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Surprise: Some Alabama Customers Unhappy About AT&T’s Experiment Ending Landline Service

att-logo-221x300AT&T customers in Carbon Hill, Ala. received an unwelcome surprise in their mailbox recently when AT&T informed them they will be part of an experiment ending traditional landline service in favor of a Voice over IP or wireless alternative.

Affected customers are involuntary participants in what AT&T calls an “exciting opportunity for our customers and for our company,” but many residents want no part of it.

The Wall Street Journal reports Carbon Hill city clerk Janice Pendley says some people in the former mining town are not pleased.

“Some of them like their landline, and they like it just the way it is,” she says.

AT&T’s experiment will force new and existing customers to switch to its more-expensive U-verse broadband platform, use a mobile phone, or a home landline replacement that works over AT&T’s cellular network. The FCC has granted AT&T permission to impose its experimental plan to end traditional landline service in two communities where regulatory protections for landline customers are weak to non-existent — Alabama’s Carbon Hill and Delray Beach, Fla.

Carbon Hill is a small town of around 880 households in extreme western Walker County. It is the kind of rural town AT&T would likely never consider for a U-verse upgrade. AT&T embarked on a second major push to extend U-verse into more communities last year, but also indicated it would strongly advocate for a wireless replacement for its landline network in the rest of its service areas. Because Carbon Hill is an experiment, AT&T will offer U-verse to at least part of the community regardless of the usual financial Return on Investment requirements AT&T usually imposes on its U-verse expansion efforts.

carbon hillAT&T is pushing forward despite the fact it  has no idea how it will offer service to at least 4% of isolated Carbon Hill residents not scheduled to be provided U-verse and not within an AT&T wireless coverage area. There are also no guarantees customers will be able to correctly reach 911, although AT&T says the technology “supports 911 functionality.” Serious questions among consumer advocates remain about whether the replacement technology will support burglar alarms, pacemakers and even systems used by air-traffic controllers.

The difficulties service Carbon Hill relate to its rural makeup and income profile. In Delray Beach, it is all about customer demographics. Half of the city is home to residents over 65 years old — the group most likely to prefer their existing landline service. Many are likely to be unhappy about a transition to new technology that will not work in the event of power interruptions, will require the installation of new equipment, or will be tied to a wireless platform that some say reduces the intelligibility of telephone conversations and often introduces audio artifacts like echo, background noise, and dropouts.

In both cities, customers only offered wireless-based service will no longer have access to DSL or wired broadband service of any kind. The wireless alternative from AT&T comes at a high cost and a low usage allowance.

The benefits to AT&T are unquestionable, however. The company will win almost universal deregulation as a Voice over IP or wireless telephone provider. Legacy regulations on customer service requirements, pricing, and obligations to provide affordable phone service to any customer that requests it are swept away by the new technologies. Competitors are also worried AT&T will be able to walk away from regulations governing open and fair access to AT&T’s network.

ip4carbon hillThe Wall Street Journal reports:

The all-Internet protocol “transition holds many promises for consumers, but losing access to affordable voice and broadband services cannot be part of that bargain,” wrote Angie Kronenberg, general counsel of Comptel, in a letter to the FCC last month on behalf of the small-carrier trade group, several companies and public-interest groups.

AARP said it believes AT&T’s plan has “numerous problems.” The technology might not be reliable enough or fail when calling 911 in an emergency, the advocacy group for seniors told regulators in its comment letter. The FCC is reviewing hundreds of comments received in response to AT&T’s request.

EarthLink piggybacks on the “incumbents as little as economically possible” and has laid nearly 30,000 miles of fiber-optic cables throughout the U.S. to help it reach more than a million customers, says Rolla Huff, a former EarthLink chief executive. Still, the company needs access to the connections built by AT&T and Verizon into buildings.

Telecom carriers such as Windstream in Little Rock, Ark., and sellers of broadband data services like EarthLink and XO Communications LLC, of Herndon, Va., have had the right to buy last-mile access at regulated prices since the last major overhaul of federal telecom laws in 1996.

tw telecomIf AT&T ends its traditional network, those competing service providers will have to negotiate with AT&T for access at whatever price AT&T elects to charge.

A preview of what is likely to happen has already been experienced by TW Telecom, an independent firm selling phone and Internet services to businesses over more than 30,000 miles of fiber lines. But that fiber network means nothing if a customer’s last mile connection is handled by a local phone company no longer subject to regulated pricing and access rules.

In Tampa, where Verizon has deployed FiOS as an unregulated replacement for its older, regulated copper-based network, TW Telecom learned first hand what this could ultimately mean:

Rochester Telephone Corporation was born in 1921 after a merger between the Rochester Telephonic Exchange, a branch of the Bell Company of Buffalo and locally-owned independent Rochester Telephone Company, which was not allowed to use Bell's long distance network.

Rochester Telephone Corporation was born in 1921 after a merger between the Rochester Telephonic Exchange, a branch of the Bell Company of Buffalo and locally owned independent Rochester Telephone Company, which was not allowed to use Bell’s long distance network.

TW Telecom approached Verizon in 2012 to seek last-mile access to a Tampa, Fla., building being converted into a bank from a restaurant. Verizon had installed only FiOS at the building.

Verizon said no, telling TW Telecom to build its own connection or pay Verizon thousands of dollars to do the job. TW Telecom declined to pay and lost the customer’s business.

“When it happens, it’s devastating,” says Kristie Ince, who oversees regulatory policy at TW Telecom. Similar snarls have cost the company at least six customers since then. Other carriers say they have had similar clashes.

In Illinois, Sprint’s business phone network has run into a barricade manned by AT&T. Sprint needs AT&T to interconnect calls placed on Sprint’s network intended for AT&T’s customers. The two companies cannot agree on an asking price under the deregulation scheme so Sprint converts its Voice over IP calls to older technology still subject to regulation just so calls will successfully reach AT&T’s customers. AT&T promptly converts those calls back to Voice over IP technology as it completes them.

AT&T said it has “no duty” to connect its Internet protocol traffic with Sprint’s.

If the FCC keeps IP-based traffic deregulated, if and when the old landline network is decommissioned, AT&T will have the last word on access, potentially putting competitors out of business.

Our great-great grandparents experienced similar problems in the early days of telephone service, when high rates from the local Bell telephone subsidiary provoked local competition. But Bell companies routinely refused to handle calls placed on competitors’ networks, forcing customers to maintain a telephone line with both companies to reach every subscriber. Additionally, only Bell-owned providers had access to the long distance network – a competitive disadvantage to competing startups.

Regulatory changes, a handful of mergers and the eventual establishment of the well-regulated Bell System eventually solved problems which threaten to return if AT&T has its way.

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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.

 

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Wireless Company Lobbyists Add Cell Tower Deregulation to Connect Every Iowan Act

Is a cell tower coming to your backyard?

Is a cell tower coming to your neighbor’s backyard?

Amended language in a bill that would expand broadband service to rural Iowa strips local communities from regulating where wireless companies can place their cell towers, potentially threatening its passage.

The “killer” amended language originated from wireless phone company lobbyists, most likely working for AT&T, and suddenly appeared in the Iowa House version of the bill.

AT&T has routinely proposed such language in several states, claiming the new regulations are designed to “streamline” the expansion of cellular networks often held up by ‘spurious objections’ from local citizens opposed to the unsightly towers in their immediate neighborhoods.

Local governments have also regularly weighed in on approving cell towers in areas where they pose an aesthetic threat or a potential safety risk and some, according to AT&T, have interminably delayed consideration of cell site proposals.

The language in the House bill introduces time limits on cell tower approvals, prohibits communities from rejecting tower placement except under limited circumstances, and denies communities access to cell site documentation deemed private, competitive information by wireless companies.

(Unless you want to put a cell tower here)

(Unless you want to put a cell tower here)

The cell tower language is included in the House version of the Connect Every Iowan Act, legislation considered a priority by Gov. Terry Branstad this year. Branstad wants to remove financial and regulatory impediments and offer tax credits to stimulate expansion of broadband into areas most providers have previously deemed uneconomical to serve.

AT&T sees wireless broadband as a sensible alternative and the company has publicly advocated using wireless 4G technology in rural areas. If the House measure is approved, AT&T and other wireless companies can affix microcells or other cellular antennas to utility poles, street signs, or water towers without seeking permission from local authorities.

Colleagues in the Iowa state Senate were concerned about the language in the House version of the bill.

“The language in the House bill, in my view, is pretty egregious,” Sen. Steve Sodders, (D-State Center), who is leading the effort on the Senate bill. He told the Associated Press, “It really took away all local control of cell tower siting.”

“The real angst there is that without local control on these towers, these things can be built right in your neighborhood,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, (D-Des Moines). “Nobody wants to come home and see that. Finding that balance is going to be key.”

att-logo-221x300Des Moines city attorney Jeff Lester noted the language in the bill cleverly favors cellular companies with a built-in guarantee of approval of their cell tower requests:

The bill does not require cellular companies to provide company and business plan information to local governments when applying for a new cell tower site. Should municipal authorities deny a request, and a cellular company then brings the case to federal court, local authorities wouldn’t have the evidence necessary to justify their denial.

Lester said under federal law, company information serves as evidence in these appeals. Without it, there is no basis for denial, he said, and the ruling would be in favor of the cellular company.

Rep. Peter Cownie, (R-West Des Moines), who spearheaded the effort in the House, said determining where towers can or cannot go is a difficult task, but that it’s not his intent to weaken anyone’s say in their placement.

“I do not want to take away the authority of local officials in terms of cell tower siting,” he told AP. “I don’t think anyone’s goal is to take that away.”

Subcommittees in both chambers plan to meet to discuss the legislation next week.

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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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Verizon’s Curious Allies, Employees Urge N.J. Regulators to Forget About FiOS Fiber Expansion

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon’s FiOS expansion is still dead.

New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities has heard from hundreds of New Jersey residents about a settlement proposal that would let Verizon off the hook for failing to keep a commitment to provide high-speed broadband service statewide no later than 2010.

Curiously, hundreds of those comments were identical e-mails originating from AOL, Hotmail, MSN and Yahoo mail accounts urging the state to show lenience to Verizon — to forgive and forget the company’s broken promises. No mailing addresses were included. But the attached names and e-mail addresses were enough for Stop the Cap! to discover many of those submitting comments used non-working e-mail addresses or claimed their names were submitted without their knowledge or permission. Many others were actually employed by Verizon or were retirees.

“The proposed stipulation is fair and balanced and under your guidance, will build on the success that the Board and Verizon have achieved in making the Garden State one of the most wired broadband states in the country,” writes David Gudino, who doesn’t disclose in his correspondence with the BPU that his name is included in a list of attorneys working for Verizon Wireless.

“I would like to declare my support for the proposed stipulation between your Board Staff and Verizon as it relates to Opportunity New Jersey,” says another on behalf of an organization getting contributions from Verizon. “The stipulation will help ensure continued deployment of advanced communications services. Access to these services will not only benefit New Jersey’s businesses and nonprofits, but consumers of all ages as well.”

new-jerseyBy “advanced communications services,” the letter’s signers should know very well that means more 4G LTE wireless broadband with stingy usage caps and high prices, not more FiOS fiber to the home service.

What proved especially surprising was finding so many customers claiming to be happy with Verizon’s broadband performance in New Jersey who are still relying on AOL dial-up accounts. Stop the Cap! contacted a random 150 signers of the identical letters by using their attached e-mail addresses, which are part of the public record. We asked the writers to expand on their views about Verizon’s performance in New Jersey, whether they were satisfied with their current Internet provider, whether they have broadband service, and where they learned about this issue.

Remarkably, 35 of the e-mail addresses turned out to be invalid, so we contacted an extra 35 and 12 of those e-mail addresses were invalid as well. We found this unsettling because the only identifying information attached to the pro-Verizon correspondence was a name and e-mail address. We couldn’t be sure the authors were New Jersey residents much less real people.

We received 18 replies. Several were Verizon retirees asked to sign letters of support for Verizon. Another five had no idea what we were talking about and denied they submitted any views, pro or con, about Verizon. Three of those were Comcast customers that said goodbye to Verizon more than a decade earlier. Many others were associated with groups that happen to receive financial support from Verizon. Several  had no broadband access and were using dial-up.

Stop the Cap! did not receive a single reply from any person ready to articulate informed views about the terms of the settlement offer. They were simply asked to lend their names and e-mail addresses to Verizon’s campaign and had never seen the settlement proposal or heard much about it.

bpuJudith Stoma’s family has worked for Verizon/NJ Bell since 1958. She’s 71 years old today and she supports Verizon, at least in its efforts to “lead the way with N.J. at the forefront of technology.” Abdicating on FiOS expansion in favor of the same old DSL service Verizon proposes in its settlement seems to run contrary to that goal.

In several other instances, some of Verizon’s “supporters” actually used a space provided in the form letter to vent their frustration with Verizon!

Michael DeNude was irritated he never got FiOS: “We live in Riverdale and have not benefited by any upgrade.”

Paula Thomas was annoyed that Verizon outsources its workforce: “Verizon already outsources their telephone [operator] service. They should also guarantee that U.S. Citizens are given preference in the ‘job growth’ they ensure will happen.”

William Barlen thinks it’s a shame the current state of broadband in the U.S. is lacking: “It is sad that we have dropped behind over 50 countries on broadband speed and deployment. If you do not support this work exactly what are you doing?”

Paul Minenna is concerned that without FiOS broadband, speedier Internet access is not forthcoming: “Please make sure that you keep NJ moving forward with top-notch technology access. This is not the time to slow down Internet access.”

John Zilg’s letter is the same as nearly every other in support of Verizon, until he was given the opportunity to include his own remarks, which are completely contrary to everything else in the letter: “It is critical to continue supporting what has already been put into place. I urge you to not change direction.”

It is easily apparent that among the letters in support of Verizon, more than a few were not at all informed about what they were signing, and in many cases actually held completely different views when someone took the time to inquire in more detail. We are also very concerned about the number of invalid e-mail addresses attached to letters that carried no mailing address. On an issue of this importance, it is disturbing to not be certain those communications represent the legitimate views of actual New Jersey residents.

These factors must be taken into consideration as the Board of Public Utilities ponders the public input.

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Math Problem: The Telecom Industry’s Bias Against Fiber-to-the-Home Service

Phillip "Spending $6k per cable customer is obviously a much better deal than paying half that to build a fiber to the home network" Dampier

Phillip “Spending $6k per cable customer is obviously a much better deal than paying half that to build a fiber to the home network” Dampier

Math was never my strong subject, but even I can calculate the groupthink of American cable and telephone companies and their friends on Wall Street just doesn’t add up.

This week, we learned that cable companies like Bright House Networks, Suddenlink, and Charter Communications are already lining up for a chance to acquire three million cable customers Comcast intends to sell if it wins approval of its merger with Time Warner Cable. Wall Street has already predicted Comcast will fetch as much as $18 billion for those customers and pegged the value of each at approximately $6,000.

But for less than half that price any company could build a brand new fiber to the home system capable of delivering 1,000Mbps broadband and state-of-the-art phone and television service and start banking profits long before paying off the debt from buying an inferior coaxial cable system. Yet we are told time and time again that the economics of fiber to the home service simply don’t make any sense and deploying the technology is a waste of money.

Let’s review:

Google Fiber was called a boondoggle by many of its competitors. The folks at Bernstein Research, routinely friendly to the cable business model, seemed appalled at the economics of Google’s fiber project in Kansas City. Bernstein’s Carlos Kirjner and Ram Parameswaran said Google would throw $84 million into the first phase of its fiber network, connecting 149,000 homes at a cost between $500-674 per home. The Wall Street analyst firm warned investors of the costs Google would incur reaching 20 million customers nationwide — $11 billion.

“We remain skeptical that Google will find a scalable and economically feasible model to extend its build out to a large portion of the U.S., as costs would be substantial, regulatory and competitive barriers material, and in the end the effort would have limited impact on the global trajectory of the business,” Bernstein wrote to its investor clients.

dealSo Google spending $11 billion to reach 20 million new homes is business malpractice while spending $18 billion for three million Time Warner Cable customers is confirmation of the cable industry’s robust health and valuation?

Bernstein’s firm never thought highly of Verizon FiOS either.

“If I were an auto dealer and I wanted to give people a Maserati for the price of a Volkswagen, I’d have some seriously happy customers,” Craig Moffett from Bernstein said back in 2008. “My problem would be whether I could earn a decent return doing it.”

Back then, Moffett estimated the average cost to Verizon per FiOS home passed was $3,897, a figure based on wiring up every neighborhood, but not getting every homeowner to buy the service. Costs for fiber have dropped dramatically since 2008. Dave Burstein from DSL Prime reported by the summer of 2012 Verizon told shareholders costs fell below $700/home passed and headed to $600. The total cost of running fiber, installing it in a customer’s home and providing equipment meant Verizon had to spend about $1,500 per customer when all was said and done.

Moffett concluded Verizon was throwing money away spending that much on improving service. He wasn’t impressed by AT&T U-verse either, which only ran fiber into the neighborhood, not to each home. Moffett predicted AT&T was spending $2,200 per home on U-verse back in 2008, although those costs have dropped dramatically as well.

Moffett

Moffett

Moffett’s solution for both Verizon and AT&T? Do nothing to upgrade, because the price wasn’t worth the amount of revenue returns either company could expect in the short-term.

It was a much different story if Comcast wanted to spend $45 billion to acquire Time Warner Cable however, a deal Moffett called “transformational.”

“What we’re talking about is an industry that is becoming more capital intensive,” Todd Mitchell, an analyst at Brean Capital LLC in New York told Bloomberg News. “What happens to mature, capital-intensive companies — they consolidate. So, yes, I think the cable industry is ripe for consolidation.”

Other investors agreed.

“This is definitely a bet on a positive future for high-speed access, cable and other services in an economic recovery,” said Bill Smead, chief investment officer at Smead Capital Management, whose fund owns Comcast shares.

ftth councilBut Forbes’ Peter Cohan called Google’s much less investment into fiber broadband a colossal waste of money.

“Larry Page should nip this bad idea in the bud,” Cohan wrote.

Cohan warned investors should throw water on the enthusiasm for fiber before serious money got spent.

“FTTH authority, Neal Lachman, wrote in SeekingAlpha, that it would cost as much as $500 billion and could take a decade to connect all the houses and commercial buildings in the U.S. to fiber,” Cohan added.

Cohan was concerned Google’s initial investment would take much too long to be recovered, which apparently is not an issue for buyers willing to spend $18 billion for three million disaffected Time Warner Cable customers desperately seeking alternatives.

An investment for the future, not for short term profits.

An investment for the future, not short term profits.

Municipal broadband providers have often chosen to deploy fiber to the home service because the technology offers plenty of capacity, ongoing maintenance costs are low and the networks can be upgraded at little cost indefinitely. But such broadband efforts, especially when they are owned by local government, represent a threat for cable and phone companies relying on a business model that sells less for more.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), funded by Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, Verizon, and other large telecom companies is at the forefront of helping friendly state legislators ban community fiber networks. Their excuse is that the fiber networks cost too much and, inexplicably, can reduce competition.

“A growing number of municipalities are [...] building their own networks and offering broadband services to their citizens,” ALEC writes on its website. “ALEC disagrees with their answer due to the negative impacts it has on free markets and limited government.  In addition, such projects could erode consumer choice by making markets less attractive to competition because of the government’s expanded role as a service provider.”

The Fiber-to-the-Home Council obviously disagrees.

“Believe it or not, there are already more than a thousand telecom network operators and service providers across North America that have upgraded to fiber to the home,” says the Council. “The vast majority of these are local incumbent telephone companies that are looking to transform themselves from voice and DSL providers into 21st century broadband companies that can deliver ultra high-speed Internet and robust video services, as well as be able to deliver other high-bandwidth digital applications and services to homes and businesses in the years ahead.”

Stephenson

Stephenson

In fact, a good many of those efforts are undertaken by member-owned co-ops and municipally owned providers that answer to local residents, not to shareholders looking for quick returns.

The only time large companies like AT&T move towards fiber to the home service is when a competitor threatens to do it themselves. That is precisely what happened in Austin. The day Google announced it was launching fiber service in Austin, AT&T suddenly announced its intention to do the same.

“In Austin we’re deploying fiber very aggressively,” said AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. “The cost dynamics of deploying fiber have dramatically changed. The interfaces at the homes, the wiring requirements, how you get a wiring drop to a pole, and the way you splice it has totally changed the cost dynamics of deploying fiber.”

Prior to that announcement, AT&T justified its decision not to deploy fiber all the way to the home by saying it was unnecessary and too costly. With Google headed to town, that talking point is no longer operative.

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CenturyLink to Idaho Residents: You Don’t Need 1Gbps, DSL is Good Enough for You

centurylinkCenturyLink’s philosophy about offering gigabit fiber broadband speeds in Idaho can be summed up simply as “for business-use only.”

Jim Schmit, Idaho CenturyLink’s vice president and general manager, believes super fast broadband connections are overkill for homes and most businesses in the state.

“It’s like having a fancy sports car,” Schmit told the Idaho Statesman. “It might go 200 miles per hour, but what good does that do if the speed limit is 60?”

Schmitt’s attitude of broadband a-plenty is nothing new. In 2007, he told attendees of the Emerging Directions in Economic Development conference in Boise that “virtually all” Idahoans already had access to high-speed broadband. That was news to the audience, with about a quarter of the economic development professionals attending stating they represented a community that didn’t have it yet. Most of the questions related to how their communities could get the access they’d been told wasn’t available.

Seven years later, the Statesman reports more than a few homes and businesses in the region still rely on slow DSL, satellite and even dial-up access because faster options are just not available.

idahoIdaho could find itself a bystander in the growing movement to deploy gigabit fiber to the premise broadband, despite the fact CenturyLink already has fiber infrastructure available nearby.

“We’re getting to the point where, for businesses in most places, we’re within last-mile connections for most locations,” Schmit says.

CenturyLink is willing to extend its fiber, but only if that fiber line reaches businesses needing gigabit speeds. Residential customers need not apply.

Fiber optics can be found in several office buildings in downtown Boise, which has been good news for established tech companies that need more bandwidth. Three data centers are operational in the city and would likely not be there without fiber.

But for home-based entrepreneurs of future Internet startups, most will be forced to choose between CenturyLink DSL or cable broadband from providers like Cable ONE, which offer slower speeds.

Smaller broadband providers have begun to fill the gap left open by the lack of interest from cable and phone companies. While Google is showing interest in building fiber networks in a handful of U.S. cities, many more communities are realizing they will not get gigabit speeds anytime soon unless they build a publicly owned broadband network themselves or rely on much smaller-scale projects under development in the private sector.

Patrick Lawless, founder and CEO of Boise voice recognition software developer Voxbright Technologies Inc., sees opportunity providing a limited fiber network in Boise. Lawless has plans to build a 2.6-mile fiber-optic loop and deliver television, phone and broadband service to apartment and office buildings in a manner similar to Google’s. It’s a small early effort, limited to a handful of businesses and new residential buildings — mostly apartments and renovated former office buildings or hotels. He plans to charge $99 a month for a package including television, 100Mbps broadband, and phone service.

With the project’s small scope and uncertain cost, CenturyLink says it isn’t too worried about the competition. For now they will continue to bank on offering only the broadband speed they believe customers actually need, and it will be up to a competitor to prove them wrong.

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Time Warner Cable, Comcast Crash, Burn in Consumer Reports’ 2014 Ratings

consumer reportsDespite claims of improved customer service and better broadband, Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s customer satisfaction scores are in near-free fall in the latest Consumer Reports National Research Center’s survey of consumers about their experiences with television and Internet services.

Although never popular with customers, both cable operators plummeted in the 2014 Consumer Reports ratings — Time Warner Cable is now only marginally above the perennial consumer disaster that is Mediacom. Comcast performs only slightly better.

In the view of Consumers Union, this provides ample evidence that two wrongs never make a right.

“Both Comcast and Time Warner Cable rank very poorly with consumers when it comes to value for the money and have earned low ratings for customer support,” said Delara Derakhshani.  “A merger combining these two huge companies would give Comcast even greater control over the cable and broadband Internet markets, leading to higher prices, fewer choices, and worse customer service for consumers.”

These ratings reflect Internet service only.

These ratings reflect Internet service only.

Comcast ranked 15th among 17 television service providers included in the ratings and earned particularly low marks from consumers for value for the money and customer support.  Time Warner ranked 16th overall for television service with particularly low ratings for value, reliability, and phone/online customer support.

Another ratings collapse for Comcast and Time Warner Cable

Another ratings collapse for Comcast and Time Warner Cable

Comcast and Time Warner Cable were mediocre on overall satisfaction with Internet service.  Both companies received especially poor marks for value and low ratings for phone/online customer support.

“In an industry with a terrible track record with consumers, these two companies are among the worst when it comes to providing good value for the money,” said Derakhshani.  “The FCC and Department of Justice should stand with consumers and oppose this merger.”

For as long as Stop the Cap! has published, Mediacom has always achieved bottom of the barrel ratings, with satellite fraudband provider HughesNet — the choice of the truly desperate — scoring dead last for Internet service. We’re accustomed to seeing the usual bottom-raters like Frontier (DSL), Windstream (DSL), and FairPoint (DSL) on the south end of the list. But now both Comcast and Time Warner Cable have moved into the same seedy neighborhood of expensive and lousy service. Comcast couldn’t even beat the ratings for Verizon’s DSL service, which is now barely marketed at all. Time Warner Cable scored lower than CenturyLink’s DSL.

Breathing an ever-so-slight sigh of relief this year is Charter Communications, which used to compete with Mediacom for customer raspberries. It ‘rocketed up’ to 18th place.

If you want top-notch broadband service, you need to remember only one word: fiber. It’s the magical optical cable phone and cable companies keep claiming they have but largely don’t (except for Verizon and Cincinnati Bell, among a select few). If you have fiber to the home broadband, you are very happy again this year. If you are served by an independent cable company that threw away the book on customer abuse, you are relieved. Topping the ratings again this year among all cable operators is WOW!, which has a legendary reputation for customer service. Wave/Astound is in second place. Verizon and Frontier FiOS customers stay pleased, and even those signed up with Bright House Networks and Suddenlink report improved service.

Ratings are based on responses from 81,848 Consumer Reports readers. Once again they plainly expose Americans are not happy with their telecom options. The average cost of home communications measured by the Mintel Group is now $154 a month — $1,848 a year. That’s more expensive than the average homeowner’s clothing, furniture or electricity budget. The same issues driving the bad ratings last year are still there in 2014: shoveling TV channels at customers they don’t want or need, imposing sneaky new fees along with broad-based rate increases every year, low value for money, and customer service departments staffed by the Don’t Care Bears.

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UPDATED: Comcast Wants Some Broadband Customers to Rent Comcast-Issued Cable Modems

Phillip Dampier March 25, 2014 Broadband Speed, Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News 15 Comments
Comcast's gateway

Comcast’s gateway

Some customers are angry and frustrated to learn Comcast has stopped “officially” allowing the use of customer-owned cable modems for its 105Mbps “Extreme” service, insisting subscribers rent a company-supplied gateway for $8 a month.

“Only Comcast issued equipment ensures that the specifications are always met and are not altered intentionally or unintentionally,” reads a technical bulletin issued by the cable company issued Feb. 26.

The new policy was discovered by a Comcast customer in Virginia having trouble with his broadband service. He was using his customer-owned Zoom 5341J — equipment on Comcast’s approved modem list.

“[A Comcast executive customer service representative] insisted that list is incorrect and I must rent a modem from them to receive the correct speeds on [the] Extreme 105 package,” writes ExoticFish on the Broadband Reports’ Comcast forum.

The bulletin, identified as ID TLK1043 and intended for the use of Comcast employees, explains:

Document ID TLK1043; Published February 26, 2014

Overview

Extreme 105 is the latest Comcast DOCSIS 3.0 XFINITY speed product, which provides extreme and unbelievable Internet speeds for customers. The product provides:

  • 105Mbps download speed
  • 20Mbps upload speed

Affected Areas

National.

Some of the Talking Points are not applicable for the Central Division.

Comcast-LogoImpact to Comcast

The Premium Installation fee for Extreme 105 is $249. Extreme 105 is installed by 105Mbps trained technicians. The Comcast Technician will:

  • Conduct an in-depth analysis of the customer network.
  • Ensure that the customer’s home and equipment are prepared to support the speeds included in the Extreme 105 service.
  • Perform a node health check on the day of installation and also on a daily basis after installation.

Impact to Customer

Extreme 105 targets:

  • Hard-core gamers
  • Users with several computers in their house
  • Users who upload and share multimedia files

Media Inquiries

Any media inquiries should be directed to the local market media team.

Q&A

Some of the Frequently Asked Questions and their responses are as below:

Why do I need to use Comcast issued equipment?
Only certified Comcast equipment delivers the ensured service speed attached to the customer’s account.

Comcast allows customers to use their own equipment for all your other Internet packages, why not Extreme 105?
Generally customers can use their own equipment and configure it as they see fit. But for Extreme 105, the configuration must be done and maintained at certain specifications. Only Comcast issued equipment ensures that the specifications are always met and are not altered intentionally or unintentionally.

But I have a DOCSIS 3.0 Modem and N Router, why do I need your versions?
Comcast installs equipment which have gone through extensive network certification process of Comcast and which have been proven in both laboratory and live network tests. This ensures that the equipment performs consistently and delivers the subscribed speed and services.

Does the $249 installation fee include installation of a wireless router?
Yes, the installation fee includes the installation of Comcast owned wireless router.

Why is there a premium installation fee for Extreme 105?
Extreme 105 is a premier Internet product by Comcast and the premium installation fee guarantees a speed of 105Mbps. A Comcast Certified Installation Technician performs additional tests which are not performed during installation of other premier internet service.

Is the premium installation fee refundable if I disconnect the service in 30, 60, 90 days?
The installation fee is non-refundable.

With Comcast reportedly preparing to boost speeds for its customers in the near future, those signed up for Comcast’s 50Mbps “Blast” tier could soon see speed upgrades to 105Mbps. That might expose those customers to the same mandatory rental charge.

The Virginia customer never realized Comcast changed its policies until he had service problems. It was then that a senior representative insisted the customer switch to Comcast’s rented gateway device if he wanted his service fixed. Other customers still using customer-owned equipment and subscribed to 105Mbps service may continue to fly under the radar for some time and there does not seem to be any national effort to contact customers about their equipment.

Some speculate Comcast’s new policy might also relate to the company’s intention to expand its Wi-Fi network relying on Comcast customers with gateway devices to serve as hotspots. That would likely require the use of Comcast’s own gateway to be successful.

Updated: 3/26/14 — 12:17pm ET — Karl Bode at Broadband Reports got an answer back to his inquiry about this issue and a Comcast rep tells him the service tech handing out the above-referenced memo is not correct:

The painful spelling and grammar errors in the last bit of the supposed company memo seemed a little off, so I reached out to Comcast for comment. The long and short of it is: no, this is not official company policy.

“We’re going to have someone try to reach out to the forum poster to follow up, but the short of it is there is no policy change,” Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas tells me. “Customers can buy or rent modems. Here is our approved devices list.”

Karl adds: “I’m still trying to ferret out why exactly this install technician was trying to push strange and unofficial company policy, and how and why he was using an incorrect and grammatically mangled memo to justify the behavior.”

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Cable Industry Has Charts to Prove Your Broadband is Screaming Fast

Tracking Cable’s Top Internet Speeds
NCTA-Charts_2_tracking broadband speeds

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) offers this infographic to suggest the deregulated cable broadband industry works well without any interference from meddling politicians.

Their claim: “Ongoing investments have enabled cable providers to continue boosting broadband speeds with top tiers increasing 50% every year.”

The reality: Cable’s broadband speed comes at a very high cost. The majority of Americans cannot buy 505Mbps residential broadband service from Comcast and even if you could, the price tag hovers around $300 a month, with a nearly-$1,000 early contract termination penalty, a $250 installation and $250 activation fee. Customers at other cable providers often find their maximum speed is just 50Mbps and/or their Internet usage is limited by a usage cap.

Google Fiber and some other gigabit fiber to the home providers are offering unlimited 1,000Mbps service for $70 a month with no installation or activation fee if a customer agrees to stick around.

Verdict: The cable industry could do better for much less.

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  • Milan in Austin: I forgot to mention that everyone should take a minute to sign the Consumers Union anti-Comcast/TWC Merger petition today. https://secure.consumers...
  • Milan in Austin: This is encouraging! According to a local free paper, the Austin area TWC speed increase will be implemented in June. All we need now is for the Comca...
  • Loons in June: "We use an OTA antenna for FREE HDTV (21 channels total, 120 if you like religious/infomercial/homeshoppingclub/foreign channels)" You get 120 OTA ...
  • Michael Elling (@Infostack): Phil, we need to 1) push for equal/open access in layer 1 for any and all providers granted a public ROW or frequency, with a quid pro quo that end-us...
  • SmilingBob: We cut the cord on the cable companies and used DSL Extreme for our broadband, which uses Verizon or AT&T lines, depending on your area. We got t...
  • Dave Hancock: Not likely, as Verizon is not expanding. Further, cord-cutting may not work out too well on Verizon, as they do not deliver those high speeds for man...
  • John: It has been since December 17, 2014. Know one has an answer. I will never trust a word from Comcast again....
  • innovate: I will go with Verizon FiOS for TV, Internet and homephone if it was available in my area. I do not like cable slow speeds....
  • Dave Hancock: great reporting Phillip!!...
  • Duffin: Yep, Cincinnati Bell has been sending out Tweets and emails about this. 100% increase. Greedy bastards....
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