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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.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Senate Cable Billing Practices 6-23-16.mp4

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)

You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

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.

DreamWorks CEO Will Leave the Company if Comcast Buys It

dreamworksNews that Comcast was considering acquiring DreamWorks Animation SKG, Inc. in a $3.2 billion deal did not get the reception the cable giant might have hoped for, after those familiar with DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg reported he’d leave the company if Comcast bought it.

Katzenberg has been the face of DreamWorks since it spun off as its own company in 2004. The former Disney executive’s high-profile and hands-on management made DreamWorks’ animated hits household names, including Madagascar, Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda.

According to a report in the New York Times, Comcast was likely to roll DreamWorks into its own lesser-known animation division, known as Illumination Entertainment. Illumination’s current head, Chris Meledandri, would likely run both in the event Katzenberg exited.

A Comcast buyout would open the door for Comcast to produce more in-house entertainment to satisfy its cable TV customers and boost revenue opportunities. It’s a deal that might have an easier time with regulators than any additional effort by Comcast to consolidate the cable industry.

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.

Charter Cable Ponders Joining Comcast Selling Service on Amazon.com (to Scathing Reviews)

amazonCharter Communications is in talks with Amazon.com about joining Comcast to pitch cable service to the online retailer’s giant customer base.

Unlike Comcast, a Charter spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal the company wasn’t necessarily ready to jump in with both feet and was undecided.

One reason for that apparent reluctance may be the scathing reviews Amazon customers are writing about Comcast, which as of today has managed 1.2 out of 5 stars with 452 published reviews. Comcast probably rates even lower because most of the 5-star reviews are purely tongue-in-cheek:

  • 5 Stars for Being Soulless Corporate Demons. Comcast feeds on the weak. In all seriousness, they are awful…. Anything for a profit….
  • Hitler highly recommends Comcast: Adolf Hitler was quoted saying this about Comcast: “Beeindruckend, das ist böse.” Rough translation: “Wow, that’s evil.”
  • Trump Should Send Them To China: Amazing, amazing product that would do very well in China.

The “one star” reviews, which represent more than 95% of the reviews, are decidedly less charitable:

  • Having Comcast has been the worst experience of my life. You are better off with anything else: FiOS, Google Fiber, Carrier Pigeon, anything.
  • I’m getting third world internet service at top dollar prices which go up if I’m stupid enough to remain a customer.
  • Jumping into Comcast is like jumping into a pool, only the pool isn’t filled with water; it’s filled with lies, stress, hate and death.
  • Capitalism at its scummiest.
  • Worst company on planet – Comcast is proof there is NO god…only chaos.
  • False advertising, hidden fees, incompetent customer service…and that’s just for starters!
  • Burn in hell!
  • Investing with Bernie Madoff would be better choice.
  • Dealing with this company is akin to having your fingernails removed with pliers on a regular basis.
  • Worse than that burning feeling when urinating.

But the reviews weren’t all bad.

“The speeds and services in my area are awesome,” wrote Tracey Fobia. “Xfinity is a game changer.”

A quick Google search revealed Mr. Fobia (coincidentally) is employed by Comcast as a facilities supervisor.

amazon comcast

Comcast’s head of its cable division Neil Smit hoped Amazon’s reputation for excellent customer service might rub off on Comcast. To test that premise, Comcast is trying something new only for Amazon customers – delivering something approaching tolerable customer service:

A Comcast spokesman said it has set aside customer call centers in Tucson, Ariz., and Spokane, Wash., employing about 90 representatives trained just to receive inquiries about Comcast sales made through Amazon. The customer representatives’ goal is to “answer your call in 60 seconds or less,” with no waiting, according to Amazon’s landing page.

The Amazon site provides an easy link to help customers know how to “avoid leasing fees” by buying their own compatible modems and Wi-Fi routers. The site also promises that people can cancel Comcast subscriptions within 30 days or select a no-term contract to downgrade or disconnect whenever they wish.

“We’re partnering with a company that’s so good at the customer experience — I think that’s really what excites me,” Smit told the Wall Street Journal.

Amazon receives a commission for each Comcast sale, according to the newspaper, but based on the hostility of the reviews, it isn’t likely Amazon has earned enough to buy anyone lunch.

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