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Want 100Mbps from Charter? Fork Over $200 for Activation/Upgrade Fee

charter-spectrumStop the Cap! reader Gabe, a Time Warner Cable customer, recently decided to upgrade his service to Charter’s fastest internet plan in his area — Ultra/100Mbps. That upgrade stopped dead in its tracks when Charter Communications informed him there is a mandatory $200 “activation” fee for customers selecting 100Mbps service.

We learned this upgrade fee is not new for Charter Communications’ existing customers. First implemented in 2012, Charter Communications claims the activation fee is set at a level commensurate with the value of having premium speed service.

“Ultra is a premium service which results in higher incremental network investments, equipment costs, and other operating expenses,” Charter Communications wrote in 2012. “In an effort to maintain reasonable monthly recurring service fees, we have implemented a higher installation fee for Ultra customers.”

We’ve taken a look to see if this fee can be waived and we found no instance where customers can avoid it. However, customers signing up for business service, which costs about the same as residential service, can subscribe to 100Mbps and face a $99 installation fee instead of $200 in most areas.

Verizon Wireless Bill Shock is Back; Customers Complaining About Sudden Usage Increases

bill shockSome Verizon Wireless customers are reporting data usage numbers spiked on their bills to unprecedented levels this summer, giving the cellular company’s bean counters a heaping helping of overlimit fees, charged when customers exceed their data allowance.

The phantom usage problem has become noticeable enough to win attention from the consumer reporter at Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, who found her own family of four suddenly blowing past their shared 15GB a month, resulting in a $30 overlimit fee.

“My family’s data usage has mysteriously increased significantly every month since February, except for one month,” wrote Teresa Dixon Murray. “My family of four pays for 15GB a month. We’re grandfathered in the old More Everything family share plan. We typically were using no more than 10GB a month. But for the last six months, that has increased steadily — and inexplicably. 8.2. Then 9.7. Then 10.6. Then 12.7. Two months ago, we got alerts that we were nearing our allotment and managed to take care to avoid going over. Last month, despite our efforts, we went over by 1.057GB, and were charged an extra $30.”

Murray questioned why her family’s phones were burning through their data allowance in the middle of the night, while connected to the family’s home Wi-Fi.

A Verizon representative explained phones may be connecting to Verizon’s network because of a new feature installed on some phones, including the Apple iPhone, called “Wi-Fi Assist.” This feature, which could also be called “Verizon Profit Assist” automatically ignores the fact you are connected to Wi-Fi and switches back to the Verizon Wireless network if the phone determines your Wi-Fi connection is “poor.”

“So what’s the definition of poor? I guess Verizon and our iPhones decide that,” Murray questioned.

This feature can be switched off from your phone settings.

They are coming.

They are coming.

But that hasn’t always stopped the overlimit fees. Some customers report they still incur overlimit fees even after switching cellular data off when they reach a warning from Verizon they are about to exhaust their allowance. Verizon charges $10 in overlimit fees, even in instances where the offending extra usage amounts to .0001GB.

Verizon claims its usage meter only provides an estimate of usage, and there are instances where the warning comes too late for a customer to stop using data before they’ve already exceeded their plan allowance. Verizon’s solution is to sell a $5/month “family coverage” add-on that allows parents to monitor data usage before it gets out of hand. But Verizon doesn’t guarantee it will stop overlimit fees based on the measurements of usage it provides.

That add-on plan may or may not have helped Valarie Gerbus, who is now facing a $9,100 Verizon cell phone bill she is adamantly refusing to pay.

The suburban Tampa customer regularly paid $118/month for her cell phone plan, which included 4GB of data usage — an amount she never exceeded, at least until July. Gerbus was shocked to open her bill and discover her normal monthly bill now also included $8,535 in overlimit fees for using 569GB of data in a single month:

(Image: The Plain Dealer)

(Image: The Plain Dealer)

On July 21, Verizon sent her a text, notifying her that she had used nearly all of her 4 gigabytes of data. The text said she could get 4 more gigabytes for $20. Realizing that she had two weeks before the end of the month, Gerbus bought the additional data.

Within an hour of the purchase, she received another text that told her she only had 10 percent left on the data that she had just purchased. The next text message she received said she could change her plan to 8 gigabytes for an additional $20 a month. She said she bought that upgrade to ensure she didn’t have any data overages.

In a span of several hours, she estimates that she received 40 to 50 texts saying that she needed to purchase more data. She turned the notification off, believing that there had been a glitch in Verizon’s system.

Gerbus said she realizes now that she should have contacted the company at that point, but she didn’t, as she feared being placed on hold by a customer service representative.

She later went to work and planned on paying the bill online. When she found her online statement, it said she owed $6,480 for using 490 gigabytes of data. She was shocked.

“I told them that I won’t pay the bill,” Gerbus told the newspaper. “I can either wait until they take it to a collection agency or when they take it to court. Either way, my credit history will be ruined. I can go bankrupt here.”

Verizon said they are not aware of any widespread problem, but is looking into phantom phone usage at night and some of the more extreme examples of bill shock, where bills extend into the thousands of dollars.

Affected customers report the high bills are, in some cases, tearing families apart.

“It got to the point that we were battling in our family,” reported Lockport, N.Y. resident Tom Walker, who told the newspaper their data usage soared for no apparent reason. “We were really asking each other, ‘Have you been on Facebook too much? What have you been doing?’ We were trying to figure out who was using all this data.”

Gerbus is almost thankful to pay Verizon Wireless a nearly $600 fee to exit her contract early as she switches to T-Mobile. Verizon’s engineers have no explanation for Gerbus’ bill, other than noting her phone contacted Amazon.com at least 400 times over a few days.

Providers with usage caps and usage-based pricing often consider their usage meters more reliable than their own customers, and when customers complain, many representatives trust the meter and insist on payment. When a customer like Gerbus complains about usage that is considerably above average usage, customer service representative are not always receptive.

“I told them that there was no way that I could have gone from 490 to 560 in a day,” Gerbus said. “The [Verizon] person said, ‘Yes there is.'”

Net Neutrality End Run: AT&T Exempts Its Own DirecTV Content from Its Mobile Data Caps

directvAT&T Mobility customers can now stream AT&T-owned DirecTV video on their mobile devices without fear of hitting their data allowance, because AT&T has exempted its own content from mobile data caps.

AT&T customers using the DirecTV iPhone app discovered the sudden exemption in an update released today, according to a report in Ars Technica:

“Now you can stream DirecTV on your devices, anywhere—without using your data. Now with AT&T,” the app’s update notes say under the heading “Data Free TV.” This feature requires subscriptions to DirecTV and AT&T wireless data services.

It sounds like the data cap exemption may not apply to all data downloaded by the app, as the update notes further say that “Exclusions apply & may incur data usage.” The service is also “Subject to network management, including speed reduction.” We’ve asked AT&T for more information and will provide an update if we receive one.

Customers can also use the app to download shows recorded on their home DVR straight to their mobile device(s) for viewing. Updates to the DirecTV apps for Android and iPad devices introducing similar exemptions are still pending as of this morning.

A description of "what's new" in the DirecTV app released this morning in the iTunes app store.

A description of “what’s new” in the DirecTV app released this morning in the iTunes app store.

AT&T is engaging in a practice known as “zero rating,” which exempts certain provider-preferred or owned content from that provider’s own data caps or allowances. Critics call zero rating an end run around Net Neutrality because users are more likely to use services that don’t count against their data allowance over those that do. The FCC’s definition of Net Neutrality prohibits providers from artificially enhancing the performance of certain websites at the expense of others, but says nothing about data caps or zero rating.

Chima

Chima

“All forms of zero rating amount to price discrimination, and have in common their negative impact on users’ rights,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, policy director of Access, a group fighting for global preservation of Net Neutrality. “Zero rating is all about control. Specifically, control over the user experience by the telecom carrier — and potentially its business partners. We can see this is true when we look at how zero rating is implemented technically. Technologically, it is about manipulation of the network, where you guide or force the user to change the way they would otherwise use it.”

The FCC seemed to agree with Chima, specifically banning AT&T from exempting its own streaming video services and those of DirecTV from AT&T’s data caps in the agreement allowing AT&T to acquire DirecTV. But the FCC only mentioned AT&T’s caps on its DSL and U-verse home broadband services, not AT&T Mobility. AT&T took full advantage of the apparent loophole for its mobile customers.

AT&T has previously stated it does not discriminate against online content and is happy to exempt other video services from its data allowances and caps if those companies pay AT&T for the privilege.

The benefit of zero rating is obvious for AT&T. The company can now market its cell phone services to DirecTV customers with a significant advantage over competitors — free access to DirecTV video not available from Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile. It can also strengthen its earlier promotion offering unlimited DSL/U-verse service to those who bundle either product with a DirecTV subscription, by pitching zero rating for customers on the go.

AT&T’s competitors T-Mobile and Verizon also engage in zero rating on their mobile service plans.

AT&T to Urban Poor: No Discounted Internet Access if We Already Deliver Lousy Service

access att logoAT&T is adding insult to injury by telling tens of thousands of eligible urban households they do not qualify for the company’s new low-cost internet access program because the company cannot deliver at least 3Mbps DSL in their service-neglected neighborhood.

In one of the worst cases of redlining we have ever seen, AT&T is doubling down on making sure urban neighborhoods cannot get online with affordable internet access, first by refusing to upgrade large sections of income-challenged neighborhoods and then by refusing requests from those seeking the low-cost internet service the government required AT&T to provide as a condition of its merger with DirecTV.

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance reports their affiliates have run into serious problems helping AT&T customers sign up for Access from AT&T, the company’s new discounted internet access program open to users of the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — the modern-day equivalent of food stamps. Participants are supposed to receive 3Mbps DSL for $5 a month or 5-10Mbps for $10 a month (speed dependent on line quality).

“As some NDIA affiliates in AT&T’s service area geared up to help SNAP participants apply for Access in May and June, they found that a significant number were being told the program was unavailable at their addresses,” NDIA reported. “Some of those households had recent histories of AT&T internet service or had next door neighbors with current accounts. So, why were they being told AT&T did not serve their addresses?”

It turns out AT&T established an arbitrary threshold that requires participating households to receive a minimum of 3Mbps at their current address. But AT&T’s urban neighborhood infrastructure is so poor, a significant percentage of customers cannot receive DSL service faster than 1.5Mbps from AT&T. In fact, data from the FCC showed about 21% of Census blocks in the cities of Detroit and Cleveland — mostly in inner-city, income-challenged neighborhoods — still cannot manage better than 1.5Mbps DSL.

Remarkably, although these residents cannot qualify for discounted internet service, AT&T will still sell them 1.5Mbps DSL service… for full price. AT&T even admits this on their website:

access att

“If none of the above speeds are technically available at your address, unfortunately you won’t be able to participate in the Access program from AT&T at this time. However, other AT&T internet services may be available at your address.”

“About two months ago, NDIA contacted senior management at AT&T and proposed a change in the program to allow SNAP participants living at addresses with 1.5 Mbps to qualify for Access service at $5/mo,” NDIA wrote. “Yes, we know we were asking for the minimum speed to be lower than it should be, but paying $5/mo is better than paying full price and in many neighborhoods, both urban and rural, Access is the only low-cost broadband service option. I’m sorry to report that, after considering NDIA’s proposal for over a month, AT&T said no.”

“AT&T is not prepared to expand the low-income offer to additional speed tiers beyond those established as a condition of the merger approval,” is the official response of AT&T, leaving tens of thousands of AT&T customers unlucky enough to be victims of AT&T’s network neglect and underinvestment out in the cold.

Slowsville: These Cleveland neighborhoods marked in red cannot get anything faster than 1.5MBps DSL from AT&T.

Slowsville: These Cleveland neighborhoods marked in red cannot get anything faster than 1.5MBps DSL from AT&T.

Internet access is not just a problem in rural America. Urban neighborhoods are frequently bypassed for network upgrades because there is a sense residents cannot afford to pay for the deluxe services those upgraded networks might offer. Similar issues affected city residents that waited years for cable television to finally arrive in their neighborhoods. Some providers evidently felt they would not get a good return on their investment. Yet data consistently shows cash-strapped urban residents are among the most loyal subscribers to cable television, because it is less costly than many other forms of entertainment. This year, urban content viewers were among the most loyal cable TV subscribers, even millennials notorious for cord-cutting.

Regulators should review AT&T’s compliance with its DirecTV merger conditions. Access from AT&T should be available to every qualified home, particularly those AT&T will happily furnish with appallingly slow 1.5Mbps DSL, if customers agree to AT&T’s regular prices.

Federal Court Dismisses AT&T Throttling Lawsuit; AT&T Skates on a Loophole

Signage for an AT&T store is seen in New York October 29, 2014. AT&T Inc has made a bid for Yahoo Inc's internet business, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday, citing people familiar with the matter. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

Signage for an AT&T store is seen in New York October 29, 2014. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A federal appeals court in California on Monday dismissed a U.S. government lawsuit that accused AT&T Inc  of deception for reducing internet speeds for customers with unlimited mobile data plans once their use exceeded certain levels.

The company, however, could still face a fine from the Federal Communications Commission regarding the slowdowns, also called “data throttling.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said it ordered a lower court to dismiss the data-throttling lawsuit, which was filed in 2014 by the Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC sued AT&T on the grounds that the No. 2 U.S. wireless carrier failed to inform consumers it would slow the speeds of heavy data users on unlimited plans. In some cases, data speeds were slowed by nearly 90 percent, the lawsuit said.

The FTC said the practice was deceptive and, as a result, barred under the Federal Trade Commission Act. AT&T argued that there was an exception for common carriers, and the appeals court agreed:

The panel reversed the district court’s denial of AT&T Mobility LLC’s motion to dismiss, and remanded for an entry of an order of dismissal in an action brought by the Federal Trade Commission under section 5 of the FTC Act that took issue with the adequacy of AT&T’s disclosures regarding its data throttling plan, under which AT&T intentionally reduced the data speed of its customers with unlimited mobile data plans.

Section 5 of the FTC Act contains an exemption for “common carriers subject to the Acts to regulate commerce.” 15 U.S.C. § 45(a)(2). The panel held that AT&T was excluded from the coverage of section 5 of the FTC Act, and FTC’s claims could not be maintained. Specifically, the panel held that, based on the language and structure of the FTC Act, the common carrier exception was a status-based exemption and that AT&T, as a common carrier, was not covered by section 5.

Asked about the appeals court ruling, a spokesman for AT&T said: “We’re pleased with the decision.”

An FTC spokesman said the agency has not yet decided whether to appeal. “We are disappointed with the ruling and are considering our options for moving forward,” FTC spokesman Jay Mayfield wrote in an emailed comment.

The company, however, could face action from the FCC. In June 2015, the agency proposed a fine of $100 million for AT&T’s alleged failure to inform customers with unlimited data plans about the speed reductions. AT&T has contested that proposed fine.

(By Diane Bartz; Editing by Paul Simao and Matthew Lewis; Additional reporting by Stop the Cap!)

AT&T’s Latest Sneaky Wireless Rate Hike

Always looking for a new angle.

Always looking for a new angle.

While T-Mobile and Sprint are preparing to battle it out offering dueling unlimited data plans, Verizon Wireless and AT&T are continuing to raise prices for many customers while pushing upgrades on customers some do not need.

This week, AT&T officially introduced its Mobile Share Advantage plan, with most of the advantages going to AT&T.

Per device fees have shot up by as much as 33% if you have more than two smartphones on your account. AT&T used to charge $15 per smartphone as a device fee. Now it is $20, offset in many cases by some reductions in data plan costs. But once you add a third device, you are paying a $5 rate increase per device.

The company is also trying to clean up its reputation by eliminating the scourge of data-related overlimit fee bill shock. Before the change, AT&T customers faced an overlimit fee of $5 for each 300MB used on its 300MB data plan and $15 per gigabyte on other plans. Instead of billing overlimit fees, AT&T is adopting punishing speed throttles for customers over their allowance. Once customers exceed their plan limit, speeds are reduced to 2G levels, up to 128kbps. While that is just painful for web pages, it makes watching video and uploading photos next to impossible without experiencing frustrating network timeout error messages.

Gone are the 2, 5, and 15GB plans. Customers can now choose from 12 different usage plans ranging from 1-100GB.

data plans att

But AT&T’s most conservative users of data are going to pay more under the new plan. Customers enrolled in the old 2GB $30 data plan, suitable for those who use their phones to check e-mail and view web pages, will find that same $30 will only buy them 1GB if they switch to the new plan. To avoid the likelihood of hitting the speed throttle, these customers will have to upgrade to a 3GB plan for $40 — a $10 increase.

For everyone else who happens to slightly exceed their data allowance, many may end up preferring the old $15 overlimit fee system. Under the new plan, customers have to live with speed throttles that make their devices almost unusable until the billing cycle refreshes. We predict many customers won’t wait and will upgrade their data plan to restore functionality. But upgrades from the 3GB and 6GB plans come in $20 increments — $5 more than the overlimit fee charged for slightly going over. Even worse, if the overage was a one-time issue, many customers will spend $20 more on a data allowance many probably won’t use.

Customers are free to keep their existing plan, for now. But if they change plans, they won’t be able to switch back.

Updated: Charter’s Plans for Time Warner Cable, Bright House Customers Apparently Leaked

charter twc bhUpdated 9/7/2016: Please check our latest coverage on promotional packages for Bright House and Time Warner Cable customers that are being introduced in September 2016 by new parent company Charter Communications. Some of the prices reflected below are now out of date! 

Charter’s plans for Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers are now potentially clearer thanks to the apparent leak of several informational slides from a presentation given to employees to familiarize them with Charter’s forthcoming service plans.

A reader of DSL Reports in California shared what purports to be informational slides from a company training course. Los Angeles is among the first markets to be offered the new Charter/Spectrum service plans, likely to arrive as early as mid-September.

We’ve condensed the information down into a more readable format to give you an idea (subject to change, of course) about Charter’s pricing and plans. Existing customers may not need to give up their current plans right away, and some customers may not want to. Charter has recognized Time Warner Cable Maxx’s network upgrades in its plans and pricing, which means customers already upgraded for Maxx service will get better value from Charter’s plans than those customers who never made the upgrade list before Time Warner Cable was sold.

Keep in mind Charter will start by offering all “New Charter” customers a “new customer” promotion, priced low the first year and then increasing incrementally in price during the second and third years. Year three pricing will be equivalent to Charter’s regular price, which will be substantially higher than customers on Time Warner Cable customer retention plans have paid. Charter’s service plans offer improved broadband speeds, but at a significantly higher price. Standalone broadband customers in particular will feel an immediate sting. Charter’s entry-level price for most customers is $59.99 for 60Mbps, about $25 more than Time Warner Cable’s promotional rate for Standard 15/1Mbps service, which has been selling for about $35/mo for the first year. Charter will point out that it includes a cable modem for free while Time Warner Cable charged $10 a month, but that offers no solace to customers who have purchased their own equipment.

Please note these plans and prices have not been officially confirmed by Charter. In fact, we would not be surprised to see some pricing changes before the plans are officially available.

TELEVISION

spectrum selectThere are big changes in store from Charter. First, the company will end distribution and support for Digital Transport Adapters (DTAs) — the small boxes designed for older analog-only TV sets. Charter expects you to have a traditional set-top box on every cable-equipped TV in the house. Second, it seems Whole House DVR service is being discontinued. Charter prefers the alternative of placing DVR boxes on each set where you want to record and watch TV shows. There is a significant cost for Time Warner Cable to install Whole House DVR service and it involves a technician coming to your home. Charter seems to want to cut truck roll expenses, and traditional DVR boxes are easy for customers to install themselves.

DVR pricing is still confusing for customers. A single DVR box is priced at $4.99 for the equipment + an $11.99 DVR service fee. DVR’s 2-4 cost $4.99 per box + a $19.99 DVR service fee. We are not sure if the $19.99 inclusively covers all DVR boxes in the home or if that is charged for each additional DVR. (Update: STC reader Ricardo reports the $19.99 fee is inclusive, so it is only charged once regardless of how many extra DVRs you have.)

For the first year, traditional set-top boxes for New Charter customers are a bargain at $4.99/mo. Legacy Charter customers pay $2 more, and we predict you will pay more as well after the first year, but the equipment fees are less than what Time Warner Cable charged.

Customers will choose from three plans: Select, Silver, or Gold:

  • Select: 125+ channels (HD included), Spectrum App (comparable to TWC TV app), 10,000+ On Demand Library ($64.99)
  • Silver: 175+ channels (HD included), Spectrum App, On Demand, HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, NFL Network ($84.99)
  • Gold: 200+ channels (HD included), Spectrum App, On Demand, premiums shown above + TMC, Starz, Encore, Epix, NFL Redzone ($104.99)

Charter’s pricing is built to encourage customers to bundle multiple services together, because substantial discounts are provided, especially when combining TV and internet service.

INTERNET

(Image courtesy of Tech_Guy 88/DSL Reports)

(All presentation slide images courtesy of Tech_Guy 88/DSL Reports)

Charter moves to just two tiers of service available to the public (except in New York where TWC’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet continues to be an option for the next two years — although it has been removed from TWC’s website) and standalone broadband pricing is considerably more expensive with Charter than with Time Warner Cable.

Perhaps special promotional offers will bring standalone internet prices closer to the $34.95-39.95 most new customers have gotten for Time Warner’s Standard Service (15/1Mbps) for years. We expect most customers will be more sensitive to price vs. speed and standalone internet at these prices will be a shock. We are not certain if Earthlink will continue to be an alternative option.

Upload speeds in non-Maxx areas are conservative, if these slides are accurate, topping out at just 5Mbps. This still leaves Charter as one of the slower U.S. providers.

In TWC Non-Maxx Areas (maximum TWC speed now 50/5Mbps):

  • Spectrum Internet 60/5Mbps: Standalone $59.99/mo or $29.99 as part of a triple play package (first year promo price), $59.99 standalone or $53.99 as part of a bundle (regular price);
  • Spectrum Ultra 100/5Mbps: Standalone $119.99/mo or $99.99 as part of bundled package (first year promo price), $119.99 standalone or $113.99 as part of a bundle (regular price).

In TWC Maxx Territories (maximum speed now 300Mbps):

  • Spectrum Internet 100/10Mbps: Standalone $59.99/mo or $29.99 as part of a triple play package (first year promo price), $59.99 standalone or $53.99 as part of a bundle (regular price);
  • Spectrum Ultra 300/20Mbps: Standalone $119.99/mo or $99.99 as part of bundled package (first year promo price), $119.99 standalone or $113.99 as part of a bundle (regular price)

Spectrum Wi-Fi, for those without their own routers, can be added to any internet plan for a $9.99 setup charge and $5 a month.

spectrum assistCharter’s discount plan for the income-challenged carries the usual restrictions. The most unconscionable effectively forces current Charter customers to go without internet access for 60 days before they can enroll in Spectrum Internet Assist. They also must not owe any past due balance to Charter.

Assuming you qualify (eligible for the National School Lunch Program and senior citizens 65 years and older eligible for the federal Supplemental Security Income program), $14.99 will get you up to 30/4Mbps, plus an extra $5 a month if you want Charter to supply a Wi-Fi enabled router. The usual $9.99 activation fee is waived. Self-installation is free. If they have to send a truck to your home, the prevailing standard installation rate will apply. This is the only level of service Charter sells that will not require a credit check.

PHONE

Time Warner’s phone service had been promoted for years at $10 a month as part of a double-play or triple-play bundle. Charter’s triple play bundle pricing seems to show the price for phone service will now be effectively $20 a month.

Charter’s digital phone service has never seemed to be a marketing priority for Charter in its legacy service areas, and will likely be treated as an afterthought going forward. No further information about any service or calling area changes from what Time Warner Cable offered is available yet.

Comcast Backs Off Charging Customers Double for Gigabit Speed in Chicago

comcast gigabitTo be a Google Fiber city or not to be a Google Fiber city. It could make a big difference to your wallet if Comcast upgrades broadband speeds in your neighborhood before Google Fiber finally arrives in your “fiberhood.”

When Comcast first announced a major trial of DOCSIS 3.1 gigabit broadband service in Chicago, it confirmed it would cost $139.95 a month — double the price Comcast charges customers in cities where Google Fiber has expressed an interest in providing gigabit service as well. With Chicago nowhere on the Google Fiber upgrade list, it seemed Comcast was prepared to prove the point that competition can really make a difference in broadband pricing, at least until stories appeared headlining Comcast’s pricing policies. Within hours, Comcast “clarified” it was prepared to sell gigabit service in Chicago for $70 a month as well, with a three-year contract.

“We are now able to deliver gigabit speeds over the existing lines that already reach millions of homes in the Chicago area,” Comcast spokesman Jack Segal told the Chicago Tribune. “This is a major step in the evolution of high-speed broadband.”

This is not Comcast bringing a new fiber line to your home or business. This is gigabit download speed over Comcast’s current cable/fiber network — the same one that delivers your current broadband service. DOCSIS 3.1 allows Comcast to bond additional channels together to boost speeds, at least on the downstream side. This technology will not deliver gigabit speed in both directions, at least for now. Comcast’s DOCSIS 3.1 gigabit plan delivers 1,000Mbps download speed, but just 35Mbps upstream. Customers looking for something faster can pay dramatically more for Comcast’s Gigabit Pro fiber to the home service, offering 2,000Mbps speeds. But it will cost up to $1,000 to install and is priced at $300 a month with a two-year contract.

Comcast’s 1TB usage cap (with up to $200 in overlimit fees) will apply to Comcast’s DOCSIS 3.1 plans, unless you opt for unlimited service… for another $50 a month. Comcast gracefully includes unlimited with its Gigabit Pro service.

gigabit comcast

Chicago residents can sign up for either gigabit plan at www.xfinity.com/gig. A $50 installation fee applies and a service call is required. Customers signing up will need a new cable modem that supports DOCSIS 3.1, and there are only a handful on the market so far. Many more will be available in 2017.

Unlimited Data is Back (With Fine Print): T-Mobile/Sprint Push Unlimited Data Plans for All

Tmo1LogoSeveral years after wireless unlimited data plans became grandfathered or riddled by speed throttling, America’s third and fourth largest carriers have decided the marketplace wants “unlimited everything” after all and is prepared to give customers what they want, at least until they read the fine print.

T-Mobile Announces “The Era of the Data Plan is Over”: T-Mobile ONE

T-Mobile CEO John Legere used a video blog to announce a major shakeup of T-Mobile’s wireless plans this morning, centered on the concept of “unlimited everything.”

“The era of the data plan is over,” said Legere. T-Mobile’s new plan — T-Mobile ONE — does away with usage caps and usage-based billing and offers unlimited calls, texting, and data on the company’s 4G LTE network. The plan becomes available Sept. 6 at T-Mobile stores nationwide and t-mobile.com for postpaid customers. Prepaid plans will be available later.

tmoone

“Only T-Mobile’s network can handle something as huge as destroying data limits,” said Legere. “Dumb and Dumber can’t do this. They’ve been running away from unlimited data for years now, because they built their networks for phone calls, not for how people use smartphones today. I hope AT&T and Verizon try to follow us. In fact, I challenge them to try.”

Legere

Legere

T-Mobile claims the savings with its unlimited plan are enormous compared to its bigger competitors AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

Verizon’s largest LTE usage-capped data plan would cost a family of four $530/month. That’s $4,440 more than T-Mobile ONE will charge.

T-Mobile ONE costs $70 a month for the first line, $50 a month for the second, and additional lines are $20 a month, up to 8 lines with auto pay (add $5 per line if you don’t want autopay). Customers can add tablets for an extra $20 a month.

T-Mobile does offer some caveats in the fine print which are relevant to customers:

  • All video streaming on this plan is throttled to support a maximum of 480p picture quality. Higher video quality is available with an HD add-on plan for $25/mo per line;
  • Tethering is included with T-Mobile ONE, but it is painfully speed-limited to 2G speeds — around 70kbps, just a tad faster than dial-up. At that speed, a web page that will take less than five seconds to load on a 4G network will take 17-25 seconds. A 60 second YouTube video will take nearly five minutes to watch, and downloading apps or sharing images is often impossible because of timeouts. If you want 4G tethering, that will be $15 a month for 5GB, please;
  • Customers identified as among the top 3% of data users, typically those who use more than 26GB of 4G LTE data a month will find themselves in the same data doghouse T-Mobile’s Simple Choice customers are in. That means during peak usage periods on busy cell towers, heavier users are deprioritized on T-Mobile’s network, but we’re not sure if that results in slight speed reductions or the kind of drastic 2G-like experience these kinds of “fair usage” policies often deliver.

Our analysis:

bingeonWhile we’re happy to see unlimited data plans return to prominence, T-Mobile is continuing to punish high bandwidth applications, tethering, and usage outliers with frustrating speed throttles.

T-Mobile’s biggest source of increasing traffic is coming from online video. About a year ago, Legere introduced T-Mobile’s Binge On program, which offers streaming video from T-Mobile’s partners without it counting against your usage allowance. This program had the potential of causing problems with the Federal Communications Commission’s Net Neutrality rules.

Legere seemed to avoid trouble by revealing enough information about Binge On to make it clear why the program exists — to reduce video traffic’s impact on T-Mobile’s network. That might seem counterintuitive until one looks at what it takes to be a Binge On partner — allowing T-Mobile’s Binge On-related traffic to be “optimized” to Standard Definition video (around 480p). No money changes hands between T-Mobile and its Binge On partners.

T-Mobile makes it easy to be a BingeOn participant.

T-Mobile makes it easy to be a Binge On participant.

Binge On was an important factor in freeing up bandwidth on T-Mobile’s network. Some analysts suggest two-thirds of T-Mobile’s video traffic load disappeared after Binge On was introduced. Video is likely the single biggest bandwidth consuming application on wireless networks today. If a customer is watching on a smartphone or even a small tablet, 480p video is generally adequate and has a lower chance of stopping to buffer.

slowAnother clue about the impact of online video on T-Mobile’s network is the same video throttling strategy is built into T-Mobile ONE and applies to all online video, whether the provider partners with T-Mobile or not. Also consider the extraordinary cost of the optional HD Video add-on, which defeats video throttling: a whopping $25 per month per device. That kind of pricing clearly suggests 1080p or even 4K video is a major resource hog for T-Mobile, and customers looking for this level of video quality are going to pay substantially to get it.

T-Mobile is also clearly concerned about tethering, relegating hotspot and tethered device traffic to 2G speeds, which will quickly deter anyone from depending on it except in emergencies. Again, traffic is the issue. Some semi-rural customers unserved by cable but able to get a 4G signal from a T-Mobile tower may think of using T-Mobile as their exclusive source of internet access. At speeds just above dial-up, they won’t consider this an option.

We’re also disappointed to see 26GB of usage a month as the threshold for potential speed throttling. T-Mobile ONE is not cheap, and without more detailed information about how often those exceeding 26GB face speed slowdowns, how much of a slowdown, and how quickly those speed reductions disappear when the tower gets less congested would be very useful. Until then, customers are likely to interpret 26GB as a type of soft usage allowance they will not want to exceed.

T-Mobile ONE also delivers a powerful signal to Wall Street because it raises the lowest price a T-Mobile postpaid customer can pay to become a customer from $50 to $70 a month for a single line. That’s quite a burden for some customers who will have to look to prepaid plans or resellers to get cheaper service. Other carriers rushed to meet T-Mobile’s $50 2GB plan when it was introduced, which has served as an entry-level price range for occasional data dabblers. If those carriers don’t immediately raise prices as well, they will undercut T-Mobile. That could provoke an increase in cancellations among customers buying on price, not plan features. T-Mobile is banking consumers will appreciate unlimited data enough to pay extra for peace of mind.

Jackdaw Research found customers enrolled in 2GB and 6GB T-Mobile plans, T-Mobile ONE represents a price increase. Those signed up for 10GB or unlimited service will pay the same or slightly less with T-Mobile ONE.

Jackdaw Research found customers enrolled in 2GB and 6GB T-Mobile plans will see a price increase with T-Mobile ONE. Those signed up for 10GB or unlimited service will pay the same or slightly less.

sprintlogoSprint: Unlimited Freedom: Two Lines of Unlimited Talk, Text, and Data for $100/month

Not to be outdone by T-Mobile, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure today announced his own company’s overhaul of wireless plans, featuring the all-new Sprint Unlimited Freedom plan, which offers two lines of unlimited talk, text and data for $100 a month, with no access charges or hidden fees.

Starting Friday, Aug. 19, Sprint customers can sign up for the new plan, which costs $60 for the first line, $100 for two lines, and $30 for each additional line, up to 10. Sprint pounced on the fact its Unlimited Freedom plan for two is $20 less than T-Mobile charges.

Otherwise the two plans are remarkably similar — too similar for the CEOs of both companies that spent part of today engaged in a Twitter war.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere and Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure traded tweet barbs this morning.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere and Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure traded tweet barbs this morning.

“Sprint’s new Unlimited Freedom beats T-Mobile and AT&T’s unlimited offer – only available to its DirecTV subscribers – while Verizon doesn’t even offer its customers an unlimited plan,” read Sprint’s press release.

unlimited freedom“Wireless customers want simple, worry-free and affordable wireless plans on a reliable network,” said Marcelo Claure, Sprint president and CEO. “There can be a lot of frustration and confusion around wireless offers, with too much focus on gigabytes and extra charges. Our answer is the simplicity of Unlimited Freedom. Now customers can watch their favorite movies and videos and stream an unlimited playlist at an amazing price.”

Sprint has also essentially joined the T-Mobile optimization bandwagon, limiting streaming video to 480p, but it goes further with optimization of games — limited to 2Mbps, and music — limited to 500kbps. There does not seem to be any option to pay more to avoid the “optimization” and Sprint is not offering a tethering option with this plan.

“While we initially questioned using mobile optimization for video, gaming and music, the decision was simpler when consumers said it ‘practically indistinguishable’ in our tests with actual consumers,” said Claure. “In fact, most individuals we showed could not see any difference between optimized and premium-resolution streaming videos when viewing on mobile phone screens. Both provide the mobile customer clear, vibrant videos and high-quality audio. Mobile optimization allows us to provide a great customer experience in a highly affordable unlimited package while increasing network efficiency.”

sprint

boostAlso, beginning Friday, Aug. 19, Sprint’s leading prepaid brand, Boost Mobile introduces its own unlimited offer, Unlimited Unhook’d:

  • Unlimited talk, text and optimized streaming videos, gaming and music
  • Unlimited nationwide 4G LTE data for most everything else
  • $50 a month for one line
  • $30 a month for a second line up to five total lines

In addition to the Unlimited Unhook’d plan, Boost Mobile will also unveil the $30 Unlimited Starter plan, which includes unlimited talk, text and slower network data (2G or 3G) with 1GB of 4G LTE data. Customers looking for more high-speed data can add 1 GB of 4G LTE data for $5 per month or 2 GB of 4G LTE data for $10 per month. Multi-line plans are also available for families looking to save some money for an additional $30 a month per line.

“There’s a lot of confusion and clutter in prepaid, but is doesn’t have to be that way. Boost Mobile is offering the simplest solution with plans that are easy to understand,” said Claure. “Boost has something for everyone, whether you need a truly unlimited plan with 4G LTE data or want to save extra money with a low-cost plan.”

Verizon Ponders Installing Partners’ Bloatware on Your Android Phone for $1-2/App

Uninvited apps that cannot be removed infest smartphones.

Uninvited apps that cannot be removed infest smartphones.

Verizon Wireless keeps looking for those end runs around Net Neutrality, this time offering its preferred partners a chance to force-install their apps on your new Android phone without your permission.

Most consumers call these unwanted apps “bloatware,” but the geniuses from Verizon’s marketing department prefer to call it “brandware.” Whatever it’s called, each app successfully installed on your next Android phone will net the wireless giant $1-2, according to Ad Age.

Verizon has pitched the program to ad agencies and their major retail and financial clients rich enough to not worry about spending $1-2 million on app installations. Verizon’s app program is more dynamic than traditional pre-loaded bloatware that customers cannot uninstall. Through the use of Google’s remote install feature, a client could pay Verizon to trigger an automatic download and installation of a banking or shopping app the moment a customer turned on their new phone. The customer would likely assume such apps came with the phone, just like traditional pre-installed bloatware. But unlike the myriad of uninvited game trials, shopping and media apps that customers can’t get rid of, Verizon’s program would let customers uninstall the apps they never wanted installed on their phone to begin with.

Apple iPhone users have nothing to fear from Verizon’s “brandware” because the Apple ecosystem is more tightly controlled by Apple.

Ad Age notes the app program would only send apps to new smartphones being activated for the first time. That isn’t a small market. Verizon activates about 10 million new phones each quarter out of 75 million postpaid customers.

The program raised eyebrows among advertisers and consumer activists worried about Net Neutrality. A deep pocketed app maker would have an instant advantage pre-installing a new game or social networking app on millions of phones while smaller competitors would have to attempt to build scale through word-of-mouth, reviews, or other marketing efforts. Verizon would effectively be giving its preferred partners an unfair advantage over other app makers.

Advertisers are also reportedly wary about blowback from consumers that don’t appreciate uninvited apps chewing through their usage allowance installing themselves.

Consumers generally dislike all the excess apps stuffing up their phones, Azher Ahmed, director of digital at DDB Chicago told Ad Age. “If the app doesn’t offer valuable content and experiences, you’re going to deal with a lot of frustrated users calling out your bloatware.”

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