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Tesco Grocery Chain Offers 16Mbps Broadband to UK Residents Free for a Year (After Line Rental)

Phillip Dampier October 27, 2014 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, Tesco (UK) No Comments

tesco broadbandOne of the largest grocery chains in the United Kingdom is giving away free unlimited 16Mbps broadband for a year, including a free wireless router, as long as customers cover the usual monthly line rental fees.

The service is offered without a voice dialing plan, which means customers will pay for any voice minutes they use, except when those calls are to or from Tesco Homephone customers. Internet customers also receive a free year of Tesco Internet Security and UK-based phone support. The optional phone service also includes Caller ID, Caller ID blocking, and Directory Inquiries.

In fact, Tesco’s offer will actually be a money-maker for customers who already have home phone service because Tesco also includes Clubcard points on every bill, which can be redeemed on purchases made at the chain.

After 12 months, the price reverts to Tesco’s current standard offering: 16Mbps for $9.68 a month.

Tesco’s line rental charge, required on all landlines and DSL service costs $24.83 a month.

In comparison, CenturyLink charges $39.95 a month for 10Mbps service for a year before the price increases. But customers will pay considerably more than that, as that price does not include taxes, fees, and surcharges, including a Carrier Universal Service charge, National Access Fee surcharge, a one-time, High-Speed Internet activation fee, and state and local fees that vary by area and certain in-state surcharges. A monthly modem rental fee also applies.

 

Frontier Faces Lawsuit in West Virginia Alleging False Advertising, Undisclosed DSL Speed Throttling

The slow lane

The slow lane

Frontier Communications customers in West Virginia are part of a filed class-action lawsuit alleging the phone company has violated the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act for failing to deliver the high-speed Internet service it promises.

The lawsuit, filed in Lincoln County Circuit Court, claims Frontier is advertising fast Internet speeds up to 12Mbps, but often delivers far less than that, especially in rural areas where the company is accused of throttling broadband speeds to less than 1Mbps. The suit also alleges Frontier’s broadband service is highly unreliable.

“The Internet service provided by Frontier does not come anywhere close to the speeds advertised,” wrote Benjamin Sheridan, the Hurricane lawyer filing the lawsuit on behalf of three Frontier customers. The attorney is seeking to have the case designated a class action lawsuit that would cover Frontier customers across the state.

“Although we cannot guarantee Internet speeds due to numerous factors, such as traffic on the Internet and the capabilities of a customer’s computer, Frontier tested each plaintiff’s line and found that in all cases the service met or exceeded the ‘up to’ broadband speeds to which they subscribed,” Frontier spokesperson Dan Page told the Charleston Gazette. “Nonetheless, the plaintiffs filed their case in Lincoln County, where none of them lives. If necessary, we are prepared to defend ourselves in court and bring the facts to light.”

Frontier’s general manager in West Virginia, Dana Waldo, may have helped the plaintiffs when he seemed to admit Frontier was purposely throttling the Internet speeds of its customers, a move Sheridan claims saves Frontier “a fortune” in connectivity costs with wholesale broadband providers like Sprint and AT&T.

Sheridan

Sheridan

“If as you suggest, we ‘opened up the throttle’ for every served customer, it could create congestion problems resulting in degradation of speed for all customers,” according to Waldo as part of an email exchange with one of the class members cited in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also cites a state report issued over the summer that found just 12 percent of Frontier customers receive Internet speeds that actually qualify as “broadband” under federal and state standards. Frontier’s speed ranking is the slowest of any provider in the state. That is especially significant because Frontier is the largest ISP in West Virginia, and is often the only choice rural residents have for broadband service.

Frontier dismissed the state’s report claiming it was based on voluntary speed tests performed by disgruntled customers.

“As we’ve said before, the speed tests are the result of self-selected, self-reported samples,” Page said. “People who take speed tests tend to be those with speed problems or low speeds.”

“Even if that were true, it doesn’t account for Frontier’s poor performance,” said Frontier customer William Henley. “If every person that ran a speed test in West Virginia was annoyed with their provider, Frontier still came in last place.”

Frontier’s competitors scored better:

  • lincoln countyComcast: 88% of customers met or exceeded state and federal standards;
  • Suddenlink Communications: 80%
  • Time Warner Cable: 77%
  • Shentel: 71%
  • Armstrong Cable: 67%
  • LUMOS Networks: 44%

“…Frontier’s practice of overcharging and failing to provide the high-speed, broadband-level of service it advertises has created high profits for Frontier but left Internet users in the digital Dark Age,” Sheridan wrote. “As a result, students are prevented from being able to do their homework, and rural consumers are unable to utilize the Internet in a way that gives them equal footing with those in an urban environment.”

Sheridan also accused Frontier of delivering its fastest speeds only in areas where it faces competition. Where there is none, Frontier can afford to go slow.

But slow speed is not the only issue. One plaintiff — April Morgan in Marion County — says she has to reset her modem up to 10 times a day to stay connected to the Internet. Her modem has been replaced several times by Frontier, but that has done little to solve her problem.

Frontier customers who check the company’s terms of service agreement may question whether Sheridan can get very far suing the company. A clause in the contract states customers must settle disputes only through binding arbitration or small claims court. Individual lawsuits, jury trials, and class-action cases are prohibited.

Sheridan points out customers have to go online to read the agreement – it is not provided to customers signing up for Internet service. A contract that forces customers to agree to its terms without getting informed consent may turn out not very binding under West Virginia law.

Lincoln County Judge Jay Hoke, assigned to hear the case, will likely face that matter in pre-trial motions.

West Virginia residents interested in the class action case can register here for updates.

Irish Communications Minister Promises Fiber Broadband to Every Citizen and Business in the Country

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Digital Ireland Forum Opening address by Minister Alex White -- Part 1 of 2 9-12-14.mp4

Ireland’s new Communications Minister announced major improvements in rural broadband at the Digital Ireland Forum. This is part one of his remarks. (7:16)

White

White

Ireland’s new Minister for Communications Alex White has made a personal commitment to deliver high-speed fiber broadband “to every citizen and business in the country, irrespective of their location.”

Ireland has a set a national priority to deliver world-class broadband to every corner of the republic, stepping in to subsidize broadband service where private providers have refused to upgrade their networks to offer the service.

Five months ago, the cabinet announced $473 million – $664 million would be available to pay for a rural fiber broadband network for about 1,100 small villages that can barely get DSL service, if any broadband at all.

Minister White rejected the philosophy of incremental upgrades like those taking place in North America, particularly by companies attempting to improve traditional DSL service. He believes Ireland must move to a fiber-based telecommunications future.

Although there are questions about the precise type of fiber network to be installed in rural Ireland, some answers are emerging this week.

Outgoing Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, recently reshuffled out of the Irish cabinet, claimed the National Broadband Plan was committed to fiber to the home/business service, not fiber to the cabinet technology similar to AT&T U-verse and the type of “super fast” broadband being installed in Great Britain.

eircom_logo-744153But some critics contend $664 million is insufficient to wire every building in Ireland for fiber service and suspect the government may try to backtrack and choose fiber to the cabinet or wireless service for the most isolated communities that could prove extremely expensive to reach with fiber.

In 2012, the government initially guaranteed minimum broadband speeds of 30Mbps to every rural home in the country, but failed to meet that commitment and has since dropped promising any specific broadband speeds.

Stating a commitment to deliver “high-speed” service is inexact because it means different things in different parts of Ireland. A “high-speed connection” in rural Ireland might be defined as 10Mbps, but 50Mbps would be more typical in Dublin, Cork, and Limerick.

Earlier this month, national telecom provider Eircom passed the 1 millionth premises with 100Mbps fiber broadband as it completed wiring the County Kerry community of Cahersiveen. The Irish fiber network now reaches half the country, and provides both fiber and Vectored DSL, which can support 100Mbps broadband speeds. Eircom noted its fiber network rollout was well ahead of network upgrades in the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Once complete, fiber broadband will be available to every town in Ireland with a population of more than 900 people.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Digital Ireland Forum Opening address by Minister Alex White -- Part 2 of 2 9-12-14.mp4

Part two of remarks from Ireland’s Communications Minister about fiber broadband across Ireland. (6:26)

Kentucky Wakes Up: AT&T Dereg Bills Will Not Bring Better Broadband, Will Make Rural Service Worse

luckykyQuestion: How will ripping out landline infrastructure in Kentucky help improve broadband service for rural areas?

Answer: It won’t.

This is not for a lack of trying though. AT&T has returned to the Kentucky state legislature year after year with a company-written bill loaded with more ornaments than a Christmas tree. In the guise of “modernizing” telecom regulation, AT&T wants to abolish most of it, replaced by a laissez-faire marketplace for telecommunications services not seen in the United States since the 1910s. AT&T claims robust competition will do a better job of keeping providers in check than a century of oversight by state officials. But customers in rural Kentucky have a better chance of sighting Bigfoot than finding a competitive alternative to AT&T’s telephone and DSL service. AT&T retains a monopoly in broadband across much of the state where cable operators like Time Warner don’t tread.

This year, Senate Bill 99, dubbed “The AT&T Bill” received overwhelming support from the Kentucky Senate as well as in the House Economic Development Committee. AT&T made sure the state’s most prominent politicians were well-compensated with generous campaign contributions, which helped move the bill along.

Since 2011, AT&T’s political-action committee has given about $55,000 to state election campaigns in Kentucky, including $5,000 to the Senate Republican majority’s chief fundraising committee and $5,000 more to the House Democratic majority’s chief fundraising committee. The company spent $108,846 last year on its 22 Frankfort lobbyists.

That generosity no doubt helped Republican Floor Leader Jeff Hoover find his way to AT&T’s talking point that only by “modernizing” Kentucky’s telecom laws would the state receive much-needed broadband improvements.

Hoover

Hoover

Hoover is upset that the state’s House Democratic leadership stopped AT&T’s bill dead in its tracks, despite bipartisan begging primarily from AT&T’s check-cashers that the bill see a vote. Speaker Greg Stumbo, whose rural Eastern Kentucky district would have seen AT&T’s landline and DSL service largely wiped out by AT&T’s original proposal, would hear none of it.

He has been to AT&T’s Deregulation Rodeo before.

“When I served as attorney general, I dealt with deregulation firsthand to protect consumers as much as possible,” he wrote in a recent editorial. “In most cases, deregulation led to worse service and less opportunity to correct the problems customers invariably faced. It is now our job as House leaders to continue defending Kentucky’s consumers.”

Stumbo, like many across Kentucky, have come to realize that AT&T’s custom-written legislation gives the company a guarantee it can disconnect rural landline service en masse, but does not guarantee better broadband as a result.

“In fact, there is nothing in the legislation guaranteeing better landline, cell or Internet service,” Stumbo noted.

Hoover declared that by not doing AT&T’s bidding, Kentucky was at risk of further falling behind.

“This decision by Stumbo and House Democrat leadership, like many others, has unfortunately had a real effect on the lives of Kentuckians as we will go, at minimum, another year before these private businesses can focus on increasing broadband speed throughout the commonwealth,” he wrote. “It is another year in which we risk falling further behind our neighboring states and others in the competitive world of economic development.”

Stumbo

Stumbo

Stumbo responded the Republicans seemed to have a narrow vision of what represents progress. Hoover and his caucus voted against the House budget that included $100 million for a broadband improvement initiative spearheaded by Gov. Steve Beshear, Rep. Hal Rogers, and private interests.

By relying entirely on a deregulated AT&T, rural Kentucky residents may lose both landline and DSL service and be forced to wireless alternatives that come at a high price.

“There are citizens, many of whom are elderly or on fixed income, who depend on their landline or cannot afford more expensive options; these are the people I am fighting for,” said Stumbo. “I do not want to get a call from a family member who lost a loved one because that person could not reach a first responder in time.”

State residents watching the debate have increasingly noticed discrepancies between what AT&T wants and what it is promising Kentucky.

“No one has ever been able to satisfactorily explain to me how allowing phone companies to abandon landline service will help expand broadband Internet, especially since DSL service requires phone lines,” said H.B. Elkins, Public Information Officer at KYTC District 10.

Matt Simpson recognizes that Senate Bill 99 and other similar measures will not change the economic realities of AT&T’s for-profit business.

“Without regulation, the for-profit companies like AT&T are going to invest in the most profitable areas,” he wrote. “If they thought they could make a huge profit providing broadband in rural areas, they would already be doing it. Deregulation is not going to change that profit calculation. They will still view rural broadband as unprofitable, and they still won’t do it. The bill was a total giveaway to the industry, with no offsetting benefit to the consumers.”

Michael Yancy summed up his views more colorfully.

“The ‘AT&T bill should be classified as a sheep bill. It was all about pulling the wool over the eyes of the public,” Yancy said. “Anyone who thinks the people of Kentucky will benefit from more of the same, needs to make inquiries into moving the Brooklyn Bridge to the Ohio River.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KET Phone Deregulation Kentucky Tonight 1 2-19-13.mp4

Kentucky Educational Television aired a debate between AT&T and the Kentucky Resources Council on the issue of telephone deregulation in 2013. The same issues were back this year in AT&T’s latest failed attempt to win statewide deregulation and permission to switch landline customers in rural Kentucky to less reliable wireless service. In this clip AT&T argues it should be able to shift investment away from landline service towards wireless because wireless is the more popular technology, but not everyone gets good coverage in Kentucky. (Feb. 19 2013) (3:00)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KET Phone Deregulation Kentucky Tonight 2 2-19-13.mp4

In this second clip, AT&T claims customers who want to keep landline service can, but Kentucky Resources Council president Tom Fitzgerald reads the bill and finds AT&T’s claims just don’t hold up under scrutiny. The carrier of last resort obligation which guarantees quality landline phone service to all who want it is gone if AT&T’s bill passes. Customers can be forced to use wireless service instead. (Feb. 19 2013) (4:33)

Martinique Getting Island-Wide Fiber to the Home Broadband Service

Phillip Dampier September 15, 2014 Broadband Speed, Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband No Comments

martiniqueThe Caribbean island of Martinique will receive island-wide fiber to the home broadband service by 2019 and upgrades for many of the island’s ADSL lines while the overseas department (départements et territoires d’outre-mer) of France awaits fiber service.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced the agreement in principle to finance the four-year fiber project under the island’s Public Network Initiative administered by local authorities.

The project’s budget is $155.39 million, with about $34 million paid upfront by Martinique and the rest financed by the island’s four arrondissements and France itself.

By 2019, 80,000 fiber to the home connections will be installed on Martinique, starting with priority institutions including schools, hospitals, government offices and office parks. Until the fiber upgrades are complete Martinique will upgrade existing ADSL and satellite connections to ensure 90 percent of the island has at least 8Mbps broadband service until the fiber network arrives to replace DSL.

Within two years, Martinique’s broadband speeds will exceed the average speeds rural American and Canadian broadband users can receive.

FCC Chairman Complains About State of U.S. Broadband But Offers Few Meaningful Solutions

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler doesn’t like what he sees when looks at the state of American broadband.

At a speech today given to the 1776 community in Washington, Wheeler complained about the lack of broadband competition in the United States.

“The underpinning of broadband policy today is that competition is the most effective tool for driving innovation, investment, and consumer and economic benefits,” Wheeler said. “Unfortunately, the reality we face today is that as bandwidth increases, competitive choice decreases.”

faster speed fewer competitors

“The lighter the blue, the fewer the options,” Wheeler said, gesturing towards his chart. “You get the point. The bar on the left reflects the availability of wired broadband using the FCC’s current broadband definition of 4Mbps. But let’s be clear, this is ‘yesterday’s broadband.’ Four megabits per second isn’t adequate when a single HD video delivered to home or classroom requires 5Mbps of capacity. This is why we have proposed updating the broadband speed required for universal service support to 10Mbps.”

But Wheeler added that even 10Mbps was insufficient as households increasingly add more connected devices — often six or more — to a single broadband connection.  When used concurrently, especially for online video, it is easy to consume all available bandwidth at lower broadband speeds.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Wheeler’s new informal benchmark is 25Mbps — “table stakes” in 21st century communications. About 80 percent of Americans can get 25Mbps today or better, but typically only from one provider. Wheeler wants even faster speeds than that, stating it is unacceptable that more than 40% of the country cannot get 100Mbps service. Wheeler seemed to fear that phone companies have largely given up on competing for faster broadband connections, handing a de facto monopoly to cable operators the government has left deregulated.

“It was the absence of competition that historically forced the imposition of strict government regulation in telecommunications,” Wheeler explained. “One of the consequences of such a regulated monopoly was the thwarting of the kind of innovation that competition stimulates. Today, we are buffeted by constant innovation precisely because of the policy decisions to promote competition made by the FCC and Justice Department since the 1970s and 1980s.”

Wheeler said competition between phone and cable companies used to keep broadband speeds and capacity rising.

“In order to meet the competitive threat of satellite services, cable TV companies upgraded their facilities,” Wheeler said. “When the Internet went mainstream, they found themselves in the enviable position of having greater network capacity than telephone companies. Confronted by such competition, the telcos upgraded to DSL, and in some places deployed all fiber, or fiber-and-copper networks. Cable companies further responded to this competition by improving their own broadband performance. All this investment was a very good thing. The simple lesson of history is that competition drives deployment and network innovation. That was true yesterday and it will be true tomorrow. Our challenge is to keep that competition alive and growing.”

But Wheeler admits the current state of broadband in the United States no longer reflects the fierce competition of a decade or more ago.

“Today, cable companies provide the overwhelming percentage of high-speed broadband connections in America,” Wheeler noted. “Industry observers believe cable’s advantage over DSL technologies will continue for the foreseeable future. The question with which we as Americans must wrestle is whether broadband will continue to be responsive to competitive forces in order to produce the advances that consumers and our economy increasingly demand. Looking across the broadband landscape, we can only conclude that, while competition has driven broadband deployment, it has not yet done so a way that necessarily provides competitive choices for most Americans.”

Wheeler recognized what most broadband customers have dealt with for years — a broadband duopoly for most Americans.

antimonopoly“Take a look at the chart again,” Wheeler said. “At the low end of throughput, 4Mbps and 10Mbps, the majority of Americans have a choice of only two providers. That is what economists call a “duopoly”, a marketplace that is typically characterized by less than vibrant competition. But even two “competitors” overstates the case. Counting the number of choices the consumer has on the day before their Internet service is installed does not measure their competitive alternatives the day after. Once consumers choose a broadband provider, they face high switching costs that include early termination fees, and equipment rental fees. And, if those disincentives to competition weren’t enough, the media is full of stories of consumers’ struggles to get ISPs to allow them to drop service.”

Wheeler emphasized that true competition would allow customers to change providers monthly, if a vibrant marketplace forced competitors to outdo one another. That market does not exist in American broadband today.

“At 25Mbps, there is simply no competitive choice for most Americans,” Wheeler added. “Stop and let that sink in…three-quarters of American homes have no competitive choice for the essential infrastructure for 21st century economics and democracy. Included in that is almost 20 percent who have no service at all. Things only get worse as you move to 50Mbps where 82 percent of consumers lack a choice. It’s important to understand the technical limitations of the twisted-pair copper plant on which telephone companies have relied for DSL connections. Traditional DSL is just not keeping up, and new DSL technologies, while helpful, are limited to short distances. Increasing copper’s capacity may help in clustered business parks and downtown buildings, but the signal’s rapid degradation over distance may limit the improvement’s practical applicability to change the overall competitive landscape.”

Wheeler finds little chance wireless providers will deliver any meaningful competition to wired broadband because of pricing levels and miserly data caps. Such statements are in direct conflict with a traditional industry talking point.

In a remarkable admission, Wheeler added that the only hope of competing with cable operators comes from a technology phone companies have become reluctant to deploy.

“In the end, at this moment, only fiber gives the local cable company a competitive run for its money,” Wheeler said. “Once fiber is in place, its beauty is that throughput increases are largely a matter of upgrading the electronics at both ends, something that costs much less than laying new connections.”

Wheeler also continued to recognize the urban-rural divide in broadband service and availability, but said little about how he planned to address it.

Wheeler’s answer to the broadband dilemma fell firmly in the camp of promoting competition and avoiding regulation, a policy that has been in place during the last two administrations with little success and more industry consolidation. Most of Wheeler’s specific commitments to protect and enhance competition apply to the wireless marketplace, not fixed wired broadband:

1. comcast highwayWhere competition exists, the Commission will protect it. Our effort opposing shrinking the number of nationwide wireless providers from four to three is an example. As applied to fixed networks, the Commission’s Order on tech transition experiments similarly starts with the belief that changes in network technology should not be a license to limit competition.

In short, don’t expect anymore efforts to combine T-Mobile and Sprint into a single entity. Wheeler only mentioned “nationwide wireless providers” which suggests it remains open season to acquire the dwindling number of smaller, regional carriers. Wheeler offers no meaningful benchmarks to protect consumers or prevent further consolidation in the cable and telephone business.

2. Where greater competition can exist, we will encourage it. Again, a good example comes from wireless broadband. The “reserve” spectrum in the Broadcast Incentive Auction will provide opportunities for wireless providers to gain access to important low-band spectrum that could enhance their ability to compete. Similarly, the entire Open Internet proceeding is about ensuring that the Internet remains free from barriers erected by last-mile providers. Third, where meaningful competition is not available, the Commission will work to create it. For instance, our efforts to expand the amount of unlicensed spectrum creates alternative competitive pathways. And we understand the petitions from two communities asking us to pre-empt state laws against citizen-driven broadband expansion to be in the same category, which is why we are looking at that question so closely.

Again, the specifics Wheeler offered pertain almost entirely to the wireless business. Spectrum auctions are designed to attract new competition, but the biggest buyers will almost certainly be the four current national carriers, particularly AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Although low-band spectrum will help Sprint and T-Mobile deliver better indoor service, it is unlikely to drive new market share for either. Wheeler offered no specifics on the issues of Net Neutrality or municipal broadband beyond acknowledging they are issues.

3. Incentivizing competition is a job for governments at every level. We must build on and expand the creative thinking that has gone into facilitating advanced broadband builds around the country. For example, Google Fiber’s “City Checklist” highlights the importance of timely and accurate information about and access to infrastructure, such as poles and conduit. Working together, we can implement policies at the federal, state, and local level that serve consumers by facilitating construction and encouraging competition in the broadband marketplace.

competitionMost of the policies Wheeler seeks to influence exist on the state and local level, where he has considerably less influence. Based on the overwhelming interest shown by cities clamoring to attract Google Fiber, the problems of access to utility poles and conduit are likely overstated. The bigger issue is the lack of interest by new providers to enter entrenched monopoly/duopoly markets where they face crushing capital investment costs and catcalls from incumbent providers demanding they be forced to serve every possible customer, not selectively choose individual neighborhoods to serve. Both incumbent cable and phone companies originally entered communities free from significant competition, often guaranteed a monopoly, making the burden of wired universal service more acceptable to investors. When new entrants are anticipated to capture only 14-40 percent competitive market share at best, it is much harder to convince lenders to support infrastructure and construction expenses. That is why new providers seek primarily to serve areas where there is demonstrated demand for the service.

4. Where competition cannot be expected to exist, we must shoulder the responsibility of promoting the deployment of broadband. One thing we already know is the fact that something works in New York City doesn’t mean it works in rural South Dakota. We cannot allow rural America to be behind the broadband curve. Our universal service efforts are focused on bringing better broadband to rural America by whomever steps up to the challenge – not the highest speeds all at once, but steadily to prevent the creation of a new digital divide.

Again, Wheeler offers few specifics. Current efforts by the FCC include the Connect America Fund, which is nearly entirely devoted to subsidizing rural telephone companies to build traditional DSL service into high-cost areas. Cable is rarely a competitor in these markets, but Wireless ISPs often are, and they are usually privately funded and consider government subsidized DSL expansion an unwelcome and unfair intrusion in their business.

“Since my first day as Chairman of the FCC my mantra has been consistent and concise: ‘Competition, Competition, Competition,'” said Wheeler. “As we have seen today, there is an inverse relationship between competition and the kind of broadband performance that consumers are increasingly demanding. This is not tolerable.”

Under Wheeler’s leadership, Comcast has filed a petition to assume control of Time Warner Cable, AT&T is seeking permission to buy DirecTV, Frontier Communications is acquiring the wired facilities of AT&T in Connecticut, and wireless consolidation continues. A forthcoming test of Wheeler’s willingness to back his rhetoric with action is whether he will support or reject these industry consolidating mergers and acquisitions. Wheeler’s FCC has also said little to nothing about the consumer-unfriendly practice of usage caps and usage-based billing — both growing among wired networks even as they upgrade to much-faster speeds and raise prices.

Comcast to 2,700+ NY’ers – Your Opposition to Our Merger: Unsubstantive, Should Be Ignored

Phillip Dampier August 26, 2014 Comcast/Xfinity, Time Warner Cable No Comments

psctestComcast told the New York Public Service Commission that the overwhelming majority of the substantive comments submitted to the regulator “express a strong desire and enthusiasm for the improved and expanded voice, data, video, and broadband services” that the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable will bring to the state.

new math“Given these many concrete benefits, and the lack of any harm to competition or consumers, it should come as no surprise that the overwhelming majority of the substantive comments (approximately 110 out of a total of about 140 substantive comments) filed in this proceeding support Commission approval of the transaction,” Comcast wrote in its latest submission.[1]

Comcast’s “new math” applies a subjective (and undisclosed) standard about what constitutes “substantive,” but in the end the cable company has urged the Commission to disregard the sentiments of more than 2,700 New York State residents who have filed comments in strong opposition to the merger because their remarks simply fell beneath Comcast’s standards.

“The minority of organizations and individuals who filed substantive comments opposing the transaction largely ignore the significant public interest benefits of the transaction,” writes Comcast. “Instead, these detractors raise issues that are not relevant to the transaction and are factually inaccurate and speculative – such as unfounded concerns about Comcast’s broadband management practices, misplaced criticisms of Internet Essentials, and general fears that ‘big is bad.’ None of these commenters identify any reasonable basis to reject or condition the Joint Petition.”

Comcast did not apply the same rigorous standards of ‘substantiveness’ to comments sent by its supporters, who often used what New York Assemblyman Joe Morelle admitted was a Comcast-supplied template ghost-written by the company itself.[2]

“Supporters of the transaction span a wide range of groups and individuals, including governmental officials (e.g., mayors, town supervisors, county commissioners, city councils, state legislators, and school superintendents); businesses and non-profits; state and local organizations focused on economic development; community service, youth and family, and diversity organizations; arts and education groups; and others,” writes Comcast.

chicago urban leagueBut the company never disclosed the many financial ties between Comcast and its political and civic supporters. In fact, a large percentage of the “template” letters of support originated from politicians like Assemblyman Morelle, who recently received a $1,000 check from Comcast[3] and Rochester city councilman Adam McFadden, whose group claims to receive $50,000 annually from Comcast.[4] [5]

In fact, it is hard not to find financial connections between Comcast’s supporters and the cable company itself. A random sampling uncovers multiple instances of Comcast contributions that were followed by letters of support for its merger:

The Urban League has received at least $12 million in in-kind contributions from Comcast since 2007, in addition to direct financial contributions to local chapters around Comcast’s service area.[6] In just one example Stephen Thomas, Comcast’s area vice president, who also serves on the Chicago chapter’s board of directors, presented the organization with a check for $40,000.[7] Just a few months later, Andrea L. Zopp, president of the Chicago Urban League, wrote to urge the FCC to approve Comcast’s merger deal.[8]

“Comcast is a strong supporter of the Urban League movement throughout the country. … I sincerely ask that you approve this transaction so that the Urban Leaguers and everyone else can benefit,” Zopp wrote.

Various chapters of the Boys and Girls Club also submitted glowing letters in favor of the merger. Comcast has partnered with local Boys & Girls Clubs since 2000, providing more than $68 million in cash and in-kind contributions. But no chapter was willing to openly admit Comcast asked them to share their views with New York regulators and only a few disclosed the financial ties the organization has with Comcast. The Boys and Girls Club has been a very loyal supporter of whatever Comcast has on its corporate agenda. Chapters submitted letters urging regulators to approve the Comcast-NBC merger in 2010 as well.[9]

Another strong supporter Comcast quotes from in its filing is the National Black Chamber of Commerce. But they don’t mention Comcast is a corporate sponsor of the group.[10]

Comcast (falsely) claims their Internet Essentials is the country's only discount Internet program for the disadvantaged. But Google Fiber gives it away for free.

Comcast (falsely) claims their $9.95 Internet Essentials is the country’s only discount Internet program for the disadvantaged. But Google Fiber gives it away for free to anyone who wants it.

Comcast also called criticism of its Internet Essentials discount Internet program “inaccurate and unavailing,” despite the fact the company’s own senior vice president David Cohen admitted the program was stalled to use as a political chip to win approval of its merger with NBCUniversal.[11]

Comcast also falsely claims it is the only Internet discount program for the poor of its kind.

“[Critics] simply advocate a different broadband adoption program – one that no company has ever implemented, that has never been attempted or even analyzed, and that may not be equally sustainable or popular or easy to publicize,” Comcast wrote. “Comcast is the only company to offer a program of this kind, and it has continually and voluntarily expanded the scope, breadth, and eligibility for and benefits of the program.”

In fact, it may have escaped Comcast’s attention that Google has provided residents in their fiber service areas with free Internet service with absolutely no income qualification or needs test, after paying a “construction fee” ranging from $30 in Provo, Utah [12] to $300 in Kansas City.[13] Residents in the latter community can break the somewhat steep construction fee into 12 payments of $25 each and have a guarantee of free service for up to seven years. Over the course of both programs, Google offers a more compelling and less expensive offer without onerous qualification requirements.

Yr    Google Fiber Cost  Comcast Internet Essentials Cost (@$9.95/mo)

1          $300                            $119.40
2          $0                                $119.40
3          $0                                $119.40
4          $0                                $119.40
5          $0                                $119.40
6          $0                                $119.40
7          $0                                $119.40

Over the course of seven years, a Google Fiber customer selecting discounted Internet would pay $300. A Comcast customer would pay $835.80 – a difference of $535.80.

While Google Fiber’s service area is very limited, it does offer an evidence-based challenge to Comcast’s inaccurate claim that its Internet Essentials program is unprecedented and represents the best solution for New York. A well-designed program designed to help New Yorkers will sell itself far better than the complicated, restrictive, and revenue-protection-oriented Internet Essentials, and its lack of penetration in long-standing Comcast service areas speaks for itself.

The California Emerging Technologies Fund also found serious problems with Internet Essentials from top to bottom.[14]

“Comcast makes the sign-up process long and cumbersome,” CETF claimed.[15] “The application process often takes 2-3 months, far too long for customers who are skeptical about the product in the first place, and have other pressing demands on their budgets. The waiting period between the initial call to Comcast and the CIE [Comcast Internet Essentials] application arriving in the mail can stretch 8-12 weeks, if it comes at all. After submitting the application, another 2-4 weeks elapse before the equipment arrives. Many low-income residents do not have Social Security Numbers (SSNs) and are required to travel long distances to verify their identities because Comcast has closed many of its regional offices. Recently, some potential subscribers with SSNs were rejected over the phone and told they had to visit a Comcast office. Comcast has a pilot effort in Florida that should be expanded to allow customers to fax or e-mail photocopied IDs as proof of identification.”

CETF also found widespread violations of Comcast’s own program rules when the cable company conducted credit checks on customers, which can reduce a customer’s already challenged FICO score with a credit inquiry on their file.

“Comcast conducts credit checks for some customers, contrary to CIE rules,” the CETF filing said. “Dozens of clients are receiving letters from Comcast saying that they have failed a credit check. Comcast specifically states and advertises no credit check is needed for CIE. This has repercussions beyond obtaining broadband service. The act of performing a credit check can negatively impact the consumer’s credit worthiness. Initially, some CIE service representatives told customers they could pay $150 deposit to avoid a credit check, also contrary to program rules.”

Customers have also been redirected to Comcast sales call centers, where they receive aggressive sales pitches for higher-cost products and services.

Comcast’s celebration of its commitment to minority television programming does not mention the expansion of minority programming was a condition of the FCC’s approval of the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger.

Among Comcast's "compelling" minority programming that customers are asked to pay for: Baby First Americas, a

Among Comcast’s “compelling” minority programming that customers are asked to pay for: Baby First Americas, a network for bilingual infants aged 0 to 3.

Subscribers got less than compelling programming and more rate increases to pay for it.

National Public Radio noted Comcast’s new minority channels are not exactly drawing significant audiences[16]:

Out of the gate, well, first was Baby First America — for bilingual infants aged 0 to 3.

ASPiRE, a channel focused on African-Americans, is mostly repurposed old series and gospel music videos.

ASPiRE, a channel focused on African-Americans, is mostly reruns and talk shows. Writer Anita Wilson Pringle called the network’s programming “crap.”

Next came Aspire, a family-oriented network from ex-basketball star and entertainment impresario Magic Johnson. Its lineup includes reruns of The Cosby Show plus even older fare: Julia, Soul Train and The Flip Wilson Show.

Writer Anita Wilson Pringle, for one, is no fan of that lineup of TV retreads.

“He promised innovative, new fresh ideas, new fresh programming, and it’s not,” she says.

Pringle is upset that Aspire’s managers were merely reshuffled from the old Gospel Music Channel. And she says the people Aspire is supposed to serve — African Americans — don’t exactly need more reruns or talk shows.

“It’s crap, if you really want to know the truth,” she says. “But my thing is, they did this to break that monopoly that Comcast was having on all these stations, and all that has happened is that Comcast has a stronger monopoly.”

Comcast’s commitment to improve energy efficiency is comparable to Time Warner Cable’s own commitments, providing no net gain for New York consumers.[17]

Comcast’s promised commitments to deliver better customer service have been made annually for several years with no significant improvement, as measured by independent customer satisfaction studies. Comcast relies on a quotation from a Wall Street analyst, Craig Moffett, who provides only anecdotal evidence of customer service improvements and has supported the merger’s potential benefits for shareholders.

Comcast's idea of effective competition is using your Verizon Wireless connection for home broadband use. A 16GB monthly plan will cost consumers as much as $170 a month before taxes and fees.

Comcast’s idea of effective competition is using your Verizon Wireless connection for home broadband use. A 16GB monthly plan will cost consumers as much as $170 a month before taxes and fees.

Comcast’s assertion that the Commission should ignore or downplay bad customer service experiences of customers outside New York is made despite their own admission they serve only a tiny number of New York customers today. Is Comcast suggesting it would be inappropriate to consider their customer service record in comparable-sized cities across the country, some likely served by the same national and offshore customer care centers New Yorkers will reach when they have future problems with Comcast?

Comcast’s claims of plentiful broadband competition also do not exist in the real world for many New Yorkers. The Commission has faced such a large number of complaints about Verizon landline service, which also supports DSL, it launched a Verizon Service Quality Improvement Plan. When a Verizon landline becomes inoperable for several months, as customers in Inwood experienced earlier this year[18], their DSL broadband is also inoperable. For customers served by cable, but not reached by DSL service from telephone companies like Verizon, Windstream, and Frontier Communications, their only realistic home broadband connection comes from the local cable company. Wireless broadband, advocated as a competitive alternative by Comcast, does not penetrate well indoors in large sections of rural upstate New York and is constrained by very expensive service plans and severe limits on data usage, compelling customers to pay excessive fees to obtain service.

A family consuming 16GB of data per month (less than today’s average use per person) would face Internet bills of $170 a month with Verizon Wireless ($40/mo Monthly Line Access – Internet Device + 16GB Data Plan ($130/mo Monthly Account Access)[19] Wired broadband accounts from Time Warner Cable in comparison cost as little as $14.99 a month for unlimited usage.

Where DSL service is available, it is typically offered at speeds lower than a cable operator can offer. As an example, at our residence in the Town of Brighton, N.Y., Frontier Communications can only offer a maximum speed of 3.1Mbps from their DSL service because of our distance from the central office.

Comcast will have a near-total monopoly on all broadband service in excess of 15Mbps in current Time Warner Cable territories not serviced by Verizon FiOS. Verizon’s maximum speed DSL offer is for speeds “up to 15Mbps.”[20] Verizon FiOS expansion outside of already-committed territories has ended, and the majority of upstate New York is not served by Verizon’s FiOS fiber upgrades.

Comcast claims there is a world of difference between highly regulated energy-generation utilities and the “competitive” marketplace for telecommunications.

“Proposals that the Commission approach this transaction with the same mindset, and apply the same types of burdensome conditions, are entirely unjustified,” argues Comcast.

“Electric and gas utilities remain the quintessential public service utilities,” says the cable company. “Their markets are characterized by a lack of competition, captive customer bases, and direct rate-setting and operational oversight by the Commission.”

In fact, many cable customers in New York do face a lack of competition for fast broadband speeds, are stuck with the single cable operator serving their community, and lack the consumer protections offered by the Commission that apply to other utilities.

The Commission can test Comcast’s claims of competitiveness for itself. Stop the Cap! offers a challenge to find more than one provider that can deliver consistent, widely obtainable broadband speeds of 15/3Mbps or greater in downtown Buffalo, Rochester, Albany or Syracuse.

The Commission will discover there is only one provider now capable of delivering that service across the entire urban centers of upstate New York: the local cable company.

In far western New York, Verizon FiOS is available only in small parts of South Buffalo and North Buffalo and select suburbs.

In Rochester, Frontier Communications does not offer consistent access to speeds greater than 10Mbps.

Albany and Syracuse are also bypassed by Verizon FiOS, left with Verizon DSL, which only offers speeds “up to 15/1Mbps.” Most customers get less.

Comcast would have the Commission believe any review of its broadband service is off-limits and outside of their jurisdiction anyway.

“The Commission has no authority to review broadband transactions and lacks statutory authority to regulate broadband services – and beyond this, cable broadband services are interstate information services that are not properly subject to state jurisdiction,” claimed Comcast.

It further argued the Commission must ignore “matters beyond the Commission’s jurisdiction,” quoting from a 2006 proceeding.

mergerComcast evidently forgets the law has changed in New York. In 2006, the Commission had to disprove a petition was in the public interest to reject it. In 2014, the applicant is solely responsible for carrying the burden of proof that their proposal is in the public interest.

Nothing in Section 222 of the Public Service Law places restrictions on what the Commission can consider when weighing public interest benefits.

Comcast’s claims of its wish to expand service into rural, unserved areas also must be questioned. Comcast automatically sets a high bar for expansion suggesting it will occur only “where economically feasible,” which is the same standard in place with the incumbent cable operator.

“Where economically feasible” is the reason cable companies in New York have rarely expanded their service territories, except in high growth areas where population density warrants expansion. All cable operators have an internal formula governing Return On Investment requirements that must be met before expansion begins. The Commission must review that information and compare the standards used by both applicants, because it will ultimately govern any future natural expansion of cable service in rural New York.

Conclusion

Comcast’s rosy picture of New York’s future with a merged Time Warner Cable-Comcast is belied by the real world experiences of New York consumers who have learned from long, hard experience that when a cable company starts promising a better deal, the result has too often been higher rates and fees, unwanted channels, poorer customer service, and new restrictions.

'An Extortion-for-distortion hose job.'

Don’t close your eyes to the facts.

Cable operators have enjoyed unfettered power to escape oversight with inflated claims of fierce competitiveness that they suggest will keep prices and abusive behavior in check, but in reality rates are rising and Comcast’s customer approval ratings live in the basement.

Comcast’s most recent filing continues to dismiss these very real concerns for New Yorkers who will not have a choice of a cable operator other than Time Warner Cable or Comcast. Calling the comments of more than 2,700 New Yorkers largely opposed to this merger “unsubstantive” is precisely the attitude of a cable company that has earned its bad reputation with customers.

Sending “templates” to politicians and non-profits that have received funding from Comcast and asking them to send letters to regulators urging approval of the company’s latest item on the agenda is the kind of “substantive” evidence Comcast wants the Commission to rely on in this proceeding.

But worst of all, Comcast suggests that any review of the company’s broadband service, its pricing and performance, and the potential for usage allowances and usage fees above and beyond the current high cost of Internet service is off-limits to New York regulators. The Commission already recognizes the growing importance of broadband in New York State and that it is, in reality, nearly a necessity.

Time Warner Cable recognizes that and is moving ahead on an upgrade program that delivers broadband benefits above those offered by Comcast and at a lower price, with no usage allowances or overlimit fees likely in the foreseeable future. It remains clear to us that Time Warner Cable is the better choice for New York. We have a well-documented history of not being great fans of Time Warner Cable, but we know worse when we see it, and we see it in Comcast.

[1] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={60D7F65E-3AAB-4507-B58D-7F14E31E130A}

[2] http://www.rochesterhomepage.net/story/d/story/lawmakers-write-letters-supporting-comcast-deal/38184/WjHF311jeEqZdF9IOMX7mg

[3] http://www.rochesterhomepage.net/story/d/story/lawmakers-write-letters-supporting-comcast-deal/38184/WjHF311jeEqZdF9IOMX7mg

[4] http://stopthecap.com/2014/08/11/rochester-city-councilman-adam-mcfaddens-love-for-comcast-and-the-50k/

[5] http://www.nlc.org/corporate-engagement/corporate-partners-program

[6] http://corporate.comcast.com/news-information/news-feed/national-urban-league-resource

[7] http://www.thechicagourbanleague.org/cms/lib07/IL07000264/Centricity/Domain/14/impact-jan-2014.pdf

[8] http://www.thewrap.com/consumer-groups-urge-fcc-to-reject-comcast/time-warner-cable-deal/

[9] http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=7020462210

[10] http://www.nationalbcc.org/news/progress-reports/2107-recap-of-22nd-annual-conference

[11] http://stopthecap.com/2013/07/10/comcasts-internet-essentials-facade-padding-the-bottom-line-without-cannibalizing-your-base/

[12] https://fiber.google.com/legal/subscriber/provo/

[13] https://fiber.google.com/legal/subscriber/kansascity/

[14] http://arstechnica.com/business/2014/07/comcasts-internet-for-the-poor-too-hard-to-sign-up-for-advocates-say/

[15] http://www.cetfund.org/files/140711_CETF_Partners_Comcast-TWC_FCC_PR_and_Filing.pdf

[16] http://www.npr.org/2013/11/12/244558834/comcast-deal-puts-new-minority-run-channels-in-play

[17] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/about-us/corporate-responsibility/environment.html

[18] http://manhattan.ny1.com/content/shows/ny1_for_you/203064/ny1foryou–inwood-verizon-customers-want-phone-service-outages-to-stop

[19] http://www.verizonwireless.com/wcms/consumer/shop/shop-data-plans/more-everything.html

[20] http://www.verizon.com/home/shop/shopping.htm

Frontier Communications Promises Gigabit Broadband Will Be Available… to Almost Nobody

Frontier's "High Speed" Fantasies

Frontier’s “High Speed” Fiber Fantasies

Frontier Communications has jumped on the gigabit broadband promises bandwagon with an announcement to investors the company will make available 1,000Mbps broadband speeds available later this year to a small handful of customers.

“I want to note that nearly 10% of our households are served through a fiber to the home architecture,” said Frontier’s chief operating officer Dan McCarthy. “Over the next several quarters we will introduce expanded speed offerings in select markets including 50-100Mbps services. Some residential areas will also be able to purchase up to 1Gbps broadband service. We are excited to bring these new products to market and look forward to making these choices available to our customers.”

Most of Frontier’s fiber customers are part of the FiOS fiber to the home infrastructure Frontier adopted from Verizon in Fort Wayne, Ind., and in parts of Oregon and Washington. The rest of Frontier customers accessing service over fiber are in a few new housing developments and some multi-dwelling units. The majority of customers continue to be served by copper-based facilities.

Despite the speed challenges imposed by distance-sensitive DSL over copper networks, Frontier customers crave faster speeds and more than one-third of Frontier’s sales in the last quarter have come from speed upgrades. As of this month, 54% of Frontier households can receive 20Mbps or greater speed, 75% can get 12Mbps and 83% can get 6Mbps. Here at Stop the Cap! headquarters, little has changed since 2009, with maximum available Frontier DSL speeds in this Rochester, N.Y. suburban neighborhood still maxing out at a less-impressive 3.1Mbps.

Frontier’s plans for the next three months include a growing number of partnerships with third-party equipment manufacturers and software companies, as well as integrating former AT&T service areas in Connecticut into the Frontier family:

Sale of AT&T Connecticut Assets to Frontier Communications Wins Approval from State Attorney General

frontier frankConnecticut’s Attorney General has announced a deal with Frontier Communications to approve its acquisition of AT&T’s wired assets in the state. The office asked for and got a three-year rate freeze on basic residential telephone rates and a commitment to keep selling standalone broadband at or below Frontier’s current rates. Low-income military veterans would receive basic broadband service for $19.99 per month, a substantial discount off the regular price of $34.99. The first month of service is free.

Frontier will make $500,000 in donations annually to various Connecticut charities, give $512,500 to the University of Connecticut basketball teams, and commit $75,000 to sponsor the Connecticut Open tennis tournament in New Haven.

The phone company has also committed to invest $64 million on network upgrades between 2015-2017, primarily to expand DSL broadband and U-verse service. The company also must undertake to inspect the wireline network it is buying from AT&T and replace deteriorating infrastructure including lines and telephone poles as needed.

Frontier announced it was buying AT&T’s wired assets in December for $2 billion. AT&T will continue to own and operate its wireless network assets in the state. Connecticut was home to AT&T’s only significant landline presence in the northeast. The Southern New England Telephone Company of Connecticut was originally bought by SBC Communications for $4.4 billion in 1998. After SBC purchased AT&T, the telephone company changed its name to AT&T Connecticut. Its primary competitor is Cablevision Industries, which also serves eastern New York and parts of New Jersey. AT&T has aggressively deployed its U-verse platform in Connecticut. Frontier will continue to run and expand U-verse in the state.

Frontier Services and Partnerships Expand

  • Customers may have already received marketing for Frontier’s Emergency Phone, a $4.99/mo landline that can only reach 911. Frontier CEO Maggie Wilderotter told investors that global climate change has made weather patterns more unpredictable, making the reliability and resiliency of traditional landlines a “true life line” in the event of an emergency knocking out Voice over IP lines or cell phone service;
  • Frontier Texting, powered by Zipwhip, allows customers send and receive text messages using their existing landline numbers. The service appears most popular with business customers, with more 800 signed up so far;
  • Frontier third-party technical and security support offers a large range of computer security, home automation, and support services for both hardware and software. Frontier added the Nest thermostat during this quarter, as well as tech support for Intuit QuickBooks and Dropcam remote video monitoring.

Wilderotter Flip-Flops on Gigabit Broadband: You Don’t Need a Gig

Less than three weeks ago, Wilderotter told the Pacific Northwest readers of The Oregonian they didn’t need gigabit broadband speeds:

“Today it’s about the hype, because Google has hyped the gig,” said Wilderotter, in Portland this week for a meeting of her company’s board. She said Google is pitching something that’s beyond the capacity of many devices, with very few services that could take advantage of such speeds, and confusing customers in the process.

“We have to take the mystery and the technology out of the experience for the user because it’s a bit disrespectful to speak a language our customers don’t understand,” said Wilderotter, in Portland this week for a meeting of her company’s board.

Frontier’s pitch: Better prices for more modest speeds. For most people, Wilderotter said, 10 to 12 megabits per second will be perfectly adequate for at least the next couple years. She said Frontier is upgrading its networks in rural communities where it doesn’t offer FiOS to meet that benchmark.

Now that Frontier proposes to offer those speeds, company officials are excited they will be available. Customers shouldn’t be. Most won’t have access for some time to come, if ever.

Frontier Introduces Pay-As-You-Go No Contract DSL in Michigan, Ohio, and Washington

Phillip Dampier July 31, 2014 Competition, Consumer News, Frontier No Comments
frontier 7550

NETGEAR 7550 Wi-Fi Router

Frontier has also introduced a “pay as you go” broadband plan, selling prepaid, up to 6/1Mbps DSL service (speeds not guaranteed) to customers on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis to its customers in Michigan, Ohio, and Washington without a term contract or credit check. The cost to get started is substantial, designed to discourage current broadband customers from considering a switch to a prepaid plan.

If Frontier is not offering a promotion waiving equipment and installation fees, customers must buy Frontier’s Welcome Kit ($39.99) which includes:

  • NETGEAR 7550 Wi-Fi Router
  • Power Cord
  • Ethernet Cable
  • Phone Cord
  • 3 In-Line Filters
  • Installation Guide

Customers who need Frontier to handle the installation or clear up any line problems will need to pay a $99.99 installation fee.

Those capable of managing the installation themselves will have to pay a $19.99 activation fee.

Three different plans are available:

  • 1 day = $9.99
  • 7 days = $24.99
  • 30 days = $39.99

Frontier says the plans are perfect for seasonal residents, but it also penalizes those who take a break during the off-season. Once service is inactive for more than 60 days, a $34.99 reactivation fee applies to switch it back on.

GCI – Alaska’s Outrageous Internet Overcharger; Customers Paying Up to $1,200 in Overlimit Fees

GCI_logoNearly 10 percent of GCI’s revenue is now earned from overlimit fees collected from Alaskan broadband customers who exceed their cable or wireless usage limits.

GCI is Alaska’s largest cable operator and for many it is the only provider able to deliver stable speeds of 10Mbps+, especially to those who live too far away for comparable DSL speeds from ACS, one of GCI’s largest competitors.

The result has given GCI a de facto monopoly on High Speed Internet (10+ Mbps) access, a position that has allowed the company to dramatically raise prices and slap usage limits on broadband users and charge onerous overlimit fees on those who exceed their allowance.

GCI already charges some of the highest broadband service prices in the country and has insisted on imposing usage caps and overlimit fees on even its most expensive plans, creating high profits for them and enormous bills for customers who have no reliable way to consistently track their usage. GCI’s suspect usage meter is often offline and often delivers usage estimates that customers insist are far from accurate. GCI says it has the last word on the accuracy of that meter and has not submitted its meter to independent testing and verification by a local or state regulatory body specializing in measurement accuracy.

GCI also makes it extremely difficult for customers to understand what happens after customers exceed their usage limits. The website only vaguely offers that overlimit fees vary from “$.001 (half penny) to $.03 (three cents) per MB,” which is factually inaccurate: $.001 does not equal a half-penny. It can equal bill shock if a customer happens to be watching a Netflix movie when their allowance runs out.

KC D’Onfro of Bethel subscribes to GCI’s Alaska Extreme Internet plan, which in February cost $100 a month for 4/1Mbps service with a 25GB usage cap. While that allowance is plenty for the countless e-mails GCI promises you can send, any sort of streaming video can chew through that allowance quickly.

Business Insider explains what happened:

One fateful night, she and her roommate decided to watch a movie on Netflix. Both of them fell asleep halfway through, but the movie played ’til the end, eating up two GBs of data too many and consequently doubling their bill for that month. (One hour of HD video on Netflix can use up to 2.3 GB of data.)

“Now, I don’t even consider Netflix until near the very end of the month, and I have to be sure that I’m no more than three-fourths of the way into my total data, at the absolute most,” KC says. (Her provider, a company called GCI, allows subscribers to view their daily usage and sends them a notice when they’ve hit 80%.) “It’s a very serious business – I have to poll people to figure out what that one very special movie should be.”

That left the D’Onfro family with a $200 broadband bill – $100 for the service and an extra $100 overlimit fee for that single Netflix movie. Today, GCI demands $114.99 a month for that same plan (with the same usage allowance) and those not subscribing to their TV service also face a monthly $11.99 “access fee” surcharge for Internet-only service.

expensive

“Many Alaska consumers have brought their GCI broadband bills to ACS for a comparative quote, providing dozens of examples of GCI overage charges,” said Caitlin McDiffett, product manager of Alaska Communications Systems (ACS), the state’s largest landline phone company. “Many of these examples include overage charges of $200 to $600 in a single month. In one instance, a customer was charged $1 ,200 in overage fees.”

GCI also keeps most customers in place with a 24-month contract, making it difficult and costly to switch providers.

McDiffett told the FCC the average Alaskan with a Netflix subscription must pay for at least a 12Mbps connection to get the 60GB usage allowance they will need to watch more than two Netflix movies a week in addition to other typical online activities. GCI makes sure that costs average Alaskans real money.

“A customer purchasing 12Mbps for standalone (non-bundled) Home Internet from GCI pays $59.99 per month plus an $11.99 monthly “access” fee for a total of $71.98 per month with a 60GB usage limit ($0.004/MB overage charge),” reports McDiffett. “Thus, the monthly bill for this service is more typically $76.98, including a $5.00 overage charge. To purchase a service with a usage limit of at least 100GB per month, a GCI customer would have to pay $81.98 per month (the $69.99 standalone rate plus $11.99 monthly access fee), subject to an overage charge of $0.003/MB.”

Rural Alaskans pay even more on GCS' expensive wireless ISP.

Rural Alaskans pay even more when using GCI’s expensive wireless ISP.

Regular Alaskan Stop the Cap! reader Scott reports that no matter what plan you choose from GCI, they are waiting and ready to slap overlimit fees on you as soon as they decide you are over your limit.

Their super-deluxe re:D service — up to 200Mbps, now available in Anchorage, MatSu, Fairbanks, Juneau, Kenai, Ketchikan, Sitka, and Soldotna areas, is not cheap.

“It’s a whopping $209.99 + taxes, and if you don’t have cable TV service bundled, the $11.99 monthly access fee also applies,” Scott says.

For that kind of money, one might expect a respite from the usage meter,  but not with GCI.

“As a top tier service, you’d think they could just offer it as ’unlimited’ at that rate,” Scott says. “Actually, it has a 500GB usage cap and $.50/GB overage fee. Again, we have a metering provider who claims the overages were to penalize bandwidth hogs, yet then offer [faster] service, increasing overall load on their network, instead of just offering a fair amount of bandwidth per customer and eliminating overages by offering unlimited usage.”

One of ACS' strong selling points is no data caps, but DSL isn't available to everyone.

One of ACS’ strong selling points is no data caps, but DSL isn’t available to everyone.

In a filing with the FCC, ACS’ McDiffett suspects usage caps are all about the money.

“GCI reported 2012 Home Internet revenue of $86 million of which $7.9 million (nearly ten percent) was derived from overage charges,” said McDiffett. “On average, about $5 per customer per month can be attributed to GCI overage charges. GCI imposes usage limits or data caps at every level of Home Internet service, from its 10 Mbps service (10GB limit, $0.005/MB overage charge) to its 100 Mbps service (500GB limit, $0.0005/MB overage charge).”

badbillOver time, and after several cases of bill shock, Alaskan Internet customers have become more careful about watching everything they do online, fearing GCI’s penalties. That threatens GCI’s overlimit revenue, and now Stop the Cap! readers report sudden, long-lasting problems with GCI’s usage checker, often followed by substantial bills with steep overlimit penalties they claim just are not accurate.

“I currently pay $184.99 a month for GCI‘s highest offered broadband service. 200/5Mbps, with a 500GB monthly data cap,” shares Stop the Cap! reader Luke Benson. “According to GCI, over the past couple months our usage has increased resulting in overage charges at $1.00 a GB.”

In May, Benson was billed $130 in overlimit fees, but after complaining, the company finally agreed to credit back $100. A month later, they recaptured $60 of that credit from new overlimit fees. This month, Benson would have to unplug his modem halfway through his billing cycle or face another $50 in penalties.

GCI’s bandwidth monitor has proved less than helpful, either because it is offline or reports no usage according to several readers reaching out to us. GCI’s own technical support team notes the meter will not report usage until at least 72 hours after it occurs. GCI itself does not rely on its online usage monitor for customer billing. Customer Internet charges are measured, calculated, and applied by an internal billing system off-limits for public inspection.

“I have reached out to GCI multiple times asking for help, suggestions, resolution,” complains Benson. “All I get told is to turn down the viewing quality of Netflix, don’t allow devices to auto update, etc. They pretty much blamed every service but their own.”

Other customers have unwittingly fallen into GCI’s overlimit fee trap while running popular Internet applications that wouldn’t exist if GCI’s caps and overlimit fees were common across the country. Lifelong Bethel resident and tech consultant John Wallace knows the local horror stories:

  • tollsTwo girls had unwittingly allowed Dropbox to continuously sync to their computers, racking up a $3,500 overcharge in two weeks;
  • One user’s virus protection updater got stuck on and it cost him $600;
  • Wallace has heard people say, “I was gaming and I got a little out of hand and I had to pay $2,800;”
  • Two six-year-old girls ran up $2,000 playing an online preschool game. Mom was totally unaware of what was going on, until she got the bill.

GCI’s own Facebook page was the home of a number of customer complaints until the complaint messages mysteriously disappeared. Stop the Cap! itself discovered it was not allowed to even ask questions on the company’s social media pages, apparently already on their banned list.

While GCI does well for itself and its shareholders, Wallace worries about the impact GCI’s control of the Alaskan Internet High Speed Internet market will have on the economy and Alaskan society.

“It’s about equal access and opportunity,” Wallace told Business Insider. “The Internet was meant to improve the lives of people in rural Alaska, but – because of the data caps and the sky-high overage fees – it ends up costing them huge amounts of money. We have one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, and some of the highest rates of suicide, sexual assault, and drug abuse. The people who can’t afford it are the ones that are getting victimized.  It was supposed to bring access – true availability of goods and services – but it really just brought a huge bill that many can’t afford.”

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  • Ron: Agreed. They should be sticking with the same price or dropping their prices for rural area use. Who goes and deals with wire cables when your getting...
  • Clayton: I was paying $98 a month with taxes and fees for U200 (DVR, HD, 2 boxes) + Elite (6mpbs) for the last year. Contract was up and renegotiated for a...
  • Lee Kraus: I completely agree and I am in the exact same situation. I hope that we can find a way to get competition in the state....

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