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Time Warner Cable Quotes One of Our Readers $31,885 to Install Service

twcGreenStop the Cap! reader Geoff W. lives in Liberty Township, Ohio — 35 miles east of Columbus, the state capital. But he might as well live in Cuba, because High Speed Internet is a digital pipe dream for him and his immediate neighbors. Despite living just a few houses away from other Time Warner Cable customers, the cable giant has quoted him $31,885 to install broadband service at his home.

A Time Warner Cable representative told Geoff the thirty grand plus would cover installing 531 feet of overhead cable, 1,800 feet of underground coaxial cable, and three pole permits.

“It’s time to consider High Speed Internet access a utility,” Geoff said.

Suddenlink Unveiling New Unlimited Data Plan for Premium Customers April 1

SuddenlinkLogo1-630x140Stop the Cap! has learned customer complaints about Suddenlink Communications’ data caps have made an impact, and the company is planning to rollout a new campaign starting April 1 allowing premium customers to get their unlimited data back, eventually at a price.

A source tells us residential customers will now qualify for unlimited if they subscribe to either of Suddenlink’s two fastest Internet plans in any respective market. In most areas, that means signing up for 100/10 or 200/20Mbps service. Where gigabit plans exist, customers will need to subscribe to either 200/20 or 1,000/50Mbps service.

DSL Comparison Chart 10.22.15_2Customers will need to call Suddenlink to sign up for the offer (we’ve reached out to the company to learn the details we will share if we receive them), which provides unlimited service free for the first year. In year two, unlimited will cost $5 extra a month and after the second year Suddenlink will charge customers $10 extra.

Suddenlink claims its Internet plans already come with “generous” allowances, but fails to disclose them upfront to customers. In fact, there is no apparent way for a prospective customer to learn what their usage cap is without calling in or waiting until after they sign up for service:

Quoted from Suddenlink's customer FAQ

Quoted from Suddenlink’s customer FAQ

Kent

Kent

As with every other Internet Service Provider implementing data caps, Suddenlink claims practically nobody is affected by them.

“The residential data we offer should be more than sufficient for the vast majority of our customers,” the company says. “The relatively few customers who desire more may wish to consider upgrading to a faster speed with a larger data plan, where available, or purchasing one or more supplemental data packages.”

But in November 2015, the outgoing CEO of Suddenlink Jerry Kent told Wall Street an entirely different story.

“Overage charges have become a significant revenue stream for us,” Kent said, noting usage cap overlimit fees were a major factor for the company’s 3.6% year over year growth in revenue, which reached $605.1 million.

Customers were given this explanation for Suddenlink’s decision to implement data caps:

“Data plans are one step among several that help us continue delivering a quality Internet experience for our customers. Other steps include the sizable investments we’ve made and continue making to provide greater downstream and upstream system capacity and more bandwidth per home. Even with those investments, a relatively few customers use a disproportionate amount of data, which can negatively affect the Internet experience of those who use far less. That’s why, as a complement to our network investments, we’ve established data plans.”

But Kent explained things back in 2010 somewhat differently to Wall Street and his investors:

“I think one of the things people don’t realize [relates to] the question of capital intensity and having to keep spending to keep up with capacity,” Kent said. “Those days are basically over, and you are seeing significant free cash flow generated from the cable operators as our capital expenditures continue to come down.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lopez appears to be on board:

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

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

epb broadband prices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frontier: Your Lousy Wi-Fi is Responsible for Your Slow Internet, Not Us

wi-fi blameFrontier Communications CEO Dan McCarthy blames slow Internet connections on your lousy home Wi-Fi network, not on his company’s broadband service.

McCarthy hoped to convince investors attending the J.P. Morgan Global High Yield & Leveraged Finance Conference earlier this month that Frontier’s last-mile network performance isn’t the real problem, it’s his customers’ Wi-Fi, and delivering faster broadband service isn’t going to solve many speed woes.

“I think the biggest issue that we face in having those kind of increments of capacity is the experience in the home can be substandard not only for us and they perceive a speed issue, but it’s really a Wi-Fi issue,” McCarthy said. “If you look at that many of the perceived speed issues in a home are purely due to a neighbor on the same Wi-Fi channel, which can cut your throughput by 50 percent.”

McCarthy claimed at least 40 percent of the complaints Frontier customers lodge about the company’s broadband service relate to the home Wi-Fi experience. Oddly, customers of other broadband providers don’t seem to complain as much about the performance of their Internet access provider. Frontier scores #12 on Netflix’s speed performance ranking, delivering an average of 2.51Mbps video streaming performance. It isn’t great, but it beat Windstream, Verizon DSL and last place CenturyLink.

frontier new logoFrontier Communications has promised to commit additional investment to expand and improve broadband after it completes its purchase of Verizon landlines in Florida, California, and Texas. Copper DSL customers may eventually get 25Mbps service, fiber customers up to 1Gbps. But the speed improvements have not been as forthcoming in Frontier’s original service areas, dubbed “legacy territories.”

McCarthy claimed more customers within its copper service areas will get speeds of 25-30Mbps, with some getting speeds of 100Mbps and above. But legacy customers often report they consider themselves lucky to see 6Mbps from Frontier DSL.

McCarthy

McCarthy

Despite that, McCarthy seemed to signal Frontier will direct much of its investment into its newest acquisition service areas, not the communities which have had Frontier DSL service for a decade or more.

“We’re investing in the copper facilities as we go into these three states,” McCarthy said. “We’ll be putting in the latest generation of bonded VDSL with vectoring capabilities at the DSLAM and that gives us the ability to have those 80-100 Mbps speeds.”

McCarthy does get the benefit of bragging the company has a larger amount of fiber broadband than ever before.

“Before we do the three-state acquisition, about 10 percent of our markets are passed with fiber-to-the-home and with these three markets about 55 percent of those markets are fiber-to-the-home,” McCarthy said. “We’ll have a substantial slug of markets passed with fiber.”

This excludes the fact Frontier did not build this additional fiber infrastructure itself. It acquired it from another company, in this case Verizon.

Stop the Cap! Joins 21 Other Consumer Groups Asking FCC to Block Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger

charter twc bhOn Monday, Stop the Cap! joined 21 other public interest organizations in sending a joint letter urging the Federal Communications Commission to deny Charter’s bid to take over Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Late last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler may be planning to circulate a draft order approving the $90 billion merger.

The Center for Media Justice, CREDO Action, Daily Kos, Demand Progress, Free Press and Presente.org were among the media justice, Internet rights and public interest groups calling on the FCC to reject this deal, which would create a national broadband duopoly.

Together, Charter and Comcast would control nearly two-thirds of the nation’s high-speed broadband subscribers and would offer service to nearly 80 percent of U.S. households. The letter notes that this substantial increase in market power, coupled with Charter’s $66 billion in debt, would give the company both the incentive and the heightened ability to raise prices at will. This would broaden the digital divide, hitting low-income communities the hardest.

Stop the Cap! earlier filed objections to the merger with the FCC and in two states seen as critical to the deal – New York and California. In our view, no cable merger has ever resulted in better service or lower prices for consumers. Such deals deliver handsome sums to executives and shareholders while saddling customers with relentless rate hikes and no improvement in service. Charter’s history is troubling and its ability to meet its financial obligations while saddled in debt is dubious. Charter declared bankruptcy in 2009, after accumulating $21.7 billion in debt accumulated from years of mergers and consolidation efforts. As credit markets tightened up, Charter’s ability to manage its debt fell apart. Now the company is back to its old modus operandi, piling up debt buying Time Warner Cable — a much larger operation, and trying to combine it with Bright House Networks, another cable operator prominent in Florida.

Earlier this year, several of the signers delivered petitions to the FCC from more than 300,000 Americans opposing the merger, and thousands have called the agency in recent days to weigh in against the deal. Political leaders including Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid have spoken out about the merger’s many harms.

“Too many Washington insiders have given up on challenging this deal despite its serious harms,” said Free Press policy director Matt Wood. “Instead of forecasting its chances for approval, the groups signing this letter will keep fighting to block this merger, along with the guaranteed price increases it would foist on people and communities who can least afford it.

“If Charter gets this merger approved, nothing will stop it from raising its rates for high-speed broadband and video customers who have nowhere else to turn. Temporary promises and weak conditions aren’t going to preserve competition and choice in the long run, and they’re not going to do anything to stop these price hikes. The FCC is charged with promoting the public interest, and there’s no way in which this merger benefits the public. Higher prices and fewer choices won’t help anyone but the companies pitching this bad bargain.”

“If its takeover of Time Warner Cable goes through, Charter will have a broadband footprint as big as Comcast’s,” said Demand Progress executive director David Segal. “This would turn an industry that’s already too concentrated into a duopoly, paving the way for higher rates today and the eventual formation of a new cross-sector behemoth that controls content production and delivery.

“Americans increasingly understand that corporate concentration is jacking up prices and lowering quality for all sorts of basic goods and services. At a hearing of a Senate antitrust subcommittee this month, lawmakers made it clear that they see companies that are allegedly too big to fix in many industries, not just the banking sector. This FCC must now decide whether it wants to stem the swelling tide of concentration, or enable these monopolies.”

Free Press and Stop the Cap! contributed elements of this story.

Oregon Lawmakers Write Loophole for Google Fiber That Will Save Comcast Millions Instead

bank_error_in_your_favorFrom the Department of Unintended Consequences, Comcast will likely be the biggest benefactor of a new Oregon law intended to attract Google Fiber to Portland.

The Oregon Legislature rewrote the state’s tax laws after learning Google objected to Oregon’s concept of “central assessment,” which calculates local property taxes partly on the value of a company’s brand. The tax policy proved so contentious, Comcast spent years fighting the tax before ultimately losing its appeal before the Oregon Supreme Court in 2014. After two years of lobbying Google to come to Portland, nothing short of a repeal or exemption of this tax policy was likely to get the search engine giant to reconsider.

Comcast officials must not have believed their luck when state lawmakers resolved the tax problem for them, all because of efforts to woo Google back to the state. Legislators proposed a tax exemption for companies that agreed to invest in gigabit speed broadband and deliver it to the majority of the state’s broadband customers. The new law was a clear invitation to Google to begin wiring the state for fiber, but Comcast has crashed the party instead.

Comcast officials argue their own new “Gigabit Pro” service qualifies the cable company for the same tax exemptions Oregon intended Google to receive, despite the fact its 2-gigabit offering costs a fortune and is unlikely to attract more than a fraction of Comcast customers.

gigabit proOregon lawmakers wrote a law seeking to assure equal access by prohibiting companies from targeting only affluent neighborhoods for fiber upgrades, while forgetting to consider the cost of the service itself. Gigabit Pro will never feature prominently in Portland’s challenged neighborhoods at a cost of $4,600 for service during the first year.

Lawmakers now face the wrath of several local tax authorities that report they’ll lose tens of millions in tax revenue if Comcast successfully applies for an exemption. Staff members of the Oregon Public Utility Commission believes Comcast ultimately will qualify for that exemption, even if only a few customers pay Comcast’s asking price for gigabit service.

“If the application is approved, schools, libraries and local governments across the state would receive significantly less revenue,” wrote Mary Beth Henry, director of Portland’s Office of Community Technology, in a letter to state regulators. “This application was not the kind anticipated by the Legislature.”

Portland officials argue Comcast is violating the spirit of the new broadly written law by pricing its fiber service at $300 a month, far out of reach of most households. Google Fiber typically charges $70 for its gigabit service.

Critics of the legislature contend this isn’t the first instance of the Oregon body making a mess of things. In addition to not bothering to define what qualifies as “affordable” Internet, how much companies had to spend to offer it, or how many customers had to actually sign up for the service, language in the original bill accidentally left Google Fiber off the exemption list.

Unlimitedville: Affordable Unlimited Wireless Broadband Service via Sprint

unlimitedvilleFinding affordable wireless Internet access that isn’t speed throttled or usage capped is becoming rare, but Stop the Cap! has been exploring a provider that offers both.

Unlimitedville is the latest authorized reseller of Sprint that has managed to get permission to market an unlimited LTE 4G wireless data plan that comes without speed throttles. The service is priced at $42.99 a month (not including certain minor fees and surcharges) and includes a 30-day free trial to test the service. A $50 setup fee includes a mobile hotspot device (typically a Netgear Zing or Pocket Wifi) that is yours to keep once you commit to the required 2-year contract (after the free trial).

Customers we have communicated with give the service a universal thumbs-up for not limiting or throttling usage. Customers in suburban and semi-rural areas near highways and interstates report the best speeds from relatively uncongested Sprint cell towers. Those in very rural areas may have a lot of trouble finding Sprint service available, so potential customers should review Sprint’s coverage map carefully for data service coverage before considering Unlimitedville.

There are some peculiarities about doing business with this reseller, however.

First, Unlimitedville acts as a front line sales agent, but accounts are apparently provisioned by an another company named Impact Wireless, a “master agent” for Sprint. After service is established, all future communications, support and billing take place directly with Sprint.

sprint zingGetting service established is the first minor hurdle. Because the contract plan is intended for business use, customers will need to list a company name on the enrollment form. It is acceptable to consider yourself a consultant or use your current profession if you intend to use the service at anytime/for any reason for work or while travelling for work. No formal business registration is required. Some customers sign up using their last name, as in “Smith Consulting.” You do have to give them your Social Security number or business Taxpayer ID Number to run the usual required credit check. Most applicants are easily approved within 72 hours and Sprint will then call to help arrange for service. If you are not approved, you can agree to pay an upfront deposit and after 12 on-time monthly payments, the deposit will be returned to your account.

Second, some customers have recently reported they’ve been surprised to discover their account activation came with membership in a free loyalty program for a certain home improvement retail chain. With the recent demise of Karma’s Neverstop plan, disconnecting customers are banging at the doors of Unlimitedville to get in. Evidently this overflow is also affecting Impact Wireless, which evidently has some limitations on how many new customers it can enroll itself over a certain period of time. As a result, they may be looking for other entry points available to them to get customers activated as quickly as possible. Customers should be ready to be flexible. Getting unlimited wireless data from anyone these days increasingly requires creativity.

As Unlimitedville gains more visibility, there are also questions about how long it will last given carriers’ dislike of resellers that attract a lot of heavy users. The service has been around at least as long as Karma and is still welcoming new clients, so it is hard to say. It will probably last longer if customers respect the wireless network that powers it was not built to sustain customers running up a terabyte of usage a month. Being a responsible user of a limited resource is likely to help keep these kinds of unlimited services viable, an important consideration for customers who do not have the luxury of going to another provider if Unlimitedville folds.

CWA, New York City to Altice: ‘Thanks, But No Thanks’ on Cablevision Buyout

altice debtThe Communications Workers of America has told the New York Public Service Commission it should reject Altice’s proposal to buy Cablevision for more than $17 billion, claiming it’s a bad deal for customers and employees alike.

Citing Altice’s massive debt and the company’s documented history of cutting expenses and investment, Dennis Trainor, vice president for the CWA-District One, said approving the deal would load Cablevision down in debt, making any significant investments in Cablevision’s future doubtful.

“This is a bad deal for Cablevision customers and employees,” Trainor said. “Altice overpaid for Cablevision, and is financing that overpayment by loading Cablevision with debt. That will inevitably lead to worse service for customers.”

The CWA also heavily criticized Altice and Cablevision for stalling sharing documentation with the labor union as ordered by a New York Administrative Law Judge. It filed initial comments opposing the transaction with the PSC under protest.

Optimum-Branding-Spot-New-Logo“As late as the morning of Feb. 5, [the Joint Applicants] have continued their grudging and incomplete disgorgement of relevant and probative material to which CWA is entitled,” the CWA wrote. “CWA now possesses documents and data which are contradictory and require reconciliation.”

The CWA considers the deal good for Altice and Cablevision’s owners and investors, but a raw one for customers.

“For example, Cablevision’s top five executives will have almost $160 million in ‘golden parachute’ compensation available to them under certain circumstances if the transaction is approved, of which almost $100 million will become automatically triggered and payable upon consummation of the merger,” the CWA stated. “In sum, after the transaction closes, Cablevision will be the same company, with the same plant and equipment, but with substantially more debt and relatively little cash on hand,” the CWA concluded.

The CWA also cited Stop the Cap!’s own reporting of the consequences of increasing debt and reduced investment at SFR, an Altice-owned telecommunications provider in France:

“We refer the Commission to publicly available reports of a collapse of service quality for customers of SFR, one of France’s largest telecom service providers, owned by Altice. This has caused a doubling of complaints from wired customers between 2014 and 2015 and a corresponding increase in complaints about wireless service of 50%. Altice had two responses: First, it blamed the company it purchased SFR from ‘we pay the price of underinvestment from the previous [owner]’. Second, it disputes whether the level of complaint is unacceptable ‘For now, we are not very good, but we are not bad.'”

cwa_logoNew York City’s Office of the Public Advocate is no fan either. In its filing, the OPA also cited Altice’s enormous debt load, which has increased dramatically over the last four years.

“[Altice CEO Patrick] Drahi has already driven away customers and alienated employees in France since his acquisition [of SFR],” writes the OPA. “In SFR’s case, Altice eliminated costs to boost SFR’s profit margins. Among Altice’s practices with SFR were: efforts to stall payments for suppliers, initiating salary and job cuts, and a reduction in spending on meaningful service upgrades.”

The OPA also cites reporting by Stop the Cap! documenting how SFR performed after being acquired by Altice.

Leticia James, Public Advocate for the City of New York

Leticia James, Public Advocate for the City of New York

“We know, for example, SFR was forced to completely stop paying suppliers in order to force a renegotiation for cheaper supplies,” writes the OPA. “The French government appointed a mediator to resolve the issues. Moreover, these business practices failed to effectuate Altice’s goals. Just four months ago, Altice reported ‘worse-than-expected’ third quarter results for SFR that drove the company’s shares down 10 percent. In fact, SFR lost one million customers in just one year. Investors correctly attribute customer losses to Altice’s aggressive cost-trimming. As one expert explains, ‘the savings came first immediately and now the churn (or customer defection) goes up.’ Another analyst describes Altice’s ‘dangerous’ actions as not only cutting out the fat, but also the meat and the bones.”

The PSC staff reviewing the transaction also expressed concern that Altice’s willingness to keep data caps at its other acquisition Suddenlink may result in similar data caps being implemented on Cablevision customers after the merger.

Especially notable to the PSC staff was the fact that under Suddenlink’s 1000/50Mbps data-capped plan, “if the connection is utilized at its rated speeds […] a customer could reach the data cap in less than two hours.”

“If Altice were to import Suddenlink’s pricing into Cablevision service territory and impose data caps on its existing plans, some customers would be forced to upgrade not for the increased speed, but for larger data caps,” the PSC staff wrote. “For example, customers on Cablevision’s low-end 5Mbps plan, if limited to a 250GB monthly cap, would technically be able to hit their cap after just five days of constant use. More practically, they would be limited to approximately 83 hours (a little less than three hours a day) of video streaming, if the connection were not used for anything else.”

“Simply put, the introduction of Suddenlink-type data caps in Cablevision’s New York service territory post-transaction would limit the ability of New York consumers to utilize their broadband connections at their own discretion, as they currently enjoy with Cablevision service today, and would lessen the ability of over-the-top voice and video providers to compete with Cablevision’s bundled services,” the PSC staff concluded. “The imposition of Suddenlink-type data caps would be a significant detriment to New York consumers, and should not be allowed as a condition of the transaction.”

Subscribers Furious Over Drahi-Ordered Cost Cuts at Altice/SFR; 2-Week Service Outages

THE FRENCH SLASHER: Patrick Drahi's cost-cutting methods have caused an uproar in France, leading to nearly two million customers to flee his companies for other providers.

THE FRENCH SLASHER: Patrick Drahi’s cost-cutting methods have caused an uproar in France, leading nearly two million customers to flee his telecom companies for other providers.

Even as Patrick Drahi’s Altice promises state regulators expensive upgrades and better service for Cablevision subscribers in return for permission to buy the cable operator, complaints from Altice customers in France are now achieving an unprecedented high, with French media reports implicating Drahi’s demands for severe cost cutting in disastrous consequences for customers that face service outages that can last weeks.

SFR, one of France’s largest telecom service providers, has been the subject of ongoing media attention across France as customers continue to complain about promised network improvements that have ground to a halt, deteriorating infrastructure and service outages, poor customer service, and what French telecom experts claim is a clear case of cost-cutting being given precedence over good service.

Rarely has a company executive charged with putting a company’s case to the media and the public had a more difficult time explaining away the thousands of complaints that media outlets receive when they ask readers and viewers to comment about Altice-owned companies.

Salvatore Tuttolomondo, a regional director of relations for SFR, could only muster, “For now, we are not very good, but we are not bad,” in defense.

The French Association of Telecom Users (AFUTT) reports complaints about what is now one of the worst-performing telecom providers in France have exploded. SFR has seen a doubling of complaints from its wired customers between 2014 and 2015 and complaints about wireless service are also up by 50%.

“Even Free.fr and MVNOs do better,” says Denis Leboeuf, from the AFUTT.

For many French consumers, Altice teaches the lesson of bewaring promises of vast service improvements from an executive with a well-known demand to cut costs to the bone.

Capital reports the reason for SFR’s troubles is easy to identify.

sfr-abonne-s_small

Subscriber Numbers Falling…

“To restore margins, the operator has sacrificed the quality of its network and its customer service,” the magazine reports.

Capital lays out an indictment of Drahi’s way of doing business, one that has occasionally left his customers in peril when they were unable to summon emergency assistance over failing telephone lines or ruined one town’s tourist season when service problems made it difficult to impossible for visitors to register for events and arrange bookings.

It was never supposed to happen this way. On April 7, 2014, a triumphant Patrick Drahi announced his company Altice trumped rivals like Bouygues Telecom to acquire SFR from French conglomerate Vivendi for about $17 billion dollars. The first thing Mr. Drahi promised was to invest heavily in SFR to improve network quality and cut unnecessary costs. Those promises are now familiar to Cablevision subscribers as regulators in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey contemplate approving the sale of the cable company to Altice.

Much of France is still waiting for those promised upgrades. SFR’s DSL equipment is ‘downright lousy,’ delivering dead last performance among French telecom operators. SFR wireless data is no prize either, with customers howling complaints about slow to unresponsive service. Even texting over SFR’s network is dreadful, reports La Voix du Nord: “Carrier pigeons are faster,” it reported. Widespread complaints of texting failures lasting hours are legion. Customers know when service is restored when the dozens of unanswered texts they didn’t receive during the business day suddenly arrive in the middle of the night.

...While complaints are rising.

…While complaints are rising.

One nurse discovered her best bet is to go and stand near her toilet, where cell reception is just good enough to roam on a cell network operating across the border in Belgium. Other customers have to go outside to find a signal, because many of SFR’s cell towers are often affected by service interruptions which can last weeks.

Several French cities were the unlucky recipients of SFR service outages in December. Parts of Pas-de-Calais had the displeasure of being “cut off from the world” by a complete service outage lasting 15 days. French businesses sent employees to coffee shops and other venues during the business day with their cell phones to find a wireless signal to conduct business for more than two weeks.

La Voix du Nord confirmed one subscriber’s account that The Grand Wireless Failure of 2015 in Desvres came as a result of an antenna that fell into disrepair. The problem was identified in the first week of December, but an employee-engineer brusquely admitted “maintenance [to restore service] will not take place before Wednesday, Dec. 16” — at least two weeks later. Whether the repair could be completed quickly or not made no difference. Cost controls at SFR controlled the calendar.

French telecom watchdog ARCEP has learned to take Altice’s promises and commitments with a grain of salt. It suggested the “gap between promises and reality” had grown into a chasm over SFR’s appallingly awful 3G service. Altice replied it was “undertaking a major renovation program of its mobile network that is not without impact on service quality, but it is an investment for the next 15 years.”

Waiting on hold

Waiting on hold

More than a few customers wonder if that means it will take 15 years to get reasonable service. More than 1.6 million so far have decided not to wait and find out.

Laurence joined the exodus of customers canceling service this month. Many customers leave angry, such as the parade of residents from the “digital eco-district” of Issy-les-Moulineaux who are “exasperated by repeated failures” of SFR’s wired broadband and television service equipment. Of the 40 days Laurence was a customer, he lacked Internet service for 17 of them.

Altice officials call the horror stories anecdotal and note they have millions of happy customers. But La Voix du Nord isn’t so certain that is true either. (They are also an SFR customer suffering service problems.) Since Drahi took over as the new owner, the newspaper surveyed its readers starting in March 2015 for their thoughts about Altice-owned SFR. In less than 24 hours, their Facebook page melted down with 3,760 mostly critical responses. Orange, the cell phone company the French usually love to hate, skated by with ten times fewer complaints than SFR. Altice officials promised things were about to get much better in response.

Slightly.

Heading for the exit

Heading for the exit

Last fall, the newspaper repeated the survey and 2,700 comments and replies arrived, again overwhelmingly negative. More than 100 customers were so angry, they wanted to share details of their service tragedies in private messages. The reader service representative eventually had to ask people to stop, saying she had at least 100 more unread in her inbox.

Customers were promised upgrades before. Thomas Detrain of Nœux-les-Mines received word he should expect one disruption lasting three weeks back in November 2014. Since that time, the outages keep on coming and SFR has offered him one time compensation of approximately $44 on one bill amounting to about $52. SFR now expects to be paid in full, whether the service is working or not.

Charlotte Dabrowski of Bourbourg has had her problems with service quality, too. But at least she has some service. “What makes me the most pissed off is that I was told: ‘You’re lucky, you are on the right side of our antenna.’ Was this supposed to be funny?”

Tuttolomondo

Tuttolomondo: You can’t trust our customers.

SFR has resolved to either downplay its legendary bad press or blame someone else for all the troubles.

Tuttolomondo attempts the former, dismissing the thousands of Facebook complaints the newspaper had received.

“You have how many comments from dissatisfied customers, 2,000?,” Tuttolomondo asked. “We have about 500,000 customers in the region, so this is less than 0.5%.”

When asked if SFR would automatically compensate customers for its significant service outages, Tuttolomondo implied his customers would take advantage of him if he tried.

“It’s case by case,” said Tuttolomondo. “I’m not going to promise a general compensation, otherwise even customers who do not have to worry will ask me for money. But our customer service is really alert. You think it makes me happy to have unhappy customers? We’ll never get 100% satisfied.”

Tuttolomondo also seemed exasperated with his own customers, implying the company’s poorly rated 4G service “sometimes comes from incompatible phones” owned by customers who didn’t know better.

SFR's customer service call center... in Tunisia.

SFR’s customer service call center… in Tunisia.

Tuttolomondo’s line matches that of SFR’s customer service representatives, now relocated to call centers sprinkled across the exotic North African desert lands of the Maghreb, where workers with passable French language skills are willing to work cheap. But not cheap enough. Recently Drahi has been looking for an even better deal from subcontractors in Portugal, Mauritius and Madagascar. Customers lament it will probably be difficult to get a call center employee living with a few hours of electricity a day and no telephone service at home to comprehend why SFR’s fiber to the home service is not meeting its broadband speed objectives.

Drahi yes-man Jerome Yomtov, the Deputy Secretary General of SFR, decided it would be more productive to blame someone else for everything — Vivendi, the former owner, in particular.

“For our 3G and 4G networks, we pay the price of under-investment from the previous [owner],” explains Yomtov. He added the sale disrupted upgrades for two years. SFR had reduced its investments by 10% after it knew it was going to be put up for sale. But Capital reports after Drahi arrived, investments froze almost completely, which caused ever-increasing delays for network repairs and upgrades to keep up with traffic demands, not to mention commissioning new cell sites to improve coverage.

The reason for the delay was a Drahi-inspired Lord of the Flies-style bidding war among vendors and subcontractors.

It was either this...

Altice Cost Cutters: It was either this…

“The new management has replaced our usual subcontractor bidding process with that used by Numericable [another Drahi-owned company],” a network technician tells Capital. The result was endlessly repeated bidding rounds as subcontractors tried to undercut each other to win Drahi’s business. The technician reports Drahi allowed the bidding to run up to four months, resulting in one of the last rounds to scrape together a bid offering savings of just 5,000 Euros (just over $5,000) over a previous round.

“Drahi wanted to see how far they would be willing to come down,” the technician said. “The standoff would have [eventually] enabled SFR to save 10-15% of its infrastructure costs.” In the end, the priority given to cost-savings (at the cost of deteriorating service) caused a stagnancy of upgrades lasting almost nine months, claimed one project manager.

ARCEP revealed that SFR now has France’s smallest high-speed 4G network, with only 39% of the population covered. SFR officially claims 65% coverage, but that difference comes largely from coverage rented from competing Bouygues Telecom. Over the first 11 months of 2015, Altice’s subsidiary has managed to launch only 962 new antennas, three times less than the notoriously cheap Free.fr.

More stories of Altice’s so-called “Cost-Killing Madmen” — the company’s bean counters sent in after Drahi closes on a deal — have also since emerged. Employees tell the French press their cost-cutting schemes are bizarre and ruthless. Employees in one office were suddenly given orders to discard the office’s plants strategically placed to help improve the working environment.

“They told us it’s that or the toilet paper,” sighed the employee. Many thought the cost-cutters were joking at first, until they remained stone-faced during the nervous laughter shared by employees.

...or this

…or this

At the headquarters of La Plaine Saint-Denis, visitors may notice things are looking a little worse for wear in the office. That may be because the carpet is no longer cleaned weekly. The bean counters think once every two weeks is enough. But the toughest conditions are now probably experienced by the janitorial staff, who have been ordered to clean and maintain 46 office restrooms and given only three hours each work cycle to complete the task. At least 700 workers in Lyon were denied doctor visits for several days when the cost-cutters decided medical expenses were too high. It took the Works Council a few angry moments with company executives to rescind that budget cut.

Despite the plight of the workers, Drahi has some headaches of his own. He is hard at work conquering the most exclusive neighborhood in Geneva, Switzerland. Drahi, who boasts about his cost cutting and his ability to pay minimal wages, has splurged on two enormous villas in the commune of Cologny. His deputies and financial partners are not far away, having spent small fortunes on expensive housing in Vésenaz and Prangins. Now one of Drahi’s protegés, Jean-Luc Berrebi, member of the board and chief financial officer at Altice-owned Israeli telecom company HOT, has strategically moved himself right next door to Drahi, spending nearly $28 million dollars to buy Drahi’s second villa just 100 meters away. At the same time Drahi was closing on that deal, ordinary Israelis are shelling out considerably more for service from HOT, after the company announced sweeping rate hikes.

Exempt from cost-cutting, one of two of Drahi's villa in Switzerland, recently sold to a protege for about $28 million. Drahi still lives next door.

Exempt from cost-cutting: One of two Drahi villas in Switzerland, recently sold to a protegé for about $28 million. Drahi still lives next door.

Investors initially seemed pleased to learn cost cutting and reduced investment helped SFR increase its margin 18% since the beginning of 2015, which has allowed the company to deliver some impressive results to shareholders, at least in the short-term. But that good news was tempered by the veritable stampede of customers fleeing SFR for better service from other providers. Many in the French media now question whether Drahi has not just damaged SFR’s service, but also permanently tainted the image of its brand.

Executives at Orange can sigh some relief watching the chaos unfold at SFR and Numericable. Customers that swore off Orange with protestations of “never again,” are now increasingly calling the perennial bad boy of wireless “the lesser evil.”

FCC Chairman Rejects Mobile Internet as Useful Competitor to Wired Broadband

Wheeler

Wheeler

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler considers mobile broadband a poor substitute for fixed/wired Internet access. A fact sheet released by Wheeler’s office shows he is convinced America still has a broadband problem — speeds are too slow, competition is lacking, and 4G/LTE wireless broadband is so usage-capped or speed throttled, it is not a serious substitute for traditional wired broadband.

Wheeler claimed, “approximately 34 million Americans still lack access to fixed broadband at the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25Mbps for downloads, 3Mbps for uploads,” and has previously said those that do often find those speeds from only a single provider, typically a cable company.

Wheeler doesn’t dismiss the need for wireless Internet access, but he considers it an add-on for customers on the go. Other highlights from the fact sheet:

  • A persistent urban-rural digital divide has left 39 percent of the rural population without access to fixed broadband. By comparison, only 4 percent living in urban areas lack access;
  • 41 percent of Tribal Lands residents lack access;
  • 41 percent of schools have not met the Commission’s short-term goal of 100Mbps per 1,000 students/staff;
  • Only 9 percent of schools have fiber connections capable of meeting the FCC’s long-term goal of 1Gbps per 1,000 students.

Wheeler also said that U.S. broadband continues to lag behind other developed nations, only ranking 16th out of the top 34 countries.

Wheeler thinks wireless broadband is an essential service for many, but it should not be compared with wired broadband, as the two services are distinct from one-another:

  • Fixed broadband offers high-speed, high-capacity connections capable of supporting bandwidth-intensive uses, such as streaming video, by multiple users in a household. But fixed broadband can’t provide consumers with the mobile Internet access required to support myriad needs outside the home and while working remotely.
  • Mobile devices provide access to the web while on the go, and are especially useful for real-time two-way interactions, mapping applications, and social media. But consumers who rely solely on mobile broadband tend to perform a more limited range of tasks and are significantly more likely to incur additional usage fees or forego use of the Internet.

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