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Federal Trade Commission Suing AT&T Over Unfair Speed Throttles for Unlimited Data Customers

throttleThe Federal Trade Commission today filed a lawsuit against AT&T for its practice of subjecting grandfathered unlimited data customers to speed throttles that dramatically cut speeds up to 90 percent after customers use more than 3GB of data on AT&T’s 3G network or 5GB on its 4G network. Thus far, according to the FTC, AT&T has throttled at least 3.5 million unique customers a total of more than 25 million times.

The FTC’s complaint alleges that the company failed to adequately disclose to its customers on unlimited data plans that, if they reach a certain amount of data use in a given billing cycle, AT&T reduces – or “throttles” – their data speeds to the point that many common mobile phone applications – like web browsing, GPS navigation and watching streaming video –  become difficult or nearly impossible to use.

“AT&T promised its customers ‘unlimited’ data, and in many instances, it has failed to deliver on that promise,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “The issue here is simple: ‘unlimited’ means unlimited.”

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler publicly complained about Verizon’s plans to start a similar throttling program on its wireless network, questioning the fairness of cutting speeds for certain customers while exempting others. Both Verizon and AT&T have claimed speed throttles are part of a fair usage policy that allows all customers to share its wireless resources. Broadband providers have often painted a picture of a “bandwidth hog” taking a disproportionate share of network resources away from other customers, but there is no evidence heavier users are creating conflicts for other users, especially as wireless carriers encourage customers to use more data.

throttle att

From AT&Ts website

The logic of rationing Internet use for unlimited customers while providing unlimited access to those willing to pay usage-based charges escaped the FTC, which is what brought the suit.

According to the FTC’s complaint, AT&T’s marketing materials emphasized the “unlimited” amount of data that would be available to consumers who signed up for its unlimited plans. The complaint alleges that, even as unlimited plan consumers renewed their contracts, the company still failed to inform them of the throttling program. When customers canceled their contracts after being throttled, AT&T charged those customers early termination fees, which typically amount to hundreds of dollars.

The FTC alleges that AT&T, despite its unequivocal promises of unlimited data, began throttling data speeds in 2011 for its unlimited data plan customers after they used as little as 2 gigabytes of data in a billing period. According to the complaint, the throttling program has been severe, often resulting in speed reductions of 80 to 90 percent for affected users.

According to the FTC’s complaint, consumers in AT&T focus groups strongly objected to the idea of a throttling program and felt “unlimited should mean unlimited.” AT&T documents also showed that the company received thousands of complaints about the slow data speeds under the throttling program. Some consumers quoted the definition of the word “unlimited,” while others called AT&T’s throttling program a “bait and switch.” Many consumers also complained about the effect the throttling program had on their ability to use GPS navigation, watch streaming videos, listen to streaming music and browse the web.

The complaint charges that AT&T violated the FTC Act by changing the terms of customers’ unlimited data plans while those customers were still under contract, and by failing to adequately disclose the nature of the throttling program to consumers who renewed their unlimited data plans.

FTC staff worked closely on this matter with the staff of the Federal Communications Commission.

The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file the complaint was 5-0. The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division.

FCC Delays Wireless Spectrum Auction; Hires Investment Banker to Pitch Stations to Sell and Sign-Off

fcc2The Federal Communications Commission announced Friday it will postpone an important spectrum auction until 2016 after broadcasters filed suit against the regulator challenging its proposed format.

The FCC wants your free, over-the-air television dial to be a lot smaller with a deal that will pay broadcasters to sign-off their channels for good to benefit the wireless industry. Remaining stations will be moved to VHF channels 2-13 and UHF channels 14-30. The spectrum covering UHF channels 31-51 would likely then be sold in pieces to major wireless carriers including AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and/or T-Mobile.

To entice broadcasters to voluntarily switch off their transmitters, the FCC has designed a spectrum auction that would provide tens of millions in proceeds to smaller stations and up to $570 million for a UHF station in Los Angeles to get off the air. Technically, stations giving up their channels don’t have to sign-off — they can move to low/lower-powered broadcasting, share channel space with another television station on a digital subchannel, or move to cable television exclusively.

To sell stations on the deal, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler hired Greenhill, a Wall Street investment bank, to prepare a presentation sent to every eligible television station in the country, encouraging them to sell their channels for some eye-popping proceeds:

(These numbers refer to full-power stations; in some markets there are also Class A stations, low-power stations that meet certain programming requirements. The estimated value of their spectrum is lower.)

In millions of dollars
MARKET Full-Power Stations
Maximum Median
New York $490 $410
Los Angeles $570 $340
Chicago $130 $120
Philadelphia $400 $230
Dallas-Fort Worth $67 $53
San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose $140 $110
Boston $140 $93
Washington, D.C. $140 $130
Atlanta $91 $65
Houston $52 $45
West Palm Beach $100 $93
Providence, R.I. $160 $110
Flint, Mich. $100 $45
Burlington, Vt. $58 $17
Youngstown, Ohio $95 $90
Palm Springs, Calif. $180 $100
Wilkes-Barre-Scranton $150 $140

Source: The FCC

 

getoffThere is so much money to be made buying and selling the public airwaves — at least twice as much as broadcasters originally anticipated– spectrum speculators have also jumped on board, snapping up low power television station construction permits and existing stations with hopes of selling them off the air in return for millions in compensation. Wireless customers are effectively footing the bill for the auction as wireless companies bid for the additional spectrum. Television stations will receive 85% of the proceeds, the FCC will keep 15%.

take the moneyMajor network-affiliated or owned stations in major cities are unlikely to take the deal. But in medium and smaller-sized markets where conglomerates own and operate most television stations, there is a greater chance some will be closed down, moved to a lower channel, or transferred to a digital sub-channel of a co-owned-and-operated station in the same city. The most  likely targets for shutdown will be independent, CW and MyNetworkTV affiliates. In smaller cities, multiple network affiliates owned by one company could be combined, relinquishing one or more channels in return for tens of millions in cash compensation.

In Los Angeles, the stakes are especially high with auction prices estimated at up to $570 million for a high-powered UHF station like KDOC-TV.

“There is some real money to be had,” Bert Ellis, chief executive of Ellis Communications, which owns KDOC-TV, told the Wall Street Journal. “I think every broadcaster should take a very close look at this.”

Estimates show at least 80 significant U.S. cities will likely lose one or more channels, especially when the bid price well exceeds the value of an independent, ethnic or religious station. Many of these will go dark, move to cable or a less desirable lower power VHF channel, or sign an agreement with a remaining station to carry its programming on a sub-channel.

The National Association of Broadcasters filed suit against the FCC’s auction in August. The NAB wants the FCC to guarantee that stations that wish to stay on the air will not have their coverage area reduced or forced to pay to move to a new channel number assigned by the FCC as the regulator “repacks” a much smaller UHF band.

“We’ve said from day one, if stations want to volunteer to go out of business, that’s their prerogative. But for those stations that choose to remain in business, they should be held harmless,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

The spectrum auction is designed to address the wireless industry’s claim of a spectrum crisis, warning that if more frequencies are not found, wireless users will eventually see their service degraded.

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

Speed bump

Speed bump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lowering the bar on "unlimited use" customers.

Lowering the bar on “unlimited use” customers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AT&T Adds Atlanta, Chicago and Decatur for GigaPower Gigabit Fiber Most Won’t See Anytime Soon

Notice the word "may"

Notice the word “may”

AT&T has promised an undisclosed number of customers in Chicago, Ill., and Atlanta, Decatur, and Newnan, Ga., will eventually get GigaPower upgrades to AT&T’s U-verse service, after moving customers to an all-fiber network that will deliver up to 1Gbps service.

“As a city that prides itself on creating a favorable environment for investment and innovation, I am happy to see AT&T bringing its ultra-high speed fiber network to the City of Atlanta,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “This is a great opportunity for our residents, businesses and visitors, who all stand to benefit from this new service. The City of Atlanta is one of the fastest growing tech hubs in the United States and a hotbed for entrepreneurial activity.  U-verse with AT&T GigaPower service will complement this engine of economic growth and help pave the way for future opportunities.”

But before the mayor gets too excited, he should consider AT&T’s track record for GigaPower upgrades in other cities where the service is offered. Customers complain the gigabit upgrade is difficult to get in single family homes, with most of the upgrades targeting multi-dwelling units like large condos or apartment blocks or new housing developments.

Customers in Austin complain to Stop the Cap! AT&T GigaPower looks more like a demonstration project than a serious effort at expanding super fast fiber broadband. Although pockets of service are established in some upscale areas, nobody at AT&T is willing to answer customers’ questions about exactly when service will arrive in unserved neighborhoods. Technicians are privately telling readers it will take more than a year for serious expansion efforts to begin across Austin.

While AT&T drags its feet on fiber expansion, it has no trouble hurrying out press releases suggesting cities including Atlanta, Augusta, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Fort Worth, Fort Lauderdale, Greensboro, Houston, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, Oakland, Orlando, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis, San Francisco, and San Jose will soon see GigaPower in their areas. But AT&T isn’t putting much money where its mouth is, failing to significantly increase capital spending to upgrade the U-verse network.

In fact, AT&T executives have repeatedly reassured investors the company has no plans for a significant uptick in wireline capital spending — exactly what would be required to complete the gigabit expansion effort AT&T promises in press releases. In contrast, AT&T’s 2012 $14 billion Project Velocity IP (or VIP) was the company’s most visible and ambitious network build out initiative in wired service since the introduction of U-verse. Project VIP delivered a clear expansion of U-verse into new areas and brought new fiber connections to buildings, many that are now in use to offer GigaPower service in Austin.

Fiber broadband expansion is not cheap, and even after AT&T committed $14 billion to its expansion effort two years ago, the results are modest for U-verse because a considerable portion of the funds spent were invested in AT&T’s wireless network instead — always a priority:

State / City Investment amt. (wireless & wireline) U-verse locations Business connections On-net buildings Total investment (2010-2012)
California $1.15 billion 127,700 30,400 800 $7 billion
 — San Diego 15,950 2,900 90 $750 million
Texas $1 billion 138,300 24,200 600 $7 billion
Georgia $675 million $2.5 billion
 — Atlanta 12,100 11,450 400
Florida $425 million 25,050 18,450 550 $2.8 billion
Indiana $325 million 18,000 1,300 60 $1.3 billion
Michigan $275 million 35,550 2,150 70 $1.55 billion
Missouri $250 million 27,300 3,650 150 not reported
North Carolina $250 Million 9,900 1,800 50 $1.5 billion
Ohio $225 million 31,200 1,100 40 $1.5 billion
Alabama $200 million 6,600 600 20 $1.4 billion
Louisiana $175 million not reported 2,100 35 $1.2 billion
Mississippi $175 million 5,800 175 4 $975 million
Tennessee $175 million 13,600 325 9 $1.4 billion
Connecticut $140 million 6,600 1,100 40 $750 million
South Carolina $140 million 21,100 250 9 $850 million
Wisconsin $140 million N/A 525 20 $725 million
Oklahoma $120 million 13,850 875 25 $700 million
Kansas $110 million 10,150 650 30 $725 million
Nevada $110 million not reported 200 7 $600 million
Arkansas $90 million 8,750 1,000 25 $700 million

Chart courtesy: FierceTelecom

Data compiled from publicly released company information.

Reflecting on the numbers, it would take an investment at least equal, if not greater, than AT&T spent on Project VIP for AT&T to significantly upgrade the communities it claims will soon have access to GigaPower. Instead, it is more likely AT&T will introduce a handful of gigabit show projects and then incrementally upgrade selected neighborhoods over the next 3-5 years.

Existing competition makes all the difference as to what customers will pay for gigabit service from AT&T, assuming they can buy it at any price. As Google Fiber tears up the streets of Austin, it is clear Google will deliver real competition in that city, forcing AT&T to price its gigabit service at $70 a month (for customers willing to have their online activities tracked by AT&T). In nearby Dallas, where competition isn’t as robust, customers will have to pay at least $120 a month for the service.

J.D. Power & Associates Tie Vote! Hemorrhagic Fever vs. Comcast vs. Time Warner Cable

jd powerLove can be a fickle thing.

Take Comcast’s affair with J.D. Power & Associates, for example. In Comcast’s filings with regulators, it is very proud that J.D. Power cited Comcast for the most improvement of any cable operator scored by the survey firm. Comcast touted the fact it had managed to increase its TV satisfaction score by a whopping 92 points and Internet satisfaction was up a respectable 77 points. (Comcast didn’t mention the fact J.D. Power rates companies on a 1,000 point scale or that it took the cable company four years to eke out those improvements.)

Last month, J.D. Power issued its latest ranking of telecommunications companies and… well, the love is gone.

If customer alienation was an Olympic event, J.D. Power awarded tie gold medals to both Comcast and Time Warner Cable for their Kafkaesque race to the bottom.

The survey of customer satisfaction largely found only dissatisfaction everywhere in the country J.D. Power looked. While Comcast likes to cite its “customer-oopsies-gone-viral” blunders as “isolated incidents,” J.D. Power finds them epidemic nationwide.

skunkThe highest rating across television and broadband categories achieved by either cable company was ‘Meh.’ J.D. Power diplomatically scored both cable companies on a scale that started with “among the best” as simply “the rest.” Customers in the west were the most charitable, those in the south and eastern U.S. indicated they were worked to their last nerve.

“The ability to provide a high-quality experience with all wireline services is paramount as performance and reliability is the most critical driver of overall satisfaction,” said Kirk Parsons, senior director of telecommunications, in a statement.

Having competition available from a high-scoring provider also demonstrates what is possible when a company actually tries to care about customer service. In the same regions Comcast fared about as popular as hemorrhagic fever, WOW! Cable and Verizon FiOS easily took top honors. Even AT&T U-verse scored far higher than either cable company, primarily because AT&T offers very aggressive promotional packages that include a lot for a comparatively low price.

Other cable and smaller phone companies didn’t do particularly well either. Frontier and CenturyLink both earned dismal scores and Charter Cable only managed modest improvement. The two satellite television companies did fine in customer satisfaction for television service, but it was the two biggest phone companies that managed the best scores for Internet service. Among cable operators, only independents like WOW! (and to a lesser extent Cox) did well in the survey.

If J.D. Power is the arbiter of good service Comcast seems to claim it to be, the ratings company just sent a very clear message that when it comes to merging Comcast and Time Warner Cable, anything multiplied by zero is still zero.

J.D. Power ranking (Image courtesy: Reviewed.com)

J.D. Power ranking (Image courtesy: Reviewed.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not everyone in Tennessee appreciated Blackburn’s remarks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The neighborhood bad boy, ready to chew.

The neighborhood bad boy, ready to chew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wheeler

Wheeler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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