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Lawrence, Kansas Finally Has Cap-Free Broadband (No Thanks to Sunflower/Knology)



Broadband customers in Lawrence, Kan. have been liberated from Internet Overcharging schemes after years of usage-capped Internet access from Sunflower Broadband and Knology.

WideOpenWest’s (better known as WOW!) acquisition of Knology, which in turn purchased Sunflower Broadband from the local newspaper, means usage limits are a thing of the past.

Consumer Reports has top-rated WOW! for customer friendly service, and banishing usage caps is an example of why the cable company earns such high marks.

The company reminds customers that “all WOW! Internet speeds have no usage caps.”

Sunflower Broadband originally offered four different broadband plans, only one without usage caps. Lawrence customers did get speed upgrades faster than many other cable broadband customers, but most were accompanied with draconian usage limits.



Bronze: Originally offering 3Mbps/256kbps service, Sunflower’s “lite” usage plan included a 3GB monthly usage limit boosted by Knology in 2012 to $22.95/month offering 3/1Mbps service and a still ridiculously low 5GB usage limit. WOW! has kept the lite plan but removed the usage cap.

Silver: Sunflower’s equivalent of Standard Internet service offered 10/1Mbps broadband with a 50GB usage cap. Knology raised the price to $37.95, left the 50GB cap intact and increased speeds to 18/2Mbps. WOW! dropped the cap.

Gold: Sunflower’s premium 50/1Mbps service offered 250GB of usage for under $60 a month. When Knology took over, speeds were boosted to 50/5Mbps along with the price: $62.95 a month. But the usage cap stayed the same. Today WOW! continues the plan without any caps.


Much Better

Palladium: Sunflower responded to customer complaints about metering Internet usage by offering residents a trade — an unlimited use plan with no speed promises. Palladium could be as slow as 2Mbps during peak usage, 25Mbps when traffic was very low. Knology kept the plan and its 1Mbps upload rate, but raised the price to $47.95 a month. WOW! dumped Palladium altogether, replacing it with a 30/2Mbps unlimited use plan for customers who don’t want to pay $63 a month for the Gold plan.

A number of Lawrence customers annoyed with Sunflower and Knology switched to AT&T U-verse when it was introduced locally. Although U-verse has a 250GB usage cap, Lawrence residents report it remains unenforced.

Stop the Cap! reader Mike, who shared the news WOW! had recently shelved the caps, tells us he switched to AT&T years ago and is happy with their service.

“So far, their cap is not enforced at all here,” Mike writes. “The minute they start enforcing it, I’ll switch to WOW!”

3 Owners in 3 Years And Lawrence, Kansas Still Stuck With Harshly-Capped Cable Broadband

Top-rated WOW! only delivers service in a handful of cities in the midwest, but is getting larger after acquiring Knology.

Lawrence, Kansas can’t catch a break. While their neighbors in Kansas City are preparing for Google’s unlimited-use gigabit broadband, the three different owners of the area’s cable operation in the last three years have stuck local residents with usage caps as low as 5GB per month.

What began as Sunflower Broadband, formerly owned by the The World Company, which publishes the daily Lawrence Journal-World, has now been sold to a new owner that plans to leave the current caps in place.

Knology of Kansas Inc., a division of West Point, Ga.-based Knology acquired the Sunflower operation for $165 million in 2010. This week, WideOpenWest (WOW) announced it had completed a system-wide acquisition of Knology, including the former Sunflower system for $1.5 billion.

Consumers in Lawrence hoping for something better from one the nation’s top-consumer-rated cable operators will apparently have to wait. The company announced it was planning no immediate changes to its services or rates, said Rod Kutemeier, who currently remains general manager of the operation.

“Which means while Kansas City becomes a gigabit broadband city with unlimited-use broadband ranging in price from free to $70 a month, we’re stuck with this lousy cable operation that wants $53 a month for 18/2Mbps service with a nasty 50GB data cap and up to $1/GB overlimit fee,” says former Knology customer Sam. “I switched to U-verse, which is only mildly less criminal with their 250GB cap.”

Sam’s price represents standalone broadband service and includes Knology’s $5 monthly modem rental fee. If he purchased video service from the company, his broadband rate would be $10 lower.

Sunflower Broadband introduced one of the country’s first broadband Internet Overcharging schemes, limiting customers on the company’s lowest speed tier to 5GB of usage per month. The company later introduced devotees of unlimited, flat rate access to a reduced priority unlimited option for just shy of $60 a month, with no quoted speed or promise of performance.

Lawrence cable subscribers were hopeful the new owners would adopt pricing and service similar to what WOW offers elsewhere. WOW tells its other customers it does not impose usage limits or consumption-based billing of any kind. But that doesn’t hold true in Lawrence.

“They need to get rid of the current management which continues this ripoff scheme and bring in the same WOW mindset that gave them top ratings in magazines like Consumer Reports,” shares Stop the Cap! reader Sam.

WOW currently offers most customers broadband speeds of 2/1, 15/1, 30/3, and 50/5Mbps. Knology of Kansas offers service at speeds of 5/1, 18/2, and 50/5Mbps — all usage capped.

Pricing and packages for Lawrence, Kansas’ local cable company will remain the same… for now.

Knology’s Embarrassing Fact Lapses in Lawrence, Kansas

Knology's Shakedown in Lawrence

Pesky facts have a way of getting in the middle of silly marketing campaigns.  Knology of Kansas (actually Georgia) has run into this problem in a big way with its glitzy, carefully-crafted welcome website KnologyKnows.

Some of the company’s facts are uncoordinated.

Lawrence blogger Joe Davis sure noticed:

Knology put up a new website to help build their brand in Lawrence, Kansas. In big capital letters, they write:

Allow us to introduce ourselves. We’re Knology, the new (115-year-old) kid on the block.

Sounds eerily familiar to the beginning of “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones.  Trust me… I have no sympathy for the Devil (in this case, a non-local company), also known as Knology. Their website is called KnologyKnows.com. But considering how many “facts” they’ve put out this past week that have been wrong, they really don’t know.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Sunflower Broadband is Now Knology.flv

Knology’s opening welcome video to residents of Lawrence, Kansas has some fact-checking problems. (1 minute)

Davis caught a fact-checking lapse in the company’s introductory video, which claims the world record for handshakes was 13,372.  Oops.  In 2002, while campaigning for office, soon-to-be Gov. Bill Richardson set a world record for the most number of handshakes in an eight-hour period: 13,392.

The only thing Knology has been good at so far in Lawrence is shaking down their customers with Internet Overcharging schemes.  The company has plenty of money to invest in promoting itself, but has so far retained Sunflower Broadband’s costly usage limits and overlimit fees.

Knology hasn’t been around for 115 years either — a company it bought out was.  The Interstate and Valley Telephone Company was one of many independent phone companies created to serve areas AT&T dismissed as rural backwaters not worthy of their service.  Knology itself has only been around since 1994, owned by ITC Holding Company — the people who also brought you Mindspring, a defunct Internet Service Provider sold to Earthlink one month before the dot.com crash.

Did you know Lawrence omits several states?

Davis is also unimpressed with the company’s sell-out of its customer support staff, many of whom will lose their jobs as part of the company’s “rightsizing” initiative.

For Davis, first impressions mean a lot, and Knology is doing themselves no favors.  Some of their other trivia isn’t always accurate, either:

This “fact” is told to anyone who first comes to Lawrence. However, it is wrong. Truth is, 14 states are missing from the Lawrence street grid. The first thing I did when I was told this in 2006 was to find where Connecticut street was located. The funny thing is… Of the 36 state streets in Lawrence, Georgia is not included. Knology is based out of Georgia. Whoops.

Davis says Knology has turned Sunflower’s well-regarded Twitter customer support account into an automated marketing spambot, spewing out continuous tweets telling customers to enter its giveaway and visit its newly branded website.

Stop the Cap! reader Brian, also from Lawrence, agrees with Davis.

“Knology has no concept of the truth in their marketing campaign. This is a scary test of things to come. Fortunately, we just switched to AT&T’s U-verse.”

Perhaps Knology should learn from the ghost of Mindspring, which used to have legendary customer service and a list of:

By filling out Knology's survey, you can give the company a piece of your mind over its Internet Overcharging schemes and possibly win this 32" Samsung flat panel TV.

The 14 Deadly Sins of Mindspring (a/k/a “the ways that we can be just like everybody else”)

  1. Give lousy service- busy signals, disconnects, downtime, and ring no answers.
  2. Rely on outside vendors who let us down.
  3. Make internal procedures easy on us, even if it means negatively affecting or inconveniencing the customer.
  4. Joke about how dumb the customers are.
  5. Finger point at how other departments are not doing their job.
  6. Customers can’t get immediate “live” help from sales or support.
  7. Poor coordination across departments.
  8. Show up at a demo, sales call, trade show, or meeting unprepared.
  9. Ignore the competition, they are far inferior to us.
  10. Miss deadlines that we commit to internally and externally.
  11. Make recruiting, hiring, and training a lower priority because we are too busy doing other tasks.
  12. Look for the next job assignment, instead of focusing on the current one.
  13. Office gossip, rumors, and politics.
  14. Rely on dissatisfied customers to be your service monitors.

Readers can share their views about Knology’s unjustified Internet Overcharging schemes and enter to win a 32″ Samsung flat panel TV in the process.  You need not be a customer to participate.  Just complete their survey, and be sure to let them know in the box labeled “other” that you will never do business with an Internet provider that doesn’t provide truly unlimited, full speed, flat rate broadband service.

Knology Retains Internet Overcharging Ripoff for Lawrence, Kansas Customers

"If you have to ask how much, you can't afford it."

Knology, which bought out Sunflower Broadband last year, has elected to carry forward the old owner’s Internet Overcharging schemes, charging broadband customers penalty rates for exceeding their usage allowances.

The company’s explanation for their overpriced bandwidth comes with a tall tale about their competitors they simply made up out of thin air:

Data transfer allotments allow Knology to offer higher speed service with lower prices. Unlimited, open usage plans offered by other providers typically employ network controls to slow down the high usage customers.

That’s news to us, and to their nearest competitor AT&T.  They deny speed throttling any of their U-verse or DSL customers.

While the company’s download speeds are impressive — up to 50Mbps — their upload speeds are not, topping out at a paltry 1Mbps.

Knology's pricing is nearly identical to its predecessor Sunflower Broadband, except for the $5 rate hike for its most popular Silver plan.

Knology claims they expand usage allowances based not on network capacity, but by the percentage of customers they gouge with overlimit fees:

Data transfer allotments: Each level of internet above includes the amount of data transfer indicated measured in Gigabytes (GB). The data transfer allotments are increased regularly, based on usage patterns, to ensure the number of customers who go over their allotments remains under 10%. Additional GB of data transferred beyond the allotment is billed at $1.00 per GB if not purchased at a discount before the end of the billing period. The percentage of Knology customers charged for extra data transfer beyond their allotment was 6.1% in April 2009.

Paul Bunyon, Knology's new director of marketing

Bemusingly, customers with time machines who can travel into the future and determine they will exceed their allowance for the month can pre-purchase an increase in their usage allowance at a discount.

No time machine?  Then you either pay the standard overlimit rate, watch your usage like a hawk, or potentially over-buy excess usage that expires at the end of the month.

Customers tell Stop the Cap! the company’s single, unlimited use package is “the same piece of garbage it always was,” writes Larry who lives in Lawrence.  He had high hopes Knology would do the right thing and abandon Sunflower’s overcharging schemes.

“Apparently not, and after a month with their unlimited service, I have scheduled my U-verse installation with AT&T,” Larry writes. “Even on Knology’s limited packages, they don’t provide the speeds they promise.”

Larry also says the higher speed tiers Knology offers deliver diminishing returns.

“If their uplink is congested, or the web sites you visit are busy, it won’t matter if you have 10Mbps or 50Mbps — the speed is effectively the same,” he says. “Besides, upload speed is more important these days and 1Mbps is just plain lousy in 2011.”

“Bye, bye SunKnology.”

Sunflower's Old Broadband Plans & Pricing (February 2010)

Knology Buys Sunflower Broadband for $165 Million; Lawrence Journal-World Has a Messiah Moment

Knology, a West Point, Georgia-based cable overbuilder, has acquired Sunflower Broadband in Lawrence (Douglas County), Kansas for $165 million cash.

Knology has been buying small, independent cable operators across the south and midwest to build its footprint and become a larger player in the heavily integrated cable television and broadband marketplace.

The company expects to acquire Sunflower partly from its own cash reserves and the balance from low interest loans.

Knology praised Sunflower Broadband’s advanced infrastructure — it has already deployed DOCSIS 3 broadband upgrades and uses a modernized hybrid fiber-coaxial cable network.  Sunflower spends between $8-9 million annually in capital expansion, a level comparable to Knology.

The purchase of Sunflower opens additional potential purchasing opportunities for Knology in the region to add other cable companies to its portfolio.

Lawrence residents were treated to gushing, emotional coverage of the sale in the pages of the Lawrence Journal-World this morning.  A sample:

In the beginning there was the vision. Forty-five years later, it was a spectacular reality. Today, the baton is being passed to a new owner.

One reader said the newspaper had a Messiah Complex.

Employees were informed this morning, but most will not know what impact, if any, will come from the sale until it closes in the fourth quarter of 2010.

The impact of the sale is drawing mixed reviews from Lawrence residents, some concerned about the loss of another locally-owned and operated business to an out-of-state “conglomerate,” while others believe the sale offers the potential for better service without irritating usage limits.

A Lawrence computer repair expert, “Dr. Dave” recognized the impact of Internet Overcharging schemes on Lawrence residents in a thorough analysis of the then-potential sale:

Sunflower stands apart from most Internet Service providers with its bandwidth caps. Knology and other suitors of Sunflower do not have these artificial limits. We’ll be free to use the internet at whatever speed we choose to pay for without fear of limits and overages. Online backups, security updates, and videos will be accessible without the worry of nasty additional fees.

Additionally, because our newspaper and television providers will be separated, the Journal World will be able to more accurately and fairly report news in Lawrence. No longer will they be limited by their vested interest in the cable company. Media consolidation is generally against FCC rules, but the loophole is that Sunflower is not seen as a “media” company. The loophole will be closed and growth of both companies will be natural and organic and both companies will be made stronger. We as citizens will trust the newspaper to accurately report the news and the Journal World will be restored to its role as watchdog for the citizens it serves. If the cable company isn’t acting in our best interest, I would trust the Journal World to report on it. Knology won’t be able to slack off and reduce the quality we’ve come to expect from Sunflower–the newspaper will see to that.

Knology claims it will get $5 million in “synergies” from the merger, much coming from volume discount programming purchases, a switch to Knology’s billing systems, and potential layoffs.  However, since Sunflower Broadband’s operating area does not overlap existing Knology service areas, the impact on jobs may prove limited.

One impact subscribers may not miss is the end of Sunflower’s Internet Overcharging schemes.  Sunflower is one of a handful of cable operators placing arbitrary limits on their customers’ broadband usage.  Usage caps, speed throttles, and overlimit fees are all imposed on Sunflower’s customers.

Knology has never imposed similar schemes on their customers.  Now may be a good time for Sunflower customers to let Knology management know they want an end to Sunflower’s profit-padding usage limits, especially considering AT&T U-verse, increasing competition in Lawrence, does not limit usage either.

Sunflower Broadband Issues Non-Denial Denial Over Sale Rumors, Customers Excited Anyway

Phillip Dampier July 29, 2010 AT&T, Competition, Internet Overcharging, Knology-WOW (Kansas) Comments Off

“The World Company is complimented that a number of companies have expressed interest in its Sunflower division over the years. This continues today. There is no definitive agreement concerning Sunflower with any company at this time.” — Dolph C. Simons Jr., Chairman, The World Company

Those words were reported Wednesday in a brief story published by the Lawrence Journal-World is response to an article published by cable trade magazine Multichannel News that Sunflower Broadband was close to a sale to Knology.

The denial of a definitive agreement does not mean the company isn’t close to reaching one, which was the original claim in the article written by Mike Farrell.

The non-denial denial didn’t dampen excitement by several Sunflower Broadband customers who were delighted to learn of the potential ownership change for the usage-capping broadband provider.

Some have stayed with AT&T’s DSL service just to escape Sunflower’s pricing, which one reader called “insane.”

Another claims AT&T’s upgrades have helped improve broadband service: “AT&T service has improved greatly…not to mention the price blows Sunflower away. Though AT&T will not tell you that you don’t have to have their modems. Go to Best Buy and get a third party modem.”

However, the broader implications of a sale of the cable company are worrying some Lawrence residents pondering the future of the hometown newspaper, the aforementioned Journal-World.  Sunflower Broadband and the LJW share a common owner — The World Company.  While the cable industry remains very profitable, many newspapers are not.

Phil Cauthon added his views to the Lawrence Broadband Observer on the topic:

I can’t see how this is anything but ominous for the Journal-World. Sunflower has a been a boon to the otherwise sinking newspaper ship. Unless some of the money from this sale is set aside as a foundation to support the newspaper over the long term, I don’t see how the Journal-World survives post-Knology sale. That Dolph Simons is still alive during a sale bodes well for that kind of prospect. Otherwise, I hope the Kansas City Star sees fit to serve Lawrence as a primary market—maybe even purchasing the LJW—with more than just a page or two of “metro” coverage.

Notorious Usage-Capping Sunflower Broadband Close to Sale to Knology; Caps Could Be History

Courtesy Ben Spark

The days may be numbered for Sunflower Broadband

A Kansas cable system notorious for Internet Overcharging is nearing a deal to be acquired by a cable overbuilder that does not usage cap broadband customers.

Sunflower Broadband, an independent cable system providing cable, phone, and broadband service to 30,000 Lawrence residents, is expected to be acquired by Georgia-based cable overbuilder Knology, which has been on a buying spree of late.  The asking price – $127 million dollars, according to a report in the cable trade journal Multichannel News.

Sunflower has been overcharging their broadband customers for years with schemes like usage caps and a flat rate service plan that delivers speed throttled broadband service to customers.  Sunflower has remained a hot topic for Stop the Cap! because we hear so many complaints from their long-suffering customers.  In fact, no independent cable operator has generated more reader complaints than Sunflower Broadband, almost all targeting the company’s unjustified usage caps.

Broadband Reports reminds us Sunflower was among the first to implement the idea of low caps and high overages ($2 for each additional gigabyte).  Customers also routinely complain about Sunflower’s stingy upstream speeds, maxed out at just 1Mbps for their $60 Gold tier.

None of the details about Sunflower Broadband’s impending sale can be found in the local newspaper — the Lawrence Journal-World or the local “Channel 6″ news operation.  That’s ironic, considering the same parent company that owns Sunflower Broadband, The World Company, also happens to own the newspaper and Channel 6.  It took a cable trade publication based hundreds of miles away to break the story — not exactly a shining moment for journalism in Lawrence, especially considering an LJWorld reporter need not break a sweat to chase the story.

Part of the reason for the sale may have been AT&T bringing U-verse competition to Lawrence.  U-verse does not have customer unfriendly usage limits.  With AT&T ready to usher away many of Sunflower’s customers, management may have decided now was a good time to sell.

The good news for Lawrence residents is that none of Knology’s cable systems engage in Internet Overcharging schemes, so Sunflower’s usage caps may be gone after the sale.

Still, some Lawrence residents are concerned about the implications of a Knology takeover.  The Lawrence Broadband Observer is among them:

I browsed Knology’s corporate web site and was actually pretty unimpressed. To put it mildly, Knology is well behind Sunflower both geographically and technically. Knology offers service in rural areas much smaller then Lawrence, like Storm Lake, Iowa and Dothan, Alabama. They also offer service in a few towns that are equal or larger then Lawrence like Charleston, South Carolina.

Technically, Knology is well behind Sunflower in what they offer customers in other cities. Top internet speeds (albeit cap-free) are only in the 8-10 megabit range, five times slower then Sunflower’s new DOCSIS 3 offerings. On the television side, while it varies from city to city, Knology generally offers only 30 or so HD channels, which is less then half of what Sunflower offers. Knology offers a rudimentary DVR, but nothing like Sunflower’s multi-room options.

Perhaps Knology is interested in buying Sunflower to learn how to offer more advanced services, knowledge they can take to their other markets. I don’t know, but it seems like this is a case of a large buggy-whip manufacturer buying out a smaller company that makes automobiles.

Most of Knology’s network of systems have been acquired from other companies and providers.  Technically, they are a cable “overbuilder” because they do overlap other providers in some areas, such as Knoxville, Tenn., where they compete with Comcast.  In many communities, they are most common in rental parks and apartments.

Knology’s customers in other cities have usually suffered some transitional glitches (Knology uses a more “advanced e-mail system” they eventually forced their PrairieWave customers to join), but overall they have usually increased broadband speeds in their markets and add lots of new HD channels.  Knology is aggressively deploying DOCSIS 3, something Sunflower already has, so few changes should be expected there.  They do not have a history of downgrading customers.

Clues about the impact of a Knology buy can be found in communities like Rapid City, S.D., who saw their cable system switched from Black Hills FiberCom to PrairieWave to Knology.  Rapid City residents first saw changes to the cable system’s technology and billing.  That was followed by the introduction of new services and packages, and then finally the name change to Knology.

With the anticipated sale, existing Sunflower customers (and ex-customers) might want to impress on the new owner that Internet Overcharging schemes like usage caps and throttled speeds are unacceptable, and you want an immediate end to both.

Remember too it could be worse — Mediacom could have been the buyer.

Sunflower Broadband Boosts Usage Allowances As AT&T U-verse Wins Customers

When AT&T’s U-verse system arrived in Lawrence, Kansas residents rejoiced at the prospect of finally getting broadband service that didn’t come with Internet Overcharging schemes attached.  Sunflower Broadband, the local independent cable system, tied its fortunes to broadband usage allowances as low as three gigabytes per month.  Exceeding the allowance kicked in an overlimit fee for every extra gigabyte used.

As AT&T continues to make inroads in Lawrence with U-verse, which doesn’t have usage limits, customers noticed and began dropping Sunflower.  The cable system also noticed, and has increased plan allowances.

On the low end, the Bronze plan still charges $17.95 per month for 3Mbps/256kbps service with a three gigabyte allowance .  The Silver plan — $29.95 per month — received a speed and allowance upgrade.  Up from 7Mbps to 10Mbps, the monthly limit has now doubled to 50 GB per month.  Upload speeds remain an anemic 256kbps, however.  The biggest change comes for Gold plan users.  For $59.95 per month, the company offers 50/1Mbps service with a considerably more generous allowance — 250GB per month, up from 120GB.

Sunflower Broadband's Old Pricing/Service Plan (from January 2010)

Sunflower also sells a flat rate, unlimited plan called Palladium that doesn’t offer customers a set speed.  The company cut the price from $49.95 to $44.95 a month, perhaps in response to an underwhelmed customer base.  As we reported in January, Palladium speeds do not impress many Sunflower customers.  But some local residents report speeds are improving for those moved to Sunflower’s new DOCSIS 3 platform, an upgrade from Sunflower’s older system, where most of the speed complaints were noted.

The Lawrence Broadband Observer says AT&T and Sunflower are becoming close competitors in most respects, except upload speeds:

The one area where Sunflower still lags is upload speed, which even on the high-end plan is still limited to 1 megabit. This seems puzzling, and the 50 down to 1 up ratio of is greater then any other DOCSIS 3 cable company I was able to find, and makes it difficult to use services like photo and movie uploading, file sharing and online backup services. If Sunflower ever raises their upload speeds, they might just be able to lure this former customer back into the fold!

They could lure many more back if they dropped the hated usage limits and overlimit fees.  DOCSIS 3 provides substantially improved bandwidth, making such limits unnecessary.

Sunflower's New Broadband Plans & Pricing (February 2010)

Internet in the Heartland: Continuing Broadband Adventures in Lawrence, Kansas

Lawrence, Kansas is a unique place to live.  Its local newspaper, the Lawrence Journal-World, was one of the first in America to begin an online edition in 1995.  Its owner, The World Company, just so happens to also own the independent cable system serving the community, which also provides broadband and phone service to the city’s 90,000 residents.  Its biggest competitor is AT&T, which has been upgrading parts of Lawrence with its U-verse system to stay competitive.

Sunflower Broadband, which provides a “triple play” package of Internet, cable TV and telephone service, has remained controversial among service providers because it instituted an Internet Overcharging scheme with usage caps and overlimit fees.  The company has been used by the American Cable Association, a trade and lobbying group serving independent cable operators, as a poster child for effective rationed broadband schemes that reduce demand and increase broadband profits.

Lawrence, Kansas

Customers generally have loathed usage caps, particularly when they were stuck choosing between Sunflower’s faster, usage capped broadband service or a low speed DSL product from AT&T.  Stop the Cap! receives more complaints about Sunflower Broadband than any other provider, except Time Warner Cable during its own Internet Overcharging experiment in April 2009.  Lawrence residents appreciate the relatively fast speeds Sunflower can provide, but complain they can’t get much use from a service that limits customers to a set allowance and then bills them up to $2 per gigabyte in overlimit penalties when they exceed them.

Last fall, things started to change in Lawrence as AT&T began offering it’s U-verse service in parts of the community.  We began receiving e-mail from Lawrence residents pondering a new service plan Sunflower Broadband introduced — Palladium, an unmetered broadband option priced at $49.95 per month.  It sounded like a good deal, perhaps introduced to protect them from U-verse customer poaching, until they noticed Sunflower was  selling the plan without a fixed downstream or upstream speed.  In fact, no speed was mentioned at all.  Indeed, Sunflower’s Palladium is nothing new to those living abroad under various cap ‘n tier broadband regimes.  It’s comparable to New Zealand Telecom’s Big Time plan, where customers need not fear overlimit fees and penalties, but have to live with a “traffic management” scheme that gives priority to customers on other plans living under a usage cap.

In other words, Palladium customers get last priority on Sunflower’s network.  If the network is not congested, these customers should enjoy relatively fast connections.  But during primetime, expect speeds to drop… and dramatically so according to customers writing us.

Sunflower Broadband's Internet pricing - add $10 if you want standalone service

That customers debate just how slow those speeds can get testify to the nature of cable’s “shared infrastructure.”  Groups of subscribers are pooled together in geographic areas and share a set amount of bandwidth.  As usage increases, so does congestion.  Responsible operators measure that congestion and can split particularly busy neighborhoods into two or more distinct “pools,” each sharing their own bandwidth.  Based on the variable reports we’ve read, it’s apparent Palladium works better in some parts of Lawrence, namely those with fewer broadband enthusiasts, than others.

Network management is a major concern of Net Neutrality proponents.  It allows an operator to artificially impede traffic based on its type, who generates it, and potentially how much a customer has paid to prevent that throttling of their speed.  In the case of Palladium, network management is used to give usage-capped customers first priority for available bandwidth, and push Palladium customers further back in line.

Judging the quality of such a service is a classic case of “your results may vary,” because it is entirely dependent on when one uses the Internet, how many others are logged in and trying to use it at the same time, how many customers are saturating their connections with high traffic downloading and uploading, and how many people are sharing your “pool” of bandwidth.  Oh, and the quality of your cable line can create a major impact as well.

Sunflower Broadband representatives claim Palladium is “optimized for video” and should provide at least 2Mbps service during peak usage and up to 21Mbps service at non-peak times.  That’s a tremendous gap, and we wanted to find out whether most customers were getting closer to the low end or the high end of that range.

Back in October, we wrote a request in the comments section of the Journal-World asking customers to e-mail us with answers to several questions about their experiences with Sunflower Broadband:

  • 1) whether you ever exceed the cap.
  • 2) do you think there should be one.
  • 3) would you prefer faster speed with a cap or slightly slower speed with no cap.
  • 4) your experience with the new unlimited option.
  • 5) whether you would contemplate switching to AT&T U-verse if it meant escaping a usage cap, even if it had slower speeds.
  • 6) Would you pay more for faster speed and no cap?
  • 7) your overall feelings about Sunflower Broadband.

We heard from just over two dozen readers sharing their thoughts about the company and its service.  The response was mixed.

Generally speaking, customers hate the usage caps Sunflower Broadband maintains on most of their broadband tiers.  All thought it was unfair and unreasonable to limit broadband service under Sunflower’s Bronze tier to just 2GB per month and their Silver tier to just 25GB per month.  Most customers who wrote subscribed to the Silver tier of service with 7Mbps/256kbps speeds at $29.95 per month.  They also paid a $5 monthly modem rental charge.  Those who wrote who fit the “broadband enthusiast” category were internally debating whether the Gold plan, with its assured 50Mbps/1Mbps speeds for $59.95 per month was a better option, even with a 120GB allowance, or whether they should opt for Palladium’s $49.95 option to escape the usage cap.

Among enthusiasts, some felt Sunflower responded to customer demands by offering an unlimited plan in the first place, and thought it was an acceptable trade-off to obtain lower speeds at peak usage times for a correspondingly lower price, and no cap, as long as speeds were reasonable at all times.  Others were offended they had to make the choice in the first place.

“If I lived anywhere else, I wouldn’t have to choose between a throttled service or one that asks for $60 a month for 120GB of service,” writes Steve from Lawrence.  “AT&T DSL for me is 1.5Mbps service because I live close to the edge of the distance limit from AT&T’s exchange.”

But Justin, also from Lawrence, has a more favorable view. “I hate their usage cap with a passion, but when you look at what small cable companies usually offer their customers, it’s slow speed service at terribly high prices,” he writes. “At least Sunflower did DOCSIS 3 upgrades and can offer big city speeds here.  How long will that take other small independent providers?”

Troy adds, “at least they gave us one choice for unlimited service.  Time Warner Cable and Comcast sure didn’t.”

About half of those who wrote did exceed their usage cap by underestimating the amount of usage in their respective households.  Most of those who did were on the Silver plan.

Dave writes, “I knew right off the bat the Bronze tier was ridiculous for anyone to choose, and our family has three teenagers so we knew that was not an option.  We tried the Silver plan when we switched from AT&T DSL service and blew the lid off that 25GB cap probably within two weeks and got a crazy bill.  At least Sunflower forgave the overlimit fees for the first month, but they could afford to because we upgraded to Palladium, paying them $20 more per month.”

One customer's dismal Palladium speed test result from last October, likely the result of a signal problem

Angela, who shares an apartment with two other roommates had their share of fights over who used up all the broadband allowance.

“We have a wireless network and everyone splits the bill, but when we ran up almost 200GB of usage, we freaked.  Nobody would admit to using that much Internet.  Thanks to my boyfriend, we discovered our wireless router was wide open and one of our lovely neighbors probably hopped on to enjoy,” Angela writes.

Sunflower also forgave their overlimit bill for the first month, but they decided to take advantage of an introductory offer from AT&T and switched to U-verse and are much happier.

“At least with AT&T, we know what our broadband bill is going to be and we don’t have fights or worries about getting a huge bill from Sunflower,” she adds.

Among those answering our question about reduced speed in return for no cap, the consensus view was “we would need to know what speed they are providing.”  Broadband speed was important to most who wrote.  While many may not be able to discern a difference between 10 and 20Mbps service for most online activities, obtaining 2Mbps service when expecting closer to 20Mbps is readily apparent, and that was the biggest problem with Palladium users unimpressed with its performance.

“Palladium is god awful, and close to unusable on the weekends and during the early evening when everyone is online,” writes Kelly, also in Lawrence.  “We have college students all over the neighborhood and these people can’t be unconnected for a minute, so I’m not surprised Palladium crawls when everyone is online.”

Kyle, a regular Stop the Cap! reader writes the whole concept of Palladium leaves a bad taste in his mouth.

“Palladium is the equivalent of going into a restaurant and eating leftovers — whatever speed is leftover, it’s yours.  Sometimes it might be a whole meal, other times scraps!  It’s an example of crappy customer service coming from a provider which doesn’t have much competition (although maybe that will change with U-verse),” he says.

Kyle is on the Gold plan, but remains unimpressed with Sunflower:

“Is there another DOCSIS 3 system in the country that limits upload speed to 1Mbps or has a bandwidth cap this low (120 GB) with DOCSIS 3?”

Stop the Cap! also obtained access to the company’s subscriber-only forums and discovered considerable discontent with Sunflower’s broadband service.

“I recently switched over to Palladium to avoid the new Gold price gouging. I bought the new modem set it up and much to my surprise my speeds were HORRIFIC! Consistently 4.5Mbps service over the course of a week at various times. Upload speeds were so terrible it took 15 minutes to send emails with one minute movies,” writes one user.  “So, for $20 more a month Palladium offers much slower speeds BUT unlimited bandwidth (which according to Sunflower’s own statistics almost no one exceeds their limits anyway.)  What a rip-off. All I want is my old Gold back, same speed and price. I am absolutely disgusted with Sunflower. Calling Palladium “variable speed” is a lie. You are throttling customers – period.”

“So I have Palladium and the speeds are decent, usually around 10Mbps down (we won’t talk about up speeds.) But every time I run a torrent my speeds go down to about 500kbps. The second I turn off my torrent client and run a speed test again its right back up to 10. Has anyone else been having similar issues? It seems like Sunflower throttles my entire connection when they detect a torrent,” writes another.

One Lawrence resident claims he was blacklisted by Sunflower Broadband after criticizing them.

“Their blacklisting of me served as a warning to others after I spoke out nationally.  They are quite pissed and I’m not allowed to go to any event sponsored by them.  I even got removed from the local Twitter festival,” a person who I have chosen to keep anonymous writes. “The nutshell is that the bandwidth from DOCSIS 3.0 is extremely throttled for Palladium users. If they have done heavy downloading the throttle drops speed to about 2Mbps.”

For Lawrence residents who have decided they don’t like the choices Sunflower provides for broadband service, the good news is that AT&T is upgrading their network in the city to provide U-verse service, and many who wrote us have switched just because AT&T does not engage in Internet Overcharging caps and limits in Lawrence.

There is even a blog devoted to comparing Sunflower Broadband service with AT&T U-verse.  The Lawrence Broadband Observer has been reporting on the dueling providers since August.  His verdict: AT&T U-verse wins for broadband for its more stable speeds, and no Internet Overcharging schemes, even if it costs more:

We decided to go with U-verse for our Internet service, canceling our Sunflower Broadband Internet, which we had used for over 13 years. U-verse’ top line internet costs $15 more per month then Sunflower’s; we decided that the advantages of U-Verse for Internet were enough to make this extra $15 per month a reasonable value.

Furthermore, the speed of U-verse has been remarkably consistent, always ranging between 16 and 17Mbps down and about 1.4Mbps up, no matter the time of day.

While Sunflower’s service is very fast at certain times of day, it frequently slows down during evenings or other times of heavy network use, sometimes to less then half of the speed we were paying for.

The other primary reason we went with U-verse was because U-verse does not have bandwidth overage fees or any kind of bandwidth limits. Although we have been careful with Sunflower and managed to avoid any bandwidth overage charges, having “the meter running” all the time was annoying, and we worried that we could always be surprised with an unexpected charge. With U-verse we do not have this worry.  One could almost think of the $15 extra for U-verse as an insurance policy…it buys peace of mind not having to worry about bandwidth overages.

Call for Apple to Get Involved in Campaign Against Internet Overcharging


Sunflower Broadband Pricing - Note a $10/month surcharge applies for customers not subscribing to Sunflower's video package.

We’ve covered the story of Sunflower Broadband before here on Stop the Cap! This dubious provider has become well entrenched with its Internet Overcharging schemes in and around the Lawrence, Kansas region, charging top dollar pricing while imposing ridiculous limits on usage.  One Mac owner in the Lawrence area is fed up with Sunflower’s 3GB monthly usage limit for broadband users, charging a ludicrous $27.95 a month for standalone broadband service (that’s $9.32/GB!).  He’s calling on Apple Corporation to get involved in the opposition to price gouging and Internet Overcharging by providers like Sunflower.

Sunflower’s a big proponent of these pricing schemes.  Patrick Knorr, who works for Sunflower and is also ex-officio chair of American Cable Association, wants this kind of pricing for everyone.  No matter how much you consume, you are probably paying too little for your broadband account.  Sunflower’s pricing of its most deluxe Gold plan assumes you’ll never use more than 50GB per month, and for that charges customers $59.95 a month if all you want is broadband service.

Dave Greenbaum, writing for theAppleBlog, considers these kinds of limits to be abusive.

Apple is the leader in multimedia content creation; new Mac users are always pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to buy from the iTunes store, or create their own content. A common question we get in our local user group is “I’m not sure what I did wrong, but all of a sudden I have a substantial overage bill from my cable company.” Of course, the user did nothing wrong, other than subscribe to a few podcasts, and perhaps download a new Apple software update and buy some shows with iTunes! The Mac is also blessed with great online backup services like MobileMe, yet when our user group did a presentation on backup strategy, I had to warn novice users to be careful lest their backups end up costing them an arm and a leg in bandwidth overage fees!

Sunflower Broadband claims, with absolutely no independent verification, that nearly 50% of their customers consume less than ONE gigabyte per month and 98.9% of users had less than 40GB of bandwidth usage.  Of course, despite updates to its website, it curiously only provides statistics from April 2007, more than two years ago.

Greenbaum informs readers of Rep. Eric Massa’s proposed legislation, HR 2902, the Broadband Internet Fairness Act.

Ultimately, without an end to abusive broadband pricing, the implications for consumers go well beyond their own pocketbook:

Unfortunately, using the Internet normally with bandwidth metering is also unsustainable. When Mac owners are worried about downloading movies, doing backups or performing system updates, that hurts the Apple brand. Apple is continually innovating new ways to make the Mac OS the best Internet operating system, creating a whole ecosystem with iTunes, MobileMe and iLife. All of these great products rely on the ubiquity of the Internet. When Internet providers start making normal Internet use an expensive proposition, Mac users lose.

Apple should lead the way and come out against bandwidth caps. Given that many of the offerings on the iTunes store actually compete with cable TV, Apple should be vigilant that cable companies do not use bandwidth metering as a way to stifle alternative ways of viewing content.

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