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Welcome to 2015; Another Year Fighting for a Square Deal for Essential Broadband Service

Phillip Dampier January 5, 2015 Editorial & Site News No Comments
Phillip Dampier

Phillip Dampier

Welcome to 2015!

This is the seventh year Stop the Cap! has fought for better broadband across North America and beyond. Whether your provider is Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Rogers, Bell, AT&T, Verizon or a (dwindling) number of other cable and telephone companies, there is plenty of room for improvement.

When we began in the summer of 2008, Frontier Communications was contemplating a usage cap of just 5GB a month on their broadband service. A year later Time Warner Cable market tested caps as high as 40GB a month. For almost as long as we’ve existed, Comcast has believed 250GB a month was all most customers ever needed. Rogers’ most popular Internet package today offers 60GB a month, despite the fact Canadians on average watch more online video than anyone else. AT&T thinks 150GB a month is fine for DSL and 250GB is all you’d need as a U-verse customer. Verizon doesn’t see a need for limits on either its DSL or fiber optic networks. Neither does Cablevision.

Usage caps and so-called “usage-based billing” continue to be one of the most under-reported stories in the tech press. Touted as “fair pricing,” these plans are in fact little more than profit-padding for a service that already earns companies as much as 90% gross margin. There is nothing fair about usage-based billing in North America. Customers face the same prices they have always paid for unlimited service, but now endure an arbitrary usage allowance that usually includes a stiff overlimit fee. Those providers charging usage pricing do not offer the fastest service, have not made significant improvements above and beyond other providers that still charge flat rate prices, and frequently also charge excessive modem rental fees.

The duopoly most Americans have for broadband service has become quite fat and happy collecting ever-increasing amounts of money for service that only seems to improve after an upstart competitor like Google arrives ready to offer better service at a lower price. Customers in Kansas City, Austin, and a handful of other communities are getting the best upgrades and are empowered to negotiate a lower price for service. The rest of the country is not so lucky. A handful of often-under capitalized fiber competitors have arrived in some areas, but their market share generally remains a fraction of what the cable and phone companies have locked up.

We have always believed broadband was destined to become the next must-have utility service, following clean water, electricity, gas and some form of telephone service. Unfortunately, Washington policymakers continue to treat Internet access as an optional extra, allowing one or two companies to dominate access in most communities. Policymakers and regulators have done very little to protect consumers from the effects of marketplace concentration, allowing cable and phone companies to merge and raise prices, remain uncommitted to protecting the Open Internet with strong Net Neutrality protections, and not taking the effects of usage caps seriously.

One of the most effective ways a community can combat bad service and high prices is to support launching its own public broadband network. Throughout the United States, local town and counties enduring “good enough for you” broadband (or no service at all) are constructing their own fiber optic networks to better meet the realities of the 21st century digital economy. They face industry-funded opposition in at least 20 states where lawmakers have banned or severely curtailed these networks to protect private telecom giants from the effects of serious competition.

In 2015, Stop the Cap! will continue to fight for consumers looking for a better deal:

  • We continue to oppose industry consolidation. Mergers and buyouts benefit executives and shareholders. They almost never benefit customers who soon find rate increases, fewer choices, and often worse service as a result. Connecticut residents know that first hand enduring Frontier Communications’ recent bungled transition from AT&T service. Customers that dislike Time Warner Cable will likely loathe Comcast if that merger wins regulator approval. AT&T’s buyout of DirecTV leaves one less competitive choice for customers living in AT&T’s service areas looking for an alternative to U-verse television. Imagine if the government had approved AT&T’s attempted buyout of T-Mobile, the one wireless carrier now willing to throw a monkey-wrench into the current dominance of almost-identical expensive wireless service plans from AT&T and Verizon.
  • Usage caps and consumption billing remain unjustified, particularly for wired broadband. Despite industry claims that usage caps and usage billing stimulate investment, in most cases the costs of delivering broadband service and the amounts companies invest in network upgrades continue their relentless decline on a per customer basis. Usage billing is no prescription for congestion problems either. Most congestion problems occur during peak usage levels — when light and heavy users alike are most likely to be online. A truly fair usage pricing scheme would charge a fair price for actual usage and nothing else. But such a pricing scheme would likely cut broadband bills and profits. So providers offer pre-determined compulsory usage allowances at current prices instead, and do not offer a flat rate option or rollover unused usage to a future month. As a result, customers often pay more for less service and constantly have to check their usage to make sure they do not get an unexpected surprise on their bill.
  • Strong Net Neutrality protection is the best guarantee of preserving the Internet as it exists today – where success or failure of an online venture is based on what it offers customers, not on the size of its bank account. A nationwide end to laws restricting the development and expansion of community broadband is also essential to give communities self-determination of their broadband future.
  • We will continue to educate consumers on how to negotiate a better deal with your provider and avoid expensive surcharges like modem rental fees. We will also continue to enlighten you about the pervasive influence of Big Telecom money on non-profits, state and federal governments, and researchers that support the various agendas of some of the largest telecom corporations in the country.

Broadband is improving at an incredible pace around the world, but back home prices continue to rise while Internet speed improvements are often met by usage cap road bumps. Internet affordability remains as much of a problem as rural broadband access. The more you know, the more effective you can argue for a change in telecom policies, where the public interest is better-balanced against corporate profits and duopoly prices.

Thank you for being a part of our efforts to make things better.

Time Warner Cable: Deck the Halls with $8 Modem Fees, Fa La La La La, La La La La ($2.75 DTA Fee, Too!)

Phillip Dampier December 22, 2014 Consumer News, Time Warner Cable 6 Comments

grinch3It’s a Merry Christmas from Time Warner Cable, with rate increases for one and all!

The cable company that usually waits for the holiday season to end before sending out annual “rate adjustment” notices got an early start this year with some dramatic price changes for many customers, with further rate hikes likely to follow later in 2015.

Taking a lead from Comcast, Time Warner Cable is hiking its broadband modem lease fee from $6 a month to $8 a month in January. That equals $96 a year for a modem that not too long ago used to be included at no extra charge as part of your broadband subscription. A typical customer with a Motorola SB6141 DOCSIS 3 cable modem can buy a brand new unit for nearly $20 less than what Time Warner will collect from customers each year for refurbished or used equipment… forever.

In 2013, Time Warner Cable’s Rob Marcus admitted the company does not charge modem rental fees to defray the cost of the equipment, but as a hidden rate increase designed to generate more revenue.

“The modem fee is a rate increase by all accounts, it takes a different form than usual […] it’s very much a part of the overall revenue generation program,” Marcus told an audience of investment banks.

Customers that lost analog channels after Time Warner Cable began converting part of its lineup to digital-only service were offered free Digital Adapters to continue receiving digital cable channels on older analog sets. Customers were expecting a promised $0.99 monthly lease fee for the devices starting January 1, 2015. Instead customers will now pay $2.75 a month for each DTA device, estimated to cost cable companies less than $50 each three years ago.

But the charges don’t end there.

  • timewarner twcThe Broadcast TV Surcharge for cable television subscribers will increase from $2.25 to $2.75 a month;
  • A new “Sports Programming Surcharge” of $2.75 a month now applies to all cable television customers, whether they watch sports channels or not;
  • That on-screen program guide does not come for free. The primary outlet “discounted guide” surcharge is rising from $2.77 to $3.27 a month;
  • HBO will increase from $14.99 to $16.99 a month; the Movie Pass package of Encore movie channels and certain other networks is rising $2 a month, from $5.99 to $7.99.

Part of the sales pitch Time Warner makes to justify rate increases is that broadband speeds have increased up to 100Mbps. Except they haven’t in many Time Warner Cable markets, which remain locked in with maximum speeds of 50/5Mbps for the indefinite future.

Thanks to Stop the Cap! reader Joseph for sharing Time Warner’s letter with us.

Some Fla. Lawmakers Fed-Up With Industry-Friendly Public Service Comm. That Grants Corporate Wishes

Phillip Dampier December 8, 2014 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video No Comments

corrupt pscFlorida’s Public Service Commission is charged with overseeing the state’s utility companies on behalf of the public interest, but some Florida lawmakers complain the regulator is corrupt, obsessed with fulfilling corporate wish lists and doing political favors for some of the state’s most powerful utilities and state legislators.

State Representative Chris Sprowls (R–District 65) and State Senator John Legg (R–District 17) have jointly filed legislation to reform Florida’s Public Service Commission (PSC). The two lawmakers joined consumer advocates in the state that complain the regulator has abandoned any pretense of representing consumers and today acts more like a consultant to facilitate corporate objectives in the state. The two lawmakers say their new bill is designed to send a strong message the PSC needs to be more reflective of the people they are supposed to serve.

“The Public Service Commission should serve the public good.  While millions of Floridians are left in the dark – or fleeced by companies like Duke Energy – the PSC continues to turn a blind eye,” said Representative Sprowls.  “These meaningful first steps will add some diversity and accountability to the PSC as we work on other reforms that will fundamentally alter the culture of the PSC.”

In recent years, the agency has reviewed proposals to end local oversight of cell tower placement, allowing AT&T and other carriers first choice of tower locations that work best for the companies, even if it creates visual pollution for nearby residents.

Last year, the Public Service Commission “compromised” with Duke Energy Florida, Inc. and saddled Floridians with $3.2 billion of the costs of shuttering one nuclear power plant and canceling another on the drawing boards. Duke’s shareholders were only on the hook for the first $295 million in costs associated with the Crystal River plant, while ratepayers covered more than ten times that amount.

The Commission also approved a sweeping series of rate increases for Florida Power & Light that will cause electric rates to soar across FPL’s service area, despite being informed that less than 1% of FPL customers supported the rate plan. In December 2012, FPL was granted a $350 million increase, but the deal also included increases of $236 million in 2014 and $217.9 million in 2016.

pscFlorida’s Public Counsel called the rate increases “abusive” and complained the PSC violated its due process when, despite the public counsel’s objections, it “abandoned” proceedings in which the public counsel had raised objections to FPL’s original petition and instead pursued approval of a settlement proposal from the utility that ultimately was agreed to by only a group of commercial customers.

This year, at the behest of the state’s largest energy companies, the Commission is rolling back energy efficiency goals originally proposed by the utilities themselves and is expected to kill a solar energy rebate program that has been a target of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Energy companies complain their rights are being violated by policies that require them to buy excess solar generated power from residential customers. In some states, homeowners attempting to install solar panels have received legal threats from utilities warning they would take the homeowners to court if the solar installation continued. In Florida, utility companies complain residential solar power is a nuisance.

“We want to bring on more renewables, but we also want to make sure the cost of electricity stays reasonable,” said Randy Wheeless, a spokesman for Duke Energy Corp., which serves customers in the Carolinas, the Midwest and Florida. Duke Energy has no objections to solar-generated power it collects itself.

One of the fiercest critics of Florida’s PSC is its former chair, Nancy Argenziano, who served a single two-year term while utilities complained about her pro-consumer voting record. She was not reappointed for a second term.

“I’ve never seen anything so corrupt as the PSC,” said Argenziano. “It’s the most corrupt place I have ever seen in my life, and that is someone coming from the House and Senate.”

Former PSC chairwoman Nancy Argenziano called Florida's current PSC "corrupt."

Former PSC chairwoman Nancy Argenziano calls Florida’s current PSC corrupt. (Image: Saint Petersburg Blog)

Argenziano blames Republican Gov. Rick Scott and several pro-business legislators for the corruption. According to Argenziano, the pressure to cave to the utilities’ demands came almost immediately after she joined the agency.

“After the third month,” she said, “I was at the PSC, the threats came in from the legislature to do as they say. l’m not going to sit there as a puppet head for some legislator.”

She has no love for lobbyists either, at one point sending a 25-pound box of manure to a lobbyist with whom she clashed on a nursing home bill.

Mike Fasano, the Pasco tax collector and a former state representative and senator, is also a critic of the PSC saying, “Unfortunately, the Public Service Commission and the Florida Legislature are bought and paid for by the utilities of Florida.”

Since the Scott Administration was voted into office, campaign contributions from electric utilities have flooded in to the point where Fasano believes the PSC now exists as a rubber stamp for the utilities.

“They can get away with it because they have paid for, they’ve bought and paid for the Florida Public Service Commission and the Florida Legislature and unfortunately the present governor,” said Fasano.

“Reforms are needed to restore confidence in the Public Service Commission,” said Sen. Legg. “Unfortunately, people don’t feel like they’ve been dealt with fairly and that is a problem.  I applaud Representative Sprowls for his courage and leadership on making this his first bill.”

The proposed legislation:

  • Limits commissioners from serving more than two consecutive terms;
  • Amends provisions for the purpose of statewide representation on the commission;
  • Divides the state into five districts, whose boundaries align with the district courts of appeal;
  • Each member of the Public Service Commission must reside within the respective district from which they are appointed;
  • Restricts elected officials from being appointed to the Commission for 2 years after leaving office.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WTSP Tamps Florida PSC called corrupt by former chair 12-4-14.flv

WTSP in Tampa investigated the Florida PSC and uncovered a major link between utility campaign contributions and how the PSC votes. (3:24)

Comcast Extends Free 6 Months of Internet Essentials Offer An Extra 10 Days As Regulators Ponder Merger

ieAs regulators ponder Comcast’s application to acquire Time Warner Cable, the issue of affordable Internet has been a hot topic as part of the merger review. So it is no surprise Comcast has announced it is extending its recent offer of six free months of Internet Essentials service to income-challenged families with school age children an extra 10 days.

“On August 4th, we made a special announcement: we are offering any family that has not yet signed up for Internet Essentials, up to six months of free service, if they apply before September 20th,” said Comcast executive vice president David Cohen on Comcast’s blog.  “Today, I’m thrilled to announce we’re going to extend that offer through Tuesday, September 30th.”

Comcast admits that only families that have never applied for Internet Essentials in the past can receive free service. Those already enrolled or who attempted to enroll in the past do not qualify.

The cable company does not make participation easy and is intent on protecting the revenue it earns selling regularly priced Internet service by keeping current customers out of the Internet Essentials program.

Just qualifying for Internet Essentials requires navigating an obstacle course:

The program is only available to households:

  • that have at least one child who is eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program (the “NSLP”) and as confirmed annually while enrolled in the program;
  • do not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment; and
  • have not subscribed to any Comcast Internet service within the last ninety (90) days.
Internet Essentials promises no rate increases, but the fine print suggests otherwise.

Internet Essentials promises no price increases, but the fine print suggests otherwise.

The program will only accept new customers for three full school years. After that, if Comcast decides it doesn’t want to offer the service any longer, customers are out of luck. Comcast can also restrict enrollment periods when it accepts new participants and requires annual verification paperwork demonstrating continued participation in the NSLP.

Comcast can throw families out of the program: if a child relocates outside of the household, loses NSLP eligibility, if a bill is paid late, if Comcast decides to stop offering the program, or if your account is closed. If you move, your account will be closed even if you choose to continue Comcast service at your new address, so don’t plan on going anywhere.

If and when Comcast determines your participation in Internet Essentials is over, your rates will automatically reset to standard Internet pricing without further notice. So much for promises of no rate increases. Those regular prices start at around $40 a month + a monthly modem rental fee of around $8 — quite a difference from $9.95.

Although the terms and conditions do not reflect it, Comcast claims to be continuing an “amnesty program” for would-be applicants with past due balances:

If customers have an outstanding bill that is more than one year old, then as long as they meet all the other eligibility criteria, they can apply to the program and we will provide amnesty for that back due bill for the purpose of connecting to Internet Essentials. If customers’ outstanding bills are less than a year old, however, then we would like them to settle that debt with us before they can be eligible to apply for the program. We are willing to work with families whose debt is reasonable enough that that they could pay us back in installments.

For more information, visit www.internetessentials.com or, for Spanish, www.internetbasico.com. You can also call 1-855-8-INTERNET or, for Spanish, 1-855-SOLO-995.

N.Y. Regulators Predict Some Time Warner Customers Will Pay More Than Double to Comcast

Staff at the New York regulator overseeing the state’s telecommunications companies have determined that some Time Warner Cable customers will see their largest rate increase in New York history — more than double their current rate — if Comcast is successful in its bid to acquire Time Warner Cable.

At issue is Time Warner Cable’s heavily promoted ‘buy only what you need’ Every Day Low Price Internet service, which offers 2Mbps service for $14.99 a month.

Comcast has no plans to continue the discount offering, which means Internet customers will pay more than twice as much for Comcast’s cheapest Internet package available to all customers — Economy Plus (3Mbps), priced at $39.99 a month and only available at that price if you also subscribe to Comcast telephone or television service.

Time Warner Cable’s cheapest television package is priced at $8-20 a month. Comcast’s least-expensive TV package costs $17-20 a month.

“Time Warner’s lowest-priced offerings… represent choices for New York consumers,” Public Service Commission staff wrote in an Aug. 8 filing in the case, noted Albany’s Times-Union. “Any loss of these services would likely result in consumers paying more.”

Comcast denies it will raise prices for New Yorkers or any other Time Warner Cable customer, but noted it needs to study the “significant competition that it faces” before making any decisions on prices. When Comcast discovers Verizon FiOS isn’t providing much of a competitive threat in areas unreached after Verizon stalled its expansion efforts and AT&T U-verse and other telco broadband offerings cannot keep up with cable broadband speeds, they might assume they don’t face that much competition after all.

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  • Joe V: It wouldn't surprise me in the least if Frontier is being propped up with help by the U.S. Government with all these acquisitions and network investme...
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  • Phillip Dampier: Readers: Please see our newly updated 2015 guide to Getting a Better Deal from Time Warner Cable. You will get the latest information about negotiatin...
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