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FCC Chairman Tells Crowd He’s “Not Done Enough” to Bring More Cable Competition

Phillip Dampier February 3, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments
Wheeler

Wheeler

FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler confessed he “has not done enough” to bring consumers more competition to Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter, and other cable operators.

Appearing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Wheeler said Comcast’s effort to buy Time Warner Cable in 2015 would not bring additional competition to the marketplace. The FCC remained pessimistic about the deal, stalling for months until a request for approval was eventually withdrawn by Comcast.

Wheeler has been especially sensitive about deals that could impact broadband services — wireless or wired — since becoming chairman of the FCC during President Obama’s second term in office. The FCC has proven itself less concerned with cable television matters, having approved a merger of AT&T and DirecTV while it still contemplates the merger of Charter Communications with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

Wheeler also spent time speaking about his latest initiative, breaking up the virtual monopoly on set-top boxes. Wheeler has proposed ending that monopoly by creating a new open standard platform for set-top equipment, allowing various manufacturers to develop boxes for retail sale to consumers.

Comcast Announces Atlanta and Nashville as Launch Cities for DOCSIS 3.1 Service

Comcast-LogoComcast customers in Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago, Detroit, and Miami will be the first to get Comcast’s new DOCSIS 3.1 modems and faster Internet plans likely to accompany the introduction of the latest cable broadband standard.

Multichannel News reports after field trials in Pennsylvania, Northern California and Atlanta, Comcast is ready to deploy the newest cable modem standard for residential and business class customers to deliver gigabit broadband services delivered over the company’s traditional hybrid fiber-coaxial cable network.

The company expects to begin distributing new modems to customers early this year, starting in Atlanta and Nashville. Comcast is still finalizing pricing on its fastest gigabit-range plans, but the cost is expected to be less than Comcast’s Gigabit Pro offering, which is delivered over fiber-to-the-home service. The cable company now charges Gigabit Pro customers $299.95 a month for the gigabit fiber service with a two-year contract. It is likely Comcast will have to price its cable gigabit offering under $100 a month to compete effectively with Google Fiber and AT&T’s U-verse with GigaPower. Google and AT&T are readying gigabit networks in both of Comcast’s first launch markets.

Comcast exempts Gigabit Pro customers from its growing field trial of data caps, but the company had nothing to say about whether its DOCSIS 3.1-powered plans will receive similar treatment. If not, customers can expect a 300GB monthly allowance.

During the second half of this year, Comcast will expand DOCSIS 3.1 to Chicago, Detroit and Miami. Beyond that, Comcast would not say when the rest of its customers across the country would be upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1 service.

Customers who own their own modems and do not plan to upgrade to a faster plan can continue to use that equipment. Customers looking to upgrade will have to lease a modem from Comcast or buy an authorized DOCSIS 3.1 capable modem, which is expected to cost 30-50% more than traditional DOCSIS 3.0 equipment.

Comcast Customers Buy $35 Usage Cap Insurance, Report “Unlimited” is Slower Than Ever

comcast cartoonStop the Cap! has received a growing number of complaints from Comcast customers in Georgia who are paying the cable company an extra $35 a month to get back unlimited Internet access that is performing worse than ever before for online video streaming.

J.J. LaFrantz in North Druid Hills reports his Internet speed for streaming videos dropped from 60Mbps under Comcast’s usage cap regime to less than 20Mbps after agreeing to pay for Comcast’s unlimited use insurance plan.

“Right after I paid The Great Satan their extortion to get unlimited service back, my Internet speeds dropped,” LaFrantz tells Stop the Cap!

LaFrantz has been in touch with Comcast several times about the speed degradation, with each representative providing a different excuse:

It’s the cable modem. “Comcast loves to blame customer-owned equipment for Internet problems, urging the unknowing to pay endless rental fees for Comcast equipment that supposedly fixes everything,” said LaFrantz.

It’s the holidays. “With the kids home from school, apparently Comcast cannot manage to handle the strain, or so they seem to suggest,” said LaFrantz.

It’s everyone but Comcast. “If their speed test performs adequately enough for them, it is no longer their problem, it is yours.”

Mysteriously, after Comcast “reprogrammed” his cable modem, his speed returned to normal.

Jakfrist posted a similar complaint on Reddit after he signed up for Comcast’s $35 insurance plan:

The speed test shows slower than I am paying for but still a reasonable speed but videos that previously started instantly are now saying I have to wait an hour to start so it can buffer out (iTunes Movies on AppleTV).

Like LaFrantz, a call to Comcast eventually led to the company reprogramming Jakfrist’s modem, which also made the video streaming issues disappear:

How much will your next broadband bill be?

How much will your next broadband bill be?

After calling Comcast the first guy had no clue what I was talking about and I got escalated to another guy. The new guy tried to tell me that it was because I was using my own modem and it would be resolved if I used their modem.

I explained that I had opened a terminal window and was running a ping to google, Ookla (the speed test org), Bing, Netflix, Hulu, and iTunes. The only two experiencing issues / delays were iTunes and Netflix so my modem appears to be fine. They also asked if I had tried their video streaming service to see if it was slow as well. I just kinda laughed and said no thanks.

He asked me how old my modem was and tried to convince me my modem was bad again and all would be solved if I just leased a modem from them. I insisted my modem was fine that it doesn’t choose to filter out video content. He then told me that they would send a tech out to look at it.

I insisted that everything inside my house was fine and if they wanted to send someone out to check the things outside my house that would be fine but I wasn’t going to take a day off of work to have someone take a look at something I know is set up correctly.

He sighed deeply and said that he would see if he could update some settings in my modem. All the sudden my speed test went from 20Mbps to 60Mbps.

I ran the test on Netflix and told him even with the 60Mbps I was still only pulling 720p on Netflix and iTunes was even worse. He put me on hold for a couple minutes and reset my modem again and afterwards Netflix and iTunes seem to be functioning perfectly.

Customers not paying Comcast the extra $35 a month to rid themselves of usage caps are not getting off scot-free either.

cap comcastJeff Wemberly reports his Comcast usage meter is recording unprecedented levels of usage he has never seen on his broadband account before the caps.

“We were well aware of Comcast’s new 300GB usage cap and began closely monitoring how we use our broadband service,” Wemberly writes. “We even have the kids streaming 100-150GB of streaming videos from a grandfathered Verizon Wireless unlimited data/hotspot account every month instead of using Comcast (serves Verizon right for jacking the price up – now we’re going to use it until we drop). We have three years of usage data from our router and we were certain we’d be using no more than 225GB a month after making that change.”

Instead, starting the same month Comcast’s cap went into effect, their reported usage more than doubled.

“Their meter is absolute bull—- reporting more than 700GB of usage every month starting after the caps went into effect,” Wemberly writes. “They aren’t just putting their finger on the scale, they are sitting on it!

Wemberly’s router reported the expected usage drop, with the family turning in 217GB of usage in November and 189GB so far this month. But Comcast’s meter reports 711GB in November and 748GB so far this month.

“We started getting the usage warning 11 days into November and 14 days in December,” Wemberly tells Stop the Cap! “It recorded 63GB of usage on Dec. 19, a day the family was out Christmas shopping. If someone was into our Wi-Fi, the router would have reported it. It doesn’t.”

Next month, Wemberly expects to begin getting bills that run $80 higher after Comcast’s overlimit fee grace period ends. Comcast told him its meter cannot possibly be inaccurate.

“You are forced to pay the extra $35 so you don’t have to pay $80,” Wemberly said. “The Gambino crime family must be kicking themselves wasting time with loan sharking and shakedowns. They should have learned from Comcast and extorted people legally with data caps.”

Wemberly intends to say goodbye to Comcast when AT&T’s U-verse with GigaPower arrives in his neighborhood.

“Paying AT&T $70 a month is cheap compared to Comcast’s endless greed,” Wemberly said. “We can’t wait to cancel.”

FCC Pounded With 13,000+ Complaints About Comcast’s Data Caps

no listenWhen a CEO tells customers they should just get used to data caps and stop being paranoid about them, it would not a stretch to assume the top executive of the nation’s largest cable company has no interest in hearing the views of his customers on the matter and has stopped listening.

But just how many took complaints about usage-billing above the head of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts to the Federal Communications Commission has been a mystery, until today.

A website that promotes cord cutting filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FCC that now reveals at least 13,000 (and counting) Comcast customers took time to file formal complaints with the federal regulator about what CutCableToday calls Comcast’s unethical practice of imposing data caps.

A review of the complaints shows the FCC was generous in its response, including a significant minority of complaints that had nothing to do with data caps. But among the majority that did consider data caps to be unjust, it was common to see Comcast described as an “extortionist,” a “monopoly,” and “abusive” to customers.

Roberts

Roberts

“Comcast should be performing damage control, but the corporation considers itself too powerful for that,” says David Mumpower of CutCableToday. “They wouldn’t ‘win’ so many competitions as the Most Hated Company in America if they cared what customers thought. The power brokers of the cable industry believe that they can charge whatever they want for Internet access because people can’t function effectively in society without it.”

Last week, Roberts claimed only 5% (8% and rising Comcast later admitted) of Comcast customers exceed what is usually a 300GB usage allowance before paying an overlimit fee of $10 for each additional allotment of 50GB. But CutCableToday’s efforts easily turned up several bill shock horror stories from customers stuck with hefty bills after Comcast unilaterally implemented data caps as part of a seemingly-endless “trial” that has spread to a growing number of its service areas.

One Nashville customer got the shock of his life when he discovered he owed a total of $400 in overlimit fees, the same amount he typically pays for six months of Internet service from Comcast.

“Comcast just surprised me with a bill that shows that I owed $180 for over cap surcharges,” the customer wrote in his complaint. “I called the same day I got the bill, and they also let me know that I owe another $220 for over cap surcharges. (That’s right, a surprise $400).”

Despite Comcast’s claims that practically nobody would be affected by their data cap, more than ten thousand went the extra mile, learned how to file a complaint with the FCC, and followed through, further eroding Comcast’s already poor reputation.

A customer in Plantation, Fla., which became subject to Comcast’s data capping this fall, called it like he saw it:

“I object to this new policy of forcing customers to pay more for exceeding pre-established data caps by this greedy corporation. The caps will be exceeded even by moderate users of the Internet due to forced video ads on pretty much every single web page that one loads into a browser. This is not right. These cable companies are already charging us too much for Internet service. Now Comcast wants to charge us a $30 av month fee to prevent them from charging us even more fees. This is a rip off. The government needs to do something to stop this practice of capping. If they are going to meter our internet usage like an electric power company then we should be charged only for data that we call up. This means a ban on all forced Internet advertising. PLEASE do something. We have no one to protect us!”

comcastcrashThe volume of complaints has been so great, CutCableToday notified the FCC it would consider its FOIA request adequately fulfilled after nearly 2,000 complaints were initially made available in response. The group put those 1,929 complaints together into four huge PDF files you can download and review yourself:

Despite the volume of complaints, Roberts has continued to reassure investors that customers are “neutral to slightly positive” about Comcast’s data caps, a claim that might run afoul of Securities and Exchange Commission rules requiring frank admissions about company practices that could affect shareholders’ investments in company stock.

Roberts’ claims could lack credibility as the company has offered no verifiable evidence that customers are even slightly positive about having their Internet usage put on an allowance.

Based on the FCC’s bulging file of complaints, it is more likely most customers either don’t know or understand Comcast’s data caps and as one Knoxville customer who did know described it: It is more of “their f***-you level of customer service.”

“The data caps that Comcast is putting into place are going to end up making people choose between enriching their lives and learning more, and paying more money to a local monopoly,” the customer added.

“This corporate arrogance – some would say malfeasance – has driven many broadband users to the breaking point,” writes Mumpower. “At best, the choices for Internet service are oligopoly sized; at worst, a monopoly exists. How can customers expect their viable complaints to be taken seriously if they have no leverage? That’s why it’s imperative that you file a complaint to make your voice heard.”

Cable Companies Could Save Billions Ditching Set-Top Boxes and Leased Cable Modems

Phillip Dampier December 8, 2015 Consumer News 1 Comment
Apple TV (version 4)

Apple TV (version 4)

The cable industry is on the cusp of saving billions of dollars annually buying and maintaining set-top boxes and cable modems if they can convince customers to buy their own instead.

Cable companies collectively spend as much as $10 billion a year on customer premise equipment (CPE), ranging from simple Digital Transport Adapters for older analog-only TV sets, to the most advanced cloud-based set-top boxes and DVRs.

Cable industry analyst Craig Moffett believes the cable industry will save a fortune and lose one as consumers buy their own set-top equipment like Apple TV or Roku boxes and buy their own modems to avoid monthly rental charges. That means cable companies will likely forfeit a considerable percentage of their leasing/rental revenue.

“The idea that customers will eventually consume video through their own Apple TV or Roku boxes, or simply connect their cable to their smart TVs, Xboxes and Sony PlayStations, is neither new nor far-fetched,” wrote Moffett. “There are good reasons to believe that CPE spending may come down significantly in future (product) generations.”

Most cable equipment is leased to customers and often installed by a cable operator that covers the costs of sending a truck to the customer’s home. After installation, the average American cable subscriber pays $89.16 a year renting a single cable box, and for those with multiple boxes and a DVR, those costs rise to $231.82 a year. A cable modem can be purchased for $50-90 on average, and usually pays for itself in less than one year of rental charges charged by many cable operators.

x1

Comcast X1

Even with more capable consumer-targeted set tops like the latest Apple TV ($149-199) and Roku devices now approaching $100, it will not take long for consumers to recoup their money avoiding rental fees.

Cable operators like Time Warner Cable now carry the majority of their cable channels on apps accessible through devices like the Roku. Customers will not get the flashiest on-screen experience, but they do get a welcome alphabetical channel lineup and a reasonably good picture. Future generations of the boxes are expected to enhance usability and picture quality.

Cable operators like Charter stand to gain the most. If their merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks is approved, all three companies are expected to see reductions in equipment expenses estimated at $2.97 billion in 2015 to as little as $917 million by 2019, according to Moffett. Charter is already expecting to see its capital spending fall more than a billion dollars a year, from $6.97 billion to $5.83 billion by 2019, but consumers should not expect to see the savings passed on to them.

Cable operators can also expect considerable savings after fully deploying DOCSIS 3.1 technology that powers their broadband services. The next generation cable broadband platform offers increased efficiency and flexibility that will allow operators to sell faster speeds.

Comcast may stand apart from others believing deluxe set-top boxes like its X1 are urgently needed to keep cable TV customers satisfied. One of Comcast’s largest planned expenses is deploying millions more of these advanced platforms to customer homes in 2016.

The Peaceful War Against Comcast’s Data Caps: Don’t Like ‘Em? Get Off Your Butt

Licensed to print money

Licensed to print money

In 2008, Stop the Cap! was launched because the telephone company that serves our hometown of Rochester, N.Y., decided on a whim that it was appropriate to introduce a usage allowance of 5GB per month for their DSL customers. Frontier Communications CEO-at-the-time Maggie Wilderotter defended the idea with the usual claim that the included allowance was more than enough for the majority of Frontier customers. DSL customers already have to endure a lot of issues with Internet service and data caps should certainly not be one of them.

Stop the Cap! drew media attention and focus on the issue of data capping, organized customers for a coordinated pushback, and sufficiently hassled Frontier enough to get them to make the right decision for their customers by quietly rescinding the “allowances.”

As it would turn out, Frontier’s correct decision to suspend usage caps would prove an asset to them less than one year later when Time Warner Cable made it known it would trial its own usage caps in Austin and San Antonio, Tex., Greensboro, N.C., and yes… Rochester, N.Y. starting in the summer of 2009.

Time Warner Cable was slightly more generous with its arbitrary allowance — 40GB of usage for $55 a month. Customers already paying a lot for Internet access would now also have an arbitrary usage allowance and overlimit penalty fees with no service improvements in sight. Frontier’s decision the year before to rescind data caps played to their advantage and the company quickly launched advertising in Rochester attacking Time Warner Cable for its data caps, inviting customers to switch to cap-free Internet with Frontier.

Data caps are here!

Data caps are here!

Time Warner Cable’s experiment lasted less than two weeks and was permanently shelved, never to return. Four years later, Comcast began its own usage cap trial that not only continues to this day, but has expanded to cover more than 1,000 zip codes. Capped service areas typically live with a 300GB usage allowance with an overlimit fee of $10 per 50GB.

Yesterday at the investor-oriented UBS Global Media and Communications Brokers Conference, Comcast chief financial officer Mike Cavanagh assured Wall Street and shareholders Comcast’s desire to boost revenue from monetizing broadband usage remained an “important contributor” to the company’ goal of “demonstrat[ing] value and derive value from that pricing.”

Cavanagh said the company is using the line ‘heavy users should pay more’ to justify its caps.

“It’s been an experiment that we are using that the key data point behind it is kind of intuitive – ‘10% of our client base uses 50% of capacity.'”

While not ready to announce Comcast’s cap plan would be introduced nationwide, Cavanagh assured investors the experiments will continue as Comcast makes sure that over time it is “compensated for the investments that today’s marketplace requires us to make.”

The difference that makes it possible for Comcast to carry its usage cap experiments forward while Time Warner Cable had to quickly end theirs comes down to one thing: organized customer pushback. Time Warner Cable got heat from relentless, organized opposition in the four cities where caps mattered the most to consumers. Comcast, for the most part, is getting about as much heat as it usually does from customers. It’s time to turn the heat up.

protest

In fighting this battle for the last seven years, I can share with readers what works to force change and what doesn’t:

In 2009, Time Warner Cable faced protesters opposed to usage limits at this rally in front of the company's headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable faced protesters opposed to usage limits at this rally in front of the company’s headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.

Generally Useless

  • Complaining about usage caps in the comment sections of websites;
  • Signing online petitions;

Impotent But Potentially Useful in Large Numbers

  • Calling the provider to complain about usage caps;
  • Complaining about usage caps to a provider’s social media team (Facebook, Twitter, etc.);
  • Writing complaints on a company’s open support forum;

Useful, But Unlikely to Bring Immediate Results

  • Writing a letter or making a call complaining to elected officials about usage caps;
  • Advocating for more competition, especially from public/municipal broadband;
  • Filing formal complaints with the FCC and Better Business Bureau;
  • Complaining to state telecom regulators and your state Attorney General (they have no direct authority but can attract political attention);
  • Canceling or downgrading service, blaming usage caps for your decision.

Gasoline on a Lit Fire

  • Organizing a protest in front of the local cable office, with local media given at least a day’s notice and invited to attend;
  • Contacting local newsrooms and asking them to write or air stories about usage caps, offering yourself as an interview subject;
  • Sending local press clippings or links to media coverage to your member of Congress and two senators. Suggest another media-friendly event and invite the elected official to attend and speak, which in turn generates even more media interest.
In 2009, Time Warner Cable planned to implement mandatory usage pricing starting in Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and San Antonio and Austin, Tex.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable planned to implement mandatory usage pricing starting in Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and San Antonio and Austin, Tex.

In the battle with Time Warner Cable, we did all the above, but especially the latter, which quickly spun the story out of control of company officials sent to distribute propaganda about usage cap “fairness” and “generous” allowances. We were so relentless, we managed to get under the skin of at least one company spokesperson caught on camera being testy in an on-air interview, which backfired on the company and angered customers even more.

In the case of Comcast, very few of these techniques have been used in the fight against their endless data cap experiment. Customers seem satisfied writing angry comments and signing online petitions. Some have filed complaints with the FCC which are useful measures of hot button issues on which the FCC may act in the last year of the Obama Administration. But there is no detectable organized opposition on the ground to Comcast’s data caps. That may explain why Comcast’s CEO has repeatedly told investors your reactions to Comcast’s caps have been “neutral to slightly positive.” Many Wall Street analysts obviously believe that, because some are advocating the time is right to raise broadband prices even higher. After all, if your reaction to data caps was muted, raising the price another $5 a month probably won’t cost you as a customer either.

It would be very different if these analysts saw regular news reports of small groups of angry customers protesting in front of Comcast offices in different areas of the country. That would likely trigger questions about whether broadband pricing has gotten out of hand. Coverage like that often attracts politicians, who cannot lose opposing a cable company. Once Congress gets interested, the fear regulation might be coming next is usually enough to get companies to pull back and reconsider.

comcast sucksIf you are living with a Comcast data cap and want to see it gone, you can do something about it. Consider organizing your own local movement by tapping fellow angry customers and recruiting local activist groups to the cause. In Rochester, there was no shortage of angry college students and groups ready to protest. Google local progressive political groups, technology clubs, and technology-dependent organizations in your immediate area. Some are likely to be a good resource for building effective public protests, sign-making, and other TV-friendly protest techniques. Contact town governments, the mayor’s office of your city, technology-oriented newspaper columnists, radio talk show/computer support show hosts, etc., to build a mailing list for coordinated announcements about your efforts. Many local officials also oppose data caps.

If a local news reporter has covered tech or consumer issues in the past, many station websites now offer direct e-mail options to reach that reporter. If you give them a good TV-friendly story to cover, they will be back for more coverage as your local protest grows. We helped coordinate and share news about efforts against Time Warner in the cities that were subject to experiments, which also gave us advance notice of their talking points and an ability to offer a consistent response. Several stations carried multiple stories about the cap issue, supported by calls to TV newsrooms to thank them for their coverage and to encourage more.

We realize Comcast’s responsiveness to customers is so atrocious it approaches criminal, but Comcast does respond to Wall Street and shareholders who do not want the company under threat of fact-finding hearings, FCC regulatory action, or Congressional attention. They also don’t want any talk of municipal broadband alternatives. Sidewalk protests in front of the local cable office on the 6 o’clock news is a nightmare.

In the end, Time Warner Cable didn’t want the hassle and got the message — customers despise data caps and want nothing to do with them. Time Warner hasn’t tried compulsory usage caps again. If you want Comcast to get the same message, those living inside Comcast service areas (especially customers) need to lead the charge in their respective communities. We remain willing to help.

The Stage Is Set to Kill Telco ADSL: Cable Operators Prepare for DOCSIS 3.1 Competitive Assault

docsis 30 31

Next year’s upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1 will support cable broadband speeds up to one gigabit shortly after introduction.

Telephone companies relying on traditional ADSL service to power their broadband offering will likely face a renewed competitive assault in 2016 that will further reduce their already-challenged market share in areas where cable companies compete.

Cable operators are hungry for profitable broadband customers and the best place to find new prospects is at the phone company, where DSL is still a common technology to deliver Internet access. But while cable Internet speeds have risen, significant DSL speed hikes have proven more modest in the residential market.

In 2016, the cable industry intends to poach some of the remaining price-sensitive holdouts still clinging to DSL with revised broadband offers promising more speed for the dollar.

Cable broadband has already proven itself a runaway success when matched against telephone company DSL service. Over the last year, Strategy Analytics found Comcast and Time Warner Cable alone signed up a combined 71 percent of the three million new broadband customers in the U.S.

“Cable operators continue to increase market share in U.S. broadband,” said Jason Blackwell, a director at Strategy Analytics. “Over the past twelve months, Comcast has accounted for 42 percent of new subscribers among the operators that we track.  Fiber growth is still strong, but the telco operators haven’t been able to shake off the losses of DSL subscribers.  In 2016, we expect to see a real battle in broadband, as cable operators begin to roll out DOCSIS 3.1 for even higher speed offers, placing additional pressure on telcos.”

That battle will come in the form of upgraded economy broadband plans, many arriving shortly after providers upgrade to the DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband platform. Currently those plans offer speeds ranging from 2-6Mbps. Starting next year, customers can expect economy plan prices to stay generally comparable to DSL, with promises of faster and more consistent speeds. A source tells Stop the Cap! at least two significant cable operators are considering 10Mbps to be an appropriate entry-level broadband speed for 2016, in keeping with FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler’s dislike of Internet speeds below 10Mbps.

slowJust a few years earlier, most providers wouldn’t think of offering discounted 10Mbps service, fearing it would cannibalize revenue as customers downgraded to get lower priced service. Increasing demands on bandwidth from online video and multiple in-home users have gradually raised consumer expectations, and their need for speed.

Unfortunately for many phone companies that have neglected significant investment in their aging wireline networks, the costs to keep up with cable will become unmanageable unless investors are willing to tolerate significant growth in capital expenses to pay for network upgrades. Frontier Communications still claims most of their customers are satisfied with 6Mbps DSL, neglecting to mention many of those customers live in areas where cable competition (or faster service from Frontier) is not available.

Where competition does exist, it’s especially bad news for phone companies that still rely on DSL. Earlier this year, Frontier’s former CEO Maggie Wilderotter admitted Frontier’s share of the residential broadband market had dropped to less than 25% in 26 of the 27 states where it provides service. In Connecticut, the one state where Frontier was doing better, its acquired AT&T U-verse system has enabled the phone company to deliver broadband speeds up to 100Mbps. But even those speeds do not satisfy state officials who are seeking proposals from providers to build a gigabit fiber network in a public-private partnership.

DSL speed upgrades have been spotty and more modest.

DSL speed upgrades have been spotty and more modest.

Frontier’s recent experiments with fiber to the home service in a small part of Durham, N.C., and the unintentional revelation of a gigabit broadband inquiry page on Frontier’s website suggests the company may be exploring at least a limited rollout of gigabit fiber service in the state. But company officials have also repeatedly stressed in quarterly results conference calls there were no significant plans to embark on a major spending program to deliver major upgrades across their service areas.

Some phone companies may have little choice except to offer upgrades where cable operators are continuing to rob them of customers. In the northeast, where Frontier has a substantial presence, cable operators including Charter, Comcast and Time Warner Cable are committing to additional speed upgrades. Time Warner Cable’s current standard speed of 15Mbps will rise to 50-60Mbps in 2016, up to ten times faster than Frontier’s most popular “up to” 6Mbps DSL plan.

Most of the broadband customer gains won by Comcast and Time Warner Cable come as a result of DSL disconnects. AT&T said goodbye to 106,000 customers during the third quarter. Verizon managed to pick up 2,000 new subscribers overall, almost all signing up for FiOS fiber to the home service. No cable operator lost broadband market share, reported analyst firm Evercore. Leichtman Research offered additional insight, finding AT&T and Verizon were successful adding 305,000 U-verse and FiOS broadband customers, while losing 432,000 DSL customers during the same quarter.

The message to phone companies couldn’t be clearer: upgrade your networks or else.

Comcast Launches Online Video Service It Exempts from Its Own Data Caps

xfinitylogoComcast is inviting controversy launching a new live streaming TV service targeting cord-cutters while exempting it from its own data caps.

Comcast’s Stream TV is comparable to Comcast’s Limited Basic lineup, only instead of using a set-top box, Stream TV delivers online video over the Internet to Comcast’s broadband customers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and the Greater Chicago area. For $15 a month, Stream TV offers a large package of local over the air stations, broadcast networks, and HBO, along with thousands of on-demand titles and cloud DVR storage. In Boston, the lineup includes:

WGBH (PBS), HSN. WBZ (CBS), NECN, WHDH (NBC), Community Programming, BNN-Public Access, WWDP-Evine Live, WLVI (CW), WSBK (MyTV), WGBX (PBS), WBIN (Ind.), WBPX (Ion), WMFP (Ind.), The Municipal Channel, Government Access, WFXT (FOX), WCEA (MasTV), WUNI (Univision), EWTN, C-SPAN, CatholicTV, POP, QVC, WYDN (Daystar), WUTF (UniMas), WNEU (Telemundo), Jewelry TV, XFINITY Latino, WGBH World, WGBH Kids, Trinity Broadcasting Network, WGBH Create, Leased Access, WBIN-Antenna TV, WBIN-GRIT TV, WNEU-Exitos, WLVI-BUZZR, WCVB (Me-TV), WFXT-MOVIES!, WHDH-This TV, WFXZ-CA, WUNI-LATV, WFXZ (Mundo Fox), WBZ-Decades, and WFXT-Laff TV + HBO. The package also qualifies the customer as an authenticated cable TV subscriber, making them eligible to view TV Everywhere services from many cable networks.

stream tv

Comcast is offering the first month of Stream TV for free with no commitment to its broadband customers subscribed to at least XFINITY Performance Internet (or above). Up to two simultaneous streams are allowed per account and some channels may not be available for viewing outside of the home. Comcast claims it will expand Stream TV to Comcast customers nationwide in 2016. Comcast will not be selling the service to customers of other cable or phone companies, limiting its potential competitive impact.

Competitors like Sling TV offer their own alternatives to bloated cable TV subscriptions at a similar lower price, and they will sell to anyone with a broadband connection. Sling alone is partly responsible for Comcast’s loss of hundreds of thousands of cable TV customers who don’t want to pay for hundreds of channels many never watch. That Comcast might want to launch its own alternative online video package to retain customers is not a surprise. But Comcast’s decision to exempt Stream TV from the company’s data caps while leaving them in place for competitors is sure to spark a firestorm of controversy.

comcast_remoteComcast claims it is reasonable to exempt Stream TV from its 300GB data cap being tested in a growing number of markets.

“Stream TV is a cable streaming service delivered over Comcast’s cable system, not over the Internet,” wrote Comcast in its FAQ. “Therefore, Stream TV data usage will not be counted towards your Xfinity Internet monthly data usage.”

More precisely, Comcast claims it relies on its own internal IP network to distribute Stream TV, not the external Internet competitors use to reach ex-Comcast cable TV subscribers. Comcast’s premise is it is less costly to deliver content over its own network while Internet traffic comes at a premium. Critics will argue Comcast has found an end run around Net Neutrality by relying on usage caps to influence customer behavior.

For the moment, Netflix is reserving comment after being contacted by Ars Technica. But Sling TV and other services that depend on Comcast’s broadband to reach customers will likely not remain silent for long.

Comcast could effectively deter consumers from using competing online video services with the threat of overlimit fees if customers exceed their usage allowance. The cable company could even use the fact its services don’t count against that allowance as a marketing strategy.

Stop the Cap! has warned our members about that prospect for years. Preferential treatment of certain content over others by playing games with usage caps and overlimit fees could have a major impact on emerging online video competition. Since Comcast owns both the broadband lines and the online video service, it can engage in anti-competitive price discrimination. Competitors will also argue that Comcast’s internal IP network is off-limits to them, making it impossible to deliver content on equal terms over a level playing field.

stream simple

The next move will likely come from the FCC in response to complaints from Comcast’s competitors. As Ars Technica notes, the Federal Communications Commission’s Net Neutrality rules allow for complaints against so-called zero-rating schemes, with the commission judging on a case-by-case basis whether a practice “unreasonably interferes” with the ability of consumers to reach content or the ability of content providers to reach consumers.

With Comcast’s usage caps and overlimit fees, the only reaching will be for your wallet. Consumers need not wait for Sling TV and others to complain to the FCC. You can also share your own views about Comcast’s usage caps by filing a complaint with the FCC here.

Four Red States Launch Coordinated Attack on Municipal/Public Broadband in Advance of FCC Hearing

Gov. Haslam

Gov. Haslam

Top officials of four southern states are coordinating efforts with Republican House members to oppose the Federal Communications Commission’s preemption of state laws that restrict or prohibit municipal/public broadband competition.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, and Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slattery have all backed efforts by House Republicans to curtail the regulatory powers of the FCC, claiming states’ rights should have precedence over the federal regulator. All four have sent letters to the House Energy & Commerce Committee putting their opposition on paper.

In 2014, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler announced the FCC would seek to preempt state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that severely restrict the development of broadband networks owned or controlled by municipalities and public utilities. The laws typically allow existing municipal networks to continue operating, but prohibit expansion beyond a pre-defined service area. Networks planning to launch after the laws took effect usually face onerous conditions and disclosure requirements that make many untenable. Large incumbent cable and phone companies were exempted from the law.

Wheeler’s efforts came in response to requests from community broadband providers seeking to deliver service to expanded service areas. The debate has put several local governments and utilities in an uncomfortable position of opposing their colleagues in state government.

In North Carolina, Attorney General Roy Cooper has taken the FCC to court in a petition to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

“Despite recognition that the State of North Carolina creates and retains control over municipal governments, the FCC unlawfully inserted itself between the State and the State’s political subdivisions,” Cooper wrote to the court. Cooper says the FCC’s actions are unconstitutional and exceeds the commission’s authority; “is arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion within the meaning of the Administrative Procedure Act; and is otherwise contrary to law.”

comcast attMuch of the opposition to municipal broadband comes from Republican politicians on the state and federal level. Most claim municipal providers represent unfair competition to the private sector. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) considers municipal broadband a significant issue. The corporate-funded group offers state legislators the opportunity to meet with telecom company lobbyists. Legislators are also provided already-written sample legislation restricting municipal broadband developed by ALEC’s telecom company members, including AT&T, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable. In states where Republicans hold the majority in the state legislature, such bills often become law.

The FCC represents a serious threat to the telecom company-sponsored broadband legislation. Instead of debating the impact of the law on unpopular phone and cable companies, the four state officeholders claim the dispute is a battle pitting states’ rights against the powers of the federal government.

Haslam, who also serves as the national chairman of the Republican Governors Association, formally asked Congress to intervene against the FCC to protect state sovereignty. In a separate appeal to the FCC, Tennessee officials argued the FCC violated the country’s founding concept of separation of state and federal power, citing the 10th Amendment to the Constitution reserving power not delegated to the United States for the states respectively, or to the people.

Haslam’s critics contend the governor has delegated his own power to protect the interests of large telecommunications corporations operating in his state — companies the critics claimed wrote and lobbied for a state law that established anticompetitive broadband corporate protectionism in Tennessee. Among Haslam’s top campaign contributors are AT&T and Comcast — Tennessee’s two largest telecommunications companies.

Gov. Haley

Gov. Haley

Slattery, appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court, argued in his letter to Congress the FCC lacked any authority to circumvent Tennessee state law.

The FCC has consistently claimed it is not overturning any state laws. Instead, it is performing its duties under its mandate.

The FCC cites Section 706 authority to regulate when broadband is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely manner, something that cannot happen if a state law impedes new competitors and entrants.

Alabama’s attorney general joined the fight in a brief to the Sixth Circuit opposing preemption, with a copy sent to the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, which is planning to hold a hearing on the matter. Alabama has several municipal and public utility networks operating in the state. AT&T and Comcast also serve large parts of Alabama. AT&T gave $11,000 to Strange’s campaign, Comcast sent $8,500. The Koch Brothers, fierce opponents of community broadband, also donated $10,000 to Strange through Koch Industries.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley told legislators she strongly opposes external entities like the FCC overreaching into her state’s business. She did not mention AT&T is her fifth largest contributor, donating more than $16,000 to her last campaign. South Carolina’s largest cable operator is Time Warner Cable. It donated $9,900 to the governor’s campaign fund.

Comcast Steamrolls Arkansas, Louisiana, Tenn. and Virginia With More Usage Caps Starting 12/1

comcast gunComcast is accelerating its rollout of compulsory usage caps, adding new markets in the southern U.S. to its three-year old “trial” of what it calls its “data usage plan.” DSL Reports received a tip Comcast is now sending e-mail to affected customers.

Little Rock, Ark., Houma, LaPlace, and Shreveport, La., as well as Galax, Va., will be treated to Comcast’s 300GB usage cap with a $10 per 50GB overlimit fee beginning Dec. 1. These three states join Florida, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, Maine, Mississippi, South Carolina and Arizona, which now face Comcast’s form of usage rationing.

In Tennessee, Comcast is introducing its 300GB cap in Johnson City, Gray, and Greenville. The cable operator is also risking customers by introducing caps in Chattanooga, where it already faces serious competition from gigabit provider EPB, which has no usage limits, and AT&T U-verse, which doesn’t dare enforce its own 250GB cap.

Comcast began rapidly expanding its usage cap trial this fall, with new markets being announced for usage limits about once a month.

Chattanooga resident Ron Rogers called to cancel his Comcast service this afternoon. He’s giving up a good promotional discount Comcast offered to keep him a customer back in January and is headed to EPB Fiber.

“This was the last straw for Comcast,” Rogers tells Stop the Cap! “I am tired of being abused by these people. They must be crazy to think anyone who seriously uses the Internet is going to tolerate this when there are two other providers smart enough to realize usage caps are ridiculous in this day and age. Comcast can shove it.”

data trialsComcast’s spreading usage caps are not popular with customers. Within hours of the news Comcast would be expanding its cap “trial,” more than 900 negative comments appeared on Reddit slamming the company.

“It is just staggering that despite all the bad press, publicity and truly awful service, Comcast is actually taking calculated measures to make things worse,” wrote one Reddit commenter.

Comcast’s frequent defense of its usage plan is that the majority of its customers will never be affected by it, consuming less than 40GB a month. But those with experience living under Comcast’s cap tell Stop the Cap! anyone playing downloadable video games or using online video are at serious risk of being charged penalty overlimit fees.

“It is very easy to hit 100GB just downloading game updates and if you watch your shows online, you will come uncomfortably close to the cap,” said Pat Kershaw in Kentucky. “Leaving a live video stream running overnight one night by mistake after I fell asleep meant a Netflix-free weekend for me last month, because it would have put me past my allowance. Hulu’s autoplay feature is also very dangerous.”

courtesy-noticeHans says any household with kids will quickly learn Comcast isn’t being honest claiming usage caps only affect a “few customers” after they start getting warning messages injected into their web browser.

“What is worse is every time I call support about the messages that I am getting on the 18th of the month because I have already burned through my limit with my kids watching all their online content, support keeps putting me back on the queue for the next person or dropping the line,” Hans writes. “No one wants to deal with it!”

Those web warning messages also become intrusive for many customers, because some claim they never go away until the end of the billing cycle.

“I made sure to go over the 300GB cap this month to see what would happen and I received a phone call telling me I’ve went over and now I receive a popup from Comcast on my computer about every 30 seconds telling me I’ve went over as well,” writes Gldoorii. “The popups never stop. I have to deal with them until the end of the month as they keep interrupting my work.”

Other Comcast customers have grown suspicious about the company’s usage measurement tool, which in some cases reported spikes in usage only after the cap began to be enforced.

comcastdatausagemeter“I checked my data usage on Oct. 21 and it said I only used 162GB,” writes Sharon. “I even have [a screenshot] and saved it as I had a feeling Comcast would pull something. [On] Oct. 23, I had a pop-up on my computer that says ‘you have used 292 of 300GB’ and I went to the data usage and it shows that. Nobody in my house downloaded any huge files the past two days. So, is Comcast artificially pumping up our usage to make us go over or what? It is impossible that I only used 162GB for 21 days and then used 130GB the past two days.”

Sharon is lucky her usage meter is working. Other customers report Comcast’s meter often stops working for weeks.

“My data usage meter still does not work and it has been 19 days,” says Gldoorii. “No chat or support person has been able to figure out why it doesn’t work and that I need to call or chat whenever I want to ask what my usage is.”

Customers who want out also get the Comcast treatment as they head for the exit.

“We were charged a $150 early termination fee because Comcast does not consider imposing a usage cap to be a material change to our contract, which is unbelievable,” writes Anna Lu in Ft. Lauderdale. “These guys are nothing less than crooks and they only forgave it after my roommate complained to the Better Business Bureau. They said they were doing us a favor forgiving the charge. No wonder everyone hates Comcast.”

But not everyone is unhappy about Comcast’s usage caps.

“Our call center volumes are way up ever since Comcast brought caps to Atlanta and Florida,” reports an AT&T sales representative who agreed to talk to Stop the Cap! if we kept his identity private. “It’s common knowledge we do not enforce any caps on U-verse although we cannot tell customers that officially, but most never even ask. We’re signing up ex-Comcast customers right and left. They are not happy we cannot give them the same speeds Comcast does, but they won’t have to worry about a cap from us, at least for now.”

Other customers are waiting impatiently for Google Fiber or other competitors.

“In Atlanta Comcast now offers an unlimited data option add on to your plan for additional $35,” writes a customer on Comcast’s support forum. “So now we get to pay over $100 for 25Mbps service whereas Google Fiber [in] Atlanta [charges] $70 for one gigabit service and no data cap.”

In July, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts downplayed the impact of the company’s usage caps with investors, suggesting some customers actually supported the usage plans.

“We do have a few trials going on in different markets,” Roberts said. “The responses have been neutral to slightly positive. We don’t have any plans on expanding that to other market/bases anytime soon.”

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