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AT&T Slapped With $100 Million FCC Fine for Deceiving Customers About “Unlimited Data”

fccAT&T violated the transparency rules of the Federal Communications Commission not less than a million times by allegedly deceiving customers about an unlimited data plan that was speed throttled to unusability after as little as 3GB of usage a month. As a result, the FCC today fined AT&T $100,000,000.

“Consumers deserve to get what they pay for,” said FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. “Broadband providers must be upfront and transparent about the services they provide. The FCC will not stand idly by while consumers are deceived by misleading marketing materials and insufficient disclosure.”

From the Notice of Apparent Liability:

Based on the facts and circumstances before us, we find that AT&T apparently willfully and repeatedly violated Section 8.3 of the Commission’s Rules by:

  1. using the term “unlimited” in a misleading and inaccurate way to label a data plan that was in fact subject to prolonged speed reductions after a customer used a set amount of data; and
  2. failing to disclose the data throughput speed caps it imposed on customers under the MBR policy.

In short:

“Unlimited means unlimited,” said FCC Enforcement Bureau chief Travis LeBlanc. “As today’s action demonstrates, the Commission is committed to holding accountable those broadband providers who fail to be fully transparent about data limits.”

This is the largest proposed fine in FCC history, according to a senior FCC official. The official told the Wall Street Journal AT&T made billions of dollars off the practice.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Thousands of AT&T customers have complained about the practice and feel misled about the company limiting an unlimited use plan.

“A provider cannot announce something in large type that it contradicts in fine print; such practices would be inherently misleading to consumers, and, therefore contrary to both the spirit and letter of the Open Internet Transparency Rule,” the FCC notice states.

The FCC’s two minority Republican commissioners strongly disagreed with the action against AT&T. Ajit Pai used his dissent to cut and paste large sections of AT&T’s website in defense of the company.

“Because the Commission simply ignores many of the disclosures AT&T made; because it refuses to grapple with the few disclosures it does acknowledge; because it essentially rewrites the transparency rule ex post by imposing specific requirements found nowhere in the 2010 Net Neutrality Order; because it disregards specific language in that order and related precedents that condone AT&T’s conduct; because the penalty assessed is drawn out of thin air; in short, because the justice dispensed here condemns a private actor not only in innocence but also in ignorance, I dissent,” Pai wrote.

att-logo-221x300Commissioner Michael O’Rielly dissented because he felt the FCC was overreacting to AT&T’s throttling program and assumed harm was done to every customer affected by it.

“I firmly believe that the Commission must take the necessary steps to enforce its regulations,” O’Rielly wrote. “But, it is equally important that the Commission’s enforcement procedures be fair and equitable. Licensees must have faith in the process and trust that the government is working in a sound and just manner, instead of vilifying them, or demanding that they incriminate themselves.”

“We will vigorously dispute the FCC’s assertions,” said Michael Balmoris, an AT&T spokesman. “The FCC has specifically identified this practice as a legitimate and reasonable way to manage network resources for the benefit of all customers. We have been fully transparent with our customers” and exceeded FCC disclosure requirements, Balmoris said.

AT&T only imposes its speed throttle on unlimited data plan customers who exceed 3GB of usage. Customers on usage-based billing plans do not face a speed throttle after exceeding 3GB of usage.

Empire Access Expands Fiber to the Home Service Across Western N.Y./Southern Tier

empireA Prattsburgh, N.Y. family-owned company has picked up where Verizon left off and is busily wiring up small communities across western New York and the Southern Tier with fiber to the home service, giving both Verizon and Time Warner Cable some competitive headaches.

Empire Access is concentrating its service in areas where Verizon FiOS will never go and Time Warner Cable maxes out at 50/5Mbps. The company recently launched service in downtown Batavia in Genesee County and will be launching serving in Big Flats later this year.

Empire promises no data caps or usage-based billing and offers 100/20Mbps at introductory prices ranging from between $45-65/mo. Gigabit broadband speed is also available.

Where it has franchise agreements with local communities, Empire also offers cable television packages ranging from $31.45-73.40, with up to 130 channels. The packages are not as comprehensive as those from Time Warner Cable, but customers may not mind losing a dozen or two niche cable channels to save up to $30 a month off what Time Warner charges. Nationwide home phone service is also an option.

Empire relies heavily on two public/non-profit fiber backbone networks to deliver service. The Southern Tier Network comprises a 235-mile long fiber backbone that runs through Steuben, Chemung and Schuyler counties. Further north, Axcess Ontario provides backbone connectivity across its 200+ mile fiber ring around Ontario County.

fiber backboneWith the help of public and non-profit broadband infrastructure, residents in small communities across a region extending from Sayre, Pa., north to Batavia, N.Y., will have another choice besides Verizon or Frontier DSL, Comcast or Time Warner Cable.

Residents in some communities, like Hammondsport and Bath — south of Keuka Lake, love the fact they have a better choice than Time Warner Cable. Empire has reportedly signed up 70 percent of area businesses and has more than a 20% residential market share in both villages after a year doing business in the Finger Lakes communities.

Empire targets compact villages with a relatively affluent populations where no other fiber overbuilder is providing service. It doesn’t follow Google’s “fiberhood” approach where neighborhoods compete to be wired. Instead, it provides service across an entire village and then gradually expands to nearby towns from there.

Most western New York villages are already compact enough to attract the attention of cable companies, predominately Time Warner Cable, which has an effective broadband monopoly. Verizon and Frontier offer limited slowband DSL, but Verizon has stopped expanding the reach of its broadband service and will likely never bring FiOS fiber to the home service to any western N.Y. community outside of a handful of suburbs near Buffalo.

empire-access-truckThe arrival of Empire reminds some of the days when the first cable company arrived to wire their village. Word of mouth is often enough to attract new customers, but a handful of local sales agents are also on hand to handle customer signups. From there, one of the company’s 80+ employees in New York handle everything else.

Bryan Cummings, who shared the story of Empire Access with us, “is pretty stoked.”

“Bye, bye Time Warner Cable,” Cummings tells Stop the Cap!.

Time Warner has treated most of western New York about as well as its service areas in Ohio, often criticized for not keeping up with the times. With fiber overbuilders Empire Access in the Finger Lakes region and Southern Tier and Greenlight Networks in Rochester, the fastest Internet options are not coming from the local phone and cable company anymore.

WSKG in Binghamton explores fiber broadband developments in the Southern Tier of upstate New York. Empire Access is providing the fast fiber broadband Verizon, Frontier, and Time Warner Cable won’t. (3:54)

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

At present, Empire Access provides service in:

  • Village of Arkport
  • City of Batavia
  • Village of Bath
  • Village of Canisteo
  • Village of Hammondsport
  • City of Hornell
  • Village of Montour Falls
  • Village of Naples
  • Village of North Hornell
  • Village of Watkins Glen
  • Village of Waverly (N.Y.)
  • Boroughs of Sayre, Athens, and South Waverly (Pa.)
  • Borough of Troy (Pa.)

Communities on Empire’s radar for future expansion include Urbana, Dansville, Wayland and Cohocton. Further out, there is some consideration of larger cities like Corning and Elmira, as well as other towns in far northern Pennsylvania. With Empire’s expansion into Naples, the company also has many options in affluent and growing communities in Ontario County, south of Rochester.

After Seeing Broadband-a-Plenty in Longmont, Fort Collins, Colorado Wants Public Broadband Too

nextlightIt’s an acute case of broadband envy.

Residents of Fort Collins, Colo., that have an excuse to take an hour’s drive south on U.S. Route 87 to visit Longmont and experience the Internet over the community’s public broadband service can’t believe their eyes. It’s so fast… and cheap. Back home it is a choice between Comcast and CenturyLink, and neither will win any popularity contests. While large parts of Colorado have gotten some upgrades out of Comcast, Fort Collins is one of the communities that typically gets the cable company’s attention last.

The city of Longmont took control of its digital destiny after years of anemic and expensive service from Comcast and CenturyLink. Longmont Power & Communications’ NextLight Internet service delivers gigabit fiber to the home service to the community of 90,000. The service was funded with a $40.3 million bond the city issued in 2014, to be paid back by NextLight customers, not taxpayers, over time. It remains a work in progress, but is expected to start construction to reach the last parts of Longmont by next spring.

chart memberNextLight delivers a mortal blow to competitors by charging a fair price for fast service. Instead of spending to upgrade their networks to compete, the incumbents demagogued the public project and Comcast spent $300,000 of its subscribers’ money in a campaign to kill the service before it even got started. Perhaps they had a right to be worried considering NextLight customers pay $49.95 a month for unlimited 1,000/1,000Mbps service. NextLight offers 20 times the download speed and 100 times the upload speed of Comcast’s Blast! package for nearly $30 less a month.

 

After NextLight was rated America’s fastest performing Internet service by Ookla in May, residents in Fort Collins began to wonder why they were still putting up with poor service from Comcast and lousy DSL from CenturyLink.

Fort Collins is about a one hour and fifteen minute drive north of Denver.

Fort Collins is about a one hour, fifteen minute drive north of Denver.

At the same time, city officials were doing their best to leverage some modest improvements from Comcast in return for a renewed franchise agreement. All they got was a vague commitment permitting the city to monitor Comcast’s notorious customer service and two HD channels set aside for Public, Educational, and Government use, along with a $20,000 grant to help the public access channel with online streaming.

The Coloradoan urged Fort Collins officials to think big and establish public fiber optic broadband in the city.

To manage this, they will have to overcome a 2005 state law backed by Comcast and Qwest (now CenturyLink) that bans municipal telecommunications services. A local vote or federal waiver can sidestep a law that was always designed to restrict competition and make life easier for the two telecom giants.

The newspaper opines that Fort Collins is in no way ready for the digital economy of the 21st century relying on Comcast and CenturyLink.

The cable company’s attention is focused on bigger cities in the state and CenturyLink remains hobbled by its copper legacy infrastructure. While some upgrades have been forthcoming, both Comcast and CenturyLink are also testing usage caps or usage-based billing — just another way to raise the price of the service. And speaking of service, neither Comcast or CenturyLink are answerable to the communities they serve – a community owned broadband alternative would be.

As the Coloradoan writes:

We’ve got to lay the groundwork now. Society took huge steps forward when automobiles replaced the horse and carriage. And no, installing municipal broadband isn’t adopting a new mode of transportation, but it is symbolic of laying an entirely new road.

Look at it another way. The city provides needed services such as water and electricity. Internet access is a needed service.

One thing Fort Collins doesn’t absolutely need Comcast or CenturyLink. But nobody is asking them to leave. They have a choice to use their massive buying power and resources to upgrade their networks to compete. But Fort Collins residents should not have to wait for that day to come when there is a better alternative in their grasp today: public broadband.

 

AT&T’s Acquisition of DirecTV Will Likely Be Approved With a Number of Conditions

att directvWhile consumer groups were busy fighting the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, AT&T’s $49 billion purchase of DirecTV has largely flown under the radar, with no comparable organized consumer opposition to the deal. But that does not mean the FCC will approve it as-is.

Negotiations with federal regulators and an exchange of regulatory filings and comments between AT&T, the FCC, and deal critics have apparently forced AT&T to agree to several concessions to make regulators amenable to approving the transaction.

The Washington Post reports that chief among those concessions is AT&T’s willingness to voluntarily abide by certain Net Neutrality rules regardless of any court challenges, including banning the slowing or blocking of websites and agreeing not to accept payments from website operators to speed up their content. AT&T has not said how long it intends to keep that commitment.

Deal opponents are also seeking other concessions from AT&T:

No paid interconnection deals: AT&T must route incoming content to customers without any fees charged to the companies originating the traffic. This became a hot button issue when Netflix felt it was forced to pay Comcast a fee to assure its streamed video content would reach Comcast customers without buffering or other errors. AT&T is expected to fiercely oppose this condition and says it should have the right to make private deals with content delivery firms.

AT&T must offer standalone broadband: With AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV, more than ever it will have an incentive to sell customers a television bundle with Internet service. Regulators want AT&T to assure broadband-only service remains readily available. AT&T has offered 6Mbps DSL for $34.95 a month as its standalone option. Content delivery firms like Cogent want AT&T to offer 25Mbps service in all of AT&T’s markets for $29.95 a month for at least seven years. The FCC recently defined 25Mbps the minimum speed to qualify as broadband.

No end runs around Net Neutrality with data caps and exemptions: AT&T wants the right to exempt its preferred partners from its usage caps and claims that is beneficial to consumers. But cap opponents claim that is simply another way to collect money from content companies for preferential treatment — an end run around Net Neutrality rules. Opponents of these cap exemptions, known as “zero-rating” claim all content should be treated the same. AT&T could resolve this by removing data caps from its DSL and U-verse services altogether.

Stop the Cap! Still Collecting Names of Those Interested in Fighting Cox Usage Caps in Cleveland

wews coxThis weekend will end the first phase of our campaign to fight Cox usage caps being tested in Cleveland, Ohio. We’re collecting the names and e-mail addresses of interested citizens that would like to participate in the fight to get Cox to drop its usage-based billing and overlimit fee scheme. If you are interested, use the link at the top to “Contact Us” as a volunteer and include your name and a valid email address.

Next week we will have an initial outline for an action plan with hopes of building a team of Cleveland-area Cox customers to lead the fight. Local participation and involvement is essential to win these battles, and we will expect the city’s Internet enthusiasts to run this effort themselves, with support from Stop the Cap! It’s your fight to preserve your uncapped broadband, so please get involved!

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WEWS Cleveland Cox Changing Internet Service 5-19-15.mp4

WEWS in Cleveland ran a story on Cox’s usage caps and interviewed Stop the Cap! about why usage-based pricing is typically a giant ripoff for customers. (2:12)

Charter Communications Starts Advertising Blitz: Its Internet Service Has “No Data Caps,” AT&T U-verse Does

No data caps.

No data caps.

Charter Communications is now heavily advertising the fact its Internet service “has no data caps,” in an attempt to leverage customers away from AT&T DSL (150GB cap) and AT&T U-verse (250GB cap).

Charter quietly shelved its softly enforced usage caps several months ago and is now using its cap-free experience as a marketing tool to convince customers to switch from AT&T and other phone company broadband options that often include usage limits.

“They used it with me to convince me to drop U-verse for Charter,” writes Stop the Cap! reader Jennifer in Tennessee. “I hate usage caps.”

Charter is also using its cap-free broadband as a key argument in favor of its merger deal with Time Warner Cable and Bright House (which have no usage caps either).

“Charter’s slowest speed tier (60Mbps downstream) is considerably faster and less expensive than TWC’s comparable tiers, with no data caps or usage based pricing,” Charter argued in its merger presentation this morning.

AT&T has unevenly enforced usage caps on its DSL and U-verse services. A standard overlimit fee of $10 for each 50GB applies, but only in some markets.

Time Warner Cable Goes Shopping: Approached Cox for Deal, Told to Take a Hike

Phillip Dampier April 27, 2015 Competition, Consumer News, Cox, Time Warner Cable No Comments

coxA week after its deal with Comcast collapsed, Time Warner Cable may be in the buying mood.

The Wall Street Journal reports the cable giant approached privately held Cox Communications about a deal. Cox told them they weren’t interested.

“We’ve been clear we’re not for sale and we’ll continue to explore any potential growth opportunities that align with our business objectives,” said a Cox spokesperson.

Time Warner Cable’s apparent interest in cutting a quick deal with another operator may be a sign they are not going to lie down for another expected offer from Charter Communications that could come within days or weeks. The groundwork for such a deal is already being laid.

Cox, like Cablevision, have been perennially rumored takeover targets, but both have proved elusive. In 2004, Cox went private for a second time and a second generation of the Dolan family, which holds a controlling interest in Cablevision, continues to be integrally involved in Cablevision’s operations.

Time Warner Cable still has several options to pursue acquisitions. Suddenlink customers are in open revolt over that company’s decision to enforce usage caps on its broadband service. Both Charter and Mediacom are routinely rated poor by customers and could be swayed into a deal. Bright House Networks already relies on Time Warner Cable for programming deals and technical services.

Updated 4:22pm — Reuters is reporting Time Warner’s denials that it approached Cox for a deal. “It’s simply not true. We have not engaged in any discussions with Cox,” Time Warner Cable’s spokeswoman Susan Leepson told Reuters.

Justice Department Nearing Decision to Block Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

Phillip Dampier April 17, 2015 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 5 Comments

comcast twcStaff attorneys that have reviewed details of the Time Warner Cable/Comcast merger proposal are prepared to make a recommendation as early as next week that the Department of Justice should block the deal because it is anti-competitive and anti-consumer.

The staff in the Justice Department’s antitrust division have spent more than a year reviewing documents submitted by both cable companies to determine what impact the merger would have on the cable television and broadband landscape.

Bloomberg News today reported the attorneys did not like what they saw and believe the merger would harm consumers. For the first time, a cable company merger deal was reviewed not so much for its impact on cable television programming, but on broadband.

When the Federal Communications Commission redefined broadband as an Internet connection of at least 25Mbps, Comcast suddenly found itself the largest broadband provider in the country. If the merger with Time Warner Cable is approved, Comcast will have a 56.8 percent market share of U.S. broadband customers, far exceeding any other provider.

In upstate New York, Comcast would have more than a 75% market share — nearly 9o% if you just consider non-Verizon FiOS areas. In California, Comcast would control more than 80% of the market, not only picking up Time Warner Cable customers, but Charter customers in Southern California as well. 

Comcast and Time Warner Cable have argued competition is not affected because the two companies never compete with each other. But a de facto broadband monopoly could allow Comcast to raise rates at will and bring a return to usage-related billing. It would also discourage new competitors from entering the market – particularly those relying on broadband to deliver video services, and hand Comcast more leverage to force compensation from online content companies like Netflix.

justiceUnder consideration by the Justice Department:

  • Whether the combined entity would have too much control over nationwide broadband Internet delivery;
  • whether Comcast could use its financial influence to strike exclusive cable deals that could keep programming off other platforms;
  • whether Comcast could limit how programming is delivered through video streaming services (usage caps, etc.);
  • if Comcast complied with terms under a previous merger deal with NBCUniversal.

Renata Hesse, a deputy assistant attorney general for antitrust, will take the analysis and ultimately decide, along with the division’s top officials, whether to file a federal lawsuit to block the deal. Bloomberg reports lawyers at the Justice Department have contacted outside parties to collect evidence to strengthen their potential case against the merger.

Another clear sign the merger is not being received well inside the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission is a complete lack of negotiations with Comcast over possible concessions to make the deal less anti-competitive. That also happened with the AT&T/T-Mobile merger where negotiations to ease anticompetitive concerns never seriously got off the ground before the Justice Department sued to block the deal. The FCC quickly announced its own opposition later that same day.

A lawsuit does not necessarily kill the merger deal. Comcast could take its case to federal court to win approval over the objections of the Justice Department. The company might also counter-propose new concessions to address concerns raised by the lawsuit. 

After learning of today’s Bloomberg News story, spokespeople at both Comcast and Time Warner Cable are either confident or in denial:

“There is no basis for a lawsuit to block the transaction,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokeswoman. The merger “will result in significant consumer benefits — faster broadband speeds, access to a superior video experience, and more competition in business services resulting in billions of dollars of cost savings.”

Time Warner Cable spokesman Bobby Amirshahi said “we have been working productively with both DOJ and FCC and believe that there is no basis for DOJ to block the deal.”

Zimbabwe: Fast Broadband is a “Basic Human Right”; Victoria Falls Going Fiber-to-the-Home: 100Mbps Service

zol-logo-newThe two largest telecom companies in Zimbabwe believe broadband access isn’t just an essential utility — it’s a basic human right and they are responding with major upgrade projects that will deliver speedier broadband, sometimes even faster than what most customers in North America can access.

Anything less than fiber-to-the-home service won’t do, according to Tom Tudor, chief marketing officer at Liquid Telecom. The company is expanding its fiber project in Zimbabwe with popular tourist destination Victoria Falls getting a major upgrade. Liquid Telecom believes data caps are incompatible with the concept of bringing the Internet to more people to “participate in, and benefit from, the digital revolution.” Liquid Telecom’s fiber service – Fibroniks, doesn’t have usage limits or hidden gotcha fees.

“Every day we lay new fiber which enables us to deliver what we refer to as ‘The Real Internet’, a superfast service which transforms how people access and share information,” Tudor said.

superfast-fibreAt the outset in Victoria Falls, Fibroniks will offer unlimited use packages up to 100Mbps, with a commitment customers can access whatever they want, whenever they want, at a guaranteed fixed monthly price. Liquid Telecom already supplies fiber service in the capital city of Harare, but Tudor believes getting into smaller communities in the country is essential.

“We believe that internet connectivity is a basic human right and so it is our mission to provide quality broadband to every person and business in Africa,” said Tudor.

It will bring a broadband revolution to Victoria Falls, a community of over 35,000 that has languished with ADSL and last generation wireless services like WiMAX and 3G, which offer speeds typically no higher than 512kbps.

Fibroniks also includes telephone service, which will cost a fraction of what Tel•One, Zimbabwe’s sole fixed landline provider, charges for service. Tel•One has focused most of its investment improving and expanding ADSL service over its existing landline network. Although Tel•One may end up reaching more Zimbabwe citizens faster that Liquid Telecom, the speeds Tel•One provides will be much slower than Liquid Telecom’s Fibroniks.

Liquid Telecom’s other fiber to the home projects are in Zambia, with plans to expand to Kenya, Rwanda, and two other African countries yet to be announced.

Cox Boosting Its Economy Class Broadband Speeds in Arizona: 5Mbps is Now the Minimum

COX_RES_RGBCox Communications has raised Internet speeds for its economy class customers in Arizona as it continues network enhancements across the state.

One-third of Cox customers in Arizona subscribe to the company’s two cheapest tiers — Internet Starter and Internet Essential. Both packages are getting free speed upgrades that began in late March. Now all Cox customers in the state should have the higher speeds:

  • Cox High Speed Internet Starter was 1Mbps and is now 5Mbps;
  • Cox High Speed Internet Essential was 5Mbps and is now 15Mbps.

Speed increases in one state often eventually turn up in other states where Cox provides service.

Last July, Cox doubled speeds for its Preferred tier (increased from 25 to 50Mbps) and Premiere tier (increased from 50 to 100Mbps).

Usage caps are still in place on Cox broadband packages, but they are widely ignored by most customers because Cox rarely cracks down on offenders, and usually backs off if a customer threatens to cancel service over the issue.

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Recent Comments:

  • CL: Exactly . ..they want cord cutters pay extra to make up for their loss of revenue for TV....
  • Nimesh: In New York City guys. I am on a Triple play with 50Mbps Internet + HBO + Single DVR for about $143. Pretty good deal except we don't use the Home Pho...
  • Limboaz: It's like if I order something online and get it delivered. It would be like UPS charging both the shipper AND the receiver for shipping costs. It's t...
  • Angel: I called TWC and they reduced my bill by $20 a month and they added DVR, STARZ, bonus channels, and upgraded my internet speed! Thanks for the help!! ...
  • James R Curry: For what it's worth, I've had Time Warner's 300mbps service for about a year, and it has consistently given me speeds of around 322mbps, which I can't...
  • Limboaz: A billion dollars seems like a steal when you consider how big Toronto is. Meanwhile the cable ISP's down here in the States plot how they can jack up...
  • sandiegohdtv: In another part of my town, Cox offers this program as well. However, they offer it all year round and I believe you can register for it online....
  • sandiegohdtv: Made a huge error. It was 15 mbps to 60 mbps. Sorry, for that as I thought the filing meant that, but I did check it over again. I found out when it w...
  • Phillip Dampier: It's a bit complicated depending on where you live and who serves you: Regardless of what we want, it is almost a certainty TWC's and Bright House'...
  • JayS: Could you clarify #1 & #7. It appears that the acquirer, Charter, only offers one (1) level of internet speed. I would expect they would unify al...
  • Phillip Dampier: You will end up keeping your existing modem for phone service only (at no charge) and your own purchased modem will supply Internet access only. It's ...
  • Phillip Dampier: This is likely because Time Warner management has curtailed some of their most aggressive promos this year, so the ones you can get now cost a little ...

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