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Cable Lobby Forgot to Mention It’s the Sole Backer of Sock Puppet Group ‘Onward Internet’

onward-internetWith millions at stake charging content producers extra for guaranteed fast lanes on the Internet, some lobbyists will go to almost any length to throw up roadblocks in opposition to Net Neutrality.

The sudden appearance of Onward Internet, a group that erects enormous “Internet suggestion boxes” at busy intersections in New York and San Francisco is a case in point.

At least a half-dozen 20-somethings, some dressed for a science fiction convention, staff the displays while encouraging people to write and toss in their own ideas about what they expect from the Internet over the next decade.

A higher bill and usage caps, unsurprisingly, were not among the suggestions. But it is doubtful the mysterious people behind Onward Internet are interested in hearing that.

Advocacy group ProPublica spent weeks trying to find who was paying for the youthful exuberance, giant black boxes, and hopelessly optimistic YouTube videos telling viewers the Internet was made to move data, and how amazing it was your Internet Service Providers valiantly kept up with the demand, helped connect industries and even topple dictatorships. Well, not corporate dictatorships in this country anyway.

With that kind of “feel good” message, ProPublica undoubtedly smelled industry money, especially after seeing lines like, “The Internet is a wild, free thing; unbounded by limits, unfettered by rules, it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the Internet continues to advance.” But it took a leak from a worker hired to file permits and buy space in San Francisco for the street displays to finally blow the whistle.

Onward Internet = the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, America’s largest cable industry lobbyist.

This appears to be a repurposed dumpster.

This appears to be a repurposed dumpster.

You couldn’t find a bigger critic of Net Neutrality if you tried.

The NCTA played coy with ProPublica when the group first confronted the cable lobby with the evidence.

“What led you to the conclusion that this is an NCTA effort,” asked NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz.

Busted, Dietz followed up with a statement suggesting the NCTA needed to keep its involvement top-secret because it might ‘bias’ the feedback they received:

“We’ve kept NCTA’s brand off Onward Internet because we want to collect unbiased feedback directly from individuals about what they want for the future of the Internet and how it can become even better than it is today,” Dietz told ProPublica. “The cable industry is proud of our role as a leading Internet provider in the U.S. but we feel it’s important to hear directly from consumers about how they envision the future so we can work hard on delivering it.”

“We had always intended to put the NCTA brand on it but we wanted to collect as much unbiased feedback as we could for a few weeks before putting our name on it,” Dietz later told VentureBeat.

The NCTA is hoping unwitting consumers submit comments they can use to oppose Net Neutrality and Title 2 reclassification of broadband as a “telecommunications service.”

Because if that happens, the Money Party may end before it even begins.

The NCTA’s astroturf effort is nothing new. A panoply of well-funded, telecom-industry backed sock puppet groups muddy the waters on these issues everyday, from Broadband for America to various think tanks and bought and paid for researchers.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Onward Internet Decide the future of the Internet 10-8-14.mp4

Onward Internet is hoping you will share comments they can use to prove you oppose Net Neutrality. The NCTA is a strong opponent of Net Neutrality, which allows LOLCATS, movies, and dictatorship toppling to occur without paying even MORE money to the cable company for a fast lane that should have been fast in the first place, considering how much we are spending on it. Now Big Cable also want usage caps and allowances. The revolution has been capped. (1:22)

Home Invasion Victims Sue Comcast Over Home Security System That Only Protected… Comcast

Phillip Dampier October 9, 2014 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Video No Comments
Vincent Sisounong and Blessing Gainey were charged with attempted murder.

Vincent Sisounong and Blessing Gainey were charged with attempted murder.

A Kirkland, Wash. family nearly lost their son in a brutal home invasion that Comcast’s home security system failed to deter and now the family is taking the cable company to court.

Leena Rawat and her family depended on Comcast’s home security system to keep their home intruder-proof, and that is precisely what the company and its contractor, Pioneer Cable, promised.

But the night two teenage neighbors went looking for blood, they had no trouble bypassing Comcast’s unarmed basement sensor and entering the family’s home.

Within minutes, the two men grabbed 18-year old Deep and began torturing him while his family slept.

“They were going to play a game with him tonight – and the game would be that he would be fighting for his life,” Rawat told KING-TV in Seattle. “He was full of blood from head to toe, with gashes. He was in the worst situation possible that a mother wants to see her child in.”

The intruders’ impromptu mission: to chop off one of Deep’s arms and legs with various cutting tools while robbing the family home.

Police say Vincent Sisounong and Blessing Gainey began the attack in Deep’s bedroom, then dragged him to the basement, where Sisounong instructed Gainey to hack at Rawat’s leg down to the bone, and then stabbed Rawat himself. Court documents said Sisounong told detectives that he wanted the victim to “fight for his life,” and when asked if the experience was enjoyable, he said, “yeah.”

Rawat eventually managed to break free, prompting Gainey to leave the scene. But Sisounong chased after Rawat as he ran to the bathroom, further slashing him with a knife. Rawat mustered enough strength to punch the intruder in the face and escape, but not before the men stole keys, electronics, and money before walking out the door.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KIRO Seattle Police Suspects tried to kill for pleasure and greed 11-4-13.flv

KIRO-TV in Seattle reported on the home invasion back in early November 2013 and learned horrified neighbors were arming themselves to protect against another random attack. (2:27)

During the incident, the only alert that something might be wrong came from the family’s car alarm that accidentally went off during a struggle for the keys. At no time did Comcast’s alarm system activate or signal police an intrusion was underway. Authorities were summoned only after Deep arrived, bleeding and badly injured, on a neighbor’s doorstep.

Vincent Sisounong, 21, and Blessing Gainey, 19, were located by authorities after matching fingerprints were found inside the Rawat home and both were charged with first-degree attempted murder and first-degree burglary.

When interviewed by police, Sisounong said he “really wanted” to kill the teenager, court documents said, noting that neither man knew the Rawat family.

“I just say God was there that night,” said an incensed Leena. “God, but not Comcast security. It’s been very tough. It was not a one night thing. It’s changed our life.”

That night and every night, the one thing Comcast’s security system manages to protect more than anything else is the cable company itself.

The traumatized family quickly learned Comcast was disavowing any and all responsibility for the failure of their alarm system, and Comcast’s contracts include clauses that require customers to waive all liability, even if Comcast is later found negligent. In fact, customers who sign Comcast’s contract must also side with the cable company and against their own insurance company during any claims process.

Comcast's security contract lets the company walk away from responsibility for virtually everything.

Comcast’s security contract lets the company walk away from responsibility for almost everything.

The first duty of every Comcast home security customer is to protect Comcast, as made clear in particularly bold, all-capital letter print:

YOUR DUTY TO PROTECT/INDEMNIFY THE COMPANY APPLIES EVEN IN THE CASE OF THE COMPANY’S OWN NEGLIGENCE.

“If their argument is to be accepted, they could put in empty black boxes throughout the house and say, ‘That’s your system.’ And then something goes wrong, and they say, ‘We never promised you it would work,'” said Ken Friedman, attorney.

Comcast’s response:

“We want to take this opportunity to extend our sympathies to the Rawat family. However, after a review of our records, we are confident that our home security system functioned properly.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KING Seattle Comcast Sued Over Home Security System Failures 10-1-14.flv

KING-TV in Seattle talked with Leena Rawat about how Comcast let her and her family down on the worst night of their lives. (2:29)

5+ Years After Fraudulent Cramming Fees Began, AT&T Agrees to Pay $105 Million Fine/Restitution

AT&T aids and abets cramming fraud by making it hard to identify on customer bills.

AT&T aids and abets cramming fraud by making it hard to find on customer bills.

More than five years after complaints began rolling into AT&T from wireless customers finding unauthorized charges on their monthly bills, the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission today announced those customers deserve a refund, and AT&T has agreed to pay $80 million towards restitution for their complicity in bill cramming.

As part of a $105 million settlement with federal and state law enforcement officials, AT&T Mobility LLC will pay $80 million to the Federal Trade Commission to provide refunds to consumers the company unlawfully billed for unauthorized third-party charges, a practice known as mobile cramming. The refunds are part of a multi-agency settlement that also includes $20 million in penalties and fees paid to 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as a $5 million penalty to the Federal Communications Commission.

In its complaint against AT&T, the FTC alleges that AT&T billed its customers for hundreds of millions of dollars in charges originated by other companies, usually in amounts of $9.99 per month, for subscriptions for ringtones and text messages containing love tips, horoscopes, and “fun facts.” In its complaint, the FTC alleges that AT&T kept at least 35 percent of the charges it imposed on its customers, a lucrative incentive for AT&T to keep the cramming charges coming.

“I am very pleased that this settlement will put tens of millions of dollars back in the pockets of consumers harmed by AT&T’s cramming of its mobile customers,” said FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “This case underscores the important fact that basic consumer protections – including that consumers should not be billed for charges they did not authorize – are fully applicable in the mobile environment.”

Beginning today, consumers who believe they were charged by AT&T without their authorization can visit www.ftc.gov/att to submit a refund claim and find out more about the FTC’s refund program under the settlement. If consumers are unsure about whether they are eligible for a refund, they can visit the claims website or contact the settlement administrator at 1-877-819-9692 for more information.

This case is part of a larger FTC effort to clamp down on mobile cramming. This is the FTC’s seventh mobile cramming case since 2013, and its second against a mobile phone carrier this year. The FTC filed a complaint against T-Mobile in July, and that case is ongoing. The Commission also issued a staff report on mobile cramming in July. The FTC mobile cramming cases build on the FTC’s extensive law enforcement work over the last decade to combat cramming on landline phone bills.

The FTC’s investigation into AT&T showed that the company received very high volumes of consumer complaints related to the unauthorized third-party charges placed on consumer’s phone bills. For some third-party content providers, complaints reached as high as 40 percent of subscriptions charged to AT&T consumers in a given month. In 2011 alone, the FTC’s complaint states, AT&T received more than 1.3 million calls to its customer service department about the charges.

According to the complaint, in October 2011, AT&T altered its refund policy so that customer service representatives could only offer to refund two months’ worth of charges to consumers who sought a refund, no matter how long the company had been billing customers for the unauthorized charges. Prior to that time, AT&T had offered refunds of up to three months’ worth of charges. At that time, AT&T characterized its change in policy as designed to “help lower refunds.”

In February 2012, one AT&T employee said in an e-mail that “Cramming/Spamming has increased to a new level that cannot be tolerated from an AT&T or industry perspective,” but according to the complaint, the company did not act to determine whether third parties had in fact gotten authorization from consumers for the charges placed on their bills. In fact, the company denied refunds to many consumers, and in other cases referred the consumers to third-parties to seek refunds for the money consumers paid to AT&T.

The structure of AT&T’s consumer bills compounded the problem of the unauthorized charges, according to the complaint, by making it very difficult for customers to know that third-party charges were being placed on their bills. On both the first page of printed bills and the summary of bills viewed online, consumers saw only a total amount due and due date with no indication the amount included charges placed on their bill by a third party. The complaint alleges that within online and printed bills, the fees were listed as “AT&T Monthly Subscriptions,” leaving consumers to believe the charges were part of services provided by AT&T.

Under the terms of its settlement with the FTC, AT&T must notify all of its current customers who were billed for unauthorized third-party charges of the settlement and the refund program by text message, e-mail, paper bill insert and notification on an online bill. Former customers may be contacted by the FTC’s refund administrator.

In addition to the refund requirements, AT&T is also required to obtain consumers’ express, informed consent before placing any third-party charges on a consumer’s mobile phone bill. In addition, the company must clearly indicate any third-party charges on the consumers’ bill and provide consumers with the option to block third-party charges from being placed on their bill.

The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file the complaint and approving the proposed stipulated order was 5-0. The FTC filed the complaint and proposed stipulated order in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. The proposed stipulated order is subject to court approval.

Marriott’s Scheme to Force Guests to Use $1,000 Hotel Hotspots Derailed by FCC; Fined $600K

Marriott's Gaylord Opryland Resort made sure it had a corner on the Wi-Fi market by blocking the competition and charging $250-1,000 to win access to the hotel's Wi-Fi.

Marriott’s Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville made sure it had a corner on the Wi-Fi market by blocking the competition and charging $250-1,000 to gain access to the hotel’s Wi-Fi.

Marriott International, Inc. and its subsidiary, Marriott Hotel Services, Inc., have been fined $600,000 after a Federal Communications Commission investigation uncovered hotel employees intentionally interfering with personal Wi-Fi networks during convention events, forcing guests and exhibitors to use the hotel’s Wi-Fi network, at a cost of up to $1,000.

The FCC Enforcement Bureau, in response to a guest’s complaint that the hotel was intentionally jamming every Wi-Fi network except their own, discovered hotel workers were using a Wi-Fi monitoring system at the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville to prevent visitors from using their personal mobile broadband hotspots, a serious violation of Section 333 of the Communications Act.

Employees of Marriott, which has managed the day-to-day operations of the Gaylord Opryland since 2012, were tasked with using features of the hotel’s Wi-Fi monitoring system at the Gaylord Opryland to contain and/or de-authenticate guest-created Wi-Fi hotspot access points in the conference facilities. In some cases, employees sent de-authentication packets to the targeted access points, which would dissociate consumers’ devices from their own Wi-Fi hotspots and lock out the devices to keep them from connecting in the future.

Guests and exhibitors arriving expecting to use their AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile mobile hotspots found them completely disabled while on the property. Even adjacent Wi-Fi networks from nearby properties stopped working the moment users entered or approached the hotel grounds.

At the same time the hotel was blocking connections, Marriott charged conference exhibitors and guests dependent on Wi-Fi to run their exhibits or manage business matters connection fees ranging from $250-$1,000 per device for access to the Gaylord’s Wi-Fi network, the only network available.

“Consumers who purchase cellular data plans should be able to use them without fear that their personal Internet connection will be blocked by their hotel or conference center,” said Enforcement Bureau chief Travis LeBlanc. “It is unacceptable for any hotel to intentionally disable personal hotspots while also charging consumers and small businesses high fees to use the hotel’s own Wi-Fi network. This practice puts consumers in the untenable position of either paying twice for the same service or forgoing Internet access altogether.”

Marriott claimed they were just protecting their guests from cyber attacks and the FCC’s decision to fine the hotel has created confusion across the hospitality industry.

marriott-logo“Marriott has a strong interest in ensuring that when our guests use our Wi-Fi service, they will be protected from rogue wireless hot spots that can cause degraded service, insidious cyber-attacks and identity theft,” Marriott said in a statement. “Like many other institutions and companies in a wide variety of industries, including hospitals and universities, the Gaylord Opryland protected its Wi-Fi network by using FCC-authorized equipment provided by well-known, reputable manufacturers. We believe that the Opryland’s actions were lawful. We will continue to encourage the FCC to pursue a rule making in order to eliminate the ongoing confusion resulting from today’s action and to assess the merits of its underlying policy.”

Several hotel chains have turned to Internet connectivity as a revenue generator, but few hotels have asked as much as Marriott. Some hotel chains charge as much as $22 per day for permission to connect to the facility’s Wi-Fi network, convincing many guests to use their own personal mobile devices as Wi-Fi hotspots instead. But Marriott’s debacle with the FCC allowed several chains to get an edge on the competition and trumpet they are not in the Wi-Fi jamming business:

  • Hilton Hotels:  “We do not block or jam any wireless transmissions at our properties;”
  • Kempinski and Hyatt Hotels: There are no policies that allow our hotels to jam, block or prevent guests’ use of personal Wi-Fi hotspots;
  • InterContinental Hotels Group (Candlewood Suites, Crowne Plaza, Even, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hotel Indigo, Hualuxe, InterContinental and Staybridge Suites) has no problem with guests using personal networks on hotel property, but why bother when any guest can enroll in the IHG Rewards Club at no charge which gives them free unlimited access to the chain’s Wi-Fi;
  • The majority of Wyndham’s hotels are independently owned and operated, but most already offer complimentary Wi-Fi to guests, according to a hotel spokesperson.

Marriott was convinced it was not in violation of the law because it was not using an illegal signal jammer, commonly available overseas and often used in restaurants and theaters to silence cell phones. Marriott’s guests could still make and receive phone calls and text messages. But the Enforcement Bureau found that argument uncompelling after discovering hotel employees intentionally targeting any non-hotel hotspots they could locate to disconnect or block consumers from using them.

The $600,000 fine, the first of its kind for an incident of this kind, won’t mean much to the Marriott Gaylord Opryland. For staying at one of the hotel’s 3,000 rooms, Marriott charges $18 a day in “resort fees” for the “free Internet access,” $6.99 a day for enhanced Internet speed “suitable for downloading files, video chat and video streaming,” and $21-28 a day to park your car there.

But the FCC enforcement action has put a stop to this kind of access blockade spreading further. Under the terms of Marriott’s agreement with the FCC announced today, Marriott must cease the unlawful use of Wi-Fi blocking technology and take significant steps to improve how it monitors and uses its Wi-Fi technology at the Gaylord Opryland. Marriott must institute a compliance plan and file compliance and usage reports with the Bureau every three months for three years, including information documenting any use of access point containment features at any U.S. property that Marriott manages or owns.

Marsha Blackburn Angry that FCC Chairman Wants to Run Tenn. Broadband… When AT&T Should

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee, but mostly AT&T and Comcast)

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee, but mostly AT&T and Comcast)

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) is angry that FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is sticking his nose into AT&T, Comcast, and Charter Communications’ private playground — the state of Tennessee.

In an editorial published by The Tennessean, Blackburn throws a fit that an “unelected” bureaucrat not only believes what’s best for her state, but is now openly talking about preempting state laws that ban public broadband networks:

Legislatures are the entities who should be making these decisions. Legislatures govern what municipalities can and cannot do. The principles of federalism and state delegation of power keep government’s power in check. When a state determines that municipalities should be limited in experimenting in the private broadband market, it’s usually because the state had a good reason — to help protect public investments in education and infrastructure or to protect taxpayers from having to bailout an unproven and unsustainable project.

Chairman Wheeler has repeatedly stated that he intends to preempt the states’ sovereign role when it comes to this issue. His statements assume that Washington knows best. However, Washington often forgets that the right answers don’t always come from the top down.

It’s unfortunate Rep. Blackburn’s convictions don’t extend to corporate money and influence in the public dialogue about broadband. The “good reason” states have limited public broadband come in the form of a check, either presented directly to politicians like Blackburn, who has received so many contributions from AT&T she could cross daily exercise off her “things to do” list just running to the bank, or through positive press from front groups, notably the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

According to campaign finance data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, three of Blackburn’s largest career donors are employees and PACs affiliated with AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. Blackburn has also taken $56,000 from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the lobby for the big telecoms.

Combined, those organizations donated more than $200,000 to Blackburn. In comparison, her largest single donor is a PAC associated with Memphis-based FedEx Corp., which donated $68,500.

Phillip "States' rights don't extend to local rights in Blackburn's ideological world" Dampier

Phillip “States’ rights don’t extend to local rights in Blackburn’s ideological world” Dampier

Blackburn’s commentary tests the patience of the reality-based community, particularly when she argues that keeping public broadband out protects investments in education. As her rural constituents already know, 21st century broadband is often unavailable in rural Tennessee, and that includes many schools. Stop the Cap! regularly receives letters from rural Americans who complain they have to drive their kids to a Wi-Fi enabled parking lot at a fast food restaurant, town library, or even hunt for an unintentionally open Wi-Fi connection in a private home, just to complete homework assignments that require a broadband connection.

Blackburn’s favorite telecommunication’s company — AT&T — has petitioned the state legislature to allow it to permanently disconnect DSL and landline service in rural areas of the state, forcing customers to a perilous wireless data experience that doesn’t work as well as AT&T promises. While Blackburn complains about the threat of municipal broadband, she says and does nothing about the very real possibility AT&T will be allowed to make things even worse for rural constituents in her own state.

Who does Blackburn believe will ride to the rescue of rural America? Certainly not AT&T, which doesn’t want the expense of maintaining wired broadband service in less profitable rural areas. Comcast won’t even run cable lines into small communities. In fact, evidence has shown for at least a century, whether it is electricity, telephone, or broadband service, when large corporate entities don’t see profits, they won’t provide the service and communities usually have to do the job themselves. But this time those communities are handcuffed in states that have enacted municipal broadband bans literally written by incumbent phone and cable companies and shepherded into the state legislature through front groups like ALEC.

Chairman Wheeler is in an excellent position to understand the big picture, far better than Blackburn’s limited knowledge largely absorbed from AT&T’s talking points. After all, Wheeler comes from the cable and wireless industry and knows very well how the game is played. Wheeler has never said that Washington knows best, but he has made it clear state and federal legislators who support anti-competitive measures like municipal broadband bans don’t have a monopoly on good ideas either — they just have monopolies.

That isn’t good enough for Congresswoman Blackburn, who sought to strip funding from the FCC to punish the agency for crossing AT&T, Comcast and other telecom companies:

Marsha is an avowed member of the AT&T Fan Club.

Marsha is an avowed member of the AT&T Fan Club.

In July, I passed an amendment in Congress that would prohibit taxpayer funds from being used by the FCC to pre-empt state municipal broadband laws. My amendment doesn’t prevent Chattanooga or any other city in Tennessee from being able to engage in municipal broadband. It just keeps those decisions at the state level. Tennessee’s state law that allowed Chattanooga and other cities to engage in municipal broadband will continue to exist without any interference from the FCC. Tennessee should be able to adjust its law as it sees fit, instead of Washington dictating to us.

Notice that Blackburn’s ideological fortitude has loopholes that protect a very important success story — EPB Fiber in Chattanooga, one of the first to offer gigabit broadband service. If municipal broadband is such a threat to common sense, why the free pass for EPB? In fact, it is networks like EPB that expose the nonsense on offer from Blackburn and her industry friends that claim public broadband networks are failures and money pits.

In fact, Blackburn’s idea of states’ rights never seems to extend to local communities across Tennessee that would have seen local ordinances gutted by Blackburn’s telecommunications policies and proposed bills. In 2005, Blackburn introduced the ironically named Video Choice Act of 2005 which, among other things:

  • Would have granted a nationwide video franchise system that would end all local oversight over rights-of-way for the benefit of incumbent telephone companies, but not for cable or other new competitors like Google Fiber;
  • Strips away all local oversight of cable and telephone company operations that allowed local jurisdictions to ensure providers follow local laws and rules;
  • Prohibited any mechanism on the local level to collect franchise payments;
  • Eliminated any rules forbidding “redlining” — when a provider only chooses select parts of a community to serve.

More recently, Blackburn has been on board favoring legislation restricting local communities from having a full say on the placement of cell towers. Current Tennessee law already imposes restrictions on local communities trying to refuse requests from AT&T, Verizon and others to place new cell towers wherever they like. She is also in favor of highest-bidder wins spectrum auctions that could allow AT&T and Verizon to use their enormous financial resources to snap up new spectrum and find ways to hoard it to keep it away from competitors.

Not everyone in Tennessee appreciated Blackburn’s remarks.

Nashville resident Paul Felton got equal time in the newspaper to refute Blackburn’s claims:

Rep. Marsha Blackburn is on her high horse (Tennessee Voices, Oct. 3) about the idea of the Federal Communications Commission opposing laws against municipal broadband networks, wrapping herself in the mantle of states’ rights. We know that behind all “states’ rights” indignation is “corporate rights” protection.

The last I heard, there was only one Internet, and anyone can log into Amazon or healthcare.gov just as easily from any state. Or any budget.

No, this is about the one Internet being controlled by one corporate giant (or two) in each area, who want to control price and broadband speed, and now want to link the two. They don’t want competition from any pesky municipal providers hellbent on providing the same speed for all users, at a lower price. Check the lobbying efforts against egalitarian ideas to find out which side of an issue Marsha Blackburn always comes down on.

But comments like these don’t deter Rep. Blackburn.

“Congress cannot sit idly by and let a federal agency trample on our states’ rights,” she wrote, but we believe she meant to say ‘AT&T’s rights.’

“Besides, the FCC should be tackling other priorities where political consensus exists, like deploying spectrum into the marketplace, making the Universal Service Fund more effective, protecting consumers, improving emergency communications and other important policies,” Blackburn wrote.

Remarkably, that priority list just so happens to mirror AT&T’s own legislative agenda. Perhaps that is just a coincidence.

Comcast Gets the Last Word: Complain Too Much and They’ll Call Your Boss and Get You Fired

firedComcast’s customer relations team apparently is better at ferreting out contacts at their customers’ employers than fixing problems with their service, despite being given multiple chances to make things right. When one customer made a seventh attempt to resolve his problems, Comcast called his boss and got him fired.

The Consumerist details the latest Comcast Customer Service Horror Show. On one side, Conal, who signed up for Comcast after being sold on a 9-month new customer promotion. On the other, Comcast’s billing and customer service department. Almost from the beginning, the two were locked in combat over service and billing issues:

  • Comcast misspelled his last name in their records, which meant some of his bills were allegedly returned to Comcast by the post office;
  • Comcast charged him for set-top boxes that were never activated on his account;
  • After multiple complaints, Comcast reduced his promotional discount, raising his bill $20 while adding new charges for a second cable modem he didn’t have and continuing charges for set-top boxes he never used;
  • Conal tried to cancel his service in October 2013 because of the mishaps, but a representative convinced him to stay after promising to fix his account. Instead, Comcast sent him a dozen pieces of equipment he never ordered and billed his account $1,820 for the unwanted equipment.

Conal returned the unrequested DVRs, cable modems, and everything else Comcast sent, and brought along a spreadsheet detailing his ongoing dispute, including every overcharge he incurred. He’s a professional accountant used to dealing with companies that understand numbers, and was convinced putting everything on paper would finally get through to the cable company.

comcast service cartoonNot a chance.

Comcast was unmoved and unconvinced by Conal’s spreadsheet, denied there was ever a problem with his account, and upon learning he intended to continue contesting the equipment charges, turned his account over to collections despite the fact it was not past due.

On Feb. 6 Conal dared to escalate his concerns to Comcast’s Office of the Controller. A subsequent callback from a testy representative began with, “how can I help you.” There was no greeting or mention she worked for Comcast, but there was plenty of attitude. The mysterious rep disputed Conal’s claim that a Comcast technician never showed up for an appointment, but could not tell him which appointment she was referring to. After that debate ended, the only remaining question on her mind was the color of Conal’s house.

Realizing a short time later that call was a waste of time, Conal called back the Controller’s office to let them know Comcast’s latest ambassador of goodwill was unhelpful. At this point, he casually mentioned the unresolved accounting issues with his bill should probably be brought before the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, a private-sector, nonprofit corporation created by the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002 to end the accounting tricks and executive-ordered embargoes on bad news that fleeced investors in the 1990s. A professional accountant would be familiar with the PCAOB and how to appeal for an independent review, ordinary consumers would be unlikely to know the Board even existed.

nbc comcastThat Conal would raise the matter of the PCAOB to the Controller’s Office apparently piqued the interest of someone at Comcast, who launched a small research project to determine who Conal was and where he worked. When they discovered his employer did work for Comcast, the cable company struck gold in the leverage department.

Comcast called Conal’s employer and spoke with a partner at the firm, who also received e-mail containing a summary of conversations Comcast evidently recorded between Conal and its various representatives. Comcast complained Conal was using the name of his employer to seek an unfair advantage with customer service. Conal told the Consumerist he never mentioned his employer by name, but once the Controller’s Office learned he was an accountant willing to escalate his complaints outside of the company, it would be a simple matter to look him up online and learn where he worked.

Conal’s employer in fact does consulting work for Comcast, so the outcome of a brief ethics investigation predictably led to Conal’s termination. Conal was never allowed to see the transcripts of conversations with the cable company, nor given access to any recordings of those calls. Conal said before he tangled with Comcast, he had received only positive feedback and reviews for his work.

Conal’s lawyer has been in contact with Comcast over the matter and received a pithy reply from Comcast’s senior deputy general counsel, who likely fears a forthcoming lawsuit, admitting Comcast did call Conal’s employer but said Conal “is not in a position to complain that the firm came to learn” about his dispute with Comcast.

“Our customers deserve the best experience every time they interact with us,” reads a statement from Comcast. The company says it has previously apologized to Conal, but adds “we will review his lawyer’s letter and respond as quickly as possible.”

Comcast had no comment about whether the company considers it proper to identify and contact customers’ employers and push its weight around when it feels the need to do some complaining of its own.

Providers Are Still Confused About Why You Want Faster Broadband

The many stages of denial

The many stages of denial

It took Google Fiber to change the paradigm that you only need enough broadband speed to run the basics — anything extra is extravagant and unnecessary. At least that is the argument broadband providers continue to make when asked about speed upgrades.

“When Google announced it was offering a gigabit, everybody was (like), ‘Huh? What are you going do with that?'” said Heather Burnett Gold, president of the Fiber to the Home Council Americas.

Time Warner Cable and AT&T are in the process of finding out in both Kansas City and (soon) in Austin, Tex. But when you don’t have what the other guy is offering, providers predictably switch to the cheaper-than-upgrades-argument, ‘you don’t need it.’

Before Google Fiber began a serious advance into Time Warner Cable territories and the cable company’s top speed of 50/5Mbps became an embarrassing outlier, then chief financial officer Irene Esteves poo-poohed the notion that people need anything faster than what Time Warner was already delivering. Esteves told an investment-phobic crowd of Wall Street analysts at a Morgan Stanley Tech Conference everyone was happy with what they already had.

“We just don’t see the need of delivering that [gigabit speed] to consumers,” Esteves said back in 2013.

Comcast didn’t think much of speed upgrades either… until it did in its regulatory filings to acquire Time Warner Cable, where Comcast championed the fact it offers more speed upgrades than Time Warner Cable ever did. But who can forget Comcast repeatedly telling customers their speeds were fast enough, and with their then-ubiquitous 250GB usage cap, you couldn’t use faster speeds for that much anyway.

“For some, the discussion about the broadband Internet seems to begin and end on the issue of “gigabit” access,” David L. Cohen, Comcast’s executive vice president, wrote in an editorial in the summer of 2013. “The issue with such speed is really more about demand than supply. Our business customers can already order 10-gig connections. Most websites can’t deliver content as fast as current networks move, and most U.S. homes have routers that can’t support the speed already available to the home.”

(Today, Comcast touts it has new routers that will support the fastest speeds on offer from cable companies and promises Time Warner Cable customers long overdue speed upgrades.)

Other providers that cannot possibly compete with Google Fiber’s speed also like to change the subject.

The Wireless Cowboys blog, run by a Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP), believes the real issue isn’t about speed at all.

“All of the discussions about ‘Gigabit Internet’ and coming up with uses for it focuses too much on the American obsession with ‘bigger, faster, moar!’ while obscuring what I feel are the more important issues of accessibility, affordability, choice of provider, freedom from data exploitation and dependency on the cloud,” wrote the editor.

Unfortunately for him, it isn’t the American obsession with ‘bigger, faster, moar’ that is the issue. It is just about everywhere else where nations are treating major broadband upgrades as a national priority, while we depend almost entirely on a barely competitive private sector to deliver upgrades most of them don’t believe we need in the first place.

Dan Tesch wrote in InformationWeek earlier this year he wants the United States to sit this one out.

“Even if Latvians enjoy faster connections than Texans (2.5 x faster), I’m really curious how broadband speeds of more than a few slowMbps for average households can have a material impact on the economy,” he writes. “A 6Mbps connection could easily support several home users simultaneously shopping on multiple e-commerce sites, downloading iTunes, streaming Spotify, and so on. Do Americans really need gigabit to the home?”

Back in the early 1990s, dial-up was plenty for the online applications of the day and faxing managed just fine at 9600bps over landlines, so why do we need more? Perhaps because dial-up is effectively dead to us and faxing has become quaint, like carrying cassettes in your car. Technology marches forward, and providers must follow (or preferably lead).

It is inevitable that faster broadband will drive development of new applications designed to take advantage of gigabit speeds as they become more common. That isn’t likely to happen for years in the United States and Canada, but those speeds are already becoming common in Europe and Asia. Where superfast broadband predominates, so shall high-tech app developers and other digital economy businesses. North America will be left behind until we finally catch up to Romania, Bulgaria, and South Korea.

The evidence is already there.

“I just returned from Stockholm where fiber connections are cheap and as available as running water,” said Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and author of “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry & Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.” As a result, she said, developers there have “a digital sandbox to play in,” which means they are more likely to develop the next generation of software and hardware.

“Most people don’t really get it yet,” Synthia Payne, who moved from Denver to Kansas City, Kan., for a $70-a-month Google Fiber connection told the New York Times. She needed superfast broadband to develop an app called Cyberjammer that allows musicians around the world to jam online and in real-time. “People just haven’t conceived of what fiber will mean and how it will change the way we live and work.”

Brad Kalinoski and Tinatsu Wallace fled Time Warner Cable country in Los Angeles and moved to Wilson, N.C. They co-own Exodus FX, a company that provides special effects for commercials, television and feature films like “The Black Swan” and “Captain America.”

“We were doing so much business that we had to have increased bandwidth, so we started looking around and found Wilson,” said Kalinoski.

If they stayed in Hollywood, gigabit fiber broadband requires an extremely expensive commercial account with a substantial buildout/installation fee to reach the building and monthly charges starting at $1,500-3,000. Today, he pays Greenlight, Wilson’s publicly owned fiber to the building provider, $150 a month for gigabit access.

frustrationAny digital economy business dependent on fast Internet can see the economics, and often relocate.

“In New York, I pay four times as much as someone in Stockholm would pay for a connection that is 17 times as slow on the download and 167 times as slow on upload,” Crawford noted. “Most of us are paying enormous rents for second-class service.”

It’s the same in Seattle, where Eric Blank moved his 20-employee IT security firm from Seattle to Mount Vernon, Wash., which has its own fiber network. Blank could have kept paying CenturyLink or Comcast around $985 a month for vastly slower service or pay Mount Vernon for access to its public broadband service, which costs $250 a month. Blank told the New York Times he gets better service for his $250 in Mount Vernon than what he got at a higher price in Seattle.

Remarkably, for all the talk about why Americans don’t need faster Internet service, the moment a competitor starts selling it, the cheap talk turns into service upgrades (or at least press releases promising upgrades).

In Kansas City, speeds are rising not just because of Google Fiber. Akamai has found AT&T and Time Warner Cable are upgrading to deliver faster speeds as well.

We’re seeing faster speeds everywhere,” said David Belson, who authors the State of the Internet Report for Akamai. “Part of that is that the technology is improving to get better speeds out of existing networks, part of it is consumer demand, and part is the pressure that Google Fiber’s existence creates on everybody else.”

Today Time Warner Cable delivers 50Mbps for what it used to charge for 15Mbps service in Kansas City. AT&T has also boosted speeds of its U-verse service in many Kansas City neighborhoods, with promises to deliver gigabit speeds in Overland Park in the not-too-distant future.

Redbox Instant by Verizon Shutting Down Oct. 7; Customers Worry About Purchased Digital Media

Phillip Dampier October 6, 2014 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video, Verizon 1 Comment
The death certificate will be signed on Oct. 7.

The death certificate will be signed on Oct. 7.

As expected, Redbox Instant by Verizon will stop operations on Tuesday (Oct. 7) after failing to attract enough interest from customers in the Netflix-dominated online video marketplace.

IMPORTANT SERVICE SHUTDOWN NOTICE

Thank you for being a part of Redbox Instant by Verizon. Please be aware that the service will be shut down on Tuesday, October 7, 2014, at 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time.

Information on applicable refunds will be emailed to current customers and posted here on October 10. In the meantime, you may continue to stream movies and use your Redbox kiosk credits until Tuesday, October 7 at 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time.

We apologize for any inconvenience and we thank you for the opportunity to entertain you.

Sincerely,
The Redbox Instant by Verizon Team

Customers that purchased digital copies of movies Redbox Instant offered for sale may not be able to retrieve them from Verizon’s digital storage locker after the service shuts down, but the company says it is “exploring options” for those affected.

“The service is shutting down because it was not as successful as we hoped it would be. We apologize for any inconvenience and we thank you for giving us the opportunity to entertain you,” the company said as part of its shutdown notice.

Paying customers will receive a refund for one month of service and have just 24 hours to redeem any Redbox kiosk rental vouchers included with their subscription.

Annoyed Ants Continue to Cause Telecom Outages; They Don’t Appreciate Underground Wiring

Phillip Dampier October 2, 2014 AT&T, Consumer News 2 Comments
Odorous House Ants in splice tray (Image: Rainbow Tech)

Odorous House Ants in splice tray (Image: Rainbow Tech)

Ants going about their daily routine have grown increasingly frustrated with the presence of underground optical cables and other telecommunications equipment including lawn pedestals and terminating boxes and have become a growing problem for telecom companies that can blame local outages on their activities.

In the last month, Frontier, Windstream, AT&T, and Verizon all suffered outages directly attributed to insect activity. In most cases, the damage is unintentional — the insects use enclosed spaces like lawn pedestals and equipment cabinets as a handy home. Material brought into the colony can overheat equipment when it blocks air vents, increased moisture from the insects can corrode or compromise sensitive electronics, and insect attempts to push wiring out of the way can ruin optical cables.

Stop the Cap! reader Geoff Fielder found his entire neighborhood missing U-verse service last month and learned ants had infested the neighborhood’s fiber-copper junction box and corroded some of the equipment contained inside.

“When the technician opened the box, half the neighborhood could hear him screaming,” Fletcher said. “He made it quite plain he didn’t like ants. His partner arrived with a spray can in hand and knocked down most of them and encouraged the others to retreat. The damage was significant and they were surprised it happened so quickly because AT&T technicians tend to visit equipment boxes regularly when they connect new customers.”

It took most of the afternoon to repair the damage and bring the neighborhood back online.

Earlier this summer, Verizon FiOS user Paul McNamara, news editor of Network World, reported ants had destroyed the fiber optic cable bringing him service. Five years earlier, ants caused havoc when they colonized a utility junction box on a pole across the street. In both cases, they brought Verizon’s fiber network to its knees for McNamara.

“When the Verizon technician opened the box it was filled with hundreds of ants (I had actually forgotten about the earlier ant episode, but he clearly expected them to be there),” McNamara wrote in a blog post. “And when he shooed away enough of the critters to get a look inside, the red glow of a stripped fiber optic cable was clearly visible.”

The technician believed the ants were attracted to a liquid jelly used inside the cable’s casing.

Ant Damage to an optical fiber cable (Image: Draka)

Ant damage to an optical fiber cable (Image: Draka)

Draka, an optical fiber supplier dealing with complaints about insect damage, reports the ants it encounters are not seeking out optical cables. They just don’t appreciate when those cables get in their way.

The company ran test ant farms where they intentionally placed optical fiber cables in proximity to the colonizing ants. They were relieved to discover the ants didn’t target their brand of cable specifically — they attacked them all equally.

“Fibers from all four suppliers were found to be damaged by the activities of the ants in the farms,” Draka wrote in its study. “The ants did not preferentially attack Draka fiber in the competitor fiber farms, but rather they did damage to fibers from all vendors.”

Some ant species are less tolerant of cables than others. Among the nastiest are the Red, Western, and California Harvester Ants, found mostly west of the Mississippi. They dig ant galleries as deep as nine feet and have little tolerance for any underground cables they meet.

“It was concluded that the harvester ants often attempt to push aside any optical fiber they encounter if the fiber is in the way of their work,” Draka reported. “It was observed that they sometimes moved the fibers when they were in the way, but they were not seen trying to eat the coating or attacking the fiber.”

They needn’t do either to cause damage. The body parts they use to shove cables aside are capable of creating significant damage, starting with stripping the color off the cable and eventually destroying insulation straight down to the glass fiber itself.

Other ant species are also capable of causing indirect damage by their presence. Ant waste is often corrosive and a long-established colony can do significant damage to equipment cabinets.

The neighborhood bad boy, ready to chew.

The neighborhood bad boy, ready to chew.

Technicians assigned to dealing with insect-related outages encounter more than just ants, however. These insects often set up home inside little-accessed boxes:

  • Black Widow Spiders
  • Brown Recluse Spiders
  • Crickets
  • Fleas
  • Millipedes
  • Roaches
  • Scorpions
  • Silverfish
  • Sowbugs
  • Ticks
  • Waterbugs

Rainbow Technology, a major supplier of insect and rodent control measures to utility companies, says a fast response can make a real difference. Rainbow said the worst offenders are five types of ants that have a bad reputation with utility companies: harvester ants, odorous house ants, Argentine ants, carpenter ants and fire ants. They have been implicated in service outages in California, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Texas.

Rodents, especially squirrels, also remain constant hazards everywhere – especially to overhead wiring. They need to wear down constantly growing teeth and utility cables are a perennial favorite. They typically stop gnawing after the insulation has been stripped off cable television or telephone wiring. They will stop gnawing for a different reason if they chew on electrical cables.

Verizon Wireless Cancels Its LTE 4G “Network Optimization” (Speed Throttling) Plan Before It Launches

throttleVerizon Wireless, facing scrutiny from FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, today announced it has canceled plans to introduce a new “network optimization” policy that would have significantly throttled down speeds for heavy users still on grandfathered, unlimited use data plans.

Stop the Cap! received a statement from Verizon Wireless this afternoon announcing a sudden change of heart:

Verizon is committed to providing its customers with an unparalleled mobile network experience.  At a time of ever-increasing mobile broadband data usage, we not only take pride in the way we manage our network resources, but also take seriously our responsibility to deliver exceptional mobile service to every customer.  We’ve greatly valued the ongoing dialogue over the past several months concerning network optimization and we’ve decided not to move forward with the planned implementation of network optimization for 4G LTE customers on unlimited plans.  Exceptional network service will always be our priority and we remain committed to working closely with industry stakeholders to manage broadband issues so that American consumers get the world-class mobile service they expect and value.

Chairman Wheeler questioned Verizon’s strategy almost immediately after the company announced its “network optimization” strategy in July.

Wheeler

Wheeler

“‘Reasonable network management’ concerns the technical management of your network; it is not a loophole designed to enhance your revenue streams,” Wheeler wrote in a July 30 letter to Verizon Wireless CEO Dan Mead. “It is disturbing to me that Verizon Wireless would base its ‘network management’ on distinctions among its customers’ data plans, rather than on network architecture or technology.”

Wheeler reminded Mead the FCC defined network management practices to be reasonable “if it is appropriate and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account the particular network architecture and technology of the broadband Internet access service.”

Wheeler told Mead Verizon’s plans didn’t qualify.

“I know of no past FCC statement that would treat as ‘reasonable network management’ a decision to slow traffic to a user who has paid, after all, for ‘unlimited” service,'” Wheeler wrote.

everybody does itWheeler also questioned how Verizon could justify its planned speed throttling under the conditions it agreed to after winning the 700MHz “C Block.” That spectrum was accompanied by a special FCC mandate – open platform rules which prohibits Verizon Wireless from denying, limiting, or restricting the ability of end users to download and use applications of their choosing on the C Block networks. A speed throttle would make using some applications impossible.

In August, Wheeler hammered home his opposition to Verizon’s plans at a news conference.

“My concern in this instance–and it’s not just with Verizon, by the way, we’ve written to all the carriers–is that [network management] is moving from a technology and engineering issue to a business issue, such as choosing between different subscribers based on your economic relationship with them.”

Wheeler has expressed irritation that Verizon’s justification for congestion management only applied to its unlimited customers, while those paying on a per-gigabyte basis could use (and spend) as much as they like.

Verizon responded that other providers — notably AT&T — already have a similar network management policy in place, throttling speeds of grandfathered unlimited customers who consume more than 3GB of wireless traffic on its 3G network or 5GB on its 4G network a month.

“‘All the kids do it’ was never something that worked with me when I was growing up and didn’t work with my kids,” Wheeler responded, noting Verizon was trying to reframe the issue instead of justifying the need for speed throttles for some customers, while giving others unlimited access as long as they pay.

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