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Drive-By Shallow Reporting On Comcast’s Reintroduction of Usage Caps in South Carolina

More drive-by reporting on usage caps.

More drive-by reporting on Comcast’s usage caps.

When the media covers Internet Overcharging schemes like usage caps and consumption billing, it is often much easier to take the provider’s word for it instead of actually investigating whether subscribers actually need their Internet usage limited.

Comcast’s planned reintroduction of its usage caps on South Carolina customers begins Friday. Instead of the now-retired 250GB limit, Comcast is graciously throwing another 50GB of usage allowance to customers, five years after defining 250GB as more than generous.

The Post & Courier never bothered to investigate if Comcast’s new 300GB usage cap was warranted or if Charleston-area customers wanted it. It was so much easier to just print Comcast’s point of view and throw in a quote or two from an industry analyst.

In fact, the reporter even tried to suggest the Internet Overcharging scheme was an improvement for customers.

The newspaper reported Comcast was the first large Internet provider in the region to allow customers to pay even more for broadband service by extending their allowance in 50GB increments at $10 a pop. (Actually, AT&T beat Comcast to the bank on that idea, but has avoided dropping that hammer on customers who already have to be persuaded to switch to AT&T U-verse broadband that tops out at around 24Mbps for most customers.)

Since 2008, the company’s monthly limit has been capped at 250 GB per household. When customers exceeded that threshold, Comcast didn’t have a firm mechanism for bringing them back in line, other than to issue warnings or threaten to cut off service.

“People didn’t like that static cap. They felt that if they wanted to extend their usage, then they should be allowed to do that,” said Charlie Douglas, a senior director with Comcast.

Charleston is the latest in a series of trial markets the cable giant has used to test the new Internet usage policy in the past year. As with any test period, the company can modify or discontinue the plan at any time.

During the trial period in Charleston, customers will get an extra 50 GB of monthly data than they’re used to having. If they exceed 300 GB, they can pay for more.

“300 GB is well beyond what any typical household is ever going to consume in a month,” Douglas said. “In all of the other trial markets with this (limit), it really doesn’t impact the overwhelming super-majority of customers.”

The average Internet user with Comcast service uses about 16 to 18 GB of data per month, Douglas said.

Customers who use less than five GB per month will start seeing a $5 discount on their bills.

“We think this approach is fair because we’re giving consumers who want to use more data a way to do so, and for consumers who use less, they can pay less,” Douglas said.

Data caps are designed to stop content piracy?

Data caps are designed to stop content piracy?

The Charleston reporter asserts, without any evidence, “data-capping is a trend many Internet service providers are expected to follow in the next few years as the industry aims to reduce network congestion and to find safeguards against online piracy.”

Suggesting data caps are about piracy immediately rings alarm bells. Comcast and other Internet Service Providers fought long and hard against being held accountable for their customers’ actions. The industry wants nothing to do with monitoring online activities lest the government hold them accountable for not actively stopping criminal activity.

“It’s not about piracy, per se,” said Douglas. “We don’t look at what people are doing. The purpose is really a matter of fairness. If people are using a disproportionate amount of data, then they should pay more.”

Comcast’s concern for fairness and disproportionate behavior does not extend to the rapacious pricing and enormous profit it earns selling broadband, flat rate or not.

MIT Technology Review’s David Talbot found “Time Warner Cable and Comcast are already making a 97 percent margin on their ‘almost comically profitable’ Internet services.” That figure was repeated by Craig Moffett, one of the most enthusiastic, well-respected cable industry analysts. That percentage refers to “gross margin,” which is effectively gravy on largely paid off cable plant/infrastructure that last saw a major wholesale upgrade in the 1990s to accommodate the advent of digital cable television and the 500-channel universe. Broadband was introduced in the late 1990s as a cheap-to-deploy but highly profitable, unregulated ancillary service.

How things have changed.

Just follow the money....

Just follow the money….

Customers used to being gouged for cable television are now willing to say goodbye to Comcast’s television package in growing numbers. Today’s must-have service is broadband and Comcast has a high-priced plan for you! But earning up to 97 percent profit from $50+ broadband isn’t enough.

A 300GB limit isn’t designed to control congestion either. In fact, had she investigated that claim, she would have discovered the cable industry itself disavowed that notion earlier this year.

In fact, it’s all about the money.

Michael Powell, the head of the cable industry’s top lobbying group admitted the theory that data caps are designed to control network congestion was wrong.

“Our principal purpose is how to fairly monetize a high fixed cost,” said Powell.

Powell mentioned costs like digging up streets, laying cable and operational expenses. Except the cable industry long ago stopped aggressive buildouts and now maintains a tight Return On Investment formula that keeps cable broadband out of rural areas indefinitely. Operational expenses for broadband have also declined, despite increases in traffic and the number of customers subscribing.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Internet v. Cable 8-20-10.flv

Don’t take our word for it. Consider the views of Suddenlink Cable CEO Jerry Kent, interviewed in 2010 on CNBC. (8 minutes)

“I think one of the things people don’t realize [relates to] the question of capital intensity and having to keep spending to keep up with capacity,” said Suddenlink CEO Jerry Kent. “Those days are basically over, and you are seeing significant free cash flow generated from the cable operators as our capital expenditures continue to come down.”

Unfortunately, Charleston residents don’t have the benefit of reporting that takes a skeptical view of a company press release and the spokesperson readily willing to underline it.

If Comcast seeks to be the arbiter of ‘fairness,’ then one must ask what concept of fairness allows for a usage cap almost no customers want for a service already grossly overpriced.

Lawrence, Kansas Finally Has Cap-Free Broadband (No Thanks to Sunflower/Knology)

Phillip Dampier August 12, 2013 Broadband "Shortage", Broadband Speed, Competition, Internet Overcharging, WOW! Comments Off
Worst

Worst

Broadband customers in Lawrence, Kan. have been liberated from Internet Overcharging schemes after years of usage-capped Internet access from Sunflower Broadband and Knology.

WideOpenWest’s (better known as WOW!) acquisition of Knology, which in turn purchased Sunflower Broadband from the local newspaper, means usage limits are a thing of the past.

Consumer Reports has top-rated WOW! for customer friendly service, and banishing usage caps is an example of why the cable company earns such high marks.

The company reminds customers that “all WOW! Internet speeds have no usage caps.”

Sunflower Broadband originally offered four different broadband plans, only one without usage caps. Lawrence customers did get speed upgrades faster than many other cable broadband customers, but most were accompanied with draconian usage limits.

Bad

Bad

Bronze: Originally offering 3Mbps/256kbps service, Sunflower’s “lite” usage plan included a 3GB monthly usage limit boosted by Knology in 2012 to $22.95/month offering 3/1Mbps service and a still ridiculously low 5GB usage limit. WOW! has kept the lite plan but removed the usage cap.

Silver: Sunflower’s equivalent of Standard Internet service offered 10/1Mbps broadband with a 50GB usage cap. Knology raised the price to $37.95, left the 50GB cap intact and increased speeds to 18/2Mbps. WOW! dropped the cap.

Gold: Sunflower’s premium 50/1Mbps service offered 250GB of usage for under $60 a month. When Knology took over, speeds were boosted to 50/5Mbps along with the price: $62.95 a month. But the usage cap stayed the same. Today WOW! continues the plan without any caps.

Better

Much Better

Palladium: Sunflower responded to customer complaints about metering Internet usage by offering residents a trade — an unlimited use plan with no speed promises. Palladium could be as slow as 2Mbps during peak usage, 25Mbps when traffic was very low. Knology kept the plan and its 1Mbps upload rate, but raised the price to $47.95 a month. WOW! dumped Palladium altogether, replacing it with a 30/2Mbps unlimited use plan for customers who don’t want to pay $63 a month for the Gold plan.

A number of Lawrence customers annoyed with Sunflower and Knology switched to AT&T U-verse when it was introduced locally. Although U-verse has a 250GB usage cap, Lawrence residents report it remains unenforced.

Stop the Cap! reader Mike, who shared the news WOW! had recently shelved the caps, tells us he switched to AT&T years ago and is happy with their service.

“So far, their cap is not enforced at all here,” Mike writes. “The minute they start enforcing it, I’ll switch to WOW!”

Mediacom Adopts Internet Overcharging Scheme for All Customers: Caps and Overlimit Fees

logo_mediacom_main

…fiction into “fact.”

Although America’s perennially worst-rated cable company is advertising “always faster Internet,” it is also moving “full speed ahead” to enforce usage limits to make sure customers don’t take too much advantage of those speeds.

Broadband Reports notes Mediacom is preparing notices stating effective Sept. 7 usage limits and overlimit fees that used to only apply to new customers or those changing plans will now be enforced for all customers.

A member of their social media team blamed bandwidth hogs for the caps.

“We have a small subset of customers that are using a very large portion of the available bandwidth, which can have a negative impact on the other Internet users in the surrounding area,” said Mediacom’s Social Media Relations Team. “By curbing this behavior, other customers can benefit with faster speeds.”

capacityActually, Mediacom will benefit from lower usage and higher revenue it will collect from the $10 overlimit fee for each additional 50GB of usage. Neighborhood congestion issues are largely a thing of the past because of upgrades to DOCSIS 3 technology.

Although the usage caps for higher priced tiers are generous by current standards, the company can adjust the caps up or down at any time. Mediacom traditionally serves rural areas or small cities that lack significant telephone company competition, so customers may have few alternatives. Both CenturyLink and AT&T have their own usage caps, barely enforced. Frontier Communications, another common provider in Mediacom territory, has tested the water with usage caps in the past but does not regularly impose them.

Broadband Reports assembled the pricing and caps for each Mediacom broadband tier:

  • Mediacom Launch 150GB (3 Mbps, $28)
  • Mediacom Prime 250GB (12-15 Mbps, $46)
  • Mediacom Prime Plus 350GB (20 Mbps, $55)
  • Mediacom Ultra 999GB (50 Mbps, $95)
  • Mediacom Ultra Plus 999GB (105 Mbps, $145)
Mediacom has an online usage tracker and promises to notify customers when they are nearing their usage limit before the overlimit fees begin.

Comcast Expands 300GB Usage Cap to Kentucky, Georgia and Mississippi

Comcast's usage caps are back for customers in three states.

Comcast’s usage caps are back for customers in three states.

Comcast has decided usage caps are in the future for more of its broadband customers.

Effective Sept. 1 XFINITY Internet Service will be capped to 300GB of monthly usage in central Kentucky, Savannah, Ga., and Jackson, Miss. Comcast says the plan provides “additional choice and flexibility.”

We’re uncertain how it does that, exactly.

Comcast will have the additional choice of slapping a $10 overlimit fee for allowance offenders for every extra 50GB of data consumed.

But the company says it will be initially flexible in how it penalizes those heavy users.

“In order for our customers to get accustomed to the new data usage plan, we will be implementing a program that gives you three courtesy months for exceeding the 300GB in any 12-month period,” writes Comcast in a new FAQ. “That means you will only be subject to overage charges if you exceed the 300GB for a fourth time in a 12-month period. On the fourth (and any subsequent occurrence), you will be notified that you have exceeded your 300GB via an email and in-browser notification, that an additional 50GB has automatically been allocated to your account, and that applicable charges will be applied to your bill.”

flex

Choice and flexibility for the customer or Comcast’s bottom line?

Customers with questions and concerns about Comcast’s expanding Internet Overcharging scheme can call Comcast Customer Security Assurance at 1-877-807-6581. Customers might want to assure Comcast if they are going back to usage caps, they will start shopping for a different provider. Stop the Cap! recommends customers in these areas protest the usage caps firmly and loudly.

“There are no legitimate engineering or economic justifications for these caps,” notes consumer group Free Press. “But Comcast’s new Internet Overcharging scheme and its discriminatory treatment of competitors’ video offerings do pose a grave threat to future video competition.”

And to your wallet.

Analysts have estimated that Comcast’s profit margins on broadband service are at least 80 percent or higher. In 2008, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst Craig Moffett estimated Comcast’s data margins at 80 percent, and Credit Suisse reported in fall 2010 that Comcast’s gross margins on high-speed data had grown to 93 percent.

Since withdrawing a nationwide cap of 250GB in 2012, Comcast had tested usage caps only in Nashville, Tenn., and Tucson, Ariz.

Stop the Cap! thanks reader “MrPaulAR” for the news tip.

Why Time Warner Cable Can Jack Up Rates Willy-Nilly: Lack of Competition

cable ratesAlthough cable and phone companies love to declare themselves part of a fiercely competitive telecommunications marketplace, it is increasingly clear that is more fairy tale than reality, with each staking out their respective market niches to live financially comfortable ever-after.

In the last week, Time Warner Cable managed to alienate its broadband customers announcing another rate increase and a near-doubling of the modem rental fee the company only introduced as its newest money-maker last fall. What used to cost $3.95 a month will be $5.99 by August.

The news of the “price adjustment” went over like a lead balloon for customers in Albany, N.Y., many who just endured an 18-hour service outage the day before, wiping out phone and Internet service.

“They already get almost $60 a month from me for Internet service that cuts out for almost an entire day and now they want more?” asked Albany-area customer Randy Dexter. “If Verizon FiOS was available here, I’d toss Time Warner out of my house for good.”

Alas, the broadband magic sparkle ponies have not brought Dexter or millions of other New Yorkers the top-rated fiber optic network Verizon stopped expanding several years ago. The Wall Street dragons complained about the cost of stringing fiber. Competition, it seems, is bad for business.

In fact, Verizon Wireless and Time Warner Cable are now best friends. Verizon Wireless customers can get a fine deal — not on Verizon’s own FiOS service — but on Time Warner’s cable TV. Time Warner Cable originally thought about getting into the wireless phone business, but it was too expensive. It invites customers to sign up for Verizon Wireless service instead.

timewarner twcThis is hardly a “War of the Roses” relationship either. Wall Street teaches that price wars are expensive and competitive shouting matches do not represent a win-win scenario for companies and their shareholders. The two companies get along fine where Verizon has virtually given up on DSL. Time Warner Cable actually faces more competition from AT&T’s U-verse, which is not saying much. The obvious conclusion: unless you happen to live in a FiOS service area, the best deals and fastest broadband speeds are not for you.

Further upstate in the Rochester-Finger Lakes Region, Time Warner Cable faces an even smaller threat from Frontier Communications. It’s a market share battle akin to United States Cable fighting a war against Uzbekistan Telephone. Frontier’s network in upstate New York is rich in copper and very low in fiber. Frontier has lost landline customers for years and until very recently its broadband DSL offerings have been so unattractive, they are a marketplace afterthought.

Rochester television reporter Rachel Barnhart surveyed the situation on her blog:

Think about this fact: Time Warner, which raked in more than $21 billion last year, has 700,000 subscribers in the Buffalo and Rochester markets. I’m not sure how many of those are businesses. But the Western New York market has 875,000 households. That’s an astounding market penetration. Does this mean Time Warner is the best choice or the least worse option?

Verizon-logoThat means Time Warner Cable has an 80 percent market share. Actually, it is probably higher because that total number of households includes those who either don’t want, need, or can’t afford broadband service. Some may also rely on limited wireless broadband services from Clearwire or one of the large cell phone companies.

In light of cable’s broadband successes, it is no surprise Time Warner is able to set prices and raise them at will. Barnhart, who has broadband-only service, is currently paying Time Warner $37.99 a month for “Lite” service, since reclassified as 1/1Mbps. That does not include the modem rental fee or the forthcoming $3 rate hike. Taken together, “Lite” Internet is getting pricey in western New York at $47 a month.

Retiring CEO Glenn Britt believes there is still money yet to be milked out of subscribers. In addition to believing cable modem rental fees are a growth industry, Britt also wants customers to begin thinking about “the usage component” of broadband service. That is code language for consumption-based billing — a system that imposes an arbitrary usage limit on customers, usually at current pricing levels, with steep fees for exceeding that allowance.

frontierRochester remains a happy hunting ground for Internet Overcharging schemes because the only practical, alternative broadband supplier is Frontier Communications, which Time Warner Cable these days dismisses as an afterthought (remember that 80 percent market share). Without a strong competitor, Time Warner has no problem experimenting with new “usage”-priced tiers.

Time Warner persists with its usage priced plans, despite the fact customers overwhelmingly have told the company they don’t want them. Time Warner’s current discount offer — $5 off any broadband tier if you keep usage under 5GB a month, has been a complete marketing failure. Despite that, Time Warner is back with a slightly better offer — $8 off that 5GB usage tier and adding a new 30GB usage limited option in the Rochester market. We have since learned customers signing up for that 30GB limit will get $5 off their broadband service.

internet limitIn nearby Ohio, the average broadband user already exceeds Time Warner’s 30GB pittance allowance, using 52GB a month. Under both plans, customers who exceed their allowance are charged $1 per GB, with overlimit fees currently not to exceed $25 per month. That 30GB plan would end up costing customers an extra $22 a month above the regular, unlimited plan. So much for the $5 savings.

Unfortunately, as long as Time Warner has an 80 percent market share, the same mentality that makes ever-rising modem rental fees worthwhile might also one day give the cable company courage to remove the word “optional” from those usage limited plans. With usage nearly doubling every year, Time Warner might see consumption billing as its maximum moneymaker.

In 2009, Time Warner valued unlimited-use Internet at $150 as month, which is what they planned to charge before pitchfork and torch-wielding customers turned up outside their offices.

Considering the company already earns 95 percent gross margin on broadband service before the latest round of price increases, one has to ask exactly when the company will be satisfied it is earning enough from broadband service. I fear the answer will be “never,” which is why it is imperative that robust competition exist in the broadband market to keep prices in check.

Unfortunately, as long as Wall Street and providers decide competition is too hard and too unprofitable, the price increases will continue.

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