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Stop the Cap! Reviews AT&T DirecTV Now: The Cord Cutting Revolution Continues

directvnow-planWhen AT&T announced it would offer 100+ cable television and broadcast network channels under the DirecTV Now brand for $35 a month, Wall Street had a fit.

Craig Moffett, an analyst with Moffett-Nathanson, speculated that AT&T would make at most a profit margin of $5 a month for its $35 a month plan, once programming costs were covered. But then AT&T announced it would sweeten the deal with a free Apple TV Player or Amazon Fire Stick for those confident enough to prepay for the new service. That makes DirecTV Now a purposefully unprofitable service, creating considerable stress for both the cable and satellite industry and their investors.

Variety notes the average DirecTV satellite subscriber delivers about $60 a month in profit to its owner, AT&T. That led the industry magazine to speculate DirecTV Now is a “loss leader” designed to sell its parent company’s AT&T-Time Warner, Inc. merger deal to regulators on the premise of increased competition delivering real savings to consumers.

Thankfully for Wall Street’s nerves, AT&T’s usual practice of marketing things with a lot of fine print emerged in the nick of time, and the $35 dollar price has now turned out to be an introductory offer for early adopters. In the not-too-distant future, AT&T will enroll new customers for its “Go Big” package at a much more profitable $60 a month. Customers who sign up at the $35 rate and stay customers will be able to keep that price as long as they make no changes to their account after the promotion ends.

Moffett

Moffett

But Moffett warned investors that the traditional cable television model is still under serious threat, and AT&T’s less-promoted “Live a Little” package offering 60 popular cable networks for the everyday price of $35 is the equivalent of AT&T “running with scissors” because it alone could cause millions of cable and satellite customers to cut the cord and stay more than satisfied with a slimmed down cable package.

“Virtually all the channels that anyone would really want, save for regional sports networks” are included in the lighter “Live a Little” package, Moffett added. Customers who loathe watching sports but want a beefier package can also sign up for a $50, 80-channel “Just Right” package that primarily omits sports-oriented channels and a handful of spinoff cable networks few would miss.

Moffett and other Wall Street analysts were hoping AT&T would bloat its cheaper package with home shopping, religion, and other little-watched, low-cost cable networks and then entice customers to upgrade to unlock more popular cable channels. Instead, AT&T’s most premium package — “Gotta Have It” which costs $70 a month adds the “can live without” networks like Boomerang, Cloo, El Rey, Centric, and other little-known channels that typically live unnoticed in Channel Siberia on 500+ channel cable lineups. The highest premium priced package is attractive only for those looking for Starz/Encore channels and the basic cable network that gets no respect — Hallmark Movies & Mysteries (a/k/a the Dick van Dyke Permanent Employment Network.)

prepay-directvnow“By stacking their base package with all the best networks — likely a requirement for getting the programming contracts at all — they still have the same problem that was highlighted initially,” by Moffett. “Put simply, they aren’t going to make any money.”

That quest for profit is further challenged with subscriber acquisition programs that dole out free Apple TV units to customers willing to prepay for three months of service at the $35 rate or an Amazon Fire Stick (with Echo remote) in return for prepaying for one month of service. Anyone in the market for either device can sign up for DirecTV Now, get the equipment at an attractive price, and consider the 1-3 months of service a free extra bonus. Customers were reportedly lining up at AT&T’s owned and operated retail outlets (not authorized resellers) to pick up devices and sign up for service today.

At these prices and with these promotions, AT&T DirecTV Now could first decimate the subscriber base of its immediate competitors Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, either of which offer a much less compelling value. AT&T can afford to charge a lower price because it has deeper pockets and enormous volume discounts on the wholesale price of cable programming — combining millions of DirecTV and U-verse TV subscribers together to negotiate what industry insiders suspect are major discounts the smaller providers cannot get.

But there are issues likely to be deal-breakers for some would-be DirecTV Now subscribers:

  • Local broadcast stations are available only in a handful of selected cities and only a very few include all ABC, NBC, and FOX affiliates. CBS is not participating in DirecTV Now at this time, and that is a major omission;
  • NFL Network isn’t on the lineup;
  • Regional sports networks are spotty and geographically restricted. Here is a detailed PDF outlining options by zip code;
  • There is a limit of two concurrent streams and although video quality is very good, it is not the 1080/HD experience AT&T’s marketing material would suggest. The quality of your internet connection will make a difference;
  • No DVR option at this time.

CNET compiled an excellent channel comparison chart to help consumers figure out which, if any, of these upstarts make sense as a cable TV replacement:

DirecTV Now vs. Sling TV vs. PlayStation Vue (top 169 channels, see notes below)

Channel DirecTV Now Packages Sling Package Vue Package
A&E Live a Little Orange, Blue No
ABC Yes or VOD Broadcast extra Yes or VOD
AMC Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
American Heroes Go Big No Elite
Animal Planet Live a Little No Access
Audience Live a Little No No
AXS TV Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Baby TV No Kids extra No
BBC America Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
BBC World News Go Big News extra Elite
beIN Sports No Sports extra Core
BET Live a Little Blue (Orange lifestyle extra) No
Bloomberg TV Live a Little Base No
Boomerang Gotta Have It Kids extra Elite
Bravo Live a Little Blue Access
BTN Just Right No Core
Campus Insiders No Sports extra No
Cartoon Network/Adult Swim Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
CBS No No Yes or VOD
CBS Sports No No No
Centric Go Big No No
Cheddar No Orange, Blue No
Chiller Gotta Have It No Elite
Cinemax PREMIUM ($5/month) PREMIUM No
Cloo Gotta Have It No Elite
CMT Live a Little Comedy extra No
CNBC Live a Little News extra Blue Access
CNBC World Just Right No Elite
CNN Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Comedy Central Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Comedy.TV Just Right No No
Cooking Channel Just Right Lifestyle extra Elite
CSPAN Live a Little No No
Destination America Go Big No Access
Discovery Channel Live a Little No Access
Discovery Family Go Big No Access
Discovery Life Go Big No Elite
Disney Channel Live a Little Orange Access
Disney Junior Live a Little Kids extra Orange Access
Disney XD Live a Little Kids extra Orange Access
DIY Go Big Lifestyle extra Access
Duck TV No Kids extra No
E! Live a Little Lifestyle extra Blue Access
El Rey Network Gotta Have It Orange, Blue No
Encore Gotta Have It No No
EPIX No Hollywood extra No
EPIX Drive-in No Hollywood extra No
EPIX Hits No Hollywood extra PREMIUM, Elite
EPIX2 No Hollywood extra No
ESPN Live a Little Orange Access
ESPN 2 Live a Little Orange Access
ESPN Bases Loaded No Sports extra Orange No
ESPN Buzzer Beater No Sports extra Orange No
ESPN Deportes No Spanish TV extra Orange Elite
ESPN Goal Line No Sports extra Orange No
ESPNEWS Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
ESPNU Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
Esquire No No Access
Euro News No World News Extra No
Flama No Orange, Blue No
Food Network Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Fox Yes or VOD Blue Yes or VOD
Fox Business Live a Little No Access
Fox College Sports Atlantic No No Elite
Fox College Sports Central No No Elite
Fox College Sports Pacific No No Elite
Fox News Live a Little No Access
Fox Sports 1 Live a Little Blue Access
Fox Sports 2 Go Big Blue Access
Fox Sports Prime Ticket Just Right No No
France 24 No World News Extra No
Freeform Live a Little Orange Access
Fuse Just Right No No
Fusion Just Right World News Extra Elite
FX Live a Little Blue Access
FXM Go Big No Elite
FXX Live a Little Blue Access
FYI Go Big Lifestyle extra No
Galavision Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Golf Channel Go Big Sports extra Blue Core
GSN Just Right Comedy extra No
Hallmark Live a Little Lifestyle extra No
Hallmark Movies & Mysteries No LIfestyle extra No
HBO PREMIUM ($5/month) PREMIUM PREMIUM, Ultra
HDNet Movies No Hollywood extra No
HGTV Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Hi-Yah No No Elite
History Live a Little Orange, Blue No
HLN Live a Little News extra Access
HSN No No No
IFC Just Right Orange, Blue Core
Ion No No No
Impact No No Elite
Investigation Discovery Live a Little No Access
JusticeCentral.TV Just Right No No
Lifetime Live a Little Orange, Blue No
LMN Just Right Lifestyle extra No
Local Now No Orange, Blue No
LOGO Go Big Comedy extra No
Longhorn Network Just Right No No
Machinima No No Elite
Maker No Orange, Blue No
MGM-HD No No Elite
MLB Network Just Right No No
Motors TV No Sports extra No
MSNBC Live a Little News extra Blue Access
MTV Live a Little Comedy extra No
MTV Classic Go Big No No
MTV2 Live a Little Comedy extra No
Nat Geo Wild Go Big Blue Elite
National Geographic Live a Little Blue Access
NBA TV Go Big Sports extra Core
NBC Yes or VOD Blue Yes or VOD
NBC Sports Network Just Right Blue Access
NDTV 24/7 No World News Extra No
News 18 India No World News Extra No
Newsy No Orange, Blue No
NFL Network No Blue Core
NFL Red Zone No Sports extra (Blue) PREMIUM (Core and up)
NHL Network Go Big Sports extra No
Nick Jr. Live a Little Blue No
Nickelodeon Live a Little No No
Nicktoons Live a Little Kids Extra Blue No
ONE World Sports No No Elite
Outdoor Channel No No No
Outside Television No Sports extra Elite
OWN Just Right No Access
Oxygen Just Right Lifestyle extra Blue Access
Palladia No No Elite
PBS No No No
Poker Central No No Elite
Polaris No Orange, Blue Elite
POP No No Access
QVC No No No
Revolt Go Big No No
RFD TV Live a Little No No
Russia Today No World News Extra No
Science Just Right No Access
SEC Network Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
Showtime No No PREMIUM, Elite
Spike Live a Little Comedy extra No
Sprout Go Big No Elite
Starz Gotta Have It PREMIUM No
Sundance TV Go Big Hollywood extra Core
Syfy Live a Little Blue Access
TBS Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
TCM Live a Little Hollywood extra Core
Teen Knick Live a Little Kids extra Blue Elite
Telemundo Live a Little No No
Tennis Channel Go Big No No
The Weather Channel Live a Little No No
TLC Live a Little No Access
TNT Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Travel Channel Just Right Orange, Blue Access
truTV Live a Little Blue (Orange comedy extra) Access
TV Land Live a Little Comedy extra No
TVG Go Big No No
Universal HD No No Elite
Univision Live a Little Blue (Orange Broadcast extra) No
Univision Deportes Gotta Have It Sports extra No
Univision Mas Just Right Blue (Orange Broadcast Extra) No
USA Network Live a Little Blue Access
Velocity HD Live a Little No Elite
VH1 Live a Little Lifestyle extra No
VH1 Classic No No Elite
Vibrant TV No Lifestyle extra No
Viceland Live a Little Orange, Blue No
WE tv Live a Little Lifestyle extra Access
WeatherNation Live a Little No No
Notes

Broadcast networks including ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are not available for live streaming in many cities, except where noted as “yes.” The term “VOD” means viewers can watch these shows on-demand 24 hours after airing.
Most RSNs (Regional Sports Networks) not listed; varies per locality

PREMIUM = Available for an additional monthly fee beyond base package

DirecTV Now package key:
Live a Little = $35/month (Local ABC, Fox, NBC broadcasts included in select markets)
Just Right = $50/month
Go Big = $60/month ($35 / month introductory price)
Gotta Have It = $70/month

Sling TV package key:
Orange = $20/month
Blue = $25/month
other “”extras”” = another $5 /month each (Sports extra with Blue is $10)
Broacast Extra: ABC, Univision and Univision Mas available to Sling Orange subscribers in select cities

PlayStation Vue package key:
(for New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco, Miami ONLY)
Access (Base) = $40/month
Core = $45/month (includes Access channels, some Regional Sports Networks)
Elite = $55/month (includes Access and Core channels)
Ultra = $75/month (includes Access, Core and Elite channels, plus HBO and Showtime)

(for all other cities, where ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are available via VOD only)
Access Slim (Base) = $30/month
Core Slim = $35/month (includes Access channels, some Regional Sports Networks)
Elite Slim = $45/month (includes Core and Access channels)
Ultra Slim = $65/month (includes Access, Core and Elite channels, plus HBO and Showtime)

$5 a month each for HBO and Cinemax.

$5 a month each for HBO and Cinemax.

Time Warner, Inc. did its part, offering a substantial deal to DirecTV Now to allow customers to add HBO and Cinemax for just $5 a month each, substantially less than what both networks charge customers signing up a-la-carte. This also unlocks access to streaming options on both networks’ websites.

In fact, as a DirecTV Now customer, you will also become an authenticated pay television subscriber, unlocking access on various cable network websites to extra streaming and on-demand options.

The implications of DirecTV Now depend on how long AT&T extends its $35 offer, which is going to be compelling for a lot of Americans. Moffett predicts DirecTV Now could sign up a staggering 11 million Americans — at least two million cannibalized from its own DirecTV satellite customer base, six million cutting the cord on their cable company (including AT&T U-verse) and another three million cord-cutters or “cable-nevers.” Most of the latter are Millennials, and research suggests $35 may be low enough of a price point to sign them up.

AT&T is also raising concerns among internet activists because online streaming of DirecTV Now will not count against an AT&T postpaid customer’s data allowance. This zero rating scheme is seen as an end run around Net Neutrality, particularly because AT&T is not as generous with its competitors. AT&T said it will offer other video streamers the possibility of being exempted from AT&T data allowances, if they pay AT&T for the privilege.

How It Works/Signing Up

AT&T DirecTV Now starts with the Google Chrome 50+, Safari 8+ or Internet Explorer 11+ (on Windows 8 and up) web browsers or the DirecTV Now app. AT&T recommends Chrome for desktop viewing. The service doesn’t work with Firefox, Microsoft Edge, or legacy browsers.

The first step is registering for a 7-day free trial. Before handing over your credit card number, if you scroll down you will find a small free preview option is also available that includes a largely useless streaming barker channel promoting the service and a respectable collection of video on demand options from basic cable networks. The free video streaming option will give you a clue about how the service is likely to perform on your internet connection and devices. For the record, DirecTV Now now supports:

Support for other devices like Roku is coming next year.

Customers must be within the United States to use the service. If you travel abroad or to any U.S. territories like Guam, the Virgin Islands, or Puerto Rico, DirecTV Now will stop working until you return. When you sign up, keep in mind your billing zip code will mean a lot when it comes to accessing regional sports and local broadcast channels. DirecTV Now uses your billing zip code and your actual location to determine whether you are qualified to access regional sports networks and local stations.

Score a Free Apple TV Player or Amazon Fire TV Stick

Apple TV (4th Generation): Effectively free after prepaying for three months of service.

Apple TV (4th Generation): Effectively free after prepaying for three months of service.

If you are looking to score an Apple TV (4th generation) or an Amazon Fire TV Stick, you will want to skip the 7-day free trial and enroll in a paid plan immediately, which will allow you to select which player you want. If you want the Apple TV, you will prepay for three months at $35 a month ($105). The Amazon Fire TV Stick only requires you to prepay for the first month of service ($35). One device per email address, but you can sign up for multiple accounts (using individual email addresses) and get a device for each — especially useful for larger families that could run into DirecTV Now’s two-stream limit.

Consider your choices before enrolling. If you want to add premium channels or upgrade your plan, and you select the three-month prepay option to grab an Apple TV Player, adding premium channels like HBO and Cinemax or moving to a higher plan will result in three months of prepaid charges for those upgrades as well, billed automatically to your credit card on file — which amounts to a $30 charge if you select HBO and Cinemax. After your promotional prepaid term ends, your account will continue to be billed at the $35 (plus any add-ons) rate until you cancel. AT&T covers you for the forfeited first free week by extending your bill date out by seven days. Allow 2-3 weeks for the device(s) to be shipped to you.

You can also sign up at an AT&T owned and operated retail store, but be aware AT&T “authorized” reseller stores are not participating in this promotion. That may allow you to bring home a device today.

Don’t care about the device promotions? Take the 7-day free trial, but be aware that you are giving AT&T your credit card number and charges begin immediately after the free week ends unless you cancel. Here’s how:

  1. Sign in to your account.
  2. From your User Account overview page, select Manage My Plan.
  3. Select the Cancel Plan link.
  4. Choose one of the listed reasons.
  5. Select Cancel Now to confirm cancellation.

Your subscription will continue until the end of the billing cycle. No refunds or credits are provided for partial months. Your account will revert to Freeview demo status after you cancel a subscription.  You can add a subscription package back at any time.

Oddly, AT&T is not charging sales tax for New York, California, Maryland or Virginia residents. Customers in states like Tennessee where AT&T provides local phone service were most likely to face sales taxes. Those signing up early are in the best position to exploit what appears to be an oversight, or it represents the first time the New York Department of Taxation and Finance left money on the table.

directv-now-price

Streaming from Your AT&T Wireless Device Does Not Count Against Your Data Allowance

If you’re a DirecTV Now and AT&T Wireless customer, streaming most DirecTV Now movies and programs over the AT&T wireless network won’t count against your data usage allowance, according to AT&T. But believe it or not, AT&T’s fine print indicates advertisements and non-streaming app activity do count! There are some other important disclosures to be aware of:

  • You must be on the AT&T Wireless network within the U.S. (U.S. territories are not qualified for zero rating);
  • You must be a postpaid, not a prepaid AT&T wireless customer to qualify and must not have “data block” on your mobile line;
  • If you are grandfathered on an unlimited data plan, using DirecTV Now will not count against the 22GB data threshold which subjects you to speed throttling;
  • This offer may disappear at any time and/or is subject to change.

DirecTV Now Qualifies You as an Authenticated Pay Television Subscriber

Many cable networks require customers enter their cable, satellite, or telco TV login credentials to unlock video streaming and on-demand features. DirecTV Now is a qualified provider for these websites (more coming):

Other networks are not yet enabled for DirecTV Now. CNN, for example, has a prompt for DirecTV satellite customers to log in, but DirecTV Now has its own account registration system.

Local Channels Are Very Spotty

Local over the air channels are very limited on DirecTV Now and are geographically restricted. You can access these channels only if you are located in or very near to the cities listed below and your billing zip code is in the same area. If you travel outside of the immediate area, live streaming will stop working until you return.

ABC*  NBC**  FOX  and Telemundo  are covered by DirecTV Now in selected cities. CBS is not available on the service at all at this time.

  • wlsAtlanta, GA: WAGA-TV
  • Austin, TX: KTBC
  • Boston, MA: Telemundo East
  • Charlotte, NC: WJZY
  • Chicago, IL: WLS-TV, WMAQ, WFLD, Telemundo East
  • Dallas-Ft Worth, TX: KXAS, KDFW-TV, Telemundo East
  • Denver, CO: Telemundo East
  • fox2Detroit, MI: WJBK
  • Fresno-Visalia, CA: KFSN-TV, Telemundo East
  • Gainesville, FL: WOGX
  • Hartford-New Haven, CT: WVIT
  • Houston, TX: KTRK-TV, Telemundo East
  • 4nbcLas Vegas, NV: Telemundo East
  • Los Angeles, CA: KABC-TV, KNBC, KTTV, Telemundo East
  • Miami-Ft Lauderdale, FL: WTVJ, Telemundo East
  • Minneapolis, MN: KMSP-TV
  • New York, NY: WABC-TV, WNBC, WNYW, Telemundo East
  • Orlando-Daytona, FL: WOFL
  • Philadelphia, PA: WPVI-TV, WCAU, WTXF-TV, Telemundo East
  • Phoenix, AZ: KSAZ-TV, Telemundo East
  • Raleigh-Durham, NC: WTVD-TV
  • San Diego, CA: KNSD
  • San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose, CA: KGO-TV, KNTV, KTVU
  • Tampa-St Petersburg, FL: WTVT
  • Washington, D.C.: WRC, WTTG

*Not available on Internet Explorer 11 on Windows 7. **NBC live stream available on mobile and desktop devices only.

Giving the Service a Test

Stop the Cap! enrolled as an ordinary customer this morning and gave the service a rigorous test, including multiple streams over our 50/5Mbps internet connection. The service debuted today, and there is little doubt there is intense interest from consumers, so we expected some performance problems from the initial demand. We didn’t see any evidence of traffic congestion, however, and that is a good sign.

AT&T's John Stankey explaining DirecTV Now.

AT&T’s John Stankey explaining DirecTV Now.

A similar test of Sling TV did not perform as well during peak viewing times, when streaming problems emerged. DirecTV Now seems to be built to withstand intense demand.

One customer with a 6Mbps U-verse internet connection “in the boonies” was impressed the video quality of DirecTV Now was high even on a relatively slow DSL-like connection.

“This blows SlingTV away,” the person shared. “I only have U-verse 6Mbps internet service and it is not pixelated or buffering at all. Looks exactly like my regular DirecTV picture.”

AT&T published these recommendations for DirecTV Now customers regarding internet connection speeds:

  • 150kbps – 2.5Mbps – Minimum broadband connection speed for Mobile devices
  • 2.5 – 5.0Mbps – Recommended for HD quality

We’ve been led to believe DirecTV Now should perform equivalently to 1080i HDTV service (depending on the video source of course). We cannot say we agree it does right now. We noticed significant artifacts on high-motion video and picture graininess that left us feeling this was closer to a 720p HD experience. It isn’t possible to say whether the video player reduced playback quality because of internet traffic issues we were unaware of or if this is how the picture is supposed to look. It did not significantly detract from the viewing experience and the lack of buffering and pixelation was far more important to us.

AT&T store in NYC.

AT&T store in NYC.

DirecTV Now would serve adequately as a cable TV replacement if it had local station coverage and some type of DVR. At present, DirecTV Now is limited to a “Restart” feature that allows you to restart shows already in progress on certain channels, but you cannot fast-forward or record a restarted show. Once AT&T introduces a cloud-based DVR and fills out the local station lineup, this service could be lethal to overpriced cable TV packages.

AT&T’s marketing attempts to undercut the powerful position of inertia by setting an unknown time limit for customers to enroll in the $35 a month video package. If you don’t sign up today, you may not get the “free” Apple TV or Amazon Fire Stick and a respectable cable TV package for just $35 a month — about half what cable operators are charging these days for their bloated video packages. AT&T doesn’t care if you stick with your current cable provider and signup for DirecTV Now, if only to grab free streaming video equipment while sampling the service. They get their money either way.

Had AT&T permanently kept the price at around $35, many consumers would likely sit back and wait for AT&T to sort out the streaming contract issues it has with the TV networks — CBS in particular, and come up with a DVR solution before those potential customers decided to sign up and make the change. Based on several “hot deals” websites, the mentality among many consumers is to “lock in” the $35 price now and wait for AT&T to build out the package while continuing to invest $35 a month on it. That doesn’t seem so bad when you get free electronics as part of the deal.

Our Final Take

AT&T’s DirecTV Now is a potential winner and worth signing up for because of the introductory price and free equipment offers. But if you decide not to disconnect your cable/satellite television service, it is probably safe to drop DirecTV Now after your prepayment expires and return to resume service a little later. There will probably be some warning when AT&T will end the introductory price for the service, and interested customers can hop back on board before that date arrives. DirecTV Now will be a formidable competitor, but it will fight against consumer resistance to confront the cable company and cut cable’s cord until it solves the local channels issue and has a credible DVR option. The service could also use an add-on to make adding additional concurrent streams possible and more affordable than just signing up for a second account.

Don’t count out Big Cable just yet. With data caps and other internet overcharging schemes, Comcast, Cox, Suddenlink, and others can play games with usage allowances to deter customers from streaming all of their video entertainment online at the risk of blowing past their allowance. DirecTV Now’s $35 price won’t mean much after overlimit fees begin appearing on your internet bill.

Stop the Cap! Declares War on Cox’s Usage Cap Ripoff in Cleveland; It’s About the Money, Not Fairness

Stopping the money party from getting started, if we can help it.

Stopping Cox’s money party from getting started, if we can help it.

Stop the Cap! today formally declares war on Cox’s usage cap experiment in Cleveland, Ohio and will coordinate several protest actions to educate consumers about the true nature of usage-based billing and how they can effectively fight back against these types of Internet Overcharging schemes.

Time Warner Cable quickly learned it was deeply mistaken telling customers that a 40GB monthly usage allowance was more than 95% of customers would ever need when introducing a similar concept April 1, 2009 in test markets including Rochester, N.Y., Austin and San Antonio, Tex., and Greensboro, N.C. The company repeatedly suggested only about five percent of customers would ever exceed that cap.

Six years later, it is likely 95% of customers would be paying a higher broadband bill to cover applicable overlimit fees or be forced to upgrade to a more expensive plan to avoid them. Before Time Warner realized the errors of its way, it claimed with a straight face it was acceptable to charge customers $150 a month for the same unlimited broadband experience that used to cost $50.

Cox’s talking points for customers and the media frames usage caps as a fairness enforcement tool. It is a tired argument and lacks merit because nobody ever pays less for usage-capped broadband service. At best, you pay at least the same and risk new overlimit charges for exceeding an arbitrary usage allowance created out of thin air. At worst, you are forced by cost issues to downgrade service to a cheaper plan that comes with an even lower allowance and an even bigger risk of facing overlimit fees.

Industry trade journal Multichannel News, which covers the cable industry for the cable industry does not frame usage caps in the context of fairness. It’s all about the money.

“If you’re a cable operator, you might want to strike [with new usage caps] while the iron is hot,” said MoffettNathanson principal and senior analyst Craig Moffett, a Wall Street analyst and major proponent of investing in cable industry stocks.

Multichannel News warned operators they “must tread carefully in how they deliver the usage-based message.” Instead of getting away with punitive caps, Time Warner Cable had to “rethink” its definition of fairness, keeping prices the same for heavy users of bandwidth but offering discounts to customers whose usage was lighter. No money party for them.

So how did Cox frame its message in the pages of an industry trade journal to fellow members of the cable industry? Was it about fairness or collecting more of your money. You decide:

Customers will be notified of their data usage and any potential overages beginning in mid- June but won’t have to pay for overages until the October billing cycle, a Cox spokesman said. That gives customers the chance either to alter their usage or step up to a more data-intensive plan.   The additional charges serve as a temporary step-up plan for certain consumers, the spokesman said — they can keep their current level of service and pay the additional fee during months when usage spikes, like when their kids come home from college.

cox say noThe Government Accounting Office, charged with studying the issue of data caps, found plenty to be concerned about. Consumers rightfully expressed fears about price increases and confusion over data consumption issues. In short, customers hate the kind of usage-based pricing proposed by Cox. It’s a rate hike wrapped in uncertainty and an important tool to discourage consumers from cutting their cable television package.

It’s also nakedly anti-competitive because Cox has conveniently exempted its television, home phone, and home security products from its usage cap. Subscribe to Cox home phone service? The cap does not apply. Use Ooma or Vonage? The cap does apply so talk fast. If a customer wants to use Cox’s Home Security service to monitor their home while away, they won’t eat away their usage cap. If they use ADT to do the same, Cox steals a portion of your usage allowance. Watch a favorite television show on Cox cable television and your usage allowance is unaffected. Watch it on Netflix and look out, another chunk is gone.

While Cox starts rationing your Internet usage, it isn’t lowering your price. A truly fair usage plan would offer customers a discount if they voluntarily agreed to limit their usage. But nothing about Cox’s rationing plan is fair. It’s compulsory, so customers looking for a worry-free unlimited plan are out of luck. It’s punitive, punishing customers for using a broadband connection they already paid good money to buy. It’s arbitrary — nobody asked customers what they wanted. It doesn’t even make sense. But it will make a lot of dollars for Cox.

Cox claims it only wants usage caps to help customers choose the “right plan.”

The right plan for Cox.

To escape Cox’s $10 overlimit fees, a customer will have to pay at least $10 more to buy a higher allowance plan — turning a service that costs less to offer than ever into an ever-more expensive necessity, with few competitive alternatives. Will Cox ever recommend customers downgrade to a cheaper plan? We don’t think so. Customers could easily pay $78-100+ for broadband service that used to cost $52-66.

Back in 2009, the same arguments against usage caps applied as they do today. Industry expert Dave Burstein made it clear usage caps were about one thing:

“Anybody who thinks that’s not an attempt to raise prices and keep competitive video off the network — I have a bridge to sell them, and it goes to Brooklyn,” Burstein said.

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

Phillip Dampier October 29, 2013 Broadband "Shortage", Comcast/Xfinity, Competition, Consumer News, Editorial & Site News, Internet Overcharging, Rural Broadband, Video Comments Off on 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.

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

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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  • Rob: With Time Warner issuing their "all-digital" notice to customers this week to all the Rochester, NY news outlets, does this mean we can expect the upg...
  • Ryan: Frontier needs to be sued for false advertising of fios. They ran commercials on TV and radio that fios is here but in reality its not. We wanted fios...
  • Jim Dudenhefer III: See previous. 5:21 AM Central Time. Kansas City, MO. Cell # 816-560-0537. Land Line # 816-523-2309....
  • Jim Dudenhefer III: I live with and assist my 88 year old mother and 92 year old father. Both don't drive. Dad's mind is going and Mom's getting very tired as the main ca...
  • Ty: well hey on top of all of this I am sure more cable companies will adopt data caps. WOW! (my current cable company that overbuilt TWC here and I left...
  • Kim: I am currently paying TWC $180 a month for tv, internet, and home phone. I recently tried calling to have my home phone removed, since both my daughte...
  • James R Curry: No guarantee at all. But, as there's no contract commitment, you can at least cancel if they gut the line-up....
  • Required: Much more expensive than Hulu or Netflix, doesn't let you time-shift (VOD) all the shows/movies,, and doesn't solve the local news/sports problem, rea...
  • JayS: Looks like the era of the CVNO (CableTv Virtual Network Operator) has arrived. MVNO's have been terrific for the Mobile-phone consumer. We now have nu...
  • Gregory Blajian: A quick analysis for my wife and my entertainment situation is below. Getting Starz and MLB Network plus the A&E and Viacom family of channels mig...
  • Elbert Davis: Your last paragraph is exactly why Armstrong Cable cord-cutters cannot have this--200GB a month is all we're allowed to have until we have to pay Arms...
  • ANgela Hill: Did you get anywhere with this? I am about to do the same thing myself. My bill is $170 month, and I cannot do it any longer....

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