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Internet’s Biggest Frauds: Traffic Tsunamis and Usage-Based Pricing

Providers’ tall tales.

Year after year, equipment manufacturers and internet service providers trot out predictions of a storm surge of internet traffic threatening to overwhelm the internet as we know it. But growing evidence suggests such scare stories are more about lining the pockets of those predicting traffic tsunamis and the providers that use them to justify raising your internet bill.

This month, Cisco — one of the country’s largest internet equipment suppliers, released its latest predictions of astounding internet traffic growth. The company is so confident its annual predictions of traffic deluges are real it branded a term it likes to use to describe it: The Zettabyte Era. (A zettabyte, for those who don’t know, is one sextillion bytes, or perhaps more comfortably expressed as one trillion gigabytes.)

Cisco’s business thrives on scaring network engineers with predictions that customers will overwhelm their broadband networks unless they upgrade their equipment now, as in ‘right now!‘ In turn, the broadband industry’s bean counters find predictions of traffic explosions useful to justify revenue enhancers like usage caps, usage-based billing, and constant rate increases.

“As we make these and other investments, we periodically need to adjust prices due to increases [in] business costs,” wrote Comcast executive Sharon Powell in a letter defending a broad rate increase imposed on customers in Philadelphia late last year.

In 2015, as that cable company was expanding its usage caps to more markets, spokesman Charlie Douglas tried to justify the usage caps claiming, “When you have 10 percent of the customers consuming 50 percent of the network bandwidth, it’s only fair that those consumers should pay more.”

When Cisco released its 2017 predictions of internet traffic growth, once again it suggests a lot more data will need to be accommodated across America’s broadband and wireless networks. But broadband expert Dave Burstein has a good memory based on his long involvement in the industry and the data he saw from Cisco actually deflates internet traffic panic, and more importantly provider arguments for higher cost, usage-capped internet access.

“Peak Internet growth may have been a couple of years ago,” wrote Burstein. “For more than a decade, internet traffic went up ~40% every year. Cisco’s VNI, the most accurate numbers available, sees growth this year down to 27% on landlines and falling to 15-20% many places over the next few years. Mobile growth is staying higher — 40-50% worldwide. Fortunately, mobile technology is moving even faster. With today’s level of [provider investments], LTE networks can increase capacity 10x to 15x.”

According to Burstein, Cisco’s estimates for mobile traffic in the U.S. and Canada in 2020 is 4,525 petabytes and in 2021 is 5,883 petabytes. That’s a 30% growth rate. Total consumer traffic in the U.S. and Canada Cisco sees as 48,224 petabytes and 56,470 petabytes in 2021. That’s a 17% growth rate, which is much lower on wired networks.

Burstein’s findings are in agreement with those of Professor Andrew Odlyzko, who has debunked “exaflood/data tsunami” scare stories for over a decade.

“[The] growth rate has been decreasing for almost two decades,” Odlyzko wrote in a 2016 paper published in IPSI BgD Transactions. “Even the growth rate in wireless data, which was extremely high in the last few years, shows clear signs of a decline. There is still rapid growth, but it is simply not at the rates observed earlier, or hoped for by many promoters of new technologies and business methods.”

Burstein

The growth slowdown, according to Odlyzko, actually began all the way back in 1997, providing the first warning the dot.com bubble of the time was preparing to burst. He argued the data models used by equipment manufacturers and the broadband industry to measure growth have been flawed for a long time.

When new internet trends became popular, assumptions were made about what impact they would have, but few models accurately predicted whether those trends would remain a major factor for internet traffic over the long-term.

Peer-to-peer file sharing, one of the first technologies Comcast attempted to use as a justification for its original 250GB usage cap, is now considered almost a footnote among the applications having a current profound impact on internet traffic. Video game play, also occasionally mentioned as a justification for usage caps or network management like speed throttling, was hardly ever a major factor for traffic slowdowns, and most games today exchange player actions using the smallest amount of traffic possible to ensure games are fast and responsive. In fact, the most impact video games have on the internet is the size of downloads required to acquire and update them.

Odlyzko also debunked alarmist predictions of traffic overloads coming from the two newest and largest traffic contributors of the period 2001-2010 — cloud backups and online video.

Odlyzko

“Actual traffic trends falsified this conjecture, as the first decade of the 21st century witnessed a substantial [traffic growth rate] slowdown,” said Odlyzko. “The frequent predictions about ‘exafloods’ overwhelming the networks that were frequent a decade ago have simply not come to pass. At the 20 to 30% per year growth rates that are observed today in industrialized countries, technology is advancing faster than demand, so there is no need for increasing the volume of investments, or for the fine-grained traffic control schemes that are beloved by industry managers as well as researchers.”

That’s a hard pill to swallow for companies that manufacture equipment designed to “manage,” throttle, cap, and charge customers based on their overusage of the internet. It also gives fits to industry executives, lobbyists, and the well paid public policy researchers that produce on spec studies and reports attempting to justify such schemes. But the numbers don’t lie, even if the industry does.

Although a lot of growth measured these days comes from wireless networks, they are not immune to growth slowdowns either. The arrival of the smartphone was hailed by wireless companies and Wall Street as a rocket engine to propel wireless revenue sky high. Company presidents even based part of their business plans on revenue earned from monetizing data usage allegedly to pay for spectrum acquisitions and upgrades.

McAdam

Verizon’s CEO Lowell McAdam told investors as late as a year ago “unlimited data” could never work on Verizon Wireless again.

“With unlimited, it’s the physics that breaks it,” he said. “If you allow unlimited usage, you just run out of gas.”

The laws of physics must have changed this year when Verizon reintroduced unlimited data for its wireless customers.

John Wells, then vice president of public affairs for CTIA, the wireless industry’s top lobbying group, argued back in 2010 AT&T’s decision to establish pricing tiers was a legitimate way for carriers to manage the ‘explosive growth in data usage.’ Wells complained the FCC was taking too long to free up critically needed wireless spectrum, so they needed “other tools” to manage their networks.

“This is one of the measures that carriers are considering to make sure everyone has a fair and equal experience,” Walls said, forgetting to mention the wireless industry was cashing in on wireless data revenue, which increased from $8.5 billion annually in 2005 to $41.5 billion in 2009, and Wall Street was demanding more.

“There were again many cries about unsustainable trends, and demands for more spectrum (even though the most ambitious conceivable re-allocation of spectrum would have at most doubled the cellular bands, which would have accommodated only a year of the projected 100+% annual growth),” Odlyzko noted.

What the industry and Wall Street did not fully account for is that their economic models and pricing had the effect of modifying consumer behavior and changed internet traffic growth rates. Odlyzko cites the end of unlimited data plans and the introduction of “tight data caps” as an obvious factor in slowing down wireless traffic growth.

“But there were probably other significant ones,” Odlyzko wrote. “For example, mobile devices have to cope not just with limited transmission capacity, but also with small screens, battery
limits, and the like. This may have led to changes of behavior not just of users, but also of app developers. They likely have been working on services that can function well with modest
bandwidth.”

“U.S. wireless data traffic, which more than doubled from 2012 to 2013, increased just 26% from 2013 to 2014,” Odylzko reported. “This was a surprise to many observers, especially since there is still more than 10 times as much wireline Internet traffic than wireless Internet traffic.”

Many believe that was around the same time smartphones achieved peak penetration in the marketplace. Virtually everyone who wanted a smartphone had one by 2014, and as a result of fewer first-time users on their networks, data traffic growth slowed. At the same time, some Wall Street analysts also began to worry the companies were reaching peak revenue per user, meaning there was nothing significant to sell wireless customers that they didn’t already have. At that point, future revenue growth would come primarily from rate increases and poaching customers from competitors. Or, as some providers hoped, further monetizing data usage.

The Net Neutrality debate has kept most companies from “innovating” with internet traffic “fast lanes” and other monetization schemes out of fear of stoking political blowback. Wireless companies could make significant revenue trying to sell customers performance boosters like higher priority access on a cell tower or avoiding a speed throttle that compromised video quality. But until providers have a better idea whether the current administration’s efforts to neuter Net Neutrality are going to be successful, some have satisfied themselves with zero rating schemes and bundling that offer customers content without a data caps or usage billing or access to discounted packages of TV services like DirecTV Now.

Verizon is also betting its millions that “content is king” and the next generation of revenue enhancers will come from owning and distributing exclusive video content it can offer its customers.

Odlyzko believes providers are continuing the mistake of stubbornly insisting on acquiring or at least charging content providers for streaming content across their networks. That debate began more than a decade ago when then SBC/AT&T CEO Edward Whitacre Jr. insisted content companies like Netflix were not going to use AT&T’s “pipes for free.”

“Much of the current preoccupation of telecom service providers with content can be explained away as following historical precedents, succumbing to the glamour of ‘content,'” Odlyzko wrote. “But there is likely another pressing reason that applies today. With connection speeds growing, and the ability to charge according to the value of traffic being constrained either directly by laws and regulations, or the fear of such, the industry is in a desperate search for ways not to be a ‘dumb pipe.'”

AT&T and Verizon: The Doublemint Twins of Wireless

A number of Wall Street analysts also fear common carrier telecom companies are a revenue growth ‘dead-end,’ offering up a commodity service about as exciting as electricity. Customers given a choice between AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile need something to differentiate one network from the other. Verizon Wireless claims it has a best in class LTE network with solid rural coverage. AT&T offers bundling opportunities with its home broadband and DirecTV satellite service. Sprint is opting to be the low price leader, and T-Mobile keeps its customers with a network that outperforms expectations and pitches constant promotions and giveaways to customers that crave constant gratification and change.

The theory goes that acquiring video content will drive data usage revenue, further differentiate providers, and keep customers from switching to a competitor. But Odylzko predicts these acquisitions and offerings will ultimately fail to make much difference.

“Dumb pipes’ [are] precisely what society needs,” Odylzko claims and in his view it is the telecom industry alone that has the “non-trivial skills” required to provide ubiquitous reliable broadband. The industry also ignores the utility-like built-in advantage it has owning pre-existing wireline and wireless networks. The amortized costs of network infrastructure often built decades ago offers natural protection from marketplace disruptors that likely lack the fortitude to spend billions of dollars required to invade markets with newly constructed networks of their own.

Odylzko is also critical of the industry’s ongoing failure of imagination.

Stop the Cap! calls that the industry’s “broadband scarcity” business model. It is predicated on the idea that broadband is a limited resource that must be carefully managed and, in some cases, metered. Companies like Cox and Comcast now usage-cap their customers and deter them from exceeding their allowance with overlimit penalties. AT&T subjectively usage caps their customers as well, but strictly enforces caps only for its legacy DSL customers. Charter Communications sells Spectrum customers on the idea of a one-size fits all, faster broadband option, but then strongly repels those looking to upgrade to even faster speeds with an indefensible $200 upgrade fee.

Rationing Your Internet Experience?

“The fixation with video means the telecom industry is concentrating too much on limiting user traffic,” Odlyzko writes. “In many ways, the danger for the industry, especially in the wireline arena, is from too little traffic, not too much. The many debates as to whether users really need 100Mbps connections, much less 1Gbps ones, reveal lack of appreciation that burst capability is the main function of modern telecom, serving human impatience. Although pre-recorded video dominates in the volume of traffic, the future of the Net is likely to be bursts of traffic coming from cascades of interactions between computers reacting to human demands.”

Burstein agrees.

“The problem for most large carriers is that they can’t sell the capacity they have, not that they can’t keep up,” he writes. “The current surge in 5G millimeter wave [talk] is not because the technology will be required to meet demand. Rather, it is inspired by costs coming down so fast the 5G networks will be a cheaper way to deliver the bits. In addition, Verizon sees a large opportunity to replace cable and other landlines.”

On the subject of cost and broadband economics, Burstein sees almost nothing to justify broadband rate hikes or traffic management measures like usage caps or speed throttling.

“Bandwidth cost per month per subscriber will continue flat to down,” Burstein notes. “For large carriers, that’s been about $1/month [per customer] since ~2003. Moore’s Law has been reducing equipment costs at a similar rate.”

“Cisco notes people are watching more TV over the net in evening prime time, so demand in those hours is going up somewhat faster than the daily average,” he adds. “This could be costly – networks have to be sized for highest demand – but is somewhat offset by the growth of content delivery networks (CDN), like Akamai and Netflix. (Google, YouTube, and increasingly Microsoft and Facebook have built their own.) CDNs eliminate the carrier cost of transit and backhaul. They deliver the bits to the appropriate segment of the carrier network, reducing network costs.”

Both experts agree there is no evidence of any internet traffic jams and routine upgrades as a normal course of doing business remain appropriate, and do not justify some of the price and policy changes wired and wireless providers are seeking.

But Wall Street doesn’t agree and analysts like New Street Research’s Jonathan Chaplin believe broadband prices should rise because with a lack of competition, nothing stops cable companies from collecting more money from subscribers. He isn’t concerned with network traffic growth, just revenue growth.

“As the primary source of value to households shifts increasingly from pay-TV to broadband, we would expect the cable companies to reflect more of the annual rate increases they push through on their bundles to be reflected in broadband than in the past,” Chaplin wrote investors. Comcast apparently was listening, because Chaplin noticed it priced standalone broadband at a premium $85 for its flagship product, which is $20 more than Comcast’s non-promotional rate for customers choosing a TV-internet bundle.

“Our analysis suggests that broadband as a product is underpriced,” Chaplin wrote. “Our work suggests that cable companies have room to take up broadband pricing significantly and we believe regulators should not oppose the re-pricing. The companies will undoubtedly have to take pay-TV pricing down to help ‘fund’ the price increase for broadband, but this is a good thing for the business. Post re-pricing, [online video] competition would cease to be a threat and the companies would grow revenue and free cash flow at a far faster rate than they would otherwise.”

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.

Mid-Rivers’ Mandatory Usage-Based Billing: $19.99/Mo + $0.20/GB

Mid-Rivers Communications, a Montana-based telecom co-op, wants everyone to believe their mandatory, usage-based broadband scheme that charges $19.95 a month + $0.20 per gigabyte is popular with their customers.

After the company noticed that fewer than 20% of customers were responsible for more than 90% of Mid-Rivers’ network traffic, it decided to ditch its traditional usage-capped, speed tier plans in favor of a compulsory usage-based billing scheme that included the maximum speed available, sometimes as high as 1Gbps, with no usage allowance.

To listen to Michael Candelaria, Mid-Rivers CEO and general manager, people have lined up at the doors just waiting to sign up, according to an interview published by Telecompetitor:

Initially the company tested usage-based pricing as an option in one CLEC market. But considering that 80% of customers opted for usage-based pricing within one year of its introduction, Mid-Rivers moved completely to usage-based pricing and launched it throughout all four CLEC markets.

Mid-Rivers has been particularly proud of the response it has received from local businesses. Candelaria noted that local hotels have seen occupancy drop after the area experienced an oil-related boom, followed by a bust. Nearly-empty hotels were paying $500 to $1,000 a month for high-bandwidth connections from competitors but only using a fraction of the capacity. The Mid-Rivers usage-based broadband offering was perfect for them.

During certain months, the hotels’ bills are dramatically lower than they were before.

“When the hotel is full, their bill goes up and they know why,” Candelaria said.

Meanwhile, as businesses that were not Mid-Rivers customers heard about the usage-based offering, “they came to us” after “we beat on their door for 20 years,” he noted.

But as news of the interview spread, it seems more than a few customers are not happy with Mid-Rivers’ new broadband pricing, and accused the company of propagandizing its usage based pricing scheme and censoring social media to suppress customer backlash.

Candelaria admitted the company used to take a lot of heat from customers that called up and asked for the cheapest internet plan available, which was $40 a month for 1.5Mbps service. At those speeds and prices, customer slammed the company’s Facebook page.

“This is where Candelaria time traveled a bit on his answer,” reflects Dan Corey, a customer rebutting Candelaria’s case. “Before the usage-based internet [plans], the tiers Mid-Rivers [offered] were 8, 12, and up to 50Mbps. There has not been a 1.5Mbps speed at Mid-Rivers for years.”

These days, Candelaria claims, complaints about speed and pricing are mostly gone.

“Of course they are gone,” responds customers J.P. and Kyle Jones, who jointly shared their feelings with Stop the Cap! “Mid-Rivers now censors their social media after taking a lot of heat so complaints are never publicly seen on their Facebook page.”

“Mid-Rivers must approve any comments made on their Facebook page, so 90% of the complaints are never seen unless Mid-Rivers has a full (even if not accurate) response ready to post along with it,” adds Corey. “No dissatisfied customers would know of others because of the control. Their Facebook page used to show all comments when posted, but that changed once they got a better understanding of how to control the flow of comments.”

Jones points out that the reason “80% of customers opted for usage-based pricing” is that any account change automatically forced the customer onto a usage-based pricing plan whether they wanted it or not. Most customers, including himself, do not want data caps or usage pricing, but he didn’t get a choice in the end.

“Put yourself in the shoes of a customer that used to be enrolled in Mid-Rivers’ Preferred Plan, which cost $59.95 a month and includes 600GB of usage at 12/1Mbps speeds,” writes J.P. “People don’t live in Montana for the social life so we spend a lot of time streaming video at home. Under Mid-Rivers’ new plan, if I used 500GB a month, I’d pay $20 for the account and $100 in usage charges — double what I paid a month earlier just for faster speed I could have paid more to get if I wanted or needed it. How many people do you think are enthusiastically waiting to pay double what they used to for internet?”

Mid-Rivers new usage-based plan.

For Candelaria, “Wide Open Wi-Fi”  is about selling fast internet access for less, and customers should only pay for what they use.

“People have been paying for utilities by usage for some time,” he told Telecompetitor. “Customers don’t tally up how much electricity they use and then order a 30-kilowatt plan and they don’t count how many showers they take to determine what kind of water plan they need. Why should the internet be any different? Everybody should have good internet. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor, you should be able to afford fast internet.”

Customers like J.P. agree with wanting fast and affordable internet, but argue this isn’t that. Where available, “Wide Open Wi-Fi” quickly becomes the only option Mid-Rivers offers, he claims.

“The reason for the [high] ‘take rates’ is that if you attempt to change or upgrade service, you are forced onto the usage-based service,” adds Corey. “There is no choice, so the take rates are very misleading. Customer satisfaction would increase for those that don’t use the service as of now. However, with more and more of the world going to internet, those customers will feel the squeeze soon enough.”

For customers that avoid calling Mid-Rivers and keep their heads down to keep their current plan, that doesn’t stop the company from eventually notifying customers their plan was changing whether they liked it or not.

Mid-Rivers older tiered plans.

“You will be ‘offered’ the Wide Open internet shortly I’m sure. Just like we in the cable modem towns were,” noted BigSkyGuy. “However, once not enough people switch to it, or it’s been some pre-determined amount of time, you’ll be forced onto it like the rest of us. Then you can enjoy the larger bills. Just like your forced router unfortunately.”

Mid-River sells its “Wide Open” service as a great way to get rid of data caps and tiered plans, and includes a free Wi-Fi router:

  • Virtually unrestricted speeds
  • Connected Home Wi-Fi included!
  • No more tiered plans! You automatically get the fastest speed!
  • No more data caps
  • Pay for only what you use
  • Your speed and experience will be greatly enhanced
  • Your perfect plan – whether you need the fastest speeds or the most affordable option
  • You as the customer will have control over your Internet bill*

That asterisk points to fine print that explains for $19.95 a month, you get no data allowance. You are billed $0.20 per gigabyte in one gigabyte increments. Don’t like the high bill that results?

“Your bill can be controlled by monitoring how much data you are using, use less and your bill will decrease,” the company explains.

But for most internet users, using less isn’t an easy option, especially as cord-cutting shifts more viewing towards the internet. Once Netflix, Hulu and similar services detect the faster speeds available on Mid-Rivers’ metered plan, their players increase video bandwidth to match available speed unless the customer intervenes. If they don’t, streaming can get very expensive.

“I have been hit with that Wide Open internet scam […] and unless you change your settings in [Netflix, Hulu, CBS, etc.] it’ll run you up to 7GB an hour, especially when it reads that speed setting from the Wide Open. In essence, Mid-Rivers is making you pay $1.40 per hour of Netflix,” writes BigSkyGuy. “Now granted, you can go in and change your settings, but how many people really know you can do that?”

The meter is lurking.

Candelaria argues the majority of Mid-Rivers customers use less than 100GB a month and their bill is less than $40, which is nearly $5 less than Mid-Rivers’ cheapest plan at $44.95, which includes a 300GB data allowance. He also claimed ‘the change to usage-based broadband has increased customer satisfaction and take rates – and while margins initially dropped, profitability was back to its previous level within six months.’

To accomplish that, either the company has signed up more new customers under the plan than it expected or usage charges from heavier users are covering the lost revenue. For Candelaria’s statement to remain true, “most customers” would have to use less than 100GB of usage a month for their bill to remain under $40. Lighter use customers may benefit from the faster speeds and continue to pay less as long as their usage stays at or near 100GB a month. But as average internet use continues to increase, so will customers’ bills.

Jones says the news isn’t all good for Montana businesses either.

“In areas where Charter/Spectrum offers business internet service, their bills are a fraction of what Mid-Rivers is charging if that business tends to run up a lot of usage, and there are no surprise bills from Mid-Rivers’ traffic charges,” Jones notes. “The problem is that Mid-Rivers is charging sky-high usage fees of $0.20/GB while other ISPs pay at most pennies per gigabyte. In fact, most ISPs buy bandwidth based on meeting demand during peak usage times, not traffic alone. During off-peak times, using your connection costs Mid-Rivers next to nothing, but Mid-Rivers keeps charging $0.20/GB day and night.”

BigSkyGuy notes other ISPs in the area are offering customers a better value proposition with flat-rate internet that will quickly be the envy of many Montanans facing future Mid-Rivers’ usage charges:

  • RTC/Reservation Telephone Cooperative: (100/100Mbps) UNLIMITED DATA $55/month
  • Midco/Midcontinent Communications: (75/5Mbps) UNLIMITED DATA $56/month or (25/3Mbps) UNLIMITED DATA $42/month
  • Nemont: (10/10Mbps) UNLIMITED DATA $71/month

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