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VCRs Officially Dead; Last Manufacturer of VHS Recorders Calls It Quits

Phillip Dampier July 21, 2016 Consumer News, History 2 Comments
How many of these do you still have in your basement or attic?

How many of these do you still have in your basement or attic? And more importantly, Be Kind, Rewind! (Image: Wikipedia)

The days of the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) are coming to a quiet end as the last known manufacturer of the once-ubiquitous device announced it will stop making new machines at the end of July.

The VCR had its place in about 90 percent of U.S. homes just ten years ago. Although introduced to the consumer market in the late 1960s, the VCR remained a toy of the wealthy through much of the 1970s. It would take 10 years after that — the 1980s — for VCRs to become easily affordable and in enough homes to inspire a multi-billion dollar video rental industry with household names like Blockbuster. CNN even considered the VCR one of the most important cultural icons in its series The Eighties.

Like most new technology, the arrival of the VCR threatened everything, according to enterainment industry executives. Years of litigation dragged out issues like the right for consumers to make recordings of over-the-air stations to capture their favorite shows. Ad-skipping, courtesy of the fast-forward button, would “ruin” free television. Viewers might even build video libraries of shows and share them with friends and neighbors! At one time, some major companies in Hollywood even favored the imposition of a tax on blank videocassettes that would cover their losses from home recording. Copyright questions were finally settled in 1984, when the Supreme Court ruled home taping on a not-for-profit basis was perfectly legal. Hollywood survived despite this.

vcr_toshibaConsumers had a choice between two incompatible standards – the Sony Betamax, which promised superior video quality or JVC’s VHS format, a standard that allowed for longer recordings and was supported by just about every electronics manufacturer other than Sony. Some consumers owned both, but most settled for one or the other, and the VHS tape had a decisive advantage – extended recording time and near universal accessibility. It would eventually dominate in sales. More than 30 years later, recordings made on Betamax and VHS machines are still viewable, and turn up on video websites, often showcasing television as it used to look like in the 1970s and 1980s.

The VCR became so popular, it was a significant part of our lives. Pornography on videotape became a major issue during the Reagan Administration. But an even more pervasive problem was the flashing 12:00 time on your grandparent’s unconfigured VCR and the piece of black electrical tape used to conceal it. Videocassette clubs became as common as the record clubs that were around decades earlier. Parents used the VCR as an electronic babysitter to entertain children. Movie rental night was also the best way to watch your second, third, or fourth choice movie, as popular titles were cleared off shelves early in the evening. Rental fees, late fees, and “be kind, rewind” fees were also issues. But the worst nightmare of all was the horror of discovering a hopelessly unwound and tangled videocassette inside the machine, or worse, your child’s lunch.

What the VCR was invented for.

What the VCR was invented for: time-shifting

First generation VCRs were replaced with Hi-Fi and even SuperVHS models, which improved recording quality. Consumers bought second and third units for their bedrooms. Blank videocassettes were everywhere, often available hanging on a rack next to the checkout line.

The VCR was technology America took for granted… until the arrival of DVDs in 1995, just a decade after the VCR really got popular. There was simply no comparison. The DVD blew away videocassette video quality and offered easy accessibility, compact storage, and a longer lifespan. Just five years after the DVD showed up, it outsold all videotape formats combined. The pay television industry completed the hatchet job on the VCR with the introduction of the Digital Video Recorder (DVR) (Personal Video Recorder, or PVR, in Canada). The DVR was designed around the fact most consumers used VCRs to time-shift television programming, not build a personal library of recordings. With a DVR, a customer could quickly record their favorite shows and store them digitally, erasing unwanted shows with the push of a button.

The DVR still shows years of life, but the DVD’s days are likely numbered as cloud storage and on-demand video streaming make the need to collect and organize a library of shows and movies obsolete. Why buy it if you can stream it?

Manufacturers and retailers have noticed the shifting trends and the VCRs that were originally for sale in the 1980s were largely replaced by DVD players in the 1990s. Today, even DVD players are slowly being replaced in favor of devices like Roku or portable tablets.

Until this month, at least one manufacturer – Funai of Japan – still had a small niche market keeping VCRs in homes where owners spent decades amassing vast video libraries of movies and TV shows. Unfortunately, Chinese manufacturers of the parts needed to build a VCR have increasingly lost interest. So has Funai.

“We are the last manufacturer” of VCRs “in all of the world” — 750,000 units were sold worldwide in 2015, down from millions decades earlier, said Funai, which sold them under brand names like Sanyo, among others. This last holdout made VHS machines. Sony threw in the towel on making Betamax VCRs back in 2002. It stopped manufacturing blank tapes this year.

The infamous 8-track tape, just one of many orphaned recording media formats.

The infamous 8-track tape, just one of many orphaned recording media formats.

At some point in the next 10-20 years, the videocassette could represent one of the largest orphaned recording formats around. As little as 20 years from now, as your kids and grandchildren unearth strange plastic boxes from the attic or basement, they will wonder what they are and how to play them. Preservationists are concerned about the inevitable – discovering playable videocassettes have outlived the players required to watch them.

It isn’t the first time. Wire recordings still turn up in some attics. To the uninformed, they are nothing more than a spool of ordinary wire, except someone recorded sound on them sometime in the first half of the 20th Century. Even more common, open reel or reel-to-reel tapes wound on large plastic spools. This was the audiophile’s choice during much of the vinyl era, where the alternative was the obnoxiously awful 8-track tape or the hissy audio cassette.

If a radio broadcaster lived in your home, you might still find a few Fidelipac cartridges that slightly resemble 8-track tapes. These were commonly used to store continuous loop/always ready to go commercials and jingles. RCA developed its own version of the “Stereo Tape” in 1958 that came and went faster than the DuMont television network. In 1962, Muntz tried a Stereo Pak 4-track tape that went over like a yellow jacket swarm at a summer picnic. In 1966, the two track PlayTape format showed up and the only place you were likely to ever encounter it was inside certain Volkswagen automobiles. In 1977, someone had the brilliant idea of taking reel-to-reel size tape and loading it into a giant cassette-like shell. The Elcaset was born with a gigantic price tag. Unfortunately for the inventors, most consumers thought regular cassettes sounded good enough.

From the 1970s on, videotape was where it was at, and early formats were likely wound on spools or inserted into cartridges with strange-sounding names like U-matic. TV station personnel knew about these formats, but most consumers didn’t.

Making audio sound better in the 1980s brought three more attempts to recreate the portable cassette-like experience in a digital format. In 1988, Digital Audio Tape (DAT and R-DAT) arrived. It promised CD audio quality recordings. The record industry promised to destroy it at all costs because it could make perfect digital copies, great for bootlegging and pirating. It never emerged from niche status. The same was true for Sony’s bizarre MiniDisk, introduced in 1991. A sort of recordable CD-like disk placed inside a computer disk-style cartridge, it won some market share in Japan, but was never more than a curiosity in North America. If record companies didn’t release albums on these formats, they tended to tie quickly. Helping it along to the grave was copy protection technology, which irritated some users. In the end, the MiniDisk was deemed irrelevant after MP3 players arrived.

Philips of the Netherlands and Sony of Japan made one last effort before the MP3 rage with their 1992 introduction of the Digital Compact Cassette. Its main selling point was that players were backwards compatible and could also play ordinary cassettes (the things most consumers were starting to shove into drawers and shoe boxes the moment digital audio formats like MP3 took off). Too little, too late, and although Philips had a small loyal following for their players in Holland, you now have a better chance of finding blank digital cassettes stuffed into the back of drawers than you will ever have encountering a player to play them on.

Spring 2016: An Update and Progress Report for Our Members

stcDear Members,

We have had a very busy winter and spring here at Stop the Cap! and we thought it important to update you on our efforts.

You may have noticed a drop in new content online over the last few months, and we’ve had some inquiries about it. The primary reason for this is the additional time and energy being spent to directly connect with legislators and regulators about the issues we are concerned about. Someone recently asked me why we spend a lot of time and energy writing exposés to an audience that almost certainly already agrees with us. If supporters were the only readers here, they would have a point. Stop the Cap! is followed regularly by legislators, regulators, public policy lobbyists, consumer groups, telecom executives, and members of the media. Our content is regularly cited in books, articles, regulatory filings, and in media reports. That is why we spend a lot of time and energy documenting our positions about data caps, usage billing, Net Neutrality, and the state of broadband in the United States and Canada.

A lengthy piece appearing here can easily take more than eight hours (sometimes longer) to put together from research to final publication. We feel it is critical to make sure this information gets into the hands of those that can help make a difference, whether they visit us on the web or not. So we have made an extra effort to inform, educate, and persuade decision-makers and reporters towards our point of view, helping to counter the well-funded propaganda campaigns of Big Telecom companies that regularly distort the issues and defend the indefensible.

Four issues have gotten most of our attention over the last six months:

  1. The Charter/Time Warner Cable/Bright House merger;
  2. Data cap traps and trials (especially those from Comcast, Blue Ridge, Cox, and Suddenlink);
  3. Cablevision/Altice merger;
  4. Frontier’s acquisition of Verizon landlines and that phone company’s upgrade plans for existing customers.

We’ve been successful raising important issues about the scarcity of benefits from telecom company mergers. In short, there are none of significance, unless you happen to be a Wall Street banker, a shareholder, or a company executive. The last thing an already-concentrated marketplace needs is more telecom mergers. We’re also continuing to expose just how nonsensical data caps and usage-based billing is for 21st century broadband providers. Despite claims of “fairness,” data caps are nothing more than cable-TV protectionism and the further exploitation of a broadband duopoly that makes it easy for Wall Street analysts to argue “there is room for broadband rate hikes” in North America. Stop the Cap! will continue to coordinate with other consumer groups to fight this issue, and we’ve successfully convinced at least some at the FCC that the excuses offered for data caps don’t hold water.

Dampier

Dampier

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s broadening of Charter’s voluntary three-year moratorium on data caps to a compulsory term as long as seven years sent a clear message to broadband providers that the jig is up — data caps are a direct threat to the emerging online video marketplace that might finally deliver serious competition to the current bloated and overpriced cable television package.

Wheeler’s actions were directly responsible for Comcast’s sudden generosity in more than tripling the usage allowance it has imposed on several markets across the south and midwest. But we won’t be happy until those compulsory data caps are gone for good.

More than 10,000 Comcast customers have already told the FCC in customer complaints that Comcast’s data caps are egregious and unfair. Considering how unresponsive Comcast has been towards its own customers that despise data caps of any kind, Comcast obviously doesn’t care what their customers think. But they care very much about what the FCC thinks about regulatory issues like data caps and set-top box monopolies. How do we know this? Because Comcast’s chief financial officer this week told the audience attending the JPMorgan Technology, Media and Telecom Broker Conference Comcast always pays attention to regulator headwinds.

“I think it’s our job to make sure we pivot and react accordingly and make sure the company thrives whatever the outcome is on some of the regulatory proposals that are out there,” said Comcast’s Mike Cavanagh. We suspect if Chairman Wheeler goes just one step further and calls on ISPs to permanently ditch data caps and usage billing, many would. We will continue to press him to do exactly that.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Other companies are also still making bad decisions for their customers. Besides Comcast’s ongoing abusive data cap experiment, Cox’s ongoing data cap trial in Cleveland, Ohio is completely unacceptable and has no justification. The usage allowances provided are also unacceptably stingy. Suddenlink, now owned by Altice, should not even attempt to alienate their customers, particularly as the cable conglomerate seeks new acquisition opportunities in the United States in the future. We find it telling that Altice feels justified retaining usage caps on customers in smaller communities served by Suddenlink while denying they would even think of doing the same in Cablevision territory in suburban New York City. Both Suddenlink and Cablevision have upgraded their networks to deliver faster speed service. What is Altice’s excuse about why it treats its urban and rural customers so differently? It frankly doesn’t have one. We’ll be working to convince Altice it is time for Suddenlink’s data caps to be retired for good.

We will also be turning more attention back on the issue of community broadband, which continues to be the only competitive alternative to the phone and cable companies most Americans will likely ever see. The dollar-a-holler lobbyists are still writing editorials and articles claiming “government-owned networks” are risky and/or a failure, without bothering to disclose the authors have a direct financial relationship to the phone and cable companies that don’t want the competition. We will be pressing state lawmakers to ditch municipal broadband bans and not to enact any new ones.

We will also continue to watch AT&T and Verizon — two large phone companies that continue to seek opportunities to neglect or ditch their wired services either by decommissioning rural landlines or selling parts of their service areas to companies like Frontier. AT&T specializes in bait-n-switch bills in state legislatures that promise “upgrades” in return for further deregulation and permission to switch off rural service in favor of wireless alternatives. That’s great for AT&T, but a potential life-threatening disaster for rural America.

We continue to abide by our mandate: fighting data caps and consumption billing and promoting better broadband, regardless of what company or community supplies it.

As always, thank you so much for your financial support (the donate button that sustains us entirely is to your right) and for your engagement in the fight against unfair broadband pricing and policies. Broadband is not just a nice thing to have. It is an essential utility just as important as clean water, electricity, natural gas, and telephone service.

Phillip M. Dampier
Founder & President, Stop the Cap!

Cincinnati Bell Plans to Shutdown Telegraph Grade Service, On Offer Since the 1800s

telegraph key

Telegraph key

If you thought your Internet service was slow, consider being a customer of Cincinnati Bell’s 75 baud Telegraph Grade service, on offer to subscribers since the 1800s for low-speed stock quotes, telegrams, and office-to-home communications. But don’t consider it too long, because the service is about to be discontinued.

The first telegram in the United States was sent on Jan. 11, 1838 using the newly developed “Morse Code” system introduced by Samuel Morse. The message was sent unceremoniously across two miles of wire strung across the sprawling Speedwell Ironworks outside of Morristown, N.J. But the experiment didn’t attract much attention until it was repeated in 1844 in Washington, D.C., where members of Congress looked on as the message, “What hath God wrought” successfully traveled from Washington to Baltimore, Md. A decade later, telegraph lines were strung to every major city on the east coast. By 1861, telegraph cables stretched across the territories west of the Mississippi and reached the West Coast, putting the Pony Express out of business.

It would be a decade after that before The City and Suburban Telegraph Company, later Cincinnati Bell Telephone, was officially incorporated on July 5, 1873, becoming the first company in the city to offer direct communication between the city’s homes and businesses. Only the wealthiest families could afford a private telegraph line, which cost $300 a year provided you lived no more than a mile from the company’s office. After four years, the company only managed to attract 50 paying customers, mostly business tycoons who relied on the telegraph to stay in contact with the office while at home. Other businesses used telegraphs to connect their different offices. Most employed young men to serve as telegraph operators, translating short written messages into a series of dots and dashes and back again.

Telegraph stamps, used to prove payment for sending and receiving messages.

Telegraph stamps, used to prove pre-payment for telegraph messages.

Business was better further east. The story of two men that would change the course of the telegraph and launch a company that remains a household name to this day started in 1838 when banker and real estate entrepreneur Hiram Sibley moved to Rochester, N.Y. He saw plenty of opportunities in upstate New York and quickly settled in, later becoming elected Monroe County Sheriff. That position soon led to his introduction to Judge Samuel L. Selden, who had the patent rights to the House Telegraph system. Seeing an opportunity, the two embarked on their own telegraph business — the New York State Printing Telegraph Company. It did not take long for them to realize competing against the larger New York, Albany, and Buffalo Telegraph Co., was a financial disaster. The two decided it would be smarter to consolidate existing providers instead of building new networks to compete. The first craze of telecommunications company consolidation was underway. With the assistance of deep pocketed investors in Rochester, Sibley and Selden founded the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company. The new entity would string some of its own telegraph lines westwards, but more importantly it would focus on acquiring its rivals, especially in areas where fierce competition kept profits low and expectations of monopoly wealth even lower.

sibley

Sibley

By 1854, Sibley and Selden were confronted with competitors using two different messaging systems among 13 different companies. Sibley’s solution? Buy them out and unify them with the Morse system, available thanks to a separate acquisition of the Erie & Michigan Telegraph Company. In 1856, the company that had its beginnings in Rochester was renamed the “Western Union Telegraph Company,” which referred to the union of the different telegraph systems of the “western states” of that era (today considered the midwest).

Between 1857 and 1861 merger mania hit almost all the telegraph companies, and by the end of this period, most formerly independent companies were owned by one of six conglomerates:

  • American Telegraph Company (covering the Atlantic and some Gulf states),
  • Western Union Telegraph Company (covering states North of the Ohio River and parts of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Minnesota),
  • New York Albany and Buffalo Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company (covering New York State),
  • Atlantic and Ohio Telegraph Company (covering Pennsylvania),
  • Illinois & Mississippi Telegraph Company (covering sections of Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois),
  • New Orleans & Ohio Telegraph Company (covering the southern Mississippi Valley and the Southwest).

Much like the cable industry today, these six giants maintained a mutually friendly alliance and never competed for territory. Any remaining independents quickly learned cooperation with these larger systems was essential. But once competition stalled in the telegraph business, so did interest in investing in challenging upgrades.

western unionBy 1860, as the United States continued its expansion westward and tension grew between the northern and southern states over issues like slavery and self-determination, the administration of President James Buchanan realized having a reliable national telegraph network was critical to the security of the country. Unfortunately for the president, his priorities ran headlong into private company intransigence. Persuading the for-profit companies to expand their networks to connect the west coast seemed impossible. None wanted to risk investor dollars on a telegraph line they believed would be too expensive and difficult to maintain.

That same year Congress passed, and President James Buchanan signed, the Pacific Telegraph Act, which authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to seek bids for constructing a transcontinental telegraph line, financed by the federal government. Two of the three bidders eventually dropped out, leaving Hiram Sibley’s Western Union the sole bidder.

The Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 resulted in the construction on this telegraph line extending from Nebraska to Nevada.

The Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 resulted in the construction of this telegraph line extending from Nebraska to Carson City, Nev.

To insulate his other business interests from the project, Sibley organized the Pacific Telegraph Company to be responsible for construction of the new telegraph line to the west, starting in Omaha, Neb. Sibley also consolidated several small local companies into the California State Telegraph Company, which in turn launched the Overland Telegraph Company, managing construction of the cable eastward from Carson City, Nev., to Salt Lake City. The line was finally completed in October, 1861, seven months after the outbreak of the Civil War.

While newly elected president Abraham Lincoln was distracted settling into office starting March 4, 1861, Sibley was quietly preparing to consolidate control over the new taxpayer-funded cross-country cable. After the project was complete, Pacific Telegraph and California State Telegraph were quickly merged into Western Union, making Hiram Sibley the undisputed king of the telegraph industry. Any future ventures rising to challenge Western Union were instead eaten up by acquisition. By 1866, Western Union announced it was moving its company headquarters from Rochester to 145 Broadway in New York City.

Sibley retired from Western Union in 1869, and went into the seed and nursery business in Rochester and Chicago. He left the company during its most powerful era, having a virtual monopoly on the telegraph business at least a decade before the telephone would arrive on the scene. He retired the richest man in Rochester, and his home in the East Avenue Historical District still stands today. He gave generously to charity after retirement and helped incorporate a new college in the Southern Tier of New York called Cornell University.

The Hiram Sibley House, constructed in 1869, still stands today at 400 East Ave, Rochester, N.Y.

The Hiram Sibley House, constructed in 1868, still stands today at 400 East Avenue, Rochester, N.Y.

As the 1870s arrived, the Civil War was five years finished and huge changes were coming. Although telegraph service was already in place in many eastern seaboard cities, it took longer to arrive in smaller cities in the midwest and southern United States, and it was not too long after that before the telephone followed.

In Cincinnati, the telegraph service that began in 1873 was threatened by the arrival of the telephone in 1878 — just five years later. That fall, Cincinnati’s telegraph company signed an agreement with Bell Telephone Company of Boston, the first telephone company in the country. Bell held several patents essential for manufacturing telephones and granted the telegraph company an exclusive contract to sell phone service within a 25-mile radius of the city.

Bell Telephone arrived in the era of the Robber Barons, where trusts and monopolies were the product of unfettered capitalism. Bell’s business planners were more than happy following the telegraph industry to the glory days of consolidation and monopolization.

By 1879, the Bell Telephonic Exchange was well on its way, up and running on the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets in downtown Cincinnati — the 10th phone exchange in the nation and the first in Ohio. That year, Cincinnati’s first phone book was printed and the young men that operated the telegraph lines were not welcome manning the huge expanse of manual cord boards built inside the central office.

City and Suburban believed women served as better ambassadors for the newly emerging telephone company and the concept of “Hello Girls” was born. Only later would the Bell System insist on referring to these professional employees as “operators.” In Cincinnati, around two dozen women manned the cord boards in the exchange office during its first year. They were required to memorize the names of all callers and had to quickly learn how to complete calls — a process that involved connecting a patch cable between the caller and the person called on a giant board with a plug for every subscriber. They managed nearly 150,000 completed calls during the first year for over 1,000 customers.

1930s: View of half of the world's longest switchboard at the City and Suburban Telegraph Company (later Cincinnati Bell Telephone). The board held 88 positions and handled a record of 9,722 outgoing calls in 1937. Cincinnati, Ohio. 01/01/1935 Photo by Cincinnati Historical Society/Getty Images

Jan. 1, 1935: View of half of the world’s longest switchboard at the City and Suburban Telegraph Company (later Cincinnati Bell Telephone). The board held 88 positions and handled a record of 9,722 outgoing calls in 1937. (Photo by Cincinnati Historical Society/Getty Images)

The simplicity and directness of the telephone quickly proved a major challenge for the telegraph industry. Western Union saw opportunities investing in telegraph networks overseas to stay ahead of this trend. It also launched a stock ticker service and a money transfer service, allowing people to send money across the country in a matter of hours. Despite the innovation, by 1875, financier Jay Gould had finally managed to assemble a formidable competitor to Western Union — the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company. An overabundance of Western Union stock on the market by 1881 made it possible for Gould to finally launch a successful takeover.

A Telex machine in use during the 1970s.

A Telex machine in use during the 1970s.

Telegraph lines remained in use well into the 20th century, used primarily for business communications, cables, and telegrams which were printed and delivered by messenger. Cincinnati Bell sold telegraph grade data lines for a variety of business applications, including slow speed data services. Even after the Morse code telegraph of the 1800s was long gone, other data services existed well before the arrival of the fax machine and the home computer. Telex messages were exchanged over a network of “teleprinters” which resembled an oversized manual typewriter. AT&T’s Teletypewriter eXchange (TWX) network was common in large businesses during the late 1960s into the 1970s. One of Cincinnati Bell’s other large customers for slow speed data lines was the military.

Cincinnati Bell customers signed up for telegraph grade service received an unconditioned telephone line capable of transmitting at 0-75 baud or 0-150 baud in half-duplex or duplex operation. That was half the data speed of computer modems common in the mid 1980s supporting up to 300 baud — which transmits text at a speed most can read and follow along in real-time.

Remarkably, Cincinnati Bell still needs the permission of regulators to drop the Civil War era telegraph service and in discontinuance requests sent to state and federal authorities, it reminded regulators the change will have no impact on the “public convenience and necessity” because there has been no demand for the service for a long time.

In fact, Cincinnati Bell has no customers to notify of the impending doom of telegraph grade service, because there have been no customers subscribed to it.

cincinnati bellCincinnati Bell’s request would have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for the long legacy of the telegraph era. Western Union dispatched its last telegram on Jan. 27, 2006, after 155 years of continuous service, and largely kept quiet about it, only notifying current customers: “Effective 2006-01-27, Western Union will discontinue all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact a customer service representative.”

Those nostalgic for telegrams might be interested to know another company has risen where Western Union left off. iTelegram promises to bring back the experience of a messenger at your front door, but it’s a costly trip down Memory Lane. A Priority Telegram costs $28.95 + $0.75 per word and is delivered usually within 24 hours, and includes proof of delivery. A “MailGram,” dispatched through the U.S. Mail is a slightly less expensive option, costing $18.95 and includes up to 100 words. It arrives in 3-5 days. Or you could send an e-mail for approximately nothing.

While Cincinnati Bell’s request recalls a distant past, Verizon and AT&T are also asking to discontinue services that customers were still using in the 1990s. Verizon wants to drop postpaid calling cards and personal 800 services that customers used to buy from MCI, now a Verizon subsidiary. For its part, AT&T wants to drop operator-assisted services due to almost no customer demand. In many areas, dialing “0” no longer even works to reach one of those Hello Girls… pardon me, I meant operators.

The Peaceful War Against Comcast’s Data Caps: Don’t Like ‘Em? Get Off Your Butt

Licensed to print money

Licensed to print money

In 2008, Stop the Cap! was launched because the telephone company that serves our hometown of Rochester, N.Y., decided on a whim that it was appropriate to introduce a usage allowance of 5GB per month for their DSL customers. Frontier Communications CEO-at-the-time Maggie Wilderotter defended the idea with the usual claim that the included allowance was more than enough for the majority of Frontier customers. DSL customers already have to endure a lot of issues with Internet service and data caps should certainly not be one of them.

Stop the Cap! drew media attention and focus on the issue of data capping, organized customers for a coordinated pushback, and sufficiently hassled Frontier enough to get them to make the right decision for their customers by quietly rescinding the “allowances.”

As it would turn out, Frontier’s correct decision to suspend usage caps would prove an asset to them less than one year later when Time Warner Cable made it known it would trial its own usage caps in Austin and San Antonio, Tex., Greensboro, N.C., and yes… Rochester, N.Y. starting in the summer of 2009.

Time Warner Cable was slightly more generous with its arbitrary allowance — 40GB of usage for $55 a month. Customers already paying a lot for Internet access would now also have an arbitrary usage allowance and overlimit penalty fees with no service improvements in sight. Frontier’s decision the year before to rescind data caps played to their advantage and the company quickly launched advertising in Rochester attacking Time Warner Cable for its data caps, inviting customers to switch to cap-free Internet with Frontier.

Data caps are here!

Data caps are here!

Time Warner Cable’s experiment lasted less than two weeks and was permanently shelved, never to return. Four years later, Comcast began its own usage cap trial that not only continues to this day, but has expanded to cover more than 1,000 zip codes. Capped service areas typically live with a 300GB usage allowance with an overlimit fee of $10 per 50GB.

Yesterday at the investor-oriented UBS Global Media and Communications Brokers Conference, Comcast chief financial officer Mike Cavanagh assured Wall Street and shareholders Comcast’s desire to boost revenue from monetizing broadband usage remained an “important contributor” to the company’ goal of “demonstrat[ing] value and derive value from that pricing.”

Cavanagh said the company is using the line ‘heavy users should pay more’ to justify its caps.

“It’s been an experiment that we are using that the key data point behind it is kind of intuitive – ‘10% of our client base uses 50% of capacity.'”

While not ready to announce Comcast’s cap plan would be introduced nationwide, Cavanagh assured investors the experiments will continue as Comcast makes sure that over time it is “compensated for the investments that today’s marketplace requires us to make.”

The difference that makes it possible for Comcast to carry its usage cap experiments forward while Time Warner Cable had to quickly end theirs comes down to one thing: organized customer pushback. Time Warner Cable got heat from relentless, organized opposition in the four cities where caps mattered the most to consumers. Comcast, for the most part, is getting about as much heat as it usually does from customers. It’s time to turn the heat up.

protest

In fighting this battle for the last seven years, I can share with readers what works to force change and what doesn’t:

In 2009, Time Warner Cable faced protesters opposed to usage limits at this rally in front of the company's headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable faced protesters opposed to usage limits at this rally in front of the company’s headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.

Generally Useless

  • Complaining about usage caps in the comment sections of websites;
  • Signing online petitions;

Impotent But Potentially Useful in Large Numbers

  • Calling the provider to complain about usage caps;
  • Complaining about usage caps to a provider’s social media team (Facebook, Twitter, etc.);
  • Writing complaints on a company’s open support forum;

Useful, But Unlikely to Bring Immediate Results

  • Writing a letter or making a call complaining to elected officials about usage caps;
  • Advocating for more competition, especially from public/municipal broadband;
  • Filing formal complaints with the FCC and Better Business Bureau;
  • Complaining to state telecom regulators and your state Attorney General (they have no direct authority but can attract political attention);
  • Canceling or downgrading service, blaming usage caps for your decision.

Gasoline on a Lit Fire

  • Organizing a protest in front of the local cable office, with local media given at least a day’s notice and invited to attend;
  • Contacting local newsrooms and asking them to write or air stories about usage caps, offering yourself as an interview subject;
  • Sending local press clippings or links to media coverage to your member of Congress and two senators. Suggest another media-friendly event and invite the elected official to attend and speak, which in turn generates even more media interest.
In 2009, Time Warner Cable planned to implement mandatory usage pricing starting in Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and San Antonio and Austin, Tex.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable planned to implement mandatory usage pricing starting in Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and San Antonio and Austin, Tex.

In the battle with Time Warner Cable, we did all the above, but especially the latter, which quickly spun the story out of control of company officials sent to distribute propaganda about usage cap “fairness” and “generous” allowances. We were so relentless, we managed to get under the skin of at least one company spokesperson caught on camera being testy in an on-air interview, which backfired on the company and angered customers even more.

In the case of Comcast, very few of these techniques have been used in the fight against their endless data cap experiment. Customers seem satisfied writing angry comments and signing online petitions. Some have filed complaints with the FCC which are useful measures of hot button issues on which the FCC may act in the last year of the Obama Administration. But there is no detectable organized opposition on the ground to Comcast’s data caps. That may explain why Comcast’s CEO has repeatedly told investors your reactions to Comcast’s caps have been “neutral to slightly positive.” Many Wall Street analysts obviously believe that, because some are advocating the time is right to raise broadband prices even higher. After all, if your reaction to data caps was muted, raising the price another $5 a month probably won’t cost you as a customer either.

It would be very different if these analysts saw regular news reports of small groups of angry customers protesting in front of Comcast offices in different areas of the country. That would likely trigger questions about whether broadband pricing has gotten out of hand. Coverage like that often attracts politicians, who cannot lose opposing a cable company. Once Congress gets interested, the fear regulation might be coming next is usually enough to get companies to pull back and reconsider.

comcast sucksIf you are living with a Comcast data cap and want to see it gone, you can do something about it. Consider organizing your own local movement by tapping fellow angry customers and recruiting local activist groups to the cause. In Rochester, there was no shortage of angry college students and groups ready to protest. Google local progressive political groups, technology clubs, and technology-dependent organizations in your immediate area. Some are likely to be a good resource for building effective public protests, sign-making, and other TV-friendly protest techniques. Contact town governments, the mayor’s office of your city, technology-oriented newspaper columnists, radio talk show/computer support show hosts, etc., to build a mailing list for coordinated announcements about your efforts. Many local officials also oppose data caps.

If a local news reporter has covered tech or consumer issues in the past, many station websites now offer direct e-mail options to reach that reporter. If you give them a good TV-friendly story to cover, they will be back for more coverage as your local protest grows. We helped coordinate and share news about efforts against Time Warner in the cities that were subject to experiments, which also gave us advance notice of their talking points and an ability to offer a consistent response. Several stations carried multiple stories about the cap issue, supported by calls to TV newsrooms to thank them for their coverage and to encourage more.

We realize Comcast’s responsiveness to customers is so atrocious it approaches criminal, but Comcast does respond to Wall Street and shareholders who do not want the company under threat of fact-finding hearings, FCC regulatory action, or Congressional attention. They also don’t want any talk of municipal broadband alternatives. Sidewalk protests in front of the local cable office on the 6 o’clock news is a nightmare.

In the end, Time Warner Cable didn’t want the hassle and got the message — customers despise data caps and want nothing to do with them. Time Warner hasn’t tried compulsory usage caps again. If you want Comcast to get the same message, those living inside Comcast service areas (especially customers) need to lead the charge in their respective communities. We remain willing to help.

FCC Demands Details About Charter’s Suddenly Retired Usage Caps

charter twc bhLess than three months before announcing it would acquire Time Warner Cable in a $55 billion deal, Charter Communications quietly dropped usage caps, in place on its broadband plans since 2009, without explanation and the FCC wants to know why.

FCC officials have sent a letter to Charter requesting a range of information about the company’s broadband services, including information about Charter’s since-dropped usage cap program. The federal agency reviewing its buyout of Time Warner Cable wants to know when Charter dropped its usage caps and why.

Charter Communications has promoted “no usage caps” as a selling point to convince regulators its purchase of Time Warner Cable is a consumer-friendly transaction. Charter has promised a cap-free Internet experience for Time Warner Cable customers for three years, but has not committed to offer unlimited broadband service beyond that date.

Two months before Time Warner Cable planned a since-dropped 2009 market test of usage caps in New York, North Carolina and Texas, Charter Communications confirmed it was introducing “monthly residential bandwidth consumption thresholds” on its broadband customers ranging from 100GB for customers with speeds of 15Mbps or slower and 250GB for customers subscribed to 15-25Mbps service.

“In order to continue providing the best possible experience for our Internet customers, later this month we will be updating our Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) to establish monthly residential bandwidth consumption thresholds,” Charter’s Eric Ketzer told DSL Reports at the time. “More than 99% of our customers will not be affected by our updated policy, as they consume far less bandwidth than the threshold allows.”

Few customers realized Charter had placed a cap on Internet usage because the cable company treated the limits as “soft caps” — guidelines they could cite if they found a customer using a very large amount of bandwidth. But customers were not charged overlimit fees and few ever heard from Charter about their usage, even if it well-exceeded their allowance.

In front of Time Warner Cable protesting Internet Overcharging in 2009.

In front of Time Warner Cable offices in Rochester, N.Y. protesting Time Warner Cable’s proposed usage caps. (April 2009)

Only a handful of companies, including national providers like AT&T (for DSL) and Comcast (in usage cap market trial areas), have followed up usage allowances with stinging overlimit fees for those exceeding them, applied to customer bills. The practice is far more common among smaller and regional cable companies like Alaska’s GCI, which earned 10 percent of its broadband revenue billing customers for excess usage.

In March of this year, Stop the Cap! reported Charter quietly dropped usage caps (or “thresholds”) from their Acceptable Use Policy, ending six years of usage capped service — less than three months before announcing it was acquiring Time Warner Cable.

Time Warner Cable’s own experience with usage caps was short-lived after Stop the Cap! and other consumer advocates and elected officials launched a protest campaign against Time Warner Cable’s plans to expand a test of usage-based billing beyond Beaumont, Tex. to Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and the cities of Austin and San Antonio in Texas.

Time Warner proposed four tiers of usage allowances: 5, 10, 20, and 40 GB priced from $29.95 to $54.90 a month. The overlimit fee was to be $1/GB. Sanford Bernstein, a Wall Street research firm, predicted an average family subscribed to Time Warner’s top 40GB usage plan would pay around $200 a month in overlimit fees if they used Netflix more than 7.25 hours a week.

Within two weeks of launching protests in the four cities where Time Warner was planning to add caps, the plan was shelved permanently. But many Time Warner Cable customers have remained wary of the company’s plans regarding usage caps. Time Warner’s retooled, optional usage capped tiers offered to customers looking for a discount have proved dismal failures since their introduction, with fewer than 1% of Time Warner customers finding usage-limited Internet access compelling.

Rationing Your Internet Experience?

Rationing Your Internet Experience?

Consumer advocates also fear usage caps could reappear under Charter as quickly as they disappeared. Stop the Cap! is suspicious of Charter’s time-limited commitment to keep customers free of usage caps for three years. We are lobbying state and federal regulators to permanently extend that commitment as a condition of approving any merger between Charter and Time Warner.

“Customers must be assured they can always choose a reasonably priced unlimited use Internet option,” said the group’s founder Phillip Dampier. “If Charter/Time Warner Cable/Bright House wants to offer optional discounts for customers volunteering to limit their personal use, we are not opposed to that. But based on Time Warner’s own record, you can count on only a few thousand customers willing to voluntarily surrender unlimited, flat rate access.”

Stop the Cap! believes there is no credible reason Internet providers should be imposing compulsory usage caps or usage billing on anyone.

“Broadband is a huge money-maker and the costs to offer it continue to drop even as provider profits rise,” said Dampier. “Rationing broadband with a usage allowance is as credible as rationing Niagara Falls or breathing.”

The FCC is also requesting documentation detailing Charter’s proposed expansion of Wi-Fi hotspots in Time Warner Cable areas and company plans to boost standard broadband speeds from 15Mbps to 60Mbps. Charter has until Oct. 13 to respond.

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