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Spectrum Ditching Usage Measurement Meter Tool in July; Usage Caps Not in the Cards

Charter Communications is abandoning any pretense of data caps on its internet service by decommissioning its internet usage measurement tool for residential subscribers effective this July.

Company officials began notifying customers in billing statements that the usage measurement tool will be dropped effective next month. Charter Communications markets Spectrum internet service as free of any data caps, and a usage measurement system only confused customers about whether their internet usage was truly unlimited.

Originally introduced by Time Warner Cable in late 2009 and gradually made available to customers nationwide, the usage measurement tool reported monthly data usage for customers as part of Time Warner Cable’s original 2008 market test of data caps in Beaumont, Tex.

Customers were offered a Lite Tier with a 5 GB monthly cap or 40 GB of usage for the company’s Turbo Tier. Overlimit fees were $1/GB.

The company attempted to expand its data cap trial in the spring of 2009 to customers in Austin and San Antonio, Tex., Rochester, N.Y., and the Triad region of North Carolina. A major backlash, organized in part by Stop the Cap!, resulted in those market trials being abandoned within two weeks of being announced.

Time Warner Cable never attempted to impose compulsory data caps again after its disastrous 2009 trial and Charter Communications quietly abandoned its own frequently unenforced usage caps in 2015, shortly before bidding to acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

By ditching the usage measurement tool, Spectrum will retire the last remaining elements of Time Warner Cable’s legacy of dabbling with usage caps and further monetizing internet usage.

Charter is also forbidden from imposing data caps for up to seven years as a result of deal conditions imposed by regulators in return for approval of its merger with TWC and BH.

AT&T’s Curious Decision to Abandon Data Throttling Appeal to Supreme Court

Last week, AT&T announced its intention to abandon an appeal of a decision of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals granting the Federal Trade Commission the right to continue its lawsuit against AT&T for speed throttling its “unlimited data” wireless customers.

The notification came in a surprising four sentence notice filed with the court May 30:

At the May 10, 2018 case management conference in this matter, AT&T informed the Court that it expected at that time to request a 60-day extension from the Supreme Court of the deadline to file a petition for certiorari. See Audio Recording of May 10, 2018 Hr’g at 7:22. Since that hearing, AT&T has decided not to request such an extension and not to file a petition for certiorari to review the decision of the en banc Ninth Circuit, see 883 F.3d 848 (9th Cir. 2018). The deadline to file a petition for certiorari lapsed on May 29, 2018.

AT&T spokesman Mike Balmoris later told reporters: “We have decided not to seek review by the Supreme Court, to focus instead on negotiating a fair resolution of the case with the Federal Trade Commission.”

AT&T’s sudden change of heart surprised many observers, including some closely following the case at the 9th Circuit, which has held regular court supervised meetings to prepare for the widely expected Supreme Court challenge. AT&T notified the court in early May it would file its appeal as soon as May 29, and the court was preparing new discovery guidelines and deadlines between the two parties as the case proceeded.

AT&T had achieved a major victory in 2017 when a three-judge panel at the Ninth Circuit agreed with AT&T’s argument that the FTC had no jurisdiction over the company because part of its business includes traditional telephone service, something defined in law as being regulated exclusively by the FCC. At the same time, the FCC did not seem to have jurisdiction either, because wireless data throttling took place over a network not subject to common carrier service regulations.

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — San Francisco.

The Ninth Circuit then agreed to hear the case once again, this time “en banc” — meaning the full court would re-hear the case instead of a limited panel of three judges. In February, the court unanimously found the FTC did have regulatory jurisdiction over AT&T after all:

We conclude that the exemption in Section 5 of the FTC Act – “except . . . common carriers subject to the Acts to regulate commerce” – bars the FTC from regulating “common carriers” only to the extent that they engage in common-carriage activity. By extension, this interpretation means that the FTC may regulate common carriers’ non-common-carriage activities.

[…] This statutory interpretation also accords with common sense. The FTC is the leading federal consumer protection agency and, for many decades, has been the chief federal agency on privacy policy and enforcement. Permitting the FTC to oversee unfair and deceptive non-common-carriage practices of telecommunications companies has practical ramifications. New technologies have spawned new regulatory challenges. A phone company is no longer just a phone company. The transformation of information services and the ubiquity of digital technology mean that telecommunications operators have expanded into website operation, video distribution, news and entertainment production, interactive entertainment services and devices, home security and more. Reaffirming FTC jurisdiction over activities that fall outside of common-carrier services avoids regulatory gaps and provides consistency and predictability in regulatory enforcement.

In short, AT&T’s “get out of regulatory oversight free”-card was revoked, much to its consternation. The company promised a fast appeal to the Supreme Court. The case concerned a number of observers, not the least of which was the Federal Communications Commission, which has been so concerned about AT&T’s novel argument to escape regulation, it filed a brief supporting the FTC with the court:

If the en banc Court were to adopt AT&T’s position that the FTC Act’s common-carrier exception is “status-based” rather than “activity-based,” contrary to the reasoned analysis of the district court below, the fact that AT&T provides traditional common-carrier voice telephone service could potentially immunize the company from any FTC oversight of its noncommon-carrier offerings, even when the FCC lacks authority over those offerings—creating a potentially substantial regulatory gap where neither the FTC nor the FCC has regulatory authority.

That approach is contrary to a common-sense reading of the relevant statutes and could weaken or eliminate important consumer protections. While AT&T may prefer to offer services in a regulatory no man’s land, the law does not dance to AT&T’s whims.

While AT&T publicly expressed confidence about its appeal right up to the day it abandoned it, minutes from the Ninth Circuit trial scheduling and progress conferences reveal AT&T and the FTC were already privately talking with each other to avoid further litigation:

“Parties reported that they are conducting settlement negotiations.”

All observers agree a successful appeal by AT&T to the Supreme Court could have put telecommunications laws and regulations into chaos. Had AT&T successfully restored the three-judge panel’s decision, any telecommunications company could walk away with impunity from FCC and FTC oversight by simply starting a small telephone company serving just a handful of customers. Just one product or service subject to common carrier rules could effectively immunize a phone or cable company from regulations indefinitely, or until Congress changed the law to close that loophole.

Some observers predict AT&T’s decision not to appeal is a prelude to an imminent, favorable permanent settlement of the four-year old case. The evidence strongly suggests AT&T will likely escape any significant monetary punishment, and affected consumers may not get significant (if any) compensation for AT&T’s prior acts:

  • The FCC shows no sign of following through on a 2015 press release threatening AT&T with $100 million in fines for its failure to properly disclose its speed throttling policy arbitrarily imposed on unlimited data customers who exceeded a company-defined amount of data usage. At the time the press release was issued, there were three Democrats and two Republicans serving on the Commission. Both of those Republicans opposed the fine and are now part of the Republican majority at the FCC under the Trump Administration. The FCC admitted in court papers that no further action has been taken to fine AT&T. The case was largely left in the hands of the FTC.
  • During the Obama Administration, the FTC claimed it was interested in pursuing refunds for affected customers and punishing AT&T for its throttling practices. Last week, Andrew Smith, the FTC’s new director of the Consumer Protection Bureau told an audience today’s priority it to monitor providers over traffic throttling and making sure those practices are transparently disclosed to customers. “We’re planning to examine current practices in the industry,” Smith said. “We’re looking for areas in which ISPs may be engaged in unfair or deceptive practices, and we will bring enforcement action as appropriate.”

Smith

For AT&T, the decision to drop its appeal may have come down to whether it preferred to temporarily escape regulatory oversight until an enraged Congress passed new laws to put AT&T and other telecom companies back under oversight, or living with the kind of “light-to-little touch” regulatory approach favored by the Trump Administration and its regulatory agencies. Whatever deal emerges between AT&T and the Trump Administration’s FTC will likely be “win-win” for the company and the regulator, with consumers offered only token relief.

The goals likely to be achieved in any settlement:

  • AT&T would clearly like to avoid a $100 million fine and other enforcement actions, so agreeing to ease throttling (something it has done already) and better disclose the practice would hardly create a problem for the company, especially if fines are dropped as a result.
  • The FCC’s new “net neutrality” policy depends almost entirely on effectively abdicating oversight responsibility to the FTC, something embarrassing and hard to justify if AT&T managed to permanently bar the agency from regulating the company.
  • The FTC can claim victory by telling consumers they are watching ISPs for undisclosed and unwarranted throttling, without opening up new legal challenges by outright banning of the practice, heavily fining violators, or collecting damages on behalf of customers victimized by prior bad acts.

Updated: Verizon Trials DSL Data Caps in Virginia

Phillip Dampier May 17, 2018 Consumer News, Data Caps, Verizon 2 Comments

Existing Verizon DSL customers in some states are discovering the company is defining “usage” allowances on its two DSL packages. (Image courtesy: Smith6612)

Is Verizon slapping the caps on its DSL customers in the northeast?

A handful of New York and New Jersey Verizon customers were surprised to find Verizon suddenly defining usage limits on their DSL service on its website dashboard for existing customers:

  • High Speed Internet: Up to .5 – 1 Mbps — 150 GB Usage
  • High Speed Internet Enhanced: Up to 3.1 – 7 Mbps — 250 GB Usage

The sudden appearance of data allowances confused some customers, because the only references to them appear on pages for existing customers seeking to change or upgrade their current DSL package, and only in certain sections of upstate New York and New Jersey.

Careful scrutiny of Verizon’s terms and conditions make no reference to the new data caps, although the company declares customers are responsible for all usage charges. There is also no mention of the caps on Verizon’s sales pages for prospective customers, and phone reps didn’t know anything about them either.

Verizon has not indicated what might happen if a customer exceeds that cap or where the caps are being enforced, if anywhere.

We reached out to different Verizon press contacts twice this week to get confirmation and have heard nothing back.

If you are a Verizon DSL customer, do us a favor and let us know in the comment section what you see when you review options to change your DSL service.

Update 7:18pm EDT: Verizon did get back in touch with us after we went to press in response to several questions.

Here is our Q & A with Verizon’s Ray McConville, corporate media relations representative for New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and FiOS:

Q. Is Verizon setting data allowances on their DSL service plans?

No. We have been conducting a usage billing trial to a very small set of customers in Virginia where we would measure their data use and display it in their billing. While these customers were given the 250 GB and 150 GB allowances you showed in those screen shots, we’ve never billed customers who exceed those allowances and have no plans to do so. The purpose of the trial was more the idea of accurately collecting and displaying usage in billing.

Q. If a customer exceeds that allowance, what happens?

Nothing. Again, we don’t do data caps. We have the small Virginia trial of displaying usage in billing, but it’s still not a cap, and customers aren’t billed for exceeding the 150 or 250 GB numbers.

Q. Is this a new policy?

No. It’s not a policy – we don’t have data caps or overage charges.

Q. In what states or service areas, if any, is this data allowance policy in effect?

Just the small Virginia trial, and customers are not charged for going over the “allowance.”

Q. If that is the case, why are customers in New York and New Jersey seeing the usage allowances?

It’s a likely system error; they should not have seen that. Only customers in the very limited part of Virginia where we have the trial should see such a thing.

Q. What is the status of the trial in Virginia?

Trial is ongoing – not aware of any end point.

Strong Evidence T-Mobile/Sprint Merger Will Cause Prices to Rise, Innovation to Sink

Despite rosy predictions from Sprint and T-Mobile executives that the two companies joining forces will result in plentiful competition, lower prices, and more advanced service, the results of prior mergers in the wireless industry over the last 20 years delivered increasing prices, reduced innovation, and a lower customer service experience instead.

Few markets show the stark results of consolidation more than the telecom industry. Monopoly cable rates, barely competitive wireless domination by AT&T and Verizon — both with a long history of adjusting wireless rates and plans to closely match one another (usually to the detriment of the consumer), and politicians and regulators that acquiesce to the wishes of the telecom industry have been around even before Stop the Cap! got started in 2008.

When a market disruptor begins to challenge predictable and stable marketplaces, Wall Street and investors quickly get uncomfortable. So do company executives, whose compensation packages are often dependent on their ability to keep the company’s stock price rising. That is why T-Mobile USA’s “Uncarrier” campaign, which directly challenged long-established wireless industry practices, created considerable irritation for other wireless companies, especially AT&T and Verizon.

The two wireless industry giants initially ignored T-Mobile, suggesting CEO John Legere’s noisy and confrontational PR campaign had no material impact on AT&T and Verizon’s subscriber base and revenue. Ironically, Legere was named CEO one year after AT&T’s 2011 failed attempt to further consolidate the wireless industry with its acquisition of T-Mobile. A very generous deal breakup fee and accompanying wireless spectrum provided by AT&T after the deal collapsed gave T-Mobile some room to navigate and transform the company’s position — long the nation’s fourth largest national wireless carrier behind Sprint. It is now in third place, poaching customers from the other three, and has repeatedly forced other carriers to change their plans and pricing in response.

T-Mobile’s “Uncarrier” promotion.

T-Mobile invested in its network and delivered upgrades, but the real inroads for subscriber growth were made by throwing out the typical wireless carrier business plan. T-Mobile brought back unlimited data and made it a key feature of their wireless plans starting in 2016, a feature AT&T and Verizon had successfully banished, ended the traditional two-year contract, scrapped junk fees and surcharges that customers hated, and ran regular specials that dramatically cut family plan rates. If you lived in an area with solid T-Mobile coverage, the scrappy carrier quickly became a viable option among those contemplating ditching Verizon or AT&T. T-Mobile also benefited enormously from disaffected Sprint subscribers that spent years riding out frequent promises of an in improved network experience that frankly never matched the hype in many areas. Price conscious customers that could not afford a plan with AT&T or Verizon moved even more readily to T-Mobile’s network.

In contrast, AT&T and Verizon have spent the last 20 years consolidating the wireless industry by acquiring regional carriers that had a reputation for good service at a fair price, with the promise that the acquisition by a richer and larger competitor would accelerate network upgrades and improve service. But customers of long-gone or diminished carriers like Alltel, Leap Wireless’ Cricket, MetroPCS, and Centennial Wireless (there are others) that either no longer exist or remain alive only as a brand name on a larger company’s network, noticed higher bills and eliminated coveted features that helped them manage their data and voice plans and costs.

In Europe, recent industry consolidation in some countries has reduced major carriers from four to three, similar to what T-Mobile and Sprint would do in the United States. Pal Zarandy at Rewheel compared consolidated markets in Germany and Austria and discovered gigabyte data pricing where consumers had three options almost doubled in price in Germany and Austria. Austria was 30% less expensive than a control group of six neutral countries when it had three competitors. Today, with two, it is 74% more expensive than its European counterparts. In Germany, prices went from 60% more expensive to nearly triple the rates charged by control group countries.

The merger of Sprint and T-Mobile will dramatically reduce competition in several ways:

  1. It will end the pervasive price war for lower-income consumers on postpaid plans. Sprint and T-Mobile directly compete with each other to secure customers that skip AT&T and Verizon Wireless because of their more expensive plans and accompanying higher-standard credit check.
  2. Each of the four current national carriers have had to respond to aggressive price promotions for hardware (Sprint, T-Mobile), plans (T-Mobile, Sprint), and loyalty-building rewards (T-Mobile Tuesday). With a merger, those promotions can be scaled back.
  3. AT&T and Verizon have been forced to reintroduce unlimited data plans as a direct result of competition from Sprint and T-Mobile. Incidentally, Sprint and T-Mobile’s unlimited data features are different. T-Mobile offers zero rating of lower-resolution videos from selected websites while Sprint offers unlimited access to HD video. In fact, Sprint’s unlimited plan marketing campaign casts T-Mobile’s version in a negative light and was designed to beat T-Mobile’s plan to attract new customers.
  4. Since Sprint and T-Mobile are market disruptors, merging them means no new aggressive campaigns to out-disrupt each other to the consumer’s benefit. Instead, they will target the conservative plans of AT&T and Verizon, which requires less innovative marketing and less significant price cuts.

Sprint’s marketing points to differences between its plans and those from T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T.

In 2015, the OECD released a definitive study demonstrating the impact of consolidating telecom mergers among top industrialized countries, including the United States. The results were indisputable. If you reduce the number of national carriers to fewer than four, prices rise, service deteriorates — along with innovation and investment, and consumers are harmed. In Canada, where three national carriers dominate, the former Conservative government made finding a fourth national wireless competitor a national policy priority. While Americans gripe about their cell phone bills, many Canadians are envious because they often pay more and live with more restricted, less innovative plans.

This February, market research firm PwC published its own findings, “Commoditization in the wireless telecom industry,” showing that North America remained the most “comfortable” region in the world for wireless carriers looking for big revenue and profits, but that was starting to change because of disruptive marketplace changes by companies like T-Mobile and Sprint.

“In this zone, there is a greater than 50 percent spread in market share and ARPU between highest and lowest market players indicating that commoditization is far off,” PwC notes. For wireless carriers, “commoditization” is bad news. It means the amount of money a carrier can charge for its services is highly constrained because multiple competitors are ready to undercut another carrier’s prices or engage in all-out vicious price wars. In these areas, commoditization also means consumers treat each competitor as a viable player for their business.

In France, four national providers —  OrangeSFRBouygues Telecom and Free, have been in a price war for years, keeping France’s wireless prices shockingly low in comparison to North America. The price war in the United States is just beginning. PwC notes as the U.S. market becomes saturated — meaning everyone who wants a cellphone already has one — companies will have to compete more on price and service. T-Mobile and Sprint have been the most aggressive, and the effect is “meaningful competition.” In Canada, where three national carriers exist, competition is constrained by the domination of three large national companies and some regional players. Instead of cutting prices and expanding plan features, many Canadian providers are now trying to bundle their cable, phone, and wireless customers into a single package to “protect [market] share and increase stickiness.” In other words, Canadian wireless carriers are designing plans to hold the line on pricing while keeping customers loyal at the same time.

While average revenue per customer is now around $30 a month in North America, it is less than half that amount in virtually every other region in the world. PwC shows the direct impact of competition starting around 2014, when T-Mobile and Sprint got particularly aggressive about pricing. Wireless carrier ARPU was no longer a nearly flat line from 2009-2013. Now it is dropping faster than every other region in the world as AT&T and Verizon have to change their pricing to respond to competition pressures.

Sprint and T-Mobile’s CEOs launch their PR blitz. (Image: Cheddar)

While reports are likely to surface arguing the alleged pro-consumer benefits of the Sprint/T-Mobile merger, it will be critical to determine who or what entities funded that research. We expect a full-scale PR campaign to sell this merger, using industry-funded astroturf groups, industry-sponsored research, and industry-connected analysis and cheerleading.

In 2011, the Justice Department definitively crushed the proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. It cited strong and convincing evidence that removing a competitor from the wireless market will lead to consumer harm from reduced competition and higher prices. If one substitutes Sprint for AT&T, the evidence still shows Sprint’s own aggressive marketing and promotions (and its competitors’ willingness to match or beat them) will be missing from a marketplace where Sprint no longer exists. That cannot and should not be allowed to happen.

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

Usage caps for one and all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • EJ: Josh you are correct as of right now. Without unlimited and/or very high (1TB) caps 4g/5g is nothing more then competition for satellite internet. We ...
  • Dylan: Got that right!...
  • Gayle Conversion: My name is Gayle Anne Wehner-Foglesong.To McAdams! Watch your mouth! You do not blame anyone but yourself. I know everything and I want my money now! ...
  • Michael sherwood: Spectrum charged me an overdue amount and I haven't even been with them for a month...
  • Josh: He’s not wrong, for once. The cell phone stuff keeps blathering s out speeds and how great it is, then can’t actuslly provide unlimited service or an...
  • Dylan: Yeah, Spectrum definitely needs this. I know here in New York, we have National Grid as our electric and gas provider and they definitely tell you abo...
  • FRED HALL: I wish Spectrum had this (and it was accurate). Whenever there's an outage, their tech support is either too stupid or too lazy to let the customer r...
  • Bob61571: TDS Telecom is a sub of Telephone & Data Systems(TDS). US Cellular is also a sub of TDS. TDS Telecom owns a number of smaller small town/rural t...
  • D H: If you want to really feature someone serious for the Governorship. I would suggest Larry Sharpe instead who is actually doing a grassroots campaign....
  • David: Well, I dropped them for earthlink DSL which is slower and buggier but I don't regret it since I don't accept getting pushed around. If earthlink keep...
  • baboonie: I glad that pai did what he did and this go stopped. That would of been to much power in sinclairs hands, But everybody knows the only reason pai did ...
  • David: In order to have those 'revenue enhancers' opportunities.. they would have to have more customers. Which are not coming to Frontiers services. The bi...

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