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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!”

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.

Austin Media Gushing for Google Fiber

Austin’s television news has gone all out for Google Fiber, which is being unveiled today at a press event. Stop the Cap! will have coverage of the announcement, but in the meantime, here is a roundup of local coverage about Google Fiber in Austin:

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KTBC Austin Google Fiber Headed to Austin 4-8-13.mp4

Austin’s local Fox affiliate KTBC reports city officials stayed tight-lipped about Google Fiber, but Google may have previewed its intentions by adding The Longhorn Network to its television lineup several months ago. Local technology experts say the upgrade is worth the wait and will be a boon to Austin’s economy. (2 minutes)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KXAN Austin The wait is on for Google Fiber 4-9-13.mp4

Now that Austin will get Google Fiber, how long will residents have to wait to sign up? Mid-2014 is the estimate. KXAN explored how Google was unveiled in Kansas City. The station also took a look at other cities with gigabit fiber networks, many of them publicly owned alternatives to big phone and cable companies. KXAN compares the cost for 1,000Mbps service in different cities around the country. (3 minutes)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KEYE Austin Google Announcement Draws Near 4-9-13.flv

KEYE notes Gov. Rick Perry is showing up for this morning’s unveiling of Google Fiber. In between some minor technical glitches in the report, some viewers say they are ready to sign up for $70 gigabit Internet now, just to stick it to Clearwire ($50 a month) and Time Warner Cable.  (2 minutes)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KVUE Austin Google Going to Austin 4-9-13.mp4

KVUE says Google Fiber could boost Austin’s economy by luring even more high-tech companies. It could also stop Time Warner Cable and AT&T from trying more Internet Overcharging schemes on area customers.  (2 minutes)

Wall Street Journal’s Distorted Views on Broadband Only See the Industry’s Point of View

Phillip Dampier

Phillip Dampier

The Wall Street Journal’s not-living-in-the-real-world editorial page strikes again.

The commentary pages have always been the weakest part of the Journal, primarily because they screech pro-corporate talking points in contrast to the more balanced reporting in the rest of the newspaper.

Mr. Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. decided to distort broadband reality (again) in yesterday’s edition with a glowing commentary on how wonderful broadband providers are in his piece, “Springtime for Broadband.” The only thing missing was a border in fine print labeled, “Sponsored by Verizon, AT&T, and your cable company.”

While your Internet bill is being hiked at the same time your provider is slapping usage limits on your connection, Jenkins dismisses consumer-fueled complaints about broadband price gouging, assaulting Net Neutrality, and overall poor customer service as part of Washington’s “broadband policy circus.”

Charges fly hourly that Google or some other company is guilty of gross insult to net neutrality (that sacred principle nobody can define). Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has introduced legislation to regulate data caps and Internet pricing. Law professor Susan Crawford, until recently a White House technology adviser, clearly craves to be America’s next go-to talking head on broadband. Lately she’s been everywhere calling for a crackdown on the competing “monopolists” who supply Internet access.

How dare they complain, decries Jenkins in a robust defense of the 21st century version of the railway robber barons.

Comfortably playing patty cake with provider-fed talking points from the industry echo chamber, Jenkins is ready for battle, facts or not.

But wireless providers have invested big money to deploy high-speed mobile networks, and fixed and mobile are inevitably beginning to compete. The latest evidence: Australia recently predicted that up to 30% of households will go the all-wireless route and won’t be customers for its vaunted national broadband project.

Jenkins

Jenkins

Not exactly. The basis for this 30% figure is the National Broadband Network’s own business plan, which warns -if- the company raised prices to a maximum theoretical level, up to 30 percent of its customers would rely on wireless instead… by the year 2039. That is 26 years from now. You have nothing better to do in the meantime, right?

In fact, conservative critics of the fiber network, some defending the big wireless cell phone industry in Australia, have suggested fiber optics is a big waste of money because “wireless is the future.”

That old chestnut again.

“Now you can present a bulletin without touching a typewriter … it’s just there on the computer system, you don’t need a reel to reel tape recorder. I’ve got a touchscreen in front of me. Back then I had a big cartridge deck,” said Ray Hadley on 2GB radio. “Can you imagine the advances in technology in the next 26 years? I can’t. I can’t comprehend it. By the time they finish the NBN, it could be superseded by something we don’t even know about.”

NBN Myths, a website set up to tackle the disinformation campaign from political and industry opponents has one simple fact to convey: “Despite what you may have read from certain clueless commentators, there is not a single country or telecommunications company anywhere in the world that is attempting to replace fixed networks with wireless in urban areas, or even planning to do so in the future.”

Which would you rather have?

Which would you rather have?

Even Telstra, the biggest telecom company in Australia scoffs at such a notion, noting a growing number of its customers have both wired and wireless service, and they do not depend on one over the other.

Research firm Telsyte found that 85 per cent of Australians want speeds of 50Mbps or higher, speeds impossible for wireless to offer. In fact, when the NBN fiber network became available to Australians, almost half the current users as of October last year had chosen an even-faster 100Mbps plan option. But Australians also want mobile broadband, and they are signing up for that as well.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics notes the number of mobile broadband Internet connections also grew by around 40% in Australia between 2009 and 2010. But here is the Achilles heel of wireless: it cannot deliver the same speeds or capacity, and providers charge high prices and deliver low usage caps. As a result, the wireless industry has pulled off a coup: they earn enormous revenues from networks they have successfully rationed. The total amount of data downloaded over Australia’s wireless networks actually fell on a per user basis, despite the growth in customers.

Much of Jenkins’ commentary is spoon-fed by the industry-funded Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which produces industry-sponsored studies designed to tell America all is well in our broadband duopoly.

In the latest federal survey, the average broadband speed in America is up to 15.6 megabits per second, from 14.3 a year earlier. Nearly half of customers who six months ago made do with one megabit or less have now moved up to higher speeds. Since 2009, the U.S. has gone from 22nd fastest Internet to the eighth fastest.

The 15.6Mbps figure comes from the Federal Communications Commission. The statistics about our global speed ranking come from Akamai’s voluntary speed test program. Other studies rate America much lower. More importantly, while providers in the U.S. try to squeeze out more performance from their copper networks, other countries are laying speedier fiber networks that are destined to once again leapfrog over the United States. Most charge less for their broadband connections as well.

Jenkins also quotes the ITIF which touts 20 million miles of fiber were laid in America last year. But the ITIF, when pressed, will admit the majority of that fiber was “middle mile” connections, institutional or business network fiber you cannot access, or fiber to cell towers. Fiber to the home expansion has stalled, primarily because Verizon has suspended expansion of its FiOS network to new areas after Wall Street loudly complained about the cost.

Jenkins argues that if we leave providers alone and stop criticizing their growing prices, declining competition, and fat profits, the marketplace will suddenly decide to invest in network upgrades yet again.

“The day may come when even Verizon, which visibly soured on its $23 billion FiOS bet, rediscovers an urge to invest in fixed broadband infrastructure to meet growing consumer lust for hi-def services,” writes Jenkins.

Would Wall Street rather see providers invest in network upgrades or return profits to shareholders? Investment expansion in the broadband industry comes when a company senses if they do not spend the money, their business will be swept away by others that will. Cable broadband threatens telephone company DSL, so AT&T cherry-picked communities for investment in its half-measure U-verse fiber to the neighborhood network. Google Fiber, should it choose to expand, will be an even bigger threat to both cable and phone companies. Municipal fiber to the home networks upset the incumbent players so much, they spend millions of ratepayer dollars in efforts to legislate them out of existence.

Jenkins’ view that giving the industry carte blanche to do and charge as it pleases to stimulate a better broadband future is as fanciful as NBN critics in Australia suggesting fiber upgrades should be canceled in favor of waiting 20+ years for improved wireless to come along.

He even approves of Internet Overcharging schemes like usage caps and consumption billing, calling it proper price discrimination in a “fiercely competitive” environment to defray a network’s fixed costs.

Do you think there is fierce competition for your broadband dollar?

Broadband’s fixed costs are so low and predictable, it literally calls out consumption pricing as just the latest overreach for enhanced profits. As Suddenlink’s CEO himself admitted, the era of big expensive cable upgrades are over. Incremental upgrades are cheap, the costs to offer broadband are declining, so it is time to reap the profits.

Jenkins closes with one recommendation we can agree with: “A low-tech way to stir up broadband competition would be to relax the regulatory obstacles to the actual physical provision of broadband.”

We can start by scrapping all the state laws the industry lobbied to enact that prohibit community-owned broadband competition. If big cable and phone companies won’t provide communities with the quality of broadband service they need to compete for 21st century jobs, let those communities do it themselves.

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