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American Broadband Ripoff: Compare Your Prices With Eight Competing Providers in Bratislava, Slovakia

bratislvaThe largest telecom companies in the United States, their trade associations, and Ajit Pai, one of two Republican commissioners serving at the Federal Communications Commission routinely claim America has the best broadband in the world. From the perspective of providers running to their respective banks to deposit your monthly payment, they might be right. But on virtually every other metric, the United States has some of the most expensive broadband in the world at speeds that would be a gouging embarrassment in other countries.

Slovakia – A Long, Tough History, But Better Broadband than the United States

Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, has existed since the year 907. From the 10th century until just after the end of World War 1, the city (then commonly known by its German name of Pressburg) was part of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian empire. After the “War to End All Wars,” ethnic Czechs and Slovaks jointly formed a democratic Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 which existed peacefully until the Germans arrived in 1938 and renamed part of Czechoslovakia… Germany.

Unfortunately for the Czechs and Slovaks, life didn’t get much easier after the end of World War II. As Stalin sought to create a buffer zone between Germany (and western Europe) and the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, along with most of Eastern Europe, faded behind the Iron Curtain into the Soviet sphere of influence.

The city center of Bratislava

The city center of Bratislava

After decades of deterioration under autocratic rule, the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution of 1989 restored multi-party democracy and Communism was was on its way to being fully extirpated across Europe.

By the time the June 1992 election results were announced, it was clear the country’s constituent Czechs and Slovaks had irreconcilable differences and were headed to national divorce court. On one side, the Czech-oriented Civic Democratic Party, headed by Václav Klaus. On the other, Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, whose aims were obvious based on its party name alone. With the writing on the wall, Klaus and Mečiar managed to work out an agreement on how to divide the country and on Jan. 1, 1993 the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic were born.

Since the separation, Slovakia has prospered, and is now recognized to have a high-income advanced economy with one of the fastest growth rates in both the European Union and the OECD. It joined the EU in 2004 and adopted the Euro as its currency in 2009. Slovakia had to bring its economy up to date after fifty years of Communism. The country had a functioning telecommunications infrastructure, albeit one highly dependent on dilapidated equipment produced in the German Democratic Republic (the former East Germany) and the Soviet Union.

After the Slovak Republic was born, Slovenské Telekomunikácie maintained a monopoly on Slovak telephone lines and telex circuits under the close watch of the Ministry of Transport, Posts and Telecommunications. It took until the year 2000 for economic reforms to allow for the privatization of telecommunications. As was the case in many other central and eastern European countries, Germany’s Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile) won a majority ownership in the company, which is today still known as Slovak Telecom.

The Slovak Broadband Marketplace Today

Slovak-TelekomThe Slovak government insisted that telecommunications networks in the country be competitive and it maintains oversight to make sure monopolies do not develop. It rejected claims that total deregulation and competition alone would spur investment. Slovakia welcomes outside investment, but also makes certain monopoly pricing power cannot develop. As a result, most residents of Bratislava have a choice of up to eight different broadband providers — a mix of cable, telephone, wireless, and satellite providers that all fiercely compete in the consumer and business markets.

Many providers are foreign-owned entities. UPC, Slovakia’s cable operator, is owned by John Malone’s Liberty Global. Slovak Telecom is owned by Germany’s T-Mobile/Deutsche Telekom. Tooway is a French company.

300Prices are considerably lower than what American providers charge, although speeds remain somewhat lower than broadband services in Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic States. At one address on Kláštorská, a street of modest single family homes (some in disrepair), these companies were ready to install service:

  • RadioLAN offers 18/1.5Mbps unlimited wireless service for $21.85 a month;
  • UPC offers 300/20Mbps unlimited cable broadband for $30.63 a month;
  • Slovanet offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 240GB usage cap for $18.56 a month;
  • Swan offers 10.2Mbps/512kbps unlimited DSL for $24.70 a month;
  • Slovak Telecom offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 240GB usage cap for $21.96 a month;
  • Benestra offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 4GB per day usage cap for $24.24 a month;
  • Satro offers 9Mbps/768kbps unlimited wireless service for $29.32 a month;
  • Tooway offers 22/6Mbps satellite Internet with a 25GB usage cap for $54.79 a month.

In other parts of the country, two providers are installing competing fiber broadband services. Slovak Telecom is slowly discarding its old copper wire infrastructure in favor of fiber optics, and is already providing 300Mbps service to some residents to better compete with UPC Cable. Some areas can get straight fiber service, others get VDSL, an advanced form of DSL offering higher speeds than traditional DSL. Orange, a provider not available in the immediate area of our sampled home, has already installed its own fiber service to over 100,000 fiber customers and is growing.

In comparison, Comcast sells 105Mbps service in Nashville, Tenn. for $114.95/mo (not including modem fee) with a 300GB monthly usage cap. That is one-third the speed of UPC Cable at nearly four times the cost… if you stay within your allowance. Prices only get higher after that.

Our Long Nightmare is Over At Last: Stop the Cap! Ponders the Failed Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

Phillip "Victory is Ours" Dampier

Phillip “Victory is Ours” Dampier

It has been 14 months since we heard for the first time Comcast was planning to acquire Time Warner Cable. It was the night of February 12, 2014. I still remember where I was the moment I first learned the news.

Stop the Cap! has maintained a civil relationship with Time Warner Cable for the most part over our seven-year struggle fighting usage caps, lousy broadband, and high prices. We fought one major battle with the company in April of 2009, when Time Warner executives planned a compulsory usage cap experiment on customers in Rochester, N.Y., Austin and San Antonio, Tex., and Greensboro, N.C.

Just as we had done with Frontier Communications a year earlier, we successfully beat down their efforts to impose usage allowances on customers already paying a significant chunk of money for broadband Internet access. After that battle ended, Time Warner Cable changed their position on usage caps and stated emphatically that customers should always have the option of unmetered/unlimited access. They have kept their word. In fact, their optional usage cap experiments have been a spectacular flop, attracting less than 1% of their customer base and delivering the message we’ve tried to get across the industry for years: customer hate usage caps, usage-based billing, and speed throttles.

Comcast is a company that long ago stopped listening to their customers. It applied an arbitrary usage cap on all their customers in retaliation for a FCC decision that disallowed them from running hidden speed throttles on peer-to-peer Internet traffic. Comcast lied about throttling traffic, paid homeless people to stack a hearing on the issue to keep company critics out of the room, and slapped the caps on in the fall of 2008 with the flimsy excuse it represented “fairness” to customers. Only later, we would learn usage caps were never about “fairness” or good traffic management. It’s just a way to deter customers from spending too much time on the Internet, especially if that time is spent watching online videos. Too much time spent watching Netflix might convince you your cable TV package isn’t necessary any longer.

comcast twcComcast customer service horror stories reached a level unparalleled by other cable companies when a Comcast predator-installer was convicted of raping and strangling to death 23-year old Comcast customer Urszula Sakowska,  whose lifeless body was found in a bathtub inside her Chicago-area home back in 2006. But Triplett’s violent service calls didn’t stop there. He also faced charges in the death of 39-year old Janice Ordidge, a Comcast customer in Hyde Park. Those two Comcast customers lost their lives. In 2009, another Comcast installer set a Pennsylvania customer’s house on fire. Other installers stole jewelry right out of customers’ homes. Others have exposed themselves in front of female customers or fallen asleep on their couches.

Billing errors are the stuff of legend at Comcast. Offshore call centers with language barriers, inept customer service, and long, long, long lines at cable stores with windows only partially manned by agents sitting behind bullet-proof glass also helped cultivate a customer relationship that can best be described as “perp and victim.”

Comcast isn’t just a bad cable company, it’s a menace. We didn’t have to spend hours proving our case. Fortunately, Comcast’s appalling reputation preceded it. Outside of two executive suites in Philadelphia and New York, nobody was for supersizing Comcast. Just to make sure our regulators knew this, we traveled to Buffalo in June of last year to testify at a Public Service Commission hearing on the subject of the merger. We didn’t mince words.

Sure, there were non-profit groups like the Boys & Girls Club that absolutely sullied their reputation pushing for the merger (Comcast wrote large checks to the organization so you need not give the group a single penny of your money in the future). “Civil Rights” organizations like the Urban League, NAACP, and others that used to defend minority rights now concern themselves with defending the interests of giant cable companies, just as long as they get a nice check in the mail with Comcast’s name on it. Among the worst of all – Shakedown Al Sharpton who will either be your merger deal’s best friend or will go away and leave victims of racism in peace, if you cut his organization a big fat check. (Now that the merger has collapsed, perhaps Comcast-owned MSNBC will end the thinly veiled quid-pro-quo arrangement it has with the man that gives him an hour a night to perform a talent train wreck.)

My own state assemblyman, Joe Morelle, who served as New York’s interim assembly speaker for about five minutes literally plagiarized his letter in support of the Comcast merger (after cashing their check) almost word-for-word from Comcast press releases and congressional testimony. Say it ain’t so, Joe!

morelleN.Y. State Assembly Leader Joe Morelle: “The combination of Comcast and Time Warner Cable will create a world-class communications, media and technology company to help meet the increasing consumer demand for advanced digital services on multiple devices in homes, workplaces and on-the-go.”

 

cohenDavid Cohen, executive vice-president, Comcast: “The combination of Comcast and TWC will create a world-class communications, media, and technology company to help meet the insatiable consumer demand for advanced digital services on multiple devices in homes, workplaces, and on-the-go.”

 

There was not a doubt in my mind that replacing Time Warner Cable with Comcast would be a disaster for Time Warner Cable customers. Despite promises Comcast would upgrade Time Warner’s network, it would also upgrade customer bills, resorting in higher priced service, higher modem fees, and lousy customer service. Comcast vice president David Cohen also made it clear usage caps would be a part of our life within five years. No amount of protesting or rational argument would stop Comcast from being Comcast. Don’t like it? Just try to cancel.

Time Warner Cable can be bad but it is no Comcast.

Malone: Waiting in the wings?

Malone: Waiting in the wings?

Life will be just fine without Comcast, but danger lurks on the horizon. Still interested in the possibility of taking over Time Warner Cable is the smaller Charter Communications, now effectively controlled by cable magnate John Malone (he owns his own castles). Malone has a long history of enriching himself at the expense of customers with no other choices for cable/broadband service. He used to control Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), a cable company that literally threatened city officials who didn’t do what TCI wanted.

We remain unsure exactly what will happen next. Charter could bid aggressively to buy Time Warner Cable, Time Warner Cable could go it alone, or Time Warner Cable could start buying other cable companies (like Charter).

What we hope will happen is Time Warner Cable will refocus its energy on expanding its Maxx upgrade program as quickly as possible to reach all Time Warner Cable markets with faster broadband and a better cable TV experience. We also hope the company will stand by its word that compulsory usage caps are off the table.

I’d like to thank all of our readers who took the time to get involved in the fight and helped make a difference. Wall Street and Washington, as well as Comcast CEO Brian Roberts are all shocked the merger deal collapsed after a torrent of criticism from consumers. It also left state regulators cautious about how to proceed. New York’s Public Service Commission delayed making a decision eight times, recognizing the merger as a hot potato.

Our experience demonstrates that ordinary citizens can wield considerable power when unified and involved. We’ve proved that with multiple victories on the usage cap front as well as the AT&T/T-Mobile merger and Net Neutrality.

Let the fight for better broadband continue!

Comcast Hints At the Price of Its New 2Gbps ‘Not for Your Average Joe’ Fiber Internet: Around $400 a Month

As Florida wakes up to news that Comcast will deliver its 2Gbps broadband service in the cities of Jacksonville, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach, the rest of the country is learning the estimated price of the service, targeted to the “techno-elite.”Comcast-Logo

Cindy Arco, spokeswoman for Comcast in Jacksonville told the Florida Times Union final pricing hasn’t been established yet for 2 Gigabit Pro for Florida, but it likely will be in the range of the highest residential broadband tier, which amounts to $400 a month for 505Mbps.

“It’s the type of thing for early adopters — those people who want to have the latest, newest tech gadget and the latest everything related to tech,” Arco said.

In Florida, the residential customers will need to live within a third of the mile of the fiber optic service lines offered by Comcast.

Arco downplayed the relevance of the arrival of 2Gbps service from Comcast.

“It’s exciting, but it’s not for your average Joe,” Arco said.

Google Unveils Project Fi Wireless Service: $20/Mo Voice/Text + $10/GB Data Plan That Credits Back Unused Data

google fiGoogle today unveiled their new wireless service, dubbed Project Fi, the first wireless carrier that combines the coverage of two competing cellular providers — Sprint and T-Mobile — to deliver affordable wireless service and a data plan that rebates back any unused portion of your monthly allowance. There are no term contracts, early termination fees, or overlimit penalty charges.

Google’s calling plan starts with Fi Basics for $20 per month. This includes:

  • Unlimited domestic talk and text;
  • Unlimited international texts;
  • Low-cost international calls;
  • Wi-Fi tethering;
  • Coverage in 120+ countries (Unlimited international texts are included in the plan, Cellular calls cost 20c per minute. If calling over Wi-Fi, per-minute costs vary based on which country you’re calling and you’re charged only for outbound calls.)

There is no unlimited data plan, presumably because neither T-Mobile or Sprint was willing to allow Google to offer one. Google tries to turn that into a plus by telling customers they should only pay for the data they actually use. The 2G/3G/4G data plan is $10/GB, sold in 1GB increments up to 10GB. Whatever data you do not use is converted into a cash amount credited to the following month’s bill. Instead of rolling over data, you roll over dollars. If you exceed your allowance, there are no penalty overlimit fees. Instead, you are charged $10 for an additional gigabyte of usage, with the same privilege of getting a cash credit applied to your next bill for any data you didn’t use.

Google assumes you will spend most of your time connected to Wi-Fi, where it offers free Wi-Fi calling and texting. If you lose your Wi-Fi connection, the phone will connect to either Sprint or T-Mobile’s network without losing a call in-progress. Another unique aspect of the service is that your mobile phone number lives in the cloud, so you can talk and text with your number on just about any phone, tablet or laptop using Google Hangouts.

The Nexus 6 is a real handful. It's also the only phone that will currently work on Google Fi.

The Nexus 6 is a real handful. It’s also the only phone that will work on Google Fi.

Google Project Fi relies on Sprint and T-Mobile’s combined networks to deliver coverage, trying to satisfy customers seeking Verizon or AT&T-like coverage. Google’s service seamlessly chooses Wi-Fi first, followed by Sprint or T-Mobile depending on which offers the best 4G signal at your location.

Although the service has been anticipated for some time, there are some caveats to consider before rushing to sign up.

First, you cannot sign-up immediately, you can only request an invitation. As with many other new Google projects, invitation-only service means it could be days, weeks, or even a month before you can sign-up.

Second, a view of Google’s coverage map shows Project Fi has substantially reduced dead spots, but has not eliminated them. Project Fi would likely appeal to Sprint or T-Mobile customers now frustrated by their suburban coverage. Chances are good that between the two carriers, one will deliver a robust signal even if the other does not. But rural areas have always been bypassed by both carriers and this makes Project Fi a bad choice if Sprint and T-Mobile are not good options where you live or work.

For example, much of eastern Kentucky, virtually the entire state of West Virginia, and western Virginia offer little to no 3G/4G coverage. Google Fi only promises 2G coverage in these areas, through a roaming agreement T-Mobile or Sprint has with a larger carrier.

Third, unless you already own a Nexus 6, you will be spending at least $650 to buy a new smartphone. Google will initially only support the Nexus 6 for Project Fi, because it is the only phone capable of switching between Google’s wireless partners. It comes in your choice of colors, if your choice is “Midnight Blue.” The smartphone offers two storage sizes—32GB ($649) and 64GB ($699). You can buy the Nexus 6 up front or finance your phone at 0% interest or fees for 24 months at $27.04/month for the 32GB option or $29.12/month for the 64GB option. A credit check is required for the financing option.

Fourth, there are no family plan options. Each phone is assigned to its own account. If you intend to switch your family of four, you will be dealing with four individual accounts (and a whopping $2,600 to acquire four Nexus 6 phones). Because of the invitation-only approach now in effect, it may take some time to get all of your family members up and running.

Finally, Google intends that its mobile service effectively sells itself. That means they are not offering promotions to sign up and will not pay your existing carrier to cover any early termination fees. You can port your current landline or mobile telephone number to the service. Google does not disclose any fees for doing so.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Google Project Fi 4-22-15.mp4

Google produced this introductory video about its new wireless service: Google Project Fi. (1:56)

Verizon Wireless to Customers Looking for a Better Deal: Goodbye and Good Luck With Competitors’ Inferior Service

Verizon Wireless: The Neiman Marcus of mobile providers

Verizon Wireless: The Neiman Marcus of mobile providers

A customer retention call with Verizon Wireless is short and to the point: enjoy the coverage you get from us now at the prices we charge or cancel and live with inferior cell phone service from one of our competitors.

Verizon chief financial officer Fran Shammo waved goodbye to 138,000 Verizon Wireless customers in the last three months and he could care less.

“If the customer who is just price-sensitive and does not care about the quality of the network—or is sufficient with just paying a lower price—that’s probably the customer we’re not going to be able to keep,” he said in the company’s quarterly earnings call today.

The wireless industry’s price war has not yet inflicted much damage on Verizon, which considers itself above the fray.

Average revenue per customer has started to significantly decline for the first time in wireless industry history, despite efforts to bolster earnings with expensive data plans and bundling services, including unlimited voice calling most cell phone users no longer care about. Both T-Mobile and Sprint are resorting to slashing prices and reducing the fine print to pick up business, with T-Mobile being the more successful of the two pulling it off. But the combined market share of Sprint and T-Mobile remains a fraction of what AT&T and Verizon Wireless have captured.

verizon greedVerizon believes it has a premium product and expects to be paid for it. Like a Neiman Marcus of the wireless industry, customers can expect a superior level of service, if they can afford to pay for it.

To keep customers dazzled, this summer Verizon Wireless is planning a new wireless video service featuring content from the NFL and likely more. Verizon hopes customers without unlimited data plans will be willing to pay several dollars extra for the new streaming service. But perhaps not too many extra dollars. Verizon executives have discovered a loophole in the FCC’s new Net Neutrality regulations allowing video content to be sponsored by Verizon or its advertising partners and exempt from usage allowances or caps.

Known as “zero-rating,” the practice is much more common overseas, where content providers pay for customer’s usage of their applications. Critics call the practice an end run around Net Neutrality. The FCC has continued to avoid the issue of broadband usage caps and usage-based billing, which ISPs have interpreted to mean a green light on the practice. In fact, some earlier comments from the FCC suggest the agency believes subsidized Internet traffic might be beneficial to consumers. Verizon pockets the money in either case.

Tim Berners-Lee, who created of the World Wide Web, called zero-rating “positive discrimination,” giving too much power to Internet providers.

“Zero-rated mobile traffic is blunt anti-competitive price discrimination designed to favor telcos’ own or their partners’ apps while placing competing apps at a disadvantage,” added Antonios Drossos, managing partner of Rewheel. “A zero-rated app is an offer consumers can’t refuse.”

Verizon Wireless has not yet priced its forthcoming video offering, but it could be marketed as a monthly add-on feature or as a pay-per-view option.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Verizon Bids Good Riddance to Customers Leaving for a Cheaper Deal 4-21-15.flv

Bloomberg reporters talk about Verizon’s disinterest in competing with other carriers in the ongoing price war, and is fine with letting price-sensitive customers leave. It won’t be cutting prices anytime soon. (2:01)

Zimbabwe: Fast Broadband is a “Basic Human Right”; Victoria Falls Going Fiber-to-the-Home: 100Mbps Service

zol-logo-newThe two largest telecom companies in Zimbabwe believe broadband access isn’t just an essential utility — it’s a basic human right and they are responding with major upgrade projects that will deliver speedier broadband, sometimes even faster than what most customers in North America can access.

Anything less than fiber-to-the-home service won’t do, according to Tom Tudor, chief marketing officer at Liquid Telecom. The company is expanding its fiber project in Zimbabwe with popular tourist destination Victoria Falls getting a major upgrade. Liquid Telecom believes data caps are incompatible with the concept of bringing the Internet to more people to “participate in, and benefit from, the digital revolution.” Liquid Telecom’s fiber service – Fibroniks, doesn’t have usage limits or hidden gotcha fees.

“Every day we lay new fiber which enables us to deliver what we refer to as ‘The Real Internet’, a superfast service which transforms how people access and share information,” Tudor said.

superfast-fibreAt the outset in Victoria Falls, Fibroniks will offer unlimited use packages up to 100Mbps, with a commitment customers can access whatever they want, whenever they want, at a guaranteed fixed monthly price. Liquid Telecom already supplies fiber service in the capital city of Harare, but Tudor believes getting into smaller communities in the country is essential.

“We believe that internet connectivity is a basic human right and so it is our mission to provide quality broadband to every person and business in Africa,” said Tudor.

It will bring a broadband revolution to Victoria Falls, a community of over 35,000 that has languished with ADSL and last generation wireless services like WiMAX and 3G, which offer speeds typically no higher than 512kbps.

Fibroniks also includes telephone service, which will cost a fraction of what Tel•One, Zimbabwe’s sole fixed landline provider, charges for service. Tel•One has focused most of its investment improving and expanding ADSL service over its existing landline network. Although Tel•One may end up reaching more Zimbabwe citizens faster that Liquid Telecom, the speeds Tel•One provides will be much slower than Liquid Telecom’s Fibroniks.

Liquid Telecom’s other fiber to the home projects are in Zambia, with plans to expand to Kenya, Rwanda, and two other African countries yet to be announced.

Cox Boosting Its Economy Class Broadband Speeds in Arizona: 5Mbps is Now the Minimum

COX_RES_RGBCox Communications has raised Internet speeds for its economy class customers in Arizona as it continues network enhancements across the state.

One-third of Cox customers in Arizona subscribe to the company’s two cheapest tiers — Internet Starter and Internet Essential. Both packages are getting free speed upgrades that began in late March. Now all Cox customers in the state should have the higher speeds:

  • Cox High Speed Internet Starter was 1Mbps and is now 5Mbps;
  • Cox High Speed Internet Essential was 5Mbps and is now 15Mbps.

Speed increases in one state often eventually turn up in other states where Cox provides service.

Last July, Cox doubled speeds for its Preferred tier (increased from 25 to 50Mbps) and Premiere tier (increased from 50 to 100Mbps).

Usage caps are still in place on Cox broadband packages, but they are widely ignored by most customers because Cox rarely cracks down on offenders, and usually backs off if a customer threatens to cancel service over the issue.

AT&T Barely Launches GigaPower U-verse in Houston… Another Fiber to the Press Release Irritates Locals

gigapower-600x315Houston residents excited by this week’s launch of AT&T U-verse with GigaPower have been quickly disappointed after learning the service is available practically nowhere in Houston and likely won’t be for some time.

The upgrade, offering up to 1,000/1,000Mbps broadband, was launched Monday with an announcement “select residents” in Bellaire, Pasadena, and northwest Harris County, Tex. will be the first to get the service.

Bellaire, known as the “City of Homes,” is a primarily residential community of 6,000 houses surrounded by the city of Houston. AT&T’s Houston headquarters are located in Bellaire, and the company maintains good relations with the local government. Larry Evans, AT&T’s vice president and general manager for South Texas told the Houston Chronicle that is a key factor for getting GigaPower upgrades. Evans said Bellaire, Pasadena and northwest Harris County have been very cooperative in clearing red tape and letting AT&T install fiber infrastructure for GigaPower with a minimum of fuss from permitting and zoning authorities.

Bellaire is a mostly residential community surrounded by Houston.

Bellaire is a mostly residential community surrounded by Houston.

The larger city of Pasadena, with a population approaching 150,000 is another case where close cooperation with the city government made the difference. The city council contracts with AT&T to supply telecom services to the local government as well.

As in other AT&T service areas, actual availability of GigaPower is extremely limited. A search of prospective addresses in Pasadena found service available in only a few neighborhoods. In Bellaire, only a few streets now qualify for service. We were unable to find a single address in “northwest Harris County” that qualified for U-verse with GigaPower, but AT&T claims that “surrounding communities” would also have access, without disclosing the names of any of them. That makes it extremely difficult to accurately use AT&T’s service qualification tool to verify coverage.

Jim Cale found he pre-qualified on the website for U-verse with GigaPower service, but his hopes were dashed when a representative informed him his order was canceled because, in fact, GigaPower was not actually available on his street.

“My neighborhood was wired with fiber to the home when it [was built] a few years ago,” shared “Ed From Texas.” “AT&T is the provider and that was one of its advertised features. Who do I need to harass at AT&T to get Gigapower turned on for us?”

Gene R. is in a similar predicament:

“I can’t even get U-Verse and I am two blocks from loop 610,” he said. “AT&T says they don’t know when it will be available. I suspect…never.”

Richard dumped AT&T in the past for not meeting the speeds U-verse advertises, but is hopeful an all-fiber network might finally bring better speeds.

pasadena“I dropped AT&T’s MaxPlus because I never got anything approaching the 18Mbps speed I was being billed for,” he wrote.

AT&T will sell several U-verse with GigaPower plans in Houston. The packages below include waivers of equipment, installation and activation fees, if you agree to allow AT&T to monitor your browsing activity:

  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps starting as low as $110 a month, or speeds at 300Mbps as low as $80 a month, with a one year price guarantee;
  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier + TV: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps and qualifying TV service starting as low as $150 a month, or speeds at 300Mbps and qualifying TV service as low as $120 a month, with a one year price guarantee;
  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier + TV + Voice: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps with qualifying TV service and Unlimited U-verse Voice starting as low as $180 a month, or speeds at 300Mbps with qualifying TV service and Unlimited U-verse Voice as low as $150 a month, with a two-year price guarantee.

These offers all include a provision in the service agreement allowing AT&T to spy on your browsing habits ostensibly to supply “targeted advertising.” But the terms and conditions do not limit AT&T from broadening its monitoring of your usage for other purposes. If you opt out, the price goes up to $109 monthly for 300Mbps service and $139 monthly for 1Gbps broadband and you will pay installation and activation fees.

AT&T says the monitoring is done purely to power its targeted ads. Some examples:

  • If you search for concert tickets, you may receive offers and ads related to restaurants near the concert venue;
  • After you browse hotels in Miami, you may be offered discounts for rental cars there;
  • If you search for a car online, you may receive an email notifying you of a local dealership’s sale;
  • If you are exploring a new home appliance at one retailer, you may be presented with similar appliance options from other retailers.

“You might receive these offers or ads online, via email or through direct mail,” says AT&T on their Internet Preferences page.

The “price guarantee” provision is actually a contract obligating you to stay with U-verse for 1-2 years or face an early termination fee of $180. AT&T also warns your Internet speeds will deteriorate “if two or more HD shows [are] viewed at same time.” Usage caps apply, as usual. GigaPower customers signed up for the fastest speeds receive 1 terabyte, or 1,000 gigabytes, of data per month. Customers will get warnings if they exceed the cap twice. The third time, and going forward after that, they’ll pay a $10 fee for each 50GB over the cap.

UK Regulator: Don’t Call Your Wireless Service Unlimited and Then Throttle Heavy Users to Death

virgin-media-union-logo“Unlimited data” must mean exactly that in the United Kingdom if you hope to survive a challenge with British regulators over advertising and tariff claims.

Virgin Media thought itself clever offering “VIP” mobile customers two choices for service: £15 for a package that included 3GB of mobile data or £20 for “unlimited” data. Unlimited sounds like a great deal. For just $7.41 more, a customer could turn their stingy 3GB plan into unlimited data paradise. Or so one would think until navigating a nearly impenetrable thicket of fine print that suggested “you should expect speeds delivered up to 384kbps (3G). Actual speeds experienced may be higher or lower and will vary by device and location.”

Seven complainants discovered something interesting about their “unlimited data plan.” It sped along at an average speed of 6Mbps until they hit 3.5GB of usage during any billing cycle. After that, speeds were consistently reduced to 384kbps. They quickly learned Virgin had a secret throttling plan in place for their unlimited customers, couched in vague and misleading fine print that suggested customers should treat anything over 384kbps as a veritable gift from the mobile gods.

Why hide the fact Virgin has a “fair use policy” similar to many other wireless carriers that promise unlimited data only to throttle speeds after customers reach a certain amount of usage? Look again at Virgin’s pricing.

A customer could choose a £15 plan that included 3GB of usage or spend an extra £5 for what actually turns out to be just 500MB of regular speed data. If customers realized that, they would likely keep the £5 in their wallet. Instead, it went straight into Virgin’s bank account.

Virgin’s response is familiar to any customer who thought they bought an unlimited plan only to discover it cannot reasonably be used once an arbitrary limit is reached. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) summarized Virgin’s reply:

They said within all of their advertising, whenever they referred to “unlimited data” in connection with their mobile tariffs, they included an explanation within the small print that customers should expect speeds of up to 384kbit/s.  They said the restriction imposed on customers was moderate in respect of the service being advertised.

They noted that the body copy of the ad did not make any reference to internet speeds, and said that Virgin Mobile customers were never prevented from accessing the internet, no matter how much data they used.  They therefore maintained that access to data for any customer was entirely unlimited.  They said, where a customer exceeded 3.5GB in any 30-day period, they would still be able to use the internet on their device at 3G speeds.  They said that 2% of Virgin Media customers ever reached the limit in a 30-day period, which they considered was a tiny minority. They said that the customers using more than 3.5GB of data each month would be those customers who would be more aware of the advertised expected speed, and that the average consumer would therefore not have been misled.

asaThat last sentence in particular did not amuse the regulators. In the United Kingdom, making a claim of “unlimited service” means that any limitations imposed on that service affecting speed or usability must be at most moderate and clearly disclosed. Virgin failed on both.

Average 3G speeds in Britain are now 6.1Mbps and that speed does not vary much between providers. The ASA ruled that slashing speeds to a fraction of 6Mbps went way beyond the rules.

“Given the speeds we understood consumers were likely to achieve before the [throttle], we considered that they were likely to notice the drop in speeds once the restriction was applied, as had a number of the complainants,” wrote the ASA. “We considered that a reduction in speed from an average we understood to be approximately 6 Mbit/s to 384 kbit/s once the limit was reached, was more than a moderate reduction. Because we considered the limitation imposed on speeds to be more than moderate, we concluded that the claim ‘unlimited data’ was misleading.”

As a result, Virgin Media was told not to claim that a service was ‘unlimited’ if the limitations that affected the speed or usage of the service were more than moderate.

Stop the Cap! Calls on Comcast to End Its Usage Caps/Usage Billing Trials, Restore Unlimited Service

Phillip "Comcast lost its case for usage caps" Dampier

Phillip “Comcast lost its case for usage caps” Dampier

With today’s announcement Comcast intends to bring unlimited 2Gbps broadband to as many as 18 million homes across its service area, one thing is clear — if Comcast is not worried about the impact of that many potential customers consuming 2Gbps of bandwidth, there is absolutely no justification to impose usage caps and allowances on any Comcast customer.

A frequent justification for usage caps and usage billing is to guarantee fair access for all customers on a shared, congested network. Another is to help defray the cost of broadband expansion. But Comcast’s new super-speed tier will have no usage cap and customers are invited to use it as much as they like for a fixed price. Clearly, a customer maxing out a 2Gbps connection to upload and download enormous amounts of content, say on a peer-to-peer network, will have a far greater impact on Comcast’s infrastructure than a user with a basic 25Mbps Internet connection. Yet today in Atlanta, Comcast is asking its 25Mbps customers to stay within a 300GB usage allowance, if they want to avoid an overlimit penalty of $10 for each 50GB block of additional usage.

Comcast does not like Stop the Cap! calling Comcast’s “data usage trials” what we believe them to be: “usage caps.”

In response to our testimony before the New York Public Service Commission last year regarding its application to acquire Time Warner Cable, Comcast objected to our claim it was placing usage allowances or limits on its broadband customers.

“Comcast does not have ‘data caps’ today,” Comcast told the PSC in its filing. “Comcast announced almost two years ago that it was suspending enforcement of its prior 250GB excessive usage cap and that it would instead be trialing different pricing and packaging options to evaluate options for subscribers—options that reflect evolving Internet usage and that are based on the desire to provide flexible consumption plans, including a plan that enables customers who want to use more data the option to pay more to do so as well as a plan for those who use less data the option to save some money.”

Yet Comcast’s desire to offer “flexible” usage plans becomes very inflexible when customers ask for unlimited service. Comcast has refused to offer such an option in several trial markets where usage caps are once again being tested.

courtesy-notice-640x259Last May, Comcast vice president David Cohen emphatically stated usage caps and usage-based billing were all about “fairness,” telling investors: “People who use more should pay more, and people who use less should pay less.”

Those signing up for 2Gbps service will be in a position to use far more bandwidth and data than any other Comcast customer subscribing to a lower speed broadband tier, yet will not be asked to pay more for using more or pay less for using less. They will be signing up for a simple to understand unlimited usage plan most Comcast customers want that will carry no billing surprises. At the moment, that is the only unlimited tier residential plan a Comcast customer in Atlanta will be able to buy.

Also turned on its head is the idea that customers who use the most bandwidth or cost Comcast the most should be contributing more to help Comcast pay for network upgrades, but once again this will not be the case for 2Gbps customers in Atlanta. They will cost Comcast a fortune as the company rips out its existing HFC (coaxial cable) infrastructure and replaces it with fiber to the home service. Yet the 25Mbps customer still using decades-old coaxial cable is effectively being asked to limit their Internet usage to avoid additional charges while the 2Gbps modern fiber customer is not.

It clearly makes no sense, but will rake in dollars for Comcast as usage continues to grow.

If Comcast’s network can sustain up to 18 million 2Gbps users with no usage cap, it has more than enough capacity to take the limits off every Comcast broadband customer. Comcast must shelve its usage billing trials immediately and remove all usage allowances from residential broadband customers in various test markets where they have been in place for more than a year. Google, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, Charter, and many other broadband providers have found no defensible reason to slap usage limits on their broadband customers. If they can provide comparable speeds and service without a cap, so can Comcast.

Comcast should clearly state it is in the business of providing the best possible customer experience using 21st century infrastructure more than robust enough to sustain usage demands, and compulsory usage caps and consumption billing are incompatible with the company’s goal to provide top-quality, worry-free Internet access.

If Comcast wants to test voluntary discount programs for light users, we have no objection. But customers should always have access to an affordable unlimited option without having to watch usage meters or worry about bill shock.

Comcast needs to do the right thing today and end all compulsory data usage trials across the country and commit to providing unlimited, allowance-free broadband service.

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