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Cable Operators Told to Get Ready for a Gigabit, But Will Rationed Usage Make It Meaningless?

Phillip Dampier: A cable trade publication is lecturing its readership on better broadband the industry spent years claiming nobody wanted or needed.

Phillip Dampier: A cable trade publication is lecturing its readership on better broadband the industry spent years claiming nobody wanted or needed.

Remember the good old days when cable and phone companies told you there was no demand for faster Internet speeds when 6Mbps from the phone company was all you and your family really needed?

Those days are apparently over.

Multichannel News, the largest trade publication for cable industry executives, warns cable companies gigabit broadband speeds are right around the corner and the technological transformation that will unleash has been constrained for far too long.

Say what?

Proving our theory that those loudest about dismissing the need for faster Internet speeds are the least equipped to deliver them, the forthcoming arrival of DOCSIS 3.1 technology and decreasing costs to deploy fiber optics will allow cable providers to partially meet the gigabit speed challenge, at least on the downstream. Before DOCSIS 3.1, consumers didn’t “need those speeds.” Now companies like Comcast claim it isn’t important what consumers need today — it’s where the world is headed tomorrow.

Comcast 2013:

Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen writes that the allure of Google Fiber’s gigabit service doesn’t match the needs or capabilities of online Americans.

“For some, the discussion about the broadband Internet seems to begin and end on the issue of ‘gigabit’ access,” Cohen says, in a nod to Google Fiber. “The issue with such speed is really more about demand than supply. Our business customers can already order 10-gig connections. Most websites can’t deliver content as fast as current networks move, and most U.S. homes have routers that can’t support the speed already available to the home.” Essentially, Cohen argues that even if Comcast were to deliver web service as fast as Google Fiber’s 1,000Mbps downloads and uploads, most customers wouldn’t be able to get those speeds because they’ve got the wrong equipment at home.

Comcast 2015:

“We’ve consistently offered the most speeds to the most homes, but with the current pace of tech innovation, sometimes you need to go to where the world is headed and not focus on where it is today.”

“The next great Internet innovation is only an idea away, and we want to help customers push the boundaries of what the Internet can do and do our part to inspire developers to think about what’s possible in a multi-gigabit future.  So, next month we will introduce Gigabit Pro, a new residential Internet service that offers symmetrical, 2-Gigabits-per-second (Gbps) speeds over fiber – at least double what anyone else provides.”

Nelson (Image: Multichannel News)

Nelson (Image: Multichannel News)

Rich Nelson’s guest column in Multichannel News makes it clear American broadband is behind the times. The senior vice president of marketing, broadband & connectivity at Broadcom Corporation says the average U.S. Internet connection of 11.5Mbps “is no longer enough” to support multiple family members streaming over-the-top video content, cloud storage, sharing high-resolution images, interactive online gaming and more.

Nelson credits Google Fiber with lighting a fire under providers to reconsider broadband speeds.

“Google’s Fiber program may have been the spark to light the fuse — Gigabit services have fostered healthy competition among Internet and telecommunications providers, who are now in a position to consider not ‘if’ but ‘when and how’ to deploy Gigabit broadband in order to meet consumer’s perceived ‘need for speed’ and maintain their competitive edge,” Nelson wrote.

But the greatest bottleneck to speed advances is spending money to pay for them. Verizon FiOS was one of the most extravagant network upgrades in years among large American telecom companies and the company was savaged by Wall Street for doing it. Although AT&T got less heat because its U-verse development costs were lower, most analysts still instinctively frown when a company proposes spending billions on network upgrades.

Customer demand for faster broadband is apparent as providers boost Internet speeds.

Customer demand for faster broadband is apparent as providers boost Internet speeds.

The advent of DOCSIS 3.1 — the next generation of cable broadband technology — suggests a win-win-win for Wall Street, cable operators, and consumers. No streets will have to be torn up, no new fiber cables will have to be laid. Most providers will be able to exponentially boost Internet speeds by reallocating bandwidth formerly reserved for analog cable television channels to broadband. The more available bandwidth reserved for broadband, the faster the speeds a company can offer.

Many industry observers predict the cable line will eventually be 100% devoted to broadband, over which telephone, television and Internet access can be delivered just as Verizon does today with FiOS and AT&T manages with its U-verse service.

The benefits of gigabit speeds are not limited to faster Internet browsing however.

Nelson notes communities and municipalities are now using gigabit broadband speeds as a competitive tool selling homes and attracting new businesses to an area. According to a study from the Fiber to the Home (FTTH) Council, communities with widely available gigabit access have experienced a positive impact on economic activity — to the tune of more than $1.4 billion in GDP growth. Those bypassed or stuck in a broadband backwater are now at risk of losing digital economy jobs as businesses and entrepreneurs look elsewhere.

The gigabit broadband gap will increasingly impact the local economies of communities left behind with inadequate Internet speeds as app developers, content producers, and other innovative startups leverage gigabit broadband to market new products and services.

The Pew Research Center envisioned what the next generation of gigabit killer apps might look like. Those communities stuck on the slow lane will likely not have access to an entire generation of applications that simply will never work over DSL.

But before celebrating the fact your local cable company promises to deliver the speed the new apps will need, there is a skunk that threatens to ruin your ultra high speed future: usage-based pricing and caps.

At the same time DOCSIS 3.1 will save the cable industry billions on infrastructure upgrade costs, the price for moving data across the next generation of super high-capacity broadband networks will be lower than ever before. But cable operators are not planning to pass their savings on to you. In fact, broadband prices are rising, along with efforts to apply arbitrary usage limits or charge usage-based pricing. Both are counter-intuitive and unjustified. It would be like charging for a bag of sand in the Sahara Desert or handing a ration book to shoreline residents with coupons allowing them one glass of water each from Lake Ontario.

skunkCox plans to limit its gigabit customers to 2TB of usage a month. AT&T U-verse with GigaPower has a (currently unenforced) limit of 1TB a month, while Suddenlink thinks 550GB is more than enough for its gigabit customers. Comcast is market testing 300GB usage caps in several cities but strangely has no usage cap on its usage-gobbling gigabit plan. Why cap the customers least-equipped to run up usage into the ionosphere while giving gigabit customers a free pass? It doesn’t make much sense.

But then usage caps have never made sense or been justified on wired broadband networks and are questionable on some wireless ones as well.

Stop the Cap! began fighting against usage caps and usage pricing in the summer of 2008 when Frontier Communications proposed to limit its DSL customers to an ‘ample’ 5GB of usage per month. That’s right — 5GB. We predicted then that usage caps would become a growing problem in the United States. With a comfortable duopoly, providers could easily ration Internet access with the flimsiest of excuses to boost profits. Here is what we told the Associated Press seven years ago:

“This isn’t really an issue that’s just going to be about Frontier,” said Phillip Dampier, a Rochester-based technology writer who is campaigning to get Frontier to back off its plans. “Virtually every broadband provider has been suddenly discovering that there’s this so-called ‘bandwidth crisis’ going on in the United States.”

That year, Frontier claimed most of its 559,300 broadband subscribers consumed less than 1.5 gigabytes per month, so 5GB was generous. Frontier CEO Maggie Wilderotter trotted out the same excuses companies like Cox and Suddenlink are still using today to justify these pricing schemes: “The growth of traffic means the company has to invest millions in its network and infrastructure, threatening its profitability.”

Just one year later, Frontier spent $5.3 billion to acquire Verizon landline customers in around two dozen states, so apparently Internet usage growth did not hurt them financially after all. Frankly, usage growth never does. As we told the AP in 2008, the costs of network equipment and connecting to the wider Internet are falling. It still is.

“If they continue to make the necessary investments … there’s no reason they can’t keep up” with increasing customer traffic, we said at the time.

We are happy to report we won our battle with Frontier Communications and today the company even markets the fact their broadband service comes without usage caps. In many of Frontier’s rural service areas, they are the only Internet Service Provider available. Imagine the impact a 5GB usage cap would have had on customers trying to run a home-based business, have kids using the Internet to complete homework assignments, or rely on the Internet for video entertainment.

So why do some providers still try to ration Internet usage? To make more money of course. When the public believes the phony tales of network costs and traffic growth, the duped masses open their wallets and pay even more for what is already overpriced broadband service. Just check this chart produced by the BBC, based on data from the Organization for Economic Co‑operation and Development. Value for money is an alien concept to U.S. providers:

_70717869_countries_with_high_speed_broadband

The usual method of combating pricing excess is robust competition. With a chasm-sized gap between fat profits and the real cost of the service, competitors usually lower the price to attract more customers. But the fewer competitors, the bigger the chance the marketplace will gravitate towards comfort-level pricing and avoid rocking the boat with a ruinous price war. It is one of the first principles of capitalism — charging what the market will bear. We’ve seen how well that works in the past 100+ years. Back in 2010, we found an uncomfortable similarity between broadband prices of today with the railroad pricing schemes of the 1800s. A handful of executives and shareholders reap the rewards of monopolistic pricing and pillage not only consumers but threaten local economies as well.

special reportThe abuses were so bad, Congress finally stepped in and authorized regulators to break up the railroad monopolies and regulate abusive pricing. We may be headed in the same direction with broadband. We do not advocate regulation for the sake of regulation. Competition is a much more efficient way to check abusive business practices. But where an effective monopoly or duopoly exists, competition alone will not help. Without consumer-conscious oversight, the forthcoming gigabit broadband revolution will be stalled by speed bumps and toll booths for the benefit of a few giant telecommunications corporations. That will allow other countries to once again leap ahead of the United States and Canada, just as they have done with Internet speeds, delivering superior service at a lower price.

China now ranks first in the world in terms of the total number of fiber to the home broadband subscribers. So far, it isn’t even close to the fastest broadband country because much of China still gets access to the Internet over DSL. The Chinese government considers that unacceptable. It sees the economic opportunities of widespread fiber broadband and has targeted the scrapping of every DSL Internet connection in favor of fiber optics by the end of 2017. As a result, with more than 200 million likely fiber customers, China will become the global leader in fiber infrastructure, fiber technology, and fiber development. What country will lose the most from that transition? The United States. Today, Corning produces 40% of the world’s optical fiber.

Global optical fiber capacity amounted to 13,000 tons in 2014, mainly concentrated in the United States, Japan and China (totaling as much as 85.2% of the world’s total), of which China already ranked first with a share of 39.8%. Besides a big producer of optical fiber, China is also a large consumer, demanding 6,639 tons in 2014, 60.9% of global demand. The figure is expected to increase to 7,144 tons in 2015. Before 2010, over 70% of China’s optical fiber was imported, primarily from the United States. This year, 72.6% of China’s optical fiber will be produced by Chinese companies, which are also exporting a growing amount of fiber around the world.

John Lively, principal analyst at LightCounting Market Research, predicts China could conquer the fiber market in just a few short years and become a global broadband leader, “exporting their broadband networking expertise and technology, just like it does with its energy and transportation programs.”

Meanwhile in the United States, customers will be arguing with Comcast about the accuracy of their usage meter in light of a 300GB usage cap and Frontier’s DSL customers will still be fighting to get speeds better than the 3-6Mbps they get today.

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

Microsoft’s Windows 10 Updates Cost Some Users Hundreds of Dollars in Internet Overlimit Fees

badbillAbbes Nacef was not very happy when he opened his web browser a few days ago to see a message inserted at the top of his screen.

“Your Internet service has reached the maximum limit of allowable overage charges. If you wish to continue service, please contact our business office to discuss your account.”

Nacef, who lives in Monastir, a Tunisian city best known for its tourism, was surprised because it was the first sign his Internet account had gone over the limit.

“While you can get uncapped DSL in Tunisia, it is not very good service and in my area it is not offered,” Nacef told Stop the Cap!. “Most in our neighborhood rely on a wireless ISP service which is less costly than 3G or 4G mobile service, but is capped and charges roughly $25 for each extra gigabyte allotment.”

Nacef’s call to his provider was not pleasant. He had already accumulated almost $180 in charges for the month of August, most in overlimit fees. The culprit was quickly identified — Microsoft Windows 10, which took several attempts to reach Nacef’s computer over a challenging Internet connection. But Nacef also learned his computer was repeatedly requesting updates from Microsoft, including three software patches that would not complete and were sent over and over for almost two weeks.

“It was the fifth call my ISP had received about this problem, and they were very annoyed also because Microsoft Windows 10 assumes you will use their Edge browser which defeats the early warning messages from my ISP that usage limits are approaching,” Nacef said. “When I switched back to my old browser the bad news was there, but it was too late.”

Windows-10His ISP has agreed to cut the charges in half and has warned all of its customers if they want Windows 10, the ISP will offer them a copy on a returnable USB memory device for free.

Nacef thinks the huge multiple download attempts to receive Windows 10 itself was responsible for most of the extra usage, but he is wary about the frequent software updates and the fact they are shared with other users by default.

That is what may have tripped up Rob DuGrenier who paid an exorbitant $150 this month for 1.5Mbps Internet service just to get a 75GB usage allowance for his immediate family in far northern Québec. The alternative was an overlimit fee of $20 for each 5GB allotment of usage over the usual 30GB allowance granted to “Power” users.

“Internet is not an option for our family for medical reasons, but this hurts,” DuGrenier writes. “It is definitely Windows 10 and there is something wrong with it because our ISP reports we are sending a lot more data than we are receiving, and there are no viruses or malware on the computers.”

Internet access is northern Québec is slow and costly.

Internet access is northern Québec is slow and costly.

His ISP now suspects Microsoft is using his connection to distribute software updates to a number of other users across northern Canada. When DuGrenier’s family disabled the option that opted them in to distributing Microsoft updates to other customers, upstream traffic dropped 98%.

“Were we sending Windows 10 itself all over northern Quebec and Nunavut? We just don’t know and Microsoft has not responded,” DuGrenier reports. “They have billions, I do not. They should be paying my Internet bill this month.”

The worst of the reported problems of bill shock are occurring in remote areas where Internet service can be a mixture of wired and wireless connections that are often slow and usually usage-limited. Windows 10 was designed to reduce bandwidth demand on wireless connections, assuming they would be metered. But how Microsoft detects which networks are wireless and metered and which may only partly be so is apparently a work in progress.

This morning, the Sydney Morning Herald reports at least one customer on a Pacific island was slammed with a catastrophically high Internet bill. Maureen Hilyard in the Cook Islands owes her ISP $390 this month, all because of automatic updates from Microsoft for Windows 10.

“In this context, where Internet access is both painfully slow and seriously expensive, these forced updates are almost literally forcing people off the Internet and are resulting in massive excess data charges,” EFA executive officer Jon Lawrence told the newspaper.

cook islands

The Cook Islands

Hilyard is a customer of Bluesky, primarily a satellite Internet Service Provider that dominates the Cook Islands, which have no other options for Internet access. A basic account costs $31.50 a month, but that provides just 3.5GB of data for the entire month. Automatic overlimit charges of $0.03 per megabyte accrue after the allowance is used up.

The most likely victims of Windows-induced bill shock subscribe to usage-limited wireless or satellite Internet services. While many providers throttle the speeds of customers who reach the usage limit, others charge penalty rates. Microsoft has no way to know which is true. Instead, the company claims it looks for evidence of a wireless connection before performing updates and when it finds one, it assumes it to be metered. But wired connections stay firmly in the unmetered category, whether they are usage-capped or not. Customers are invited to choose by digging through confusing settings menus.

Even more problematic is the built-in peer-to-peer technology that gives Microsoft’s servers a break and uses your Internet connection to share the latest Windows software updates with other Windows users across town and beyond. Microsoft has offered no provision to track this usage, but users can opt out with this advice from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Users can tweak their Windows 10 system settings by enabling a “metered connection” by searching for “Change Wi-Fi settings” in the start menu, clicking on “Advanced Options” and enabling “Metered connection.” This lets Windows 10 know the Wi-Fi connection you’re on is capped, so instead of forcing a software update onto your PC or tablet, it will notify you first. You can then choose to delay the upgrade until you are on an uncapped connection, or until you’ve rolled over into a fresh month of data.

This workaround only applies to Wi-Fi connections, however, not Ethernet connections.

A second workaround actually comes in an update which Microsoft itself released. It’s a bit more fiddly though, as it involves manually uninstalling driver updates and then downloading a special troubleshooter app to prevent them from installing again automatically. The full instructions are available online.

Usage Caps & Market Power: AT&T Applies Overlimit Penalties to DSL, Not U-verse Customers

bandwidth

“Note: Enforcement of the 250GB data consumption threshold is currently suspended.” (Image: Houston Chronicle)

AT&T’s enforces usage caps with overlimit penalties on its slow speed DSL service while waiving overlimit fees for its higher speed U-verse Internet service.

In 2011, AT&T introduced a 150GB monthly data cap on its DSL customers and a 250GB cap on U-verse Internet access, promising an overlimit fee of $10 for each 50GB customers stray over their allowance. Since that time, although AT&T continues to claim all customers have a usage allowance, it only penalizes DSL customers with overlimit fees.

What makes one customer subject to a higher bill while another can use as much data as they like without penalty? Competition.

Stop the Cap! has found AT&T’s DSL customers are among those least favored by the phone company. Subjected to a data cap with penalty fees for exceeding the allowance is just one of the issues bothering customers like Sheila Rivers, who lives on Houston’s west side. Her Internet bill has gone up year after year no matter how much data she uses. Her phone line with DSL used to cost her around $45 a month. Last year, it increased to $65 and AT&T has now informed her they want another $10 a month, bringing her phone bill to almost $75 a month. As long as it hasn’t rained recently, she gets just under 6Mbps speeds from AT&T. This past spring her connection barely exceeded 2Mbps.

When Rivers complains about her bill, she is quickly offered U-verse at about half the price for faster speeds. She’d take advantage of the offer, except she can’t. AT&T’s engineers tell her there are “no more ports” open in her neighborhood at the moment.

That’s also true for Jim in downtown Chicago. He’s an AT&T DSL customer and not by choice. AT&T was supposed to upgrade his building to U-verse more than a year ago, but it still has not happened. Comcast has a record of delivering appallingly bad service in his building, judging from his neighbors who cannot stay connected to Comcast’s Internet service. That leaves him with AT&T DSL with that 150GB usage cap. He regularly pays $30 in overlimit fees every month for exceeding it.

“AT&T won’t budge on waiving the extra fees on DSL, unless I agree to sign up for U-verse and then they will issue me a courtesy credit,” Jim tells Stop the Cap! “I keep telling them ‘yes, please’ and around a day later I receive another call canceling my order because U-verse is not available in the building. It’s clear the DSL usage cap is supposed to convince people to switch to U-verse for a bigger allowance.”

uverse caps

(Image: Houston Chronicle)

Except AT&T has not enforced its 250GB usage allowance with overlimit fees anywhere we could find. In fact, customers tell us they are specifically exempted from any U-verse caps based on a message they see on AT&T’s usage measurement tool:

Note: Enforcement of the 250GB data consumption threshold is currently suspended.

This week, the Houston Chronicle’s TechBlog reports usage caps for U-verse have been suspended across the city of Houston. AT&T’s current reasoning for harshly enforcing caps on its DSL service while not enforcing them at all for U-verse customers was murky:

“We’re educating our customers on Internet usage, and we inform them if their usage might affect their monthly bill.”

So what is different about AT&T’s lower speed DSL service that presumably generates less traffic than its higher speed U-verse counterpart?

The answer seems to be competition.

AT&T has aggressively upgraded many of their urban and suburban service areas to U-verse. That upgrade alone does not mean the end of DSL for customers in an upgraded area, but AT&T has clearly embarked on an effort to convince customers to abandon older DSL service in favor of U-verse. In most cases this is accomplished with promotional pricing, dramatically reducing the cost of U-verse and convincing customers sticking with DSL is an expensive mistake.

AT&T also faces cable competition in nearly 100% of their U-verse service areas — competition that has raised broadband speeds and cut prices for new customers. If the competition offers faster Internet speeds with no usage cap, toughing it out with AT&T U-verse may seem unwise. Enforcing that 250GB cap would likely drive a number of customers to the competition.

In contrast, more rural and outer suburban communities are less likely to have a cable competitor and much more likely to qualify only for DSL because AT&T has not upgraded those areas to U-verse. That leaves AT&T with a monopoly, where customers have no other choices for service. It is very easy to enforce usage caps in these areas.

“It doesn’t make any sense that AT&T would cap me to 150GB on my DSL line and charge me overlimit fees for using too much when my next door neighbor with U-verse can use the Internet 24/7 and never be asked to pay anything extra for doing it,” Rivers said. “It rubbed me wrong enough to call Comcast, where I was offered more than 10 times faster service with cable TV thrown in for $15 less than what AT&T has been charging me and no usage caps for now at least. I can’t stand Comcast but AT&T is worse.”

Rivers thinks AT&T is making a big mistake having usage caps at all.

“That one issue just cost them my business after eight years with them.”

Frontier Leaves 6,000+ Internet Customers in N.Y. With No DSL Service for More Than a Day

frontier frankA Frontier Communications service outage in New York left more than 6,000 customers without Internet service for more than 24 hours, leaving businesses with no way to process credit card payments and idling home-based telecommuters.

The outage began early Sunday morning leaving customers near Buffalo, Rochester, and the Southern Tier with no broadband and no answers.

Daniel Virella of Irondequoit called Frontier about the outage and a representative spent 30 minutes troubleshooting his connection with no results.

“I [then] asked him if there was an outage and he says, ‘you know what you’re right,” Virella wrote. “I’m like ‘are you serious?'”

As calls poured into Frontier’s customer service center, nobody had any answers about what the problem was or when it would be fixed.

“There was a recording that said if you’re calling from Rochester, you’ve got a problem,” Stephen Lambert told WROC-TV. “I wish someone would tell me what the problem is.”

By late Sunday, customers took to social media to blast Frontier for its lack of response.

“[Frontier’s] Internet goes down constantly,” complained Rochester resident Mary Ellen Frye. “They are aware of the problem but have no idea when it will be fixed. [Their] service level [is] erratic and totally unacceptable!”

Sharon McCauley Barger was without Frontier Internet for two days in Wheatfield (near Niagara Falls).

“We had to add 2GB to our mobile plan because of this,” she complained.

For businesses affected by the outage, the costs were even higher.

A gas station on Winton Road in Rochester lost business as customers discovered their credit cards wouldn’t work because Frontier’s Internet was offline.

sorry-no-internet-today-1Manager Angel Perez told WROC there is every chance the damage done will last longer than the outage itself.

“The impact is definitely lost sales, customers. You don’t know, they just might not come back,” Perez said.

Eva McDaniel can commiserate. Her service has been out for weeks. She let Frontier know she was fed up with them for the last time.

“Very poor customer service and no resolution on an Internet outage for over a month,” she told the company on their Facebook page. “Good riddance Frontier! I am done!”

Frontier eventually issued a statement that a circuit board was responsible for the failure but it would take several more hours before service was restored. Although Frontier claimed they first received reports of the outage “late Sunday,” Stop the Cap! confirmed customers started calling Frontier about service problems early Sunday morning. Multiple customers were able to confirm the outage began around 7:30am Sunday and ended just before 10:30am Monday morning — more than 24 hours later.

Internet Service Providers are deregulated and are not required to report service outages except when they impact telephone service. The New York Public Service Commission does collect statistics about service outages, mostly as a result of customer complaints.

Customers have some recourse when an outage occurs:

  1. Request a service credit for the outage. Providers typically do not give credit unless it is requested. For each day you experience a service outage, Frontier should credit you for one day of service. Multiple outages or extended service problems often call for even larger service credits, especially in response to a complaint filed with a state regulator;
  2. File a complaint with a state regulator and/or the FCC. Providers with a poor service record could attract the attention of state or federal officials and provide useful ammunition when a company seeks to expand by buying up other providers and service areas.
  3. If service problems are frequent, change providers if you can.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WROC Rochester Frontier outage frustrates customers 8-10-15.mp4

Stop the Cap! talks with WROC-TV about the major Internet outage affecting Frontier Communications DSL service in western New York. (2:36)

Frontier Tries to Force Arbitration in Class Action Case Over “No Contract” DSL

frontier wvA plea from unhappy Frontier Communications’ broadband customers in West Virginia to have their complaints about Frontier DSL heard by a judge will get a hearing before Lincoln County Circuit Judge Jay Hoke on Aug. 19.

The class action lawsuit claims Frontier deceptively advertises fast Internet service that in reality is often unreliable and delivers only 5-10 percent of the speeds advertised. Many West Virginians have no other broadband options.

In response, lawyers for Frontier Communications have fought to get the case dismissed. They want customers to take their complaints through Frontier’s binding arbitration dispute resolution process.

In 2011, Frontier changed its terms and conditions, adding a lengthy arbitration provision that forbids customers from bringing class action cases and generally limits the damages customers can receive. Frontier argues customers automatically agreed to the arbitration process by continuing to use Frontier’s broadband service after the changes were announced.

The attorneys bringing the case think Frontier’s insistence that customers are automatically bound by the company’s contractual terms and conditions is ironic.

“No contract. No signatures. No worries,” claims one Frontier ad. “There’s no contract. Yep, that’s right, no contract,” advertises another. Since 2013, Frontier has gone out of its way advertising broadband without the gotchas and hidden fees their competitors charge. “Frontier is now in the unenviable position of trying to enforce hidden terms in the very contracts they repeatedly represented did not exist,” argues the plaintiffs in a court document.

no contract

Some Frontier customers never realized they may have given up their right to bring a civil case against Frontier. The company first notified customers about this change in their terms and conditions in 2011 through a small message on Frontier invoices. Customers effectively agreed to those changes through their continued use of Frontier’s service, Frontier claimed. But the plaintiffs signed documents attesting they had never seen or heard of Frontier’s enforced arbitration policy. The lawyers bringing the case are not surprised. A copy of the changed terms and conditions obtained by Stop the Cap! shows the binding arbitration clause buried on page five of a leaflet rendered in very small print in very large paragraphs unlikely to be read or understood by many customers.

The current arbitration policy is reproduced below. Have you read it?:

As explained more fully below and in the terms and conditions document, Frontier’s terms and conditions set forth important details about your relationship with Frontier including the requirement to resolve any dispute with Frontier by binding arbitration, on an individual basis, rather than through a lawsuit, jury trial or class action.  If you do not agree to Frontier’s terms and conditions, you may not use the Frontier service and must terminate service immediately.

DISPUTE RESOLUTION WITH FRONTIER BY BINDING ARBITRATION

PLEASE READ THIS CAREFULLY. IT AFFECTS YOUR RIGHTS.

Frontier encourages you to contact our Customer Service department if you have concerns or complaints about your service or Frontier. Generally, customer complaints can be satisfactorily resolved in this way. In the unlikely event that you are not able to resolve your concerns through our Customer Service department, we each agree to resolve all disputes through binding arbitration or a small claims court rather than lawsuits in courts of general jurisdiction, jury trials, or class actions. Arbitration is more informal than a lawsuit. Arbitration uses a neutral arbitrator instead of a judge or jury, allows for more limited discovery than in court, and is subject to very limited review by courts. Arbitrators can award the same damages and individual relief affecting individual parties that a court can award, including an award of attorneys’ fees if the law allows. For any non-frivolous claim that does not exceed $75,000, Frontier will pay all costs of the arbitration. Moreover, in arbitration you are entitled to recover attorneys’ fees from Frontier for your own dispute to the same extent as you would be in court.

In addition, under certain circumstances (as explained below), Frontier will pay you more than the amount of the arbitrator’s award if the arbitrator awards you an amount that is greater than what Frontier has offered you to settle the dispute.

Arbitration Agreement:

(a) You and Frontier agree to arbitrate all disputes and claims between us. This agreement to arbitrate is intended to be broadly interpreted. It includes, but is not limited to, all claims arising out of or relating to any aspect of our relationship, whether based in contract, tort, statute, fraud, misrepresentation or any other legal theory, that arose either before or during this or any prior Agreement, or that may arise after termination of this Agreement. It also includes claims that are currently the subject of purported class action litigation in which you are not a member of a certified class. References to “Frontier,” “you,” and “us” include our respective subsidiaries, affiliates, agents, employees, predecessors in interest, successors, and assigns, as well as all authorized or unauthorized users or beneficiaries of Frontier Broadband under this or prior Agreements between us.

Notwithstanding the foregoing agreement, Frontier agrees that it will not use arbitration to initiate debt collection against you except in response to claims you have made in arbitration. In addition, by agreeing to resolve disputes through arbitration, you and Frontier agree to each unconditionally waive the right to a trial by jury or to participate in a class action, representative proceeding, or private attorney general action. Instead of arbitration, either party may bring an individual action in a small claims court for disputes or claims that are within the scope of the small claims court’s authority. In addition, you may bring any issues to the attention of federal, state, or local agencies, including, for example, the Federal Communications Commission. Such agencies can, if the law allows, seek relief against us on your behalf.

This agreement evidences a transaction in interstate commerce, and thus the Federal Arbitration Act governs the interpretation and enforcement of this provision, even after the agreement is terminated.

(b) A party who intends to seek arbitration must first send to the other, by certified mail, a written Notice of Dispute (“Notice”). The Notice to Frontier should be addressed to: Frontier Communications, Legal Department – Arbitration, 3 High Ridge Park, Stamford, CT 06905 (“Notice Address”). The Notice must (1) describe the nature and basis of the claim or dispute; and (2) set for the specific relief sought (“Demand”). If Frontier and you do not reach an agreement to resolve the claim within 30 days after the Notice is received, you or Frontier may commence an arbitration proceeding. During the arbitration, the amount of any settlement offer made by Frontier or you shall not be disclosed to the arbitrator until after the arbitrator determines the amount, if any, to which you or Frontier is entitled.

(c) The arbitration will be governed by the Consumer Arbitration Rules (“AAA Rules”) of the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”), as modified by these Terms of Service, and will be administered by the AAA. Procedure, rule and fee information is available from the AAA online at http://www.adr.org, by calling the AAA at 1-800-778-7879, or by calling Frontier at 1-877-462-7320, option 3. The arbitrator is bound by the terms of this Agreement. All issues are for the arbitrator to decide, except that issues relating to the scope and enforceability of the arbitration provision, including the scope, interpretation, and enforceability of section (f) below, are for the court to decide. If your claim is for $25,000 or less, you may choose whether the arbitration will be conducted solely on the basis of documents submitted to the arbitrator, through a telephonic hearing, or by an in person hearing as established by the AAA Rules. If your claim exceeds $25,000, the right to a hearing will be determined by the AAA Rules. Unless Frontier and you agree otherwise, any in person hearings will take place at a location that the AAA selects in the state of your primary residence unless you and Frontier agree otherwise. Regardless of the manner in which the arbitration is conducted, the arbitrator shall issue a reasoned written decision sufficient to explain the essential findings and conclusions on which the award is based.

Frontier agrees to pay your AAA filing, administration, and arbitrator fees (“AAA fees”) for claims for damages of up to $75,000 and for claims for non-monetary relief up to the value of $75,000, as measured from either your or Frontier’s perspective (but excluding attorneys’ fees and expenses). After Frontier receives notice that you have commenced arbitration, it will promptly reimburse you for your payment of the filing fee, unless your claim is for greater than $75,000. (The filing fee currently is $200 but is subject to change by the AAA. If you are unable to pay this fee, Frontier will pay it directly upon receiving a written request.) In addition, Frontier will not pay your share of the AAA fees if the arbitrator finds that either your claim or the relief sought is frivolous or brought for an improper purpose, as measured by the standards of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11(b). In such case, the payment of AAA fees will be governed by the AAA Rules, and you agree to reimburse Frontier for all monies previously disbursed by it that are otherwise your obligation to pay under the AAA Rules. If you initiate an arbitration in which you seek relief valued at more than $75,000 (excluding attorneys’ fees and expenses), as measured from either your or Frontier’s perspective, the payment of AAA fees will be governed by the AAA Rules.

(d) If Frontier offers to settle your dispute prior to appointment of the arbitrator and you do not accept the offer, and the arbitrator awards you an amount of money that is more than Frontier’s last written settlement offer, then Frontier will pay you the amount of the award or $5,000 (“the alternative payment”), whichever is greater.
If Frontier does not offer to settle your dispute prior to appointment of the arbitrator, and the arbitrator awards you any relief on the merits, then Frontier agrees to pay you the amount of the award or the alternative payment, whichever is greater. The arbitrator may make rulings and resolve disputes as to the payment and reimbursement of fees, expenses, and the alternative payment at any time during the proceeding and upon request from either party made within fourteen (14) days of the arbitrator’s ruling on the merits.

(e)  Although Frontier may have a right to an award of attorneys’ fees and expenses if it prevails, Frontier agrees that it will not seek such an award.

(f) You and Frontier agree to seek, and further agree that the arbitrator may award, only such relief—whether in the form of damages, an injunction, or other non-monetary relief—as is necessary to resolve any individual injury that either you or Frontier have suffered or may suffer. In particular, if either you or Frontier seek any non-monetary relief, including injunctive or declaratory relief, the arbitrator may award relief on an individual basis only, and may not award relief that affects individuals or entities other than you or Frontier. You and Frontier agree that we each may bring claims against the other only in an individual capacity and not as a plaintiff or class member in any purported class, representative, or private attorney general proceeding. Furthermore, unless both you and Frontier agree otherwise in writing, the arbitrator may not consolidate more than one person’s claims, and may not otherwise preside over any form of a class, representative, or private attorney general proceeding. If a court decides that applicable law precludes enforcement of any of this paragraph (f)’s limitations as to a particular claim for relief, then that claim (and only that claim) must be severed from the arbitration and may be brought in court. Further, an arbitrator’s award and any judgment confirming it shall apply only to that specific case and cannot be used in any other case except to enforce the award itself.

(g) Notwithstanding any provision in these Terms to the contrary, you and Frontier agree that if Frontier makes any change to this arbitration provision during the period of time that you are receiving Frontier services, you may reject that change by providing Frontier with written notice within 30 days of the change to the Notice Address provided above and require Frontier to adhere to the language in this provision. By rejecting any future change, you are agreeing that you will arbitrate any dispute between us in accordance with the language of this provision.

arbitration pros consCorporations began to favor private arbitration over the civil courts several years ago, arguing arbitration would save money and lead to faster resolutions of customer complaints. Many customers and trial lawyers disagree, arguing arbitration favors the corporations that pay for arbitration programs, shields bad acts from public disclosure with confidentiality agreements, limits damage awards and prevents class action cases seeking relatively small amounts of damages for a large number of customers who would otherwise never bring a case to court. Early attempts by some companies to offer voluntary arbitration programs as an alternative to civil actions offered more limited benefits and many companies have since moved to mandatory, binding arbitration instead. Disputes subject to mandatory arbitration usually must be resolved through arbitration. The parties give up their right to sue in court, participate in a class action lawsuit, or appeal the arbitration decision.

The law firms handling the case against Frontier — Bailey Glasser in Charleston and Klein, Sheridan & Glazer in Huntington, are arguing Frontier customers cannot be bound by mandatory arbitration policies without evidence Frontier informed them of the program and can show evidence of their consent. In a lengthy argument to the judge, the attorneys argue Frontier can show neither. They point to Frontier’s website, which “buries” the terms and conditions as a tiny link at the bottom of their main web page. Customers must click that link, then find the link for the arbitration provision, then read and understand it. Notice about the arbitration policy originally came in occasional billing notices. Since the lawsuit was filed, Frontier has given more prominent mention of its terms and conditions, including its arbitration policy, on monthly billing statements.

Frontier’s defense is that the plaintiffs are misrepresenting the meaning of “no contract.” The company argues customers commonly understand that term to mean they will not be asked to sign a term contract for one, two, or three years, facing an early termination penalty if they seek to end the contract early. The fact Frontier advertises “no contract” does not mean there are no terms and conditions, the company’s attorneys argued.

A potentially weaker defense is Frontier’s claim that customers can be bound by a contract once they continue to use the service after a change in terms is published. Frontier admitted it could not prove the customers read and understood the change of terms notification or the new terms and conditions. It also never asked customers to directly consent, either in writing or by checking a box on a website, to the new terms and conditions. The plaintiffs also question the legality of Frontier reserving the right to unilaterally change any terms and conditions after a brief notification period and win consent of those changes if subscribers do not cancel service or, in some cases, opt out.

The attorneys call that “take it or leave it” Internet access from Frontier, often the only provider in large parts of rural West Virginia.

Find the terms and conditions link on the bottom of Frontier.com.

Find the terms and conditions link on the bottom of Frontier.com.

Verizon DSL: The Love is Gone – Rate Hikes, Availability Problems, Low Speeds

Sandra Hartman has been a Verizon DSL customer for more than 10 years. She doesn’t have much of a choice.

In her small town outside of Binghamton, N.Y., Verizon is her only option. Time Warner Cable doesn’t come close to providing service in this part of upstate New York and cell service is abominable, even with Verizon and AT&T.

“I live in an area just large enough to have given Verizon the justification to offer DSL, but 3Mbps service is about all we have ever been able to get, but it has been better than nothing,” Hartman tells Stop the Cap!

Hartman signed up for a package that included $19.99 DSL with her landline a decade ago, a price that went up $10 after the sign-up promotion ended but has remained stable for years.

“Then Verizon decided to raise the price without improving the service,” Hartman says.

In fact, the price hikes have been fast and furious lately, beginning last fall when Hartman received this notice Verizon was raising the price to $34.99 a month:

Verizon-logo

Dear Valued Verizon Customer,

We realize you have choices when it comes to choosing your Broadband provider, and would like to take this opportunity to say thank you for being a loyal customer and for choosing Verizon.

In order to continue to bring you quality service and product innovation, at times we need to raise our rates. Your monthly rate will increase by $5.00 and will be reflected on your bill within the next two months. This rate will remain in effect for one year. If you currently have any credits or discounts on your account, these will remain in effect until their original expiration date.

If you would like to review your account to see if you may qualify for additional savings or if you have any questions, please log on to verizon.com/myverizon or give us a call at 1.888.213.9932.

We value you as a customer and look forward to continuing to serve you.

Sincerely,
Your Verizon Team

“What choices?,” Hartman wondered. “We have no choice and after the rate increase, we’ve seen no improvement in the quality of the service or any evidence of Verizon’s ‘product innovation.’ It’s the same DSL service we’ve had for a decade — we’re just paying $60 more a year for the same thing.”

In Pennsylvania, Verizon is required by regulators to provide access to broadband to any customer that wants the service by the end of 2015. This map shows Verizon's service areas, 96% of which now have access to at least DSL service.

In the unusual case of Pennsylvania, Verizon is required by law to offer access to broadband to any customer that wants the service by the end of 2015. This map shows Verizon’s service areas in green, 96% of which now have access to at least DSL service. That same requirement is absent in most states.

To save money, Hartman downgraded her Verizon landline to the cheapest possible plan and switched to Voice over IP provider Ooma, which works over her DSL line. But Verizon is now back for more with another rate increase notice — this time looking for another $7 a month starting this fall, putting the price of 3Mbps DSL up to $41.99 before fees, surcharges, and taxes.

“I called Verizon and they told me rates are reviewed ‘for competitive reasons’ and reflect the cost of providing the service, which is apparently now up another $84 a year,” she said. “Verizon’s equipment, sitting in the elements on a phone pole or humming away in their phone office actually appreciates in value it seems. I wish my 10-year-old laptop was worth more today than the day I bought it, but my laptop wasn’t made by Verizon.”

Hartman complained to customer service the successive rate increases do not seem to be spent on any improvements. In fact, it seems Verizon is no longer accepting new DSL customers in her area.

“A real estate agent friend of mine told me selling homes in this town has gotten difficult because Verizon will simply not sell DSL to new customers here, claiming they have no capacity,” Hartman said. “If you can’t get DSL from Verizon, you don’t have broadband service, it’s as simple as that.”

DSL availability from Verizon is not just a problem for Hartman. Several central offices in upstate New York no longer accept new Verizon DSL customers, claiming the service is at capacity. Some customers in the Finger Lakes region keep DSL service year-round at their seasonal cottages, fearing if they suspend service for the winter they will not get it back next spring. Time Warner Cable offers service to many lakefront properties, but those who own cabins and homes away from the lakeshore usually cannot get cable service and depend on Verizon for service.

The Verizon DSL forum on DSL Reports has more examples of customers that discover their entire exchange is no longer qualified to get Verizon DSL. One such example is in Purcellville, Va., west of Washington, D.C., a quick drive to the Maryland and West Virginia borders.

“DSL suddenly has disappeared from my wire center entirely – regardless if your 10 feet from the CO or out of a remote terminal with a DSLAM,” wrote Zenit. “Even the industrial section of town which has its own fiber fed DSL equipped RT shows negative for service, and there are plenty of vacant units there.”

Similar stories were reported in communities like Pittsfield, Mass. and Netcong, N.J.

Customers have been able to push back against Verizon’s price increases, especially in competitive areas. Some customers are switched to lower cost bundled packages while others are given straight service credits that lower a customer’s bill. Customers need only ask Verizon for a better price and let them know you are shopping around for a better deal.

The Philippines: Free Market Broadband Paradise or Deregulated Duopolistic Hellhole?

special reportFans of the “hands-off” approach to broadband oversight finally have a country where they can see a deregulated free marketplace in action, where consumers theoretically pick the winners and losers and where demand governs the kinds of services consumers and businesses can get from their providers.

That country is the Philippines, which has taken the libertarian free market approach to Internet access in a dramatic leap away from the authoritarian Marcos era of the 1980s.

The Deregulation “Miracle”

Until 1995, the Philippines Long Distance Telephone Company (PLDT) maintained a 60-year plus government-sanctioned monopoly on telecommunications services. Its performance was less than compelling. Establishing landline service took up to 10 years on a lengthy waiting list. Getting a phone line was the first problem, making sure it worked consistently was another. Just over 10 years after the United States formally broke up AT&T and the Bell System, the government in Manila approved RA 7925 – the Public Telecommunications Policy Act of 1995, breaking PLDT’s monopoly and establishing a level playing ground for each of 11 regions across the country and its many islands in which private companies could compete with PLDT for customers.

philippinesTo attract investment and competition, the government declared all value-added services like Internet access deregulated and guaranteed the complete privatization of all government telecom facilities no later than 1998. It also initially limited the number of companies that could compete against PLDT in each region to two new entrants. The government felt that would be necessary to attract competitors that knew they would have to quickly invest millions, if not billions, to build telecom infrastructure in the Philippines. It would be hard to make a case for investment in a region where a half-dozen companies all engaged in a price war fighting for customers while stringing new telephone lines and building cell towers.

To prevent cherry-picking only the wealthiest areas of the country, the government declared its desire for a privately funded nationwide telecom network and used the 11 regions, combining urban and rural areas in each, to get it. Competitors were required to support at least 300,000 landlines and 400,000 cellular lines in each region. That assured new networks could not simply be built in urban areas, bypassing smaller communities. After building their networks, companies largely operated on their own in a mostly-free deregulated market, slightly overseen by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) — the Philippines equivalent of the FCC.

The early years of telecom deregulation seemed promising. PLDT, much like AT&T in the United States, kept the lion’s share of customers (67.24%) after deregulation took effect, but new competitors quickly captured one-third of the market. But with lax regulation and oversight, some of the Philippines’ most powerful families, many benefiting under years of the Marcos dictatorship, managed to gain influence in the newly competitive Philippines telecom business. In the United States, telecom competition meant a choice between Sprint, MCI, AT&T or others. In the Philippines, you dealt with one or two of nine powerful family owned conglomerates, each operating with a foreign-owned telecom partner. It would be like choosing between companies owned by the Rockefellers, the Astors, the Carnegies, or the Morgans.

pldtThe NTC remained more “hands-off” than the FCC, avoiding significant involvement in critical interconnection issues — how competing telephone companies handle calls from subscribers of a competing provider. That was last an issue in the United States in the early 1900s, where rare independent competitors to the rapidly consolidating Bell System faced a telecom giant that initially refused to handle calls from customers of other companies. American regulators eventually demanded interconnection policies that guaranteed customers could reach any other telephone customer, regardless of what company handled their service. In the Philippines, the NTC eventually mandated less-demanding access, allowing companies to charge long distance rates to reach customers of other companies. In the 1990s, it was not uncommon to find businesses maintaining at least two telephone lines with different companies to escape long distance expenses and stay accessible to all of their potential customers.

PLDT initially fought the opening of the marketplace but benefited handsomely from it once it took effect. The company got away with setting sky-high interconnection rates to connect calls from other smaller providers to its customers. It also made access to its network a minefield of bureaucracy and often required competitors to sign unfair revenue sharing agreements.

It is Cheaper to Buy Out the Competition Instead of Competing With It

competition-issues-in-philippine-telecommunications-sector-challenges-and-recommendations-3-638

(Image Courtesy: Mary Grace Mirandilla-Santos/LIRNEasia)

The investment community eventually balked at the cost of constructing competing telecommunications networks, especially after the dot.com crash in 2000, and a drumbeat for industry consolidation through mergers and acquisitions quickly grew too loud to ignore. Investors fumed over the amount of money being spent by providers to meet their service obligations in the 11 subdivided regions. Instead of building redundant or competing infrastructure, allowing competitors to merge would cut costs and enhance investor return. The NTC let the marketplace decide, as did the government, and it led to a frenzy of industry consolidation that ran far beyond what the FCC and American Justice Department would ever tolerate.

In 2011, the government backed a colossal merger that brought together the wireless networks of Pilipino Telephone Corporation, PLDT, and Smart under the PLDT brand. The three former competitors became one and controlled 66.3% of the Philippine’s wireless customers. The merger was comparable to allowing Verizon to buy out Sprint.

Additional mergers in response to the super-sized PLDT rapidly reduced the competitiveness of Philippine’s telecommunications marketplace to a duopoly. Just two companies — PLDT, Globe, and their respective house brands — dominate landline, DSL, cable, and wireless telecommunications service in the Philippines. The investment community celebrated the deal’s approval as a lucrative goldmine of future revenue gains from a less competitive market.

Philippine Broadband: Hey, It’s at Least Moderately Better Than Afghanistan

competition-issues-in-philippine-telecommunications-sector-challenges-and-recommendations-8-638

(Image courtesy: Mary Grace Mirandilla-Santos/LIRNEasia)

Broadband performance, under any measure other than financial success, has proved abysmal for Philippine consumers and businesses. The country’s broadband speeds are among the worst in the world, only beating Afghanistan in many speed tests. Look the other wayoversight led to a bribery scandal in 2007 that threatened to bring down the government. Officials exploring the development of a National Broadband Network were accused of soliciting kickbacks from Chinese equipment vendor ZTE, which would have been responsible for supplying equipment for the project. The government canceled the project as the scandal widened and some of the principals left the country or in at least one case were kidnapped.

Eight years later, broadband in the Philippines would be considered a North American nightmare. The free market approach has led to free-flowing profits and a profound lack of marketplace competition, with broadband ripoffs and broken promises rampant across the country.

Although both PLDT and Globe Telecom are spending large sums on infrastructure, much of it benefits their very profitable wireless networks and business customers. Despite the investments, residential customers are stuck with some of the world’s worst broadband speeds and performance.

An independent Quality of Service test revealed the bad news all around:

The findings of the Philippine QoSE tests were expected, but nevertheless still disappointing.

The best performing among the three ISPs delivered only 21% of actual versus advertised speed on average. This same ISP also offered at least 256kbps download speed (generally accepted definition of broadband) only 67% of the whole time it was tested, falling short of the required 80% service reliability.

The Broadband Commission defines the core concepts of broadband as an “always-on service” with high capacity “able to carry lots of data per second.” While there is no official definition of broadband locally, the Philippine Digital Strategy 2011-2016 defines broadband Internet service as 2Mbps download speed.

Finally, like the last nail in the coffin, Philippine ISPs performed the worst in terms of value for money when compared to select providers in South Asia and Southeast Asia. The highest value given by any of the three Philippine ISPs tested was a measly 22kbps per US dollar. This figure is too low when compared to similar mobile broadband ISPs that offer 173kbps per dollar in Jakarta, Indonesia and 445kbps per dollar in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

These results have huge implications on truth in advertising, consumer welfare, and the need for appropriate regulation.

My DSL Service is So Bad I Prefer 3GB Usage-Capped Slow Wireless Instead

senloren

Legarda

Home DSL broadband is so bad that customers have increasingly dropped service in favor of tightly managed wireless service. Companies report DSL customer losses over the past few years, with no end in sight.

The telecom regulator has generally just shrugged its shoulders at the situation, suggesting competition between equally poor providers will somehow resolve the problem. That view is applauded by service providers who claim the Internet is “just a value-added service” not essential to basic living needs. But consumer groups wonder why providers are allowed to make false advertising claims about the speed of their service with no repercussions. A range of position papers appealing to the government to create a meaningful minimum broadband speed have been introduced and some are being pushed by members of the Philippine Senate.

Senator Loren Legarda joined scores of other frustrated customers complaining about unreliable and expensive Internet in the country. In a 2014 hearing Legarda complained she had once again lost her DSL Internet connection in her office and her wireless connection was so slow it was unusable.

“As we speak now, there is no Internet connection in my office,” Legarda said. “I received a message this morning from my staff on my way here because I may be e-mailing, etc. And for someone whose deadline was yesterday, I always want things done fast and I’m sure many of you want that efficiency too to serve our people better.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ANC Poor Broadband Internet 5-14.flv

ANC aired this story about Sen. Legarda’s broadband problems and how Philippines’ providers oversell their networks back in 2014. (4:56)

We Oversold Our Networks So Sue Us, Except You Can’t

Providers blame the problem on oversold networks that attempt to manage too many paying customers on an inadequate network. In other words, they blame themselves with little fear any regulator will create problems for them.

Wireless service is no panacea either. Customers in the Philippines face draconian “fair use policies” on so-called “unlimited plans” that leave them throttled after 1GB of usage per day or 3GB of usage per month, whichever happens first. Providers suggest the policy is a benefit, promising them a better user experience. Besides, they suggest, even those that run into the speed throttle can still browse the Internet, albeit at as speed resembling dial-up:

Your internet speed will slow down if you use up 1GB of data for the day, or accumulate 3GB of data usage for the month.

If you hit the 1GB/day threshold, you’ll experience slower speed, but no worries because as we mentioned above, you can still surf! You’ll move up to normal speed at midnight. If you hit the 3GB/month threshold, your speed will move up to normal speed on the next calendar month (not based on bill cycle).

With a stifling usage allowance, shouldn't providers in the Philippines be offering better speeds?

With a stifling usage allowance, shouldn’t providers in the Philippines be offering better speeds?

Say Hello to the “Promo Pack” – Your Net Neutrality Nightmare Come True

Remember the scary ads from Net Neutrality proponents promising a future of Internet add-ons that would charge you to surf theme-based websites without facing network slowdowns or stingy usage caps if Net Neutrality protections were not forthcoming? In the Philippines, the nightmare came true. Mobile providers sell added cost “promo packs” that bundle extra throttle-free usage with theme-based apps. A package with Spotify runs about $6.50US a month and includes 1GB of usage. Anyone can buy a Spotify premium membership in the Philippines for around $4.37US without the add-on. But even worse are app-based promo packs that bundle free-to-download-and-use apps in the U.S. with special designated usage allowances.

Want to use Google Maps on your wireless provider? A “promo pack” including it costs around $2.17 a month and includes 300MB of usage. That money doesn’t go to Google — it stays in the pocket of the provider – Globe Networks. Twitter will set you back $4.37US a month and includes 600MB of usage, which seems odd for a short message service when contrasted with an identically-priced promo pack for Facebook, that needs the extra usage allowance more than Twitter likely would. But then they also get you for Facebook Messenger, which costs an extra $2.17US per month and comes with its own usage allowance — 300MB.

"What If" actually "Is" in the Philippines.

“What If” actually “Is” in the Philippines.

Globe-Telecom3While segmenting out popular mobile apps for special treatment, Philippine mobile providers have also taken Verizon and AT&T’s lead, pushing plans like myLIFESTYLE that bundle unlimited text and phone calls with expensive data plans.

Lifestyle Promo Packs:

Lifestyle Bundle

Price (Philippine Peso)

Consumable MBs/GBs

Description

Spotify

299

1GB

Premium membership to Spotify, with 1GB data
Work

299

1GB

Access to Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Evernote, + 10GB Globe Cloud Storage
Explore Bundle

99

300MB

Access to Agoda, Trip Advisor, Cebu Pacific, PAL
Navigation Bundle

99

300MB

Access to Waze, Grab Taxi, Google Maps, MMDA app, Accuweather
Shopping Bundle

299

1GB

Access to Zalora, Amazon, Ebay, OLX, Ayosdito
Facebook

199

600MB

Access to Facebook
Twitter

199

600MB

Access to Twitter
Viber

99

300MB

Access to Viber
FB Messenger

99

300MB

Access to FB Messenger
Chat Bundle

299

1GB

Access to Viber, Whats App, FB Messenger, Kakao Talk, Line, WeChat
Photo Bundle

299

1GB

Access to Instagram, Photogrid, Photorepost, Instasize

Extra Add-ons:

Basic Price Description
Consumable 100 Stackable Amounts of P100 denomination consumables
Unli Duo 299 Unlimited Calls to Landline/duo
Unli Txt All 299 Unlimited Texts to other networks
Unli iSMS 399 Unlimitend International SMS to one intl. number
Unli IDD 999 Unli IDD calls to one intl. number
DUO International 499 Unlimited calls to US landlines

The Philippines Should Regulate Under the American Example vs. The Philippines Should Not Regulate Under the American Example (It’s Obama’s Fault)

Lincoln_MemorialProviders in the Philippines have learned a lot from America’s telecommunications lobbyists. Their advocacy campaigns revolve around the theme that the United States has the best wireless networks in the world, developed under a largely hands-off regulatory philosophy that the Philippine government should follow.

The government and regulators largely acquiesced to that campaign until this year, when that idea came back to haunt providers. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration and the FCC began taking a more hands-on approach to telecom regulation after recognizing the marketplace is not as competitive as providers suggest. Strong Net Neutrality enforcement, limits on mergers and acquisitions and strong signals marketplace abuses would no longer be tolerated are now being pushed in Washington by the White House and the Federal Communications Commission. Providers in the Philippines no longer advocate following the American model, but it may now be too late.

obamaThe NTC is close to issuing new minimum broadband speed and performance standards and is now listening to Filipino consumers that launched Democracy.net.ph to fight usage caps in the Philippines back in 2011. The NTC may soon require providers advertise average speeds and performance, not “up to” speeds nobody actually receives. Those getting poor service would be entitled to refunds or rebates.

That could be the first step towards a more activist NTC that may have learned the lesson that listening to the broken promises of better service through deregulation has resulted in some of the worst broadband performance the world has to offer. The Philippines took the advocacy arguments of the deregulation crowd and doubled down, not only allowing providers to lie and distort in their advertising, but also permitting massive industry consolidation reducing the choice for most Filipinos to just two providers for almost all telecommunications services. The government looked the other way as corruption turned into a scandal and today it is left with two very powerful conglomerates that deliver third world Internet access while pocketing the generous proceeds.

A Better Way to Better Broadband

A deregulated, free market only works where healthy competition exists. Too few players always leads to reduced innovation, poorer service at higher prices, and a corporate fortress deterring would-be competitors that are unlikely to be able to survive in a fair, competitive fight. For the Philippines (and by extension the United States) to fully benefit from healthy competition, large conglomerates must be broken up and further mergers must be prevented above all else. Until sufficient competition can self-regulate the marketplace, strong oversight is necessary to protect consumers from the abuses that always come from monopolies and duopolies. Charging wireless customers for free apps and suggesting 3GB of usage is equal to unlimited broadband are two places to start cracking down, quickly followed by an investigation into where investment dollars are being spent and for whose benefit. It seems like customers are not reaping any rewards in return for high-priced service.

The Philippine government should also continue exploring a National Broadband Network strategy that puts the country’s broadband needs above the profit motivations of the current duopoly. Governments build roads and bridges, airports and railways. Broadband is another infrastructure project that needs to be developed in the public interest. If private companies want to be a part of that effort, that is wonderful. But they should not be dictating the terms or holding the country back from what may be the biggest scandal of all — broadband that barely performs better than what the Taliban can get these days in Helmand province.

Newly Independent Cable One Plans Broadband Makeover With Speed Upgrades

cable oneNewly independent Cable One will reduce its emphasis on cable television and turn its time, attention, and capital towards improving broadband service for its 690,000 largely rural customers in 19 states.

Cable One was spun off from Graham Holdings on July 1 and is not likely to stay independent for long before it is acquired by another cable operator, most likely Patrick Drahi’s Altice, S.A. — which recently acquired Suddenlink. But in the meantime, Cable One is attempting to persuade investors it is remaking itself into a broadband company, de-emphasizing the traditional cable television package in favor of dedicating more bandwidth for faster broadband speeds.

“Our standard broadband offering for our residential customers since 2011 has been a download speed of 50Mbps, which is at the high-end of the range of standard residential offerings even today in our markets,” the company reported in a statement. “Our enhanced broadband offering for our residential customers is currently a download speed of 75Mbps, which we expect to raise to 100Mbps by the end of 2015.”

Cable One primarily serves small cities and towns in the central and northwestern United States.

Cable One primarily serves small cities and towns in the central and northwestern United States.

In several markets, 100Mbps speed is already available and regular pricing has been simplified to $1 per megabit of service: 50Mbps for $50, 75Mbps for $75, or 100Mbps for $100 a month.

To protect its broadband business model, which carries prices traditionally higher than larger operators, Cable One will stay focused on largely uncompetitive markets where it faces token DSL broadband competition from companies like Frontier Communications, CenturyLink, and Windstream. More than 75 percent of its customers are located in Mississippi, Idaho, Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona, many served by these three telephone companies.

Cable One signaled it will hold the line on cable programming costs as well. In April 2014, the company dropped 15 Viacom networks, including MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and others over contract renewal prices it claimed were too high. The cable TV package has continued without the Viacom networks for more than a year, resulting in the loss of more than 20% of its cable TV customers. More than 100,000 homes have dropped Cable One video service for another provider, but ironically that actually helped Cable One increase its cash flow by more than 11%, because it no longer has to pay programming fees on behalf of the lost customers.

On the bright side, Cable One executives discovered many of its former TV customers have stayed with Cable One for Internet service because the competition either does not offer broadband or generally provides DSL at speeds under 10Mbps. Company officials have emphasized this point to investors, suggesting broadband is a true money-maker and television can safely take second chair without sabotaging profits.

“We certainly have some sympathy for the notion that a broadband-only cable operator might be more profitable,” wrote analyst Craig Moffett in an investor note this month. “But there are some critical holes in the Cable One story. Does the company truly believe that all costs are variable such that cutting video will bring endless margin expansion? Are Cable One’s new shareholders really better off for having played hardball with Viacom?”

Moffett does not believe so because he is convinced Cable One’s independence will be short-lived.

“We all know the consensus opinion is that someone will buy Cable One,” Moffett wrote. “But the above questions still matter. Any potential acquirer would still place value on a video business, or pay less for the fact that Cable One has less of one.”

But as long as rural telephone companies barely compete for broadband customers, Cable One’s broadband performance will deliver them a de facto broadband monopoly in their largely rural service areas. That gives the cable company, or its next owner, plenty of room for rate hikes.

Myanmar (Burma) Will Get Fiber-to-the-Home Broadband Service, Courtesy of Thai Consortium

myanmarResidents of one of the world’s most isolated countries will soon have the option of getting fiber-to-the-home service that will offer faster Internet access than most Americans get with traditional DSL from their phone company.

Thailand’s Benchachinda Holding Company has partnered with four other technology companies to launch Myanmar Information Highway Limited (MIH), with the goal of wiring fiber-to-the-home service to every home and business that wants service in Yangon and other major economic cities. It’s a remarkable investment for a country that had until recently been run by a military dictatorship for more than 50 years and is still liberalizing its economy and implementing democratic reforms.

Benchachinda’s president, Vichai Bencharongkul, said the group’s investment in international businesses in Myanmar is the first of a few foreign investments in other nations. Bencharongkul told the Thai press fiber broadband sells itself and investment in Myanmar would make good business sense.

vichai

Bencharongkul

He can point to the fact MIH was able to quickly get permission to lay fiber-optic cable from Yangon Electricity Supply Corporation, the country’s dominant electric utility. Myanmar’s bureaucracy can prove daunting to doing business in the country, but the promise of faster broadband overcame those concerns.

Internet access in Myanmar, better known internationally as Burma, has traditionally been a frustrating experience. Despite some fiber Internet rollouts by state-owned Myanma Posts & Telecommunications (MPT), offering up to 100Mbps, the average upper income Myanmar household still relies on DSL service and gets only up to 6Mbps speed. The country is ranked 159 out of 198 by Net Index for consumer download speed, averaging just 5Mbps. Fiber optic broadband will change that.

In a cost-saving measure, MIH will launch service with speeds averaging 20Mbps — four times faster than the current average speed in the country — and raise speeds and capacity going forward. They intend to deliver stiff competition to both Yatanarpon Teleport (YTP) and the state telephone company, which charges almost $65 a month for a basic DSL line. MPT charges $1,200 a month for 20Mbps fiber broadband and focuses on business customers. MIH is expected to charge lower prices for service and will rely on its own network instead of the one owned and controlled by the state-owned telephone company.

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