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China to Invest $177 Billion Between 2015 and 2017 to Expand Fiber/4G Wireless Broadband Across the Country

China Mobile, China United Network Communications and China Telecom will invest $177 billion to expand fiber optic service and mobile telecommunications infrastructure in China between 2015 to 2017, according to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

At least $70 billion will be spent this year alone to add another 80 million fiber to the home connections and expand the latest generation of LTE 4G wireless Internet to more than 1.3 million cell towers and small cells that will cover almost every city in China. In contrast, providers in the United States only spend an average of $30 billion annually on all broadband technologies, only a fraction of that for fiber optic Internet services for residential customers.

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By the end of 2017, every household in a significant-sized Chinese city will be equipped with a minimum of 10Mbps fiber to the home broadband for around $16/mo. First tier cities will get a minimum of 30Mbps Internet speed and second tier cities will receive broadband at a guaranteed speed of at least 20Mbps. Most customers served by China Telecom in Shanghai can already buy speeds up to 200Mbps for about $43 a month.

Chinese providers intend to upgrade their wireless networks to make sure that 4G networks completely cover every urban area as well as even the most rural communities.

AT&T Introduces U-verse GigaPower Gigabit Service in Nashville, If You Can Find It

In Search Of... AT&T U-verse with GigaPower

In Search Of… AT&T U-verse with GigaPower

AT&T’s gigabit broadband project has appeared in the greater Nashville area, but Stop the Cap! volunteers in the country music capital report you have a better chance getting struck by lightning than finding the service available to your home or business.

AT&T officially unveiled the upgrade in “parts of Clarksville, Lebanon, Murfreesboro, Nashville, Smyrna and surrounding communities located throughout the metro area,” but quickly warned with three asterisks the service was “not available in all areas.”

“That is the understatement of the year,” said Nashville resident Chris Jensen who can’t wait to ditch Comcast for 15 years of bad service and billing errors. “Unless you live in an upscale apartment complex, a new housing development, Walmart or have a country album on the charts you are probably going to be stuck with traditional U-verse speeds from AT&T.”

Jensen is part of Stop the Cap!’s In Search Of… AT&T GigaPower, our new project using volunteers to pelt AT&T’s qualification tool with addresses (and follow-up phone calls) looking for AT&T’s elusive gigabit speeds in the cities where the service has been introduced.

“Forget it Nashville, it’s another AT&T fiber to the press release and payback to the very friendly state politicians that rubber stamp AT&T’s agenda,” said Jensen.

Despite GigaPower’s rarity, AT&T is the first company to bring gigabit speeds to the Nashville residential market.

AT&T Tennessee president Joelle Phillips is surrounded by her political friends from around the state. (Photo: The Tennessean)

AT&T Tennessee president Joelle Phillips is surrounded by AT&T’s political friends from around the state. (Photo: The Tennessean)

Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T Tennessee, used a news release to share the company’s spotlight with a number of local and state politicians identified as supporters of AT&T’s public policy advocacy effort, which includes deregulating AT&T’s business in the state and attempting to keep restrictions on the books to block competing public broadband network expansion in Tennessee.

“We were able to deploy network enhancements fast – in less than a year since we announced our U-verse with AT&T GigaPower plans for Nashville,” said Phillips. “Smart, pro-investment policies, championed at the state level by Governor Haslam and legislative leaders like Speaker Harwell and Lt. Governor Ramsey – as well as streamlined local permitting processes that Mayor Dean and our Metro Council members have embraced – were key in speeding our work.”

Nonsense, says Jensen.

“Tennessee is about as friendly a state AT&T can find — our legislature allows AT&T to basically write its own pieces of legislation, yet the fastest way to get gigabit speeds is to move to Chattanooga where EPB is providing the service without asking to gut consumer protection laws or wait for AT&T to get around to bringing faster service to your home,” said Jensen.

Critics contend AT&T maintains ties with state and local politicians that are too close for comfort, potentially hurting consumers in Tennessee.

uverse gigapowerAccording to the National Institute of Money in Politics, telecommunications industry interests wrote at least $643,000 in campaign contribution checks to Tennessee politicians during the two-year 2014 election cycle. AT&T alone put $211,000 into the pockets of legislators. The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance reports AT&T contributed $20,000 during the last election cycle to Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s leadership political action committee, RAAMPAC. AT&T President Joelle Phillips personally gave another $2,000.

House Speaker Beth Harwell benefited from at least $17,000 in AT&T money over the last two years. AT&T spends another $1.3 million on as many as 13 full time lobbyists that devote all of their attention to Tennessee.

Gov. Bill Haslam doesn’t really need AT&T’s money. He is now worth an estimated $2 billion, making him the richest elected official in the country, according to an analysis by Forbes.

In return for this largesse, AT&T is routinely praised by all three state officials, which is returned when AT&T sends out press releases gushing over Tennessee’s ‘AT&T-Friendly’ deregulation policies.

AT&T will charge a range of prices for U-verse GigaPower service in Nashville, which all include AT&T’s right-to-spy on your browsing behavior. If you want to opt out of AT&T’s “Internet Preferences” customer monitoring program, add $29 a month to these prices:

  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps starting at $120 a month, or speeds at 100Mbps as low as $90 a month, with one-year contract required;
  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier + TV: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps and qualifying TV service starting at $150 a month, or speeds at 100Mbps and qualifying TV service as low as $120 a month, with a one year contract;
  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier + TV + Voice: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps with qualifying TV service and Unlimited U-verse Voice starting at $180 a month, or speeds at 100Mbps with qualifying TV service and Unlimited U-verse Voice as low as $150 a month, with a two-year term commitment.

AT&T imposes a 1TB monthly usage cap on its gigabit broadband service. Overlimit fees of $10 per 50GB will apply to customers exceeding that usage allowance.

85% of Italy Will Get Fiber to the Home Broadband Service Within Six Years

enelItaly’s power utility Enel has offered to help the country build a massive fiber to the home broadband network capable of bringing ultrafast Internet speeds to 85% of the country within six years if it can sort out a potential conflict with Telecom Italia, the country’s largest telecom company.

Enel, still controlled by the Italian government, volunteered its domestic network infrastructure to help install fiber optics more cheaply than Telecom Italia could manage on its own, especially in rural and industrial areas.

The offer is controversial because it could put the new fiber network under public control by using Enel, whereas Telecom Italia is a publicly traded company now majority controlled by Spain’s Telefónica and several Italian banks.

Enel, which is focusing much of its domestic strategy on developing its power distribution grid and smart digital technology, has about 1.2 million kilometers of power lines and 450,000 power distribution cabinets across Italy. Smart grid technology is often dependent on fiber optic communications, so making room for Italy’s Metroweb fiber network seemed easy enough.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is backing the $13.35 billion project under the Metroweb brand, a company partly owned by state lender Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP).

telecom italiaSuch a deal could potentially lock out Telecom Italia, which is already upset with the government over ownership issues, technology and its inability to buy into the Metroweb project.

Enel insists their involvement would be “synergistic with what the telecom operators have done and planned,” not in competition with those efforts. But Telecom Italia remains concerned it could be left behind by a project that would likely dominate Italian telecommunications for decades.

This isn’t the first venture into telecommunications Enel has made. The power company earlier launched Wind, the third biggest of Italy’s four mobile network operators, which is today owned by Vimpelcom.

Telecom Italia is widely blamed for Italy’s lagging broadband rankings, having failed to invest in up-to-date network technology because of the company’s high debt and falling revenues. Fewer than 1 percent of Italians with an Internet subscription receive connection speeds of at least 30 megabits per second, according to the Agcom communications authority. That compares with the European average of 21 percent. The Italian government considers anything short of a modern fiber optic network a drag on the country’s competitiveness and wants the network built as fast as possible.

Bell Canada’s Fibe Internet is the Top Netflix Performer in North America; Google Fiber is #2

Although Verizon FiOS retained top honors as the speediest major U.S. ISP according to performance tests conducted by Netflix, Canada’s Bell (BCE) Fibe Internet squeezed past Google Fiber as North America’s top performing ISP for the streaming video provider.

Bell’s fiber optic network delivered an average Netflix stream at 3.64Mbps, compared with 3.63Mbps for Google Fiber. Also performing exceptionally well, Grande Communications, EPB Fiber, CDE Lightband, and Midcontinent Communications. Cox turned in a significant improvement, up from 3.11Mbps last November. But many of Canada’s ISPs outperformed their American counterparts, particularly Bell Aliant, MTS, and Quebec’s Vidéotron.

Globally, both Canada and the United States were embarrassed by better average speeds in the United Kingdom (3.42Mbps) and Switzerland (4.04Mbps). Dragging down the U.S. and Canada are underperforming cable companies, DSL, and slow wireless. Clearwire was the worst performer overall, but telephone company DSL services from AT&T, Verizon, Frontier, Windstream, CenturyLink and FairPoint were also dismal performers.

A complete listing of ISPs rated by Netflix for the month of April in the United States and Canada follows:

UNITED STATES

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CANADA

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LTE-Unlicensed: How the Wireless Industry Plans to Conquer Your (and the Cable Industry’s) Home Wi-Fi Hotspot

special reportWith billions of dollars in new revenue and royalties to be made, Qualcomm and some members of the wireless industry are pushing regulators to quickly approve a new version of LTE wireless technology that will share many of the same frequencies used by home and business Wi-Fi networks, creating the potential for speed-killing interference.

Wireless operators believe LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-U) could be used to offload much of the growing wireless data traffic off traditional 4G LTE wireless data networks. With the cost of securing more wireless spectrum from regulators growing, LTE-U technology would allow operators like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile to use the U-NII-1 (5150-5250MHz) and U-NII-3 (5725-5850MHz) unlicensed bands currently used for Wi-Fi to deliver high-speed wireless broadband traffic to their customers.

Qualcomm and Ericsson, behind the newest iteration of LTE, have a vested interest promoting it as the ideal choice for metrocell, indoor enterprise, and residential small cell applications. Every manufacturer incorporating LTE-U technology into everything from carrier-owned microcells to smartphones will owe royalty payments to both companies. With billions at stake, Qualcomm is doing everything possible to tamp down fears LTE-U signals will create harmful interference to Wi-Fi signals.

qualcomm lte-u

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CES2015 Qualcomm Demonstrates LTE-U 1-2015.mp4

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas held in January, a Qualcomm representative went as far as suggesting LTE-U will improve home Wi-Fi service. (5:42)

RCRWireless News:

[Qualcomm] set up a screened room with eight pairs of access points occupying the same channel and added Wi-Fi access-point terminals in one room and LTE-U terminals in another. The results show the average throughput of 3.3Mbps with Wi-Fi alone more than doubled to 6.7Mbps when the LTE-U access point was introduced.

In another test to show that LTE-U is a better neighbor to Wi-Fi than Wi-Fi itself, they took eight Wi-Fi nodes and replaced four of them with LTE-U nodes, the result of which showed a 1.9Mbps increase in average Wi-Fi throughput. In almost every test, the LTE-U enhanced network outperformed traditional Wi-Fi.

Burstein

Burstein

Industry observer Dave Burstein is concerned advocates of LTE-U are trying to rush approval of the technology without verifying Qualcomm’s non-interference claims.

“The telcos are considering 40 and 80MHz channels that could easily swallow half of more of the Wi-Fi spectrum,” Burstein writes in response to an EE Times article about the technology. “If Wi-Fi is important, that’s a mistake to allow. Advocates are trying to rush it through even though there is not a single independent test or field trial.”

Qualcomm dismisses the interference complaints pointing to its own research showing the two standards can co-exist adequately. But multi-billion dollar wireless companies with nationwide Wi-Fi networks at stake are far less confident. In fact, LTE-U has already divided the two largest wireless carriers in the United States. Verizon Wireless is an original proponent of LTE-U while AT&T has expressed “concern,” a polite way of saying it isn’t happy. What separates AT&T and Verizon Wireless? AT&T has invested in a nationwide network of more than 34,000 Wi-Fi hotspots. Verizon offers just over 5,000, most for FiOS customers or those in especially high traffic venues.

A Stanford University professor with no ties to Qualcomm or the wireless industry privately shared his belief allowing 5GHz Wi-Fi signals to commingle with LTE-U is going to cause problems.

lte-u-unlicensed-spectrum-v3The development of “Wild West” Wi-Fi has always tracked differently than the licensed cellular/wireless business. Over more than a decade, evolving Wi-Fi standards have come to expect interference from other nearby Wi-Fi signals. In a densely packed city, more than two dozen Wi-Fi signals can easily be found all competing for their own space across the old 2.4GHz and newer 5GHz unlicensed bands.

Wi-Fi proponents credit its robustness to its “politeness protocol.” Before a wireless router or home hotspot fires up its Wi-Fi signal, it performs several tests to check for other users and constantly adjusts performance by backing off when it discovers interference from other signals. That is why a user can receive strong Wi-Fi signals but still endure reduced performance, as the hotspot accommodates nearby hotspots and other traffic.

It works reasonably well, according to Rupert Baines, a consultant at Real Wireless.

“But [Wi-Fi signals] are delicate, and they rely on implicit assumptions that there aren’t other things there (or aren’t too many),” Baines told EE Times. “In effect, they behave as though the unlicensed band were not technology neutral but were Wi-Fi only.”

The intrusion of LTE-U changes everything.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Wireless Week Tuesdays with Roger LTE-Us Gain is Wi-Fis Loss 3-24-15.flv

On the March 24, 2015 episode of Tuesdays with Roger, Recon Analytics’ founder Roger Entner talks with Wireless Week about the questions raised as major carriers, including T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless, plan to launch LTE into unlicensed territory. Concerns abound, particularly for consumers and companies who rely on Wi-Fi and don’t want licensed use in unlicensed bands to interrupt that service. (7:31)

Change in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if LTE-U is superior to Wi-Fi, and some proponents suggest it is. Jag Bolaria, an analyst at The Linley Group, argues LTE better manages data/call handoff better than Wi-Fi access points can. LTE is also a more efficient spectrum user than Wi-Fi.

Last week, South Korea’s LG U+ demonstrated LTE-U was capable of 600Mbps speed, eight times faster than traditional LTE. But to accomplish that level of speed, LG U+ had to occupy 60MHz of bandwidth in the 5.8GHz band and allocate an extra 20MHz from its traditional LTE service. The company plans to further expand its use of South Korea’s 5.8GHz unlicensed band by occupying 80MHz of it to further boost speeds to 750Mbps. But the company did not say how the tests affected others sharing the same frequencies.

If LTE-U is superior, then why not gradually move every user towards the technology and away from Wi-Fi?

Aptilo Networks AB CEO Torbjorn Ward answers LTE-U is a solution in search of a problem.

“I think LTE on unlicensed sounds like a good idea if it wasn’t for the fact that there are four billion devices on Wi-Fi out there,” he told Light Reading, noting that 802.11ac can already run at 100Mbps, so there’s little need for the LTE boost. “I think when it comes to unlicensed, you can do a longer range with LTE, but I don’t see the full benefit.”

That does not seem to matter to LTE-U’s developers or cell phone companies that lack robust Wi-Fi networks of their own.

as-is

In the original Qualcomm/Ericsson proposal, both companies promote the fact they could launch LTE-U in the unlicensed Wi-Fi bands “as-is.” That is a big problem for AT&T and other Wi-Fi users because LTE-U evidently employs few, if any protection protocols in its initial specifications for other traffic. Verizon Wireless is reportedly lobbying against the development of interference protection protocols and has publicly asserted its interest in deploying LTE-U regardless of other users.

“In [the] USA, there are no requirements for unlicensed deployment that require changes to LTE air interface,” Verizon stated in its proposal: “New Band for LTE deployment as Supplemental Downlink in unlicensed 5.8GHz in USA.”

LTE-Unlicensed has been characterized as "rude" for not avoiding interference to other users.

LTE-Unlicensed has been characterized as “rude” for not avoiding interference to other users.

Clint W. Brown, business development director of mobility wireless connectivity at Broadcom, and a vice-chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance counters it is premature to approve LTE-U in the unlicensed Wi-Fi band without more testing and information about its interference protocols.

“We’ve heard about the tests they’ve done, but it’s not factual,” Brown told EE Times. We haven’t seen the data and we don’t know how the tests were set up. First, I’d like to see if [LTE-U] can detect low-level signals. Second, I want to make sure it features a ‘Listen before Talk’ decision process so that LTE-U will wait for an opening rather than barging into the conversation already taking place in the unlicensed spectrum. Third, there should be a back-off mechanism, when it sees a collision. “We aren’t aware of any publicly available documents explicitly stating those attributes.”

The Federal Communications Commission has also now taken an interest and issued a public notice asking stakeholders and consumers to share their thoughts on LTE-U and a companion technology known as Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) that would hand off data sessions between a wireless carrier’s traditional 4G LTE network and LTE-U.

The makes the discussion political as well as technical. The FCC traditionally permits industry groups to define standards, but Republican Commissioner Mike O’Rielly now worries the FCC might butt into that process.

“The decision to jump into this space rather casually causes me great concern,” O’Rielly said. “In particular, any step that could insert the commission into the standards work for LTE-U comes with great risk. I will be vigilant in ensuring that the commission’s involvement does not result in taking sides with various stakeholders, hindering technological innovation, or having any say about what technologies should or should not be deployed.”

monopolyFor the moment, O’Rielly’s concerns about the FCC are premature as long as a division exists over LTE-U among many of the industry players:

  • Companies FOR LTE-U: Verizon, China Mobile, Qualcomm, Ericsson, NTT DoCoMo, T-Mobile USA, Deutsche Telekom, TeliaSonera, and China Unicom.  Equipment manufacturers also in support: Nokia, NSN, Alcatel-Lucent, LG, Huawei, ZTE, Hitachi, Panasonic, and others;
  • Companies AGAINST LTE-U (as now defined): Orange, Telefónica, Vodafone, AT&T, Sprint, SouthernLINC, US Cellular, DISH and a handful of vendors.

Burstein also uncovered evidence the wireless industry may be stacking the deck against increased competition and consumers. He found 11 of the world’s largest wireless companies (including AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint) quietly colluding on a proposal that would block anyone other than currently licensed LTE users from being able to use LTE-U on a standalone basis. The opaquely-titled proposal, “Precluding standalone access of LTE on unlicensed carriers,” is at least frank about its reasoning: “Standalone deployment in unlicensed spectrum implies drastically different business models from nowadays and might impact the value chain.”

In other words, if consumers are able to get savings from LTE-U using a new generation of non-traditional providers like Republic Wireless or Cablevision’s Freewheel that do not depend primarily on cellular networks, it could cost those 11 traditional wireless companies billions in lost revenue. To stop that, the companies propose requiring a special LAA “guard signal” to stop standalone access of LTE-U. Since only licensed cell phone companies have access to those frequencies, it automatically locks out new upstarts that lack mobile spectrum of their own.

Sneaky insertions like that may be exactly why the Obama Administration’s FCC is being more activist about monitoring the wireless industry, potentially cutting off anti-competitive proposals before they can become adopted as part of a formal technical standard.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Fairness to Wi-Fi and LTE unlicensed 5-8-2015.mp4

RCRWireless News gets deep into the development of LTE-Unlicensed and how it will impact cellular infrastructure, Wi-Fi and small cells. (25:39)

Western Mass. Voters Stampede for Fiber Optic Broadband in Communities Big Telecom Ignored

WiredWestLogoFeb2015Bypassed in favor of richer opportunities to the east, western Massachusetts residents are empowering their communities to deliver 21st century broadband the big cable and phone companies have neglected to offer.

One of the largest public co-op broadband networks ever attempted is racking up huge wins so far in referendums being held in 32 towns across the region. The vote is needed to secure financing for construction of the last mile of the network in each community, delivering fiber optic service to individual homes and businesses.

Last summer the Massachusetts legislature passed the IT Bond Bill, which included $50 million to support critical last mile network construction efforts in unserved parts of the Commonwealth. But the rest of the money has to come from residents of each unserved community. A two-thirds vote is needed in each town to finance these construction expenses and at least 40% of residents must pre-register for service and pay a refundable deposit of $49, which will be applied to their first month’s bill. So far, more than 4,000 households have done exactly that, showing good faith in a project that won’t begin delivering service for an estimated 2-3 years.

As votes take place across the region, the response has been remarkable, with the warrant article passing overwhelmingly. In one town, it was even unanimous.

The excitement in western Massachusetts rivals a Google Fiber announcement. Reports indicate broadband-supporting crowds well exceeded the capacity of meeting rooms. In Cummington, the overflow left people in the hallways. In Plainfield, they gave up on their designated meeting room and moved everyone to the church across the street. In Shutesbury, even the gym and overflow areas weren’t enough. Some residents ended up on the preschool playground looking for an open spot. Nine communities for better broadband, zero opposed, with many more to go.

In small communities, signing up 40% of residents in advance can be a challenge. In Washington, it was achieved only hours before the approval meeting. In Middlefield, an additional 100 households are needed as that community is only at 14% of their signup goal. Montgomery needs 85 more backers as they sit at 39% of goal, and in Peru — 111 at 33% to goal.

For broadband in western Massachusetts, the vote is nothing less than a referendum on moving forward or getting left behind indefinitely.

ww-2015-1

Wired West’s co-op of communities in western Massachusetts.

But as is the case with every public broadband project we know, there are detractors who don’t like any form of government running anything. Others are frightened because of inflated scare stories about a project’s cost, often spread by interest groups funded by the same big cable and phone companies that are not now providing adequate service and don’t want the competition. Some others mean well, but are underinformed about the realities of delivering broadband in rural communities, always believing a better answer lies elsewhere and is just around the corner. Unfortunately, it always seems to be just out of reach.

Hussain Hamdan of Hawley, has launched a one-man war on public broadband, actively seeking signatures on a petition to pull his community of 347 out of the project, claiming it is too costly. Hamdan argues wireless broadband is a more suitable solution for the town. His petition, signed by at least 36 residents, wants no part of the WiredWest initiative, but he’d go further. Hamdan proposes to outlaw municipal utility services altogether, forbid selectmen or other town boards from appropriating a single penny for any WiredWest project, prohibit spending on postage for any mailings discussing public broadband, and even making sure town officials attending a function on municipal broadband are not reimbursed for their mileage expenses. Coincidentally, another Hamdan petition seeks the right to recall elected officials, ensuring any ousted politician cannot be re-elected to office for at least three years. (Hamdan denies his recall election proposal targets any town official specifically.)

Despite all this, Hamdan claims he is for bringing high-speed Internet access to town, just not through WiredWest. Unfortunately for the 300+ other residents of Hawley that did not sign the petition, Hamdan’s enthusiasm for alternative service has not been matched by a single interested provider seeking to fill Hawley’s broadband chasm.

Because Mr. Hamdan didn’t do his homework, we have, and here are the “alternatives” Hawley residents can actually consider:

Convincing Time Warner Cable to Come to Town

cable3Assuming Time Warner Cable was somehow persuaded to offer service, as they already do in parts of western Massachusetts, they will expect considerable compensation to extend their cable network to a community that fails to meet their Return on Investment requirements. It will be an uphill battle. Next door in upstate New York, Time Warner Cable needed $5.3 million in taxpayer incentives just to expand service to, at most, 5,320 homes or businesses around the state that were already close to existing Time Warner service areas, but had no access to cable before. Conclusion: Time Warner Cable already serves the areas they feel comfortable serving.

Mark Williams, who lives in Lee – Berkshire County, wanted Time Warner Cable service at his home. Lee has franchised Time Warner Cable to provide service throughout the community, so Williams didn’t think twice about ordering service. When the company arrived, it found his driveway was 100 feet too long.

Time Warner has a formula that determines who will pay to install necessary infrastructure. If a certain number of properties are located within a specific radius, they cover the costs. If a community isn’t presently served, if residents live too far apart, or have an unusual property, Time Warner expects the town or resident to cover part of their costs. In Williams’ case, $12,000 was initially quoted to wire his home back in 2010. Because Time Warner had already committed to provide service in the area, the bad publicity that resulted from that installation fee forced Time Warner to back down. But in unserved communities, the costs spiral even higher. Residents on the fringe of a cable coverage area are routinely quoted, $15,000, $20,000, even $35,000 just to get a cable line extended to a single home from a nearby street. We’re not sure how far away Hawley is from the nearest Time Warner Cable service area, but it is a safe bet the company would need enormous taxpayer-funded incentives from local residents to extend universal cable service in the community.

If both Time Warner and WiredWest were providing service side-by-side in Hawley today, residents would pay Time Warner Cable $911/yr for 20Mbps Turbo Internet broadband, including the $8/mo modem lease fee or $588/yr to WiredWest for 25Mbps broadband. WiredWest would save residents $323 a year — and help pay off its infrastructure costs while keeping the money in the community.

Assuming Time Warner Cable is never going to be an option, which we think is likely, the wireless alternatives suggested by Hamdan largely do not exist at this time, are unfeasible, or no longer meet the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband.

White Space Broadband: Can It Work in Western Mass.?

First, let’s consider “white space” broadband – high-speed wireless Internet access delivered over unused TV channels. At the moment, this service is still in the experimental stages in most areas, but as Stop the Cap! previously reported, it has promise for rural communities. Unfortunately, despite Hawley’s small size and rural location, the current database of available free channels to offer white space Internet access in the area is discouraging, based on the address of the community’s town office on Pudding Hollow Drive. There are just six open channels because of an abundance of TV signals in Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York that get precedence. Of these six, there are just four optimal choices – UHF channels 14-17. In our previous story highlighting Thurman, N.Y.’s white space project, there are 17 open channels in that area, none on VHF or reserved for radio astronomy. Feel free to use the database to see how many open channels are available in your local area.

Not much room at the Inn.

Not much room at the inn. White space broadband will be a challenge in signal-dense northeastern states.

But the news may be even worse. The FCC is currently preparing to “repack” the UHF dial around the country by consolidating existing stations on a smaller number of channels. The freed up bandwidth will be auctioned off to cell phone companies to boost their networks. This month, we learned the wireless industry’s largest lobbying group is pushing hard to force other users to vacate “their” spectrum the moment they begin testing on those frequencies. Interference concerns and the dense number of TV signals already operating in the northeastern U.S. means it is very likely communities like Hawley will have even less opportunity to explore white space broadband as an option.

What About Wireless ISPs?

Second, there are traditional Wireless ISPs (WISPs) which do a reasonably good job reaching very sparsely populated areas, as long as customers are willing to sacrifice speed and pay higher costs.

BlazeWIFI advertises service in the rural community of Warwick, Mass (zip code: 01378). But it is anything but a bargain. The least expensive plan is $99.99 a month and that offers the dismally slow speed of 1.5Mbps for downloading and only 512kbps for uploading. It also includes a data cap of 25GB a month. That is slowband and a last resort. It’s more expensive, it’s slower, and it is usage-capped.

Some WISPs offer faster service, but few are equipped to handle the FCC’s definition of 25Mbps as the minimum speed to qualify as broadband. In short, this technology may eventually be replaced by white space broadband where speeds and capacity are higher, as long as suitable unused channel space exists.

wireless neverlandWhat About Wireless Home Internet Plans from AT&T, Verizon Wireless?

Third, there are wireless broadband solutions from the cell phone providers. Only Hawley residents can decide for themselves whether AT&T and Verizon Wireless deliver robust reception inside the community. If they do, both companies offer wireless home Internet service.

The base charge for AT&T’s plan is $20 for unlimited nationwide phone calling + $60/mo for a 10GB Wireless Home Internet Plan. There is a 2-yr contract and a $150 early termination fee. Since the average household now uses between 15-50GB of Internet service per month (lower end for retired couples, 35GB median usage for AT&T DSL customers, but even more for young or large families), you have to upgrade the plan right from the start. A more suitable 20GB plan is $90/month. A 30GB plan runs $120 a month. The overlimit fee is $10/GB if you run over your plan’s limit. You will also be billed “taxes & federal & state universal service charges, Reg. Cost Recovery Charge (up to $1.25), gross receipts surcharge, Admin. Fee & other gov’t assessments which are not gov’t req’d charges.” Verizon’s plan is similar.

You must have robust cell coverage for this service to work and be ready for speeds of 5-20Mbps, getting slower as more customers join a cell tower. The lowest rate available runs about $90 a month after taxes and fees are calculated and you need to switch it off when you approach 10GB of usage to avoid additional fees.

What is the Best Option?

No broadband? No sale.

No broadband? No sale.

As we have seen across the United States, communities offered the possibility of fiber optic Internet are embracing it, some even begging for the technology. There is simply no better future-proof, high-capacity broadband technology available. But installing it has been costly – a fact every provider has dealt with. Most rural providers treat fiber optic technology as an investment in the future because it has very low maintenance costs, is infinitely upgradable, and can offer a foundation on which current and future high-bandwidth online projects can expand.

The fact is, western Massachusetts has been left behind by Comcast and Time Warner Cable, as well as Verizon. Nobody in the private sector is coming to the rescue. Verizon has stopped expanding its FiOS fiber network and all signs point to its growing interest in exiting the landline and wired broadband business altogether in favor of its higher profit Verizon Wireless. Cable operators strictly adhere to a Return on Investment formula and will not expand service areas without major taxpayer support.

In communities in more conservative states like Tennessee and North Carolina, the obvious choice was for local governments and municipal power companies to provide the service other providers won’t. Despite the industry funded scare stories, projects like EPB Fiber in Chattanooga and GreenLight in Wilson, N.C., are doing just fine and attract new businesses and jobs into both regions. They offer far superior service to what the local cable and phone company offer in those areas.

It is unfortunate rural residents have to effectively pay more to get a service urban areas already have, but to go without would be disastrous for school-age children, local entrepreneurs, agribusiness workers, and tele-medicine.

Mr. Hamdan argues Hawley cannot afford WiredWest. But if one looks deeper at the alternatives, it becomes clear Hawley can’t afford not to be a part of a service that is likely to be ubiquitous across the region. Even those not interested in the Internet can ask any realtor how important Internet access is to a homebuyer that considers inadequate broadband a deal-breaker. That could cost much more than the $350/yr Mr. Hamdan theoretically suggests WiredWest will cost Hawley.

Mr. Hamdan offers no real answers for his community about alternatives that are available, affordable, and capable of providing the kind of service WiredWest is proposing. Voters should carefully consider the economic impact of leaving their community in a broadband backwater as the rest of the region advances towards fiber optic broadband. That is the cost that is too high to pay.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Wired West Western Mass broadband woes 1-15.mp4

Wired West project coordinators didn’t have to go far to hear broadband horror stories in western Massachusetts, which has some of the worst Internet access in the world. (17:51)

Promises, Promises: Comcast’s 9th Annual Commitment to Improve Customer Service is Back for 2015

The Don't Care Bears

The Don’t Care Bears

Talk is cheap but your cable bill isn’t.

For the ninth year in a row, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts this week promised a transformational improvement in Comcast’s customer service experience. Comcast has routinely been rated one of America’s worst companies, often achieving the dubious distinction of scoring number one. Customers don’t just dislike Comcast, they loathe Comcast. Its customer service and support forums are infested with angergrams from hostile customers. The Better Business Bureau has a hard time keeping up with the avalanche of complaints. The company’s reputation is worse than the IRS.

For beleaguered customer service agents, it’s right back at ‘ya.

Almost a year after Roberts made his first solemn commitment to address his company’s sordid reputation with customers back in 2006, this unsolicited letter arrived at a website critical of the company’s reputation from one of the customer service agents on the front line:

We honestly do go out of our way to make things better for you and the main thing we are taught is that [the] customer comes first.

So what if you had an installation that didn’t go well? So what if you came across a rep who [is] miserable? You’ll find that anywhere you go. Hell, you probably act the same way at work.

God forbid someone forget to leave notes in the account. No one [is] perfect, but usually we do have everything documented and we’ll still give you the benefit of the doubt. You don’t know how many times a day I deal with, “if you don’t do this or if you don’t do that” (as if what we have given you isn’t enough) “I’m going somewhere else” Well good, you know what, go and when that company does the same thing I hope you feel stupid when you come running back to [us]. You all should be ashamed of yourselves.

This time it will be different than the last nine times, I swear.

This time it will be different than the last nine times, I swear.

That example is indicative of the same problem Comcast experiences today. A customer service experience is only as good as the management’s dictated customer service policies allow. If the higher-ups insist on overbooking installation and service calls to save money, calls will be missed. If an extended outage is required before customers are entitled to a service credit, it’s the customer service representative that has to deliver the bad news. If a Comcast employee’s job or salary is dependent on numbers, numbers, numbers, and adult supervision is lacking, nobody should be surprised when Lord of the Flies-like instincts emerge. The customer is number two.

Comcast’s announcement that it will hire more than 5,500 new customer service agents over the next five years doesn’t solve the problem. Without major philosophical changes about the way Comcast does business, it only creates a larger pool of abusive customer service agents.

Comcast’s goal to always be on time for customer appointments (by the third quarter of this year) was also promised years before. A commitment to invest in technology and training to deliver excellent service in 2015 makes one wonder what Comcast was investing in before this. A commitment to simplify billing does nothing to correct Comcast’s infamously inaccurate billing. Better consistency and transparency about sneaky charges and deceptive promotions are unlikely to do much for Comcast’s reputation with customers.

Another satisfied customer

Another satisfied customer

Comcast’s improvement plan also includes the renovation of hundreds of cable stores across the country, but says nothing about sufficiently staffing them to prevent a line stretching out the door. Development of new technologies to enable people to interact with Comcast how and when they want may prove less compelling than developing new policies flexible enough to deliver solutions that satisfy those customers.

“This transformation is about shifting our mindset to be completely focused on the customer. It’s about respecting their time, being more proactive, doing what’s right, and never being satisfied with good enough,” said Neil Smit, president and CEO, Comcast Cable. “We’re on a mission and everyone is committed to making this happen.”

Which makes Comcast customers everywhere ponder what Mr. Smit and Mr. Roberts were doing the last nine years they were promising massive changes in the customer service experience. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Few Comcast customers will believe the promises broken by the same management team so many times before until they see them in action.

After all, broken promises from Comcast are like snow in Buffalo. You learn to expect it.

Time Warner Cable’s Post-Merger Conference Call: Improved Subscriber Numbers But ‘We’ll Let Others Take the Lead’

road runner

Time Warner Cable held its first post-merger-flop conference call with investors this morning and reported surprisingly good subscriber numbers for the first quarter of 2015.

Despite disappointing investors for not meeting projected profit and revenue numbers for the first three months of the year, Time Warner managed to add 30,000 net video customers for the first time since 2009. High-speed data customers grew by 315,000, compared with 269,000 a year ago, while voice customers increased by 320,000, compared with 107,000 in the prior-year period. The company also reported $26 million in wasted merger-related costs.

8999

Time Warner’s latest triple play promotion has fewer gotchas in the fine print than usual, but the modem fee is still there so buy your own.

A renewed love for Time Warner Cable was not the reason the cable company added customers. Aggressive pricing with fewer fine print “gotchas” and Time Warner Cable Maxx upgrades helped the company pick up new subscribers. Last October, Time Warner added a $90 triple play offer valid across much of its service area, offering unlimited calling phone, Preferred TV, and 30Mbps broadband with one set-top box for $89.99 a month for one year, an offer Artie Minson, chief financial officer of Time Warner Cable called “clean.”

For the last two years, Time Warner Cable executives decided to de-emphasize promotional pricing on phone service, preferring to draw more attention to its double-play television and broadband offers. This year, that thinking is long gone as the cable company re-emphasizes its triple-play packages and offers current customers the chance to add phone service for as little as $10 a month. The strong growth in new phone customers during the quarter reflects the success of those promotions.

Minson was less impressed with the sales of “skinny bundles” of bare basic cable television, HBO, and broadband service, noting it had little impact on Time Warner’s subscriber growth. The allure of its $14.99 everyday low price, low speed Internet offer has also waned.

“There’s a lot of attraction in the press about skinny packages,” echoed Dinesh C. Jain, chief operating officer of Time Warner Cable. “I think a lot of the times, customers don’t want to get bogged down in a lot of choices to make on those kinds of things. There’s a lot of value in our triple-play packaging right now and it’s a simpler sale.”

Marcus used the conference call to re-emphasize the company has not been distracted by 14 months of merger talks with Comcast and has executed on its pre-merger business plan all along.

twc maxx

Coming in 2017 (If We Live That Long)

Network upgrades under the TWC Maxx program are continuing on schedule.

“New York City, LA and Austin are complete, Dallas, San Antonio and Kansas City are underway and Charlotte, Raleigh and Hawaii on the docket for later in the year,” said Marcus. “We also plan to begin the Maxx process in San Diego this year and finish up in early 2016. It’s still early days, but Maxx certainly appears to be making a difference. Customer feedback has been great and churn among Maxx customers with new DOCSIS 3.0 modems is dramatically lower.”

But it will take another two years to complete the entire Time Warner footprint, of which 40-50% will be upgraded by the end of this year.

“The exact pace at which we continue that process in 2016 and 2017 depends on the experience we have in 2015. We’re feeling better about our ability to roll out all-digital this year than we did last year, which was really the first year of the program,” said Marcus. “And we’ll evaluate, as we go into 2016, how quickly we think we can ramp the next batch of systems.”

In a recurring theme throughout the conference call, executives emphasized Time Warner does not want to pioneer tinkering with the traditional cable package.

For example, Marcus acknowledged Cablevision’s experiment with Wi-Fi calling as a cellular replacement strategy, but said Time Warner Cable will take a wait and see approach.

“I’m inclined to watch and see how that evolves and then we’ll see how best to develop our own strategy on that front,” Marcus said.

Marcus

Marcus

“There’s a lot of talk and a lot of work going on out there from other guys,” said Jain, referring to slimmed down cable packages and unbundling. “And if any of their things work, we’ll just be fast followers on that stuff because I think there are some segments of our customer base where that is going to have appeal.”

Marcus also complained there was far too much attention being paid on Millennials as an excuse to break up the traditional cable experience.

“There tends to be, in my opinion, an obsessive interest in Millennials, maybe at the expense of the broader customer base,” Marcus said. “For the vast majority of our customers, the way we currently deliver the video product is pretty darn attractive. That said, sure, there’s a group of customers who might very well like to access video via other means. So it is definitely the case that over time, I can see a world where more and more customers consume our offering without needing to lease a set-top box from us. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to abandon the largest portion of our customers who actually do like the current model.”

On other subjects, the implementation of Net Neutrality under Title II regulations will have no impact on Time Warner’s future plans or investments, according to Marcus.

“We’ve said in the past that our normal business practices comply entirely with the notion of the open Internet, no blocking, no discrimination, no throttling, and transparency are fundamental parts of the way we do business. So to the extent that that’s the full scope of what’s getting incremented under Title II, I think you won’t see a change in the way we do business.”

But he warned if the FCC intends to more broadly regulate Internet access, that could have an impact on pricing and future investment.

Marcus also re-emphasized his intention not to change the way Time Warner sells broadband. That means no compulsory usage caps or usage-based pricing.

“We’re very focused on delivering compelling products to customers at a price that delivers real value,” said Marcus. “We can’t think in terms of taking gross margin dollars that are lost because we lose a video customer and somehow embedding those into high-speed data [with usage pricing] and not seeing an impact on high-speed data.”

GOP Tries to Slash Rural Broadband Funding in Minnesota: “Wireless/Satellite Broadband is the Future!”

Garofalo

Garofalo

Outrage from Minnesota’s elected officials representing rural districts around the state has embarrassed Minnesota House Republicans into grudgingly restoring a token amount of broadband funding to help small communities get online.

Earlier this month, the GOP majority’s budget proposal completely eliminated broadband development grants, which amounted to $20 million in 2014. Republicans attacked the spending as unnecessary and a wasteful “luxury.” The money was reallocated towards promoting tourism.

Budget point man Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) said hardwired Internet access was outdated.

“The future is wireless and satellite Internet,” Garofalo declared, adding these were better, cheaper options for rural Minnesota.

Rural Minnesota strongly disagreed.

The West Central Tribune in Willmar declared the GOP budget proposal very disappointing to everyone in rural Minnesota.

“Rural Minnesota will continue to fall behind in broadband access and, in turn, the critical factors of quality of life, education, economic opportunities, access to health care and many other positive benefits,” the newspaper wrote in an editorial.

Rural Minnesota Broadband: Nothing to write home with a quill pen about.

Rural Minnesota Broadband: Nothing to write home with a quill pen about.

“We are astonished as to why the House would ignore one of the state’s biggest economic development needs,” said Willmar City Council member Audrey Nelsen, a member of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities’ board. “The lack of high-quality broadband affects communities and regions all across the state.”

“We agree,” the paper declared.

“High-speed Internet service is not a luxury, it is an absolute necessity for job and business growth,” said executive director Dan Dorman of the Greater Minnesota Partnership.

House Republicans seem intent on stomping out rural Minnesota’s digital economy. Broadband coverage in these areas is a disgrace: Kandiyohi County is third lowest in Minnesota, at only 13.18 percent, in the percentage of households with access to broadband that meets state-speed goals. Surrounding counties with low access percentages include: Chippewa at 24.47 percent, Yellow Medicine at 25.69, Swift at 30.41, Pope at 31.40 and Renville at 58.29.

In 2013, Gov. Dayton’s Broadband Task Force Report recommended a $100 million infrastructure fund to start addressing the $3.2 billion total investment needed statewide to address this issue. Garofalo seems ready to concede to an $8 million token allocation some Democrats call insulting.

Rep. Tim Mahoney said he believed 10 years of an annual $20 million investment would solve the rural broadband problem in Minnesota in a decade. The St. Paul Democrat believes with the GOP’s budget, it will take forever.

“For them to come up with $8 million is kind of ridiculous,” Mahoney said. “It’s almost a slap in the face.”

Garofalo believes AT&T and Verizon’s forthcoming home wireless broadband solutions will solve Minnesota’s broadband problems, without considering those services are expensive and tightly usage-capped. Satellite Internet is condemned by critics as costly “fraudband,” often speed-throttled and usage capped.

Fiber Internet, in Garofalo’s world view, is “yesterday’s technology,” despite ongoing investments in fiber to the home Internet around the world, including investments from companies including AT&T, Verizon, Google, and others that now offer fiber technology capable of speeds in excess of 1Gbps.

Sober assessments of the different broadband technologies available in Minnesota are already available from the state’s Office of Broadband Development. Garofalo’s budget resolves the ideological conflict between his views and theirs by eliminating the agency.

Garofalo said to save rural broadband, the state government must first kill any plan that might interfere with the private sector.

“The private sector won’t invest if it senses that the government is coming in with something else,” he said.

lousy rural

Without throwing Garofalo totally under the nearest tourist bus, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Jim Knoblach said the state needs rural broadband funding, even if other options such as wireless Internet may be a more efficient way to tackle the problem down the road.

“There are people waiting for broadband now that I think this would help,” the St. Cloud Republican said, supporting the restoration of $8 million in funding.

American Broadband Ripoff: Compare Your Prices With Eight Competing Providers in Bratislava, Slovakia

bratislvaThe largest telecom companies in the United States, their trade associations, and Ajit Pai, one of two Republican commissioners serving at the Federal Communications Commission routinely claim America has the best broadband in the world. From the perspective of providers running to their respective banks to deposit your monthly payment, they might be right. But on virtually every other metric, the United States has some of the most expensive broadband in the world at speeds that would be a gouging embarrassment in other countries.

Slovakia – A Long, Tough History, But Better Broadband than the United States

Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, has existed since the year 907. From the 10th century until just after the end of World War 1, the city (then commonly known by its German name of Pressburg) was part of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian empire. After the “War to End All Wars,” ethnic Czechs and Slovaks jointly formed a democratic Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 which existed peacefully until the Germans arrived in 1938 and renamed part of Czechoslovakia… Germany.

Unfortunately for the Czechs and Slovaks, life didn’t get much easier after the end of World War II. As Stalin sought to create a buffer zone between Germany (and western Europe) and the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, along with most of Eastern Europe, faded behind the Iron Curtain into the Soviet sphere of influence.

The city center of Bratislava

The city center of Bratislava

After decades of deterioration under autocratic rule, the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution of 1989 restored multi-party democracy and Communism was was on its way to being fully extirpated across Europe.

By the time the June 1992 election results were announced, it was clear the country’s constituent Czechs and Slovaks had irreconcilable differences and were headed to national divorce court. On one side, the Czech-oriented Civic Democratic Party, headed by Václav Klaus. On the other, Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, whose aims were obvious based on its party name alone. With the writing on the wall, Klaus and Mečiar managed to work out an agreement on how to divide the country and on Jan. 1, 1993 the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic were born.

Since the separation, Slovakia has prospered, and is now recognized to have a high-income advanced economy with one of the fastest growth rates in both the European Union and the OECD. It joined the EU in 2004 and adopted the Euro as its currency in 2009. Slovakia had to bring its economy up to date after fifty years of Communism. The country had a functioning telecommunications infrastructure, albeit one highly dependent on dilapidated equipment produced in the German Democratic Republic (the former East Germany) and the Soviet Union.

After the Slovak Republic was born, Slovenské Telekomunikácie maintained a monopoly on Slovak telephone lines and telex circuits under the close watch of the Ministry of Transport, Posts and Telecommunications. It took until the year 2000 for economic reforms to allow for the privatization of telecommunications. As was the case in many other central and eastern European countries, Germany’s Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile) won a majority ownership in the company, which is today still known as Slovak Telecom.

The Slovak Broadband Marketplace Today

Slovak-TelekomThe Slovak government insisted that telecommunications networks in the country be competitive and it maintains oversight to make sure monopolies do not develop. It rejected claims that total deregulation and competition alone would spur investment. Slovakia welcomes outside investment, but also makes certain monopoly pricing power cannot develop. As a result, most residents of Bratislava have a choice of up to eight different broadband providers — a mix of cable, telephone, wireless, and satellite providers that all fiercely compete in the consumer and business markets.

Many providers are foreign-owned entities. UPC, Slovakia’s cable operator, is owned by John Malone’s Liberty Global. Slovak Telecom is owned by Germany’s T-Mobile/Deutsche Telekom. Tooway is a French company.

300Prices are considerably lower than what American providers charge, although speeds remain somewhat lower than broadband services in Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic States. At one address on Kláštorská, a street of modest single family homes (some in disrepair), these companies were ready to install service:

  • RadioLAN offers 18/1.5Mbps unlimited wireless service for $21.85 a month;
  • UPC offers 300/20Mbps unlimited cable broadband for $30.63 a month;
  • Slovanet offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 240GB usage cap for $18.56 a month;
  • Swan offers 10.2Mbps/512kbps unlimited DSL for $24.70 a month;
  • Slovak Telecom offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 240GB usage cap for $21.96 a month;
  • Benestra offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 4GB per day usage cap for $24.24 a month;
  • Satro offers 9Mbps/768kbps unlimited wireless service for $29.32 a month;
  • Tooway offers 22/6Mbps satellite Internet with a 25GB usage cap for $54.79 a month.

In other parts of the country, two providers are installing competing fiber broadband services. Slovak Telecom is slowly discarding its old copper wire infrastructure in favor of fiber optics, and is already providing 300Mbps service to some residents to better compete with UPC Cable. Some areas can get straight fiber service, others get VDSL, an advanced form of DSL offering higher speeds than traditional DSL. Orange, a provider not available in the immediate area of our sampled home, has already installed its own fiber service to over 100,000 fiber customers and is growing.

In comparison, Comcast sells 105Mbps service in Nashville, Tenn. for $114.95/mo (not including modem fee) with a 300GB monthly usage cap. That is one-third the speed of UPC Cable at nearly four times the cost… if you stay within your allowance. Prices only get higher after that.

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