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Stop the Cap! Declares War on Cox’s Usage Cap Ripoff in Cleveland; It’s About the Money, Not Fairness

Stopping the money party from getting started, if we can help it.

Stopping Cox’s money party from getting started, if we can help it.

Stop the Cap! today formally declares war on Cox’s usage cap experiment in Cleveland, Ohio and will coordinate several protest actions to educate consumers about the true nature of usage-based billing and how they can effectively fight back against these types of Internet Overcharging schemes.

Time Warner Cable quickly learned it was deeply mistaken telling customers that a 40GB monthly usage allowance was more than 95% of customers would ever need when introducing a similar concept April 1, 2009 in test markets including Rochester, N.Y., Austin and San Antonio, Tex., and Greensboro, N.C. The company repeatedly suggested only about five percent of customers would ever exceed that cap.

Six years later, it is likely 95% of customers would be paying a higher broadband bill to cover applicable overlimit fees or be forced to upgrade to a more expensive plan to avoid them. Before Time Warner realized the errors of its way, it claimed with a straight face it was acceptable to charge customers $150 a month for the same unlimited broadband experience that used to cost $50.

Cox’s talking points for customers and the media frames usage caps as a fairness enforcement tool. It is a tired argument and lacks merit because nobody ever pays less for usage-capped broadband service. At best, you pay at least the same and risk new overlimit charges for exceeding an arbitrary usage allowance created out of thin air. At worst, you are forced by cost issues to downgrade service to a cheaper plan that comes with an even lower allowance and an even bigger risk of facing overlimit fees.

Industry trade journal Multichannel News, which covers the cable industry for the cable industry does not frame usage caps in the context of fairness. It’s all about the money.

“If you’re a cable operator, you might want to strike [with new usage caps] while the iron is hot,” said MoffettNathanson principal and senior analyst Craig Moffett, a Wall Street analyst and major proponent of investing in cable industry stocks.

Multichannel News warned operators they “must tread carefully in how they deliver the usage-based message.” Instead of getting away with punitive caps, Time Warner Cable had to “rethink” its definition of fairness, keeping prices the same for heavy users of bandwidth but offering discounts to customers whose usage was lighter. No money party for them.

So how did Cox frame its message in the pages of an industry trade journal to fellow members of the cable industry? Was it about fairness or collecting more of your money. You decide:

Customers will be notified of their data usage and any potential overages beginning in mid- June but won’t have to pay for overages until the October billing cycle, a Cox spokesman said. That gives customers the chance either to alter their usage or step up to a more data-intensive plan.   The additional charges serve as a temporary step-up plan for certain consumers, the spokesman said — they can keep their current level of service and pay the additional fee during months when usage spikes, like when their kids come home from college.

cox say noThe Government Accounting Office, charged with studying the issue of data caps, found plenty to be concerned about. Consumers rightfully expressed fears about price increases and confusion over data consumption issues. In short, customers hate the kind of usage-based pricing proposed by Cox. It’s a rate hike wrapped in uncertainty and an important tool to discourage consumers from cutting their cable television package.

It’s also nakedly anti-competitive because Cox has conveniently exempted its television, home phone, and home security products from its usage cap. Subscribe to Cox home phone service? The cap does not apply. Use Ooma or Vonage? The cap does apply so talk fast. If a customer wants to use Cox’s Home Security service to monitor their home while away, they won’t eat away their usage cap. If they use ADT to do the same, Cox steals a portion of your usage allowance. Watch a favorite television show on Cox cable television and your usage allowance is unaffected. Watch it on Netflix and look out, another chunk is gone.

While Cox starts rationing your Internet usage, it isn’t lowering your price. A truly fair usage plan would offer customers a discount if they voluntarily agreed to limit their usage. But nothing about Cox’s rationing plan is fair. It’s compulsory, so customers looking for a worry-free unlimited plan are out of luck. It’s punitive, punishing customers for using a broadband connection they already paid good money to buy. It’s arbitrary — nobody asked customers what they wanted. It doesn’t even make sense. But it will make a lot of dollars for Cox.

Cox claims it only wants usage caps to help customers choose the “right plan.”

The right plan for Cox.

To escape Cox’s $10 overlimit fees, a customer will have to pay at least $10 more to buy a higher allowance plan — turning a service that costs less to offer than ever into an ever-more expensive necessity, with few competitive alternatives. Will Cox ever recommend customers downgrade to a cheaper plan? We don’t think so. Customers could easily pay $78-100+ for broadband service that used to cost $52-66.

Back in 2009, the same arguments against usage caps applied as they do today. Industry expert Dave Burstein made it clear usage caps were about one thing:

“Anybody who thinks that’s not an attempt to raise prices and keep competitive video off the network — I have a bridge to sell them, and it goes to Brooklyn,” Burstein said.

AT&T Introduces U-verse GigaPower Gigabit Service in Nashville, If You Can Find It

In Search Of... AT&T U-verse with GigaPower

In Search Of… AT&T U-verse with GigaPower

AT&T’s gigabit broadband project has appeared in the greater Nashville area, but Stop the Cap! volunteers in the country music capital report you have a better chance getting struck by lightning than finding the service available to your home or business.

AT&T officially unveiled the upgrade in “parts of Clarksville, Lebanon, Murfreesboro, Nashville, Smyrna and surrounding communities located throughout the metro area,” but quickly warned with three asterisks the service was “not available in all areas.”

“That is the understatement of the year,” said Nashville resident Chris Jensen who can’t wait to ditch Comcast for 15 years of bad service and billing errors. “Unless you live in an upscale apartment complex, a new housing development, Walmart or have a country album on the charts you are probably going to be stuck with traditional U-verse speeds from AT&T.”

Jensen is part of Stop the Cap!’s In Search Of… AT&T GigaPower, our new project using volunteers to pelt AT&T’s qualification tool with addresses (and follow-up phone calls) looking for AT&T’s elusive gigabit speeds in the cities where the service has been introduced.

“Forget it Nashville, it’s another AT&T fiber to the press release and payback to the very friendly state politicians that rubber stamp AT&T’s agenda,” said Jensen.

Despite GigaPower’s rarity, AT&T is the first company to bring gigabit speeds to the Nashville residential market.

AT&T Tennessee president Joelle Phillips is surrounded by her political friends from around the state. (Photo: The Tennessean)

AT&T Tennessee president Joelle Phillips is surrounded by AT&T’s political friends from around the state. (Photo: The Tennessean)

Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T Tennessee, used a news release to share the company’s spotlight with a number of local and state politicians identified as supporters of AT&T’s public policy advocacy effort, which includes deregulating AT&T’s business in the state and attempting to keep restrictions on the books to block competing public broadband network expansion in Tennessee.

“We were able to deploy network enhancements fast – in less than a year since we announced our U-verse with AT&T GigaPower plans for Nashville,” said Phillips. “Smart, pro-investment policies, championed at the state level by Governor Haslam and legislative leaders like Speaker Harwell and Lt. Governor Ramsey – as well as streamlined local permitting processes that Mayor Dean and our Metro Council members have embraced – were key in speeding our work.”

Nonsense, says Jensen.

“Tennessee is about as friendly a state AT&T can find — our legislature allows AT&T to basically write its own pieces of legislation, yet the fastest way to get gigabit speeds is to move to Chattanooga where EPB is providing the service without asking to gut consumer protection laws or wait for AT&T to get around to bringing faster service to your home,” said Jensen.

Critics contend AT&T maintains ties with state and local politicians that are too close for comfort, potentially hurting consumers in Tennessee.

uverse gigapowerAccording to the National Institute of Money in Politics, telecommunications industry interests wrote at least $643,000 in campaign contribution checks to Tennessee politicians during the two-year 2014 election cycle. AT&T alone put $211,000 into the pockets of legislators. The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance reports AT&T contributed $20,000 during the last election cycle to Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s leadership political action committee, RAAMPAC. AT&T President Joelle Phillips personally gave another $2,000.

House Speaker Beth Harwell benefited from at least $17,000 in AT&T money over the last two years. AT&T spends another $1.3 million on as many as 13 full time lobbyists that devote all of their attention to Tennessee.

Gov. Bill Haslam doesn’t really need AT&T’s money. He is now worth an estimated $2 billion, making him the richest elected official in the country, according to an analysis by Forbes.

In return for this largesse, AT&T is routinely praised by all three state officials, which is returned when AT&T sends out press releases gushing over Tennessee’s ‘AT&T-Friendly’ deregulation policies.

AT&T will charge a range of prices for U-verse GigaPower service in Nashville, which all include AT&T’s right-to-spy on your browsing behavior. If you want to opt out of AT&T’s “Internet Preferences” customer monitoring program, add $29 a month to these prices:

  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps starting at $120 a month, or speeds at 100Mbps as low as $90 a month, with one-year contract required;
  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier + TV: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps and qualifying TV service starting at $150 a month, or speeds at 100Mbps and qualifying TV service as low as $120 a month, with a one year contract;
  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier + TV + Voice: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps with qualifying TV service and Unlimited U-verse Voice starting at $180 a month, or speeds at 100Mbps with qualifying TV service and Unlimited U-verse Voice as low as $150 a month, with a two-year term commitment.

AT&T imposes a 1TB monthly usage cap on its gigabit broadband service. Overlimit fees of $10 per 50GB will apply to customers exceeding that usage allowance.

Cable Stock Fluffer Craig Moffett Encourages Cable Operators to Add Usage Caps Before Title II Takes Effect

"More Caps" Moffett

“More Caps” Moffett

If you are a cable executive looking to further gouge customers captive to your “only game in town” broadband speeds, now is the time to slap around customers with usage caps and overlimit fees, because your company may no longer be able to do that after June 12, when the FCC’s new Title II regulations officially take effect.

“If you’re a cable operator, you might want to strike while the iron is hot,” said MoffettNathanson principal and senior analyst Craig Moffett, who has shared his love for all-things-cable with investors for years.

Moffett regularly asks cable industry executives about when they plan to introduce usage limits or usage-based billing for customers who often have no other choice for 25Mbps service, the lowest speed that now qualifies as broadband.

But tricking customers into accepting industry arguments about “fair pricing” must be handled carefully, because making a mistake with customers could cost your executives their summer bonuses if the pocket-picking policies cause a revolt.

Multichannel News reminds its cable industry readers Time Warner Cable failed to start their usage cap experiment in 2009 due to a “furor” by customers (often led by us). Instead of filling their coffers with the proceeds of overlimit fees, “the cable giant [was forced] to rethink its pricing strategy, keeping prices the same for heavy users of bandwidth but offering discounts to customers whose usage was lighter.”

Image: schvdenfreude

Image: schvdenfreude

Unable to get its definition of “fairness” across to customers, Time Warner Cable never had to look back, raking in greater and greater unlimited broadband profits quarter after quarter, even as their costs to deliver service continued to drop.

Faced with the prospect of a newly empowered FCC to keep cable industry abuses in check, Multichannel News tells cable executives the money party may be over before it begins if they wait too long:

Title II regulations, which reclassify broadband as a common- carrier service, are about to take effect June 12, and the Federal Communications Commission has said it would look closely at any usage-based pricing plans to determine if they discriminate against online video providers. That could force some Internet service providers to move to implement their version of usage-based pricing before the deadline.

To “soften the blow,” the trade journal reported Cox significantly increased usage caps and are setting the overlimit fee at $10 for each 50GB of excessive usage, much lower than wireless plan overlimit fees. Multichannel News suggests this will help customers “get accustomed to overage charges.”

But Cox customers in the Cleveland area may be able to turn the table on Cox.

“Let them get accustomed to the fact I am dumping them for WOW! the moment I receive official notification about the caps,” said Stop the Cap! reader Dave, who has a choice between Cox, AT&T, and WOW! — a competing cable operator without usage caps. “AT&T isn’t enforcing its cap around here either, so I am definitely canceling my service and have two other choices. People have to be willing to send a clear message usage caps are an absolute deal-breaker.”

Although usage caps are not affected by Net Neutrality regulations, the fact the cable industry faces added regulator scrutiny under Title II allows the FCC to put an end to practices it considers to be anti-competitive. Introducing usage caps for customers trying to find an alternative to Cox’s cable television package by watching online video instead may qualify.

Cox Cracking Down on Internet Customers With Hard Usage Caps and Overlimit Fees: Let the Gouging Begin!

cox say noCox Communications will begin testing overlimit fees this summer starting in its Cleveland, Ohio service area with plans to introduce hard usage allowances and excess usage violation charges nationwide if customers tolerate the market test in Cleveland.

DSL Reports learned that Cox will formally notify customers beginning May 19 it has increased broadband usage allowances and will introduce an overlimit fee of $10 for each 50GB allotment a customer exceeds their limit starting this fall.

Cox’s marketing machine is attempting to justify its usage based pricing scheme with a pre-written script to appease anticipated customer complaints:

A draft customer support script obtained exclusively by DSLReports states that this lead-in period will “give customers the opportunity to familiarize themselves with their typical data usage and take action, such as secure their WiFi network or change service plans, if they exceed their limit.”

The script also notes that customers will be notified via e-mail and a browser popup when they’ve reached 85% and 100% of their monthly data allotments. Cox services like Cox TV Connect, Cox Digital Telephone and Cox Home Security will not count toward the usage cap, a Cox insider claims.

To make the idea of potential bill shock more palatable to their customer base, Cox generously increased usage allowances last week:

  • Starter: 150 GB/month
  • Essential 250 GB/month
  • Preferred 350 GB/month (the most popular plan)
  • Premier 700 GB/month
  • Ultimate 2 TB/month

Exceed those limits and the company will slap penalty fees on your bill as a matter of “fairness.” Customers will get a preview of any specific overlimit fees they would incur starting in June, but the company will not begin to actually charge them until October.

price-gouging-cake“Data usage plans promote fairness by asking the high-capacity Internet users to pay a greater share of network costs,” argues Cox. “Some critics of data usage plans push a flat fee pricing model, meaning that users would pay a flat fee whether they simply use the Internet to surf the web and check email or if they are a ‘super user’ and consume copious amounts of bandwidth. Data usage plans are a far more fair approach, giving consumers a choice based on their personal needs rather than forcing all customers to absorb the network costs incurred by the 5% of customers who exceed their allowance.”

Stop the Cap! would point out we’ve heard those same talking points since 2009 and they were not credible then and are even less so today.

First, we’d note Cox is attacking the business plans of some of the most successful broadband providers in the United States. Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, Google, and a myriad of other phone and cable operators not only deliver on their commitment to offer unlimited use Internet, they actually market it as a good reason to buy Internet access from them.

Cox’s concerns for fairness might be a bit less hypocritical had Cox not sold customers unlimited use plans for years. Were they being unfair to their customers then, now, or both?

Second, the company’s claimed noble intentions for keeping the cost of broadband down might be more believable if it didn’t charge its base customers a whopping $34.99 a month for “up to 5Mbps” Internet that it now wants to limit. Five years ago it charged customers just $21.99 a month for that service. By 2015, it had raised the price more than 59%.

In comparison, Time Warner Cable charges less than half that for unlimited “$14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet” – a tier that has not increased in price since its introduction. Time Warner has also offered its light users an optional plan to win a discount if they keep their usage down. As a reflection of customer interest in plans that place limits (even optional) on broadband service, out of some 11 million Time Warner Cable customers, only a few thousand have shown any interest in plans that introduce a usage allowance component.

coxThird, Cox’s excuses are very similar to those given by Time Warner Cable when it tried (and failed spectacularly) to impose usage allowances on its broadband customers in 2009. Time Warner officials promised it would represent greater fairness and would help pay for network improvements, while only a small percentage of customers would face higher charges. In fact, none of those claims were true. Customers seeking to keep unlimited access faced a tripling of the cost of broadband, Time Warner Cable only committed to network improvements in their most-populous service areas (which were excluded from the usage cap market trials and had significant competition), and at the usage caps Time Warner proposed in 2009 – 5, 10, 20, and 40GB, more than half of today’s Time Warner customers would be subject to overlimit fees. At the time, Time Warner claimed their proposed usage allowances were generous and fewer than 5% of customers would exceed them. That is eerily familiar to the “5% of customers” Cox refers to today.

The real money is to be made selling broadband, already amazingly profitable.

The real money is to be made selling broadband, already amazingly profitable.

Cox’s need for strict usage allowances comes at a time when other Internet Service Providers in competitive markets are either abandoning or not strictly enforcing them. Alienating customers has proven bad for business, and there is still plenty of money to be made selling unlimited access. Both broadband and telephone service is declining in cost for the operator to offer, particularly when examining bandwidth expenses.

Cox Communications is a privately held company and does not disclose specific financial data to the public, but similarly sized Charter Communications is publicly held and revealed in 2014 it had revenue of $9.1 billion and Adjusted EBITDA of $3.2 billion – each rising 8.2% on a pro forma basis, year over year. In plain English, broadband is already a real moneymaker for the cable industry, with revenue boosts recorded across the board. In comparison, cable television expenses have taken a toll on the profitability of offering television service. Charter is making so much money on broadband it dropped its usage caps recently.

Because the cable industry relies almost exclusively on existing hybrid fiber-coax networks to deliver products and services, the capital costs of providing Internet access have continued to drop for years. The industry’s decision to invest in and adopt DOCSIS 3 was considered a “no brainer” because it did not need major upgrades to network infrastructure and could recoup its cost by allowing companies to market higher-profit, higher-speed tiers.

In contrast, new entrants like Google Fiber are constructing new all-fiber network infrastructure at an enormous cost, but remain comfortable marketing broadband service with no usage allowances. So do many community-owned providers, including EPB in Chattanooga, GreenLight and Fibrant in North Carolina, among many dozens of others. Even Comcast has committed to not imposing usage caps for its premium 2Gbps fiber service, on which residential customers will be capable of racking up enormous amounts of usage.

In short, Cox’s usage cap regime is completely unjustifiable under current marketplace conditions and represents little more than an effort to raise prices and block online video competition, which Cox customers may decide will eat too much into their usage allowance.

Time Warner Cable goes out of its way to advertise "No Data Caps."

Time Warner Cable goes out of its way to advertise “No Data Caps.”

There are a number of questions Cox customers should ask:

  1. Why did nobody ask us whether we thought usage allowances and overlimit fees were fair?
  2. Why not offer optional discounts for low-usage customers and see how many actually enroll in such a program?
  3. Why has Cox removed the option of an unlimited use tier for customers that want unlimited service?
  4. Why won’t Cox commit to a price freeze on its broadband service if usage caps are really about controlling costs?
  5. How is it fair to offer a more generous allowance to a customer sold a higher speed tier that can easily chew through more data than customers on lower speed tiers?
  6. Why do low-speed customers get a smaller usage allowance when they cannot effectively use the highest bandwidth web applications?
  7. Why can’t customers roll unused portions of their usage allowance over to future months?
  8. How many customers, if any, actually asked for this type of pricing?
  9. Why can Google, Time Warner and other operators provide unlimited access for the same or less than Cox charges and your company can’t?

Sad Tales About Executives’ Lives Disrupted By Never-to-Be GreatLand Communications Are Breaking Our Hearts

CryingTowel1The would-be CEO picked to head the illegitimate child of the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger wants your sympathy and understanding over the loss of bulging signing bonuses, pay packages, and benefits with the demise of the cable company that never was: GreatLand Connections.

While about 2.5 million customers in Minnesota, Indiana, and Kentucky braced for the arrival of their new cable company — one that lacked letterhead, much less any track record or experience — executives shared a box of tissues contemplating the wasted stress of moving their children from one exclusive private school to another in the ‘barren cultural wasteland’ of the midwest.

“The people aspect of this is just breathtaking,” said GreatLand’s never CEO Michael Willner, who has now been sidelined by Time Warner Cable twice – once when the company he used to oversee, Insight Communications, was absorbed into the Time Warner hegemony and now a second time, when the rug was pulled out of the cable company he was hired to run. “For 14 months this deal was meandering through the regulatory process, for whatever reason they just decided that after all the planning and all the money and all the people commitment and people who had moved to other cities, and planning to move for other cities for new jobs – there were even a few people who were told they wouldn’t have jobs after the close – they just decided there was no way to do the deal. It was unprecedented.”

Willner can keep on smiling.

Willner can keep on smiling.

Willner told his sad tale to Multichannel News, noting (thank goodness) there wasn’t a giant warehouse in the midwest full of GreatLand truck decals looking for a new home. In fact Willner spent the last 14 months preoccupied with filling 15-20 top senior vice president and vice president management positions, dangling lucrative pay and bonus offers to convince executives to move their elite east coast families to a state like… Kentucky. Time Warner Cable treasurer Matt Siegel, his biggest catch, had already bitten and was considering his new home options.

Meanwhile, nervous employees of the systems scheduled to be thrown overboard by Comcast forced Willner to personally stop by their offices several times over the past 14 months to reassure them they did not have anything to worry about.

“All the people going to GreatLand were Comcast people,” Willner said, claiming, “These employees loved working for Comcast. I had to convince them that life would be OK with us. It took me awhile.”

Willner did not bother reassuring affected customers.

In the end, it was all for naught.

“When they said ‘We’re done,’ we were done too,” Willner cried after the Comcast-TWC deal swirled in the bowl.

Despite the “unprecedented” disruption, Willner and his would-be executives all landed on their feet. Siegel went back to Time Warner Cable, most of the other executives stayed with Comcast and Willner himself did not have to skip a beat, instantly resuming his old job as CEO of video software company Penthera Partners.

Western Mass. Voters Stampede for Fiber Optic Broadband in Communities Big Telecom Ignored

WiredWestLogoFeb2015Bypassed in favor of richer opportunities to the east, western Massachusetts residents are empowering their communities to deliver 21st century broadband the big cable and phone companies have neglected to offer.

One of the largest public co-op broadband networks ever attempted is racking up huge wins so far in referendums being held in 32 towns across the region. The vote is needed to secure financing for construction of the last mile of the network in each community, delivering fiber optic service to individual homes and businesses.

Last summer the Massachusetts legislature passed the IT Bond Bill, which included $50 million to support critical last mile network construction efforts in unserved parts of the Commonwealth. But the rest of the money has to come from residents of each unserved community. A two-thirds vote is needed in each town to finance these construction expenses and at least 40% of residents must pre-register for service and pay a refundable deposit of $49, which will be applied to their first month’s bill. So far, more than 4,000 households have done exactly that, showing good faith in a project that won’t begin delivering service for an estimated 2-3 years.

As votes take place across the region, the response has been remarkable, with the warrant article passing overwhelmingly. In one town, it was even unanimous.

The excitement in western Massachusetts rivals a Google Fiber announcement. Reports indicate broadband-supporting crowds well exceeded the capacity of meeting rooms. In Cummington, the overflow left people in the hallways. In Plainfield, they gave up on their designated meeting room and moved everyone to the church across the street. In Shutesbury, even the gym and overflow areas weren’t enough. Some residents ended up on the preschool playground looking for an open spot. Nine communities for better broadband, zero opposed, with many more to go.

In small communities, signing up 40% of residents in advance can be a challenge. In Washington, it was achieved only hours before the approval meeting. In Middlefield, an additional 100 households are needed as that community is only at 14% of their signup goal. Montgomery needs 85 more backers as they sit at 39% of goal, and in Peru — 111 at 33% to goal.

For broadband in western Massachusetts, the vote is nothing less than a referendum on moving forward or getting left behind indefinitely.

ww-2015-1

Wired West’s co-op of communities in western Massachusetts.

But as is the case with every public broadband project we know, there are detractors who don’t like any form of government running anything. Others are frightened because of inflated scare stories about a project’s cost, often spread by interest groups funded by the same big cable and phone companies that are not now providing adequate service and don’t want the competition. Some others mean well, but are underinformed about the realities of delivering broadband in rural communities, always believing a better answer lies elsewhere and is just around the corner. Unfortunately, it always seems to be just out of reach.

Hussain Hamdan of Hawley, has launched a one-man war on public broadband, actively seeking signatures on a petition to pull his community of 347 out of the project, claiming it is too costly. Hamdan argues wireless broadband is a more suitable solution for the town. His petition, signed by at least 36 residents, wants no part of the WiredWest initiative, but he’d go further. Hamdan proposes to outlaw municipal utility services altogether, forbid selectmen or other town boards from appropriating a single penny for any WiredWest project, prohibit spending on postage for any mailings discussing public broadband, and even making sure town officials attending a function on municipal broadband are not reimbursed for their mileage expenses. Coincidentally, another Hamdan petition seeks the right to recall elected officials, ensuring any ousted politician cannot be re-elected to office for at least three years. (Hamdan denies his recall election proposal targets any town official specifically.)

Despite all this, Hamdan claims he is for bringing high-speed Internet access to town, just not through WiredWest. Unfortunately for the 300+ other residents of Hawley that did not sign the petition, Hamdan’s enthusiasm for alternative service has not been matched by a single interested provider seeking to fill Hawley’s broadband chasm.

Because Mr. Hamdan didn’t do his homework, we have, and here are the “alternatives” Hawley residents can actually consider:

Convincing Time Warner Cable to Come to Town

cable3Assuming Time Warner Cable was somehow persuaded to offer service, as they already do in parts of western Massachusetts, they will expect considerable compensation to extend their cable network to a community that fails to meet their Return on Investment requirements. It will be an uphill battle. Next door in upstate New York, Time Warner Cable needed $5.3 million in taxpayer incentives just to expand service to, at most, 5,320 homes or businesses around the state that were already close to existing Time Warner service areas, but had no access to cable before. Conclusion: Time Warner Cable already serves the areas they feel comfortable serving.

Mark Williams, who lives in Lee – Berkshire County, wanted Time Warner Cable service at his home. Lee has franchised Time Warner Cable to provide service throughout the community, so Williams didn’t think twice about ordering service. When the company arrived, it found his driveway was 100 feet too long.

Time Warner has a formula that determines who will pay to install necessary infrastructure. If a certain number of properties are located within a specific radius, they cover the costs. If a community isn’t presently served, if residents live too far apart, or have an unusual property, Time Warner expects the town or resident to cover part of their costs. In Williams’ case, $12,000 was initially quoted to wire his home back in 2010. Because Time Warner had already committed to provide service in the area, the bad publicity that resulted from that installation fee forced Time Warner to back down. But in unserved communities, the costs spiral even higher. Residents on the fringe of a cable coverage area are routinely quoted, $15,000, $20,000, even $35,000 just to get a cable line extended to a single home from a nearby street. We’re not sure how far away Hawley is from the nearest Time Warner Cable service area, but it is a safe bet the company would need enormous taxpayer-funded incentives from local residents to extend universal cable service in the community.

If both Time Warner and WiredWest were providing service side-by-side in Hawley today, residents would pay Time Warner Cable $911/yr for 20Mbps Turbo Internet broadband, including the $8/mo modem lease fee or $588/yr to WiredWest for 25Mbps broadband. WiredWest would save residents $323 a year — and help pay off its infrastructure costs while keeping the money in the community.

Assuming Time Warner Cable is never going to be an option, which we think is likely, the wireless alternatives suggested by Hamdan largely do not exist at this time, are unfeasible, or no longer meet the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband.

White Space Broadband: Can It Work in Western Mass.?

First, let’s consider “white space” broadband – high-speed wireless Internet access delivered over unused TV channels. At the moment, this service is still in the experimental stages in most areas, but as Stop the Cap! previously reported, it has promise for rural communities. Unfortunately, despite Hawley’s small size and rural location, the current database of available free channels to offer white space Internet access in the area is discouraging, based on the address of the community’s town office on Pudding Hollow Drive. There are just six open channels because of an abundance of TV signals in Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York that get precedence. Of these six, there are just four optimal choices – UHF channels 14-17. In our previous story highlighting Thurman, N.Y.’s white space project, there are 17 open channels in that area, none on VHF or reserved for radio astronomy. Feel free to use the database to see how many open channels are available in your local area.

Not much room at the Inn.

Not much room at the inn. White space broadband will be a challenge in signal-dense northeastern states.

But the news may be even worse. The FCC is currently preparing to “repack” the UHF dial around the country by consolidating existing stations on a smaller number of channels. The freed up bandwidth will be auctioned off to cell phone companies to boost their networks. This month, we learned the wireless industry’s largest lobbying group is pushing hard to force other users to vacate “their” spectrum the moment they begin testing on those frequencies. Interference concerns and the dense number of TV signals already operating in the northeastern U.S. means it is very likely communities like Hawley will have even less opportunity to explore white space broadband as an option.

What About Wireless ISPs?

Second, there are traditional Wireless ISPs (WISPs) which do a reasonably good job reaching very sparsely populated areas, as long as customers are willing to sacrifice speed and pay higher costs.

BlazeWIFI advertises service in the rural community of Warwick, Mass (zip code: 01378). But it is anything but a bargain. The least expensive plan is $99.99 a month and that offers the dismally slow speed of 1.5Mbps for downloading and only 512kbps for uploading. It also includes a data cap of 25GB a month. That is slowband and a last resort. It’s more expensive, it’s slower, and it is usage-capped.

Some WISPs offer faster service, but few are equipped to handle the FCC’s definition of 25Mbps as the minimum speed to qualify as broadband. In short, this technology may eventually be replaced by white space broadband where speeds and capacity are higher, as long as suitable unused channel space exists.

wireless neverlandWhat About Wireless Home Internet Plans from AT&T, Verizon Wireless?

Third, there are wireless broadband solutions from the cell phone providers. Only Hawley residents can decide for themselves whether AT&T and Verizon Wireless deliver robust reception inside the community. If they do, both companies offer wireless home Internet service.

The base charge for AT&T’s plan is $20 for unlimited nationwide phone calling + $60/mo for a 10GB Wireless Home Internet Plan. There is a 2-yr contract and a $150 early termination fee. Since the average household now uses between 15-50GB of Internet service per month (lower end for retired couples, 35GB median usage for AT&T DSL customers, but even more for young or large families), you have to upgrade the plan right from the start. A more suitable 20GB plan is $90/month. A 30GB plan runs $120 a month. The overlimit fee is $10/GB if you run over your plan’s limit. You will also be billed “taxes & federal & state universal service charges, Reg. Cost Recovery Charge (up to $1.25), gross receipts surcharge, Admin. Fee & other gov’t assessments which are not gov’t req’d charges.” Verizon’s plan is similar.

You must have robust cell coverage for this service to work and be ready for speeds of 5-20Mbps, getting slower as more customers join a cell tower. The lowest rate available runs about $90 a month after taxes and fees are calculated and you need to switch it off when you approach 10GB of usage to avoid additional fees.

What is the Best Option?

No broadband? No sale.

No broadband? No sale.

As we have seen across the United States, communities offered the possibility of fiber optic Internet are embracing it, some even begging for the technology. There is simply no better future-proof, high-capacity broadband technology available. But installing it has been costly – a fact every provider has dealt with. Most rural providers treat fiber optic technology as an investment in the future because it has very low maintenance costs, is infinitely upgradable, and can offer a foundation on which current and future high-bandwidth online projects can expand.

The fact is, western Massachusetts has been left behind by Comcast and Time Warner Cable, as well as Verizon. Nobody in the private sector is coming to the rescue. Verizon has stopped expanding its FiOS fiber network and all signs point to its growing interest in exiting the landline and wired broadband business altogether in favor of its higher profit Verizon Wireless. Cable operators strictly adhere to a Return on Investment formula and will not expand service areas without major taxpayer support.

In communities in more conservative states like Tennessee and North Carolina, the obvious choice was for local governments and municipal power companies to provide the service other providers won’t. Despite the industry funded scare stories, projects like EPB Fiber in Chattanooga and GreenLight in Wilson, N.C., are doing just fine and attract new businesses and jobs into both regions. They offer far superior service to what the local cable and phone company offer in those areas.

It is unfortunate rural residents have to effectively pay more to get a service urban areas already have, but to go without would be disastrous for school-age children, local entrepreneurs, agribusiness workers, and tele-medicine.

Mr. Hamdan argues Hawley cannot afford WiredWest. But if one looks deeper at the alternatives, it becomes clear Hawley can’t afford not to be a part of a service that is likely to be ubiquitous across the region. Even those not interested in the Internet can ask any realtor how important Internet access is to a homebuyer that considers inadequate broadband a deal-breaker. That could cost much more than the $350/yr Mr. Hamdan theoretically suggests WiredWest will cost Hawley.

Mr. Hamdan offers no real answers for his community about alternatives that are available, affordable, and capable of providing the kind of service WiredWest is proposing. Voters should carefully consider the economic impact of leaving their community in a broadband backwater as the rest of the region advances towards fiber optic broadband. That is the cost that is too high to pay.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Wired West Western Mass broadband woes 1-15.mp4

Wired West project coordinators didn’t have to go far to hear broadband horror stories in western Massachusetts, which has some of the worst Internet access in the world. (17:51)

Promises, Promises: Comcast’s 9th Annual Commitment to Improve Customer Service is Back for 2015

The Don't Care Bears

The Don’t Care Bears

Talk is cheap but your cable bill isn’t.

For the ninth year in a row, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts this week promised a transformational improvement in Comcast’s customer service experience. Comcast has routinely been rated one of America’s worst companies, often achieving the dubious distinction of scoring number one. Customers don’t just dislike Comcast, they loathe Comcast. Its customer service and support forums are infested with angergrams from hostile customers. The Better Business Bureau has a hard time keeping up with the avalanche of complaints. The company’s reputation is worse than the IRS.

For beleaguered customer service agents, it’s right back at ‘ya.

Almost a year after Roberts made his first solemn commitment to address his company’s sordid reputation with customers back in 2006, this unsolicited letter arrived at a website critical of the company’s reputation from one of the customer service agents on the front line:

We honestly do go out of our way to make things better for you and the main thing we are taught is that [the] customer comes first.

So what if you had an installation that didn’t go well? So what if you came across a rep who [is] miserable? You’ll find that anywhere you go. Hell, you probably act the same way at work.

God forbid someone forget to leave notes in the account. No one [is] perfect, but usually we do have everything documented and we’ll still give you the benefit of the doubt. You don’t know how many times a day I deal with, “if you don’t do this or if you don’t do that” (as if what we have given you isn’t enough) “I’m going somewhere else” Well good, you know what, go and when that company does the same thing I hope you feel stupid when you come running back to [us]. You all should be ashamed of yourselves.

This time it will be different than the last nine times, I swear.

This time it will be different than the last nine times, I swear.

That example is indicative of the same problem Comcast experiences today. A customer service experience is only as good as the management’s dictated customer service policies allow. If the higher-ups insist on overbooking installation and service calls to save money, calls will be missed. If an extended outage is required before customers are entitled to a service credit, it’s the customer service representative that has to deliver the bad news. If a Comcast employee’s job or salary is dependent on numbers, numbers, numbers, and adult supervision is lacking, nobody should be surprised when Lord of the Flies-like instincts emerge. The customer is number two.

Comcast’s announcement that it will hire more than 5,500 new customer service agents over the next five years doesn’t solve the problem. Without major philosophical changes about the way Comcast does business, it only creates a larger pool of abusive customer service agents.

Comcast’s goal to always be on time for customer appointments (by the third quarter of this year) was also promised years before. A commitment to invest in technology and training to deliver excellent service in 2015 makes one wonder what Comcast was investing in before this. A commitment to simplify billing does nothing to correct Comcast’s infamously inaccurate billing. Better consistency and transparency about sneaky charges and deceptive promotions are unlikely to do much for Comcast’s reputation with customers.

Another satisfied customer

Another satisfied customer

Comcast’s improvement plan also includes the renovation of hundreds of cable stores across the country, but says nothing about sufficiently staffing them to prevent a line stretching out the door. Development of new technologies to enable people to interact with Comcast how and when they want may prove less compelling than developing new policies flexible enough to deliver solutions that satisfy those customers.

“This transformation is about shifting our mindset to be completely focused on the customer. It’s about respecting their time, being more proactive, doing what’s right, and never being satisfied with good enough,” said Neil Smit, president and CEO, Comcast Cable. “We’re on a mission and everyone is committed to making this happen.”

Which makes Comcast customers everywhere ponder what Mr. Smit and Mr. Roberts were doing the last nine years they were promising massive changes in the customer service experience. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Few Comcast customers will believe the promises broken by the same management team so many times before until they see them in action.

After all, broken promises from Comcast are like snow in Buffalo. You learn to expect it.

Frontier’s Website Woes – Company Drops Online Ordering… Because It Can’t Make It Work Right

frontierIf you want to order a product or service online from Frontier Communications, forget it. A source tells Stop the Cap! the company was dropping online e-commerce functions from its Frontier.com website because it could never get online ordering working properly.

Sure enough, the latest iteration of Frontier’s website today blazes with banners requesting customers call the company or use “live chat” to handle any orders for service.

“They still offer the function of self-service — allowing customers to view their bills, set up auto payments, make one time payments, etc., but they are removing the ability for customers to order any service at all,” said our source.

Yesterday's phone company can't manage a website with online ordering.

Yesterday’s phone company can’t manage a website with online ordering.

“This company can’t manage to figure out how to build a website that supports ordering of products, so they are just going to kill that function,” the source added. “Customers will be able to see what products they can get within a specific zip code, but that’s it. If they want to order, they are going to be forced into the already overloaded call center.”

Frontier’s ability to handle its acquisitions of landline customers from Verizon and AT&T have caused problems in the recent past, including customers losing service, getting improperly billed, or experiencing missed service calls. With Verizon customers in Florida, Texas, and California likely to join the Frontier family, our source tells us they will be shocked to see how backwards Frontier’s online presence is compared with Verizon.

“I’m sure our former Verizon and AT&T customers as well as our future Verizon customers will enjoy going back to the Stone Age when they couldn’t do what they needed to do online and would have to pick up the phone to call into a Contact Center,” the source said. “We might as well just have a Frontier Wikipedia page for crying out loud.”

noonlineorder

Just don’t try ordering online.

Frontier has also adopted this novel disclaimer explaining why its advertised DSL speeds often don’t come close to actual speeds in the fine print:

“Actual speeds may vary and are not guaranteed. Performance metrics based on Frontier lab validation under ideal network environment simulating “best case scenario” without network congestion, other factors cause by consumer behavior, or factors caused by third-party providers’ behaviors. Consumers may not be able to replicate the performance shown in the performance metrics.”

In plain English: “Our advertised DSL speeds are theoretically possible… in a lab… on Moonbase Alpha… as long as you don’t try to use the service… and nobody else does either.”

“Please let your readers know that there are some Frontier employees who want to do right by our customers and want to give them the best service possible, but our expertise and opinions are rarely valued,” the source said.

GOP Tries to Slash Rural Broadband Funding in Minnesota: “Wireless/Satellite Broadband is the Future!”

Garofalo

Garofalo

Outrage from Minnesota’s elected officials representing rural districts around the state has embarrassed Minnesota House Republicans into grudgingly restoring a token amount of broadband funding to help small communities get online.

Earlier this month, the GOP majority’s budget proposal completely eliminated broadband development grants, which amounted to $20 million in 2014. Republicans attacked the spending as unnecessary and a wasteful “luxury.” The money was reallocated towards promoting tourism.

Budget point man Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) said hardwired Internet access was outdated.

“The future is wireless and satellite Internet,” Garofalo declared, adding these were better, cheaper options for rural Minnesota.

Rural Minnesota strongly disagreed.

The West Central Tribune in Willmar declared the GOP budget proposal very disappointing to everyone in rural Minnesota.

“Rural Minnesota will continue to fall behind in broadband access and, in turn, the critical factors of quality of life, education, economic opportunities, access to health care and many other positive benefits,” the newspaper wrote in an editorial.

Rural Minnesota Broadband: Nothing to write home with a quill pen about.

Rural Minnesota Broadband: Nothing to write home with a quill pen about.

“We are astonished as to why the House would ignore one of the state’s biggest economic development needs,” said Willmar City Council member Audrey Nelsen, a member of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities’ board. “The lack of high-quality broadband affects communities and regions all across the state.”

“We agree,” the paper declared.

“High-speed Internet service is not a luxury, it is an absolute necessity for job and business growth,” said executive director Dan Dorman of the Greater Minnesota Partnership.

House Republicans seem intent on stomping out rural Minnesota’s digital economy. Broadband coverage in these areas is a disgrace: Kandiyohi County is third lowest in Minnesota, at only 13.18 percent, in the percentage of households with access to broadband that meets state-speed goals. Surrounding counties with low access percentages include: Chippewa at 24.47 percent, Yellow Medicine at 25.69, Swift at 30.41, Pope at 31.40 and Renville at 58.29.

In 2013, Gov. Dayton’s Broadband Task Force Report recommended a $100 million infrastructure fund to start addressing the $3.2 billion total investment needed statewide to address this issue. Garofalo seems ready to concede to an $8 million token allocation some Democrats call insulting.

Rep. Tim Mahoney said he believed 10 years of an annual $20 million investment would solve the rural broadband problem in Minnesota in a decade. The St. Paul Democrat believes with the GOP’s budget, it will take forever.

“For them to come up with $8 million is kind of ridiculous,” Mahoney said. “It’s almost a slap in the face.”

Garofalo believes AT&T and Verizon’s forthcoming home wireless broadband solutions will solve Minnesota’s broadband problems, without considering those services are expensive and tightly usage-capped. Satellite Internet is condemned by critics as costly “fraudband,” often speed-throttled and usage capped.

Fiber Internet, in Garofalo’s world view, is “yesterday’s technology,” despite ongoing investments in fiber to the home Internet around the world, including investments from companies including AT&T, Verizon, Google, and others that now offer fiber technology capable of speeds in excess of 1Gbps.

Sober assessments of the different broadband technologies available in Minnesota are already available from the state’s Office of Broadband Development. Garofalo’s budget resolves the ideological conflict between his views and theirs by eliminating the agency.

Garofalo said to save rural broadband, the state government must first kill any plan that might interfere with the private sector.

“The private sector won’t invest if it senses that the government is coming in with something else,” he said.

lousy rural

Without throwing Garofalo totally under the nearest tourist bus, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Jim Knoblach said the state needs rural broadband funding, even if other options such as wireless Internet may be a more efficient way to tackle the problem down the road.

“There are people waiting for broadband now that I think this would help,” the St. Cloud Republican said, supporting the restoration of $8 million in funding.

Comcast’s David Cohen Survives Night of the Long Knives Blame Game for Comcast Merger Failure

David "I'm crushing your head" Cohen

David “I’m crushing your head” Cohen

Your boss authorized $32 million on lobbying for a $45 billion dollar merger deal that just went down in flames on your watch and you were the guy the company depended on to push it through. What do you do?

If you are Comcast vice president David Cohen, you pray for a press release signed by the CEO reaffirming trust in you.

Cohen can breathe a little easier because Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast, did exactly that.

“There is nobody better than David Cohen,” Roberts wrote. “He’s incredible at what he does and we are beyond lucky that he helps passionately lead so many areas at Comcast. He is also a huge supporter of Philadelphia and has done so much for the community. I’m extremely proud to have him on our team.”

It could have been much worse for Cohen, whose contract (and $15 million annual salary) is up at the end of this year. He’s the fourth biggest earner at Comcast, but his stunning arrogance before Congress and the public may have helped nail the coffin shut on a merger worth tens of billions.

Some media outlets have called Cohen myopic, unable to see the building torrent of opposition from consumers, public interest groups, and even regulators.

The NY Post:

“They just lost a big battle. Does the company need a new general to supervise the Washington political strategy?” asked one source.

Comcast is already on the hunt for a new chief financial officer, with Michael Angelakis walking away to begin his own Comcast-backed private-equity fund before the deal imploded.

comcast twcComcast’s claims of “deal benefits” for consumers was perceived to be tissue-thin by legislators like Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), whose district would have seen Time Warner and Charter customers absorbed into the Comcast Dominion.

“[Cohen] was smothering us with attention but he was not answering our questions,” Cárdenas told The New York Times, adding in the early stages of the deal he was open to supporting it if his questions were addressed satisfactorily. “And I could not help but think that this is a $140 billion company with 130 lobbyists — and they are using all of that to the best of their ability to get us to go along.”

Comcast’s swaggering arrogance, condescending editorials, and dismissive attitude towards consumers questioning the deal rubbed a lot of lawmakers the wrong way.

Not only did Comcast offend lawmakers, but their all-important staffers as well. Staffers told the newspaper they felt Comcast was so convinced in the early stages that the deal would be approved that it was dismissing concerns about the transaction, or simply taking the conversation in a different direction when asked about them.

Elected officials associating themselves with Comcast, whose customer service on a good day is considered miserable, was also considered political poison. Few lawmakers were willing to publicly support foisting Comcast on their constituents. Local lawmakers in Time Warner Cable service areas who had no direct experience with Comcast customer service’s special touch of hell often did offer support, especially when a handsome check was sent weeks earlier. But voters with relatives or friends who loathed Comcast (practically everyone in America) were never fooled.

hurricane comcast“They talked a lot about the benefits, and how much they were going to invest in Time Warner Cable and improve the service it provided,” said one senior Senate staff aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “But every time you talked about industry consolidation and the incentive they would have to leverage their market power to hurt competition, they gave us unsatisfactory answers.”

Politicians asked to publicly support the deal characterized their sentiment as “leery” in polite company.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) was unwilling to victimize her constituents by replacing two bad cable companies – Time Warner Cable and Charter with one horrible alternative – Comcast.

“No amount of public-interest commitments to diversity would remedy the consumer harm a merged Comcast-Time Warner would have caused to millions of Americans across the country,” Ms. Waters said.

Other lawmakers who already understood Comcast as the Hurricane Katrina of cable companies got into storm shelters early.

“There are limits as to how effective even the best advocate can be with a losing case,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, who was critical of the deal from the start, “as this merger would have further enhanced this company’s incentive, its means and its history of abuse of market power.”

Comcast even cynically attempted to color and race match lobbyists with legislators, believing the shared ethnic heritage would be an added incentive.

The New York Times:

Comcast, for example, assigned Juan Otero, a former Department of Homeland Security official who serves on the board of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and now works as a Comcast lobbyist, to be the point person to work with Mr. Cárdenas.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Stewart, an African-American lobbyist on the Congressional Black Caucus Institute board, was assigned to work with Marc Veasey, Democrat of Texas, who is also black. She personally appealed to Mr. Veasey’s staff, urging that he not sign a letter last August questioning the deal, according to an email obtained by The New York Times, citing the company’s work on behalf of the minority community. (Mr. Veasey still signed a related letter.)

Comcast also asked Jordan Goldstein, a former official at the Federal Communications Commission who is now a Comcast regulatory affairs executive, to work with Mr. Blumenthal’s office. Mr. Goldstein had previously developed a working relationship with Joel Kelsey, a legislative assistant in charge of reviewing the matter for the senator, who is a member of the Senate Commerce Committee.

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