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Comcast Still Lying About Its Data Caps: Woodstock, Ga. Customer Misled to Believe There Are None

comcast whoppersBefore regulators, the media, and elected officials, Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen has repeatedly told all who can hear that there are no usage caps on Comcast’s broadband service.

“There isn’t a cap anymore. We’re out of the cap business,” Cohen began saying in May 2012 after the cable company dropped its nationwide 250GB usage cap. But in several markets, mostly in the southern and western United States, Comcast snuck the caps back on residential Internet customers, only this time they claim it isn’t a usage cap at all.

“We effectively offer unlimited usage of our services because customers will have the ability to buy as much data as they want,” says the cable company these days.

But if the “usage caps” are actually gone, why is Comcast issuing executive-level memos to its customer service representatives and supervisors that repeatedly state the company does, in fact, have “data caps” in about a dozen cities across the country — part of an ongoing market trial that suggests Comcast is considering extending a new 300GB usage allowance nationwide.

Stop the Cap! reader Joe, an AT&T U-verse customer in Woodstock, Ga. — 30 miles north of downtown Atlanta — was offered a deal to switch to Comcast for 75Mbps Internet service at an attractive price. All Comcast had to do was convince Joe he would never have to deal with Comcast’s 300GB cap that is being tested in Atlanta. Joe, like many Internet customers, will not sign up with a company that imposes usage allowances on its wired broadband customers. He isn’t interested in checking a usage meter and considers broadband usage overlimit fees a deal-breaker.

So Joe called Comcast to get some straight answers. Does Comcast impose its usage cap on customers in Woodstock, which is part of Comcast’s greater Atlanta service area? Current Comcast broadband customers in Woodstock tell Stop the Cap! the company absolutely does impose a 300GB usage cap on Internet service, and some have the overlimit fees to prove it. But Comcast’s customer service representative insisted it just was not true. To back her up, not one but two Comcast supervisors also swore Woodstock is not affected by “data caps.”

Joe knew enough to record the call. Because if he did sign up for service and maintained his current usage, often in excess of 400GB a month, that “good deal” offered by Comcast would be replaced by nightmarish overlimit fees of $10 for each 50GB increment he exceeded his allowance.

Stop the Cap! reader Joe recorded his Aug. 22, 2015 conversation with Comcast — a company that really, really, really wants to convince potential customers in Georgia there are no Internet data caps on its broadband service outside of the city of Atlanta. Except there are, including in Joe’s city of Woodstock, Ga.

Comcast executives repeatedly claim Comcast doesn’t have “usage caps” on its Internet service anywhere, but you will quickly lose count adding up the number of times Comcast’s representative specifically refers to Comcast’s “data caps” and its official “data cap document.”

(This recording has been edited for brevity and clarity. Tones indicate where significant edits were made, during the time Joe was left on hold and as the representative moves towards a last ditch sales pitch. At the end of the clip, Joe shares his first impressions after he hung up with Comcast. (8:28)

You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

“What makes me laugh is the fact she is so uncertain. Obviously Comcast doesn’t properly train their employees,” Joe writes. “Comcast reps spreading bad information like this is negligent [when they tell] unsuspecting customers that there is no data cap. I honestly cannot tell if this woman was flat-out lying, or was just poorly trained.”

woodstockJoe isn’t the only one being misinformed by Comcast.

“I’ve been lied to so many times about this,” Jamil Duder wrote. “Sometimes I will get in touch with their online support just to see what they will tell me this time for my own amusement. I’ve been told everything. It has been removed, it never existed, it’s actually 600GB not 300GB, etc.”

In fact, Comcast’s enforcement of its data cap has spread well beyond the city limits of Atlanta. Despite claims from Comcast to the contrary, customers around the state report they are now limited to 300GB of usage before overlimit fees kick in.

“Absolutely unacceptable, and you wonder why they have the reputation as the worst company in America,” Joe writes.

So why would Comcast blatantly misinform customers about usage caps. The company is in an unenviable position in several of the cities where they are testing their caps. Most of Comcast’s competition in the usage cap trial markets comes from AT&T U-verse, which itself claims a 250GB usage cap — one that customers also know isn’t being enforced.

For Joe, sticking with AT&T’s slower Internet speeds in return for peace of mind his usage is not being limited is a better prospect.

comcast cartoonEric Ravenscraft suspects Comcast isn’t too happy with complaints it is getting about data caps from its customers either. He recently received a call from Comcast seeking feedback on what customers would like to see changed about the caps. But in typical Comcast fashion, getting rid of the caps does not seem to be an option. Instead, the representative claimed “obviously, the plans are outdated,” which suggests Comcast will adjust your allowance, not get rid of it.

Ravenscraft believes the most effective force to convince Comcast to ditch its caps altogether might be the Federal Communications Commission.

“If you want to do something about it, rope the FCC in. Let them know how you feel about this,” Ravenscraft writes. “Not only does this give the FCC another complaint to add to the pile, Comcast is required to respond to your complaint—by contacting you directly—within 30 days after the FCC forwards your complaint along.”

Several readers are doing exactly that every time they are charged an overlimit fee by Comcast. Within 30-60 days, Comcast has reportedly credited back the overlimit charges to complaining customers.

“I’ve filed 10 complaints with the FCC each time I get an overlimit fee on my bill, and I always get the overlimit fees credited back,” reports Stop the Cap! reader Jeff in Atlanta. “It takes about five minutes to fill out the complaint form — a minor nuisance, but now I effectively don’t have a Comcast usage cap and I am costing them more money dealing with my complaints every month than they would ever get charging me extra in the first place. Imagine if we all did that.”

“Comcast sucks but we might actually have a shot at making things better if we all do this,” Ravenscraft adds. “Most cities aren’t subject to these restrictive data cap trials, but they’ll eventually roll out nationwide if customers here don’t speak up loudly enough. We’ve got a weirdly unique opportunity to actually change how the internet works in the U.S.”

Comcast VP: Our 300GB Usage Caps are a “Business Policy,” Not an Engineering Necessity

What makes 300GB so special? It happens to represent the monthly usage allowance Comcast customers in several southern and western service areas receive after more than two years of “Data Usage Plan Trials.”

One of most asked questions posed to Comcast is why one of the nation’s largest and most profitable Internet Service Providers needs to impose usage caps at all, especially as the company has repeatedly raised broadband speeds for customers.

It took a parody Twitter account known as “Cable Cares” to get a cogent answer from Comcast’s vice president of Internet services, Jason Livingood: he doesn’t know.

caps

Livingood admitted Comcast’s “data usage plans” a/k/a “usage caps” are a “business policy” far removed from his work as a Comcast engineer helping to keep Comcast’s broadband service up and running efficiently.

comcastStop the Cap! never doubted it for a moment.

Internet Service Providers have often claimed usage caps are a matter of “fairness” — first to control congestion on their broadband networks and later as a way to pay for needed upgrades. But neither has proved true.

Starting in 2008, Comcast imposed a 250GB usage cap on its broadband service and issued warnings to customers that rampaged past it, threatening to cut their service off if they did not curtail usage. Those contacted were told their heavy use could impact broadband service for other customers who used it much less.

Internet providers told the Government Accountability Office another story entirely, admitting congestion is not a problem for cable operators or phone companies at all.

“Some wireless ISPs told us they use usage based pricing to manage congestion,” the GAO reported in June 2014. But “wireline ISPs said that congestion is not currently a problem.”

As upgrades have exponentially increased network capacity, the story told to defend usage caps changed dramatically. The new claim is that usage-based pricing and caps can “generate more revenue for ISPs to fund network capacity upgrades as data use grows,” the GAO reported.

Except as the New York Times reported last year, the United States is hardly a broadband speed leader and the quality of service “has nothing to do with technology. Instead, it is an economic policy problem — the lack of competition in the broadband industry.”

Usage caps for one and all.

Usage caps for one and all.

For now, Comcast isn’t commenting at all about the reasons for its usage cap trials. But a few years ago, Comcast VP David Cohen believed caps would be rolled out across Comcast’s entire nationwide service area anyway. 

Comcast executives have repeatedly told investors customers had accepted the usage cap trials and few have exceeded their usage allowances. But judging from Comcast’s customer support forums, the issue of usage caps and measurement rises near the top of complaints.

Comcast’s unregulated usage meter is a frequent target. What it registers is what Comcast uses to bill its customers.

“I have the ability to track my inbound and outbound data usage at my router.  Nothing in my house can talk to the Internet (the cable modem) without going through the router,” one customer wrote on Comcast’s support forum. “The traffic meter on the router is significantly less than the Xfinity Usage Meter.  As of right now, my router says my inbound/outbound usage since 7/1/2015 is 67.34GB, but the Xfinity Usage Meter says I am at 114GB.”

comcast-data-meter-513x650 (1)“At Comcast, the meter is right and the customer is wrong,” complains another customer.

“I am sick of calling customer service and being told that the Xfinity usage meter is right, but that there is absolutely no data that can be given to me to support that answer.  This is beyond ridiculous and I am beyond frustrated.  I have no options for recourse and am just supposed to accept that I am flying blind.

Flying blind can be costly. One Comcast customer opened his broadband bill to discover $260 in charges conveniently automatically removed from his checking account after Comcast claimed he used almost 2TB of usage in a month.

“My wife and I browse emails, browse the Internet with Facebook and sometimes watch Youtube,” the customer wrote. “We don’t even have Netflix or any other streaming service here at the house.”

The customer complains Comcast refuses to refund or document the 2TB of usage. As long as Comcast “verifies” a customer’s modem handled that traffic, the customer is billed without recourse.

But customers do have some recourse: complaining to the Federal Communications Commission or the Better Business Bureau.

“I have seen other posts from customers with similar issues,” a Comcast customer noted. “It seems that they get help once they threaten to go to the FCC or the BBB.”

The FCC’s online complaint form often results in substantial billing credits and charge reversals for shocking cable bills. The FCC is gradually turning its attention to the issue of usage caps, perhaps proportionate to the number of consumer complaints about the issue.

The Better Business Bureau helps put customers in touch with executive level customer service agents empowered well beyond the usual offshore customer service center employees. It appears they did exactly that 35,281 times in the last three years — 14,052 in the last year alone. Most of those complaints were evidently resolved to the customer’s satisfaction.

Usage Caps & Market Power: AT&T Applies Overlimit Penalties to DSL, Not U-verse Customers

bandwidth

“Note: Enforcement of the 250GB data consumption threshold is currently suspended.” (Image: Houston Chronicle)

AT&T’s enforces usage caps with overlimit penalties on its slow speed DSL service while waiving overlimit fees for its higher speed U-verse Internet service.

In 2011, AT&T introduced a 150GB monthly data cap on its DSL customers and a 250GB cap on U-verse Internet access, promising an overlimit fee of $10 for each 50GB customers stray over their allowance. Since that time, although AT&T continues to claim all customers have a usage allowance, it only penalizes DSL customers with overlimit fees.

What makes one customer subject to a higher bill while another can use as much data as they like without penalty? Competition.

Stop the Cap! has found AT&T’s DSL customers are among those least favored by the phone company. Subjected to a data cap with penalty fees for exceeding the allowance is just one of the issues bothering customers like Sheila Rivers, who lives on Houston’s west side. Her Internet bill has gone up year after year no matter how much data she uses. Her phone line with DSL used to cost her around $45 a month. Last year, it increased to $65 and AT&T has now informed her they want another $10 a month, bringing her phone bill to almost $75 a month. As long as it hasn’t rained recently, she gets just under 6Mbps speeds from AT&T. This past spring her connection barely exceeded 2Mbps.

When Rivers complains about her bill, she is quickly offered U-verse at about half the price for faster speeds. She’d take advantage of the offer, except she can’t. AT&T’s engineers tell her there are “no more ports” open in her neighborhood at the moment.

That’s also true for Jim in downtown Chicago. He’s an AT&T DSL customer and not by choice. AT&T was supposed to upgrade his building to U-verse more than a year ago, but it still has not happened. Comcast has a record of delivering appallingly bad service in his building, judging from his neighbors who cannot stay connected to Comcast’s Internet service. That leaves him with AT&T DSL with that 150GB usage cap. He regularly pays $30 in overlimit fees every month for exceeding it.

“AT&T won’t budge on waiving the extra fees on DSL, unless I agree to sign up for U-verse and then they will issue me a courtesy credit,” Jim tells Stop the Cap! “I keep telling them ‘yes, please’ and around a day later I receive another call canceling my order because U-verse is not available in the building. It’s clear the DSL usage cap is supposed to convince people to switch to U-verse for a bigger allowance.”

uverse caps

(Image: Houston Chronicle)

Except AT&T has not enforced its 250GB usage allowance with overlimit fees anywhere we could find. In fact, customers tell us they are specifically exempted from any U-verse caps based on a message they see on AT&T’s usage measurement tool:

Note: Enforcement of the 250GB data consumption threshold is currently suspended.

This week, the Houston Chronicle’s TechBlog reports usage caps for U-verse have been suspended across the city of Houston. AT&T’s current reasoning for harshly enforcing caps on its DSL service while not enforcing them at all for U-verse customers was murky:

“We’re educating our customers on Internet usage, and we inform them if their usage might affect their monthly bill.”

So what is different about AT&T’s lower speed DSL service that presumably generates less traffic than its higher speed U-verse counterpart?

The answer seems to be competition.

AT&T has aggressively upgraded many of their urban and suburban service areas to U-verse. That upgrade alone does not mean the end of DSL for customers in an upgraded area, but AT&T has clearly embarked on an effort to convince customers to abandon older DSL service in favor of U-verse. In most cases this is accomplished with promotional pricing, dramatically reducing the cost of U-verse and convincing customers sticking with DSL is an expensive mistake.

AT&T also faces cable competition in nearly 100% of their U-verse service areas — competition that has raised broadband speeds and cut prices for new customers. If the competition offers faster Internet speeds with no usage cap, toughing it out with AT&T U-verse may seem unwise. Enforcing that 250GB cap would likely drive a number of customers to the competition.

In contrast, more rural and outer suburban communities are less likely to have a cable competitor and much more likely to qualify only for DSL because AT&T has not upgraded those areas to U-verse. That leaves AT&T with a monopoly, where customers have no other choices for service. It is very easy to enforce usage caps in these areas.

“It doesn’t make any sense that AT&T would cap me to 150GB on my DSL line and charge me overlimit fees for using too much when my next door neighbor with U-verse can use the Internet 24/7 and never be asked to pay anything extra for doing it,” Rivers said. “It rubbed me wrong enough to call Comcast, where I was offered more than 10 times faster service with cable TV thrown in for $15 less than what AT&T has been charging me and no usage caps for now at least. I can’t stand Comcast but AT&T is worse.”

Rivers thinks AT&T is making a big mistake having usage caps at all.

“That one issue just cost them my business after eight years with them.”

Frontier Leaves 6,000+ Internet Customers in N.Y. With No DSL Service for More Than a Day

frontier frankA Frontier Communications service outage in New York left more than 6,000 customers without Internet service for more than 24 hours, leaving businesses with no way to process credit card payments and idling home-based telecommuters.

The outage began early Sunday morning leaving customers near Buffalo, Rochester, and the Southern Tier with no broadband and no answers.

Daniel Virella of Irondequoit called Frontier about the outage and a representative spent 30 minutes troubleshooting his connection with no results.

“I [then] asked him if there was an outage and he says, ‘you know what you’re right,” Virella wrote. “I’m like ‘are you serious?'”

As calls poured into Frontier’s customer service center, nobody had any answers about what the problem was or when it would be fixed.

“There was a recording that said if you’re calling from Rochester, you’ve got a problem,” Stephen Lambert told WROC-TV. “I wish someone would tell me what the problem is.”

By late Sunday, customers took to social media to blast Frontier for its lack of response.

“[Frontier’s] Internet goes down constantly,” complained Rochester resident Mary Ellen Frye. “They are aware of the problem but have no idea when it will be fixed. [Their] service level [is] erratic and totally unacceptable!”

Sharon McCauley Barger was without Frontier Internet for two days in Wheatfield (near Niagara Falls).

“We had to add 2GB to our mobile plan because of this,” she complained.

For businesses affected by the outage, the costs were even higher.

A gas station on Winton Road in Rochester lost business as customers discovered their credit cards wouldn’t work because Frontier’s Internet was offline.

sorry-no-internet-today-1Manager Angel Perez told WROC there is every chance the damage done will last longer than the outage itself.

“The impact is definitely lost sales, customers. You don’t know, they just might not come back,” Perez said.

Eva McDaniel can commiserate. Her service has been out for weeks. She let Frontier know she was fed up with them for the last time.

“Very poor customer service and no resolution on an Internet outage for over a month,” she told the company on their Facebook page. “Good riddance Frontier! I am done!”

Frontier eventually issued a statement that a circuit board was responsible for the failure but it would take several more hours before service was restored. Although Frontier claimed they first received reports of the outage “late Sunday,” Stop the Cap! confirmed customers started calling Frontier about service problems early Sunday morning. Multiple customers were able to confirm the outage began around 7:30am Sunday and ended just before 10:30am Monday morning — more than 24 hours later.

Internet Service Providers are deregulated and are not required to report service outages except when they impact telephone service. The New York Public Service Commission does collect statistics about service outages, mostly as a result of customer complaints.

Customers have some recourse when an outage occurs:

  1. Request a service credit for the outage. Providers typically do not give credit unless it is requested. For each day you experience a service outage, Frontier should credit you for one day of service. Multiple outages or extended service problems often call for even larger service credits, especially in response to a complaint filed with a state regulator;
  2. File a complaint with a state regulator and/or the FCC. Providers with a poor service record could attract the attention of state or federal officials and provide useful ammunition when a company seeks to expand by buying up other providers and service areas.
  3. If service problems are frequent, change providers if you can.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WROC Rochester Frontier outage frustrates customers 8-10-15.mp4

Stop the Cap! talks with WROC-TV about the major Internet outage affecting Frontier Communications DSL service in western New York. (2:36)

North Carolina, Where Fiber Begets More Fiber; Ting Explores Wiring Cities Google Forgot

Ting-truck-closedNorth Carolina residents bypassed by Google Fiber and impatient waiting for AT&T U-verse with GigaPower may still have a chance to get gigabit fiber Internet.

Ting, a Toronto-based wireless provider, is exploring building fiber broadband networks in as many as a half-dozen cities in 2016, and some of them may be in North Carolina.

Elliot Noss, CEO of Ting’s parent company, told the Triangle Business Journal he is impressed with the enthusiasm for fiber optic broadband in the state. He recognized Greenlight, Wilson’s community-owned fiber network, as a fiber pioneer that helped fuel demand for better Internet in the state. He added North Carolina is one of the leaders in fiber to the home service in the country, and that makes it a very suitable place to bring even more fiber to the state.

The Triangle region of North Carolina is receiving network upgrades from Time Warner Cable and AT&T, and Google Fiber is coming to Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, but there remains a number of Triangle communities including Clayton, Dunn, Henderson, Louisburg, Norlina, Oxford, Pittsboro, Rocky Mount, Roxboro, Sanford, Selma, Siler City, Smithfield, Tarboro and Wake Forest where fiber networks would be welcomed.

Ting workers installing fiber optics in Charlottesville, Va.

Ting workers installing fiber optics in Charlottesville, Va.

Noss believes fiber begets even more fiber, which may explain why some states are getting huge investments in competing fiber optic projects while others struggle with little or no fiber at all. As soon as a fiber provider enters a region, it creates a higher level of awareness that better Internet service exists when you look beyond “good enough” broadband from phone and cable companies. The resulting “broadband envy” fuels demand for network upgrades.

Noss believes smaller, outlying metros bypassed for fiber upgrades now want them more than ever because they are at a competitive disadvantage without better Internet access.

“North Carolina might be the first state in the union that has moved from where cities and towns are looking at fiber as a way to differentiate and to lead,” Noss told the newspaper. “(North Carolina) is seeing it almost defensively: We need it for our survival because we’re surrounded by it.”

So what makes a community ripe for fiber broadband? A community already sold on fiber and willing to make things happen quickly and smoothly.

“The first thing we look for when we’re engaging with a city or town is an understanding that this is something they deeply want to do,” Noss says. “We don’t take meetings with cities who want to hear about why they should have fiber or gigabit connectivity.”

That attitude is shared by Google, which has taken to issuing a checklist for city officials interested in attracting Google Fiber to their community. In short, it means developing a working relationship between zoning/permitting officials and Google’s engineers to cut the “red tape.”

In the past, politicians often treated cable franchise contracts as valuable enough to ask providers for concessions in return for an agreement. Many cities treated Verizon the same way when it sought franchise agreements to offer cable television over its FiOS fiber to the home network. Some city officials sought compensation for PEG services – Public Access, Educational, and Government channels. Others sought funding for technology and educational programs, community centers, or free service for public and government-owned buildings.

Google has turned that formula upside down. Today, communities offer concessions to Google competing to be the next fiber city. Other providers entering the fiber market with promises of better Internet are getting a similar reception from eager communities.

Charlottesville, Va. and Westminster, Md., neither a likely prospect for Google Fiber or Verizon FiOS did not need any convincing. Ting now provides gigabit fiber service in both communities for $89 a month or a cheaper 5/5Mbps budget option for $19 a month — both with a $399 installation fee. Customers cannot wait to sign up for service, often to say goodbye to companies like Comcast or Verizon’s DSL offering.

Ting is owned by Tucows, Inc., a provider of network access, domain names, and other Internet services.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Ting What gigabit fiber means for Westminster 2015.mp4

Ting produced this video about what gigabit fiber broadband will mean for a community like Westminster, Md. (2:07)

Comcast Eases Requirements to Qualify for Internet Essentials, Boosts Speed to 10/1Mbps

internet essentialsAfter years of complaints that Comcast’s discount Internet program for the poor came with a byzantine application process and was too limited to attract enough qualifying customers, the cable company is making it easier to sign up.

Comcast today announced Internet Essentials was getting a back-to-school makeover, with a doubling of download speed (10/1Mbps) and a free Wi-Fi router for new and existing customers.

Comcast’s application procedure for the service has also been streamlined.

Cohen

Cohen

“Now, if a child attends a school where at least 50 percent of the students are eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program, all student families in that school are automatically eligible for Internet Essentials,” David Cohen, Comcast’ executive vice president and chief diversity officer wrote in a blog post.

Internet Essentials offers discounted Internet access for $9.95 a month as well as budget-priced computer equipment priced below $150 and free training classes to use both.

But Comcast has still not changed two provisions that effectively lock many income-challenged residents out of its program:

  • Participants may not have any outstanding debt to Comcast less than a year old. Those with debt more than a year old may qualify, but will likely have to arrange a payment plan to pay off the debt;
  • Participants must not be current Comcast Internet subscribers and will have to cancel their current broadband service for at least 90 days before they can qualify for Internet Essentials.

The latter requirement is designed to protect Comcast from losing revenue earned from poor customers who manage to scrape together enough to pay for Comcast’s regular-priced Internet. Comcast has remained defensive about the limitations of its Internet Essentials program, offered as a condition for approval of its merger with NBCUniversal. Comcast publishes glowing testimonials about the merits of the project written by third party groups without disclosing Comcast financially supports most, if not all the groups providing the testimonials.

Qualified customers can apply online to get the process started. Current customers can also request and receive free delivery of their Wi-Fi router from the same website.

Comcast also announced it will be testing a pilot program offering discounted Internet service for low-income senior citizens, starting in Palm Beach County, Fla., with other trial cities to be announced later. Details about the senior program were not yet available. Appearing with Comcast to announce the program was a representative from the Urban League, which also receives extensive financial support from Comcast and supported its merger effort with Time Warner Cable.

Consumers Storm FCC With 2,000+ Net Neutrality Complaints About Data Caps, Poor Service

angry guyIt didn’t take long for consumers to start flooding the Federal Communications Commission with thousands of complaints about poor Internet service, usage caps, and speed throttles.

The complaints arrived as the FCC began formally enforcing Net Neutrality by reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service, subject to oversight by the federal agency.

Consumers used the occasion to deluge the commission about the sorry state of Internet access in the United States, whether it constituted a Net Neutrality violation or not.

National Journal obtained a sample of 50 complaints through a Freedom of Information Act request and it was clear data caps were at or near the top of the complaints list and consumers wasted no time slamming cable and phone companies over the practice.

“Our data should not be capped at 350[GB]!!!!” one consumer pleaded, likely a Suddenlink or Mediacom customer, which both have 350GB caps on certain speed tiers. “Please, please make data caps illegal!!”

fccNo more Netflix and Hulu watching for this family: “I have to tell my kids to stop using YouTube and other services and stuff they need for school so we don’t go over the cap,” another consumer wrote, explaining that their Internet-enabled home security camera uses up a significant amount of their monthly data. “By Comcast having this data cap, I don’t have a open Internet … I also think this data cap is very inaccurate, it goes up without anybody being home, and sometimes by a lot.”

Comcast also received heat for poor performing broadband service, with one customer forced to use Wi-Fi at a local McDonalds to take an online exam because Internet service at home was so poor.

“The Comcast modem is such crap that we can’t even access the Internet,” the consumer wrote. “I’m livid.”

AT&T was roasted for speed throttling its “unlimited data” wireless plan — a practice that already resulted in a $100 million fine from the FCC for misleading consumers. AT&T is appealing.

In all, the FCC reports it received about 2,000 complaints from consumers in June, the first month Net Neutrality rules took effect. The agency has just 30 days to respond to the complaints, most lodged using this online form. The FCC may be able to answer many with a form letter because poor service and usage caps are not strict violations of Net Neutrality, unless the FCC determines the practices “unreasonably interfere” with Internet access. AT&T’s speed throttling comes a lot closer to meeting that test, because many throttled customers report their wireless data service is rendered effectively unusable once throttled.

But the broad-ranging complaints may still prove useful, suggesting to the FCC stronger rules and oversight are required for a broadband market many consider barely competitive and often customer abusive.

Seeking comment, National Journal reported the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the U.S. Telecom Association, which both represent major Internet providers and have sued to overturn the regulations, declined to comment on the complaints.

Newly Independent Cable One Plans Broadband Makeover With Speed Upgrades

cable oneNewly independent Cable One will reduce its emphasis on cable television and turn its time, attention, and capital towards improving broadband service for its 690,000 largely rural customers in 19 states.

Cable One was spun off from Graham Holdings on July 1 and is not likely to stay independent for long before it is acquired by another cable operator, most likely Patrick Drahi’s Altice, S.A. — which recently acquired Suddenlink. But in the meantime, Cable One is attempting to persuade investors it is remaking itself into a broadband company, de-emphasizing the traditional cable television package in favor of dedicating more bandwidth for faster broadband speeds.

“Our standard broadband offering for our residential customers since 2011 has been a download speed of 50Mbps, which is at the high-end of the range of standard residential offerings even today in our markets,” the company reported in a statement. “Our enhanced broadband offering for our residential customers is currently a download speed of 75Mbps, which we expect to raise to 100Mbps by the end of 2015.”

Cable One primarily serves small cities and towns in the central and northwestern United States.

Cable One primarily serves small cities and towns in the central and northwestern United States.

In several markets, 100Mbps speed is already available and regular pricing has been simplified to $1 per megabit of service: 50Mbps for $50, 75Mbps for $75, or 100Mbps for $100 a month.

To protect its broadband business model, which carries prices traditionally higher than larger operators, Cable One will stay focused on largely uncompetitive markets where it faces token DSL broadband competition from companies like Frontier Communications, CenturyLink, and Windstream. More than 75 percent of its customers are located in Mississippi, Idaho, Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona, many served by these three telephone companies.

Cable One signaled it will hold the line on cable programming costs as well. In April 2014, the company dropped 15 Viacom networks, including MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and others over contract renewal prices it claimed were too high. The cable TV package has continued without the Viacom networks for more than a year, resulting in the loss of more than 20% of its cable TV customers. More than 100,000 homes have dropped Cable One video service for another provider, but ironically that actually helped Cable One increase its cash flow by more than 11%, because it no longer has to pay programming fees on behalf of the lost customers.

On the bright side, Cable One executives discovered many of its former TV customers have stayed with Cable One for Internet service because the competition either does not offer broadband or generally provides DSL at speeds under 10Mbps. Company officials have emphasized this point to investors, suggesting broadband is a true money-maker and television can safely take second chair without sabotaging profits.

“We certainly have some sympathy for the notion that a broadband-only cable operator might be more profitable,” wrote analyst Craig Moffett in an investor note this month. “But there are some critical holes in the Cable One story. Does the company truly believe that all costs are variable such that cutting video will bring endless margin expansion? Are Cable One’s new shareholders really better off for having played hardball with Viacom?”

Moffett does not believe so because he is convinced Cable One’s independence will be short-lived.

“We all know the consensus opinion is that someone will buy Cable One,” Moffett wrote. “But the above questions still matter. Any potential acquirer would still place value on a video business, or pay less for the fact that Cable One has less of one.”

But as long as rural telephone companies barely compete for broadband customers, Cable One’s broadband performance will deliver them a de facto broadband monopoly in their largely rural service areas. That gives the cable company, or its next owner, plenty of room for rate hikes.

CRTC Orders Phone and Cable Companies to Open Their Fiber Networks to Competitors

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais

Independent Internet Service Providers are hailing a decision by telecommunications regulators that will force big phone and cable companies to open their fiber optic networks to competitors, suggesting Canadian consumers will benefit from lower prices, fewer usage caps, and higher-speed Internet.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission on Wednesday ordered companies like Bell/BCE, Telus, Rogers, Shaw, and others to sell wholesale access to their growing fiber optic networks, despite industry protests giving that access would harm future investment in fiber technology just as it is on the cusp of spreading across the country.

“We’re an evidence-based body, so we heard all of the positions of the various parties and we balanced those off through what we heard in our deliberations afterwards,” said CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais. “In this particular case, we are concerned about the future of broadband in the country so we have to make sure we have a sustainable and competitive marketplace. It’s a wholesale decision that says Canadians can expect a better competitive marketplace because we are going to require incumbent cable and telephone companies to make their high-speed facilities available to competitors.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BNN Breaking News CRTC Decision Fiber 7-22-15.flv

BNN broke into regular programming with this Special Report on the CRTC decision that will grant independent ISPs access to large telecom companies’ fiber optic networks. (3:13)

Large phone companies, including Bell, warned regulators in a hearing last fall that forcing them to open their networks to third parties would deter investment in fiber expansion. Canadian telecom companies now provide about three million homes with either fiber to the home or fiber to the neighborhood service. Blais, along with representatives of independent ISPs have rejected Bell’s arguments, arguing competition from cable operators was forcing telephone companies to upgrade their networks regardless of the wholesale access debate.

crtc“Our view is the incumbent telcos have a market reason to invest in improving their plant through the investment in fiber,” Blais said. “That’s what Canadians expect and because of market conditions they have to do that investment. So we’re quite confident that’s going to happen.”

Canadian telecommunications companies have done well selling Internet and television services in a highly concentrated telecommunications and media marketplace. For example, BCE, the parent company of Bell Canada, Bell Media, and Bell TV owns a wireless carrier, a satellite TV provider, the CTV television network and many of its local affiliates, dozens of radio stations, more than two dozen cable networks, a landline telephone company, an Internet Service Provider, and ownership interests in sports teams like the Montreal Canadiens as well as a part interest in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s unofficial newspaper of record.

Companies like Rogers, Shaw, Vidéotron, Telus, and Bell have dominated the market for Internet access. But regulators began requiring these companies to sell access to their networks on a wholesale basis to smaller competitors to foster additional retail competition. Today, there are over 500 independent ISPs selling service in Canada, including well-known companies like TekSavvy, Primus, and Distributel. In the past few years, Internet enthusiasts have flocked to these alternative providers to escape a regime of usage caps and usage-based billing of Internet service common among most incumbent cable and phone companies. Competition from the independents, which offer more generous usage allowances or sell unlimited access, has forced some phone and cable companies to offer cap-free Internet service as well.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BNN CRTC Decision Interview with Jean Pierre Blais 7-22-15.flv

BNN interviewed CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais about the commission’s decision to open up wholesale access to Canada’s fiber optic networks. (5:26)

bellDespite the competition, the majority of Canadians still do business with BCE, Rogers Communications, Quebecor (Vidéotron), Shaw Communications, or Telus, that collectively captured 75 percent of telecom revenue in 2013.

Although competitors have been able to purchase wholesale access to cable broadband and DSL service, nothing in the CRTC rules required big cable and phone companies to sell access to next generation fiber networks. That gap threatened the viability of independent ISPs, left with offering customers access to older cable/copper technology only. This week’s CRTC decision is the first step to grant access to fiber networks as well, although some ISPs are cautious about the impact of the decision until the CRTC provides pricing guidance.

“The commission took a great step today in favor of competition,” Matt Stein, CEO of Distributel Communications Ltd., told The Globe and Mail. “In giving us access to fiber to the premise, they have ensured that as speeds and demands increase, we’re going to continue to be able to provide service that customers want. It’s definitely going to be some time before these products make it to market. There’s going to be the costing and the implementation, and reasonably it could be a year or even longer before the products are actually out the door. But the heavy lifting? Today that was done.”

Bram Abramson, chief legal and regulatory officer for TekSavvy Solutions Inc., added some caution.

Distributel, an independent ISP, made a name for itself offering usage-cap free Internet access to Canadians.

Distributel, an independent ISP, made a name for itself offering usage-cap free Internet access to Canadians.

“The devil really is in the details on this,” Abramson told the newspaper. “That’s why I say we like the direction, because there are a million ways in which this could become unworkable if implemented wrong. For example, what rates are we going to pay? We won’t know until those tariffs are done and settled.”

Other so-called “wireline incumbents” like Manitoba Telecom and SaskTel will also be required to make their fiber optic networks available to competitors.

Last fall, Bell warned the CRTC of the consequences of letting TekSavvy, Distributel, and others resell access to their fiber networks.

“We are not suggesting that mandated access will immediately grind investment to a halt in every location in Canada, but it is a question of balance and it will have an impact,” Mirko Bibic, chief legal and regulatory officer for BCE/Bell told CRTC commissioners at a hearing.

Bibic cautioned if the CRTC granted competitive access it could affect how the company allocated its capital investments and could lead it to shift spending to other areas instead.

“What we’re saying is a mandated access rule will affect the pace of deployment and the breadth of deployment,” Bibic said.

Bibic

Bibic

Specifically, Bibic claimed Bell may call it quits on fiber expansion beyond the fiber-to-the-neighborhood service Bell sells under the Fibe brand in 80% of its service area in Ontario and Quebec. Bell had envisioned upgrading the network to straight fiber-to-the-home service, eliminating the rest of the legacy copper still in its network. But perhaps not anymore.

“If the commission forces the incumbent telephone operators to open access to fiber-to-the-home, BCE might not prioritize building that final leg in some communities,” Bibic warned. “The point is, with 80% of our territory covered […] we can hold and do really well with fiber-to-the-node for longer than we otherwise might.”

Nonsense, independent ISPs told the CRTC, pointing to the cable industry’s preparations to introduce DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband and vastly increase broadband speeds well in excess of what a fiber-to-the-neighborhood network can offer.

“First of all, [telephone companies] have a natural incentive to build wherever there is a cable carrier, because otherwise the cable carrier will eat their lunch,” said Chris Tacit, counsel to the Canadian Network Operators Consortium, which represents the interests of independent ISPs. “There’s a reason that they’re sinking all that money into [fiber-to-the-home], it’s because they have to keep up. Now, I don’t believe for a minute that they are going to stop investing if they have to grant access.”

Regulators in the United States have traditionally sided with large telecommunications companies and have largely allowed phone and cable companies to keep access to their advanced broadband networks to themselves. Republicans have largely defended the industry position that regulation and forced open access would deter private investment and competitors should construct networks of their own. In some cases, they have. Google Fiber is now the most prominent overbuilder, but several dozen independent providers are also slowly wiring fiber optics in communities already served by cable and telephone company-provided broadband. Whether it is better to inspire new entrants to build their own networks or grant them access to existing ones is an ongoing political debate.

But the CRTC has not given independent ISPs a free ride. The commission announced it will begin moving towards “disaggregated” network availability for smaller ISPs, which will require them to invest in network equipment to connect with incumbent networks on a more local level, starting in Ontario and Quebec.

The CRTC under Blais’ leadership is gaining a reputation of being pro-consumer, a departure from the CRTC’s often-industry-friendly past. Blais has presided over rulings to regulate wholesale wireless roaming fees to lower consumer costs and forced pay television providers to unbundle their huge TV channel packages so consumers can get rid of scores of channels they don’t watch.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/The Globe and Mail Internet competitors welcome CRTC decision on broadband access 7-23-15.flv

Canadian Press spoke with independent ISPs about their reaction to the wholesale access decision. (1:18)

Windstream Tells Its DSL Customer in South Carolina to Consider Satellite Internet Instead

windstream

On the outside looking in.

Windstream’s DSL service in parts of Inman, S.C. is so bad, the company has recommended some DSL customers consider signing up for a competitor’s satellite-based Internet service instead.

In a remarkable response to a complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission by a Windstream customer, Mollie Chewning, an executive customer relations representative for Windstream, suggested no broadband upgrades were likely before 2016 and beyond a $10 monthly discount for a year, customers in Inman will just have to live with DSL speeds that are often less than 1Mbps or consider switching to satellite-delivered Internet from another company.

“Windstream acknowledges some Iman [sic], SC have been experiencing high-speed Internet issues,” Chewning wrote Sharon Bowers, the department division chief of the FCC’s Consumer Information Bureau. “This is a result of the tremendous growth in Internet usage over the past few years as well as the challenging economics of serving rural and remote areas with broadband. Unfortunately, our records indicate Mr. [redacted] service address will likely not benefit from any of our scheduled upgrades in 2015. It is possible some upgrades may be explored in 2016 could assist some customers in Inman via Connect America funding, but Windstream is still finalizing upgrade plans for next year.”

Speed test results

Speed test results

James Corley, the victim of Windstream’s poor-performing DSL, launched a blog to get Windstream moving on upgrades or entice area cable operator Charter Communications to wire his neighborhood for service.

Inman, S.C.

Inman, S.C.

“I am a resident of a small subdivision […] and for nearly a decade, we have been forced to rely on Windstream Communications’ disgraceful DSL internet and telephone services,” Corley writes. “The company’s representatives have been promising us for years that we would be upgraded to faster speeds but the promised upgrades have repeatedly failed to materialize and even though I cannot say for sure where Windstream’s priorities lie, it certainly isn’t with their customers.”

Corley is not asking for much. He’s subscribed to a basic 3Mbps service plan. Windstream does not come close to delivering even those speeds, however, with speed test results showing performance ranging usually below 1Mbps all the way down to 40kbps — less than dial-up.

“Given existing high-speed Internet issues, Mr. [redacted] will receive a $10 discount, which will appear on his account monthly through July 2016,” Chewning wrote. “If Mr. [redacted] finds this information unacceptable, he may want to explore alternate service options such as Internet via satellite.”

Corley has elected to pursue Charter Communications instead. It can offer considerably faster speeds than Windstream or satellite providers at a much lower cost. But Charter has thus far refused to wire Corley’s neighborhood for free. Charter wants at least $7,000 to extend service to the subdivision, after which it will start construction and deliver service within 45 days. Charter has no problem spending $55 billion to acquire Time Warner Cable but is unwilling to spend $7,000 to attract most, if not all 16 residents on the customer’s street.

Windstream appears to be more interested waiting for telephone ratepayers across the country to subsidize incremental improvements in its slow speed DSL service through the Connect America Fund, which has a poor record subsidizing cable operators to bring far superior broadband service to customers like those in Inman.

Until the Windstream customer and his neighbors manage to scrape together $7,000, or Charter extends service at no charge in the name of good public relations, residents of Inman (and beyond) are stuck with Windstream broadband that does not come close to broadband.windstream-fcc-response-1

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