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Sprint/T-Mobile Merger is Dead

Phillip Dampier October 30, 2017 Competition, Consumer News, Sprint, T-Mobile, Wireless Broadband 2 Comments

After months of negotiations, it all came down to a matter of control.

Softbank Group Corp., owner of Sprint Corp., has abandoned a long-expected merger between Sprint and Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile USA, citing concerns about which company would have effective control of the combined wireless carrier.

At the 11th hour, Softbank’s board of directors in Japan expressed concern the merger would leave Deutsche Telekom with majority control of Sprint’s assets and network, leaving Softbank effectively out of the U.S. market at a time when companies like Sprint and T-Mobile are preparing for the future launch of 5G wireless networks that will likely be a backbone for the future multi-billion dollar Internet of Things (IoT) marketplace. Multiple sources have told both Japanese and American newspapers that SoftBank’s founder and CEO Masayoshi Son had always been reluctant to give up control of Sprint, but had not made the issue a potential deal breaker until the talks were nearly complete and final decisions had to be made.

Deutsche Telekom considered the issue practically non-negotiable, because the international telecommunications company has relied heavily on the financial performance of T-Mobile USA to brighten its financial reports. Deutsche Telekom subsidiaries in Europe have struggled financially as a result of competition and other factors and international accounting rules require DT to have control of assets it wishes to include in its financial reports. Had T-Mobile ceded control of the merged company to Softbank, it could not include its U.S. business in its financial reports.

T-Mobile USA is regarded as the stronger of the two companies, and its German parent is very happy with its U.S. subsidiary. Most analysts argue Sprint needs the merger with T-Mobile far more than T-Mobile needs Sprint, so there was reportedly little disappointment from Deutsche Telekom over the merger talks achieving an impasse. To calm nervous investors, Softbank plans to announce it will step up its investment in Sprint to improve its network and coverage. Sprint customers have heard such promises before, but the fourth largest wireless carrier has continued to lose market share, mostly to the benefit of T-Mobile. Independent tests have shown Sprint’s network often performs worse than its three major competitors in many areas.

4GCommunity’s Sprint-Powered 4G LTE Service Shutting Down

4GCommunity.org, a non-profit provider of unlimited 4G LTE wireless internet service, is ending the service by Nov. 30, 2017 for “circumstances beyond the organization’s control.”

The service cost $250 for the first year, which included a mobile hotspot device, and $168 each year thereafter, which means many subscribers that started in the past year may lose some or all of their annual fee as the service closes down.

The company e-mailed its members this morning:

Dear 4GCommunity.org Members,

We are saddened to inform you that due to circumstances beyond the organization’s control the Internet connectivity benefit of membership will be ceasing no later than November 30, 2017. It may be sooner, so please begin looking for other Internet connectivity options right away.

The member online support center will remain a resource through this time next year. Member and support team volunteers will be providing their general assistance through the online support center to assist with questions about basic home computing, networking, and related technologies. It can be accessed through the Support Center page of the website, or directly at: https://4gcommunityorg.happyfox.com/

Respectfully yours,

Support Team

Sprint was 4GCommunity’s 4G service provider, and was potentially not enthusiastic about the partnership.

4GCommunity.org is one of several non-profit groups that have taken advantage of an agreement made years earlier with Clearwire, a company acquired by Sprint in 2013.

Non-profit groups offering inexpensive 4G wireless internet service are exploiting a loophole in a 2006 contract agreement between Clear (now owned by Sprint) and Educational Broadband Service licensees.

In 2006, Clearwire reached an agreement to lease wireless spectrum earmarked for Educational Broadband Service (EBS) providers including Mobile Citizen and Mobile Beacon. In return for the use of those frequencies, Clearwire agreed to sell wireless internet service on its WiMAX network at rock bottom prices to those two providers, their non-profit affiliates and dues-paying members. As a result, more than 1,800 nonprofits, 429 schools, and 61 libraries signed up for service at prices averaging $10 a month. A few of those non-profits creatively exploited a loophole in the agreement which guaranteed access “as long as you are a user, recipient or beneficiary of a non-profit programs or services, but not thereafter.” That provision was interpreted to mean non-profit groups attached to either Mobile Citizen or Mobile Beacon could resell the service to their own members.

A groups have turned up, including 4GCommunity.org, typically offer access to unlimited 4G LTE data on Sprint’s network for an annual fee. 4GConnection effectively charged only $14 a month after the first year. The service has been especially popular with those within Sprint coverage areas, but outside of range for DSL or cable broadband. It also attracted a large number of RV owners and frequent travelers looking for portable internet access.

Sprint and other wireless companies have had experience with all kinds of resellers before. Historically, many of those providers offering unlimited data have been suddenly notified their contract to resell service was canceled or modified, usually after the carrier discovered a surge in traffic and usage it did not originally expect.

4GCommunity did not reveal the specific reasons for the decision to cancel its internet offering, but does suggest the termination is connected to Sprint. The decision is causing customers to scramble to find a new service provider. Selling low-cost internet plans that depend on one of the four major carriers has proven a risky business for providers and customers, because a carrier can put a provider under just by canceling a service agreement.

4GCommunity obviously understood the risks of having their provider drop them, placing this warning (emphasis theirs) in their service agreement:

You understand your support and membership in the organization is not a guarantee of any particular benefit for any duration of time.  You understand you are supporting an organization mission.  You understand we reserve the right to cancel any Internet connectivity Service as a member benefit at any time without notice, for any reason.  You understand that your membership charges may not be refunded or prorated if the Internet connectivity benefit is terminated or modified regardless of reason at any time.   

Customers may be less forgiving, especially if they recently paid several hundred dollars for a year of service that may not be refunded.

Similar resellers still appear to be offering service, but potential customers should be cautious and not assume other service provision contracts won’t be similarly canceled. A customer could be out up to $679 if a service later disappears.

  • Calyx Institute – Membership costs $500 the first year, which includes wireless mobile hotspot service. The renewal rate is $400.
  • Freedata.io – First year prices range from $449 – $679 for three different tiers of service offering different hotspot devices (currently showing as out of stock) and different options to access 3G service, which can be more reliable in rural/fringe reception areas. The service has also been battling with its small business payment processors, which suggests this is a very small operation.
  • PCs for People & Connectall.org – Provide service to those below the 200% poverty level or currently enrolled in an income-based government assistance program. Proof of income required.

One of the few remaining unlimited wireless data providers unlikely to be affected by these developments is Unlimitedville, which offers a variety of expensive plans that correspond to the carrier providing the service. The “Yellow” plan, powered by Sprint, is $99 a month. The “Pink” plan, powered by T-Mobile, is $149 a month. A “Blue” plan offering service from AT&T costs $199 a month, and a “Red” plan using Verizon’s network is $249 a month. All of the plans are free of caps and speed throttles and offer 4G LTE data without hotspot restrictions, but require a one-time $99 “membership fee.”

A Month After Maria Hammered Puerto Rico, Most Utilities Still Down

As Puerto Rico approaches the first month anniversary of Hurricane Maria, only small amounts of incremental progress have been made restoring the island’s telecommunications networks badly damaged by the storm.

Wireless Service

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 75.3% of Puerto Rico’s cell towers are still out of commission and many of those restored to service are functioning on generator backup, often using portable cell tower infrastructure that offers a fraction of the coverage area normal service used to provide. The majority of restored towers are in the immediate vicinity of San Juan, while many other parts of the island remain totally without service. Claro, a Mexican-owned cell company that used to offer the best coverage across Puerto Rico still remains the most reliable after the storm. All four wireless companies operating in Puerto Rico are offering free roaming to customers so as towers are restored to service, the companies can provide coverage to as many residents as possible.

Satellite Cells on Light Trucks (COLTs) have been deployed in Aguadilla, Arecibo, Cayey, Caomo Sur, Fajardo, Guayama, Manati, Mayaguez Mesa, San German, Vega Baja, and Yauco and Terrestrial Cells on Wheels (COWs)/COLTs in Humacao, Quebradillas, Rio Grande, and Utuado.

The FCC believes approximately 61% — one percent higher than last week — of the population can now get some cell signal. But that figure is slightly misleading because the largest percentage of the population lives around or in San Juan, the city with the best service restoration so far.

In contrast, most cell sites in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and the Florida Panhandle affected by two earlier hurricanes were restored to service within two weeks. Cellular providers point out the reason for the difference is the availability of commercial power and reliable backup generators, both not widely available in Puerto Rico even now.

The U.S. Virgin Islands, also devastated by Hurricane Marie, are also struggling with repair efforts. At least 55.4% of cell towers are out of service on those Caribbean islands, with 88.9% still down on St. John, the smallest of the three islands that make up the U.S. territory. Because repair efforts have been more effective on the other two islands, about 88% of the territory can now get a cell signal.

Electricity

NBC News reported today that 17.7% of Puerto Rico now has electricity, but it is very unreliable and there are daily outages that sometimes extend for hours. The Army Corps of Engineers hopes to have in place by next week — more than a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico — two 25-megawatt generators at a plant in San Juan to help stabilize electricity there. The generators arrived Oct. 13, and a target date of Oct. 25 may be missed because of ongoing inclement weather. Once installed, the generators will extend electricity to about 30% of the island — mostly in the northeastern section around San Juan — and stabilize power for those who already have it.

The government is prioritizing electricity restoration for public safety and hospitals, public/government institutions including sewage and water treatment plants, schools, and then the island’s large pharmaceutical industry, which own several large drug manufacturing plants.

The order of priority the government is giving to service restoration is upsetting Claro, one of the island’s largest cell companies.

“Businesses and the government itself can hardly operate efficiently without an appropriate telecommunications structure,” said Claro representative Pedro Andrés. “For example, without telecommunication services the bank could not operate and that means that there would be no access to money for people, businesses could not handle electronic transactions, medical plans would not work and suppliers could not dispatch. That is, the country would be paralyzed.”

Andrés wants the power authority to make sure that electric service is restored to cell towers as soon as practical.

Residents are being told they can expect 95% electricity service restoration by Dec. 15.

Cable and Telephone

Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico is only working for about 1% of its customers, so it is focusing on offering free Wi-Fi hotspots for now.

Diesel generators are currently powering some of the island’s 911 service centers, which are now back up and running normally.

Cable service remains basically non-existent in Puerto Rico because of the lack of electricity. Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico has reported it has restored full service to about 1% of its customers, although a significantly higher number will have service back immediately after electricity is restored. Liberty promises automatic service credits for the duration of the outage and has told customers to ignore billing that was already in the mail when the storm hit. Liberty is currently focused on reaching and retaining the goodwill of its customers with a network of free Wi-Fi hotspots.

The island’s landline provider reports there are six central switching offices out of service on the island and there are problems connecting long distance calls.

Broadcast Media

The following TV stations are confirmed operational: WKAQ, WIPR, WIPN, WTIN, and WNJX, but these nine are still off the air: WAPA, WIPM, WTCV, WUJA, WELU, WECN, WRSV, WORO, and WRUA.

As of today, 44 AM radio stations are confirmed to be on-the-air: WA2XPA, WALO, WAPA, WBMJ, WBQN, WCMN, WCPR, WDEP, WENA, WEXS, WGDL, WI2XAC, WI2XSO, WI3XSO, WIAC, WIDA, WIPR, WISO, WJIT, WKAQ, WKFE, WKJB, WKUM, WKVM, WLEO, WLEY, WMDD, WMNT, WNEL, WNIK, WOIZ, WOLA, WPAB, WPPC, WPRA, WPRP, WQII, WSKN, WSOL, WTIL, WUKQ, WUNO, WVJP, and WXEW.

These 29 AM radio stations are confirmed out of service: WABA, WBSG, WBYM, WCGB, WCMA, WDNO, WEGA, WFAB, WGIT, WHOY, WIBS, WISA, WIVV, WLRP, WMIA, WMSW, WNVI, WOQI, WORA, WOSO, WQBS, WRRE, WRSJ, WRSS, WUPR, WVOZ, WYAC, WYEL, and WYKO.

There are 36 FM radio stations back on the air: WAEL-FM, WCMN-FM, WEGM, WERR, WFID, WIDA-FM, WIDI, WIOA, WIOA-FM1, WKAQ-FM, WLUZ, WMAA-LP, WMEG, WNVM, WODA, WORO, WOYE, WPRM-FM, WPUC-FM, WPUC-FM1, WQML, WRIO, WRRH, WRTU, WRXD. WTOK-FM, WUKQ-FM, WVDJ-LP. WVIS, WVJP-FM, WXLX, WXYX, WYQE, WZNT, WZNT-FM1, and WZOL.

But these 22 FM radio stations are still out of service: W227CV, WCAD, WCAD-FM2, WCRP, WELX, WFDT, WIOC, WIPR-FM, WJDZ, WMIO, WNRT, WNVE, WQBS-FM, WTPM, WVQR, WXHD, WYAS, WZAR, WZCA, WZET, WZMT, and WZOL-FM3.

T-Mobile/Sprint Merger Approval May Depend on GOP Maintaining Majority in Congress

As the wireless industry awaits an announcement that T-Mobile and Sprint have an agreement to merge, some on Wall Street are skeptical the merger deal will win approval, especially if Republicans lose their majority in the House and Senate in the 2018 mid-term elections.

Matthew Niknam of Deutsche Bank has warned his clients any merger deal not approved by next November is more likely to fall apart if  Democrats take back control of Congress:

“There also may be greater incentive for both sides to evaluate a potential deal sooner rather than later, given the risk that deal approval may slip beyond mid-term elections in late 2018 (with the risk that more populist/less corporate-friendly sentiment may become more pervasive in D.C.) In fact, we note that the Democrats’ ‘Better Deal’ agenda (unveiled in July 2017, targeted towards 2018 elections) highlights ongoing corporate consolidation as a threat to U.S. consumers, and proposes sharper scrutiny of potential deals.”

Nikram writes there has not been a lot of interest by cable operators to acquire Softbank’s Sprint, which has been effectively up for sale or merger for at least a year.

Fierce Wireless notes Cowen & Company Equity Research last month suggested the chance of a merger between T-Mobile and Sprint was now 60-70%, down from 80-90% originally. The reason for the pessimism is their estimate that any deal’s chance of winning approval was only about 50%. The odds get even worse if the Democrats start to check the Trump Administration’s power.

Public policy groups and well-compensated industry opinion leaders are already preparing to wage a PR war over a deal that would reduce America’s major wireless carriers to just three.

Professor Daniel Lyons, well-known for writing pro-industry research reports defending almost anything on their corporate policy wish list, is hinting at a possible strategy by the merging carriers by suggesting neither could survive without a merger.

Most analysts predict that with just three national wireless carriers, the U.S. wireless marketplace would more closely resemble Canada — widely seen as more carrier-friendly and expensive.

Wall Street analysts are debating exactly how many tens of thousands of jobs will be lost in a merger, and the numbers are staggering.

Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research predicts the merger would cost the country more jobs than now exist at Sprint.

He predicts “approximately 30,000 American jobs” will be permanently lost in a merger. Together the two companies currently employ 78,000 — 28,000 at Sprint and 50,000 at T-Mobile.

Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson Research was more conservative, predicting 20,000 job losses would come from a merger. But the impact would not be limited to just direct hire employees.

“We conservatively estimate that a total of 3,000 of Sprint and T-Mobile’s branded stores (or branded-equivalent stores) would eventually close,” Moffett’s report said.

Golden parachutes will make some executives at Sprint and T-Mobile very wealthy if a merger succeeds.

Many T-Mobile and Sprint stores are located in malls and retail “power centers” where maintaining both stores would be unnecessary. Also hard hit would be wireless tower owners and those employed to care for them. Most believe Sprint’s CDMA wireless network would eventually be decommissioned in a merger, and many of its cell sites would be mothballed. Sprint’s biggest asset is its currently unused trove of high frequency wireless spectrum it could use to deploy future 5G services, but those services would likely be provided from small cells mounted on utility poles and street lights.

The biggest winners in any deal will likely be top executives at Softbank, Sprint, and T-Mobile, Wall Street banks providing deal advisory services and financing, and shareholders, who can expect higher earnings from a less competitive marketplace. Fierce competition from T-Mobile and Sprint were both directly implicated for threatening revenues for all four wireless companies, who have had to respond to aggressive promotions by cutting prices and offering more services for less money.

The Trump Administration’s choices of Ajit Pai for Chairman of the FCC and Makan Delrahim as United States Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department are both widely seen as signals the White House is not going to crack down on competition-threatening merger deals. Mr. Pai has recently improved the foundation for a T-Mobile/Sprint merger by declaring the wireless industry to be suitably competitive, something required before seriously contemplating reducing the number of competitors.

Eight Democrats sent a letter to the FCC chairman last week calling on both the FCC and the Justice Department to begin an investigation into the possible merger as soon as possible, citing possible antitrust concerns.

The text of the letter:

Dear Chairman Pai and Assistant Attorney General Delrahim:

We write to ask you to begin investigating the impact of a merger between T-Mobile International and Sprint Corporation. According to Pew Research, over three-quarters of Americans now own smartphones, driven by a 12 percent increase in smartphone ownership among adults over age 65 and a 12 percent increase in smartphone ownership in households earning less than $30,000 a year since 2015. Today, smartphones are not really just phones at all. For many, they are the primary connection to the internet. An anticompetitive acquisition would increase prices, burdening American consumers, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet, or forcing them to forego their internet connection altogether. Neither outcome is acceptable.

We believe that an investigation is appropriate for three reasons. First, aggressive antitrust enforcement benefits consumers and competition in the wireless market. Second, a combination of T-Mobile and Sprint would raise significant antitrust issues and could dramatically harm consumers. Third, although a deal has not been announced, the two parties have made repeated attempts to merge, and current reports suggest they are close to an agreement. Your agencies should be in a position to fully – but expeditiously – investigate and analyze this deal should it occur.

Competition among wireless carriers has lowered prices, increased quality, and driven innovation

Consumers have benefited from competition among the four national carriers, and we have effective antitrust enforcement to thank for that competition. In the summer of 2011, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division filed suit to block AT&T’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile despite claims that T-Mobile was a weak competitor and, without the deal, remaining options “won’t be pretty.”  The FCC likewise outlined its opposition to the deal that fall. The deal collapsed, but T-Mobile did not. It competed. It spent billions improving its network, and it offered better terms; for example, it eliminated two-year contracts and data overages. It enticed customers to switch providers by paying their termination fees. And, its competitors had to respond in kind. As William Baer, former head of DOJ’s Antitrust Division, has explained, consumers have enjoyed “much more favorable competitive conditions” since that transaction was blocked.  In May 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that cellphone plan prices were down 12.9 percent since April 2016, the largest decline in 16 years, and attributed the drop to “intense competition” among the top cell service providers: Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T.  Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, specifically suggested that it was caused by the “price war that has broken out among cell-phone service providers, with all the big providers now offering unlimited data plans at cheaper rates.”

Further, the fact that T-Mobile and Sprint appear to be each other’s primary competitor raises additional concerns about this potential horizontal merger. That direct competition has particularly benefited lower-income families and communities of color, many of whom rely on mobile broadband as their primary or only internet connection.  Sprint and T-Mobile have offered products and service options that are more appealing to lower-income consumers. For example, T-Mobile was the first major carrier to offer a no contract plan,  and both Sprint and T-Mobile have been leaders in offering prepaid and no credit check plans, which allow people who may have poor credit to obtain a cell plan and ultimately access the internet.

A combination of T-Mobile and Sprint would raise significant antitrust concerns

Not surprisingly, when T-Mobile and Sprint first discussed a merger in 2014, both of your predecessors expressed skepticism. William Baer stated that “[I]t’s going to be hard for someone to make a persuasive case that reducing four firms to three is actually going to improve competition for the benefit of American consumers.”  Similarly, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler simply explained, “[f]our national wireless providers are good for American consumers.”

What is surprising, however, is that a few years later the two companies have revived their merger talks. Whether one looks at cellphone competition as a national market or as numerous local markets, T-Mobile’s acquisition of Sprint would very likely be presumptively anticompetitive. We are concerned that this consolidation would increase prices, reduce incentives to offer new plans, and allow the remaining carriers to curtail their investment in their networks. Further, given both companies’ focus on competing for lower-income customers, the combination of Sprint and T-Mobile could disproportionately harm those consumers. In addition to potentially raising retail prices, the remaining carriers are also likely to increase prices to companies like Straight Talk, which buys bulk access to one or more of the four national carriers and advertises almost exclusively to lower-income communities.

T-Mobile and Sprint will no doubt claim that the merger will leave sufficient competition, increase cost savings, and spur investment. The agencies will need to examine these issues in depth and make the ultimate determination as to whether the effect of such a deal would be to undermine or promote competition. The very complexity of the issues only further justifies the need for the agencies to begin examining the markets and investigating the competitive dynamics sooner rather than later.

Initiating an investigation is appropriate

Although the antitrust agencies often wait for an official filing before opening an investigation, nothing requires this delay. For example, in May, the Antitrust Division announced an investigation of the possible acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times by the owner of the Chicago Tribune.  The two companies in question here have had a longstanding interest in combining, and, according to reports, an agreement between Sprint and T-Mobile may be weeks away.

Beginning an investigation into a merger of T-Mobile and Sprint now will allow your agencies to quickly, but fully, review the agreement if it is announced. Indeed, multiple news sources are reporting that the two parties are close to a deal in principle. The likelihood of the transaction occurring combined with the serious issues that it raises provide compelling reason for DOJ and the Federal Communication Commission to begin investigating the potential transaction.

For the reasons stated above, we urge you to begin to examine this potential transaction now. Competition among four major cell phone carriers has benefited consumers with lower prices, better service, and more innovation. We are concerned that consolidation will thwart those goals. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
Al Franken (D-Minn.)
Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)
Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
Ed Markey (D-Mass.)
Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)

T-Mobile Makes Deal With FOX Television to Relocate Channels to Boost Cell Coverage

WWOR advertises itself as My 9, but the station actually transmits over UHF channel 38 and will move to channel 25 early next year.

T-Mobile today announced a partnership with FOX Television Stations to hasten channel relocation to make room for the wireless carrier’s expansion of wireless service in the 600MHz spectrum it won at auction.

As part of the agreement, FOX-owned WWOR-TV in Secaucus, N.J., will vacate its current digital UHF channel 38 in early 2018, over a year sooner than originally planned. The station will move to UHF channel 25, but most viewers will still find the channel on virtual channel 9. T-Mobile will then bring new cell service online in metropolitan New York where WWOR’s signal used to be.

T-Mobile is aggressively trying to bring its valued 600MHz spectrum online as quickly as possible because it offers the carrier and its customers expanded coverage and better reception in indoor locations. Although the FCC has set an August 2019 deadline for stations to vacate and move their channels to make way for improved cell service, T-Mobile is offering incentives to get broadcasters to make the move well before that deadline.

Earlier this year, PBS and America’s Public Television Stations announced a similar partnership with T-Mobile. The wireless carrier has offered to pay the costs for a significant number of rural TV translators to move to new channel positions to make room for T-Mobile’s cell expansion.

“We’re committed to working with broadcasters across the country to clear 600MHz spectrum, so we can preserve programming and bring increased wireless choice and competition across the country,” said Neville Ray, chief technology officer at T-Mobile.

Working with the low power television outlets is a win-win solution for T-Mobile and the stations, because some budget-constrained stations may be required to change channel positions at least twice. There are concerns that the diminishing UHF TV dial may not have room to accommodate every TV station that wants to remain on the air.

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