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Wi-Fi Woo-Woo – Quack Science Convinces Boston Family to Sue School Over Wi-Fi/EHS Allergy

emf shield

Space age beekeeping or Total EMF protection? Shielding your head just got easier. Slip this sheer and roomy HeadNet on and it will “provide 99.7% shielding across the frequency range 10MHz – 3GHz and >94% at 5.6GHz,” thanks to its generous use of ‘Silver Supershield’ double Silver-plated nylon, claims its manufacturer. Your price: $80

A Boston area boarding school’s failure to accommodate a 12-year-old student’s allergy to Wi-Fi will force the Fay School to hire attorneys to defend itself in a lawsuit brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

All three plaintiffs have been kept anonymous, but their lawsuit clearly identifies what is responsible for their son’s headaches, itchy skin and rashes — the school’s Wi-Fi system.

The Courthouse News Service:

In spring 2013, the Fay School installed an industrial-capacity WiFi network into the school that was accessible in all classrooms. After the new network went live, “G” began coming home with headaches, itchy skin and rashes that would recede in the evening, and vanish over the weekend and during summer vacation when he was not near the school, the lawsuit claims.

When the child returned to school for the 2014 academic year, his symptoms got worse, resulting in him having to regularly leave school early.

The parents found that their child’s condition may have been caused by exposure to increased electromagnetic activity after learning that, right before their child began suffering the symptoms, the school had installed a new, industrial-strength WiFi network.

“Exposure to Wi-Fi emissions at the levels emitted by the type of Wi-Fi to which the children are exposed in Fay classrooms causes, in those persons affected, most notably children, the symptoms of EHS, which include severe headaches, fatigue, stress, sleep disturbances, skin symptoms such as prickling, burning sensations and rashes, muscle aches, nausea, nose bleeds, dizziness and heart palpitations,” the lawsuit states.

The Omega EMF protector comes in Ethernet or Wi-Fi versions. A similar device opened up by an RF engineer was found to contain plastic beads.

The Omega EMF protector comes in Ethernet or Wi-Fi versions. A similar device opened up by an RF engineer was found to contain plastic beads. A reviewer claimed it was also effective at repelling “the lizard people from touching me in the night.”

People claiming to suffer from Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome, or EHS, claim wireless signals cause them pain and suffering. Others argue the condition also afflicts those exposed to electric lights, juicers, Keurig coffee makers, garage door openers, washing machines, microwaves, laptops, blenders, air conditioners, cotton candy makers, vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, televisions, dishwashers, and fans. Some believe that mountains are effective blockers of radiation and have relocated to the Catskills or West Virginia to escape decent cell phone coverage and high quality broadband.

While medical authorities consider the symptoms reported by sufferers to be credible and believable, most experts strongly doubt electromagnetic activity is the cause. In the 1980s, high tension, high-capacity power lines were usually implicated by sufferers. But as cell phones became common, cell towers became the new targets. The presence of Wi-Fi, especially in public buildings and the classroom, have fueled the fire under a small army of activists dedicated to getting those services shut down, fearing their health impact on children.

To test the science, a 2009 double-blind study conducted by the National Institutes of Health on intolerance to electronic signals quickly found that when test subjects had no knowledge of whether they were being exposed to electromagnetic activity, all the symptoms of hypersensitivity vanished.

The Boston area family sued after claiming school officials had grown hostile over their requests to “test their student’s classroom.” The family also requested the school’s Wi-Fi network be disabled in all classrooms where their child was present and have wired Ethernet Internet access installed instead.

The World Health Organization’s firm conclusion that there is no link between EHS and Wi-Fi signals was not enough to assuage those worried about wireless. The WHO also declared EHS is not a credible medical diagnosis. Now, this does not mean the symptoms of people who think they have EHS are not real. But with no serious evidence wireless signals are the cause, skeptics suggest another environmental cause is more likely responsible for symptoms.

The two best ways to protect your pets from unnecessary exposure to cell phone signals. 1) Become a Sprint customer. 2) Buy this dog collar for $239.

The two best ways to protect your pets from exposure to robust cell phone signals: 1) Become a Sprint customer. 2) Buy this dog collar for $169.

Prior claims of EHS have often turned out to be exposure to mold and mildew, allergies, perfume exposure, poor air quality, or a yet to be diagnosed unrelated disease or medical condition.

But that has not stopped the creation of a cottage industry of companies marketing “EMF protection” devices to a worried public.

Until recently, an Amazon seller peddled the EarthCalm Omega WiFi Electromagnetic EMF Protection dongle (USB or Ethernet version, so evidently the plaintiff’s request to move the school to Ethernet-based Internet access would subject their child to additional pain and suffering.) A “Healthy Home Package” containing this and a “Home EMF Protection System” is priced to move at another seller for just $405.

A curious RF engineer received a similar wall unit years ago as a gag gift – one he could not resist opening.

“There was nothing more [inside] than a 1-inch long piece of masking tape folded over,” he wrote. “When I peeled apart the masking tape there were seven tiny plastic beads, like you would use on a necklace. That was it! That is their ‘circuit’.”

With the EarthCalm Omega out of stock, there are plenty of alternatives available from hundreds of websites that raise the alarm on the dangers of wireless signals and then make a living selling very expensive “protection” devices of questionable value.

The EMF meter is claimed to be useful for detecting EMF and for ghost hunting.

The EMF meter is claimed to be useful for detecting EMF and for ghost hunting.

Among them:

  • The Nova Resonator S-Series (in three fashion colors) — a metallic tube hung from a chain placed around the neck ($239)
  • The Quantum Cell: A metallic decal placed on the back of your cell phone, degrading or eliminating any cell phone reception ($129)
  • Aulterra the EMF Neutralizer: No it’s not a person, it’s a cheap cell phone signal degrader for the middle class ($29)
  • 4 Paws Pet EMF Protector: You wouldn’t let your dog be subjected to harmful Wi-Fi, would you? This dog collar is the “answer.” ($169)

The marketplace has grown so bloated with EMF protection sellers, they occasionally turn on one another. The manufacturer of the EMF Protection SmartShield360 Portable claims it is state-of-the-art, unlike those pushing “passive (not powered) pendants or stickers which claim to protect you.”

“SmartShield technology is light years beyond basic Schumann Resonance devices,” claims the manufacturer. It’s also light years away from the price of your basic Aulterra kit. SmartShield 360 will set you back $249 (plus $4.99 shipping).

In all seriousness, James “the Amazing” Randi believes such stories of wireless woo-woo can have a real cost.

“We do scientific research for a reason – to find out if things like EHS are real entities,” Randi writes. “What’s the use of such research if the results are going to be ignored.”

“Further, if people who believe they have EHS do not, they likely have some other condition – another condition which will go undiagnosed and untreated because they falsely believe EHS is the cause,” Randi adds.

Randi is also concerned the media treats these stories like catnip, sensationalizing the coverage without any sense of skepticism or fact checking.

“Reporters should have some sense of the topic they are covering, and whether or not they have sufficient background knowledge to know they are telling the true story,” he writes. “If you do a Google search for ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity’ [one will easily find] Wikipedia, which includes a decent discussion of the lack of scientific legitimacy. [Another] is for a published review showing that EHS sufferers cannot detect EMF. [A] third is to Skeptoid’s debunking of EHS, and [a] fourth is to the WHO review.”

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.”

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.

 

Comcast Calls Cable Modem Owners to Scare Them Into a $10/mo Alternative

The Don't Care Bears

The “New and Improved” Don’t Care Bears

Rob Frieden has two words for Comcast customers getting scary letters and phone calls threatening to turn their legacy cable modems into paperweights: caveat emptor.

Frieden, author of Winning the Silicon Sweepstakes: Can the United States Compete in Global Telecommunications? knows enough to fend off the misinformation used to upsell customers away from the modems they own free and clear into Comcast’s rented $10/month alternative.

“Despite its commitment to improving its customer service, Comcast keeps writing and robocalling me with an offer I can refuse,” Frieden writes on his blog. “In a rather alarmist tone, Comcast wants subscribers to infer that their modem soon will no longer work.”

At issue are customers still using legacy DOCSIS 2.0 cable modems — one generation behind the current DOCSIS 3.0 modems Comcast wants customers to use. Frieden knows one day Comcast may decide to stop supporting DOCSIS 2.0, an older, less-capable cable broadband standard. Although that day is nowhere in view yet, it hasn’t stopped aggressive Comcast telemarketers from warning customers they “need upgraded equipment” that comes with a never-ending $10 a month rental fee.

“My Motorola DOCSIS 2.0 compliant modem works just fine and it cost me a princely $5 at a garage sale,” Frieden writes.

Frieden

Frieden

As soon as Comcast finds out you are using an older modem you own, Frieden writes they may try to dissuade you from using it and push you towards their alternative.

“Comcast does not want you to know that the new rented modem will not provide any faster service unless you subscriber to a triple digit, high-end service tier,” Frieden adds.

Comcast’s official position is that DOCSIS 2.0 modems will work just fine with all Comcast Internet plans at speeds below 50Mbps. But they infer if you are not using a DOCSIS 3.0 modem (preferably theirs), “you won’t experience the blistering fast speeds now available.” That implies all Comcast customers with DOCSIS 2.0 modems will get less robust performance across the board, but in fact Comcast’s statement refers to the limitation DOCSIS 2.0 customers have upgrading to speeds they may never need.

After Comcast’s telemarketing machine has you convinced you need to upgrade to their perpetually profitable rented modem, they will also ask why not upgrade your router as well? Comcast suggests customers upgrade to at least a 802.11n model because older 802.11g routers only support up to 20Mbps.

“If you lease your modem, router, or gateway device from us, we’ll upgrade it at no extra charge,” Comcast claims, inferring the upgrade will come free. Except it isn’t. It just won’t cost you more than the $10 a month you are probably already paying.

Stop the Cap! readers regularly tell us Comcast often cuts corners and simply bills customers modem rental fees even for customer-owned equipment. Our reader Amanda is the latest victim and she is about fed up:

I took a look at my bill and for no reason Comcast suddenly started charging me $10 a month for a voice/data modem rental that I don’t have. Beware and check your bill thoroughly. Comcast sneaks charges on for services you don’t have. Absolutely hate this company. On top of the bogus $10 they raised all the rates so my bill went from $186 a month to $219 a month. I would never recommend Comcast to anyone. Horribly deceptive company. Oh and then there is the junk equipment that Comcast uses. I have had three X1 boxes replaced in a year. I’m thinking about going with U-Verse for TV and staying with Comcast for Internet.

Comcast’s “new and improved” customer service becomes especially hostile when customers like Amanda catch the company cheating, forcing her and others into lengthy investigations and appeals to get the bogus fees removed and earlier charges refunded:

So I talked with Comcast today and got nowhere. They basically don’t want my business after 18 years and are giving me a hard time about refunding me the charge for the modem. They said it will take at least 14 days for them to look into the issue with the modem being mine and not being leased from Comcast. I told them I want to cancel and they transferred me to a recording telling me how to send in my equipment via UPS. 18 years and they will not budge on changing my pricing without signing a two year contract! So after 40 minutes on the phone with them I am extremely mad and frustrated. Now I have to waste my time filing complaints with the Better Business Bureau and the attorney general. And even more time switching my services to another provider. It seems that Comcast has changed its tactics and now instead of trying to retain their customers they are saying go ahead and leave. And can only imagine the nightmare of returning all the equipment.

return fee

If you can’t prove your cable modem doesn’t belong to Comcast, they may conveniently bill you an unreturned equipment charge of $70, like one customer experienced in 2014.

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.

Cord Cutting Could Hit 2 Million This Year: 6,200 Americans Cancel Cable TV Every Day

Phillip Dampier August 19, 2015 Consumer News 3 Comments
courtesy: abcnews

Time to cut the cable TV bill down to size.

Cord-cutting, the often denied and downplayed practice of canceling cable television service, is becoming trendy in the United States, with up to two million customers likely to turn their backs on pay TV in 2015.

The Financial Times reports about 566,000 customers have canceled cable television between April and June on this year. The subscriber losses are occurring at most cable operators except for Verizon, which picked up a few new customers during the last quarter.

That translates into 6,200 customers a day dropping service, despite aggressive efforts by providers to rescue their business. For at least 10 years, cable television prices have risen at nearly twice the rate of inflation, helping give the industry a public black eye. But with few alternatives until recently, consumers bared their teeth but paid the bill. With the advent of online video services and digital over the air television, that is finally changing.

cord cutToday, customers in or near large cities can watch an average of 12-24 over the air stations and digital “sub-channels” for free. Add a Netflix and Hulu subscription and customers can watch “on-demand” shows as well.

Some cable companies have resisted dramatic rate increases realizing they will continue to bleed customers with every rate hike notice. But many others have resorted to tricks like adding surcharges at the bottom of the bill. Many cable companies today include sports programming and broadband TV surcharges of $1-4 each, hoping customers will blame someone else for their higher bill. Most surcharges are not covered by customer retention or new customer discounts, either, and those fees are rising.

Time Warner Cable added a $2.75 sports surcharge on many customer bills in addition to the Broadcast TV surcharge. Most providers charge between $2-6. Within three years, customers can expect to see surcharges hiked to the $8 range.

As the cord cutting numbers add up, broadcast executives may still be in denial, but Wall Street isn’t. Traders did some cutting of their own, slashing $50 billion off the value of media stocks after major entertainment companies reported declining ad revenues and expected poorer financial results in the future.

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.

Blow Your Usage Allowance With New Unlimited Pornhub Premium, the “Netflix of Porn”

pornhubThe unstated reality of Internet traffic growth usually leaves out what impact streaming pornographic videos can have on network traffic, and for consumers, their broadband usage allowance. We are about to find out with last week’s arrival of Pornhub Premium (noted by DSL Reports), a new on-demand Internet streaming service its owners believe will quickly become the “Netflix of porn.”

Pornhub Premium ($9.99/mo) “offers an all new ad-free experience to its users, complete with faster playback and higher quality streaming on the millions of videos currently on Pornhub as well as the largest collection of exclusive full length HD adult titles available in crisp 1080p resolution.” Customers get a free seven-day trial before the charges begin. They can use it to test what kind of impact HD video will have on their usage allowance. It could prove considerable for frequent return visitors.

“Simply put, Pornhub Premium, is setting the new standard. Users will benefit from enhanced access to all of the content they already enjoy on Pornhub.com – with improved streaming quality – as well as over 100,000 full-length premium exclusive scenes at the touch of a finger or click of the mouse,” said Corey Price, vice president, Pornhub. “We’re looking to take the crown as the ‘Netflix of porn,’ and with the colossal amount of content we’ll be providing – and adding tons more daily – we’re confident our fan base will totally embrace this product and reinforce our position as the top provider of on-demand adult video.”

Pornhub Premium's ad campaign has sparked an international incident. Cheese producers in Italy are not pleased.

Pornhub Premium’s ad campaign has sparked an international incident. Cheese producers in Italy are not pleased.

Or not.

The publicity campaign introducing the adult entertainment service has already caused one international incident. The Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Consortium is weighing legal action against Pornhub after referring to their aged family friendly Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in the same sentence as “that vulgar website.”

The European Union and Italian authorities both protect the image of the consortium’s dairy products, so there could be trouble. The cheese group wants Pornhub to immediately stop capitalizing on the fame of Parmigiano-Reggiano to pitch “vile” porn videos.

The dispute threatens to become far worse than the Spaghetti Scandal of 1957, when Italian authorities were on fire after the BBC aired a hoax story suggesting spaghetti was harvested from trees. Adding to the outrage – many in northern Europe believed the report was true.

Then there are the other objections, of course.

“Pornhub Premium is unlimited filth and degradation, a new low,” came an anonymous comment from a Florida resident who claimed he was a pastor.

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