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Chicago Extends 9% Entertainment/Use Tax to Almost Everything You Do Online

handoutStarting Sept. 1, Chicago residents will be paying 9% more for everything from Netflix to income tax filing as city officials impose a recently reinterpreted entertainment/use tax on almost every online subscription content provider, even those peddling adult entertainment.

The Chicago Tribune reports the city’s Finance Department has vastly broadened the reach of Chicago’s amusement and personal property lease transaction taxes to apply the 9% tax to virtually any content that a customer borrows, leases, or subscribes to that is not purchased outright. Buying a CD on Amazon.com would not be subject to the tax but a Spotify subscription allowing you to listen to that same CD as long as your subscription is maintained will be taxed. Buying a digital copy of a movie will not be taxed, but watching it through a subscription service like Apple TV, Amazon, or Netflix will be.

Although some are dubbing it the “Netflix Tax,” it will also apply to cloud storage, paid television programming — including satellite, cable, telephone, and online-delivered content, financial and investment services, and almost anything else accessed online with a paid subscription. Even paying to host a website (or having someone manage it for you) will be subject to the tax.

The expanded tax is part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s strategy to deal with Chicago’s huge budget shortfall with fees, fines, and broadening taxes. The city predicts the expanded tax will capture up to $12 million a year from Chicago residents and businesses.

“In an environment in which technologies and emerging industries evolve quickly, the City periodically issues rulings that clarify the application of existing laws to these technologies and industries,” mayoral spokeswoman Elizabeth Langsdorf said in a statement issued Wednesday. “These two rulings are consistent with the City’s current tax laws and are not an expansion of the laws. These ensure that city taxation is uniformly and fairly applied and that businesses are given clear guidance on the applicability of the City’s tax laws to their operations, and they clarify that the amusement tax and personal property lease tax apply to digital services.”

Chicago_TheatreChicago residents have paid the amusement tax on movie tickets, local concerts and sports events since at least 1998. The city collects 5% on live theatrical, musical, and other live cultural performances held in an auditorium, theater, or other space whose maximum capacity (including balconies) is more than 750 persons. A 9% tax applies on all other events, but no tax is collected on religious, charitable, and not-for-profit organizations holding events for fund-raising purposes as long as they limit them to two events per year.

A Netflix spokeswoman confirmed that the company will pass the additional cost to subscribers but said no other details were available.

Critics of the tax contend it will be very easy to avoid through the use of payment services like PayPal, which allow customers to specify an out-of-state address — any out-of-state address, valid or not — in the payment details box, allowing residents to avoid the tax. Others are adding the addresses of out-of-state relatives to their credit cards and will use those addresses when placing orders for online content.

“Since they are not mailing you anything, it doesn’t really matter what address you use, as long as it is outside of the city of Chicago,” one anonymous commenter noted.

Wynne

Wynne

That is exactly what Michael Wynne, a partner and attorney in the Chicago office of the law firm Reed Smith, predicted would happen, noting Chicago is already replete with high taxes and fees and adding more of them would encourage tax dodging. He assumed businesses will also actively avoid the tax, either by moving their offices out of the Chicago city limits or more likely renting a post office box in the suburbs and using it as a billing address.

“Let’s say I sign up for streaming business data in the city but I have offices throughout the country,” Wynne told the newspaper. “I will definitely make sure my billing goes through a different office.”

Wynne believes many Chicago residents may not understand the 9% tax will apply to a lot more than just Netflix. He called the expansion staggering in its breadth in his analysis, excerpted below.

The Unamusing Amusement Tax: It Could Apply to Almost Anything

The Amusement Tax ruling will extend the tax to streaming services for music, movies, games, and the like, as well as satellite TV delivered to a customer located in Chicago. However, the ruling does not impose the Amusement Tax on the same content when it is permanently downloaded by a consumer. The Lease Transaction Tax ruling extends the tax to the online procurement of real estate listings, car prices, stock prices, economic statistics, and “similar information or data that has been compiled, entered and stored on the provider’s computer.” In addition, under the ruling, the Lease Transaction Tax will apply to the online procurement of “word processing, calculations, data processing, tax preparation” and “other applications available to a customer through access to a provider’s computer and its software.” In the ruling, the Department expressly notes that these “examples are sometimes referred to as cloud computing, cloud services, hosted environment, software as a service, platform as a service, or infrastructure as a service.”

reedThe Amusement Tax is imposed on patrons of every amusement within the city. “Amusement” is broadly defined, and it includes “any entertainment or recreational activity offered for public participation or on a membership or other basis,” and “any paid television programming, whether transmitted by wire, cable, fiber optics, laser, microwave, radio, satellite or similar means.”

The Amusement Tax ruling specifically taxes charges paid for the privilege of the following amusements delivered to a patron in the city: (1) “watching electronically delivered television shows, movies, or videos”; (2) “listening to electronically delivered music”; and (3) “participating in games, on-line or otherwise.” As a consequence, streaming a movie, listening to streaming music, or playing a game on a smartphone or tablet will now trigger a 9% tax on the subscription charge for those services if those activities are done at a location in Chicago. Furthermore, the ruling addresses “bundled” transactions, by providing that “unless it is clearly proven that at least 50% of the price” is not for the amusement, the entire charge, except for any separately stated non-amusement charges, is subject to the Amusement Tax. That suggests great care must be paid to invoicing services when including any item that might be construed to be an amusement. The ruling does not differentiate between news, current events, sports, movies, music or other types of television programming. As a consequence, an establishment that charges patrons for access to television programming of any sort, plus other goods and services (e.g., a bar that imposes an admission charge for a pay-per-view event that includes food and beverages) may have to navigate the bundling rules.

The Computer Lease Tax Ruling = 9% on Everything You Borrow, Subscribe, Rent, Lease, or Pay-Per-View Online

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) introduced H.R. 235: the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act, which passed in the House of Representatives on June 9th and is heading to the Senate.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) introduced H.R. 235: the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act, which passed in the House of Representatives on June 9th and is heading to the Senate.

The ruling provides examples of when the tax applies, such as when performing legal research or similar on-line database searches, to obtain consumer credit reports, or “real estate listings and prices, car prices, stock prices, economic statistics, weather statistics, job listings, resumes, company profiles, consumer profiles, marketing data, and similar information or data that has been compiled, entered and stored on the provider’s computer.” In the ruling, the Department specifically identifies taxable leases of personal property to include “cloud computing, cloud services, hosted environment, software as a service, platform as a service, or infrastructure as a service.” This is quite an expansion for a concept evolved from taxing agreements for time-sharing on mainframe computers, and that has only been judicially tested once, involving legal research in the city on terminals provided by the legal search provider, in days that preceded the creation of the World Wide Web, and the expansion of fiber-optic networks that made possible the Internet networks relied on to deliver many of the services the ruling now targets. See, Meites v. City of Chicago, 184 Ill. App. 3d 887 (1989). The rulings represent a further evolution of the city’s approach under the Lease Transaction Tax to disregard contract terms and recharacterize transactions to fit its tax code definitions; it is doubtful that any consumer or provider of subscription Internet streaming services thinks they are contracting to lease tangible personal property.

Wynne says Chicago officials have expanded the scope of its tax ordinances to their absolute limit, if not further. He also fears Chicago could give other cities and states ideas for new taxes.

“If any state or local governments were wondering how to tax transactions occurring in the Cloud when legislative authority for such taxation is absent, the Department has just sketched a roadmap,” he wrote.

Wynne believes the time to stop these kinds of taxes is now, before they have a chance to spread, or worse, start being collected.

He writes there are strong arguments that Chicago’s creative reinterpretation of its 9% tax is illegal, running afoul of the Federal Telecommunications Act, the Internet Tax Freedom Act, and federal and Illinois constitutional limits on taxation. But while the rulings are likely to be challenged in court, Chicago officials still expect providers to start handing over the 9% tax proceeds beginning this fall. Those that don’t will run into Chicago’s tax penalty buzzsaw – 12% interest on delinquent taxes, a 25% penalty, and a lengthy bureaucratic process (bring your attorney) dealing with the city’s administrative hearings office.

Fine Print Fun: Sprint Backs Off From Throttling All Wireless Video Traffic to 600kbps

sprint all inSprint’s all-new “All-In” wireless plan was supposed to simplify wireless pricing for consumers by bundling a leased phone, unlimited voice, data, and texting for a flat $80 a month, but customers slogging through the fine print discovered speed throttling and roaming punishments were silent passengers along for the ride:

To improve data experience for the majority of users, throughput may be limited, varied or reduced on the network. Streaming video speeds will be limited to 600Kbps at all times, which may impact quality. Sprint may terminate service if off-network roaming usage in a month exceeds: (1) 800 min. or a majority of min.; or (2) 100MB or a majority of KB. Prohibited network use rules apply—see sprint.com/termsandconditions.

Although many smaller wireless carriers also have limits on off-network roaming usage, none have proposed to permanently throttle web videos to a frustratingly slow 600kbps. At those speeds, Sprint customers could expect buffering delays or degraded HD video.

Many customers contemplating switching to the All-In plan considered the speed throttle a deal-breaker and let Sprint know through its social media accounts. Even websites friendly to Sprint were very critical of the plan:

Sprint 4G Rollout Updates:

We just aren’t seeing the new and innovative thing with All In. You already have plans that price out the same way as All In (some even less expensive). It appears as a marketing gimmick that is disguising a desperate move to limit streaming. This is not popular with your current customers and your new customers are likely going to hate you for it. After they find out.
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Marcelo, it’s really bad that David Beckham touts unlimited movie watching and you reference unlimited watching videos in your Press Release. 600kbps video streaming can hardly run any YouTube or Netflix streaming. It will buffer significantly even with the lowest resolution settings. 600kbps is insufficient for most moderate quality video streaming on a smartphone screen.

Claure

Claure

Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure got the message and announced late yesterday the video speed throttle was gone, but general network management would remain.

“At Sprint, we strive to provide customers a great experience when using our network,” said Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure. “We heard you loud and clear, and we are removing the 600 kbps limitation on streaming video. During certain times, like other wireless carriers, we might have to manage the network in order to reduce congestion and provide a better customer experience for the majority of our customers.”

Claure has been hinting the days of unlimited data from Sprint may be coming to an end sometime in the near future. Sprint is among the last carriers that offer a truly unlimited experience, and some customers have used Sprint as a home broadband replacement and have created congestion issues as they consume hundreds of gigabytes of wireless data, which can slow Sprint’s network to a crawl in some areas. T-Mobile experienced similar issues and recently updated their terms and conditions to apply a speed throttle after 21GB of usage during a billing cycle.

Unlimited 4G LTE customers who use more than 21 GB of data in a bill cycle will have their data usage de-prioritized compared to other customers for that bill cycle at locations and times when competing network demands occur, resulting in relatively slower speeds. See t-mobile.com/OpenInternet for details.

Customers report in high volume areas speeds drop well below 1Mbps if they are temporarily sentenced to “speed jail.”

Many of those attempting to use a wireless carrier as their primary home broadband connection do not do so because of convenience or selfishness. Often, they have no other choice because they are bypassed by cable operators and not served by DSL. But it does not take too many customers to start creating problems for wireless carriers if a nearby cell tower becomes congested. Online video is probably the most bandwidth intensive application for wireless companies, especially HD video streaming. The growth of video traffic also raises questions about whether AT&T and Verizon’s efforts to move rural customers to an all-wireless phone and data platform will work well for the companies or customers.

Charter Asks FCC to Approve Time Warner Cable/Bright House Merger; Stop the Cap! Urges Changes

charter twc bhCharter Communications last week filed its 362 page redacted Public Interest Statement laying out its case to win approval of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, to be run under the Charter banner.

“Charter may not be a household name for all Americans, but it has developed into an industry leader by implementing customer and Internet-friendly business practices,” its statement reads.

The sprawling document is effectively a sales pitch to federal regulators to accept Charter’s contention the merger is in the public interest, and the company promises a range of voluntary and committed service upgrades it says will improve the customer experience for those becoming a part of what will be America’s second largest cable operator.

Charter’s proposed upgrades fall under several categories of direct interest to consumers:

Broadband: Charter will commit to upgrade customers to 60Mbps broadband within 30 months (about 2.5 years) after the deal is approved. That could mean some Time Warner Cable customers will still be serviced with standard speeds of 15Mbps as late as 2018. Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program will be effectively frozen in place and will continue in only those areas “consistent with Time Warner Cable’s existing deployment plans.” That will leave out a large sections of the country not on the upgrade list. Charter has committed to impose no data caps, usage-based pricing or modem fees, but only for three years, after which it will be free to change those policies at will.

Wi-Fi: Charter promises to build on Time Warner’s 100,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, most in just a few cities, and Bright House’s denser network of 45,000 hotspots with a commitment to build at least 300,000 new hotspots across Charter’s expanded service area within four years. Charter will also evaluate deploying cable modems that also act as public Wi-Fi hotspots. Comcast already offers over 500,000 hotspots with plans for many more, making Charter’s wireless commitment less ambitious than what Comcast today offers customers.

Cable-TV: Charter has committed to moving all Time Warner and Bright House systems to all-digital service within 30 months. Customers will need to lease set-top boxes designed to handle Charter’s encryption system for all cable connected televisions. Among those boxes includes Charter’s new, IP-capable Worldbox CPE and cloud-based Spectrum Guide user interface system.

Video on the Go: Charter will adopt Time Warner Cable’s streaming platform and apps to provide 300 streaming television channels to customers watching from inside their homes (a small fraction of those channels are available while outside of the home). Customers will not be able to watch on-demand recorded DVR shows from portable devices, but can program their DVRs from apps or the website.

Discount Internet for the Poor: Charter references the fact its minimum entry-level broadband speed is 60Mbps so that does not bode well for Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Priced Internet $14.99 slow-speed Internet plan. Instead Charter will build upon Bright House Networks’ mysterious broadband program for low-income consumers.

Based on Charter’s initial proposal, Stop the Cap! will urge state and federal regulators to require changes of these terms before approving any merger. Among them:

  1. All existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House service areas should be upgraded to meet or exceed the levels of service offered by Time Warner Cable’s Maxx program within 30 months. It is not acceptable to upgrade some customers while others are left with a much more modest upgrade program proposed by Charter;
  2. Charter must commit to Net Neutrality principles without an expiration date;
  3. Regardless of any usage-cap or usage-based pricing plans Charter may introduce after its three-year “no caps” commitment expires, Charter must permanently continue to offer unlimited, flat rate Internet service at a reasonable price as an alternative to usage-priced plans;
  4. Customers must be given the option of opting out of any leased/provided-modem Wi-Fi hotspot plan that offers a wireless connection to outside users without the customer’s consent;
  5. Charter must commit to a more specific Wi-Fi hotspot program that details towns and cities to be serviced and proposed pricing for non-customers;
  6. Charter must allow customers to use their own set-top equipment (eg. Roku, Apple TV, etc.) to receive cable television service without compulsory equipment/rental fees. The company must also commit to offering discount alternatives such as DTAs for secondary televisions and provide an option for income-challenged customers compelled to accept new equipment to continue receiving cable television service;
  7. Charter must retain Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Priced $14.99 Internet plan regardless of any other low-income discount program it offers. If it chooses to adopt Bright House’s program, it must broaden it to accept applications year-round, simplify the application process and eliminate any waiting periods;
  8. Charter must commit to independent verification of customer quality and service standards and adhere to any regulatory guidelines imposed by state or federal regulators as a condition of approval.
  9. Charter must commit to expansion of its cable network into a reasonable number of adjacent, unserved areas by committing a significant percentage (to be determined) of measurable financial benefits of the merger to the company or its executives towards this effort.

Stop the Cap! will closely monitor the proceedings and intends to participate on both the state (New York) and federal level to guarantee any merger provides consumers with an equitable share of the benefits. We will also be examining the impact of the merger on existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House employees and will promote merger conditions that protect jobs and limit outsourcing, especially overseas.

Bright House’s Mysterious Internet Discount Program Charter Wants to Adopt Nationwide

If you can find it.

If you can find it.

A major concern about the merger between Charter and Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks is the availability of affordable Internet access. That was a major issue for New York regulators contemplating the earlier failed merger attempt between Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Time Warner Cable offers all subscribers a low-speed budget Internet option called Everyday Low Price Internet for $14.99 a month with no pre-qualifications, no paperwork, and no contract commitment. Although originally designed to appeal to price sensitive DSL customers, it has become Time Warner’s de-facto low-income Internet offering for those who cannot afford Standard Internet service.

According to Charter Communications’ Public Interest Statement filed today with the Federal Communications Commission — its case to win approval of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House — the future is not looking too good for Time Warner’s $15 Internet program if the merger is approved. Charter makes a point of stating its entry-level Internet option is 60Mbps service at almost three times that price.

So what will “New Charter” offer more than 10 million cable customers going forward:

New Charter will build upon Bright House Networks’ broadband program for low-income consumers by making a broadband offering available with higher speeds and expanded eligibility while continuing to offer the service at a significant discount, and will begin making the offer available within six months after the transaction closes and offer it across the New Charter footprint within three years of closing.

If you were even aware Bright House offered a discount broadband program, congratulations!

An advocate of affordable Internet service claims Bright House has done an excellent job keeping any mention of the program off its website. In fact, it appears arranging for a visa to visit North Korea is probably slightly easier than getting cheap service from Bright House.

It turns out Bright House does have a modified version of its barely advertised “Lite Internet” plan offering 2Mbps downloads and 512kbps uploads. Anyone can buy that plan for about $20 (with a separate modem fee). Bright House’s Low-Income Internet plan offers the same service for $9.95 a month for up to 24 months.

To qualify, there is an Olympic-style playing field of hoops to jump through, according to Cheap Internet:

1) You must have at least one child qualified for the National School Lunch Program. They need not be enrolled now.

2) You cannot have been a Bright House broadband customer during the last three months. If you are a current customer, you must first cancel and go without Internet service for 90 days (or call the phone company and hope to get a month-to-month DSL plan in the interim.)

3) If you have an overdue bill older than 12 months, you are not eligible until you pay that bill in full.

But it gets crazier.

4) Bright House does not enroll customers in discounted Internet programs year-round. From a Bright House representative:

“We do participate in this particular program, however, it is only around September that we participate in it. This is a seasonal offer that we have which can only be requested from the middle of August to the middle of September, which is when most start up with school again for the year.”

That restriction gets heavy criticism from Cheap Internet.

“Families fall into poverty every day of the year, and poverty-stricken families move from one school district to another every day of the year,” the website writes. “So it’s horribly unfair to tell them they’d qualify for this program if only they had fallen into poverty sometime between the middle of August and the middle of September.”

Time Warner Cable offers $14.99 to anyone without paperwork.

Time Warner Cable offers $14.99 to anyone without paperwork.

But wait, there is more.

Bright House does not take orders for the Low-Income Internet plan over the Internet. That’s right. No Internet sign ups over the Internet. You have to enroll by phone: (205) 591-6880. We dialed it and experienced 30 seconds of… silence. No ringing, no busy signals, nothing. Then an automated attendant picked up looking for a pre-qualification phone number to decide if we are in a Bright House service area. That is as far as we could get. It hung up.

It turns out Bright House sometimes refers to its discount Internet program under another name: Connect2Compete. As both Cheap Internet and Stop the Cap! found, if you visit Bright House’s website and search for either term, you will find absolutely nothing.

Does it seem Bright House lacks enthusiasm selling this option to income-challenged consumers?

The most information available about the discount Internet program Charter wants to bring to Time Warner Cable customers is available on a pretty skimpy third-party website that has no connection to Charter, Time Warner or Bright House. Nothing to be concerned about there!

New Charter promises to improve the program, but Stop the Cap! believes there is a much simpler solution. For $5 more, Time Warner Cable already offers a fine discount option available to anyone, anywhere, for as long as they want it. No paperwork, no complications, no drama. The fact New Charter seems to prefer a different option — one that requires an archaeological dig to unearth needed information — makes us wonder whether they are interested in serving the needy at all.

The ISP Defense Squad Attacks Guardian Story on Internet Slowdowns

Phillip "Speaking as a Customer" Dampier

Phillip “Speaking as a Customer” Dampier

Two defenders of large Internet Service Providers are coming to the defense of the broadband industry by questioning a Guardian article that reported major Internet Service Providers were intentionally allowing a degradation in performance of Content Delivery Networks and other high volume Internet traffic in a dispute over money.

Richard Bennett and Dan Rayburn today both published articles attempting to discredit Battle for the Net’s effort highlighting the impact interconnection disputes can have on consumers.

Rayburn:

On Monday The Guardian ran a story with a headline stating that major Internet providers are slowing traffic speeds for thousands of consumers in North America. While that’s a title that’s going to get a lot of people’s attention, it’s not accurate. Even worse, other news outlets like Network World picked up on the story, re-hashed everything The Guardian said, but then mentioned they could not find the “study” that The Guardian is talking about. The reason they can’t find the report is because it does not exist.

[…] Even if The Guardian article was trying to use data collected via the BattlefortheNet website, they don’t understand what data is actually being collected. That data is specific to problems at interconnection points, not inside the last mile networks. So if there isn’t enough capacity at an interconnection point, saying ISPs are “slowing traffic speeds” is not accurate. No ISP is slowing down the speed of the consumers’ connection to the Internet as that all takes place inside the last mile, which is outside of the interconnection points. Even the Free Press isn’t quoted as saying ISPs are “slowing” down access speed, but rather access to enough capacity at connection points.

Bennett:

In summary, it appears that Battle for the Net may have cooked up some dubious tests to support their predetermined conclusion that ISPs are engaging in evil, extortionate behavior.

It may well be the case that they want to, but AT&T, Verizon, Charter Cable, Time Warner Cable, Brighthouse, and several others have merger business and spectrum auction business pending before the FCC. If they were manipulating customer experience in such a malicious way during the pendency of the their critical business, that would constitute executive ineptitude on an enormous scale. The alleged behavior doesn’t make customers stick around either.

I doubt the ISPs are stupid enough to do what the Guardian says they’re doing, and a careful examination of the available test data says that Battle for the Net is actually cooking the books. There is no way a long haul bandwidth and latency test says a thing about CDN performance. Now it could be that Battle for the Net has as a secret test that actually measures CDNs, but if so it’s certainly a well-kept one. Stay tuned.

The higher line measures speeds received by Comcast customers. The lower line represents speeds endured by AT&T customers, as measured by MLab.

The higher line measures speeds received by Comcast customers connecting to websites handled by GTT in Atlanta. The lower line represents speeds endured by AT&T customers, as measured by MLab.

Stop the Cap! was peripherally mentioned in Rayburn’s piece because we originally referenced one of the affected providers as a Content Delivery Network (CDN). In fact, GTT is a Tier 1 IP Network, providing service to CDNs, among others — a point we made in a correction prompted by one of our readers yesterday.

Both Rayburn and Bennett scoff at Battle for the Net’s methodology, results, and conclusion your Internet Service Provider might care more about money than keeping customers satisfied with decent Internet speeds. Bennett alludes to the five groups backing the Battle for the Net campaign as “comrades” and Rayburn comes close to suggesting the Guardian piece represented journalistic malpractice.

Much was made of the missing “study” that the Guardian referenced in its original piece. Stop the Cap! told readers in our original story we did not have a copy to share either, but would update the story once it became available.

We published our own story because we were able to find, without much difficulty, plenty of raw data collected by MLab from consumers conducting voluntary Internet Health Tests, on which Battle for the Net drew its conclusions about network performance. A review of that data independently confirmed all the performance assertions made in the Guardian story, with or without a report. There are obvious and undeniable significant differences in performance between certain Internet Service Providers and traffic distribution networks like GTT.

So let’s take a closer look at the issues Rayburn and Bennett either dispute or attempt to explain away:

  1. MLab today confirmed there is a measurable and clear problem with ISPs serving around 75% of Americans that apparently involves under-provisioned interconnection capacity. That means the connection your ISP has with some content distributors is inadequate to handle the amount of traffic requested by customers. Some very large content distributors like Netflix increasingly use their own Content Delivery Networks, while others rely on third-party distributors to move that content for them. But the problem affects more than just high traffic video websites. If Stop the Cap! happens to reach you through one of these congested traffic networks and your ISP won’t upgrade that connection without compensation, not only will video traffic suffer slowdowns and buffering, but so will traffic from every other website, including ours, that happens to be sent through that same connection.

MLab: "Customers of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon all saw degraded performance [in NYC] during peak use hours when connecting across transit ISPs GTT and Tata. These patterns were most dramatic for customers of Comcast and Verizon when connecting to GTT, with a low speed of near 1 Mbps during peak hours in May. None of the three experienced similar problems when connecting with other transit providers, such as Internap and Zayo, and Cablevision did not experience the same extent of problems."

MLab: “Customers of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon all saw degraded performance [in NYC] during peak use hours when connecting across transit ISPs GTT and Tata. These patterns were most dramatic for customers of Comcast and Verizon when connecting to GTT, with a low-speed of near 1 Mbps during peak hours in May. None of the three experienced similar problems when connecting with other transit providers, such as Internap and Zayo, and Cablevision did not experience the same extent of problems.”

MLab:

Our initial findings show persistent performance degradation experienced by customers of a number of major access ISPs across the United States during the first half of 2015. While the ISPs involved differ, the symptoms and patterns of degradation are similar to those detailed in last year’s Interconnections study: decreased download throughput, increased latency and increased packet loss compared to the performance through different access ISPs in the same region. In nearly all cases degradation was worse during peak use hours. In last year’s technical report, we found that peak-hour degradation was an indicator of under-provisioned interconnection capacity whose shortcomings are only felt when traffic grows beyond a certain threshold.

Patterns of degraded performance occurred across the United States, impacting customers of various access ISPs when connecting to measurement points hosted within a number of transit ISPs in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Many of these access-transit ISP pairs have not previously been available for study using M-Lab data. In September, 2014, several measurement points were added in transit networks across the United States, making it possible to measure more access-transit ISP interconnection points. It is important to note that while we are able to observe and record these episodes of performance degradation, nothing in the data allows us to draw conclusions about who is responsible for the performance degradation. We leave determining the underlying cause of the degradation to others, and focus solely on the data, which tells us about consumer conditions irrespective of cause.

Rayburn attempts to go to town highlighting MLab’s statement that the data does not allow it to draw conclusions about who is responsible for the traffic jam. But any effort to extend that to a broader conclusion the Guardian article is “bogus” is folly. MLab’s findings clearly state there is a problem affecting the consumer’s Internet experience. To be fair, Rayburn’s view generally accepts there are disputes involving interconnection agreements, but he defends the current system that requires IP networks sending more traffic than they return to pay the ISP for a better connection.

Rayburn's website refers to him as "the voice of industry."

Rayburn’s website refers to him as “the voice of industry.”

  1. Rayburn comes to the debate with a different perspective than ours. Rayburn’s website highlights the fact he is the “voice of the industry.” He also helped launch the industry trade group Streaming Video Alliance, which counts Comcast as one of its members. Anyone able to afford the dues for sponsor/founding member ($25,000 annually); full member ($12,500); or supporting member ($5,500) can join.

Stop the Cap! unreservedly speaks only for consumers. In these disputes, paying customers are the undeniable collateral damage when Internet slowdowns occur and more than a few are frequently inconvenienced by congestion-related slowdowns.

It is our view that allowing paying customers to be caught in the middle of these disputes is a symptom of the monopoly/duopoly marketplace broadband providers enjoy. In any industry where competition demands a provider deliver an excellent customer experience, few would ever allow these kinds of disputes to alienate customers. In Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Chicago, for example, AT&T has evidently made a business decision to allow its connections with GTT to degrade to just a fraction of the performance achieved by other providers. Nothing else explains consistent slowdowns that have affected AT&T U-verse and DSL customers for months on end that involve GTT while Comcast customers experience none of those problems.

We also know why this is happening because AT&T and GTT have both confirmed it to Ars Technica, which covered this specific slowdown back in March. As is always the case about these disputes, it’s all about the money:

AT&T is seeking money from network operators and won’t upgrade capacity until it gets paid. Under its peering policy, AT&T demands payment when a network sends more than twice as much traffic as it receives.

“Some providers are sending significantly more than twice as much traffic as they are receiving at specific interconnection points, which violates our peering policy that has been in place for years,” AT&T told Ars. “We are engaged in commercial-agreement discussions, as is typical in such situations, with several ISPs and Internet providers regarding this imbalanced traffic and possible solutions for augmenting capacity.”

competitionMissing from this discussion are AT&T customers directly affected by slowdowns. AT&T’s attitude seems uninterested in the customer experience and the company feels safe stonewalling GTT until it gets a check in the mail. It matters less that AT&T customers have paid $40, 50, even 70 a month for high quality Internet service they are not getting.

In a more competitive marketplace, we believe no ISP would ever allow these disputes to impact paying subscribers, because a dissatisfied customer can cancel service and switch providers. That is much less likely if you are an AT&T DSL customer with no cable competition or if your only other choice cannot offer the Internet speed you need.

  1. Consolidating the telecommunications industry will only guarantee these problems will get worse. If AT&T is allowed to merge with DirecTV and expand Internet service to more customers in rural areas where cable broadband does not reach, does that not strengthen AT&T’s ability to further stonewall content providers? Of course it does. In fact, even a company the size of Netflix eventually relented and wrote a check to Comcast to clear up major congestion problems experienced by Comcast customers in 2014. Comcast could have solved the problem itself for the benefit of its paying customers, but refused. The day Netflix’s check arrived, problems with Netflix magically disappeared.

More mergers and more consolidation does not enhance competition. It entrenches big ISPs to play more aggressive hardball with content providers at the expense of consumers.

Even Rayburn concedes these disputes are “not about ‘fairness,’ it’s business,” he writes. “Some pay based on various business terms, others might not. There is no law against it, no rule that prohibits it.”

Battle for the Net’s point may be that there should be.

AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner Cable Implicated In Content Delivery Network Slowdowns

fat cat attIf your YouTube, Netflix, or Amazon Video experience isn’t what it should be, your Internet Service Provider is likely to blame.

A consumer group today implicated several major Internet providers including Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner Cable and Verizon in an Internet slowdown scheme that prevented customers from getting the broadband performance they are paying for.

A study* of 300,000 Internet users conducted by Battleforthenet found evidence some of America’s largest providers are not adequately providing connectivity for Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) that supply high-capacity traffic coming from the Internet’s most popular websites.

Significant performance degradation was measured on the networks of the five largest American ISPs, which provide Internet connectivity for 75% of U.S. households.

“For too long, Internet access providers and their lobbyists have characterized Net Neutrality protections as a solution in search of a problem,” Tim Karr from Free Press told the Guardian newspaper, which had advance notice of the study. “Data compiled using the Internet Health Test show us otherwise – that there is widespread and systemic abuse across the network. The irony is that this trove of evidence is becoming public just as many in Congress are trying to strip away the open Internet protections that would prevent such bad behavior.”

freepressThe study revealed network performance issues that would typically be invisible to most broadband customers performing generic speed tests to measure their Internet speed. The Open Technology Institute’s M-Lab devised a more advanced speed test that would compare the performance of high traffic CDNs across several providers. CDNs were created to reduce the distance between a customer and the content provider and balance high traffic loads more evenly to reduce congestion. The shorter the distance a Netflix movie has to cross, for example, the less of a chance network problems will disrupt a customer’s viewing.

If technicians controlled the Internet, the story would end there. But it turns out money has gotten between Internet engineers with intentions of moving traffic as efficiently as possible and the executives who want to be paid something extra to carry the traffic their customers want.

That may explain why Comcast can deliver 21.4Mbps median download speeds for traffic distributed by a CDN Tier1 IP network called GTT to customers in Atlanta, while AT&T only managed to squeeze through around 200kbps — one-fifth of 1Mbps. It turns out AT&T’s connection with GTT may be maxed out and AT&T will not upgrade capacity to a network that sends AT&T customers more than twice the traffic it receives from them without direct compensation from GTT.

Internet traffic jam, at least for AT&T customers in Atlanta trying to access content delivered by GTT.

Internet traffic jam, at least for AT&T customers in Atlanta trying to reach content delivered by GTT.

An AT&T U-verse customer in Atlanta would probably not attribute the poor performance depicted in M-Lab’s performance test directly to AT&T because Internet responsiveness for other websites would likely appear normal. Customers might blame the originating website instead. But M-Lab’s performance results shows the trouble is limited to AT&T, not other providers like Comcast.

AT&T: Slow down, you move too fast.

AT&T: Slow down, you move too fast.

The issues of performance and peering agreements that provide enough capacity to meet demand are close cousins of Net Neutrality, which is supposed to prevent content producers from being forced to pay for assurances their traffic will reach end users. But that seems to be exactly what AT&T is asking for from GTT.

“It would be unprecedented and unjustified to force AT&T to provide free backbone services to other backbone carriers and edge providers, as Cogent et al seek,” AT&T wrote in response to a request from several CDNs to disallow AT&T’s merger with DirecTV. “Nor is there any basis for requiring AT&T to augment network capacity for free and without any limits. Opponents’ proposals would shift the costs of their services onto all AT&T subscribers, many of whom do not use Opponents’ services, and would harm consumers.”

* – When a copy of the study becomes publicly available, we will supply a link to it.

Correction: It is more accurate to describe GTT as a “Tier1 IP network” which supplies services to CDN’s, among others. More detail on what GTT does can be found here.

Sling TV CEO Fears Providers Will Jack Up Broadband Prices to Kill Online Video

DishLogo-RedIn the last three years, several Wall Street analysts have called on cable and telephone companies to raise the price of broadband service to make up for declining profits selling cable TV. As shareholders pressure executives to keep profits high and costs low, dramatic price changes may be coming for broadband and television service that will boost profits and likely eliminate one of their biggest potential competitors — Sling TV.

For more than 20 years, the most expensive part of the cable package has been television service. Cable One CEO Thomas Might acknowledged that in 2005, despite growing revenue from broadband, cable television still provided most the profits. That year, 64% of Cable One’s profits came from video. Three years from now, only 30% will come from selling cable TV.

While broadband prices remained generally stable from the late 1990’s into the early 2000’s, cable companies were still raising cable television prices once, sometimes twice annually to support very healthy profit margins on a service found in most American homes no matter its cost. Despite customer complaints about rate hikes, as long as they stayed connected, few providers cared to listen. With little competition, pricing power was tightly held in the industry’s hands. The only significant challenge to that power came from programmers demanding (and consistently winning) a bigger share of cable’s profit pie.

The retransmission consent wars had begun. Local broadcast stations, popular cable networks, and even the major networks all had hands out for increased subscriber fees.

Rogers

Rogers

In the past, cable companies simply passed those costs along, blaming “increased programming costs” in rate hike notifications without mentioning the amount was also designed to keep their healthy margins intact. Only the arrival of The Great Recession changed that. New housing numbers headed downwards as children delayed leaving to rent their own apartment or buy a house. Many income-challenged families decided their budgets no longer allowed for the luxury of cable television and TV service was dropped. Even companies that managed to hang on to subscribers recognized there was now a limit on the amount customers would tolerate and the pace of cable TV rate hikes has slowed.

For a company like Cable One, the impact of de facto profit-sharing on cable television service was easy to see. Ten years ago, only about $30 of a $70 video subscription was handed over to programmers. This year, a record $45.85 of each $81 cable TV subscription is paid to programmers. The $35.50 or so remaining does not count as profit. Cable One reported only $10.61 was left after indirect costs per customer were managed, and after paying for system upgrades and other expenses, it got to keep just $0.96 a month in profit.

To combat the attack on the traditional video subscription model, Cable One raised prices in lesser amounts and began playing hardball with programmers. It permanently dropped Viacom-owned cable networks to show programmers it meant business. Subscribers were livid. More than 103,000 of Cable One’s customers across the country canceled TV service, leaving the cable company with just over 421,000 video customers nationwide.

Some on Wall Street believe conducting a war to preserve video profits need not be fought.

Prices already rising even before "re-pricing" broadband.

U.S. broadband providers already deliver some of the world’s most expensive Internet access.

Analysts told cable companies that the era of fat profits selling bloated TV packages is over, but the days of selling overpriced broadband service to customers that will not cancel regardless of the price are just beginning.

Cablevision CEO James Dolan admitted the real money was already in broadband, telling investors Cablevision’s broadband profit margins now exceed its video margins by at least seven to one.

The time to raise broadband prices even higher has apparently arrived.

new street research“Our work suggests that cable companies have room to take up broadband pricing significantly and we believe regulators should not oppose the re-pricing (it is good for competition & investment),” wrote New Street Research’s Jonathan Chaplin in a recent note to investors. The Wall Street firm sells its advice to telecom companies. “The companies will undoubtedly have to take pay-TV pricing down to help ‘fund’ the price increase for broadband, but this is a good thing for the business. Post re-pricing, [online video] competition would cease to be a threat and the companies would grow revenue and free cash flow at a far faster rate than they would otherwise.”

If you are already a triple play cable television, broadband, and phone customer, you may not notice much change if this comes to pass, at least not at first. To combat cord-cutting and other threats to video revenue, some advisers are calling on cable companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter to re-price the components of their package. Under one scenario, the cost of cable television would be cut up to $30 a month while the price of Internet access would increase by $30 or more a month above current prices. Only customers who subscribe to one service or the other, but not both, would see a major change. A cable TV-only subscriber would happily welcome a $50 monthly bill. A broadband-only customer charged $80, 90, or even 100 for basic broadband service would not.

broadband pricesNeither would Sling CEO Roger Lynch, who has a package of 23 cable channels to sell broadband-only customers for $20 a month.

“They have their dominant — in many cases monopolies — in their market for broadband, especially high-speed broadband,” Sling CEO Roger Lynch told Business Insider in an interview, adding that some cable companies already make it cheaper for people to subscribe to TV and broadband from a cable company than just subscribe to broadband.

A typical Sling customers would be confronted with paying up to $100 a month just for broadband service before paying Sling its $20 a month. Coincidentally, that customer’s broadband provider is likely already selling cable TV and will target promotions at Sling’s customers offering ten times the number of channels for as little as a few dollars more a month on top of what they currently pay for Internet access.

Such a pricing change would damage, if not destroy, Sling TV’s business model. Lynch is convinced providers are seriously contemplating it to use “their dominant position to try to thwart over the top services.”

At least 75% of the country would be held captive by any cable re-pricing tactic, because those Americans have just one choice in providers capable of meeting the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband.

Even more worrying, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler may be responsible for leading the industry to the re-pricing road map by repeatedly reassuring providers the FCC will have nothing to do with price regulation, which opens the door to broadband pricing abuses that cannot be easily countered by market forces.

Lynch has called on the FCC to “protect consumers” and “make sure there’s innovation and competition in video.”

Unfortunately, Wheeler may have something else to prove to his critics who argued Net Neutrality and Title II oversight of broadband would lead to rampant price regulation. Wheeler has hinted repeatedly he is waiting to prove what he says — an allusion to hoping for a formal rate complaint to arrive at the FCC just so he can shoot it down.

AT&T Slapped With $100 Million FCC Fine for Deceiving Customers About “Unlimited Data”

fccAT&T violated the transparency rules of the Federal Communications Commission not less than a million times by allegedly deceiving customers about an unlimited data plan that was speed throttled to unusability after as little as 3GB of usage a month. As a result, the FCC today fined AT&T $100,000,000.

“Consumers deserve to get what they pay for,” said FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. “Broadband providers must be upfront and transparent about the services they provide. The FCC will not stand idly by while consumers are deceived by misleading marketing materials and insufficient disclosure.”

From the Notice of Apparent Liability:

Based on the facts and circumstances before us, we find that AT&T apparently willfully and repeatedly violated Section 8.3 of the Commission’s Rules by:

  1. using the term “unlimited” in a misleading and inaccurate way to label a data plan that was in fact subject to prolonged speed reductions after a customer used a set amount of data; and
  2. failing to disclose the data throughput speed caps it imposed on customers under the MBR policy.

In short:

“Unlimited means unlimited,” said FCC Enforcement Bureau chief Travis LeBlanc. “As today’s action demonstrates, the Commission is committed to holding accountable those broadband providers who fail to be fully transparent about data limits.”

This is the largest proposed fine in FCC history, according to a senior FCC official. The official told the Wall Street Journal AT&T made billions of dollars off the practice.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Thousands of AT&T customers have complained about the practice and feel misled about the company limiting an unlimited use plan.

“A provider cannot announce something in large type that it contradicts in fine print; such practices would be inherently misleading to consumers, and, therefore contrary to both the spirit and letter of the Open Internet Transparency Rule,” the FCC notice states.

The FCC’s two minority Republican commissioners strongly disagreed with the action against AT&T. Ajit Pai used his dissent to cut and paste large sections of AT&T’s website in defense of the company.

“Because the Commission simply ignores many of the disclosures AT&T made; because it refuses to grapple with the few disclosures it does acknowledge; because it essentially rewrites the transparency rule ex post by imposing specific requirements found nowhere in the 2010 Net Neutrality Order; because it disregards specific language in that order and related precedents that condone AT&T’s conduct; because the penalty assessed is drawn out of thin air; in short, because the justice dispensed here condemns a private actor not only in innocence but also in ignorance, I dissent,” Pai wrote.

att-logo-221x300Commissioner Michael O’Rielly dissented because he felt the FCC was overreacting to AT&T’s throttling program and assumed harm was done to every customer affected by it.

“I firmly believe that the Commission must take the necessary steps to enforce its regulations,” O’Rielly wrote. “But, it is equally important that the Commission’s enforcement procedures be fair and equitable. Licensees must have faith in the process and trust that the government is working in a sound and just manner, instead of vilifying them, or demanding that they incriminate themselves.”

“We will vigorously dispute the FCC’s assertions,” said Michael Balmoris, an AT&T spokesman. “The FCC has specifically identified this practice as a legitimate and reasonable way to manage network resources for the benefit of all customers. We have been fully transparent with our customers” and exceeded FCC disclosure requirements, Balmoris said.

AT&T only imposes its speed throttle on unlimited data plan customers who exceed 3GB of usage. Customers on usage-based billing plans do not face a speed throttle after exceeding 3GB of usage.

Net Neutrality Now in Full Effect; The Internet Is Still Working, Providers Are Still Getting Rich

netneutralityThe Federal Communications Commission’s Net Neutrality rules took full effect Friday, after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit denied petitions for a temporary stay of the rules made in separate lawsuits by AT&T and other telecom industry opponents.

“This is a huge victory for Internet consumers and innovators!,” FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler exclaimed in a written statement. “There will be a referee on the field to keep the Internet fast, fair and open. Blocking, throttling, pay-for-priority fast lanes and other efforts to come between consumers and the Internet are now things of the past. The rules also give broadband providers the certainty and economic incentive to build fast and competitive broadband networks.”

The Net Neutrality rules govern both wired and wireless Internet services, and most observers predict the biggest impact will be felt by wireless customers. Wireless providers have experimented with speed throttling, priority access, data caps, and so-called “sponsored data” exempt from usage caps or usage billing. Some of these practices are now illegal under Net Neutrality rules and others are subject to increased scrutiny by the FCC.

Providers generally have not opposed rules blocking online censorship, paid prioritization, and selective speed throttling, but they are vehemently against the FCC’s catch-all “Internet general conduct rule,” that effectively allows the agency to oversee issues like interconnection agreements that connect content producers with each ISP, data caps/usage billing, and issues like zero-rating — providing an exemption from an ISP’s usage allowance for preferred content partners.

Providers argue the FCC could block innovative pricing and usage-based billing they argue customers would like to have.

Other industry groups claim Net Neutrality will lead to a significant decline in investments towards broadband upgrades and expansion. But Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge, now in the middle of a multi-billion dollar merger deal with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, disagreed, noting it will have no effect on Charter’s investment plans for its own cable systems or those it may acquire.

“The big news today is that there is no news,” said Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy for Free Press. “With Net Neutrality protections in place, there are no dramatic changes to the way the Internet works. Internet users are logging onto a network that’s open, as they’ve long expected it to be.”

Charter CEO: Net Neutrality No Deterrent to System Upgrades, Investment

Rutledge

Rutledge

Despite claims from Net Neutrality critics that increased oversight of the broadband business would lead to reduced investment and upgrades, Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge said the new rules would have no effect on Charter’s investment plans.

Last week Rutledge sat down with FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler to discuss Charter’s proposed merger with Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable. He was joined by Catherine Bohigian, Charter’s executive vice president for governmental affairs and FCC general counsel Jonathan Sallet and senior counselor Phil Verveer.

“Mr. Rutledge explained that the transactions will bring substantial consumer benefits, including providing a better Internet experience for watching on-line video, gaming, and using other data-hungry apps at more competitive prices, and that the mergers will not harm competition,” according to a one page filing with the FCC disclosing the meeting.

Despite repeated claims from pro-industry policy wonks that Net Neutrality and Title II oversight of cable broadband would cause operators to reconsider their investment plans, Rutledge made it clear Charter’s spending plans are unaffected.

“Mr. Rutledge agreed that the Commission’s decision to reclassify broadband Internet access under Title II has not altered Charter’s approach of investing significantly in its network to deliver cutting edge services including: the fastest entry-level broadband service (60 Mbps) with unlimited usage; out-of-home Wi-Fi hotspots; a state-of-the art, cloud-based user guide, allowing search and discovery across linear, video on demand and online content; open, non-proprietary downloadable security; and an innovative video app with hundreds of live and downloadable channels and the ability to display over-the-top content seamlessly on the television,” the disclosure continues.

Charter’s chief executive said the company supports Open Internet rules, including no throttles or blocks on lawful content and no paid prioritization. But he does worry about regulatory uncertainty while the FCC explores its expanded powers of oversight.

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