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AT&T Tells Customers $30 Extra for Unlimited Internet is Good News (for AT&T)

fat cat attAT&T has indirectly announced it will enforce hard data caps on its U-verse broadband service for the first time, imposing overlimit fees for customers that exceed their allowance unless they agree to pay $30 extra a month for a new unlimited add-on plan.

AT&T’s Consumer Blog announced effective May 23, AT&T was increasing the usage allowances on its DSL and U-verse broadband service and is introducing a new $30 unlimited option for broadband-only customers many actually had all along because AT&T never enforced its cap for U-verse.

Customers currently bundling video and data services from AT&T/DirecTV will get a break – the unlimited option will apply at no extra charge if you agree to a single, combined bill for all of your AT&T services. The decision to apply usage caps to broadband-only customers, often cord-cutters, while effectively exempting current U-verse TV/DirecTV video customers is sure to raise eyebrows.

AT&T originally told customers its usage caps were designed “to ensure it is providing a sustainable network to customers.”  But in a company FAQ, AT&T destroys its own argument for the need to cap anyone. “Will offering unlimited data negatively impact the AT&T network? No. AT&T will continue to actively manage the network to handle the increasing demand for data.”

AT&T’s need for data caps is also eroded by company claims only a small percentage of customers exceed them.

Why caps again?

Why caps again?

“Today, our home Internet customers use just over 100GB of data per month on average,” AT&T wrote. “So even with our smallest U-verse Internet data allowance of 300 GB the average customer has plenty of data to do more.”

At least for now.

A review of AT&T’s past average usage claims is revealing. In 2011, AT&T told Tom’s Hardware the average customer consumed about 18GB a month. In 2015, AT&T’s cached support site claimed average customers used around 35GB a month. As of this week, AT&T says average users now exceed 100GB a month. If AT&T decides not to regularly revisit allowances (AT&T took five years to revisit the subject this week, having introduced 150GB caps on DSL and 250GB on U-verse in 2011), customers are likely to face pressure to sign up for the $30 unlimited add-on or buy television service from AT&T to avoid overlimit charges that will top out at $200 in penalties for DSL customers, $100 for U-verse overlimit fees.

average usage

Beginning May 23, AT&T’s website will include a data usage meter to help avoid AT&T’s overlimit penalty: $10 for each 50GB increment one exceeds their allowance. AT&T claims only 4% of its customers will exceed their future data allowances. They wouldn’t say how many exceed the current ones.

Because U-verse customers have avoided AT&T’s usage caps in the past, the company is now reminding customers it will give several warnings before you experience bill shock:

  • In the first bill cycle when you reach 100% of your data allowance, AT&T will update you via email, but there will be no charges.
  • In the second bill cycle, AT&T will notify you via email at 65%, 90%, and 100%, and still without charges.
  • In the third bill cycle, and each bill cycle thereafter, you’ll receive reminder emails at 65% and 90%. At 100% AT&T will notify you and add an additional 50GB of data to your account for $10 each time you exceed the allowance. Customers will receive reminders about their data usage for the additional 50GB at 75% and 100%.

All usage — including uploads and downloads — counts towards the cap. There is just one exception. Wireless traffic from an AT&T MicroCell, designed to boost weak cell signals inside the home, is not included in AT&T’s Internet data usage allowance. To help ensure accurate billing, you have to register your AT&T MicroCell account and residential AT&T Internet account.

Here are the new data allowances that will take effect May 23rd:

monthly data allowance

DSL Reports’ Karl Bode is skeptical of the “consumer benefits” AT&T is touting as part of the change:

That last bit is a fairly transparent ploy to address a spike in cord cutting at AT&T — by forcing customers into signing up for television services they may not actually want if they want to avoid usage restrictions. Whether using arbitrary caps to force users to sign up for TV technically violates net neutrality (either the FCC’s rules or the concept in general) is something that’s likely to be hotly debated.

It’s also curious that just as AT&T indicates it’s backing away from U-Verse TV (which should technically free up more bandwidth on the AT&T network), it’s implementing caps on a network it originally stated didn’t need caps thanks to “greater capacity.” That’s because as with Comcast, caps really aren’t about capacity or financial necessity, they’re about protecting traditional TV revenue from Internet video. At the end of the day, AT&T’s just charging $30 a month (or more) for the same service, while trying to frame it as a net positive for consumers.

Commerce Secretary Appoints Comcast VP to Advisory Board to Protect Free & Open Internet

Phillip Dampier: Putting Comcast's David Cohen on a panel to protect the free and open Internet is like appointing Bernie Madoff to run the SEC.

Phillip Dampier: Putting Comcast’s David Cohen on a panel to protect the free and open Internet is like appointing Bernie Madoff to run the SEC.

I got whiplash this afternoon doing a double-take on the improbable announcement that Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker has seen fit to appoint David Cohen, senior vice president and chief lobbyist at Comcast, to the first-ever Digital Economy Board of Advisors, which counts among its goals protecting a free and open Internet. He will be joined by AT&T’s chief lobbyist, the omnipresent Mr. James Cicconi.

Neither has much patience for Net Neutrality. Cicconi and Cohen have both lobbied Congress and regulators to keep Comcast and AT&T free from regulation and oversight, even as Comcast imposes usage-billing and data caps on a growing number of its customers, while exempting its own streaming video content from those caps. For its part, AT&T is exploring “zero rating” preferred content partners to escape the wrath of its own wireless data limits and advocates against community broadband competition.

The board will be co-chaired by Markle Foundation president Zoe Baird and Mitchell Baker, executive chairwoman of Mozilla.

“As we develop an agenda to help the digital economy grow and thrive, it is critical that we engage with those on the front lines of the digital revolution,” said Pritzker.

It apparently doesn’t matter that the front lines being explored are those of the allies and enemies of Net Neutrality. Putting David Cohen on the case to protect a free and open Internet is like appointing Bernie Madoff to head the Securities & Exchange Commission.

Consumers are, as usual, woefully under-represented on the panel. Only Marta Tellado, president and CEO of Consumer Reports, is likely to solely advocate for ordinary Internet users. The rest of the panel is made up of bankers, businesspeople (including the CEO of a home shopping channel), academia, think tanks and dot.com interests:

David "I'm crushing your unlimited Internet access" Cohen

David “I’m crushing your unlimited Internet access” Cohen

  • Karen Bartleson, president-elect of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
  • Greg Becker, president and CEO of Silicon Valley Bank and SVB Financial Group
  • Austan Goolsbee, Robert P. Gwinn Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business
  • Mindy Grossman, CEO and director of HSN
  • Oisin Hanrahan, co-founder and CEO of Handy
  • Sonia Katyal, Chancellor’s Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law
  • James Manyika, director of the McKinsey Global Institute
  • William Ruh, CEO of GE Digital and Chief Digital Officer for GE
  • Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer at Microsoft
  • Corey Thomas, president and CEO of Rapid7
  • Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube
  • John Zimmer, co-founder and president of Lyft

Attacks on Tennessee’s EPB Municipal Broadband Fall Flat in Light of Facts

latinos for tnThe worst enemy of some advocacy groups writing guest editorial hit pieces against municipal broadband is: facts.

Raul Lopez is the founder and executive director for Latinos for Tennessee, a 501C advocacy group that reported $0 in assets, $0 in income, and is not required to file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service as of 2014. Lopez claims the group is dedicated to providing “Latinos in Tennessee with information and resources grounded on faith, family and freedom.”

But his views on telecom issues are grounded in AT&T and Comcast’s tiresome and false talking points about publicly owned broadband. His “opinion piece” in the Knoxville News Sentinel was almost entirely fact-free:

It is not the role of the government to use taxpayer resources to compete with private industry. Government is highly inefficient — usually creating an inferior product at a higher price — and is always slower to respond to market changes. Do we really want government providing our Internet service? Government-run health care hasn’t worked so well, so why would we promote government-run Internet?

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn't for the good of anyone.

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn’t for the good of anyone.

Lopez’s claim that only private providers are good at identifying what customers want falls to pieces when we’re talking about AT&T and Comcast. Public utility EPB was the first to deliver gigabit fiber to the home service in Chattanooga, first to deliver honest everyday pricing, still offers unlimited service without data caps and usage billing that customers despise, and has a customer approval and reliability rating Comcast and AT&T can only dream about.

Do the people of Chattanooga want “the government” (EPB is actually a public utility) to provide Internet service? Apparently so. Last fall, EPB achieved the status of being the #1 telecom provider in Chattanooga, with nearly half of all households EPB serves signed up for at least one EPB service — TV, broadband, or phone service. Comcast used to be #1 until real competition arrived. That “paragon of virtue’s” biggest private sector innovation of late? Rolling out its 300GB usage cap (with overlimit fees) in Chattanooga. That’s the same cap that inspired more than 13,000 Americans to file written complaints with the FCC about Comcast’s broadband pricing practices. EPB advertises no such data caps and has delivered the service residents actually want. Lopez calls that “hurting competition in our state and putting vital services at risk.”

Remarkably, other so-called “small government” advocates (usually well-funded by the telecom industry) immediately began beating a drum for Big Government protectionism to stop EPB by pushing for a state law to ban or restrict publicly owned networks.

Lopez appears to be on board:

Our Legislature considered a bill this session that would repeal a state municipal broadband law that prohibits government-owned networks from expanding across their municipal borders. Thankfully, it failed in the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee, but it will undoubtedly be back again in future legislative sessions. The legislation is troubling because it will harm taxpayers and stifle private-sector competition and innovation.

Or more accurately, it will make sure Comcast and AT&T can ram usage caps and higher prices for worse service down the throats of Tennessee customers.

epb broadband prices

EPB’s broadband pricing. Higher discounts possible with bundling.

Lopez also plays fast and loose with the truth suggesting the Obama Administration handed EPB a $111.7 million federal grant to compete with Comcast and AT&T. In reality, that grant was for EPB to build a smart grid for its electricity network. That fiber-based grid is estimated to have avoided 124.7 million customer minutes of interruptions by better detection of power faults and better methods of rerouting power to restore service more quickly than in the past.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Public utilities can run smart grids and not sell television, broadband, and phone service, leaving that fiber network underutilized. EPB decided it could put that network to good use, and a recent study by University of Tennessee economist Bento Lobo found EPB’s fiber services helped generate between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs and added $865.3 million to $1.3 billion to the local economy. That translates into $2,832-$3,762 per Hamilton County resident. That’s quite a return on a $111.7 million investment that was originally intended just to help keep the lights on.

So EPB’s presence in Chattanooga has not harmed taxpayers and has not driven either of its two largest competitors out of the city.

Lopez then wanders into an equally ridiculous premise – that minority communities want mobile Internet access, not the fiber to the home service EPB offers:

Not all consumers access the Internet the same way. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics and African-Americans are more likely to rely on mobile broadband than traditional wire-line service. Indeed, minority communities are even more likely than the population as a whole to use their smartphones to apply for jobs online.

[…] Additionally, just like people are getting rid of basic at-home telephone service, Americans, especially minorities, are getting rid of at-home broadband. In 2013, 70 percent of Americans had broadband at home. Just two years later, only 67 percent did. The decline was true across almost the entire demographic board, regardless of race, income category, education level or location. Indeed, in 2013, 16 percent of Hispanics said they relied only on their smartphones for Internet access, and by 2015 that figure was up to 23 percent.

That drop in at-home broadband isn’t because fewer Americans have access to wireless broadband, it’s because more are moving to a wireless-only model. The bureaucracy of government has trouble adapting to changes like these, which is why government-owned broadband systems are often technologically out of date before they’re finished.

But Lopez ignores a key finding of Pew’s research:

In some form, cost is the chief reason that non-adopters cite when permitted to identify more than one reason they do not have a home high-speed subscription. Overall, 66% of non-adopters point toward either the monthly service fee or the cost of the computer as a barrier to adoption.

What community broadband provides communities the big phone and cable companies don't.

So it isn’t that customers want to exclusively access Internet services over a smartphone, they don’t have much of a choice at the prices providers like Comcast and AT&T charge. Wireless-only broadband is also typically usage capped and so expensive that average families with both wired broadband and a smartphone still do most of their data-intensive usage from home or over Wi-Fi to protect their usage allowance.

EPB runs a true fiber to the home network, Comcast runs a hybrid fiber-coax network, and AT&T mostly relies on a hybrid fiber-copper phone wire network. Comcast and AT&T are technically out of date, not EPB.

Not one of Lopez’s arguments has withstood the scrutiny of checking his claims against the facts, and here is another fact-finding failure on his part:

Top EPB officials argue that residents in Bradley County are clambering for EPB-offered Internet service, but the truth is Bradley County is already served by multiple private Internet service providers. Indeed, statewide only 215,000 Tennesseans, or approximately 4 percent, don’t have broadband access. We must find ways to address the needs of those residents, but that’s not what this bill would do. This bill would promote government providers over private providers, harming taxpayers and consumers along the way.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

The Chattanoogan reported it far differently, talking with residents and local elected officials on the ground in the broadband-challenged county:

The legislation would remove territorial restrictions and provide the clearest path possible for EPB to serve customers and for customers to receive high-speed internet.

State Rep. Dan Howell, the former executive assistant to the county mayor of Bradley County, was in attendance and called broadband a “necessity” as he offered his full support to helping EPB, as did Tennessee State Senator Todd Gardenhire.

“We can finally get something done,” Senator Gardenhire said. “The major carriers, Charter, Comcast and AT&T, have an exclusive right to the area and they haven’t done anything about it.”

So while EPB’s proposed expansion threatened Comcast and AT&T sufficiently to bring out their lobbyists demanding a ban on such expansions in the state legislature, neither company has specific plans to offer service to unserved locations in the area. Only EPB has shown interest in expansion, and without taxpayer funds.

The facts just don’t tell the same story Lopez, AT&T, and Comcast tell and would like you to believe. EPB has demonstrated it is the best provider in Chattanooga, provides service customers want at a fair price, and represents the interests of the community, not Wall Street and investors Comcast and AT&T listen to almost exclusively. Lopez would do a better job for his group’s membership by telling the truth and not redistributing stale, disproven Big Telecom talking points.

Tennessee Waltz: State Legislature + Big Telecom Lobbyists = No Rural Broadband Expansion

lobbyist-cashEntrenched telecom industry lobbyists and a legislature enriched by their campaign contributions chose the interests of AT&T, Comcast, and Charter Communications over the broadband needs of rural Tennessee, killing a municipal broadband expansion bill already scaled down to little more than a demonstration project.

The Tennessee House Business and Utilities Subcommittee voted 5-3 Tuesday to end efforts to bring much-needed Internet access to rural Hamilton and Bradley counties, long ignored or underserved by the state’s dominant telecom companies. Rep. Kevin Brooks’ (R-Cleveland) original bill would have allowed Chattanooga-based EPB and other publicly owned utility services to expand fiber broadband and television service to other electric co-ops around the state.

Realizing his bill would be voted up or down by members of a committee that included one former AT&T executive and others receiving substantial campaign contributions from some of Tennessee’s largest phone and cable companies, he reduced the scale of his own bill to a simple demonstration project serving a limited number of customers.

The bill failed anyway, in a vote that took less than a minute.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press described the scene:

Rep. Marc Gravitt (R-East Ridge) voted for Brooks’ amendment and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood (R-Signal Mountain), a one-time AT&T executive, voting against it.

As Rep. Kent Calfee (R-Kingston), the subcommittee’s chairman, prepared to move on to the next bill, he suddenly realized the original bill remained before the panel.

“I’m sorry,” Calfee, who voted against the amendment, told Brooks as the Cleveland lawmaker turned to leave. “It’s the amendment [that failed]. Is there any need to vote on the bill?”

Brooks replied, “The amendment makes the bill. I’d love a vote on the bill.”

“Sorry about that,” Calfee said.

And that was that.

Residents and business people alike in northern Hamilton and portions of Bradley counties say they either have no service, lousy service or wireless service that makes it very expensive to upload and download documents for work and school.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“It’s a testament to the power of lobbying against this bill and not listening to our electorate,” Brooks told reporters. “The voice of the people today was not heard. And that’s unfortunate.”

Brooks’ bill did attract considerable interest – from telecom industry lobbyists who flooded the state legislative offices with a mission of killing it. The Tennessee newspaper said a “platoon of lobbyists and executives, including AT&T Tennessee President Joelle Phillips,” poured into the House hearing room or watched on nearby video screens to scrutinize the vote.

“I heard they hired 27 lawyers to fight,” Brooks said.

Rural Tennessee Republicans were disappointed by the outcome, which leaves substantial parts of their districts unwired for broadband.

“[This] was the perfect opportunity for EPB to be a pilot and to prove they can do what they say they can do,” said Rep. Dan Howell (R-Georgetown). “And if they can’t do it, it’s a perfect opportunity to put it to rest forever. They wouldn’t even let us do a pilot to prove that EPB can do what it claimed.”

Brooks

Brooks

Rep. Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah), also has a bill being held up in the legislature that would allow expansion of public broadband with the consent of citizen members of co-ops and elected leaders of the rural utilities.

Carter didn’t seem too surprised municipal broadband bills like his were being delayed or killed in the state legislature at the behest of AT&T and other companies.

“You just don’t go up against Goliath unless you have your sling and five stones. I just didn’t have my five stones today,” Carter said.

AT&T declared the bill was flawed, arguing in a statement it was not opposed to municipal broadband, so long as it was targeted only to customers unserved by any other provider. AT&T complained Brooks’ bill lacked language protecting them from unwanted competition.

“None of the bills considered … has any provision that would limit government expansion to unserved areas or even focus on those areas,” AT&T wrote.

Less than 24 hours after the vote ended Charter Communications had a special message for members of the legislature.

The cable operator sent invitations to Tennessee lawmakers giving them free airtime to star in their own “public service announcements” that will blanket the screens of Charter cable TV customers, giving the politicians free exposure.

Rep. Calfee's second largest contributor is AT&T.

Rep. Calfee’s second largest contributor is AT&T.

Charter’s director of government affairs for Tennessee was the executive extending the invitation.

“As a leading broadband communications provider and cable operator serving customers in Tennessee, Charter is committed to providing compelling public affairs programming and public service announcements,” said Nick Pavlis, Charter’s chief lobbyist in the state and a Knoxville city councilman. “We hope you will take advantage of this opportunity to speak directly to your constituents. Taping times are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so we encourage you to schedule yours as soon as possible.”

“Right now it would appear to those watching from the outside that big business won and big business is now reciprocating,” said Brooks.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) called the invitation inappropriate.

“Charter has done everything they could possibly do to deny rural Bradley broadband, Internet/content service,” Gardenshire told the Times Free Press.

“Well, my first inclination is to say I’m surprised, coming the day after they killed the broadband bill in committee,” added Howell. “[It is] kind of ironic now that they’re asking people to come forward and make public service announcements about how good their service is. I’m kind of stunned.”

AT&T Gets Stingy With DirecTV Promotions for Existing Customers; $100+ for TV-Only Service

directvDirecTV under AT&T’s ownership is turning out to be no bargain for customers finding it increasingly tough getting a promotional rate package with the satellite provider.

Fred Johnson has been a DirecTV customer in rural Iowa for almost six years and has had to call DirecTV every time his on-contract promotion nears an end. Off-contract customers generally do not receive the best promotions and DirecTV’s regular prices can make the average cable company blush.

“It is not unusual for DirecTV customers to get quoted rates of $80 a month for satellite television and then receive a bill for over $100 once the surcharges, rental fees, taxes, and other hidden fees are added to your bill,” Johnson tells Stop the Cap! “There are months when the bill can go up even higher with no explanation, and even the customer service department cannot explain all the mysterious charges.”

At the end of the usual two-year contract, it has become customary for many long time DirecTV customers to call and threaten to cancel if they cannot get a renewed promotional rate, and for years DirecTV had been happy to oblige.

In 2015, AT&T bought the satellite provider and is in the process of integrating it as part of the AT&T family of services, next to U-verse, AT&T Mobility, and traditional landline service. That is the year the discounts seemed to evaporate for customers like Johnson and Evelyn Wiedmer, who subscribes to DirecTV for the family’s recreational vehicle.

Recreational vehicle owners are among the most loyal to satellite television.

Recreational vehicle owners are among the most loyal to satellite television.

“We were just told our bill was going to increase $45 a month starting in February and there is little we can do about it,” Wiedmer tells us. “The call center lady mentioned that the new owner of DirecTV is going in a different direction with promotions and we no longer qualify for any specials, unless we also want to get an AT&T cell phone.”

Wiedmer and her husband are retired and travel the country in their RV and do not have room in the budget to pay AT&T an extra $540 a year for the same package of channels they used to get for about $65 a month.

“They apparently do not want us to be customers anymore because DISH Networks will sell us a comparable package for about $60 a month, which is much less than the $105 DirecTV is charging us starting next month,” Wiedmer writes. “It looks like DirecTV won’t be competing with AT&T U-verse and the cable company anymore at their prices.”

Critics charge that is exactly the point. Adam Levine-Weinberg called the AT&T-DirecTV merger “one more step towards oligopoly,” warning approval of the merger would remove a serious competitor for tens of millions of customers also served by AT&T U-verse.

“That means there [were] tens of millions of people who [had] a choice between AT&T and DirecTV (as well as the local cable company and satellite TV rival DISH Networks,” said Levine-Weinberg. “The merger [reduced] many consumers’ pay-TV options from four to three, giving the remaining companies more pricing power.”

AT&T is flexing that pricing power by pulling back on promotions and discounts. In addition to curtailing retention plans and promotions for existing customers, AT&T also announced rate increases for DirecTV that take effect tomorrow:

The monthly pre-tax price of DirecTV’s “Select” and “Entertainment” programming tiers will go up by $2, to $51.99 and $61.99, respectively. The “Choice” and “Xtra” bundles will increase $4 to $74.99 and $81.99, respectively; the “Ultimate” pack will go up $5 a month to $91.99; and the “Premier” bundle will grow by $8 to $144.99. That is well over $150 a month after taxes and fees are added, just to watch television. AT&T is also applying a 50 cent increase to a fee DirecTV charges for… selling television service. The so-called “TV Fee” will now cost $7.00 a month.

(Courtesy: zidanetribal17)

(Courtesy: zidanetribal17)

“You used to switch to satellite to save money, but now cable companies offer returning customers lower prices than what DirecTV will offer,” notes Johnson. “It’s almost like they want to drive customers away. It worked. Our neighbors are now collecting money to convince Mediacom to extend their cable down our rural street and after these price increases we finally have enough willing to contribute to switch to cable television and remove the satellite dishes from our rooftops.”

Wiedmer has also canceled her DirecTV service this week, switching to DISH Networks.

“Would you sign another two-year contract agreeing to pay $540 more a year for two years with nothing in return for the extra money?” Wiedmer asks. “AT&T and DirecTV can take a hike.”

AT&T Brings Back Unlimited Wireless Data Plan… If You Have U-verse TV or DirecTV

att-logo-221x300Building in protection from cord-cutting, AT&T today announced it was bringing back its unlimited data wireless plan for customers that subscribe to U-verse TV or DirecTV.

The new AT&T Unlimited Plan claims to offer unlimited data, talk and text for $100 a month. Additional smartphones are $40 per month each, with a fourth smartphone free to add at no extra charge.

“Video traffic continues to grow on our network as fast as ever because people enjoy viewing their favorite video content on their favorite devices,” said Ralph de la Vega, CEO of AT&T Mobile and Business Solutions. “And, they will get a high-quality video streaming experience from the start. No compromises in video quality.”

Except that AT&T discloses in its fine print, “After 22GB of data usage on a line in a bill cycle, for the remainder of the bill cycle AT&T may slow data speeds on that line during periods of network congestion.”

Speed throttles often affect video quality and can stall playback.

It’s the first time in five years AT&T has offered an “unlimited data” wireless option to its mobile customers. Analysts suspect the offer is designed to compete with T-Mobile’s free video streaming “BingeOn” promotion, while also protecting AT&T’s video platforms from cord-cutting. AT&T also gets an opportunity to add new video customers to its recently acquired DirecTV service, because only customers with a qualifying video subscription are allowed to buy the unlimited data plan.

AT&T is tying the unlimited data promotion to its satellite offering DirecTV, not U-verse, with a promotional satellite TV package for new video customers beginning at $19.99 per month for 12 months, with a 24 month agreement. After one year, the base TV package increases to $49.99 a month.

To bring back AT&T wireless customers that left for another carrier, AT&T is offering up to $500 in incentives when customers switch to the AT&T Unlimited Plan with an eligible trade-in and buy a new smartphone on AT&T Next. Customers who combine their U-verse or DirecTV account with AT&T Wireless on a single bill will also get an extra $10 off per month.

AT&T is effectively selling its Unlimited Plan for $60 a month, double AT&T’s original rate for unlimited data of just under $30. With a video subscription pre-qualifier, customers enrolling in the plan can expect a substantial bill.

AT&T Unlimited Plan
Device Type Monthly Access Fee Per Device
1st Smartphone $100
Additional Smartphones  (Fourth line free after bill credit) + $40
Tablets + $40 (or $10 for 1GB)
Watches + $10
Basic/messaging phones + $25
Select connected devices + $10

On the mobile side, customers will be initially expected to pay up to $220 a month for four active lines. The $40 credit for the fourth smartphone only begins after two billing cycles, finally reducing the bill to $180 a month before taxes and surcharges. A required video package will range from $19.99 for a basic DirecTV plan ($49.99 in year two) to as much as $80 or more for U-verse TV, bringing a combined television and wireless bill to more than $300 a month.

Those with 4G tablets can save some money dropping the $40 unlimited data device access fee and choosing a $10 1GB data plan for tablets instead.

AT&T Whistleblower: Our Successful CSR’s are “Liars and Sleaze”; Many Others on Anti-Depressants

Phillip Dampier January 4, 2016 AT&T, Consumer News 69 Comments

repeating mistakesAT&T customers reaching out for customer service are likely to encounter dysfunctional call center employees that will lie, cheat, and scam customers just to meet their monthly targets, while three-quarters of the rest rely on high-powered antidepressants and anxiety medication just to get through the day.

Those shocking allegations come directly from a 17-year AT&T insider that has blown the whistle on “the catastrophe” that is AT&T’s customer service.

“For 10 years, The [Dallas Morning News‘] Watchdog has received a steady flow of complaints about AT&T,” writes consumer reporter Dave Lieber. “Hundreds upon hundreds. More than any other company by far.” (Dallas isn’t served by Comcast.)

Lieber writes that the newspaper’s embarrassing publicity about unresolved consumer complaints always gets the problems he writes about fixed, but the company never seems to correct the chronic problems that bring readers to the newspaper in droves as a last resort.

“I don’t know why this continues to happen, but a recent letter I received may help us understand,” Lieber explains.

Last fall, a career employee at an AT&T call center with 17 years of history with AT&T and its predecessor decided to blow the whistle. She signed the letter, but the newspaper felt it prudent to withhold her name from publication for obvious reasons.

The letter details several customer service practices that are now routine at AT&T call centers — practices that could interfere with a customer’s ability to argue for a better deal or cancel service. Recent belt-tightening by AT&T on promotional spending has left call center workers almost no chance to “delight” customers with a good experience saving their business. In fact, the employee alleges, those not on medication to manage the depression and anxiety that comes from dealing with angry and disappointed customers are capable of thriving at work only by checking their conscience at the door.

“Dear Watchdog, I’ve worked 17 years for AT&T. I have never, in all my years, imagined it would become the catastrophe it is now.

“As retention reps, we are told to not only retain existing customers after their promotions expire, but to also sell more to these people.

“In most cases, a customer’s bill will jump up $83 a month after the ‘intro’ pricing ends. We as reps are allotted at the beginning of week 5 ‘limited use’ promotions, giving folks the maximum of $40 off.

“By Monday afternoon, these are generally depleted as we take about 40 calls a day.

“This has created a culture of reps promising promos, but not adding them. Or telling the customer they are disconnecting the service, but just not doing it. Reps do not want to disconnect a customer, as this counts against the rep.

“You are right to request a user ID [of the rep]. However, it does not help, as every account is noted with the ID of the rep, and management does nothing to discourage the reps’ behavior (as the manager’s pay also is negatively affected by each disconnect their rep does).

“This goes all the way up to sales center manager, general manager and VP. None of the higher-ups care or do anything to stop it.

“They also turn a blind eye to ‘cramming’ by reps (mostly nonunion employees overseas) and erroneous misquotes.

“It’s very frustrating to be an ethical rep there anymore, as you are constantly under their scrutiny for not meeting numbers. The only way to meet these numbers is to be a liar and a sleaze. Three-quarters of my call center is on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicine just to deal with the company. It shouldn’t be like that.

[…] “The problem with this is none of these general managers communicate. Each state is covered by different laws and regulations. You in Texas may call and get a rep in California. In California, I do not have to let you record the call. You also have the option not to be recorded.

“Now that we are national, you have GMs in charge of call centers in California, Missouri, Texas and Georgia. They don’t train you, don’t care about you, don’t care about the customer as long as they are getting commission off your work.

“They know nothing of government regulations, and frankly, do not care.

“I’ve been through so many GMs and vice presidents. However, this is by far the most inept. We should be helping our customers, not forcing products on them they do not want. … I really don’t think anyone in the government cares.”

att_logo“Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing if this is an employee of our company,” AT&T’s response begins. “But the picture painted is not the experience we create, promote or endorse. We have some of the best call center employees in the industry. We set expectations and limit the offers they can use. But we also provide new agents with 12 weeks of intensive training — with a focus on keeping customers with integrity and with offers based on needs determined during the conversation.”

AT&T’s reaction to the letter missed the point, Lieber wrote, only addressing the identity of the author, not the specific complaints.

In practical terms, many of the allegations raised by the employee seem borne out in AT&T’s own customer support forum, where customers routinely complain about promotions promised but never delivered, billing errors, bills higher than originally quoted, and service never cancelled despite repeated customer requests.

In just the last few weeks, one customer was misled about a U-verse promotion that turned out to last only 90 days, after which the bill soared to $180 a month (with six months still remaining on a one-year contract). Another cancelled U-verse service on Nov. 16, but the service, and the bills… keep on coming. Another customer was promised a retention offer that AT&T reneged on, increasing his bill $80 a month.

GOP Candidate Marco Rubio Wants to Kill Public Municipal Broadband

Marco Rubio swallows the talking points of AT&T while also spending their money.

Marco Rubio drinks AT&T’s Kool Aid while also spending their money.

Eight Republican senators, including presidential candidate Marco Rubio, are so upset about communities building their own broadband networks, they’ve signed a letter demanding the Federal Communications Commission stop making life easier for the would-be competitors.

Rubio joined Sens. Deb Fischer, Ron Johnson, John Cornyn, Pat Roberts, John Barrasso, Michael Enzi, and Tim Scott in protesting the Commission’s interference in “overriding [Tennessee and North Carolina’s] sovereign authority to regulate their own municipalities.”

The senators are concerned about an FCC decision to override state laws in the two states that make it nearly impossible to launch a public broadband network. The laws were widely criticized as being written and lobbied for by incumbent telecom operators that wanted to avoid competition.

The eight adopted the phrase “government-owned networks,” popular with telecom-funded critics of community broadband, to describe local broadband networks owned and operated in the public interest, mostly offering service in areas bypassed or underserved by incumbent phone and cable companies.

The letter complains “agency officials have begun engaging in outreach to persuade communities to deploy municipal broadband networks.”

The senators were particularly upset about remarks from one agency official who stated, “Where you’ve got a community infrastructure or a rural electric company, a rural electric co-op, states shouldn’t be telling local communities what they can and cannot do.”

The eight believe private broadband providers should be given due deference over other competitors but also demanded the FCC stop “choosing winners and losers in the competitive broadband marketplace.”

EPB's biggest problem is that they are not AT&T.

EPB’s biggest problem is that they are not AT&T. The fiber to the home municipal utility outperforms both Comcast and AT&T and charges dramatically lower pricing for high speed service.

“Typical hypocrisy from those in the back pocket of AT&T,” responds Tim Weller, an advocate for expanding EPB’s municipal fiber network to other communities adjacent to Chattanooga, Tenn. “By telling the FCC to stop allowing cheaper, more reliable, and faster service from municipal utilities like EPB, they have no issue picking AT&T and Comcast as winners. Rubio couldn’t be closer to AT&T if he located his campaign headquarters in their corporate office in Dallas.”

Few candidates have closer ties to corporate telecom interests than Marco Rubio. AT&T lobbyist Scott Weaver, who works as the public policy co-chair of high-powered DC law firm Wiley Rein, is a close Rubio associate. Weaver, also assisting in litigation against the FCC to curb municipal broadband, is one of three lobbyist money-bundlers working on behalf of the Rubio campaign. He has raised at least $33,000 so far for the Florida senator.

Rubio has lived off AT&T’s generosity since his days in the Florida legislature, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, including $22,000 in personal expenses, on a state Republican Party American Express card that was paid each month with funds donated by AT&T and other special interests.

The International Business Times reported Rubio’s long history courting companies like AT&T to give heavily to murky Republican-controlled fundraising groups that bypassed Florida’s ban on gifts from lobbyists.

In 2003, as a member of the Florida state House, Rubio created a special fundraising committee, called Floridians for Conservative Leadership, that could accept unlimited contributions. In the span of a year, the committee raised $228,000, with large donations from lobbyists, telecom giant AT&T, health plan manager WellCare and the state’s sugar conglomerates, Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar. Not all of the contributors were disclosed, and some are listed simply as gold or silver memberships.

By mid-2004, the group had spent $193,000. More than a third of the committee’s money was spent on meals and travel. Some of those expenditures were made as reimbursements to Rubio and his wife, Jeanette. Other payments appear to be multiple items lumped together as single expenditures — an uncommon arrangement — like a $3,476 expense listed under “Citibank Mastercard” that includes hotel, airfare, meals and gas. Another $71,000 was spent on staff and consultants.

While Rubio was in the legislature in the February 2004, he created a federal 527 organization with a similar name, called Floridians for Conservative Leadership in Government. Rubio was listed as the group’s president, with his wife as vice president. The committee raised $386,000 by the end of 2004, with donations from Hewlett-Packard, Dosal Tobacco Corporation and private prison company GEO Group, according to filings with the Internal Revenue Service.

The federal group spent $316,000 by the end of 2005. The bulk of its spending was on consulting, but the committee also paid Rubio’s relatives roughly $14,000 for items wrongly described as “courier fees,” the Tampa Bay Times reported.

As Marco’s money controversies emerged, some members of his staff decided to move to the private sector, including Rubio’s former chief of staff, Cesar Conda, who now works as a professional lobbyist for AT&T. As a U.S. senator, Rubio continues to cash AT&T’s campaign contribution checks.

“This letter is nothing more than naked corporate protectionism from senators that get donations from the same telecom companies that are threatened by a challenge to their monopolies,” Weller added.

The senators also demanded Wheeler answer questions about how much money the FCC has given to municipal providers, whether the presence of municipal providers would lead to cuts in funding for private phone companies from the Universal Service Fund/Connect America Fund, and what exactly the FCC plans to advocate or regulate with respect to public broadband in 2016.

FCC Wants Details About Usage Caps and Zero Rating from Comcast, T-Mobile, and AT&T

An AT&T Logo is pictured on the side of a building in Pasadena, California, January 26, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

An AT&T Logo is pictured on the side of a building in Pasadena, California, January 26, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Editor’s Note: Stop the Cap! learned in May from a well-placed source that the FCC would “get serious” about data caps if Comcast moved to further expand them in its service areas across the country. It appears that day has arrived although it is too early to tell what direction the FCC will move in. Comcast’s data cap program has grown the most controversial, triggering at least 13,000 consumer complaints from what the company continues to claim is only a limited “trial.” But wireless providers’ growing interest in exempting certain data from counting against a customer’s allowance — a practice known as “zero rating” — has also attracted interest because of its potential impact on Net Neutrality policies.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Communications Commission said on Thursday it has asked major Internet providers to discuss innovative data policies in the wake of the government’s Net Neutrality rules.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler told reporters Thursday that commission staff sent letters on Wednesday to AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile “to come in and have a discussion with us about some of the innovative things that they are doing.”

Wheeler said the letters are focused on data policies.

T Mobile has introduced a new “Binge On” policy that does not count some digital video services against data limits.

Comcast is rolling out its own live streaming TV service called “Stream TV” that would not count usage against data caps if using Comcast services.

AT&T has had “sponsored data plan” programs that allow content providers to subsidize users wireless data.

Wheeler said the commission wants to welcome innovation in its open Internet order. He said the commission wants to “keep aware” of what is going on.

On Dec. 4, a U.S. appeals court heard arguments on Friday over the legality of the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules, in a case that may ultimately determine how consumers get access to content on the Internet.

The fight is the latest battle over Obama administration rules requiring broadband providers to treat all data equally, rather than giving or selling access to a so-called Web “fast lane.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Corporate Welfare: Congress Gives Big Telecom Accelerated and Bonus Depreciation Extensions

Phillip Dampier December 16, 2015 AT&T, CenturyLink, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Verizon 10 Comments

corporatewelfareIn the darkness of night, Congress on Tuesday handed some of America’s largest telecom companies a huge tax windfall allowing many to continue taking a special 50% depreciation bonus that slashes their tax bills on new equipment purchases, winning substantial reductions in their federal tax bills.

CenturyLink had been heavily lobbying House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and other House leaders to extend a “temporary tax provision” that was designed to stimulate corporate spending on capital investments during the height of the Great Recession. Stimulus programs like these have allowed corporations like AT&T and Verizon to pay virtually no federal taxes at all for multiple years in a row. AT&T was the second biggest tax provision/corporate welfare recipient in the country, Verizon was fifth according to Citizens for Tax Justice. Between 2008-2012 taxpayers effectively covered the $19.2 billion in federal tax not paid by AT&T and $11.1 billion not paid by Verizon.

The two words that make it possible are: Accelerated Depreciation

Telecom companies, particularly those with wireless assets, are benefiting from the “temporary” stimulus program introduced by President George W. Bush in the last year of his second term because most are capital-intensive, spending regularly to expand, maintain, and upgrade their networks. CenturyLink has taken advantage of accelerated depreciation to invest billions in fiber network expansions to reach cell towers and businesses and on residential broadband speed upgrades the company claims would not have come so quickly without the tax savings.

Mobile companies like AT&T and Verizon Wireless are some of the largest beneficiaries of the stimulus program, using accelerated depreciation to write off expenses for cell tower expansion, network densificiation, and deployment of services like 4G LTE. In most cases, “accelerated depreciation” is technically a tax deferral, but because these companies maintain constant investment in network development and upkeep, the tax man never actually arrives at the door to collect.

Heavy lobbying from beneficiaries not only succeeded in getting the program’s expiration date extended, the Obama Administration agreed to expand it at the end of 2013. Companies slashed tens of billions off their tax bills as a result. A report from the Congressional Research Service, reviewing efforts to quantify the impact of depreciation breaks, found that “the studies concluded that accelerated depreciation in general is a relatively ineffective tool for stimulating the economy.”

Citizens for Tax Justice added:

Combined with rules allowing corporations to deduct interest expenses, accelerated depreciation can result in very low, or even negative, tax rates on profits from particular investments. A corporation can borrow money to purchase equipment or a building, deduct the interest expenses on the debt and quickly deduct the cost of the equipment or building thanks to accelerated depreciation. The total deductions can then make the investments more profitable after-tax than before-tax.

The latest budget bill, passed Dec 15-16, extends the tax breaks until 2018 when the bonus drops to 40%, 30% in 2019, and zero in 2020.

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