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Charter Watch: Goodbye TWC’s $10 Modem Rental Fee, Hello Spectrum’s $5 Wi-Fi Fee

Former Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers in Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin were glad to see the end of modem rental fees, something promoted as a tangible deal benefit of the merger by new owner Charter Communications. But many of those same customers are now upset to discover that up to $10 modem rental fee has been replaced with a $5 monthly fee for “Wi-Fi service.”

LuAnn Summers, a Bright House customer in Tampa, wrote Stop the Cap! in February to complain her new bill from Charter/Spectrum included a $9.99 activation fee and $5 a month for something called “Wi-Fi Service.” The same fees have since appeared on bills for some customers recently switching away from their old Time Warner Cable service plans to new Spectrum pricing and plans.

Rich D’Angelo in Wisconsin recently took Charter up on its offer to switch away from his legacy TWC plan when his promotion expired in January.

“I was able to get a big speed boost and bundle it with Spectrum’s Silver TV package, which includes two of the premium movie channels I was paying TWC $15 each for every month, and my bill was only supposed to go up $10,” D’Angelo tells Stop the Cap! “Instead, it went up $25 and I feel lied to.”

Wi-Fi sticker shock.

D’Angelo retired his old owned Motorola SB6121 modem in favor of a new network gateway supplied free of charge by Charter because his new package didn’t work with his old modem.

“My 6121 modem was a real workhorse and I bought it right after Time Warner started charging modem fees, but it cannot support Spectrum’s fastest speeds in Wisconsin and I didn’t feel like buying a new modem when Spectrum gives them to customers for free,” D’Angelo explained. “This was the device they handed me and I was not offered any other option.”

Champagne Johnson in Columbus, Ohio also took advantage of Spectrum’s new pricing plans thinking she could save her family money and get better internet speeds from the cable operator that advertises it’s a “new day” for Time Warner Cable subscribers.

“New day but the same old lies and deceit,” Johnson writes Stop the Cap! “Do these cable companies only hire thieves? I was told the cable modem was included, but now I am suddenly getting charged for Wi-Fi, which is crazy. I called Spectrum up and they told me there is a charge if I use their modem for my Wi-Fi. I told them I don’t need their Wi-Fi because I have my own router that works fine and they told me it was included inside their modem and I had to pay for something I won’t use.”

Charter assumes if you use Wi-Fi, you want their Wi-Fi Service

We contacted Charter to learn more about this new charge and what customers can do about it.

It turns out the Wi-Fi charge and activation fee applies when you use a network gateway device provided by the cable company. We learned the reason so many customers are finding this charge on their bill comes as a result of slightly deceptive sales practices when customers choose a Spectrum internet service plan.

“Do you use Wi-Fi at home?” a Charter representative asked us when we inquired about pricing for a new Spectrum service plan to replace our existing Time Warner Cable plan. When we answered yes, the representative said they would send our “free equipment” and noted we would no longer pay a modem rental charge (despite the fact we had owned our own modem at Stop the Cap! HQ for years). “You can either pick it up in a cable store or we can ship it direct to you in a self-install kit.” That equipment was a “network gateway,” which bundles a cable modem and router into a single device.

Our readers confirm that Charter representatives did not ask them if they have an existing in-home router, which probably already provides Wi-Fi access in the home. Nor do they disclose that accepting a network gateway, which was also interchangeably referred to as “a modem” means they are agreeing to pay a $9.99 activation fee and $5/mo ongoing fee for “Wi-Fi service.”

We called three times this afternoon as were given identical information, and no disclosure of any Wi-Fi fees.

On the fourth call, we specifically asked about Wi-Fi fees and the representative told us they did not know the answer and left us on hold for 10 minutes before finally disclosing that Charter does charge both fees. When we asked how to avoid them, we were first told we could not waive the fee if we used Wi-Fi in the home, but a supervisor later clarified that it only applied to their gateway and we could specifically request a “basic modem” or have Wi-Fi disabled on a network gateway, and neither charge would apply.

“How are we supposed to know and understand that in advance?” Johnson asked us.

“Considering more than 90% of Time Warner Cable customers were paying $10 a month for a modem without ever realizing or understanding they could buy their own and avoid that charge, how many Spectrum customers are proficient enough to tell Spectrum they want their network gateway set to bridge mode or want a traditional cable modem without router functionality? It’s clear Charter is going to make $5 a month from a whole lot of customers, and it should be disclosed up front. It even got me and I am a network engineer.”

Summers learned about the controversy of the Wi-Fi charge after googling the fee and discovered a Tampa Bay Times story about the fee.

Spectrum spokesman Joe Durkin told the newspaper the fee should not apply to customers Charter inherited from Bright House who already had internet service. He said Spectrum is reviewing cases the Times has brought to its attention to see if the charges were appropriate.

But that isn’t always the case for customers placing orders on Charter’s website or contacting customer service by phone. In both cases, Charter implied if you want to use Wi-Fi at home, you owe them an extra $5 a month:

Charter’s website suggests that you have to pay $5 a month if you intend to use Wi-Fi at home.

Getting the charges off your bill

Luckily, Charter is readily agreeing to customer requests to remove the charge(s) from customer bills and will supply equipment with Wi-Fi disabled (or not present when using a traditional cable modem). You may need to exchange equipment, however. If either charge appears on your bill, call and complain. While we no longer recommend customers invest in their own cable modems as long as Charter is providing them without a rental fee, we do suggest customers buy their own router and avoid ongoing fees for Wi-Fi service.

Also be aware that if you are still on a legacy Time Warner Cable internet plan, Charter will keep collecting that $10 monthly modem fee until you abandon your Time Warner plan for a Spectrum internet plan. You can still avoid the rental fee by buying your own modem. Charter’s list of supported modems is here.

Frontier CEO Blames Employees for Company’s Poor Performance; Bonuses Cut, Investigations Begin

The second half of 2016 shows losses in broadband and television customers.

Frontier Communications CEO is blaming employees for the company’s deteriorating financial condition and operating performance and has allegedly dropped bonuses and merit pay increases for lower-level employees.

Sources inside Frontier Communications tell Stop the Cap! Frontier CEO Dan McCarthy notified employees in email on March 2 — one week before employees were expecting to receive their annual bonus — the company would no longer be providing bonus compensation for “lower banded management employees.”

“He implied that he too was affected but I highly doubt that is the case,” one source tells us. “We weren’t notified via a ‘Town Hall’, no conference call, no face to face with our managers, only a cowardly e-mail sent from behind a desk thousands of miles away. Keep in mind that people use that to pay house taxes, medical bills, pay off other bills, pay college tuition, etc, and a week before we were slated to get it we’re told that it isn’t coming.”

McCarthy has been on the hot seat with Wall Street for weeks after reporting yet another quarter where many of Frontier’s most profitable customers are fleeing faster than the company can replace them with new ones. McCarthy also told investors that many of Frontier’s losses in the last quarter were due to the company finally disconnecting service and writing off customers who haven’t paid their Frontier phone bills for as long as a year in acquired former Verizon territories in Florida, Texas, and California.

McCarthy

“There was certainly no suggestion that the big acquisition would pay off in the company’s Q4 earning report when subscriber counts, average revenue per residential user, and quarter-over-quarter revenue all fell,” wrote Daniel B. Kline of TMFDankline. “That has been the pattern in all three quarters since the Verizon deal closed, and while McCarthy has done an excellent job controlling expenses, his excuses for the drop in subscribers have started to sound a bit hollow.”

That effort to “control expenses” may be coming at the expense of customers that Frontier is depending on to stay in business.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman last month announced the state was reviewing Frontier’s performance in western New York. A Rochester television station has aired more than a half-dozen stories about deteriorating service quality at Frontier since last summer. After airing the first few stories, the station was inundated with hundreds of complaints about Frontier’s spotty broadband and phone service.

News10NBC (WHEC-TV) reported it can take weeks for a Frontier technician to show up on a service call. Customer service is no help and customers are not getting the services they paid to receive.

Frontier was also implicated last month in knocking a Rochester area radio station off the air. After the company first blamed the radio station’s equipment for the problem, Frontier eventually admitted its own “old infrastructure” was responsible for outages that interrupted broadcasts for hours at a time.

Frontier’s stock continues its descent.

Schneiderman has been focused on keeping New York’s ISPs honest about their speed claims and performance, but service reliability is also increasingly an issue, especially after high winds in a recent storm in western New York left nearly half of the Rochester metro area without essential utilities for several days. Infrastructure upkeep, particularly aging utility poles, is now under investigation by the state’s Public Service Commission. Early evidence revealed local utilities may have underinvested in pole maintenance for years due to cost cutting. Some utility poles in western New York are well over 50 years old, originally placed in the 1950s and 1960s. Hundreds failed in the high winds.

Frontier’s track record of blaming others for their own problems has not been well-received by employees.

“Maggie Wilderotter [former CEO of Frontier Communications] was bad but McCarthy’s leadership is erratic and catastrophic,” shares another Frontier middle management employee wishing to stay anonymous. “McCarthy was defending the regional management autonomy approach as a unique strength for Frontier last summer, now he’s declared that is inefficient and is centralizing management decisions at corporate headquarters. He was selling Wall Street on Frontier’s IPTV project in 2016 by promoting expanded service territories. Now that project is on hold and there are signs Frontier is pulling back on meaningful and long overdue broadband speed upgrades. He recently announced he was reorganizing residential and commercial sales units, something our competitors did long ago and will only disrupt things at Frontier even more. Poor customer service was the result of “on-shoring” our call centers? Not exactly. Poor training and inadequate support have left our call center employees unable to properly handle customer concerns. He also consistently downplayed how nightmarish the Verizon conversion was for our new customers in Florida, Texas, and California. It was bad planning, bad vision, and poor execution and the buck stops with our CEO.”

Another source tells us:

“We worked 60-80 weeks, late nights, weekends, countless hours away from our families to push forward with projects that were horrible for our customers and senior leadership was told to get the job done regardless any way they could. We worked through the AT&T and Verizon conversions. We performed as employees of Frontier. Who did not perform? Those making these horrible financial and planning decisions that caused major outages to former Verizon customers when they finally cut over. Some problems were so severe that many customers decided to leave.”

Frontier insiders tell us the company is on a mission to slash expenses across the board to turn in better financial results that can protect the company’s dividend payout to shareholders and, in turn, executive pay and bonuses. The company is reportedly considering allowing more employees to work from home to cut facilities costs, utilities, and maintenance expenses.

“There have been numerous resignations over this and morale is at an all-time low within the company,” a source tells us.

One of the employees sharing the latest developments reports he has turned in his resignation this month and accepted a position in middle management at the area’s cable competitor Charter Communications.

“I figure I should follow so many of our customers to a company that isn’t great, but at least makes an effort delivering what it promises.”

Frontier’s Problems Afflict Hundreds of Customers in Western N.Y.

WHEC-TV Rochester has been following problems with Frontier Communications since last summer. Until the acquisition of former Verizon customers in Texas, Florida, and California, the Rochester, N.Y. metropolitan area was considered Frontier’s largest legacy city service area. But just like in smaller rural communities, service problems have plagued Frontier, with complaints rolling in about slow or non-existent broadband, landline outages, poor billing and customer service practices, and service calls that take weeks before anyone shows up.

WHEC-TV Rochester began covering problems with Frontier on Aug. 22, 2016 with an investigation into internet woes at a Geneseo insurance agency. (2:21)

One day later (Aug. 23, 2016) complaints from other Frontier customers poured into WHEC-TV’s newsroom because of outages and bad service. (2:54)

In September, 2016 WHEC-TV was back with another story from frustrated and angry customers who can’t get suitable service from Frontier Communications, but found a $200 early termination fee on their bills when they tried to cancel. Now the Attorney General is getting involved. (3:18)

In late December, WHEC reported it had asked the N.Y. Public Service Commission to start an investigation into Frontier Communications over its broadband service. (2:20)

In February, when N.Y. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman came to town to discuss the honesty of ISP speed claims, WHEC reporter Jennifer Lewke instead questioned him about the hundreds of complaints the station had received about Frontier Communications. (3:03)

About one week after the Attorney General visited Rochester, WHEC reported Frontier Communications’ “old and outdated” equipment was directly responsible for taking a local radio station off the air for hours at a time. (1:10)

Several days after a windstorm in the Rochester area took away power to nearly half the metropolitan area, WHEC reports residents are frustrated waiting for cable and phone service to be restored. An investigation into utility infrastructure is now underway. (3:17)

The N.Y. Times Exposes Corporate-Backed Think Tanks

Sock Puppets: Ostensibly "independent" people quietly on the payroll of Big Telecom companies and advocating their positions.

Sock Puppets: Ostensibly “independent” people quietly on the payroll of Big Telecom companies and advocating their positions.

“Net Neutrality would not improve consumer welfare or protect the public interest,” came the considered view of one Jeffrey A. Eisenach, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2014. “The potential costs of Net Neutrality regulation are both sweeping and severe. It is best understood as an effort by one set of private interests to enrich itself by using the power of the state.”

Mr. Eisenach was introduced on the printed formal agenda as a “visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.” If one looked at a transcript of his written testimony, they would find he also co-served as “co-chair of NERA Economic Consulting’s Communications, Media and Internet Practice.” But his views could have effectively represented all the above and more.

The New York Times this week published a two-part article examining the thin lines between public policy scholars, lobbyists, researchers, advocates, corporations, and private citizens. It is an important piece that details the shady world of bought and paid for research, academia, corporate lawyers and lobbyists, and Washington lawmakers that too often accept what they are told without following the money.

On that September day back in 2014 Eisenach wanted his views to be attributed only to him.

Eisenach

Eisenach

“While I am here in my capacity as a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, the views I express are my own, should not be attributed to A.E.I. or to any of the organizations with which I am affiliated,” Eisenach told the Senate committee.

What was considerably less clear is the name of the client (or an affiliated trade organization) that has underwritten almost every one of a dozen studies he has published on internet-related issues from 2007-2016 — Verizon, the same company that shares his hostile views towards Net Neutrality.

Over the years, it has become difficult to tell whether Eisenach’s views, articles, and study findings are his own, those of his study sponsor, and/or those of his employer. Just tracking Eisenach’s ever-changing employment record was no easy task. In the fall of 2013, Eisenach was the director of the American Enterprise Institute’s new “Center on Media and Internet Policy.” Just a few months later, he joined NERA, one of the country’s oldest economic consultancy firms, as a senior vice president in its telecommunications practice.

From each of these positions, Eisenach can pen the views of some of America’s largest telecommunications companies under the guise of an “independent” study, an invaluable cover tool for a member of Congress confronted with voting on behalf of corporate friends at the cost of consumers in the district.

“A report authored by an academic is going to have more credibility in the eyes of the regulator who is reading it,” Michael J. Copps, a former FCC commissioner who is now a special adviser for the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause, told the newspaper. “They are seeking to build credibility where none exists.”

A former Verizon employee who still does some consulting of his told the Times how the game is played.

aei“Let’s say you’re in legal and you want to have a paper that says what you want it to say,” said ex-Verizon economist Dennis Weller. “You could have a bunch of economists in house and ask them if they agree with you. How much easier would it be to go to an outside economist and say, ‘How about if I pay you $100,000 to write this?’”

With appropriate disclosure that a company like Verizon paid $100,000 for a report that exactly matches Verizon’s public policy agenda might raise questions on Capitol Hill as to its veracity and independence. If that disclosure goes missing or is hidden under a third-party like a trade association, a lawmaker might assume the report was produced independently and the strong corroboration of Verizon’s views is just a coincidence. That kind of credibility can be worth millions to any company confronting a debate over regulatory policy.

“[Eisenach] is good at linking big theoretical ideas to policy, and he’s been good at making money doing that,” added Weller. “He’s been good at moving from think tank to think tank and company to company, and I don’t think he’s ever lost money doing it.”

The New York Times investigation found while Eisenach testified before Congress ostensibly as a private citizen, he was also filing formal comments to the FCC as a “scholar” with the American Enterprise Institute, was meeting privately with FCC commissioners, organized public briefings that featured powerful senators like John Thune (R-S.D.), who happens to be the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. That committee also has direct oversight over the FCC and has spent the last three years scrutinizing FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler. Eisenach even briefed the two Republican FCC commissioners about what AEI’s general counsel had to say about Wheeler’s efforts to get Net Neutrality in place at the FCC. Eisenach offered both commissioners speaking time at AEI events, urging at least one of them to attack Net Neutrality.

“Net Neutrality is obviously top of mind,” he said in an email to that commissioner, Michael O’Rielly. “I’d be delighted if you would use the opportunity to lay out the case against.”

net_neutralityThe Times reported Eisenach was hardly alone opposing Net Neutrality. Just weeks after becoming chairman, Wheeler received a letter signed by more than a dozen prominent economists and scholars affiliated with various Washington think tanks or academic institutions. They wanted Wheeler to reject Net Neutrality regulations. The letter attempted to distance the signers from any corporate agenda, noting in a footnote that nobody was compensated for their signature on the letter.

On the other hand, of the dozen studies that were included or referenced in their letter as “evidence,” more than half were entirely funded by giant telecom companies that oppose Net Neutrality. Mr. Wheeler would need a magnifying glass and plenty of free time to ferret out the industry funding disclosures in those attached studies, which were buried in footnotes.

When the industry took the FCC to court over broadband regulation or Net Neutrality, it was more of the same. Verizon was successful opposing an earlier FCC rule on Net Neutrality by trotting out almost two dozen studies and declarations that opposed regulatory oversight — more than half sponsored entirely by the telecommunications companies or trade associations that despise Net Neutrality. Many other studies were written by think tanks and scholars that also had direct financial ties to the companies.

Litan

Litan

Another key factor in the debate about Net Neutrality was the cost of implementing it. Again, the incestuous ties between the telecom industry, think tanks, and academia would serve up the “right answers” for Big Telecom’s case against Neutrality when two economists issued a controversial “policy brief” that claimed Net Neutrality would cost $15 billion in new fees and retard broadband expansion and upgrades. (The $15 billion figure came under immediate ridicule by consumer groups that effectively suggested the study authors ‘made it up,’ a case that may have been proven to some degree when the authors suddenly revised it down to $11 billion.)

Robert Litan, then a senior fellow at Brookings and Hal Singer, who used to work at the Progressive Policy Institute, would quickly come under greater scrutiny than Eisenach, probably because their report became central to the industry’s battle against Net Neutrality. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) even built an advertising campaign against Net Neutrality around their study. Politicians opposed to Net Neutrality also regularly quoted from Litan and Singer’s findings to explain their strong opposition to the net policy.

Lost in the debate is who paid Mr. Litan and Mr. Singer for their work. Their employer, Economists Inc., yet another inside-the-Beltway consulting firm, didn’t exactly publicize their “select clients” included AT&T and Verizon — two of the largest opponents of Net Neutrality.

Using think tanks to bolster corporate lobbying has become so common, it has attracted the attention of some members of Congress.

Litan collided with one of the Senate’s fiercest consumer advocates and watchdogs — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in a September 2015 hearing about a rules change fiercely opposed by investment bankers that would require financial advisers recommending retirement-associated investments to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own personal gain. Warren has championed the cause of ending high bank and investment-related fees that eat away investor returns. Some of the worst offenders convinced financial advisers to recommend their funds by kicking back large bonus commissions, which enriched the adviser and the investment bank but left seniors hit hard by lost potential earnings.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Litan’s research questioned the potential benefits of upping ethical standards. He wrote the costs to the banking and investment community to implement the rules would far outweigh any benefits to investors. Litan casually mentioned his affiliation with Brookings, a think tank, to promote his research’s credibility. He didn’t call attention to the fact his 28-page study was produced for a client: Capital Group — a massive financial services company with $1.39 trillion in assets. It would be directly impacted by the imposition of the new rules, which it strongly opposed.

Capital Group paid Economists, Inc. $85,000 for the study. Litan’s cut of the action was $38,800 — or $1,386 per page.

Warren complained Litan was not exactly forthcoming in disclosing his personal gain and his ties to a major opponent of the new rules under consideration.

“These disclosures are problematic: they raise significant questions about the impartiality of the study and its conclusions, and about why a Brookings-affiliated expert is allowed to use that affiliation to lend credibility to work that is…editorially compromised,” Sen. Warren wrote in a letter to Brookings President Strobe Talbott.

The embarrassment to Brookings, which has increasingly relied on corporate-funded research to fund its work, led to rumors Litan was asked to leave, and he resigned shortly thereafter. Litan downplayed the event, calling it a “minor technical violation” of Brookings’ ethics policy, which prohibits those associated with the think tank from using their affiliation with Brookings in any research report or testimony.

The incident fueled consumer groups’ arguments that cozy arrangements between purportedly independent scholars and academics and corporate entities too often results in bought-and-paid-for- research not worth the paper it is printed on. A clear conflict of interest and the lack of prominent funding disclosures makes such reports suspect at best and worthless in many other cases, because no company paying for a report is going to make it public if it conflicts with their agenda.

Singer

Singer

Remarkably, other economists, many also engaged in producing reports for corporate clients, rushed to the defense of… Mr. Litan, calling his removal from Brookings the result of a witch hunt.

A letter signed by former Clinton economic advisers W. Bowman Cutter and Everett Ehrlich; Harvard University international trade and investment professor Robert Z. Lawrence; former Clinton chief budget economist Joseph Minarik; and former Clinton economic adviser Hal Singer, who co-authored the report that got Litan in hot water with Sen. Warren, claimed as a result of Litan’s forced resignation, critics of their reports could threaten the credibility of their work with an “ad hominem attack on any author who may be associated with an industry or interest whose views are contrary to [Sen. Warren].”

“Businesses sometimes finance policy research much as advocacy groups or other interests do,” the economists wrote. “A reader can question the source of the financing on all sides, but ultimately the quality of the work and the integrity of the author are paramount.”

Singer has since left the Progressive Policy Institute.

D.C.’s revolving door has also provided lucrative work for those out of government jobs and now working in the private sector, often lobbying those still in government.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) had no problem introducing a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece into the Congressional Record written by Robert McDowell, who wears several hats at the Hudson Institute. He’s a “scholar,” a “telecommunications industry lawyer” at a firm retained by AT&T to fight Net Neutrality, and a lobbyist. If his name is familiar to you, that might be because McDowell used to be a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission from June 1, 2006 to May 17, 2013. Now he is paid to kill Net Neutrality for AT&T.

None of that seem to faze Walden or raise questions about the credibility of the opinion piece he sought to have added to the official record.

“Everyone’s got their point of view,” Walden said last year. “And some of them get paid to have that point of view.”

Attacks on Tennessee’s EPB Municipal Broadband Fall Flat in Light of Facts

latinos for tnThe worst enemy of some advocacy groups writing guest editorial hit pieces against municipal broadband is: facts.

Raul Lopez is the founder and executive director for Latinos for Tennessee, a 501C advocacy group that reported $0 in assets, $0 in income, and is not required to file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service as of 2014. Lopez claims the group is dedicated to providing “Latinos in Tennessee with information and resources grounded on faith, family and freedom.”

But his views on telecom issues are grounded in AT&T and Comcast’s tiresome and false talking points about publicly owned broadband. His “opinion piece” in the Knoxville News Sentinel was almost entirely fact-free:

It is not the role of the government to use taxpayer resources to compete with private industry. Government is highly inefficient — usually creating an inferior product at a higher price — and is always slower to respond to market changes. Do we really want government providing our Internet service? Government-run health care hasn’t worked so well, so why would we promote government-run Internet?

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn't for the good of anyone.

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn’t for the good of anyone.

Lopez’s claim that only private providers are good at identifying what customers want falls to pieces when we’re talking about AT&T and Comcast. Public utility EPB was the first to deliver gigabit fiber to the home service in Chattanooga, first to deliver honest everyday pricing, still offers unlimited service without data caps and usage billing that customers despise, and has a customer approval and reliability rating Comcast and AT&T can only dream about.

Do the people of Chattanooga want “the government” (EPB is actually a public utility) to provide Internet service? Apparently so. Last fall, EPB achieved the status of being the #1 telecom provider in Chattanooga, with nearly half of all households EPB serves signed up for at least one EPB service — TV, broadband, or phone service. Comcast used to be #1 until real competition arrived. That “paragon of virtue’s” biggest private sector innovation of late? Rolling out its 300GB usage cap (with overlimit fees) in Chattanooga. That’s the same cap that inspired more than 13,000 Americans to file written complaints with the FCC about Comcast’s broadband pricing practices. EPB advertises no such data caps and has delivered the service residents actually want. Lopez calls that “hurting competition in our state and putting vital services at risk.”

Remarkably, other so-called “small government” advocates (usually well-funded by the telecom industry) immediately began beating a drum for Big Government protectionism to stop EPB by pushing for a state law to ban or restrict publicly owned networks.

Lopez appears to be on board:

Our Legislature considered a bill this session that would repeal a state municipal broadband law that prohibits government-owned networks from expanding across their municipal borders. Thankfully, it failed in the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee, but it will undoubtedly be back again in future legislative sessions. The legislation is troubling because it will harm taxpayers and stifle private-sector competition and innovation.

Or more accurately, it will make sure Comcast and AT&T can ram usage caps and higher prices for worse service down the throats of Tennessee customers.

epb broadband prices

EPB’s broadband pricing. Higher discounts possible with bundling.

Lopez also plays fast and loose with the truth suggesting the Obama Administration handed EPB a $111.7 million federal grant to compete with Comcast and AT&T. In reality, that grant was for EPB to build a smart grid for its electricity network. That fiber-based grid is estimated to have avoided 124.7 million customer minutes of interruptions by better detection of power faults and better methods of rerouting power to restore service more quickly than in the past.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Public utilities can run smart grids and not sell television, broadband, and phone service, leaving that fiber network underutilized. EPB decided it could put that network to good use, and a recent study by University of Tennessee economist Bento Lobo found EPB’s fiber services helped generate between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs and added $865.3 million to $1.3 billion to the local economy. That translates into $2,832-$3,762 per Hamilton County resident. That’s quite a return on a $111.7 million investment that was originally intended just to help keep the lights on.

So EPB’s presence in Chattanooga has not harmed taxpayers and has not driven either of its two largest competitors out of the city.

Lopez then wanders into an equally ridiculous premise – that minority communities want mobile Internet access, not the fiber to the home service EPB offers:

Not all consumers access the Internet the same way. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics and African-Americans are more likely to rely on mobile broadband than traditional wire-line service. Indeed, minority communities are even more likely than the population as a whole to use their smartphones to apply for jobs online.

[…] Additionally, just like people are getting rid of basic at-home telephone service, Americans, especially minorities, are getting rid of at-home broadband. In 2013, 70 percent of Americans had broadband at home. Just two years later, only 67 percent did. The decline was true across almost the entire demographic board, regardless of race, income category, education level or location. Indeed, in 2013, 16 percent of Hispanics said they relied only on their smartphones for Internet access, and by 2015 that figure was up to 23 percent.

That drop in at-home broadband isn’t because fewer Americans have access to wireless broadband, it’s because more are moving to a wireless-only model. The bureaucracy of government has trouble adapting to changes like these, which is why government-owned broadband systems are often technologically out of date before they’re finished.

But Lopez ignores a key finding of Pew’s research:

In some form, cost is the chief reason that non-adopters cite when permitted to identify more than one reason they do not have a home high-speed subscription. Overall, 66% of non-adopters point toward either the monthly service fee or the cost of the computer as a barrier to adoption.

What community broadband provides communities the big phone and cable companies don't.

So it isn’t that customers want to exclusively access Internet services over a smartphone, they don’t have much of a choice at the prices providers like Comcast and AT&T charge. Wireless-only broadband is also typically usage capped and so expensive that average families with both wired broadband and a smartphone still do most of their data-intensive usage from home or over Wi-Fi to protect their usage allowance.

EPB runs a true fiber to the home network, Comcast runs a hybrid fiber-coax network, and AT&T mostly relies on a hybrid fiber-copper phone wire network. Comcast and AT&T are technically out of date, not EPB.

Not one of Lopez’s arguments has withstood the scrutiny of checking his claims against the facts, and here is another fact-finding failure on his part:

Top EPB officials argue that residents in Bradley County are clambering for EPB-offered Internet service, but the truth is Bradley County is already served by multiple private Internet service providers. Indeed, statewide only 215,000 Tennesseans, or approximately 4 percent, don’t have broadband access. We must find ways to address the needs of those residents, but that’s not what this bill would do. This bill would promote government providers over private providers, harming taxpayers and consumers along the way.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

The Chattanoogan reported it far differently, talking with residents and local elected officials on the ground in the broadband-challenged county:

The legislation would remove territorial restrictions and provide the clearest path possible for EPB to serve customers and for customers to receive high-speed internet.

State Rep. Dan Howell, the former executive assistant to the county mayor of Bradley County, was in attendance and called broadband a “necessity” as he offered his full support to helping EPB, as did Tennessee State Senator Todd Gardenhire.

“We can finally get something done,” Senator Gardenhire said. “The major carriers, Charter, Comcast and AT&T, have an exclusive right to the area and they haven’t done anything about it.”

So while EPB’s proposed expansion threatened Comcast and AT&T sufficiently to bring out their lobbyists demanding a ban on such expansions in the state legislature, neither company has specific plans to offer service to unserved locations in the area. Only EPB has shown interest in expansion, and without taxpayer funds.

The facts just don’t tell the same story Lopez, AT&T, and Comcast tell and would like you to believe. EPB has demonstrated it is the best provider in Chattanooga, provides service customers want at a fair price, and represents the interests of the community, not Wall Street and investors Comcast and AT&T listen to almost exclusively. Lopez would do a better job for his group’s membership by telling the truth and not redistributing stale, disproven Big Telecom talking points.

Seven States Face End to Their Internet-Related Taxes by 2020

Phillip Dampier February 2, 2016 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

itfaSeven states that adopted Internet access taxes prior to 1998 and have continued them grandfathered under the Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA) may be required to phase them out by June 2020, leaving no states allowed to tax online access.

Congress is considering an extension of the ITFA this week because if they don’t, it is scheduled to expire on Friday. The law prohibits state and local jurisdictions from imposing telecommunications taxes on Internet services, which come predominately from charging state/local sales tax on Internet access.

Internet-related taxes are still collected by many jurisdictions in Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin because those states successfully won exemptions from the law. All were collecting sales and other taxes before the bill’s passage in 1998.

“This week, long-time proponents of making ITFA permanent attached a permanent extension to an unrelated measure covering federal customs and border protection,” wrote Michael Mazerov, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “The legislation also would repeal the grandfather clause [allowing those seven states to continue taxes] in 2020. Repeal would deprive these seven states of several hundred million dollars in annual revenue. ”

Most consumers in these states find the tax on their phone, cable, and wireless bills either from sales tax or a telecommunications tax on their Internet access or data plan.

Congress can either extend the provisions of the ITFA or let it expire without action later this week.

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