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Stop the Cap!’s Open Letter to N.Y. Public Service Commission: No Rush to Judgment

letterhead

August 19, 2015

Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess
Secretary, Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223-1350

Case Number: 14-C-0370

Dear Ms. Burgess,

After years of allowing the telecommunications industry in New York to operate with little or no oversight, the need for an extensive and comprehensive review of the impact of New York’s regulatory policies has never been greater.

Let us remind the Commission of the status quo:

  • As Verizon winds down its FiOS initiative, other states are getting cutting-edge services like Google Fiber, AT&T U-verse with GigaPower, CenturyLink Prism, and other gigabit-speed broadband service competition. In contrast, the largest telecommunications companies in New York have stalled offering better service to New Yorkers.
  • Time Warner Cable has left all of upstate New York with no better than 50/5Mbps broadband – a top speed that has not risen in at least five years.
  • Frontier Communications has announced fiber upgrades in service areas it is acquiring while its largest New York service area – Rochester, languishes with copper-based ADSL service that often delivers no better than 3-6Mbps, well below the FCC’s minimum 25Mbps definition of broadband.
  • Verizon Communications, the state’s largest telephone company, is accused of reneging on its FiOS commitments in New York City and has left upstate New York cities with nothing better than DSL service, giving Time Warner Cable a monopoly on 25+Mbps broadband in most areas. It has also talked openly of selling off its rural landline network or scrapping it altogether, potentially forcing customers to an inferior wireless landline replacement it calls Voice Link.

As the Commission is also well aware, there are a number of recent high-profile issues relating to telecommunications matters that have a direct impact on consumers and businesses in this state – some that are currently before the Commission for review. Largest among them is another acquisition involving Time Warner Cable, this time from Charter Communications. That single issue alone will impact the majority of broadband consumers in New York because Time Warner Cable is the state’s dominant Internet Service Provider for high speed Internet services, especially upstate.

These issues are of monumental importance to the comprehensive examination and study of the telecommunications industry in New York promised by Chairwoman Audrey Zibelman. The Charter-Time Warner Cable merger alone has the potential of affecting millions of New York residents for years to come.

Although this study was first announced to Speaker Sheldon Silver, the Honorable Jeffrey Klein, and the Honorable Dean Skelos in a letter on March 28, 2014, followed up by a notification that Chairwoman Zibelman intended to commence the study within 45 days of her letter of May 13, 2014, the first public notice seeking comments from stakeholders and consumers was issued more than a year later on June 23, 2015 (less than two months ago), with comments due by August 24, 2015.

With respect, providing a 60-day comment window in the middle of summer along with a handful of public hearings scattered across the state with as little as three weeks’ advance notice is wholly inadequate for a broad study of this importance. The Commission’s ambitious schedule to contemplate the state of telecommunications across all of New York State will likely be shorter than the review of the 2014-2015 Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger transaction which started May 15, 2014 and ended April 30, 2015.

We have heard from New York residents upset about how the Commission is handling its review. One complained to us the Commission had more than a year to prepare for its study while giving New York residents short notice to attend poorly advertised public hearings in a distant city, and two months at most to share their feelings with the Commission in writing. One woman described having to find a hearing that was, at best, 60 miles away and located at a city hall unfamiliar to those not local to the area, where suitable parking was inconvenient and difficult as she attempted a lengthy walk to the hearing location at the age of 69.

Several of our members also complained there are more suitable public-friendly venues beyond paid parking downtown city administration buildings or deserted campuses in the middle of summer break. Many asked why the Commission does not seem to have a social media presence or sponsor live video streaming of hearings where residents can participate by phone or online and avoid inconvenient travel to a distant city. Perhaps the Commission could be enlightened to see how New York’s telecommunications companies actually perform during such a hearing.

While we think it is very useful for the Commission to have direct input from the public, we are uncertain about how the Commission intends to manage those comments. We were disappointed to find no public outline of what the Commission intended to include in its evaluation of a topic as broad as “the state of telecommunications in New York.”

Too often, providers downplay service complaints from consumers as “anecdotal evidence” or “isolated incidents.” But if the Commission sought specific input on a topic such as the availability of FiOS in Manhattan, consumers can provide useful input on the exact location(s) where service was requested but not provided.

If the Commission received information from an incumbent provider claiming it was providing broadband service to low income residents, consumers could share on-point experiences as to whether those claims were true, true with conditions the Commission might not be aware of (paperwork requirements, onerous terms, etc.) or false.

If the Commission sought input on rural broadband, providers might point to a broadband availability map that suggests there is robust competition and customer choice. But the Commission could learn from residents asked to share their direct experiences that the map was inaccurate or outdated, including providers that only service commercial customers, or those that cannot provide service that qualifies as “broadband” by the Federal Communications Commission.

A full and open investigation is essential to finding the truth about telecommunications in New York. The Commission needs to understand whether problems are unique to one customer in one part of the state or common among a million people statewide. We urge the Commission to rethink its current approach.

New Yorkers deserve public fact-finding hearings inviting input on the specific issues the Commission is exploring. New Yorkers need longer comment windows, more notice of public hearings, and a generous extension of the current deadline(s) to allow comments to be received for at least 60 additional days.

Most critically, we need hearings bringing the public and stakeholders together to offer sometimes-adversarial testimony to build a factual, evidence-based record on which the Commission can credibly defend its oversight of the telecommunications services that are a critical part of every New Yorker’s life.

The Commission’s policies going forward may have a profound effect on making sure an elderly couple in the Adirondacks can keep a functioning landline, if affordable Internet will be available to an economically-distressed single working mother in the Bronx, or if upstate New York can compete in the new digital economy with gigabit fiber broadband to support small businesses like those run by former employees of downsized companies like Eastman Kodak and Xerox in Rochester.

Yours very truly,

Phillip M. Dampier
Director

Consumers Storm FCC With 2,000+ Net Neutrality Complaints About Data Caps, Poor Service

angry guyIt didn’t take long for consumers to start flooding the Federal Communications Commission with thousands of complaints about poor Internet service, usage caps, and speed throttles.

The complaints arrived as the FCC began formally enforcing Net Neutrality by reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service, subject to oversight by the federal agency.

Consumers used the occasion to deluge the commission about the sorry state of Internet access in the United States, whether it constituted a Net Neutrality violation or not.

National Journal obtained a sample of 50 complaints through a Freedom of Information Act request and it was clear data caps were at or near the top of the complaints list and consumers wasted no time slamming cable and phone companies over the practice.

“Our data should not be capped at 350[GB]!!!!” one consumer pleaded, likely a Suddenlink or Mediacom customer, which both have 350GB caps on certain speed tiers. “Please, please make data caps illegal!!”

fccNo more Netflix and Hulu watching for this family: “I have to tell my kids to stop using YouTube and other services and stuff they need for school so we don’t go over the cap,” another consumer wrote, explaining that their Internet-enabled home security camera uses up a significant amount of their monthly data. “By Comcast having this data cap, I don’t have a open Internet … I also think this data cap is very inaccurate, it goes up without anybody being home, and sometimes by a lot.”

Comcast also received heat for poor performing broadband service, with one customer forced to use Wi-Fi at a local McDonalds to take an online exam because Internet service at home was so poor.

“The Comcast modem is such crap that we can’t even access the Internet,” the consumer wrote. “I’m livid.”

AT&T was roasted for speed throttling its “unlimited data” wireless plan — a practice that already resulted in a $100 million fine from the FCC for misleading consumers. AT&T is appealing.

In all, the FCC reports it received about 2,000 complaints from consumers in June, the first month Net Neutrality rules took effect. The agency has just 30 days to respond to the complaints, most lodged using this online form. The FCC may be able to answer many with a form letter because poor service and usage caps are not strict violations of Net Neutrality, unless the FCC determines the practices “unreasonably interfere” with Internet access. AT&T’s speed throttling comes a lot closer to meeting that test, because many throttled customers report their wireless data service is rendered effectively unusable once throttled.

But the broad-ranging complaints may still prove useful, suggesting to the FCC stronger rules and oversight are required for a broadband market many consider barely competitive and often customer abusive.

Seeking comment, National Journal reported the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the U.S. Telecom Association, which both represent major Internet providers and have sued to overturn the regulations, declined to comment on the complaints.

Charter Asks FCC to Approve Time Warner Cable/Bright House Merger; Stop the Cap! Urges Changes

charter twc bhCharter Communications last week filed its 362 page redacted Public Interest Statement laying out its case to win approval of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, to be run under the Charter banner.

“Charter may not be a household name for all Americans, but it has developed into an industry leader by implementing customer and Internet-friendly business practices,” its statement reads.

The sprawling document is effectively a sales pitch to federal regulators to accept Charter’s contention the merger is in the public interest, and the company promises a range of voluntary and committed service upgrades it says will improve the customer experience for those becoming a part of what will be America’s second largest cable operator.

Charter’s proposed upgrades fall under several categories of direct interest to consumers:

Broadband: Charter will commit to upgrade customers to 60Mbps broadband within 30 months (about 2.5 years) after the deal is approved. That could mean some Time Warner Cable customers will still be serviced with standard speeds of 15Mbps as late as 2018. Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program will be effectively frozen in place and will continue in only those areas “consistent with Time Warner Cable’s existing deployment plans.” That will leave out a large sections of the country not on the upgrade list. Charter has committed to impose no data caps, usage-based pricing or modem fees, but only for three years, after which it will be free to change those policies at will.

Wi-Fi: Charter promises to build on Time Warner’s 100,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, most in just a few cities, and Bright House’s denser network of 45,000 hotspots with a commitment to build at least 300,000 new hotspots across Charter’s expanded service area within four years. Charter will also evaluate deploying cable modems that also act as public Wi-Fi hotspots. Comcast already offers over 500,000 hotspots with plans for many more, making Charter’s wireless commitment less ambitious than what Comcast today offers customers.

Cable-TV: Charter has committed to moving all Time Warner and Bright House systems to all-digital service within 30 months. Customers will need to lease set-top boxes designed to handle Charter’s encryption system for all cable connected televisions. Among those boxes includes Charter’s new, IP-capable Worldbox CPE and cloud-based Spectrum Guide user interface system.

Video on the Go: Charter will adopt Time Warner Cable’s streaming platform and apps to provide 300 streaming television channels to customers watching from inside their homes (a small fraction of those channels are available while outside of the home). Customers will not be able to watch on-demand recorded DVR shows from portable devices, but can program their DVRs from apps or the website.

Discount Internet for the Poor: Charter references the fact its minimum entry-level broadband speed is 60Mbps so that does not bode well for Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Priced Internet $14.99 slow-speed Internet plan. Instead Charter will build upon Bright House Networks’ mysterious broadband program for low-income consumers.

Based on Charter’s initial proposal, Stop the Cap! will urge state and federal regulators to require changes of these terms before approving any merger. Among them:

  1. All existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House service areas should be upgraded to meet or exceed the levels of service offered by Time Warner Cable’s Maxx program within 30 months. It is not acceptable to upgrade some customers while others are left with a much more modest upgrade program proposed by Charter;
  2. Charter must commit to Net Neutrality principles without an expiration date;
  3. Regardless of any usage-cap or usage-based pricing plans Charter may introduce after its three-year “no caps” commitment expires, Charter must permanently continue to offer unlimited, flat rate Internet service at a reasonable price as an alternative to usage-priced plans;
  4. Customers must be given the option of opting out of any leased/provided-modem Wi-Fi hotspot plan that offers a wireless connection to outside users without the customer’s consent;
  5. Charter must commit to a more specific Wi-Fi hotspot program that details towns and cities to be serviced and proposed pricing for non-customers;
  6. Charter must allow customers to use their own set-top equipment (eg. Roku, Apple TV, etc.) to receive cable television service without compulsory equipment/rental fees. The company must also commit to offering discount alternatives such as DTAs for secondary televisions and provide an option for income-challenged customers compelled to accept new equipment to continue receiving cable television service;
  7. Charter must retain Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Priced $14.99 Internet plan regardless of any other low-income discount program it offers. If it chooses to adopt Bright House’s program, it must broaden it to accept applications year-round, simplify the application process and eliminate any waiting periods;
  8. Charter must commit to independent verification of customer quality and service standards and adhere to any regulatory guidelines imposed by state or federal regulators as a condition of approval.
  9. Charter must commit to expansion of its cable network into a reasonable number of adjacent, unserved areas by committing a significant percentage (to be determined) of measurable financial benefits of the merger to the company or its executives towards this effort.

Stop the Cap! will closely monitor the proceedings and intends to participate on both the state (New York) and federal level to guarantee any merger provides consumers with an equitable share of the benefits. We will also be examining the impact of the merger on existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House employees and will promote merger conditions that protect jobs and limit outsourcing, especially overseas.

French Economic Minister to Patrick “The Slasher” Drahi: No “Too Big to Fail” Telecoms Here

logo-bouygues-telecomToday’s offer by Altice SA to spent $11 billion to acquire France’s Bouygues Telecom and combine it with Altice-owned Numericable-SFR to create France’s largest wireless operator is not playing well in some quarters of the French government.

Patrick Drahi’s announcement he was borrowing the money to finance the deal worried France’s economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who felt Drahi’s leverage game in the mergers and acquisitions business came with a massive debt load that could have major implications on French taxpayers.

“I don’t want to create a too-big-to-fail player with such a leverage and it’s my role to … deliver such a message,” Macron said. ”If the biggest telecom operator blows up, guess what, who will pay for that? The government, which means the citizens.”

Macron is partly referring to the upcoming French wireless spectrum auction that will make more wireless frequencies available to the wireless industry. The proceeds will be paid to the French government and a default by Altice could have major implications.

Macron

Macron

Macron, himself a one-time investment banker at the Rothschild Group, said he was not fooled for a moment by Drahi’s claims the merger would benefit French consumers, especially at the overvalued price Drahi was willing to pay. Macron estimates Drahi has offered almost double the total market value of Bouygues Telecom, a conglomerate that also includes road construction and maintenance, commercial construction and television businesses — all elements Drahi would likely discard after the merger.

“All the synergies which could justify such a price are in fact about killing jobs,” Mr. Macron said. “At the end of the day, is it good for the economy? The answer is ‘no’.”

The merger deal is probably not good news for consumers either. France’s ongoing wireless price war among the four current competitors has reduced the cost of wireless service to as little as $3 a month since low-cost player Iliad broke into the French mobile market three years ago.

Virtually every French telecom analyst predicted the merger would be the beginning of the end of France’s cheap wireless service. Investors cheered the news, predicting higher priced wireless service would boost the value of their stock and increase profitability, while reducing costs. The deal’s defenders said ending the price war would attract necessary investments to upgrade French wireless networks and limit the impact of a bidding war for new wireless spectrum.

Drahi's style of indebting Altice while slashing expenses at acquired companies has earned him suspicion from French officials.

Drahi’s style of indebting Altice while slashing expenses at acquired companies has earned him suspicion from French officials.

Drahi’s style of doing business again raised concerns among several members of the French government. Drahi is notorious for severely slashing expenses at the companies he acquires, usually firing large numbers of middle managers and “redundant employees” and alienating those that remain.

But vendors complain they are treated even worse than Drahi’s employees. Electricity has been cut at Drahi-owned facilities for non-payment, employees have been expected to bring their own toilet paper to the office, and copying machines have been known to run out of toner and paper after office supply firms went unpaid for months.

After his $23 billion acquisition of SFR, the country’s second largest mobile operator, Drahi ordered SFR to stop paying suppliers’ outstanding invoices until vendors and suppliers agreed to massive discounts of as much as 80% on current and future invoices. A government mediator was forced to intervene.

Macron doubts Drahi has the interest or the financial resources to invest in Bouygues’ telecom business. Drahi has already indebted Altice with a spending spree of more than $40 billion over the last year acquiring Suddenlink Communications, SFR, and Portugal Telecom.

Drahi’s acquisition machine is fueled by “cheap debt” available from investment bankers looking for deals to meet investors’ demands for better yields from corporate bonds. Safer investments have faltered as interest rates have fallen into negative territory in parts of Europe.

alticeFrench lawmakers, particularly those aligned with France’s labor unions, accuse Drahi of acting like a bulimic debtor and feared his splurge would eventually lead to a banker-forced purge and government bailout if he cannot meet his debt obligations in the future.

“If I stop my so-called bulimic development, I won’t have any debt five years from now. That’s idiotic, I won’t have any growth for five years,” Drahi curtly replied. “I think it’s better to continue to produce growth all while keeping a foot close to the brakes and looking in the rear-view mirror.”

Finance Minister Michel Sapin scoffed at the apparent recklessness of America’s J.P. Morgan and France’s BNP Paribas investment banks who readily agreed to offer financing for the deal, despite Drahi’s existing debt.

“We must be careful not to base an empire on the sands of debt,” he warned.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Reuters French government hardens stance on Altice bid for Bouygues Telecom 6-22-15.flv

Reuters reports Altice may be vastly overpaying for Bouygues Telecom and that has the French government concerned about creating a “too big to fail” telecom operator in France. (2:04)

EU Competition Minister: Telecom Consolidation Helps Companies, While Consumers Pay More

Vestager

Vestager

Rampant consolidation of the telecom industry in Europe may help companies, their executives and shareholders, but more often than not it leads to higher prices for consumers. Those are the views of the European Union’s Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in a speech on antitrust issues delivered earlier today in Paris.

“Incumbent operators argue that if they cannot merge with their rivals […] they will be unable to increase their investment,” said Vestager. “I’ve heard this claim quite often, but I have not seen evidence that this is the case. Instead, there is ample evidence that excessive consolidation may lead not only to less competition and more expensive bills for consumers, but that it also reduces the incentives in national markets to innovate.”

Vestager believes much of the drumbeat for industry consolidation is coming from the financial markets. But competition on the ground suggests more competition, not consolidation, brings improved service.

“Infrastructure investment can be stimulated by competition,” Vestager said. “In 2009 a new player, Free Mobile, entered the French telecom market. Following that entry, the overall level of telecoms investment in France grew, and remains at higher levels than at the moment of Free’s entry.”

Free Mobile also triggered a major wireless price war in France, leading to dramatic drops in the cost of wireless service. Independent research from Rewheel seemed to confirm Vestager’s thesis. After Hutchison and Orange merged in Austria, for example, prices rose sharply.

Vestager argued the real motivation behind consolidation is limiting competition, which also helps operators avoid or delay necessary network upgrades.

“In these markets, we have also seen established players abuse their dominant positions to try and prevent competition from alternative operators,” Vestager added. “And we shouldn’t forget that these alternative operators are also behind major network investments in the EU.”

Vestager’s speech could pose major problems for European dealmakers like Altice and Hutchison Whampoa, because they signal the EU will likely closely scrutinize future mergers and acquisitions on antitrust grounds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hulu Rebrands Itself; Dropping “Plus” Name In Effort to Reduce Consumer Confusion; Ad Loads Under Review

Phillip Dampier June 1, 2015 Issues No Comments
Not for long

Not for long

Although Hulu Plus ($7.99/mo) has managed to attract a claimed nine million active subscribers, it has never drawn as much attention as its rivals Netflix and Amazon, and Hulu’s CEO believes that is because consumers, including his mom, are confused about the difference between Hulu and Hulu Plus.

Hulu is the advertiser-supported free side of Hulu and Hulu Plus offers a deeper catalog of content (and the right to view it on mobile devices) in return for a monthly fee. But the premium side of Hulu has always been plagued with complaints it collects money from customers and still forces them to watch paid advertising.

“Even when I was a subscriber, Hulu Plus didn’t make much sense,” said Scott Beggs of FilmSchoolRejects. “You signed up, gave them your credit card information, scored an account, and the commercials were still there. Shame on all of us who assumed that paying eight bucks a month would let us avoid watching the same heartburn medication commercials five times per Daily Show episode, I guess.”

Screen-Shot-2015-03-12-at-8.39.23-AMIn late April, Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins said the company was moving away from the Hulu Plus brand and that it will gradually disappear from the website over the summer. But for now, it remains uncertain if only the Hulu Plus name will disappear or if Hulu will shift to an entirely free or all-paid service. With Hulu working on an advanced video ad-targeting platform, it seems unlikely advertising will go away completely.

For many that continue to reject Hulu Plus, it comes down to one issue: commercials.

“The only thing that will bring me back would be the removal of all advertising,” says Les Wilder. “I could put up an antenna and view all the shows I want for a lot cheaper than paying Hulu, if I wanted to watch the ads that go with over the air broadcasting.”

Although Hopkins said 2015 would be a breakout year for Hulu, its audience share continues to decline.

As of the third quarter of 2014, Netflix remains the runaway winner with a 36% household penetration score. Amazon Prime Access is now in 13% of American homes, while Hulu Plus is a distant third at just 6.5% penetration.

 

Source: FCC Will Get Serious About Data Caps if Comcast Moves to Impose Them Nationwide

fccA well-placed source in Washington, D.C. with knowledge of the matter tells Stop the Cap! the Federal Communications Commission is prepared to take a hard look at the issue of Internet data caps and usage-based billing if a major cable operator like Comcast imposes usage allowances on its broadband customers nationwide.

Comcast introduced its usage cap market trial in Nashville, Tenn. in 2012 but gradually expanded it to include Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee; Charleston, South Carolina; and Tucson, Arizona.

“Two and a half-years is exceptionally long for a ‘market trial,’ and we expected Comcast would avoid creating an issue for regulators by drawing attention to the data cap issue during its attempted merger with Time Warner Cable,” said our source. “Now that the merger is off, there is growing expectation Comcast will make a decision about its ‘data usage plans’ soon.”

In most test markets, Comcast is limiting residential customers to 300GB of usage per month, after which an overlimit fee of $10 per 50GB applies. Despite that, Comcast’s forthcoming premium gigabit speed plans are exempt from usage caps, the company announced.

Comcast sustomers in market test cities have not been happy with the usage caps, some confronted with inaccurate usage measurement tools or “bill shock” after claiming to find surprise charges on their cable bill. One federal employee offered his own story of bill shock — $200 in overlimit fees on his April Comcast bill. The customer spent $70 a month on broadcast basic cable television and Comcast Internet service. As an almost cord-cutter, he could instead rely on one of several alternative online video providers like Netflix or Hulu, but watching video that did not come from Comcast’s cable TV package contributed to eating his monthly usage allowance and subjected him to hundreds of dollars in extra fees.

cohen“I’ve reviewed [the] account to see and can confirm the charges are valid,” responded a Comcast representative who defended the company’s usage cap trials. “Please understand that we are not here to take advantage of customers. We are here to provide a great customer service experience.  After researching [the] account, at this time no matter what level of service you obtain, the Internet usage [allowance] will remain the same.”

To date, the Federal Communications Commission has left the issue of data caps and usage-based billing on the back burner, despite a Government Accounting Office report that found little justification for usage limits or compulsory usage allowances on broadband.

In 2012, former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski defended the practice, claiming it would bring lower prices to light users, spur “innovation” and enable consumer choice. But Comcast customers have found little, if any savings from Comcast’s so-called “data usage plans.” The only savings comes from enrollment in Comcast’s Flexible Data Option, which offers a $5 discount if a customer keeps usage under 5GB a month on just one plan — Comcast’s 3Mbps $39.95/mo Economy Plus tier.

“We don’t see much innovation coming from Comcast’s usage limit trials because Internet pricing continues to rise and the plans have the side effect of discouraging customers from using competing video providers, which can consume a lot of a customer’s usage allowance,” our source adds.

You're over our arbitrary usage limit!

You are over our arbitrary usage limit!

As far as enabling consumer choice, Comcast’s own representative put the kibosh on that, unless a customer wants to pay higher Internet bills.

Net Neutrality and issues surrounding Title II have consumed much of the FCC’s attention in the residential broadband business during the first half of the Obama Administration’s second term. Usage billing and data caps are likely to become bigger issues during the second half if there is a decisive move towards compulsory usage limits and consumption billing by large operators.

“An operator the size of Comcast absolutely will draw scrutiny,” said our source. “If Comcast decides to impose its currently tested market trial plans on Comcast customers nationwide, the FCC will take a closer look. Under Title II, the agency is empowered to watch for attempts to circumvent Net Neutrality policies. Usage caps and charging additional fees to customers looking for an alternative to the cable television package will qualify, especially if Comcast continues to try to exempt itself.”

Cable industry officials have also become aware of the buzz surrounding usage caps and growing regulator concern. Some reportedly discussed the possibility of FCC intervention behind closed doors at the recent cable industry conference in Chicago. Multichannel News reported (sub. req.) cable industry executives increasingly fear federal officials will ban usage pricing for wired broadband service on competitive grounds. Online video competitors rely on large cable and phone companies to reach prospective customers, many that may think twice if usage allowances are imposed on consumer broadband accounts.

While Your Cable TV Bill Rises Due to “Increased Programming Costs,” So Are Advertising Loads

cablebill-web

Cablevision’s broadcast TV surcharge increased in January to $5.98 a month, which amounts to $71.76 a year, on top of your usual cable TV bill.

No it isn’t your imagination. While a growing number of cable television subscribers now face a “broadcast programming surcharge” on their cable bill to compensate television stations and networks for cable carriage, those same channels are larding up their programming with ever-increasing advertising. One quarter of every hour of network television is now littered with commercials — an all-time high for broadcast networks seeking to maximize advertising revenue.

Show openings have been cut to seconds, credits roll by at fast-forward speed – usually compressed into illegibility, and some cable networks have returned to the practice of chopping bits of shows and compressing playback of others to accommodate more commercials. That does not include product placement or “in-program” compensated advertising, which appears when a character picks up a can of Pepsi, walks by a Subway outlet, or reaches for a Pop-Tart for breakfast.

As early as 2009, TNS Media Intelligence found at least 36% of today’s network primetime shows were advertising-oriented. That included 7:59 of in-show brand appearances and 13:52 of commercial advertisements, for a combined total of 21:51 of marketing content.

Reality shows, as well as being cheap to produce, are product placement gold. America’s Toughest Jobs contained 44:50 per hour of advertising messages and product placement, The Biggest Loser ran up 40:37. Before the reality show craze, game shows were program-length commercials in disguise. Game show producers received an endless supply of prizes to give away in return for viewers enduring relentless 10-15 second pitches for Rice-a-Roni, crock pots, living room furniture sets, and current model cars and trucks. Viewers did not escape traditional advertisements along the way either.

Through much of the 1970s and early 1980s, an average hour of network television was between 48-52 minutes of programming, 8-12 minutes of network and local commercials. Short news breaks and public service announcements were often included during those breaks. Shows targeting children usually contained less advertising.

In 1984, the Reagan Administration deregulated broadcasters, claiming the free market was best equipped to contain any abusive practices as consumers theoretically could tune out stations and networks that allowed things to get out-of-hand.

In reality, what one network decided, the others usually followed. Outside of watching commercial-free PBS (although those sponsorship messages increasingly began to resemble traditional advertising over the years), viewers didn’t have much choice. For the last 31 years since deregulation, advertising has increased while show length has decreased. In the 1970s and 80s, pieces of rerun television shows created when ad loads were shorter were often cut from shows to make room for an extra ad or two. What was left after a trip to the cutting room was often played slightly sped-up, which made room for even more advertising. By the 1990s, producers created their shows with increasing advertising loads in mind. Short sacrificial 60-90 second end scenes, deemed non-essential to the show’s integrity, were often chopped when a show entered syndication.

In the 2000s, network executives started demanding producers drastically cut the length of show opening and closing themes. If producers didn’t, studios did it for them when a show was resold to a cable network. A rerun of Law & Order now features a 24-second opening, a big difference from the original 1:45 second opening the show had when it originally aired on NBC. End credits were usually squished on-screen to allow a 15-second network promotion to run at the top. Some networks even began their next show in one window while showing end credits of the last program in another.

But nothing affected commercial loads more than the 2008 Great Recession. Advertising revenue tumbled, along with the economy, and advertisers balked at paying traditional ad rates when online advertising was available for much less. The answer? Sell more ads… at a lower price. Once again, program lengths had to be cut to make room for the increasing number of commercials. By 2009, average network ad loads were up to 13:25 per hour. Just four years later in 2013, that number spiked to 14:15. It’s now 15 minutes and up at some networks, depending on the type of program.

As commercials neared comprising 25% of every hour of television, sponsors finally began to rebel. They were reacting to the pervasive growth of the DVR, which allowed consumers to record their favorite shows, if only to fast forward past the dense thicket of commercials. They sought a ceiling on ad loads and more creative ways to reach ad-skipping audiences numbed by relentless advertising. That meant even more product placement.

Although sponsors of expensive NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX shows may have rebelled at the 15-minute mark, the same isn’t true with cable networks where ad loads are as high as 24 minutes per hour. In 2009, the average cable network aired 14:27 of advertisements an hour. This year, it’s up to 15:18 and still rising. Among the worst offenders:

ad load

To keep the money flowing from every direction, both over-the-air and cable networks, including those noted above, continue to seek additional compensation from your provider in the form of retransmission consent and carriage agreements. Whether you watch a channel or not, you are paying for it. Some of these compensation agreements are experiencing rate increases approaching 10% annually.

To the surprise of many industry analysts, some of the worst offenders are networks with declining ratings who risk further alienating viewers with even more advertising just to keep revenue numbers up. While traditional ads actually declined by 2% on most over the air networks this year, FOX more than made up for that with a 15% increase in advertising time. The cable networks with the highest ad increases this year were Viacom-owned channels (Comedy Central, Spike, MTV, Nickelodeon) jumping 13%, A+E Networks (A&E, Crime & Investigation, Lifetime, History) increasing 10%, and 9% at Discovery Networks. Which networks increased ads the least? Those owned by Disney, independent cable networks, and Time Warner (Entertainment).

“Generally speaking, the ratings winners (Disney, 21st Century Fox, Scripps Networks) are increasing investment in original content (and not abusively increasing ad loads), whereas the losers (A+E Networks, Viacom, NBCUniversal) and the neutrals (Discovery, AMC Networks) are decelerating investment in original content and stuffing more ad spots into their shows,” said analyst Todd Juenger of Sanford C. Bernstein.

Michael Nathanson of MoffetNathanson Research worries television is repeating the mistakes commercial radio made post-deregulation, when massive increases in advertising accompanied by decelerating investment in programming repelled many listeners, perhaps for good. Some have permanently abandoned commercial over the air radio in favor of commercial free music services, satellite radio, and streaming services.

“Networks can offset ratings challenges and pricing weakness with more inventory, however, we worry that it is a dangerous long-term game that ultimately devalues the consumer experience and reduces ad efficacy,” Nathanson said. “As we saw with radio, once the increased commercial load genie is out of the bottle, it is nearly impossible to put it back in.”

When Stephen Cox was watching The Wizard of Oz on TBS last November, something didn’t sound quite right to him about the Munchkins, who are near and dear to his heart. He wasn’t imagining things. Time Warner-owned TBS used compression technology to speed up the movie. The purpose: stuffing in more TV commercials.

“Their voices were raised a notch,” Cox, the author of several pop-culture books including one about the classic 1939 film, told the Wall Street Journal. “It was astounding to me.”

The Colbert Report hilariously depicts the next generation of product placement: the retroactive ad technology of Mirriad, which can insert products into shows years after they were made. (4:04)

Frontier’s Website Woes – Company Drops Online Ordering… Because It Can’t Make It Work Right

frontierIf you want to order a product or service online from Frontier Communications, forget it. A source tells Stop the Cap! the company was dropping online e-commerce functions from its Frontier.com website because it could never get online ordering working properly.

Sure enough, the latest iteration of Frontier’s website today blazes with banners requesting customers call the company or use “live chat” to handle any orders for service.

“They still offer the function of self-service — allowing customers to view their bills, set up auto payments, make one time payments, etc., but they are removing the ability for customers to order any service at all,” said our source.

Yesterday's phone company can't manage a website with online ordering.

Yesterday’s phone company can’t manage a website with online ordering.

“This company can’t manage to figure out how to build a website that supports ordering of products, so they are just going to kill that function,” the source added. “Customers will be able to see what products they can get within a specific zip code, but that’s it. If they want to order, they are going to be forced into the already overloaded call center.”

Frontier’s ability to handle its acquisitions of landline customers from Verizon and AT&T have caused problems in the recent past, including customers losing service, getting improperly billed, or experiencing missed service calls. With Verizon customers in Florida, Texas, and California likely to join the Frontier family, our source tells us they will be shocked to see how backwards Frontier’s online presence is compared with Verizon.

“I’m sure our former Verizon and AT&T customers as well as our future Verizon customers will enjoy going back to the Stone Age when they couldn’t do what they needed to do online and would have to pick up the phone to call into a Contact Center,” the source said. “We might as well just have a Frontier Wikipedia page for crying out loud.”

noonlineorder

Just don’t try ordering online.

Frontier has also adopted this novel disclaimer explaining why its advertised DSL speeds often don’t come close to actual speeds in the fine print:

“Actual speeds may vary and are not guaranteed. Performance metrics based on Frontier lab validation under ideal network environment simulating “best case scenario” without network congestion, other factors cause by consumer behavior, or factors caused by third-party providers’ behaviors. Consumers may not be able to replicate the performance shown in the performance metrics.”

In plain English: “Our advertised DSL speeds are theoretically possible… in a lab… on Moonbase Alpha… as long as you don’t try to use the service… and nobody else does either.”

“Please let your readers know that there are some Frontier employees who want to do right by our customers and want to give them the best service possible, but our expertise and opinions are rarely valued,” the source said.

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