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I Love You Comcast! An Amazing 180 for Former Antitrust Attorney David Balto

Phillip "I got whiplash just watching" Dampier

Phillip “I got whiplash just watching” Dampier

A former policy director at the Federal Trade Commission and antitrust attorney at the U.S. Justice Department has managed an impressive 180 in just a few short months regarding the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

In February, David Balto told TheDeal the proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable “is a bad deal for consumers.” Today, Mr. Balto’s panoply of guest editorials, media appearances and columns — suddenly in favor of the merger — are turning up in the New York Times, the Orlando Sentinel, Marketplace, WNYC Radio, and elsewhere.

Balto’s arguments are based on “research” which, in toto, appears to have been limited to thumbing through Comcast’s press releases and merger presentation. That was enough:

First, this deal should create benefits for Time Warner customers, who will gain a significantly faster Internet and more advanced television service.

Second, competition is increasing in both the pay-TV and broadband businesses. Ninety-eight percent of viewers have a choice of three or more multichannel services, plus growing options online. Yahoo just announced a new video service, joining Netflix, Amazon and YouTube. In the last five years, cable has lost about seven million customers, satellite has gained nearly two million, and the telecommunications companies have gained six million.

Third, Comcast’s post-merger share of broadband falls closer to 20 percent when including LTE wireless and satellite providers. Over all, 97 percent of households have at least two competing fixed broadband providers — three or more if mobile wireless is included.

We used to wonder why government officials and regulators were so easily fooled by the corporate government relations people sent into their offices armed with press releases, talking points, cupcakes, and empty promises. We understand everyone isn’t a Big Telecom expert, but too often regulators’ reflexive acceptance of whatever companies bring to their table threatens to win them rube-status. We’d like to think Mr. Balto isn’t Comcast’s sucker, and we certainly hope there are no unspoken incentives on the table in return for his recent, very sudden conversion to celebrate all-things Comcast. Maybe he’s simply uninformed.

Balto

Balto

Although our regular readers — nearly all consumers and customers — are well-equipped to debunk Mr. Balto’s arguments, for the benefit of visitors, here is our own research.

First, Comcast’s Internet service is not faster than Time Warner Cable. Mr. Balto needs to spend some time away from Comcast’s merger info-pack and do some real research. He’ll find Time Warner Cable embarked on a massive upgrade program called TWC Maxx that is more than tripling broadband speeds for customers at no extra charge. Those speeds are faster than what Comcast offers the average residential customer, and come much cheaper as well. Oh, and TWC has no compulsory usage limits and overlimit penalties. Comcast’s David Cohen predicts every Comcast customer will face both within five years.

Second, that “advanced TV platform” Balto raves about requires a $99 installation fee… for an X1 set-top box. It also means equipment must be attached to every television in the house, because Comcast encrypts everything. At a time when customers want to pay for fewer channels, Comcast wants to shovel even more unwanted programming and boxes at customers. Older Americans who want their Turner Classic Movies have another nasty surprise. They will need to buy Comcast’s super deluxe cable TV package to get that network, at a cost exceeding $80 a month just for television. Ask Time Warner customers what they want, and they’ll tell you they’d prefer old and decrepit over an even higher cable TV bill Comcast has already committed to deliver.

Has competition truly increased? Not in the eyes of most Americans who at best face a duopoly and annual rate hikes well in excess of inflation. Even worse, for most consumers there is only one choice for 21st century High Speed Internet service – the cable company. Mr. Balto conveniently ignores the fact cable’s primary competitor is still DSL which is simply not available at speeds of 30+Mbps for most consumers. In some areas, like suburban Rochester, N.Y., the best the local phone company can deliver some neighborhoods like ours is 3.1Mbps. That isn’t competition. Verizon and AT&T have both stopped expanding DSL. Verizon has ended FiOS expansion and AT&T’s U-verse still maxes out at around 24Mbps for most customers. AT&T’s promised fiber upgrades have proven to be more illusory than reality, available primarily in a handful of multi-dwelling units and new housing developments. In rural areas, both major phone companies are petitioning to do away with landline service and DSL altogether.

Raise your hands if you want Comcast’s “benefits.” In New York, out of 2,300 comments before the PSC, we can’t find a single one clamoring for Comcast’s takeover. The public has spoken.

Cable "competition" in Minneapolis

Cable “competition” in Minneapolis. Charter and Comcast have also teamed up to trade cable territories as part of the Time Warner Cable merger package deal.

Satellite television’s days of providing the cable industry with robust competition have long since peaked. AT&T is seeking to further reduce that competition by purchasing DirecTV, not because it believes in satellite television, but because it wants the benefits of DirecTV’s lucrative volume discounts.

Any antitrust attorney worth his salt should be well aware of what kind of impact volume discounting can have on restraining and discouraging competition. Comcast’s deal for Time Warner will let it acquire programming at a substantial discount (one they have already said won’t be passed on to customers) so significant that any would-be competitors would be in immediate financial peril trying to compete on price.

Frontier Communications learned that lesson when it acquired a handful of Verizon FiOS franchises in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest. After losing Verizon’s volume discounts, Frontier was so alarmed by the wholesale renewal rates it received, it let loose its telemarketing force to convince customers fiber was no good for television and they should instead switch to a satellite provider they partnered with. It’s telling when a company is willing to forfeit revenue in favor of a third party marketing agreement with an outside company.

So what does this mean for a potential start-up looking to get into the business? Since programming is now a commodity, most customers buy on price. The best triple-play deals will go to the biggest national players with volume discounts – all cable operators that have long agreed never to compete directly with each other.

In the Orlando Sentinel, Mr. Balto seemed almost relieved when he concluded Comcast and Time Warner don’t compete head-to-head, somehow easing any antitrust concerns. It is precisely that fact why this deal must never be approved. Comcast has been free to compete anywhere Time Warner provides service, but has never done so. Letting Comcast, which has even worse approval ratings than Time Warner, become the only choice for cable broadband is hardly in the public interest and does nothing for competition. Instead, it only further consolidates the marketplace into a handful of giant companies that can raise prices and cap usage without restraint.

If Mr. Balto truly believes AT&T and Verizon will ride to the rescue with robust wireless broadband competition, his credibility is in peril. Those two companies, among others, are completely incapable of meeting the growing broadband demands (20-50GB) of the home user. With punishing high prices and staggeringly low usage caps, providers are both controlling demand and profiting handsomely from rationing service at the same time. Why change that?

No 3G/4G network under current ordinary traffic loads can honestly deliver a better online experience than DSL, and customers who attempt to replace their home broadband connection in favor of wireless will likely receive a punishing bill for the attempt at the end of the month. The only players who want to count mobile broadband as a serious competitor in the home broadband market are the cable and phone companies desperately looking for a defense against charges they have a broadband monopoly or are part of a comfortable duopoly.

One last point, while Mr. Balto seems impressed that Comcast would continue to voluntarily abide by the Net Neutrality policies he personally opposes, he conveniently omits the fact Comcast was the country’s biggest violator of Net Neutrality when it speed limited peer-to-peer traffic, successfully sued the government over Net Neutrality after it was fined by the FCC for the aforementioned violation, and only agreed to temporarily observe Net Neutrality as part of its colossal merger deal with NBCUniversal. It’s akin to a mugger promising to never commit another crime after being caught red-handed stealing. A commitment like that might be good enough for Mr. Balto, but it isn’t for us.

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Here’s How to Tell the N.Y. Public Service Commission to Reject the Comcast/TWC Merger

ny pscThe New York Public Service Commission needs to hear from you about the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. Unlike some of the southern and midwestern states that have utility commissions that basically rubber stamp the agenda of Big Telecom companies, New York’s PSC has a reputation for being tougher and more customer-oriented. But the PSC cannot act in your interest if you don’t share your views.

It is incredibly easy to file your own comments with the PSC. Nearly 2,300 New Yorkers have done so thus far, but we need to make sure they understand our serious objections to Comcast’s usage caps, its expensive service, and customer abuse.

We have provided a sample letter below. We hope you will write your own, but offer ours as a guide that includes some of our biggest concerns. We may prepare another one soon outlining other concerns.

How to file your comment:

  • E-Mail: [email protected]
  • Mail: Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary, Public Service Commission, Three Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York 12223-1350.
  • Phone: 1-800-335-2120 (press “1″ to leave a recorded comment)

All comments should refer to “Case 14-M-0183, Petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc.”

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

Re: Case 14-M-0183, Petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc.

Dear Ms. Burgess,

I am writing to ask the Public Service Commission to reject the merger proposal of Comcast and Time Warner Cable on the ground the companies have failed to show such a merger would be in the best interests of New York and its residents.

Although Time Warner Cable has never been a prize, Comcast’s reputation for bad service, high prices, rationed Internet access, and customer abuse is well documented in just about every community the company serves. Comcast has repeatedly been voted the “Worst Company in America” by Consumer Union’s Consumerist.com. The American Consumer Satisfaction Index has documented so many complaints about Comcast, it declared it the worst company it has ever scored, performing even worse than the Internal Revenue Service. For more than three years running, Harris Interactive has called Comcast one of the least reputable companies in America.

That alone should be enough to reject this merger out of hand. Permitting it would reward this company’s appalling behavior towards its own customers and expose New Yorkers to an even bigger monopoly problem than we deal with now. Unless you live in a Verizon FiOS service area, cable is your only real choice for true broadband speeds. DSL is rapidly losing favor and market share and Verizon has shown no interest in expanding it.

Comcast already uses its market power to its advantage by raising prices… a lot. Time Warner Cable charges less for its services than Comcast does.

For example, Time Warner Cable offers a standard television service package that provides all the popular cable networks for one price. Comcast offers a similar package but stripped out cable networks including Cloo, CNBC World, Al Jazeera America, Discovery Fit & Health, Disney XD, DIY, a range of ESPN’s extra networks, EWTN, Fine Living, Fox Business News, Great American Country, IFC, Investigation Discovery, Lifetime Real Women, Military Channel, MLB, most of MTV’s extra networks, NBA, National Geographic Channel, NFL Network, NHL Network, most of Nickelodeon’s extra networks, OWN, Oxygen, Sundance, Turner Classic Movies, The Science Channel, and VH1′s extra networks.

Customers who want these networks, like Turner Classic Movies, National Geographic, and IFC will have to pay a stunning price of up to $86 a month — just for television. Many of these networks are especially popular with fixed income older residents, who will now face an even larger cable TV bill.

Comcast promotes the fact its Internet speeds are faster than Time Warner Cable, but that is not true as Time Warner Maxx upgrades arrive. Comcast Internet service costs more, is slower, and increasingly usage-capped. Time Warner Cable has made clear it will not limit customers’ Internet usage. Comcast has made clear it will, predicting usage limits/usage-based pricing will be imposed on customers across its entire footprint within five years. That is no improvement for New York. That is literally a downgrade. We can do better in New York with Time Warner Cable.

In fact, the company has promised extremely little to New York after winning your approval to merge. Comcast is so arrogant, it already announced it will not share any cost savings with customers, promising even higher cable bills for New York with the merger. Even its touted X1 set top system will cost New Yorkers — it comes with a steep installation price of almost $100. Again, how does this serve the public interest?

Comcast’s public service programs are also woefully inadequate. Its Internet Essentials is a bureaucratic nightmare that only provides temporary discounts to a small percentage of customers (with school age children) who need an affordable Internet option. I guess childless couples and the elderly poor don’t matter. Time Warner Cable offers a $14.99 discount program available to anyone who wants it, no paperwork or waiting periods required.

It is my understanding Comcast must prove this merger is in the public interest to win your approval. It has utterly failed to do so, and I expect my state’s Public Service Commission to reject this merger. This is one deal that can never be modified sufficiently to make it acceptable for people like myself. You are doing us no favors trying to negotiate for an Internet discount program or expanding Comcast’s service area by a small amount in rural upstate New York. The end result is that millions of New Yorkers will get worse service than we get today, at a higher price, with little/no competition on the horizon.

This is a rare opportunity for our state, which lost most of its oversight powers over the cable industry years ago. Cable operators have abused their deregulated status and have raised prices, provided dreadful customer service, and have kept competition away. Letting Comcast into New York from Buffalo to the Bronx will only encourage more abuse, wreaking havoc on New York’s growing digital economy. Let’s send a clear message to Comcast New York isn’t willing to put our broadband future in the hands of “the worst company in America.” Let’s make it clear enough is enough.

Sincerely,

 

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Netflix Rankings Slam FiOS, Speed Alert Messages Prompt Cease & Desist Letter from Verizon

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN Netflix Slowdown Who is to Blame 6-6-14.flv

CNN explores who is responsible for Netflix’s streaming problems on Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse. While one industry analyst seems keen to blame Netflix, his other articles on the subject show an increasing bias towards big ISPs like Verizon and AT&T. (2:54)

Netflix’s May speed rankings confirm Verizon FiOS customers are likely to find a degraded video streaming experience while using the otherwise speedy fiber to the home service. Netflix performance on Verizon FiOS dropped considerably last month — so much so that Frontier and Windstream DSL customers now get better Netflix performance than any Verizon customer receives. AT&T U-verse customers fared even worse with streaming performance below that offered by Mediacom — America’s bottom-rated cable company and CenturyLink DSL. In fact AT&T U-verse customers receive only marginally better service than Hughes satellite and Clearwire wireless customers. Verizon’s DSL came in dead last.

usa

Coincidentally, both Verizon and AT&T, following Comcast’s lead, have been in negotiations with Netflix to receive payment from the streaming video provider to better handle its traffic. Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam said he’s confident about getting payments from Netflix, and he turned out to be correct — Verizon and Netflix reached an agreement in late April that is still being implemented. AT&T also says it is negotiating with Netflix. Verizon’s streaming video partnership with Redbox has not been affected by the sudden deterioration in online video streaming on Verizon’s network.

verizon att

The problems with Netflix on some ISP’s have gone all the way to the top.

“My wife and I like to lay in bed and watch Netflix,” Tom Wheeler, chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission, said in January. The two companies serving Wheeler’s neighborhood are Comcast and Verizon. When enough customers launch streams on Netflix, saturating the inbound connection to either ISP, the video stops. When it does, Wheeler’s wife joins the parade of irritated customers.

“You’re chairman of the FCC,” she says to him. “Why is this happening?”

Last week, Netflix decided to answer that question with a more informative error message appearing when available bandwidth is insufficient to support a high quality stream.

verizon throttle

“The Verizon network is crowded right now,” the message says. Netflix then attempts to restore the stream by serving up a degraded, lower quality/bit rate version to the paying customer.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Netflix-Verizon War of Words 6-6-14.flv

Bloomberg interviews Todd O’Boyle from Common Cause. He places the blame for this debacle solely on the shoulders of Verizon and other ISPs. (5:39)

The inability to successfully maintain a stable stream of Netflix content that ranges from 256kbps to 5.8Mbps seems odd on ISPs that offer customers connections far faster than that. The average Netflix stream is 2Mbps, slow enough to be comfortably supported on even a 3Mbps DSL connection. Netflix’s problems with Comcast evaporated after agreeing to pay the cable company to maintain a better connection between its customers and Netflix’s content delivery network. The same cannot be said for perfomance on AT&T’s U-verse platform. Although Verizon signed an agreement with Netflix, it has clearly not been implemented as of yet.

netflix-download-speeds-in-the-united-states-time-warner-cable-verizon-fios-charter-comcast_chartbuilder-2

“We started a small-scale test in early May that lets consumers know, while they’re watching Netflix, that their experience is degraded due to a lack of capacity into their broadband provider’s network,” said Netflix’s Joris Evers. “We are testing this across the U.S. wherever there is significant and persistent network congestion.”

netflix-logoThe companies with the biggest drops in Netflix performance are the same ones strongly advocating special paid “fast lanes” on the Internet for preferred traffic to resolve exactly these kinds of performance problems.

“Some large US ISPs are erecting toll booths, providing sufficient capacity for services requested by their subscribers to flow through only when those services pay the toll,” said Evers. “In this way, ISPs are double-dipping by getting both their subscribers and Internet content providers to pay for access to each other. We believe these ISP tolls are wrong because they raise costs, stifle innovation and harm consumers. ISPs should provide sufficient capacity into their network to provide consumers the broadband experience for which they pay.”

The error message fingering Verizon as the culprit for a poorer Netflix experience brought an angry response from Verizon on its blog:

Reports from this morning have suggested that Netflix is engaging in a PR stunt in an attempt to shift blame to ISPs for the buffering that some of its customers may be experiencing. According to one journalist’s tweet from last night, Netflix is displaying a message on the screen for users who experience buffering which says: “The Verizon network is crowded right now.”

This claim is not only inaccurate, it is deliberately misleading.

The source of the problem is almost certainly NOT congestion in Verizon’s network. Instead, the problem is most likely congestion on the connection that Netflix has chosen to use to reach Verizon’s network. Of course, Netflix is solely responsible for choosing how their traffic is routed into any ISP’s network.

[...] It is sad that Netflix is willing to deliberately mislead its customers so they can be used as pawns in business negotiations and regulatory proceedings.

It would be more accurate for Netflix’s message screen to say: “The path that we have chosen to reach Verizon’s network is crowded right now.”

However, that would highlight their responsibility for the problem.

Milch

Milch

That was quickly followed by a cease and desist letter from Verizon demanding Netflix remove error messages that blame Verizon for the problem. It also demanded a list of Verizon customers that received the Netflix notification.

“Failure to provide this information may lead us to pursue legal remedies,” wrote Verizon general counsel Randal Milch in a letter to Netflix general counsel David Hyman.

“This is about consumers not getting what they paid for from their broadband provider,” Netflix spokesman Jonathan Friedland said. “We are trying to provide more transparency, just like we do with the ISP Speed Index, and Verizon is trying to shut down that discussion.”

“Verizon’s unwillingness to augment its access ports to major Internet backbone providers is squarely Verizon’s fault,” Netflix general counsel David Hyman wrote.

“Netflix does not purposely select congested routes,” added Evers. “We pay some of the world’s largest transit networks to deliver Netflix video right to the front door of an ISP. Where the problem occurs is at that door — the interconnection point — when the broadband provider hasn’t provided enough capacity to accommodate the traffic their customer requested.”

Despite all that, Netflix also admitted it plans to drop the error messages after the “small-scale test” ends on June 16.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Buffering Blame Game 6-6-14.flv

CNBC explains how Netflix content gets to end viewers over a complicated series of Internet connections between Netflix and your ISP. (1:31)

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CenturyLink Unfazed by AT&T/Verizon’s Rural Wireless Broadband; ‘Caps Too Low, Prices Too High’

centurylinkCenturyLink does not believe it will face much of a competitive threat from AT&T and Verizon’s plans to decommission rural landline service in favor of fixed wireless broadband because the two companies’ offers are too expensive, overly usage-capped and too slow.

Both AT&T and Verizon have proposed mothballing traditional landline service in rural areas because both companies claim wireline financial returns are too low and ongoing maintenance costs are too high. In its place, both companies are developing rural fixed wireless solutions for voice and broadband service that will rely on 4G LTE networks.

CenturyLink does not traditionally compete against either AT&T or Verizon because their landline service areas do not overlap. But as both AT&T and Verizon Wireless continue to emphasize their nationwide wireless networks, independent phone companies are likely to face increased competition from wireless phone and broadband services.

CenturyLink isn’t worried.

“About two-thirds of our customers can get access to 10Mbps or higher [from us and] that continues to increase year by year,” CenturyLink chief financial officer Stewart Ewing told attendees at Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s 2014 Global Telecom & Media Conference. “Our belief is that with the increasing demands customers have for bandwidth — the Netflix bandwidth requirement — just the increasing amount of video that customers are watching and downloading over their Internet pipes, we believe will drive customers to using a provider that basically has a wire in their home because we believe you will get generally higher bandwidth and a much better experience at lower cost.”

Ewing

Ewing

CenturyLink customers consume an average of slightly less than 50GB of Internet usage per month, and that number is growing. Ewing said that CenturyLink has long believed that as bandwidth demand increases, wireless becomes less and less capable of providing a good customer experience.

“At this point, we don’t really have any concerns because people on the margin — the folks that don’t use much bandwidth — probably use a wireless connection today to download,” Ewing said. “But as the bandwidth demands grow, the wireless connection becomes more and more expensive and that could tend to drive people our way. So as long as we have 10Mbps or better to the customers, we don’t really think there is that much exposure.”

CenturyLink does not measure the difference in Internet usage between urban and rural residential customers, but the company suspects rural customers might naturally use more because alternative outlets are fewer in number outside of urban America.

“Folks in rural areas might actually can use Internet more for buying things that they can’t source [easily], but it’s hard to really count,” said Ewing. “I think our customers in the rural areas probably are not that much different from folks in urban areas.”

Prism is CenturyLink's fiber to the neighborhood service, similar to AT&T U-verse. It is getting only a modest expansion in 2014.

Prism is CenturyLink’s fiber to the neighborhood service, similar to AT&T U-verse. It is getting only a modest expansion in 2014.

CenturyLink’s largest competitor remains Comcast, which co-exists in about 40% of CenturyLink’s markets. The merger with Time Warner Cable won’t have much impact on CenturyLink, increasing Comcast’s footprint in CenturyLink territory by only about only 6-7%. CenturyLink believes most of any new competition will come in the small business market segment. Comcast’s residential pricing is unlikely to attract current CenturyLink customers in Time Warner Cable territory to consider a switch to Comcast if the merger is approved.

Ewing also shared his thinking about several other CenturyLink initiatives that customers might see sometime this year:

  • Don’t expect CenturyLink to expand Wi-Fi hotspot networks. The company found they are difficult to monetize and is unlikely to expand them further;
  • Any change in the FCC’s definition of minimum broadband speed to qualify for federal broadband expansion funds would slow rural broadband expansion. Ewing admitted a 10Mbps speed minimum is considerably more difficult to achieve over DSL than a 4 or 6Mbps minimum;
  • Don’t expect any more merger/acquisition activity from CenturyLink in the Competitive Local Exchange Carrier business. CenturyLink shows no sign of pursuing Frontier, Windstream, FairPoint, or other independent phone companies. It is focused on expanding business services, where 60% of CenturyLink’s revenue now comes;
  • CenturyLink fiber expansion will primarily be focused on reaching business offices and commercial customers in 2014;
  • CenturyLink will only modestly expand PrismTV, its fiber-to-the-neighborhood service, to an additional 300,000 homes this year. The company now offers the service to two million of its customers, with 200,000 signed up nationwide. Last year, CenturyLink expanded PrismTV availability to 800,000 homes.
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AT&T’s Answer for Rural America: $80/Month for Wireless Landline Replacement, 10GB Internet

AT&T’s solution for rural Americans without access to broadband service arrived this week with the introduction of an $80/month plan bundling a mandatory wireless home landline with a 10GB usage-capped Internet plan.

AT&T Wireless Home Phone and Internet has undergone market testing in selected northeastern areas (largely outside of AT&T’s landline service territory). This week the service became available nationwide and is marketed to customers disconnected (or soon will be if regulators approve) from AT&T’s traditional landline service. AT&T is petitioning to dismantle its rural and outer suburban wired landline network and transfer customers to wireless service. But AT&T’s wireless replacement is both expensive and usage capped with an allowance that is just a fraction of what AT&T DSL offers:

att wireless plan

  • Customers start with a $20/month wireless landline phone replacement, powered by AT&T’s wireless network. Customers will keep their current phone number and home phones and will be sent a “Home Base” device that will interface between AT&T’s wireless network and up to two telephones. AT&T does not permit its device to be connected to your existing home phone wiring, so it strongly urges customers to buy cordless phones. The device is portable so it can be taken with you when traveling. The standalone service offers unlimited nationwide calling, Voicemail, caller ID and call waiting;
  • Those interested in also purchasing broadband can add one of three different data plans: $60 for 10GB, $90 for 20GB and $120 for 30GB. AT&T charges a $10 overlimit fee for each extra gigabyte. You cannot buy broadband service unless you also subscribe to AT&T’s wireless landline product. That means the lowest possible price for rural broadband is $80 a month for up to 10GB of usage. Access may be over AT&T’s 4G LTE network (5-12Mbps maximum speeds) or their much-slower, but more common 3G network. In contrast, AT&T sells DSL for as little as $15 a month with a 150GB usage allowance included.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ATT Wireless Home Phone Internet Intro 5-2014.flv

AT&T introduces its new solution for rural America — wireless home phone and Internet service, at a price much higher than what urban customers pay. (1:42)

AT&T's Home Base

AT&T’s Home Base

AT&T’s Wireless Home Phone and Internet includes plenty of fine print and disclaimers:

  • A two-year service commitment is required to avoid a $199 charge for the Home Base device;
  • 911 service is not guaranteed and you will be required to give your physical location to the 911 operator so they can send help to the proper address;
  • A backup battery powers the Home Base allowing up to 1.5 hours of talk time and 18 hours of standby time. However, a standard corded phone that does not need electric power to operate is required to place or receive calls (including 911) during a power outage;
  • Not compatible with wireless messaging services/text messaging, home security systems, fax machines, medical alert & monitoring systems, credit card machines, IP/PBX Phone systems, or dial-up Internet service. May not be compatible with DVR/Satellite systems;
  • Call quality, wireless coverage, and service reliability are not guaranteed;
  • Well-qualified credit approval required;
  • An activation fee (undisclosed) also applies.

There are many surcharges that also may apply, including a $35 restocking fee, federal, state, and local taxes and the universal service fee. Customers must also pay AT&T-originated fees kept by AT&T, including a $1.25 “cost recovery charge,” a gross receipts surcharge, administrative fees and any government-originated assessments that AT&T passes on to customers in various states.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ATT Wireless Home Phone Internet Setup 5-2014.flv

AT&T explains how to set up and configure its Home Base to receive phone and broadband service wirelessly. (3:16)

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Even Europe’s DSL is Faster: VDSL2 Vectoring Delivers 100Mbps Over Copper Telephone Networks

Phillip Dampier May 20, 2014 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, Video No Comments

vectoringAlcatel-Lucent reported this month next generation DSL technology is a success for the company, with more than five million customers outside of North America now getting speeds up to 100Mbps over ordinary copper telephone lines.

VDSL2 line vectoring delivers more than twice the speed of AT&T’s fiber to the neighborhood U-verse service, and has proved reliable for simultaneous television, broadband, and telephone usage. It will even support 4K video streaming of ultra high-definition video.

Vectoring employs sophisticated noise cancelling to cut “crosstalk” interference to boost broadband performance. Testing has shown VDSL2 line vectoring can offer 100/30Mbps service with copper lengths as long as 1,600 feet. Most VDSL2 services are delivered over telephone networks that replace at least some copper wiring with fiber.

Alcatel-Lucent has shipped enough VDSL2 vectoring equipment to provide service to five million customers, surpassing non-vectored VDSL2. But practically none of the equipment is headed to North American ISPs. Instead, companies including Belgium’s Belgacom, Israel’s Bezeq, KPN in the Netherlands, Telecom Argentina, Telecom Italia, TE Data in Egypt and NBN Co. in Australia have launched vectoring technology, offering service to customers at speeds topping out at 70-100Mbps.

Most customers switched to VDSL2 vectoring see their speeds double, usually from 30Mbps to 70Mbps or more. Providers like Belgacom have been careful to only promise speeds the company can actually deliver. Belgacom’s own tests found 100Mbps service was only completely reliable when the amount of copper between the customer and the company’s fiber connection was kept less than 650 feet, so it has capped customer speeds at 70Mbps for now.

“The prime goal in DSL must be signal quality, integrity, robustness and stability for perfect video grade services,” says the Belgian ISP.

Vectoring technology has been on the drawing board for a decade and is only now achieving success in the market.

Many ISPs are choosing to deploy vectoring because it is less costly than a fiber upgrade and can still meet the speed goals demanded by government regulators. The technology has proven robust even where copper wire networks have degraded. In several European countries, homes are still serviced by indoor copper wiring insulated with paper sheaths.

Alcaltel-Lucent believes even after vectoring is widely deployed, it won’t be a dead-end for DSL service.

The company is working on its next generation “Phantom Mode” technology that combines VDSL2 bonding and VDSL2 vectoring with a traditional voice technology called “phantom transmission.” This combination adds a virtual channel to create three channels over 2 pairs of phone wiring.

In Phantom Mode tests, the company achieved 300Mbps over 2 pairs at 400 meters and 1Gbps (up and down-stream combined) over 4 pairs.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Alcatel Lucent DSL Vectoring 5-2014.flv

Alcatel-Lucent produced this video explaining vectoring technology. (A “CPE” means customer-premises equipment, in this case the DSL modem.) (3:09)

 

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Vodafone and Kabel Deutschland Offer Faster, Cheaper Broadband: $27/Mo Broadband & Phone

Phillip Dampier May 6, 2014 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Vodafone (UK) No Comments
Fixed line (wired) broadband is still a critically important technology in Germany.

Fixed line (wired) broadband is still a critically important technology in Germany.

Vodafone Deutschland and Kabel Deutschland, now both owned by Vodafone, have launched a joint marketing agreement to pitch wired broadband to customers across Germany under the new brand Zuhause Plus (At Home Plus).

Customers have the choice of either Vodafone’s VDSL at speeds up to 50Mbps or cable broadband from Kabel Deutschland at speeds up to 100Mbps. Vodafone is trying to convince customers to abandon VDSL in favor of cable broadband, which also offers television service. Vodafone is working on bringing television to its VDSL customers at some point in the future, but it would compromise available broadband speeds.

To provoke DSL customers to consider a change, a special offer of $27.72 a month for phone and broadband service is available for those agreeing to switch to cable.

Together, Vodafone and Kabel Deutschland reach nearly 98% of German homes. At least 40% get DSL speeds exceeding 25Mbps. The company is targeting speeds of at least 100Mbps for its DSL, cable and LTE wireless networks.

The Kabel Deutschland brand will soon disappear in favor of the Vodafone brand. The two companies were merged last October in a $15.3 billion dollar deal.

 

 

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

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon’s FiOS expansion is still dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CenturyLink to Idaho Residents: You Don’t Need 1Gbps, DSL is Good Enough for You

centurylinkCenturyLink’s philosophy about offering gigabit fiber broadband speeds in Idaho can be summed up simply as “for business-use only.”

Jim Schmit, Idaho CenturyLink’s vice president and general manager, believes super fast broadband connections are overkill for homes and most businesses in the state.

“It’s like having a fancy sports car,” Schmit told the Idaho Statesman. “It might go 200 miles per hour, but what good does that do if the speed limit is 60?”

Schmitt’s attitude of broadband a-plenty is nothing new. In 2007, he told attendees of the Emerging Directions in Economic Development conference in Boise that “virtually all” Idahoans already had access to high-speed broadband. That was news to the audience, with about a quarter of the economic development professionals attending stating they represented a community that didn’t have it yet. Most of the questions related to how their communities could get the access they’d been told wasn’t available.

Seven years later, the Statesman reports more than a few homes and businesses in the region still rely on slow DSL, satellite and even dial-up access because faster options are just not available.

idahoIdaho could find itself a bystander in the growing movement to deploy gigabit fiber to the premise broadband, despite the fact CenturyLink already has fiber infrastructure available nearby.

“We’re getting to the point where, for businesses in most places, we’re within last-mile connections for most locations,” Schmit says.

CenturyLink is willing to extend its fiber, but only if that fiber line reaches businesses needing gigabit speeds. Residential customers need not apply.

Fiber optics can be found in several office buildings in downtown Boise, which has been good news for established tech companies that need more bandwidth. Three data centers are operational in the city and would likely not be there without fiber.

But for home-based entrepreneurs of future Internet startups, most will be forced to choose between CenturyLink DSL or cable broadband from providers like Cable ONE, which offer slower speeds.

Smaller broadband providers have begun to fill the gap left open by the lack of interest from cable and phone companies. While Google is showing interest in building fiber networks in a handful of U.S. cities, many more communities are realizing they will not get gigabit speeds anytime soon unless they build a publicly owned broadband network themselves or rely on much smaller-scale projects under development in the private sector.

Patrick Lawless, founder and CEO of Boise voice recognition software developer Voxbright Technologies Inc., sees opportunity providing a limited fiber network in Boise. Lawless has plans to build a 2.6-mile fiber-optic loop and deliver television, phone and broadband service to apartment and office buildings in a manner similar to Google’s. It’s a small early effort, limited to a handful of businesses and new residential buildings — mostly apartments and renovated former office buildings or hotels. He plans to charge $99 a month for a package including television, 100Mbps broadband, and phone service.

With the project’s small scope and uncertain cost, CenturyLink says it isn’t too worried about the competition. For now they will continue to bank on offering only the broadband speed they believe customers actually need, and it will be up to a competitor to prove them wrong.

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Time Warner Cable, Comcast Crash, Burn in Consumer Reports’ 2014 Ratings

consumer reportsDespite claims of improved customer service and better broadband, Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s customer satisfaction scores are in near-free fall in the latest Consumer Reports National Research Center’s survey of consumers about their experiences with television and Internet services.

Although never popular with customers, both cable operators plummeted in the 2014 Consumer Reports ratings — Time Warner Cable is now only marginally above the perennial consumer disaster that is Mediacom. Comcast performs only slightly better.

In the view of Consumers Union, this provides ample evidence that two wrongs never make a right.

“Both Comcast and Time Warner Cable rank very poorly with consumers when it comes to value for the money and have earned low ratings for customer support,” said Delara Derakhshani.  “A merger combining these two huge companies would give Comcast even greater control over the cable and broadband Internet markets, leading to higher prices, fewer choices, and worse customer service for consumers.”

These ratings reflect Internet service only.

These ratings reflect Internet service only.

Comcast ranked 15th among 17 television service providers included in the ratings and earned particularly low marks from consumers for value for the money and customer support.  Time Warner ranked 16th overall for television service with particularly low ratings for value, reliability, and phone/online customer support.

Another ratings collapse for Comcast and Time Warner Cable

Another ratings collapse for Comcast and Time Warner Cable

Comcast and Time Warner Cable were mediocre on overall satisfaction with Internet service.  Both companies received especially poor marks for value and low ratings for phone/online customer support.

“In an industry with a terrible track record with consumers, these two companies are among the worst when it comes to providing good value for the money,” said Derakhshani.  “The FCC and Department of Justice should stand with consumers and oppose this merger.”

For as long as Stop the Cap! has published, Mediacom has always achieved bottom of the barrel ratings, with satellite fraudband provider HughesNet — the choice of the truly desperate — scoring dead last for Internet service. We’re accustomed to seeing the usual bottom-raters like Frontier (DSL), Windstream (DSL), and FairPoint (DSL) on the south end of the list. But now both Comcast and Time Warner Cable have moved into the same seedy neighborhood of expensive and lousy service. Comcast couldn’t even beat the ratings for Verizon’s DSL service, which is now barely marketed at all. Time Warner Cable scored lower than CenturyLink’s DSL.

Breathing an ever-so-slight sigh of relief this year is Charter Communications, which used to compete with Mediacom for customer raspberries. It ‘rocketed up’ to 18th place.

If you want top-notch broadband service, you need to remember only one word: fiber. It’s the magical optical cable phone and cable companies keep claiming they have but largely don’t (except for Verizon and Cincinnati Bell, among a select few). If you have fiber to the home broadband, you are very happy again this year. If you are served by an independent cable company that threw away the book on customer abuse, you are relieved. Topping the ratings again this year among all cable operators is WOW!, which has a legendary reputation for customer service. Wave/Astound is in second place. Verizon and Frontier FiOS customers stay pleased, and even those signed up with Bright House Networks and Suddenlink report improved service.

Ratings are based on responses from 81,848 Consumer Reports readers. Once again they plainly expose Americans are not happy with their telecom options. The average cost of home communications measured by the Mintel Group is now $154 a month — $1,848 a year. That’s more expensive than the average homeowner’s clothing, furniture or electricity budget. The same issues driving the bad ratings last year are still there in 2014: shoveling TV channels at customers they don’t want or need, imposing sneaky new fees along with broad-based rate increases every year, low value for money, and customer service departments staffed by the Don’t Care Bears.

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