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FCC Plans to Unveil New Rules to Regulate Broadband Service as a Public Utility; Net Neutrality Included

Phillip Dampier February 3, 2015 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

netneutralityIn a major victory for consumers and public interest groups, the Federal Communications Commission this week will unveil fundamental changes in the oversight of high-speed Internet service, regulating it in the public interest as a public utility.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler plans to include robust Net Neutrality protection in the proposal, insisting the agency has a right to oversee providers’ traffic management practices when they impact customers.

Central to the proposal is redefining broadband away from the current, barely regulated “information service” category that has allowed telecom companies to successfully challenge the FCC in court on almost every attempt to oversee broadband Internet service. Wheeler’s plan is expected to reclassify broadband as a “telecommunications service,” which will subject providers to more regulator scrutiny.

The FCC is expected to specifically prohibit providers from blocking, slowing down, or speeding up individual websites in return for financial compensation. The ban on “Internet fast lanes” and “toll booths” will protect Internet startups that would otherwise face an immediate disadvantage from well-heeled competitors that can afford to pay for enhanced access to customers.

But despite claims from Net Neutrality opponents, Wheeler is not expected to impose a one-size-fits-all regulatory regime over broadband. Instead, he prefers to reserve regulatory powers to police individual disputes such as those between Netflix, Comcast, Verizon and other providers which caused traffic slowdowns for consumers in 2014 until paid peering agreements were finalized, compensating ISPs for handling Netflix streaming video content.

Providers fear that reclassifying broadband under Title II rules could subject them to future oversight of practices like usage-based billing, usage caps, speed throttling, broadband pricing and availability. But the Obama Administration is on record opposing price regulation of broadband, and few expect the FCC will adopt a micromanagement approach to broadband oversight.

Wheeler’s proposal is likely to win a majority vote from the three Democratic commissioners. Opposition is a virtual certainty from the Republican minority.

The telecom industry promises whatever rules are adopted will face an immediate challenge in court.

Cable Lobby Forgot to Mention It’s the Sole Backer of Sock Puppet Group ‘Onward Internet’

onward-internetWith millions at stake charging content producers extra for guaranteed fast lanes on the Internet, some lobbyists will go to almost any length to throw up roadblocks in opposition to Net Neutrality.

The sudden appearance of Onward Internet, a group that erects enormous “Internet suggestion boxes” at busy intersections in New York and San Francisco is a case in point.

At least a half-dozen 20-somethings, some dressed for a science fiction convention, staff the displays while encouraging people to write and toss in their own ideas about what they expect from the Internet over the next decade.

A higher bill and usage caps, unsurprisingly, were not among the suggestions. But it is doubtful the mysterious people behind Onward Internet are interested in hearing that.

Advocacy group ProPublica spent weeks trying to find who was paying for the youthful exuberance, giant black boxes, and hopelessly optimistic YouTube videos telling viewers the Internet was made to move data, and how amazing it was your Internet Service Providers valiantly kept up with the demand, helped connect industries and even topple dictatorships. Well, not corporate dictatorships in this country anyway.

With that kind of “feel good” message, ProPublica undoubtedly smelled industry money, especially after seeing lines like, “The Internet is a wild, free thing; unbounded by limits, unfettered by rules, it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the Internet continues to advance.” But it took a leak from a worker hired to file permits and buy space in San Francisco for the street displays to finally blow the whistle.

Onward Internet = the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, America’s largest cable industry lobbyist.

This appears to be a repurposed dumpster.

This appears to be a repurposed dumpster.

You couldn’t find a bigger critic of Net Neutrality if you tried.

The NCTA played coy with ProPublica when the group first confronted the cable lobby with the evidence.

“What led you to the conclusion that this is an NCTA effort,” asked NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz.

Busted, Dietz followed up with a statement suggesting the NCTA needed to keep its involvement top-secret because it might ‘bias’ the feedback they received:

“We’ve kept NCTA’s brand off Onward Internet because we want to collect unbiased feedback directly from individuals about what they want for the future of the Internet and how it can become even better than it is today,” Dietz told ProPublica. “The cable industry is proud of our role as a leading Internet provider in the U.S. but we feel it’s important to hear directly from consumers about how they envision the future so we can work hard on delivering it.”

“We had always intended to put the NCTA brand on it but we wanted to collect as much unbiased feedback as we could for a few weeks before putting our name on it,” Dietz later told VentureBeat.

The NCTA is hoping unwitting consumers submit comments they can use to oppose Net Neutrality and Title 2 reclassification of broadband as a “telecommunications service.”

Because if that happens, the Money Party may end before it even begins.

The NCTA’s astroturf effort is nothing new. A panoply of well-funded, telecom-industry backed sock puppet groups muddy the waters on these issues everyday, from Broadband for America to various think tanks and bought and paid for researchers.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Onward Internet Decide the future of the Internet 10-8-14.mp4

Onward Internet is hoping you will share comments they can use to prove you oppose Net Neutrality. The NCTA is a strong opponent of Net Neutrality, which allows LOLCATS, movies, and dictatorship toppling to occur without paying even MORE money to the cable company for a fast lane that should have been fast in the first place, considering how much we are spending on it. Now Big Cable also want usage caps and allowances. The revolution has been capped. (1:22)

5+ Years After Fraudulent Cramming Fees Began, AT&T Agrees to Pay $105 Million Fine/Restitution

AT&T aids and abets cramming fraud by making it hard to identify on customer bills.

AT&T aids and abets cramming fraud by making it hard to find on customer bills.

More than five years after complaints began rolling into AT&T from wireless customers finding unauthorized charges on their monthly bills, the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission today announced those customers deserve a refund, and AT&T has agreed to pay $80 million towards restitution for their complicity in bill cramming.

As part of a $105 million settlement with federal and state law enforcement officials, AT&T Mobility LLC will pay $80 million to the Federal Trade Commission to provide refunds to consumers the company unlawfully billed for unauthorized third-party charges, a practice known as mobile cramming. The refunds are part of a multi-agency settlement that also includes $20 million in penalties and fees paid to 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as a $5 million penalty to the Federal Communications Commission.

In its complaint against AT&T, the FTC alleges that AT&T billed its customers for hundreds of millions of dollars in charges originated by other companies, usually in amounts of $9.99 per month, for subscriptions for ringtones and text messages containing love tips, horoscopes, and “fun facts.” In its complaint, the FTC alleges that AT&T kept at least 35 percent of the charges it imposed on its customers, a lucrative incentive for AT&T to keep the cramming charges coming.

“I am very pleased that this settlement will put tens of millions of dollars back in the pockets of consumers harmed by AT&T’s cramming of its mobile customers,” said FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “This case underscores the important fact that basic consumer protections – including that consumers should not be billed for charges they did not authorize – are fully applicable in the mobile environment.”

Beginning today, consumers who believe they were charged by AT&T without their authorization can visit www.ftc.gov/att to submit a refund claim and find out more about the FTC’s refund program under the settlement. If consumers are unsure about whether they are eligible for a refund, they can visit the claims website or contact the settlement administrator at 1-877-819-9692 for more information.

This case is part of a larger FTC effort to clamp down on mobile cramming. This is the FTC’s seventh mobile cramming case since 2013, and its second against a mobile phone carrier this year. The FTC filed a complaint against T-Mobile in July, and that case is ongoing. The Commission also issued a staff report on mobile cramming in July. The FTC mobile cramming cases build on the FTC’s extensive law enforcement work over the last decade to combat cramming on landline phone bills.

The FTC’s investigation into AT&T showed that the company received very high volumes of consumer complaints related to the unauthorized third-party charges placed on consumer’s phone bills. For some third-party content providers, complaints reached as high as 40 percent of subscriptions charged to AT&T consumers in a given month. In 2011 alone, the FTC’s complaint states, AT&T received more than 1.3 million calls to its customer service department about the charges.

According to the complaint, in October 2011, AT&T altered its refund policy so that customer service representatives could only offer to refund two months’ worth of charges to consumers who sought a refund, no matter how long the company had been billing customers for the unauthorized charges. Prior to that time, AT&T had offered refunds of up to three months’ worth of charges. At that time, AT&T characterized its change in policy as designed to “help lower refunds.”

In February 2012, one AT&T employee said in an e-mail that “Cramming/Spamming has increased to a new level that cannot be tolerated from an AT&T or industry perspective,” but according to the complaint, the company did not act to determine whether third parties had in fact gotten authorization from consumers for the charges placed on their bills. In fact, the company denied refunds to many consumers, and in other cases referred the consumers to third-parties to seek refunds for the money consumers paid to AT&T.

The structure of AT&T’s consumer bills compounded the problem of the unauthorized charges, according to the complaint, by making it very difficult for customers to know that third-party charges were being placed on their bills. On both the first page of printed bills and the summary of bills viewed online, consumers saw only a total amount due and due date with no indication the amount included charges placed on their bill by a third party. The complaint alleges that within online and printed bills, the fees were listed as “AT&T Monthly Subscriptions,” leaving consumers to believe the charges were part of services provided by AT&T.

Under the terms of its settlement with the FTC, AT&T must notify all of its current customers who were billed for unauthorized third-party charges of the settlement and the refund program by text message, e-mail, paper bill insert and notification on an online bill. Former customers may be contacted by the FTC’s refund administrator.

In addition to the refund requirements, AT&T is also required to obtain consumers’ express, informed consent before placing any third-party charges on a consumer’s mobile phone bill. In addition, the company must clearly indicate any third-party charges on the consumers’ bill and provide consumers with the option to block third-party charges from being placed on their bill.

The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file the complaint and approving the proposed stipulated order was 5-0. The FTC filed the complaint and proposed stipulated order in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. The proposed stipulated order is subject to court approval.

Comcast’s Reputation for Bad Customer Service is Legendary and Never-Ending

psctest

Comcast has repeatedly touted its rating from J.D. Power & Associates claiming the company has been cited for the most improvement of any cable operator scored by the survey firm. That isn’t saying very much when one takes a closer look.

comcast-time-warner-cable-mergerIn fact, since 2010 Comcast has achieved very little improvement in its abysmal score. J.D. Power & Associates reports that over the last four years, Comcast has only managed to boost its TV satisfaction score 92 points and Internet satisfaction 77 points… on a 1,000-point scale.[1]

Comcast also continues to have below-average scores in all four regions for both television and broadband, with the exception of Internet service in the north-central region, where it faces competition from DSL offered by telephone company CenturyLink.

Other consumer satisfaction surveys are far less charitable to Comcast.

Consumer Reports ranked Comcast 15th out of 17 large cable companies and called their service and customer relations mediocre. In a survey conducted in April, the consumer group found 56% of the public opposed to the merger, 11% supported it, and 32% offered no opinion. The survey found 74% believing the merger will result in higher prices and fewer choices for consumers.[2]

“A merger combining these two huge companies would give Comcast even greater control over the cable and broadband Internet markets, leading to higher prices, fewer choices, and worse customer service for consumers,” Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel in Consumers Union’s D.C. office, said in a statement.[3]

Nearly every year, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts acknowledges the problems with customer service and promises improvements.[4] But according to the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, those improvements never arrive.

In 2004, ACSI noted it added cable television to its index in 2000, and since that time, “customer satisfaction has gone from bad to worse, and there is no improvement in sight:”[5]

ows_139276912850214Among cable providers, Time Warner has the highest score of 60. Both Comcast and Charter Communications register at 56. For the private as well as public sector, including the IRS, this is the lowest level of customer satisfaction of any organization in ACSI. Consumer complaints are also much more common relative to any other measured industry. Almost half of all cable customers have registered complaints about one thing or another.

When buyers have meaningful choice alternatives, this level of customer (dis)satisfaction is neither competitive nor sustainable. Cable is the only industry to score below 60 in ACSI. With the satellite companies removed, the weighted average for the cable industry is 59.

Under normal competitive conditions, there would be mass customer defections. The reason this is not the case for the cable industry is due to local monopoly power, which means that in most markets, the dissatisfied customer has nowhere to go.

In 2007, ACSI foreshadows what a merger between two giant cable companies is likely to mean for customers as the two companies eventually attempt to integrate their disparate computer systems and management:[6]

After a minor gain in 2006, the first ever for the industry, satisfaction among subscribers to cable and satellite TV service drops 2% to 62, the lowest level of customer satisfaction among all industries covered by ACSI.  None of the providers has improved on customer satisfaction this year.  Comcast (down 7% to 56), DirecTV (down 6% to 67) and Time Warner Cable (down 5% to 58) tumble.  High system loads causing problems with reliability and pricing were major culprits.  Both Comcast and Time Warner have acquired many new subscribers in their deal to divide up troubled cable provider Adelphia Communications – integrating these acquisitions often leads to short-term problems with customer satisfaction.

Comcast MergerIn 2008, things deteriorated further for Comcast customers, according to this ACSI assessment:[7]

Comcast is down 4% to 54, an all-time low for the largest cable provider in the country. Rapid growth may have contributed to difficulties in operations as Comcast continues to add cable subscribers, often through acquisitions of companies in smaller markets.

[…] As is often the case, small is often better in terms of being able to provide good customer service. Cablevision, for example, with some 3 million subscribers, is barely 1/8th the size of Comcast. These companies don’t generally seek to expand quickly beyond their geographic footprints and are often targets of acquisition by larger firms, companies that may be able to withstand depressed customer satisfaction in the short term as operations of the smaller providers are integrated.

This year, both Comcast and Time Warner Cable fell even further according to ACSI:[8]

Cable giants Comcast and Time Warner Cable have the most dissatisfied customers. Comcast falls 5% to 60, while Time Warner registers the biggest loss and plunges 7% to 56, its lowest score to date.

“Comcast and Time Warner assert their proposed merger will not reduce competition because there is little overlap in their service territories,” says David VanAmburg, ACSI Director. “Still, it’s a concern whenever two poor-performing service providers combine operations. ACSI data consistently show that mergers in service industries usually result in lower customer satisfaction, at least in the short term. It’s hard to see how combining two negatives will be a positive for consumers.”

ACSI also scored Internet Service Providers this year and found even worse news:[9]

High prices, slow data transmission and unreliable service drag satisfaction to record lows, as customers have few  alternatives beyond the largest Internet service providers. Customer satisfaction with ISPs drops 3.1% to 63, the lowest score in the Index.

[…] Cable-company-controlled ISPs languish at the bottom of the rankings again. Cox Communications is the best of these and stays above the industry average despite a 6% fall to 64. Customers rate Comcast (-8% to 57) and Time Warner Cable (-14% to 54) even lower for Internet service than for their TV service. In both industries, the two providers have the weakest customer satisfaction.

Comcast claims the transaction will allow the two companies to invest in their networks, improve customer service, and enhance the products available to Time Warner Cable customers.

In reality, Comcast’s largest investment will be in a $17 billion share buyback to benefit their stockholders.[10] Time Warner Cable’s current CEO has secured for himself a golden parachute package of $78 million dollars for just two months on the job as CEO of Time Warner Cable.[11]

With that kind of money on the table, it is no surprise Comcast has invested in 76 lobbyists from 24 different lobbying firms and is spending millions trying to convince regulators, including the NY PSC that this transaction is a good deal for New York. The more than 2,700 New Yorkers that have filed comments with the PSC, largely in strong opposition to this merger, disagree. Their voices should speak louder than out of state groups that have been urged by Comcast to send letters supporting this transaction.

[1]http://variety.com/2014/biz/news/comcast-time-warner-cable-remain-among-most-hated-tv-providers-survey-1201145921/
[2]http://variety.com/2014/biz/news/comcast-time-warner-cable-merger-poll-shows-majority-oppose-1201224277/
[3]http://cuactionfund.org/get-the-facts
[4]http://www.dslreports.com/shownews/Comcast-CEO-Makes-His-Yearly-Promise-to-Improve-Customer-Service-128206
[5]http://www.theacsi.org/component/content/article/30-commentary-category/86-acsi-quarterly-commentaries-q1-2004
[6]http://www.theacsi.org/component/content/article/30-commentary-category/169-acsi-quarterly-commentaries-q1-2007
[7]http://www.theacsi.org/component/content/article/30-commentary-category/179-acsi-quarterly-commentaries-q1-2008
[8]http://www.theacsi.org/news-and-resources/press-releases/press-2014/press-release-telecommunications-and-information-2014
[9]http://www.theacsi.org/news-and-resources/press-releases/press-2014/press-release-telecommunications-and-information-2014
[10]http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2014/02/comcast_agrees_to_purchase_of.html
[11]http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/03/20/four-months-as-time-warner-cables-ceo--80-million/6658083/

New York Public Service Commission Announces Delay in Comcast/TWC Merger Consideration

comcast twcAs more than 2,300 New Yorkers express fierce opposition to the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the New York Public Service Commission has announced a delay in the review of the proposal until October.

The PSC now expects to consider the matter at a meeting to be held October 2. The PSC is also extending the period for the public to comment on the proposed merger.

Your comments are now due no later than Aug. 8, with reply comments from various parties due no later than Aug. 25.

Your input is vital, so please take a few moments to send an e-mail to the PSC with your views.

Here’s an example of one of the letters we are seeing:

Via e-mail: [email protected]
Honorable Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary
New York State Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223

Re: 14-M-0183 – Joint Petition of Time Warner Cable and Comcast for Approval of a Holding Company Level Transfer of Control

Dear Secretary Burgess:

As a resident of this state, who is a customer of Time Warner Cable, I am writing to express my staunch opposition to the above-referenced joint petition. This application should be denied outright, simply put, because the merger of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, and Time Warner Cable, the nation’s second largest company, would be contrary to the interest of consumers in the State of New York, as well as antitrust laws.

Though executives of both applicants are adamant that this proposed merger would benefit consumers and enhance competition, the ominous, far-reaching implications that will undoubtedly follow render these claims, among others, implausible. That is, if this merger were to take place, a virtual monopoly would be created, giving Comcast unprecedented control over cable and broadband internet networks at the expense of not only consumers, who would receive nothing but fewer choices at higher prices, but also rival businesses, whose viability would certainly be stifled. The proposed merger would likewise pose a threat to net neutrality.

Given the abysmal record of Comcast, which includes being fined for failing to comply with the terms and conditions of its previous and similarly controversial merger with NBC Universal, as well as its political clout, it is clear that the approval of this joint petition would both be inconsistent with the mission of this Commission, as as well as the interest of consumers in this state. It should, accordingly, be denied in its entirety.

Respectfully submitted,
Patrick A. Berry
Volunteer, Common Cause New York

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