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Comcast Still Lying About Its Data Caps: Woodstock, Ga. Customer Misled to Believe There Are None

comcast whoppersBefore regulators, the media, and elected officials, Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen has repeatedly told all who can hear that there are no usage caps on Comcast’s broadband service.

“There isn’t a cap anymore. We’re out of the cap business,” Cohen began saying in May 2012 after the cable company dropped its nationwide 250GB usage cap. But in several markets, mostly in the southern and western United States, Comcast snuck the caps back on residential Internet customers, only this time they claim it isn’t a usage cap at all.

“We effectively offer unlimited usage of our services because customers will have the ability to buy as much data as they want,” says the cable company these days.

But if the “usage caps” are actually gone, why is Comcast issuing executive-level memos to its customer service representatives and supervisors that repeatedly state the company does, in fact, have “data caps” in about a dozen cities across the country — part of an ongoing market trial that suggests Comcast is considering extending a new 300GB usage allowance nationwide.

Stop the Cap! reader Joe, an AT&T U-verse customer in Woodstock, Ga. — 30 miles north of downtown Atlanta — was offered a deal to switch to Comcast for 75Mbps Internet service at an attractive price. All Comcast had to do was convince Joe he would never have to deal with Comcast’s 300GB cap that is being tested in Atlanta. Joe, like many Internet customers, will not sign up with a company that imposes usage allowances on its wired broadband customers. He isn’t interested in checking a usage meter and considers broadband usage overlimit fees a deal-breaker.

So Joe called Comcast to get some straight answers. Does Comcast impose its usage cap on customers in Woodstock, which is part of Comcast’s greater Atlanta service area? Current Comcast broadband customers in Woodstock tell Stop the Cap! the company absolutely does impose a 300GB usage cap on Internet service, and some have the overlimit fees to prove it. But Comcast’s customer service representative insisted it just was not true. To back her up, not one but two Comcast supervisors also swore Woodstock is not affected by “data caps.”

Joe knew enough to record the call. Because if he did sign up for service and maintained his current usage, often in excess of 400GB a month, that “good deal” offered by Comcast would be replaced by nightmarish overlimit fees of $10 for each 50GB increment he exceeded his allowance.

Stop the Cap! reader Joe recorded his Aug. 22, 2015 conversation with Comcast — a company that really, really, really wants to convince potential customers in Georgia there are no Internet data caps on its broadband service outside of the city of Atlanta. Except there are, including in Joe’s city of Woodstock, Ga.

Comcast executives repeatedly claim Comcast doesn’t have “usage caps” on its Internet service anywhere, but you will quickly lose count adding up the number of times Comcast’s representative specifically refers to Comcast’s “data caps” and its official “data cap document.”

(This recording has been edited for brevity and clarity. Tones indicate where significant edits were made, during the time Joe was left on hold and as the representative moves towards a last ditch sales pitch. At the end of the clip, Joe shares his first impressions after he hung up with Comcast. (8:28)

You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

“What makes me laugh is the fact she is so uncertain. Obviously Comcast doesn’t properly train their employees,” Joe writes. “Comcast reps spreading bad information like this is negligent [when they tell] unsuspecting customers that there is no data cap. I honestly cannot tell if this woman was flat-out lying, or was just poorly trained.”

woodstockJoe isn’t the only one being misinformed by Comcast.

“I’ve been lied to so many times about this,” Jamil Duder wrote. “Sometimes I will get in touch with their online support just to see what they will tell me this time for my own amusement. I’ve been told everything. It has been removed, it never existed, it’s actually 600GB not 300GB, etc.”

In fact, Comcast’s enforcement of its data cap has spread well beyond the city limits of Atlanta. Despite claims from Comcast to the contrary, customers around the state report they are now limited to 300GB of usage before overlimit fees kick in.

“Absolutely unacceptable, and you wonder why they have the reputation as the worst company in America,” Joe writes.

So why would Comcast blatantly misinform customers about usage caps. The company is in an unenviable position in several of the cities where they are testing their caps. Most of Comcast’s competition in the usage cap trial markets comes from AT&T U-verse, which itself claims a 250GB usage cap — one that customers also know isn’t being enforced.

For Joe, sticking with AT&T’s slower Internet speeds in return for peace of mind his usage is not being limited is a better prospect.

comcast cartoonEric Ravenscraft suspects Comcast isn’t too happy with complaints it is getting about data caps from its customers either. He recently received a call from Comcast seeking feedback on what customers would like to see changed about the caps. But in typical Comcast fashion, getting rid of the caps does not seem to be an option. Instead, the representative claimed “obviously, the plans are outdated,” which suggests Comcast will adjust your allowance, not get rid of it.

Ravenscraft believes the most effective force to convince Comcast to ditch its caps altogether might be the Federal Communications Commission.

“If you want to do something about it, rope the FCC in. Let them know how you feel about this,” Ravenscraft writes. “Not only does this give the FCC another complaint to add to the pile, Comcast is required to respond to your complaint—by contacting you directly—within 30 days after the FCC forwards your complaint along.”

Several readers are doing exactly that every time they are charged an overlimit fee by Comcast. Within 30-60 days, Comcast has reportedly credited back the overlimit charges to complaining customers.

“I’ve filed 10 complaints with the FCC each time I get an overlimit fee on my bill, and I always get the overlimit fees credited back,” reports Stop the Cap! reader Jeff in Atlanta. “It takes about five minutes to fill out the complaint form — a minor nuisance, but now I effectively don’t have a Comcast usage cap and I am costing them more money dealing with my complaints every month than they would ever get charging me extra in the first place. Imagine if we all did that.”

“Comcast sucks but we might actually have a shot at making things better if we all do this,” Ravenscraft adds. “Most cities aren’t subject to these restrictive data cap trials, but they’ll eventually roll out nationwide if customers here don’t speak up loudly enough. We’ve got a weirdly unique opportunity to actually change how the internet works in the U.S.”

Cable Operators Told to Get Ready for a Gigabit, But Will Rationed Usage Make It Meaningless?

Phillip Dampier: A cable trade publication is lecturing its readership on better broadband the industry spent years claiming nobody wanted or needed.

Phillip Dampier: A cable trade publication is lecturing its readership on better broadband the industry spent years claiming nobody wanted or needed.

Remember the good old days when cable and phone companies told you there was no demand for faster Internet speeds when 6Mbps from the phone company was all you and your family really needed?

Those days are apparently over.

Multichannel News, the largest trade publication for cable industry executives, warns cable companies gigabit broadband speeds are right around the corner and the technological transformation that will unleash has been constrained for far too long.

Say what?

Proving our theory that those loudest about dismissing the need for faster Internet speeds are the least equipped to deliver them, the forthcoming arrival of DOCSIS 3.1 technology and decreasing costs to deploy fiber optics will allow cable providers to partially meet the gigabit speed challenge, at least on the downstream. Before DOCSIS 3.1, consumers didn’t “need those speeds.” Now companies like Comcast claim it isn’t important what consumers need today — it’s where the world is headed tomorrow.

Comcast 2013:

Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen writes that the allure of Google Fiber’s gigabit service doesn’t match the needs or capabilities of online Americans.

“For some, the discussion about the broadband Internet seems to begin and end on the issue of ‘gigabit’ access,” Cohen says, in a nod to Google Fiber. “The issue with such speed is really more about demand than supply. Our business customers can already order 10-gig connections. Most websites can’t deliver content as fast as current networks move, and most U.S. homes have routers that can’t support the speed already available to the home.” Essentially, Cohen argues that even if Comcast were to deliver web service as fast as Google Fiber’s 1,000Mbps downloads and uploads, most customers wouldn’t be able to get those speeds because they’ve got the wrong equipment at home.

Comcast 2015:

“We’ve consistently offered the most speeds to the most homes, but with the current pace of tech innovation, sometimes you need to go to where the world is headed and not focus on where it is today.”

“The next great Internet innovation is only an idea away, and we want to help customers push the boundaries of what the Internet can do and do our part to inspire developers to think about what’s possible in a multi-gigabit future.  So, next month we will introduce Gigabit Pro, a new residential Internet service that offers symmetrical, 2-Gigabits-per-second (Gbps) speeds over fiber – at least double what anyone else provides.”

Nelson (Image: Multichannel News)

Nelson (Image: Multichannel News)

Rich Nelson’s guest column in Multichannel News makes it clear American broadband is behind the times. The senior vice president of marketing, broadband & connectivity at Broadcom Corporation says the average U.S. Internet connection of 11.5Mbps “is no longer enough” to support multiple family members streaming over-the-top video content, cloud storage, sharing high-resolution images, interactive online gaming and more.

Nelson credits Google Fiber with lighting a fire under providers to reconsider broadband speeds.

“Google’s Fiber program may have been the spark to light the fuse — Gigabit services have fostered healthy competition among Internet and telecommunications providers, who are now in a position to consider not ‘if’ but ‘when and how’ to deploy Gigabit broadband in order to meet consumer’s perceived ‘need for speed’ and maintain their competitive edge,” Nelson wrote.

But the greatest bottleneck to speed advances is spending money to pay for them. Verizon FiOS was one of the most extravagant network upgrades in years among large American telecom companies and the company was savaged by Wall Street for doing it. Although AT&T got less heat because its U-verse development costs were lower, most analysts still instinctively frown when a company proposes spending billions on network upgrades.

Customer demand for faster broadband is apparent as providers boost Internet speeds.

Customer demand for faster broadband is apparent as providers boost Internet speeds.

The advent of DOCSIS 3.1 — the next generation of cable broadband technology — suggests a win-win-win for Wall Street, cable operators, and consumers. No streets will have to be torn up, no new fiber cables will have to be laid. Most providers will be able to exponentially boost Internet speeds by reallocating bandwidth formerly reserved for analog cable television channels to broadband. The more available bandwidth reserved for broadband, the faster the speeds a company can offer.

Many industry observers predict the cable line will eventually be 100% devoted to broadband, over which telephone, television and Internet access can be delivered just as Verizon does today with FiOS and AT&T manages with its U-verse service.

The benefits of gigabit speeds are not limited to faster Internet browsing however.

Nelson notes communities and municipalities are now using gigabit broadband speeds as a competitive tool selling homes and attracting new businesses to an area. According to a study from the Fiber to the Home (FTTH) Council, communities with widely available gigabit access have experienced a positive impact on economic activity — to the tune of more than $1.4 billion in GDP growth. Those bypassed or stuck in a broadband backwater are now at risk of losing digital economy jobs as businesses and entrepreneurs look elsewhere.

The gigabit broadband gap will increasingly impact the local economies of communities left behind with inadequate Internet speeds as app developers, content producers, and other innovative startups leverage gigabit broadband to market new products and services.

The Pew Research Center envisioned what the next generation of gigabit killer apps might look like. Those communities stuck on the slow lane will likely not have access to an entire generation of applications that simply will never work over DSL.

But before celebrating the fact your local cable company promises to deliver the speed the new apps will need, there is a skunk that threatens to ruin your ultra high speed future: usage-based pricing and caps.

At the same time DOCSIS 3.1 will save the cable industry billions on infrastructure upgrade costs, the price for moving data across the next generation of super high-capacity broadband networks will be lower than ever before. But cable operators are not planning to pass their savings on to you. In fact, broadband prices are rising, along with efforts to apply arbitrary usage limits or charge usage-based pricing. Both are counter-intuitive and unjustified. It would be like charging for a bag of sand in the Sahara Desert or handing a ration book to shoreline residents with coupons allowing them one glass of water each from Lake Ontario.

skunkCox plans to limit its gigabit customers to 2TB of usage a month. AT&T U-verse with GigaPower has a (currently unenforced) limit of 1TB a month, while Suddenlink thinks 550GB is more than enough for its gigabit customers. Comcast is market testing 300GB usage caps in several cities but strangely has no usage cap on its usage-gobbling gigabit plan. Why cap the customers least-equipped to run up usage into the ionosphere while giving gigabit customers a free pass? It doesn’t make much sense.

But then usage caps have never made sense or been justified on wired broadband networks and are questionable on some wireless ones as well.

Stop the Cap! began fighting against usage caps and usage pricing in the summer of 2008 when Frontier Communications proposed to limit its DSL customers to an ‘ample’ 5GB of usage per month. That’s right — 5GB. We predicted then that usage caps would become a growing problem in the United States. With a comfortable duopoly, providers could easily ration Internet access with the flimsiest of excuses to boost profits. Here is what we told the Associated Press seven years ago:

“This isn’t really an issue that’s just going to be about Frontier,” said Phillip Dampier, a Rochester-based technology writer who is campaigning to get Frontier to back off its plans. “Virtually every broadband provider has been suddenly discovering that there’s this so-called ‘bandwidth crisis’ going on in the United States.”

That year, Frontier claimed most of its 559,300 broadband subscribers consumed less than 1.5 gigabytes per month, so 5GB was generous. Frontier CEO Maggie Wilderotter trotted out the same excuses companies like Cox and Suddenlink are still using today to justify these pricing schemes: “The growth of traffic means the company has to invest millions in its network and infrastructure, threatening its profitability.”

Just one year later, Frontier spent $5.3 billion to acquire Verizon landline customers in around two dozen states, so apparently Internet usage growth did not hurt them financially after all. Frankly, usage growth never does. As we told the AP in 2008, the costs of network equipment and connecting to the wider Internet are falling. It still is.

“If they continue to make the necessary investments … there’s no reason they can’t keep up” with increasing customer traffic, we said at the time.

We are happy to report we won our battle with Frontier Communications and today the company even markets the fact their broadband service comes without usage caps. In many of Frontier’s rural service areas, they are the only Internet Service Provider available. Imagine the impact a 5GB usage cap would have had on customers trying to run a home-based business, have kids using the Internet to complete homework assignments, or rely on the Internet for video entertainment.

So why do some providers still try to ration Internet usage? To make more money of course. When the public believes the phony tales of network costs and traffic growth, the duped masses open their wallets and pay even more for what is already overpriced broadband service. Just check this chart produced by the BBC, based on data from the Organization for Economic Co‑operation and Development. Value for money is an alien concept to U.S. providers:

_70717869_countries_with_high_speed_broadband

The usual method of combating pricing excess is robust competition. With a chasm-sized gap between fat profits and the real cost of the service, competitors usually lower the price to attract more customers. But the fewer competitors, the bigger the chance the marketplace will gravitate towards comfort-level pricing and avoid rocking the boat with a ruinous price war. It is one of the first principles of capitalism — charging what the market will bear. We’ve seen how well that works in the past 100+ years. Back in 2010, we found an uncomfortable similarity between broadband prices of today with the railroad pricing schemes of the 1800s. A handful of executives and shareholders reap the rewards of monopolistic pricing and pillage not only consumers but threaten local economies as well.

special reportThe abuses were so bad, Congress finally stepped in and authorized regulators to break up the railroad monopolies and regulate abusive pricing. We may be headed in the same direction with broadband. We do not advocate regulation for the sake of regulation. Competition is a much more efficient way to check abusive business practices. But where an effective monopoly or duopoly exists, competition alone will not help. Without consumer-conscious oversight, the forthcoming gigabit broadband revolution will be stalled by speed bumps and toll booths for the benefit of a few giant telecommunications corporations. That will allow other countries to once again leap ahead of the United States and Canada, just as they have done with Internet speeds, delivering superior service at a lower price.

China now ranks first in the world in terms of the total number of fiber to the home broadband subscribers. So far, it isn’t even close to the fastest broadband country because much of China still gets access to the Internet over DSL. The Chinese government considers that unacceptable. It sees the economic opportunities of widespread fiber broadband and has targeted the scrapping of every DSL Internet connection in favor of fiber optics by the end of 2017. As a result, with more than 200 million likely fiber customers, China will become the global leader in fiber infrastructure, fiber technology, and fiber development. What country will lose the most from that transition? The United States. Today, Corning produces 40% of the world’s optical fiber.

Global optical fiber capacity amounted to 13,000 tons in 2014, mainly concentrated in the United States, Japan and China (totaling as much as 85.2% of the world’s total), of which China already ranked first with a share of 39.8%. Besides a big producer of optical fiber, China is also a large consumer, demanding 6,639 tons in 2014, 60.9% of global demand. The figure is expected to increase to 7,144 tons in 2015. Before 2010, over 70% of China’s optical fiber was imported, primarily from the United States. This year, 72.6% of China’s optical fiber will be produced by Chinese companies, which are also exporting a growing amount of fiber around the world.

John Lively, principal analyst at LightCounting Market Research, predicts China could conquer the fiber market in just a few short years and become a global broadband leader, “exporting their broadband networking expertise and technology, just like it does with its energy and transportation programs.”

Meanwhile in the United States, customers will be arguing with Comcast about the accuracy of their usage meter in light of a 300GB usage cap and Frontier’s DSL customers will still be fighting to get speeds better than the 3-6Mbps they get today.

Comcast Will Offer DOCSIS 3.1 Gigabit Service Nationwide Within Two Years

Comcast-LogoComcast plans to upgrade its cable broadband facilities nationwide to support gigabit broadband using DOCSIS 3.1 technology within two years, according to a company official.

DOCSIS 3.1 will allow existing hybrid fiber-coax infrastructure to support broadband service speeds up to 10Gbps, but most consumers would find the equipment costs to support speeds that fast on a home network prohibitive. Commercial customers might not.

“We’re testing it this year,” Robert Howald, Comcast’s vice president of network architecture, told FierceCable. “Our intent is to scale it through our footprint through 2016. We want to get it across the footprint very quickly. We’re shooting for two years.”

Comcast is also claiming to move forward with its 2Gbps fiber to the home service in select areas located close to existing fiber infrastructure, but first promised the service would be available to customers in early summer. To date, Stop the Cap! cannot find any customer actually subscribed to the service.

Customers will be able to lease DOCSIS 3.1 equipment from Comcast starting in early 2016. As more customers get the equipment, Comcast will likely realign its broadband offerings to further boost speeds.

 

Public Service Commission Criticized Over Its Review of Telecom Service in New York

dpsConsumer groups and New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman are expressing concern over the performance of the New York Public Service Commission in its year-long review of telecommunications services in New York.

As Stop the Cap! shared in our own letter to the PSC, we share concerns about how the PSC is managing comments from the public and accepting testimony for a review that many find opaque.

The Connect New York Coalition has exchanged its own frank letters with the Commission for several months expressing concern about how the PSC is conducting its review. A letter dated July 6 summarized a year of difficulties dealing with state regulators:

We filed a Petition a year ago. It contained complaints and requests for action by the Commission. It was ignored for several months.

We requested a meeting with the Chair. The meeting was constructive. Several promises were made including the imminent production of a “roadmap” for a study, a promise that it would be concluded by the April 1, 2015 date committed to in a side letter, a promise of “robust dialogue”, and a promise that the concerns raised in the Petition would be included in Commission actions.

We mean no disrespect when we express astonishment at the June 26 letter. It is as though the Petition, the letters, the meetings and the promises have not languished in Commission inaction for a full year. It is as though we have received a “road map” and had participated in a “robust dialogue”. It is as though the Commission in its documents and “questions” has addressed the issues and complaints contained in the Petition. It is as though the Commission produced the Study it promised in the side letter. None of these things has happened.

[…] A constructive relationship, based on civility and mutual respect, is not advanced by assertions that the Petition has been acted on as it should and as was promised. All of this is secondary to the sad realities that are faced by millions of New Yorkers whose telecommunications systems are neither socially nor economically adequate. The system, for many, operates in violation of the laws of the state.

Schneiderman

Schneiderman

“Issues of misallocation of monies, inadequate basic service requirements, disinvestment in the copper systems, failure to build out promised telecommunications systems, failure to adequately measure the deterioration of service to millions of New Yorkers and others have been ignored by the Commission in spite of promises to take them seriously,” complained the Coalition in another letter dated June 25.

Late yesterday Attorney General Schneiderman added his views, nearly identical to our own and that of the Coalition:

“While the Staff Assessment of Telecommunications Services you issued on June 23 is a step toward fulfilling the legal requirement that the PSC undertake a comprehensive examination and study of the telecommunications industry in New York, it left many questions unanswered, questions unlikely to be answered through the public statement hearing process, as that process is non-adversarial,” Schneiderman wrote. “Therefore, to fully understand the impact of deregulation on consumers and businesses, I urge you to initiate a formal proceeding in accordance with Article 1, Section 5 of the Public Service Law and 16 NYCRR Part 3. Such a proceeding, in front of an administrative judge, provides for evidence-gathering, allows for cross-examination and counter-evidence, and concludes with a final order or decision by the PSC.”

The Attorney General wants answers to a series of questions many New Yorkers have asked for several years:

  1. competitionWhether there is adequate competition for broadband service throughout the various regions of New York State, and whether there are any areas that are still essentially cable monopolies;
  2. Whether telecommunications companies are making honest representations about infrastructure build-out;
  3. Whether consumers are satisfied with the various voice service options available to New York consumers; and
  4. Whether Verizon is adequately upgrading or repairing its copper wire infrastructure, which is especially critical for New Yorkers who rely solely on landline service (in the absence of other voice options).

In our view, the answers are:

  1. No, Yes
  2. No
  3. It depends on where you live in the state, which incumbent phone company you have, if you have cable as an option, and if you have adequate cell coverage.
  4. Evidently not, based on the long record of service complaints from consumers.

Late yesterday, the PSC indicated it was responsive to the complaints, issuing a notice extending the review process and comment window:

In recognition of these requests, this is to advise that the deadline to file comments is hereby extended 60 days until October 23, 2015 in order to facilitate meaningful input, accommodate various schedules, and promote the fair, orderly and efficient conduct of this proceeding. Following the submission CASE 14-C-0370 -2- of comments, Staff will consider the need for further process, which could include further Public Statement Hearings, Technical Conferences or other steps as deemed necessary. Notices would be issued regarding any such events.

Stop the Cap!’s Open Letter to N.Y. Public Service Commission: No Rush to Judgment

letterhead

August 19, 2015

Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess
Secretary, Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223-1350

Case Number: 14-C-0370

Dear Ms. Burgess,

After years of allowing the telecommunications industry in New York to operate with little or no oversight, the need for an extensive and comprehensive review of the impact of New York’s regulatory policies has never been greater.

Let us remind the Commission of the status quo:

  • As Verizon winds down its FiOS initiative, other states are getting cutting-edge services like Google Fiber, AT&T U-verse with GigaPower, CenturyLink Prism, and other gigabit-speed broadband service competition. In contrast, the largest telecommunications companies in New York have stalled offering better service to New Yorkers.
  • Time Warner Cable has left all of upstate New York with no better than 50/5Mbps broadband – a top speed that has not risen in at least five years.
  • Frontier Communications has announced fiber upgrades in service areas it is acquiring while its largest New York service area – Rochester, languishes with copper-based ADSL service that often delivers no better than 3-6Mbps, well below the FCC’s minimum 25Mbps definition of broadband.
  • Verizon Communications, the state’s largest telephone company, is accused of reneging on its FiOS commitments in New York City and has left upstate New York cities with nothing better than DSL service, giving Time Warner Cable a monopoly on 25+Mbps broadband in most areas. It has also talked openly of selling off its rural landline network or scrapping it altogether, potentially forcing customers to an inferior wireless landline replacement it calls Voice Link.

As the Commission is also well aware, there are a number of recent high-profile issues relating to telecommunications matters that have a direct impact on consumers and businesses in this state – some that are currently before the Commission for review. Largest among them is another acquisition involving Time Warner Cable, this time from Charter Communications. That single issue alone will impact the majority of broadband consumers in New York because Time Warner Cable is the state’s dominant Internet Service Provider for high speed Internet services, especially upstate.

These issues are of monumental importance to the comprehensive examination and study of the telecommunications industry in New York promised by Chairwoman Audrey Zibelman. The Charter-Time Warner Cable merger alone has the potential of affecting millions of New York residents for years to come.

Although this study was first announced to Speaker Sheldon Silver, the Honorable Jeffrey Klein, and the Honorable Dean Skelos in a letter on March 28, 2014, followed up by a notification that Chairwoman Zibelman intended to commence the study within 45 days of her letter of May 13, 2014, the first public notice seeking comments from stakeholders and consumers was issued more than a year later on June 23, 2015 (less than two months ago), with comments due by August 24, 2015.

With respect, providing a 60-day comment window in the middle of summer along with a handful of public hearings scattered across the state with as little as three weeks’ advance notice is wholly inadequate for a broad study of this importance. The Commission’s ambitious schedule to contemplate the state of telecommunications across all of New York State will likely be shorter than the review of the 2014-2015 Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger transaction which started May 15, 2014 and ended April 30, 2015.

We have heard from New York residents upset about how the Commission is handling its review. One complained to us the Commission had more than a year to prepare for its study while giving New York residents short notice to attend poorly advertised public hearings in a distant city, and two months at most to share their feelings with the Commission in writing. One woman described having to find a hearing that was, at best, 60 miles away and located at a city hall unfamiliar to those not local to the area, where suitable parking was inconvenient and difficult as she attempted a lengthy walk to the hearing location at the age of 69.

Several of our members also complained there are more suitable public-friendly venues beyond paid parking downtown city administration buildings or deserted campuses in the middle of summer break. Many asked why the Commission does not seem to have a social media presence or sponsor live video streaming of hearings where residents can participate by phone or online and avoid inconvenient travel to a distant city. Perhaps the Commission could be enlightened to see how New York’s telecommunications companies actually perform during such a hearing.

While we think it is very useful for the Commission to have direct input from the public, we are uncertain about how the Commission intends to manage those comments. We were disappointed to find no public outline of what the Commission intended to include in its evaluation of a topic as broad as “the state of telecommunications in New York.”

Too often, providers downplay service complaints from consumers as “anecdotal evidence” or “isolated incidents.” But if the Commission sought specific input on a topic such as the availability of FiOS in Manhattan, consumers can provide useful input on the exact location(s) where service was requested but not provided.

If the Commission received information from an incumbent provider claiming it was providing broadband service to low income residents, consumers could share on-point experiences as to whether those claims were true, true with conditions the Commission might not be aware of (paperwork requirements, onerous terms, etc.) or false.

If the Commission sought input on rural broadband, providers might point to a broadband availability map that suggests there is robust competition and customer choice. But the Commission could learn from residents asked to share their direct experiences that the map was inaccurate or outdated, including providers that only service commercial customers, or those that cannot provide service that qualifies as “broadband” by the Federal Communications Commission.

A full and open investigation is essential to finding the truth about telecommunications in New York. The Commission needs to understand whether problems are unique to one customer in one part of the state or common among a million people statewide. We urge the Commission to rethink its current approach.

New Yorkers deserve public fact-finding hearings inviting input on the specific issues the Commission is exploring. New Yorkers need longer comment windows, more notice of public hearings, and a generous extension of the current deadline(s) to allow comments to be received for at least 60 additional days.

Most critically, we need hearings bringing the public and stakeholders together to offer sometimes-adversarial testimony to build a factual, evidence-based record on which the Commission can credibly defend its oversight of the telecommunications services that are a critical part of every New Yorker’s life.

The Commission’s policies going forward may have a profound effect on making sure an elderly couple in the Adirondacks can keep a functioning landline, if affordable Internet will be available to an economically-distressed single working mother in the Bronx, or if upstate New York can compete in the new digital economy with gigabit fiber broadband to support small businesses like those run by former employees of downsized companies like Eastman Kodak and Xerox in Rochester.

Yours very truly,

Phillip M. Dampier
Director

Global Broadband Prices Drop 9%, But Not for North Americans

The cost of residential broadband service around the world dropped an average of 9%, but not in the United States and Canada where providers are effectively raising prices while justifying the added cost with occasional speed boosts.

Point Topic, which tracks residential and business broadband pricing found prices are affected the most when competition increases and incumbent providers are forced to respond with lower prices and/or better service.

Residential-broadband-tariffs-and-speeds-by-region-in-Q1-2015-source-Point-Topic

Point Topic’s chart shows North Americans pay a significant price for service, but receive some of the worst broadband performance in return when compared against better value for money providers in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region. (Chart: Point Topic)

By far the poorest value broadband tracked by Point Topic is traditional DSL from the telephone companies. Speeds have barely budged in many areas while prices wildly fluctuate depending on whether fiber or cable broadband providers are competing for the same customers. The research firm found DSL to be the worst choice for consumers — combing the lowest speeds and the highest per megabit cost among wired providers.

The price of residential DSL is also going up — it was just under $10 per Mbps in the second quarter, an increase from nearly $9 per Mbps the phone companies charged late last year.

DSL is a dreadful value. (Chart: Point Topic)

DSL is a dreadful value. (Chart: Point Topic)

Cable operators facing fiber competition have been forced to improve speeds but are still managing to raise prices. Globally, the average price of cable and fiber broadband based on speed alone is $1 per Mbps, down from $3 per Mbps in the second quarter of 2010. But North Americans are paying more for the service through annual rate increases and ancillary modem rental fees.

The reason North Americans are paying more for broadband service is because providers are attempting to make up for lost television revenue.

The New York Post noted most broadband bills are now up to between $50 and $70 a month for standalone service.

James Dolan, CEO of Cablevision, explained how broadband pricing has evolved in the cable industry.

“We’re going to see a re-stratification of the cable business .… One thing we see is significant uses of data, increasing exponentially,” Dolan told investors late last year. “We think that’s where the growth is going to come from.”

Dan Cryan, research director for digital at IHS, told the newspaper that revenue from U.S. broadband providers in 2014 topped $49 billion, up from $42.1 billion in 2012.

Cable companies collected an average of $4.75 per month more from broadband customers in 2014 over what they paid in 2012.

“Broadband is strategically more important than the number of subscribers indicates because it has the potential to be higher margin,” Cryan said.

Residential-trends-over-time

(Chart: Point Topic)

Comcast VP: Our 300GB Usage Caps are a “Business Policy,” Not an Engineering Necessity

What makes 300GB so special? It happens to represent the monthly usage allowance Comcast customers in several southern and western service areas receive after more than two years of “Data Usage Plan Trials.”

One of most asked questions posed to Comcast is why one of the nation’s largest and most profitable Internet Service Providers needs to impose usage caps at all, especially as the company has repeatedly raised broadband speeds for customers.

It took a parody Twitter account known as “Cable Cares” to get a cogent answer from Comcast’s vice president of Internet services, Jason Livingood: he doesn’t know.

caps

Livingood admitted Comcast’s “data usage plans” a/k/a “usage caps” are a “business policy” far removed from his work as a Comcast engineer helping to keep Comcast’s broadband service up and running efficiently.

comcastStop the Cap! never doubted it for a moment.

Internet Service Providers have often claimed usage caps are a matter of “fairness” — first to control congestion on their broadband networks and later as a way to pay for needed upgrades. But neither has proved true.

Starting in 2008, Comcast imposed a 250GB usage cap on its broadband service and issued warnings to customers that rampaged past it, threatening to cut their service off if they did not curtail usage. Those contacted were told their heavy use could impact broadband service for other customers who used it much less.

Internet providers told the Government Accountability Office another story entirely, admitting congestion is not a problem for cable operators or phone companies at all.

“Some wireless ISPs told us they use usage based pricing to manage congestion,” the GAO reported in June 2014. But “wireline ISPs said that congestion is not currently a problem.”

As upgrades have exponentially increased network capacity, the story told to defend usage caps changed dramatically. The new claim is that usage-based pricing and caps can “generate more revenue for ISPs to fund network capacity upgrades as data use grows,” the GAO reported.

Except as the New York Times reported last year, the United States is hardly a broadband speed leader and the quality of service “has nothing to do with technology. Instead, it is an economic policy problem — the lack of competition in the broadband industry.”

Usage caps for one and all.

Usage caps for one and all.

For now, Comcast isn’t commenting at all about the reasons for its usage cap trials. But a few years ago, Comcast VP David Cohen believed caps would be rolled out across Comcast’s entire nationwide service area anyway. 

Comcast executives have repeatedly told investors customers had accepted the usage cap trials and few have exceeded their usage allowances. But judging from Comcast’s customer support forums, the issue of usage caps and measurement rises near the top of complaints.

Comcast’s unregulated usage meter is a frequent target. What it registers is what Comcast uses to bill its customers.

“I have the ability to track my inbound and outbound data usage at my router.  Nothing in my house can talk to the Internet (the cable modem) without going through the router,” one customer wrote on Comcast’s support forum. “The traffic meter on the router is significantly less than the Xfinity Usage Meter.  As of right now, my router says my inbound/outbound usage since 7/1/2015 is 67.34GB, but the Xfinity Usage Meter says I am at 114GB.”

comcast-data-meter-513x650 (1)“At Comcast, the meter is right and the customer is wrong,” complains another customer.

“I am sick of calling customer service and being told that the Xfinity usage meter is right, but that there is absolutely no data that can be given to me to support that answer.  This is beyond ridiculous and I am beyond frustrated.  I have no options for recourse and am just supposed to accept that I am flying blind.

Flying blind can be costly. One Comcast customer opened his broadband bill to discover $260 in charges conveniently automatically removed from his checking account after Comcast claimed he used almost 2TB of usage in a month.

“My wife and I browse emails, browse the Internet with Facebook and sometimes watch Youtube,” the customer wrote. “We don’t even have Netflix or any other streaming service here at the house.”

The customer complains Comcast refuses to refund or document the 2TB of usage. As long as Comcast “verifies” a customer’s modem handled that traffic, the customer is billed without recourse.

But customers do have some recourse: complaining to the Federal Communications Commission or the Better Business Bureau.

“I have seen other posts from customers with similar issues,” a Comcast customer noted. “It seems that they get help once they threaten to go to the FCC or the BBB.”

The FCC’s online complaint form often results in substantial billing credits and charge reversals for shocking cable bills. The FCC is gradually turning its attention to the issue of usage caps, perhaps proportionate to the number of consumer complaints about the issue.

The Better Business Bureau helps put customers in touch with executive level customer service agents empowered well beyond the usual offshore customer service center employees. It appears they did exactly that 35,281 times in the last three years — 14,052 in the last year alone. Most of those complaints were evidently resolved to the customer’s satisfaction.

Frontier Tries to Force Arbitration in Class Action Case Over “No Contract” DSL

frontier wvA plea from unhappy Frontier Communications’ broadband customers in West Virginia to have their complaints about Frontier DSL heard by a judge will get a hearing before Lincoln County Circuit Judge Jay Hoke on Aug. 19.

The class action lawsuit claims Frontier deceptively advertises fast Internet service that in reality is often unreliable and delivers only 5-10 percent of the speeds advertised. Many West Virginians have no other broadband options.

In response, lawyers for Frontier Communications have fought to get the case dismissed. They want customers to take their complaints through Frontier’s binding arbitration dispute resolution process.

In 2011, Frontier changed its terms and conditions, adding a lengthy arbitration provision that forbids customers from bringing class action cases and generally limits the damages customers can receive. Frontier argues customers automatically agreed to the arbitration process by continuing to use Frontier’s broadband service after the changes were announced.

The attorneys bringing the case think Frontier’s insistence that customers are automatically bound by the company’s contractual terms and conditions is ironic.

“No contract. No signatures. No worries,” claims one Frontier ad. “There’s no contract. Yep, that’s right, no contract,” advertises another. Since 2013, Frontier has gone out of its way advertising broadband without the gotchas and hidden fees their competitors charge. “Frontier is now in the unenviable position of trying to enforce hidden terms in the very contracts they repeatedly represented did not exist,” argues the plaintiffs in a court document.

no contract

Some Frontier customers never realized they may have given up their right to bring a civil case against Frontier. The company first notified customers about this change in their terms and conditions in 2011 through a small message on Frontier invoices. Customers effectively agreed to those changes through their continued use of Frontier’s service, Frontier claimed. But the plaintiffs signed documents attesting they had never seen or heard of Frontier’s enforced arbitration policy. The lawyers bringing the case are not surprised. A copy of the changed terms and conditions obtained by Stop the Cap! shows the binding arbitration clause buried on page five of a leaflet rendered in very small print in very large paragraphs unlikely to be read or understood by many customers.

The current arbitration policy is reproduced below. Have you read it?:

As explained more fully below and in the terms and conditions document, Frontier’s terms and conditions set forth important details about your relationship with Frontier including the requirement to resolve any dispute with Frontier by binding arbitration, on an individual basis, rather than through a lawsuit, jury trial or class action.  If you do not agree to Frontier’s terms and conditions, you may not use the Frontier service and must terminate service immediately.

DISPUTE RESOLUTION WITH FRONTIER BY BINDING ARBITRATION

PLEASE READ THIS CAREFULLY. IT AFFECTS YOUR RIGHTS.

Frontier encourages you to contact our Customer Service department if you have concerns or complaints about your service or Frontier. Generally, customer complaints can be satisfactorily resolved in this way. In the unlikely event that you are not able to resolve your concerns through our Customer Service department, we each agree to resolve all disputes through binding arbitration or a small claims court rather than lawsuits in courts of general jurisdiction, jury trials, or class actions. Arbitration is more informal than a lawsuit. Arbitration uses a neutral arbitrator instead of a judge or jury, allows for more limited discovery than in court, and is subject to very limited review by courts. Arbitrators can award the same damages and individual relief affecting individual parties that a court can award, including an award of attorneys’ fees if the law allows. For any non-frivolous claim that does not exceed $75,000, Frontier will pay all costs of the arbitration. Moreover, in arbitration you are entitled to recover attorneys’ fees from Frontier for your own dispute to the same extent as you would be in court.

In addition, under certain circumstances (as explained below), Frontier will pay you more than the amount of the arbitrator’s award if the arbitrator awards you an amount that is greater than what Frontier has offered you to settle the dispute.

Arbitration Agreement:

(a) You and Frontier agree to arbitrate all disputes and claims between us. This agreement to arbitrate is intended to be broadly interpreted. It includes, but is not limited to, all claims arising out of or relating to any aspect of our relationship, whether based in contract, tort, statute, fraud, misrepresentation or any other legal theory, that arose either before or during this or any prior Agreement, or that may arise after termination of this Agreement. It also includes claims that are currently the subject of purported class action litigation in which you are not a member of a certified class. References to “Frontier,” “you,” and “us” include our respective subsidiaries, affiliates, agents, employees, predecessors in interest, successors, and assigns, as well as all authorized or unauthorized users or beneficiaries of Frontier Broadband under this or prior Agreements between us.

Notwithstanding the foregoing agreement, Frontier agrees that it will not use arbitration to initiate debt collection against you except in response to claims you have made in arbitration. In addition, by agreeing to resolve disputes through arbitration, you and Frontier agree to each unconditionally waive the right to a trial by jury or to participate in a class action, representative proceeding, or private attorney general action. Instead of arbitration, either party may bring an individual action in a small claims court for disputes or claims that are within the scope of the small claims court’s authority. In addition, you may bring any issues to the attention of federal, state, or local agencies, including, for example, the Federal Communications Commission. Such agencies can, if the law allows, seek relief against us on your behalf.

This agreement evidences a transaction in interstate commerce, and thus the Federal Arbitration Act governs the interpretation and enforcement of this provision, even after the agreement is terminated.

(b) A party who intends to seek arbitration must first send to the other, by certified mail, a written Notice of Dispute (“Notice”). The Notice to Frontier should be addressed to: Frontier Communications, Legal Department – Arbitration, 3 High Ridge Park, Stamford, CT 06905 (“Notice Address”). The Notice must (1) describe the nature and basis of the claim or dispute; and (2) set for the specific relief sought (“Demand”). If Frontier and you do not reach an agreement to resolve the claim within 30 days after the Notice is received, you or Frontier may commence an arbitration proceeding. During the arbitration, the amount of any settlement offer made by Frontier or you shall not be disclosed to the arbitrator until after the arbitrator determines the amount, if any, to which you or Frontier is entitled.

(c) The arbitration will be governed by the Consumer Arbitration Rules (“AAA Rules”) of the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”), as modified by these Terms of Service, and will be administered by the AAA. Procedure, rule and fee information is available from the AAA online at http://www.adr.org, by calling the AAA at 1-800-778-7879, or by calling Frontier at 1-877-462-7320, option 3. The arbitrator is bound by the terms of this Agreement. All issues are for the arbitrator to decide, except that issues relating to the scope and enforceability of the arbitration provision, including the scope, interpretation, and enforceability of section (f) below, are for the court to decide. If your claim is for $25,000 or less, you may choose whether the arbitration will be conducted solely on the basis of documents submitted to the arbitrator, through a telephonic hearing, or by an in person hearing as established by the AAA Rules. If your claim exceeds $25,000, the right to a hearing will be determined by the AAA Rules. Unless Frontier and you agree otherwise, any in person hearings will take place at a location that the AAA selects in the state of your primary residence unless you and Frontier agree otherwise. Regardless of the manner in which the arbitration is conducted, the arbitrator shall issue a reasoned written decision sufficient to explain the essential findings and conclusions on which the award is based.

Frontier agrees to pay your AAA filing, administration, and arbitrator fees (“AAA fees”) for claims for damages of up to $75,000 and for claims for non-monetary relief up to the value of $75,000, as measured from either your or Frontier’s perspective (but excluding attorneys’ fees and expenses). After Frontier receives notice that you have commenced arbitration, it will promptly reimburse you for your payment of the filing fee, unless your claim is for greater than $75,000. (The filing fee currently is $200 but is subject to change by the AAA. If you are unable to pay this fee, Frontier will pay it directly upon receiving a written request.) In addition, Frontier will not pay your share of the AAA fees if the arbitrator finds that either your claim or the relief sought is frivolous or brought for an improper purpose, as measured by the standards of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11(b). In such case, the payment of AAA fees will be governed by the AAA Rules, and you agree to reimburse Frontier for all monies previously disbursed by it that are otherwise your obligation to pay under the AAA Rules. If you initiate an arbitration in which you seek relief valued at more than $75,000 (excluding attorneys’ fees and expenses), as measured from either your or Frontier’s perspective, the payment of AAA fees will be governed by the AAA Rules.

(d) If Frontier offers to settle your dispute prior to appointment of the arbitrator and you do not accept the offer, and the arbitrator awards you an amount of money that is more than Frontier’s last written settlement offer, then Frontier will pay you the amount of the award or $5,000 (“the alternative payment”), whichever is greater.
If Frontier does not offer to settle your dispute prior to appointment of the arbitrator, and the arbitrator awards you any relief on the merits, then Frontier agrees to pay you the amount of the award or the alternative payment, whichever is greater. The arbitrator may make rulings and resolve disputes as to the payment and reimbursement of fees, expenses, and the alternative payment at any time during the proceeding and upon request from either party made within fourteen (14) days of the arbitrator’s ruling on the merits.

(e)  Although Frontier may have a right to an award of attorneys’ fees and expenses if it prevails, Frontier agrees that it will not seek such an award.

(f) You and Frontier agree to seek, and further agree that the arbitrator may award, only such relief—whether in the form of damages, an injunction, or other non-monetary relief—as is necessary to resolve any individual injury that either you or Frontier have suffered or may suffer. In particular, if either you or Frontier seek any non-monetary relief, including injunctive or declaratory relief, the arbitrator may award relief on an individual basis only, and may not award relief that affects individuals or entities other than you or Frontier. You and Frontier agree that we each may bring claims against the other only in an individual capacity and not as a plaintiff or class member in any purported class, representative, or private attorney general proceeding. Furthermore, unless both you and Frontier agree otherwise in writing, the arbitrator may not consolidate more than one person’s claims, and may not otherwise preside over any form of a class, representative, or private attorney general proceeding. If a court decides that applicable law precludes enforcement of any of this paragraph (f)’s limitations as to a particular claim for relief, then that claim (and only that claim) must be severed from the arbitration and may be brought in court. Further, an arbitrator’s award and any judgment confirming it shall apply only to that specific case and cannot be used in any other case except to enforce the award itself.

(g) Notwithstanding any provision in these Terms to the contrary, you and Frontier agree that if Frontier makes any change to this arbitration provision during the period of time that you are receiving Frontier services, you may reject that change by providing Frontier with written notice within 30 days of the change to the Notice Address provided above and require Frontier to adhere to the language in this provision. By rejecting any future change, you are agreeing that you will arbitrate any dispute between us in accordance with the language of this provision.

arbitration pros consCorporations began to favor private arbitration over the civil courts several years ago, arguing arbitration would save money and lead to faster resolutions of customer complaints. Many customers and trial lawyers disagree, arguing arbitration favors the corporations that pay for arbitration programs, shields bad acts from public disclosure with confidentiality agreements, limits damage awards and prevents class action cases seeking relatively small amounts of damages for a large number of customers who would otherwise never bring a case to court. Early attempts by some companies to offer voluntary arbitration programs as an alternative to civil actions offered more limited benefits and many companies have since moved to mandatory, binding arbitration instead. Disputes subject to mandatory arbitration usually must be resolved through arbitration. The parties give up their right to sue in court, participate in a class action lawsuit, or appeal the arbitration decision.

The law firms handling the case against Frontier — Bailey Glasser in Charleston and Klein, Sheridan & Glazer in Huntington, are arguing Frontier customers cannot be bound by mandatory arbitration policies without evidence Frontier informed them of the program and can show evidence of their consent. In a lengthy argument to the judge, the attorneys argue Frontier can show neither. They point to Frontier’s website, which “buries” the terms and conditions as a tiny link at the bottom of their main web page. Customers must click that link, then find the link for the arbitration provision, then read and understand it. Notice about the arbitration policy originally came in occasional billing notices. Since the lawsuit was filed, Frontier has given more prominent mention of its terms and conditions, including its arbitration policy, on monthly billing statements.

Frontier’s defense is that the plaintiffs are misrepresenting the meaning of “no contract.” The company argues customers commonly understand that term to mean they will not be asked to sign a term contract for one, two, or three years, facing an early termination penalty if they seek to end the contract early. The fact Frontier advertises “no contract” does not mean there are no terms and conditions, the company’s attorneys argued.

A potentially weaker defense is Frontier’s claim that customers can be bound by a contract once they continue to use the service after a change in terms is published. Frontier admitted it could not prove the customers read and understood the change of terms notification or the new terms and conditions. It also never asked customers to directly consent, either in writing or by checking a box on a website, to the new terms and conditions. The plaintiffs also question the legality of Frontier reserving the right to unilaterally change any terms and conditions after a brief notification period and win consent of those changes if subscribers do not cancel service or, in some cases, opt out.

The attorneys call that “take it or leave it” Internet access from Frontier, often the only provider in large parts of rural West Virginia.

Find the terms and conditions link on the bottom of Frontier.com.

Find the terms and conditions link on the bottom of Frontier.com.

Ookla Dumps Net Index in Favor of Misleading, Often Inaccurate “Speedtest Award”

When New is Not Improved

When New is Not Improved

It is disappointing to see a company priding itself on independently measuring America’s broadband performance throw accuracy to the wind and start handing out misleading awards for America’s top broadband providers that their own speed tests often disprove.

Municipal and independently owned Internet providers have relied on Ookla to prove to the world they can offer superior broadband service over what is on offer from the local cable and phone company. Net Index was a useful, independent resource to track broadband speeds and trends based on millions of consumer-run Internet speed and health tests. A provider claiming “up to 10Mbps” service could quickly and easily be verified as a truth-teller or teller of tall tales. As of today, that is no longer as easy to verify:

Ookla Net Index has been discontinued

Ookla is devoted to providing world-class products and services. Sometimes that means saying goodbye to old sites, like Net Index, and hello to new ones…

ookla

Those “new and improved” products include:

  • SPEEDTEST AWARDS: Provides insights to consumers on where to find the Fastest ISPs & Mobile Networks worldwide, based on data from millions of Speedtests taken in the first half of 2015;
  • SPEEDTEST INTELLIGENCE: Designed for enterprises, governments and analysts to understand worldwide internet performance, based on the millions of Speedtests run each day.

While there is nothing objectionable about handing out awards for good performance, it turns out only the nation’s biggest telecom companies need apply, because unless you are Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, Charter, or Verizon, you are too small to matter.

fastest ispAmong those that do, Comcast’s Xfinity takes first prize:

Comcast XFINITY is the nation’s largest traditional cable operator and largest home ISP. It offers an extremely wide variety of technologies and speeds, peaking at a fiber-based “Extreme 505” tier. That service isn’t widely available, though; you’re more likely to see top speeds of 105Mbps or 150Mbps using traditional DOCSIS 3 cable technology.

Ookla explains away why better performing ISPs are not qualified for one of their awards:

For a given location – either nationwide or a given state or city – we aim to include only ISPs or mobile networks that provide service for a significant number of customers in that geographic area. So, while Google Fiber is the fastest broadband in states like Kansas or Missouri, they are not suitable to be included in the fastest ISPs nationwide because they only serve a very small portion of the United States. To be included in a given geographic area, an ISP or mobile network must meet a minimum threshold based on the number of unique devices testing each day over a six month period.

In other words, accuracy matters a lot less than coverage area. Ookla’s methodology is further invalidated on the local level by their own website.

The prominent first place national award given to Comcast for having the fastest Internet access could mislead you to believe they are the best provider. But Ookla’s own speed tests show that in states like Minnesota, Comcast only comes in third place. Inexplicably, America’s always-lowest rated cable operator — Mediacom, scores first. Charter comes in second. Ookla does not bother to rank municipal-owned broadband providers that outperform all the above.

Not consistently including public, municipal utility, or co-op broadband providers in states like North Carolina and Colorado does an even bigger disservice to anyone depending on Ookla for independent and accurate results. Many of those providers just don’t show up in Ookla’s listings.

In other cases, providers that offer commercial-only broadband make Ookla’s list while even faster providers that sell to consumers don’t. In Rochester, N.Y., Ookla gives first place among local providers to Sutherland Global Services, a provider of business process and technology management services — not a residential ISP. Greenlight Networks delivers gigabit fiber to the home service to select residents in the area and does not appear on Ookla’s list.

Ookla’s own results show the largest companies deliver uneven results across the country, which comes perilously close to invalidating the usefulness of a “national” award. The fact Ookla intentionally leaves out ISPs that can dramatically outperform the competition drives the final nail into the credibility coffin, rendering Ookla’s “new and improved” results meaningless and very misleading. In short, consumers might find using a Ouija board to choose their next ISP about as useful.

It appears the more meaningful data consumers need to make an informed choice has been shifted to Ookla’s premium “Speedtest Intelligence,” designed to provide the granularity stripped away from Net Index. Based on an inquiry form, it seems Ookla is now selling this information to private clients, leaving consumers stuck with Ookla’s overgeneralized “awards” and incomplete regional test results that exclude too many residential providers to be useful and accurate.

Verizon DSL: The Love is Gone – Rate Hikes, Availability Problems, Low Speeds

Sandra Hartman has been a Verizon DSL customer for more than 10 years. She doesn’t have much of a choice.

In her small town outside of Binghamton, N.Y., Verizon is her only option. Time Warner Cable doesn’t come close to providing service in this part of upstate New York and cell service is abominable, even with Verizon and AT&T.

“I live in an area just large enough to have given Verizon the justification to offer DSL, but 3Mbps service is about all we have ever been able to get, but it has been better than nothing,” Hartman tells Stop the Cap!

Hartman signed up for a package that included $19.99 DSL with her landline a decade ago, a price that went up $10 after the sign-up promotion ended but has remained stable for years.

“Then Verizon decided to raise the price without improving the service,” Hartman says.

In fact, the price hikes have been fast and furious lately, beginning last fall when Hartman received this notice Verizon was raising the price to $34.99 a month:

Verizon-logo

Dear Valued Verizon Customer,

We realize you have choices when it comes to choosing your Broadband provider, and would like to take this opportunity to say thank you for being a loyal customer and for choosing Verizon.

In order to continue to bring you quality service and product innovation, at times we need to raise our rates. Your monthly rate will increase by $5.00 and will be reflected on your bill within the next two months. This rate will remain in effect for one year. If you currently have any credits or discounts on your account, these will remain in effect until their original expiration date.

If you would like to review your account to see if you may qualify for additional savings or if you have any questions, please log on to verizon.com/myverizon or give us a call at 1.888.213.9932.

We value you as a customer and look forward to continuing to serve you.

Sincerely,
Your Verizon Team

“What choices?,” Hartman wondered. “We have no choice and after the rate increase, we’ve seen no improvement in the quality of the service or any evidence of Verizon’s ‘product innovation.’ It’s the same DSL service we’ve had for a decade — we’re just paying $60 more a year for the same thing.”

In Pennsylvania, Verizon is required by regulators to provide access to broadband to any customer that wants the service by the end of 2015. This map shows Verizon's service areas, 96% of which now have access to at least DSL service.

In the unusual case of Pennsylvania, Verizon is required by law to offer access to broadband to any customer that wants the service by the end of 2015. This map shows Verizon’s service areas in green, 96% of which now have access to at least DSL service. That same requirement is absent in most states.

To save money, Hartman downgraded her Verizon landline to the cheapest possible plan and switched to Voice over IP provider Ooma, which works over her DSL line. But Verizon is now back for more with another rate increase notice — this time looking for another $7 a month starting this fall, putting the price of 3Mbps DSL up to $41.99 before fees, surcharges, and taxes.

“I called Verizon and they told me rates are reviewed ‘for competitive reasons’ and reflect the cost of providing the service, which is apparently now up another $84 a year,” she said. “Verizon’s equipment, sitting in the elements on a phone pole or humming away in their phone office actually appreciates in value it seems. I wish my 10-year-old laptop was worth more today than the day I bought it, but my laptop wasn’t made by Verizon.”

Hartman complained to customer service the successive rate increases do not seem to be spent on any improvements. In fact, it seems Verizon is no longer accepting new DSL customers in her area.

“A real estate agent friend of mine told me selling homes in this town has gotten difficult because Verizon will simply not sell DSL to new customers here, claiming they have no capacity,” Hartman said. “If you can’t get DSL from Verizon, you don’t have broadband service, it’s as simple as that.”

DSL availability from Verizon is not just a problem for Hartman. Several central offices in upstate New York no longer accept new Verizon DSL customers, claiming the service is at capacity. Some customers in the Finger Lakes region keep DSL service year-round at their seasonal cottages, fearing if they suspend service for the winter they will not get it back next spring. Time Warner Cable offers service to many lakefront properties, but those who own cabins and homes away from the lakeshore usually cannot get cable service and depend on Verizon for service.

The Verizon DSL forum on DSL Reports has more examples of customers that discover their entire exchange is no longer qualified to get Verizon DSL. One such example is in Purcellville, Va., west of Washington, D.C., a quick drive to the Maryland and West Virginia borders.

“DSL suddenly has disappeared from my wire center entirely – regardless if your 10 feet from the CO or out of a remote terminal with a DSLAM,” wrote Zenit. “Even the industrial section of town which has its own fiber fed DSL equipped RT shows negative for service, and there are plenty of vacant units there.”

Similar stories were reported in communities like Pittsfield, Mass. and Netcong, N.J.

Customers have been able to push back against Verizon’s price increases, especially in competitive areas. Some customers are switched to lower cost bundled packages while others are given straight service credits that lower a customer’s bill. Customers need only ask Verizon for a better price and let them know you are shopping around for a better deal.

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