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Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right: Comcast/Time Warner Cable “Worst Companies in U.S.”

Another satisfied customer

Comcast and Time Warner Cable have achieved new lows in the most important customer satisfaction survey in the United States, winning bottom honors as the two most despised companies in the United States.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index found Comcast and Time Warner Cable the only two companies in the country that scored below 60 on the ACSI’s 100 point scale. Comcast fell 5% to 60, while Time Warner Cable plunged 7% to 56, its lowest score to date.

“Comcast and Time Warner assert their proposed merger will not reduce competition because there is little overlap in their service territories,” says David VanAmburg, ACSI director. “Still, it’s a concern whenever two poor-performing service providers combine operations. ACSI data consistently show that mergers in service industries usually result in lower customer satisfaction, at least in the short-term. It’s hard to see how combining two negatives will be a positive for consumers.”

Broadband service seems to be a significant issue for customers. High prices, slow data transmission, and unreliable service drag satisfaction to record lows, as customers have few alternatives beyond the largest Internet service providers. Customer satisfaction with ISPs drops 3.1% to 63, the lowest score in the Index.

Verizon FiOS is the one bright spot in the survey, managing to grab a 71 score, beating AT&T U-verse, CenturyLink, and other providers. Cable broadband providers continued to score lowest. The best of the lot was Cox Communications, which isn’t saying much. It only managed a 6% fall to 64.

Customer satisfaction is also deteriorating for all the largest pay TV providers. Viewers are much more dissatisfied with cable TV service than fiber optic and satellite service (60 vs. 68). Though both companies drop in customer satisfaction, DirecTV (-4%) and AT&T (-3%) are tied for the lead with ACSI scores of 69. Verizon Communications FiOS (68) and DISH Network (67) follow. DISH Network may be the lowest-scoring satellite TV company, but it is better than the top-scoring cable company, Cox Communications (-3% to 63).

Among wireless carriers, things have not changed much this year.

Verizon Wireless achieved first place after climbing 3% to 75. T-Mobile (69), Sprint (68) and AT&T Mobility (68) are tightly grouped behind. As smartphone adoption continues to grow, network demands increase along with costs to the consumer, each contributing to stagnant customer satisfaction.

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Comcast: Usage-Based Billing for All Customers Within 5 Years; ‘We’re Also Allowed to Do Fast Lanes’

comcast highwayComcast will introduce usage-based billing on all of its broadband customers nationwide within five years, whether they like it or not.

Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen told Variety he predicts the new usage limit will likely be 350GB a month but could increase to 500GB in 2019. Cohen claims consumers in usage-capped test markets prefer a preset usage limit and an overlimit fee of $10 for each additional 50GB of usage.

But Stop the Cap! has learned at no time has Comcast surveyed customers about whether they want their Internet usage metered or capped. That question is evidently not an option.

If Time Warner Cable territories are merged under the Comcast brand, usage billing would likely immediately follow.

Usage caps will go a long way to protect Comcast’s cable television package from online video, which if viewed in significant amounts could put customers over their monthly usage limit and subject them to higher fees.

“We’re trying to go slowly, not out of a regulatory concern (but because) we have no desire to blow up our high-speed data business,” he said.

cohenIf the merger is approved, Comcast will face significantly less competition in many Verizon service areas also served by Time Warner Cable. Verizon FiOS expansion has ended and the company continues to de-emphasize its DSL service, which is the only broadband competition Time Warner Cable faces in many upstate New York and western Massachusetts communities.

An unrepentant Cohen also doubled down on paid prioritization — Internet fast lanes — declaring regardless of what the FCC decides on Net Neutrality, Comcast still has the right to offer paid prioritization to customers.

“Whatever it is, we are allowed to do it,” said Cohen, speaking at the MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit in New York. “We are not sure we know what paid prioritization, or what a fast lane, is. Fast lane sounds bad… (but) I believe that whatever it is, it has been completely legal for 15 or 20 years.”

The way Comcast’s lawyers read “Title II,” even if the FCC declares broadband ISPs to be common carriers, Cohen says Comcast will go right on selling prioritized access, claiming Title II doesn’t prohibit paid prioritization — indeed, he said, “the whole history” of Title II is that carriers are allowed to provide different levels of service at different prices, reports Variety.

Cohen said he expects Washington regulators will promptly approve the company’s buyout of Time Warner Cable with no delays, insisting the deal is “not that difficult” in terms of antitrust implications.

 

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Time Warner Cable Customers in Queens Enjoying Free Maxx Broadband Speed Upgrades: 300/20Mbps

8681_262Time Warner Cable’s major broadband speed upgrade is alive in the Astoria, Woodside and Long Island City neighborhoods of Queens, N.Y.

The Time Warner Cable Maxx upgrade is Time Warner Cable’s effort to catch up to other cable operators that have significantly upgraded broadband speeds for customers over the last 18 months. Time Warner Cable has traditionally been one of the slowest major cable broadband providers in the country, with most customers only able to buy speeds up to 50/5Mbps. But Time Warner Cable has also committed to keeping unlimited use service available to customers, unlike Comcast, Charter, Cox, Suddenlink, and Mediacom.

The free speed upgrades are the largest ever for Time Warner Cable, typically more than tripling speeds for most customers.

Stop the Cap! has heard from readers in Queens who discovered the upgrades took effect this week, so we have been able to take a closer look at what customers can expect as Time Warner rolls out upgrades across New York City and Los Angeles and finally extending faster speeds over the next two years in other cities.

new speed

(Image: ematrix)

Arris Touchstone Telephony Gateway TG1672g

Arris Touchstone Telephony Gateway TG1672g

The first notification your area is about to receive an upgrade will come in a letter from Time Warner Cable.

Customers subscribing to the fastest speed tiers may need new equipment. Time Warner Cable is using 8-channel bonding in Queens for its 100 and 200Mbps tiers and 16-channel bonding for its 300Mbps tier. Some older and low-end DOCSIS 3 modems only support four channel bonding. For instance, a customer using a four-channel capable Motorola 6121 modem in Queens with Time Warner’s 30/5Mbps Extreme tier will only get speeds up to 50/5Mbps after the upgrade. If the customer owned a Motorola 6141, which supports eight channel bonding, they will get the full advantage of the upgrade: 200/20Mbps. But even the 6141 isn’t enough for Time Warner’s top tier: 300/20Mbps. Customers would need an upgrade to a 16-channel capable modem.

Time Warner’s notification letter says customers can swap out a company-owned cable modem for a 16-channel capable model, currently the Arris TG1672g, either by mail, through an area Time Warner Cable store, or with a service call. The usual modem rental fees still apply.

The TG1672g (download user manual) is a fully capable broadband and Wi-Fi home gateway that also supports Time Warner’s phone service:

  • 16×4 Channel Bonding
  • Full Capture Bandwidth Tuner
  • Multi Processor Technology with an Intel Atom Core Application Processor
  • DOCSIS® 3.0 and PacketCable™ 2.0 compliant design
  • 4 port Gigabit Ethernet Wireless Router
  • 3×3 Integrated Dual Band Concurrent
  • 2.4GHz and 5GHz 802.11n radios with Beam Forming
  • USB 2.0 Host Port
  • Upcoming support for DLNA and File Storage
  • Two FXS lines of carrier-grade VoIP with HD voice support
  • MoCA1.1 for in Home Video and Data distribution over Coax
  • Dual Stack IPv4/IPv6 Home Router
  • Internal Power Supply for Highest Reliability and reduced energy consumption
  • Battery backup: Single battery pack for reaching a full 8 hours of standby support

If picking up new equipment, a Time Warner representative will probably let you know if your account is flagged “Maxx-capable,” which means your neighborhood’s upgrade is imminent or complete. Time Warner may also want to swap out your set-top boxes if you subscribe to cable television, although readers report cable television service and the on-screen guide in Queens doesn’t look any different at present. The backup battery inside the cable modem is rated for up to 10 years of life and is replaceable by the user for around $60.

Customers who own their own cable modem might have to buy a new one if they are seeking the company’s fastest speeds. Time Warner’s latest approved modem list should guide what, if any, new equipment you might need. If you are considering buying your own modem, you might plan your purchase around the model(s) that support the speeds you want.

approved modems

Time Warner Cable’s Latest Approved Modem List

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/TWC Techs Launch 300 Mbps Internet Speeds at Queens NY Hub 5-6-14.flv
Technicians launch 300Mbps broadband speeds for Time Warner Cable customers in Queens, N.Y. (1:27)

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The 5 Cable & Phone Companies Intentionally Sabotaging Your Use of the Internet

network_map-1024x459

Level 3′s global network: Orange lines represent Level 3-owned infrastructure, yellow lines show leased or co-owned connections.

Five of the largest Internet Service Providers in the country are intentionally sabotaging your use of the Internet by allowing their network connections to degrade unless they receive extra compensation from content companies they often directly compete with.

Mark Taylor, vice president of content and media for Level 3, wrote a lengthy primer on how Internet providers exchange traffic with each other across a vast global network. While clients of Level 3 are likely to have few problems exchanging traffic back and forth across Level 3′s global network, vital interconnections with other providers that make sure everyone can communicate with everyone else on the Internet are occasional trouble spots.

Every provider has different options to reach other providers, but favor those offering the most direct route possible to minimize “hops” between networks, which slow down the connection and increase the risk of service interruptions. These connections are often arranged through peering agreements. Level 3 has 51 peers, minimized in number to keep traffic moving as efficiently as possible.

This oversaturated port in Dallas cannot handle all the traffic trying to pass through it, so Internet packets are often dropped and traffic speeds are slowed.

This oversaturated port in Dallas cannot handle all the traffic trying to pass through it, so Internet packets are often dropped and traffic speeds are slowed.

Taylor writes most peering arrangements were informal agreements between engineers and did not involve any money changing hands. Today, 48 of the 51 Level 3 peering agreements don’t involve compensation. In fact, Level 3 refuses to pay “arbitrary charges to add interconnection capacity.” Taylor feels such upgrades are a matter of routine and are not costly for either party.

Peering agreements have been a very successful part of the Internet experience, even if end users remain completely in the dark about how Internet traffic moves around the world. In the view of many, customers don’t need to know and shouldn’t care, because their monthly Internet bill more than covers the cost of transporting data back and forth.

Because of ongoing upgrades the average utilization of Level 3′s connections is around 36 percent of capacity — busy enough to justify keeping the connection and providing spare capacity for days when Internet traffic explodes during breaking news or over the holidays.

csat-1024x635However, Taylor says more than a year ago, something suddenly changed at five U.S. Internet Service Providers. They stopped periodic upgrades and allowed some of their connections to become increasingly busy with traffic. Today, six of Level 3′s 51 peer connections are now 90 percent saturated with traffic for several hours a day, which causes traffic to degrade or get lost.

“[The] congestion [has become] permanent, has been in place for well over a year and [...] our peer refuses to augment capacity,” Taylor wrote. “They are deliberately harming the service they deliver to their paying customers. They are not allowing us to fulfill the requests their customers make for content.”

Taylor adds all but one of the affected connections are U.S. consumer broadband networks with a dominant or exclusive market share. Where competition exists, no provider allows their Internet connections to degrade, said Taylor.

Taylor won’t directly name the offenders, but he left an easy-to-follow trail:

“The companies with the congested peering interconnects also happen to rank dead last in customer satisfaction across all industries in the U.S.,” Taylor wrote. “Not only dead last, but by a massive statistical margin of almost three standard deviations.”

Taylor footnotes the source for his rankings, the American Consumer Satisfaction Index. The five worse providers listed for consumer satisfaction:

  • Comcast
  • Time Warner Cable
  • Charter Communications
  • Cox Communications
  • Verizon

AT&T has also made noises about insisting on compensation for its own network upgrades, blaming Netflix traffic.

level3In fact, Netflix traffic seems to be a common point of contention among Internet Service Providers that also sell their own television packages. They now insist the streaming video provider establish direct, paid connections with their networks. Level 3 is affected because it carries a substantial amount of traffic on behalf of Netflix.

Ultimately, the debate is about who pays for network upgrades to keep up with traffic growth. Taylor says Level 3′s cost to add an extra 10Gbps port would be between $10-20 thousand dollars, spare change for multi-billion dollar Americans cable and phone companies. Normally, competition would never allow a traffic dispute like this interfere with a customer’s usage experience. Angry customers would simply switch providers. But the lack of competition prevents this from happening in the United States, leaving customers in the middle.

This leaves Taylor with a question: “Shouldn’t a broadband consumer network with near monopoly control over their customers be expected, if not obligated, to deliver a better experience than this?”

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Protection Money: Verizon Next to Collect Tribute from Netflix for Trouble-Free Streaming

netflixpaywallNetflix has reached an agreement with Verizon Communications for a paid-peering interconnection between the two that will help assure Verizon’s broadband customers can watch Netflix content without repeated buffering slowdowns.

It is the second major deal for Netflix where money has changed hands to assure a more error-free experience for customers, coming two months after a similar deal with Comcast.

Both Verizon and AT&T have told their respective shareholders they anticipate new revenue streams from interconnection agreements with Netflix, which now constitutes a large percentage of evening Internet traffic in the United States.

By establishing a more direct connection between Netflix and Verizon, customers should experience fewer streaming problems. Netflix traditionally pays third parties to handle its traffic and some of those shared connections have grown increasingly overcongested. ISPs are becoming increasingly reluctant to upgrade them without financial compensation.

The FCC does not consider peering arrangements part of the Net Neutrality controversy, but for customers the result is the same — without a financial arrangement with a provider, content from certain websites may not be dependably accessible. Earlier this year, Netflix viewing was increasingly disrupted for many Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast customers.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has repeatedly complained Netflix is being subjected to an “arbitrary tax” to assure dependable service to its paying customers. Hastings now wants the FCC to treat the issue as an “end run” around Net Neutrality and include peering agreements and financial compensation issues in the new Net Neutrality rules expected to be introduced in May.

Most analysts do not expect FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler to oppose or regulate the financial arrangements between ISPs and content producers.

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Time Warner Cable’s New Ad Campaign Advertises “No Data Caps”

nocapsTime Warner Cable has introduced a new marketing message to potential customers, promoting the fact its broadband service has “no data caps.”

The new ads, appearing for the first time earlier this month, break from the usual tradition of avoiding telling customers they can use broadband service as much as they like. The cable industry advertised “unlimited access” in its broadband offer for years to compete against dial-up Internet. More recently some have redefined the term to mean “you can use the service anytime day or night,” but not consume unlimited amounts of data.

Of course, with Comcast attempting to claim they have “no data caps” either, only “data thresholds,” Time Warner Cable still has some wiggle room should it impose usage-based billing. Technically, under that scheme users don’t have a “data cap,” just a usage allowance above which they will face overlimit penalties.

Still, it is a nice change for at least one major cable company to be willing to market service without data caps. Time Warner’s most likely intended target for the campaign is AT&T U-verse, which has increasingly cracked down on customers exceeding its own usage caps — 150GB a month for DSL, 250GB a month for U-verse. Customers pay a overlimit penalty of $10 for each 50GB allotment above those allowances.

 

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Telecom Italia Seeks Advice from AT&T on How to Grab More €uros from Customers

Telecom Italia wants to learn from the master of higher priced phone service: AT&T

Telecom Italia (TI) has a big problem. While AT&T charges the average American $66 a month for mobile service, competition in Italy has forced wireless prices down to $18 a month for comparable service.

TI chief executive officer Marco Patuano wants the price cutting to end and traveled to the United States to learn from AT&T how it was able to raise prices and increase customer spending with usage-capped Internet, phone and television service. His self-described “innovation trip” brought him straight to the office of AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.

TI is trying to end years of losses and sales declines precipitated by falling prices and a growing disinterest in traditional landline service. AT&T accomplished that by boosting investment in mobile services. AT&T charged high prices for unlimited data plans until demand for data grew to the point the company could earn much more metering Internet usage. As a result, AT&T has earned a staggering $100 billion over the past decade from boosted phone bills.

Patuano

Patuano

Patuano wants to find a way to follow in AT&T’s footsteps as TI’s share price has fallen more than 70 percent over the last six years. Fierce competition from Vodafone and VimpelCom have forced prices down across Italy. With prices so low, investors have shown little interest in providing funding for wholesale upgrades to 4G wireless service. In turn, that has kept Telecom Italia from offering faster data speeds which would allow them to raise prices for service.

In North America, high wireless prices and the relative lack of competition have brought considerably better financial returns for investors. That high rate of return has attracted investment allowing providers like AT&T and Verizon Wireless to spend billions on network upgrades that have, in turn, further increased revenue at both companies. Customers benefit from the faster speeds, but also pay for the privilege with some of the highest wireless prices in the world.

It’s a formula Patuano wants to bring to the Italian market, but he needs more investment to stabilize TI’s finances. TI was the government-owned phone company until it was privatized in 1997. Despite having a massive customer base, nimble wireless competitors have outflanked the phone company and the results have been falling sales, disconnected customers, and its $37 billion in debt reduced to junk status by investor rating services. The company sold its headquarters in Milan and got rid of its Argentine subsidiary, along with suspending shareholder dividends.

att_logo“The first target now for a phone carrier is upgrading networks and transform it to a platform for high-value services,” Patuano said. “This is exactly what AT&T did and what we are calling for.”

Patuano has seen AT&T defend its turf in the wireline business by scrapping its traditional landline/DSL-only service in larger markets in favor of a hybrid fiber-copper network dubbed U-verse. Patuano is now pondering whether TI could deliver a package of phone, broadband and television service over a broadband platform. The average AT&T U-verse customer spends $170 a month on U-verse, an amount much better than $18 a month. TI could do even better than AT&T because Italy lacks many cable television providers — Italians depend on satellite television for multichannel pay television.

AT&T and TI are no strangers to one another. In 2007, AT&T attempted to buy a stake in the Italian phone company but met with a storm of objections from Italian politicians. AT&T dropped the idea soon after.

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FCC Expands 5GHz Wi-Fi Band, Allows Higher Powered, Faster Wireless Service

Phillip Dampier April 1, 2014 Public Policy & Gov't, Wireless Broadband No Comments
The 5GHz spectrum at issue used to require limited transmitting power and indoor-use only.

The 5GHz spectrum at issue used to require limited transmitting power and indoor-use only.

The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to expand the 5GHz unlicensed Wi-Fi band with an extra 100MHz of spectrum that will open the door to faster connections with less interference.

Manufacturers will also be permitted to raise the transmitting power wireless devices can use in the 5.15-5.25GHz band, lifting restrictions that were in place to protect mobile and fixed satellite services that occupy nearby frequencies. The relaxed rules also now permit outdoor use of 5GHz spectrum. Previously only indoor devices were allowed to occupy those frequencies.

“This change will have real impact, because we are doubling the unlicensed bandwidth in the 5 GHz band overnight,” FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said. “The power of unlicensed goes beyond on-ramps to the Internet and off-loading for licensed [mobile] services,” she said. “It is the power of setting aside more of our airwaves for experiment and innovation without license. It is bound to yield new and exciting developments. It is also bound to be an economic boon.”

Manufacturers are expected to support the extra frequencies and increase transmitting power on the next generation of Wi-Fi equipment likely to be on sale by the end of the year, including more 1Gbps Wi-Fi routers.

Wireless ISPs will also be permitted to use the 5GHz spectrum to expand available bandwidth for customers as use of the Internet continues to grow. Congestion from shared Wi-Fi connections can present problems for small wireless providers because connection speeds will slow for customers.

The FCC also opened up an extra 65MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband and other licensed wireless users. The expanded AWS band between 1695-2180MHz will be shared with federal agency users that now occupy some of the frequencies.

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Charter’s Rebranded “Spectrum” Service Arrives in Fort Worth; New Name, New Reputation?

Phillip Dampier March 25, 2014 Broadband Speed, Charter, Competition, Consumer News, Video 4 Comments

charter spectrum logoCharter Communications’ latest attempt to rehabilitate its reputation with customers in Fort Worth, Tex. arrived this week in area mailboxes, as Charter reintroduced itself as “Charter Spectrum.”

Fort Worth is the first major city to get Charter’s broad-based service upgrade that began more than a year ago with a switch to all digital television service.

The newly available bandwidth no longer needed to support analog television has allowed Charter to expand its video service to more than 200 HD channels, up from fewer than 100.

Customers also start their Spectrum experience with a free broadband speed bump — from 30Mbps to 60/4Mbps (with a barely enforced monthly usage cap of 250GB), and an improved cable telephone service with nationwide calling.

Charter Spectrum's mailer is now arriving in Ft. Worth mailboxes. (Courtesy: TheTechGuru)

Charter Spectrum’s mailer is now arriving in Ft. Worth mailboxes. (Courtesy: TheTechGuru)

Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge openly admitted last year Charter had an inferior product compared against the competition. Upgrading Charter’s cable systems was designed to correct that and the company hopes its rebranding will deliver a marketplace reset, but some Charter customers remain skeptical.

“Same pig, fresh lipstick,” wrote one Charter customer in Missouri.

Others complain Charter’s upload speeds remain anemic at just 4Mbps.

Charter’s new pricing promotions were designed to simplify the shopping experience. There are now just three heavily promoted Spectrum triple play packages:

spectrum packages

A customer taking advantage of the Triple Play Gold promotion will pay a one-year promotional price of $129.97 a month. (Customers can also select individual services or build their own double-play bundle). The fine print mentions the price rises to $149.97 the second year and then reverts to an undisclosed “standard rate” after that. TV set-top boxes are required on every cable-connected television ($7 a month each – not included in the price). The Internet modem carries no additional charge. Phone taxes, fees and surcharges are also covered, but other taxes, fees, and surcharges are not.

Offers are valid for new customers only, and those who have not subscribed within the last 30 days and have no outstanding debt obligation to Charter.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WLOS Asheville Charter Going Digital 11-11-13.flv

Charter Spectrum arrives only after your local Charter system moves to all-digital television service. That happened last fall in Asheville, N.C., where customers were told they needed a digital set-top box on every television in the home. WLOS-TV covered the story back on Nov. 11, 2013. (1:44)

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Cable Industry Has Charts to Prove Your Broadband is Screaming Fast

Tracking Cable’s Top Internet Speeds
NCTA-Charts_2_tracking broadband speeds

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) offers this infographic to suggest the deregulated cable broadband industry works well without any interference from meddling politicians.

Their claim: “Ongoing investments have enabled cable providers to continue boosting broadband speeds with top tiers increasing 50% every year.”

The reality: Cable’s broadband speed comes at a very high cost. The majority of Americans cannot buy 505Mbps residential broadband service from Comcast and even if you could, the price tag hovers around $300 a month, with a nearly-$1,000 early contract termination penalty, a $250 installation and $250 activation fee. Customers at other cable providers often find their maximum speed is just 50Mbps and/or their Internet usage is limited by a usage cap.

Google Fiber and some other gigabit fiber to the home providers are offering unlimited 1,000Mbps service for $70 a month with no installation or activation fee if a customer agrees to stick around.

Verdict: The cable industry could do better for much less.

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