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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.

California Public Hearing on Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger is Tonight; Stop the Cap! Will Be There

cpucCalifornians will have their chance to speak out about the proposed merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable at a public hearing in Los Angeles tonight before an administrative law judge working for the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

California will be the last major state capable of killing the transaction should the CPUC reject the merger on the grounds of it not being in the public interest. New York regulators approved the merger, but only with a lengthy list of conditions designed to improve service for New York residents.

Stop the Cap! will be represented at the hearing tonight by Matt Friedman, who will help us improve our vigilance of cable and phone companies serving the west coast. Friedman has done an incredible job exposing the sham of usage caps and compulsory usage-based pricing in his written testimony, which will be published here after being filed with the CPUC. As with most CPUC public hearings, we expect speakers will only be given a few minutes at most to state their views on the merger. As we did in New York, Stop the Cap! will oppose it on the grounds it is not in the public interest.

charter twcWe remain suspicious about Charter’s commitment to not impose usage caps or usage pricing for only three years. Most consumers will not see much of a change in the broadband marketplace over the next few years. Charter can afford to wait 36 short months before potentially slapping on usage caps/billing — after winning additional regulatory approval to buy out even more companies. While the CEO of Time Warner Cable will walk away with over $100 million in golden parachute benefits if he successfully sells Time Warner Cable, we anticipate most customers will win a higher bill.

Friedman will share our ongoing concerns that Charter’s offer is less impressive than Time Warner Cable’s own Maxx upgrade initiative, which will deliver 300Mbps service for the price Time Warner Cable customers currently pay for 50Mbps. Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 budget Internet service is also on Charter’s chopping block, to be replaced with an entry-level tier offering 60Mbps for about $60 a month — four times more expensive. In short, the only honest reason to allow this deal to succeed is if we want to further enrich Time Warner Cable executives and shareholders while customers take all the risks of higher bills, worse service, and usage caps starting in 2019, with few if any other options.

Also planning to attend are Common Cause, Free Press, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which all argue allowing this deal to succeed sets up America for a national virtual duopoly between Comcast and Charter, with just two companies controlling the majority of broadband connections in the United States.

The CPUC could reject the merger outright or approve it, usually with conditions. While we remain opposed to the merger, should the CPUC ultimately make a different decision, we are advocating:

  • A ban on compulsory usage caps or usage pricing. An affordable, unlimited option broadband tier should always be available, at prices comparable to what consumers pay today for Internet service.
  • Charter should be forced to commit to upgrading its entire service area in California to an equal level of service offered by Time Warner Cable Maxx.
  • Charter should be required to keep Time Warner Cable’s affordable, no-contract/no-requirement $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet plan and boost its speed.
  • Most-favored state status for California, automatically giving California consumers the benefits won from conditions imposed by regulators in other states.
  • …and other consumer-targeted service improvements.

If you are in Los Angeles and want to attend or possibly share your own views with the CPUC, the hearing is open to the public:

Location: Junipero Serra State Office Building – Auditorium (Carmel Room)  — 320 West 4th Street, Los Angeles
Time: The meeting starts at 6:00pm

West Virginia Lawmakers Battle Slow Broadband; Propose to Fine ISPs for False Speed Claims

frontier speedFrontier Communications is the obvious target of an effort by members of West Virginia’s House of Delegates to embarrass the company into providing at least 10Mbps broadband service or face steep penalties if it does not stop advertising slow speed DSL as “High-Speed Internet.”

State lawmakers continue to be flooded with complaints about the poor performance of Frontier Communications’ DSL service, which customers claim delivers slow speeds, unreliable service, or no service at all.

Although Frontier frequently advertises broadband speeds of 10Mbps or faster, customers often do not receive the advertised speeds, and the service can be so slow it will not work reliably with online video services.

West Virginia’s broadband problems remain so pervasive, the state legislature this year will entertain several broadband improvement measures, including a proposal to spend $72 million to build a publicly owned middle mile fiber optic network. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Chris Walters (R-Putnam) claims the new fiber network would boost Internet speeds, improve service, and force down broadband pricing.

With cable broadband available only in major communities, much of West Virginia is dependent on DSL service from Frontier Communications, the telephone company serving most of the state. That is a unique situation for Frontier, which typically serves smaller and medium-sized cities in-between other communities serviced by larger providers like Verizon, AT&T, and Qwest/CenturyLink. Frontier’s problems meeting customer expectations have been well heard in Charleston, the state capitol, if only because most members of the state legislature have Frontier customers in their districts.

Legislators have found they have little recourse over a business that operates largely without regulation or government oversight, as Delegate John Shott (R-Mercer) told the Charleston Gazette. Shott heads the House Judiciary Committee and gets plenty of complaints from his constituents.

“[Customers] feel they never get the speed the Internet providers represent,” said Shott. “There doesn’t seem to be any recourse or regulatory body that has any ability to cause that to change.”

In the absence of regulation or direct oversight, a class action lawsuit on behalf of Frontier DSL customers in the state is still working its way through court. In December 2015, a separate action by West Virginia Attorney General Pat Morrisey resulted in a settlement agreement with Frontier. The company agreed to guarantee at least 6Mbps speeds for around 28,000 customers, or give them a substantial monthly discount off their broadband bill.

frontier wvShott’s bill, HB 2551, targets “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” of Internet Service Providers that advertise fast speeds but never deliver them. The bill would expose a violating ISP to damages up to $3,000 per customer, a $5,000 state fine, and allow customers to walk away from any outstanding balance or contract:

It is an unfair or deceptive act or practice and a violation of this article for any seller or Internet service provider to advertise or offer to provide “high speed Internet service” that is not at least ten megabytes per second.

If a seller or Internet service provider violates […] this section, the consumer has a cause of action to recover actual damages and, in addition, a right to recover from the violator a penalty in an amount, to be determined by the court, of not less than $100 nor more than $3,000. No action brought pursuant to this subsection may be brought more than two years after the date upon which the violation occurred or the due date of the last scheduled payment of the agreement, whichever is later.

If a seller or Internet service provider violates […] this section, any sale or contract for service is void and the consumer is not obligated to pay either the amount due, the amount paid or any late payment charge. If the consumer has paid any part of a bill or invoice, or of a late payment fee, he or she has a right to recover the payments from the violator or from any [collection agency] who undertakes direct collection of payments or enforcement of rights arising from the alleged debt.

The Attorney General of this state shall investigate all complaints alleging violations […] and has a right to recover from the violator a penalty in an amount, to be determined by the court, of not less than $500 nor more than $5,000 per violation, with each advertisement or contract to sell or provide “high speed Internet” being a separate violation. The Attorney General also has the power to seek injunctive relief.

As of today, the bill counts Delegates J. Nelson, Border, Kessinger, Arvon, Moffatt, A. Evans, Wagner, Cadle, and D. Evans as sponsors.

Delegate Shott

Delegate Shott

“The list of sponsors of this bill [HB 2551] are from a broad geographic area,” Shott told the newspaper. “They’ve identified this as a problem in their areas.”

Some legislators believe West Virginia should enforce the FCC’s latest minimum definition of broadband – 25Mbps, but the Gazette reports that kind of robust speed definition could be difficult for a DSL provider to achieve without significant additional investment. Some worry companies like Frontier could have difficulty justifying further rural broadband expansion in a state traditionally challenged by its number of rural areas and difficult terrain.

Despite those difficulties, incumbent providers like Frontier, Suddenlink, and Comcast have not appreciated efforts to help expand public broadband networks in the state, including the proposal outlined in Sen. Chris Walters’ SB 315, which would authorize about $72 million to build a public middle mile fiber network that would be offered to ISPs at wholesale rates.

Frontier strongly objects to the project because it would use public dollars to compete with private businesses like Frontier. The phone company’s opposition raised eyebrows among some in Charleston, who note Frontier had no objections to accepting $42 million in state dollars in 2010 to construct and install a fiber network it now operates for hundreds of public facilities across the state and $283 million in federal dollars to expand rural broadband. The 2010 fiber project was rife with accusations of waste, fraud, and abuse. Critics allege Frontier overcharged the state, installing service for $57,800 per mile despite other providers routinely charging about $30,000 a mile in West Virginia.

The West Virginia Cable Television Association, representing cable operators in the state, called the project a money-waster, noting it would not result in a single new hookup for broadband service. Middle mile networks do not reach individual homes and businesses and the bill does not authorize the state to get into the ISP business.

Sen. Walters

Sen. Walters

Much of the support for the public network comes from smaller ISPs like Citynet, which predominately serves commercial customers, and equipment vendors like Alpha Technologies. Walters believes if West Virginia builds the network, broadband providers will come to use it. The state’s dominant cable and phone companies vehemently disagree. The cable association has launched an all-out PR war, hoping to attract opposition from conservative lawmakers with claims the project will mandate state and local governments to buy Internet connectivity exclusively from the state-owned network and would trample on corporate rights by using eminent domain to seize parts of the cable industry’s fiber networks to complete the state network.

Walters brushed away the accusations, telling the Gazette there is no mandate that state agencies use the network and there are no plans for the government to take any fiber away from a private company.

Cable operators prefer an alternative measure also introduced in the West Virginia Senate. SB 16 would grant tax credits of up to $500 per address for any phone or cable company that agrees to wire a previously unserved rural address. The bill would limit total tax credits to $1 million.

The difference between the two measures? Walters’ bill would use public money to build a public broadband network owned by the public and answerable to the state. The cable industry-backed proposal would use public money in the form of tax offsets to wire homes and businesses to broadband owned by private businesses answerable to shareholders.

AT&T Brings Back Unlimited Wireless Data Plan… If You Have U-verse TV or DirecTV

att-logo-221x300Building in protection from cord-cutting, AT&T today announced it was bringing back its unlimited data wireless plan for customers that subscribe to U-verse TV or DirecTV.

The new AT&T Unlimited Plan claims to offer unlimited data, talk and text for $100 a month. Additional smartphones are $40 per month each, with a fourth smartphone free to add at no extra charge.

“Video traffic continues to grow on our network as fast as ever because people enjoy viewing their favorite video content on their favorite devices,” said Ralph de la Vega, CEO of AT&T Mobile and Business Solutions. “And, they will get a high-quality video streaming experience from the start. No compromises in video quality.”

Except that AT&T discloses in its fine print, “After 22GB of data usage on a line in a bill cycle, for the remainder of the bill cycle AT&T may slow data speeds on that line during periods of network congestion.”

Speed throttles often affect video quality and can stall playback.

It’s the first time in five years AT&T has offered an “unlimited data” wireless option to its mobile customers. Analysts suspect the offer is designed to compete with T-Mobile’s free video streaming “BingeOn” promotion, while also protecting AT&T’s video platforms from cord-cutting. AT&T also gets an opportunity to add new video customers to its recently acquired DirecTV service, because only customers with a qualifying video subscription are allowed to buy the unlimited data plan.

AT&T is tying the unlimited data promotion to its satellite offering DirecTV, not U-verse, with a promotional satellite TV package for new video customers beginning at $19.99 per month for 12 months, with a 24 month agreement. After one year, the base TV package increases to $49.99 a month.

To bring back AT&T wireless customers that left for another carrier, AT&T is offering up to $500 in incentives when customers switch to the AT&T Unlimited Plan with an eligible trade-in and buy a new smartphone on AT&T Next. Customers who combine their U-verse or DirecTV account with AT&T Wireless on a single bill will also get an extra $10 off per month.

AT&T is effectively selling its Unlimited Plan for $60 a month, double AT&T’s original rate for unlimited data of just under $30. With a video subscription pre-qualifier, customers enrolling in the plan can expect a substantial bill.

AT&T Unlimited Plan
Device Type Monthly Access Fee Per Device
1st Smartphone $100
Additional Smartphones  (Fourth line free after bill credit) + $40
Tablets + $40 (or $10 for 1GB)
Watches + $10
Basic/messaging phones + $25
Select connected devices + $10

On the mobile side, customers will be initially expected to pay up to $220 a month for four active lines. The $40 credit for the fourth smartphone only begins after two billing cycles, finally reducing the bill to $180 a month before taxes and surcharges. A required video package will range from $19.99 for a basic DirecTV plan ($49.99 in year two) to as much as $80 or more for U-verse TV, bringing a combined television and wireless bill to more than $300 a month.

Those with 4G tablets can save some money dropping the $40 unlimited data device access fee and choosing a $10 1GB data plan for tablets instead.

Comcast Customers Buy $35 Usage Cap Insurance, Report “Unlimited” is Slower Than Ever

comcast cartoonStop the Cap! has received a growing number of complaints from Comcast customers in Georgia who are paying the cable company an extra $35 a month to get back unlimited Internet access that is performing worse than ever before for online video streaming.

J.J. LaFrantz in North Druid Hills reports his Internet speed for streaming videos dropped from 60Mbps under Comcast’s usage cap regime to less than 20Mbps after agreeing to pay for Comcast’s unlimited use insurance plan.

“Right after I paid The Great Satan their extortion to get unlimited service back, my Internet speeds dropped,” LaFrantz tells Stop the Cap!

LaFrantz has been in touch with Comcast several times about the speed degradation, with each representative providing a different excuse:

It’s the cable modem. “Comcast loves to blame customer-owned equipment for Internet problems, urging the unknowing to pay endless rental fees for Comcast equipment that supposedly fixes everything,” said LaFrantz.

It’s the holidays. “With the kids home from school, apparently Comcast cannot manage to handle the strain, or so they seem to suggest,” said LaFrantz.

It’s everyone but Comcast. “If their speed test performs adequately enough for them, it is no longer their problem, it is yours.”

Mysteriously, after Comcast “reprogrammed” his cable modem, his speed returned to normal.

Jakfrist posted a similar complaint on Reddit after he signed up for Comcast’s $35 insurance plan:

The speed test shows slower than I am paying for but still a reasonable speed but videos that previously started instantly are now saying I have to wait an hour to start so it can buffer out (iTunes Movies on AppleTV).

Like LaFrantz, a call to Comcast eventually led to the company reprogramming Jakfrist’s modem, which also made the video streaming issues disappear:

How much will your next broadband bill be?

How much will your next broadband bill be?

After calling Comcast the first guy had no clue what I was talking about and I got escalated to another guy. The new guy tried to tell me that it was because I was using my own modem and it would be resolved if I used their modem.

I explained that I had opened a terminal window and was running a ping to google, Ookla (the speed test org), Bing, Netflix, Hulu, and iTunes. The only two experiencing issues / delays were iTunes and Netflix so my modem appears to be fine. They also asked if I had tried their video streaming service to see if it was slow as well. I just kinda laughed and said no thanks.

He asked me how old my modem was and tried to convince me my modem was bad again and all would be solved if I just leased a modem from them. I insisted my modem was fine that it doesn’t choose to filter out video content. He then told me that they would send a tech out to look at it.

I insisted that everything inside my house was fine and if they wanted to send someone out to check the things outside my house that would be fine but I wasn’t going to take a day off of work to have someone take a look at something I know is set up correctly.

He sighed deeply and said that he would see if he could update some settings in my modem. All the sudden my speed test went from 20Mbps to 60Mbps.

I ran the test on Netflix and told him even with the 60Mbps I was still only pulling 720p on Netflix and iTunes was even worse. He put me on hold for a couple minutes and reset my modem again and afterwards Netflix and iTunes seem to be functioning perfectly.

Customers not paying Comcast the extra $35 a month to rid themselves of usage caps are not getting off scot-free either.

cap comcastJeff Wemberly reports his Comcast usage meter is recording unprecedented levels of usage he has never seen on his broadband account before the caps.

“We were well aware of Comcast’s new 300GB usage cap and began closely monitoring how we use our broadband service,” Wemberly writes. “We even have the kids streaming 100-150GB of streaming videos from a grandfathered Verizon Wireless unlimited data/hotspot account every month instead of using Comcast (serves Verizon right for jacking the price up – now we’re going to use it until we drop). We have three years of usage data from our router and we were certain we’d be using no more than 225GB a month after making that change.”

Instead, starting the same month Comcast’s cap went into effect, their reported usage more than doubled.

“Their meter is absolute bull—- reporting more than 700GB of usage every month starting after the caps went into effect,” Wemberly writes. “They aren’t just putting their finger on the scale, they are sitting on it!

Wemberly’s router reported the expected usage drop, with the family turning in 217GB of usage in November and 189GB so far this month. But Comcast’s meter reports 711GB in November and 748GB so far this month.

“We started getting the usage warning 11 days into November and 14 days in December,” Wemberly tells Stop the Cap! “It recorded 63GB of usage on Dec. 19, a day the family was out Christmas shopping. If someone was into our Wi-Fi, the router would have reported it. It doesn’t.”

Next month, Wemberly expects to begin getting bills that run $80 higher after Comcast’s overlimit fee grace period ends. Comcast told him its meter cannot possibly be inaccurate.

“You are forced to pay the extra $35 so you don’t have to pay $80,” Wemberly said. “The Gambino crime family must be kicking themselves wasting time with loan sharking and shakedowns. They should have learned from Comcast and extorted people legally with data caps.”

Wemberly intends to say goodbye to Comcast when AT&T’s U-verse with GigaPower arrives in his neighborhood.

“Paying AT&T $70 a month is cheap compared to Comcast’s endless greed,” Wemberly said. “We can’t wait to cancel.”

Frontier FiberHouse Debuts in Connecticut… to Exactly Two Homes in One Development

fiber comingFrontier Communications has topped AT&T’s penchant for grandiose Fiber to the Press Release announcements with a new gigabit fiber to the home service now being promoted in Connecticut, despite being available to only two homes in a single upscale subdivision in North Haven.

Frontier FiberHouse is Frontier’s answer to Verizon FiOS, says Joseph Ferraiolo, Frontier’s regional general manager in New Haven County. Ferraiolo told the New Haven Register Frontier has introduced the service to a pair of homes in Lexington Gardens, a new single-family subdivision.

Frontier’s expansion of the service in 2016 does not appear to be exactly aggressive, with plans to only wire up to 200 newly built homes in the immediate area.

Frontier’s fiber network relies on a Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON) and is intended to replace copper telephone wiring.

Ferraiolo admits Frontier is currently favoring new housing developments where fiber can be dropped in a conduit/pre-existing trench during construction without the cost of tearing up yards and streets. But he also claims Frontier will make a commitment to any municipality that gets the fiber service that it will be available to every part of the community, not just those likely to be most profitable. If Frontier keeps its promise, it will be the first time the phone company has provided customers with universal access to uniformly high-speed broadband. Even its acquired FiOS networks in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest are not guaranteed to be available to every resident.

frontier frank“We think this is a good option for us: new builds, small complexes,” Ferraiolo said. “The developer is very happy with it and we’re very happy with it.”

Customers like William Morico will believe it when they see it.

“We have been trying to get ‘high-speed’ Internet in our neighborhood for years, well before the Frontier disaster,” Morico writes. “All we want is the 12-18Mbps service that is advertised and available elsewhere in New Haven. [We] cannot get any answers from Frontier. Even their customer service and tech staff are frustrated with this company. It’s time for the state gig project.”

The company claims it is “exploring” other rollouts of Frontier FiberHouse in Stamford and New Haven, but there are no specifics.

Some observers question the timing of Frontier’s fiber announcement, noting state and local officials are still considering a private-public partnership that could lead to a public statewide gigabit fiber network in Connecticut. News that a private company is willing to shoulder the entire expense of a fiber project could be used in legislative efforts to derail Connecticut’s CT Gig Project. But Frontier has offered no guarantees whether or if it intends to blanket its service area across the state with fiber or limit FiberHouse to a de-facto demonstration project in a handful of homes in new housing developments.

Frontier Agrees to $150 Million Settlement for West Virginia DSL Customers; A 2nd Lawsuit Continues

frontier wvFrontier Communications had to be chased by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to improve broadband speeds for at least 28,000 DSL customers who thought they were buying 6Mbps DSL service but ended up with maximum speeds of 1.5Mbps or less.

Frontier today agreed to a settlement with state officials to spend an extra $150 million to boost DSL speeds for rural customers around the state and offer deep discounts for affected customers until they can receive at least 6Mbps service. Today’s settlement has no impact on a separate class action lawsuit brought by Frontier customers who accuse the company of throttling broadband speeds to save money and reduce traffic on its network.

The agreement is the largest, independently negotiated consumer protection settlement in West Virginia history and is expected to improve broadband service over the next three years.

“This agreement is a game changer for the Mountain State,” Morrisey said. “The settlement helps consumers receive the high-speed service they expected, while directing significant monies to help fix connectivity issues that consistently keep our state from achieving economic success.”

For at least two years, Frontier customers sent Morrisey’s office complaints stating they were not getting the speed and performance Frontier advertised for its DSL service. While the company told both customers and investors it had blanketed West Virginia with speeds “up to 6Mbps,” many customers discovered the phone company locked their modems to receive no better than 1.5Mbps.

Attorney General Morrisey

Attorney General Morrisey

Frontier denied any allegation of wrongdoing and says it entered into the settlement to resolve disputed claims without the necessity of protracted and expensive litigation. But it will cost the company at least $150 million in additional upgrades, not including the $180 million Frontier already earmarked for broadband expansion in West Virginia, partly subsidized by the ratepayer-funded Connect America Fund.

About 28,000 customers identified by Frontier with modems the company provisioned for service at speeds of 1.5Mbps or lower will begin seeing an ongoing credit applied to their bills beginning Jan. 25, 2016, reducing the price of Frontier’s DSL service to $9.99 a month.

Affected customers can verify if they are included in the settlement on a special website Frontier has set up for its West Virginia customers.

The discounts will continue individually for each customer until the company can demonstrate it can deliver the 6Mbps speeds customers in West Virginia paid to receive. New Frontier DSL customers with speeds no better than 1.5Mbps will also qualify for the discount. Those with modems locked at speeds above 1.5Mbps but still getting less than 6Mbps will not benefit from this settlement, but may still get relief from a separate class action lawsuit covering customers in the state being heard in Lincoln County.

Last week, Lincoln County Circuit Judge Jay Hoke rejected an effort by Frontier to have the class action case dismissed. The company insisted its terms and conditions forbade customers from taking Frontier to court, requiring them to pursue arbitration instead.

fine printJudge Hoke rejected Frontier’s arguments, finding the phone company “buried” the arbitration clause in fine print on its website and on the last pages of customer billing inserts. Hoke also ruled Frontier was attempting to retroactively apply its arbitration clause years after customers initially signed up for broadband service.

“We are finally going to get our day in court,” Michael Sheridan, a Frontier customer in Greenbrier County and Stop the Cap! reader told the Charleston Gazette. Sheridan is suing Frontier over its poor performance in West Virginia. “We think this lawsuit is the best chance we’ll ever have of bringing real Internet to rural West Virginia.”

Frontier argued if customers were dissatisfied with its DSL service, they could have canceled but never did. The company did not mention many of the affected customers have no other options for broadband service except satellite Internet, which receives poor reviews.

“We respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling,” said Frontier spokesman Andy Malinoski. “In our view, arbitration provides for fair resolution of consumer concerns that is quicker, simpler, and less expensive than lawsuits in court. We plan to appeal.”

Frontier’s decision to appeal might take longer and cost more than addressing problems for at least some of the affected customers.

lincoln countyJudge Hoke also took a dim view of Frontier’s style of disclosing changes to its terms and conditions.

‘On the website, computer users must scroll to the bottom of the page and click on a “Terms & Conditions” link that’s “buried among 25 other links,” then click on two other links to find the arbitration provision that denies customers’ rights to a jury trial,’ Hoke wrote in his order. ‘There’s no button to click or box to check that allows customers to agree to Frontier’s terms. In monthly bills, the arbitration clause shows up one time on the “fourth and last page” of an insert and another time in “miniscule font,” Hoke found.

Customers would have to be psychic to guess Frontier had important news restricting their right to take a dispute to court.

“There is no reason whatsoever for a customer to turn to the last page,” Hoke wrote. “Additionally, the bills contain no prompting that customers should flip to the last page for information concerning Frontier’s desire to alter the customer’s right to a jury trial.”

While Frontier pursues its appeal at the state Supreme Court, Frontier is expected to lose million in revenue from the settlement with the Attorney General.

“The reduced rate gives Frontier a strong incentive to raise speeds for these customers,” Morrisey said.

Another provision in the settlement requires Frontier to pay $500,000 to the state’s Consumer Protection Fund. That payment will offset investigative and monitoring expenses in addition to helping defray the costs of transitioning consumers to higher Internet speeds.

Frontier spokesman Andy Malinoski said the company had planned to address the issues all along. He said the settlement will accelerate the improvements.

West Virginians seeking more information about the maximum speed their modem is provisioned to receive can call Frontier at 1-888-449-0217 for more information.

Those with further questions can contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division at 800-368-8808 or visit the office online at www.wvago.gov.

AT&T Announces 38 New Markets for Gigabit U-verse, Omits Availability Numbers

Phillip Dampier December 8, 2015 AT&T, Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News 6 Comments

uverse gigapowerOn Monday, AT&T announced 38 additional cities that will eventually have access to its gigabit broadband offering – AT&T U-verse with GigaPower, but the company remains coy about the number of customers that can actually order the service today across the 56 metro areas that will eventually be served by AT&T’s fiber to the home network.

“Nearly two years ago, we successfully launched the first AT&T GigaPower metro in Austin, Tex.,” AT&T wrote in its press release. “This launch led to a major expansion in multiple metros beginning in 2014. Recently we marked a major milestone deploying the AT&T GigaPower network to more than 1 million locations, and we expect to more than double availability by the end of 2016.”

Stop the Cap! asked AT&T for information about its claim of offering service to more than “one million locations” and received a response that this number may not reflect strict availability of the gigabit service, but rather the likely number of potential customers served by a central office/exchange where GigaPower was enabled. In reality, not every customer within a central office immediately qualifies for U-verse service, as many customers have complained.

At the current rollout rate of about one million customers per year, it will take AT&T at least 12 years to achieve its goal of more than 14 million residential and commercial locations, probably in the year 2027.

The 38 metro areas that AT&T will be entering, starting with the launch of service in parts of the Los Angeles and West Palm Beach metros today, are:

  • Alabama: Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile and Montgomery
  • Arkansas: Fort Smith/Northwest Arkansas and Little Rock
  • California: Bakersfield, Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose
  • Florida: Pensacola and West Palm Beach
  • Georgia: Augusta
  • Indiana: Indianapolis
  • Kansas: Wichita
  • Kentucky: Louisville
  • Louisiana: Baton Rouge, ShreveportBossier, Jefferson Parish region and the Northshore
  • Mississippi: Jackson
  • Missouri: St. Louis
  • Michigan: Detroit
  • Nevada: Reno
  • North Carolina: Asheville
  • Ohio: Cleveland and Columbus
  • Oklahoma: Oklahoma City and Tulsa
  • South Carolina: Charleston, Columbia and Greenville
  • Tennessee: Memphis
  • Texas: El Paso and Lubbock
  • Wisconsin: Milwaukee

For more information on where the AT&T GigaPower network is and will become available, visit att.com/gigapowermap.

Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House Merger Likely Stalled Until Next June

charter twc bhAny final approval of Charter Communication’s planned acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks will likely not come before next summer, as regulators in California decide to take a closer look at the blockbuster merger deal that would make Charter the second largest cable company in the country.

An administrative law judge is contemplating the merger’s impact on California, and a decision is unlikely to come before May 2016, with a final vote of the California Public Utilities Commission tentatively scheduled for June 16th. The judge agreed with consumer groups that the deal warrants evidentiary hearings — a sign the deal deserves additional scrutiny.

New York State’s Public Service Commission is also still reviewing the transaction, although it is expected to render a decision within the next few months. On the federal level, the FCC has also not held back, recently requesting answers to a number of questions regarding John Malone’s involvement in the future of “New Charter.” Malone remains Charter’s biggest single shareholder and could wield considerable control over New Charter’s operations. Considering Malone’s long history of antagonizing customers and engaging in what lawmakers called anti-competitive behavior during his realm at Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), regulators may not want to see history repeat itself.

What was originally anticipated by industry observers to be an ‘easy approval,’ is now looking more like Comcast’s failed bid for Time Warner Cable, as regulators seem to be in no hurry to give Charter’s deal a green light.

If regulators do ultimately approve the deal, it is likely to come with a number of conditions designed to at least temporarily protect consumers and competitors. Stop the Cap! argued in filings with state and federal regulators Charter’s proposal was uncompelling and consumers were unlikely to benefit from the deal. Time Warner Cable’s ongoing Maxx upgrade program delivers faster Internet speeds and better service than Charter’s more modest proposal offering upgrades up to 100Mbps. Time Warner Cable Maxx offers customers up to 300Mbps broadband for the price the company now charges for 50Mbps.

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  • Jonny: My smaller cable company Suddenlink (1.4M customers) started the same thing. 250GB cap with with their medium speed of 50mbps. They are only doing thi...
  • Joe V: Man these guys just don't get it. Not to worry, just as the music industry learned the hard way that to piss off their customers by giving them crap, ...
  • Mike D.: The TV providers have never been willing to fight for the consumer with the other conglomerates who bundled crap with one or two channels of good cont...
  • Sean Colbert: The comcast cap isnt even bad compared to mine. I have Hughesnet Gen4 (All I can get in my area) and I have a 20gb a month limit with an extra 50 in b...
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  • Phillip Dampier: Rats... and I knew I caught this in the proofread and made the change but it stayed a draft while the inaccurate one went live. Thanks for catching th...
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  • bob: how is this fair to existing customers who reside in areas where upgrade hasnt gone through. im supposed to pay 60 plus dollars each month for extreme...
  • Michael Elling: Paul, part of this stems from the industry's infatuation with vertical models and the govt-granted quasi-monopoly structure stemming from spectrum sal...
  • Paul Houle: One of the funny things about the current debate is that communities everywhere are asking for better wireline broadband, but you don't see many peop...
  • Duffin: I have just dropped my cable, and I do plan on getting Hulu Plus instead, but you know what? If they stop putting current episodes on Hulu I'm just no...
  • David Manthos: The bill is actually HB 2551, not 2511. http://www.legis.state.wv.us/Bill_Status/Bills_history.cfm?input=2551&year=2016&sessiontype=RS&...

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