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Sprint Realizes Not Everyone Wants a $200 Cell Phone Bill: Announces $20, 1GB Family Data Plan

budgetIf your family budget cannot handle a $200 monthly cell phone bill from AT&T or Verizon and you can keep your data usage to around 1GB, Sprint has a deal for you.

On Wednesday, Sprint unveiled a low-end family data plan offering 1GB of data for $20 a month, an improvement over the 600MB data option Sprint used to offer. It’s also a better deal than the 500MB $20 buys you on Verizon’s network or the piddling 300MB AT&T delivers on its budget plan.

“This entry-level sharable data allowance reinforces Sprint’s commitment to offering customers the best value in wireless,” said Marcelo Claure, Sprint CEO. “We’re offering customers a choice – whether they need a small amount of data or are a high-end data user.”

Customers can build their own plan in three steps. First, choose the shared data allowance. For 1GB, it’s $20 per month for up to 10 lines. Second, add data access for phones with unlimited talk and text while on the Sprint network. The data access charge for non-discounted phones is $25 per month per line for 1GB through 16GB. Third, add your tablet devices for $10 per month per line and mobile broadband devices for $20 per month per line. There is no early termination fee and no annual service contract with non-discounted phones.

In addition, when customers switch their number to Sprint, a family with up to 10 lines can get 20GB of shared data and unlimited talk and text for only $100 a month through 2015.

This chart reflects a 2GB shared data plan for two lines that amounts to $75 a month before taxes, fees and surcharges.

This chart reflects a 2GB shared data plan for two lines that amounts to $75 a month before taxes, fees and surcharges.

Since wireless carriers discovered reports of a spectrum crisis were vastly exaggerated, they have fallen all over each other with “double your data” promotions and other allowance boosters. Sprint’s family plans allow customers to divide up an inexpensive data plan across all phones on the account. If you spend most of your time on Wi-Fi or share an account with parents or grandparents not accustomed to using much data, Sprint’s plan may deliver enough data to satisfy.

Sprint has hemorrhaged its high-end customers for several quarters, mostly because its 3G data service is barely usable and its new 4G LTE network has rolled out at the typical speed of a glacier and its performance has not always impressed. Sprint has cut prices and is trying to find a stable niche among budget-conscious postpaid customers unwilling to pay AT&T and Verizon’s asking price but are willing to tolerate reduced coverage in favor of a better price. Sprint and T-Mobile are both competing for these customers. Verizon says it cannot be bothered being seen as a discount carrier, and AT&T is committed to keeping its average revenue per customer numbers growing.

The Inside Story: He Criticized Comcast and the Cable Company Complained; Result=Termination

The Don't Care Bears

The Don’t Care Bears

A few weeks ago, Stop the Cap! reported on the story of Conal O’Rourke, a Comcast customer billed for equipment he didn’t order, service he didn’t receive, and collection agents he didn’t deserve. When O’Rourke dared to complain to senior Comcast management in the company’s Controller’s Office, the controller himself called a senior partner at his employer and days later O’Rourke was fired.

Now O’Rourke is taking his case to court, claiming he lost his job because Comcast forced his employer – PricewaterhouseCoopers – to weigh his benefit against a $30 million consulting contract Comcast has with the major accounting firm.

The complaint names names and gives plenty of new details about how Comcast ruthlessly deals with customers who dare to bother its top executives with petty little service problems like $1,800 in unjustified billing, credit score-ruining collection activity, and the impossibility of canceling service.

The fateful call to Comcast’s Controller’s Office occurred back in February, and consisted mostly of his complaint that in the almost one year that he had been a Comcast customer, he had not received a single bill in which the charges were correct.

When he mentioned the constant billing errors might be of interest to the independent Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, it was the first time in more than a year Comcast efficiently targeted O’Rourke’s complaint for its brand of resolution: retaliation.

“Unfortunately, instead of redressing Mr. O’Rourke’s grievances, Comcast initiated a scorched-earth assault against him for expressing concerns over the legality of its conduct and the integrity of its accounting,” the lawsuit states. “On information and belief, defendants undertook these actions because they were concerned that Mr. O’Rourke would report them to the PCAOB, were angry that he had accused them of shoddy accounting practices, and wished to punish and destroy him for his temerity.”

O’Rourke claims Comcast ordered a background check on him and the results were forwarded to the controller himself — Lawrence Salva, who also happens to be a former partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Quicker than you can say “rate increase,” Salva was on the phone to Joseph Atkinson, the U.S. Advisory Entertainment, Media & Communications Leader for the accounting firm. He specializes in the cable business, so it was no surprise Comcast reached out to him to vent.

“Less than an hour after Mr. O’Rourke’s second call with Comcast’s Controller’s Office, Mr. O’Rourke received a call from Mr. Atkinson,” the lawsuit claims. “Mr. O’Rourke was shocked to receive the call – he had never before had occasion to deal with Mr. Atkinson. An angry Atkinson informed Mr. O’Rourke that he had received a call from Comcast’s Controller about Mr. O’Rourke. Mr. Atkinson told Mr. O’Rourke that the client was very angry, very valuable, was in fact the Philadelphia office’s largest client, with billings exceeding $30 million per year, and that Mr. O’Rourke was not to speak with anyone from Comcast.”

A few days later, security arrived with cardboard boxes allowing O’Rourke to collect his belongings and exit the building… permanently.

The accounting firm has refused to disclose the contents of email exchanged between itself and Comcast. If Comcast divulged personal information about O’Rourke, it may be in violation of federal privacy laws.

O’Rourke remains out of work and Comcast is alleged to still be refusing all requests to refund him the money it overcharged.

O’Rourke is asking for $1 million plus punitive damages for violation of the Cable Communications Policy Act, defamation, breach of contract, unfair business practices and infliction of emotional distress.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN Comcast Dispute Gets Man Fired 10-8-14.mp4

CNN talked with Conal O’Rourke, fired after complaining too much about Comcast, worth $30 million a year in contracts to his employer. (6:43)

Half of AT&T’s Customers Are Paying $100 for 10GB Data; Unlimited Customers Still Throttled After 3-5GB

Speed bump

Speed bump

More than half of AT&T’s wireless customers are paying at least $100 a month for 10GB or more of wireless data on AT&T’s Mobile Share Plans at the same time AT&T continues to throttle its legacy unlimited data customers who use more than 3GB of data on its 3G network or 5GB of data on its 4G LTE network.

AT&T claimed in 2012 it implemented its “fair usage policy” for unlimited customers to assure all could receive reasonable service during peak usage times when cell towers become congested.

AT&T also blames “a serious wireless spectrum crunch” for the speed throttling, implying access to more spectrum could help ease the problem. But there is a much faster way to overcome AT&T’s “spectrum crunch:” agree to pay them more money by ditching that $30 unlimited plan for a tiered plan.

John Stephens, AT&T’s chief financial officer, told investors Wednesday that nothing boosts revenue more than pushing customers into usage-cappped data plans that customers are regularly forced to upgrade.

“On the ARPU (average revenue per user/customer) story, I think the biggest issue with the improvement is people buying the bigger [data] buckets and buying – upping plans,” said Stephens. “We had over 50% of the customer base at the 10GB or bigger plans.”

Stephens added that AT&T benefited from customers upgrading to 4G LTE devices that are handled more efficiently by AT&T’s mobile data network.

Increased usage and upgraded data plans delivered a 20% increase in data billings over the last quarter.

Since 2012 AT&T has paid out more than $50 billion to shareholders through dividends and share buybacks. The company benefited from nearly $20 billion a year in free cash flow and asset sales over the last two years and is expected to repeat those numbers this year. Consolidated revenue at AT&T grew to $33 billion, up $800 million since the same time last year.

Miraculously, despite the “alarming spectrum crunch,” AT&T found more than enough spectrum to award its best customers with a “double data” promotion that turns a 15GB data plan into a 30GB plan, a 20GB plan to 40GB, a 30GB plan to 60GB, a 40GB plan to 80GB, or a 50GB plan to 100GB. Importantly, AT&T boasts its double data promotion won’t “explode” — their language for “expire” — on customers until their contract ends.

Lowering the bar on "unlimited use" customers.

Lowering the bar on “unlimited use” customers.

“Those exploding offers — customers hate those offers,” said AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega at a recent investor conference. “Unless they change their mind, we won’t offer those kinds of promotions.”

But de la Vega doesn’t mind leaving the company’s most loyal legacy customers in the penalty box if they cling to their grandfathered unlimited data plans. The throttles stay and the allowances have remained unchanged since first announced, despite the bountiful spectrum obviously ready and available to serve AT&T’s deluxe customers. Unlimited customers are regularly reminded they can easily avoid the throttle — just abandon that unlimited data plan. According to Stephens, more than 80% of AT&T’s customers already have.

The excuses for wireless speed throttles and killing off unlimited data plans at AT&T and Verizon Wireless don’t seem to wash with FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, who demanded Verizon offer the “rationale for treating customers differently based on the type of data plan to which they subscribe, rather than network architecture or technological factors,” after it announced it was planning speed throttles for its remaining unlimited data plan customers. Verizon canceled the plan after Wheeler began scrutinizing it, but the throttles are still in place at AT&T.

AT&T’s 10GB Mobile Share Plan starts with a $100 data plan. Customers also pay:

  • $10 a month for each auto-based smart-locator;
  • $10 a month for each tablet, camera or game device;
  • $15 a month for each basic phone;
  • $20 a month for each wireless home phone replacement;
  • $20 a month for each connected Internet device;
  • $40 a month for each connected smartphone.

A family of four with four smartphones, a tablet, and AT&T’s wireless home phone replacement would be billed $290 a month before at least $39 in taxes, fees, and surcharges — well north of $300 a month for most.

T-Mobile: AT&T Gouges Us With Data Roaming Rates 150% Higher Than Average

bill shockT-Mobile has asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate AT&T’s “artificially high roaming rates” charged when its customers travel outside of T-Mobile’s home service area.

T-Mobile is heavily reliant on AT&T for roaming service outside of major cities and the country’s smallest national wireless carrier complains AT&T is using their market power to put it at a major disadvantage, which could force new limits on roaming access in some areas.

T-Mobile provided examples of the damage already done by AT&T’s roaming rates:

“Limitless Mobile has severely restricted its customers’ access to AT&T’s network ‘for the sole reason that AT&T’s data roaming rates are too high and by continuing roaming access, Limitless could not maintain a commercially competitive retail wireless data offering to the general public,’” T-Mobile told the FCC.

The Rural Wireless Association noted that competing carriers “cannot sustain the provision of data roaming services if [they] must provide that service at a loss.”

The problem of data roaming rates is getting larger as carrier agreements are due for renewal at many mobile providers. Independent cellular companies are finding AT&T unwilling to renew at prices and terms comparable to their existing contracts. Instead, they face renewal rates that average a minimum of 10 and as much as 33 times higher than the national carriers’ retail rates.

For example, T-Mobile’s agreement with AT&T includes a data roaming rate that is now 150 percent higher than the average domestic rate that T-Mobile pays for data roaming.

This is one thousand percent higher than the data roaming rate negotiated between Leap Wireless and MetroPCS prior to their respective acquisitions, wrote T-Mobile.

With the stark price increases, carriers have begun imposing limits, including speed throttling and data caps, on customers when roaming on AT&T’s network.

t-mobile-set-recordBecause of AT&T’s artificially high roaming rates, T-Mobile wireless customers roaming in South Africa have a better user experience than customers roaming on AT&T’s network in South Dakota, argues T-Mobile. Their speed is twice as fast, and their data usage is unlimited.

T-Mobile is asking the FCC to intervene by establishing some type of standard about what constitutes “commercially reasonable” roaming rates as part of its 2011 Data Roaming Order, designed to protect competition.

This year, carriers dependent on Verizon Wireless or AT&T to help deliver “nationwide coverage” are negotiating roaming access to the companies’ 4G LTE networks for the first time. Most roaming agreements used to only cover 3G service, delivered at a slower speed.

If carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile are unable to negotiate fair terms, both companies will be at a major competitive disadvantage, relegated to providing only regional coverage or charging higher prices for roaming service.

AT&T vice president of regulatory affairs Joan Marsh said T-Mobile’s request bordered on being illegal, in direct violation of the Telecommunications Act. Marsh argued T-Mobile and other carriers should be incentivized to build their own networks instead of relying on cheap roaming access from companies like AT&T. Marsh added any move by the FCC to set rates or benchmarks would be beyond the FCC’s mandate. Wireless carrier rates are deregulated and not subject to common carrier regulation.

Time Warner Cable Unveils $26/Mo 6-Tuner, 1TB DVR in Los Angeles, New York Maxx Markets

Phillip Dampier October 21, 2014 Competition, Consumer News, Time Warner Cable 3 Comments
TWC enhanced DVR 400x300

Arris DCX 3600 enhanced DVR for Time Warner Cable Maxx customers

Time Warner Cable’s enhanced DVR is here, at an enhanced price starting at $26/month.

Time Warner customers have long waited for an upgraded DVR capable of storing and recording more shows, and the Arris DCX 3600 is the result.

Available soon in Los Angeles and New York (and later in other TWC Maxx-upgraded markets), the enhanced DVR includes six tuners and 1TB of storage, enough to keep around 150 hours of HD programming.

The DVR includes QAM/RF-capability and a DOCSIS 3 modem built into the box. Time Warner Cable has set the monthly price for the box at $15.99 for single room DVR service, $19.99 a month for whole-house DVR service. An additional equipment rental fee also applies: $10.25/mo for the box and remote control, $11.75/mo if you are subject to Time Warner’s “additional outlet service fee.” That means customers will pay up to $31.74 a month for the DVR alone. Customers who subscribe to a bundled service package will likely pay significantly lower rates for the enhanced DVR.

Time Warner arrives very late to the DVR competition wars. Its current boxes can usually record only up to two shows at once and storage space, usually enough for 80 hours, may require customers to clear out older shows to make room for new ones.

Time Warner’s competitors are still able to beat Time Warner’s new DVR:

  • AT&T U-verse comes closest to Time Warner, offering a four tuner DVR that can store up to 422 hours of SD programming, 155 hours in HD;
  • Comcast is testing its new X1 video platform that can record 15 programs at the same time by linking together multiple HD-DVRs;
  • Dish Network’s Hopper HD-DVR can record eight shows at once, and DirecTV’s Genie can manage five recordings at the same time;
  • Verizon FiOS Quantum TV customers can record a maximum of 12 shows at once and its DVR package offers 2TB of storage.

The new equipment should be available in New York and Los Angeles by the end of this month and will gradually be introduced in other TWC Maxx cities planned for upgrades: Charlotte, N.C., Dallas, Tex., Hawaii, Raleigh, N.C., San Antonio, Tex., and San Diego. No word on when the new boxes will be available in Austin, Tex., where upgrades are already underway.

Customers in other Time Warner Cable cities will have to make do with older DVRs until either Time Warner schedules Maxx upgrades or Comcast succeeds in buying Time Warner.

Comcast Invites Customers to Upgrade to New $10 Modem Fee, Or Else Watch Your Speed Degrade

Some Comcast customers with older cable modems are receiving letters from the cable company warning they will need an upgraded modem to “get the most out of your XFINITY Internet service.”

comcast upgrade

Customers are asked to “properly dispose” of old equipment while contemplating either buying a new modem or leasing one from Comcast. Sticking with cable company-provided leased equipment is the choice of more than 90 percent of cable Internet subscribers, despite the fact cable operators charge hefty rental fees. In parts of the Pacific Northwest, Comcast has introduced its newest price for rented cable modems: $10 a month, which amounts to $120 a year — more than the cost of buying a modem outright.

Comcast’s letter may be premature for customers with DOCSIS 2 equipment subscribed to speeds under 38Mbps (the top-rated speed for DOCSIS 2 equipment). Although DOCSIS 2 is not fast enough for Comcast’s 50Mbps Blast Internet plan, it’s more than adequate for the 25Mbps Performance Internet plan and other lower speed plans.

Customers in Illinois are also getting the letter, arriving as the company boosts speeds. Most are being sent to customers using cable modems more than 3-4 years old. Customers can find a new compatible modem on Comcast’s Approved Device List. We strongly recommend customers buy a modem and avoid renting one from Comcast. Monthly modem rental fees, now $8 and likely to increase to $10 across the country in the future, are a major earner for Comcast, bringing in $275-300 million quarterly.

Rural America: Welcome to Verizon LTE Broadband – $120/Mo for 5-12Mbps With 30GB Cap

They are coming.

With both AT&T and Verizon petitioning various state regulators for permission to switch off rural landline phone and broadband customers and force customers to use wireless alternatives, getting affordable broadband in the countryside is becoming increasingly difficult.

Last week, Millenicom — a reseller of wireless broadband service specializing in serving rural, long-haul truckers, and recreational vehicle users notified customers it was transferring their accounts directly to Verizon Wireless and will no longer have any role selling discounted Verizon Wireless broadband service.

Reports indicate that Millenicom’s contract renewal negotiations with Verizon did not go as expected and as a result customers are facing potential price increases and long-term contracts to continue their wireless broadband service.

Both AT&T and Verizon have told regulators they can satisfactorily serve rural customers with wireless LTE broadband service as an alternative to maintaining rural landline infrastructure. Neither company likes to talk about the price rural customers will pay if they want to keep broadband in their homes or businesses.

Some Millenicom customers have been invited to preview Verizon Wireless’ Home LTE Installed Internet plans (formerly known as HomeFusion) and many are not too pleased with their options:

lte1

lte2

Verizon’s overlimit fee is $10/GB for those that exceed their plan limit. According to several Amazon.com reviews of the service (it received 1.5 stars), customers are quickly introduced to “Verizon’s shady usage meter” that consistently measures phantom usage. Bills of $400-500 a month are not uncommon. One customer was billed for 18GB ($180) in extra usage despite following Verizon’s suggestion to stop using the service when it reported he reached 29GB of usage.

verizon bill

This bill includes more than $3,000 in data overlimit fees.

“The bill came with the bogus data charges, and it was twice as much as the meter detected,” the customer reported.

In fact, the phantom usage has become so pervasive, Verizon customers have dubbed the phenomenon “ghost data,” but the overlimit fees Verizon expects customers to pay are very real.

“[It] went out more than my DSL and my first bill from Verizon was $1300+,” reported Jill Kloberdanz. “I want this demon out of my house.”

“According to [Verizon], I used over 65GB in just one week,” reported Aron Fox. “And they want almost $800 for it. My wife and I are two 60-somethings that never game and rarely stream.”

“Definitely stay away [...] unless you like to see your data charges skyrocket (in my case more than doubling) when your use doesn’t,” reported Richard Thompson. “I’ve pulled the plug on it — literally.”

“We have the same problem – huge data overages, meter does not match our usage,” writes Heather Comer. “We turn the router off at night and when we check the next morning, it is still accumulating data.”

There are close to a dozen more complaints about Verizon’s usage meter, all stating they were charged for usage even when the equipment was switched off.

While both Verizon and AT&T stand to save millions disconnecting rural landline customers, they stand to earn even more switching rural customers to their more costly (and profitable) wireless alternatives.

Frontier Faces Lawsuit in West Virginia Alleging False Advertising, Undisclosed DSL Speed Throttling

The slow lane

The slow lane

Frontier Communications customers in West Virginia are part of a filed class-action lawsuit alleging the phone company has violated the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act for failing to deliver the high-speed Internet service it promises.

The lawsuit, filed in Lincoln County Circuit Court, claims Frontier is advertising fast Internet speeds up to 12Mbps, but often delivers far less than that, especially in rural areas where the company is accused of throttling broadband speeds to less than 1Mbps. The suit also alleges Frontier’s broadband service is highly unreliable.

“The Internet service provided by Frontier does not come anywhere close to the speeds advertised,” wrote Benjamin Sheridan, the Hurricane lawyer filing the lawsuit on behalf of three Frontier customers. The attorney is seeking to have the case designated a class action lawsuit that would cover Frontier customers across the state.

“Although we cannot guarantee Internet speeds due to numerous factors, such as traffic on the Internet and the capabilities of a customer’s computer, Frontier tested each plaintiff’s line and found that in all cases the service met or exceeded the ‘up to’ broadband speeds to which they subscribed,” Frontier spokesperson Dan Page told the Charleston Gazette. “Nonetheless, the plaintiffs filed their case in Lincoln County, where none of them lives. If necessary, we are prepared to defend ourselves in court and bring the facts to light.”

Frontier’s general manager in West Virginia, Dana Waldo, may have helped the plaintiffs when he seemed to admit Frontier was purposely throttling the Internet speeds of its customers, a move Sheridan claims saves Frontier “a fortune” in connectivity costs with wholesale broadband providers like Sprint and AT&T.

Sheridan

Sheridan

“If as you suggest, we ‘opened up the throttle’ for every served customer, it could create congestion problems resulting in degradation of speed for all customers,” according to Waldo as part of an email exchange with one of the class members cited in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also cites a state report issued over the summer that found just 12 percent of Frontier customers receive Internet speeds that actually qualify as “broadband” under federal and state standards. Frontier’s speed ranking is the slowest of any provider in the state. That is especially significant because Frontier is the largest ISP in West Virginia, and is often the only choice rural residents have for broadband service.

Frontier dismissed the state’s report claiming it was based on voluntary speed tests performed by disgruntled customers.

“As we’ve said before, the speed tests are the result of self-selected, self-reported samples,” Page said. “People who take speed tests tend to be those with speed problems or low speeds.”

“Even if that were true, it doesn’t account for Frontier’s poor performance,” said Frontier customer William Henley. “If every person that ran a speed test in West Virginia was annoyed with their provider, Frontier still came in last place.”

Frontier’s competitors scored better:

  • lincoln countyComcast: 88% of customers met or exceeded state and federal standards;
  • Suddenlink Communications: 80%
  • Time Warner Cable: 77%
  • Shentel: 71%
  • Armstrong Cable: 67%
  • LUMOS Networks: 44%

“…Frontier’s practice of overcharging and failing to provide the high-speed, broadband-level of service it advertises has created high profits for Frontier but left Internet users in the digital Dark Age,” Sheridan wrote. “As a result, students are prevented from being able to do their homework, and rural consumers are unable to utilize the Internet in a way that gives them equal footing with those in an urban environment.”

Sheridan also accused Frontier of delivering its fastest speeds only in areas where it faces competition. Where there is none, Frontier can afford to go slow.

But slow speed is not the only issue. One plaintiff — April Morgan in Marion County — says she has to reset her modem up to 10 times a day to stay connected to the Internet. Her modem has been replaced several times by Frontier, but that has done little to solve her problem.

Frontier customers who check the company’s terms of service agreement may question whether Sheridan can get very far suing the company. A clause in the contract states customers must settle disputes only through binding arbitration or small claims court. Individual lawsuits, jury trials, and class-action cases are prohibited.

Sheridan points out customers have to go online to read the agreement – it is not provided to customers signing up for Internet service. A contract that forces customers to agree to its terms without getting informed consent may turn out not very binding under West Virginia law.

Lincoln County Judge Jay Hoke, assigned to hear the case, will likely face that matter in pre-trial motions.

West Virginia residents interested in the class action case can register here for updates.

The Capitol Forum’s Insightful Review of the Comcast-Time Warner Merger Deal: A Tough Sell

be mineWall Street is increasingly pessimistic about Comcast and Time Warner Cable pulling off their merger deal as regulators stop the clock to take a closer look at the transaction.

The Capitol Forum, an in-depth news and analysis service dedicated to informing policymakers, investors, and industry stakeholders on how policy affects market competition, specializes in examining marketplace mergers and their potential impact on American consumers and the general economy. The group has shared a copy of their assessment — “Comcast/Time Warner Cable: A Closer Look at FCC, DOJ Decision Processes; Merits and Politics May Drive Merger Challenge, Especially as Wheeler Unlikely to Embrace Title II Regulation for Net Neutrality” — with Stop the Cap! and we’re sharing a summary of the report with our readers.

The two most important government agencies reviewing the merger proposal are the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice. The FCC is responsible for overseeing telecommunications in the United States and is also tasked with reviewing telecom industry mergers to verify if they are in the public interest. The Department of Justice becomes involved in big mergers as well, concerned with compliance with antitrust and other laws.

In many instances, the two agencies work separately and independently to review merger proposals, but not so with Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Sources tell Capitol Forum there is a high level of coordination and information sharing between DOJ and the FCC, potentially positioning the two agencies in a stronger legal position if they jointly challenge the merger. Readers may recall AT&T’s attempt to buy T-Mobile was thwarted in 2011 when the FCC followed the DOJ’s lead in jointly challenging the merger on competition and antitrust grounds. With a united front against the deal in Washington, AT&T quickly capitulated.

comcast cartoonDespite a blizzard of Comcast talking points claiming the cable industry is fiercely competitive, Capitol Forum’s report indicates the DOJ staff level believes the cable industry suffers dearly from a lack of competition already, and allowing further marketplace concentration would exacerbate an already difficult problem.

Capitol Forum reports the DOJ’s staff is inclined to “take an aggressive posture with regards to [antitrust] enforcement.”

The DOJ would certainly not be walking the beltway plank to its political doom if it ultimately decides to oppose the merger.

Few on Capitol Hill are likely to fiercely advocate for a cable company generally despised by their constituents. The Capitol Forum report notes that Comcast faces powerful opposition and its political support is overstated. Comcast’s lobbying efforts and ties to President Obama and several high level Democrats have also been widely exposed in the media, which makes it more difficult for D.C.’s powerful to be seen carrying Comcast’s water.

In fact, the report indicates a regulatory challenge against Comcast and Time Warner Cable would face considerably less political opposition than what the FCC faces if it reclassifies broadband as a “telecommunications service,” protecting Net Neutrality and exposing the industry to stronger regulatory oversight.

The report suggests FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, who seems intent on opposing reclassification of broadband under Title II, may appease his critics by taking a stronger stance on the Comcast/Time Warner deal instead.

Wheeler has already expressed concern about the state of competitiveness of American broadband. He considers providers capable of delivering at least 25Mbps part of broadband’s key market, which in many communities means a monopoly for the local cable operator.

Understanding “The Public Interest” and the Implications of a Combined Comcast/Time Warner Cable on Competition

comcastbuy_400_241The FCC will review the transaction pursuant to Sections 214 and 310(d) of the Communications Act of 1934, in order to ensure that “public interest, convenience, and necessity will be served thereby.”

The merger proposal must also demonstrate it does not violate antitrust laws.

It is here that merger opponents have a wealth of arguments to use against Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Despite Comcast’s insistence the deal would have no competitive implications, the Capitol Forum reports the merger’s potential anticompetitive effects are “widely recognized and evidence from the investigation could provide DOJ and FCC with a solid foundation to challenge the merger.”

Although the two cable companies don’t directly compete with each other (itself a warning sign of an already noncompetitive marketplace), the report finds “a wide array of anti-competitive effects and several antitrust theories” that would implicate the cable company in a Clayton Act violation.

Comcast is betting heavily on its surface argument that by the very fact customers will not see any change in the number of competitors delivering service to their area, the merger should easily clear any antitrust hurdles. That argument makes it more difficult for the DOJ to fall back on the usual market concentration precedents that would prevent such a colossal merger deal. To argue excessive horizontal integration — the enlarging of Comcast’s territory — the DOJ would first have to prove Comcast’s size in comparison with other cable companies is a reason for the courts to shoot down the deal. Or it could bypass Comcast’s favorite argument and move to the issue of vertical integration — one company’s ability to control not just the pipes that deliver content, but also the content itself.

octopusHere the examples of potential abuse are plentiful:

  • Comcast would enjoy increased power to force cable programmers to favor Comcast in cable programming pricing and policies while allowing it to demand restrictions on competitive online video competitors or restrict access to popular cable programming;
  • Comcast could impose data caps and usage-based pricing to deter online viewing while exempting its own content by delivering it over a Wi-Fi enabled gateway, game console or set top box, claiming all are unrelated to Comcast’s broadband Internet service or network;
  • Force consumers to use Comcast set top boxes that would not support competing providers’ online video;
  • Use interconnection agreements as a clever way to bypass the paid prioritization Net Neutrality debate. Netflix and other content producers would be forced to compensate Comcast for reliable access to its broadband customers;
  • Noting AT&T has declared U-verse can not effectively succeed in the cable television business without combining its customer base with DirecTV to qualify for better volume discounts, there is clear evidence that a super-sized Comcast could command discounts new entrants like Google Fiber could never hope to get, putting them at a distinct price disadvantage.

The FCC’s scrutiny of Comcast’s merger deal has already uncovered evidence previously unavailable because of non-disclosure agreements which show Comcast’s heavy hand already at work.

The report notes Michael Mooney, a senior vice president and group general counsel at Level 3, told the Capitol Forum the dispute earlier this year between Netflix and Comcast could have been resolved in about five minutes had Comcast added a port to relieve congestion at an interconnection point. The cost? Just $5,000. Had Comcast been willing to spend the money, millions of Comcast customers would have never experienced problems using Netflix.

Whether Comcast is ultimately deemed too large to permit another consolidating merger or whether it is given conditional approval to absorb Time Warner Cable remains a close call, according to the Capitol Forum, despite the fact consumers have urged regulators for something slightly more concrete – a single sentence, total denial of its application.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Capitol Forum The Consumer Welfare Test.mp4

The Capitol Forum broadly explores how the “consumer welfare standard” has become a part of the antitrust review process over the last 30 years. Sometimes, a strict antitrust test is not sufficient to protect “the public interest” of consumers, and allows the dominant player(s) to harm competition. In the digital economy, corporate mergers that empower companies to restrict innovation can prove far more damaging than classic monopoly abuse. (15:52)

Comcast Employees Stole, Sold Identities of Customers; Comcast Tells Victims to Pay Fraudulent Charges

Phillip Dampier October 15, 2014 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

crimeA Tennessee man is facing $1,300 in unauthorized cable charges and ruined credit after at least one Comcast employee allegedly stole his identity and provided it to an outside vendor who signed up new Comcast customers who never had any intention of paying their bills.

Ricky McClure of Murfreesboro first learned about the fraud when collection agencies working for Comcast sent him collection notices demanding payment of a combined $1,300 in unpaid charges made in his name in Shreveport, La.

McClure is already a Comcast customer, and he does not pay his cable bill late, so he called Comcast over what he thought was a simple billing error and ran into a customer service buzz saw.

“Comcast basically said the name and social matches what we have on record so this is your account. You need to pay the money and we’re not going to pull it back from collections,” McClure told WKRN-TV.

McClure was left investigating the mysterious charges on his own and discovered the extra accounts on his credit report, both using his Social Security number, and opened without his permission. Even more disturbing, the service addresses on file were in a city McClure has no ties to.

"Where is our money, lady?"

“Where is our money, lady?”

“It’s very alarming. You don’t know who is going to be calling you next,” said McClure.

Comcast’s customer service seemed unconcerned McClure’s identity was stolen. They simply wanted to clear up the matter of the $1,300 in unpaid charges. In fact, Comcast reserves the right to terminate an identity theft victim’s own service until the billing matter is settled or the fraud verified.

An isolated incident? Not quite.

Stop the Cap! reader John Spencer (not his complete real name at his request) in Nashville was also a victim of Comcast fraud. He wrote to share the story of McClure, which he recognized only too well. He faced over $2,000 in Comcast bills sent to collections for another “customer” in Shreveport. This time, the thieves were smart enough to submit a change of address for the bills headed for Louisiana, claiming it was a vacation property. The collection agency finally connected the Social Security number to Spencer’s address in Nashville and commenced collection activity that dropped his FICO score by more than 90 points, which now hovers around 600. Spencer’s damage went far beyond dealing with persistent collection calls. Alarmed credit card issuers running periodic credit checks suspended or slashed Spencer’s credit lines because he was suddenly a credit risk, and Verizon wants him to pay a deposit on his new cell phone account. His car insurance even went up $65 semi-annually, the insurance company explained, because his credit score necessitated a re-evaluation of his rate.

It took over three months for Comcast to finally get the negative information off his credit report, and nine months later he is still trying to get his former credit reputation back. While credit card companies did restore his former credit lines, they made new credit inquiries before granting his request, which has cost him 40 points on his restored FICO score for “excessive credit inquiries.” Verizon won’t budge on demanding a deposit, and his insurance company will reconsider his rate only after it comes up for renewal.

Comcast's identify theft reporting form runs six pages and requires a police report, a notarized signature, and  copies of your valuable photo ID.

Comcast’s identify theft reporting form runs six pages and requires a police report, a notarized signature, and copies of your valuable photo ID.

Identity theft has become pervasive enough at Comcast that the company dedicates a special section of its website to accept reports from customers victimized by unauthorized charges.

Comcast doesn’t offer much of a shoulder to cry on either, sternly telling victims they must complete and sign a notarized affidavit, attach a police report for the claim, and prove to Comcast’s satisfaction where they actually live.

Some customers already victimized by Comcast once aren’t too happy about another requirement – providing a copy of a valid government-issued photo ID like a driver’s license or passport. If Comcast employees were willing to peddle your Social Security number for quick cash, imagine what they can get for a copy of your driver’s license.

Don’t expect the collection calls to end immediately either. Comcast warns it considers all accounts valid and payable amounts due until proven otherwise.

San Francisco area customer Tammerlin Drummond was also a victim of a rogue Comcast employee who sold her Social Security number and address to an unknown third-party who opened an account and collected a bounty of cable equipment.

Comcast billed Drummond $442.13 for service at an address she had nothing to do with. Ironically, Comcast sent Drummond a separate letter claiming that the security of her account was “a top priority at Comcast” and included a PIN number.

Comcast doesn’t like to break a sweat investigating these scams and kept the fraudulent account open while putting Drummond on its customer fraud treadmill, insisting she do all the work completing the aforementioned affidavit. Another representative even suggested visit a Comcast store in Oakland because people associated with the fraudulent account were recently there to pick up more cable equipment.

“She gave me the ID of the rep who had handled the transaction and suggested I might go to the store to ask if he remembered anything,” Drummond wrote in a column published by the Contra Costa Times. “She said there was a lot of activity connected to my Social Security number and that it was an obvious case of fraud. It smelled like an inside job to me, and I told her so.”

Comcast admitted in all three cases different employees used their positions at the cable company to access customers’ Social Security numbers and other personal information and resell it to other criminals that offer “free” cable service or tell customers to pay them, not Comcast, for “discounted service.”

The two cases in Shreveport were never uncovered by Comcast. It took the initiative of the Shreveport Police Department to launch an investigation last March. Comcast first learned about it not from customers, but from the police department who contacted the cable company about the problem.

tn laVictims were eventually sent letters from Comcast explaining what happened:

“Based on what we know at this time, a small group of individuals employed by a third-party vendor and a former Comcast employee were engaged in identity theft and theft of Comcast services. These individuals may have used your information, including your name and/or social security number, for these unauthorized purposes.”

The letter goes on to say the company is offering a complimentary identity protection plan for a year.

But identity protection may not help much if Comcast can’t secure its customers private, personal information.

Out in San Francisco, Comcast spokesman Bryan Byrd told Drummond a Comcast employee had opened the fraudulent account and that “he has been dealt with.”

Comcast has closed the account, erased the bill and removed the mess from her credit report. Because Drummond was a victim, anyone (including her) will now need to show ID and proof of residence before opening a Comcast account — provisions that would likely protect every Comcast customer from identity theft if broadly enforced.

“It makes you wonder how protected one’s personal data is,” Drummond complained. “How many others did this rogue employee target?”

Comcast says these are all isolated incidents and not a pattern to a wider problem. But apologies are not forthcoming to Mr. McClure or Spencer.

Alex Horwitz, a Comcast spokesperson in Tennessee released the following statement:

“We take this matter very seriously and, out of an abundance of caution, we have contacted a small number of people whose information may have been used to create unauthorized accounts and are providing them with credit monitoring services. We have no evidence that this was an online system breach or that any additional personal information was obtained or used for any other purpose. We are continuing to cooperate with law enforcement and are conducting our own internal investigation. The individuals involved in this are no longer working on our behalf, and we have reinforced our privacy and security policies with employees and third-party vendors.”

Comcast won’t comment on how many cases of identity theft it deals with annually.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WKRN Nashville Man gets 1-3K in Comcast bills 10-15-14.mp4

Several mid-Tennessee Comcast customers have been victims of identity theft, discovering unpaid Comcast bills run up in their names for service several states away. WKRN in Nashville shares the story of Ricky McClure, who faced $1,300 in Comcast charges sent to collections he didn’t owe. (2:41)

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