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Suddenlink: Subscribers Walloped With Big Rate Increases and “Free” Speed Upgrades (With Usage Caps)

suddenlink meter

Suddenlink customers are unhappy with the cable company’s usage caps that go with “free speed upgrades.”

Suddenlink subscribers promised “free” speed upgrades are calling them Suddenlink’s Trojan Horse because they are accompanied by dramatically higher cable programming surcharges and usage caps.

St. Augustine, Tex. subscribers got a smaller bite in the mail than some other communities:

Effective with the March 2015 billing cycle, Suddenlink customers will experience no change to the price of telephone service and no change to the price of Basic TV service. There will also be no change to the price of Expanded Basic TV service; however, a $3.00 sports programming surcharge will be added to the bills of customers subscribing to this service to cover a portion of the skyrocketing cost of dedicated sports channels and general entertainment networks with sports programming. The broadcast station surcharge will increase $2.88 per month to cover the escalating fees charged by broadcast TV station owners. Optional tiers of digital TV channels will increase $1.25 per month per tier. High-speed Internet services will increase $3.00 per month.

Over in Chandler, Tex., fees went even higher, with one customer reporting his broadcast station surcharge now exceeded $8 a month. Another customer counting up all the extra fees added to his bill found them coming close to an extra $25 a month.

But the state that gets the worst from broadband providers remains West Virginia, where Suddenlink faces only token DSL competition from Frontier Communications. Suddenlink retention representatives dealing with customers threatening to cancel service in West Virginia are well aware customers have nowhere else to go and don’t break a sweat trying to rescue business.

“We are a business and our goal is to make a profit,” one retention representative told a Suddenlink customer dropping service in favor of DirecTV.

Customers tell Stop the Cap! they were first excited Suddenlink was dramatically boosting Internet speeds — good news for the small and medium-sized cities Suddenlink favors over larger cable operators. The bad news is Suddenlink is bringing back strict enforcement of usage caps, temporarily suspended when its usage measurement tool was proven inaccurate.

Suddenlink has been upgrading its cable systems since 2014 and has gradually rolled out new speeds. Most customers can now choose speed tiers of 50, 75, 100, or 150Mbps, but some larger systems are getting more robust upgrades:

  • Current speed 15Mbps increases to 50Mbps (250GB usage cap)
  • Current speed 30Mbps increases to 50Mbps (250GB usage cap)
  • Current speed 50Mbps increases to 75Mbps (350GB usage cap)
  • Current speed 100Mbps increases to 300Mbps (500GB usage cap)
Suddenlink's sales website makes no reference to the company's broadband usage caps.

Suddenlink’s sales website makes no reference to the company’s broadband usage caps.

Suddenlink is also enforcing usage caps again, which most customers only learn about after signing up for service. Suddenlink makes no references to usage allowances on their sales or general support pages and information is difficult to find unless a customer uses a search engine to find specific information.

Suddenlink’s explanation for its usage caps is among the most cryptic we have ever seen from an ISP:

Consistent with our Acceptable Use Policy and Residential Services Agreement, Suddenlink has applied monthly usage allowances to residential Internet accounts in most of its service areas. To determine if there is a monthly allowance associated with your account – and what that allowance is – please set up or log in to an existing online account. See the related instructions under question #8.

While existing residential customers will quickly learn their usage allowance and find a usage measurement tool on Suddenlink’s website, that is not much help to a new or prospective customer. The overlimit fee, also difficult to find, is $10 for each allotment of 50GB.

Some customers have found a way around the usage cap by signing up for Suddenlink’s business broadband service, typically 50/8Mbps for around $75 a month. Business accounts are exempt from Suddenlink’s caps.

New Zealand Soars Past U.S. in Fiber Broadband Revolution; Now #1 in Fiber Among OECD Nations

Dunedin is New Zealand's "Gigatown" and ISP Orcon sells unlimited access to gigabit speeds for $68.50US a month.

Dunedin is New Zealand’s “Gigatown” and ISP Orcon sells residents unlimited access to gigabit speeds for $68.50US a month.

New Zealand is now the world leader in fiber optic broadband deployment, achieving an annual growth rate of 272 percent and on the way to becoming one of the top 10 nations for broadband speed.

“We are now ahead of Australia, the United States and Japan for fixed broadband, with more than 31 broadband subscriptions for every 100 New Zealanders signed up for this service,” said Amy Adams, New Zealand’s Communications Minister. “This is an impressive jump and demonstrates the impact that the government’s $2 billion investment in the Ultra-fast Broadband and Rural Broadband Initiative program is having on the telecommunications services available to New Zealanders. People are increasingly choosing fiber for its superior speeds, capacity and reliability as the build continues across New Zealand.”

Before the government intervened, broadband in New Zealand was notoriously slow and rationed with low usage allowances and speed throttling. Most of the country received ADSL service, a technology that is rapidly being discarded by most developed nations in favor of VDSL in rural areas and fiber optic broadband in urban and suburban communities. Government policy defined broadband as an essential service for the country’s current and future economic growth and implemented a nationwide broadband improvement plan designed to replace or augment outdated copper telephone lines with fiber optic infrastructure.

While countries like the United States and Canada effectively allow private corporations to define and control their digital destinies, New Zealand believes transformational ultra-fast broadband is too important to leave in the hands of industry alone.

“Fiber is very much like electricity was 100 years ago,” said Maxine Elliot, CEO of Ultra-Fast Fibre (New Zealand). “It’s the single biggest infrastructure build we have done in a long time and it will make that kind of difference in our lives. I think when they first began building out electricity, it was all about a light bulb. No one could have imagined we would have microwaves and computers. We cannot begin to imagine the change that we are about to see with fiber.”

Flag of New Zealand

The explosive growth of fiber broadband has helped the country leap ahead of much larger OECD members like Australia and the United States.

“Over the past ten years, we have moved up from 22nd place out of 30 OECD countries in June 2004 to being 15th out of 34 OECD countries for fixed broadband subscriptions as at June 2014,” Adams noted. “At the same time, the quality of people’s broadband packages is improving, with greater numbers of customers using VDSL or fiber, rather than the older ADSL technology.”

The fiber infrastructure has also led to other benefits not originally anticipated. Wireless companies throughout the country have tapped into the fiber connections which deliver backhaul connectivity between cell towers and the fiber broadband network, allowing greater wireless broadband speeds and more capacity. Today, New Zealand is in the top 10 in the OECD for wireless broadband.

New Zealand’s fiber network has allowed providers to cut prices, increase speeds, and offer unlimited access as an affordable option for customers who want the service. It is also expected to dramatically cut the costs of maintaining the country’s telecom network, which were growing as older copper infrastructure aged.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Ultra Fast Fibre Why ultra-fast broadband.mp4

New Zealand believes its digital future depends on fiber optics, not on last generation DSL from the phone company. This video explains the immediate benefits of discarding century-old copper infrastructure in favor of fiber optics. (3:17)

http://phillipdampier.com/video/Ultrafast Fibre Installation process.mp4

Ultra-Fast Fibre installation is orderly, on time, and technicians will even plant new grass seed and color-match any replacement concrete or driveway patches. This video explains the three-step process customers go through to get fiber service installed. (3:59)

Independent Cable Companies Declare Runaway Programming Costs an Impediment to Broadband Expansion

acaThe deck is stacked against independent cable operators fighting to stay competitive in a marketplace obsessed with consolidation and volume discounts on cable programming. The excessive costs paid by small, often family owned cable operators have now become so great, they are impeding broadband upgrades and expansion, according to the American Cable Association.

The ACA represents small and medium cable operators that live in a different world than Comcast and Time Warner Cable. For years, these smaller, usually rural operators have been at a disadvantage negotiating with cable programmers for reasonable programming rates. The largest cable operators win the best volume discounts, often offset by higher rates for the smaller cable companies that are typical of ACA’s membership roster.

With the FCC now enforcing Section 706 of its mandate requiring the Commission to advance the cause of competitive and ubiquitous broadband, the ACA has gotten creative in comments urging the FCC to crack down on the kinds of unfair programming contracts that force small operators to spend an ever-increasing amount of their budgets on cable television networks instead of broadband expansion.

Video margins are dropping, which means smaller operators have less to invest in broadband.

Video margins are dropping, which means smaller operators have less to invest in broadband. (Chart: SNL/Kagan)

“It has become evident that the increasing prices video programmers and broadcasters charge multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) can act as a drag on broadband deployment,” said ACA president Matt Polka. “If these prices continue their upward spiral, existing providers of both broadband and MVPD services and new entrants will be deterred from expanding their broadband networks or otherwise undertaking new builds.”

Removing barriers to investment is one of the requirements the FCC is supposed to enforce under Section 706 and it has recently shown a willingness to do that by overturning Tennessee and North Carolina laws restricting the growth of municipal broadband. The ACA now wants to learn if the FCC will give small cable operators some relief as well.

The ACA argues that broadband providers must offer consumers video along with broadband and voice services, yet they face ever-increasing video programming costs that squeeze margins.  As a result, smaller triple play providers’ ability to achieve a sufficient return on investment for deploying broadband, particularly in new areas, is quickly diminishing.

The trade group wants the FCC to reform program-access rules to guarantee fairer treatment for smaller cable operators who depend on group buying power through buying co-ops like the National Cable Television Cooperative. The ACA also wants a prohibition on programmers yanking their signals in the middle of retransmission consent contract negotiations. The ability to pull a signal off a cable system gives programmers an unfair negotiating advantage according to the ACA.

Verizon: Our Legacy Landline Service Areas are Not a Part of Our Future Growth Strategy; Verizon Wireless Is

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon’s FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon Communications does not see its remaining landline customers as part of the company’s future growth and customers should not be surprised if Verizon sells more of its legacy network to other telephone companies including Frontier, Windstream, and CenturyLink.

Speaking at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecom Conference 2015 on March 2, Verizon chief financial officer Fran Shammo made it clear to investors Verizon will dump “non-core” assets that do not align with the company’s future long-term growth strategy, even in areas where FiOS predominates.

Shammo told investors Verizon’s growth strategy is predicated on Verizon Wireless, which will continue to get most of the company’s attention and future investment.

“It’s all around the wireless network and I’ve consistently said before, you should anticipate that wireless CapEx continues to trend up while wireline continues to trend down,” Shammo said.

The bulk of Verizon’s investments in its wired network are being made in areas that are already designated as FiOS fiber to the home service areas. Shammo explained that the company is required to invest in FiOS expansion to comply with agreements signed in cities like New York and Philadelphia to make the service widely available in those communities. Beyond those commitments, Shammo signaled the company isn’t planning any significant new spending to upgrade the rest of its legacy copper network.

“We continue to invest in those things that we believe are the future growth of the company,” Shammo said, and anything involving its wired networks outside of Verizon’s core FiOS service area in the northeast and Mid-Atlantic states probably doesn’t qualify.

Verizon-logoWhat will happen in Verizon service areas that are not considered priorities?

“For the right price and right terms, if there’s an asset we don’t believe is strategic to Verizon and can return shareholder value, we’ll dispose of that asset,” Shammo said.

An example of that strategy was Verizon’s sudden announcement in February it would sell its wireline assets in Florida, California, and Texas to Frontier Communications for $10.54 billion. Although a significant part of those service areas are served by FiOS after Verizon invested more than $7 billion on upgrades, Verizon still plans to abandon customers and walk away from that investment because it is not part of Verizon’s future growth strategy.

“If you look at Florida, Texas, and California, these are three island properties,” Shammo told investors. “FiOS is a very small footprint of those properties compared to the copper [except in] Florida because it was just Tampa. But you look at that and you say strategically there’s really not much we can do with those properties because they are islands.”

Verizon will spend the proceeds from its latest landline sale on the wireless spectrum it just acquired and will pay down some of the debt incurred after buying out Vodafone’s former ownership stake in Verizon Wireless. The company has also undertaken a massive share repurchase program, planning to buy back 100 million shares by 2017 to help its shareholders. To ease investor concerns about some of Verizon’s latest strategic moves, it also announced plans to buy back an extra $5 billion worth of shares in the second quarter of this year.

A close review of the latest Verizon sale to Frontier shows the extent Verizon believes in its wireless business at the cost of its legacy copper and FiOS networks. That comes as no surprise to Verizon observers who note its current CEO used to run Verizon Wireless.

Shammo, as featured on a recent cover of CFO Studio magazine.

Shammo, as featured on a recent cover of CFO Studio magazine.

“It’s been clear for years that Verizon has wanted out of the copper business,” said Doug Dawson from CCG Consulting. “They first sold off large portions of New England to Fairpoint. Then in 2010 they sold a huge swath of lines in fourteen states to Frontier including the whole state of West Virginia. And now comes this sale. It’s starting to look like Verizon doesn’t want to be in the landline business at all, perhaps not even in the fiber business.”

Verizon’s latest sale involves “higher margin properties than the rest of our wireline business,” Shammo said, in part because large parts of the urban service areas involved were previously upgraded to FiOS.

“So if you look at Dallas, we were over 50% penetrated both in TV and broadband,” said Shammo. “So, it was a very highly penetrated market that was delivering a lot of cash flow and delivering a lot of earnings. So by just divesting of the three properties, if you just did it on an apples-to-apples basis, there would be dilution.

Giving up that amount of cash flow — needed to win back the $7 billion in FiOS upgrade investments Verizon made in the three states — would normally concern investors worried about the “stranded costs” left over from investments that were never fully repaid. But Verizon has a plan for that: an “Involuntary Separation Plan” (ISP) for more than 2,000 Verizon employees, a polite way to describe job-cutting layoffs.

“We have a year to plan for this and the plan is similar to what we did with the last time we rolled properties out from Frontier,” Shammo said. “We will plan to offset the stranded cost and those plans are already being worked. You saw a little bit of that in the fourth quarter where we gave some ISPs to the represented employee base and we had 2,100 people come off payroll.”

Verizon’s growing preoccupation with Verizon Wireless leaves some analysts questioning the company’s wisdom giving up high-profit FiOS broadband in favor of wireless at a time when competition among wireless companies is finally emerging.

“Verizon reports an overall 41% market penetration for its data product on FiOS networks,” said Dawson. “Data has such a high profit margin that it’s hard to think that FiOS is not extremely profitable for them. The trend has been for the amount of data used by households to double every three years, and one doesn’t have to project that trend forward very far to see that future bandwidth needs are only going to be met by fiber or by significantly upgraded cable networks.”

Considering the wireless market is maturing and most everyone who wants a cell phone already has one, there are questions about where Verizon sees future growth in a business where it is getting harder to attract new customers.

“Verizon was a market leader getting into the fiber business. FiOS was a bold move at the time,” Dawson reflects. “It’s another bold move to essentially walk away from the fiber business and concentrate on wireless. They obviously think that wireless has a better future than wireline. But since they are already at the top of pile in cellular one has to wonder where they see future growth?”

CRTC Orders Northwestel to Cut Rates for DSL Service in the Northern Territories by 10-30%

northwestelMore than three years after Canadian regulators required Bell Canada’s northern subsidiary, Northwestel, to undertake a $233 million modernization and upgrade plan, the CRTC has ruled the company is overcharging consumers for Internet access and has ordered rate cuts.

Customers in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Yukon pay some of the highest prices in the world for DSL Internet access, more than three times higher than what comparable broadband costs in southern Canada. The CRTC has found those prices unjustifiable, especially after its 2011 finding that Northwestel enjoyed strong financial performance while chronically underinvesting in its network.

The CRTC decision requires the company to cut prices for its DSL Internet 5 (5Mbps/512kbps) and DSL Internet 16 (16Mbps/768kbps) in N.W.T. and Yukon by 30% this May. Northwestel’s budget plans DSL Internet Lite (768/128kbps) and DSL Internet 2 (2.5Mbps/384kbps) will be reduced in price by 10 percent.

Customers of Northwestel’s most popular DSL plans pay between $65-90 a month for 2.5 or 5Mbps service with usage caps of 40 and 125GB per month, respectively.

Customers will also no longer face a $20/month broadband-only surcharge if they don’t want landline service and Northwestel’s overlimit fee, now $2-3/GB in the Northwest Territories, will be cut by at least $0.50/GB.

“Although we recognize the exceptional situation that exists in Northwestel’s territory, we must not let these challenges hinder the development and affordability of telecommunications services in the North,” said Jean-Pierre Blais, the CRTC’s chairman, in a March 4 release. “Access to reasonably priced Internet services plays an essential role in the North’s economic and social development. With this decision, we are reducing the gap between what consumers pay for Internet services in the northern and southern parts of Canada.”

Because of the company’s past pricing practices, Northwestel will not be permitted to increase residential Internet rates until the end of 2017 at the earliest, and will need CRTC approval for any other rate increases.

northwestel-operating-map

Northwestel’s operating service area includes the Yukon, Northwest Territories, northern British Columbia and Nunavut.

 

Residents in the northwestern and north-central regions of Canada have complained for years about poor service and high prices charged by Northwestel for Internet access.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CBC North Northwestel gets slammed in Whitehorse 6-20-13.flv

Back in the summer of 2013, Northwestel was the subject of a CRTC public hearing that got heated after customers and competitors complained the company had a de facto monopoly. (2:53)

At a 2013 hearing, Blais heard from a number of angry residents upset about Northwestel’s performance.

“I know you are frustrated; we heard it from the interveners, but we’ve pushed things considerably,” Blais said at the time.

kfn logo“The DSL package that I pay for out at Lake Lebarge is absolutely ridiculous in comparison to high-speed in town,” said Jeremy Jones. “[Northwestel charges] $90 for [5Mbps DSL with a usage cap of] 125GB. The only way to increase it would be to put in another phone line and second modem and that would have ended up being another $100+ per month. We’ve decided it is cheaper just to go over it if we need to.”

Customers are also frustrated by the fact the company receives over $20 million annually in federal subsidies, but those benefiting the most from Northwestel’s finances are its shareholders.

Native communities in isolated areas of northern Canada have learned it is better to build their own networks than wait for promises from Northwestel to be fulfilled.

The K’atl’Odeeche First Nation built its own fiber network on its reserve in Hay River, N.W.T. after Northwestel reneged on an agreement to improve existing DSL service. Today, the native community gets better Internet access than the rest of Hay River, and the community is willing to share their enhanced Internet connectivity with Northwestel for the benefit of others nearby if the company would agree to connect to it.

“We saved them millions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades and I think it’s only fair that they lease a small portion of that infrastructure for them to meet their CRTC mandate,” said Lyle Fabian, the IT manager for the First Nation.

Fabian believes other First Nations should strive for broadband self-sufficiency by also building their own networks to take control of their digital future. In almost every case, Fabian said, those networks will deliver better service than what is on offer from Northwestel.

While the CRTC-ordered rate cuts will help customers in the Yukon and Northwest Territories almost immediately, Internet access in satellite-based Nunavut will continue to be exorbitantly expensive until the CRTC completes a review of those rates. Nunavut residents pay $179.95 a month for 5Mbps/512kbps service with a 30GB usage cap.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/First Mile -- First Mile Community Stories Tour Katlodeeche First Nation Community Network 5-23-12.mp4

Henry Tambour from K’atl’odeeche First Nation in the Northwest Territories of Canada gives a 2012 tour of the first phase of the locally owned and operated fiber network. The community of 300 elected to take control of their broadband future back from Northwestel. (4:12)

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