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House and Senate Hold Hearings on GOP Fake Net Neutrality Alternative Supported by Telecom Lobby

Phillip Dampier January 21, 2015 Astroturf, Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't 2 Comments
Thune

Thune

The House and Senate today held back-to-back hearings on the issue of adopting a Republican alternative to the president’s idea of Net Neutrality.

After the president directly addressed his support of strong Net Neutrality protections, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler indicated he intended to act on the issue next month. Now many Republican legislators have changed their original view that Net Neutrality was “a solution in search of a problem” into a high priority agenda item demanding immediate attention, hoping to cut off Wheeler’s regulatory solution with new legislation.

That came in the form of a proposed new bill to define the principles of Net Neutrality from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

“By turning the FCC away from a heavy-handed and messy approach to regulating the Internet, this draft protects both consumers who rely on Internet services and innovators who create jobs,” Thune wrote in a statement.

Both hearings were stacked against reclassification of broadband under Title II to assure strong Net Neutrality principles, including three witnesses formerly with the FCC that have moved into industry advocacy jobs.

(Image courtesy: Steve Rhodes)

(Image courtesy: Steve Rhodes)

Former FCC chairman Michael Powell is today America’s top cable lobbyist. Meredith Baker quickly left the FCC in 2011 after voting in favor of the Comcast-NBC merger deal, taking a lucrative position at Comcast before moving on to become the country’s top wireless industry lobbyist. Robert McDowell left the FCC in 2013 to take a job at the same law firm hired by Comcast to successfully challenge the FCC’s authority to fine the cable company over its past speed throttling practices. Today, McDowell’s employer also represents the interests of AT&T and Verizon.

Other witnesses testifying included Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee from the Multicultural, Media, Telecom & Internet Council, which claims to be a civil rights organization but in fact receives the bulk of its funding from corporate interests, including large telecom companies. It often advocates for the corporate agendas of its sponsors, including opposition to Title II reclassification and past support for the failed AT&T-T Mobile merger deal.

Tom Simmons, senior vice president of public policy for small cable operator Midcontinent Communications also appeared, opposing strong Net Neutrality policies. Simmons said that once the company explained Title II reclassification and how it would increase customers’ cable bills, support for Net Neutrality diminished.

Just two witnesses testified on behalf of consumer interests. Gene Kimmelman, president of Public Knowledge strongly advocated for Title II reclassification of broadband and Paul Misener, vice president of Global Public Policy for Amazon.com strongly opposed Internet fast lanes and other traffic manipulation practices.

The New York Times today reported that the Republicans may have an increasingly uphill fight with some of their own traditional supporters to push through legislation Internet activists claim is riddled with company-friendly loopholes.

“The libertarian conservative base is pretty astute at recognizing crony capitalism and understand how campaign finance and corporate influence affects policy,” said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, a Net Neutrality advocacy group. “And this is a pretty transparent moment for all that.”

Republicans’ Fake Net Neutrality Alternative Contains Grand Canyon-Sized Loopholes

Thune

Thune

When Sen. John “Net Neutrality is unjustified” Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Fred “Net Neutrality is a solution in search of a problem” Upton (R-Mich.) last week magically became Internet activists ready to solve the Net Neutrality issue with an “unambiguous” bill to “protect Americans” from greedy ISPs, you will pardon me if I am just a tad suspicious.

The two Republicans who champion “less government regulation is better” and “let the marketplace decide for itself”-principles are proposing new legislation that will regulate the conduct of Internet Service Providers, claiming it will tie their hands and prevent the launch of Internet fast lanes and ban traffic degradation.

The two legislators are traveling in a fast lane of their own — hurrying to schedule hearings, mark up a bill, and speed it to the floor for consideration by the end of this month. That’s a marked departure for the U.S. Congress-as-usual, the one that can’t manage to pass virtually anything, much less in a hurry. So where is the fire?

It is at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, scheduled to vote on its own new Net Neutrality proposal by the end of February. Thune and Upton are hoping to launch a pre-emptive strike against the anticipated strong Open Internet protections the FCC will probably enact on a party line vote. The FCC is likely to pursue a reclassification of broadband away from the lobbyist-lovin’, largely deregulated “information service” it is today towards a “telecommunications service” under Title II of the Communications Act. That represents Comcast’s worst nightmare.

???????????????????????????????Current FCC rules have allowed traffic shenanigans from ISPs like Comcast that don’t mind slowing their customers’ Netflix experience to a crawl until the streaming company opens its checkbook. The FCC’s anticipated new proposal would strictly forbid any creative end-runs around the concept of paid fast lanes Comcast can get away with today.

The proposed Republican alternative suggests a “third way” compromise only Comcast and AT&T could love. While ostensibly banning intentional interference with Internet traffic, the two legislators include a Grand Canyon-sized loophole in the form of one word you could fly an Airbus A380 through: reasonable

SEC. 13. INTERNET OPENNESS.

(a) OBLIGATIONS OF BROADBAND INTERNET ACCESS SERVICE PROVIDERS.—A person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged (1) may not block lawful content, applications, or services, subject to reasonable network management; may not prohibit the use of non-harmful devices, subject to reasonable network management; may not throttle lawful traffic by selectively slowing, speeding, degrading, or enhancing Internet traffic based on source, destination, or content, subject to reasonable network management; may not engage in paid prioritization; and shall publicly disclose accurate and relevant information in plain language regarding the network management practices, performance, and commercial terms of its broadband Internet access services sufficient for consumers to make informed choices regarding use of such services and for content, application, service, and device providers to develop, market, and maintain Internet offerings, except that a provider is not required to publicly disclose competitively sensitive information or information that could compromise network security or undermine the efficacy of reasonable network management practices.

No ISP has ever declared its own traffic management policies unreasonable, so whatever they do, in their minds, is “reasonable” by definition.

Upton

Upton

The proposed bill would keep Net Neutrality far away from the critical Title II foundation it needs — essential armor that will help withstand inevitable court challenges by providers outraged by the government’s attempt to interfere with their free speech rights (at the expense of their customers’ freedom from content-killing traffic slowdowns).

The concept of “network management” is Play-Doh in Comcast and AT&T’s hands. It could mean balancing traffic by adding more capacity as needed or implementing a “fair access policy” that rations inadequate capacity. Both could easily be called “reasonable” by them. Customers paying for 25Mbps and getting 6Mbps during the evenings may think otherwise.

But no worries, the Republicans’ plan requires ISPs to disclose exactly how they are undercutting the broadband service you paid good money to receive. They claim that will give you an “informed choice,” except for many Americans, there is no choice.

The FCC’s plan is much more likely to stop to the tricks, traps, and traffic manipulation in whatever form arises now or in the future. It uses well-established precedent that is unlikely to be thrown out by the courts, delivers real oversight desperately needed in the monopoly/duopoly broadband marketplace, and will actually protect consumers.

The Republican alternative primarily protects AT&T, Comcast, and their chances of getting more campaign contributions from their friends in the cable and phone business. In short, it isn’t worth your time, and you should tell your member of Congress it isn’t worth theirs either.

Mesa County, Col. to Charter Cable: Really, Another Outage? Charter to County: Quit Whining So Much

Phillip Dampier January 19, 2015 Charter, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

pushpollCharter Cable customers in Mesa County, Col., experiencing the latest service outage from the cable company were told to “quit whining” and “check your attitude” when they called Charter’s customer service line to ask when the problems would be fixed.

“If Mesa County didn’t whine so much, maybe something would be done,” one Charter representative told a customer in Grand Junction.

“Talking to [Charter] is like trying to put socks on an octopus,” said Dillard Jenkins.

Stop the Cap! reader June Jones found that to be true when she complained to Charter about not being able to reach 911 on her Charter phone during the recent outage.

“I was unhappy after the representative literally told me ‘that’s not our problem, get a cell phone like everyone else’,” Jones said. “I was so shocked being talked to that way I didn’t know what to say. I am 76 years old and in all my life I have never heard a company use that tone with me. The next thing I heard was, ‘is there anything else? I didn’t think so’ and she just hung up.”

Alex Danders waited on hold 35 minutes to speak to a representative about the Charter Internet outage at his business. He later wish he hadn’t.

“All I wanted to know is if they knew when it was going to be fixed and the guy told me ‘to check my attitude’ and later told me to ‘go screw yourself’ and disconnected me,” said Rodriguez.

Charlotte Conboy is a Charter customer who has had trouble with Charter for the last six months. Her two home-based businesses have suffered from no Internet access during frequent outages.

“If […] their company [had] issues [affecting their offices], they would have it fixed right away” said Conboy. “They say that’s beside the point and I get hung up on.”

charter downA county official calling to find out when repairs would be completed was told, “we have excellent service and do not appreciate your complaint for one incident of interruption of service.”

The latest outage took out Internet service for schools across Mesa County for several hours two days in a row. Teachers scrambled to change their lesson plans to work around the outages.

“I’ll tell you the last couple of weeks the last three weeks or so I’ve been out talking to people, they’re furious, people are upset I mean this is our primary communications,” commissioner Scott McInnis told KKCO. “In exchange for using the right of way we expect them to deliver a service that the reasonable person would say ‘hey the quality of this service is good’ and we expect that [they will] deliver that.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KKCO Grand Junction County Commissioners get involved with Charter issues 1-15-15.flv

KKCO in Grand Junction reports that hundreds of area residents are outraged about ongoing problems with Charter Cable and the rude responses they get when they call Charter’s customer service line. (3:23)

The ongoing problems with Charter Cable and the company’s surly responses to customers prompted a stern letter from the Mesa County Board of Commissioners to Charter Communication’s senior manager of Government Relations. They plan to meet with senior Charter officials today to discuss the matter.

Dear Mr. Rasmussen;

Today we have received multiple complaints from businesses and residents of Mesa County regarding interruption of Charter’s Cable Service. Currently, District 51 Schools are without service and we have been informed that service has been down for several hours.

Please note that this is unacceptable for Charter subscribers who feel that they can go to no one for resolution. When calling the customer service line they are told multiple ‘reasons’ for the outage, including responses such as ‘we have excellent service and do not appreciate your complaint for one incident of interruption of service,’ and ‘If Mesa County didn’t whine so much, maybe something would be done.’

Timely resolution of this issue would be prudent. We are requesting immediate and prompt dispatch of a response team to fix the system post haste; as well as a heightened awareness of the frustration Mesa County subscribers are having with your Customer Service Department. Good faith compliance is implied with the franchise agreement. We have also been informed by the City of Grand Junction that they have also heard from frustrated citizens regarding this issue.

Sincerely,
Mesa County Board of Commissioners
Rose Pugliese, Chair
John Justman
Scott McInnis

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KKCO Grand Junction School district loses phones and internet again 1-16-15.flv

The entire Mesa County school district lost Internet access for a second day after another Charter Cable outage. KKCO reports parents and staff are concerned. (3:08)

 Thanks to reader June Jones for tipping us about this story.

Comcast Announces 2015 Rate Hikes – Broadcast TV Surcharge More Than Doubles; New Regional Sports Fee

Phillip Dampier January 6, 2015 Comcast/Xfinity, Competition, Consumer News 2 Comments

comcast highwayComcast Internet-only customers looking for speeds up to 100Mbps will pay Comcast an unprecedented $88.95 a month for a package containing the company’s Blast! broadband service with a rented cable modem.

The company has begun informing subscribers of the first of its 2015 rate increases that took effect in some areas on Jan. 1.

“We have worked very hard to hold down price adjustments, and there are no price changes for our Limited Basic ($16.10), Digital Preferred ($85.90) or Internet Essentials ($9.95) services,” said Bob Grove, Comcast’s vice president of public relations. “While we continue making investments in our network and technology to give customers more for their money, including more video across platforms, better experiences like X1 and faster Internet service, we periodically need to adjust prices due to increases we incur in programming, business costs and new technology. On average, nationally, the customer bill will increase by 3.4 percent.”

Some will pay more than others. Here is a sample:

  • Customers with DVR service face a $2 rate hike for the monthly DVR service charge, which now stands at $10 a month;
  • Digital Premier, which includes an assortment of premium movie channels, is rising from $131.75 to $140.35;
  • The hourly service charge for service calls is increasing from $33.80 to $35.80;
  • Each extra cable outlet in your home will cost a one time service fee of $33.20, up from $32.75;
  • Any pre-existing outlet in your home will now be charged a one time activation fee of $22.95, up from $22.05;
  • Service upgrades that require an in-home visit will be charged $28.45, an increase from $26.30;
  • The in-home wiring service protection plan that covers you in case of an inside cable wiring or service deterioration problem will see a price increase of $1 to $4.95 a month. Customers without the plan will now pay $35.80 an hour for service calls.

Cable television customers face an increase of more than 100% for the company’s Broadcast TV surcharge introduced in 2013. In most areas, the fee is rising from $1.50 per month to $3.25. A previously announced $2 increase in modem rental charges will raise the cost of using Comcast-supplied equipment including Comcast’s Gateway to $10 a month.

Comcast is also introducing a new compulsory regional sports network surcharge of $1 a month for all XFINITY TV packages starting with Digital Starter and higher tiers and XFINITY 450 Latino.

Customers with analog-only televisions using a DTA converter box to handle digital cable television channels on these older sets face an even more dramatic price hike. Customers that used to pay as little as $0.50 for Digital Adapter Additional Outlet Service will now pay $2.99 a month.

Premium channels such as HBO have seen price reductions, possibly in response to declining subscriber numbers. HBO drops to $15 a month and all other premiums decrease to $12 a month.

Comcast customers looking for the biggest bang for their buck should consider bundled service packages which discount Internet, television, and telephone service. Current customers should also consider letting Comcast know they are shopping the competition for a better deal. Ask them to lower your rates if they want you to stay.

Cuomo: 100% of New York State Should Have Access to 100Mbps Broadband by 2018

ny broadbandNew York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has set a goal that every resident of New York State should have access to at least 100Mbps broadband no later than 2018.

The governor will kick off his latest broadband expansion effort with the launch of his $500 million broadband expansion program, dubbed the New New York Broadband Fund, a follow-up to the state’s $70 million public-private effort to expand broadband that began in 2012.

Much of the money awarded in the 2012 broadband expansion effort went to Wireless Internet Service Providers, institutional broadband networks, middle-mile fiber projects not accessible to the public, and emergency service network upgrades. Another $5.2 million was awarded to Time Warner Cable to expand broadband service to 4,114 households in the Capital, Central, Finger Lakes, Mid-Hudson, Mohawk Valley, NYC, North Country, Southern Tier and Western regions of New York State. In June, many of the top funding recipients also received honors from the governor’s office in the first annual New York State Broadband Champion Awards.

Gov. Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo

Despite the money, the 2012 effort did not make a significant dent in the pervasive problem of broadband availability in upstate New York.

While Gov. Cuomo is committed to a target speed of 100Mbps within the next four years, more than one million New York households still cannot access broadband that achieves the state minimum — 6.5Mbps. That includes 113,000 businesses.

The governor’s solution is to subsidize private businesses with more tax dollars to resolve the broadband problem, with a significant part of the next round of funding likely to reach more institutional and public safety networks off-limits to the public, middle mile network expansion that can build state-of-the-art fiber rings that do not connect to end users, and an even bigger amount handed to Time Warner Cable (or Comcast if the state approves a merger with Time Warner Cable) and rural phone companies like Frontier Communications. Much of the money awarded to last mile providers like cable and phone companies will placate those that have stubbornly refused to expand further into rural areas unless taxpayers pick up some of the expense.

“In some of these areas, there’s just not a business case for these [service] providers to build out,” said David Salway, director of the New York State Broadband Program office. “The cost far exceeds what the revenue might be for that area.”

An unintended consequence of the broadband funding effort could be taxpayers subsidizing the establishment of for-profit monopolies in rural corners of the state. Although Salway told Capital NY he wanted to make sure New Yorkers had a choice, he clarified he was referring to a choice in technology, not service providers.

twcGreenThat must come as a relief for Verizon. The state’s largest phone company has petitioned state officials in the past for a gradual mothballing of New York’s rural landline network in favor of switching customers to wireless voice and broadband over Verizon’s cellular network. Theoretically, taxpayers could end up subsidizing the demise of rural New York landlines and DSL if Verizon seeks money from the rural broadband fund to expand its wireless tower network in rural New York. Time Warner Cable almost certainly will also seek more funding, probably in excess of the average $1,264 paid to the cable company for each of the 4,114 additional connections it agreed to complete during an earlier round of funding.

While rural broadband remains an important issue in New York, the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable is on the front burner and Salway, like the governor, had little to say. But Salway did offer that he did not believe the merger “would reduce [access] as much as further our goal” for expansion.

Guidelines for grant recipients are expected to become available just after the governor’s State of the State presentation in January, with ground-breaking on projects likely to start by mid-summer of 2015.

Nashville Comcast Customer Paying for Business Service to Avoid Usage Caps Faces $2,789 Cancelation Fee

Phillip Dampier November 19, 2014 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Video No Comments

comcast business cancelA Nashville web developer who signed up for usage-cap exempted Business Class service in one of Comcast’s usage-based billing trial cities received a bill for nearly $3,000 in early termination fees after he was unable to transfer his Comcast Internet service to his new address.

Adrian Fraim followed the lead of other savvy Comcast customers who have managed to avoid the company’s usage caps by signing up for cap-free Business Class service. For years, Comcast has offered small businesses a commercial service for only slightly more than residential service, without any usage limits. But any customer is free to sign up.

Fraim thought he was getting a good deal and was happy with his broadband service, but Comcast took him to school when he tried to move service from Antioch to his new address in Clarksville, which he later discovered was outside of Comcast’s service area. The cable company treated his move as a violation of his three-year service contract and billed him an early termination fee of $2,789.

“I was just blown away,” Fraim told WSMV-TV. “That’s way too much money for somebody like me to be able to pay. They kept telling me the same thing, ‘you’re under contract, that’s what the contract says.'”

Only Fraim has never seen a printed Comcast contract. The company only offers its general service agreement and acceptable use policy online and it implies commercial customers are under a one-year contract.

In fact, Comcast’s terms require early-canceling customers to pay 75% of the amount they would have paid on their monthly bill under contract and 100% of any waived custom installation fees. A customer with a $100/mo broadband bill would owe a termination fee of $75 a month for each of up to 36 months of service.

etf

“I didn’t think that was fair, to pay an early termination fee, because I wanted to keep their service,” Fraim said. “And due to them not offering it in my area, I feel like I was being punished because they don’t offer the service here.”

Comcast didn’t seem to care about Fraim’s predicament until reporters called the cable company.

Faced with the prospect of leading the local evening news, Comcast turned Fraim’s frown upside down and finally relented.

Spokesman Alex Horwitz said Comcast does have early termination fees, but because of the extenuating circumstances, “the new location is not serviceable by Comcast,” they will waive the fee.

Comcast has not modified its contract to offer that “get out of penalty jail free”-card to other customers, so be certain to carefully consider the term length of your contract and be sure you have no plans to move outside of a Comcast service area before signing it, unless you have very deep pockets.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSMV Nashville Man questions 3000 Comcast bill 11-17-14.mp4

WSMV talks with Nashville web developer Adrian Fraim who discovered a nasty surprise when he moved outside of Comcast’s service area – a $2.789 early termination fee. (2:08)

Russia Accelerating Broadband Speed Upgrades In Global Broadband Catch-Up

onlimeRussian Internet Service Providers have been strongly encouraged to upgrade their service and speeds as a matter of national pride as the Kremlin encourages broadband improvements across the vast expanse of the country.

Responding to the call, regional ISP Onlime, operated by Russian telecom giant Rostelecom, has introduced new broadband packages to subscribers at prices that would make most North Americans drool:

  • “100 for 500″ is Onlime’s most aggressive promotion, offering unlimited 100Mbps service for 500 Russian rubles, equal to $11.47US a month on promotion. The regular rate after the promotion expires should run around $20 a month;
  • beeline15Mbps budget Internet is regularly priced at $6.88 a month;
  • 30Mbps standard service costs $9.18 a month;
  • 60Mbps turbo service runs $11.47 a month;
  • 80Mbps deluxe service was tariffed before the “100 for 500″ promotion, and its everyday price is $16.06 a month.

Meanwhile, Russian wireless mobile operator Vimpelcom also runs wired broadband service in parts of Russia and is boosting speeds without raising prices. Customers signed up with “Beeline” in the Moscow Oblast, including the communities of Moscow, Domodedovo, Zelenograd, Sergyev-Posad, Serpukhov, Chekhov, and Lyubertsy will now receive up to 30Mbps service. You can’t beat the price. At just 350 Russian rubles, that is just over $8 a month in U.S. dollars.

The speed increases start Nov. 10.

Comcast Invites Customers to Upgrade to New $10 Modem Fee, Or Else Watch Your Speed Degrade

Some Comcast customers with older cable modems are receiving letters from the cable company warning they will need an upgraded modem to “get the most out of your XFINITY Internet service.”

comcast upgrade

Customers are asked to “properly dispose” of old equipment while contemplating either buying a new modem or leasing one from Comcast. Sticking with cable company-provided leased equipment is the choice of more than 90 percent of cable Internet subscribers, despite the fact cable operators charge hefty rental fees. In parts of the Pacific Northwest, Comcast has introduced its newest price for rented cable modems: $10 a month, which amounts to $120 a year — more than the cost of buying a modem outright.

Comcast’s letter may be premature for customers with DOCSIS 2 equipment subscribed to speeds under 38Mbps (the top-rated speed for DOCSIS 2 equipment). Although DOCSIS 2 is not fast enough for Comcast’s 50Mbps Blast Internet plan, it’s more than adequate for the 25Mbps Performance Internet plan and other lower speed plans.

Customers in Illinois are also getting the letter, arriving as the company boosts speeds. Most are being sent to customers using cable modems more than 3-4 years old. Customers can find a new compatible modem on Comcast’s Approved Device List. We strongly recommend customers buy a modem and avoid renting one from Comcast. Monthly modem rental fees, now $8 and likely to increase to $10 across the country in the future, are a major earner for Comcast, bringing in $275-300 million quarterly.

Frontier Faces Lawsuit in West Virginia Alleging False Advertising, Undisclosed DSL Speed Throttling

The slow lane

The slow lane

Frontier Communications customers in West Virginia are part of a filed class-action lawsuit alleging the phone company has violated the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act for failing to deliver the high-speed Internet service it promises.

The lawsuit, filed in Lincoln County Circuit Court, claims Frontier is advertising fast Internet speeds up to 12Mbps, but often delivers far less than that, especially in rural areas where the company is accused of throttling broadband speeds to less than 1Mbps. The suit also alleges Frontier’s broadband service is highly unreliable.

“The Internet service provided by Frontier does not come anywhere close to the speeds advertised,” wrote Benjamin Sheridan, the Hurricane lawyer filing the lawsuit on behalf of three Frontier customers. The attorney is seeking to have the case designated a class action lawsuit that would cover Frontier customers across the state.

“Although we cannot guarantee Internet speeds due to numerous factors, such as traffic on the Internet and the capabilities of a customer’s computer, Frontier tested each plaintiff’s line and found that in all cases the service met or exceeded the ‘up to’ broadband speeds to which they subscribed,” Frontier spokesperson Dan Page told the Charleston Gazette. “Nonetheless, the plaintiffs filed their case in Lincoln County, where none of them lives. If necessary, we are prepared to defend ourselves in court and bring the facts to light.”

Frontier’s general manager in West Virginia, Dana Waldo, may have helped the plaintiffs when he seemed to admit Frontier was purposely throttling the Internet speeds of its customers, a move Sheridan claims saves Frontier “a fortune” in connectivity costs with wholesale broadband providers like Sprint and AT&T.

Sheridan

Sheridan

“If as you suggest, we ‘opened up the throttle’ for every served customer, it could create congestion problems resulting in degradation of speed for all customers,” according to Waldo as part of an email exchange with one of the class members cited in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also cites a state report issued over the summer that found just 12 percent of Frontier customers receive Internet speeds that actually qualify as “broadband” under federal and state standards. Frontier’s speed ranking is the slowest of any provider in the state. That is especially significant because Frontier is the largest ISP in West Virginia, and is often the only choice rural residents have for broadband service.

Frontier dismissed the state’s report claiming it was based on voluntary speed tests performed by disgruntled customers.

“As we’ve said before, the speed tests are the result of self-selected, self-reported samples,” Page said. “People who take speed tests tend to be those with speed problems or low speeds.”

“Even if that were true, it doesn’t account for Frontier’s poor performance,” said Frontier customer William Henley. “If every person that ran a speed test in West Virginia was annoyed with their provider, Frontier still came in last place.”

Frontier’s competitors scored better:

  • lincoln countyComcast: 88% of customers met or exceeded state and federal standards;
  • Suddenlink Communications: 80%
  • Time Warner Cable: 77%
  • Shentel: 71%
  • Armstrong Cable: 67%
  • LUMOS Networks: 44%

“…Frontier’s practice of overcharging and failing to provide the high-speed, broadband-level of service it advertises has created high profits for Frontier but left Internet users in the digital Dark Age,” Sheridan wrote. “As a result, students are prevented from being able to do their homework, and rural consumers are unable to utilize the Internet in a way that gives them equal footing with those in an urban environment.”

Sheridan also accused Frontier of delivering its fastest speeds only in areas where it faces competition. Where there is none, Frontier can afford to go slow.

But slow speed is not the only issue. One plaintiff — April Morgan in Marion County — says she has to reset her modem up to 10 times a day to stay connected to the Internet. Her modem has been replaced several times by Frontier, but that has done little to solve her problem.

Frontier customers who check the company’s terms of service agreement may question whether Sheridan can get very far suing the company. A clause in the contract states customers must settle disputes only through binding arbitration or small claims court. Individual lawsuits, jury trials, and class-action cases are prohibited.

Sheridan points out customers have to go online to read the agreement – it is not provided to customers signing up for Internet service. A contract that forces customers to agree to its terms without getting informed consent may turn out not very binding under West Virginia law.

Lincoln County Judge Jay Hoke, assigned to hear the case, will likely face that matter in pre-trial motions.

West Virginia residents interested in the class action case can register here for updates.

The Capitol Forum’s Insightful Review of the Comcast-Time Warner Merger Deal: A Tough Sell

be mineWall Street is increasingly pessimistic about Comcast and Time Warner Cable pulling off their merger deal as regulators stop the clock to take a closer look at the transaction.

The Capitol Forum, an in-depth news and analysis service dedicated to informing policymakers, investors, and industry stakeholders on how policy affects market competition, specializes in examining marketplace mergers and their potential impact on American consumers and the general economy. The group has shared a copy of their assessment — “Comcast/Time Warner Cable: A Closer Look at FCC, DOJ Decision Processes; Merits and Politics May Drive Merger Challenge, Especially as Wheeler Unlikely to Embrace Title II Regulation for Net Neutrality” — with Stop the Cap! and we’re sharing a summary of the report with our readers.

The two most important government agencies reviewing the merger proposal are the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice. The FCC is responsible for overseeing telecommunications in the United States and is also tasked with reviewing telecom industry mergers to verify if they are in the public interest. The Department of Justice becomes involved in big mergers as well, concerned with compliance with antitrust and other laws.

In many instances, the two agencies work separately and independently to review merger proposals, but not so with Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Sources tell Capitol Forum there is a high level of coordination and information sharing between DOJ and the FCC, potentially positioning the two agencies in a stronger legal position if they jointly challenge the merger. Readers may recall AT&T’s attempt to buy T-Mobile was thwarted in 2011 when the FCC followed the DOJ’s lead in jointly challenging the merger on competition and antitrust grounds. With a united front against the deal in Washington, AT&T quickly capitulated.

comcast cartoonDespite a blizzard of Comcast talking points claiming the cable industry is fiercely competitive, Capitol Forum’s report indicates the DOJ staff level believes the cable industry suffers dearly from a lack of competition already, and allowing further marketplace concentration would exacerbate an already difficult problem.

Capitol Forum reports the DOJ’s staff is inclined to “take an aggressive posture with regards to [antitrust] enforcement.”

The DOJ would certainly not be walking the beltway plank to its political doom if it ultimately decides to oppose the merger.

Few on Capitol Hill are likely to fiercely advocate for a cable company generally despised by their constituents. The Capitol Forum report notes that Comcast faces powerful opposition and its political support is overstated. Comcast’s lobbying efforts and ties to President Obama and several high level Democrats have also been widely exposed in the media, which makes it more difficult for D.C.’s powerful to be seen carrying Comcast’s water.

In fact, the report indicates a regulatory challenge against Comcast and Time Warner Cable would face considerably less political opposition than what the FCC faces if it reclassifies broadband as a “telecommunications service,” protecting Net Neutrality and exposing the industry to stronger regulatory oversight.

The report suggests FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, who seems intent on opposing reclassification of broadband under Title II, may appease his critics by taking a stronger stance on the Comcast/Time Warner deal instead.

Wheeler has already expressed concern about the state of competitiveness of American broadband. He considers providers capable of delivering at least 25Mbps part of broadband’s key market, which in many communities means a monopoly for the local cable operator.

Understanding “The Public Interest” and the Implications of a Combined Comcast/Time Warner Cable on Competition

comcastbuy_400_241The FCC will review the transaction pursuant to Sections 214 and 310(d) of the Communications Act of 1934, in order to ensure that “public interest, convenience, and necessity will be served thereby.”

The merger proposal must also demonstrate it does not violate antitrust laws.

It is here that merger opponents have a wealth of arguments to use against Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Despite Comcast’s insistence the deal would have no competitive implications, the Capitol Forum reports the merger’s potential anticompetitive effects are “widely recognized and evidence from the investigation could provide DOJ and FCC with a solid foundation to challenge the merger.”

Although the two cable companies don’t directly compete with each other (itself a warning sign of an already noncompetitive marketplace), the report finds “a wide array of anti-competitive effects and several antitrust theories” that would implicate the cable company in a Clayton Act violation.

Comcast is betting heavily on its surface argument that by the very fact customers will not see any change in the number of competitors delivering service to their area, the merger should easily clear any antitrust hurdles. That argument makes it more difficult for the DOJ to fall back on the usual market concentration precedents that would prevent such a colossal merger deal. To argue excessive horizontal integration — the enlarging of Comcast’s territory — the DOJ would first have to prove Comcast’s size in comparison with other cable companies is a reason for the courts to shoot down the deal. Or it could bypass Comcast’s favorite argument and move to the issue of vertical integration — one company’s ability to control not just the pipes that deliver content, but also the content itself.

octopusHere the examples of potential abuse are plentiful:

  • Comcast would enjoy increased power to force cable programmers to favor Comcast in cable programming pricing and policies while allowing it to demand restrictions on competitive online video competitors or restrict access to popular cable programming;
  • Comcast could impose data caps and usage-based pricing to deter online viewing while exempting its own content by delivering it over a Wi-Fi enabled gateway, game console or set top box, claiming all are unrelated to Comcast’s broadband Internet service or network;
  • Force consumers to use Comcast set top boxes that would not support competing providers’ online video;
  • Use interconnection agreements as a clever way to bypass the paid prioritization Net Neutrality debate. Netflix and other content producers would be forced to compensate Comcast for reliable access to its broadband customers;
  • Noting AT&T has declared U-verse can not effectively succeed in the cable television business without combining its customer base with DirecTV to qualify for better volume discounts, there is clear evidence that a super-sized Comcast could command discounts new entrants like Google Fiber could never hope to get, putting them at a distinct price disadvantage.

The FCC’s scrutiny of Comcast’s merger deal has already uncovered evidence previously unavailable because of non-disclosure agreements which show Comcast’s heavy hand already at work.

The report notes Michael Mooney, a senior vice president and group general counsel at Level 3, told the Capitol Forum the dispute earlier this year between Netflix and Comcast could have been resolved in about five minutes had Comcast added a port to relieve congestion at an interconnection point. The cost? Just $5,000. Had Comcast been willing to spend the money, millions of Comcast customers would have never experienced problems using Netflix.

Whether Comcast is ultimately deemed too large to permit another consolidating merger or whether it is given conditional approval to absorb Time Warner Cable remains a close call, according to the Capitol Forum, despite the fact consumers have urged regulators for something slightly more concrete – a single sentence, total denial of its application.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Capitol Forum The Consumer Welfare Test.mp4

The Capitol Forum broadly explores how the “consumer welfare standard” has become a part of the antitrust review process over the last 30 years. Sometimes, a strict antitrust test is not sufficient to protect “the public interest” of consumers, and allows the dominant player(s) to harm competition. In the digital economy, corporate mergers that empower companies to restrict innovation can prove far more damaging than classic monopoly abuse. (15:52)

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