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GCI’s Stingy Caps About to Get a Boost

gciBroadband life in Alaska is usually a choice (if you live in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau, or another significantly sized city) between usage-capped cable operator GCI or slow-speed DSL (if you can get it) from Alaska’s two telephone companies – ACS, where unlimited service is still available, or MTA, where a 10Mbps Internet plan starts at $50 and offers up to 50GB of usage a month.

GCI has traditionally been the fastest option, but the company’s usage caps and high prices have brought scores of complaints from customers over the years. A basic 10/1Mbps internet plan costs $59.99 a month and only includes 40GB of usage. Many Alaskans who want faster access with a more reasonable allowance have to spend $84.99 a month for 50/3Mbps access to get a 150GB usage allowance or $134.99 for 100/5Mbps service with 300GB of included usage.

Late last week, GCI announced it was boosting the usage allowance for just one of its plans, the premium-priced, limited availability 1,000/50Mbps plan ($174.99), which until recently included a 750GB usage allowance. The new usage allowance is 1TB (1,000GB).

“In today’s connected society, people are demanding more and more access to data at incredibly fast speeds,” said Paul Landes, GCI’s senior vice president/general manager of consumer services. “GCI is proud to have a product that keeps our customers connected in ways people in Boston and LA can’t even receive. Even better, we are able to provide these upgrades at no additional cost to our loyal customers.”

Alaskans face high prices for internet access from GCI, the state's largest cable company.

Alaskans face high prices for internet access from GCI, the state’s largest cable company.

Gigabit customers like Stop the Cap! reader Dave Langhorn certainly hoped so.

“This is long overdue,” said Langhorn. “For $175 a month, there shouldn’t be any data caps, considering unlimited gigabit plans in the lower-48 often sell for $70-80 a month, which is less than half what we pay and still get capped.”

Our reader Michael Horton is incensed that GCI managed a usage allowance boost for its most premium internet plan, while leaving everyone else with the same old service.

“We shouldn’t be allowing any ISPs to restrict usage on their networks,” said Horton. “You should be paying for the speed that you use and nothing more.”

Horton considers data caps anachronistic at a time when the digital economy is moving towards online distribution of products and services like movies, games, software, and other digital products. Even Windows 10 has been more often installed from a download than from physical media.

GCI has promised to address at least one of Horton’s concerns, stating they are planning speed boosts and allowance upgrades for all of their internet plans at an unspecified time later this year.

GCI says the allowance boost comes in response to customer requests from surveys and “listening sessions.”

Horton and Langhorn both believe that those voices would be heard much louder if GCI had more significant competition.

“ACS is the only alternative if you want unreliable speed,” Horton writes.”They don’t have bandwidth caps, but you will be unable to use their service efficiently if you are a gamer or watch Netflix a lot.”

 

Updated: GCI Changes Usage Cap Policies: Automatic Overlimit Fees Replaced With Speed Throttling

GCI_logoAlaska’s largest cable company today unveiled changes to its Internet plans, ditching surprise overlimit fees in favor of a speed throttle.

GCI has been the subject of bad press in the past, with some customers experiencing up to $1,200 in overlimit fees after exceeding GCI’s usage allowances. In an effort to avoid public relations nightmares like that, GCI will stop assessing automatic overlimit fees and instead impose a speed throttle on customers over their limit that will temporarily reduce broadband speeds to less than 1Mbps until the next billing cycle begins. Customers can voluntarily pay for more usage in $10 increments, which buys a reprieve from the speed throttle.

GCI “No Worries” Broadband Plans offer varying usage caps and extra usage allotments:

no worries

Customers on lower speed plans continue to face a lower usage allowance and will receive considerably less extra data for their $10 add-on data plan. GCI’s highest speed re:D offering does get a bigger usage allowance: 600GB, up from 500GB. An $11.99/mo surcharge continues for broadband-only customers.

GCI’s largest competitor remains telephone company ACS, which heavily markets its unlimited usage DSL plans. Almost as an afterthought, ACS now markets packages that include landline service with unlimited local calling and 180 minutes of long distance for free.

acs unlimited

A price comparison between the two providers is somewhat hampered by the fact GCI does not publicize a broadband+home phone bundle package on their website. GCI Home Phone is priced at $19.99 a month.

A 10Mbps unlimited use package from ACS costs $110/month. A 10Mbps plan from the cable company with a 30 40GB allowance + GCI Home Phone costs $79.98. On price, GCI wins at this speed… if you stay within your allowance. A 50Mbps unlimited use package from ACS runs $180 a month. GCI charges $104.98 with 150GB of included usage. Again, the price winner is GCI if you stay within your allowance. Taxes, surcharges and government fees are extra.

Heavier users may find ACS’ initially higher prices worthwhile if they are forced to buy GCI’s add-on data buckets. Both companies charge considerably more than providers in the lower 48 states.

Last year, nearly 10% of GCI’s revenue was earned from automatically applied overlimit fees. Giving up some of that revenue is a concession, but one that is likely to end bill shock and negative media attention. Still, usage allowances remain arbitrary. GCI’s entry level 10Mbps plan only offers a paltry 30 40GB a month — an allowance largely unheard of among other U.S. cable providers. GCI will also have a difficult time explaining why $10 will only offer one customer 5GB of extra usage while others will get up to 30GB. The costs for the additional data to GCI are the same.

Our thanks to an anonymous reader for sharing the news.

Updated 4:08pm EST 1/15: After going to press, GCI changed their website, adjusting the usage allowance for their 10/1Mbps plan to 40GB (up from 30GB) and deleted references to the $11.99 surcharge for broadband-only customers, which apparently no longer applies.

Verizon Wireless Arrives in Alaska; Helps Drive Alaska Communications Out of the Wireless Business

acs logoWhen Verizon Wireless finally fired up its network in Alaska in September of 2014, the writing was on the wall for at least one of Alaska’s homegrown wireless competitors.

Faced with competing against Verizon’s $115 million, state-of-the-art advanced LTE network that already supports new features like Voice over LTE (far ahead of what many customers in the lower 48 states get) Alaska Communications System Group, Inc., decided it was time to sell.

An ACS and GCI-shared cell tower. (Photo: Rosemarie Alexander)

An ACS and GCI-shared cell tower. (Photo: Rosemarie Alexander)

ACS’ 109,000 wireless customers won’t be going far. The buyer, General Communications, Inc., (GCI) is a co-investor in the Alaska Wireless Network that ACS also relies on to offer wireless service. Besides billing and rate plans, most ACS customers won’t notice much of a change after the $300 million sale is complete during the first quarter of this year. GCI will end up with about 253,000 customers after the transaction is finished, which represents about one-third of the Alaskan wireless marketplace. The sale will mean most Alaskans will have a practical choice of three major wireless carriers — AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and GCI.

ACS, weighed down by debt, wanted out of the wireless business because it has proven expensive to support a network serving a high-cost, low margin state like Alaska, where small communities are often far apart. Serving cities like Fairbanks and Juneau is one thing. Serving hundreds of settlements like Meyers Chuck (pop. 21) or towns like Unalakleet (pop. 688) is another.

Like many traditional rural or independent telephone companies, ACS sees gold in its future focusing on selling lucrative broadband service to residential and business customers, where profit margins often exceed 50 percent. There is plenty of room to grow if ACS invests in network upgrades. ACS currently only has a 20 percent share of Alaska’s broadband market, primarily selling DSL service. GCI, which sells cable broadband, has managed a speed advantage.

Both companies have reassured Wall Street that despite ACS’ renewed focus on broadband, there will be no fierce competition, no price wars, or lower prices for consumers. ACS will devote considerable resources into bolstering its business broadband marketing and has already secured contracts with the state government and a regional health consortium.

Despite the $300 million windfall, ACS plans to turn most of that money towards paying off its debts and possibly reinstating a dividend payout program for shareholders. The company is expected to only spend $35 million to $40 million annually on capital investment projects and executives promise they will only open their wallet for projects that guarantee a high return on that investment. As a result, ACS will likely not spend much on rural broadband expansion.

Alaska’s GCI Boosts Speeds But Leaves Its Caps and Overlimit Fees Intact

redAlaska-based GCI has rolled out a free upgrade for customers in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, Mat-Su Valley, and Sitka that delivers broadband speeds up to 250/10Mbps.

GCI’s re:D broadband used to max out at 200Mbps, but thanks to channel bonding on the cable system, download speeds will be upgraded to 250Mbps in re:D service areas by the end of this year.

But getting 250Mbps broadband is not cheap in Alaska. The service is priced at $174.99 a month when part of a service bundle. Broadband-only customers also pay a $11.99 monthly access fee. Both come with 24-month contracts at that price. Customers who don’t want to be tied down can choose month-to-month service for $5 more per month.

At those prices, one might hope GCI would drop its usage cap, but customers can forget it. A 500GB monthly usage cap applies, with overlimit fees up to $30/GB on some plans.

GCI also announced it would deliver 1Gbps next year over a fiber to the home network under construction in Anchorage, promising “no limits with what you can do with broadband” without mentioning whether it planned usage limits for its fiber service as well.

GCI is asking customers to vote support for their neighborhoods getting fiber upgrades. The more red this map of Anchorage shows, the more customers who have shown support for fiber broadband.

GCI is asking customers to vote support for their neighborhoods getting fiber upgrades. The more red sections of this map of Anchorage shows, the more customers who have shown support for fiber broadband.

For most GCI customers, however, broadband will continue to arrive over the company’s HFC coaxial cable network. To better manage speeds, the company’s DOCSIS 3 platform is bonding eight cable channels, but in re:D areas the company bonds up to 24 cable channels, with plans to increase to 32 channels.

acs logoThe speed increases come after its competitor Alaska Communications announced speed increases of its own. ACS sells unlimited access broadband service at speeds up to 50Mbps. ACS has beefed up its copper infrastructure to support faster Internet speeds, starting with 15Mbps introduced across the state in May. Now customers in Anchorage can subscribe to faster tiers including 30 and 50Mbps.

“Alaskans asked for faster Home Internet, and we’ve responded with these increased speeds, delivered with great customer service and without overage charges,” said ACS president and CEO Anand Vadapalli. “In addition to faster download speeds, customers choosing our product get the highest upload speeds that are so important for sharing videos and gaming.”

ACS has found its unlimited broadband offering attractive to customers who don’t want to worry about GCI’s overlimit fees. ACS also claims its customers get broadband over a dedicated line, not shared infrastructure like GCI, resulting in no speed slowdowns at peak usage times.

GCI – Alaska’s Outrageous Internet Overcharger; Customers Paying Up to $1,200 in Overlimit Fees

GCI_logoNearly 10 percent of GCI’s revenue is now earned from overlimit fees collected from Alaskan broadband customers who exceed their cable or wireless usage limits.

GCI is Alaska’s largest cable operator and for many it is the only provider able to deliver stable speeds of 10Mbps+, especially to those who live too far away for comparable DSL speeds from ACS, one of GCI’s largest competitors.

The result has given GCI a de facto monopoly on High Speed Internet (10+ Mbps) access, a position that has allowed the company to dramatically raise prices and slap usage limits on broadband users and charge onerous overlimit fees on those who exceed their allowance.

GCI already charges some of the highest broadband service prices in the country and has insisted on imposing usage caps and overlimit fees on even its most expensive plans, creating high profits for them and enormous bills for customers who have no reliable way to consistently track their usage. GCI’s suspect usage meter is often offline and often delivers usage estimates that customers insist are far from accurate. GCI says it has the last word on the accuracy of that meter and has not submitted its meter to independent testing and verification by a local or state regulatory body specializing in measurement accuracy.

GCI also makes it extremely difficult for customers to understand what happens after customers exceed their usage limits. The website only vaguely offers that overlimit fees vary from “$.001 (half penny) to $.03 (three cents) per MB,” which is factually inaccurate: $.001 does not equal a half-penny. It can equal bill shock if a customer happens to be watching a Netflix movie when their allowance runs out.

KC D’Onfro of Bethel subscribes to GCI’s Alaska Extreme Internet plan, which in February cost $100 a month for 4/1Mbps service with a 25GB usage cap. While that allowance is plenty for the countless e-mails GCI promises you can send, any sort of streaming video can chew through that allowance quickly.

Business Insider explains what happened:

One fateful night, she and her roommate decided to watch a movie on Netflix. Both of them fell asleep halfway through, but the movie played ’til the end, eating up two GBs of data too many and consequently doubling their bill for that month. (One hour of HD video on Netflix can use up to 2.3 GB of data.)

“Now, I don’t even consider Netflix until near the very end of the month, and I have to be sure that I’m no more than three-fourths of the way into my total data, at the absolute most,” KC says. (Her provider, a company called GCI, allows subscribers to view their daily usage and sends them a notice when they’ve hit 80%.) “It’s a very serious business – I have to poll people to figure out what that one very special movie should be.”

That left the D’Onfro family with a $200 broadband bill – $100 for the service and an extra $100 overlimit fee for that single Netflix movie. Today, GCI demands $114.99 a month for that same plan (with the same usage allowance) and those not subscribing to their TV service also face a monthly $11.99 “access fee” surcharge for Internet-only service.

expensive

“Many Alaska consumers have brought their GCI broadband bills to ACS for a comparative quote, providing dozens of examples of GCI overage charges,” said Caitlin McDiffett, product manager of Alaska Communications Systems (ACS), the state’s largest landline phone company. “Many of these examples include overage charges of $200 to $600 in a single month. In one instance, a customer was charged $1 ,200 in overage fees.”

GCI also keeps most customers in place with a 24-month contract, making it difficult and costly to switch providers.

McDiffett told the FCC the average Alaskan with a Netflix subscription must pay for at least a 12Mbps connection to get the 60GB usage allowance they will need to watch more than two Netflix movies a week in addition to other typical online activities. GCI makes sure that costs average Alaskans real money.

“A customer purchasing 12Mbps for standalone (non-bundled) Home Internet from GCI pays $59.99 per month plus an $11.99 monthly “access” fee for a total of $71.98 per month with a 60GB usage limit ($0.004/MB overage charge),” reports McDiffett. “Thus, the monthly bill for this service is more typically $76.98, including a $5.00 overage charge. To purchase a service with a usage limit of at least 100GB per month, a GCI customer would have to pay $81.98 per month (the $69.99 standalone rate plus $11.99 monthly access fee), subject to an overage charge of $0.003/MB.”

Rural Alaskans pay even more on GCS' expensive wireless ISP.

Rural Alaskans pay even more when using GCI’s expensive wireless ISP.

Regular Alaskan Stop the Cap! reader Scott reports that no matter what plan you choose from GCI, they are waiting and ready to slap overlimit fees on you as soon as they decide you are over your limit.

Their super-deluxe re:D service — up to 200Mbps, now available in Anchorage, MatSu, Fairbanks, Juneau, Kenai, Ketchikan, Sitka, and Soldotna areas, is not cheap.

“It’s a whopping $209.99 + taxes, and if you don’t have cable TV service bundled, the $11.99 monthly access fee also applies,” Scott says.

For that kind of money, one might expect a respite from the usage meter,  but not with GCI.

“As a top tier service, you’d think they could just offer it as ’unlimited’ at that rate,” Scott says. “Actually, it has a 500GB usage cap and $.50/GB overage fee. Again, we have a metering provider who claims the overages were to penalize bandwidth hogs, yet then offer [faster] service, increasing overall load on their network, instead of just offering a fair amount of bandwidth per customer and eliminating overages by offering unlimited usage.”

One of ACS' strong selling points is no data caps, but DSL isn't available to everyone.

One of ACS’ strong selling points is no data caps, but DSL isn’t available to everyone.

In a filing with the FCC, ACS’ McDiffett suspects usage caps are all about the money.

“GCI reported 2012 Home Internet revenue of $86 million of which $7.9 million (nearly ten percent) was derived from overage charges,” said McDiffett. “On average, about $5 per customer per month can be attributed to GCI overage charges. GCI imposes usage limits or data caps at every level of Home Internet service, from its 10 Mbps service (10GB limit, $0.005/MB overage charge) to its 100 Mbps service (500GB limit, $0.0005/MB overage charge).”

badbillOver time, and after several cases of bill shock, Alaskan Internet customers have become more careful about watching everything they do online, fearing GCI’s penalties. That threatens GCI’s overlimit revenue, and now Stop the Cap! readers report sudden, long-lasting problems with GCI’s usage checker, often followed by substantial bills with steep overlimit penalties they claim just are not accurate.

“I currently pay $184.99 a month for GCI‘s highest offered broadband service. 200/5Mbps, with a 500GB monthly data cap,” shares Stop the Cap! reader Luke Benson. “According to GCI, over the past couple months our usage has increased resulting in overage charges at $1.00 a GB.”

In May, Benson was billed $130 in overlimit fees, but after complaining, the company finally agreed to credit back $100. A month later, they recaptured $60 of that credit from new overlimit fees. This month, Benson would have to unplug his modem halfway through his billing cycle or face another $50 in penalties.

GCI’s bandwidth monitor has proved less than helpful, either because it is offline or reports no usage according to several readers reaching out to us. GCI’s own technical support team notes the meter will not report usage until at least 72 hours after it occurs. GCI itself does not rely on its online usage monitor for customer billing. Customer Internet charges are measured, calculated, and applied by an internal billing system off-limits for public inspection.

“I have reached out to GCI multiple times asking for help, suggestions, resolution,” complains Benson. “All I get told is to turn down the viewing quality of Netflix, don’t allow devices to auto update, etc. They pretty much blamed every service but their own.”

Other customers have unwittingly fallen into GCI’s overlimit fee trap while running popular Internet applications that wouldn’t exist if GCI’s caps and overlimit fees were common across the country. Lifelong Bethel resident and tech consultant John Wallace knows the local horror stories:

  • tollsTwo girls had unwittingly allowed Dropbox to continuously sync to their computers, racking up a $3,500 overcharge in two weeks;
  • One user’s virus protection updater got stuck on and it cost him $600;
  • Wallace has heard people say, “I was gaming and I got a little out of hand and I had to pay $2,800;”
  • Two six-year-old girls ran up $2,000 playing an online preschool game. Mom was totally unaware of what was going on, until she got the bill.

GCI’s own Facebook page was the home of a number of customer complaints until the complaint messages mysteriously disappeared. Stop the Cap! itself discovered it was not allowed to even ask questions on the company’s social media pages, apparently already on their banned list.

While GCI does well for itself and its shareholders, Wallace worries about the impact GCI’s control of the Alaskan Internet High Speed Internet market will have on the economy and Alaskan society.

“It’s about equal access and opportunity,” Wallace told Business Insider. “The Internet was meant to improve the lives of people in rural Alaska, but – because of the data caps and the sky-high overage fees – it ends up costing them huge amounts of money. We have one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, and some of the highest rates of suicide, sexual assault, and drug abuse. The people who can’t afford it are the ones that are getting victimized.  It was supposed to bring access – true availability of goods and services – but it really just brought a huge bill that many can’t afford.”

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