  2. Some promotions require customers to sign up for a “device payment agreement” to qualify for the free phone. That is actually a contract to pay off a device with monthly installment payments at 0% interest billed to your mobile account. The free device promotion is often tied to the payment agreement. If a customer buys the first phone and pays for it upfront there is no payment agreement, and no free phone. Some promotions require customers to maintain a device payment agreement for up to 30 months. If a customer violates any terms of the promotion, such as paying the phone off early or selling it, the company might bill you for the “free” phone.
  3. Some companies take months to begin crediting your account for the monthly installments that will appear on your bill. Customers will eventually see a monthly device payment charge and a corresponding credit in the same amount for your “free” phone. But until bill credits start to appear in 60-90 days, you are responsible for the installment charges.
  4. “Free” phone promotions often conflict with other service plans and features. Customers that have signed up to receive a new phone every two years may have to turn in their “free” phone and walk away from several delayed reimbursement credits before getting they can obtain their next new device.

Many customers underestimate the true cost of complying with the terms necessary to get that “free” phone. That realization usually comes too late to return it, leaving customers with several hundred dollars in equipment fees — a costly mistake that could ruin any holiday.

It is important to carefully study the terms and conditions of all wireless device promotions. The written contract is valid, promises from overeager salespeople are not. Be wary when you see “device payment agreement” or “activate and maintain a new line of service,” or “promo credit applied to account over 24 mos w/in 1-2 billing cycles; promo credit ends when balance paid or line terminated/transferred.” If you do, it could mean you will need to set up an installment payment plan for that “free” phone, keep it on your account as a new line of service for at least two years, and avoid paying it off in advance or attempt to move the phone to a different account or provider.

If negotiating with your provider has failed to resolve a conflict over the promotion, taking your case to the media over the terms of a possibly deceptive promotion can be effective in getting what you thought you were promised. When these customers contacted WSOC-TV and the station took the complaints back to AT&T and Verizon, the company quickly gave all four customers their free phones.

“Nobody would listen to me until [WSOC] actually reached out to them. And then within two hours, I got a phone call from AT&T,” Emrich told the station.  “If it wasn’t for Action 9, I would have never got that refund.”

AT&T claimed in a statement it honors all of its deals. Verizon tried to refer complaints about its promotions to the wireless industry lobbying group — CTIA. That group does not understand why Verizon did that and claims it isn’t familiar with cell phone promotions. Neither are most consumers.

WSOC-TV consumer reporter Jason Stoogenke investigates cell phone promotions that sound too good to be true. (3:36)

Verizon pulled out of a promo for a free iPhone for this North Carolina customer. Nobody knows why. (1:16)

Verizon messed up a promotion offering two phones for the price of one and left this customer out in the cold, telling him he needed to pay full price for both phones. (1:14)

VIDEO: Dividing Lines – Dialed Back to Dial-Up in Rural America

From the producers of Dividing Lines:

The online world is no longer a distinct world. It is an extension of our social, economic, and political lives. Internet access, however, is still a luxury good. Millions of Americans have been priced out of, or entirely excluded from, the reach of modern internet networks. Maria Smith, an affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and Harvard Law School, created Dividing Lines to highlight these stark divides, uncover the complex web of political and economic forces behind them, and challenge audiences to imagine a future in which quality internet access is as ubiquitous as electricity.

This is the first part of a series being deployed by organizations and community leaders across the country, from San Francisco to Nashville to Washington, D.C., in an effort to educate stakeholders and catalyze policymaking that elevates the interests of the people over the interests of a handful of corporations.

The fight for rural broadband in Tennessee pits a publicly owned electric utility against Comcast and AT&T and their allies in the state legislature. (5:25)

Optimum and Suddenlink Getting Speed Upgrades as Customers Demand More

Altice USA’s Optimum (formerly Cablevision) and Suddenlink are getting upgraded technology as the two cable companies face increasing demands for speed and broadband usage around the country.

“Over the last two years, the percentage of customers taking over 100 megabits of speed has risen to about 80% of our total customer base,” noted Dexter Goei, CEO of Altice USA. “Recently, we have shifted focus to growing the penetration of 200 Mbps services with about 80% of gross additions now taking these speeds or higher, reaching about half of our total customer base at the end of the third quarter, up from less than 5% two years ago.”

Goei noted that the average of all Optimum and Suddenlink broadband customers’ internet speeds has risen from 56 Mbps to 172 Mbps over the last 24 months, and this is increasing every quarter.

“Average data usage is now over 240 gigabytes per month per customer,” Goei added. “And this continues to grow over 20% per year.”

Goei

To meet growing demand, Altice USA is spending money upgrading its cable properties. The company is scrapping its coaxial cable network in the northeast and in selected parts of Suddenlink territory. In smaller communities that Suddenlink typically serves, the company will either bring fiber to the home service or upgrade the existing cable system to DOCSIS 3.1.

“The first objective is to have 1 Gbps broadband services available virtually everywhere,” Goei said. “For our legacy coax network in the Optimum footprint, we just need to do a Digital Switched Video upgrade now to move us to DOCSIS 3.1 and 1 Gbps speeds, which we can complete over the next few quarters. We just soft launched our fiber network in select areas of Long Island, and it is performing just as we expected so far, delivering a great 1 Gbps symmetrical single-play data service with the new advanced wireless gateway. The smart meshed Wi-Fi we’ve introduced is also doing extremely well.”

Goei says Optimum’s fiber network will be capable of delivering more than 10 Gbps speeds, as well as enhanced Wi-Fi, and improved system reliability.

“For the Suddenlink footprint, we already offer up to 1 Gbps services, so we will add further 1 Gbps capacity through some node splitting and CMTS upgrades,” Goei said. “We are also doing a QAM to IP migration on the cable plant to deliver future IP services. And with the move to DOCSIS 3.1, customers will have a uniform SSID across all of their devices, for an improved seamless Wi-Fi experience.”

The upgrades will mean Suddenlink customers will be more likely to receive 1 Gbps speeds even during peak usage times.

By transitioning video services away from the current QAM platform, IP video will free up additional bandwidth Suddenlink can devote to its internet customers.

Goei told investors on a quarterly results conference call that the five-year fiber upgrade project in the northeast may stretch into a sixth year due to permitting delays in some communities where Optimum provides service.

Some Wall Street analysts questioned Goei about the merits of a costly fiber upgrade, asking if it was necessary. Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research suggested if cable systems were already capable of gigabit speed service under DOCSIS 3.1, any revenue benefits gained from offering gigabit service could already be realized without stringing fiber optic cable. Other Wall Street analysts wanted to know when Altice would deliver the next revenue-increasing rate hike on Optimum and Suddenlink customers.

The company acknowledged it lost customers after the last round of price increases last spring. Its biggest losses are coming from cord cutting. Altice saw 20,700 Optimum TV customers cancel service between July and September, with a total of 76,000 customers dropping service so far this year. But that won’t stop Altice from raising rates again. Goei anticipated the next rate hike will likely take place during the first half of 2019.

Altice USA is also working on its own cellphone service, which will be powered by its large Wi-Fi hotspot network in the northeast and rely on the services of Sprint to connect customers while away from Wi-Fi. The company did not release pricing or service information.

AT&T Cuts Off DirecTV Competitor Dish from HBO and Cinemax; DoJ Claims Vindication

Phillip Dampier November 6, 2018 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Dish Network, Online Video, Sling 1 Comment

More than 2.5 million HBO and Cinemax customers are blacked out after AT&T cut off its biggest satellite rival Dish Networks and streaming provider Sling TV in a dispute the Department of Justice claims confirms its concerns that AT&T’s merger with Time Warner (Entertainment) would be bad for consumers.

It is the first time HBO has faced a contract renewal blackout on any platform in its 46-year history. But some groups feel it was predictable, considering AT&T owns DirecTV, Dish’s biggest rival. AT&T acquired HBO’s parent company, Time Warner (Entertainment) in 2018, changing its name to WarnerMedia. Last summer, Judge Richard J. Leon, senior district judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia gave AT&T approval of that $85 billion merger deal with no conditions, scoffing at Department of Justice claims that the merger would give AT&T undue market power that could be used to threaten competitors by depriving them access to popular cable networks and content or use of those networks in marketing materials to attract new subscribers.

As the DoJ pursues an appeal of Judge Leon’s decision, this week’s blackout seems to add ammunition to the government’s case against the merger.

“This behavior, unfortunately, is consistent with what the Department of Justice predicted would result from the merger,” a DoJ representative told Reuters. “We are hopeful the Court of Appeals will correct the errors of the District Court.”

A statement from Dish Networks harmoniously echoed the government’s position.

“Plain and simple, the merger created for AT&T immense power over consumers,” said Andy LeCuyer, senior vice president of programming at Dish, in a statement. “It seems AT&T is implementing a new strategy to shut off its recently acquired content from other distributors.”

Consumer groups like Public Knowledge also agree.

“In opposing the AT&T/Time Warner deal, opponents — including the Department of Justice — predicted that the newly combined company would have the incentive to withhold content, and would gain stronger leverage in negotiations like this one, ” said John Bergmayer, senior counsel at Public Knowledge. “AT&T stands to benefit if customers, frustrated by missing their favorite HBO shows, leave DISH to switch to DirecTV. Time Warner, as an independent company, did not have the incentive to hold out on HBO content in these situations before the merger. Now, consumers are the ones paying the price.”

Dish is accusing AT&T of demanding the satellite service pay for a guaranteed number of subscribers, regardless of how many consumers actually want to subscribe to HBO.

“AT&T is stacking the deck with free-for-life offerings to wireless customers and slashed prices on streaming services, effectively trying to force Dish to subsidize HBO on AT&T’s platforms,” said LeCuyer. “This is the exact anticompetitive behavior that critics of the AT&T-Time Warner merger warned us about. Every pay-TV company should be concerned. Rather than trying to force consumers onto their platforms, we suggest that AT&T try to achieve its financial goals through simple economics: if consumers want your product, they’ll pay for it. We hope AT&T will reconsider its demands and help us reach a swift, fair resolution.”

On its face, the nationwide blackout of HBO and Cinemax on America’s second largest satellite TV provider could be a public relations disaster for AT&T, depriving customers from accessing premium movie networks for the first time. But AT&T is fighting back in a coordinated media pushback.

In its defense, HBO is claiming Dish was not negotiating in good faith. Simon Sutton, HBO’s president and chief revenue officer: “Dish’s proposals and actions made it clear they never intended to seriously negotiate an agreement.”

“Past behavior shows that removing services from their customers is becoming all too common a negotiating tactic for them,” echoed AT&T.

“The Department of Justice collaborated closely with Dish in its unsuccessful lawsuit to block our merger,” a WarnerMedia spokesman said in a statement. “That collaboration continues to this day with Dish’s tactical decision to drop HBO – not the other way around. DoJ failed to prove its claims about HBO at trial and then abandoned them on appeal.”

As always, customers are caught in the middle. For now. AT&T and HBO are telling consumers to drop their Dish subscriptions and stream HBO and Cinemax online directly from their respective streaming platforms, or find another provider. Dish has told its satellite and Sling TV customers they will be credited on their bill for time they do not receive HBO or Cinemax. Dish is also offering customers a free preview of HDNET Movies.

Oral arguments for the DoJ’s appeal are scheduled to begin Dec. 6. Court documents revealed today the judges that will hear the appeal are: Judith W. Rogers, Robert L. Wilkins, and David B. Sentelle.

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