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Corporate Puppets on Parade: Mercatus Center Writer’s Ridiculous Ranting for Usage Caps Debunked

att string puppetOnce again, a writer from the corporate-funded Mercatus Center is back to shill for the telecom industry.

Eli Dourado landed space in Slate to write a ridiculous defense of Comcast’s expanding trials of usage caps. When we first read it, we assumed a Comcast press release somehow managed to find its way into the original article. It quickly became impossible to discern the difference.

Before we take apart Mr. Dourado’s nonsensical arguments, let’s consider the source.

Sourcewatch calls Mercatus one of the best-funded think tanks in the United States. And why not. Its indefatigable advocacy of pro-corporate policies is legendary. The Center itself was initially funded by the Koch Brothers to advocate against consumer protection and oversight and for deregulation.

With that kind of mission and money, it’s no surprise the authors coming out of Mercatus are in rigid lock-step with the corporate agendas of Comcast, AT&T, and other large telecom companies. The Center is also a friend of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that counts Comcast and AT&T as dues-paying members. ALEC’s corporate members ghostwrite legislation that ends up introduced in state legislatures across the country.

We have never seen a Mercatus-affiliated author ever write a piece that runs contrary to the interests of Big Telecom companies. They oppose community broadband competition, Net Neutrality, and have defended wireless mergers that would have killed T-Mobile, turn Time Warner customers into Comcast customers, and believed AT&T’s buyout of DirecTV was just dandy and Charter’s buyout of Time Warner Cable is even more consumer-y.

They favor usage caps/usage pricing, defend higher bills, and laughingly claim Americans are probably underpaying for broadband compared to the rest of the world.

Life must be good on Broadband Fantasy Island, where those in favor of Comcast’s usage pricing experiments live. In a style that eerily resembles a Comcast corporate blog post, Dourado unconvincingly tells readers, “metered data is good for most consumers and for the Internet.”

Dourado’s defense of Comcast’s idea of reasonable pricing only had one slip-up, when he accidentally told the truth. He effectively derailed Comcast’s usual talking point that “it is only fair for heavy users to pay more” when he correctly noted, “broadband networks are composed almost entirely of fixed costs—costs that don’t vary very much with usage.”

two peas

(Image: Jacki Gallagher)

That ripping sound you hear is a corporate executive starting to tear up their contribution check to Mercatus Center for being off message. But hang on, Mr. Corporate Guy, Mercatus Center has always had your back before, let’s see if Dourado can pull his feet out of the fire.

“But when users pay for data use, cable companies have an incentive to make it easier than ever to use a lot of data—that is, to invest in speed upgrades. They want you to blow right by your habitual usage amounts, which you will probably do only if you are on a superfast connection. In this way, metered data encourages broadband network upgrades,” Dourado claims, back on message.

Dourado’s core argument is one we’ve heard from telecom companies for years: heavy users are responsible for the allegedly high fixed costs of delivering broadband to America. Because networks must be built to accommodate all users, those ‘data hogs’ force providers to charge top dollar to everyone to assure access to promised speeds, unfairly penalizing light users like grandma along the way just to satiate someone else’s desire for more downloading.

comcast money pileIf that were true, broadband costs everywhere would be around the same and Frontier’s DSL service wouldn’t be so universally awful. Unfortunately for Dourado’s argument, we have the ability to look at broadband pricing and service quality beyond the monopoly/duopoly marketplace we have in North America. Fixed costs to deliver broadband service here are comparable in western Europe and Asia and somehow they manage to do a lot more for a lot less.

Closer to home, newly emerging competitors like Google Fiber, municipal/community broadband, and private overbuilders like Grande Communications and WOW! also manage to deliver more service for less money, without any need to gouge and abuse their customers. The fact Time Warner Cable, Verizon, Charter and Bright House have seen no need to impose compulsory usage caps or usage pricing (AT&T does not enforce their cap on U-verse service either) and also do business in the same states where Comcast is imposing caps is just the first of many threads that unravel Dourado’s poorly woven argument.

Let’s break Dourado’s other arguments down:

Phillip Dampier

Phillip Dampier

Dourado’s Claim: “Broadband networks are composed almost entirely of fixed costs—costs that don’t vary very much with usage. Cable companies have to spend many billions of dollars to build and maintain their networks whether or not we use them. One way or another, users of the network have to collectively pay those billions of dollars.”

Stop the Cap!: This is true, but Mr. Dourado forgets to mention most of the costs to construct those networks were paid off years ago. DSL and fiber to the neighborhood services avoided incurring the most costly part of network construction — wiring the last mile to the customer’s home. Phone company broadband, excepting Verizon’s complete fiber-to-the-home service network overhaul, benefits from the use of an existing copper-based network built and paid for long ago to deliver basic telephone service.

The cable industry did even better. It used the same fiber-coax network last rebuilt in the early/mid-1990s to deliver more television channels to also deliver broadband, which initially took up about as much space as just one or two TV channels. The cable industry introduced broadband experimentally, spending comparatively little on network upgrades. This was important to help overcome skepticism by corporate executives who initially doubted selling Internet access over cable would ever attract much interest. It shows how much they know.

So while it is true to say the telecommunications industry spent billions to develop their infrastructure, for most it was primarily to sell different services — voice grade telephone service and cable-TV, for which it received a healthy return. Selling broadband turned out to be added gravy. For a service the cable industry spent relatively little to offer, it collected an average of $30 a month in unregulated revenue. That price has since doubled (or more) for many consumers. Cost recovery has never been a problem for companies like Comcast.

In 2014, Techdirt showed broadband investment wasn't increasing at the rate the cable industry claimed. It has been flat, and not because of broadband usage or pricing.

In 2014, Techdirt showed broadband investment wasn’t increasing at the rate the cable industry claimed. It has been largely flat, and not because of broadband usage or pricing.

It is easy for providers to show eye-popping dollar amounts invested in broadband improvements. Most providers routinely quote these numbers to justify just about everything from rate increases to further deregulation. When the numbers alone don’t sufficiently sell their latest argument, they lie about them. Adopting any pro-consumer policy like Net Neutrality or a ban on usage pricing would, in their view, “harm investment.” Only it didn’t and it won’t.

What these same providers never include on those press releases are their revenue numbers. Placed side by side with capital expenses/infrastructure upgrades, the clarity that emerges from showing how much providers are putting in the bank takes the wind right out of their sails. It turns out most providers are already earning a windfall selling unlimited broadband at ever-rising prices, while network upgrade expenses remain largely flat or are in decline. In short, your phone or cable company is earning a growing percentage of their overall profits from the sale of broadband, because they are raising prices while also enjoying an ongoing decline in the cost of providing the service. Despite that, they are now back for more of your money.

Dourado’s basic argument is the same one providers have tried for years — attempting to pit one customer against another over who is responsible for the high cost of Internet access. They prefer to frame the argument as “heavy users” vs. “light users.” Hence, it is isn’t fair to expect grandma to pay for the teen gamer down the street who also enjoys BitTorrent file sharing. Their hope is that the time-tested meme “someone is getting a free ride while you pay for it” will act like shiny keys to distract people from fingering the real perpetrator of high pricing — the same phone and cable companies laughing all the way to the bank.

It’s easy to prove and we’ve done it here at Stop the Cap! since 2008.

bullWe have a BS detector that never fails to uncover the real motivation behind usage pricing. It’s simply this. If a provider is really in favor of usage billing, then let’s have a go at it. But it must be real usage pricing.

Here’s how it works. Just as with your electric utility, you will pay a monthly connection/facilities charge to cover the cost of the transport network and infrastructure, typically $15 or less per month (and it should be less because utilities have to maintain physical meters that cable and phone companies don’t). Next come usage charges, and because the industry seems to have adopted AT&T’s formula, we will use that.

Your broadband will now cost $15 a month for the connection charge and usage pricing will amount to $10 for each 50GB increment of usage. Because even Mr. Dourado admits there is no real cost difference supplying broadband at different speeds, you deserve the maximum. If you turn in average usage numbers, you will have consumed between 50-100GB each month. So your new broadband bill will be $25 if you consume 50 or fewer gigabytes, $35 if you consume between 50-100GB. Deal?

Considering what you are probably paying today for Internet access, you will fully understand that howling sound you hear is coming from telecom company executives screaming in opposition to fair usage pricing. That is why no provider in America is advocating for fair usage pricing. In reality, they want to charge current prices –and– impose an arbitrary usage allowance on you, above which they can begin to collect overlimit penalty fees. It’s just another rate hike.

Dourado is stuck with a bad hand trying to play the second part of the “usage pricing fairness” game. While claiming heavy users should be forced to pay more, he is unable to offer a real example of light users paying substantially less.

bshkAt this point, Dourado’s proverbial pants fall off, exposing the naked reality that few, if any customers actually pay less under usage pricing. That is because providers are terrified of the word “cannibalization.” In the broadband business, it refers to customers examining their options and downgrading their service to a cheaper-priced plan (shudder) that better reflects their actual usage. To make certain this happens rarely, if ever, Comcast offers customers scant savings of $5 from exactly one “Flexible Data Option” available only to those choosing the improbable Economy Plus plan, which offers just 3Mbps service. Customers agree to keep their usage at or below 5GB a month or they risk an overlimit fee of $1 per gigabyte. It’s like Russian Roulette for Bill Shock. Where can we sign up?

In fact, Time Warner Cable has already admitted a similar plan open to all of its broadband customers was a colossal flop, attracting only “a few thousand” customers nationwide out of 15 million qualified to choose it. We suspect the number of Comcast customers signed up to this “money-saving plan” is probably in the hundreds. Time Warner was smart enough to realize forcing customers into a massively unpopular compulsory usage plan would make them a pariah. For Comcast, “pariah” is a matter of “same story, different day.” Alienating customers is their specialty and despite growing customer dissatisfaction, executives have ordered all ahead full on usage pricing.

Dourado also can’t help himself, getting his own cheap shot in at government-mandated Lifeline-like discounts designed to make Internet access more affordable, calling it a “tax and spend program.” He omits the fact Comcast already offers its own affordable Internet plan voluntarily. But mentioning that would further undercut his already weak argument in favor of usage pricing.

Dourado: “If everyone paid equal prices for unlimited data plans, cable company revenues would be limited by the number of people willing to pay that equal rate.”

Stop the Cap!: Providers have already figured out they can charge higher prices for all sorts of things to increase revenue. General rate increases, modem fees, and charging higher prices for faster speeds are also proven ways companies are earning higher revenue from their existing customers.

Dourado: “But when users pay for data use, cable companies have an incentive to make it easier than ever to use a lot of data—that is, to invest in speed upgrades. They want you to blow right by your habitual usage amounts, which you will probably do only if you are on a superfast connection. In this way, metered data encourages broadband network upgrades.”

comcast whoppersStop the Cap!: Nice theory, but companies like Comcast have found an easier way to make money. They simply raise the price of service. Dourado should learn more about the concept of pricing elasticity. Comcast executives know all about it. It allows them, in the absence of significant competition, to raise broadband prices just because they can and not risk significant customer number defections as a result.

After they do that, the next trick in the book is to play games with usage allowances to expose more customers to overlimit fees or force them into more expensive usage plans. In Atlanta, Comcast even sells its own insurance plan to protect customers… from Comcast. For an extra $35 a month, customers can avoid being molested by Comcast’s arbitrary usage allowance and overlimit fees and get unlimited service back. As customers rightfully point out, this means they are paying $35 more a month for the same service they had just a few months earlier, with no improvements whatsoever. Is that innovative pricing or highway robbery?

What inspires companies to raise speeds and treat customers right is competition, something sorely lacking in this country. Just the vaguest threat of a new competitor, such as the arrival of Google Fiber was more than enough incentive for companies to begin investing in waves of speed upgrades, bringing some customers gigabit speeds. Usage pricing played no factor in these upgrades. The fact a new competitor threatened to sell faster Internet at a fair price (without caps) did.

Dourado: “The DOCSIS 3.1 cable modem standard, just now being finalized, will allow downloads over the existing cable network up to 10 Gbps (10 times faster than Google Fiber). Cable companies are now facing a choice as to how fast to roll out support for DOCSIS 3.1. As the theory predicts, Comcast, now experimenting with metering, is planning an aggressive rollout of the new multi-gigabit standard.”

Stop the Cap!: While Dourado celebrates Comcast’s achievements, he ignores the fact EPB Fiber in Chattanooga offers 10Gbps fiber broadband today, charging the same price Comcast wants for only 2Gbps service, and does not charge Comcast’s $1,000 installation and activation fee. EPB did not require the incentive of usage billing or caps to finance its upgrade. Dourado also conveniently ignores the fact almost every cable operator, many with no plans to add compulsory usage caps or usage pricing, are also aggressively moving forward on plans to rollout DOCSIS 3.1. It’s more efficient, allows for the sale of more profitable higher speed Internet tiers, and is cost-effective. Some companies want the right to gouge their customers, others want to do the right thing. Guess where Comcast fits.

Usage Cap Man

Usage Cap Man

Dourado: “It’s not fun to continually calculate how much you are spending. But we all gladly accept metering for water and electricity with no significant mental accounting costs—why should broadband be so different? Both Comcast and Cox make it easy to track usage. And even if we can’t just get over our mental accounting costs, are they really so significant that we should cite them as an excuse for keeping the poor and elderly offline and letting our broadband networks stagnate?”

Stop the Cap!: Assumes facts not in evidence. First, once again Mr. Dourado’s talking points come straight from the cable industry and are fatally flawed. While Dourado talks about usage pricing for water and electricity — resources that come with the added costs of being pumped, treated, or generated, he conveniently ignores the one service most closely related to broadband – the telephone. The costs to transport data, whether it is a phone call or a Netflix movie, have dropped so much, phone companies increasingly offer unlimited local -and- long distance calling plans to their customers. When is the last time anyone bothered to think about calling after 11pm to get the “night/weekend long distance rate?” For years, broadband customers have not had to worry how much a Netflix movie will chew through a broadband usage allowance either. But now they might, because the cable industry understands that Netflix viewer may have cut his cable television package, cutting the revenue the cable company now wants back.

Second, heavy Internet users are not the ones responsible for keeping the poor and elderly offline and allowing broadband infrastructure to stagnate. The blame for that lies squarely in the executive suites at Comcast, AT&T and other telecom companies that make a conscious business decision charging prices that guarantee better returns for their shareholders (and their fat executive salary and bonuses).

But it isn’t all bad news.

Comcast’s Internet Essentials already exists today and is priced at $9.95 a month. Only Comcast’s revenue-cannibalization protection scheme keep it out of the hands of more customers. It limits the program to customers with school age children on the federal student lunch program and is off-limits to existing Comcast broadband customers even if they otherwise qualify. Why? Because if the program was available to everyone, it would quickly cut their profits as customers downgraded their service.

Comcast’s abysmal performance is legendary, and that isn’t a result of heavy users either. That is entirely the fault of a company that puts its own greed ahead of its alienated customers, something plainly clear from forcing captive customers into usage trials they don’t want or need. Verizon FiOS uses technology far superior to what Comcast is using, offers better speeds and better service. Customers are happy and routinely rate FiOS among the nation’s top providers. They don’t need usage pricing or caps to manage this. Comcast sure doesn’t either.

Mr. Dourado’s arguments for usage pricing are so weak and provably false, it is almost embarrassing. But we understood he was given the impossible challenge trying to mount a defense for Comcast’s latest Internet Overcharging scheme. Nobody can defend the indefensible.

FCC Demands Details About Charter’s Suddenly Retired Usage Caps

charter twc bhLess than three months before announcing it would acquire Time Warner Cable in a $55 billion deal, Charter Communications quietly dropped usage caps, in place on its broadband plans since 2009, without explanation and the FCC wants to know why.

FCC officials have sent a letter to Charter requesting a range of information about the company’s broadband services, including information about Charter’s since-dropped usage cap program. The federal agency reviewing its buyout of Time Warner Cable wants to know when Charter dropped its usage caps and why.

Charter Communications has promoted “no usage caps” as a selling point to convince regulators its purchase of Time Warner Cable is a consumer-friendly transaction. Charter has promised a cap-free Internet experience for Time Warner Cable customers for three years, but has not committed to offer unlimited broadband service beyond that date.

Two months before Time Warner Cable planned a since-dropped 2009 market test of usage caps in New York, North Carolina and Texas, Charter Communications confirmed it was introducing “monthly residential bandwidth consumption thresholds” on its broadband customers ranging from 100GB for customers with speeds of 15Mbps or slower and 250GB for customers subscribed to 15-25Mbps service.

“In order to continue providing the best possible experience for our Internet customers, later this month we will be updating our Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) to establish monthly residential bandwidth consumption thresholds,” Charter’s Eric Ketzer told DSL Reports at the time. “More than 99% of our customers will not be affected by our updated policy, as they consume far less bandwidth than the threshold allows.”

Few customers realized Charter had placed a cap on Internet usage because the cable company treated the limits as “soft caps” — guidelines they could cite if they found a customer using a very large amount of bandwidth. But customers were not charged overlimit fees and few ever heard from Charter about their usage, even if it well-exceeded their allowance.

In front of Time Warner Cable protesting Internet Overcharging in 2009.

In front of Time Warner Cable offices in Rochester, N.Y. protesting Time Warner Cable’s proposed usage caps. (April 2009)

Only a handful of companies, including national providers like AT&T (for DSL) and Comcast (in usage cap market trial areas), have followed up usage allowances with stinging overlimit fees for those exceeding them, applied to customer bills. The practice is far more common among smaller and regional cable companies like Alaska’s GCI, which earned 10 percent of its broadband revenue billing customers for excess usage.

In March of this year, Stop the Cap! reported Charter quietly dropped usage caps (or “thresholds”) from their Acceptable Use Policy, ending six years of usage capped service — less than three months before announcing it was acquiring Time Warner Cable.

Time Warner Cable’s own experience with usage caps was short-lived after Stop the Cap! and other consumer advocates and elected officials launched a protest campaign against Time Warner Cable’s plans to expand a test of usage-based billing beyond Beaumont, Tex. to Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and the cities of Austin and San Antonio in Texas.

Time Warner proposed four tiers of usage allowances: 5, 10, 20, and 40 GB priced from $29.95 to $54.90 a month. The overlimit fee was to be $1/GB. Sanford Bernstein, a Wall Street research firm, predicted an average family subscribed to Time Warner’s top 40GB usage plan would pay around $200 a month in overlimit fees if they used Netflix more than 7.25 hours a week.

Within two weeks of launching protests in the four cities where Time Warner was planning to add caps, the plan was shelved permanently. But many Time Warner Cable customers have remained wary of the company’s plans regarding usage caps. Time Warner’s retooled, optional usage capped tiers offered to customers looking for a discount have proved dismal failures since their introduction, with fewer than 1% of Time Warner customers finding usage-limited Internet access compelling.

Rationing Your Internet Experience?

Rationing Your Internet Experience?

Consumer advocates also fear usage caps could reappear under Charter as quickly as they disappeared. Stop the Cap! is suspicious of Charter’s time-limited commitment to keep customers free of usage caps for three years. We are lobbying state and federal regulators to permanently extend that commitment as a condition of approving any merger between Charter and Time Warner.

“Customers must be assured they can always choose a reasonably priced unlimited use Internet option,” said the group’s founder Phillip Dampier. “If Charter/Time Warner Cable/Bright House wants to offer optional discounts for customers volunteering to limit their personal use, we are not opposed to that. But based on Time Warner’s own record, you can count on only a few thousand customers willing to voluntarily surrender unlimited, flat rate access.”

Stop the Cap! believes there is no credible reason Internet providers should be imposing compulsory usage caps or usage billing on anyone.

“Broadband is a huge money-maker and the costs to offer it continue to drop even as provider profits rise,” said Dampier. “Rationing broadband with a usage allowance is as credible as rationing Niagara Falls or breathing.”

The FCC is also requesting documentation detailing Charter’s proposed expansion of Wi-Fi hotspots in Time Warner Cable areas and company plans to boost standard broadband speeds from 15Mbps to 60Mbps. Charter has until Oct. 13 to respond.

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.

Comcast Displays Prominent “Data Usage Plan May Apply” Disclaimers On Its Website’s Sales Offers

Comcast has added a prominent warning to the Internet sales pitches on their website:

“An XFINITY Internet Data Usage Plan may apply,” appears when visitors click the “Learn More” button under each Internet offer.

comcast internet overcharging

In the past, Comcast notified affected customers on a regional level based on the locations where usage billing trials are underway. Now the disclaimer is prominently visible for every Comcast customer nationwide.

For now, these trials still apply only to XFINITY Internet customers in Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Tucson, Arizona; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; and Charleston, South Carolina.

In all trial markets except Tucson, the usage allowance included with all XFINITY Internet tiers is 300GB per month. The overlimit fee is $10 for each 50GB used above the usage cap.

In the Tucson, Arizona market, the usage allowance included with Economy Plus through Performance Internet tiers is 300GB. Those customers subscribed to the Blast! Internet tier have received an increase in their data usage plan to 350GB; Extreme 50 customers have received an increase to 450GB; Extreme 105 customers have received an increase to 600GB. The overlimit fee remains the same — $10 for each block of 50GB used above your allowance.

Stop the Cap!’s Testimony Before the N.Y. Public Service Commission on Comcast-TWC Merger

lousy-tshirt-640x640For the benefit of new visitors, text items in bold are clickable links. A complete video from this event will be posted as soon as possible.

Good evening. My name is Phillip Dampier from Stop the Cap!, a Rochester-based all-volunteer consumer group fighting for better broadband service and against Internet usage caps.

This is a critical moment for New York. The Internet has become a necessity for most of us and the future is largely in the hands of one company capable of delivering 21st century broadband to the majority of upstate New York. That company isn’t Verizon, which has ended FiOS fiber expansion while abandoning most of its upstate customers with slow speed DSL. Indeed, as their market share will attest, our broadband future is held in the hands of Time Warner Cable.

Comcast could have become a big player in New York had it chosen to compete head to head with Time Warner. But large cable operators avoid that kind of competition, preferring comfortable fiefdoms that only change hands at the whim of the companies involved. As local officials from across New York have already discovered, no major cable operator will compete for an expiring franchise currently held by another major cable operator.

Ironically, Comcast is using that fact in its favor, noting that since neither company competes directly with the other, making Comcast larger has no impact on competition. But that should hardly be the only test.

At issue is whether this merger is in the public interest. This year, for the first time in a long time, the rules have changed in New York. In the past, the Commission had to prove the merger was not in the best interests of New Yorkers. Now the onus is on Comcast to prove it is. It has fallen far short of meeting that burden.

Let’s start with Comcast’s dysfunctional relationship with its customers. With more than 75 citizen comments filed with the Commission so far. Comcast’s reputation clearly precedes it. The consensus view is perhaps best represented by one exasperated Clinton-area resident who wrote, I quote, “No. No no no. HELL no.

dream onThat kind of reaction is unsurprising considering Consumer Reports ranked Comcast 15th out of 17 large cable companies and called their Internet service and customer relations mediocre. Every year since 2007, Comcast’s CEO acknowledges the problems with customer service and promises to do better. Seven years later, the American Customer Satisfaction Index reports absolutely no measurable improvement. In fact, ACSI has concluded Comcast had the worst customer satisfaction rating of any company or government agency in the country, including the IRS.

In order to sell this $45 billion boondoggle to a skeptical public, Comcast has hired 76 lobbyists from 24 different firms and will reportedly spend millions trying to convince regulators and our elected leaders this deal is good for New York. If the deal gets done, Comcast’s biggest spending spree won’t be on behalf of its customers. Instead, Comcast has announced a $17 billion share buyback to benefit their shareholders. Imagine if this money was instead spent on improving customer service and selling a better product at a lower price.

don't careThe only suitable response to this merger deal is its outright rejection. Some may recommend imposing a handful of temporary conditions in return for approval – like the kind Sen. Al Franken accused Comcast of reneging on after its earlier merger with NBCUniversal. But this is one of those cases where you just can’t fit a round peg into a square deal for consumers, no matter how hard you try.

With respect to television, volume discounts have a huge impact on cable programming costs and competition. The biggest players get the best discounts, smaller ones are stunned by programming rate hikes and new competitors think twice about getting into the business.

AT&T said last week its 5.7 million customer U-verse television service was too small to get the kind of discounts its cable and satellite competitors receive. AT&T’s solution is to buy DirecTV, which might be good for AT&T but is bad for competition.

Frontier Communications has also felt the volume discount sting after adopting several Verizon FiOS franchises. When it lost Verizon’s volume discounts, Frontier began a relentless marketing effort to convince its customers to abandon FiOS TV and switch to technically inferior satellite TV.

Combining Comcast and Time Warner Cable will indeed help Comcast secure better deals from major programmers (including Comcast itself). But Comcast is already on record warning those savings won’t be shared with customers.

Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen summed it up best: “We are certainly not promising that customer bills will go down or increase less rapidly.”

Is that in the public interest?

xfinity_blowsComcast suggests this merger will make its cable television market share no larger than it had in 2002 when it bought the assets of AT&T Cable. But this is 2014 and cable television is increasingly no longer the industry’s biggest breadwinner. Broadband is, and post-merger Comcast will control 40-50 percent of the Internet access market nationwide.

So what do Time Warner Cable customers get if Comcast takes over? A higher bill and worse service.

Several months before Comcast sought this merger, Time Warner announced a series of major upgrades under an initiative called TWC Maxx. Over the next two years, Time Warner Cable plans to more than triple the Internet speeds customers get now at no additional charge. Those upgrades are already available in parts of New York City, Los Angeles, and Austin.

A Time Warner Cable customer in Queens used to pay $57.99 for 15 megabit broadband. As of last month, for the same price, they get 50 megabits.

In contrast, Comcast’s Internet Plus plan delivers just 25 megabits and costs $69.95 a month – nearly $12 more for half the speed. Who has the better broadband at a better price? Time Warner Cable.

New York State’s digital economy depends on Internet innovation, which means some customers need faster speeds than others. Time Warner Cable’s Maxx initiative already delivers far superior speeds than what Comcast offers, despite claims from Comcast this merger would deliver New York a broadband upgrade.

isp blockTime Warner’s new top of the line Internet service, Ultimate 300 (formerly Ultimate 50), delivers 300 megabit service for $74.99 a month. Comcast’s top cable broadband offer listed on their website is Extreme 105, offering 105 megabit speeds at prices ranging from $99.95 to $114.95.

Is the public interest better served with 300 megabits for $74.99 from Time Warner Cable or paying almost $40 more for one-third of that speed from Comcast? Again, Time Warner Cable has the better deal for customers.

But the charges keep coming.

At least 90 percent of cable customers lease their cable modem from the cable company, and Comcast charges one of the highest lease rates in the industry – $8 a month. Time Warner Cable charges just under $6.

So I ask again, is this merger really in the public interest when broadband customers will be expected to pay more for less service?

Then there is the issue of usage caps, a creative way to put a toll on innovation. Usage caps make high bandwidth applications of the future untenable while also protecting cable television revenue.

If the PSC approves this transaction, the vast majority of New York will live under Comcast’s returning usage cap regime. There is simply no justification for usage limits on residential broadband service, particularly from a company as profitable as Comcast. Verizon FiOS does not have caps. Neither does Cablevision. But the majority of upstate New Yorkers won’t have the option of choosing either.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable lived through a two week public relations nightmare when they attempted an experiment with compulsory usage caps on customers in Rochester. After Stop the Cap! pushed back, then CEO Glenn Britt shelved the idea. Britt would later emphasize he now believed Time Warner should always have an unlimited use tier available for customers who want it.

Whether intended or not, Time Warner actually proved that was the right idea. In early 2012, the company introduced optional usage caps in return for discounts. They quickly discovered customers have no interest in having their Internet usage measured and limited, even for a discount. Out of 11 million Time Warner Cable broadband customers, only a few thousand have been convinced to enroll.

comcast sucksComcast doesn’t give customers a choice. In 2008, a strict 250GB usage cap was imposed on all residential customers with disconnect threats for violators. Since announcing it would re-evaluate that cap in May 2012, it now appears Comcast has settled on a new residential 300GB usage allowance gradually being reintroduced in Comcast service areas starting in southern U.S. markets.

Comcast executive vice president David Cohen cutely calls them “usage thresholds.” At Stop the Cap! we call it Internet Overcharging.

Cohen predicts Comcast will have broadband usage thresholds imposed on every city they serve within five years. Whether you call it a cap or a threshold, it is in fact a limit on how much Internet service you can consume without risking overlimit fees of $10 for each 50GB increment over your allowance.

Unlike Time Warner Cable, Comcast isn’t offering a discount with its usage cap, so those who use less will still pay the same they always have, proving again that usage caps don’t save customers money. (See below for clarification)

At the end of May I watched CNBC interview Comcast CEO Brian Roberts who implied during a discussion about Comcast’s usage caps that usage growth was impinging on the viability of its broadband business. Moments later, Time Warner Cable ran an ad emphasizing its broadband service has no usage caps. Both companies are making plenty of money from broadband.

This merger is bad news for customers faced with Comcast’s legendary bad service, its forthcoming usage caps, or the higher prices it charges. Even promised innovations like their much touted X1 set top platform comes with a gotcha Comcast routinely forgets to mention. Customers have to pay a $99 installation fee.

Stop the Cap! will submit a more comprehensive filing with the PSC outlining all of our objections to this merger, and there are several more. We invite anyone in the audience to visit stopthecap.com for this and other matters related to cable television and broadband. We appreciate being invited to share our views with the Commission and hope to bring a consumer perspective to this important development in our shared telecommunications future. I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/TWC News Hearing on Comcast 6-16-14.mp4

Time Warner Cable News covered the Public Service Commission hearing in Buffalo, which included testimony from Stop the Cap!’s Phillip Dampier. Also appearing was a representative from the National Black Chamber of Commerce advocating that telecom companies merge as fast as possible. The Chamber has received significant support from Comcast for several years now and representatives routinely testify in favor of Comcast’s business initiatives. (2:30)

Clarification: Comcast has different trials in different cities:

Nashville, Tennessee: 300 GB per month with $10/50GB overlimit fee;

Tucson, Arizona: Economy Plus through Performance XFINITY Internet tiers: 300 GB. Blast! Internet tier: 350 GB; Extreme 50 customers: 450 GB; Extreme 105: 600 GB. $10/50GB overlimit fee;

Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee and Charleston, South Carolina: 300 GB per month with $10/50GB; XFINITY Internet Economy Plus customers can choose to enroll in the Flexible-Data Option to receive a $5.00 credit on their monthly bill and reduce their data usage plan from 300 GB to 5 GB. If customers choose this option and use more than 5 GB of data in any given month, they will not receive the $5.00 credit and will be charged an additional $1.00 for each gigabyte of data used over the 5 GB included in the Flexible-Data Option;

Fresno, California, Economy Plus customers also have the option of enrolling in the Flexible-Data Option.

Comcast suggested customers can enroll in a cheaper usage plan in some of these markets. Yes they can, but only if they downgrade to Economy Plus service which offers speeds only up to 3Mbps. Their $5 discount is not available on any other plan.

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.

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


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.



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.


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


…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

Phillip Dampier August 8, 2013 Broadband "Shortage", Comcast/Xfinity, Competition, Consumer News, Editorial & Site News, Internet Overcharging Comments Off on 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.”


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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