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Spring 2016: An Update and Progress Report for Our Members

stcDear Members,

We have had a very busy winter and spring here at Stop the Cap! and we thought it important to update you on our efforts.

You may have noticed a drop in new content online over the last few months, and we’ve had some inquiries about it. The primary reason for this is the additional time and energy being spent to directly connect with legislators and regulators about the issues we are concerned about. Someone recently asked me why we spend a lot of time and energy writing exposés to an audience that almost certainly already agrees with us. If supporters were the only readers here, they would have a point. Stop the Cap! is followed regularly by legislators, regulators, public policy lobbyists, consumer groups, telecom executives, and members of the media. Our content is regularly cited in books, articles, regulatory filings, and in media reports. That is why we spend a lot of time and energy documenting our positions about data caps, usage billing, Net Neutrality, and the state of broadband in the United States and Canada.

A lengthy piece appearing here can easily take more than eight hours (sometimes longer) to put together from research to final publication. We feel it is critical to make sure this information gets into the hands of those that can help make a difference, whether they visit us on the web or not. So we have made an extra effort to inform, educate, and persuade decision-makers and reporters towards our point of view, helping to counter the well-funded propaganda campaigns of Big Telecom companies that regularly distort the issues and defend the indefensible.

Four issues have gotten most of our attention over the last six months:

  1. The Charter/Time Warner Cable/Bright House merger;
  2. Data cap traps and trials (especially those from Comcast, Blue Ridge, Cox, and Suddenlink);
  3. Cablevision/Altice merger;
  4. Frontier’s acquisition of Verizon landlines and that phone company’s upgrade plans for existing customers.

We’ve been successful raising important issues about the scarcity of benefits from telecom company mergers. In short, there are none of significance, unless you happen to be a Wall Street banker, a shareholder, or a company executive. The last thing an already-concentrated marketplace needs is more telecom mergers. We’re also continuing to expose just how nonsensical data caps and usage-based billing is for 21st century broadband providers. Despite claims of “fairness,” data caps are nothing more than cable-TV protectionism and the further exploitation of a broadband duopoly that makes it easy for Wall Street analysts to argue “there is room for broadband rate hikes” in North America. Stop the Cap! will continue to coordinate with other consumer groups to fight this issue, and we’ve successfully convinced at least some at the FCC that the excuses offered for data caps don’t hold water.

Dampier

Dampier

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s broadening of Charter’s voluntary three-year moratorium on data caps to a compulsory term as long as seven years sent a clear message to broadband providers that the jig is up — data caps are a direct threat to the emerging online video marketplace that might finally deliver serious competition to the current bloated and overpriced cable television package.

Wheeler’s actions were directly responsible for Comcast’s sudden generosity in more than tripling the usage allowance it has imposed on several markets across the south and midwest. But we won’t be happy until those compulsory data caps are gone for good.

More than 10,000 Comcast customers have already told the FCC in customer complaints that Comcast’s data caps are egregious and unfair. Considering how unresponsive Comcast has been towards its own customers that despise data caps of any kind, Comcast obviously doesn’t care what their customers think. But they care very much about what the FCC thinks about regulatory issues like data caps and set-top box monopolies. How do we know this? Because Comcast’s chief financial officer this week told the audience attending the JPMorgan Technology, Media and Telecom Broker Conference Comcast always pays attention to regulator headwinds.

“I think it’s our job to make sure we pivot and react accordingly and make sure the company thrives whatever the outcome is on some of the regulatory proposals that are out there,” said Comcast’s Mike Cavanagh. We suspect if Chairman Wheeler goes just one step further and calls on ISPs to permanently ditch data caps and usage billing, many would. We will continue to press him to do exactly that.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Other companies are also still making bad decisions for their customers. Besides Comcast’s ongoing abusive data cap experiment, Cox’s ongoing data cap trial in Cleveland, Ohio is completely unacceptable and has no justification. The usage allowances provided are also unacceptably stingy. Suddenlink, now owned by Altice, should not even attempt to alienate their customers, particularly as the cable conglomerate seeks new acquisition opportunities in the United States in the future. We find it telling that Altice feels justified retaining usage caps on customers in smaller communities served by Suddenlink while denying they would even think of doing the same in Cablevision territory in suburban New York City. Both Suddenlink and Cablevision have upgraded their networks to deliver faster speed service. What is Altice’s excuse about why it treats its urban and rural customers so differently? It frankly doesn’t have one. We’ll be working to convince Altice it is time for Suddenlink’s data caps to be retired for good.

We will also be turning more attention back on the issue of community broadband, which continues to be the only competitive alternative to the phone and cable companies most Americans will likely ever see. The dollar-a-holler lobbyists are still writing editorials and articles claiming “government-owned networks” are risky and/or a failure, without bothering to disclose the authors have a direct financial relationship to the phone and cable companies that don’t want the competition. We will be pressing state lawmakers to ditch municipal broadband bans and not to enact any new ones.

We will also continue to watch AT&T and Verizon — two large phone companies that continue to seek opportunities to neglect or ditch their wired services either by decommissioning rural landlines or selling parts of their service areas to companies like Frontier. AT&T specializes in bait-n-switch bills in state legislatures that promise “upgrades” in return for further deregulation and permission to switch off rural service in favor of wireless alternatives. That’s great for AT&T, but a potential life-threatening disaster for rural America.

We continue to abide by our mandate: fighting data caps and consumption billing and promoting better broadband, regardless of what company or community supplies it.

As always, thank you so much for your financial support (the donate button that sustains us entirely is to your right) and for your engagement in the fight against unfair broadband pricing and policies. Broadband is not just a nice thing to have. It is an essential utility just as important as clean water, electricity, natural gas, and telephone service.

Phillip M. Dampier
Founder & President, Stop the Cap!

Cox Upgrading to Fiber-to-the-Node, DOCSIS 3.1 Broadband Platform

COX_RES_RGBCox Communications will push broadband speed upgrades as high as a gigabit to customers over an upgraded network heavy on fiber and much lighter on copper coaxial cable.

In an effort to stay competitive and reduce operational and maintenance costs, Cox will begin major upgrades of its cable plant, removing as much copper and as many signal amplifiers as possible to simplify upkeep and make future upgrades simpler.

Cox chief technology officer Kevin Hart told Light Reading he wants to push fiber optics deeper into Cox’s network, bringing optical fiber closer to the neighborhoods where customers live and work. This will allow Cox to reduce the number of customers sharing the same bandwidth. It also eases Cox’s forthcoming upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1 technology.

“We’re […] taking fiber deeper as a part of our multi-year network transformation plan, working towards a node-plus-zero architecture that allows us to take fiber to the home, and allows us to bring gigabit speeds on demand. And of course we’re aligning around DOCSIS 3.1,” Hart said.

Cox is planning its first rollout of DOCSIS 3.1, which gives cable companies to ability to offer gigabit download speeds, in the fourth quarter of this year. It will choose one of the smaller communities it serves as a test market. If all goes well, Cox will push DOCSIS 3.1 across all of its markets between 2017-2020, likely focusing on Phoenix and San Diego first.

Cox is evaluating DOCSIS 3.1 cable modems from a number of vendors, with Arris and Technicolor likely contenders.

Cox continues to support data caps and usage-based billing in some of its markets and has become one of the stingiest with data allowances:

Package Usage Cap Speeds
Download / Upload
Starter 150 GB 5 Mbps / 1 Mbps
Essential 250 GB 15 Mbps / 2 Mbps
Preferred 350 GB 50 Mbps / 5 Mbps
Premier 700 GB 100 Mbps / 10 Mbps
Ultimate 2000 GB 200 Mbps / 20 Mbps
Gigablast (Where Available) 2000 GB 1 Gbps / 1 Gbps

Customers in Cleveland, Ohio are the unluckiest of all, because they also face an overlimit fee when they exceed their allowance: $10 for each additional 50GB block of data. Some customers in Cleveland’s downtown area have found a loophole around the data cap, however. If they access the Internet over Cox WiFi and Cable WiFi hotspots, it does not count against one’s allowance at this time.

TDS Gets Tedious With 250GB Usage Cap

tds cap

TDS DSL customers have a 250GB data cap in their future.

Arch, a Stop the Cap! reader in eastern Kentucky, just received a notification letter informing him his Internet access is about to be rationed, and unless he buys additional usage before June 1, TDS is likely to charge him penalty overlimit rates.

tds cap optionsLike some data caps of the past, TDS is giving customers a small break by remaining unlimited during the overnight hours, but for many customers, it won’t be enough to prevent a higher broadband bill.

“We are writing to you inform you TDS s implementing data-usage allowance plans in your area,” reads TDS’ letter. “Beginning with the June billing period, data usage will be measured during peak time (6am-midnight CST). Data usage during non-peak time will be unlimited. In June and thereafter, if your monthly data usage exceeds the 250GB allowance you will be assessed a $20 overage fee for every 250GB exceeded (up to $60).”

TDS advises Arch that based on his prior usage, he’s very likely to exceed his cap and face overlimit fees.

“My mother got a similar [letter],” writes Arch. “Mine states I am likely to be affected by the cap and my mother’s letter says she will likely not be affected.”

Of course, customers can make the usage cap less of an issue by agreeing to buy more usage up front:

  • a 500GB Data Allowance runs $10 extra a month;
  • 750GB costs an extra $20 a month;
  • 1TB (1,000GB) is priced at an additional $30 a month.

TDS does not offer any justification for their data caps, but it doesn’t have a lot to fear imposing them.

“TDS has no competition at all in my area except for fraudband satellite,” Arch reminds us.

That is also likely true across many other TDS service areas, where the company’s 1.2 million customers live in more than 150 different communities, many rural or suburban.

California Dreamin’: Will Regulators Approve Tougher Charter/Time Warner Merger Conditions Today?

charter twc bhAll signs are pointing to a relative cake walk for Charter Communications’ executives this afternoon as they seek final approval from the California Public Utilities Commission to acquire Time Warner Cable systems in the state, with the help of an Administrative Law Judge that is recommending approval with a minimum of conditions.

In fact, the strongest condition Charter may have to accept in California came by accident. As part of Charter’s lobbying effort, it proposed a set of voluntary conditions it was prepared to accept, claiming to regulators these conditions would represent benefits of approving the transaction. One of those was a temporary three-year commitment to abide by the FCC’s Open Internet Order, which among other things bans paid prioritization (Internet fast lanes), intentionally blocking lawful Internet content, and speed throttling your Internet connection.

Somewhere along the way, someone forgot to include the language that sunsets (or ends) Charter’s voluntary commitment after three years.

Without it, Charter will have to abide by the terms of the FCC’s Open Internet Order forever.

cpucSoon after recognizing the change in language, Charter’s lawyers appealed to the CPUC to correct what it called a “drafting error.”

“[New Charter does] not seek modification of the second sentence, which matches their voluntary commitments, but believe[s] that the three-year limitation in the second sentence was intended to— and should—apply to the first sentence as well,” Charter’s lawyers argued two weeks ago.

In other words, the Administrative Law Judge’s apparent attempt to ‘cut and paste’ Charter’s own press release-like voluntary deal commitments into his personal recommendation went horribly wrong. Charter’s lawyers prefer to call it an “intent to track” the company’s voluntary commitments. Either way, Charter’s lawyers all call the new language unfair.

“Holding New Charter indefinitely to FCC rules even after the FCC’s rules are invalidated or modified, and irrespective of future market conditions or the practices or rules governing New Charter’s competitors, would be a highly unconventional requirement,” the lawyers complained.

That provides valuable insight into how “New Charter” is likely to feel about Net Neutrality three years from now. Charter’s lawyers argue it would be unfair to hold them to “invalidated” rules — the same ones the company itself has voluntarily embraced as a condition of approval, but only for now.

Remarkably, in the final revision of the Administrative Law Judge’s recommendations to the CPUC recommending approval, the language that is keeping Charter’s lawyers up at night is still there:

New Charter shall fully comply with all the terms and conditions of the Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet Order, regardless of the outcome of any legal challenge to the Open Internet Order. In addition, for a period of not less than three years from the closing of the Transaction, New Charter (a) will not adopt fees for users to use specific third-party Internet applications; (b) will not engage in zero-rating; (c) will not engage in usage-based billing; (d) will not impose data caps; and (e) will submit any Internet interconnection disputes not resolvable by good faith negotiations on a case-by-case basis.

Charter's new service area, including Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers.

Charter’s new service area, including Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers.

If it remains intact through the vote expected this afternoon, New Charter will have to permanently abide by the FCC’s Open Internet Order, with no end date. That condition will apply in California, and because of most-favored state status, also in New York.

Stop the Cap!’s recommendations to the CPUC are also in the same document, although our views were not shared by the judge:

Stop the Cap! objects to [New Charter’s] 3-year moratorium on data caps and usage based pricing for broadband services. It argues that such bans should be made permanent or, if not permanent, should last at least 7 years in parallel with the lifespan of the conditions imposed in the FCC’s approval of the parent company merger. In addition, Stop the Cap! objects to what it asserts will be a major price increase for existing Time Warner customers when Charter’s pricing plans replace Time Warner’s pricing plans.

More broadly, Stop the Cap! president Phillip Dampier called the revised recommendations to approve the deal underwhelming and disappointing.

“By window-dressing what is essentially Charter’s own voluntary offer to the CPUC, the commission is continuing to miss a golden opportunity to win deal conditions that will meaningfully benefit Californian consumers that will otherwise get little more than higher cable and broadband bills,” Dampier told Communications Daily. “Virtually everything Charter is promising customers is already available or soon will be from Time Warner Cable, often for less money. Time Warner Cable committed to offering its customers 300Mbps speeds, no usage caps or usage billing, and all-digital service through its Maxx upgrade program, expected to be complete by the end of 2017 or 2018. The CPUC is proposing to allow New Charter to wait until 2019 to provide 300Mbps service and potentially cap Internet service three years after that, four years less than what the FCC is demanding.”

Among the conditions Charter will be expected to fulfill in return for approval of its merger in California:

  • Within a year of the closing of the merger deal, New Charter must boost broadband download speeds for customers on their all-digital platform to at least 60Mbps, an upgrade that is largely already complete.
  • Within 30 months, New Charter must upgrade all households in its California service territory to an all-digital platform with download speeds of not less than 60Mbps, an upgrade that has already been underway for a few years.
  • By Dec. 31, 2019, New Charter shall offer broadband Internet service with speeds of at least 300Mbps download to all households with current broadband availability from New Charter in its California network. Time Warner Cable essentially promised to do the same by early 2018, with many of its customers already getting up to 300Mbps in Southern California.
  • While Charter talks about a bright future for the Time Warner customers joining its family, the company has not done a great job maintaining and upgrading its own cable systems in parts of California. Many smaller communities still only receive analog cable TV from Charter, with no broadband option at all. Therefore, the CPUC is giving New Charter three years to deploy 70,000 new broadband “passings” to current analog-only cable service areas in Kern, Kings, Modoc, Monterey, San Bernardino and Tulare counties. But the CPUC is giving New Charter a break, only requiring them to offer up to 100Mbps service in these communities.
  • Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers in California will be able to keep their current broadband service plans for up to three years. Customers will also be allowed to buy their own cable modems and set-top boxes, but there is no requirement New Charter compensate customers who do with a service discount.
  • Within six months of the deal closing, New Charter must offer Lifeline phone discounts within its service territory in California.
  • New Charter must print and distribute brochures explaining the need for backup power to keep phone service working if electricity is interrupted. Those brochures must be available in multiple languages including, but not limited to, English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese, as well as in accessible formats for visually impaired customers.

The CPUC is also expected to adopt Charter’s own voluntary commitments not to impose usage caps, usage billing, modem fees, and other customer-unfriendly practices for three years, a point that drew strong criticism from Stop the Cap! and the California Office of Ratepayer Advocates for being inadequate.

Both groups proposed that bans on data caps and usage billing should stay in place “until there is effective competition in Southern California, or no shorter than seven years after the decision is issued, whichever is later.”

ORA’s program supervisor Ana Maria Johnson believes the proposed changes don’t go far enough to “mitigate the harms that the merger will likely cause, especially in Southern California.”

Dampier was surprised how little the CPUC seemed to be asking of New Charter, especially in comparison to regulators in New York.

“The New York Public Service Commission did a more thorough job protecting consumers by insisting on faster and better upgrades, including readiness for gigabit service, and the same level of broadband service for all of New Charter’s customers in New York,” Dampier argued. “It also demanded and won meaningful expansion in rural broadband, low-cost Internet access, protection of New York jobs, and improved customer service. It is remarkable to us the CPUC did not insist on at least as much for California.”

The CPUC is expected to take a final vote on the merger deal this afternoon, starting at 12:30pm ET/9:30am PT and will be webcast. It is the 20th item on the agenda.

Stop the Cap! Still Fighting Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger in California

stop-the-capStop the Cap! continues the fight for a better deal for Time Warner Cable customers that could soon end up as Charter Communications customers, if the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approves the merger.

While the Federal Communications Commission formally approved the deal last week, California has yet to sign off on the transaction, giving consumer advocates like Stop the Cap! an opportunity to recommend the state regulator impose stronger consumer-friendly deal conditions that guarantee customers their share of the anticipated windfall in “deal benefits” that shareholders and executives of the companies involved are likely to receive.

Our California coordinator Matthew Friedman has been educating the CPUC about the true nature of data caps and usage-based billing, and sharing our view that Charter’s promised merger deal benefits are illusory, offering little more than what Time Warner Cable already offers its Maxx-upgraded service areas. In fact, Time Warner’s ongoing commitment to not impose compulsory data caps or usage billing is likely to be canceled by Charter Communications, which has only agreed not to impose such billing schemes on customers for three years.

Even worse, future Charter customers are likely to pay higher broadband bills after Charter imposes its regular prices on Time Warner Cable customers — prices often higher than what Time Warner charges for similar services. Although Time Warner customers have been able to negotiate a better deal for themselves after threatening to cancel, Stop the Cap! anticipates Charter will not be as generous with those customers in the future.

At the minimum, Stop the Cap! is recommending the CPUC either permanently ban compulsory usage caps and usage billing from Charter, or add a competition test that will allow such billing only where consumers can switch to a competitor that offers comparable unlimited broadband service.

Charter's broadband "deal"

Charter’s broadband “deal”

The loss of [Time Warner’s] commitment [to always offer unlimited broadband options to consumers] could result in the following harms, according to Friedman:

  1. New Charter’s commitment to provide low cost broadband will become completely voluntary and unenforceable;
  2. increased broadband pricing resulting in decreased demand for broadband;
  3. New Charter will be able to circumvent Net Neutrality rules;
  4. New Charter will be able to engage in a multitude of anticompetitive behaviours, increasing the cost and reducing the attractiveness of competing video content from edge providers, thus lessening the demand for high-speed broadband access to the Internet, and thus running counter to Section 706(a)’s mandate to promote competition in broadband services;
  5. innovation and investment will potentially decrease significantly;
  6. network security can be adversely affected; and,
  7. Californians, especially low-income Californians, may lose access to education opportunities.
We're not drinking "New Charter's" Kool-Aid

We’re not drinking “New Charter’s” Kool-Aid

Stop the Cap! (and the Office of Ratepayer Advocates as well) has offered a reasonable option of requiring a competition test to sunset the prohibition on data caps and usage based pricing,” wrote Friedman. “This suggestion is based on Charter’s own expert testimony and [the conditions] must be rewritten per these suggestions if it is to fulfill multiple statutory requirements.”

Stop the Cap! also advocates that Time Warner Cable customers that purchased their own cable modems to avoid Time Warner’s modem fees deserve an ongoing bill credit for providing their own equipment, because Charter builds the cost of its modem into the price of broadband service.

“Charter already bakes the price of the modem rental into the monthly cost of the plan,” Friedman noted. “New Charter [should be required] to offer a discount to customers who bring their own modems. Charter currently allows customers to bring their own modems… they just continue to charge those customers for a Charter modem that the customer never uses.”

Although Charter’s pledge to increase broadband speeds for Time Warner customers seems laudatory, in fact Charter’s proposed service offerings also represent a significant rate increase for broadband customers who don’t need or want 60Mbps service. They won’t have much choice after Charter imposes its own plans and pricing, which are now limited to 60 or 100Mbps options for most customers, at prices starting at $60 a month.

charter twc“Clearly these TWC customers are materially much worse off under New Charter than TWC,” Friedman told the CPUC. “Equally clear is that Charter’s ‘Simplified Pricing’ (perhaps more accurately described as ‘Fewer Options and Higher Prices’) is far from a public benefit. This massive price increase will affect literally every stand-alone-broadband TWC customer other than the few who qualify for the School Lunch/Senior Assistance plan. While the low-cost School Lunch/Senior Assistance plan is great for the narrowly targeted group of consumers who manage to qualify, roughly doubling the cost of broadband for every other standalone customer more than offsets the combined value of every other ‘benefit’ that the applicants allege will come from this transfer.”

Stop the Cap! also advocates that the CPUC guarantee Charter customers have a choice about the broadband speeds they need and the amount they have to pay for Internet access.

“New Charter should be required to retain TWC’s pricing and plan structure in perpetuity, for both new and existing TWC customers. TWC customers should retain the ability to switch back and forth between TWC’s cheaper, larger variety of plans,” Friedman wrote. “New Charter should be required to continue TWC’s practice of increasing customer speeds as technology advances with no
accompanying price increase.”

Although Charter’s lobbying efforts promote improved service for Time Warner Cable customers, it is our view that once one examines the full scope and impact of Charter’s proposal, customers will be worse off under Charter than they would be staying with Time Warner Cable.

“TWC stands out in its field for its customer-friendly policies such as providing discounts for those who own their own modems, its public commitment to refuse to impose data caps or
usage based pricing even in the face of pressure from Wall Street to do so, and the creation of its TWC Roku App to allow customers to avoid set-top box rental fees,” argued Friedman. “This transfer, as currently conditioned, creates a net public benefit harm, not a benefit, or even a status quo.”

Only 34% of Broadband Customers Would Recommend Their ISP to Others

Usage caps and usage billing are especially unpopular.

Usage caps and usage billing are especially unpopular.

Americans do not have a love affair with their phone or cable company, according to a new study that found most customers either wouldn’t recommend or are neutral about their Internet Service Provider (ISP).

A survey conducted by Incognito Software Systems unintentionally stumbled on the fact consumers deal with either a monopoly or duopoly for broadband service, giving them few alternative options if they do not like the service they are getting. Despite the mediocre ratings many customers give their ISP, only 10% have switched providers in the last year.

“This could reflect a lack of choices in certain regions, or it may be indicative of subscriber apathy toward Internet Service Providers,” the survey found.

Urban and suburban residents hold slightly more favorable views about their broadband service than their rural counterparts. The report found rural residents were less satisfied with service speeds and pricing options, which in most cases involve traditional DSL service from the local phone company.

broadband reportIncognito’s findings show broadband providers are reducing initiatives to acquire new customers as broadband penetration in the United States approaches 90%. Instead, they want current subscribers to pay more to satisfy demands for higher average revenue per customer. Customers already believe their current ISP is charging too much for too slow service.

“In this era of subscriber monetization, it’s essential that broadband providers clearly grasp what’s important to their existing subscribers,” Stephane Bourque, president and CEO of Incognito, said in a statement. “As our survey shows, providers are expected to do more than ever before: provide faster speeds, lower prices and superior WiFi capabilities to live up to their subscribers’ demands.”

“Most subscribers want to pay less (39%) for faster Internet services (24%),” the survey found. At least 33% want faster speeds and 28% are looking for better Wi-Fi reliability. An additional 32% want more choice in Internet plans at different prices.

The survey also found one thing customers absolutely do not want from their ISP: usage-based pricing. The fact that 58% of respondents didn’t want a usage-based billing plan might seem low until the report explains another 27% did not know what usage-based plans were. Only 15% of consumers would prefer a usage-based plan, assuming it would save them money. Most usage billing plans available to customers today do not, unless a customer is willing to cut their usage to 5GB or less per month.

In an effort to appease disappointed cable and phone company executives, the report’s authors optimistically suggest “further education could go a long way into changing the subscribers’ perception” about usage pricing.

Besides raising speeds and reducing prices, the value-added feature customers want their ISP to offer the most in the future is a robust network of accessible Wi-Fi hotspots.

Comcast Raising Usage Caps to 1TB, Boosts Price of Unlimited Add-On to $50 a Month

Comcast-LogoWith the FCC’s increasing skepticism that Comcast’s data caps are about fairness and not an attempt to discourage cable TV customers from cutting the cord and watching all of their shows online, Comcast today announced it was overhauling its data cap allowance and unlimited add-on plan.

Effective June 1, Comcast will increase its current 300GB monthly data cap to a terabyte (1,000GB) for all speed plans. For those exceeding one terabyte in usage, Comcast will sell you an unlimited add-on plan for an extra $50 a month to avoid the overlimit fee of $10 per 50GB of excess usage.

“In our trials, we have experimented with different offers, listened to feedback, and learned a lot,” said Marcien Jenckes, executive vice president of Consumer Services at Comcast Cable. “That is what we said we would do when we launched our trials four years ago – analyze and assess our customers’ reaction to the data plans, including being open to increasing them over time. We have learned that our customers want the peace of mind to stream, surf, game, download, or do whatever they want online. So, we have created a new data plan that is so high that most of our customers will never have to think about how much data they use.”

Comcast-Usage-MeterComcast is also likely responding to thousands of customer complaints filed with the FCC complaining about Comcast’s data caps and the cost of their insurance plan (previously $30-35 depending on market) to avoid overlimit fees.

Despite near universal opposition to Comcast’s data caps, the company has gradually introduced them in a growing number of cities, mostly in the southern United States.

“Comcast doesn’t listen to its customers,” complains Miguel Santos, a Comcast customer in Miami. “It never has and never will. Our family was facing a $200 Internet bill after Comcast introduced caps in Miami-Dade. Now we grudgingly pay them more than $100 a month just for unlimited Internet. It is totally ridiculous.”

Comcast’s decision comes almost a month to the day after AT&T announced it was increasing usage allowances for its U-verse and DSL customers, albeit less generously than Comcast. Most AT&T DSL customers will face 300GB caps, while most U-verse customers will get a boost to 600GB. Only U-verse customers with speeds over 100Mbps will get 1TB of usage.

“We’ve always said that we’d look carefully at the feedback from our trials, continue to evolve our offers, and listen to our customers,” said Jenckes. “We’re currently evaluating our plans to roll this out in other markets, we’ll keep listening – and we’ll be open to making further changes in the future to deliver the best high-speed data service to our customers.”

“That probably means Comcast’s version of generosity will be coming to your city soon,” predicts Santos.

Analysis: FCC, Justice Dept. Ready to Approve Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House Merger

charter twc bhThe Justice Department and FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler are prepared to accept a massive $55 billion merger between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks, but at a cost of stringent conditions governing the creation of America’s second largest cable conglomerate.

In a joint agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the FCC, Charter executives have agreed to do nothing to harm online video competition or implement usage caps or usage-based billing for at least seven years. Charter will also be forced to broaden its cable service to reach at least two million additional homes, some already served by other providers, setting the stage for potential head-to-head competition between two closely-matched competitors.

The deal will directly affect 19.4 million customers of the three companies, which will eventually combine under the Charter Communications brand name and marketing philosophy — selling customers simplified television, phone, and broadband packages that reduce customer options. Little is expected to change for the rest of 2016, however, with Time Warner Cable and Bright House likely to continue operations under existing packaging and pricing until sometime in 2017. Technicians told Stop the Cap! earlier in April they were told not to acquire new outfits with the Time Warner Cable logo and branding, and the cable company is also making preparations to gradually repaint its massive fleet of vans and service vehicles with the Charter logo.

President Obama Expected To Nominate Rep. Mel Watt For Director Of The Federal Housing Finance Agency

Wheeler

Most of the concessions seemed to have originated from FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, who has been one of the strongest proponents of online video competition, improved broadband, and direct head-to-head competition between cable operators. The Justice Department focused its attention on challenging the cable industry’s almost-united front against online video competition. Under former CEO Glenn Britt’s leadership, Time Warner Cable was considered “the industry leader” in contract language that guaranteed it would share the lowest price negotiated by any other cable, satellite, telephone company or online video provider. Those agreements also often included clauses that restricted programmers from putting streamed programming online for non-subscribers. That explains why cord-cutters frequently run into barriers watching networks online unless they can prove they are already a pay-TV customer.

Under conditions from the Justice Department, those sections of agreements with Charter, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks will become invalid and unenforceable. But that doesn’t mean restrictions will disappear overnight. Comcast, Cox, Cablevision, and other cable companies also enforce similar conditions which will be unaffected by the Justice Department decision, at least for now. But the precedent has sent shudders across an industry concerned about protecting its still-profitable cable TV business, under assault from increased programming costs and a greater reluctance by consumers to tolerate annual rate increases.

analysisGene Kimmelman, chief executive of consumer interest group Public Knowledge, told the Wall Street Journal the conditions were “a clear signal to the content industry and entertainment companies that the enforcement agencies are giving them a green light to grow online video and experiment as a direct competitor to cable, and they will prevent cable from interfering.”

Of greater interest to consumers are the deal conditions proposed by Chairman Wheeler. As Stop the Cap! reported almost a year ago, sources told us the FCC would “get serious” about data caps if companies like Comcast imposed them on customers nationwide. At the moment, Comcast is testing caps affecting just under 15% of their total customer base, already generating thousands of customer complaints with the FCC in response. Although Charter promised three years of cap-free service, Wheeler and his staff obviously felt it was important to send a message that they agree with cap opponents that data caps are more about preventing competition than technical need. By making long term data cap prohibition a core part of a settlement agreement with Charter, Wheeler sends a strong message to Comcast that the FCC isn’t drinking cable industry Kool Aid about the rationale for usage caps and usage billing.

Some consumer groups worry Charter has overextended itself in debt over-acquiring other cable companies.

Some consumer groups worry Charter has overextended itself in debt over-acquiring other cable companies.

“New Charter will not be permitted to charge usage-based prices or impose data caps,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Second, New Charter will be prohibited from charging interconnection fees, including to online video providers, which deliver large volumes of internet traffic to broadband customers. Additionally, the Department of Justice’s settlement with Charter both outlaws video programming terms that could harm online video distributors (OVDs) and protects OVDs from retaliation– an outcome fully supported by the order I have circulated today. All three seven-year conditions will help consumers by benefitting OVD competition. The cumulative impact of these conditions will be to provide additional protection for new forms of video programming services offered over the Internet. Thus, we continue our close working relationship with the Department of Justice on this review.”

Wheeler is also intent on proving there is a viable market for cable operators overbuilding into new territories. To prove that point, Wheeler has gotten an agreement that Charter will introduce service to one million new customers where it will intrude on another operator’s service area and directly compete with it. The other provider has to already offer service at 25Mbps or greater. That could mean Charter competing directly with a cable company like Comcast or building service into an area already served by Verizon FiOS, AT&T U-verse, or another provider offering something beyond traditional DSL.

Copps

Copps

Another million customers just outside of areas served by the three cable companies may also finally get service, as Charter will be compelled to wire at least another million homes for cable service for the first time.

Despite the conditions, many consumer groups and former public officials remain unhappy the merger won approval.

“Creating broadband monopoly markets raises consumer costs, kills competition, and points a gun at the heart of the news and information that democracy depends upon,” said Michael Copps, a former Democratic commissioner at the FCC and a special adviser to the Common Cause public interest group. “FCC approval of this unnecessary merger would be an abandonment of its public interest responsibilities.”

“There’s nothing about this massive merger that serves the public interest. There’s nothing about it that helps make the market for cable TV and Internet services more affordable and competitive for Americans,” said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press. “Customers of the newly merged entity will be socked with higher prices as Charter attempts to pay off the nearly $27 billion debt load it took on to finance this deal. The wasted expense of this merger is staggering. For the money Charter spent to make this happen it could have built new competitive broadband options for tens of millions of people. Now these billions of dollars will do little more than line the pockets of Time Warner Cable’s shareholders and executives. CEO Rob Marcus will walk away with a $100 million golden parachute.”

Wheeler’s draft order is likely to receive a final vote in the coming days before the Commission. The only remaining holdout is California’s telecom regulator, which is expected to reach a decision by May 10.

Suddenlink Unveiling New Unlimited Data Plan for Premium Customers April 1

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

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

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

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

Quoted from Suddenlink's customer FAQ

Quoted from Suddenlink’s customer FAQ

Kent

Kent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AT&T Tells Customers $30 Extra for Unlimited Internet is Good News (for AT&T)

fat cat attAT&T has indirectly announced it will enforce hard data caps on its U-verse broadband service for the first time, imposing overlimit fees for customers that exceed their allowance unless they agree to pay $30 extra a month for a new unlimited add-on plan.

AT&T’s Consumer Blog announced effective May 23, AT&T was increasing the usage allowances on its DSL and U-verse broadband service and is introducing a new $30 unlimited option for broadband-only customers many actually had all along because AT&T never enforced its cap for U-verse.

Customers currently bundling video and data services from AT&T/DirecTV will get a break – the unlimited option will apply at no extra charge if you agree to a single, combined bill for all of your AT&T services. The decision to apply usage caps to broadband-only customers, often cord-cutters, while effectively exempting current U-verse TV/DirecTV video customers is sure to raise eyebrows.

AT&T originally told customers its usage caps were designed “to ensure it is providing a sustainable network to customers.”  But in a company FAQ, AT&T destroys its own argument for the need to cap anyone. “Will offering unlimited data negatively impact the AT&T network? No. AT&T will continue to actively manage the network to handle the increasing demand for data.”

AT&T’s need for data caps is also eroded by company claims only a small percentage of customers exceed them.

Why caps again?

Why caps again?

“Today, our home Internet customers use just over 100GB of data per month on average,” AT&T wrote. “So even with our smallest U-verse Internet data allowance of 300 GB the average customer has plenty of data to do more.”

At least for now.

A review of AT&T’s past average usage claims is revealing. In 2011, AT&T told Tom’s Hardware the average customer consumed about 18GB a month. In 2015, AT&T’s cached support site claimed average customers used around 35GB a month. As of this week, AT&T says average users now exceed 100GB a month. If AT&T decides not to regularly revisit allowances (AT&T took five years to revisit the subject this week, having introduced 150GB caps on DSL and 250GB on U-verse in 2011), customers are likely to face pressure to sign up for the $30 unlimited add-on or buy television service from AT&T to avoid overlimit charges that will top out at $200 in penalties for DSL customers, $100 for U-verse overlimit fees.

average usage

Beginning May 23, AT&T’s website will include a data usage meter to help avoid AT&T’s overlimit penalty: $10 for each 50GB increment one exceeds their allowance. AT&T claims only 4% of its customers will exceed their future data allowances. They wouldn’t say how many exceed the current ones.

Because U-verse customers have avoided AT&T’s usage caps in the past, the company is now reminding customers it will give several warnings before you experience bill shock:

  • In the first bill cycle when you reach 100% of your data allowance, AT&T will update you via email, but there will be no charges.
  • In the second bill cycle, AT&T will notify you via email at 65%, 90%, and 100%, and still without charges.
  • In the third bill cycle, and each bill cycle thereafter, you’ll receive reminder emails at 65% and 90%. At 100% AT&T will notify you and add an additional 50GB of data to your account for $10 each time you exceed the allowance. Customers will receive reminders about their data usage for the additional 50GB at 75% and 100%.

All usage — including uploads and downloads — counts towards the cap. There is just one exception. Wireless traffic from an AT&T MicroCell, designed to boost weak cell signals inside the home, is not included in AT&T’s Internet data usage allowance. To help ensure accurate billing, you have to register your AT&T MicroCell account and residential AT&T Internet account.

Here are the new data allowances that will take effect May 23rd:

monthly data allowance

DSL Reports’ Karl Bode is skeptical of the “consumer benefits” AT&T is touting as part of the change:

That last bit is a fairly transparent ploy to address a spike in cord cutting at AT&T — by forcing customers into signing up for television services they may not actually want if they want to avoid usage restrictions. Whether using arbitrary caps to force users to sign up for TV technically violates net neutrality (either the FCC’s rules or the concept in general) is something that’s likely to be hotly debated.

It’s also curious that just as AT&T indicates it’s backing away from U-Verse TV (which should technically free up more bandwidth on the AT&T network), it’s implementing caps on a network it originally stated didn’t need caps thanks to “greater capacity.” That’s because as with Comcast, caps really aren’t about capacity or financial necessity, they’re about protecting traditional TV revenue from Internet video. At the end of the day, AT&T’s just charging $30 a month (or more) for the same service, while trying to frame it as a net positive for consumers.

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