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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.”

Sprint Testing New Shared Data Plans, More Aggressively Priced Framily Plans to Stay Relevant

Waiting for an upgrade... Sprint Spark is the latest and fastest, but it's only in 24 cities.

Waiting for an upgrade… Sprint Spark is the latest and fastest, but it’s only in 24 cities.

Sprint may be feeling the music is about to stop and it doesn’t have a chair at the table.

While AT&T and Verizon Wireless divide up the premium market and T-Mobile goes for the aggressive price championship, Sprint is muddling along with its glacially paced upgrade to 4G LTE and a barely usable 3G experience that has a lot of customers pondering a switch. This spring Sprint lost 364,000 pre-paid and 231,000 valuable postpaid customers.

CNET reports Sprint is now seeking to follow other carriers with a shared family data plan and better pricing on both its Framily and individual plans.

Sprint may be America’s least exciting wireless carrier. While T-Mobile’s CEO gets into hot water with bombastic rhetoric about Verizon and AT&T, he largely ignores Sprint. To more than a few in the wireless industry, Sprint seems to be just plodding along.

“I will be collecting Social Security before Sprint upgrades to 4G around here,” writes suburban Sacramento resident Danny Chiang. “You just keep holding out for something better from Sprint just around the corner, but they never seem to actually get there.”

Chiang and others have endured a heavily congested 3G network while Sprint initially focused on rural and small market 4G network upgrades — hardly intuitive for loyal Sprint customers in urban areas. Today, all Sprint can claim is that it has America’s “newest network.”

Some investment analysts believe Sprint is being more conservative about spending as it navigates towards a potential merger with T-Mobile. Its Japanese owners — Softbank, have argued a combined Sprint and T-Mobile is the only way America’s third and fourth largest carriers can possibly hope to compete toe to toe with Verizon and AT&T.

Sprint’s latest network innovation — Spark — which combines spectrum in three different frequency bands to deliver a larger data pipe, is only available in two dozen cities. Spark would be a natural showcase for Sprint’s enormous spectrum holdings. Sprint Spark combines 4G FDD-LTE at 800MHz and 1.9GHz and TDD-LTE at Clearwire’s old WiMAX 2.5GHz spectrum.

But network upgrades do no good if your customers are headed out the door to the competition. While Sprint continues to upgrade its network, it is testing a variety of new plans in different cities for a possible wider release later this year.

Shared/Family Mobile Data Plan Trials — San Diego, Portland, Ore. and Las Vegas

Sprint believes its Framily Plan might be too expensive.

Sprint believes its Framily Plan might be too expensive.

Data Allowance Options

  • 1GB – $20
  • 2GB – $30
  • 4GB – $40
  • 6GB – $50
  • 10GB – $60
  • 20GB – $100
  • 30GB – $130
  • 40GB – $150
  • 60GB – $225
  • No unlimited shared data option
  • Unlimited Talk/Text Phone Access Charge (required charge per phone): $25 for 1-10GB data plans, $15 for 20+GB data plans
  • Annual Device Upgrade included at no extra charge for all customers with 20+GB shared data plans (San Diego and Portland only)
  • Annual Device Upgrade Option: $5/month (Las Vegas only)

CNET points out Sprint’s plans are a better deal for heavy data users. The $20 plan for 1GB, for instance, is only $5 cheaper than a comparable AT&T plan. But the 30GB plan is $75 cheaper than AT&T’s $225 version.

Discounted Framily Plan Trials – Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Providence, R.I.

  • Starting price reduced $10 to $45/month. Add five people to your “framily” and the price drops to $25/month (two fewer people now required to get the largest discount).
  • Selecting the $20 unlimited data option automatically enrolls you in an annual upgrade plan (Buffalo and Philadelphia only).
  • Customers can choose to pay $5 extra a month for an annual upgrade option (Providence only).

New Bring Your Own Device Option for Individual Plan Trials — Chicago, Minneapolis, and West Michigan

  • Customers paying full price for a smartphone, those paying in monthly installments,  or who bring their own device to Sprint are eligible for a $50 unlimited plan or a $40 for 3GB of data per month plan. Unlimited Framily data plans usually cost $75 a month.
  • Unlimited data customers in Chicago and Minneapolis are automatically eligible for annual upgrades.
  • West Michigan customers will have to pay a $5 fee each month for their annual upgrade.

Comcast Shakes Its Innovation Money-Maker: Considers Launch of All-New, Deluxe $ Unlimited Internet

"Customer service says you have the right to pay more."

Comcast says you must have the option to pay more for the same broadband service you already get, only now with an allowance

Comcast has announced it is considering testing an innovative new plan in several test markets offering “unlimited Internet access” to customers for a yet-to-be-determined price. Whoever heard of such a thing?

Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen raised eyebrows last week when he predicted all Comcast customers nationwide would see usage-based billing for their Internet access within five years.

Such statements tend to muck up things like a $45 billion dollar merger with Time Warner Cable that both companies must prove is in the public interest. The buyer wants to limit your Internet usage and the seller got its fingers burned back in 2009 when it tried its own usage cap experiment and now advertises it has no data caps.

Telling Time Warner Cable customers it is in their best interest to lose unmetered Internet plans may be too tough to sell, so Cohen has spent much of this week backtracking and claiming he was “misunderstood:

To be clear, we have no plans to announce a new data usage policy.  In 2012, we suspended our 250 GB data cap in order to conduct a few pilot programs that were more customer friendly than a static cap.  Since then, we’ve had no data caps for any of our customers anywhere in the country.  We have been trialing a few flexible data consumption plans, including a plan that enables customers who wanted to use more data be given the option to pay more to do so, and a plan for those who use less data the option to save some money.  We decided to implement these trials to learn what our customers’ reaction is to what we think are reasonable data consumption plans.  We certainly have no interest in adopting any plans that our customers find unreasonable or disruptive to their Internet experience.

It’s important to note that we remain in trial mode only.   We’re now also looking at adding some unlimited data plans to our trials. We have always said that as the Internet, and our customers’ use of it, continues to evolve, so will Comcast and our policies.

Cohen makes a careful distinction between a strict usage limit and the kind of usage-based billing that will fill the company’s coffers with overlimit fees. But any usage allowance is a limit of how much you can use the Internet before something bad happens — either your access is shut off or your bill explodes.

comcasticStop the Cap! has talked with more than a dozen customers in Comcast’s test markets about their experiences with Comcast’s “data usage policy.” Although the company claims it is seeking customer reactions, it never asks whether those customers want usage limits or not, only what kind.

Giving customers “the option to pay more” is exactly the type of thinking that won Comcast the dubious distinction of being the worst company in America. No usage plan tested by Comcast actually offers savings to customers. It simply places an artificial, arbitrary usage allowance on the overpriced broadband service the company offers now.

At this point, Comcast is not offering any unlimited use trials, but we have learned the value they are likely to place on “unlimited” based on what certain customers have paid all along for that privilege. Ars Technica reports some avoided the 250GB cap by signing up for business class service. The cost? $133.79 a month for 50/10Mbps. If Google Fiber was in town, you’d pay $70 for unlimited 1,000/1,000Mbps service, and the search engine giant would still be making money.

Cohen claims nothing is set in stone, but considering Comcast’s “don’t care” attitude towards its customers, it is a safe bet they will do what is best for shareholders and ignore complaints from customers that often have nowhere else to go for 21st century broadband speeds.

Zain Bahrain vs. AT&T/Verizon: See How Much You’re Getting Gouged for 4G LTE Service

zain 4g

This week, mobile customers in Bahrain can now sign up for uncongested, ultra-fast 4G LTE broadband packages that include 120GB of usage and a free LTE router or MiFi device, all priced less than what AT&T and Verizon Wireless charge for just 1GB of mobile broadband and the cost of the device to use it.

att verizonZain Bahrain began offering mobile broadband packages this week that start at under $32 a month. For video lovers and downloaders, the company charges $53 a month for up to 120GB of usage at speeds up to 25Mbps, equipment included at no extra charge. Customers upgrading to 250GB or 1000GB usage allowances also get much faster performance on the company’s LTE network — up to 100Mbps.

Customers that exceed those usage allowances are not billed overlimit fees. Their speeds are temporarily throttled to a still-usable 2-4Mbps, depending on the chosen plan. There is a 4GB daily usage limit.

In the United States, AT&T customers pay $50 a month for a DataConnect plan offering up to 5GB of usage, with a $10/GB overlimit fee. A smartphone customer pays a combined $65 a month for a 1GB plan and device fee.

A Verizon Wireless customer pays $50 as month for a shared data plan offering a 4GB data allowance and includes the monthly device fee. A smartphone customer pays $80 a month ($70 if on Verizon’s Edge plan) for a 1GB plan and device fee.

“We are delighted that we are leveraging the investment in our new network to benefit our customers with new offers,” said Zain Bahrain’s enterprise broadband products and services manager Mohammed Al Alawi. “Today’s broadband customers are bandwidth hungry, with diverse connectivity needs; our new 4G LTE broadband packages are custom-designed to meet these needs and enable a digital lifestyle like never before.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Why should you switch to 4G LTE with Zain 2014.mp4

Zain produced this English language video to introduce its 4G LTE service offering speeds up to 100Mbps in Kuwait. Unlike in the United States, generous usage allowances from Zain make wireless broadband a prospect for Internet users in the home and on the go. (2:20)

 

 

AT&T/Verizon Wireless’ No-Subsidy Plans Working Great for Them, Not So Much for You

Phillip Dampier April 24, 2014 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Verizon, Wireless Broadband 1 Comment

galaxy s5AT&T and Verizon Wireless are thrilled customers are moving away from subsidized smartphones, because both are raking in extra revenue they are not returning to customers with lower plan prices.

In the past, customers have usually chosen discounted new phones that come with a two-year contract. A smartphone that retails for $650 sells in the store for $199 or less, with the $450 subsidy gradually repaid through artificially high service plan prices over the length of the contract. The subsidy system didn’t hurt long-term revenues because the money was eventually recovered and contracts locked most customers into place for at least two years. But Wall Street has never been thrilled by carriers tying up subsidy money on the books for two years.

For a transition away from the subsidy system to be fair, providers need to lower plan prices enough to drop the subsidy payback. But neither AT&T or Verizon Wireless have done that.

AT&T customers choosing an $650 iPhone on contract under the subsidy system will pay $200 up front, a $36 activation fee, and $80 a month for a two-year plan with 2GB of data. Total cost: $2,156.

If you buy your own iPhone and finance it through AT&T, which most customers are likely to do, the cost is $65 a month for the service plan, no activation fee, and a device installment payment plan of $32.50 a month for 20 months. Total cost: $2,210 or $54 more than the subsidized plan costs.

verizon attVerizon Wireless is a bigger taker.

Sign a two-year contract with Big Red for that same phone and 2GB plan and you will pay $200 up front, an activation fee of $35, and $75 a month for the service. That adds up to $2,035. Buying a no-contract iPhone without a subsidy costs $27 a month for the installment plan, no activation fee, and $65 a month for the service. That totals $2,210, $175 more than a subsidy customer pays.

Big spending-customers can realize some further savings by upgrading to plans with a bigger data allowance, but those plans won’t make sense if you don’t use up your allowance.

Both companies claim the unsubsidized plans save customers money, but they actually don’t for most because neither lowered plan rates enough and are now pocketing the difference. Verizon and AT&T also argue customers don’t have to pay several hundred dollars up front for a phone, which is true, but they will pay more for it over time. It is also true these unsubsidized plans allow for earlier upgrades, but customers are paying for that privilege.

It’s hard to say whether AT&T and Verizon Wireless will pay fair value for old phones as customers choose to upgrade. If they don’t, customers could effectively hand both companies even more money through undervalued trade-ins.

At least 40 percent of AT&T customers are choosing the unsubsidized route through AT&T Next and the company couldn’t be more pleased.

In a conference call with investors this week, AT&T’s chief financial officer told analysts wireless service margins were up to 45.4%, with AT&T Next having a positive impact on that margin.

John Stephens noted that with the retail price of smartphones being in the $600-650 range, more customers are being convinced to sign up for AT&T’s handset insurance plan, which provides AT&T with two benefits. First, the insurance earns AT&T more than it pays out in claims and second, devices returned under the insurance program are refurbished and then sent to other AT&T customers filing claims in the future.

Tim K. Horan from Oppenheimer & Co., Inc. believes AT&T’s total subsidy expenses/internal costs are around $400 for a subsidized phone but only $100 for a phone sold on the Next unsubsidized installment plan.

With competition from T-Mobile starting to have an impact on both companies, AT&T and Verizon Wireless have plenty of room to further lower their rates and still come out ahead.

Comcast’s Festival of Nonsense Performed for Senate Judiciary Committee

Phillip "The circus is in town" Dampier

Phillip “The circus is in town” Dampier

Yesterday afternoon I got to experience both the pain of having a tooth pulled and watch Comcast and Time Warner Cable defend its merger for more than three hours before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Festival of Nonsense from Comcast’s top lobbyist David Cohen and Time Warner Cable’s chief financial officer Arthur Minson hurt more.

Despite the $45 billion dollar deal, the real powers that be couldn’t be bothered to turn up at the hearing. Comcast’s chief executive was nowhere to be found — perhaps he was playing golf with President Obama again. Comcast’s top lobbyist David Cohen showed up instead, wearing an outfit that looked like it was stuffed with cash waiting to fall from his pockets into the hands of his “friends” on Capitol Hill. Cohen is a well-known Democratic money bundler who raised $1.44 million for the president’s reelection campaign in 2011 and 2012, and $2.22 million since 2007. (Obama spent time in Cohen’s Philadelphia home as well, part of a DNC fundraising party.)

Perhaps Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus was unavailable because he was too busy counting the $8.52 million he was paid before agreeing to sell the company. Don’t expect him at the next hearing either, because he is shopping for a bigger safe to hold the $80 million he will receive for agreeing to change Time Warner Cable’s name to Comcast.

The other usual suspects were also missing in action. Not a peep from the major networks or cable programmers at the hearing. Instead, the Senate endured a guy with a golf channel nobody ever heard of using the hearing to try to get his calls returned by Time Warner and a wireless provider who believes his technology is faster than fiber. Sure it is.

Brought to you in part by America's cable industry.

Brought to you in part by America’s cable industry.

I suppose it’s also worth mentioning Christopher Yoo – Comcast’s intellectual sock puppet straight out of the cable company’s home town of Philadelphia. He serves at the pleasure of the “Center for Technology, Innovation & Competition” (cough) at the University of Pennsylvania. The “center” is financially supported by the cable industry. David Cohen just happens (by sheer coincidence) to chair the university’s Board of Trustees. Yoo’s testimony could be boiled down to a nod in Cohen’s direction with an affirming, “whatever he said.”

The Cohen and Minson Comedy Hour began with opening statements extolling the virtues of supersizing Comzilla, with dubious claims about its benefits for consumers.

Without laughing, read the following out loud:

“We welcome this opportunity to discuss the proposed transaction between Comcast Corporation (“Comcast”) and Time Warner Cable Inc. (“TWC”), and the substantial and multiple pro-consumer, pro-competitive, and public interest benefits that it will generate, including through competitive entry in segments neither company today can meaningfully serve on its own,” the two companies wrote in their joint opening statement.

Cohen

Cohen

“Comcast and TWC do not compete for customers in any market – either for broadband, video, or voice services. The transaction will not reduce competition or consumer choice at all. Comcast and TWC serve separate and distinct geographic areas. This simple but critically important fact has been lost on many who would criticize our transaction, but it cannot be ignored – competition simply will not be reduced. Rather, the transaction will enhance competition in key market segments, including advanced business services and advertising.”

To emphasize just how little this merger will impact the current state of non-competition in the broadband marketplace, Comcast repeatedly emphasized you can’t subscribe to a competing cable company today and still won’t tomorrow:

“Consumers in Comcast’s territories cannot subscribe to TWC for broadband, video, or phone services. And TWC customers cannot switch to Comcast. For that reason, this is not a horizontal transaction under merger review standards, and there will be no reduction in competition or consumer choice,” said the written statement.

In other words, since there was no competition between cable companies before, making sure consumers still don’t have a choice is not anti-competitive.

Watch the entire hearing on the Senate Judiciary Committee website.

(The hearing begins at the 24 minute mark.)

Here are some other “benefits” promised by Cohen and Minson:

Post-transaction, Comcast intends to make substantial incremental upgrades to TWC’s systems to migrate them to all-digital, freeing up bandwidth to deliver greater speeds. For example, Comcast typically bonds 8 QAM channels together in its systems, and Comcast’s most popular broadband service tier offers speeds of 25/5Mbps upstream across its footprint. In comparison, TWC bonds 4 QAM channels in nearly half of its systems, and its most commonly purchased service tier offers speeds of 15/1Mbps. Comcast’s fastest residential broadband tier offers speeds of 505/100Mbps; TWC’s current top speeds are 100/5Mbps. Comcast’s investments in the TWC systems will also improve network reliability, network security, and convenience to TWC customers.

Minson

Minson

Of course, nothing prevented either company from boosting speeds without a $45 billion merger deal. In fact, Comcast is doing exactly that this week. Marcus’ own revival plan for TWC, dubbed TWC Maxx, promised Time Warner Cable customers would get even faster speeds than Comcast offers most of its customers.

Time Warner Cable now advertises it does not have usage caps on broadband. Comcast cannot say the same, although it tries very hard to tapdance around the matter by calling the 300GB monthly cap spreading into more and more Comcast territories a “data threshold.”

Comcast’s speed upgrades for TWC customers are likely to come with a big catch — an arbitrary usage allowance that limits their usefulness. By the way, that 505Mbps service is available only from Comcast’s extremely limited fiber network that the overwhelming majority of customers cannot get.

The transaction will similarly speed the availability of advanced Wi-Fi equipment in consumers’ homes. The quality of broadband service depends not only on the “last-mile” infrastructure but also the delivery of the signal over the last few yards. Comcast has led the entire broadband industry in rolling out advanced gateway Wi-Fi routers to approximately 8 million households and small businesses, giving these customers faster speeds (up to 270 Mbps downstream as compared to 85 Mbps downstream from the prior generation devices) and better performance over their home and business wireless networks. In contrast, TWC only recently began deploying advanced in-home Wi-Fi routers. With the greater purchasing power and economies of scale resulting from the transaction, Comcast can not only offer TWC customers access to today’s best routers, but also invest in and deploy next-generation router technologies for all of the combined company’s customers.

comcast twcComcast doesn’t like to mention that “advanced Wi-Fi” equipment costs customers $8 a month… forever. Comcast is also using it to boost its own Wi-Fi service by sharing it with the neighbors. This merger “benefit” will cost customers almost $100 a year. Customers can do better buying their own equipment and don’t need a merger to make that decision.

The transaction will give Comcast the geographic reach, economies of scale, customer density, and return on investment needed to massively expand Wi-Fi hotspots across the combined company’s footprint, including in the Midwest, South, and West, particularly in areas like Cleveland/Pittsburgh, the Carolinas, Texas, and California, where there will be greater density and clustering of systems. Our goal is to provide greater Wi-Fi availability that allows the combined company’s customers to access the Internet in more places, more conveniently, and at no additional charge.

Your usage allowance will likely apply to this “free Wi-Fi” that most customers cannot access because they live in an area where neither company offers it now and likely won’t anytime soon.

The transaction will also enable Comcast to invest in network expansions and last-mile improvements that provide an even stronger foundation for innovative applications, including education, healthcare, the delivery of government services, and home security and energy management. And with greater coverage and density of systems, Comcast will also have the ability and incentive to build out and make available interconnection points in more geographic regions. This will be especially beneficial to companies like Google, Netflix, and Amazon, which aggregate massive data traffic when they deliver their own and others’ services to consumers.

internet essentialsFor the right price. Nothing precluded Comcast or Time Warner Cable from investing some of their lush profits into improvements for customers. But why bother when your only serious competitor is usually DSL. Investment in broadband networks has declined for years in favor of profit-taking. Making Comcast bigger introduces no new market forces that would provoke it to improve service. In fact, Comcast’s massive size and reach would likely deter would-be competitors from entering a market where Comcast can use predatory pricing and retention offers to keep customers from switching.

Helping people successfully cross the digital divide requires ongoing outreach. To increase awareness of the Internet Essentials program, Comcast has made significant and sustained efforts within local communities. To date, those outreach efforts have included:

  • Distributing over 33 million free brochures to school districts and community partners for (available in 14 different languages).
  • Broadcasting more than 3.6 million public service announcements with a combined value of nearly $48 million.
  • Forging more than 8,000 partnerships with community-based organizations, government agencies, and elected officials at all levels of government.

Cohen does not mention the company planned to offer Internet Essentials earlier than it did, but held it back for political reasons.

“I held back because I knew it may be the type of voluntary commitment that would be attractive to the chairman” of the Federal Communications Commission, Cohen said in a 2012 interview. Comcast’s generosity was limited. It specifically designed its discount Internet program to make it difficult to qualify and protect its regular-priced broadband offerings. The goodwill from handing out Comcast sales brochures and getting free exposure in the media offers little to customers. Comcast also has a way of getting the community-based organizations it “partners” with to advocate for Comcast’s business interests.

"Sometimes we need a kick in the butt." -- Cohen

“Sometimes we need a kick in the butt.” — Cohen

If only the government got out of the way and approve the merger, Comcast will improve on its already amazing customer service:

Improving the customer experience is a top priority at Comcast. We are investing billions of dollars in our network infrastructure and are developing innovative products and features to make it easier and more convenient for our customers to interact with us. While our satisfaction results are beginning to rise, we know we still have work to do and are laser-focused on continuing to improve our customers’ experiences in a number of ways.  Comcast has improved its customer satisfaction ratings significantly. Since 2010, Comcast has increased its J.D. Power’s Overall Satisfaction score by nearly 100 points as a video provider, and close to 80 points in High Speed Data – more than any other provider in our industry during the same period.

Twice nothing is still nothing. Cohen even admitted at the hearing Comcast’s progress at improving customer service is not as rosy as his written testimony might suggest.

“It bothers us we have so much trouble delivering high quality of service to customers on a regular basis,” Cohen said. “Sometimes, we need a kick in the butt.”

That has never worked before. Comcast has kicked its customers around since at least 2007 when it also promised major customer service improvements that turned out to be figments of a press release. Comcast’s “laser-focused” efforts to improve instead won it the 2014 Consumerist Worst Company in America award this week and more than 100,000 consumers signing petitions vehemently opposing the merger.

Comcast has a long record of improving consumers’ online experiences and working cooperatively with other companies on interconnection, peering and transit.

bufferingJust ask any Comcast customer about their Netflix viewing experience lately and how it took a checkbook to improve matters. Ask any online video competitor whether Comcast is a good neighbor when it exempts its own video traffic from its “usage threshold” while making sure to count competitors’ traffic against it.

Comcast also likes to suggest Americans are awash in competitive options for broadband service. Why there is DSL, satellite broadband, fiber, wireless Internet, public libraries, and books.

In fact, Comcast’s filing points to various “competitors” that don’t even exist yet, if they ever will. Comcast suggests Google Fiber is popping up everywhere, despite the fact Google announced it was delaying its fiber rollout in Austin, and most of its latest expansion plans lack firm commitments to deploy and are framed only in the context of opening a dialogue with targeted communities.

Satellite Internet speeds are severely limited and usage-capped. The same is true for exorbitantly expensive mobile broadband. Comparing a $40 unlimited broadband offering from Time Warner Cable to Verizon Wireless’ 4GB for $50 mobile wireless Internet package is silly.

Comcast characterizes the competitive telecom marketplace as a veritable dogfight, but it looks a lot more like a well-executed dog and pony show. Just how rabid are these dogs?

  • Verizon’s pit bull zeal to compete has more bark than bite. Verizon Wireless customers can sign up for Comcast or Time Warner Cable service in Verizon stores (woof);
  • Comcast’s rottweiler isn’t supposed to get along well with others, but it manages pretty well pitching Verizon Wireless service (grrr).

An hour into the hearing, it was clear there was some bipartisan discomfort with the merger, with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) leading the charge with pointed questions cutting through Comcast’s government relations fluff.

“I’m against this deal,” Franken concluded. “My concern is that as Comcast continues to get bigger, you’ll have even more power to exercise that leverage — to squeeze consumers.”

Like an orange.

Time Warner Cable’s New Ad Campaign Advertises “No Data Caps”

nocapsTime Warner Cable has introduced a new marketing message to potential customers, promoting the fact its broadband service has “no data caps.”

The new ads, appearing for the first time earlier this month, break from the usual tradition of avoiding telling customers they can use broadband service as much as they like. The cable industry advertised “unlimited access” in its broadband offer for years to compete against dial-up Internet. More recently some have redefined the term to mean “you can use the service anytime day or night,” but not consume unlimited amounts of data.

Of course, with Comcast attempting to claim they have “no data caps” either, only “data thresholds,” Time Warner Cable still has some wiggle room should it impose usage-based billing. Technically, under that scheme users don’t have a “data cap,” just a usage allowance above which they will face overlimit penalties.

Still, it is a nice change for at least one major cable company to be willing to market service without data caps. Time Warner’s most likely intended target for the campaign is AT&T U-verse, which has increasingly cracked down on customers exceeding its own usage caps — 150GB a month for DSL, 250GB a month for U-verse. Customers pay a overlimit penalty of $10 for each 50GB allotment above those allowances.

 

Comcast Gobbledygook: “We Don’t Have Data Caps, We Have Data Thresholds”

The Plain English Campaign's Golden Bull Award is given to companies that prefer gobbledygook over plain English.

The Plain English Campaign’s Golden Bull Award is given to companies that prefer gobbledygook over plain English.

Comcast is outraged by slanderous suggestions it has data caps on its broadband service.

In response to the scathing report from the Writers Guild of America that pleads for the FCC to block the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, Comcast has accused to WGA of getting its facts wrong and being nothing more than a meddling union.

The WGA writes in their filing with the FCC:

The WGAW has also joined Public Knowledge in asking the FCC to enforce the condition that Comcast not use “caps, tiers, metering, or other usage-based pricing” to treat affiliated network traffic differently from unaffiliated traffic. Comcast has violated this condition by exempting its online video service, Xfinity Streampix, from its own data caps, while the viewing of content by other, unaffiliated video services such as Netflix or YouTube would count against a user’s data cap. The violation of this merger condition is a clear threat to competition from online video distributors, and the FCC should respond by requiring Comcast to stop exempting its Streampix service from data caps.

Comcast pounced on the WGA filing, calling it inaccurate.

Comcast-Logo“We don’t have data caps — and haven’t for about two years,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast’s vice president of government communications. “We have tested data thresholds where very heavy customers can buy more if they want more — but that only affects a very small percentage of our customers in a few markets.”

Until 2012, Comcast had a uniform usage cap of 250GB a month, above which a customer risked having their broadband service suspended. In 2013, the usage allowances were back, reset at 300GB a month and rolled out to a series of expanding “test markets” that today include Huntsville and Mobile, Ala., Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Ga., Central Kentucky, Maine, Jackson, Miss., Knoxville and Memphis, Tenn., and Charleston, S.C.

nonsenseCustomers who exceed this allowance won’t have their broadband service suspended, they will just get a higher bill, as Comcast charges $10 for each additional 50GB of usage.

In contrast, Time Warner Cable neither has a data cap or a data threshold. Stop the Cap! made sure that didn’t happen when Time Warner attempted to impose its own usage limits back in 2009. We successfully organized protests sufficient to get Time Warner executives to back off and shelve the idea. If Comcast takes over, Time Warner Cable customers will likely eventually face Comcast’s “data thresholds,” which are a distinction without much difference. Whatever you call it, it’s a limit on how much a customer can use Comcast’s already-expensive broadband service before bad things happen.

The WGA and Comcast get along about as well as oil and water, so the back and forth is to be expected. The Writer’s Guild also fiercely opposed Comcast’s merger with NBCUniversal. But when it comes to who is playing fast and loose with the truth, it isn’t the group that writes for a living. Comcast’s doublespeak about data caps is no better than calling The Great Recession a periodic equity retreat. It isn’t fooling anyone.

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