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Updated: GCI Changes Usage Cap Policies: Automatic Overlimit Fees Replaced With Speed Throttling

GCI_logoAlaska’s largest cable company today unveiled changes to its Internet plans, ditching surprise overlimit fees in favor of a speed throttle.

GCI has been the subject of bad press in the past, with some customers experiencing up to $1,200 in overlimit fees after exceeding GCI’s usage allowances. In an effort to avoid public relations nightmares like that, GCI will stop assessing automatic overlimit fees and instead impose a speed throttle on customers over their limit that will temporarily reduce broadband speeds to less than 1Mbps until the next billing cycle begins. Customers can voluntarily pay for more usage in $10 increments, which buys a reprieve from the speed throttle.

GCI “No Worries” Broadband Plans offer varying usage caps and extra usage allotments:

no worries

Customers on lower speed plans continue to face a lower usage allowance and will receive considerably less extra data for their $10 add-on data plan. GCI’s highest speed re:D offering does get a bigger usage allowance: 600GB, up from 500GB. An $11.99/mo surcharge continues for broadband-only customers.

GCI’s largest competitor remains telephone company ACS, which heavily markets its unlimited usage DSL plans. Almost as an afterthought, ACS now markets packages that include landline service with unlimited local calling and 180 minutes of long distance for free.

acs unlimited

A price comparison between the two providers is somewhat hampered by the fact GCI does not publicize a broadband+home phone bundle package on their website. GCI Home Phone is priced at $19.99 a month.

A 10Mbps unlimited use package from ACS costs $110/month. A 10Mbps plan from the cable company with a 30 40GB allowance + GCI Home Phone costs $79.98. On price, GCI wins at this speed… if you stay within your allowance. A 50Mbps unlimited use package from ACS runs $180 a month. GCI charges $104.98 with 150GB of included usage. Again, the price winner is GCI if you stay within your allowance. Taxes, surcharges and government fees are extra.

Heavier users may find ACS’ initially higher prices worthwhile if they are forced to buy GCI’s add-on data buckets. Both companies charge considerably more than providers in the lower 48 states.

Last year, nearly 10% of GCI’s revenue was earned from automatically applied overlimit fees. Giving up some of that revenue is a concession, but one that is likely to end bill shock and negative media attention. Still, usage allowances remain arbitrary. GCI’s entry level 10Mbps plan only offers a paltry 30 40GB a month — an allowance largely unheard of among other U.S. cable providers. GCI will also have a difficult time explaining why $10 will only offer one customer 5GB of extra usage while others will get up to 30GB. The costs for the additional data to GCI are the same.

Our thanks to an anonymous reader for sharing the news.

Updated 4:08pm EST 1/15: After going to press, GCI changed their website, adjusting the usage allowance for their 10/1Mbps plan to 40GB (up from 30GB) and deleted references to the $11.99 surcharge for broadband-only customers, which apparently no longer applies.

Comcast Displays Prominent “Data Usage Plan May Apply” Disclaimers On Its Website’s Sales Offers

Comcast has added a prominent warning to the Internet sales pitches on their website:

“An XFINITY Internet Data Usage Plan may apply,” appears when visitors click the “Learn More” button under each Internet offer.

comcast internet overcharging

In the past, Comcast notified affected customers on a regional level based on the locations where usage billing trials are underway. Now the disclaimer is prominently visible for every Comcast customer nationwide.

For now, these trials still apply only to XFINITY Internet customers in Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Tucson, Arizona; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; and Charleston, South Carolina.

In all trial markets except Tucson, the usage allowance included with all XFINITY Internet tiers is 300GB per month. The overlimit fee is $10 for each 50GB used above the usage cap.

In the Tucson, Arizona market, the usage allowance included with Economy Plus through Performance Internet tiers is 300GB. Those customers subscribed to the Blast! Internet tier have received an increase in their data usage plan to 350GB; Extreme 50 customers have received an increase to 450GB; Extreme 105 customers have received an increase to 600GB. The overlimit fee remains the same — $10 for each block of 50GB used above your allowance.

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.

New York City Comptroller Unimpressed With Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

one mbps

“Hey look, is that the Verizon FiOS truck?”

New York City comptroller Scott Stringer is lukewarm at best about the idea of Comcast taking over for Time Warner Cable. In a letter to the New York Public Service Commission released today, Stringer says the deal needs major changes before it comes close to serving the public interest.

“As New York City residents know all too well, our city is stuck in an Internet stone age, at least when compared to other municipalities across the country and around the world,” Stringer wrote. “According to a study by the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, New Yorkers not only endure slower Internet service than similar cities in other parts of the world, but they also pay higher prices for that substandard service. Tokyo residents enjoy speeds that are eight times faster than New York City’s, for a lower price. And Hong Kong residents enjoy speeds that are 20 times faster, for the equivalent price.”

Stringer should visit upstate New York some time. While the Big Apple is moving to a Verizon FiOS and Time Warner Cable Maxx or Cablevision/Optimum future, upstate New York is, in comparison, Raquel Welch-prehistoric, especially if your only choice is Verizon “No, We Won’t Expand DSL to Your House,” or Frontier “3.1Mbps is Plenty” Communications. If New York City’s speeds are slow, upstate New York speeds are glacial.

“The latest data from the FCC shows that, as of June 30, 2013, over 40 percent of connections in New York State are below 3Mbps,” Springer added.

Come for the Finger Lakes, but don’t stay for the broadband.

Should the merger be approved, Comcast would be obligated to comply with the existing franchise agreement between Time Warner Cable and the City of New York. However, in order for the proposed merger to truly be in the public interest, Comcast must have a more detailed plan to address these ongoing challenges and to further close the digital divide that leaves so many low-income New Yorkers cut off from the information superhighway. To date, Comcast’s efforts to close the digital divide have focused on its “Internet Essentials” program, which was launched in 2012.iii The program offers a 5 megabit/second connection for $9.95/month (plus tax) to families matching all of the following criteria:

• Located within an area where Comcast offers Internet service
• Have at least one child eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program
• Have not subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days
• Does not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment

While the aim of the program is laudatory, its slow speed, limited eligibility, and inadequate outreach have kept high-quality connectivity beyond the reach of millions of low-income Americans. Not only are the eligibility rules for Internet Essentials far too narrow, but the company has done a poor job of signing up those who do meet the criteria. In fact, only 300,000 (12 percent) of eligible households nationwide have actually signed up since the program was launched in 2011.

It is critical that the PSC not only press Comcast to significantly expand the reach of Internet Essentials, but also that it engage in appropriate oversight to ensure that the company is meeting its commitments to low-income residents of the Empire State.

Phillip "Comcast isn't the answer to the problem, it's the problem itself" Dampier

Phillip “Comcast isn’t the answer, it’s the problem” Dampier

In fact, the best way New York can protect its low-income residents is to keep Comcast out of the state. Time Warner Cable offers everyday $14.99 Internet access to anyone who wants it as long as they want it. No complicated pre-qualification conditions, annoying forms, or gotcha terms and conditions.

When a representative from the PSC asked a Comcast representative if the company would keep Time Warner’s discount Internet offer, a non-answer answer was the response. That usually means the answer is no.

“We have seen how telecommunications companies will promise to expand access as a condition of a merger, only to shirk their commitments once the merger has been approved,” Springer complained. “For instance, as part of its 2006 purchase of BellSouth, AT&T told Congress that it would work to provide customers ‘greater access and more choices for broadband, no matter where they live or work.’ However, later reports found that the FCC relied on the companies themselves to report their own merger compliance and did not conduct independent audits to verify their claims.”

Big Telecom promises are like getting commitments from a cheating spouse. Never trust… do verify or throw them out. Comcast still has not met all the conditions it promised to meet after its recent merger with NBCUniversal, according to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).

Stringer also blasted Comcast for its Net Neutrality roughhousing:

While the FCC has not declared internet providers to be “common carriers”, state law has effectively done so within the Empire State. Under 16 NYCRR Part 605, a common carrier is defined as “a corporation that holds itself out to provide service to the public for hire to provide conduit services including voice, data, or video by electrical, electronic, electromagnetic or photonic means.”

Importantly, the law requires these carriers to “provide publicly offered conduit services on demand to any similarly situated user on substantially similar terms, subject to the availability of facilities and capacity.”

In recent months, Comcast has shown that it is willing to sacrifice net neutrality in order to squeeze additional payment out of content providers, such as Netflix. As shown in the chart below, Netflix download speeds on the Comcast network deteriorated rapidly prior to an agreement whereby Netflix now pays Comcast for preferential access.

speed changes

concast careConsumers have a legitimate fear that if access to fiber-optic networks is eventually for sale to the highest bidder, then not only will it stifle the entrepreneurial energy unleashed by the democratizing forces of the Internet, but will also potentially lead to higher prices for consumers in accessing content. Under that scenario, consumers are hit twice—first by paying for Internet access to their home and second by paying for certain content providers’ preferred access.

Internet neutrality has been a core principle of the web since its founding and the PSC must examine whether Comcast’s recent deal with Netflix is a sign that the company is eroding this principle in a manner that conflicts with the public interest.

Stringer may not realize Comcast also has an end run around Net Neutrality in the form of usage caps that will deter customers from accessing competitors’ content if it could put them over their monthly usage allowance and subject to penalty rates. Comcast could voluntarily agree to Net Neutrality and still win by slapping usage limits on all of their broadband customers. Either causes great harm for competitors like Netflix.

“I urge the Commission to hold Comcast to that burden and to ensure that the merger is in the best interest of the approximately 2.6 million Time Warner Cable subscribers in New York State and many more for whom quality, affordable Internet access remains unavailable,” Stringer writes. “And I urge Comcast to view this as an opportunity to do the right thing by introducing itself to the New York market as a company that values equitable access and understands that its product—the fourth utility of the modern age—must be available to all New Yorkers.”

If Comcast’s existing enormous customer base has already voted them the Worst Company in America, it is unlikely Comcast will turn on a dime for the benefit of New York.

The best way to ensure quality, affordable Internet access in New York is to keep Comcast out of New York.

No cable company has ever resolved the rural broadband problem. Their for-profit business model depends on a Return on Investment formula that prohibits expanding service into unprofitable service areas.

These rural service problems remain pervasive in Comcast areas as well, and always have since the company took over for AT&T Cable in the early 2000s. Little has changed over the last dozen years and little will change in the next dozen if we depend entirely on companies like Comcast to handle the rural broadband problem.

A more thoughtful solution is encouraging the development of community co-ops and similar broadband enterprises that need not answer to shareholders and strict ROI formulas.

In the meantime, for the good of all New York, let’s keep Comcast south (and north) of the border, thank you very much.

 

GCI – Alaska’s Outrageous Internet Overcharger; Customers Paying Up to $1,200 in Overlimit Fees

GCI_logoNearly 10 percent of GCI’s revenue is now earned from overlimit fees collected from Alaskan broadband customers who exceed their cable or wireless usage limits.

GCI is Alaska’s largest cable operator and for many it is the only provider able to deliver stable speeds of 10Mbps+, especially to those who live too far away for comparable DSL speeds from ACS, one of GCI’s largest competitors.

The result has given GCI a de facto monopoly on High Speed Internet (10+ Mbps) access, a position that has allowed the company to dramatically raise prices and slap usage limits on broadband users and charge onerous overlimit fees on those who exceed their allowance.

GCI already charges some of the highest broadband service prices in the country and has insisted on imposing usage caps and overlimit fees on even its most expensive plans, creating high profits for them and enormous bills for customers who have no reliable way to consistently track their usage. GCI’s suspect usage meter is often offline and often delivers usage estimates that customers insist are far from accurate. GCI says it has the last word on the accuracy of that meter and has not submitted its meter to independent testing and verification by a local or state regulatory body specializing in measurement accuracy.

GCI also makes it extremely difficult for customers to understand what happens after customers exceed their usage limits. The website only vaguely offers that overlimit fees vary from “$.001 (half penny) to $.03 (three cents) per MB,” which is factually inaccurate: $.001 does not equal a half-penny. It can equal bill shock if a customer happens to be watching a Netflix movie when their allowance runs out.

KC D’Onfro of Bethel subscribes to GCI’s Alaska Extreme Internet plan, which in February cost $100 a month for 4/1Mbps service with a 25GB usage cap. While that allowance is plenty for the countless e-mails GCI promises you can send, any sort of streaming video can chew through that allowance quickly.

Business Insider explains what happened:

One fateful night, she and her roommate decided to watch a movie on Netflix. Both of them fell asleep halfway through, but the movie played ’til the end, eating up two GBs of data too many and consequently doubling their bill for that month. (One hour of HD video on Netflix can use up to 2.3 GB of data.)

“Now, I don’t even consider Netflix until near the very end of the month, and I have to be sure that I’m no more than three-fourths of the way into my total data, at the absolute most,” KC says. (Her provider, a company called GCI, allows subscribers to view their daily usage and sends them a notice when they’ve hit 80%.) “It’s a very serious business – I have to poll people to figure out what that one very special movie should be.”

That left the D’Onfro family with a $200 broadband bill – $100 for the service and an extra $100 overlimit fee for that single Netflix movie. Today, GCI demands $114.99 a month for that same plan (with the same usage allowance) and those not subscribing to their TV service also face a monthly $11.99 “access fee” surcharge for Internet-only service.

expensive

“Many Alaska consumers have brought their GCI broadband bills to ACS for a comparative quote, providing dozens of examples of GCI overage charges,” said Caitlin McDiffett, product manager of Alaska Communications Systems (ACS), the state’s largest landline phone company. “Many of these examples include overage charges of $200 to $600 in a single month. In one instance, a customer was charged $1 ,200 in overage fees.”

GCI also keeps most customers in place with a 24-month contract, making it difficult and costly to switch providers.

McDiffett told the FCC the average Alaskan with a Netflix subscription must pay for at least a 12Mbps connection to get the 60GB usage allowance they will need to watch more than two Netflix movies a week in addition to other typical online activities. GCI makes sure that costs average Alaskans real money.

“A customer purchasing 12Mbps for standalone (non-bundled) Home Internet from GCI pays $59.99 per month plus an $11.99 monthly “access” fee for a total of $71.98 per month with a 60GB usage limit ($0.004/MB overage charge),” reports McDiffett. “Thus, the monthly bill for this service is more typically $76.98, including a $5.00 overage charge. To purchase a service with a usage limit of at least 100GB per month, a GCI customer would have to pay $81.98 per month (the $69.99 standalone rate plus $11.99 monthly access fee), subject to an overage charge of $0.003/MB.”

Rural Alaskans pay even more on GCS' expensive wireless ISP.

Rural Alaskans pay even more when using GCI’s expensive wireless ISP.

Regular Alaskan Stop the Cap! reader Scott reports that no matter what plan you choose from GCI, they are waiting and ready to slap overlimit fees on you as soon as they decide you are over your limit.

Their super-deluxe re:D service — up to 200Mbps, now available in Anchorage, MatSu, Fairbanks, Juneau, Kenai, Ketchikan, Sitka, and Soldotna areas, is not cheap.

“It’s a whopping $209.99 + taxes, and if you don’t have cable TV service bundled, the $11.99 monthly access fee also applies,” Scott says.

For that kind of money, one might expect a respite from the usage meter,  but not with GCI.

“As a top tier service, you’d think they could just offer it as ’unlimited’ at that rate,” Scott says. “Actually, it has a 500GB usage cap and $.50/GB overage fee. Again, we have a metering provider who claims the overages were to penalize bandwidth hogs, yet then offer [faster] service, increasing overall load on their network, instead of just offering a fair amount of bandwidth per customer and eliminating overages by offering unlimited usage.”

One of ACS' strong selling points is no data caps, but DSL isn't available to everyone.

One of ACS’ strong selling points is no data caps, but DSL isn’t available to everyone.

In a filing with the FCC, ACS’ McDiffett suspects usage caps are all about the money.

“GCI reported 2012 Home Internet revenue of $86 million of which $7.9 million (nearly ten percent) was derived from overage charges,” said McDiffett. “On average, about $5 per customer per month can be attributed to GCI overage charges. GCI imposes usage limits or data caps at every level of Home Internet service, from its 10 Mbps service (10GB limit, $0.005/MB overage charge) to its 100 Mbps service (500GB limit, $0.0005/MB overage charge).”

badbillOver time, and after several cases of bill shock, Alaskan Internet customers have become more careful about watching everything they do online, fearing GCI’s penalties. That threatens GCI’s overlimit revenue, and now Stop the Cap! readers report sudden, long-lasting problems with GCI’s usage checker, often followed by substantial bills with steep overlimit penalties they claim just are not accurate.

“I currently pay $184.99 a month for GCI‘s highest offered broadband service. 200/5Mbps, with a 500GB monthly data cap,” shares Stop the Cap! reader Luke Benson. “According to GCI, over the past couple months our usage has increased resulting in overage charges at $1.00 a GB.”

In May, Benson was billed $130 in overlimit fees, but after complaining, the company finally agreed to credit back $100. A month later, they recaptured $60 of that credit from new overlimit fees. This month, Benson would have to unplug his modem halfway through his billing cycle or face another $50 in penalties.

GCI’s bandwidth monitor has proved less than helpful, either because it is offline or reports no usage according to several readers reaching out to us. GCI’s own technical support team notes the meter will not report usage until at least 72 hours after it occurs. GCI itself does not rely on its online usage monitor for customer billing. Customer Internet charges are measured, calculated, and applied by an internal billing system off-limits for public inspection.

“I have reached out to GCI multiple times asking for help, suggestions, resolution,” complains Benson. “All I get told is to turn down the viewing quality of Netflix, don’t allow devices to auto update, etc. They pretty much blamed every service but their own.”

Other customers have unwittingly fallen into GCI’s overlimit fee trap while running popular Internet applications that wouldn’t exist if GCI’s caps and overlimit fees were common across the country. Lifelong Bethel resident and tech consultant John Wallace knows the local horror stories:

  • tollsTwo girls had unwittingly allowed Dropbox to continuously sync to their computers, racking up a $3,500 overcharge in two weeks;
  • One user’s virus protection updater got stuck on and it cost him $600;
  • Wallace has heard people say, “I was gaming and I got a little out of hand and I had to pay $2,800;”
  • Two six-year-old girls ran up $2,000 playing an online preschool game. Mom was totally unaware of what was going on, until she got the bill.

GCI’s own Facebook page was the home of a number of customer complaints until the complaint messages mysteriously disappeared. Stop the Cap! itself discovered it was not allowed to even ask questions on the company’s social media pages, apparently already on their banned list.

While GCI does well for itself and its shareholders, Wallace worries about the impact GCI’s control of the Alaskan Internet High Speed Internet market will have on the economy and Alaskan society.

“It’s about equal access and opportunity,” Wallace told Business Insider. “The Internet was meant to improve the lives of people in rural Alaska, but – because of the data caps and the sky-high overage fees – it ends up costing them huge amounts of money. We have one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, and some of the highest rates of suicide, sexual assault, and drug abuse. The people who can’t afford it are the ones that are getting victimized.  It was supposed to bring access – true availability of goods and services – but it really just brought a huge bill that many can’t afford.”

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