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French Unions, Media Warn America: Beware of Altice!

Look what's in the box. MergeMaster Patrick Drahi. (Illustration: Michel Kichka)

Look what’s in the box. MergeMaster Patrick Drahi. (Illustration: Michel Kichka)

Cable conglomerate baron Patrick Drahi promised American, French and Portuguese consumers he would bring them value for money by taking control of large established telecom companies in both countries and revamp their products and services to bring improved service. Consumer advocates in all three countries continue to argue customers are still waiting for Drahi’s debt-laden Altice empire to deliver on its promises.

A flurry of mid-summer articles in the French media continue to acknowledge Drahi’s formula has brought results — for him and his top executive minions, but has caused headaches for employees, customers, and even the government.

The biggest firestorm involves Altice-owned SFR’s newly-announced plan to slash at least 5,000 more jobs at France’s fourth-largest mobile operator, which also provides wired cable-TV and broadband services in parts of the country. That represents at least one-third of SFR’s total workforce. The planned cuts run so deep, some in the French press call them “violent.” These new cuts are on top of the 1,200 jobs Drahi cut when he took control of SFR two years ago. An Altice executive warned that if they still perceive to be “fat on the bone,” there will be further cuts after that, presumably starting in 2019.

The job cuts have raised the ire of some in the French press because one of the conditions of Altice’s takeover of SFR was a commitment not to cut jobs. But some reporters may have missed the fine print negotiated with regulators  — the job protection agreement expires in July 2017, after which Drahi can slash at will. And he will.

Investment banks love it. American and European banks have loaned €50 billion ($55 billion) — a record amount — to Drahi to buy up telecom companies on a virtual credit card and deliver short-term results by slashing expenses, which at least temporarily boosts profits. When customers find out the implications of the draconian cuts, they complain and tend to leave. But savvy investors learn how to cash out before that happens, often walking away with huge returns. Such methods have been business-as-usual in the United States for a long time. But Drahi has improved on the old formula of relying on OPM – Other People’s Money – to build his empire.

Altice1Some of the money flowing through Altice’s coffers comes from the French taxpayer, currently footing the bill for unpopular French President François Hollande’s key measure to boost the competitiveness of French companies — the Tax Credit for Competitiveness and Employment (CICE), which significantly cuts employer’s labor expenses. Altice has been a grateful recipient of this gift from French taxpayers, who pay for it through new ecological taxes and an increase in Value Added Tax (VAT) rates, which like our sales tax, applies to goods and services one buys. The standard VAT rate in France is now 20%, with 10% charged on restaurant meals, transport, renovation/improvement works and certain medical drugs, and 5.5% on food, water and non alcoholic beverages, books, special equipment for the disabled and school meals. The other half of the money spent implementing the CICE came from decreased public spending on infrastructure and social service programs. Take from the poor and middle class and give to the corporations, Hollande’s critics claim. The program was supposed to protect employment, but critics say it has had little or no effect beyond enriching large corporate conglomerates who hire and fire for their own reasons, and are not particularly concerned about what that could do to future government payouts.

French newspaper l’Humanité is calling on the government and Mr. Drahi to account for his use of taxpayer-funded CICE aid. The paper demands the Hollande government to disclose exactly how much Altice’s SFR has received from the program.

Unemployment office in Connecticut

Unemployment office in Connecticut

Altice continues to claim the job cuts will be voluntary — a suggestion scoffed at by employee unions in both France and Portugal, where Altice operates telecommunications companies. In addition to asking Altice-owned Suddenlink and Cablevision employees whether the recent sudden separation from their paychecks was voluntary, unions claim they have the benefit of past experience.

“When they say ‘no job cuts’ and 1,200 have already been cut over the past 18 months, how can we trust them?” asked Frederic Retourney, a spokesman for the CGT-FAPT employee union. “We know that voluntary redundancies are made under duress in most cases. When SFR announces 5,000 job cuts when there are 14,400 employees at the company now, we do not see how one can speak of voluntary departures.”

The job cuts at Altice’s U.S. operations — Suddenlink and Cablevision — have just begun. In a filing with the Connecticut Department of Labor, Altice disclosed it is issuing a total of 587 termination notices in that state — 482 call center workers in Shelton who will lose their jobs Nov. 1 and another 105 in Stratford leaving in two waves Oct. 14 and Dec. 15. Cablevision’s chief Connecticut competitor Frontier Communications is turning Altice’s lemons into Frontier’s lemonade by capitalizing on the job cuts with a quickly organized media push for a job fair on Aug. 31 in New Haven targeting the soon-to-be-former Cablevision workers.

Frontier will hold interviews for the former Altice call-center workers and field technicians. The alternative, if those former Cablevision workers still want to work for Altice, is to move to New York or New Jersey and hope their jobs don’t get cut again. With Frontier, they can stay in Connecticut.

madagascarAltice-owned SFR Francophone call center workers face even bigger challenges from relentless demands for cost cuts. In 2015, Altice announced it was open to relocating its Moroccan-based customer care call center to Madagascar, a large and severely economically depressed island nation off the eastern coast of southern Africa. Drahi, who told Wall Street he likes to pay as little as he can in salaries, is evidently upset labor costs in Morocco now force Altice to pay salaries up to €500 a month ($560). The company said it was open to seeking solace hiring French-fluent replacement workers in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital city, where the average annual salary is $260. In contrast, Connecticut call center workers make an average of $14.80/hour, according to Indeed.

Connecticut State Rep. Laura Hoydick (R-Stratford) acknowledges employee life with Altice in charge of Cablevision may be a tough ride.

“Having gone through unemployment with family members — and now me — emphasizes how the Cablevision employees are nervous for their livelihood and existence,” Hoydick told The Hour. “I thought it was great that the Frontier folks saw that there was an already-trained workforce here in Connecticut.”

Other state Republicans are attempting to blame Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for Cablevision’s job cuts, characterizing them as evidence employers are fleeing the high taxes and expenses associated with running a business in Connecticut.

“People are making a choice: ‘Do I stay in Connecticut and weather the storm, or do I move out of the state?’” said state Rep. Jason Perillo (R-Shelton).

lexpressFor now, those decisions are mostly made by Altice’s cable company call center workers and some members of middle management. But Patrick Drahi’s long-term plan to conquer the media business depends on implementing his “convergence” strategy, which means owning and controlling not only the means of distribution, but also the product being distributed. l’Humanité compared Drahi’s business to a multibillion cephalopod, with octopus-like tentacles extending his control and influence well beyond the cable business.

In France, he is accomplishing his mission by buying up cable networks, newspapers, and other media outlets which he packages together. Now a customer doesn’t just buy cable TV — he buys TV, internet, phone, the daily newspaper, and magazines for one flat price. For about $22 a month, SFR customers get unlimited digital access to 17 newspapers and magazines including Libération, l’Express, and l’Expansion. Then you can watch Drahi’s new sports channels and local news channel — all owned by Altice. Drahi told the French Senate his new bundled media model could “save the press.” But dig a little deeper and you discover Drahi’s altruism is considerably more limited.

By bundling everything together, the Altice-owned businesses each enjoy the enormous benefit of having their products taxed at the special press VAT rate of 2.1%, down from the usual 20% that would be otherwise owed. Altice pockets the savings for itself — a considerable boost in gross revenue.

More conservative investors worry about how Altice is managing to pay for all of its acquisitions and still manage to cover its existing massive debt, especially as Drahi plots to bring his model to the United States. His goal in America: to create the largest or second-largest telecom company in the country. Worried shareholders have been placated by the news massive layoffs are in SFR’s future, with the cost-savings they bring. Those still not satisfied were quieted after Numericable, another Altice concern, borrowed almost two billion dollars and raided Altice’s treasury for another billion to finance a dividend payout to shareholders worth more than $2.5 billion. Of course, Mr. Drahi himself is among the top recipients.

Altice Slashathon Continues: 600 Cablevision Jobs Eliminated in Connecticut

Optimum-Branding-Spot-New-LogoAt least 600 Cablevision employees will be out of a job by this November as parent company Altice USA continues to slash expenses to squeeze cost savings out of the cable business for the benefit of shareholders.

Altice announced this morning that the Cablevision call center in Shelton and a back office in Stratford, Conn., will be closed, with some jobs shifted to existing Altice USA call centers in New Jersey and Long Island, N.Y. The job cuts hit hard, with 50-100 employees being employed by Cablevision for more than 15 years, with some close to retiring.

“People have kids and everything like that to take care of at home. So, I’m sure it was sudden for a lot of them to hear this news.”

Employees said about 50 to 100 workers had been there over 15 years, some close to retiring.

“People have kids and everything like that to take care of at home,” an unnamed employee told WTNH-TV. “So, I’m sure it was sudden for a lot of them to hear this news. Some people are upset for sure.”

A spokesperson for Cablevision said employees will be given a severance package and can re-apply for an unspecified number of jobs in and out of the state.

“Over the last few years, there have been investments and enhancements to our Optimum products and services, making them more reliable and providing more customer service touch points than ever before,” the company said in a statement. “As a result, we have seen a significant improvement in customer call volume and patterns. As we look to strengthen our operations in the nation’s most competitive market, we are aligning our contact center organization to meet the current needs of our customers.”

Some employees speculate the real motive is saving money. An employee told WTNH that customer calls have slowed down, but Cablevision is also still hiring workers, presumably for less compensation.

“I don’t think it’s because of calls to be honest. They’re hiring a lot of people to work from home too,” the employee said.

Altice told New York and New Jersey regulators it wouldn’t lay off customer service employees for four years, but made no such agreement in Connecticut.

Editorial: N.Y. Governor’s Broadband Initiative Saddles Us With a Slower Internet

Thanks, Gov. Cuomo

Thanks, Gov. Cuomo

In Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s zeal to take credit for broadband enhancements across New York State, he also took partial-credit for convincing Charter Communications to speed its plan to deliver internet speeds of 100Mbps across upstate New York by early 2017, calling it “sweeping progress toward achieving its nation-leading goal of broadband for all.”

Unfortunately for New Yorkers, the governor forgot to mention his plan, coupled with the state government’s approval of Charter’s merger with Time Warner Cable, will actually result in slower and more expensive broadband for all of upstate New York.

“Access to high-speed internet is critical to keeping pace with the rising demands of the modern economy,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “The New NY Broadband Program is advancing our vision for inclusive, interconnected communities that empower individuals, support small businesses, and advance innovation. These actions are a major step forward in creating the most robust broadband infrastructure network in the nation, and ensuring that reliable, high-speed internet is available to all New Yorkers.”

While the governor’s goals for rural broadband expansion in New York are laudable and have actually produced significant results, his belief in Charter’s broadband enhancement plan is misplaced and will actually leave cities in upstate New York at a serious broadband speed disadvantage that could remain an indefinite problem.

It is difficult to admit that New York was better off leaving Time Warner Cable as the dominant cable operator in New York State. As we warned last fall in our testimony to the N.Y. Public Service Commission, Charter’s merger proposal included promises of broadband enhancements considerably less robust than what Time Warner Cable had already undertaken on its own initiative. Time Warner Cable Maxx would have brought upstate New York free speed upgrades ranging from 50/5Mbps for Standard internet customers (up from 15/1Mbps) to 300/20Mbps (up from 50/5Mbps) for customers subscribed to Time Warner’s Ultimate tier.

Charter only advertises its 60Mbps tier. You have to dig to discover they also sell 100Mbps, for $100 a month and a $200 installation fee.

Charter only advertises its 60Mbps tier. You have to dig through their website to discover they also sell 100Mbps, for $100 a month and usually a $200 installation fee.

Charter this week made it clear those Maxx upgrades are dead, except in areas where they have already been introduced. Instead, upstate New York (and likely other Maxx-less areas around the country) will get two internet speed tiers instead: 60 and 100Mbps.

Getting 100Mbps is better than 50Mbps, at least until you check the price. Customers should be sitting down for this. Charter’s 100Mbps tier costs $100 a month after a one-year promotional rate and often includes a one-time $200 installation fee. In contrast, Time Warner Cable charges about $65 a month for 300/20Mbps internet-only service, which incrementally rises after one year if you don’t threaten to cancel service. There is usually no installation or upgrade fee.

This is the “benefit” Gov. Cuomo is touting?

In fact, with Charter Communications to be the overwhelmingly dominant cable operator throughout upstate New York, this leaves cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, and Binghamton in a relative broadband swamp. While cities of similar sizes in other states are qualifying for Google Fiber, AT&T’s gigabit fiber upgrade, or fiber to the home service from community-owned broadband providers, Charter’s competition includes a barely trying Frontier Communications which still offers little more than slow speed DSL, Verizon Communications which stopped expanding FiOS in New York (except Fire Island) in 2010, and a handful of small independent phone companies and fiber overbuilders serving very limited service areas.

Charter is still required to offer 300Mbps service… by 2019 in New York as part of a commitment to regulators we fought for and won. That represents a speed equal to Time Warner Cable Maxx, but Charter has three years to offer what many New Yorkers either already had or were slated to get by next year from Time Warner Cable for much less money.

It takes chutzpah to proclaim broadband victory from this kind of avoidable defeat. Gov. Cuomo’s plan for better broadband allows Charter to cheat millions of New Yorkers out of Time Warner’s much better upgrade that was scheduled to be finished this summer in Central New York and ready to commence in Rochester this fall and Buffalo early next year. The governor should be on the phone with Charter management today insisting that all of New York get the 300Mbps internet service Time Warner Cable was planning for this state. Anything less leaves New York worse off, not better.

Consider again this cold, hard reality: Time Warner Cable was the better option — that is how bad things are in New York.

Upstate cities considering their economic future must not rely on the state or federal government to solve their broadband problems. Considering what Charter and Gov. Cuomo are proposing, waiting for the cable company to make life better isn’t a solution either. The only alternative is for local community leaders to start taking control of their own broadband destiny and launch community-owned, gigabit-capable, fiber to the home service. Charter won’t do it, Frontier can’t, and Verizon is too busy making piles of money from its wireless network to worry if your city will ever have 21st century internet access it needs to compete in the digital economy.

N.Y. Governor Announces “Sweeping Progress” Towards Broadband-for-All-NY’ers Goal

broadband nyGovernor Andrew M. Cuomo yesterday announced that the “New NY Broadband Program” is well on its way to achieving “sweeping progress toward achieving its nation-leading goal of broadband for all” New Yorkers.

The governor claimed that 97% of New York residents will have access to high-speed internet access by 2017, with a vague goal of serving 100% of New Yorkers by the end of 2018.

To do this, Gov. Cuomo relies heavily on the state’s new and overwhelmingly dominant cable operator – Charter Communications, which closed on its acquisition of Time Warner Cable earlier this summer. A press release promoting the governor’s efforts quotes Charter’s executive vice president of government affairs Catherine Bohigia as being excited to work with the governor and his administration to expand service to about 145,000 households currently not served by Time Warner Cable or Charter in New York.

Charter officials are working with the Public Service Commission to identify the households to be served, and highly redacted documents suggest Charter is identifying new housing developments and areas immediately next to existing Charter/Time Warner Cable service areas for this expansion.

A second separate plan to subsidize private cable and phone companies to help cover the costs of reaching another 34,000 homes that won’t be served by Charter is only expected to reach 50% of the remaining unserved homes and businesses in the state. A further round of funding will target the the remainder of unserved areas, including certain rural landline areas where Verizon has shown no interest in offering customers internet access of any kind.

Charter Communications

Charter Communications has effectively canceled the Time Warner Cable Maxx upgrades that were either underway, in progress, or in the planning stage in upstate New York. Instead, Charter plans to speed up the roll-out its own originally proposed upgrade, which includes two tiers: 60 and 100Mbps, for more than two million upstate homes and businesses by early 2017 in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton and Albany.

Customers in Central New York are likely to be left in limbo, some already getting Maxx upgraded 300Mbps internet access while others were scheduled to get the speed upgrade the same week Charter froze further Maxx upgrades. Those customers are now likely to receive a maximum of 100Mbps service sometime next year under Charter’s new plan.

Charter is also negotiating with state officials about where it will deploy broadband to 145,000 currently unserved homes in upstate New York over the next four years.

State-funded Rural Broadband Awards – Round I

New York State will help subsidize broadband rollouts to approximately 34,000 homes and businesses currently not served (or not served adequately) in rural areas. All but two of these projects will rely on fiber to the home service and each will offer service to a few thousand people:

Applicant Namesort descending Technology REDC Region Census Blocks Housing Units Total Units State Grant Total Private Match Total Project Cost
Armstrong Telecommunications, Inc. FTTH Finger Lakes, Southern Tier, Western NY 176 1,135 1,162 $3,930,189 $982,549 $4,912,738
Armstrong Telephone Company FTTH Southern Tier, Western NY 74 466 504 $1,778,256 $444,564 $2,222,820
Citizens Telephone Company of Hammond, N.Y., Inc. FTTH North Country 146 1,789 1,860 $3,316,810 $829,202 $4,146,012
Empire Access FTTH Southern Tier 124 719 724 $1,797,894 $449,474 $2,247,368
Empire Access FTTH Southern Tier 117 1,202 1,268 $1,598,480 $399,620 $1,998,100
Frontier Communications FTTH Southern Tier 1 62 65 $67,592 $16,899 $84,491
Frontier Communications FTTH North Country 3 188 216 $129,634 $32,409 $162,043
Frontier Communications FTTH Southern Tier 12 129 142 $197,104 $49,276 $246,380
Frontier Communications FTTH Capital Region 23 391 394 $318,304 $79,576 $397,880
Frontier Communications FTTH Mohawk Valley 30 402 405 $924,663 $231,166 $1,155,829
Frontier Communications FTTH North Country 105 1,928 2,096 $1,702,246 $425,562 $2,127,808
Germantown Telephone Company FTTH Capital Region 208 2,195 2,334 $2,512,562 $628,140 $3,140,702
Haefele TV Inc. FTTH Southern Tier 413 3,029 3,238 $271,568 $67,892 $339,460
Hancock Telephone Company FTTH Southern Tier 136 1,505 1,675 $4,915,920 $1,228,981 $6,144,901
Heart of the Catskills Communications Hybrid-Fiber Coax Southern Tier 216 2,836 3,177 $1,224,946 $524,977 $1,749,923
Margaretville Telephone Company FTTH Mid-Hudson, Southern Tier 209 1,882 2,002 $4,791,505 $2,053,503 $6,845,008
Mid-Hudson Data Corp Fixed Wireless Capital Region 60 647 663 $950,184 $237,546 $1,187,730
Mid-Hudson Data Corp FTTH Capital Region 6 354 362 $59,155 $14,789 $73,944
State Telephone Company, Inc. FTTH Capital Region 231 3,801 4,134 $5,805,600 $1,451,400 $7,257,000
State Telephone Company, Inc. FTTH Capital Region 101 516 595 $2,914,960 $728,740 $3,643,700
TDS Telecom FTTH Southern Tier 156 2,369 2,423 $1,895,390 $1,895,390 $3,790,780
TDS Telecom FTTH North Country 74 506 543 $1,084,000 $1,084,000 $2,168,000
TDS Telecom FTTH Central NY, Finger Lakes 106 996 1,038 $1,424,793 $1,424,793 $2,849,586
TDS Telecom FTTH Southern Tier 395 3,528 3,551 $4,989,570 $4,989,570 $9,979,140
The Middleburgh Telephone Company FTTH Capital Region, Mohawk Valley 250 1,596 1,651 $5,562,548 $1,390,637 $6,953,185
Federally Funded Rural Broadband Awards – Round II

After Verizon abdicated any interest in participating in rural broadband expansion funding through the FCC’s Connect America Fund, New York’s Broadband Program Office (BPO) and the Public Service Commission urged the FCC to keep the original funding intended for rural New York intact and open to other applicants seeking to build rural broadband projects. The FCC has not fully committed to do this, but it is an agenda item. Assuming this funding becomes available, it will be used to help pay for independent broadband providers or rural cable operators to begin delivering broadband service into still unserved parts of New York not included in the Charter expansion or Round I projects noted above. Many Verizon territories are expected to be included.

Applicants will have to provide at least 100Mbps service in most places or a minimum of 25Mbps in the most remote corners of New York. The application form discourages applicants from delivering broadband over DSL or wireless and clearly favors fiber to the home or cable broadband technology. Price controls will be in place for the first few years to assure affordability and those winning funding are strictly prohibited from introducing usage caps or usage-billing.

A vaguely defined “third phase” is scheduled to launch early next year to offer internet access to all remaining unaddressed service areas. Nobody mentions where the money is coming from to cover the last 1-3% of unserved areas, which are likely to be notoriously expensive to reach.

Gov. Cuomo explains progress on his New York Broadband for All program. (26:31)

Verizon Sues New York Over Tax Refund Regulators Want Spent on Network Improvements

Phillip Dampier July 27, 2016 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Verizon No Comments

verizon repairVerizon Communications is taking the New York Public Service Commission to court over the regulator’s ruling that $8 million in property tax refunds rebated to the phone company through a tax certiorari proceeding should be spent on improving Verizon’s service quality in the state.

Verizon wants to pocket the refunds of $1 million from New York City, $2 million from Oyster Bay, and $5 million from Hempstead for the benefit of the company and its investors, but regulators are insisting Verizon use the money to boost “capital expenditures to address purported service quality and network reliability concerns about its New York network.”

The PSC has been monitoring Verizon’s landline performance in the state since at least 2010 under its Verizon Service Quality Improvement Plan proceeding. Local officials and customers have filed complaints with the PSC about extremely long repair times, service outages, unreliable service, and sub-par line quality for several years, especially in downstate areas around New York City that have not yet been upgraded to Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home service.

Regulators want those issues resolved, particularly after Verizon made it clear it has suspended its FiOS expansion outside of New York City. Customers with long-standing service issues are often offered a controversial wireless landline replacement called Voice Link, that has earned mixed reviews, instead of a permanent repair of their existing service.

ny pscVerizon calls the regulator’s demands arbitrary and unwarranted confiscation of its property.

“The commission did something it had never done before — it allowed Verizon to retain the refunds as it had in the past but this time also imposed a spending mandate which required Verizon to use the funds for a particular purpose,” the company claimed.

Verizon used the company’s long and successful track record convincing New York regulators that Verizon’s wireline networks have faced hard times as it bled landline customers, so it deserved regulatory and rate relief. Because the PSC recognized Verizon’s marketplace challenges when it “found that a lightened regulatory approach for traditional incumbent telephone carriers was warranted and necessary in order to level the playing field and enable them to remain viable providers in the future,” it is unwarranted to suddenly now demand the company spend its tax refund on network improvements, Verizon argued in its lawsuit.

In the past, Verizon added, the PSC allowed the phone company to keep its tax refund money for itself, even as it reduced spending on its infrastructure. The company claimed that to be “a proper regulatory response to the financial stress Verizon claims it is and will be under as it continues its transition to an increasingly competitive market.”

Earlier this year, the commission began to take a more formal look at the mounting service complaints it was receiving from Verizon customers and found troubling evidence Verizon might not be taking its copper landline network as seriously as it once did, especially in areas where FiOS upgrades have not been scheduled.

“…[T]here may be an unwillingness on the part of Verizon to compete to retain and adequately serve its regulated wireline customer base, and warrants further investigation into Verizon’s service quality processes and programs,” minutes from a March commission meeting state.

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