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UN: U.S. Broadband Ranking Slips Again; Now 19th Place in Penetration, 24th in Wired Connections

All of the top-10 broadband rankings for accessibility, affordability, speed, and subscription rates have been awarded to countries in Europe and Asia, while the United States continues to fall further behind.

This week, the UN Broadband Commission issued its annual report on broadband and had little to say about developments in North America, where providers have maintained the status quo of delaying upgrades, raising prices, and limiting usage. As a result, other countries are rapidly outpacing North America, preparing the infrastructure to support the 21st century digital economy while officials in the U.S.A. and Canada cater primarily to the interests of large incumbent cable and telephone companies.

The United States has fallen from 20th to 24th place in wired broadband subscriptions, per capita. Virtually every country in western Europe now beats the United States, as does Hong Kong, Belarus, and New Zealand. Canada scored better, taking 14th place.

fixed broadband penetration 2013

Only managing a meager 19th place, only 84.2% of Americans are online. Iceland has 96.5% of their population on the Internet, closely followed by the other northern European nations of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Also scoring superior to the United States: Andorra, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Canada did better than its southern neighbor as well, coming in at number 16.

percentage using the internet

With big profits to be made in wireless, large wireless phone companies like Verizon Wireless and AT&T helped the U.S. achieve its best rating — 10th place in wireless. But the countries that exceeded the United States did much better (Canada was not rated this year.)

With the arguable exception of wireless, the United States is no longer a world leader in broadband and continues a slow but steady decline in rankings as other countries leapfrog over the U.S.

At least 140 countries now have a National Broadband Plan in place, most maintaining stronger oversight over telecommunications infrastructure than the largely unregulated U.S. broadband marketplace. After reviewing broadband performance across most UN member states, the Broadband Commission for Digital Development recognized several traits common in countries where broadband has been particularly successful:

Competition is essential to promote enhanced broadband. A monopoly or duopoly (usually a telephone company and cable or wireless operator) is not enough to promote healthy broadband advancements. At least three, near-equal competitors are required to achieve the best upgrades and price competition. The presence of smaller competitors or those charging considerably different pricing had little effect on competition.

Countries with the best speeds have national policies promoting the installation of fiber optic technology, at least in multi-dwelling units and new developments. Although the cost of fiber and its installation can amount to as much as 80% of a broadband expansion project, many countries have been successful compelling competing providers to share a single fiber optic network (and its costs) to make the investment more affordable. In terms of ultra-high-speed broadband, there are still not many consumer apps and services that need Gigabit speeds, but such services are on their way. Experience shows that technology typically moves faster than most people anticipate – so countries and operators need to start planning now for the imminent broadband world.

technology cost

A coherent regulatory foundation that emphasizes competition over regulation was the most effective policy. But regulatory frameworks must guarantee a level playing field among competitors and strong oversight to make sure competitors play fair. Regulation is not keeping pace with the changes in the market – Internet players offering equivalent voice and messaging services are, by and large, subject to relatively limited requirements (including consumer protection, privacy, interoperability, security, emergency calls, lawful intercept of customer data, universal service). Asymmetric regulation has resulted in an uneven competitive landscape for services. Governments and policy-makers need to review and update their regulatory frameworks to take into account evolving models of regulation.

Telecommunication and broadband access providers need to explore business arrangements with Internet content providers that will accelerate global investment in broadband infrastructure, to the mutual benefit of all, including end-consumers. Internet companies and Internet content providers need to contribute to investment in broadband infrastructure by debating interconnection issues and agreeing fees/revenue shares with other operators and broadband providers.

That last issue is now being hotly debated in the United States, where providers are seeking compensation from streaming video providers like Netflix, which now account for a substantial amount of Internet traffic.

Kentucky Wakes Up: AT&T Dereg Bills Will Not Bring Better Broadband, Will Make Rural Service Worse

luckykyQuestion: How will ripping out landline infrastructure in Kentucky help improve broadband service for rural areas?

Answer: It won’t.

This is not for a lack of trying though. AT&T has returned to the Kentucky state legislature year after year with a company-written bill loaded with more ornaments than a Christmas tree. In the guise of “modernizing” telecom regulation, AT&T wants to abolish most of it, replaced by a laissez-faire marketplace for telecommunications services not seen in the United States since the 1910s. AT&T claims robust competition will do a better job of keeping providers in check than a century of oversight by state officials. But customers in rural Kentucky have a better chance of sighting Bigfoot than finding a competitive alternative to AT&T’s telephone and DSL service. AT&T retains a monopoly in broadband across much of the state where cable operators like Time Warner don’t tread.

This year, Senate Bill 99, dubbed “The AT&T Bill” received overwhelming support from the Kentucky Senate as well as in the House Economic Development Committee. AT&T made sure the state’s most prominent politicians were well-compensated with generous campaign contributions, which helped move the bill along.

Since 2011, AT&T’s political-action committee has given about $55,000 to state election campaigns in Kentucky, including $5,000 to the Senate Republican majority’s chief fundraising committee and $5,000 more to the House Democratic majority’s chief fundraising committee. The company spent $108,846 last year on its 22 Frankfort lobbyists.

That generosity no doubt helped Republican Floor Leader Jeff Hoover find his way to AT&T’s talking point that only by “modernizing” Kentucky’s telecom laws would the state receive much-needed broadband improvements.

Hoover

Hoover

Hoover is upset that the state’s House Democratic leadership stopped AT&T’s bill dead in its tracks, despite bipartisan begging primarily from AT&T’s check-cashers that the bill see a vote. Speaker Greg Stumbo, whose rural Eastern Kentucky district would have seen AT&T’s landline and DSL service largely wiped out by AT&T’s original proposal, would hear none of it.

He has been to AT&T’s Deregulation Rodeo before.

“When I served as attorney general, I dealt with deregulation firsthand to protect consumers as much as possible,” he wrote in a recent editorial. “In most cases, deregulation led to worse service and less opportunity to correct the problems customers invariably faced. It is now our job as House leaders to continue defending Kentucky’s consumers.”

Stumbo, like many across Kentucky, have come to realize that AT&T’s custom-written legislation gives the company a guarantee it can disconnect rural landline service en masse, but does not guarantee better broadband as a result.

“In fact, there is nothing in the legislation guaranteeing better landline, cell or Internet service,” Stumbo noted.

Hoover declared that by not doing AT&T’s bidding, Kentucky was at risk of further falling behind.

“This decision by Stumbo and House Democrat leadership, like many others, has unfortunately had a real effect on the lives of Kentuckians as we will go, at minimum, another year before these private businesses can focus on increasing broadband speed throughout the commonwealth,” he wrote. “It is another year in which we risk falling further behind our neighboring states and others in the competitive world of economic development.”

Stumbo

Stumbo

Stumbo responded the Republicans seemed to have a narrow vision of what represents progress. Hoover and his caucus voted against the House budget that included $100 million for a broadband improvement initiative spearheaded by Gov. Steve Beshear, Rep. Hal Rogers, and private interests.

By relying entirely on a deregulated AT&T, rural Kentucky residents may lose both landline and DSL service and be forced to wireless alternatives that come at a high price.

“There are citizens, many of whom are elderly or on fixed income, who depend on their landline or cannot afford more expensive options; these are the people I am fighting for,” said Stumbo. “I do not want to get a call from a family member who lost a loved one because that person could not reach a first responder in time.”

State residents watching the debate have increasingly noticed discrepancies between what AT&T wants and what it is promising Kentucky.

“No one has ever been able to satisfactorily explain to me how allowing phone companies to abandon landline service will help expand broadband Internet, especially since DSL service requires phone lines,” said H.B. Elkins, Public Information Officer at KYTC District 10.

Matt Simpson recognizes that Senate Bill 99 and other similar measures will not change the economic realities of AT&T’s for-profit business.

“Without regulation, the for-profit companies like AT&T are going to invest in the most profitable areas,” he wrote. “If they thought they could make a huge profit providing broadband in rural areas, they would already be doing it. Deregulation is not going to change that profit calculation. They will still view rural broadband as unprofitable, and they still won’t do it. The bill was a total giveaway to the industry, with no offsetting benefit to the consumers.”

Michael Yancy summed up his views more colorfully.

“The ‘AT&T bill should be classified as a sheep bill. It was all about pulling the wool over the eyes of the public,” Yancy said. “Anyone who thinks the people of Kentucky will benefit from more of the same, needs to make inquiries into moving the Brooklyn Bridge to the Ohio River.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KET Phone Deregulation Kentucky Tonight 1 2-19-13.mp4

Kentucky Educational Television aired a debate between AT&T and the Kentucky Resources Council on the issue of telephone deregulation in 2013. The same issues were back this year in AT&T’s latest failed attempt to win statewide deregulation and permission to switch landline customers in rural Kentucky to less reliable wireless service. In this clip AT&T argues it should be able to shift investment away from landline service towards wireless because wireless is the more popular technology, but not everyone gets good coverage in Kentucky. (Feb. 19 2013) (3:00)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KET Phone Deregulation Kentucky Tonight 2 2-19-13.mp4

In this second clip, AT&T claims customers who want to keep landline service can, but Kentucky Resources Council president Tom Fitzgerald reads the bill and finds AT&T’s claims just don’t hold up under scrutiny. The carrier of last resort obligation which guarantees quality landline phone service to all who want it is gone if AT&T’s bill passes. Customers can be forced to use wireless service instead. (Feb. 19 2013) (4:33)

Comcast/Time Warner: We Dare You to Compare – ‘Our Regular Retail Prices Are a Secret’

psctest

One of the most difficult questions you can ask a customer service representative of either Comcast or Time Warner Cable is what their regular price is for service. As a Buffalo News reporter discovered in August 2013, Time Warner Cable refused repeated attempts to ascertain the non-promotional price of its broadband service.[1]

merger benefitsMaking a direct comparison between the prices charged by Comcast and those of Time Warner Cable require unnecessary perseverance made even more difficult by the fact Comcast only serves a tiny portion of New York State.

Both companies offer promotional deals to new customers as well as those threatening to cancel service, but those prices fluctuate wildly and eventually expire.

Time Warner Cable has made it even more difficult this year by completely eliminating the most popular plans from its retail price list: bundled service packages known in the industry as “double-play” (two services) or “triple play” (three services).[2]

A Time Warner Cable spokesman told the Los Angeles Times the company is required by regulators to provide pricing information for only some of its fees, and Internet rates are not one of them.[3] This year, Time Warner kept the size of its broadband rate hikes to itself. It is much the same for Comcast.

Both cable companies make a point of telling the news media that these prices, including installation, reflect the “rack rates” and that “most customers will pay less […] after cutting a deal for their programming package.”

ratehike1In 2011, Time Warner Cable raised some of its “rack rates” by up to 51.1 percent.[4]

That makes a rate comparison for television service difficult because the retail rates often do not reflect reality. But beyond rates, regulators need to understand Comcast television packages are very different from what Time Warner Cable customers are used to finding.[5] While Time Warner Cable bundles the vast majority of networks into a Standard TV package, Comcast offers a more extensive variety of packages. While at first glance this may seem to allow customers to better customize a package to meet their needs, Comcast has also taken care to break some of the most popular networks out of lower-cost packages and force customers to choose cable television packages costing much more to get them back.[6]

Sports fans and those who enjoy networks like Turner Classic Movies will have to pay Comcast $87.89 a month for its “Digital Preferred,” package[7], just to get back channels already included in the standard Time Warner Cable TV packages we are familiar with in New York.

At regular prices, a Comcast triple play customer should expect to pay $147.49 for the most bare bones TV, phone, and broadband package, $154.99 for the most popular package without premium channels, and $164.99 a month for a bundle that brings along a similar lineup to what TWC offers, along with Starz.[8] Comcast’s nearest equivalent to Time Warner Cable’s $200 Signature Home service costs $239.99 a month and offers no better Internet speeds than what Preferred Plus customers get.

[1]http://www.buffalonews.com/city-region-whats-the-big-secret-about-pricing-20130805
[2]http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/support/account-and-billing/topics/retail-rates.html
[3]http://articles.latimes.com/2014/mar/17/business/la-fi-lazarus-20140318
[4]http://articles.latimes.com/2011/dec/27/business/la-fi-lazarus-20111227
[5]http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/tv/digital-cable-tv.html
[6]http://www.comcast.com/Corporate/Learn/DigitalCable/digitalcable.html
[7]http://www.comcast.com/Corporate/Learn/DigitalCable/TVChannelLineUp.html
[8]http://www.comcast.com/shop/deals-dealfinder

Comcast/Time Warner Claim Their Rates, Walk-In Locations, and Merger Plans Are Off Limits to the Public

topsecretComcast and Time Warner Cable want New York State regulators to believe disclosing the locations of their customer care centers, revealing the prices they are charging, and describing exactly what Comcast will do to Time Warner Cable employees and customers post-merger are all protected trade secrets that cannot be disclosed to the general public.

New York Administrative Law Judge David L. Prestemon found scant evidence to support many of the claims made by the two cable companies to keep even publicly available information confidential, despite an argument that disclosure of the “trade secrets” would cause substantial competitive injury. His ruling came in response to a detailed Freedom of Information Law request from New York’s Utility Project which, like Stop the Cap!, is having major problems attempting to find any public interest benefits for the merger of the two cable companies.

The information Comcast and Time Warner Cable want to keep off-limits is vast, including the prices the companies charge for service, their licensed franchise areas, the locations of their call centers and walk-in customer care locations, and what exactly Time Warner Cable is doing with New York taxpayer money as part of the state’s rural broadband expansion program:

“In general, the redacted trade secret information and the Exhibits identified below include, without limitation, information and details concerning (i) the current operations and future business plans of the Companies, (ii) strategic information concerning their products and services, (iii) strategic investment plans, (iv) customer and service location information, and (v) performance data. This highly sensitive information has not been publicly disclosed and is not expected to be known by others. Moreover, given the highly competitive nature of the industries in which Comcast and Time Warner Cable compete, disclosure of these trade secrets would cause substantial injury to the Companies’ competitive positions– particularly since the Companies do not possess reciprocal information about their competitors.”

That’s laughable, declares the Public Utility Law Project.

Norlander (Photo: Dan Barton)

Norlander (Photo: Dan Barton)

“The ‘competition’ for TV, broadband, and phone business in New York generally boils down to a duopoly (phone company or cable ) or at best oligopoly (maybe phone and cable companies plus Dish or wireless), in which  providers are probably able to deduce who has the other customers and likely know, due to interconnection and traffic activity, what their ‘rivals’ are doing,” said Gerald Norlander, who is aggressively fighting the merger on behalf of the Public Utility Project.

Stop the Cap! wholeheartedly agrees and told regulators at the Public Service Commission’s informational meeting held last month in Buffalo that Comcast’s promised merger benefits are uniformly vague and lack specifics. Now we understand why. The public does not have a right to know what Comcast’s plans are.

“When it comes to divulging their actual performance and actual intentions regarding matters affecting the public interest, such as Internet service to schools, extension of rural broadband, service quality performance, jobs in the state, universal service, and so forth, well, that is all a ‘trade secret’ justified by nonexistent competition,” said Norlander. “Thus, the situation remains the same, there is insufficient available evidence to conclude that the putative incremental benefits of the merger outweigh its risks.”

Here is a list of what Comcast and Time Warner Cable believe is none of your business. Judge Prestemon’s rulings, announced this morning, follow. He obviously disagrees. But his decisions can be appealed by either company:

  • nyup“Details of Time Warner Cable’s current broadband deployment plans in New York. In particular, the information contains the specific details about such plans, including the franchise area, county, total miles of deployment, number of premises passed and the completion or planned completion date. Such information is kept confidential by Time Warner Cable” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information regarding the Companies’ promotional rates for service in various locations within their respective footprints – as well as competitive intelligence concerning competitor offerings. This compilation and competitive analysis are not publicly available.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “specific details of Time Warner Cable’s current build-out plans to rural areas of New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans in this area. The information also contains anticipated financial expenditures for Time Warner Cable’s build-out plans. Such information has not been publicly disclosed.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the New York schools and libraries served by Time Warner Cable, as well as information concerning Comcast’s future business plans to serve such entities. This information is kept confidential by Time Warner Cable and has not been disclosed to the public.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the number of Comcast’s “Internet Essentials” customers in New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans for the “Internet Essentials” program.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “the Companies’ detailed customer and service quality data.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the Companies’ current operations and staffing levels in New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans concerning post-merger operations and employee levels.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • Comcast-Logo“information setting forth the number of subscribers to Time Warner Cable’s “Everyday Low Price” broadband service.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • Comcast’s handling of customer requests for an unlisted service, and how Comcast handles customer inquiries related to this subject matter.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “Comcast’s future business plans with respect to particular subject matters.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information and performance statistics relating to the Companies’ call centers in New York and the Northeast.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Time Warner Cable’s operations as they relate to projects funded by federal or state [energy efficiency or distributed energy resource] programs.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Comcast’s operations and future business plans relating to avoidance of truck rolls and vehicle fleets.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information relating to the number of Wi-Fi hotspots that Time Warner Cable has deployed in New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans in this area.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Comcast’s handling of cyber-security issues associated with its Xfinity Home service.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the Companies’ operations and customers in relation to cellular backhaul service.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Time Warner Cable’s projects funded by NYSERDA” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “projects developed in conjunction with New York State” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)

New York City Comptroller Unimpressed With Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

one mbps

“Hey look, is that the Verizon FiOS truck?”

New York City comptroller Scott Stringer is lukewarm at best about the idea of Comcast taking over for Time Warner Cable. In a letter to the New York Public Service Commission released today, Stringer says the deal needs major changes before it comes close to serving the public interest.

“As New York City residents know all too well, our city is stuck in an Internet stone age, at least when compared to other municipalities across the country and around the world,” Stringer wrote. “According to a study by the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, New Yorkers not only endure slower Internet service than similar cities in other parts of the world, but they also pay higher prices for that substandard service. Tokyo residents enjoy speeds that are eight times faster than New York City’s, for a lower price. And Hong Kong residents enjoy speeds that are 20 times faster, for the equivalent price.”

Stringer should visit upstate New York some time. While the Big Apple is moving to a Verizon FiOS and Time Warner Cable Maxx or Cablevision/Optimum future, upstate New York is, in comparison, Raquel Welch-prehistoric, especially if your only choice is Verizon “No, We Won’t Expand DSL to Your House,” or Frontier “3.1Mbps is Plenty” Communications. If New York City’s speeds are slow, upstate New York speeds are glacial.

“The latest data from the FCC shows that, as of June 30, 2013, over 40 percent of connections in New York State are below 3Mbps,” Springer added.

Come for the Finger Lakes, but don’t stay for the broadband.

Should the merger be approved, Comcast would be obligated to comply with the existing franchise agreement between Time Warner Cable and the City of New York. However, in order for the proposed merger to truly be in the public interest, Comcast must have a more detailed plan to address these ongoing challenges and to further close the digital divide that leaves so many low-income New Yorkers cut off from the information superhighway. To date, Comcast’s efforts to close the digital divide have focused on its “Internet Essentials” program, which was launched in 2012.iii The program offers a 5 megabit/second connection for $9.95/month (plus tax) to families matching all of the following criteria:

• Located within an area where Comcast offers Internet service
• Have at least one child eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program
• Have not subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days
• Does not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment

While the aim of the program is laudatory, its slow speed, limited eligibility, and inadequate outreach have kept high-quality connectivity beyond the reach of millions of low-income Americans. Not only are the eligibility rules for Internet Essentials far too narrow, but the company has done a poor job of signing up those who do meet the criteria. In fact, only 300,000 (12 percent) of eligible households nationwide have actually signed up since the program was launched in 2011.

It is critical that the PSC not only press Comcast to significantly expand the reach of Internet Essentials, but also that it engage in appropriate oversight to ensure that the company is meeting its commitments to low-income residents of the Empire State.

Phillip "Comcast isn't the answer to the problem, it's the problem itself" Dampier

Phillip “Comcast isn’t the answer, it’s the problem” Dampier

In fact, the best way New York can protect its low-income residents is to keep Comcast out of the state. Time Warner Cable offers everyday $14.99 Internet access to anyone who wants it as long as they want it. No complicated pre-qualification conditions, annoying forms, or gotcha terms and conditions.

When a representative from the PSC asked a Comcast representative if the company would keep Time Warner’s discount Internet offer, a non-answer answer was the response. That usually means the answer is no.

“We have seen how telecommunications companies will promise to expand access as a condition of a merger, only to shirk their commitments once the merger has been approved,” Springer complained. “For instance, as part of its 2006 purchase of BellSouth, AT&T told Congress that it would work to provide customers ‘greater access and more choices for broadband, no matter where they live or work.’ However, later reports found that the FCC relied on the companies themselves to report their own merger compliance and did not conduct independent audits to verify their claims.”

Big Telecom promises are like getting commitments from a cheating spouse. Never trust… do verify or throw them out. Comcast still has not met all the conditions it promised to meet after its recent merger with NBCUniversal, according to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).

Stringer also blasted Comcast for its Net Neutrality roughhousing:

While the FCC has not declared internet providers to be “common carriers”, state law has effectively done so within the Empire State. Under 16 NYCRR Part 605, a common carrier is defined as “a corporation that holds itself out to provide service to the public for hire to provide conduit services including voice, data, or video by electrical, electronic, electromagnetic or photonic means.”

Importantly, the law requires these carriers to “provide publicly offered conduit services on demand to any similarly situated user on substantially similar terms, subject to the availability of facilities and capacity.”

In recent months, Comcast has shown that it is willing to sacrifice net neutrality in order to squeeze additional payment out of content providers, such as Netflix. As shown in the chart below, Netflix download speeds on the Comcast network deteriorated rapidly prior to an agreement whereby Netflix now pays Comcast for preferential access.

speed changes

concast careConsumers have a legitimate fear that if access to fiber-optic networks is eventually for sale to the highest bidder, then not only will it stifle the entrepreneurial energy unleashed by the democratizing forces of the Internet, but will also potentially lead to higher prices for consumers in accessing content. Under that scenario, consumers are hit twice—first by paying for Internet access to their home and second by paying for certain content providers’ preferred access.

Internet neutrality has been a core principle of the web since its founding and the PSC must examine whether Comcast’s recent deal with Netflix is a sign that the company is eroding this principle in a manner that conflicts with the public interest.

Stringer may not realize Comcast also has an end run around Net Neutrality in the form of usage caps that will deter customers from accessing competitors’ content if it could put them over their monthly usage allowance and subject to penalty rates. Comcast could voluntarily agree to Net Neutrality and still win by slapping usage limits on all of their broadband customers. Either causes great harm for competitors like Netflix.

“I urge the Commission to hold Comcast to that burden and to ensure that the merger is in the best interest of the approximately 2.6 million Time Warner Cable subscribers in New York State and many more for whom quality, affordable Internet access remains unavailable,” Stringer writes. “And I urge Comcast to view this as an opportunity to do the right thing by introducing itself to the New York market as a company that values equitable access and understands that its product—the fourth utility of the modern age—must be available to all New Yorkers.”

If Comcast’s existing enormous customer base has already voted them the Worst Company in America, it is unlikely Comcast will turn on a dime for the benefit of New York.

The best way to ensure quality, affordable Internet access in New York is to keep Comcast out of New York.

No cable company has ever resolved the rural broadband problem. Their for-profit business model depends on a Return on Investment formula that prohibits expanding service into unprofitable service areas.

These rural service problems remain pervasive in Comcast areas as well, and always have since the company took over for AT&T Cable in the early 2000s. Little has changed over the last dozen years and little will change in the next dozen if we depend entirely on companies like Comcast to handle the rural broadband problem.

A more thoughtful solution is encouraging the development of community co-ops and similar broadband enterprises that need not answer to shareholders and strict ROI formulas.

In the meantime, for the good of all New York, let’s keep Comcast south (and north) of the border, thank you very much.

 

Antitrust Us: Is ComVerizablAsT&TWCDirecTV Really Best for American Broadband?

Bad enough

Bad enough

A big company needs a big name, and so what if you can’t say it out loud, so long as your check reaches the cable cartel on time to avoid those inconvenient late fees.

The shock waves of the $45 billion dollar proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable (not to mention AT&T and DirecTV) have reached as far as Great Britain where appalled editorial writers in the British press are pondering whether Washington has lost its mind or just its integrity… or a combination of both, by actually contemplating the unthinkable rebirth of the American Robber Baron.

Only instead of railroads powering America’s early 20th century economy, today its broadband. Overseas, broadband is plentiful, fast, and cheap. Back home, cable operators are hard at work in a comfortable monopoly/duopoly working on excuses to justify Internet rationing with usage caps, outrageous equipment rental fees, rate hikes, and usage billing for a product about as cheap to offer as a phone call on one of those unlimited calling plans you probably already have.

From The Economist:

“On “OUTLAW”, a drama that aired on NBC, a Supreme Court justice leaves the bench to join a law firm. In real life he might have begun working for Comcast, America’s largest cable company, which owns NBC. Many of Washington’s top brass are on Comcast’s payroll, including Margaret Attwell Baker, a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), America’s telecoms regulator, who in government had helped approve Comcast’s takeover of NBCUniversal in 2011. Even Barack Obama has Comcast ties. “I have been here so much, the only thing I haven’t done in this house is have seder dinner,” he quipped at a fundraiser hosted last year at the home of David Cohen, Comcast’s chief lobbyist.

“It helps to have influential friends, especially if you are seeking to expand your grip on America’s pay-TV and broadband markets.

“[…] The deal would create a Goliath far more fearsome than the latest ride at the Universal Studios theme park (also Comcast-owned). Comcast has said it would forfeit 3m subscribers, but even with that concession the combination of the two firms would have around 30m—more than 30% of all TV subscribers and around 33% of broadband customers. In the cable market alone (ie, not counting suppliers of satellite services such as DirecTV), Comcast has as much as 55% of all TV and broadband subscribers.

Worse

Worse

“Comcast will argue that its share of customers in any individual market is not increasing. That is true only because cable companies decided years ago not to compete head-to-head, and divided the country among themselves. More than three-quarters of households have no choice other than their local cable monopoly for high-speed, high-capacity internet.

“For consumers the deal would mean the union of two companies that are already reviled for their poor customer service and high prices. Greater size will fix neither problem. Mr Cohen has said, “We’re certainly not promising that customer bills are going to go down or even that they’re going to increase less rapidly.” Between 1995 and 2012 the average price of a cable subscription increased at a compound annual rate of more than 6%.”

Before blaming it all on President Obama’s close relationship with Comcast’s top executives, it was the Republicans in Washington that set this tragic monopolistic farce into motion. Michael Powell, President George W. Bush’s idea of the best man in America to protect the public interest at the FCC, represented the American people about as well as ‘Heckuva Job Brownie.’ Instead of promoting competition, Powell used his time to beef-up his résumé for a very cushy post-government job heading America’s top cable lobby – the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. Attwell-Baker was even more shameless, departing the FCC for her sweet new executive digs at Comcast just a short time after enthusiastically voting in favor of its NBCUniversal merger deal.

snakePowell and others made certain that Internet Service Providers would not be classified as “common carriers,” which would require them to rent their broadband pipes at a reasonable wholesale rate to competitors. The industry and their well-compensated friends in the House and Senate argued such a status would destroy investment in broadband expansion and innovation. Instead it destroyed the family budget as prices for mediocre service in uncompetitive markets soared. Today, consumers in common carrier countries including France and Britain pay a fraction of what Americans do for Internet access, and get faster speeds as well.

Letting Comcast grow even larger, The Economist argues, will allow one company to dominate not just your Internet experience, but also the content consumers access and at what speed.

“There is plenty for Mr Obama and Mr Cohen to discuss at their next dinner,” concludes the magazine. “But better yet, officials could keep their distance from Comcast, and reject a merger that would reduce competition, provide no benefit to consumers and sap the incentive to innovate.”

Considering the enormous sums of money Comcast has shown a willingness to spend on winning over supporters for its business agenda, restraint on the part of Washington will need voter vigilance, much the same way calling out non-profits who gush over Comcast while quietly cashing their contribution checks must also be fully exposed to regulators who will ultimately decide the fate of the merger.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Antitrust Us.mp4

Antitrust Us: Cartoonist Mark Fiore takes on the corporate idea that merging cable companies together creates more competition. (1:50)

A Better Alternative to Comcast’s Internet Essentials’ Tricks & Traps: EveryoneOn’s Discount Internet Access

internet essentialsWhile regulators sort through the thicket of fine print that keeps hundreds of thousands of families from qualifying for Comcast’s $9.95 Internet Essentials affordable Internet program, a much simpler offer has emerged that doesn’t work overtime to protect Comcast’s broadband revenue from being cannibalized. In short, regulators don’t need to cut deals to expand programs like Internet Essentials in return for saddling residents with America’s “worst cable company.” There are alternatives.

EveryoneOn markets Comcast’s Internet Essentials where appropriate, but the group also gives low-income residents without school-age children other options that won’t require a $45 billion merger deal to expand.

EveryoneOn’s website asks visitors to enter their zip code to determine eligibility for discounted Internet access in neighborhoods with below-average standards of living. In western New York, we found few programs available in wealthy suburban zip codes, but most city neighborhoods were eligible for substantial discounts off wireless Internet access:

Mobile Beacon, like FreedomPop, uses the Clear WiMAX network at the moment.

mobile beacon coverage

Mobile Beacon relies on Sprint’s Clear 4G WiMAX network.

Mobile Beacon utilizes Sprint’s Clear 4G WiMAX network at the moment, and does not throttle or limit customer usage. The $10 rate plan is by far the cheapest around for unlimited access, but speeds are limited to 1Mbps. That may not be a problem for many Clear WiMAX users who can’t get speeds faster than that anyway.

howItWorksModemFreedomPop offers 1GB of monthly data for free, after a $49 setup charge.

Both offers are readily available to public with almost no pre-qualifications. The biggest downsides to both plans include Clear’s very limited WiMAX coverage area and the fact Sprint is gradually decommissioning its WiMAX network.

To remain committed to low-income Internet access, Sprint will offer free wireless broadband service to 50,000 low-income students nationwide.

Microsoft is also actively promoting EveryoneOn’s affordable Internet service offers to school districts nationwide as a solution to their home connectivity problems.  Microsoft will also help deploy Windows devices below $300 to classrooms across the country. Schools can buy Windows 8.1 Pro at a discounted rate and get “Office 365 Education” at no extra cost after they buy Office for teachers and administrators.

New York regulators are getting an earful from public interest and non-profit groups about solving a digital divide that is critical to the state’s economic future. The Internet is no longer merely a nice thing to have. It’s now essential:

  • A 2013 Jobvite survey revealed 94% of recruiters use or plan to use social media to find potential employees.
  • Fifty percent of today’s jobs require technology skills, and this percentage is expected to grow to 77% in the next decade.
  • The new GED test is being offered only on a computer, requiring all taking the test to have a level of comfort with technology;
  • The typical US household saves approximately $8,000 per year by using the Internet, according to an industry-backed Internet Innovation Alliance report.
  • 21% of uninsured Americans  do not  use the Internet, making it impossible for them to use the online health exchanges.
  • A Pew Internet Report revealed 59% of caregivers with internet access say that online resources have been helpful to their ability to provide care and support for the person in their care.
  • The New York Times reported Internet access and literacy allows seniors to stay socially connected to friends and family, maintain their health and increase longevity.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Mobile Beacon Nation Case Study.mp4

Mobile Beacon isn’t just powering income-challenged Americans. The 4G wireless broadband project is also connecting communities, schools, and social service agencies in communities under economic pressure. Mobile Beacon won’t put cable customers under more economic pressure from skyrocketing cable bills, either. It’s not owned by a cable operator. (13:21)

Comcast Tries to Prove Its Usage Meter is Accurate Before Slapping the Caps Back On

Keeping an eye on the scale

Keep an independent eye on the scale

Without independent verification by an unbiased third-party, providers’ usage meters can measure any amount of usage — correct or not — with no recourse for those facing overlimit fees or service suspension.

That is why companies like Comcast depend on the patina of credibility a third-party company can offer when certifying Internet traffic measurement tools as accurate, even if that company has a vested interest handing Comcast the results it wants to see.

NetForecast just completed its third paid study of Comcast’s Internet meter declaring it amazingly accurate with an error rate of just -0.75 to 0.36%.

NetForecast claims it performed independent traffic measurements using real user traffic in subscribers’ homes as well as its own in-house PC and server.

“Based on our measurement results, Comcast subscribers should be able to rely on Comcast’s meter accuracy,” NetForecast says.

Comcast subscribers should also be able to rely on the fact that any cable company that involved with its usage measurement meter has a clear agenda to use it as part of a nationwide return to usage caps or usage-based billing.

NetForecast is no substitute for utilizing a financially uninvolved third-party to oversee any measurement tool that could expose customers to additional charges.

The country has been through this before.

Offices of Weights and Measures represent one of the country’s oldest efforts at consumer protection and trace their origins to the Code of Hammurabi, the Magna Carta and the United States Constitution. Most states created their own bureau to verify all sorts of measurement tools from scales to gas pumps in the early 1900s after an epidemic of widespread fraud shortchanged citizens.

Measure with confidence.

Measure with confidence.

By 1910, the California Legislature was engaged in a battle with the railroads over the accuracy of scales used to weigh railway cars. Railroad tariffs for hauling goods were based on the weight or measurement of the commodity carried. The railroad industry occasionally hired so-called “independent” third parties to certify the accuracy of railway scales to fend off government regulation and oversight after reports of widespread fraud reached the legislature. It didn’t solve the problem.

In 1920, 52.4% of railroad scales, including those “certified” accurate were found to be well out of tolerance. When the industry knew the state of California’s Office of State Superintendent of Weights and Measures would oversee testing a year later, every scale tested in 1921 was suddenly accurate within tolerance.

The problem of accurate measurement was not limited to the railroads. Californian cattle and livestock ranchers faced dishonest hay balers that ginned up the cost of hay by sneaking in heavy debris like rocks and using inaccurate scales to charge higher prices. The 1919 Hay Baling Act was passed to ensure accuracy in the sale of hay and to stop the fraud and abuse the hay balers denied ever existed.

In Maryland, the fraud came from scales used by grocers and gas pumps — both rigged by their respective owners to deliver bigger profits at the consumer’s expense.

In the 1971 Report of the 56th National Conference on Weights and Measures, E.E. Wolski, manager of quality control at the Colgate-Palmolive Company considered it unthinkable that anyone other than a truly independent, financially uninvolved third-party should monitor the accuracy of measurement tools.

This Maryland gas pump is being verified for accuracy by the Weights & Measures program run by the state government.

This Maryland gas pump is being verified for accuracy by the Weights & Measures program run by the state government.

“I do not think anyone will be so naïve as to even suggest that an elimination or reduction of inspection or enforcement would result in anything other than a return to the situation which made the need for them so apparent,” said Wolski. “It is a well-known fact that where enforcement drops off, so does compliance.”

In one state where private companies were permitted to self-certify, inaccuracy turned out to be rampant.

“I was informed that the average gallon was about a half pint short and that an average pound had been a little less than an ounce short,” Wolski said. “The shortages had been statewide and were almost universal.”

The state-employed director that finally established independent oversight of weights and measurements in light of the widespread fraud Wolski talked about was firm in his conclusion that “everybody, literally everybody (and that includes you and me), needs to know that someone is there watching what he does.”

Any financial interest in the outcome of a weight or measurement involving money is a temptation to cheat consumers, one that has effectively only been tempered all the way back to the days of King Solomon by truly independent oversight, typically by a state or local authority. That authority is on display today in the form of a compliance sticker found on commercial scales, gas pumps, and other measurement tools, attesting to their accuracy.

While it is nice Comcast at least bothers to investigate the accuracy of its usage meter, consumers should not be asked to trust the findings of a third-party paid to produce results. Consumers should insist that a truly independent regulator of weights and measurements regularly test and verify usage meters wherever they could be used to suspend a customer’s account or result in extra fees.

HBO’s John Oliver Nails it on Net Neutrality: It Prevents Cable Company F*ckery

Oliver points out President Obama is very close to Comcast's top lobbyist (and Democratic fundraiser) David Cohen.

Oliver points out President Obama is very close to Comcast’s top lobbyist (and Democratic fundraiser) David Cohen.

John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” took nearly 15 minutes out of his show last night to present a detailed and unusually apt explanation of why Net Neutrality should matter to Americans.

Using a timely chart depicting Comcast’s Al Capone-like Internet protection racket, Oliver showed how Netflix performance rapidly deteriorated for Comcast customers until Netflix agreed to pay Comcast for a direct connection in February. Within days, performance rebounded to new highs.

In essence, Oliver explains, Net Neutrality is about the controversy of allowing Internet toll lanes.

Oliver shows an industry mouthpiece defending the concept as a “fast lane for everybody and a hyper speed lane for others,” to which Oliver responds, “Bullsh*t!”

“If we let cable companies offer two speeds of service, they won’t be [Jamaican sprinter] Usain Bolt and Usain Bolt on a motor bike,” Oliver warns. “They’ll be Usain Bolt and Usain Bolted to an anchor.”

Oliver added he was concerned most Americans were not paying attention to the issue, proclaiming it “boring.”

“And that’s the problem. The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America: if you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring,” he said. “Advocates should not be talking about protecting Net Neutrality. They shouldn’t even use that phrase. They should call it preventing cable company fuc*ery. Because that is what it is.”

Comcast's Internet protection racket. Netflix watched customer streaming performance degrade on Comcast's network until it signed a paid peering agreement with the cable company in February.

Comcast’s Internet protection racket. Netflix watched customer streaming performance degrade on Comcast’s network until it signed a paid peering agreement with the cable company in February.

Oliver’s prescription for change is somewhat more dubious, however. He wants Internet trolls to overwhelm the FCC’s Net Neutrality comment mailbox:

I would like to address the Internet commenters out there directly. Good evening monsters, this may be the moment you spent your whole lives training for.

You’ve been out there ferociously commenting on dance videos of adorable 3-years-olds, saying things like, “Every child could dance like this little loser after one week of practice.” Or you’d be polluting Frozen’s Let It Go with comments like, “Ice Castle would give her hypothermia and she dead in an hour.” Or, and I know you’ve done this one commenting on this show: “F*ck this a**hole anchor […] ur just friends with terrorists xD.”

This is the moment you were made for commenters. Like Ralph Macchio, you’ve been honing your skills waxing cars and painting fences, well guess what? Now it’s time to do some f*king karate.

For once in your life we need you to channel that anger.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/HBO Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Net Neutrality 6-1-14.flv

John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight addresses Net Neutrality to viewers who probably don’t understand a thing about it. Warning: Strong language.  (13:17)

Comcast Uses Offline Game to Show the Speed/Responsiveness of XFINITY Internet

comcast whoppersComcast is using an offline console game that misrepresents the speed and performance of its Internet service in its latest advertising.

Eagle-eyed game fans were annoyed to find Comcast promoting its speedy Internet service with a mall demo of Ubisoft’s Trials Fusion, a game that has no online multiplayer mode.

“If you’re a real gamer then you need the speed of XFINITY Internet,” advises a Comcast spokesman in the 30-second ad.

“Do you find that when you’re playing games online with your current service that it’s slow, a Comcast representative asks gamers.

“Yes,” says one, they do! “I get some lag,” says another.

“Do you want to try XFINITY Internet,” asks the employee.

“Sure.”

“Do you notice any buffering,” asks the employee.

“No sir.” “There is certainly no lag at all.”

The smooth game play and responsiveness looks impressive, until one realizes the game was never connected to XFINITY Internet. Without an online mode, there is no Internet connection with slow speeds and lag to worry about while playing. The game would work just as well in the middle of a Kansas wheat field, 50 miles from the nearest DSL connection.

But Comcast’s Internet service does eventually come into play when game enthusiasts want to download software updates, which can be enormous for many titles.

XFINITY Internet does not come with infinite usage. The company is now testing a return of usage allowances tied to overlimit fees in several cities and a senior vice-president predicted Comcast will be limiting how much Internet usage customers get without paying more within five years. So while you may not notice any buffering issues when using your offline content with XFINITY Internet, the more you do go online, the closer you get to Comcast’s arbitrary usage allowance.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Xfinity Internet -- Gamers Tent May 2014.flv

False Advertising: Comcast uses offline game play to prove the speed and responsiveness of their Internet service. Your Keurig coffeemaker is also 50% faster when inside a home powered by XFINITY Internet. So are your cats. (0:30)

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