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Stop the Cap! Declares War on Cox’s Usage Cap Ripoff in Cleveland; It’s About the Money, Not Fairness

Stopping the money party from getting started, if we can help it.

Stopping Cox’s money party from getting started, if we can help it.

Stop the Cap! today formally declares war on Cox’s usage cap experiment in Cleveland, Ohio and will coordinate several protest actions to educate consumers about the true nature of usage-based billing and how they can effectively fight back against these types of Internet Overcharging schemes.

Time Warner Cable quickly learned it was deeply mistaken telling customers that a 40GB monthly usage allowance was more than 95% of customers would ever need when introducing a similar concept April 1, 2009 in test markets including Rochester, N.Y., Austin and San Antonio, Tex., and Greensboro, N.C. The company repeatedly suggested only about five percent of customers would ever exceed that cap.

Six years later, it is likely 95% of customers would be paying a higher broadband bill to cover applicable overlimit fees or be forced to upgrade to a more expensive plan to avoid them. Before Time Warner realized the errors of its way, it claimed with a straight face it was acceptable to charge customers $150 a month for the same unlimited broadband experience that used to cost $50.

Cox’s talking points for customers and the media frames usage caps as a fairness enforcement tool. It is a tired argument and lacks merit because nobody ever pays less for usage-capped broadband service. At best, you pay at least the same and risk new overlimit charges for exceeding an arbitrary usage allowance created out of thin air. At worst, you are forced by cost issues to downgrade service to a cheaper plan that comes with an even lower allowance and an even bigger risk of facing overlimit fees.

Industry trade journal Multichannel News, which covers the cable industry for the cable industry does not frame usage caps in the context of fairness. It’s all about the money.

“If you’re a cable operator, you might want to strike [with new usage caps] while the iron is hot,” said MoffettNathanson principal and senior analyst Craig Moffett, a Wall Street analyst and major proponent of investing in cable industry stocks.

Multichannel News warned operators they “must tread carefully in how they deliver the usage-based message.” Instead of getting away with punitive caps, Time Warner Cable had to “rethink” its definition of fairness, keeping prices the same for heavy users of bandwidth but offering discounts to customers whose usage was lighter. No money party for them.

So how did Cox frame its message in the pages of an industry trade journal to fellow members of the cable industry? Was it about fairness or collecting more of your money. You decide:

Customers will be notified of their data usage and any potential overages beginning in mid- June but won’t have to pay for overages until the October billing cycle, a Cox spokesman said. That gives customers the chance either to alter their usage or step up to a more data-intensive plan.   The additional charges serve as a temporary step-up plan for certain consumers, the spokesman said — they can keep their current level of service and pay the additional fee during months when usage spikes, like when their kids come home from college.

cox say noThe Government Accounting Office, charged with studying the issue of data caps, found plenty to be concerned about. Consumers rightfully expressed fears about price increases and confusion over data consumption issues. In short, customers hate the kind of usage-based pricing proposed by Cox. It’s a rate hike wrapped in uncertainty and an important tool to discourage consumers from cutting their cable television package.

It’s also nakedly anti-competitive because Cox has conveniently exempted its television, home phone, and home security products from its usage cap. Subscribe to Cox home phone service? The cap does not apply. Use Ooma or Vonage? The cap does apply so talk fast. If a customer wants to use Cox’s Home Security service to monitor their home while away, they won’t eat away their usage cap. If they use ADT to do the same, Cox steals a portion of your usage allowance. Watch a favorite television show on Cox cable television and your usage allowance is unaffected. Watch it on Netflix and look out, another chunk is gone.

While Cox starts rationing your Internet usage, it isn’t lowering your price. A truly fair usage plan would offer customers a discount if they voluntarily agreed to limit their usage. But nothing about Cox’s rationing plan is fair. It’s compulsory, so customers looking for a worry-free unlimited plan are out of luck. It’s punitive, punishing customers for using a broadband connection they already paid good money to buy. It’s arbitrary — nobody asked customers what they wanted. It doesn’t even make sense. But it will make a lot of dollars for Cox.

Cox claims it only wants usage caps to help customers choose the “right plan.”

The right plan for Cox.

To escape Cox’s $10 overlimit fees, a customer will have to pay at least $10 more to buy a higher allowance plan — turning a service that costs less to offer than ever into an ever-more expensive necessity, with few competitive alternatives. Will Cox ever recommend customers downgrade to a cheaper plan? We don’t think so. Customers could easily pay $78-100+ for broadband service that used to cost $52-66.

Back in 2009, the same arguments against usage caps applied as they do today. Industry expert Dave Burstein made it clear usage caps were about one thing:

“Anybody who thinks that’s not an attempt to raise prices and keep competitive video off the network — I have a bridge to sell them, and it goes to Brooklyn,” Burstein said.

Cable Stock Fluffer Craig Moffett Encourages Cable Operators to Add Usage Caps Before Title II Takes Effect

"More Caps" Moffett

“More Caps” Moffett

If you are a cable executive looking to further gouge customers captive to your “only game in town” broadband speeds, now is the time to slap around customers with usage caps and overlimit fees, because your company may no longer be able to do that after June 12, when the FCC’s new Title II regulations officially take effect.

“If you’re a cable operator, you might want to strike while the iron is hot,” said MoffettNathanson principal and senior analyst Craig Moffett, who has shared his love for all-things-cable with investors for years.

Moffett regularly asks cable industry executives about when they plan to introduce usage limits or usage-based billing for customers who often have no other choice for 25Mbps service, the lowest speed that now qualifies as broadband.

But tricking customers into accepting industry arguments about “fair pricing” must be handled carefully, because making a mistake with customers could cost your executives their summer bonuses if the pocket-picking policies cause a revolt.

Multichannel News reminds its cable industry readers Time Warner Cable failed to start their usage cap experiment in 2009 due to a “furor” by customers (often led by us). Instead of filling their coffers with the proceeds of overlimit fees, “the cable giant [was forced] to rethink its pricing strategy, keeping prices the same for heavy users of bandwidth but offering discounts to customers whose usage was lighter.”

Image: schvdenfreude

Image: schvdenfreude

Unable to get its definition of “fairness” across to customers, Time Warner Cable never had to look back, raking in greater and greater unlimited broadband profits quarter after quarter, even as their costs to deliver service continued to drop.

Faced with the prospect of a newly empowered FCC to keep cable industry abuses in check, Multichannel News tells cable executives the money party may be over before it begins if they wait too long:

Title II regulations, which reclassify broadband as a common- carrier service, are about to take effect June 12, and the Federal Communications Commission has said it would look closely at any usage-based pricing plans to determine if they discriminate against online video providers. That could force some Internet service providers to move to implement their version of usage-based pricing before the deadline.

To “soften the blow,” the trade journal reported Cox significantly increased usage caps and are setting the overlimit fee at $10 for each 50GB of excessive usage, much lower than wireless plan overlimit fees. Multichannel News suggests this will help customers “get accustomed to overage charges.”

But Cox customers in the Cleveland area may be able to turn the table on Cox.

“Let them get accustomed to the fact I am dumping them for WOW! the moment I receive official notification about the caps,” said Stop the Cap! reader Dave, who has a choice between Cox, AT&T, and WOW! — a competing cable operator without usage caps. “AT&T isn’t enforcing its cap around here either, so I am definitely canceling my service and have two other choices. People have to be willing to send a clear message usage caps are an absolute deal-breaker.”

Although usage caps are not affected by Net Neutrality regulations, the fact the cable industry faces added regulator scrutiny under Title II allows the FCC to put an end to practices it considers to be anti-competitive. Introducing usage caps for customers trying to find an alternative to Cox’s cable television package by watching online video instead may qualify.

Cox Cracking Down on Internet Customers With Hard Usage Caps and Overlimit Fees: Let the Gouging Begin!

cox say noCox Communications will begin testing overlimit fees this summer starting in its Cleveland, Ohio service area with plans to introduce hard usage allowances and excess usage violation charges nationwide if customers tolerate the market test in Cleveland.

DSL Reports learned that Cox will formally notify customers beginning May 19 it has increased broadband usage allowances and will introduce an overlimit fee of $10 for each 50GB allotment a customer exceeds their limit starting this fall.

Cox’s marketing machine is attempting to justify its usage based pricing scheme with a pre-written script to appease anticipated customer complaints:

A draft customer support script obtained exclusively by DSLReports states that this lead-in period will “give customers the opportunity to familiarize themselves with their typical data usage and take action, such as secure their WiFi network or change service plans, if they exceed their limit.”

The script also notes that customers will be notified via e-mail and a browser popup when they’ve reached 85% and 100% of their monthly data allotments. Cox services like Cox TV Connect, Cox Digital Telephone and Cox Home Security will not count toward the usage cap, a Cox insider claims.

To make the idea of potential bill shock more palatable to their customer base, Cox generously increased usage allowances last week:

  • Starter: 150 GB/month
  • Essential 250 GB/month
  • Preferred 350 GB/month (the most popular plan)
  • Premier 700 GB/month
  • Ultimate 2 TB/month

Exceed those limits and the company will slap penalty fees on your bill as a matter of “fairness.” Customers will get a preview of any specific overlimit fees they would incur starting in June, but the company will not begin to actually charge them until October.

price-gouging-cake“Data usage plans promote fairness by asking the high-capacity Internet users to pay a greater share of network costs,” argues Cox. “Some critics of data usage plans push a flat fee pricing model, meaning that users would pay a flat fee whether they simply use the Internet to surf the web and check email or if they are a ‘super user’ and consume copious amounts of bandwidth. Data usage plans are a far more fair approach, giving consumers a choice based on their personal needs rather than forcing all customers to absorb the network costs incurred by the 5% of customers who exceed their allowance.”

Stop the Cap! would point out we’ve heard those same talking points since 2009 and they were not credible then and are even less so today.

First, we’d note Cox is attacking the business plans of some of the most successful broadband providers in the United States. Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, Google, and a myriad of other phone and cable operators not only deliver on their commitment to offer unlimited use Internet, they actually market it as a good reason to buy Internet access from them.

Cox’s concerns for fairness might be a bit less hypocritical had Cox not sold customers unlimited use plans for years. Were they being unfair to their customers then, now, or both?

Second, the company’s claimed noble intentions for keeping the cost of broadband down might be more believable if it didn’t charge its base customers a whopping $34.99 a month for “up to 5Mbps” Internet that it now wants to limit. Five years ago it charged customers just $21.99 a month for that service. By 2015, it had raised the price more than 59%.

In comparison, Time Warner Cable charges less than half that for unlimited “$14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet” – a tier that has not increased in price since its introduction. Time Warner has also offered its light users an optional plan to win a discount if they keep their usage down. As a reflection of customer interest in plans that place limits (even optional) on broadband service, out of some 11 million Time Warner Cable customers, only a few thousand have shown any interest in plans that introduce a usage allowance component.

coxThird, Cox’s excuses are very similar to those given by Time Warner Cable when it tried (and failed spectacularly) to impose usage allowances on its broadband customers in 2009. Time Warner officials promised it would represent greater fairness and would help pay for network improvements, while only a small percentage of customers would face higher charges. In fact, none of those claims were true. Customers seeking to keep unlimited access faced a tripling of the cost of broadband, Time Warner Cable only committed to network improvements in their most-populous service areas (which were excluded from the usage cap market trials and had significant competition), and at the usage caps Time Warner proposed in 2009 – 5, 10, 20, and 40GB, more than half of today’s Time Warner customers would be subject to overlimit fees. At the time, Time Warner claimed their proposed usage allowances were generous and fewer than 5% of customers would exceed them. That is eerily familiar to the “5% of customers” Cox refers to today.

The real money is to be made selling broadband, already amazingly profitable.

The real money is to be made selling broadband, already amazingly profitable.

Cox’s need for strict usage allowances comes at a time when other Internet Service Providers in competitive markets are either abandoning or not strictly enforcing them. Alienating customers has proven bad for business, and there is still plenty of money to be made selling unlimited access. Both broadband and telephone service is declining in cost for the operator to offer, particularly when examining bandwidth expenses.

Cox Communications is a privately held company and does not disclose specific financial data to the public, but similarly sized Charter Communications is publicly held and revealed in 2014 it had revenue of $9.1 billion and Adjusted EBITDA of $3.2 billion – each rising 8.2% on a pro forma basis, year over year. In plain English, broadband is already a real moneymaker for the cable industry, with revenue boosts recorded across the board. In comparison, cable television expenses have taken a toll on the profitability of offering television service. Charter is making so much money on broadband it dropped its usage caps recently.

Because the cable industry relies almost exclusively on existing hybrid fiber-coax networks to deliver products and services, the capital costs of providing Internet access have continued to drop for years. The industry’s decision to invest in and adopt DOCSIS 3 was considered a “no brainer” because it did not need major upgrades to network infrastructure and could recoup its cost by allowing companies to market higher-profit, higher-speed tiers.

In contrast, new entrants like Google Fiber are constructing new all-fiber network infrastructure at an enormous cost, but remain comfortable marketing broadband service with no usage allowances. So do many community-owned providers, including EPB in Chattanooga, GreenLight and Fibrant in North Carolina, among many dozens of others. Even Comcast has committed to not imposing usage caps for its premium 2Gbps fiber service, on which residential customers will be capable of racking up enormous amounts of usage.

In short, Cox’s usage cap regime is completely unjustifiable under current marketplace conditions and represents little more than an effort to raise prices and block online video competition, which Cox customers may decide will eat too much into their usage allowance.

Time Warner Cable goes out of its way to advertise "No Data Caps."

Time Warner Cable goes out of its way to advertise “No Data Caps.”

There are a number of questions Cox customers should ask:

  1. Why did nobody ask us whether we thought usage allowances and overlimit fees were fair?
  2. Why not offer optional discounts for low-usage customers and see how many actually enroll in such a program?
  3. Why has Cox removed the option of an unlimited use tier for customers that want unlimited service?
  4. Why won’t Cox commit to a price freeze on its broadband service if usage caps are really about controlling costs?
  5. How is it fair to offer a more generous allowance to a customer sold a higher speed tier that can easily chew through more data than customers on lower speed tiers?
  6. Why do low-speed customers get a smaller usage allowance when they cannot effectively use the highest bandwidth web applications?
  7. Why can’t customers roll unused portions of their usage allowance over to future months?
  8. How many customers, if any, actually asked for this type of pricing?
  9. Why can Google, Time Warner and other operators provide unlimited access for the same or less than Cox charges and your company can’t?

Source: FCC Will Get Serious About Data Caps if Comcast Moves to Impose Them Nationwide

fccA well-placed source in Washington, D.C. with knowledge of the matter tells Stop the Cap! the Federal Communications Commission is prepared to take a hard look at the issue of Internet data caps and usage-based billing if a major cable operator like Comcast imposes usage allowances on its broadband customers nationwide.

Comcast introduced its usage cap market trial in Nashville, Tenn. in 2012 but gradually expanded it to include Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee; Charleston, South Carolina; and Tucson, Arizona.

“Two and a half-years is exceptionally long for a ‘market trial,’ and we expected Comcast would avoid creating an issue for regulators by drawing attention to the data cap issue during its attempted merger with Time Warner Cable,” said our source. “Now that the merger is off, there is growing expectation Comcast will make a decision about its ‘data usage plans’ soon.”

In most test markets, Comcast is limiting residential customers to 300GB of usage per month, after which an overlimit fee of $10 per 50GB applies. Despite that, Comcast’s forthcoming premium gigabit speed plans are exempt from usage caps, the company announced.

Comcast sustomers in market test cities have not been happy with the usage caps, some confronted with inaccurate usage measurement tools or “bill shock” after claiming to find surprise charges on their cable bill. One federal employee offered his own story of bill shock — $200 in overlimit fees on his April Comcast bill. The customer spent $70 a month on broadcast basic cable television and Comcast Internet service. As an almost cord-cutter, he could instead rely on one of several alternative online video providers like Netflix or Hulu, but watching video that did not come from Comcast’s cable TV package contributed to eating his monthly usage allowance and subjected him to hundreds of dollars in extra fees.

cohen“I’ve reviewed [the] account to see and can confirm the charges are valid,” responded a Comcast representative who defended the company’s usage cap trials. “Please understand that we are not here to take advantage of customers. We are here to provide a great customer service experience.  After researching [the] account, at this time no matter what level of service you obtain, the Internet usage [allowance] will remain the same.”

To date, the Federal Communications Commission has left the issue of data caps and usage-based billing on the back burner, despite a Government Accounting Office report that found little justification for usage limits or compulsory usage allowances on broadband.

In 2012, former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski defended the practice, claiming it would bring lower prices to light users, spur “innovation” and enable consumer choice. But Comcast customers have found little, if any savings from Comcast’s so-called “data usage plans.” The only savings comes from enrollment in Comcast’s Flexible Data Option, which offers a $5 discount if a customer keeps usage under 5GB a month on just one plan — Comcast’s 3Mbps $39.95/mo Economy Plus tier.

“We don’t see much innovation coming from Comcast’s usage limit trials because Internet pricing continues to rise and the plans have the side effect of discouraging customers from using competing video providers, which can consume a lot of a customer’s usage allowance,” our source adds.

You're over our arbitrary usage limit!

You are over our arbitrary usage limit!

As far as enabling consumer choice, Comcast’s own representative put the kibosh on that, unless a customer wants to pay higher Internet bills.

Net Neutrality and issues surrounding Title II have consumed much of the FCC’s attention in the residential broadband business during the first half of the Obama Administration’s second term. Usage billing and data caps are likely to become bigger issues during the second half if there is a decisive move towards compulsory usage limits and consumption billing by large operators.

“An operator the size of Comcast absolutely will draw scrutiny,” said our source. “If Comcast decides to impose its currently tested market trial plans on Comcast customers nationwide, the FCC will take a closer look. Under Title II, the agency is empowered to watch for attempts to circumvent Net Neutrality policies. Usage caps and charging additional fees to customers looking for an alternative to the cable television package will qualify, especially if Comcast continues to try to exempt itself.”

Cable industry officials have also become aware of the buzz surrounding usage caps and growing regulator concern. Some reportedly discussed the possibility of FCC intervention behind closed doors at the recent cable industry conference in Chicago. Multichannel News reported (sub. req.) cable industry executives increasingly fear federal officials will ban usage pricing for wired broadband service on competitive grounds. Online video competitors rely on large cable and phone companies to reach prospective customers, many that may think twice if usage allowances are imposed on consumer broadband accounts.

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.”

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.

Our Long Nightmare is Over At Last: Stop the Cap! Ponders the Failed Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

Phillip "Victory is Ours" Dampier

Phillip “Victory is Ours” Dampier

It has been 14 months since we heard for the first time Comcast was planning to acquire Time Warner Cable. It was the night of February 12, 2014. I still remember where I was the moment I first learned the news.

Stop the Cap! has maintained a civil relationship with Time Warner Cable for the most part over our seven-year struggle fighting usage caps, lousy broadband, and high prices. We fought one major battle with the company in April of 2009, when Time Warner executives planned a compulsory usage cap experiment on customers in Rochester, N.Y., Austin and San Antonio, Tex., and Greensboro, N.C.

Just as we had done with Frontier Communications a year earlier, we successfully beat down their efforts to impose usage allowances on customers already paying a significant chunk of money for broadband Internet access. After that battle ended, Time Warner Cable changed their position on usage caps and stated emphatically that customers should always have the option of unmetered/unlimited access. They have kept their word. In fact, their optional usage cap experiments have been a spectacular flop, attracting less than 1% of their customer base and delivering the message we’ve tried to get across the industry for years: customer hate usage caps, usage-based billing, and speed throttles.

Comcast is a company that long ago stopped listening to their customers. It applied an arbitrary usage cap on all their customers in retaliation for a FCC decision that disallowed them from running hidden speed throttles on peer-to-peer Internet traffic. Comcast lied about throttling traffic, paid homeless people to stack a hearing on the issue to keep company critics out of the room, and slapped the caps on in the fall of 2008 with the flimsy excuse it represented “fairness” to customers. Only later, we would learn usage caps were never about “fairness” or good traffic management. It’s just a way to deter customers from spending too much time on the Internet, especially if that time is spent watching online videos. Too much time spent watching Netflix might convince you your cable TV package isn’t necessary any longer.

comcast twcComcast customer service horror stories reached a level unparalleled by other cable companies when a Comcast predator-installer was convicted of raping and strangling to death 23-year old Comcast customer Urszula Sakowska,  whose lifeless body was found in a bathtub inside her Chicago-area home back in 2006. But Triplett’s violent service calls didn’t stop there. He also faced charges in the death of 39-year old Janice Ordidge, a Comcast customer in Hyde Park. Those two Comcast customers lost their lives. In 2009, another Comcast installer set a Pennsylvania customer’s house on fire. Other installers stole jewelry right out of customers’ homes. Others have exposed themselves in front of female customers or fallen asleep on their couches.

Billing errors are the stuff of legend at Comcast. Offshore call centers with language barriers, inept customer service, and long, long, long lines at cable stores with windows only partially manned by agents sitting behind bullet-proof glass also helped cultivate a customer relationship that can best be described as “perp and victim.”

Comcast isn’t just a bad cable company, it’s a menace. We didn’t have to spend hours proving our case. Fortunately, Comcast’s appalling reputation preceded it. Outside of two executive suites in Philadelphia and New York, nobody was for supersizing Comcast. Just to make sure our regulators knew this, we traveled to Buffalo in June of last year to testify at a Public Service Commission hearing on the subject of the merger. We didn’t mince words.

Sure, there were non-profit groups like the Boys & Girls Club that absolutely sullied their reputation pushing for the merger (Comcast wrote large checks to the organization so you need not give the group a single penny of your money in the future). “Civil Rights” organizations like the Urban League, NAACP, and others that used to defend minority rights now concern themselves with defending the interests of giant cable companies, just as long as they get a nice check in the mail with Comcast’s name on it. Among the worst of all – Shakedown Al Sharpton who will either be your merger deal’s best friend or will go away and leave victims of racism in peace, if you cut his organization a big fat check. (Now that the merger has collapsed, perhaps Comcast-owned MSNBC will end the thinly veiled quid-pro-quo arrangement it has with the man that gives him an hour a night to perform a talent train wreck.)

My own state assemblyman, Joe Morelle, who served as New York’s interim assembly speaker for about five minutes literally plagiarized his letter in support of the Comcast merger (after cashing their check) almost word-for-word from Comcast press releases and congressional testimony. Say it ain’t so, Joe!

morelleN.Y. State Assembly Leader Joe Morelle: “The combination of Comcast and Time Warner Cable will create a world-class communications, media and technology company to help meet the increasing consumer demand for advanced digital services on multiple devices in homes, workplaces and on-the-go.”

 

cohenDavid Cohen, executive vice-president, Comcast: “The combination of Comcast and TWC will create a world-class communications, media, and technology company to help meet the insatiable consumer demand for advanced digital services on multiple devices in homes, workplaces, and on-the-go.”

 

There was not a doubt in my mind that replacing Time Warner Cable with Comcast would be a disaster for Time Warner Cable customers. Despite promises Comcast would upgrade Time Warner’s network, it would also upgrade customer bills, resorting in higher priced service, higher modem fees, and lousy customer service. Comcast vice president David Cohen also made it clear usage caps would be a part of our life within five years. No amount of protesting or rational argument would stop Comcast from being Comcast. Don’t like it? Just try to cancel.

Time Warner Cable can be bad but it is no Comcast.

Malone: Waiting in the wings?

Malone: Waiting in the wings?

Life will be just fine without Comcast, but danger lurks on the horizon. Still interested in the possibility of taking over Time Warner Cable is the smaller Charter Communications, now effectively controlled by cable magnate John Malone (he owns his own castles). Malone has a long history of enriching himself at the expense of customers with no other choices for cable/broadband service. He used to control Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), a cable company that literally threatened city officials who didn’t do what TCI wanted.

We remain unsure exactly what will happen next. Charter could bid aggressively to buy Time Warner Cable, Time Warner Cable could go it alone, or Time Warner Cable could start buying other cable companies (like Charter).

What we hope will happen is Time Warner Cable will refocus its energy on expanding its Maxx upgrade program as quickly as possible to reach all Time Warner Cable markets with faster broadband and a better cable TV experience. We also hope the company will stand by its word that compulsory usage caps are off the table.

I’d like to thank all of our readers who took the time to get involved in the fight and helped make a difference. Wall Street and Washington, as well as Comcast CEO Brian Roberts are all shocked the merger deal collapsed after a torrent of criticism from consumers. It also left state regulators cautious about how to proceed. New York’s Public Service Commission delayed making a decision eight times, recognizing the merger as a hot potato.

Our experience demonstrates that ordinary citizens can wield considerable power when unified and involved. We’ve proved that with multiple victories on the usage cap front as well as the AT&T/T-Mobile merger and Net Neutrality.

Let the fight for better broadband continue!

Verizon Wireless to Customers Looking for a Better Deal: Goodbye and Good Luck With Competitors’ Inferior Service

Verizon Wireless: The Neiman Marcus of mobile providers

Verizon Wireless: The Neiman Marcus of mobile providers

A customer retention call with Verizon Wireless is short and to the point: enjoy the coverage you get from us now at the prices we charge or cancel and live with inferior cell phone service from one of our competitors.

Verizon chief financial officer Fran Shammo waved goodbye to 138,000 Verizon Wireless customers in the last three months and he could care less.

“If the customer who is just price-sensitive and does not care about the quality of the network—or is sufficient with just paying a lower price—that’s probably the customer we’re not going to be able to keep,” he said in the company’s quarterly earnings call today.

The wireless industry’s price war has not yet inflicted much damage on Verizon, which considers itself above the fray.

Average revenue per customer has started to significantly decline for the first time in wireless industry history, despite efforts to bolster earnings with expensive data plans and bundling services, including unlimited voice calling most cell phone users no longer care about. Both T-Mobile and Sprint are resorting to slashing prices and reducing the fine print to pick up business, with T-Mobile being the more successful of the two pulling it off. But the combined market share of Sprint and T-Mobile remains a fraction of what AT&T and Verizon Wireless have captured.

verizon greedVerizon believes it has a premium product and expects to be paid for it. Like a Neiman Marcus of the wireless industry, customers can expect a superior level of service, if they can afford to pay for it.

To keep customers dazzled, this summer Verizon Wireless is planning a new wireless video service featuring content from the NFL and likely more. Verizon hopes customers without unlimited data plans will be willing to pay several dollars extra for the new streaming service. But perhaps not too many extra dollars. Verizon executives have discovered a loophole in the FCC’s new Net Neutrality regulations allowing video content to be sponsored by Verizon or its advertising partners and exempt from usage allowances or caps.

Known as “zero-rating,” the practice is much more common overseas, where content providers pay for customer’s usage of their applications. Critics call the practice an end run around Net Neutrality. The FCC has continued to avoid the issue of broadband usage caps and usage-based billing, which ISPs have interpreted to mean a green light on the practice. In fact, some earlier comments from the FCC suggest the agency believes subsidized Internet traffic might be beneficial to consumers. Verizon pockets the money in either case.

Tim Berners-Lee, who created of the World Wide Web, called zero-rating “positive discrimination,” giving too much power to Internet providers.

“Zero-rated mobile traffic is blunt anti-competitive price discrimination designed to favor telcos’ own or their partners’ apps while placing competing apps at a disadvantage,” added Antonios Drossos, managing partner of Rewheel. “A zero-rated app is an offer consumers can’t refuse.”

Verizon Wireless has not yet priced its forthcoming video offering, but it could be marketed as a monthly add-on feature or as a pay-per-view option.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Verizon Bids Good Riddance to Customers Leaving for a Cheaper Deal 4-21-15.flv

Bloomberg reporters talk about Verizon’s disinterest in competing with other carriers in the ongoing price war, and is fine with letting price-sensitive customers leave. It won’t be cutting prices anytime soon. (2:01)

Justice Department Nearing Decision to Block Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

Phillip Dampier April 17, 2015 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 5 Comments

comcast twcStaff attorneys that have reviewed details of the Time Warner Cable/Comcast merger proposal are prepared to make a recommendation as early as next week that the Department of Justice should block the deal because it is anti-competitive and anti-consumer.

The staff in the Justice Department’s antitrust division have spent more than a year reviewing documents submitted by both cable companies to determine what impact the merger would have on the cable television and broadband landscape.

Bloomberg News today reported the attorneys did not like what they saw and believe the merger would harm consumers. For the first time, a cable company merger deal was reviewed not so much for its impact on cable television programming, but on broadband.

When the Federal Communications Commission redefined broadband as an Internet connection of at least 25Mbps, Comcast suddenly found itself the largest broadband provider in the country. If the merger with Time Warner Cable is approved, Comcast will have a 56.8 percent market share of U.S. broadband customers, far exceeding any other provider.

In upstate New York, Comcast would have more than a 75% market share — nearly 9o% if you just consider non-Verizon FiOS areas. In California, Comcast would control more than 80% of the market, not only picking up Time Warner Cable customers, but Charter customers in Southern California as well. 

Comcast and Time Warner Cable have argued competition is not affected because the two companies never compete with each other. But a de facto broadband monopoly could allow Comcast to raise rates at will and bring a return to usage-related billing. It would also discourage new competitors from entering the market – particularly those relying on broadband to deliver video services, and hand Comcast more leverage to force compensation from online content companies like Netflix.

justiceUnder consideration by the Justice Department:

  • Whether the combined entity would have too much control over nationwide broadband Internet delivery;
  • whether Comcast could use its financial influence to strike exclusive cable deals that could keep programming off other platforms;
  • whether Comcast could limit how programming is delivered through video streaming services (usage caps, etc.);
  • if Comcast complied with terms under a previous merger deal with NBCUniversal.

Renata Hesse, a deputy assistant attorney general for antitrust, will take the analysis and ultimately decide, along with the division’s top officials, whether to file a federal lawsuit to block the deal. Bloomberg reports lawyers at the Justice Department have contacted outside parties to collect evidence to strengthen their potential case against the merger.

Another clear sign the merger is not being received well inside the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission is a complete lack of negotiations with Comcast over possible concessions to make the deal less anti-competitive. That also happened with the AT&T/T-Mobile merger where negotiations to ease anticompetitive concerns never seriously got off the ground before the Justice Department sued to block the deal. The FCC quickly announced its own opposition later that same day.

A lawsuit does not necessarily kill the merger deal. Comcast could take its case to federal court to win approval over the objections of the Justice Department. The company might also counter-propose new concessions to address concerns raised by the lawsuit. 

After learning of today’s Bloomberg News story, spokespeople at both Comcast and Time Warner Cable are either confident or in denial:

“There is no basis for a lawsuit to block the transaction,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokeswoman. The merger “will result in significant consumer benefits — faster broadband speeds, access to a superior video experience, and more competition in business services resulting in billions of dollars of cost savings.”

Time Warner Cable spokesman Bobby Amirshahi said “we have been working productively with both DOJ and FCC and believe that there is no basis for DOJ to block the deal.”

Cox Boosting Its Economy Class Broadband Speeds in Arizona: 5Mbps is Now the Minimum

COX_RES_RGBCox Communications has raised Internet speeds for its economy class customers in Arizona as it continues network enhancements across the state.

One-third of Cox customers in Arizona subscribe to the company’s two cheapest tiers — Internet Starter and Internet Essential. Both packages are getting free speed upgrades that began in late March. Now all Cox customers in the state should have the higher speeds:

  • Cox High Speed Internet Starter was 1Mbps and is now 5Mbps;
  • Cox High Speed Internet Essential was 5Mbps and is now 15Mbps.

Speed increases in one state often eventually turn up in other states where Cox provides service.

Last July, Cox doubled speeds for its Preferred tier (increased from 25 to 50Mbps) and Premiere tier (increased from 50 to 100Mbps).

Usage caps are still in place on Cox broadband packages, but they are widely ignored by most customers because Cox rarely cracks down on offenders, and usually backs off if a customer threatens to cancel service over the issue.

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