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Comcast Says It Will Spend $100M on Chicago, But Not Before Capping Internet Usage

comcast cartoonComcast announced last week it will invest $100 million in fiber optic and coaxial cable to expand its network for businesses and residents across the Chicago region, but not before it slaps a usage cap on Chicagoland internet users forced to join its compulsory data cap “trial.”

Beginning Aug. 1,  customers who exceed 1 terabyte of data usage per month will face a nasty overlimit fee of $10 for each 50GB of additional usage they rack up over the course of a billing cycle. Customers who want to keep the unlimited broadband plan they have today can, if they are willing to pay an extra $50 a month.

Comcast’s PR department has christened the incoming data cap the “Terabyte Internet Experience,” suggesting customers will now have the privilege of using up to 1,000GB each month without facing extra charges. But the plan customers have until the end of this month already allows that, and more, without facing overlimit fees that will top out at $200 a month.

Customers like Greg believe Comcast has a different agenda imposing data caps.

“We’ll teach those cord cutters a lesson,” he wrote. “We’re going to get your money one way or another. Comcast is just greedy, they want to extort as much money as they can from people. I’m paying $90 for internet, with the option to charge more based on their conditions. Remember when consumers had options?”

Other residents looking for an opt-out of the “trial” are out of luck.

comcast“Got the email this week we get to be part of this data cap ‘trial,'” shared another customer. “How lucky are we? And what do we get for being part of this trial? Absolutely nothing! And can we opt out of this trial? Heck no!”

Comcast claims almost nobody will be impacted by the terabyte cap, predicting as few as 1% of their customers reach that level of usage. But 25% of Comcast customers nationwide have now received email and other notifications about a data cap plan “trial” Comcast has spent time, money, and resources trying to explain and implement in a growing number of cities in their service area. Many ask if so few are affected, why make the effort?

The FCC received 11,812 complaints about Comcast in 2015, mostly about its data cap trials. That is at least 5,000 more complaints than AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable received combined. That would seem to indicate a significant percentage of Comcast customers are concerned about data caps, even if they are not among the “1%” Comcast now claims will be affected by caps.

Comcast’s plan to invest $100 million in Chicago, primarily on fiber expansion, may not placate customers who do not appreciate their internet usage being capped at the same time Comcast’s network capacity continues to increase. Most of the upgrades may be targeted to benefit Comcast’s business customers. The expansion will string 50 miles of fiber cable across seven square miles of downtown Chicago, including the Loop, River North, and River West. Additional expansion will target the city’s Back of the Yards and Bridgeport neighborhoods at in the Peterson-Pulaski business district near O’Hare.

Comcast claims the upgrade will expand internet, video, voice, and home security/automation services for residential customers. They will just need to make sure not to use them too much.

Comcast Angry It Had to Pay a Pole Attachment Fee on Time or Get Disconnected

Comzilla

Comzilla

Comcast just felt for itself what can happen if their customers don’t pay their bills. They threaten to cut them off.

With just one day remaining before Duck River Electric Membership Corporation claimed it would rip Comcast’s equipment and wiring off its utility poles for non-payment of pole attachment fees, Comcast showed up with a check.

“To avoid an interruption of service, Comcast has once again agreed to pay Duck River significantly more than what is owed under our current contract, despite Duck River’s refusal to negotiate reasonable terms,” Alex Horwitz, vice president of public relations at Comcast, told Times-Free Press reporters.

Duck River officials dispute that and say Comcast was behind (again) on its pole attachment fee payments and is the only utility company complaining about the price.

duck river“Size-wise, they’re the Godzilla of telecommunications,” said Steve Oden, director of member services at the tiny electric co-op. “And we’re just a lowly electric co-op here in Middle Tennessee.”

Oden claimed he is treating Comcast exactly the same way they would treat their own customers.

“If you don’t pay your Comcast cable TV or internet bill, they’re going to do what?” The answer, Oden said, is they “cut you off.”

Comcast claimed in turn Duck River is using their position as a monopoly to gouge customers with high rates.

“Unfortunately, the utility has been unwilling to compromise and has billed Comcast for arbitrary pole rates that are nearly three times the national average,” said Horwitz.

Had Comcast not come up with a payment, Duck River was prepared to start removing Comcast’s wiring and equipment from its poles, and cut power to Comcast’s equipment, which would have killed service for about 7,000 Comcast customers.

The two are now talking (again) about securing a long-term contract that will stabilize pole attachment rates and keep Duck River’s local power co-op from having to make collection calls in the future.

Is Your Landlord Taking Kickbacks to Keep Better Internet Out of Your Building?

xfinity communitiesIs your cable television service included in your rent or condo “services” fee? Have you ever called another provider and told service was not available at your address even through others outside of your condo neighborhood or apartment complex can sign up for service today? Chances are your landlord or property management company is receiving a kickback to keep competition off the property, while you may be stuck paying for substandard services you neither want or need. Worst of all, chances are it’s all legal and everyone is getting a piece of the action… except you.

Welcome to the world of Multiple Dwelling Unit (MDU) Bulk Service Agreements, the seedy underbelly of the anti-competitive cable and telco-TV world. When cable TV first got going, most people wanted access. In the early days, cable franchises were typically exclusive and cable companies maintained the upper hand in negotiations with apartment owners and property owners. Since the service was in demand, many property owners were told to sign whatever “Right Of Entry” Agreement (ROE) was put in front of them. Most contained clauses that guaranteed that cable company would get exclusive access to the property for as long as it was given a franchise to operate within that community. In other words, basically forever.

This turned out very handy when competitors started showing up. First on the scene were satellite television providers, which had a rough time dealing with landlords who loathed tenants installing satellite dishes that “ruined the aesthetics” of the property. Many rental agreements still restrict satellite television dishes in ways that make their use untenable. But things got much more serious when Verizon and AT&T got into the cable business. Initially, both companies found extending FiOS and U-verse to some rental and gated communities was blocked by the exclusive agreements held by cable operators. By 2007, the FCC finally acted to forbid exclusive service contracts, but the cable industry and property developers have played cat and mouse games with the FCC’s loopholes ever since.

Property Developers, Management Companies, Landlords, and Homeowner Associations With Their Hands Out

att connectedWith the FCC’s 2007 declaration that exclusive contracts between cable companies and property owners were “null and void,” the power of the cable industry to negotiate on their terms was markedly diminished. Although many property owners applauded their new-found freedom to tell the local cable company to take a hike if they did not offer better service to their tenants, many others saw dollar signs in their eyes. With leverage now in the hands of the property owner, if the local cable company wanted to stay, in many cases it had to pay. Only the most brazen property owners kicked uncooperative cable companies off their properties, putting tenants at a serious inconvenience. Instead, many found life more peaceful and lucrative to stick with the existing cable company, signing a new contract for “bulk billing” tenants. On the surface, it seemed like a good deal. Property owners advertised that cable TV was included in the rent (and they paid a deeply discounted price per tenant) and the cable operator had a guaranteed number of customers, whether they wanted the service or not.

Bulk billing also proved a very effective deterrent for would-be competitors, who had to overcome the challenge of marketing their service while the tenant was already paying for another as part of their rent. As a result, telco TV competitors often stayed away from properties with bulk billing arrangements.

As broadband has become more prominent and threatens to become more important than the cable TV package, the cable industry has refined its weapons of non-competition. While they cannot force competitors off properties, they can make life very expensive for them. The latest generation of ROE agreements often grant access rights to the building’s telecommunications conduit, cabling, and equipment exclusively to the cable operator.

fiosIf Google Fiber, AT&T U-verse or Verizon FiOS sought to offer service on one of these properties, they would have to overcome the investment insanity of wiring each building with its own infrastructure, including duplicate cables, in separate conduits and spaces not already designated for the exclusive use of the cable company. Verizon in New York City has faced numerous obstacles wiring some buildings, including gaining access to the building itself. Intransigent on site employees, bureaucratic and unresponsive property management companies, and developers have all made life difficult for Verizon’s fiber upgrade.

AT&T often takes the approach “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” and offers its own bulk billing incentives, along with occasional commitments for fiber upgrades. Google Fiber can afford to skip places where it isn’t wanted, although with recent revelations that landlords can raise the rent by up to 11% with the arrival of Google Fiber alone, it may hurt to alienate that fiber to the home provider.

Kickbacks for New Developments = Windfall

Kickbacks for existing properties are lucrative, but nothing compared to the lucrative windfall new property developments can achieve with the right deal.

In 2013, one property developer in Maryland went all out for an exclusive deal with a provider that was going to get de facto exclusivity by using a convoluted series of entities and agreements designed to insulate the company from competition and a challenge from the FCC. A court later ruled the provider used an “elaborate game of regulatory subterfuge” using various corporate entities to escape potential competition.

Some lawyers devote a substantial amount of their practice to the issue of bulk contracts and ROE agreements. Carl Kandutsch serves clients nationwide, many trying to extricate themselves from bad deals of the past. In many cases, an attorney may be needed to find a way out of contracts that don’t meet FCC rules. Other communities sometimes have to buy out an existing contract. Many have to sit and suffer the consequences for years. One residential community found itself trapped with a service provider that was quietly protected by an “airtight contract” negotiated not with the property management company or the homeowner association, but the development’s original builder. The provider delivered lousy service and the community spent six years trying to get rid of the offending firm with no result until they hired an attorney. Although happy to be rid of the bad provider, the homeowner association ended up illustrating how pervasive this problem is after it signed a similar contract with another provider also handing out kickbacks.

Comcast pays up to 10% of a renter's cable bill to the landlord.

Comcast pays up to 10% of a renter’s cable bill to the landlord. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Comcast is more creative than most. It calls its handouts: “Marketing Support Compensation.” The property owner gets an increasing reward for every tenant signed up for Comcast service. Once around two-thirds of tenants are subscribed, the owner gets up to a 10% take of each bill, plus a one time payment of up to $130 per tenant.

Because Comcast’s reputation often precedes it, customers reluctant to sign up without considering other providers will find that tougher to do because Comcast bans other providers from marketing their services to tenants with the support or cooperation of the landlord. In other words, no door hangers, free coffee, brochures in the lobby, or any other on-site promotions. In case a property owner forgets, Comcast sends reminders in the mail:

Comcast likes to remind landlords it has an exclusive. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Comcast likes to remind landlords it has an exclusive. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Susan Crawford calls it “astounding, enormous, decentralized payola” and claims it affects millions of renters.

Crawford

Crawford

“These shenanigans will only stop when cities and national leaders require that every building have neutral fiber/wireless facilities that make it easy for residents to switch services when they want to,” Crawford wrote. “We’ve got to take landlords out of the equation — all they’re doing is looking for payments and deals (understandably: they’re addicted to the revenue stream they’ve been getting), and the giant telecom providers in our country are more than happy to pay up. The market is stuck. Residents have little idea these deals are happening. The current way of doing business is great for landlords and ISPs but destructive in every other way.”

One real world example of how this deters competition comes from Webpass (recently acquired by Google), which offers gigabit Ethernet speeds in select MDUs in San Francisco, San Diego, Miami, Chicago, and Boston. The service comes with a low price, but that doesn’t get the company in the door, according to its president, Charles Barr.

Barr has been refused entry by multiple building owners who have agreements with Comcast, AT&T, or others.

“Tenants want us, but we can’t get in,” Barr said.

Crawford argues the FCC has once again been outmaneuvered by ISPs and their attorneys.

“Sure, a landlord can’t enter into an exclusive agreement granting just one ISP the right to provide Internet access service to an MDU, but a landlord can refuse to sign agreements with anyone other than Big Company X, in exchange for payments labeled in any one of a zillion ways,” added Crawford. “Exclusivity by any other name still feels just as abusive.”

This isn’t a new problem. Stop the Cap! first reported on these kinds of bulk buying arrangements back in 2010, all made possible by the FCC’s regulatory loopholes. Six years later, the problem appears to be getting worse.

AT&T’s King of Lobbyists Endorses Hillary Clinton for President

Cicconi

Cicconi

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in almost 62 years, and the deregulation measure supported with ecstasy by many in the telecom industry was signed into law by none other than President Bill Clinton, opening the door to a massive wave of industry deregulation and multi-billion dollar media consolidation.

It therefore comes as no surprise — to some at least — that AT&T’s top lobbyist Jim Cicconi, perhaps rivaled only by Comcast’s David Cohen in power and influence, has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. The Wall Street Journal reported Cicconi has joined several other Republican corporate executives signing up for Team Hillary this election cycle.

Cicconi is voting Democratic this year, despite supporting every Republican presidential candidate since President Gerald Ford’s run against Jimmy Carter in 1976. This year is different, he claims.

hillary 2016“I think it’s vital to put our country’s well being ahead of party,” he said in a statement provided by the Clinton campaign. “Hillary Clinton is experienced, qualified, and will make a fine president. The alternative, I fear, would set our nation on a very dark path.”

Comcast’s David Cohen is also well-known for leaning to the left, and has been considered a friend of the Obamas since they took office in 2009. Cohen hosted 120 people in his home for a dinner in 2011 on behalf of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. It was an expensive dinner — each guest contributed at least $10,000.

The alternative, Donald Trump, represents what corporate America and Wall Street hates above all else – unpredictability and uncertainty.

Telecom issues have not made a big splash this year in either campaign, and regardless of who wins, their appointments to regulatory agencies like the FCC can have a major impact on consumer broadband initiatives and public policy. A Clinton administration could result in appointments of “centrist” Democrats that Bill favored during his two terms in office. Many of those former regulators are now lobbyists for the telecom industry. Or Hillary could move closer to Obama’s surprisingly tough pro-consumer policies on broadband issues and keep Thomas Wheeler at the helm of the FCC for a few more years.

attverizonCicconi would be pleased to see someone like former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford, Jr., take a seat at the FCC under a future Clinton Administration instead. Ford has served as an honorary co-chairman of Broadband for America, an industry-sponsored astroturf operation, for most of Obama’s two terms in office. He remains a close friend of both Bill and Hillary and is never far from the public eye, turning up regularly on MSNBC.

Broadband for America supports deregulation, opposes Net Neutrality, and essentially shills for its corporate sponsors. Rep. Ford would likely oppose Net Neutrality and continue support for near-total deregulation.

Verizon has also shown itself to be a Friend of Hillary. Three Verizon vice presidents each donated $2,700 to Hillary for America. They were joined by a senior vice president and another vice president, who gave an additional $1,000, according to Salon. A former Hillary Clinton operative who now lobbies for Verizon donated $2,700 as well, along with another Verizon lobbyist who pitched in $1,000.

While Bernie Sanders joined striking Verizon workers on the picket line, the Clinton campaign was cashing checks worth tens of thousands of dollars from Verizon executives and lobbyists. In May 2013, the telecom company paid Hillary a $225,000 honorarium in return for a speech (the text has not been disclosed) to Verizon executives.

The Clinton Foundation also benefited from Verizon contributions ranging from $100,000-250,000.

Some of America’s Largest Telecom Companies Are Overbilling You

bill errorAs part of its investigation of cable and satellite television companies, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found large discrepancies in how five of America’s largest cable and satellite companies—Charter Communications, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, and Dish—identify and correct overcharges caused by company billing errors.

The subcommittee released its report to coincide with today’s hearings on customer service and billing practices in the cable and satellite television industry. The Senate subcommittee focused its attention primarily on billing errors associated with rented set-top boxes and receivers, not programming packages or add-on services. The bipartisan report found satellite TV company Dish was probably the least prone to billing errors associated with satellite equipment and Time Warner Cable was the worst at identifying equipment billing discrepancies. Even when it did find instances of overbilling, the company refused to give customers automatic full refunds as a matter of “efficiency.”

That “efficiency” is expected to be very profitable for Time Warner Cable, which is likely to collect $1,919,844 from overbilling this year alone. Time Warner Cable estimates that, in 2015, it overbilled 40,193 Ohio customers a total of $430,393 and 4,232 Missouri customers a total of $44,152. Time Warner Cable also told the subcommittee that, during the first five months of 2016, it overbilled customers in Ohio for 11,049 pieces of equipment, totaling $108,221.

Charter Communications only did marginally better, mostly because it is a much smaller cable company. Charter estimates that it has overcharged approximately 5,897 Missouri customers a total of $494,000. Charter, along with Time Warner Cable, made no effort to trace equipment overcharges to their origin unless customers specifically asked them to and did not provide notice or refunds to customers.

Let’s review how the five companies compare:

Time Warner Cable

time-warner-cable-sucksTime Warner Cable is notorious for its “no refunds unless asked” policy, which often leaves customers uncompensated for service outages and other problems. That policy also extends to equipment-related billing errors. During the 6.5 year time period covered by the subcommittee investigation, Time Warner Cable never automatically refunded or credited customer for equipment overcharges discovered by the company. Instead, Time Warner’s “Revenue Assurance” team quietly identified and corrected billing errors without any notification or explanation to customers, which may explain why your Time Warner Cable bill can change even when you are locked in with a promotion.

The subcommittee discovered Time Warner Cable still relies on two entirely different billing systems. One, “Integrated Communications Operations Management System”, otherwise known as ICOMS, is especially troublesome to navigate at Time Warner because the company does not use standardized coding across the entire company. Placing an order for Internet service in the Northeast Division of Time Warner Cable is completely different from ordering the same product in a city like Kansas City or the west coast. Employees have complained about ICOMS for years, noting it can take up to 30 separate codes entered correctly in the system to add just one product, like High-Speed Internet. A simple data entry error can mess up an order and generate a billing error (or a lost order or service request that is never processed). But Time Warner Cable also relies on a different platform developed by CSG to manage some of its billing. Some of Time Warner Cable’s acquisitions, like Insight Communications, have operated under the Time Warner Cable brand for several years, but still use some of the billing platforms that were in place before Time Warner took over.

The subcommittee found strong evidence ICOMS is a big problem for Time Warner Cable. Attempts to audit the platform often crash, as it did in May of this year, preventing Time Warner Cable from identifying billing issues. At best, the company only aims for an 80% correction rate using its auditing tools.

One audit uncovered 18,000 customers in the Carolinas, Midwest, and Northeast that were being overbilled for modem and CableCARD equipment. Although Time Warner Cable was going to remove the erroneous charges going forward, it had no plans to automatically refund customers it identified as overcharged unless customers somehow realized that themselves and called in to request retroactive credit.

icoms error

Time Warner Cable erroneously billed one of its own employees for three Internet accounts.

Time Warner Cable once erroneously billed one of its own employees for three Internet accounts.

The subcommittee found if an audit showed that a customer had not been billed for equipment or services that the customer had received, the company treats those inconsistencies as undercharges and adds the charge to the customer’s bill going forward. Time Warner Cable does not attempt to retroactively charge the customer for previous months where that customer was undercharged.

If the audit shows that a customer has been billed for equipment or services that he or she does not have, the story is more complicated. In some cases, customers agree to pay for equipment they do not actually have so that they can receive a cheaper package price—for example, a consumer who wants only Internet service might decide the cheapest option is a promotional package including both Internet and cable television. By participating in the promotion, the customer agrees to pay a monthly rental fee for a set-top box but may instruct the company not to provide a set-top box. In such a case, the customer’s billing records will show a charge for a set-top box, but the customer’s equipment records will show that he or she does not physically have a set-top box. In April 2016, for example, Time Warner Cable identified 49,132 pieces of equipment associated with overcharges; of those 37,653 (approximately 77 percent) were not “correctable” overcharges because they were associated with accounts participating in promotional offers.

Time Warner Cable does not attempt to trace billing errors to their origin. Instead, it only provides a partial credit for the month during which the error was discovered. The company will not notify you of the error or for how long it has been on your bill. Unless you call and demand full credit for the overbilling, you will not receive it.

The cable company defends its policy on the ground that it is “efficient.” Going through months of customer bills to identify overcharges would be costly and time consuming, the company argues. The company also claims that the customer is best positioned to notice an overcharge and bring it to Time Warner Cable’s attention.

After reviewing policies at several different companies, the subcommittee cast doubt on Time Warner’s assertions, noting other companies had no problems returning overbilled amounts to customers without a request to do so.

Charter Communications

Unfortunately for customers, not included on the list of companies willing and able to automatically refund overbilling is Charter Communications, which recently acquired Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

therealcharterbundleThe subcommittee called Charter’s process of identifying and correct overbilling “substandard.”

According to Charter, prior to August 2015, the company did not run any systematic audits to reconcile its billing records with equipment records. Charter’s failure to perform regular audits means that overcharged customers could not receive a prospective correction of their bill unless they noticed the problem themselves and contacted Charter. Beginning in August 2015, however, Charter began taking steps to identify equipment overcharges now on its system. Charter will complete that process in June 2016.

Charter recently upgraded some of its systems to make sure that when an employee adds or deletes services and/or equipment, an update to the customer’s billing record occurs automatically. Charter has 21 employees working for its Billing Quality Assurance department. The employees randomly sample bills to check their accuracy and when Charter changes its bill format or presentation, the team is supposed to review the bills to make certain any billing changes do not introduce mass errors. The subcommittee found these auditing methods were unlikely to discover common “one-off” errors, such as when customers are overbilled for equipment or programming on their specific account.

Charter’s alternate methods of identifying discrepancies quickly become more convoluted and less useful after that.

For example, beginning in August 2015, Charter undertook what it called a “controller reconciliation,” in which the company began to reconcile its billing records with equipment data from its 35 “controllers” throughout the country. These “controllers” are designed to manage box authorizations and “from the office” service connection and disconnection so that a truck roll is unnecessary. These systems can also be useful in identifying unauthorized equipment installed at locations where they were never registered or if the box was authorized for channels a customer was not paying to receive. A controller reconciliation allowed Charter to identify anomalies like in Missouri, where almost 6,000 customers were being billed for set-top boxes they were not using.

The subcommittee was unhappy neither Time Warner Cable or Charter seem willing to use “brute manpower to identify how long a customer has been overcharged and automatically grant a refund or credit,” as well as do more to minimize equipment and programming mismatches with billing records.

Comcast has bigger problems than overbilling.

Comcast has bigger problems than overbilling.

Comcast

Comcast relies on a very similar auditing process in use at Time Warner Cable to identify billing discrepancies, except once Comcast finds one it identifies how long a customer was overcharged, notifies the customer and automatically credits the customer’s account. Starting late last year, Comcast began running audits weekly to improve billing accuracy. Comcast claims just a 0.3% error rate.

Comcast has more than 60 employees nationwide on the east and west coasts examining billing issues and, when needed, individually investigates each case to identify applicable refunds.

DirecTV

DirecTV doesn’t do regular audits, instead relying on a program called SAS Enterprise Miner to search for billing errors before bills are generated. It can also use the same tools to identify and correct past billing errors. The satellite provider goes as far back as necessary to correct past mistakes, and pointed to instances where credits of thousands of dollars were issued to affected customers. DirecTV’s Revenue Assurance department can also reach out and communicate with employees at all levels of the company to investigate billing issues and prevent future ones. What will change as a result of AT&T’s ownership of the company isn’t known.

Dish Network

dishDish was cited by the subcommittee report as having the billing system least likely to generate billing errors. Dish links its equipment and billing systems together, which means any change on one system automatically updates the other.

According to Dish, it is impossible to add or remove equipment without altering the customer’s billing records. Dish provides each customer with one free “receiver”—Dish’s term for the equivalent of a set-top box—and charges $7.00 to $15.00 per month for each additional receiver a customer has. That is the only equipment charge. Dish’s system will only send a television signal to receivers that have been “activated,” which happens as part of the installation process. Once a receiver has been activated, the customer’s billing information is automatically updated to reflect that addition. That system ensures that no receiver is added to a customer’s account unless it has been activated.

Dish customers return their receivers by mail. Dish provides a packaging label so that it can track the receiver once it has been mailed. When the receiver returns to the Dish warehouse, an employee scans the barcode on the receiver, which removes the receiver from the customer’s provisioning records and, in turn, from the customer’s bill.

Hearing: Customer Service and Billing Practices in the Cable and Satellite Television Industry

Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, June 23, 2016 10:00AM ET

(Video starts at 19:55) (2:18:54)

Opponent of EPB Fiber Expansion: Get ‘Innovative’ Satellite Internet Instead

Cleveland's monument in the downtown district. (Image: City of Cleveland)

Cleveland’s monument in the downtown district. (Image: City of Cleveland)

AT&T, Comcast, and Charter have surrounded the city of Cleveland, Tenn., (population 42,774) for more than 20 years, yet after all that time, there are still many homes in the area that have no better than dial-up Internet access..

An effort to extend municipal utility EPB’s fiber to the home service into the community just northeast of Chattanooga on Interstate 75, has run into organized political opposition campaign, part-sponsored by two of the three communications companies serving the area.

Tennessee state Reps. Dan Howell and Kevin Brooks, both Cleveland-area Republicans, understand the implications. With AT&T, Comcast, and Charter resolute about not expanding their coverage areas anytime soon, the only chance Cleveland has of winning world-class broadband anytime in the reasonable future is through EPB, which has already offered to extend service to at least 1,000 customers in rural Bradley County in as little as three months. Most of those customers now rely on dial-up Internet services, because no broadband is available. Reps. Howell and Brooks are trying to get the the red tape out of the way so EPB can proceed, but the Tennessee legislature hasn’t budged.

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

There is a substantial difference between 30kbps dial-up and 100Mbps — one of the “budget” Internet tiers available from EPB. But some Tennessee lawmakers and corporate-backed special interest groups don’t care. To them, stopping public broadband expansion is a bigger priority, and they have attempted to stall, block, or prohibit municipal broadband, just to protect the current phone and cable companies that are among their generous contributors.

In 2010, Chattanooga became the first in America to enjoy gigabit residential broadband speed not because of AT&T, Comcast, or Charter, but because of the publicly owned electric company, EPB. So what’s the problem with that? The fact EPB spent $320 million on the fiber optic network — about $100 million of that coming from a federal grant — keeps some conservatives, corporate executives, and telecom shareholders up at night. They object to the public funding of broadband, calling it unfair competition for the two incumbent cable companies and one phone company, which have their own “privately funded” networks.

Republican Rep. Mike Carter, who serves Ooltewah, thinks that’s a lot of nonsense. He notes AT&T and other providers already receive government funding to service outlying areas that no other providers dare to tread for a lack of return on their investment.

cleveland_tn“[What] convinces me to back expansion of the EPB of Chattanooga is the fact that they received $111 million in stimulus funds, and in the next five years AT&T alone will receive $156 million of your money [in government funding] assessed every month on your bill to provide 10/4-gigabit service in those areas,” Carter explained to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. “If the EPB’s $111 million matching grant somehow disqualifies those benefits going to my constituents, how do I explain to them that AT&T is receiving non-matching funds?”

“The issue then became, if it is necessary to create the world’s fastest Internet system, why would EPB not offer that for economic growth in its service area?” Carter continued. ” After I heard the story of the [gig’s] creation and realized that the money had already been spent, I asked myself if I would allow a firmly held principle of no competition with private enterprise by government to deny my constituents and neighbors the incredible benefits.”

Justin Owen, president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, is dismissive of Carter’s willingness to bend his principles. In his view, those without Internet access have other options instead of getting EPB Fiber on the public dime.

Owen

Owen

“You can get satellite Internet,” said Owen, who added that governments that invest in fiber technology could be “left behind by disruptive innovation,” which in his mind could be satellite Internet. Satellite customers would disagree.

“Horrible, horrible, horrible, and more horrible,” wrote Trey from another Cleveland — this time in Texas. “Speeds are consistently less than 2Mbps and they advertise up to 12. Try a cell phone booster and use that before resorting to satellite Internet.”

Hundreds of customers shared similar stories about their experience with satellite Internet, and they don’t believe it will be disruptive to anything except their bank account.

Owen and his group have not revealed many details about where its funding comes from, but the group is a member of the State Policy Network, which receives financial support from AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Verizon and Comcast. The group’s former leader, Drew Johnson, was also a former opinion page columnist at the Times-Free Press and used column space to criticize EPB and other issues that ran contrary to AT&T’s agenda in Tennessee.

Despite support from the Chattanooga area’s Republican delegation, many legislators from outside the area remain firmly in support of the telecom companies and their wish to limit or destroy community broadband projects like EPB, claiming they are redundant or are based on faulty business plans likely to fail. But while Comcast used to dismiss EPB’s gigabit service as unnecessary and AT&T considered gigabit speeds overkill, both companies are now racing to deploy their own gigabit networks in Chattanooga to compete.

The residents of Cleveland without broadband today probably won’t have it tomorrow or anytime soon. Many are hoping the Tennessee legislature will relent and let EPB solve their broadband issues once and for all. Cleveland resident Aaron Alldaffer is trying to help gin up interest in a renewed legislative push for EPB Fiber expansion with a Change.org petition.

The BBC World Service Global Business program visited Chattanooga in May 2016 to explore EPB Fiber and discuss its implications. (29 minutes)

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Comcast Pays Contractors Peanuts; Poor Workmanship, Bad Behavior Result of Low Pay

Phillip Dampier June 13, 2016 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News No Comments

raceComcast has systematically sought to flatten wage rates, drive small contractors out of business and overwork the independent contractors that remain, while paying them less than $20 for many service calls.

Those are some of the accusations leveled against Comcast in a federal lawsuit filed in Scranton, Pa., this month by two former Comcast installation contractors.

Owners of Cable-Line Inc. of Perkasie and McLaughlin Communications Inc. of Moosic argue Comcast deceived them in 2010 when it urged both companies to buy trucks and hire experienced installers while “secretly implementing” a cut throat “national subcontractor reduction plan” that gradually reduced the amount of compensation and time expected to complete installations and repairs.

As a result, the number of independent contracting firms Comcast works with has declined in the northeast from 176 in 2009 to 39 in 2012. Even as the number of available contractors have dropped, those that remain are under pressure to find employees willing and able to finish jobs fast and, as far as customers allege, not always completely.

comcastA veteran telecom supervisor told the Philadelphia Inquirer some installers are saddled with 15-20 service calls a day. That leaves little time to troubleshoot problems and as a result many technicians “hope for a quick, loose cable connection so they can move onto the next job.”

Rushing through service calls makes sense when one realizes those independent technicians are paid by the service call.

“Some calls last 20 minutes, and that’s where you’d pick up some time and quick dollars,” the supervisor told the newspaper.

But even if the installer does get a lot of simple jobs in a row, Comcast is still putting constant pressure on their potential earnings.

Triplett

Triplett

“The money that Comcast pays a contractor for each task they do at a house has gotten lower over the years,” said the supervisor. “A cable drop, running the cable from the pole to the house, used to pay about $20. Then it went down. The contractors tell new hires they can make $400/day, it’s like running your own business. That is virtually impossible because of limited time. Some installers may actually complete eight jobs (in a day) and gross $130. That’s not even $20 a stop. It varies, though, by what has to be done at the job site. Most of these guys use their own truck and pay their own fuel and insurance.”

“Every Woman’s Nightmare”

Comcast also makes sure those contractors are non unionized, which gives the cable company the upper hand on just about everything. As a result, the number of people willing to work long hours for what is often declining pay has become a perennial challenge at many contracting firms. Some are accused of lowering their employment standards long ago to accept more applicants, sometimes with disastrous results.

Last month, a Chicago-area jury took just 40 minutes to convict Anthony Triplett, a Comcast subcontracted cable technician, of the sexual assault and murder of Janice Ordidge. Almost a decade ago, Ordidge was found dead in her bathtub two days after Triplett arrived to fix her cable TV. Police immediately considered Triplett a suspect and questioned him several times while also collecting a sample of his DNA. Despite the prominent investigation, Premier Cable Communications, the company performing service work for Comcast, kept Triplett on the job. Seven weeks later, Triplett strangled, sexually assaulted, robbed and killed 23-year-old Urszula Sakowska during a service call in her home.

Prosecutors argued Triplett used his “house calls for Comcast” as a hunting ground for female victims, calling him a “sociopath and psychopath.” He is now serving double life sentences.

Comcast’s 1TB Usage Cap Goes Live, Replaces Old 300GB Usage Allowance

1024gbAfter four years of a gradually expanding “beta test” no customer wanted to be part of, Comcast’s never-ending data cap trial has increased data allowances for the first time since 2012.

xfinitylogoComcast customers in data cap trial areas tell Stop the Cap! their Comcast usage meter now reflects the new 1,024GB allowance Comcast promised back in April (some customers in Atlanta seem to have gotten a 2,048GB allowance for an unknown reason). It’s a major improvement over the old 300GB cap many customers endured with expensive overlimit fees that applied when they exceeded their allowance. Comcast will continue to bill those overlimit fees of $10 for each 50GB increment of excess usage over the allowance, but now plans to cap those overlimit fees at $200 a month.

“The new meter showed up June 1st in southern Florida, and it’s about time,” said our reader Javier from Miami. “But wouldn’t you know, Comcast screwed us out of one more month of paying their $30 extortion fee to keep unlimited.”

300GB was not enough for many Comcast customers.

300GB was not enough for many Comcast customers.

Javier is referring to Comcast’s unlimited usage insurance plan. For $30-35 extra, the cable company removes your data cap and you face no overlimit fees. But since Comcast bills one month ahead, a customer enrolled in the insurance plan paid for an unlimited June on their May bill. Now that usage allowances have more than tripled, Javier wanted to cancel his insurance for this month because he doesn’t come close to Comcast’s new cap.

No dice, replied Comcast, who canceled his unlimited insurance plan effective July 1.

“Once you begin a new month, you cannot stop the charges until the following month,” Javier explained, even though he canceled the plan on the 1st of the month. “They told me it was too late.”

Javier is still glad he canceled the insurance.

“If I didn’t, they planned to auto-enroll me in their new unlimited option, which costs a ridiculous $50 a month,” said Javier.

Not all Comcast service areas are subject to data caps. Comcast issued broad clarifications about the usage cap trial changes on its website:

A terabyte still isn't enough for some customers. (Image: NAM)

A terabyte still isn’t enough for some customers. (Image: NAM)

New Data Usage Trials

On June 1, 2016, we will be migrating all customers currently in usage trials to a new 1 Terabyte plan, and the following is an overview. For more details on this trial plan, see Questions & Answers About Our Data Usage Plan Trials. For a detailed list of trial locations, see Is my area part of the data usage plan trials? For trial start dates, see Where will these plans be launched?

In the markets of Huntsville, Mobile and Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Tucson, Arizona; Little Rock, Arkansas;Fort Lauderdale, the Keys, and Miami, Florida; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Houma, LaPlace, and Shreveport, Louisiana; Maine; Jackson and Tupelo, Mississippi;Chattanooga, Greeneville, Johnson City/Gray, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee;Charleston, South Carolina; and Galax, Virginia, we will increase our monthly data usage plan for all XFINITY Internet tiers to 1 terabyte (1,024 GB) per month and will offer additional gigabytes in increments/blocks ($10 per 50 GB, up to $200 each month). You will also be able to choose to enroll in an Unlimited Data Option for an additional recurring flat fee of $50 per month. Under this option, the 1 Terabyte data usage plan will not be enforced on your account. For more information on the Unlimited Data Option, see What is the Unlimited Data Option?

If you are an XFINITY Internet Economy Plus or Performance Starter customer, you can instead choose to enroll in the Flexible Data Option to receive a $5 credit on your monthly bill if you reduce your data usage plan to 5 GB. If you choose this option and use 6 GB of data or more in any given month, you will not receive the $5 credit and will be charged an additional $1 for each gigabyte of data used over the 5 GB included in the Flexible Data Option. For more information on the Flexible Data Option, see What is the Flexible Data Option?

Expired Data Usage Plans

Important Note: These data usage plans, which Comcast previously had in place, expired on June 1, 2016, and have been replaced with the new plans described above

In the markets of Huntsville, Mobile and Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; Fort Lauderdale,the Keys, and Miami, Florida; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Houma, LaPlace, andShreveport, Louisiana; Jackson and Tupelo, Mississippi; Chattanooga, Greeneville, Johnson City/Gray,Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee; Charleston, South Carolina; and Galax, Virginia, we have increased our monthly data usage plan for all XFINITY Internet tiers to 300 GB per month and will offer additional gigabytes in increments/blocks ($10 per 50 GB). In this trial, you can also choose to enroll in an Unlimited Data Option for an additional recurring flat fee (e.g., $30-$35 per month). Under this option, the 300 GB data usage plan will not be enforced on your account. If you subscribe to Economy Plus or Performance Starter XFINITY Internet, you can instead choose to enroll in the Flexible Data Option to receive a $5 credit on your monthly bill if you reduce your data usage plan to 5 GB. If you choose this option and use 6 GB of data or more in any given month, you will not receive the $5 credit and will be charged an additional $1 for each gigabyte of data used over the 5 GB included in the Flexible Data Option.

In the markets of Central Kentucky and Maine, we have increased our data usage plan for XFINITY Internet tiers to 300 GB per month, offering additional gigabytes in increments/blocks ($10 per 50 GB). In this trial, XFINITY Internet Economy Plus customers can instead choose to enroll in the Flexible Data Option to receive a $5 credit on their monthly bill if they reduce their data usage plan to 5 GB. If you choose this option and use 6 GB of data or more in any given month, you will not receive the $5 credit and will be charged an additional $1 for each gigabyte of data used over the 5 GB included in the Flexible Data Option. Currently, the Unlimited Data Option is not available in these markets.

In the Tucson, Arizona, market, we have increased our monthly data usage plan for Economy Plus through Performance XFINITY Internet tiers to 300 GB. Those customers subscribed to the Performance Pro and Blast! Internet tiers receive 350 GB in their data usage plan; Blast! Pro customers receive 450 GB in their data usage plan; and Extreme customers receive 600 GB in their data usage plan. As in our other trial market areas, we offer additional gigabytes in increments/blocks of 50 GB for $10 each in the event the customer exceeds their included data amount. Currently, the Unlimited Data Option and the Flexible Data Option are not available in this market.

In Fresno, California, Economy Plus customers have the option of enrolling in the Flexible Data Option.

Unintended Consequences: Feds Let Telecom Companies Skirt Taxes While States Crack Down

Tax-FreeSome of America’s largest telecommunications companies continue to pay almost nothing in federal taxes even as state taxing authorities hungry for revenue  are getting more aggressive about denying access to tax loopholes and suing some for failing to pay their fair share.

Special interest-inspired “pro-business” loopholes have been a growing part of the U.S. tax code since the Reagan Administration. The premise seemed reasonable enough: high corporate taxes are simply passed on to consumers as a cost of doing business, so lowering them will trickle savings down to the consumer and also free capital to create more jobs. It has not worked that way, however. Product pricing for services like broadband have been based more on what customers believe the product is worth, not what it costs to deliver, and Verizon was among the companies cited for significant job cuts after its corporate tax rate plummeted. Regardless of corporate tax rates, providers continue to raise broadband prices, even as the costs to provide the service are declining. The old maxim of charging what the market will bear is alive and well. So where do the tax savings go? Into share buybacks, shareholder dividend payouts, increased executive salaries and bonuses, and lobbying.

Some states are discovering they have been leaving money on the table when they don’t insist on collecting owed state taxes, and as state budgets continue to be strapped with increasing medical and infrastructure-related expenses, taking companies to court who try to avoid their tax obligations is getting more popular.

One of the biggest potential windfalls could eventually fill New York State coffers with $300 million in damages and penalties courtesy of Sprint, which was accused of deliberately not billing customers for state taxes on its wireless services over seven years.

SprintYesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court turned away Sprint’s effort to void an October 2015 New York Court of Appeals decision that would allow the state to proceed to court arguing Sprint intentionally failed to collect more than $100 million in taxes from New Yorkers from 2005 on. At the time, Sprint was attempting to rebuild its market share by luring customers with cheaper mobile service. One way to offer a lower price is to stop charging tax. In New York alone, municipalities lost $4.6 million a month as a result of the scheme.

Sprint has repeatedly argued the lawsuit is invalid because a 2000 federal law trumps a 2002 New York State law that covered state taxes. The court disagreed, and the fact a whistleblower at Sprint revealed what Sprint was up to didn’t help. The case will now likely head to state court or get settled.

Verizon-Tax-Dodging-bannerWhile $300 million sounds like a lot, it pales in comparison to the money Verizon manages to dodge paying the Internal Revenue Service. The phone company is the poster child of corporate tax dodging according to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Sanders targeted Verizon because between 2008-2013, Verizon not only did not pay a nickel in federal taxes, it actually received a refund from the federal government after achieving a federal tax rate of -2.5%, despite booking $42.5 billion in profits. American taxpayers effectively subsidized Verizon when it got its refund check.

In the last two years, Verizon is paying federal taxes once again, but at a rate of 12.4%, well below the tax rate of most middle class Americans.

It’s a sensitive matter for Verizon, because CEO Lowell McAdam launched a full-scale media blitz trying to paint the Sanders campaign as inaccurate. McAdam claims Verizon actually paid a 35% tax rate in 2015, which would only be true if the company added the tax obligations it owes on the billions of dollars it stashes in overseas bank accounts. Foreign taxes don’t help the American taxpayer, suggest critics, and Citizens for Tax Justice consider McAdam’s claims “artificial.”

“In fact, over the past 15 years, Verizon has paid a federal tax rate averaging just 12.4 percent on $121 billion in U.S. profits, meaning that the company has found a way to shelter about two-thirds of its U.S. profits from federal taxes over this period,” the group claims. “In five of the last 15 years, the company paid zero in federal taxes. While there is no indication that this spectacular feat of tax avoidance is anything but legal (the company’s consistently low tax rates are most likely due to overly generous accelerated depreciation tax provisions that Congress has expanded over the last decade), few Americans would describe the company avoiding tax on $78 billion of profits as ‘fair.’”

unintendedBruce Kushnick, executive director of the New Networks Institute, claims Verizon also specializes in dumping most of its costs and “losses” on Verizon Communications, which owns its legacy wireline network, which helps them cut their tax obligations.

Too often, changes to the U.S. tax code have unintentional consequences, especially when corporations can hire tax attorneys that outclass those working for the federal government.

Fredric Grundeman helped draft a tax bill that was supposed to curb loopholes in the estate tax and though well-trained as a trusted attorney at the Treasury Department, the bill quickly backfired. The new law opened even larger loopholes than those it was originally written to close, allowing some of America’s richest families to pass on money to heirs with no tax implications at all. Grundeman admits legislators often don’t recognize a new tax law’s potential for abuse.

“How do I say it?” Grundeman told Bloomberg News back in 2013. “When Congress enacts a law, it isn’t always well thought out.”

That is also true on the state level.

Oregon officials push a button to exempt Google Fiber from a state property tax.

Oregon officials push a legislative button and give Google Fiber a tax break. Then Comcast shows up.

Oregon wants to attract Google Fiber to Portland, but Google objected to one of the state’s property tax provisions that affects companies that sell data services. Oregon partly sets the tax rate commensurate with the value of the provider’s brand name, among other factors. It’s all very vague, but not so vague that Google would miss it could pay an even higher tax rate that its competitors — Comcast and CenturyLink.

Oregon’s legislature voted to correct the problem by exempting providers that offer gigabit broadband. The tax law changes were tailored to benefit Google, assuming Comcast and CenturyLink would continue to drag their feet to upgrade their Oregon networks.

But the enterprising lawyers at Comcast promptly requested the same tax exemption that Google would get in return for building its fiber network in the state. The reason? Comcast had introduced its own gigabit Internet service on a much more limited scale.

Rep. Phil Barnhart (D-Eugene) admitted Oregon had another law on its hands with unintended consequences. Barnhart told utility regulators this spring his fellow lawmakers never intended to give the tax break to Comcast, which charges hundreds of dollars for 2,000Mbps service. But nobody bothered to set any price guidelines in the law, meaning Google can charge $70 a month for gigabit service and get a tax break and Comcast can offer 2Gbps service in a limited number of locations, at the “go away” price of $300 a month, with start-up costs up to $1,000, and a multi-year contract, and get the exact same tax break.

Barnhart

Barnhart

Or maybe not, at least for now.

Last week, the Oregon Department of Revenue ruled Comcast is not eligible for that tax break, at least not this year, according to The Oregonian. The department wouldn’t explain why, citing taxpayer confidentiality. For good measure, the same department also rejected applications from Google Fiber and Frontier Communications (Frontier operates a very limited FiOS fiber to the home network in communities including Beaverton, Hillsboro, and Gresham that it inherited from Verizon), claiming Google and Frontier’s gigabit networks were theoretical in Oregon and there needed to be gigabit service actually up and running to qualify.

That leaves Google in a classic catch-22. It won’t bring fiber to Oregon so long as it faces a stiff tax bill and tax authorities won’t forgive the tax until there is gigabit fiber up and running. For some taxpayers, what burns the most is the legislature paved the road to tax bliss to attract Google Fiber, but the only company that may actually ultimately travel down it is Comcast.

Comcast Raising Usage Caps to 1TB, Boosts Price of Unlimited Add-On to $50 a Month

Comcast-LogoWith the FCC’s increasing skepticism that Comcast’s data caps are about fairness and not an attempt to discourage cable TV customers from cutting the cord and watching all of their shows online, Comcast today announced it was overhauling its data cap allowance and unlimited add-on plan.

Effective June 1, Comcast will increase its current 300GB monthly data cap to a terabyte (1,000GB) for all speed plans. For those exceeding one terabyte in usage, Comcast will sell you an unlimited add-on plan for an extra $50 a month to avoid the overlimit fee of $10 per 50GB of excess usage.

“In our trials, we have experimented with different offers, listened to feedback, and learned a lot,” said Marcien Jenckes, executive vice president of Consumer Services at Comcast Cable. “That is what we said we would do when we launched our trials four years ago – analyze and assess our customers’ reaction to the data plans, including being open to increasing them over time. We have learned that our customers want the peace of mind to stream, surf, game, download, or do whatever they want online. So, we have created a new data plan that is so high that most of our customers will never have to think about how much data they use.”

Comcast-Usage-MeterComcast is also likely responding to thousands of customer complaints filed with the FCC complaining about Comcast’s data caps and the cost of their insurance plan (previously $30-35 depending on market) to avoid overlimit fees.

Despite near universal opposition to Comcast’s data caps, the company has gradually introduced them in a growing number of cities, mostly in the southern United States.

“Comcast doesn’t listen to its customers,” complains Miguel Santos, a Comcast customer in Miami. “It never has and never will. Our family was facing a $200 Internet bill after Comcast introduced caps in Miami-Dade. Now we grudgingly pay them more than $100 a month just for unlimited Internet. It is totally ridiculous.”

Comcast’s decision comes almost a month to the day after AT&T announced it was increasing usage allowances for its U-verse and DSL customers, albeit less generously than Comcast. Most AT&T DSL customers will face 300GB caps, while most U-verse customers will get a boost to 600GB. Only U-verse customers with speeds over 100Mbps will get 1TB of usage.

“We’ve always said that we’d look carefully at the feedback from our trials, continue to evolve our offers, and listen to our customers,” said Jenckes. “We’re currently evaluating our plans to roll this out in other markets, we’ll keep listening – and we’ll be open to making further changes in the future to deliver the best high-speed data service to our customers.”

“That probably means Comcast’s version of generosity will be coming to your city soon,” predicts Santos.

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