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Surprise: Some Alabama Customers Unhappy About AT&T’s Experiment Ending Landline Service

att-logo-221x300AT&T customers in Carbon Hill, Ala. received an unwelcome surprise in their mailbox recently when AT&T informed them they will be part of an experiment ending traditional landline service in favor of a Voice over IP or wireless alternative.

Affected customers are involuntary participants in what AT&T calls an “exciting opportunity for our customers and for our company,” but many residents want no part of it.

The Wall Street Journal reports Carbon Hill city clerk Janice Pendley says some people in the former mining town are not pleased.

“Some of them like their landline, and they like it just the way it is,” she says.

AT&T’s experiment will force new and existing customers to switch to its more-expensive U-verse broadband platform, use a mobile phone, or a home landline replacement that works over AT&T’s cellular network. The FCC has granted AT&T permission to impose its experimental plan to end traditional landline service in two communities where regulatory protections for landline customers are weak to non-existent — Alabama’s Carbon Hill and Delray Beach, Fla.

Carbon Hill is a small town of around 880 households in extreme western Walker County. It is the kind of rural town AT&T would likely never consider for a U-verse upgrade. AT&T embarked on a second major push to extend U-verse into more communities last year, but also indicated it would strongly advocate for a wireless replacement for its landline network in the rest of its service areas. Because Carbon Hill is an experiment, AT&T will offer U-verse to at least part of the community regardless of the usual financial Return on Investment requirements AT&T usually imposes on its U-verse expansion efforts.

carbon hillAT&T is pushing forward despite the fact it  has no idea how it will offer service to at least 4% of isolated Carbon Hill residents not scheduled to be provided U-verse and not within an AT&T wireless coverage area. There are also no guarantees customers will be able to correctly reach 911, although AT&T says the technology “supports 911 functionality.” Serious questions among consumer advocates remain about whether the replacement technology will support burglar alarms, pacemakers and even systems used by air-traffic controllers.

The difficulties service Carbon Hill relate to its rural makeup and income profile. In Delray Beach, it is all about customer demographics. Half of the city is home to residents over 65 years old — the group most likely to prefer their existing landline service. Many are likely to be unhappy about a transition to new technology that will not work in the event of power interruptions, will require the installation of new equipment, or will be tied to a wireless platform that some say reduces the intelligibility of telephone conversations and often introduces audio artifacts like echo, background noise, and dropouts.

In both cities, customers only offered wireless-based service will no longer have access to DSL or wired broadband service of any kind. The wireless alternative from AT&T comes at a high cost and a low usage allowance.

The benefits to AT&T are unquestionable, however. The company will win almost universal deregulation as a Voice over IP or wireless telephone provider. Legacy regulations on customer service requirements, pricing, and obligations to provide affordable phone service to any customer that requests it are swept away by the new technologies. Competitors are also worried AT&T will be able to walk away from regulations governing open and fair access to AT&T’s network.

ip4carbon hillThe Wall Street Journal reports:

The all-Internet protocol “transition holds many promises for consumers, but losing access to affordable voice and broadband services cannot be part of that bargain,” wrote Angie Kronenberg, general counsel of Comptel, in a letter to the FCC last month on behalf of the small-carrier trade group, several companies and public-interest groups.

AARP said it believes AT&T’s plan has “numerous problems.” The technology might not be reliable enough or fail when calling 911 in an emergency, the advocacy group for seniors told regulators in its comment letter. The FCC is reviewing hundreds of comments received in response to AT&T’s request.

EarthLink piggybacks on the “incumbents as little as economically possible” and has laid nearly 30,000 miles of fiber-optic cables throughout the U.S. to help it reach more than a million customers, says Rolla Huff, a former EarthLink chief executive. Still, the company needs access to the connections built by AT&T and Verizon into buildings.

Telecom carriers such as Windstream in Little Rock, Ark., and sellers of broadband data services like EarthLink and XO Communications LLC, of Herndon, Va., have had the right to buy last-mile access at regulated prices since the last major overhaul of federal telecom laws in 1996.

tw telecomIf AT&T ends its traditional network, those competing service providers will have to negotiate with AT&T for access at whatever price AT&T elects to charge.

A preview of what is likely to happen has already been experienced by TW Telecom, an independent firm selling phone and Internet services to businesses over more than 30,000 miles of fiber lines. But that fiber network means nothing if a customer’s last mile connection is handled by a local phone company no longer subject to regulated pricing and access rules.

In Tampa, where Verizon has deployed FiOS as an unregulated replacement for its older, regulated copper-based network, TW Telecom learned first hand what this could ultimately mean:

Rochester Telephone Corporation was born in 1921 after a merger between the Rochester Telephonic Exchange, a branch of the Bell Company of Buffalo and locally-owned independent Rochester Telephone Company, which was not allowed to use Bell's long distance network.

Rochester Telephone Corporation was born in 1921 after a merger between the Rochester Telephonic Exchange, a branch of the Bell Company of Buffalo and locally owned independent Rochester Telephone Company, which was not allowed to use Bell’s long distance network.

TW Telecom approached Verizon in 2012 to seek last-mile access to a Tampa, Fla., building being converted into a bank from a restaurant. Verizon had installed only FiOS at the building.

Verizon said no, telling TW Telecom to build its own connection or pay Verizon thousands of dollars to do the job. TW Telecom declined to pay and lost the customer’s business.

“When it happens, it’s devastating,” says Kristie Ince, who oversees regulatory policy at TW Telecom. Similar snarls have cost the company at least six customers since then. Other carriers say they have had similar clashes.

In Illinois, Sprint’s business phone network has run into a barricade manned by AT&T. Sprint needs AT&T to interconnect calls placed on Sprint’s network intended for AT&T’s customers. The two companies cannot agree on an asking price under the deregulation scheme so Sprint converts its Voice over IP calls to older technology still subject to regulation just so calls will successfully reach AT&T’s customers. AT&T promptly converts those calls back to Voice over IP technology as it completes them.

AT&T said it has “no duty” to connect its Internet protocol traffic with Sprint’s.

If the FCC keeps IP-based traffic deregulated, if and when the old landline network is decommissioned, AT&T will have the last word on access, potentially putting competitors out of business.

Our great-great grandparents experienced similar problems in the early days of telephone service, when high rates from the local Bell telephone subsidiary provoked local competition. But Bell companies routinely refused to handle calls placed on competitors’ networks, forcing customers to maintain a telephone line with both companies to reach every subscriber. Additionally, only Bell-owned providers had access to the long distance network – a competitive disadvantage to competing startups.

Regulatory changes, a handful of mergers and the eventual establishment of the well-regulated Bell System eventually solved problems which threaten to return if AT&T has its way.

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Verizon’s Curious Allies, Employees Urge N.J. Regulators to Forget About FiOS Fiber Expansion

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon’s FiOS expansion is still dead.

New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities has heard from hundreds of New Jersey residents about a settlement proposal that would let Verizon off the hook for failing to keep a commitment to provide high-speed broadband service statewide no later than 2010.

Curiously, hundreds of those comments were identical e-mails originating from AOL, Hotmail, MSN and Yahoo mail accounts urging the state to show lenience to Verizon — to forgive and forget the company’s broken promises. No mailing addresses were included. But the attached names and e-mail addresses were enough for Stop the Cap! to discover many of those submitting comments used non-working e-mail addresses or claimed their names were submitted without their knowledge or permission. Many others were actually employed by Verizon or were retirees.

“The proposed stipulation is fair and balanced and under your guidance, will build on the success that the Board and Verizon have achieved in making the Garden State one of the most wired broadband states in the country,” writes David Gudino, who doesn’t disclose in his correspondence with the BPU that his name is included in a list of attorneys working for Verizon Wireless.

“I would like to declare my support for the proposed stipulation between your Board Staff and Verizon as it relates to Opportunity New Jersey,” says another on behalf of an organization getting contributions from Verizon. “The stipulation will help ensure continued deployment of advanced communications services. Access to these services will not only benefit New Jersey’s businesses and nonprofits, but consumers of all ages as well.”

new-jerseyBy “advanced communications services,” the letter’s signers should know very well that means more 4G LTE wireless broadband with stingy usage caps and high prices, not more FiOS fiber to the home service.

What proved especially surprising was finding so many customers claiming to be happy with Verizon’s broadband performance in New Jersey who are still relying on AOL dial-up accounts. Stop the Cap! contacted a random 150 signers of the identical letters by using their attached e-mail addresses, which are part of the public record. We asked the writers to expand on their views about Verizon’s performance in New Jersey, whether they were satisfied with their current Internet provider, whether they have broadband service, and where they learned about this issue.

Remarkably, 35 of the e-mail addresses turned out to be invalid, so we contacted an extra 35 and 12 of those e-mail addresses were invalid as well. We found this unsettling because the only identifying information attached to the pro-Verizon correspondence was a name and e-mail address. We couldn’t be sure the authors were New Jersey residents much less real people.

We received 18 replies. Several were Verizon retirees asked to sign letters of support for Verizon. Another five had no idea what we were talking about and denied they submitted any views, pro or con, about Verizon. Three of those were Comcast customers that said goodbye to Verizon more than a decade earlier. Many others were associated with groups that happen to receive financial support from Verizon. Several  had no broadband access and were using dial-up.

Stop the Cap! did not receive a single reply from any person ready to articulate informed views about the terms of the settlement offer. They were simply asked to lend their names and e-mail addresses to Verizon’s campaign and had never seen the settlement proposal or heard much about it.

bpuJudith Stoma’s family has worked for Verizon/NJ Bell since 1958. She’s 71 years old today and she supports Verizon, at least in its efforts to “lead the way with N.J. at the forefront of technology.” Abdicating on FiOS expansion in favor of the same old DSL service Verizon proposes in its settlement seems to run contrary to that goal.

In several other instances, some of Verizon’s “supporters” actually used a space provided in the form letter to vent their frustration with Verizon!

Michael DeNude was irritated he never got FiOS: “We live in Riverdale and have not benefited by any upgrade.”

Paula Thomas was annoyed that Verizon outsources its workforce: “Verizon already outsources their telephone [operator] service. They should also guarantee that U.S. Citizens are given preference in the ‘job growth’ they ensure will happen.”

William Barlen thinks it’s a shame the current state of broadband in the U.S. is lacking: “It is sad that we have dropped behind over 50 countries on broadband speed and deployment. If you do not support this work exactly what are you doing?”

Paul Minenna is concerned that without FiOS broadband, speedier Internet access is not forthcoming: “Please make sure that you keep NJ moving forward with top-notch technology access. This is not the time to slow down Internet access.”

John Zilg’s letter is the same as nearly every other in support of Verizon, until he was given the opportunity to include his own remarks, which are completely contrary to everything else in the letter: “It is critical to continue supporting what has already been put into place. I urge you to not change direction.”

It is easily apparent that among the letters in support of Verizon, more than a few were not at all informed about what they were signing, and in many cases actually held completely different views when someone took the time to inquire in more detail. We are also very concerned about the number of invalid e-mail addresses attached to letters that carried no mailing address. On an issue of this importance, it is disturbing to not be certain those communications represent the legitimate views of actual New Jersey residents.

These factors must be taken into consideration as the Board of Public Utilities ponders the public input.

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Comcast’s Capitol Hill Cash Dump: Committees Overseeing Time Warner Merger Getting Big $

comcast stormComcast is dumping a blizzard of cash on Capitol Hill in a late winter storm of lobbying to win approval of its $45 billion buyout of Time Warner Cable.

Politico reports Comcast’s money is bipartisan, with generous checks going into the campaign coffers of Texas Republican Ted Cruz and Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin. In fact, the news site reports Comcast has donated to almost every member of Congress who has a hand in regulating the cable company.

In fact, the only three members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that have not received a contribution from Comcast are Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.)

That Franken did not receive any Comcast cash comes as no surprise after the senator sent his supporters e-mails blistering the merger.

“Comcast reportedly has an army of over 100 lobbyists ready to swarm Capitol Hill and whose goal is to push this through,” Franken wrote. “Their top priority is Comcast’s bottom line — not whether this deal will be good for consumers. There’s also a pretty cozy relationship between Comcast and the regulators that will evaluate this deal, which I find troubling.”

When Politico asked members of Congress whether the generous contributions from the cable giant would influence their thinking about the merger deal, none had any comment.

It’s much the same story in the House of Representatives, according to Politico:

Comcast spreads the cash around.

Comcast spreads the cash around.

On the opposite side of the Capitol, the House Judiciary Committee is readying another hearing on Comcast — and many of its members also are familiar with the company’s financial support. Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), for example, has received $15,000 this cycle from Comcast, some for his leadership PAC and the rest for his personal campaign.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee and its Senate counterpart so far haven’t scheduled their own reviews of the new Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal. But both panels do regulate Comcast by way of their broad jurisdiction over Internet, cable and telephone issues, and they have been canvassed almost entirely by Comcast contributions. The company has given to 50 of 54 of the House committee’s Democrats and Republicans, donating either to their reelection campaigns or their leadership PACs, according to a POLITICO analysis of campaign finance data from Jan. 1, 2013 to Jan. 31, 2014. And Comcast has donated in some way to 20 of 24 lawmakers on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

There has been a total of $12,500 in checks for Walden, the leader of the telecom subcommittee, to both his personal coffers and leadership PAC. Comcast also has given $2,500 to Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), a contender to lead Democrats on the full Energy and Commerce panel following the retirement this year of California Rep. Henry Waxman — another recipient of Comcast support.

Albert Foer, president of the American Antitrust Institute, which opposes the merger, says Comcast’s contributions began long before the merger deal, but that is a well-considered strategy.

It’s “proactive giving,” said Miller, “so that when a corporation needs access in a time of trouble, investigation or oversight, they have already built the quote-unquote relationships they need to soften or make their arguments to a sympathetic audience.”

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Comcast/Time Warner Cable Now Hated More Than Bird Flu

Now that Comcast plans to consume Time Warner Cable in a $45 billion dollar deal, customers hate both companies more than ever.

Time Warner Cable’s consumer perception ratings only slightly recovered since their damaging fist fight with CBS last summer that darkened CBS-owned stations in several large cities and took Showtime and The Movie Channel off subscriber screens nationwide.

But the devil you know is apparently better than the one you don’t, because once consumers learned two of the most loathed cable companies in the country were hooking up, it was all downhill from there.

No cable company rated by YouGov’s BrandIndex has ever scored high enough to get out of the ratings gutter, but once consumers found out about the merger, both Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s ratings plummeted, even though nothing has changed yet at either company as the deal awaits regulator approval:

The American cable industry is notoriously unpopular. But it’s worth noting that other providers have not suffered similar since hits to their brands since the blockbuster deal was announced (including Charter Communications, which was originally expected to buy Time Warner Cable, but missed out).

consumer-perception-comcast-time-warner-cable_chartbuilder-2

us-cable-industry-consumer-perception-cablevision-charter-comcast-cox-time-warner-cable_chartbuilder

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Funny or Die Comcast Doesnt Give A FCK censored 3-2-14.mp4

The folks at Funny or Die created this (censored) short explaining what Comcast thinks about its own customers and those joining the company from Time Warner Cable. (1:45)

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Read Between AT&T’s Landlines: What They Don’t Say Will Cost Kentucky, Other States

Phillip "Another year, another AT&T deregulation measure" Dampier

Phillip “Another year, another AT&T deregulation measure” Dampier

It’s back.

It seems that nearly every year, AT&T and its well-compensated fan base of state legislators trot out the same old deregulation proposals that would end oversight of basic telephone service and allow AT&T (and other phone companies in Kentucky) to pull the plug on landline service wherever they feel it is no longer profitable to deliver.

This year, it’s Senate Bill 99, introduced once again by Sen. Paul “AT&T Knows Best” Hornback (R-Shelbyville). Back in 2012, Hornback disclosed AT&T largely authors these deregulation measures and he introduces them on AT&T’s behalf. In fact, he’s proud to admit it, telling the press nobody knows better than AT&T what the company needs the legislature to do for it.

“You work with the authorities in any industry to figure out what they need to move that industry forward,” Hornback said. “It’s no conflict.”

While Hornback moves AT&T forward, “his” bill will move rural Kentucky’s best chances for broadband backwards.

AT&T always pulls out all the stops when lobbying for its deregulation bills. In Kentucky, AT&T has more than 30 legislative lobbyists, including a former PSC vice chairwoman and past chairs of the state Democratic and Republican parties working on their behalf. It has spent over $100,000 in state political donations since 2007.

The chief provisions of the bill would:

  • End almost all oversight of telephone service by the Public Service Commission anywhere there are more than 15,000 people living within a telephone exchange’s service area;
  • Give Kentucky phone companies the right to disconnect urban/suburban basic landline phone service and replace it with either wireless or Voice over IP service;
  • Allow rural customers to keep landline service for now, but also permits AT&T and other companies to effectively stop investing in their rural wired networks.

yay attThis year, AT&T apparently conceded it was just too tough to convince the legislature to let them disconnect hundreds of thousands of rural Kentucky phone customers at the company’s pleasure, so this time they have permitted rural wired service to continue, with some exceptions that make life easier for AT&T.

First, the end of oversight of telephone service means customers in larger communities in Kentucky will have no recourse if their phone service doesn’t work, is billed incorrectly, is disconnected during a billing dispute, or never installed at all. The PSC has traditionally served as a last resort for customers who do not get satisfaction dealing with the local phone company directly. PSC intervention is taken very seriously by most phone companies, but the state agency will be rendered almost toothless under this bill.

Second, although existing rural phone customers would be able to keep their basic landline service (for now) under this measure, nothing prevents AT&T from marketing alternative wireless phone service to customers experiencing problems with their existing service. Verizon has attempted that in portions of upstate New York, where telephone network deterioration has led to increased complaints. In some cases, Verizon has suggested customers switch to wireless service instead of waiting for phone line repairs which may or may not solve the problem. New rural customers face the possibility of only being offered wireless or alternative phone services.

Third, provisions in the bill give AT&T and other companies wide latitude to offer wireless or Voice over IP alternatives to landline service with little recourse for customers who only later discover these alternatives don’t support faxes, medical or security alarm monitoring, dial-up Internet, credit card processing, etc.

Fourth, the bill eliminates any requirement imposed upon broadband service in existence as of July 15, 2004. In fact, the measure specifically defines both phone and broadband service as “market-based and not subject to state administrative regulation.” That basically means service will be unregulated.

AT&T's wireless home phone replacement

AT&T’s wireless home phone replacement

Here are some real world examples of where S.B. 99 could trip up consumers:

  1. An elderly Louisville couple living the summer months in Louisville discover their phone service has been switched to the U-verse platform over the winter as AT&T seeks to decommission its deteriorating landline network in the neighborhood. S.B. 99 offers customers a 30-day opt out provision upon first notification, allowing a customer dissatisfied with the alternative service the right to switch back to their landline. But this couple was in Florida during the 30-day window, did not receive the notification to opt out in time to act, and are now stuck with U-verse. Unfortunately, the home medical monitoring equipment for his pacemaker does not work with Voice over IP phone service. This couple’s recourse: None.
  2. A customer moves into a new home currently served by AT&T’s wireless home phone replacement service. The customer doesn’t like the sound quality of the service and wants a traditional landline instead. Her recourse: None.
  3. A retired couple uninterested in broadband service or television from AT&T U-verse suddenly discovers AT&T wants to raise prices on landline phone service, but offers savings if the couple agrees to sign up for U-verse. Instead of paying a $25 monthly phone bill, the couple is now being asked, on a fixed income, to pay $100 a month for services they don’t want or need. Their recourse: They can appeal to keep their landline if they meet the aforementioned deadline, but they have no recourse if AT&T raises rates for basic phone service to make its discounted bundled service package seem more attractive.

Hood Harris, president of AT&T Kentucky, follows the same playback AT&T always uses when pushing these bills by framing its argument around landline telephone service regulation, which is an easy sell for cell phone-crazy customers who have not made a landline call in years:

Harris

Harris

Some of Kentucky’s laws that regulate our phones were written before cable television, cell phones, the Internet or email existed.

Because of these outdated laws, providers like AT&T must sink resources into outdated technology that could be invested in the modern broadband and wireless technology consumers want and need.

Every dollar invested in old technology is a dollar not being invested in speeding up the build out of new technology across the commonwealth.

It’s no longer the 19th century coming into your home over the old, voice-only phone network that was put in place under now-outdated laws. It’s the 21st century coming into your home over modern networks. While technology has changed dramatically for the better in just the past few years, our laws have not.

Despite what you may have heard, SB 99 will not remove landlines from rural homes or businesses.

Instead, this legislation puts those customers in charge of deciding which communications services they want and need. If you are a rural customer, for example, you may choose to join the nearly 40 percent of Kentuckians who already have moved on from landline home phones and gone only with a wireless phone, or you may choose a landline phone that’s provided over the Internet (known as Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP), or you may choose both a VoIP and a wireless service.

But you do not have to — you can keep your existing landline phone if you like. Under SB 99, the choice is yours.

It’s seems like a logical argument, until you read between the lines. Harris implies that those old-fashioned laws governing landlines you don’t have anymore are slowing down AT&T from bringing about a Broadband Renaissance for Kentucky. If AT&T only was freed from the responsibility of patching up its copper wire phone network, it could spend all of its time, money, and attention on improving cell phone service and bring broadband to everyone. Harris promises every resident will have a choice to get the service they want — wireless or wired — as long as you remember he is only talking about basic phone service, not broadband.

If your community isn't highlighted on this map, AT&T has a wireless-only future in store for you.

If your community isn’t highlighted on this map, AT&T has a wireless-only future in store for you.

Harris avoids disclosing AT&T’s true agenda. The company has freely admitted to shareholders it wants to scrap its rural wired network, now considered too costly to maintain for a diminishing number of customers. Unlike independent phone companies like Frontier, AT&T has been in no hurry to upgrade these rural customers for broadband service. AT&T has not even bothered to apply for federal broadband funding assistance to defray some of the costs of extending DSL to its rural customer base. With no possibility of buying broadband from AT&T, customers have little incentive to keep wired service if a cell phone will do. But decommissioning landline service in rural Kentucky guarantees these customers will probably never receive adequate broadband.

The "long term cost reduction" AT&T mentions above is for them, not for you.

The “long-term cost reduction” AT&T mentions above is for them, not for you.

AT&T claims it will invest the savings in a wireless broadband network for rural customers, but as any smartphone owner will attest, AT&T’s wireless service is much more expensive than traditional phone service and its data plans are stingy and very expensive. Customers who can buy DSL from AT&T pay as little as $14.99 a month for up to 150GB of usage. A wireless data plan with AT&T for a home computer or notebook starts at $50 a month and only provides 5GB of usage before customers face a $10 per gigabyte overlimit fee. Which would you prefer: paying $14.99 for 150GB of usage with AT&T DSL or $1,500 for the same amount of usage on AT&T’s wireless network?

AT&T’s claims it will expand broadband as a result of not having to spend money on its landline network are specious. In fact, regardless of whether Kentucky passes S.B. 99 or not, AT&T has already embarked on its last known U-verse expansion. Project Velocity IP (VIP) devotes $6 billion to expanding U-verse to 57 million homes, reaching 75% of customer locations by the end of 2015. For the remaining 25% of customers, mostly in rural areas, AT&T’s plan isn’t to spend more money on improved wired service. Instead, it will build out its wireless network to serve the remaining customers with its LTE wireless broadband service — the same one that costs you $1,500 a month if you use 150GB.

Wireless is a cash cow for AT&T, so even saddled with its landline network, the company still spends the bulk of its investments on the wireless side of the business. Project VIP could have devoted all its resources to bringing U-verse to a larger customer base, but it won’t. AT&T sees much fatter profits spending $14 billion now to expand its wireless 4G LTE network and collect a lot more money later from its rural Kentucky customers.

Kentucky residents who don’t have U-verse in their area by the end of 2015 are probably never going to get the service, with or without S.B. 99. So why support a measure that delivers all the benefits to AT&T and leaves you sorting through the fine print just to keep the service you have now at a reasonable price. In every other state where AT&T has won deregulation, it raises the rates with no corresponding improvement in service.

Just how bad can AT&T’s wireless home phone replacement be? Just look at their disclaimers:

AT&T Wireless Home Phone is not compatible with home security systems, fax machines, medical alert and monitoring services, credit card machines, IP/PBX Phone systems, or dial-up Internet service. AT&T’s fine print on its website.

“AT&T’s wireless services are not equivalent to wireline Internet.” Wireless Customer Agreement, Section 4.1.

“WE DO NOT GUARANTEE YOU UNINTERRUPTED SERVICE OR COVERAGE. WE CANNOT ASSURE YOU THAT IF YOU PLACE A 911 CALL YOU WILL BE FOUND.” (All caps in original). Section 4.1.

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Sen. Al Franken vs. Time Warner Cable/Comcast Merger

Franken

Franken

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has turned over much of his campaign website to expressing concern about the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

Franken has maintained a comparatively low profile since arriving in the U.S. Senate and rarely grants interviews to reporters outside of Minnesota, but after the announced $45 billion merger deal between the two largest cable companies in the country, he started making exceptions.

Franken has repeatedly tangled with Comcast, the dominant cable operator in his home state, since being elected. He favors Net Neutrality/Open Internet policies, strongly opposed Comcast’s purchase of NBCUniversal, and believes cable rates are too high and service quality is too low.

Although the senator claims he remains undecided about the merger, his public comments suggest he is likely going to oppose the deal.

“We need more competition, not less,” said Franken, who mocked Comcast’s claim that the two cable companies never compete with each other. “This is going exactly in the wrong direction. Consumers, I am very concerned, are going to pay higher bills and get even worse service and less choice.”

Although the merger will leave the combined company serving nearly one in three households, Comcast says it plans to keep its total nationwide broadband market share under 30%. But Franken points out Comcast isn’t just a cable company. It also owns a major television network and has ownership interests in nearly three dozen cable networks and television stations around the country — many in America’s largest cities.

Franken mass e-mailed his campaign supporters to express concern about the current state of the cable and broadband business and asked consumers what they thought about their cable company. More than 60,000 have shared their mostly negative views so far.

Minnesota Public Radio takes a closer look at why Sen. Al Franken is interested in the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast. Feb. 24, 2014 (4:32)
You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

competitionThat may prove to be smart politics for Franken, seen as a polarizing figure in the left-right divide. The near-universal loathing among consumers for both Comcast and Time Warner Cable threaten to rise above traditional partisan politics. Republican lawmakers have kept largely quiet about the merger deal, and some are even openly questioning it. Franken may tapped into a re-election issue that voters across Minnesota are likely to support — especially older Republican-leaning independents.

Franken claims his survey is trying to level the playing field by getting consumers involved in the issue. For Washington regulators accustomed to only hearing from company lobbyists and various third party groups often financially tied to merger advocates, it could be a game-changer.

Comcast’s connections in Washington are legendary. Former Republican FCC commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker wasted no time taking a job as a senior Comcast lobbyist shortly after voting in favor of Comcast’s buyout of NBCUniversal. Former Republican FCC chairman Michael Powell today heads the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the cable industry’s largest lobbying group and supporter of the merger.

The merger deal’s regulatory review will be conducted by current FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, a past president of the NCTA and former cable and wireless industry lobbyist. Bill Baer is in charge of the Antitrust Division that will examine the merger at the U.S. Department of Justice. His last job was leading the law firm that represented NBC in support of the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN Al Franken Talks With CNN About TWC-Comcast Merger 2-13-14.flv

Sen. Al Franken spoke to CNN’s Jake Tapper earlier this month about the Time Warner Cable-Comcast merger. Tapper admitted he dropped Comcast because he was dissatisfied with their service. (7:45)

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Even Glenn Beck Isn’t Impressed with the Time Warner Cable-Comcast Merger

Phillip Dampier February 24, 2014 Comcast/Xfinity, Time Warner Cable 9 Comments
Beck

Beck

Glenn Beck and his independent network TheBlaze are not happy about Time Warner Cable and Comcast merging operations and think it will concentrate too much power in the hands of a single entity that already ignores independent voices seeking a spot on the cable dial.

Beck left Fox News Channel to help start a new network — TheBlaze — that began as GBTV, an online streaming video operation. In the fall of 2012, the network, which airs more than 40 hours a week of new programming, secured exclusive carriage on Dish, the satellite television provider. Now that the exclusivity agreement has expired, TheBlaze management and viewers have launched a very vocal campaign to get the channel on cable systems across the country. The venture has been modestly successful with smaller cable operators like Buckeye Cablevision in Ohio and ETC Communications in Michigan. Beck’s network can also be seen on Cablevision’s lineup in the suburbs of New York City. But for most of the country, the only way to watch is to stream it online for $9.95 a month/$99.95 a year. Large cable systems have so far shown little interest in picking up the network.

“Comcast is one of the bigger pains in the neck for TheBlaze,” Beck told his radio listeners.

“Since launching the GetTheBlaze campaign, 50 small, midsized and major cable systems have begun carrying our network,” said TheBlaze CEO Chris Balfe. “These are the cable systems that must be responsive to their customers to survive. Monopoly type [multichannel video programming distributors] like Comcast and Time Warner Cable do not have a good history of listening to customers or supporting independent programmers whose content is in demand like TheBlaze. While we are skeptical that giving Comcast even more market power will benefit consumers, promote competition or lead to more diversity of voices, we will continue our successful campaign because eventually, even giants have to listen to what their customers want.”

theblaze_logo_2x“Look, the amount of decision makers, which is so surprisingly small in the industry in general, is potentially getting smaller,” Steve Krakauer, TheBlaze’s vice president of digital content told POLITICO. “Keeping up the fight is so important.”

Cable industry observers agree that life can be difficult for an unaffiliated independent cable network. Ovation found itself thrown off Time Warner Cable’s lineup for nearly a year because of a lack of original programming and miniscule ratings. But networks owned by studios like Universal or large broadcasting entities like Viacom stay, despite similar viewer response. Ovation had no leverage to compel continued carriage. Networks owned by larger companies often do, because they are packaged and sold to cable operators in a bundle. A cable company refusing to carry one low-rated cable network could be threatened with a much more expensive rate for the channels it does want or even face the loss of larger, must-have channels owned by the same company.

Polka

Polka

Beck isn’t alone being concerned.

The American Cable Association, a trade group that represents small and medium-sized cable operators, said it is carefully considering the potential impact of the merger on the cost of video programming sold to smaller operators.

“ACA has long acknowledged many problems in the pay-TV market, including the soaring cost of retransmission consent and sports networks and the record-setting number of broadcaster-imposed TV signal blackouts,” CEO Matthew Polka said in a statement. “ACA will be looking closely to see whether this transaction makes matters worse for small and medium-sized cable operators and their customers.”

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Peer Wars: Netflix SuperHD Streaming May Explain Video Traffic Slowdowns for Some Customers

The largest drops in streaming speeds are coming from ISPs that may be stalling necessary upgrades at the expense of their customers' online experience.

The largest drops in Netflix streaming speeds are coming from ISPs that may be stalling necessary upgrades at the cost of their paying customers’ online experience.

Netflix performance for Verizon customers is deteriorating because Verizon may be delaying bandwidth upgrades until it receives compensation for handling the growing amount of traffic coming from the online video provider.

Verizon customers have increasingly complained about Netflix slowdowns during prime-time, especially in the northeast, and Netflix’s latest statistics confirm FiOS customers have seen average performance drop by as much as 14% in the last month alone.

Verizon told Stop the Cap! a few weeks ago the company was not interfering with Netflix traffic or degrading its performance, but there is growing evidence that may not be the whole story. The Wall Street Journal reports Netflix and at least one bandwidth provider suspect phone and cable companies are purposely stalling on upgrading connections to handle traffic growth from Netflix until they are compensated for carrying its video traffic.

The dispute involves the plumbing behind parts of the Internet that are invisible to consumers. As more people stream movies and television, that infrastructure is getting strained, intensifying the debate over who should pay for upgrades needed to satisfy America’s online-video habit.

Netflix wants broadband companies to hook up to its new video-distribution network without paying them fees for carrying its traffic. But the biggest U.S. providers—Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and AT&T Inc. —have resisted, insisting on compensation.

The bottleneck has made Netflix unwatchable for Jen Zellinger, an information-technology manager from Carney, Md., who signed up for the service last month. She couldn’t play an episode of “Breaking Bad” without it stopping, she said, even after her family upgraded their FiOS Internet service to a faster, more expensive package. “We tried a couple other shows, and it didn’t seem to make any difference,” she said. Mrs. Zellinger said she plans to drop her Netflix service soon if the picture doesn’t improve, though she will likely hold on to her upgraded FiOS subscription.

She and her husband thought about watching “House of Cards,” but she said they probably will skip it. “We’d be interested in getting to that if we could actually pull up the show,” she said.

Netflix relies on third-party traffic distributors to deliver much of its streamed programming to customers around the country. Cogent Communications Group is a Netflix favorite. Cogent maintains two-way connections with many Internet Service Providers. When incoming and outgoing traffic are generally balanced, providers don’t complain. But when Cogent started delivering far more traffic to Verizon customers than what it receives from them, Verizon sought compensation for the disparity.

“When one party’s getting all the benefit and the other’s carrying all the cost, issues will arise,” Craig Silliman, Verizon’s head of public policy and government affairs told the newspaper. The imbalance is primarily coming from the growth of online video, and as higher definition video grows more popular, traffic imbalances can grow dramatically worse.

A spat last summer between Cogent and some ISPs is nearly identical to the current slowdown. Ars Technica reported the traditional warning signs providers used to start upgrades are increasingly being ignored:

“Typically what happened is when the connections reached about 50 percent utilization, the two parties agreed to upgrade them and they would be upgraded in a timely manner,” Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer told Ars. “Over the past year or so, as we have continued to pick up Netflix traffic, Verizon has continuously slowed down the rate of upgrading those connections, allowing the interconnections to become totally saturated and therefore degrading the quality of throughput.”

Schaeffer said this is true of all the big players to varying degrees, naming Comcast, Time Warner, CenturyLink, and AT&T. Out of those, he said that “AT&T is the best behaved of the bunch.”

Letting ports fill up can be a negotiating tactic. Verizon and Cogent each have to spend about $10,000 for equipment when a port is added, Schaeffer said—pocket change for companies of this size. But instead of the companies sharing equal costs, Verizon wants Cogent to pay because more traffic is flowing from Cogent to Verizon than vice versa.

Cablevision, which participates in Netflix's Open Connect program experiences no significant speed degradation during prime time. The same cannot be said with Time Warner Cable, which refuses to participate.

Cablevision, which participates in Netflix’s Open Connect program, experiences no significant speed degradation during prime time. The same cannot be said of Time Warner Cable, which refuses to take part.

Netflix offered a solution to help Internet Service Providers manage its video traffic. Netflix’s Open Connect offers free peering at common Internet exchanges as well as free storage appliances that ISPs can connect directly to their network to distribute video to customers. Free is always good, and Netflix claims many ISPs around the world have already taken them up on the offer, slashing their transit costs along the way.

A few major North American ISPs have also agreed to take part in Open Connect, including Frontier Communications, Clearwire, Telus, Bell, Cablevision and Google Fiber. Open Connect participating ISPs also got an initial bonus for participating they could offer customers – exclusive access to SuperHD streaming.

But most Americans would not get super high-resolution streaming because the largest ISP’s refused to participate, seeking direct compensation from content providers to carry traffic across their digital pipes instead.

On Sep. 26, 2013 Netflix decided to offer SuperHD streaming to all customers, regardless of their ISP. As a result, one major ISP told the newspaper Netflix traffic from Cogent at least quadrupled. ISPs taking Netflix up on Open Connect saw almost no degradation from the increased traffic, but not so for Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Comcast customers.

Net Neutrality advocates fear the country’s largest phone and cable companies are making an end-run around the concept of an Open Internet. Providers can honestly guarantee not to interfere with certain web traffic, but also refuse to keep up with needed upgrades to accommodate it unless they receive payment. The slowdowns and unsatisfactory performance are the same in the end for those caught in the middle – paying customers.

“Customers are already paying for it,” said industry observer Benoît Felten. “You sell a service to the end-user which is you can access the Internet. You make a huge margin on that. Why should they get extra revenue for something that’s already being paid for?”

Some of the web’s biggest players including Microsoft, Google and Facebook may have already capitulated — agreeing to pay major providers for direct connections that guarantee a smoother browsing experience. Netflix has, thus far, held out against paying ISPs to properly manage the video content their subscribers want to watch but in some cases no longer can.

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House of (Credit) Cards: How to Blow Through Your Usage Cap With One Netflix Show

house-of-cards

“…every kitten grows up to be a cat. They seem so harmless, at first, small, quiet, lapping up their saucer of milk. But once their claws get long enough, they draw blood, sometimes from the hand that feeds them. For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: Hunt or be hunted.” — Francis Underwood

Addicts of Netflix’s hit series House of Cards may need to grab a card of a different kind to cover overlimit fees charged by your Internet Service Provider for blowing past your usage allowance.

As online video streaming moves into the realm of 4K — the next generation of high-definition video — watching television shows and movies online could get very expensive because of the massive file sizes involved. It’s all just in time for ISP’s increasing enforcement of usage caps.

courtesy-notice-640x259Gizmodo just did the math for those intending to spend a weekend watching the entire second season of the made-for-Netflix series in high-definition:

Streaming in 1080p on Netflix takes up 4.7GB/hour. So a regular one-hour episode of something debiting less than 5GB from your allotment is no big deal. However, with 4K, you’ve got quadruple the pixel count, so you’re burning through 18.8GB/hour. Even if you’re streaming with the new h.265 codec—which cuts the bit rate by about half, but still hasn’t found its way into many consumer products—you’re still looking at 7GB/hour.

But you’re not watching just one episode, are you? Of course not! You’re binging on House of Cards, watching the whole series if not in one weekend then certainly in one month. That’s 639 minutes of top-quality TV, which in 4K tallies up to 75GB if you’re using the latest and greatest codec, and nearly 200GB if not. That means, best case scenario, a quarter of your cap—a third, if you’re a U-Verse customer with a 250GB cap—spent on one television show. Throw in a normal month’s internet usage, and you’re toast.

Sure you can send 900+ emails, download hundreds of songs, upload hundreds of pictures, but you can't watch one standard and one HD movie a day at the same time without blowing past your AT&T DSL limit.

Sure you can send 900+ emails, download hundreds of songs, upload hundreds of pictures, and play online games 24 hours a day, but you can’t also watch one standard and one HD movie a day at the same time without blowing well past your AT&T DSL limit.

What is worse is that h.265 is still more theoretical than actually available to most consumers, so customers will either have to settle with degraded video or prepare to eat close to 19GB an hour at the highest resolution. No wonder Netflix has introduced video degradation settings to save you from your ISP’s arbitrary cap. Of course, your video quality will suffer, especially on a big screen television.

Comcast customers (and presumably Time Warner Cable customers also eventually subjected to Comcast’s cap) will still have a generous 100GB left over to watch, browse, and send that avalanche of e-mails usage cappers love to boast about. If you live in the reality-based community and have a family active online, that 100GB isn’t going to go too far. Video game addicts regularly face downloading huge updates, many ranging from 8-12GB apiece. Call of Duty: Ghosts? That’s 39.5GB. Madden NFL 25? Another 12.51GB, says Gizmodo. Using a file backup cloud storage service can also eat your allowance for breakfast.

Gizmodo also mentions Sony’s Unlimited Video service has 70 titles (and growing) available in 4K. A Sony representative admits a single two-hour movie will burn up 40GB. Watch a few of those and you are well on your way to blowing your allowance Vegas-style.

AT&T cooked up the arbitrary de facto standard overlimit fee now adopted by many American ISPs, and granular it isn’t. Exceed your allowance by even 1 kilobyte and you will be charged an extra $10 for 50 extra gigabytes. Because AT&T, Comcast, Suddenlink, and others are not already paid enough for broadband service and their modem rental.

Online video is the online application most likely to put you over your limit. Most ISPs don’t like to talk about that, however. They prefer to explain caps in terms of activities no online user is likely to ever exceed, including sending thousands of e-mails, viewing hundreds of thousands of web pages, transferring boatloads of songs and images, and watching YouTube videos at low resolution.

If you don’t watch online video, your cable or phone company thanks you for paying for cable television instead. If you haven’t used a peer-to-peer network in years, chances are you won’t exceed any limits either. But as Internet usage continues to evolve, anything that appears to be a competitive threat delivered over your ISP’s broadband pipe can be effectively controlled with the elimination of flat rate Internet service and imposing overlimit fees that deter usage.

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Comcast Reaches Surprise Agreement to Acquire All of Time Warner Cable for $44 Billion

timewarner twcComcast will announce later this morning it has reached an agreement to acquire all of Time Warner Cable in an all-stock deal worth $44 billion.

If approved by regulators, Comcast will dramatically increase its size as the nation’s largest cable operator with over 33 million subscribers — vastly outnumbering every other cable company in the country. It also likely means Time Warner Cable broadband subscribers will eventually be subject to Comcast’s usage caps and overlimit fees, now being market tested around the country.

The offer of $159 a share for Time Warner Cable stock – $1 less than what TWC CEO Rob Marcus demanded for a buyout – is far higher than the $133 a share in cash and stock offered earlier by Charter Communications.

Tonight’s revelation that Time Warner Cable and Comcast reached a deal, first reported by CNBC, likely caught Charter by surprise. Charter had tried to acquire Time Warner Cable for months, going as far as nominating candidates for TWC’s board of directors that could have influenced a sale of the company. At the same time, Charter thought it was negotiating a friendly deal with Comcast to divide Time Warner Cable territories between the two companies.

Comcast-LogoTime Warner Cable management offered no clues they were negotiating with Comcast and delivered a presentation to shareholders last week promising major upgrades for Time Warner customers and future success as a standalone cable operator. All of those plans are now in doubt.

Comcast and Time Warner Cable reportedly believe the deal will quickly pass any antitrust review before the end of the year because neither company competes in the same markets, but Comcast will offer to divest a token three million subscribers from the combined company, according to sources.

The FCC formerly limited cable companies from owning or controlling more than 30% of the cable industry, but Comcast successfully sued to have that ownership cap overturned. A belief the deal would present looming antitrust problems could be grounds for the U.S. Department of Justice to oppose the deal, likely terminating it.

monopolyConsumer groups hope the deal gets derailed as soon as possible.

“In an already uncompetitive market with high prices that keep going up and up, a merger of the two biggest cable companies should be unthinkable,” said Free Press president Craig Aaron. “This deal would be a disaster for consumers and must be stopped. No one woke up this morning wishing their cable company was bigger or had more control over what they could watch or download. But that — along with higher bills — is  the reality they’ll face tomorrow unless the Department of Justice and the FCC do their jobs and block this merger. Stopping this kind of deal is exactly why we have antitrust laws.”

“It is simply dangerous for a large proportion of our nation’s critical communications infrastructure to be in the hands of one provider,” said Public Knowledge staff attorney John Bergmayer. “It is already the nation’s largest ISP, the nation’s largest video provider, and the nation’s largest home phone provider.  It also controls a movie studio, broadcast network, and many popular cable channels. An enlarged Comcast would be the bully in the schoolyard, able to dictate terms to content creators, Internet companies, other communications networks that must interconnect with it, and distributors who must access its content.”
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